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Love and the Dessert Menu

by Shlunka about a year ago in literature
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A portrait of two, juxtaposed

Visualize an orchard, the clouds of flowers, the pollen sweeping through the air, and the soft grass. Collect your thoughts under a tree somewhere, let your eyes wander, and say whatever falls into your head and hope she doesn’t think you’re an idiot.

“What’s the difference between malbec and merlot?” I asked, poised at the table like Rodin’s Thinker as I perused the predominantly French menu for anything resembling words whose meanings I knew.

“Malbec belongs in the smoker’s section,” she replied in a rainy voice, “are you a smoker?”

“No,” I said, pointing at the dimple on my chin, “I dated a smoker once. Whenever we kissed, my chin would put out the cigarette like an ashtray.” No response.

“You know” she began, “this entire evening I haven’t been able to tell if anything you say is true.”

She resolved to me for the first time since we’d been seated by the waiter, a man who had a conscious symmetry to his appearance. His tie was perfectly positioned, sleeves rolled up in an exact measure, and a centralized parting of his hair executed with a Vermeer-like precision.

Her lips were bright red, but against her sepia skin seemed natural, a piece of her own pallet that coexisted formally with the ochre of her fingernails and the explosive hues of her empire dress, a Jacobean Floral sea of copper, beige, and gold floating in a sea of maroon like intricate debris. Her hair was a basket woven out of Havana twists, while a single braid fled from the nexus and ran the scenic route down over her pronounced cheekbones before falling, ineffectual, on her collar.

The waiter approached with a militant stride that, I sensed, concealed a sagging weariness from a long day of brief ordeals.

“We’re going with the Merlot,” my date declared before the waiter could, in his own perspicacious way, tell you what to get under the guise of asking very specific questions. An art that took little insight to detect, but a lifetime to execute.

“What’s that like?” I asked

“Ah, the Chilean Merlot. I would say bold, smooth—”

“Like me,” I leaned in and whispered to my date ineffectually.

“Soft, acidic, some bitterness, cherry and plum notes,” he finished, and my date grew the smile of someone who’d won an exchange without speaking.

“Sounds perfect,” she replied, plucking the menu from my hand before handing both of ours off to the waiter like two tests we’d confidently passed.

“It would do well with the chicken we are serving as a special tonight.”

He disappeared back into the kitchen, and we just sat quietly for some time, listening to the ambient noises of the busy restaurant and exchanging smiles at random intervals, the sort that make the other go “what?” and you try to explain in just a few words why it is that you’re smiling. Truth be told, the date happened to be at the confluence of everything I’d ever wanted and everything I’d been warned about. An intelligent, seasoned, amicable person that wasn’t from the thirty mile radius of where I had grown up. The truth was, that while I looked presentable wearing those seasoned khaki pants and a gunmetal grey button-up that had never been worn, I scarcely kept myself from collapsing and pooling onto the floor. I had the integrity of a waning crescent moon, and in any instant she could figure it out and either find it endearing, or more likely, repulsive.

She knew Shakespeare, and I didn’t know anything but this: that a glass was for a rendezvous, but bottles were reserved for declarations. It was the only indication that things were going well asides from the smiles that I had difficulty interpreting, oscillating between the opinions that they were genuine reflections of a romantic intrigue or just sparks of amusement. I wasn’t sure if I should bring up what I did for a living, or how working as a housekeeper for all the local fraternity chapters was about as dignified and well-compensated as it sounded. I wanted to ask what it was like being an engineer who was also a woman without sounding horrible. Most of all, I wanted to be able to articulate anything without gridlocking my brain with the certainty that I was completely, imperially, ignorant.

“We’ll be getting the steak right? That’s what people do when they go to places like this?” I spoke with a tone of mock-confusion to hide my actual confusion.

“I’m vegetarian, but you should indulge.” She shrugged, seeming to have lost all interest in me to peruse the food menu.

The next great hurdle to bound over was the delicate task of ordering a steak at the proper doneness. I’d never met a vegetarian for all I knew. Did they feel similarly to the average middle-class omnivore? Should I order the steak medium-rare to put forth the notion that I had a great deal of dignified air about me, but that I also wasn’t a barbarian? Should I order it well-done to indicate that while, yes, I was an omnivore, that I believed in eating a product that was as far removed from the raw, natural, living state as possible?

“Were you always a vegetarian?” I asked, having found my own Ephialtes pass to betray any sincerity I would’ve had to have declared.

“No. A few years ago I would’ve joined you with a steak,” she replied, twirling her bronze bracelet around her narrow wrist.

“So you would’ve just ordered it blue-rare and tenderized it with a club?”

“No, you have to do medium-rare at least to break down the collagen in the meat,” she laughed, and the whiteness of her teeth made me lick the coffee-saturated stones in my own mouth insecurely.

“Sounds like you worked in a kitchen at some point?” I asked after taking a sip of the merlot. The waiter’s description was astute, even my clueless palate could detect every note he’d described.

“All throughout college, yes. I worked in the dining hall and then worked in a fine dining place just off campus for post-grad.” She took her first sip.

I pursed my lips for a moment before following up, “did you like it?”

She gave a nod with her head that consisted of multiple, almost imperceptibly small motions, each rearranging the meaning of the previous one until what I was left with was a confused I don’t know, maybe some of it was okay. I’d worked fast food before, and I imagined myself giving the same sort of nod if she had approached me with that very question. She then looked down at the glass of wine and smiled enthusiastically, declaring that, yes, she loved the wine unconditionally.

“So, what are you looking for?” I asked, knowing that the question would never not feel too forward, brazen, and inconsiderate.

“Love and the dessert menu,” she flipped the menu over, slapping the edge audibly against the white tablecloth with a dampened thud.

“It’s in the middle, between the appetizers and the salads,” I pointed it out on my own menu.

“Oh, you’re right,” she paused for a moment, “that’s a bit out of place for a dessert menu.”

“What was that other thing you were looking for, again?”

“Love,” she replied, with a blended look of anticipation and sarcasm.

“That one might be out of place too,” I shrugged, and she let out a subdued laugh just as the waiter returned with the bottle of merlot.

I ended up ordering the chicken special but substituted the sides from the steak dinner, meaning that I got a full breast with a side of asparagus and a platoon of small baked potatoes inundated in rosemary and olive oil. She ordered cauliflower steak, which I had never seen nor heard of before and assumed the worst, along with a side of asparagus, unpronounceable mushrooms, and whatever seasoned jackfruit was. The waiter left as if he’d just remembered he left the oven on, which suited both of us just fine.

“So,” she swirled the wine for a moment, “what do you do for a living, and what do you do for fun?”

I wasn’t sure how to spin cleaning up after a frat to make it seem dignified or how to spin my hobby for collecting walnut husks that the squirrels left around the local park as an adrenaline fueled, brave, ultra-masculine endeavor. In the end, I decided that honesty was, in spite of all of its faults, the only way forward.

“I clean up frat houses for a living and for fun I pick up walnut shells that squirrels chew on. I don’t do anything creative with the shells, I just keep them in boxes because I’m convinced that someday I’ll think of something.” I blurted out my response before distracting myself by fantasizing about stuffing my face full of starch and red meat.

“You know, that actually sounds really interesting. The walnut shell bit, not the frat thing.” She replied.

“Really?”

“Yeah. My work has always taken up all of my time, and before when I was in college it wasn’t any different between classes and shifts at the restaurant. Hobbies have always eluded me, so it’s like this great forbidden, unexplored domain.”

From there, the conversation changed, covering the households that we grew up in, how I’d spent most of my life living in a small trailer park by the interstate before moving into the small southern Virginia town where we were dining. How she’d grown up just outside of Baltimore in a little suburb that sounded like it could’ve been from any 80s slasher film, but had spent time all across Europe under the guise of an art major that allowed for much more abroad scholarship opportunities before she switched to engineering. I mentioned how I used to work on farms and shovel out horse stalls and she shared the stories of her time as an RA for her hall at university. Lastly, we spoke about cult 70s indie horror and about how nothing made in the last ten years was worth its weight in pig’s blood.

When we left, the waiter waved goodbye with the sort of warm smile only mothers should be able to muster, a smile conceived before even bothering to look at the checks to see if he got a proper tip. I didn’t say anything, but I wondered if the front of house staff in such places might be the only decent bastion of humanity left. I Did manage to walk her to her car afterward, where we exchanged numbers and the slightest of kisses while the full moon reflected off her old Subaru’s hood. It was good, all of it.

I awoke to the sound of my phone buzzing on the nightstand, and from the weight of my eyes and the way my chest and head felt, I deduced that it was at least two hours before I had intended to wake up at all. Nonetheless, I rolled over with the enthusiasm of a half-buried, rotten log, and checked my phone.

Hey, thanks for staying up and texting me last night. That was… thoughtful.

Yeah! No problem, it’s best we keep things this way for now. It’s not safe to go out anywhere.

Still, it’s been better in some ways, you know? Our first date went until 3am.

I get my second vaccine this Wednesday, then it’s only, what, three weeks and I’m good?

Yep! Maybe then we can go out for real, yeah?

For sure! To some fancy place like we went to last night?

Actually, there’s a mom and pops place just outside of town, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

My favorite.

literature

About the author

Shlunka

Visual artist and writer working out of a small Virginia town in the Shenandoah Valley.

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