It wasn't until after she died that Trevor realized he couldn't cook.
The realization came six months after the funeral, when all the casseroles and baked goods were eaten and when all the flowers had long wilted, but before the critical time when he knew that it was time to box all her things away and donate them. He had started to do that, but when he got to her clothing, he couldn't take it anymore and the job was left unfinished.
There was no sudden moment of epiphany for him. He was able to cook simple things-spaghetti, soup from a can, microwave dinners, pasta and sausages, things like that. But as he stood over the stove, stirring his noodles, his eyes fell on the spice rack by the oven. It was made from wood and carved with whorls and loops-a unique piece which she had chosen from a craft fair and likely overpaid for the honour of owning. It was too small for her collection of spices; they were crammed in and had to be stacked two jars high.
The spice jars were covered in a light film of dust now and their levels had not moved since she had died.
Trevor never used spices in his cooking; at best, he used salt and pepper and sometimes garlic powder when he was feeling adventurous. But there they were: oregano, garlic salt, chilli powder, cloves, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin and thyme, to name but a few from her collection. And collection it was; everywhere they travelled, she had found a spice to try out, a new jar or a new combination to add to their chicken, beef, pork or fish. The result was teetering wall of jars and baggies full of crushed herbs, salts, and peppers.
Thyme though was the favoured child; its levels were lower than most and he knew that there was a small bag of it in a cupboard to refill the jar. Leaving off the noodles for a moment, Trevor perused them and realized that he didn't know how to use any of them properly.
He'd never bothered to ask.
The spice rack never bothered him before, but now whenever he went into the kitchen, there it was: mocking him silently. The cumin sneered at him, the oregano demanded to know why it was never used and the thyme made him feel guilty. He started ducking in and out of the kitchen as quickly as he could to avoid them until one day when he went to the fridge to get a beer, he was overcome with a red rage and slamming the fridge door shut, he strode to the spice rack and sent it spinning to the floor. The jars were mostly made from plastic and they only bounced and skittered under the table and microwave. However, the jar with the thyme in it was made from glass and it shattered. The smashing noise shocked him out of his rage and he fell to his knees and frantically tried to pick up each flake of the dried herb and put it someplace safe.
Thyme had been her favourite and now it was scattered and mingled with the dust.
After that, he decided that he could hardly blame the spices for the fact that he'd never asked his dead wife how to make good food and decided to do something about it. The thought invigorated him and he enrolled in a cooking class at a nearby college and joined other adults learning how to cook.
There were ten there; seven women, three men. The women looked excited and the men looked resigned and clumped together around Trevor.
"What are you here for?"
"Oh, the wife made me."
"You too huh?"
"It's an anniversary gift; she'll love it and maybe I'll get something good too!"
Raucous laughter and then they'd look inquiringly at Trevor.
"Oh, me too. Yeah, I promised my wife I'd learn how to cook more than pasta and rice. For her birthday you know." The lie slid so easily from his tongue that he almost believed it and the other men shook his head and swore a silent pact to survive the five week class.
Every class, the men would compare notes and the lie would become so entrenched in Trevor's mind that it was a shock to go home and remember that she wouldn't be there, reading or watching television or cooking something. She wouldn't be there to gently tease him or help him sort out the difference between garlic salt and garlic powder and when to use parsley or how much cumin was too much. But he had to come to terms with it; what would he tell the others when she didn't come to his graduation? Deep in thought, he started in on his dinner project and carefully measured out pepper, sea salt, and chilli powder into his potatoes. He wondered how she'd always managed to get the spices just right without ever touching a measuring spoon-it seemed impossible to him.
For graduation, Trevor made herbed roast beef with potatoes and gravy. The recipe called for several spices and herbs which he carefully portioned out and added in exact order, but when he got to the Thyme, he almost broke down-there wasn't enough in the bag after his temper tantrum of five weeks ago and he felt as though if he bought more, he'd be throwing out a piece of his wife. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, holding the limp bag with a scattered of green brown herb on the bottom, tears rolling down his face and the roast gleaming red on the stove.
Of all the stupid things to remind him, it would be the herbs. He had managed to open her closet and spent ten minutes simply looking at her clothes. It had hurt, but he forced himself to work past the pain and start slowly pulling down clothing and boxing it up. The books were sorted into piles to keep and donate and ornaments were dusted and taken down. But he'd never gone through the spice rack; he'd never even looked at it except when he was puzzling through a recipe. But on the eve on his graduation, when all of the mystical ¼ teaspoons of paprika and ½ cups of wine were coming together, he had enough presence of mind to feel again and all he could feel was sudden and horrible loss. All he could do was stand in the kitchen and weep, the bag of thyme still hanging from his nerveless fingers; a reminder of days long gone and of food long eaten.
Rallying himself to put the last of the thyme on the roast and throw out the bag was harder than dragging himself over sharp rocks, but he managed it. And since he couldn't measure it, he had to shake out every flake and watch it land where it wanted upon the roast and in the broth and wine. No measuring, no checking, just shaking until the bag was completely empty. He carefully set it on the counter, put the roast to simmer slowly until graduation and then went to the couch feeling light headed and dizzy.
His class found out that his wife was dead and he was here to learn on his own; there was no avoiding that. He didn't want their sympathy though and only stonily uncovered his roast. The smell of meat, herbs and broth drifted around them and brought a wave of memories on Trevor's head. It smelled just like what she did. The arrival of the food was enough to distract the others and the graduation/feast began with the teacher praising and issuing critique in turn.
Trevor didn't know how he could eat any of the roast. He managed the potatoes and the pasta, he ate the vegetables and the buns. But as the roast vanished slice by slice, he felt vaguely hollow.
"It's really good,"
Trevor looked up to see Maria, a woman about his age who claimed that she could burn water at the beginning of the classes and by the end, had made a triple layer cake. She was holding a plate with a slice of his roast on it and wore a smile on her face.
"You should have some."
A nod which felt like a promise and Maria wandered away again, leaving him with the half finished roast and a heavy weight. But a promise was a promise and so he reached over, cut off a slice and then moved a bit of it to his mouth.
And to his surprise, it was good. Not as good as what his wife would have made, but good, even though he hadn't been able to measure the thyme out properly. He returned home, arranged the spices and made a mental note to buy a second rack and went to bed feeling oddly full and satisfied with himself.
He could cook and the spices no longer mocked him with their full jars and bottles. Every time he cooked a meal now, he could relish in the feeling that she was there, beside him, holding the jars with him and shaking thyme into the meal, flake by unmeasured flake.