Andrea awoke one June morning with a taste on her tongue. It was lovely and startling: chicken, baby peas, a cream sauce, buttery crust. Chicken pot pie, she thought. I haven’t had that in years. But something else was layered there; was it . . . sadness?
The taste lingered most of the day, politely receding when Andrea had breakfast and lunch, reasserting itself in quiet moments. Never obnoxious, it was more like a whisper to Andrea’s spirit. Chicken pot pie . . . sadness. Remember this.
Late that afternoon, in line at the bank, Andrea heard a conversation behind her.
“Are things . . . better?”
“I don’t know what to do any more. I even made his favorite meal. He just walks away.”
Certainty settled into Andrea’s stomach; the woman behind her had made chicken pot pie for her husband. And with that certainty, the taste faded, leaving her tongue feeling as if some vital part had gone missing. How strange.
She was not surprised, a week later, when she awoke to the taste of a cheese soufflé. She lingered in bed, studying the odd sensation. Parmesan . . . mustard . . . cheddar . . . garlic . . . and what else, what else? Joy.
Whoever made this soufflé had done so with joy.
Andrea had no doubt that she would find the soufflé-maker; she only wondered at the significance of her very peculiar gift. When she set out for a walk around town, she listened to her tongue at every house. There—there it was, at a ramshackle bungalow greatly in need of paint. The house looked tattered, neglected, but the joy of the woman hanging laundry was unmistakable, even as the soufflé faded from Andrea’s palate.
Over the next few weeks, as summer slipped away, Andrea learned to wait every morning, to examine her tongue for anything beyond sleepy contentment and the staleness of morning. It didn’t come every day, but when it did, it was with an imperative: Go and find this person. She never spoke to the people, once she found them. What would she say? I can taste the casserole you made last night. Are you grieving? Or I’d like your recipe for onion quiche, and to know what made you laugh. Or that clam chowder was superb, but you’re far too angry.
No, she couldn’t say any of those things. She just waited. Soon, she thought, the reason for her gift would be apparent.
Late in August, a new taste came with the sunrise—something barbecued in a piquant sauce of tomatoes, vinegar, molasses, chilies. Andrea waited for the accompanying emotion and finally located it resting lightly on her heart. Lonely. Whoever had made this dish was lonely.
She walked for two hours that day, into parts of town she’d never visited. Nothing. She got into her car and made stops at the library, the post office, the market. Nothing, and as the daylight hours dwindled, so did the tang of barbecue.
Andrea slept restlessly, feeling that she’d failed.
The next day, mouth full of emptiness, she drove to her first-grade classroom to put up bulletin boards. She felt annoyed, prickly. The day was hot, the air conditioning in the school building sluggish. Andrea greeted a few other grumbling teachers who had come in to prepare their classrooms, then gathered her damp hair into a ponytail.
She was stapling yellow construction paper to the cork board when she felt it—the loneliness first, then a familiar vinegary tang. This is getting old, she thought. It doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Besides, I can’t find the lonely person. And what am I supposed to do, anyway? She pushed her bangs off her forehead, leaving a smudge of classroom dust.
The taste grew stronger. Andrea stepped off the child-sized chair she’d been standing on and headed for the drinking fountain, irritated.
A little boy was standing in her doorway, and as Andrea opened her mouth to speak, a shortish, balding man stepped up behind him. “This is Ian,” he said. “He’ll be in your class this year—if you’re Mrs. Daugherty.”
“Miss Daugherty,” said Andrea. “Nice to meet you, Ian.” She bent to shake Ian’s hand and looked up at his father. “Andrea Daugherty. Ian wasn’t in kindergarten here, was he?” Molasses danced on her tongue.
“No, he . . . Ian and I just moved here. Didn’t we, bud?” Ian nodded solemnly, then looked at the floor. His dad squeezed his shoulder. There was a spatter of tomato sauce on the man’s blue tee-shirt.
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