by Channie Greenberg
Halleli closed her eyes, removed her hands from her keyboard and sighed. Given the pandemic, readers were less interested in exotic recipes than they were in simple fare whose ingredients could be purchased on limited funds. After all, the nation’s unemployment rate had eclipsed 25%.
Unfortunately, that gal who had trained at Monsieur Hilario’s and who had learned how to conjure a full menu of Asian fusion dishes as well as how to prepare intricate Moroccan pastries was helpless when it came to teaching about homemade hummus or about simple, chopped salads. Her food blogs reflected her strength, i.e. they mimicked her teacher’s work. Moreso, they reflected her weakness, i.e. they offered nothing about creatively cooking hotchpotches from scratch.
So, Halleli cried. She reached to hug her cat, but he ran under the bed. She cried some more. She knocked on her roommate’s door to ask for a hug, but her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend were in an illicit embrace; people were supposed to be social distancing, not engaging in intimacy. Halleli shut that door. She then buried herself on the sofa under four entire layers of blankets and cried but, after less than ninety minutes, she became so dehydrated that she found it impossible to shed more tears.
Halleli did the next most sensible thing: she stomped her feet. That felt good. She stomped again... and again.
All at once, someone banged loudly on her apartment door. Halleli opened it. A small, scrawny man dressed in army fatigues and whose pate featured a flattop stood beneath her lintel.
“Write it in Russian and you’ll sell it.”
“Your food column, idiot. Russian will make it sound exotic.”
“Your food column, idiot. Russian will make it sound exotic.”
Halleli sniffed the air above her visitor’s head. He didn’t seem to be high and he wasn’t giving off alcohol fumes. “Huh?”
“You’re desperate. Go Russian.”
Halleli stared down at her would-be guest. His uniform was creased correctly and his shoes were shined. It was unlikely that he resided at the homeless peoples’ shanty, which sat a few blocks away from Halleli’s apartment. “I’m Halleli Brown. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“You’re desperate. Go Russian.”
Halleli exhaled purposefully. Whoever this nut job was, she was determined that he would not enter her apartment. “I bought two boxes of Thin Mints before the lockdown.”
“Girlie, you’re thick, but I’ll help you, anyway. Use Russian terms in your article and you will not only have content you will also get a promotion and a raise. All I ask is that: you send a three-course meal to the homeless shelter after you receive your promotion, you send one thousand dollars to the shelter after your wedding, and you let me take possession of your firstborn on her third birthday.”
“Sure, thanks.” Halleli shook as she willed herself to shut, not slam, the door. The man seemed to be a derro despite his neat attire.
That night, Halleli had oddly satisfying dreams. First, she visualized herself as the head of her website’s human-interest section. Thereafter, she dreamed of marrying a tall, good-looking fellow from Gibraltar. She awoke in such a good mood that she didn’t even scold her roommate’s boyfriend when he passed her, still without wearing a face mask, as he exited the apartment.
Weeks later, Halleli submitted recipes for okrashka, a cold vegetable soup, and for solyanka, a smoky, sour soup. Those offerings represented content that appealed both to her gourmet predilections and to her readers’ limited resources.
The response to these offerings was wonderful. Halleli’s editor couldn’t stop lauding her.
The following month, the young columnist described how to prepare two simple Romanian dishes; a vegetarian quince pie, and meatball soup. Her editor moved Halleli’s posts to the top of the human interest articles. Additionally, she directed her graphics staff to supply pictures.
Two months after she began to send in posts about Cyrillic cuisine, Halleli received an important email; she was invited to become the new editor of the human-interest column.
The lass had just offered up pieces on Slavic fare, including sarma, stuffed grape leaves, and prekmurska gibanica, layered cake. Despite the fact that her readers’ Internet access was similar to hers, they preferred for her to search for kitchen ideas rather than to do so themselves. As well, Halleli’s posts made it easy for them to use ingredients that were at hand; the world was still quarantining.
The morning after Halleli was promoted, a loud knocking patterned on her apartment door. Her roommate, busy as usual with her roommate’s boyfriend, heard nothing.
Halleli opened the peephole.
“I told you to use Russian. You listened. Good girl! I told you that after you were promoted, you needed to send food to the shelter. No food has been sent. You have until sunset to do so or terrible things will happen to you.”
Halleli backed away from the door. For good measure, she also clicked closed the door’s three locks. Thereafter, she took out her credit card, called a pizza shop that advertised as still making deliveries, and ordered salads, pizzas, and chocolate cake to be delivered to the small, crudely constructed building at the end of her street. Thereafter, she sat on the sofa and cried.
Months passed. Halleli brought her readers along with her as she explored the cuisines of Kyrgyzstan, of Kazakhstan, of Uzbekistan, and of Belarus. It was all that the website’s executive editor could do not to flood the entire letters column with praises of Halleli’s offerings.
Over time, Halleli introduced simple foods from additional nations. Intermittent with recipes from Cyrillic lands, she posted cooking instructions for foodstuffs from: Malta, Andorra, and San Marino. A full year after her roommate’s boyfriend had become a permanent, albeit not fiduciarily contributing, fixture in the apartment, Halleli posted a recipe from Gibraltar.
Her post on rosquitos was such a sensation that her boss was exponentially even more deluged with electronic compliments. The website downloaded many of those praises to its Twitter and to its Pinterest sites, but failed to respond to all of them. Consequently, Halleli was fired.
The young woman went back to crying and then to stomping. One afternoon, in response to an uncontrolled expression of her anger and frustration, her roommate’s boyfriend stuck his head out of her roommate’s bedroom, and then snapped his finger at Halleli before going back inside. Halleli continued her tantruming anyway.
However, the following morning there was another interruption to her angry outbursts. Specifically, there was a moderately loud knock at her apartment door.
Halleli peered through the keyhole. On the other side of all of that artificial oak — cardboard panels inside of faux-wood were cheaper than was actual wood. Her landlord was cheap — was a very real-looking man. He was wearing a mask, gloves, a footballer shirt, tighty whities, and not much else.
Halleli gasped. He was cute in a chiseled sort of way. The man knocked, again. “Poorish! Please stop making so much noise. You might be cakiwafer over something, but some of us are long-distance learners who have finals in the morning.”
Halleli again noted the man’s mask and gloves. “You can come in, but only if you stay six feet away from me.”
The man entered.
Halleli backed up. Without the distortion of the peephole’s glass, the man looked pretty good.
The man looked at her and then down at himself. “Excuse me, miss. I forgot to get back the pants I lent to my roommate. You wouldn’t have seen a Ryker Chipolino, would you?”
Halleli’s jaw dropped. She pointed to her roommate’s bedroom.
“Good to know he’s all right. Ohhh!” The stranger gasped as he saw the snacks spread on Halleli’s kitchen table. “Pikislavis! It’s been such a long time.”
“Ah? Sure. Help yourself. No. Wait. Please get some pants, first.”
“Didn’t expect to be visiting.”
Halleli looked him up and down again. “Didn’t expect a visitor.”
Luca Garcia moved in a few months later. The apartment had become a lively place. Despite the fact that only the women were paying the rent, having their beaus around made life less glum.
One day, as Halleli was trying to make sense out of the extra verbiage in a white paper — she was a tenacious wage earner and had moved on to cleaning up science documents — Luca got down on one knee and offered up a ring made of tinfoil. “Sorry, but the jewelry stores are still considered nonessential businesses. We’ll get you a beautiful stone when they reopen.”
“Yes. I mean, yes, I accept. Maybe we can have the wedding in the lobby.”
“It’s small. I think it will fit us, our roommates and a member of the clergy.”
Sometime later, the pair was united in matrimony.
Hours after the ceremony, when Halleli, her roommate, and their respective loves were smiling from cake and champagne — Halleli and Luca’s change in status was insufficient for either couple to immediately leave the apartment — a loud knock sounded at the door.
Luca answer it. A short, gaunt man, who was dressed in military casual, and whose head featured a buzz cut stood beneath the apartment’s lintel.
“Halleli must send one thousand USD to the shelter before sunset or terrible things will happen to her.”
Halleli, who had joined her new spouse to determine the source of the commotion, paled at sighting the caller. “I know him.”
“I don’t.” Luca shut the door.
Halleli excused herself and then, immediately, wired the house for the homeless one thousand dollars, via PayPal. After that transaction, she was left with only twenty-three dollars in her account.
The new bride then rejoined her new groom in the apartment’s living room and muttered something about nuptial butterflies. In answer, Luca poured both of them more sparkling wine.
Two years later, her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend moved out. One of her roommate’s aunts had died of the plague and had left the other gal significant money. Temporarily, the other pair was renting a tiny flat, but they intended to reboot a school bus and to explore the continent once they could schedule an appointment with an auto shop.
Meanwhile, Halleli, who had completed an online certificate in technical writing, was swimming in government contracts. What’s more, Luca continued to earn money as a programmer. The couple was able to afford a limited number of “wants,” including a weekly delivery of pizza. Otherwise, their lives remained fairly constant. The quarantine continued to be enforced over most of the world; it had only been lifted in places where anarchy had replaced established governments.
One afternoon, after indulging in a few slices of anchovy and pineapple, Halleli patted her belly and then began to cry and to stomp. She didn’t like the idea of homebirth, but she feared exposing a newborn to the lethal virus that was still spreading throughout hospitals and birthing clinics
Whereas her former roommate’s cousin’s wife was a midwife, and whereas that midwife had promised to use her professional — that is, her unlimited — Zoom channel to talk Halleli and Luca through the birth, Halleli could think of no one else who had birthed a baby outside of a medical institution.
Regardless, when the time came, the midwife’s guidance, via Zoom, worked surprisingly well. It was as though women’s bodies were designed to birth babies. Likewise, the midwife’s idea to layer a plastic sheet between two fitted ones and to have Luca wash the topmost sheet in cold water, after Emma Rose was born, proved to be brilliant. It was wonderful to cozy up with their child, in their own bed, seconds after she came into the world.
That child, Emma Rose, sprouted auburn hair like her mother and showcased fierce eyebrows like her father. Luca and Halleli were certain that such an intense daughter could dominate the world, if only the world ever reopened.
More years passed. Their daughter’s infancy and toddlerhood was uneventful save for the high cost of diaper service. Halleli and Luca had opted to send Emma Rose’s diapers out to be laundered as it was still prohibited for them to leave their home.
Excitement reentered the lives of the Garcia Family during the afternoon of Emma Rose’s third birthday. At that time, a loud knock nearly shattered their apartment door. Luca peered through the peephole. A tall, heavyset woman, who was dressed in exotic clothing, and who wore glass high heels, stood beneath their lintel.
“It’s my brother’s day off. Hand over your baby.”
Halleli blanched. Luca reddened. Emma Rose screamed from her toddler bed; she had gotten a foot caught in her bed’s guard rail.
“Terrible things will happen to you.”
“Нет!” Luca shouted after he opened the door and pointed his finger at the scantly clad giantess. Flame burst from his digit’s tip.
Halleli looked at her husband, who shrugged and turned his back to the pile of ashes newly located just past their doorstep. He then dashed to their still screaming daughter.
“Нет тебе!” Halleli echoed as she shut the door. She’d leave the mess for their landlord.
Copyright © 2021 by Channie Greenberg