Home Stories Chicken Marsala by Lenore Tsakanikas

Chicken Marsala by Lenore Tsakanikas


A divorced couple regularly prepare dinner for their daughter and her fellow convalescents in rehab, but Chicken Marsala might not be enough to heal their wounds. 

Image generated with OpenAI

Giovanni, my ex, is driving us to Patagonia for the eighth Sunday in a row, a meal for the residents in tow. Of late, our Sunday routine is shaped around visiting hours at New Beginnings, bringing dinner to the twelve women living there, who themselves are in various stages of recovery, our daughter Lucia being one of them.

Today, it’s Chicken Marsala. On the side are roasted potatoes with red and green bell peppers. I’ve made a tossed salad. On our first such outing, I’d been pleasantly surprised that our transitional family had actually appreciated Giovanni’s rich blend of flavors with the various meals he’d created. I was wrong to have assumed that their tastes were limited to the medicinal.

Giovanni fidgets with the radio.

“No matter what the station, everything sounds like shit. When did you stop driving the Beemer I bought you?”

“Years ago. I sold it.”

“Ah, Sophie, I can’t believe you sold that car! It was a classic. Remember the Linzerschnitten and coffee they served at the dealership in Munich? The panoramic glass doors that slid open when we first set eyes on that beauty? They brought the keys to us on a silver tray!”

“I remember. You grabbed the keys and drove off! You didn’t even finish your cookie.”

“I should have let you drive Sophie, but…”

“But I needed to read the map and keep you from getting us lost. Which, despite my efforts, didn’t stop us from circling the city aimlessly for hours.”

“What do you expect? The way those street names change and are impossible to pronounce.”

“As if you would’ve asked for directions!”

“I didn’t need to. You found our way out.”

“Thank you, Gianni. Although I wasn’t much help when we were detained at the Swiss border for hours.”

“You were, Sophie. If you hadn’t been there, those useless Swiss would have locked me up for God knows how long. No. One look at you in that pretty red coat, and we were on our way in less than an hour!”

I glance out the window watching small towns whiz by, towns with homes inhabited by parents not traveling to New Beginnings for Sunday dinner.

“How long has it been?” he asks.

“Since what? The trip?” Eighteen years. “The divorce?” Ten. “Her overdose?”

“Yeah. Don’t say that word.”

“Almost three months.”

Giovanni shakes his head in seeming disbelief.

The week before Thanksgiving, Giovanni arrived at my door, gratis his new woman, Cindy, a stout, blonde Canadian, who’d stumbled upon a social media post of a scantily-clad Lucia passed out on a messy, unrecognizable bed. No doubt Cindy welcomed the opportunity to point out my deficiencies, confident that she would never have allowed the situation to spin out of control.

If Cindy thought that photo would drive a wedge between us, she was sadly mistaken. An Italian man remains ever loyal to the mother of his children, the divorce being merely another chapter in the marriage.

Giovanni, of course, had raged at me, incensed that I’d hidden failing grades; dyed, brittle-red hair; skanky boyfriend; and prior trip to the hospital. I held the phone at arm’s length while he yelled, “Sophie, you’ve always been too trusting with her! You never think things are bad until it’s too late!”

My sobs interrupted his rant, and he softened.

“It’ll be okay, Sophie. I’m mad at her, not you. Drugs…” I pictured him flinging a hand at the air as if he could ward off the demons.

Forty-eight hours later Giovanni was sitting in the brown reclining chair in my living room, eating one of the Viennese crescents I’d made to appease him. He held the cookie up, admiring it, “This is what I miss most about being married to you.” Was I offended? Not at all. He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such.

Within days he would take over my kitchen and cook his way through the ordeal, commenting, “You’ve lost weight. You’re way too skinny. Don’t worry, I’ll fatten you up!”

“Are you sure it’s only been a couple months?” he asks, demonstrating his irritating habit of asking me questions only to second-guess my answers. He switches lanes, cutting off the driver to the left. “To me, Sophie, it seems much longer.”

“For me it has been.”

I’m certain of the time. I’ve been keeping a calendar. I cross off each day, the survival of which is an accomplishment of sorts. Time moves insufferably slowly. I wish it would speed up and become a distant memory. I envision the present being replaced by a semblance of calm and contentment. The thought of her release causes anxiety in me reminiscent of the time pre-rehab, a string of endless days followed by nights of restless sleep and the possibility of cataclysmic disaster.

“What do you think is going to happen, after New Beginnings?” I ask.

“How am I supposed to know?” Giovanni answers, lifting both hands up in the air over the steering wheel, “She’ll either get better, get worse, or stay the same.”

I look at him, incredulous that he could think that Lucia’s stay at New Beginnings might end without a full recovery. “That’s so hopeless, Giovanni.”

“What it is, Sophie, is realistic. You need to stop beating yourself up and realize that there’s nothing more we can do.”

“But we haven’t really done anything.”

“What do you mean, we haven’t done anything? Do you think it was easy for me to drop everything and come here? Spend hours on hold trying to get her approved and into New Beginnings? Yeah, haven’t done anything,” he scoffs.

I turn and gaze out the window. I want my days to speed away as quickly as miles ticking away. I want to forget the repetitive miseries consuming me before he arrived and ignore the possibility of their return when he leaves. Not that Giovanni’s presence has been without drawbacks, but there is less fear and loneliness. Cut off from well-intentioned friends and family, Christmas was bearable. I imagine that Cindy was crushed when her fantasy of the two of them wearing matching pajamas on Christmas morning, opening presents with her fatherless children, didn’t materialize. Cindy will just have to wait.

Giovanni takes his hand off the wheel to jab me in the shoulder. “You know, Sophie, when I found out, I knew she would break. Too much pressure over that stupid French horn,” he tuts.

I bristle. “My pressure kept her out of trouble for as long as it did. None of her teachers ever noticed anything. I wasn’t the only one caught off guard! How convenient for you to swoop in here and criticize me! I don’t suppose any of this could’ve had to do with your absence?”

“What was I supposed to do? Our marriage may have ended, but your spending didn’t.”

“Giovanni, I’m not going to apologize about how I raised her when you were away. I scraped pennies together to send her to music competitions, which you never supported, and she did very well. As far as my spending goes, if I spent too much, it was because you bragged incessantly about how much money you made. Far be it from me to humiliate you by not playing the role – you would never have forgiven me!”

“Sophie, I would have.”

“All I can say, is that whatever you do as a parent is the wrong thing. Your children resent you if you give nothing and they take advantage if you do. They’re offended if you’re suspicious and screw you if you trust them. It’s a no-win situation.”

“So true.”

I’d never even considered that the French horn was the cause. She never said she wanted to do something else. Also, she had talent! I cringe when I think that her invitation to apply for a scholarship at the Apple Hill Center disappeared from her sights like wisps of dandelion feathers into the air. Everyone who knew her expected doors to open up, not slam shut! Even now, I vacillate between wondering what horrible things I’ve done and thinking that nothing I’ve done could have warranted this self-destructive, selfish behavior.

It took Giovanni to get me to recognize the serious trouble she was in. The recent mood swings, weight loss, and irrational behavior – all of it of it I had naively attributed to youth.

Sometimes, I wish I had Giovanni’s lack of introspection. Whereas I distrusted my intuition, Giovanni unhesitatingly concluded that counseling had been a costly exercise in futility. “I’m not paying two hundred dollars an hour to find out what’s wrong with us! We’re not the ones doing drugs!” he said to no one in particular as we left the therapist’s office. He hadn’t been afraid to verbalize what I’d been questioning all along. The simplistic admonition, praise her for what she’s doing right. What merited praise? Purchasing a bong with her own money? A night free of cars peeling out of the driveway at two a.m.? Remembering to take her new puppy out to pee? The bar was as low as a garden hose.

Palo Verde replace austere Saguaros as Ocotillo branches move with the wind. A week ago, I found Lucia’s journal. Days passed before I summoned the courage to read it.

I crack my window. “Gianni, I found her journal.”

“You found what?”

“Her journal. I wasn’t going to read it…”

“Why not?” he interrupts, “I’ll read it.”

“I didn’t want to invade her privacy…”

“Why should we care about her privacy? I want to read it.”

“Well, I did read it.”

“What did she say about me?” Giovanni slows the car to lean towards me.

“That’s the thing. In all of those pages, there was only a line or two about us, even less about music.”

What had been most painful was the near complete absence of any mention of us. I had expected pages of parent bashing. I had also expected some thoughts which would mirror ours. Instead, our presence was reduced to one or two lines and a word or two about music. In the lengthy journal, Lucia had documented the drugs she was taking, her thoughts of suicide and then euphoria, and pages and pages about her drug-dealing boyfriend, Dickie, whom I met only once and never dreamed she was involved with.

“Nothing about me?”

“A line or two. Imagine, for so long I’ve been wondering where we failed, when we seem to be completely irrelevant.”

Giovanni looks at me. He doesn’t see himself as a side character in Lucia’s drama. “What did she write about?”

“Mostly about her drug dealing boyfriend, Dickie, and her drug experiences.”

“It was all about Freddie?”

“Dickie. She brought him to the house only once. I guess she was smart enough to know that he wasn’t the type you bring home for Sunday dinner.”

“I’ll kill the bastard!”

“I wish that were possible, but we aren’t in ancient Rome, Gianni, where you can come home and defend her honor.”

Giovanni flicks the headlights behind the slow-moving truck in front of us in the right-hand lane. The driver, unaware of the rules of the Autostrade, which Giovanni adheres to even in Arizona, remains chugging along. Giovanni speeds up and passes the truck on the left, blasting the horn.

Giovanni showed the same aggression in getting Lucia into rehab. To him, Lucia taking drugs was no different than the obtuse truck driver leisurely driving in the fast lane. It was simply against the rules, and he wasn’t going to stand for it!

The image of a less than stabilized Lucia connected to an IV, flailing side to side in the hospital bed, brings a dryness to my throat. Giovanni loomed over a captive Lucia, “You’re going to stop ruining your mother’s life and you’re going to rehab or you’re never going to see me again!” Her movements slowed, she stared at him through glazed eyes and burst into tears.

The fear of his absence trumped my months of pleading, cajoling, bribing and patient understanding, not that I had encouraged rehab. I stupidly thought each incident was a one-time thing, and that I could placate her with pets, a new aquarium, a puppy, a cat, hoping to keep her home and out of trouble, as if she were still a ten-year-old. Whereas I was in denial, Giovanni approached the situation with a focused determination to place her in the right type of facility. He spent hours on the phone researching. “She’s not going to some country club, where she can bring her pets! She’s going to a real facility with hardcore addicts!”

Giovanni landed on New Beginnings. His generous promise of financial support to the director immediately secured a room. Dr. Agnes and her assistant met us at the hospital and personally transported Lucia themselves, the several-hour drive “not a problem”.

The first time I met Dr. Agnes, I immediately liked her. She had a calm, gentle, matter-of-fact voice that convinced me of what I wanted to believe, that there could be no other ending than a happy one, and that New Beginnings was our answer.

“Say goodbye to your parents.” Lucia gave us each a quick hug and followed Dr. Agnes to the van. I was surprised that the departure was uneventful. There was no resistance and little conversation. I’d expected Dr. Agnes to dig and delve into the family dynamics and was relieved she hadn’t done that. We watched the van pull out of the parking lot and disappear into traffic. That night, I slept straight through for the first time in months, as if I myself had been drugged.

Giovanni looks over at me as the Nissan struggles with the climb through the Dragoons.

“Do you remember driving through the Alps to Villa D’Este?”

“Yes. It was clear, cold, and beautiful.”

“We had the best meal and the worst fight ever on that trip. I had to take you to the airport early.”

“We didn’t have the worst fight ever. It was one in a long series of fights, and you certainly didn’t take me to the airport early. In fact, you told my mother we had a fantastic time.”

“We did, until the fight, and I had to take you to the airport early.”

“We fought, coincidentally, the night before I was scheduled to leave.”

The road trip through Europe in our new BMW ended with our stay at Villa D’Este. It was off-season, early March. The air was brisk. We watched the fog from Lake Como lift as we jacuzzied in the spa. The summer before, we had lost a baby in child birth. The trip was intended to debilitate the grief we carried with us like an overstuffed suitcase without wheels. Sadness had redefined us. We came together and pulled apart, like an out-of-tune accordion, hopelessly trying to recreate music which continued to elude us.

I think back on that trip, “Do you remember what it was?”

“What was?”

“The best meal ever.”

Giovanni looks over at me and winks, “I ordered for you the Duckling alla Arancio. Your scarf almost caught on fire when they lit the cognac!”

I laugh, “I do remember. How could I have forgotten that?”

“Well, it’s been almost twenty years.”

Some things I remember as if they had happened yesterday, others completely escape me. I recall the taverna built into the gray cliffs where we sat at a wooden table on a small, private balcony overlooking Lake Como. Climbing rosebushes surrounded us, each branch trimmed precisely three inches from the stem. Their tender shoots were almost invisible. The forest-green window boxes were home to purple pansies and bright red geraniums. The damp air smelled like water, earth and nectar.

“You had Osso Bucco. See, I haven’t forgotten everything.”

“That’s right. The thyme in the dish was flavored with a bit of the sweat from the donkey that carried it to the hotel.”

“How many times did we see that donkey laboring up and down the narrow, cobblestone alley to and from the hotel?”

“Poor beast. Do you remember the dessert?”

“Only that you ordered a piece of everything!”

“What can I say? That’s my weakness. You, on the other hand, couldn’t stop drinking the Tesoro della Regina Barolo.” Exaggerated R’s roll across his tongue.

“It was made and blessed by the monks. How could I refuse?” I see the rich garnet color of the wine, poured into clear, hand-blown crystal.

Giovanni hits the brakes and turns to me. “Sophie, why aren’t we together?”

I look up at him, not entirely off-guard with the question. After all, I had been wondering this myself lately, his disruptive presence comforting and alluring. Yet the question’s too much, and I tease, “Maybe I don’t like sharing?”

“Sophie. You need to believe me. None of them mattered. Only you. You were so good to me, loyal. Not that you were perfect, but like I tell everyone, you think your wife is bad, the next woman is worse, and the one after that is even worse!”

My thoughts turn to Villa D’Este. I don’t recall a prelude to the fight, nor what it was about. It must have started during our walk back to the hotel. Maybe the wine incited our grief which insisted on being heard. The accusations we hurled at each other reverberated around us. Our operatic shouts, gestures, tears, fit in with the medieval backdrop and echoed around us as we made our way to Villa D’Este. At the hotel, I spent the rest of my evening soaking in the cast iron bathtub, reheating the water several times. Giovanni spent the rest of his evening with a cigar on the balcony. The smoke wafted in through the window, mixing with the steam from the bathroom. I stayed in the tub until I was sure he’d fallen asleep.

In the morning we warmed our hands with hot cappuccino and pretended nothing had happened. Lucia would be conceived a year later, during an interlude of calm.

At the very first Sunday dinner, Bellatrix, an anorexic goth with BITCH tattooed across her collarbone, taught us that it’s best bring your own supplies.

It was an unseasonably warm Sunday. We were outside enjoying the fresh air. I was sipping the hot tea I had poured into the cleanest mug in the kitchen, pale pink with lettering, Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. Bellatrix, cigarette between her lips, eyed me and lunged. She grabbed at the mug, extricating it from my hand with her black-tipped fingernails, spilling tea and staining the new, white Vittadini blouse I’d bought myself to boost my spirits.

Giovanni charged at her, eyes bulging, his right hand raised. “Get out of here, you beast, before I take that mug to your face and slam some respect into you!”

Bellatrix turned at him and glared defiantly. She then slowly, purposely poured the remaining contents of the mug on the dry ground, making circular motions, before raising the mug as if she were toasting to our health.

“This is mine!”

“I hope it breaks!” Giovanni yelled as she wandered out of earshot.

“Sophie, are you okay?” He dabbed at my blouse with the tail of his shirt.

“Thank God we’re not that girl’s parents,” Giovanni commented, then pivoted back into his seat, picking up the Christmas Edition of In Recovery from the end table, perusing it briefly before tossing it aside.

“How much longer is it?”

“A while.”

I wonder. Is it enough time to change course? “I’m worried about the Chicken Marsala, the marsala part,” I say. “Do you think we made a mistake?”

“No, not at all. It’s better if it sits for a while, so the dish settles. The mushrooms and garlic need to dance with the wine! Just like we did, in our time!”

I don’t want to bring him out of his pleasant revelries. “Gianni, do you think we should’ve used only chicken broth and skipped the marsala? I’m told that even the smallest thing could be a trigger.”

My question turns his good humor to irritation. He moves his tongue around the inside of his mouth to form an answer. His tone crescendos into a boom as he explodes. “We went over this yesterday, Sophie! Chicken Marsala is Chicken Marsala! Do you really want to ruin the dish for these ingrates? Aren’t we suffering enough?”

Yesterday had been devoted to the Chicken Marsala.

In the morning I’d been in the living room, sitting in my favorite brocade wing chair reading Alias Grace. I thought Giovanni was still asleep in the guest room. The gas fire emitted a soft, warming glow. I liked to look up from my book and stare into the slow-moving flames as I sipped my morning coffee. Both dogs, a yorkie-poo and a maltipoo, were snoozing on either side of my lap. They perked up when Giovanni bounded into the room.

“Oh, there you are. Why do you have the fire on? It’s hot in here. I don’t have what I need for the Chicken Marsala.” He looks at me for a solution.

“I don’t know what you need, Gianni. I have breaded chicken cutlets in the freezer. You can thaw them out, stick them in the air fryer and that part will be done.” I knew I didn’t have marsala but thought he could use a splash of port and chicken broth for the sauce.

Giovanni took a long, exaggerated breath through his nose as he tried to patiently explain. “The breasts need to be fresh, Sophie, and tenderized by hand, not overly salted and covered with cornmeal. The sliced mushrooms you bought are porcini, not cremini, and are cut too thick. I don’t take short cuts with my mother’s recipe. Also, I didn’t see any marsala.”

“As much as I love your Chicken Marsala, I’m a little nervous about cooking with alcohol. I know it burns off immediately, but I’m just not sure.”

“I have to use marsala. It’s what colors, softens, and seasons the chicken. And it needs to be Sicilian marsala, not that cheap California port you have in the cabinet. Come on, get dressed!”

“Can’t you go without me?”

Giovanni sighed and looked at me like I was losing my mind. “Hurry up and finish your coffee,” he said as he went across the room and turned the nob to extinguish the fire. The dogs jumped off my lap and followed him into the kitchen. I heard opening and closing cabinet doors. I took a few more sips of my coffee and went to get dressed.

A bit later, we returned home from the store with four pounds of boneless, skinned chicken breasts, three containers of cremini mushrooms, fresh garlic, organic chicken stock, shallots, parsley, and a bottle of Florio Marsala. Giovanni made a marinade and let the breasts soak in it while he thinly sliced the mushrooms and diced the garlic. He filleted the chicken, waiving the ten-inch slicer in the air and humming La Donne e Mobile. I dug around in messy kitchen drawers until I found the meat tenderizer. One by one, I picked up the fillets and pounded them, feeling a release of stress with every whack. Giovanni dusted the prepped fillets and dipped them in sizzling butter until they browned. The stacked fillets filled up two cookie sheets.

Giovanni uncorked the marsala and breathed in its scent before pouring a generous splash into the skillet of chicken fat. “You can’t deglaze the pot with chicken broth!”

We watched steam rise from the skillet, filling the kitchen with a nutty, succulent scent. He added the chicken broth and more marsala. The mushrooms and garlic swam in the honey-colored sauce that had the consistency of maple syrup.

The rocky boulders of the Dragoons become red cliffs the color of jasper dappled with greenery. Snow dusts the mountain ridges in the distance. We’re miles away from the narrow road that winds up the cliff-side and leads to New Beginnings, an old, blue, three-story Victorian house with sunflower-yellow trim, nooks and crannies throughout. It is fitting as a home for the emotionally unwell and sits across from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, with its stern, towering cross, a reminder that Jesus died for our sins, sins, and God is watching. Cats gather around the women when they go outside to smoke. They slink and slither next to the women, who stroke them and watch their spines curve like ribbons under their hands.

I wonder if Father Anthony will be there when we arrive. He likes to pray for the residents after mass. Generally, I would avoid the company of a priest. I was raised Protestant and couldn’t go through with converting when Giovanni and I married. But, at New Beginnings, I don’t feel awkward. I take comfort in Father Anthony’s presence. He adds a bit of familiarity to our Sunday routine and detracts from the strangeness of the facility. There his jokes elevate the conversation and provide relief from institutional trappings, the hidden cameras, the sign-in sheets, the house monitors in blue scrubs. Father Anthony, for his part, seems thankful that New Beginnings is a closed club with a captive audience. Unlike the congregation of Immaculate Conception, the residents are not restlessly anticipating the final “amen” that ends mass.

“Gianni, do you think this is working?”


“This whole rehab business. The women she’s with are both too young and too old to be there. For a lot of them, it’s not their first stint. It has to be for Brittany…”

“Which one’s Brittany?”

I conjure her image, tiny with hair the color of overripe strawberries seeping into angel food cake. “Brittany is the one who’s always chasing her toddler around.”

“That’s her toddler? That girl looks like she should still be in middle school. Unbelievable. Where’s the father?”

“Gianni, she probably doesn’t know who the father is. He hasn’t ever come to visit. It’s Brittany’s father that brings the baby to visit her.”

“Thank God we don’t have that problem. You’re too young to be a grandmother.” He chuckles at the thought.

“How many times do you think Gloria has tried rehab?”

“Which one’s Gloria?”

“She’s the one…” I think how best to identify her. Gloria, approaching fifty and, according to her, a former ballerina, carries a picture of her twelve-year-old self in a white tutu, hands crossed in front of her heart, en pointe, delicate feet in first position. In the photo, her dark glossy hair, the color of slick oil, is pulled up in a high bun with crystals in it. “She’s the one with thinning, long hair that loved your veal scallopini,” I say.

“Oh, her. She is too old to be there. She should just hang it up. She must have been in and out of rehab all of her life.”

“You’re probably right. You don’t just wake up in your forties and decide to start shooting heroin.”

“At least Lucia hasn’t done that shooting up stuff. Don’t forget that crazy, tattooed girl. What kind of lunatic would tattoo the side of her face?”

“It’s sad that no one ever comes to visit these women, except Father Anthony, and maybe Brittany’s dad. If it weren’t for Lucia, we would never have met them, much less cook for them! They all had parents at some point! When do you think their parents gave up? I know it’s exhausting, more than exhausting, but to completely give up?”

“Sophie, there may come a time when it’s just not worth it. When you have to think about yourself more. I don’t have to sleep with you to know you’re not sleeping. And your weight,” he shakes his head. “You’re too skinny.”

“You’re making me feel like I did when we lost our baby. That sense of unreality. Like I’m walking outside and above myself. Not in myself. Suffocating with sadness. The situation’s similar, but different. As horrible as that death was, we still had friends who reached out to us. Now I feel shunned, judged, patronized. There’s no shortage of words to describe the horrible way I feel!”

“Sophie, we were alone then, and we’re alone now. Do you really want company? Don’t you remember how invasive it was to have people constantly stopping by our house, bringing us their tasteless tuna casseroles, bean casseroles, ground beef casseroles…”

Well-wishers brought us prepared meals covered with aluminum foil. Giovanni would lift the foil up and peek at whatever was inside before emptying the contents into the garbage.

“How do you know they were tasteless? You didn’t even try them.”

“I didn’t need to.” He cocks his head, “The benefit of being shunned, Sophie, is that we don’t have to deal with bad food on top of everything else. Cheer up! If spending three months with these women doesn’t cure her, I don’t know what will.”

Giovanni signals to take the exit off the interstate.

“Why are you exiting?”

“I thought I’d take the scenic route. We don’t want to get there too early.”

“I don’t mind getting there a bit early.”

“It’s not that much longer this way.” He slows the car down and follows the circular exit ramp that takes us to the two-lane highway that dips through gentle canyons.

The rhythmic motion of the car lulls me, and I start to feel incredibly drowsy. I strain to keep my eyes open. There’s only static on the radio.

“Sophie, why don’t you take a nap. You’ve seen these Cyprus before.”

I recline the seat. My legs rest on top of the crock pot. The faint scent of garlic is teasing my appetite. I close my eyes and soon am in a deep sleep.

I dream that I’m trying to walk briskly through the hallways of New Beginnings. My legs move slowly as they sink heavily into the musty marron-paisley carpet. The clang of cutlery, plates, and silverware echo through the dark narrow halls. I’m not sure if I’m heading in the right direction, and I don’t see or smell the kitchen that leads to the dining room. Instead, I see tiny rooms on either side of me. Women with messy hair and glazed eyes peer at me through barred doors. I look for Lucia. Bellatrix abruptly materializes in front of me. The curlicues of the tattoo on her chest are turning into vines of Rosary Peas. I ask her if she’s seen Lucia. She laughs and grabs at her breast, shoving handfuls of the berries into her mouth, biting and then spitting them at me. “She’s had too many of these,” she says, laughing. I dodge the poisonous seeds she hurls at me as she continues to pluck more berries which prolifically overtake her chest. I watch the poisonous berries take root where they’ve landed as they quickly encircle my legs, torso, throat.

I wake up gasping.

The car is stopped at a Circle K in some hamlet off the highway. I get out and stretch my stiff legs and neck, making clockwise, then counter-clockwise movements.

“I was afraid if I didn’t fill up now, I wouldn’t be able to later. How was your nap?”

“Not good. I’m going to go grab a cup of coffee. Do you want anything?”

“No, I’ll wait.”

I cross the parking lot and go inside. The Circle K is long and narrow. There’s a souvenir shop to the left. On the right are a few bays with fast food outlets, hot and cold drink dispensers, aisles of snacks, and a hallway that leads to the bathroom in the back. The scent of grease, popcorn, and pizza blend together. I find the bathroom. It smells like Lysol and sweet-tarts. I splash some water on my face. I go to the coffee bay and put some half-and-half in a cup and push the button to dispense what I’m hoping will be a rich, hot cup of Columbian blend. The dispenser sputters a bit and then blasts coffee into my cup, filling it a third of the way full. I take a sip. The coffee is lukewarm, thick, and stale. A dark, stocky clerk comes running up to me.

“I will make some for you fresh, madame,” he says in a thick accent.

“I’m kind of in a hurry,” I say, as I look around for the Starbucks section in the coolers.

“It will take one moment, madame.”

I look out the window. Giovanni has moved the car from the gas pump and parked it in a spot directly in front of the Circle K. He’s stepped out of the car and is talking on his phone, gesturing wildly and pacing in staccato-like movements. He runs his fingers through his hair. I assume he is talking to Cindy and decide to give him a moment.

“I’ll wait,” I tell the clerk. “Thank you.”

“Please madame, go look at our gift shop. I will bring the coffee to you.”

“Thank you. Medium with a lot of cream. Put the cream in first, please.”

I walk into the souvenir section of the store. There is a clutter of Southwestern memorabilia. Copper jewelry; sand paintings; shot glasses depicting various desert and mountain motifs; cacti and succulents; home-made tortillas and salsas; dream catchers; a bin with half-price Christmas ornaments, including a donkey with a broken ear, carrying the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

I’m drawn to the aisle marked Healing Crystals for Health. There doesn’t seem to be a specific section for addiction. I read the captions taped to the tray for the various stones. Not only is amethyst the most beautiful, it evidently purifies and enhances will-power, promotes healthy choices. I select an egg-sized crystal, the light purple shade of a hyacinth, and bend down to get to the tray with ink-black obsidian crystals, known, apparently, for removing emotional blockage. The clerk is walking over with my coffee.

I straighten up and take it. I loosen the lid and take a sip. “It’s perfect, thank you.”

“On the house, madame.”

“You know,” I say, “some people really believe in the healing effects of crystals…”

I’m interrupted by the blaring horn of my Nissan. The clerk and I look out the door and see Giovanni’s arm hanging out the window making big circular motions.

“I think your husband is calling you, madame,” he says as he cranes his neck over my shoulder to get a better look. “He seems to be in a hurry. Do you want me to quickly wrap these crystals for you?”

“No, no. I better go.”

I put the crystals down and hurry out the store.

“Gianni, what’s the matter? You said we had plenty of time.”

I get in, barely shut my door, and Giovanni peals out of the parking lot. The lid of my coffee cup goes flying out the window. Hot coffee sprays the dashboard.

“Slow down! Did you and Cindy get in a fight or something?”

“Cindy? Why are you asking me about Cindy?”

“Isn’t that who you were talking to?”

“No, I wasn’t talking to Cindy!” he says forcefully, “I was talking to Dr. Agnes!”

“Dr. Agnes? Did you tell her that we’re almost there?”

Giovanni gets on the highway and proceeds in the direction we had been coming from. “Sophie, what I knew was going to happen, happened!”

“What? What happened?”

“Lucia snuck out of New Beginnings this morning. One of the women saw her climb out the window. She left in a red Camaro. Dr. Agnes said she has been trying to contact us all morning.” He shakes his head, “Limited cell service out here.”

I put my coffee cup in the cupholder and hold my head in the palms of my hand. I can’t believe we’re back to square one. “You told me you thought she was getting better! Shouldn’t we still go there?”

“Dr. Agnes said the worst thing we can do is go looking for her. It’s best to keep our distance. The best we can do at this point is hope that she gets arrested or ends up in the hospital.”

“That’s the best we can hope for?”

“Then she’s back in rehab,” Giovanni explains.

“Oh, Gianni, what are we going to do?”

“Sophie, there’s nothing we can do. We’ve done what we could. We can only get on with our lives.”

“You know I can’t just get on with my life! Can you at least slow down? Why are you driving so fast? I don’t want to be dead when she finally calls.”

“It’s important to get home as soon as possible.”

“I thought you said there was nothing we could do.”

“There is nothing we can do for Lucia, but we still have the Chicken Marsala. What we can do is go home and have a nice dinner, just the two of us, and regroup. Besides, I’m starving. I’ll chill a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. At least you’ll be able to savor my dish with the right accompaniment. The fact that we won’t be eating it with pink, watered-down lemonade should be some consolation to you.”

“It isn’t, Gianni.”

“There are things you need to understand. Even if I would have substituted broth for marsala, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. Marsala or no, she would have escaped out of the window and run off with Dickie or Freddie or Tommie, if that’s what she wanted to do.”

“It’s hard for me to accept that what we want for her doesn’t matter at all. It used to. For all of her life, until now. When did we lose our power?”

“I don’t know, Sophie but it happened.”

“At least you have control over the dish, if not her.”

I’m quiet for a moment as this turn of events sinks in.

“You were right, Giovanni. You make the dish the way you make it. Chicken Marsala is Chicken Marsala, and that’s what we have to offer.”


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