Beyond Peanut Butter and Jelly
Didi was the first to notice a change in Pascal's sandwiches.
"Peanut butter," she said, and sniffed the air as she entered the lunchroom.
Pascal froze with the bread to his mouth, unbitten. Was he even allowed to bring peanut butter to work?
He didn't think the local library would have the same rules as the elementary schools did nowadays, and insist on a peanut free zone, but it was possible. The library did have a kids' area, and even if Pascal almost never worked that zone when he shelved books--he was in nonfiction, wrangling the Dewey Decimal System into order--he was still worried.
He dropped the sandwich back into the Ziploc back he'd brought to work and met Didi's bifocal'd eyes.
"Is that okay?"
"Of course!" she said, and smiled in her grandmotherly way.
She worked the front desk in the information area. The two of them often said hello to one another as he passed by with his full carts. Though she was not technically his boss, she was in a more senior position. "Just brings me back to when my kids were in school. It was allowed then."
"I figured you weren't much older than my Markus," she said, and sized him up and down. "You usually have leftovers though, don't you? Some impressive meals, too, if I remember correctly."
Pascal nodded, but didn't say much else.
Truthfully, he wanted to slip in his headphones and block out the rest of the now-steadily filling lunch room. His shift would be over in another four hours. All he had to do was get through lunch break, maybe listen to more of his Hardcore History podcast, and put away books. Like always.
Except that now, when he went home to his apartment downtown, Josh would no longer be there.
Neither would dinner, but that was okay. Pascal was getting really good at microwaving stuff he got at the grocery store, and convincing himself it tasted just as good.
Didi slipped something into the microwave in the break room. She then split half of something smelling like cheese and tomato sauce with Sharon, another older mother figure in the library who worked on the desk downstairs. Margot came in while Pascal was halfway through his meal, also smelled the peanut butter, and commented on it--but Pascal pretended he didn't hear with his headphones. Margot smiled and waved, but soon left him alone.
Jeff, another man who worked at the library soon replaced Sharon and Didi at their table, and then Pascal's lunch hour was over.
No one else said anything to him about his sandwich.
No one else had asked anything about Josh, either, but then again, why would they?
Pascal may have been gay, and out at work, since he'd lead the local Pride festival last June, and selected the display table filled with queer authors he loved, and he may have brought Josh to the last Christmas party, but so what?
So Pascal shelved books; he went home alone; and since he had no culinary skills and no more leftovers, he continued to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his lunch.
"You should try banana," Jeff said one afternoon a few days later. "Give yourself an Elvis special."
"I don't own a deep-fryer," Pascal said, smiling softly at Jeff's vague attempt at flirtation. He'd never known if Jeff was gay, but it was a safe bet considering he'd recommended Edmund White, a gay author from another era, for the Pride display that year. "And I think I'd better hold off on even more fat in my diet."
"Ah, then no to bananas. The only fruit that has fat in it! Other than avocados, did you know that?"
Pascal shook his head.
Jeff always had a random burst of facts like this, on anything from the 18th century fur trade in Canada to science fiction inventions that turned out to be real. While normally cute and endearing, Pascal only said, "I'm not really a foodie."
"Ah, so almond butter or cashew butter or any of those other fancy connections wouldn't catch your eye, then?"
"Nah. This is just as good." Pascal shrugged, and when Jeff offered him some of the curried rice he'd experimented with the night before--exactly how he'd phrased it too, experimented--Pascal declined.
"So no spices, then." Jeff gave Pascal a conspiratorial smile. "I will keep that in mind."
Pascal didn't follow up with more questions; two more book shelves, Jenna and Davis, came in and both shared the lunch they'd gotten from the Mexican restaurant around the corner.
That also captured Jeff's fascination, and while Pascal heard clips of their conversation about catering for the holiday party, he mostly tuned it out. When he ran out of Hardcore History podcasts, he tried a cooking one. Just to see if there was anything interesting there, since Jeff was cute when he got excited.
The host's fastidiousness and slightly nasal voice only reminded him of Josh.
And the words he used on the show cemented the fact that Pascal had absolutely no idea what he was doing with anything beyond a butter knife and grape jelly.
He made peace with this fact, found a podcast on true crime, and thought it was perfectly festive for the holidays.
"You going to any family gatherings?" Margot asked him days before the library would close, "Any of your favourite meals being cooked?"
"No and no," Pascal said. "I'm Jewish."
"So is my husband. But we still make both Christmas cookies and sufganiyot for the kids. Do you go to Temple?"
"No, not really. Not anymore…." Pascal didn't want to explain, yet again, all of this only reminded him of Josh.
So he mumbled something about his family being too distant to reach out to, which was true even if they were only two towns away. It may as well have been Jerusalem, their promise to see one another always hanging and never being fulfilled.
"Well, I'll keep that in mind," Margot said.
On the last day the library was open, Sharon gave him a box of decorations that still needed to go up in the children's area.
It seemed odd, especially since it was well past lunch hour and the library would only be open for another hour, but Pascal made sure to wash his hands extra carefully before he strung up the small snowmen and the hanging silver candles across the glass windows that surrounded the reading room. He shelved his last cart of books--all Christmas cookbooks--and then shucked on his coat eagerly ready to leave to go home to an empty apartment.
"Heading out so soon?" Jeff asked, catching Pascal by the front door before leaving. "We have a party tonight."
"Oh. Right. I'm... just changing. And eating dinner. Then I'll come back."
Jeff smiled wide and extended his arms. For a brief moment--one that made Pascal's heart flutter in his chest--he thought Jeff was coming to hug him.
He hadn't thought of Jeff that way since first meeting him at the library, long before Josh, and Jeff had trained him in the Dewey Decimal System while making cute, but very bad, jokes.
His body was warm, and since it was cold outside, Pascal suddenly wanted something more than peanut butter and jelly.
But Jeff merely locked the library door behind Pascal. "There. It's the holidays now," he added. "You may as well get the party started. Go on. Go upstairs into the break room."
Pascal tilted his head. The faux embrace--though Pascal was sure if he asked Jeff for a hug, he'd give it to him.
He heard the tone in Jeff's voice; reflected on his conversations about Elvis and deep-fryers and spices. Then his conversations with Margot about sufganiyot, with Didi and Sharon about other delicacies of the season. He remembered the two women hauling out every single holiday magazine the library had on file and ogling the recipes; he had thought that had just been them being middle-aged women, bent on photocopying so many recipes that they'd never have the time to make, like a perpetually deferred bucket list.
But now Pascal was wide awake. He was paying attention. Something was happening.
And the library smelled so, so good.
"Come on," Jeff said, sliding his arm into Pascal's. "I'll take you up to the feast."
And a feast it was. As he and Jeff stepped into the break room, not only had it been decked out in more holiday decorations, similar in kind and type to the ones he'd put in the children's area, but all the lunch tables were now stuffed to the brim with food.
Most of it was potluck style, each person from the library donating their own specialty in some way. Pascal immediately found the delicacies that Margot's husband helped her prepare; the many dishes from the many recipes of Sharon and Didi; plus some of the Mexican restaurant's nibbles that Jenna and Davis had bought, since they also admitted to having no culinary skill.
It was Jeff's creation that took Pascal's breath away: a triple stacked peanut butter and banana sandwich, deep fried and crisp to all perfection.
The sandwich sat like a cake in the center of the display, and as Pascal peered closer to it, he noticed that Elvis' face had somehow been toasted on the top slice.
"How on earth did you manage that?"
"Christmas magic," Jeff said. "Or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule or whatever your jam may be. Just magick. Both with and without the K."
Pascal turned to everyone in the room. They all smiled at him. He fought back the urge to apologise, for not bringing anything to share with all of them.
"Don't worry," Didi said, reading his mind. "We know you lost your at-home chef."
"Your lunches," she said, and sighed. "A man who comes to work with a bagged lunch, complete with fruit and cut up veggies, or leftovers from a wondrous meal the night before, only to switch to p.b. and j... well, I know something bad has happened."
"Just a break up."
"And they always suck," Didi said. "And so does being alone for the holidays. So eat up now, get your fill, and then we're sending all the leftovers home with you."
Didi, and then Sharon and Margot and everyone else who surrounded him, nodded. He could not believe he'd almost not come to this party. He couldn't believe a lot of things, and so instead of questioning his good fortune, he simply dug into the feast.
About halfway through the party, he sat on the sidelines, already stuffed to the brim. Jeff sat next to him with a small plate of the Elvis sandwich, cut like a cake. Pascal took it eagerly, though he wasn't sure if he had any more room.
"Good?" Jeff asked once he'd taken a bite.
"Good." Jeff nodded. "I wasn't too sure if peanut butter actually was a favourite of yours, which is why I went with Elvis. But, if you're willing, I still think you should try that curried rice I made earlier. There's some at my place, if you want to go out and get some later on."
Pascal heard that tone again in Jeff's voice. Longing, wanting, a hunger of another type. And this time, without a doubt, he said yes to the invitation.
And it was.
About the author:
Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. Her latest book is The Serenity Nearby, released in 2022 by Sapphire Books. Find more info here.