Literary Eats: Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleeping With the Enemy, by Nancy Price, is a terrific book that was made into a mediocre movie with Julia Roberts.  I know what you're thinking...but as Pandagirl's teacher would say, "Don't judge a book by its movie."  You should give this one a try. To summarize, Sara Gray Burney is desperate to escape an abusive marriage to her unstable husband, Martin.  She fakes her own death, appearing to drown in Manhasset Bay.  She leaves everything behind and flees to Iowa to begin a new life for herself, disguised in a wig and using the name Laura Pray.  In the three weeks between moving into her apartment and landing a job that pays well, she survives on a diet of oatmeal, beans, catsup and apples.  And library books.  One night, the man next door, Ben Woodward, invites her to dinner.

"Not a fancy dinner, I admit," Ben said.  "Just lasagna and a salad.  But I've got some fresh rolls and a cake."

Literally starving, "Laura" arrives for dinner, caught between wanting to hide her identity and enjoying Ben's charming attentions, and through it all, the food...the food...the food...

Sighing, she put on her slacks and a clean long-sleeved shirt and sandals.  A real dinner.  Her mouth watered for browned and steaming meat to chew...the crunch of vegetables...butter melting on hot bread.  She had learned to walk early or late enough to miss coffee and food smells wafting from open kitchen windows.

When she stopped thinking about a glass of wine sparkling with light and bubbles, or chicken in brown juice puddled with gold fat, she found she was beginning to put on lipstick.  She gave a low cry and ran to wash her face clean and put on no makeup but dark mascara and eyebrows to match her wig.

Sara eased her kitchen door open.  It was almost dark.  She pushed through the lilac path toward food and found she came out at Ben's back door.  No one could see her knock there.

"Come on in," Ben said, holding his kitchen door open.  Sara went through the kitchen fast, trying not to look at a bowl of salad, a plate of rolls.

The house was cool.  Sara's damp skin began to dry and her hunger was sharper.  There was wine on the living-room window seat, and some potato chips.  Ben held the tray out to Sara.  She bit her lip and took a wine glass and a few chips, as if her mouth weren't watering almost too much to talk.

Cool air and white wine, frothy with bubbles...the crunch of potato chips against her tongue...Sara sighed.  Ben Woodward lived here and wasn't afraid and thought she was crazy.  For a moment she felt safe with him - a stupid feeling for someone carrying danger with her like a secret disease.

Sara felt as thin as empty china.  She was eating all the potato chips while Ben talked about growing up in Chicago.

Ben asked nothing at all, not even when they were sitting at his old oak dining-room table.  The lasagna was hot and gilded with melted cheese.  Ben's tossed salad had Iowa summer tomatoes in it, thick crimson chunks drizzled with French dressing.  Every hot roll crunched brown and crusty at the edges.  Red wine sent lazy bubbles up the sides of Sara's glass.

Sara tried not to eat too fast or too much, polite as a stray cat that explores a house hesitantly, delicately, as if it does not need a home and may not come again.

Sara scraped dishes at an old sink like hers.  The drainboard needed bleaching.  Ben brought a chocolate cake from a cupboard.  Sara tried not to look greedily at his knife cutting through swirled, dappled frosting.

The knife cut through moist layers, leaving a light brown fringe of frosting at each level...Coffee glittered golden-brown into white cups, and its rich steam hung above it.

Sara was full now, and a little dreamy with wine.

Ben leaned against his kitchen door and hunched his shoulders, turning his head back and forth to look at his dim kitchen as if pleased that they were in it together.  When she wished him good-night he smiled as though they had plenty of time, and he was happy and satisfied with whatever she had brought and whatever she would bring again.

So Sara stood closer to him in the doorway and smiled at him in the almost-dark.  He didn't try to touch her, but she didn't step away, and when she went through rustling lilacs she was smiling.  He was smiling, too, when he closed his kitchen door and stood alone where candles still burned.

--Sleeping with the Enemy, by Nancy Price, Berkley Books, New York, 1987