GEORGE'S NOSE WAS OUT OF JOINT.
"What do you mean, Nate's not here?" he wheezed, straining to peer into the apartment over Ella's shoulder. "Where else would he be?"
"At the airport?" Ella answered.
George nodded, eyeing her in a way that made her doubt her own veracity, even though she was telling the truth. Sweat trickled down from under his Yankees cap. He was breathing hard after the 3-mile walk from his home. Naturally, he hadn't called ahead. He never did, dropping in unannounced at the most inconvenient hours and then making himself at home. Acting as he belonged here. Patience, Ella reminded herself. He's Nate's oldest friend.
George licked his lips. Next thing she knew, he'd be wanting a glass of water. And then she'd never get rid of him. "What's he doing at the airport?"
"Picking up his mother."
"That's right!" George laughed. "Today's the big day. You're nervous, right? But I'll tell you what," he went on, inching his foot inside the door. "You get me a glass of water and I'll keep you company while you get ready. The distraction will be good for you."
Sighing deeply, Ella stepped back to let him in.
"Don't mind me," he said as she handed him the water.
But how could she not? He followed her from room to room, taking insect-sized sips from his glass and filling the steadily shrinking space between them with his relentless commentary.
"Hospital corners, eh?" he remarked as she tightened the sheets on the bed Nate's mother would use while Ella and Nate camped out on the couch. "Think that will make up for the fact that her son's shacking up again?"
"Smart move," he noted as she gathered the Glamour and People magazines in the living room and carried them to the recycling. "You wouldn't want her seeing that dreck. As a rule, she's liked his brainy girlfriends best."
"You really are freaking out, aren't you?" he surmised as she ran her sponge over the greasy lids of the jars on the shelf above the stove. "No one cleans spice bottles." He'd scooted the desk chair into the kitchen doorway. His water was barely down an inch. He'd never leave. He'd be here when Nate returned, and watch what happened in those critical moments when Ella and Nate's mother first met. Years from now, when Ella was history, George would still be here, sharing his notes from today with Nate's one hundredth lover.
Thrusting the offending oregano in George's face, Ella raged, "They're dirty, all right? They're disgustingly filthy!"
"Did I say something wrong?"
She turned away, too furious to answer. Because, of course, he hadn't. And that was the worst part. Everything he said was precisely on the mark.
For weeks she'd been dreading and planning this visit: the arrangements, the itinerary, and especially the menu, since Nate's mother was such a food snob. In the freezer was the leg of lamb Ella would serve on Tuesday with Israeli couscous and miniature vegetables. And on the counter was the chocolate-glazed Viennese torte she'd prepared entirely from scratch for tonight's dessert.
Ella had made the cake just once before, and Nate had bragged about it to his mother, who'd reportedly replied, "Ella must make it for me when I come." The request was presumably a compliment, but the recipe was a complicated affair, and with each task -- melting the chocolate in an improvised double-boiler, whisking the Cognac into the heavy cream, re-hydrating the Turkish apricots and pressing the pulp through a sieve -- Ella's resentment had grown. Just before George's knock, she'd finally reached the penultimate step: pouring the glaze over the assembled layers and leaving it to harden.
But the shell wasn't setting right in this heat. To speed up the process, Ella opened the freezer. Stacking the premium ice creams on one side and balancing the lamb atop the French roast coffee beans on the other, she slipped the platter into place.
"Careful," George warned, and Ella jerked in surprise, jostling the lamb, which rolled off the pile and crushed the cake before crashing to the floor and skittering into the corner.
"Fuck!" Ella screamed.
The dessert was destroyed. She'd nearly fractured her toe. Nate's mother would arrive any minute. And George, sitting placidly with his water, was saying, "I told you to be careful."
Ella slammed the freezer shut. She grabbed the four-pound mass of frozen flesh and hefted the hunk. Then she wound up like Matt Clement and turned back to face George.
TALK ABOUT TEMPTATION.