The key is to let the meat sit.
A novice cook will pull the steak off the cast-iron skillet, plate it, and start devouring it before he’s seated at the table. Only animals ravage meat like that. And men. They’re always in a rush.
Not me. I have trained myself to wait. Five minutes if the cut is thin, ten minutes if it’s thicker. I always pull the steak off the heat and set it on my cutting board to allow the juices, which have been driven to the center of the steak, to redistribute throughout and be reabsorbed. Less juice is lost when I cut into it, and the steak is far more tender to bite.
I explain this to Patrick, my first arrival. He’s a tower. Lean as a crepe too. A dirty-blond mop of hair keeps falling into his eyes. He swipes it away. A good trim would fix that.
“It’s hard to wait,” he says, glancing around my kitchen, hands in pockets.
“Especially with cuts like these.” I admire the portion: hardly any marble on it, but juicy nonetheless. I stir the reduction sauce, breathing in its succulent aroma. “But always worth the wait.”
“Speaking of waiting,” I say. “Was the bus a nightmare in this weather?”
He shakes his head. “I took an Uber. But not too bad. Guess most people didn’t want to be out in this cold.”
“I thought about canceling because of the snow, but everyone seemed fine to weather . . . well, the weather.” I chuckle, wink at him. I like the grin that spreads across his face.
“Yeah, I don’t do well with cabin fever anyway. I need to get out of my house when I can.”
“I understand.” I adjust the bobby pins holding my hair in place. Can’t risk a stray white hair landing in our meal. “Maybe the snowstorm will die down soon. I can’t believe we have snow this time of year. Unheard of.”
Patrick isn’t listening, though. He’s eyeing the wine glasses on the table. It’s a conversation piece, that table. High-quality marble—sky-blue swirls with white and specks of gold. An extravagant expense, but one I have never regretted.
“Thirsty?” I ask.
He smiles sheepishly. “I am. Want me to uncork some wine?”
I nod. “Yes, please do. The rest of the dinner guests should be here soon.” I pull open the oven door, mitts on hands, and grab the baked potatoes one by one.
“I’m early, I know.” Patrick stabs the cork with the screw. “My mom always taught me to be early, no matter what.”
I laugh. “My mother was the same way. You’ll be early to your own funeral, I bet.”
Pop! The cabernet is open. An elegant Doubleback. Sandalwood, fresh cherry—but it certainly doesn’t sacrifice a drop of its full-bodied richness.
“Oh, definitely. I never understood the whole ‘fashionably late’ thing, I guess.” He pours himself a generous glass.
“Me neither. It’s polite to arrive early to a party.”
All the potatoes rest on top of the stove. I grab the salad bowl from the refrigerator. My garden rewarded me with ruby-red tomatoes and crisp lettuce over the summer. I grate the cheese, a sharp cheddar, right on top of the salad, then finish with homemade croutons. I lay the salad bowl in the middle of the table and check my watch. Just a minute before seven.
As if on cue, the doorbell rings.
“You got it, Joyce.” He places his glass of wine on the table and heads for the door.
I reach into my bra—the woman’s pocket, if you will—grab a white tablet, crush it with the thick glass at the base of the wine bottle, and sweep the powder into my hand. Into Patrick’s glass it goes. I swish it around.
From the foyer come introductions, hellos and how-are-yous. The couple is here. Ken and Beth. Such boring names.
“Come into the kitchen!” I yell. “Food’s about ready.”
Beth enters first, holding a platter of cookies, even though I told her not to make a thing. Those southern-bred women—they can’t help themselves. She’s quite feminine: wavy auburn hair pulled taut in a ponytail, squared, manicured nails, pouty lips stained with a nude shade. Ken, however, is rather plain: Not too fat, not too skinny; short in stature. His hair is thinning at the top. Vitamin deficiency or genetics?
“I sure hope you’re hungry,” I say, grabbing the salad dressing—a champagne vinaigrette.
“Are you kidding?” Beth hands me the plate of sweets. “I’ve been starving myself all day. Work catered barbecue, but I turned it down.”
“That’s a first,” Ken quips. The man wears a bolo tie, which I find endearing.
I half suppress a laugh. “It’ll be worth the starvation. I promise.” I gesture toward the empty chair at the end of the table. “Have a seat. How was the bus?”
“Better than driving,” Ken replies. “Personally, I like public transportation. It’s like being chauffeured around. Not as fancy, but it gives me time to read.”
Beth raises her eyebrows. “You mean nap.”
“It’s responsible too,” I say, pointing toward the wine. “Since you all will be drinking tonight.”
Beth sheds her coat, hands it to Ken. “Oh, we will abso-lute-ly be drinking tonight!”
“Good! Are you both wine drinkers?”
Before Beth can answer, Ken says, “More of a whiskey man myself, Joyce.” He finds a home for his and Beth’s coats. “Neat, if you have it.”
I smile. “Ah, now that I can help you with, my friend.” I was never one for sweet drinks. I love a neat whiskey as much as I love a good steak. “Two fingers’ worth?”
“I won’t say no, but the wife might.”
Beth playfully nudges him, then starts a conversation with Patrick. Something about how heavenly it smells in my kitchen.
I sidestep to the walk-in pantry, a tumbler now in hand, and again pull the Rohypnol out of my bra. I use a can of beef broth to crush it, then brush it right into his empty tumbler. I reach high for the Glenfiddich. That liquor, she’s more than amber. She’s honey. Thick marigold. Just a hint of marmalade. I pour as I walk, swishing simultaneously. I like Rohypnol. It dissolves quickly. Besides, why risk massive blood loss from, say, stabbing? That would ruin the meat.
I emerge and offer Ken his drink, announcing, “Best in the house!” He accepts, and his fingers graze mine. My hair stands on end. I clear my throat. Compose myself. Turn to Beth. “And for you, my love? Cabernet?”
Beth halts her conversation with Patrick. “You are honestly the best host in the world, Joyce.” She places her hand on mine, gives it a tight squeeze. I’m more aware than ever of my spider veins. Aware of her skin on mine. “I hope it’s not too much, but red wine and I don’t mix well. I’d die for some white. Do you have any? Chilled?”
“I do.” I take her glass. “In the outside fridge.”
“Joyce!” Ken wipes his mouth. “This is delicious! Is it . . . ?”
His eyes bulge. “You’re kidding.”
I beam with pride. “Top shelf for a top guy.”
He brightens, too, and I find it addicting when my guests are pleased—even before the meal itself is served.
“I’ll be right back with that white.” Before I turn, I point my finger at Patrick. “I see you eyeing that steak.”
“It’s definitely been ten minutes.”
Half of his wine is gone. I wasn’t expecting him to be a lush. I check my watch. This could potentially affect things, depending on his metabolism.
“You, my dear, are right.” I rush to the outdoor fridge, and once again, just like the others, I drop crushed Rohypnol into Beth’s glass. By the time I return, it shimmers with nothing but Chardonnay. Louis Latour—yellow peach, marzipan.
Beth takes a long pull of her wine and sighs. “You’re a saint.”
I stand at the head of the table and clasp my hands together, taking in the room full of happy people. Then I clink my empty glass with a steak knife. “Everyone, I want to begin by thanking you for coming this evening to my first dinner party in . . .” I glance at the ceiling, thinking for a moment. “Goodness, too long to count.” I’ve never had a dinner party, actually. This would be my first. My last? “It’s good to have friends, and I’m honored to call you mine. I’m disappointed Michelle couldn’t make it, but next time, perhaps.” I pour myself a glass of Cabernet and raise it high. The chandelier hits the red just right; for a moment, the wine is as scarlet as the blood pulsing through my veins. “To good friends, new memories, and rich food.”
“Hear, hear!” Ken says, lifting his glass as well.
We drink in unison, but barely a sip from Ken.
“Oh! I almost forgot. Would you all take a moment to silence your phones? Call me old-fashioned, but it’s a little rule I have at the dinner table.”
I check the time again. “It’s ready, my friends.” I set down my wine glass, head to the steaks on the cutting board, and clutch my eight-inch Shun knife. “Let’s eat!”
Patrick, Beth, and Ken sit impatiently, eager to feast on my long-prepared dinner. They spent but a day waiting on this meal. They’d never guess at how long I’ve spent in preparation. Weeks. Choosing the right dinner guests is as time-consuming as preparing the food. More so, in fact. I couldn’t just invite anyone to dine with me. Patrick was a simple choice, as he’s a free spirit, a bit of a nomad. He’s a painter, and I commissioned him to paint me a mural for the living room. He did an excellent job. Beth and Ken, however, are new to Delaware. As in, brand-spanking. I met them just last month at the local coffee shop. An extroverted couple, they asked me about local attractions, things to do around here. Beth, mainly, since she’d be, and I quote, “bored out of her mind with Ken working all the time.” The military keeps him busy, apparently, bounces him around from place to place with Beth in tow. Before we knew it, an hour had passed. We became Facebook friends, I later invited them to dinner, and now here we are.
At my dining table, where I have drugged them.
Michelle, on the other hand, is a bit different. She has roots, which makes her a challenge. Or, would’ve made her a challenge, I suppose. I made her acquaintance at a wine tasting. She was the host at the vineyard, though not an owner or manager. Nothing of importance. She mentioned doing part-time work for the winery, as she’s highly involved in her church. (She tried to proselyte me.) That day she pushed the whites, but I’m a red woman myself. Later, I remember, she was enamored by her first time at our annual Italian festival in Wilmington. I promised her homemade cannoli for dessert tonight. Far superior to Beth’s cookies, I assure you.
Then again, it’s not like anyone will be able to eat dessert tonight.
I finish slicing the sirloins and plate them. A generous pour of the reduction sauce.
“You didn’t have to cut mine for me, Joyce!” Beth says, her eyes wide with delight as I put her plate before her. “I feel like I’m on a cruise ship!”
“Ha! I love to hear that.” I set plates before Ken and Patrick next. “Is anyone missing anything?”
“Just my jaw,” Ken says, plopping sour cream onto his baked potato. “I’m impressed, Joyce. This is the fanciest shit I’ve ever seen.”
I curtsy. “Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yeah, seriously. I’ve never been to a dinner party like this,” Patrick says, piercing a tomato with his salad fork. “Or a dinner party at all, really.”
I’m on cloud nine. I can’t help it. Another swift check of the watch: Six minutes left, roughly. Maybe sooner for Patrick. “You all are too sweet.”
“Speaking of sweet,” Beth says. “This steak tastes so different from what I’m used to.”
“Yes, but in a good way. I’m not used to a sweeter meat, but I love it.”
“Must be the reduction sauce.” I take my seat and simply soak in all the joy at my table. These people, so cheery and content.
Ken pipes up. “So Patrick, what do you do for a living?”
Patrick stops mid-bite. “I’m a painter, mostly. I did the mural in Joyce’s living room, actually.”
“Oh, I saw that.” Beth stabs her fork into another mouthful of meat. Twirls it around in the sauce. “Who’s in the portrait, Joyce?”
“My husband, Theo. He was a wonderful man.”
Ken rubs his face. “Was his mustache that good in real life?”
“Ha! Yes, yes. I used to tell him he could give Sam Elliott a run for his money. You captured him well, Patrick.”
There’s something in his eyes—bashfulness? “Thank you,” he says.
“Have you always been a painter?” Beth asks.
“Pretty much. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t trying to paint. Even with fingerpaint or mud.”
“Well, if you find your passion, stick to it.” Ken toasts to Patrick.
“Joyce,” Beth says, licking her lips, “this food is going to force me to buy a gym membership, I swear.”
I laugh. “Hey, I’m allowed a guest at my gym if you ever want to come.”