Sarah was hungry. She was always so hungry. But not in front of other people, of course. She smiled graciously at her dinner guests as she nudged a salad around her plate. She made sure their plates were full and their wine glasses never empty, while her eyes devoured the roast potatoes and pots of brown gravy ladled out with fat, round spoons.
"Gravy is so old-fashioned," her husband had snapped. But she noticed that no one had gone without it. He had scoffed at her faded linens too, but her guests had cooed, "Vintage! How comforting!" He was placated.
It irritated her how much the opinions of others mattered to her husband. She would literally slave away over a steaming oven, then bolt upstairs for a frantic five minute shower, dash on some makeup and lipstick in order to appear the cool hostess - for nothing but criticism. Her husband would waltz in from the office smelling of air-conditioning and cologne and notice the chocolate smear on the sofa that she hadnít quite hidden with a patchwork throw cushion.
At dinner she noticed she was under the careful scrutiny of "office-Beatrice." Well, that was what she called the woman. Beatrice worked with her husband and was at pains to emphasize their close and secretive relationship.
"Of course, I canít talk about our latest project," Beatrice would say looking at Sarahís husband possessively and then looking down her long nose at Sarah.
They are having an affair, Sarah thought with a feeling of resignation that surprised her. She just didnít care anymore. She smiled at Beatrice - beautiful, blonde, skinny Beatrice - and brought out the dessert.
It was chocolate cake. But just as her husband had opened his mouth to decry his wifeís limitations in the kitchen, Beatriceís husband said, "How clever! Made with real chocolate - like all the chefs are doing these days."
He scanned the table as if to challenge anyone who would gainsay him, but there were only appreciative murmurs and hungry eyes. Sarah cut the cake into generous slices feeling so grateful to Beatriceís husband - what was his name? Bernard? - she could have hugged him.
Of course Beatrice had to say, "Iíll never manage such a big slice, Sarah. Iím not really one for sweets."
But Sarah only smiled again, placatingly. She thought of it as her Barbie smile - painted on. And Bernard came to the rescue once again, "More for me," he said with a grin, "Yummy."
His wife looked at him as if he were something slimy that had crawled up her skirt and sniffed, "Bernard is a garbage bin," she said airily, "Just toss him anything and heíll eat it."
There was a muffled gasp at this overt insult and peopleís eyes darted uncomfortably around the table.
"I would have to be," Bernard said, putting another forkful of chocolate cake into his mouth, "Considering what my wife makes in the kitchen."
At this, and the naughty twinkle in his eye, the whole table laughed. Beatrice looked as mad as a snake. I feel sorry for him when he gets home, Sarah thought, looking up at him. And then he looked right into her eyes and gave her a deliberate wink.
Sarah looked down at her plate and flushed. She had not been looked at so intently for a long time. Her husband always looked away from her, not at her. He would talk to her shoes, her bag or her hair, or the room in general. She thought this gave him the ability to turn her into a thing - something inhuman with no feelings. It gave him free reign with his verbal abuse and cruelty. Just thinking of some of the things he had said to her lately made her blush again. It was not that he didnít love her. It was more as though he totally hated her.
She had been unable to dish up dessert for herself, knowing what her husband would say about it later. He always said, "Look at you. Youíre getting so fat. Donít you have any pride? Lydia had three children and sheís kept her figure. You havenít had any children and look at you."
She had looked up at that. He knew she had always wanted children, but he always said he was not ready. "Now is not the time. I am extremely busy at work," he always said. Soon it would be past time. She felt like a lettuce going to seed; all the greenery of her younger life fading. It always made her sad. And there was Lydia, his perfect sister, waved like a banner in her face. "Lydia manages to keep the house spotless. Lydia goes to the gym. Lydia, Lydia, Lydia..."
She wanted to say, "Why didnít you marry your sister!" but she was afraid. Afraid that he would lash out and hit her? Would that be worse than the daily assault on her nature?
"Sarah?" It was her husband, "Coffee?" He only said the two words, but his tone with raised eyebrows made it seem as though she were senile.
She calmly collected plates and brought through a tray of excellent filter coffee. No one, she thought, no one - other than her husband - would fault her on this dinner. In fact they were all very complimentary. Bernard squeezed her hand at the door.
"Wonderful Sarah," he said, "Wonderful."
The warm regard in his eyes was making her legs melt, and his hand holding hers made it hard for her fuzzy brain to work - was he saying the dinner was wonderful, or that she was?
She smiled uncertainly and Beatrice, who was standing very close to her husband at their car, called imperiously, "Come along Bernard!"
He smiled and left and Sarah knew exactly what she was going to do. It was what she did every night. When her husband was sound asleep - and he slept very soundly for someone who gave other people sleepless nights - she crept down to the kitchen.
She loved leftovers and now that no one was watching, she could eat. She loved the fat roasted potatoes. And then there was the decadent chocolate cake. It was delicious - no divine. How could anyone think it was boring or ordinary?
It was then, as she stood in front of the open fridge with a mouthful of cake, that her husband walked in. He switched on the light and she sprang around like a robber caught in the act.
"What are you doing?" he said, making it sound as if she were snorting cocaine or shooting up heroin.
She said nothing, frozen like a rabbit in the headlights of a speeding car.
"What are you doing?" he said again, but this time he reached out and grabbed the chocolate cake plate away from her. He flung it away so that it smashed against the kitchen wall and cake was smeared all over the cream-colored paint.
Sarah was afraid. For the first time she felt really afraid of her husband. Yet she felt unable to move.
"You stupid cow," he hissed venomously, "You stupid, fat, greedy cow. Thatís all you do isnít it? Eat and eat and eat. Do you think I canít see you bulging out every day, getting bigger and bigger?"
Sarah felt as though she were in a movie, watching a stranger. She did not know this person. She felt the blood drain from her face and if she had not been clutching the cold marble surface, she might have fainted.
"I canít stand the sight of you," he said, darts of poison shooting out of him, "Do you know how embarrassing it is for me to bring people home from work and then have someone like you sit next to someone like Beatrice?"
He smiled then and it was a cold, triumphant smile. "You might as well know that Beatrice and I have been having an affair for a long time now."
He waited to see if this would have any effect - if she would break down and cry. She was well past that.
"I want a divorce," he said, "I donít want to have to look at you for the rest of my life. Beatrice and I will be getting married."
For the first time, she found the courage to speak, "And what about her husband?"
He laughed. "Bernard will do what heís told," he said. "I am going to pack my things," he said, "Beatrice and I have chosen a beautiful house near the lake. We will sell this house, so you had better find somewhere else to live."
With that he walked out and Sarahís legs finally gave out. She sank to the floor and pressed her forehead against the cool kitchen tile. All she could think was, "Thank God he was moving out," but hard on that thought was "Iím not leaving my house". She had to think. What could she do?
Sarah spent the night locked inside the guest room. She thought she would not sleep, but fell into uneasy dreams and woke to the sound of slamming doors and her husbandís car going down the driveway. She unlocked the door and peered around. Their bedroom was devoid of her husbandís stuff. He had taken everything. And she felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
She had a shower and changed quickly. She was desperate to know where she stood legally. How powerless was she? But when it came to phoning someone, she realized that everyone was in some way allied to her husband. Their attorney was his friend. All of "their" friends were actually his friends from work. While they may have felt some sympathy for her, they certainly would not expect to be asked for help.
She sat wringing her hands and the only person she could think of to phone was Bernard. She dialed the number of the place where he said he worked and asked for Bernard. She nearly hung up in those agonizing seconds before he answered, but when he did, just the sound of his voice was reassuring.
All she said was, "Hello, its Sarah," and he said, "Aaah. I thought you might call."
She felt herself breathe a sigh of relief.
"You know then?" she said.
"About Beatriceís tawdry greed and ambition?" he said, "Oh yes, Iíve been aware of that far too long. But Sarah, I am so sorry for you."
The words could have been patronizing except for the genuine concern and warmth in his voice.
"Letís meet for coffee?" he suggested and named a place nearby, "Comrades in arms, fellow wounded soldiers, all that stuff, right?" he said.
She smiled, "That would be nice," she said and found that for the first time in many years she actually meant it. All those occasions entertaining her husbandís work colleagues had been a chore, not a pleasure. She had been as tense as a tuning fork, afraid of the slightest mistake that would sound a wrong note.
This time, when she put on her makeup, she was thinking of the things about herself that she liked, instead of the things her husband always criticized. Her hand, applying mascara, trembled a little.
"Youíre thinking of this as a date," she reprimanded her reflection. "Itís a rescue mission."
She thought he would be late or not come at all, but he was there as she walked in. She smiled and he smiled and they almost walked into each otherís arms. There was an uncertain patting of arms and condolences, then Bernard took her hand.
"Iím so sorry," he said again and, as the waitress approached, changed tack. "The pecan pie is wonderful here," he said, "Are you going to try some?"
She hesitated and before she knew it, the words, "My husband says..." were out of her mouth.
"He says what?" Bernard looked angry.
"Iím fat," she whispered behind her menu and Bernard looked angrier still.
"Two coffees," he smiled at the waitress, "and two of your famous pies, please." Then he looked firmly at Sarah. "That is just ridiculous," he said, "and you must know it."
"So they want a divorce," he said, "I should have known long ago. Beatrice is pathologically greedy. She considered me well off when we married, but she has been climbing the social ladder all her life and now she sees your husband as a better deal."
"She is beautiful," Sarah said.
"But when you get to know what is really inside," Bernard said, "that beauty becomes beastly - just like the fairy tale. Your husband is very handsome."
Sarah nodded as though she were just realizing something, "When we married," she said, "Most people told me how lucky I was. As though I were..." her voice trailed off.
Thankfully the pie and coffee arrived and she shook off the memories of her wedding and honeymoon. Humiliation was scalding. It burnt like fire to remember her innocence; his cruelty.
"Did anyone ever tell you īyou deserve betterī?" Bernard asked.
"Only my dad," she said. "He insisted that the house we bought was put in my name. He had given us the money you see."
"Then you must keep it," Bernard said, "How funny. Beatrice thought your husband owned the house."
"He said we would have to sell," Sarah said.
"I think Beatrice has made a mistake," Bernard said. "I happen to know that your husband isnít doing as well at work as she thinks. She must have been counting on the money from your house. You hang on to it."
"I will," Sarah said.
There was a new light of determination in her eyes. She thought about how lovingly she had decorated the house with money inherited from her father. She thought about the garden and all the love she had poured into the soil that could not go to a child. She thought about the chocolate cake flung against the wall and her husbandís handsome, sneering face.
"Itís funny," she said, "I always thought I was the greedy one - sneaking down at night for snacks, always so hungry."
"And now?" Bernard said.
"I think," she looked around contemplatively, "I could open my own restaurant." She took a bite of warm, caramel pecans. "What do you think?"
"I would be your first and most persistent customer," he laughed.
When they opened their restaurant, which they called, "Fed Up", Bernard and Sarah were already expecting their first baby. Sarah looked around at the solid wooden tables and stone-flagged floor with a feeling of vast contentment.
The rich smells of onion and peppers frying with garlic and rosemary vied with sweet scents of cocoa, vanilla and honey. Sarah loved being able to feed people now that she felt so full herself - full of hope, optimism and totally fed up with love.