A moment later, I was staring at a dead phone.
There are plenty of paintings in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as well as other museums all over the world, that people glance at and say, “That’s pretty,” before moving on to the next one. The paintings mean nothing to them; they’re just things hanging on the wall that are pleasant to look at but after a couple of viewings, who cares? True works of art, on the other hand, have much more going for them than just prettiness. They have depth, character; they speak to the beholder on an emotional level, on an intellectual level, on levels that we aren’t even aware of. That’s why we never grow tired of them, why we observe them over and over again as if for the first time. Great art has value that goes well beyond mere surface beauty.
Nina is like that.
I’ve known her for several years now; probably know everything about her. I’ve seen her in a five-thousand-dollar red velvet gown and in torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt. I’ve seen her angry, happy, distraught, silly, ingenious, selfish, charitable, indefatigable, exhausted, frightened, and courageous beyond words. I’ve seen Nina at her best and at her worst. Yet there are moments when I see her at an unusual angle or in a different light or just unexpectedly out of the corner of my eye and it catches my breath. Like when she was in her kitchen, happily dodging a ferociously busy Chef Monica until Monica stopped and announced, “One of us has got to go.”
“That’ll be me,” Nina said. She grabbed my arm and led me from the kitchen. “I love watching Monica work,” she said. “It’s kinda like watching Iron Chef on the Food Network, except I actually get to sample the dishes.”
I hugged her and kissed her cheek.
“McKenzie, where did that come from?”
“I enjoy your company,” I said.
“Oh, my,” she said and fanned her face with great exaggeration.
“You said something about food.”
“Don’t worry, McKenzie. I’ll feed you.”
She did, too, in her office, serving a salad of white and green asparagus with Parmesan-lemon sabayon, pancetta, and butter-poached pheasant egg, followed by grilled beef tenderloin with braised short rib, parsnip purée, and red wine—Monica’s special du jour. We were nearly finished with the meal when Monica stopped in to check on us. She picked up a twelve-inch-high trophy that Erica had won at the state high school fencing championships and given to her mother, held it like a club as she fixed her unblinking eye on me, and said, “What do you think?”
That was my cue to say something obnoxious like It needs salt or Could I get some ketchup? or The meat still has the marks where the jockey whipped it. She in turn would then threaten my life, and I would suggest she find a new line of work, auto mechanic perhaps—both of us counting on Nina to intervene. Only I couldn’t do it. The food was exquisite and made me embarrassed for every meal I had ever cooked for my friends. I told her so.
“But,” she said. It was obvious that she was waiting for a flash of sarcasm.
“But nothing,” I said. “It’s magnificent.”
Monica turned her gaze on Nina. “Did you tell him not to make fun of my food anymore?”
“Nope,” Nina said.
Monica turned on me again. “You really annoy me sometimes,” she said. She returned the trophy to Nina’s desk and left the office.
A moment later she returned. “McKenzie, tomorrow the special is seared sea scallops with brandade, heirloom tomato, and ni?oise vinaigrette, and I expect to hear some smart-aleck remark. I mean it.” Then she was gone.
“That is the most temperamental woman I have ever known,” I said. “More temper than mental, I think.”
“She’s an artist,” Nina said, as if that explained it all.
Shortly after, Nina and I were sitting at a small table in the back of her main lounge, holding hands and listening to Prudence Johnson and Rio Nido playing jazz classics like “Hannah in Savannah,” “The Trouble with Me is You,” “Night in Tunisia,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “60 Minute Man.” It would have been a perfect evening if not for the young, sandy-haired man who was pretending not to watch us.
My sigh must have told Nina something. “What is it?” she asked.
“Don’t look, but there’s a young man sitting at the bar, blond hair, khaki slacks, blue shirt.”
Of course Nina looked. “What about him?” she said.
“If he’s smart, he’s paying cash as he goes so he doesn’t have to worry about the bill when he follows me out of here.”
“He’s following you?”
“Just in case, why don’t you ask one of your waitstaff if he’s running a tab on his credit card.”
“Screw that,” she said.