A Lot of People Live in This House (2023)
A Lot of People Live in This House follows Rachel as she arrives at the house on the hill alone as Job attends a meditation retreat in India for two weeks to unpack his own grief. She’s greeted by housemates who smile, bring her cups of tea, and seem happy she’s there. She hates it. Not long after, Job is trapped in India by a virus that’s grounded just about every plane in the world. As she falls apart, her new housemates rally to find a way to get Job home. Everything Rachel thought she knew about living with others flies out the window and leaves only one remaining truth: Life can be a lot at once, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Two hours later, Rachel sits with her whole body squished into her desk chair, endlessly scrolling through news articles on her phone. None of it is good, and her back is beginning to ache. She hasn’t heard from Job since he called earlier in the afternoon, and she hopes it is because he is getting some sleep and not because internet connection is no longer possible in India. What will she do if that is the case? Charter a plane like Yukiko had suggested? Was that really such an outlandish idea? After all, what wouldn’t she do for him? She searches “charter private plane to India cost” and turns to a new page in her journal, printing “EMERGENCY OPTIONS” across the top. Anxiety is mostly horrible, but Rachel rather likes how organized she is in a pinch. There is comfort in the preciseness of her handwriting.
That comfort swiftly departs as she discovers the one-way cost of chartering a long-range jet from San Francisco. “Well, if I convince my twelve closest friends to take this once-in-a-lifetime trip, it’ll only cost twenty-thousand a person. What a deal,” she grumbles as she puts her phone down and scratches out the heading at the top of the page, ruining it forever. Chucking the pen across the room, Rachel rests her chin down on stacked fists before muttering “fuck” six times, then once more for good measure. “What are we going to do?”
There’s a knock on her bedroom door. It’s as if people in this house are lying in wait behind door knobs, listening for the opportune moment to bother Rachel. She stomps her feet down on the floor, already whipped into a whispered tirade: “Silly me thinking I could go twenty god-damned minutes alone.”
Her frustration builds as she gets closer to the door. She’s ready to give whoever is beyond it a piece of her mind. A glint of light catches the corner of her eye, throwing Rachel off-guard. Turning, she is pierced by the photo on the bedside table. Rachel’s mother stares at her from the frame, chastising from beyond the grave. “You mind that ‘tude,” she can hear.
“Okay, fine, whatever,” she says out loud with all the petulance of a teenager. Nevertheless, she pauses to take a deep breath. She counts to five, then lets it go. Feeling a little less like flying into a rage, she opens the door to Anabelle, holding a top hat.
“Hey!” the red-haired woman chirps, smiling so big that it crinkles her huge eyes. “It’s Chopped night.”
Rachel blinks, taking in the dichotomy of Anabelle’s jeans and t-shirt against the blue surgical mask that covers her mouth. It seems strange. Then again, plenty of Asian countries do this regularly. Then again, there’s this whole top hat business. What’s that about? She realizes that she’s gone too long without speaking. “Sorry. It’s what night?”
“Chopped. Y’know, like the show?” she leads. “Every month or so, we clean out the fridge and pantry and do a cooking challenge to see which team can make the best dish with the given ingredients.”
Rachel blinks again, wondering what this conversation has to do with her.
In the face of silence, Anabelle pulls the hat in closer and rambles: “Vernon was in charge of the baskets this month, so I’m sure they’ll be super hard for no reason.”
Rachel says nothing.
At last, Anabelle looks a little uncomfortable, her eyebrows pulled together and her forehead creases deepening. “So, are you coming down now or…?”
Half-hiding behind the door, Rachel asks, “Is this something everybody knows about?”
The forehead creases smooth. “Well, yeah!”
“Really? Because I don’t feel like I have enough time to prepare.” This, at least, is a reasonable excuse to not want to participate in something. There seems to be a little light at the end of this conversational tunnel.
But Anabelle’s words bring on the avalanche, blocking off any chance of escape. “It’s on the calendar…”
"What calendar?” Rachel asks, but she knows full well what calendar. She remembers deleting the invitation from Ted the minute it hit her inbox.
“The Google Calendar?”
“Google Calendar?” she says, sounding the words out like she’s never heard them before.
Anabelle begins to nod in some sudden understanding. “Oh, oh, oh. Ted, didn’t give you access to the calendar.”
As though conjured by his name, Ted exits his room at the far end of the hall and asks, “What didn’t I do?”
His sudden appearance furthers Rachel’s door knob theory.
Anabelle makes space for Ted at the threshold, accusing with sisterly affection: “You didn’t add Rachel to the house calendar.”
Already Ted is reaching for his phone for reconfirmation that he is the perfect host. “I thought I did…”
No need to get caught in a lie. Rachel clears her throat, avoiding eye contact. “You probably did, and I forgot to accept the invite.” Why attach yourself as deeply as a Google Calendar if you’re only going to stick around for three months? Seemed a better idea to bullshit her way through house events than to have a new calendar clash with her pristine, color-coded lifestyle.
Ted flushes with what she thinks is relief. “Oh, no problem! Let me resend it.”
“Let’s head on down to the kitchen, then. We only have an hour and a half to cook.” Anabelle and Ted start for the stairs but pause when they see that Rachel isn’t coming. The force of their collective questioning gazes is enough to overpower her reluctance. She follows.
There is commotion in the kitchen as half a dozen of her housemates flit around, clearing the counter of its cornucopias and replacing them with appliances. An industrial blender, an induction burner, a panini press, a stand mixer are each given a corner of the island and a stack of cutting boards placed in the center. The kitchen table is laden with varying sizes of white plates and bowls, looking like something out of an Ikea catalog.
Despite her annoyance at being corralled downstairs by the two pushiest people in the house, Rachel can’t help but ask, “So…who’s participating?”
“Names out of a hat style,” Anabelle says, shaking the black top hat at her.
Of course, Rachel thinks.
“Six players, three teams. Each team gets a basket, a course assignment, and ninety minutes to work,” Ted supplements before taking the stand mixer from Francesca.
Lorelei scoots past Rachel without a word, taking a seat with her laptop at the freshly cleaned island. “Do I have to participate?” Rachel asks, not much caring for the whine in her voice. “There’s the Job thing, and my arms really hurt from hanging all that drywall.” Holy shit, that was this morning. “I’m really not feeling it.”
Anabelle thumps her on the shoulder. “If you’re picked, you play. A sprained wrist wasn’t enough to get Lorelei out of competing.”
Without looking up, the German woman adds, “My team won, too. Chipotle cricket and chocolate truffles.”
“They were delicious,” Francesca says as she fills the dishwasher with liquid soap.
Vernon’s plodding steps, which Rachel is familiar with already, hit the top of the basement stairs. She instinctively moves into the bathroom to get out of the way. Then he’s in the kitchen with a giant rectangle in his arms. “Can someone grab that plug?” he says, casting a look over his shoulder. “The tail got away from me.”
Ted stoops, the two of them walking the unwieldy shape across the room to sit on the fireplace mantle. Plugged in, the rectangle blazes to life in neon red. It’s an industrial-sized timer, like the ones on cooking shows. When Vernon dusts off his hands and rebuttons his coat, Rachel can appreciate how far he’s gone for this bit. He’s wearing a light blue linen suit with a heather grey button-up, a textured pink tie with matching pocket square, and rectangular glasses. Oh my God, he looks just like Ted Allen.
“Should I send a reminder?” Vernon asks the kitchen.
“Go ahead,” Francesca replies for everyone.
Ten seconds later, doors open upstairs, and footsteps come flooding down. The mood in this room is different than it was in the attic just a few hours ago. They all seem to be humming with excitement, which makes Rachel resent them all the more. Happy? At a time like this?
“Made teams yet?” Markeya asks when she enters the kitchen. Rachel trails in after her, sticking to the cupboards to be as inconspicuous as possible.
“Just about to,” Vernon answers. “Daniela, will you do the honors?”
The woman in question waddles across to the top hat, dipping in a perfect slender hand untouched by the bloating so common in pregnancy. What doesn’t she have? Rachel wants to know before beginning a long, impassioned plea to the universe and any benevolent ghosts to keep her from being picked for this game.
Daniela takes out six strips of paper, making three piles. She takes the hat, and Vernon reads the names, sealing Rachel’s fate. No surprise, of course. When has fortune ever been kind to her?
“Alright, alright, everyone, here we go.” Vernon adjusts his tie. “Rachel, you’re with Wren for the appetizer round. Anabelle, Renato, you’re on entree. Lorelei, you’ve got Markeya for dessert.”
“Oh, my,” Lorelei says suggestively, wagging her eyebrows. Everyone but Rachel laughs as the two women put an arm around the other’s shoulders. Anabelle and Renato high-five. Rachel finds Wren’s gaze across the room.
Wearing platform boots of a sensible three-inch height and a leather trench coat, Wren glides to Rachel’s side. Their cat eye seems especially fierce today, as does their black pixie cut. Rachel wonders if the hair is a wig or real. “You ready for this?” they ask.
“Not really,” Rachel confesses, drumming her fingers on the kitchen island.
“It should be fun,” Wren promises.
Rachel fights the urge to roll her eyes at the young person’s enthusiasm. How could they know that she loathes to cook? No sense in being rude, especially after she’s spent most of the day doing just that. “Hope so.”
Meanwhile, Yukiko distributes three identical leather baskets in front of each team, and Vernon takes his place in front of the timer. Rachel has to admit that these people commit.
"Six chefs, three courses, only one chance to win.” Rachel’s eyebrows shoot up in response to the spot-on impersonation of Ted Allen’s voice. She’s only seen Chopped a few times over the last decade, but it’s an immediate match. “The challenge: create an unforgettable meal from the mystery items hidden in these baskets before time runs out. Our distinguished panel of chefs will critique their work, and one by one, they must face the dreaded Compliment Block. Who will win the privilege of not cleaning the kitchen for a week, and who will be CHOPPED?” Vernon’s blue eyes make contact with all of the contestants. “There are ninety minutes on the clock. Chefs, you may...begin!” The numbers roll backward. The onlookers applaud before taking a seat at the kitchen table, waiting for the unboxing.
Wren pulls the basket labeled “appetizer” close, opening the lid, and begins to pull out their ingredients: a box of Zatarain’s Jambalaya rice mix, pistachio oil, jarred chutney, and a can of Spam. “Oh, fuck yeah!” Wren says.
“Baba ganoush?” Markeya squawks at the same time, pulling out a gray glass jar with a bold golden label. “Vernon, you put jarred baba ganoush in a dessert basket? A fennel bulb? Were you feeling particularly sadistic when you did this?”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Rachel murmurs to herself, trying to tune out the noise as she picks up each ingredient. She can’t remember eating any of this, not even as a kid. “When’s the last time you had Spam?”
“So, fun fact: I fucking love Spam,” Wren says as they open the rice box.
Rachel hates the phrase “fun fact” and thinks that people who say it, for the most part, are obsessed with themselves. When are those facts ever actually fun?
“I love it so much that I told Ted that I needed to stop eating it. Hypertension runs in the family, y’know?” Wren catches Rachel’s expression. “Anyway, that’s why we have it. If you were wondering. But you probably weren’t wondering.”
She softens. Making her partner feel shitty at the beginning of a competition probably isn’t the most tactical of approaches. “I was wondering.”
Wren nods. “So, what are you thinking we do with it?”
“Not sure yet. Guess we’re lucky that the Zatarain’s is only rice, huh? We’d be in for a bad time if they were beans.”
They point to the opposite corner of the counter. “We do have a pressure cooker, but I wouldn’t fuck with Anabelle over it. She’s really competitive. Like, really competitive. Two months ago, she had an absolute freakout when Yukiko was using the mixer. ‘She’s doing it slow on purpose. She’s trying to sabotage me.’ She got benched for two games.”
The red-haired woman glares them down as she removes the machine’s lid and pours in the dried black beans from her and Renato’s basket. The metallic clink the pot makes is almost threatening. Rachel decides to ignore it as she tries to orchestrate some semblance of an idea. “We have time to cook the rice. Will you get some water started?”
Rachel opens the Spam tin and thinks about her mother. She can’t help it, of course. It’s just the sort of thing that Mom would have loved. Suddenly emotional, she closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and remembers why Job does most of the cooking. What is it that she does for them exactly? Besides being a burden? No, no, not that path. Let’s think about Mom. Mom with the forever clever way of thinking about food and smell and flavor combinations. Yes, yes, she would have thought about the savory heat of the Jambalaya mix playing with some less than ideal grains of rice, the saltiness of the Spam, the chutney’s spiced sweetness. The idea is coming now; she can almost taste it. “Smoosh it up,” she whispers.
“What?” Wren asks as they return to Rachel’s side.
“Let’s make a rice cake. We need to smoosh the rice up when it’s done, put it in a two-inch mold, chill it, then fry it in the pistachio oil.” Rachel opens her eyes and frowns. “Wait, do we have ring molds?”
Wren nods, considering the ingredients. “Use the Spam for a topping?”
“You don’t wanna put it in the rice cake?”
“No. What we should do is…” they draw out the word as they lope to the fridge and open it, “is take some cream cheese and make a mousse.”
“Mhm.” They drop a block of Philadelphia on the counter. “Something really rich and creamy on top of a spicy rice cake?”
Rachel’s vision shifts and makes room for Wren’s. “Then we doctor up the chutney.”
Wren snaps their fingers. “Exactly. Put it all on top of a bed of greens? You’ve got yourself a party.”
“That’s...that’s a really good idea.”
“I’ve been known to have one from time to time.” Wren winks.
Rachel can’t help but smile. There’s something so charming about Wren. Maybe it’s their youth or their candor; whatever it is, Rachel likes them. “Okay, so I’ll get started with the chutney, and you do the Spam mousse?”
“Let’s get on it.” They go to the fridge, plucking out green onions, a shallot, salad mix, heavy cream, and eggs. Then, they collect some onions from the pantry. Meanwhile, Rachel explores the cupboards for a pan and a heavy bottom pot.
A moment later, Wren is chopping the shallot with Food Network precision, and Rachel is breaking down a head of garlic. Giving the younger person a sidelong glance, it occurs to Rachel that this teenager might know what they’re doing.
“Where’d you learn to cook?”
Wren beams, displaying a gap between their teeth that’s never been tamed by braces. “My mom. She’s obsessed. But like, not with Puerto Rican food, with ‘50s American housewife food. You know what I mean?”
“You know…food that takes all day to make because ladies didn’t have anything else to do. Roasts, whole hams, jello salad.” Wren wipes the shallots into a small mixing bowl. “She thinks women belong in the kitchen. And, like, she was totally cool with the non-binary thing but could not abide the thought of me not knowing how to cook a five-course meal for my spouse.” Wren’s voice goes up at least an octave: “‘When you marry a man or a woman or whatever, you will not embarrass me, Bernadette Jane.’” Rachel isn’t sure if it’s okay to laugh at this, so she just snorts before opening the chutney jar. Wren shrugs as they go to the spice cabinet and begin to peruse the three-shelf full affair of glass bottles. “Anyway, I got sent to culinary camp for a summer because my mom wanted to make sure I’d bring honor to the family name. Youngest person in my cabin.” They grin over their shoulder with a wholesale container of cumin in their hand. “I can make a mean Beef Wellington.”
Rachel purses her lips and nods over the jarred chutney, tasting its overabundance of cardamom, and wonders how best to mask it. “Impressive.”
Wren shrugs as they fire up the gas on the range and splash some olive oil into a pan. “It’s only an impressive skill to have when you’re young. After you turn twenty-five, cooking is just something you’re supposed to know.”
Rachel smiles again, surprised that she isn’t feeling distracted by the din that surrounds them, even as Anabelle fusses over Renato and Markeya continue to complain about her basket. Speaking with Wren feels, well, good. “There are plenty of people over thirty who don’t know how to cook.”
“And how disappointed their mothers must be.”
Rachel laughs as she begins to explore the spice cabinet herself. What a collection it is, five dozen bottles for sure, probably more. Collected food moods of housemates for however long this place has had its doors open. Four years? Five? She can’t recall.
“What about you?” Wren asks. “Where does your talent come from?”
There’s no need to be modest. Rachel knows she handles herself well in the kitchen. “My mom was a chef,” she says as she pulls down mustard seeds and yellow curry powder.
The shallots sweat in the pan. “Like, a chef-chef? With a hat?”
At once, Rachel watches her mother use tweezers to place small leaves atop microscopic piles of caviar. “She had a hat.”
“That’s really cool.”
Rachel clears her throat full of fresh emotion. She covers it up with more subpar chutney, trying to reach for the right balance in her mind. “Yeah, it was.”
Wren’s frantic stirring pauses and Rachel can tell they want to press but is relieved when they don’t. Instead, they steer the conversation into warmer waters. The shallot is joined by the Spam. Wren says, “My mom isn’t a chef-chef, just a mega enthusiast. She goes overboard all the time. It got to this point when I was a teenager that my dad just refused to eat anything she cooked. No more buttered escargots or sweet meats or panna cotta. All he really wanted to eat was McDoubles.” They make room for Lorelei at the range. “Honestly, so did me and my brothers. Kids, amirite? So, she joined this supper club with some people at the place she used to work at—or maybe it was church? Anyway, do you know what a supper club is?”
Rachel does know, but she’s curious for Wren’s answer. “I’ll try not to be a smart ass and say ‘a club for supper.’”
“It’s this thing that rich housewives do because they’re bored and no one pays them enough attention.” Wren pauses to season. “Sorry, that’s not kind. Or true. What it actually is is just a group of people meeting up for elaborate dinners at one another’s houses. My mom went for a couple of months and had a great time criticizing other people’s food. That lady is a shade queen. Will you taste this?”
Rachel pours the Zatarain’s into the boiling water, covers the pot, and reduces the heat. Taking the proffered spoon, she tastes the meat slurry. Salt hits her first, then the cumin. “Add some smoked paprika. No more salt. The cream cheese should smooth that out, and the sweetness of the chutney will soak everything else up.” Rachel hands back the spoon. “You were saying?”
Wren nods with approval. “Anyway, my mom’s number finally comes up. She has to host, and she has to make, drum roll, a Beef Wellington.” Lorelei scoffs as she whisks some milk into her pot. “People always say that karma is a bitch, right? So here she is, my Puerto Rican mother, beholden to the holy grail of temperamental white people dishes. So, she takes me to the butcher with her—because I’m the one who needs to learn how to cook—and we buy this huge fucking beef tenderloin, and it’s so expensive. Like, bologna sandwiches until next paycheck expensive.” Rachel feels another bubble of laughter rise up in her throat. When was the last time she laughed this much? Without prompting, she goes to fetch the food processor for Wren.
When she returns, Wren continues their story, and Rachel plops a block of room-temperature cream cheese into the bowl. “It was so expensive that she put a seatbelt on it when we got back in the car. And then we get home, and she doesn’t even know what to do with it. Seriously, no idea. All we have are about fourteen cookbooks from the library and my sweet, deluded mother trying to Frankenstein’s monster all fourteen into some workable shape.”
“Tell me she bought the puff pastry, at least,” Rachel says, gesturing for Wren to add the Spam pâté.
“Oh, of course, she did. She’s not a complete masochist. Everything else, though, she did to a T. Except, how the hell do you wrap a slippery piece of meat with what is the equivalent of a floured noodle? Imagine this: Puff pastry mounded on top of this piece of prosciutto-wrapped meat. But of course, it won’t stick because the kitchen’s too warm, and instead, the egg wash is just leaking off the damn thing like a fucking Salvidor Dali painting.”
Rachel pulses the cream cheese with the Spam, laughing the whole time.
Emboldened by her reaction, Wren lays the story on thicker, gesturing wildly. “And here’s my mom, just having an absolute panic attack as she’s trying to piecemeal the whole thing together. Sobbing ‘throw it in the oven, throw it in the oven’ at me until she has to go to her room and have a proper meltdown.” Both of them start to laugh so hard that the other teams pause to watch before getting back to work. Wren lowers their voice, “You know what the funniest part is? It wasn’t even that bad. A little over-cooked in spots, but tasty.”
Warmth floods Rachel’s cheeks, and she realizes that they hurt from smiling. Seriously, when was the last time she felt this good? Even thinking about Job, which she does on purpose to bring herself down, can’t dull her high. For a few minutes, the two of them bask in that energy, taking time to finish off the mousse with egg yolks and heavy cream. When she tastes it, she is surprised to find that it is good. Moving then with the elegance of two people who have known one another a long time, Wren places their mousse into the fridge to cool while Rachel takes over the burner with a pot soon fragrant with toasting mustard seeds. She agitates the air with her hand the way her mother did to get the scent into her nose, calculating how much will be needed to make that chutney less cloying.
“Attention chefs,” Vernon’s eerie Ted Allen calls through the kitchen, scaring Rachel so badly that she almost burns herself. “A few brief announcements! One, the bidet attachments for all of the bathrooms will be here tomorrow. Two, our large Costco order will be here in the morning. Please note that we have ordered a good deal more than we usually do and that it may have to last for a while. And third, there are forty-five minutes remaining.”
Rachel throws a frantic look at Wren, wondering how time has gone by so quickly. Wren only smiles, the picture of ease.