STOP. KISSING. FINN., Chapter 6
It was humiliating enough when Riley treated me like an incompetent child in private. Now, I had an audience.
Chapter 5 Recap: It was a bad day in the kitchen/multi-purpose art room. Turns out, Charlie can barely chop an onion and someone’s swiping her supplies. Later, Jackie opens up to Charlie about hooking up with Jared and quickly gets annoyed by Charlie’s questions. She wasn’t being judgey… or was she?
Riley raised her fist in the air and slammed it down on the side of the blade. I knew it was coming, but I jumped anyway. She lifted the knife to reveal a thoroughly flattened clove of garlic and began to expertly render it into tiny slivers. Her silver bob swung forward and backward in time with her slicing.
“This. This is mincing.”
“Do you see how I'm doing this? Keeping my other hand safely above the top of the blade...”
“Hey,” a voice called from the doorway. I looked up from the garlic and immediately recognized him. The guy from the football game, sans cigarettes and tiny, menacing lady friend. Just like at the game, he seemed out of place. Like he’d have more interesting places to be than some musty public school multi-purpose arts room.
“Hi,” he continued. “I have independent art this period,” he said, pointing towards the easel in the back of the room.
“And, what's your name?” Riley demanded.
“Finn,” he answered, tucking his thumbs underneath the straps of his backpack.
“Finneus Alexander Cavello the third,” he replied, over-enunciating every syllable.
Riley's eyes narrowed.
“Okay, Finneus, you may take your seat,” she said, gesturing toward the back of the room. “And, please remove your hat,” she added.
It was the same hat he'd been wearing at the game. He snatched it from his head and stuffed it into his back pocket as he shuffled to the back of the room.
“Now, do you see how I'm doing this?” Riley repeated, shifting her attention back to me.
“Um, yes,” I muttered, almost inaudibly. It was humiliating enough when Riley treated me like an incompetent child in private. Now, I had an audience.
“I hope so,” she answered.
Riley continued with her tutorial, smashing defenseless clove after clove. I did my best to pay attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the guy perched on a stool, staring at the easel. He propped up one foot on the bottom rung of the stool and let the other one dangle as he chewed on the end of a long paintbrush.
“So, here's what I'll leave you with for today,” Riley continued. “This pile chopped,” she said, pointing at a pile of onions, carrots, celery and potatoes. “These should be sliced,” she said, laying her palms on a cluster of half a dozen tomatoes still on the vine. “And all of this minced.” She held up a mesh bag of at least ten heads of garlic. My heart sunk; more knife skills.
“According to our syllabus, I think I was supposed to make pesto this week? I have a recipe card from my Grandmother’s collection, but I was thinking we could update it with kale? Or maybe arugula?” I asked.
“You're not ready for that. Show me you can chop an onion, and then we'll move on to actual recipes,” she said, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
“I'm sort of falling behind on the cookbook part of the project...since I haven't cooked anything yet,” I ventured cautiously.
“Well, then you better get to work,” she snapped. She looked at me with wide eyes, her eyebrows tugging up on her tense face. I took a step backward.
“Make sure to clean up when you're done...and freeze it all of this for sauce and stew,” she shouted over her shoulder as she dashed out the door.
I exhaled and quickly glanced back to see if he'd been taking everything in. He appeared to be completely engrossed in his painting as he adjusted a wireless earbud. More school contraband.
I pried a single garlic clove from a bulb and placed it in the center of the cutting board. Doing my best to imitate Riley's technique, I brought my fist down on the side of my knife. My hand buzzed from the impact, but the clove remained intact and unscathed. I pitched it into the trash and grabbed a tomato.
“Hey,” he called from across the room.
“Yeah?” I answered, sounding more surprised than I wanted to.
“What class are you doing?”
“Um, it's an independent study. It's a combination of culinary arts and writing.” I dug my nails into the tomato.
“Oh...okay,” he said, tucking both feet under the bottom rung of his stool.
“My final project is a book... a cookbook,” I added.
“That's cool,” he said with a nod. I tried to think of an interesting question about his painting, but he had already turned back to his canvas.
I shifted my attention to the tomato. I turned it over a few times, trying to determine the best point of entry.
“Is she always like that?” he yelled from across the room.
“Who, Riley?” I asked, looking up from the tomato.
“Yeah, the crazy one with the knives.”
“She's a little...impatient.”
“I could never deal with an advisor like that,” he said. “what's your name?”
“It's Charlie,” I said. “Do you go by Finn or Finneus?”
“Oh, I just made that up,” he said, laughing. “Since we were being so, you know, formal. It's just Finn. I don't have a middle name, either...and I'm not a third,” he said.
“Oh, okay,” I said. I thought back to the football game and Rent-a-Cop and how easily he'd lied then, too. Did he remember me from the game too?
He stood up from his stool and walked towards the kitchen area, carefully carrying two small cups filled with murky gray liquid.
“Need clean water,” he said.
He passed behind me and headed toward the sink. As the water ran, he casually opened the refrigerator and scanned its contents. He ducked back out and let the door slam shut. I noticed that he'd taken something with him.
The nuts. The replacement nuts from Mrs. Farmer's pantry that I never wanted to accept in the first place. Finn set the bag on the counter and began to rinse his cups with one hand while he fed himself with the other.
“Um, you just took those from the fridge?” I asked. I could feel my palms getting clammy and my chest tighten. I hated confrontation. But I hated cheating and stealing even more.
He glanced over a shoulder as he continued to rinse his cups.
“Yeah,” he answered nonchalantly.
“Those nuts. Those are my nuts for my class. You ate the other bag, too, didn't you?”
“What other bag?”
“The first bag I bought that I put in the fridge.”
“Oh, I didn't know they were yours,” he said with a shrug and finally turned to face me.
“Well, you knew they weren't yours. You could read the sign on the fridge door.”
He glanced back at the door. “I never noticed that.”
In an instant, this guy’s M.O. became clear. If he didn't like a rule, he ignored it. If the truth didn't work for him, he lied. He didn't feel bad about stealing. He did exactly what he wanted and got away with it. Because he was good-looking and cocky.
“Well, that's... completely inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Yes and... disrespectful,” I stammered and bit down on my cheek.
“Are you serious? You’re freaking out over nuts? So, you're just as crazy as she is.”
“Excuse me?” I said, wishing I’d used different words than disrespectful and inappropriate. I sort of did sound like Riley.
“Here, take them,” he said and tossed the open bag at me. I only managed to catch the edge of the bag and tore it wide open, spilling every last nut onto the floor. We both froze in place. I stood there silently and scanned the floor.
“Shit, I didn't mean for that to happen,” he said. I looked up at him. He did, in fact, look sincere.
“Seriously,” he continued. “I—”
“You know what, forget it,” I said. Something about looking at the nuts spilled across the dirty floor made me want to cry. I swallowed hard.
“I'll clean it up,” he said, grabbing the broom that was wedged between the counter and the refrigerator.
“No, really, I'm fine. I've got it, thanks.” I snatched the broom from him and began sweeping the ruined nuts into a small pile. What did it matter anyway? I would probably never move past chopping onions and onto a real recipe. I could feel his gaze on me, but I kept my eyes focused on the floor, hoping he didn’t notice them getting watery.
He let out what sounded like half a laugh. “Fine,” he muttered as he grabbed his cups and stepped over the pile of nuts, leaving a trail of water droplets on the floor. I dragged my broom through them, leaving a streak of stringy mud.
By the time I'd cleaned up the floor, the class period was almost over. I'd done none of what Riley had asked me to do. Looking at the piles of vegetables, I couldn't even remember which ones I was supposed to slice and which I was supposed to mince, or what the difference between slicing and mincing was. I grabbed a plastic grocery bag and threw everything in to take home with me. I'd finish there.
The bell rang as I was finishing wiping down the counter. Finn slid past me without a word or look in my direction, his backpack slung casually over one shoulder, baseball cap turned backward.
“Wow, look at you go. Just like Julia Child.”
Gram was up and sitting at the kitchen table watching me decimate carrot, after tomato, after garlic clove. Her hair was messily tucked under a kerchief, but she had changed out of her housecoat and into a yellow jogging suit I'd given her for Christmas a few years ago. It was good to see her somewhere besides the floral chair.
“Want me to show you how to make my meatloaf?” she asked.
“Mrs. Riley just wants me to cut all of this stuff up and freeze it. She doesn't think I'm ready to actually make anything,” I said, slamming my fist down on a clove of garlic, actually flattening it this time.
“Not ready? Those little salad dealies were quite good.”
“Chicken lettuce wraps,” I said. “Yeah, she's just very particular about things. I have to demonstrate knife skills before moving on.”
“What are we paying these teachers for?” she asked, incredulous.
“I dunno, Gram. Like I said, she's very particular.” I put down the knife and fished my phone from my back pocket. My book was supposed to include photos, and I had yet to take a single one. The chopped vegetables weren't much to look at, but I had to start somewhere.
The phone rang. Gram carefully lifted herself from the table and reached for the receiver.
“Hello? ...Oh, hello, Marlena.”
The flash from the camera lit up the contents of the chopping board. I stuffed the camera back into my backpack and waved my hands in my best effort to communicate “I'm not here.”
“Oh, okay,” she continued, not seeming to notice me.
“Not here,” I mouthed silently.
“Oh, yes, she's here. She’s working on her independent study.”
I dropped my arms, defeated.
“Yes, it’s very ambitious. There’s a cooking component and... Well, here, I’ll let her tell you. Here she is,” she said, extending the receiver in my direction. “It's your mother,” she said, handing me the phone. She turned and slowly shuffled down the hallway.
“Hi, Marlena,” I said.
“You're taking a cooking class?” She was surprised, and it made her voice come out high-pitched.
“It’s an…It’s an independent study. What's up?”
“Well, I want to hear all about it. Did you not get that voice mail I left?”
“Oh… I accidentally deleted a bunch. Maybe yours was in there.”
“Oh,” she said. I pictured her studying a mirror as she talked to me, wiping lipstick from her front teeth or scrunching the roots of her hair. “Well, I was just asking you to call me, that's all.”
“What did you need to talk about?”
“How's your grandmother?” she asked.
“You just talked to her. She's fine. Why?”
“I'm just concerned about her. That fall really took a toll on her.”
More than we realize, I was waiting for her to add. It was part of her script in how she talked that time. Like it’s some big mystery to everybody, not just her.
“Yeah, I know. I was there.”
“She's getting older,” she said, ignoring my dig. “It’s not easy to live on your own at that age.”
I felt the hair on the back of my neck raise.
“Well, she's not living on her own. I'm here,” I said.
“That's a separate issue,” she said, her voice trailing off. “Anyway, what I wanted to tell you was that Bill and I are planning a trip down there. A little visit.”
“Oh yeah?” Despite similar threats, it had been a year and a half since I'd seen her.
“Yes. We don't have a firm date yet, but sometime in the next couple of months.”
“Kay,” I mumbled and threw a handful of carrot ends into the garbage.
She paused for a moment. “I thought you'd be a bit more excited since we haven't seen each other in a while.”
“Sorry, I'm kind of in the middle of something.” I ran the water and clattered the dishes more aggressively than necessary.
“So, what else is going on? How's school?”
“How are Jackie and Liz?”
“Okay, well I'll let you get back to what you're doing. Talk soon.”
“Bye,” I said and threw my phone on the counter.
“Everything okay with your mother, Charlie?” Gram shouted from the living room.
“She's fine,” I shouted back. “Says she's going to visit.”
“Well, that will be nice,” she said, reappearing in the doorway.
“I’ve heard it before,” I answered.
“Well...” she said and paused. “I suppose you have.”
I loved her for saying that. She knew I didn't need any sugar coating.
Later that night, I tried every trick I knew to fall asleep, but the movie reel of the day kept running over and over in my head. The bags of vegetables and Riley's swinging bob. The pile of dirty walnuts. Marlena’s voice. She's getting older... Finn telling me I was crazy.
I felt hot and wiggled my feet out from under the covers. I closed my eyes and focused on each individual event and told myself to just let it go, a technique I’d learned in a yoga class Jackie had dragged me to last year.
Garlic, I release you. Riley, I release you.
I got to Finn and stopped. I thought back to the football game. His crooked grin and baggy clothes. How I'd had to look up at him, which, I'd determined, creates an angle that instantly makes any guy hotter. Not that Finn needed it. He was gorgeous.
And a liar and a thief, I reminded myself.
I wondered if that girl Jenna was his girlfriend.
If I was being honest with myself, he did look sorry. I was the one who wouldn't let him help clean up.
He's conceited. He knows how cute he is and thinks he can get away with anything... Like stealing.
“Ugh,” I grunted out loud and flopped onto my side. I grabbed my phone from my nightstand. 2:18 a.m. I had to be up in less than four hours and hadn't come anywhere close to sleeping.
The fact was that I had to share a workspace with Finn for the rest of the year, and I had to try to make this independent study thing work. I’d already included it on the first draft of three different college applications. I’d talked it up too, writing about plans to “seek publication.”
Finally, I fell asleep and into a dream. I was locked in Marlena’s greenhouse, wandering through a maze of plants and vines. I looked for a door to escape the heat and heaviness of the air. My grandmother's floral living room set, the kitchen table, a china cabinet displaying a ceramic tea service, and a collection of glass vases were interspersed with the vegetation. Condensation collected on the glass walls, blocking my view of the outside world. Each time I wiped it away with my hand, it reformed, allowing just a momentary glimpse of what was on the other side.
Hi, reader! Thanks so much for being here. If you have a minute, I’d love your feedback. My question to you:
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