“The Least Spicy Hot sauce”

When she hears his car door shut close behind him, Queen has just finished her to-do list. She writes one every day, not because she thinks it’s evidence of her being a good housewife, but because she knows that people who write to-do lists are more likely to get those things done than people who don’t. She pretends that this is an instinct rather than a habit, rather than a practice she’s been practicing for months now, a practice she’s instilled in her daily life along with everything else she does for a reason.

She hovers over the piece of notebook paper, rewriting the commands with her gaze. It’s not because she thinks she’s missed anything, but because she’s imagining what it will look like when she does each one, and what it will look like when she’s finished.

The list reads:

call Mom
vacuum sunroom
order flowers for Miss Kat
schedule OBGYN appointment
go to Trader Joes
yoga
make Nic Dinner

Queen imagines ending the list with “have passionate sex with husband”, and that makes her smile, but her lists are never spontaneous.

 

Queen puts away the dishes. No, they weren’t his. Nic doesn’t eat breakfast at home, he grabs it every day on the way to work, at First Watch, his favorite quirky, but still not completely original breakfast place. Queen remembers that she was the one who introduced Nic to the charming chain. She remembers taking Nic there to meet her parents. She remembers that at that time she never ate real breakfast and when she did, it was for special occasions and it was brunch. She remembers Nic telling her that a granola bar was not enough sustenance for the most important meal of the day, and how a little before he asked her to be his girlfriend, he told her that he would make her breakfast every day and every day it would be special.

Except she’s older now, and she cooks for herself.

And she cooks more than Nic, even though he’s better at it than her.

There she is, a Queen, cleaning up her own dishes previously filled with butter on toast, bananas and berries, yogurt, eggs, and hot sauce that she’d swallowed down and finished with a glass of pulp-free orange juice.

She takes away the plates, setting them in the sink. As she suds them up, she remembers the most decadent of pastries, and pancakes dripping with gold. She gazes up at the window in front of her, and in place of her reflection are home fries and the best bacon, the fattest omelette with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and ketchup. She remembers the blackest of coffees.

A bubble floats up by her mouth and pops just below her brow.

 

No, Queen is not a housewife. She’s not even purposely stay-at-home. She isn’t oppressed by her husband. She is successful. If she were working, she’d be making about the same amount as her husband, and if not, probably more. (Not that she believes that women who make more than their husbands are never oppressed). But it’s not like her husband actually cares about things like that. He’s always been proud of her and never jealous. Queen isn’t a victim.

She’s not always liked things neat. She isn’t neat even, but she’s organized in her own way. When she was younger, she saw her OCD as both her superpower and her kryptonite that could either be a manifestation or a cure for her severe anxiety and acute depression despite clinical relation. So she likes things a certain way.

When she was younger, she liked her books color-coded, and as an adult, she grew to become fearful of objects in her own house. She worried that if she didn’t enjoy her things enough, they may rise up against her. She believed that they had consciousness. Except now she has paid an extraordinary amount of money to fake learn to cope until she actually finally did. She’s better with her things and her house and her husband can leave her at home. She’s no longer consumed by books and colors, but by her own spiraling thoughts which once kept her heart racing even when there was nowhere to go. She doesn’t care if the shoes aren’t lined up, if the bed is unmade, or if she hasn’t done her makeup. She was never a perfectionist. Except she now really likes lists—needs them. She just makes lists.

 

After she finishes drying and putting away the dishes, Queen goes to the sunroom with her list, her phone in her hand and her Mac in the other. She approaches her favorite spot on the couch, noticing that the left side’s cushion has developed a little divet the size of her bum. She likes to curl up there and there is never a wrong time to; and it’s her favorite spot so she doesn’t mind. She would do watercolors there, but she already has a studio space downtown that she got for her birthday. And if she didn’t paint there, she would paint outside because her backyard is too pretty not to. It would seem selfish to paint indoors and to risk spilling something. But there are other things to do in this spot, like cuddle with Bevans because this is his favorite spot too, or to call mom.

 

Queen sits with her feet on the couch when she calls Mom. There is something about calling her that makes Queen feel like fifteen again. Her mom isn’t demanding or scary or prying or anything. She picks up on the fifth ring.

“Hello, Daughter,” she greets. Queen’s mom has always been able to make phrases like these sound normal and cool. Her mom lets her know that she and Queen’s father are about to board a plane for New Orleans. “You know the trip we talked about last week?” Her mother asks factually and enthusiastically and not that judgingly, even though they spoke about this less than ten days ago.

“Yes, of course,” Queen says. “Of course.”

They speak for another minute and, during that time, Queen’s mother puts her dad on the phone to say “hi.” Both of them wish her a good day and her mother tells her to call back after 9:00 pm when they’re due to be back in the hotel, relaxing.

Queen wishes her parents a safe flight, tells them she loves them, and reiterates that she is so glad they are going on vacation and can’t wait to hear what fun and interesting things they are bound to do in NOLA. She forgives herself for forgetting about the trip. After they hang up, Queen writes at the end of her list: “Call M+D back,” where she’d previously imagined writing “have passionate sex with husband.”

That’s the thing about lists, they have an order and Queen enjoys this, but it is slightly frustrating that she has ended the conversation and still can’t cross it off. She loves her parents and she loves talking to them, but it’s not about that. It’s about progress.

 

Queen goes to the hallway closet and gets the Dyson. It doesn’t escape her that the Dyson is the bougie-est of vacuums and that she is the one who bought it. She lets the thought pass though, like many of the potentially destructive and distracting thoughts she has throughout the day. She knows that it’s okay to think, but if you think too much, well, that’s when the worst things happen. So she’s okay to let things go.

Queen vacuums the sunroom, and only the sunroom, since that’s the only room they use with carpet. That’s easy to cross off the list. When she finishes, she unplugs the Dyson, empties it, wraps up the cord, and returns it to its home in the corner of the closet.

To switch things up, Queen moves to the office with three things: the list, her phone, and her laptop to order flowers for Miss Kat and to reschedule her OBGYN appointment. It makes her more enthusiastic knowing that she won’t have to deal with customer service for either of these things.

Thank God for online accounts and e-forms, she thinks.

 

As she gets settled at her desk, she recalls the last time she was there for actual work. It was five months ago and she was working on her first project for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was so thrilled. Things were taking a turn for the better.

Some of her old sticky notes still hold their “stick” on the desk. Directly across is Nic’s desk. It’s messy, of course. But she knows it’s because he works hard. Queen sits down and Bevans jumps into her lap. She types in 1800-DeliverFlowers. She logs into the account she has because she always liked the idea of having flowers in the house and was never good at or liked getting them from farmer’s markets or florists or grocery stores. She orders a recommended arrangement full of pink and green flowers she doesn’t know the names of, and doesn’t bother to read the description either. When she clicks to order, an animated pop up tells her that it’s on sale. If she was another person, maybe she would be excited to get a deal, but she’s not, so that doesn’t matter.

She enters Miss Kat’s address, and in the message section scribes: Get Better Soon! From Queen.

Although her note is short, it’s genuine. Queen has always been a no-frills kind of girl. She has prayed for Miss Kat’s recovery, but still, can’t help but to snort a little when she thinks about Miss Kat doing lunge exercises up and down her stairs, and then slipping and breaking her ankle. The ambulance in the neighborhood caused a mild panic. Miss Kat couldn’t help it either. She laughed when she told Queen what happened.

Miss Kat is single. Her husband left her five years ago for another woman who was, surprisingly, five years older than him instead of twenty-five years younger. And white like him, not Asian. Queen and Nic moved in three years ago so they never met him, but Queen still feels for Miss Kat. Miss Kat is fifty-two and single, and she still posts some pretty unreal things on her Facebook timeline. She even might be having sex! (Queen saw a new man leaving her house the other day). In many ways, Miss Kat makes Queen appreciate having a husband more, though, she can’t understand how Miss Kat can fake smile all the time, and keep up appearances.

She finishes filling out the billing and shipping information, proofreads her message, and presses the “Complete Order” button. She doesn’t think twice about getting the flowers and delivering them personally. If she did think about it though, she would know that Miss Kat would understand why she wouldn’t. They all are fairly close in the neighborhood, but not in a weird way, or in a non-private way or in a nosey way. People are friendly and Queen couldn’t have wished for a better area in which to buy her dream house comfortably and raise her kids.

 

After she finishes ordering the flowers, and of course, crosses the task off her list, Queen opens up a new window and types in her OBGYN’s office website and the link to her online calendar. She logs into her account and attempts to schedule an appointment. She clicks onto the next tab and stares down her Google calendar. Its emptiness makes her stomach tighten. She can’t just schedule it for any day, can she? What if the appointment doesn’t fit with what she needs to do on her list? What if she needs more time to think about it? Or what if she freaks out again?

Calmly, Queen decides to schedule three weeks and a day from the next day, Saturday, September 7th, 4:00 pm. She is soothed by the idea that three weeks is time and if she has time, she can cancel it if she needs to.

 

Queen takes Bevans off her lap, determined to get the day going, and gets up, ignoring the obnoxious amount hair on her leggings. She walks to the master suite. And that’s when, for the first time in months, she notices the spare room’s door open. It’s only open less than a foot, but still, it’s open. She stops in front of it, almost offended at its audacity. She immediately reaches to close it, but before she does, she glances up and sees the gray-taupe walls, the light through the blue drapes, the wanes coating, the warm and fresh carpet. She shuts the door before she sees anything else, wondering if carpets collect dust if you don’t use them.

 

Queen gets to the suite and heads to the walk-in. The bed is made. Nic has been doing that lately for some reason. It doesn’t make her feel bad, but she wonders why. Stripping down to her socks, Queen stares at herself in the mirror. She remembers that she looks like her mother and less like her dad, except for the fact that she’s lighter. That’s the only thing her dad gave her physically: his whiteness, her lightness. Her eyes are the darkest brownest things. She’s 5’6” and athletic looking. She’s beautiful. Queen never had a hard time loving herself, and now is no different. There is no need to be critical or to linger. She puts on a lacy, blush thong, boyfriend jeans, a tank top, and a pair of flip flops. She puts on that brown lip stain she loves, sprays on the Rihanna perfume her mother gave her, and gives Bevans a face and kiss-kiss to indicate she’s about to leave. She pads back down the hall to the kitchen.

 

Eager to get out of the house to go shopping, Queen gets ready to prepare another list: the food list. Queen goes shopping several times a week, and yes, she could definitely cut the number of trips in half, but she likes going out to Trader Joes. She likes the trip and she loves driving. Queen peers into the pantry. She needs:

Pita Chips
Cheerios
Ziti Noodles
Olive Oil

 

She opens the fridge doors and pulls the freezer drawer open. She needs:

2 more pints of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream
(Red pepper) Hummus
Iceberg Lettuce
Spring Mix

Bacon
Crab Legs
Salmon
American Cheese
Cheddar Cheese
Balsamic Dressing
(2) Lemons
Garlic Cloves
(Red) Potatoes
Asparagus
Chicken Breast
Onion
Orange Juice
Blue Moon Craft Beer (Nic’s favorite)
Samuel Adams (Queen’s favorite)
Hot sauce

Queen double checks that she has everything, grabs her bag and the keys to her Lexus, and goes. Bevans paws the door.

 

As she drives to Trader Joes, Queen can feel her body soften. She’s always soft, but now even softer. She sinks into the leather and drives with the windows a quarter of the way down, her music slightly louder than she usually plays it. Erykah Badu is playing and Queen is reminded that she doesn’t listen to her anymore. She makes a mental note to look into her new album.

Soon enough, she is in the store wheeling her cart around, putting things in, making decisions, and taking much time deciding between items. She knows the store so well that she could easily zone out, but this is one of her favorite things to do: shop. And she wants to savor it, even though she already knows what she wants.

Not many months before, she enjoyed clothes shopping too. She loved spending money and treating herself. Her nails, her hair, her car, furniture, art. All of it. And although Nic didn’t always love it for himself, he never criticized her or was upset by it. He thought her happiness was really cute. But not like that.

 

Now in the International Foods section, and at the end of her list, Queen finds herself staring at her favorite hot sauce shelf.

She’s always had a taste for hot foods. Her parents love spicy food and it was only right for the kids to love it too. Her mom always joked that she was so happy she had found not only her dad, but thanked God he also lived for spicy food (despite his whiteness). They met in college during freshmen year and got married at twenty-three. They’re the lucky kind. People thought they were too young to get married. They both got their doctorates early, traveled, had four children: two boys and two girls. They’re beautiful.

 

Queen is reminded of her and Nic’s love story. They met at Wesleyan. Queen was twenty and Nic was nineteen. She was studying Art History and Black Studies and him, Computer Science and Political Science. It was funny because, although they immediately clicked, Queen wasn’t interested in anything serious. She didn’t think they’d end up together. Of course, you know, here they are.

 

Queen remembers the brunch when Nic met her parents. She remembers being nervous because Nic is white. She remembers feeling silly because her own dad is white. But she also remembers that one time that she’s not sure she even remembers when her parents got in a big fight about something too big for a then ten-year-old to understand.

She heard her mother mutter under her breath, “I should’ve stayed away from white men.”

She would never say anything of the like again, because her mother had been with all kinds of men and women and people, and even so, ended up with Queen’s father. They’re in love.

 

She remembers her dad asking Nic if his name was short for Dominic because of its spelling. She remembers thinking that was the weirdest question, as said that he wanted to name his son Dominic when he was younger. Nic was cool though.

“No, I’m boring. Nicholas is a family name.”

Queen’s name is Queen. Mother made sure that her girls, or at least her oldest girl, had a black name.

 

Queen remembers Nic’s reaction to her love of hot sauce. It didn’t take anyone much time to notice because she had hot sauce with almost every meal. Nic hated spicy foods, which made dinner dates to Thai places interesting. Queen never faulted him for it and refused to attribute it to his whiteness. For God’s sake, her dad is paler than him, and liking spicy food and whiteness are not connected. Queen remembers the times when Nic would kiss her and laugh at the burn on his lips afterward. She literally had the hottest lips. She would say she liked things so hot they’d make her high. She’d always wanted Nic to try some. He would decline, but thought this little ritual of hers was funny. It was one of the many things that could describe Queen.

 

She remembers being stubborn and cool in college. They would spend hours in his dorm room bed, shifting between making love and fucking depending on the day. They would watch documentaries and drink shitty beer that didn’t get cold, and look at each other naked for no real reason except the cliché liberal arts vibes. They would build forts in the room and break them down, blast music, debate, and just vibe. They would sit with eyes closed, lips on foreheads, hands on faces. She remembers having sex and good sex. She remembers not minding that she’d never come, because they’d laugh, they’d sweat, and after they’d hold themselves so so close.

But now things are different. At twenty-nine, Queen remembers the vacation two months ago when, after a somewhat romantic dinner, they kissed. And how Nic had recoiled violently from the heat on her lips – the hot sauce. How he declared that he could smell and feel the heat from her tongue. How he immediately needed water. How next time Queen could remind him. He used to not mind it, but maybe he started minding it then. But then again, that was after they lost their daughter in the 3rd trimester.

 

Queen gets an idea. She has to find another, milder hot sauce that Nic can enjoy too. She can cook with it, and when he tells her how good the meal is, like he always did, she could reveal that there was hot sauce in it! It was perfect. Although Queen has an affinity for logic, she simultaneously has an affinity for the absurd—especially if it means a laugh, or in this case, a lifeline. If she had someone to talk it through with or if she had gotten two hours more sleep, maybe she wouldn’t be so excited by something so simple, too simple. But when Queen gets an idea, it is really hard for her to let it go.

Queen walks to the condiment section, where she is presented with a wall of generic and mild hot sauces. She has never seen so many. Even so, they’re all red. She’s always gotten her hot sauce from the international aisle. There,  they are red and green and yellow and orange and even brown-black. The bottles are shiny here, but they all look the same.

For the first time, Queen really has no idea what to get. Surprised by this, she panics and asks a worker walking down the aisle what she thinks. Even though it’s a stupid thing to ask, the worker is generously kind when she tells Queen that she doesn’t know enough about the individual hot sauces to provide suggestions of mild ones. She does point out the hot sauce with the label that reads: “Just Hot Enough for Your White Grandmother!”

Taken aback, Queen turns and realizes that that is what the label actually says.

Embarrassed, Queen says thank you and picks up the bottle immediately to that one’s left. “MILD Hot Sauce”.

 

As she’s checking out, Queen sees David, an old friend from college, from across the giant room. Fuck he looks good. Instantly her hand shoots up and her mouth starts moving, but instantly she puts it down, uncertain about what she would do or say if he came over. He definitely would if she waved and he saw her. David would never forget a face.

Instead, she settles for this: a look from far away as he picks up mangoes. His skin is darker than coffee with creamer, but maybe lighter than caramel. He’s beautiful. As she pushes the cart out to the parking lot, Queen sees a woman by his shoulder. His wife of course. She doesn’t recognize her. Queen settles for a Facebook friend request. She leaves.

 

After racing home, Queen decides to take Yoga off the to-do list. She’s never done that before, especially for no real reason. Instead, she runs into the house, puts away the groceries, except the ones she needs to cook dinner. She isn’t sure what she’s going to say to Nic since she told him she was making honey glazed salmon, potatoes and asparagus. Wait! Did she remember to buy the onions or did she set them down? Whatever. She’ll get them another day.

Before she knows it, Queen is deep into a Baked Cherry-Glazed Chicken recipe. She adds the mild hot sauce to the chicken and pops it into the oven. She looks at the time. It’s 4:30. Nic usually comes home around 6:30 and they eat at 7:00 or sometimes 7:30.

Quickly, Queen makes a caesar salad and checks to see if they have any chilled beer left.

 

She takes a shower and for the first time in a while, shaves. Nic doesn’t care about hair, but Queen is doing this for herself and not him. She takes an hour to shower with the heat on blast. Nic would care about being super wasteful, but Queen is doing this for her and not him. After she gets out, Queen smooths on lotion and douses herself with her special occasion perfume. She takes the tag off the red lingerie set she bought almost a year ago and puts it on. She goes about picking an outfit for dinner when she stops and presents herself in front of the mirror. She’s Beautiful. She slides on one of Nic’s favorite dresses, those uncomfortable heels, and heads to the kitchen. It smells amazing. She checks on the chicken. It’s perfect. As she takes the chicken out of the oven and gets ready to plate the meal, she adds one final dash of hot sauce. She grasps the bottle in her hand and smiles. It means “thank you.”

 

It’s 6:42 when the garage indicates that Nic is home. He comes in like he always does, with his head down. It means that he’s thinking.

When he sees Queen, his jaw drops.

“Wow,” he says, “what’s all this for?”

Queen doesn’t say anything.

“You’re stunning babe,” Nic whispers.

Queen doesn’t say, “I know,” but she really wants to. He asks her about her day. He is responsive and smiling. He’s had a stressful day at work, but not a bad one. Queen relishes in the fact that she has made his day. She thanks herself. They sit down to eat a mere ten minutes later instead of the usual thirty minutes. He doesn’t question the meal. They toast their beers over the singular candle and the small table. His Blue Moon and her Sam Adams. And there they are, fork and knives in hand eating.

Nic has a thing about eating his salad first, and Queen tries not to pressure him to eat the chicken because she knows he will. She looks from the chicken on his plate back to him. She salivated over him eating. After he finishes the salad, he doesn’t hesitate and goes right to the chicken.

“It’s amazing babe,” he says, and Queen feels her heart quicken.

She gets up right away, ready to retrieve and reveal the hot sauce that is responsible for the meal and for her pride.

“Babe. What did you say honey?” with her face smiling in the white-blue light of the fridge. She clutches the hot sauce. She applauds herself. She’s not a housewife, but she’s always wanted to come back to a clean plate, and a happy man who would make love to her like they did before. She craves the moment afterward when he would whisk her away to their room or maybe right there on the dining table. This would be the night that they finally fixed whatever was going on. He would break down in front of her and tell her he was sorry that he blamed her for losing the baby.

 

When Queen returns to the dining room table a mere room away from the kitchen, a mere fourty-five seconds later, Nic is on the floor. Gone. It is 7:08 pm. She was due to call her mom.

“911?”

“Mom?”

Queen would always wonder why she didn’t hear the thump of his body, but could feel the intensity of the thump of her heart.

 

************

Bria Dinkins

My name is Bria Dinkins. I am a Black, Queer student from outside of Philadelphia, I am a junior studying Anthropology, Art History, and Film at Swarthmore College. I almost always write poetry and my other creative endeavors include costume design, sculpting, painting, and dancing.