The dining room, like every room at Peace House, was clean, simple and friendly. There was a curvy brass chandelier above a cherry wood table, and chairs with frayed, needlepoint cushions. A buffet hugged the far wall and casement windows opened out on a kitchen garden. On this bright June day, rays of sunlight spilled into the room and illuminated the pitted, wide-planked pine floor.
Federico, the head cook, carried in Amanda’s vegetable soup while another volunteer, Dunaway, laid out rosemary bread and butter. Yesterday, while cleaning out her kitchen, Amanda had found a Delft teapot and now she stuffed it full of daffodils and set it beside a salad of crisp lettuce, avocado, apple slices and blue cheese dressing.
This week, Peace House was holding an artist’s retreat and the dozen or so women attendees fell into two categories: the dramatic in black and the dramatic in purple. Their leader, Tamasin SeaBorn, was a feminist scholar from Sarah Lawrence best known for photographing her breasts before and after her mastectomy and then baring the scars in public performances.
The guests arrived for lunch, buoyant and animated from their morning journal workshop. Gathering her disciples around the table, Tamasin bowed her head. “We bless this food with love, and we thank our great Earth Mother for her bounty and her generosity.”
The group echoed their thanks and then filed past Amanda to claim their soup. When Tamasin held out her bowl, Amanda caught a glimpse of her angry red scar beneath the scoop of her tunic. Did she ever consider reconstructive surgery? Amanda wondered, then admonished herself for being so shallow. Tamasin’s whole point was that women were much more than just their bodies. Amanda thought about her own breasts – flat as pancakes from nursing three children – and hoped that one day she’d be that evolved.
“And let us thank our Peace House cook, Federico, and our volunteers, Dunaway and Amanda, for this extraordinary meal,” Tamasin instructed her flock. The group murmured their gratitude and Amanda bobbed her head modestly.
When the retreatants were seated, the cooks returned to the kitchen to eat their lunch.
“This soup is amazing my dear,” Federico swirled a chunk of bread through the broth. “You’ve thrown down the gauntlet.”
“It’s the green garlic,” Amanda said. “I found some at the Farmers Market in Boston when I was visiting my granddaughter.”
“How old is she?”
“Ondine just turned three,” Amanda beamed happily. “And she already knows the names of so many fruits and vegetables. Jeremy, my son, takes her to the market every week.”
“Well you should definitely go back.” Federico scraped his bowl with his spoon.
Amanda stole a sidelong glance at Dunaway, a slightly built man in his mid sixties with wavy gray hair and dark eyes. This was the first time they’d worked together and Amanda waited for some kind of response from him about the soup. But his head was bowed, and he was eating slowly and deliberately.
Amanda caught Federico’s eye and mouthed, “Is he observing noble silence?”
I have no idea, Federico shrugged.
They continued eating quietly, listening to the chatter drifting in from the dining room. When Dunaway finished, he turned to Amanda. “Thank you, it was really delicious.” Then, stroking a pack of herbal cigarettes in his breast pocket, he set his bowl and plate at the sink, and strode outside to the parking lot for a smoke.
“He’s so loquacious,” Federico rolled his eyes.
Amanda giggled. “He’s trying to stay mindful. I mean, look where we are.”
“‘Peace’ House doesn’t mean ‘quiet and grim’ house.”
“I like not talking. It’s sort of freeing in a way.”
“I struggle with it. It’s not in my nature to be quiet.”
“What does he do?” Amanda glanced back at Dunaway’s invisible trail.
“Some kind of import business. He said he used to travel a lot to Asia and that’s where he learned about meditation.”
He has an air of purpose, Amanda thought. “Dunaway’s an unusual name.”
“It’s his last name,” Federico collected the dirty knives and cutting boards and carried them to a large industrial sink. “And he always seems to runaway just as we’re doing the dishes.”