A man in gold standing over a woman laying dow on a table.

Rumpus Original Fiction: Prepare a Table Before Me, Anoint My Head with Oil

By

Before I understood that I was a girl, I understood that I was a body. A thing that took up space, that could take up more or less space, depending on how I sat, how I held myself, how much I ate. I was a body born to other bodies, from other bodies. As I grew up, I saw the way boys and men looked at me. I learned the way I was desired, the way I curved. This, I discovered, was girlhood.

People don’t like to talk about it, how I am body, the meat of me. This squeamishness, this discomfort, is why I can do what I do; this is what I get paid for. People squirm in their chairs. Stare at their own selves. They can’t admit how much they want me, or why.

I’m not supposed to like my job, but I do. I run across the dining room, whisk tiny dishes to elegant women, pour wine for men in ties, wipe the bottle if a drop begins to slide down its neck. The motions, the movements, all of us servers rushing between tables, back and forth from kitchen and bar, an ecosystem all our own. A school of darting fish.

It was a hard job to get, to prove myself worthy for. In the first round of interviews, I sat alone in front of a panel, sweating and hoping they didn’t notice. They asked me so many questions I thought I would pop. Why do you want this job, what do you bring to this job, what do you know about this job, what do you know about yourself. I had to be honest. They would know if I wasn’t. I needed money. Inflation. Everyone said that this was the best place to work in the industry, the top, nothing better. Ambition. I want to test myself, I said. I want to work hard. I want to be proud of what I do. I want to be proud of what I am.

For the second round of interviews, I was one-on-one with the managers, people in ironed jackets coming and going like a revolving door. The same questions with different words. I kept my head up and smiled.

I was applying to other places too—office jobs, other restaurants, DoorDash and Uber. I’d told so many different people why I wanted their jobs, why I was a perfect fit. I lied to all of them, except the managers here. There were so many interviews I lost track. Got dizzy. Faces blurred, I forgot names that I needed to remember. I took a test on every item on the menu, writing lists of ingredients for each dish, describing tasting notes.

For the final interview, everyone I had seen and spoken to from the little restaurant crowded into a poorly lit room. A man walked up to me, bowed his head. I’d met him before, in one of the interviews. He’d been kind, explained his job, my role in it. He wore a white apron and looked like every man I’d ever met. This was the last and most important step. Someone handed him a plate and a knife. I closed my eyes. His fingers, barely, on my arm, as if he would take my hand and lead me somewhere. I held my breath. I would not fail, I would not gasp. There was heat and a prick of pain, sharp and sudden and radiating, where his fingers had been. When I opened my eyes, a small piece of red meat was waiting on the center of the plate. Raw, thin, see-through. A few drops of blood. Silence as everyone held their breath. The noise of chewing, the consideration of a swallow. He stared into my eyes and nodded.

I passed.

 

Before I started working here, the restaurant was notorious. Scandalous. They weren’t the first in the country to serve their signature dish, their carpaccio, but they made it theirs. Every part of it done in-house. When they first began to serve it, there were headlines, shocked journalists, moralizing and outraged, but it didn’t take long for everyone to grow accustomed to our new and shimmering lives. Handwringing turned to gnashing teeth; everyone wanted a bite. It became an international destination, millionaires and oligarchs flying from all over to taste our specialty, the slices of meat seasoned just right by our chef, who knew exactly how to accentuate each piece with the faintest splash of vinegar or sprinkle of salt.

Our chef has made the drizzled carpaccio into an art. When someone orders it, all the customers pause, set down their forks, turn to see. Some people come in the hopes of just being there when it happens, when it’s ordered, knowing they can’t afford it themselves. To smell it, to see it, to hear how a person chews it. To watch the customer’s face as they swallow, to see if there is a change.

The cost isn’t listed on the menu. Market Price written instead in curving letters. Most people think it’s so the customers won’t balk at the fortune they spend, but really, it’s for us. So we won’t know the price attached, won’t have to think about what it means for the cost to be as low or as high as it is when we stand in front of customers with plates in our hands.

A person ordering the forbidden

The first time someone ordered it when I worked there, a hush moved through the restaurant. We couldn’t pause our work, but we glanced at each other, ourselves. The chef waited in the kitchen. He nodded to Olivia, touched her sleeve as she passed. Led her to the walk-in. I caught my breath and wondered why he didn’t pick me.

Our chef walked out with a small, white plate of carpaccio, Olivia following behind him with a solemn look on her face. She stood by his side as he bent, placed the dish in front of the customer. The chef described what he would taste, like a delicate wine. Olivia held a bandage to her arm. The customer was the only man in the restaurant without a tie. By looking at him, you wouldn’t know that he could afford a thing like this, a thing that cost thousands and thousands of dollars for one serving.

The next night, he chose Ashten, leading her to the walk-in. Days turned to weeks and still he chose Olivia and Ashten, and still I waited at the side. I was not worth even a glance. Done with training, passed the initial test, and still unchosen. At home, I stared at my arms in the mirror, tried to see myself as he might. Looked at my back, broad and useless. My thighs somehow both too large and too small at once. Too large to be beautiful, too small to offer him anything of substance. My belly, the muscles and inches of it, wrong, not enough to feed anyone. I didn’t know what I had to do for him to notice, for anyone to choose me.

I began to hate when anyone ordered the carpaccio, my own stomach curling into a fist. I hated how Ashten smiled, how Olivia always acted surprised.

One night, after closing, after cleaning every table, rolling silverware in embossed napkins, I waited. I should’ve left with everyone else, following them to the bar that stayed open after they were legally supposed to close, but I didn’t. When it was only the two of us left in the building, the chef scrubbing at the stains on a cutting board, steel wool in hand, I walked toward him, took a deep breath.

“Why don’t you ever pick me?” I said. He paused, looked up.

He stared at me for so long I thought he hadn’t understood me. “You’re not trying hard enough.”

I thought of Ashten, how she drank. Olivia and her shoulders. Sam’s back, full of muscle. Bit the resentment on my tongue.

“Okay,” I said. “Tell me what to do better.”

 

I practice what he tells me. The managers know, treat it like a special training. He instructs me how to stand, how to carry myself, what to do in the off hours, the best things to eat.

“The point,” he tells me when we are alone together, “is not to be perfect. That’s impossible. The point is to accentuate you. You will be different from Oliva, or Sam, or Ashten.” In back rooms he examines me, the places on my legs, my thighs. He is an artist. His fingers, light, grazing the back of my knees. He traces, he presses. I shudder and I know that he feels it.

“It’s not about the money,” he says as he lifts my arm, inspecting where the flesh folds. “It’s a kind of transcendence. Something so fleeting, almost fragile.”

“Have you ever worked with anyone else this closely?” I ask. He pauses, looks directly into my eyes. He holds my arm in both hands.

“Yes,” he says. I keep my face collected. “But it is different, special, with everyone.”

I watch how he watches during service. Olivia slumps, just barely. Ashten is careless, clumsy. Sam only works part-time, and you can see it in the way he carries himself.

I eat vegetables sauteed in olive oil, lean meat, stop drinking caffeine. Every morning my head throbs. I stay away from secondhand smoke, avoid people who wear perfume. At night, I position myself the way he has taught me, on my back, neck cupped by pillows, arms to my sides, palms up. In the darkness I imagine him in the room with me, adjusting my posture, his hands shifting my spine. His ghost, his voice, follows me. His presence at my neck, reminding: Roll your shoulders back, the blades down your spine. Relax your jaw. Feel your calves as you walk, the curve from your heel.

The first time he chooses me, I think I will die on the table.

He calls me back, when the dining room is dim and bustling, the chime of wine glasses touching tables, small forks against small plates. My heart beats in ways it shouldn’t. I breathe, I tell myself I am breathing. He will feel it beneath his fingers, the pulse of me.

He motions, the slightest nod of the head, and I follow. There is a heat, a warmth in my gut that will not leave. I want him to look back, smile at me. He smiles at everyone.

He closes the door to the walk-in. The air snaps cold. Tubs of lettuce, washed vegetables. He points, I go.

The table is cold beneath me, even with the butcher paper. The others said he makes it quick, announces what he’ll do before he does it, so they’re ready. Sometimes tells them to close their eyes. He doesn’t say anything like that to me. This, I think, must mean something. He is quiet and sure when he touches me, doesn’t need to warn me before he does his work.

“You’re doing well,” his hands are on my arms, pressing, feeling for pressure, for pushback. His fingers along my back, slow, tender. I straighten. “Relax,” he says. I am naked, exposed, and have never felt so safe and cared for. He’s a professional. Works so quick I only know after, when the gasp catches in my throat, when he bandages the cut, pats it with gauze. “You’re doing really well,” he says again, so soft it’s almost lost in the whir of the refrigerators.

 

With every day that passes, I am getting better. I am famous, I am getting famous. There are write-ups in the papers about me, specifically me, my presentation, the way I taste. The way he prepares me. He is interviewed in The New York Times, profiled in The New Yorker. He is fawned over, adored, and praised. They say he is ingenious, daring, brave. I read the articles again and again, imagine how his voice sounded when he mentioned me. “My top server,” he said, “is on a special regimen. Most people would fail or cheat, it’s very demanding.” He is photographed alone, next to a counter, holding a blade. I keep the papers next to my bed, look at the glossy pictures before I go to sleep. Everyone in the world might know his name, my face, but I am his signature, and he is my guide. When someone orders chef’s choice, he chooses me every time.

“I think of the dish,” he said, “as a collaboration.”

A group of people fawning over the king

The day he won his Michelin stars, he hesitated for just a second in the walk-in, his hands hovering over me. “Thank you,” he breathed. I like to think I tasted sweeter, brighter that day, after a blessing like that.

People are starting to copy our dish. Fast food stands trotting out their sloppy, cheap versions. Vegan places imitating us with razor thin beets. Grocery store branded packages of it. Other people, other places don’t do it right, get infections, cut too deep. Demand is screaming.

The more people want me, the more they are willing to pay for me, the more I am back there with him, in the half-light of the walk-in. On my belly I wait.

Everyone wants me, but no one understands that it’s not just me they want. It’s him. Both of us. I would not be what I am without him, his hands, his knife, his guidance. They don’t know what they’re paying for, that they’re making me possible.

He is so swift, so sure, I feel his fingers more than the cut. After he dresses the wound, he doesn’t touch me, but it is there, in his eyes. A look that sends shivers into every fingertip. We go and stand, the two of us together, silent as a customer brings the meat to their lips. Smiling approval.

I don’t know him, not really. I don’t know where he lives, what he does in the off hours. We don’t talk about anything beyond work. But he knows me better than anyone, and even though I don’t know him outside of these walls, I know him in a way that no one else in the world ever will. When he looks at me, when I look into his eyes, he sees me as I have never been seen before, down to the marrow. This intimacy, small and precious. I am his creature, his creation. I make myself for him.

I spend my days waiting for work to start, spend my shifts waiting for him to call me back. When I lay in the walk-in, I don’t speak and he doesn’t answer. When he touches me, when he guides the knife across my skin, I am a perfect thing, wanted and beloved and prized. I think this must be what heaven feels like.

After the shift ends, I ask what I can do better and he teaches me. He works with the others, still calls the other servers to the back for plating, but sometimes he looks at me and I trick myself, just for a second, into thinking there is something different, something more, in how he thinks of me.

My friends ask to see the scars and I know they want to taste. To run their tongues along the knife lines, to imagine what it would be, to stare into my eyes and swallow. I stop talking to them about the restaurant because I only want to talk about him. The way he watches as I pass, his fingers on my skin. The moment when he draws his nails across my shins, just so he can hear me gasp. They don’t want to hear the only stories I want to tell; I don’t have anything to say to these friends anymore.

At home alone in bed, I think of him, dream of scenarios. A night after work, my car not starting. Him, the only one left in the restaurant. The way he might look at me. He would offer to walk me home, even though his car is there. The thought of the two of us, walking down the street, our arms brushing on accident, the things we might talk about. Impossible, thrilling.

 

The hardest part of the job isn’t when I’m lying there, waiting to feel the sharp slicing.

Clients leave large tips, tables leave, new customers are seated. Then, when every face in the restaurant is new, when only the staff know what the night has been, what I have done, how many times I have gone to back rooms and come out with fresh bandages, when the sweat trickles into the gauze pressed to my skin, when I bite the inside of my mouth to try to stop the dizziness, that is when it is worst. I smile to guests, explain the most popular items, and they will never know what happened in the minutes before they were seated.

There is a night that it is ordered so many times I think I will faint. He is good, there is almost no blood lost, but still, I begin to shake. He could choose Olivia or Ashten, but I catch his eye every time. He knows I am the best. Everyone in the restaurant knows he should rotate, but I smile to customers, I smile to him, and there isn’t a choice, really.

He is precise, meticulous. Cuts through the skin, down into the muscle, a doctor with a scalpel.

After the fourth order in a row, he does not wait for me to stand. He brings me juice. I didn’t know we had juice. “Stay here,” he says. “Rest. Don’t move until I come back.” In the walk-in, I stare at a dead fish. It stares back, unblinking. I drink from the glass. The juice is chilled and surprising.

Eventually, the door, the air from outside. “You have to come back to the floor,” his hand is at my elbow. “I can’t give you special treatment.” The world and everything in it spins. “You have to make it through the shift.” The door is so large and heavy in front of me. He is solid where he touches my elbow, his hand on my back. I am his lamb, he is my shepherd.

I exhale. “I think I—” I am so close that I can smell the edge of his aftershave, feel the warmth of his skin.

“I know.” He opens the door and lets go of my arm, waiting behind me as I leave.

The rest of the shift is a blur of almost-dropped dishes, slurred words, forgotten orders. Olivia and Ashten follow behind, catch my mistakes before anyone notices. After the last customer leaves, I fall into a chair. Put my head on the table. My pulse is light, my body lighter. My vision shadows.

I open my eyes to Olivia, shaking my shoulder. Everyone is gone, the lights off. “Hey,” her voice is nothing but loud. A quantity of loud. “I’m driving you home.” Her hands are under my armpits.

“I can walk,” I say. “I can drive myself home.”

“Sure, okay, but chef’s orders. He said someone needed to drive you home and I volunteered, and now if I don’t, I’ll get in trouble.”

I think she is lying.

“I think you’re lying.”

“Okay.”

We are somehow already by her car. It is running. In the passenger seat I pull my legs to my chest, rest my head against the window. I am tired. The glass is cool against my forehead.

“He really asks a lot of you, huh? I mean to do that so much in a shift, and not give you a break.”

“It’s because he knows I can.” I don’t intend for this to be cruel, though I know it is.

“Yeah, okay,” she says. “Have you ever gotten an infection?”

“He knows what he’s doing.”

“I know. But things happen.”

We are quiet for the rest of the drive. I don’t throw up in her car, and I am proud of this.

“I’m going to walk you inside,” Olivia announces when her car jerks to a halt. She opens my door, takes me by the hand. I almost protest, but it is nice to be cared for like this. “This is where you live?” she says when we walk inside, as if I did not just unlock the door. My studio is small and sparse.

“I didn’t have a good job before this one.” I lay on the bed with my clothes on, waiting for her to leave.

“I’m going to stay with you for a bit, to make sure you’re okay.” I think about yelling at her. “I’m worried about you.”

“Okay,” I say. I stare at the ceiling. I don’t remember what happens next.

When I wake in the morning, Olivia is still there, curled up next to me in bed. She snores. Late morning light trickles in through the window. She opens her eyes as I roll off the bed, move toward the sink.

“Do you have any coffee?” Her voice is muffled. She coughs.

“No.”

“Do you have any food?”

“Not really.” She looks at me and I don’t look away.

“I’m worried about you.”

“Okay.”

 

The first time a customer asks to come to the back, to watch it happen, there is a panic in my stomach. I shake my head no, wordless. He nods to me, returns to the customer with a logical and smooth explanation. Something about health codes.

Later, I pass him with arms full of dirty dishes, and he speaks without turning his head, without waiting for me to pause. “I think it would be beneficial for you to think about it. Get used to the idea.” I wonder for a moment what it would sound like for everything to break. Is he telling me this because the others are already used to it? Am I behind? Am I falling short?

That week, after a customer looks at me and smiles, after I follow the chef into the walk-in, after he takes their portion, I cross the line we have built between us. He plates the first cut, brushes gauze across my thigh.

“No one would ever know,” I say. I feel his fingers twitch in surprise. “No one would ever know if you tried some.” I don’t tell him that I want him to, that it’s different now from that first test. After I have practiced and learned and worked and held my head up like he taught me, and fell asleep with his phantom hands guiding me, and eaten and abstained from all the things he directed, I want him to taste how I have become for him.

There is such a long pause, I think he hasn’t heard me. Goosebumps rise on my arms. “You know I can’t.”

“I’ve been doing everything you said.”

“I know.”

“No one would know.”

“I would.”

“You don’t want to.”

His palms are flat against my calves. I have never felt so much of him at once.

“Candace.”

I do not mean to push him. But we are there, and people are waiting for us but they will keep waiting, and I have never been more body than when we are there together, when his fingertips glide across me, tracing the lines that his knife will follow. He hesitates, and I tell myself this means that he wants the same thing I do. Another moment, another minute, a reason to prolong contact. In his restraint, in his careful posture, I know that he wants more than he will say.

“What if they let customers come watch?” I look over my shoulder at him. “What if this is our last chance?” I leave so many things unsaid. How my days, my thoughts, my body center on these minutes with him. How sacred, these moments when I am made beneath his hands. How sure I am that he feels it too: the electricity, the bond between us. With every second that passes, the pressure of his hands on my leg, the faint tremor in his fingers, the knowledge that every second is one more second he is spending debating with himself, not telling me no, I grow more sure.

“Please,” I speak, as if in prayer.

“Candace,” eventually he sighs my name. “Stop.” He doesn’t wait for me to get up before he leaves the walk-in.

That night, I leave my car at the restaurant. I walk home alone, cry the whole way.

 

More customers start asking to witness, to watch as it happens. There are all sorts of conversations behind closed doors. Debates. What is better aesthetically. What will tell a better story. Table side service, or an open kitchen, something akin to a sushi bar, where the whole restaurant can see. They don’t ask us what we want.

A man in gold standing over a woman laying dow on a table.

I come to work and it is too late. The managers, the people in suits who are never in the kitchen, never here during the rush, never cleaning dishes after the restaurant is closed, never on their feet for more than an hour, they have already decided. The table moved into the front of the house, near the bar. So that every customer can witness, can be part of the experience, but the ones who ordered will know that they are special, that it is just for them.

I tell myself that it’s better than a stranger in the back room with the two of us, staring, interrupting. I tell myself that it’s okay.

That night, when the first person orders I already know he will choose me. I don’t know if this is a test but I promise that I will pass it.

No one said the procedures were any different, so I walk to the table, begin to unbutton my shirt. I feel eyes on me and do not meet them. A movement as customers turn towards us. My coworkers pretend to be busy. Olivia floats behind me with a pitcher of water. I hope that she drops it. I miss the cold of the walk-in, where only dead fish watched.

He is swifter than he has ever been. Stunned, I hear him tell me to get dressed. No examination, no testing which places most tender. Someone else comes to bandage me, and this betrayal, these strange fingers on my skin, brings tears to my eyes.

He sees it, I know he sees it, the hot flush in my face, even as he is dressing the dish. I can’t react, not now, when it’s become a show for everyone. I want to cry, want to yell at him, to slap the plate out of his hand. I want to tell him that he is no better than the butchers at the grocery stores. When my shirt is smoothed down, and I am waiting to accompany him to present the fresh carpaccio to the customer, he looks up at me and his expression is so sad, so gentle, that I catch tears in my throat. I crouch, pretend to tie my shoe.

“You’re doing well,” he says from somewhere above.

When we offer the red meat to the customer, she takes it with practiced motion, as if she has been waiting for years for this. Saving up every penny for this luxury. I wonder if she can see it on my face, the salt on my eyelashes from barely held tears. I don’t know if seeing this would make the experience better or worse for her.

It is the next order that twists something in me. He leads Ashten to the table. All of my customers stare, and so do I. The way he is with her is exactly the way he is with me. She undresses, her skin paler than mine, her breasts larger. I try to see what she looks like to him. How lovely, how fresh. He is as quick with her as he is with me, and this, I tell myself, must be something good. At least he does not linger there with her.

Ashten smiles at everyone as she walks, one step behind him. She looks like she wants to give the customer a hug as they eat. There is bile on my tongue. The night keeps going. The world is blurred. Countertops and tables blend together like some kind of terrible machine. I chew on the inside of my cheek. It begins to bleed. The soft flavor of rust.

That night, I can’t go home. I wait outside until I see him walking towards his car.

“Why didn’t you stop this?”

He turns, looks at me across the parking lot. I have never seen him outside before. “You know this was out of my hands.”

“So that’s it, that’s just the way things are now?”

“That’s the way things are now.”

“Did you do this because of me, because of what I said?” His eyes are hard, his mouth set. My face is hot and red, my eyes full of water. “Do you even care that it’s different now?”

“It’s work, Candace.”

He stands at a distance. Time passes and I think one of us should say something, but we don’t. He turns and walks to his car. His back is a wall I can’t speak. In that moment I know with stomach dropping certainty that I will never walk home next to him. Will never know what home he goes to, what friends he has. I know him enough to know he doesn’t talk about work with them, that he would’ve never mentioned me to them. I am nothing to him, not really. I am not even a story. His car starts. I watch his taillights as he drives away. I don’t know how long I stand there, my own saltwater tears trickling into my mouth.

I break all of his rules that night. I go to the bar where the other servers drink until dawn. I can’t remember the last time I tasted alcohol. They buy me shots, rounds, cheer and applaud as I drink. Someone calls me a trooper. One of the sous chefs puts his hand on my back and I let him. I will let everyone touch me. Every time I see Olivia looking at me, worried, I take another shot. Josh, the sommelier, leads me to his car. We are drunk and I don’t trust him to drive. I laugh like I have never laughed before, take his keys, throw them out the window, pull him with me to the backseat. I am so many people’s favorite thing.

When he touches me, I think of how different I will taste tomorrow, and giggle with delight.

 

I will leave this place full of holes.

I gather the servers before the shift starts, confide. I’m quitting. Today is my last shift. I pour shots for each of them. I pour again. They are sloppy and stupid. It barely takes a sentence to convince them. We’re celebrating, I say. I don’t let them see that I don’t drink anything.

During dinner service, he calls me back first. This is meant to be an apology, an acknowledgment, for leaving me alone in the parking lot. I don’t look at him at all as I undress, lay on the table. There is no pause when I follow him to the customer. I smile, I am demure, I am exactly what they want me to be. The customer, a woman with tiny, golden earrings, asks to take a photo with me. He starts. I laugh. “Yes,” I say before he can answer. “It would be my pleasure.” I grin, think about licking the side of her face when she holds up her phone. Tonight, I am everyone’s animal.

When the second customer orders, the chef motions to Sam. I hear their hushed words as I go from kitchen to table. His blood thinned, his taste compromised. Unacceptable. One by one he brings them over, smells their breath. Tainted, all of them. Subpar, below standard, unservable. He is angry. His knuckles on the knife are white, bulging.

“Is there a problem?” I am all innocence. I am all he has.

He calls me over for the second cut. He is rushed, angry, harsh. Not sloppy, but I feel it more than I ever have. The muscles pop and tug. As the night goes on, as people order and keep ordering, as I undress and keep undressing, his hands slow. I feel him searching for a new place, for fresh sinew, for something that won’t dig too deep towards the bone. He cuts, I follow. The customers blend together in a smiling, laughing mass.

His hands on my back, my calves, seeking, pressing. There is no new place to find. I begin to laugh. I roll to my back before he can stop me. My breasts are smaller than Ashten’s, but they are still breasts, hanging in the air like balloons, absurd. He freezes, the kitchen shifts. I am not supposed to be like this in front of customers, in front of anyone. My breasts move when I laugh, and this makes me laugh harder. I have never felt so exquisite in my life.

His hands beneath me, trying to roll me back onto my stomach. I shake my head no. Point to my thighs. “So much,” I laugh. “Do your job.” For the first time, I watch as it happens, as he puts blade to flesh, peers to be sure of the cut, the depth, as the knife flashes and he severs meat from skin. I know he doesn’t mean to, but for just a second, he looks into my eyes as he cuts.

By the end of the shift, after every customer has left, I am woozy with blood loss. His hand is on my elbow like a vice, pulling me to the walk-in. The other servers look up from their closing duties as he tugs the door closed behind us. Back in the cold room alone with him, in our old place, I can’t help but smile, even though I think he might yell. I think he might scream.

He meets my gaze. “What is wrong with you?”

“I quit.” I think for a moment how stupid it is that I am wearing clothing. When he has seen every centimeter, when he knows my body like an instrument.

“What?” he says. He is surprised. He is pale. Of all the things in the world, he did not anticipate this.

“I quit.” He tries to keep his face neutral. He is failing. The effort contorts his muscles. I begin to giggle, as if I am again a young girl, as if it’s the silliest thing either of us could have said. “I quit.”

 

Weeks pass. My savings dwindle. I’m not looking for work, can’t think of a reason to leave my apartment. The light is yellow, the floor slick. It doesn’t matter. I check Yelp daily, read the recent reviews. Customers aren’t supposed to make recordings, but some do anyway. They post the clips before someone from management finds them, gets them taken down. They say it’s about protecting the intimacy of the experience, the privacy of servers and diners. In dark, shaky videos I watch him and Olivia, examine his face on the grainy screen, try to read his expression. Are those bags under his eyes? Is he sleeping worse since I left?

When I find the first four-star review, I don’t feel happy like I thought I would. The review doesn’t tell me enough. I want to know all of it, where everyone stood, who did what, what the customer said.

I look down at my body. Unseen, unfelt by anyone. I don’t know if I still exist.

Days pass, long and endless. I stop counting the dates. I sleep like he taught me to, prepare my food in all the right ways. I don’t know how long I will wait, but I know it’s only a matter of time. That night when I left the walk-in for the last time, before I turned my back on him, I was sure I saw tears in his eyes, and I knew he would come.

It is a morning like any other when there is a knocking at my door. Insistent, steady.

He is there, looking up from the single step that leads to my apartment, dressed in clothes so normal that the intimacy makes me want to cry. I usher him in without a word.

In the kitchen he takes a small plate from the cabinet, as if he already knew where it was. I wait for him to look at me. I want him to watch, to take his time. His eyes meet mine.

“You need to tell me that you want this.”

“I want this.” I speak before the full sentence leaves his lips.

We are breaking more laws than I can count.

We tug at my clothing. Something tears. It is not fast enough. His hands, everywhere, everywhere. My head to his chest, I breathe his scent. Wild, my pulse for him, beneath his fingers. He feels it and laughs. I have never heard him laugh before. I pull him to me, press my body along his. His forehead to my own. His breath on my cheeks, his stomach rising and falling against mine. “I want this,” I say again. Somehow, tangled, never letting go, we sit. I on his lap, he, trembling, knife in hand. I feel his muscles shift and ripple against me as he moves, as he cuts.

He brings it to his lips, closes his eyes, chews. The world holds its breath around us. “Again,” my voice surprises even me. He draws me close, as if to feel my beating heart through the thin gauze of skin that separates us. We hold our gaze as he places it on his tongue. I think I might die from happiness. “Again.” We have forgotten all protocols, abandoned all guidance. Dizzy, my head falls to his shoulder. I don’t need to ask if he likes it, don’t need for him to tell me that this is a secret I will take to my grave.

“You have no idea what this means, do you?” he says. My laughter is light and ringing. “You have no idea,” he says. There is something in his eyes that I can’t name, something that brings the world to our feet.

“Again,” I tell him. I watch his face as he cuts. With one hand around my torso, he holds the meat in the other, salts it, brings it to his mouth. “We have to stop soon,” he says, “it’s not safe.” He is right.

“Again,” I tell him. He is sweating.

He will hold me there, on the grimy floor of my tiny apartment, until he has to leave for work. He will tell me that we can never do this again, that we can never tell anyone. He will tell me that when he walks out of the door, it is goodbye, forever. I will know that he’s lying. Days or weeks or minutes will pass, and he will be there, again, at my door. He will be a supplicant, I will be his feast. He will eat until we are both dizzy, until neither can stand. Curled on the kitchen floor, we will sleep until he is hungry again.

 

 

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Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson


Madeline Vosch writes fiction and essays, and is currently working on a memoir. Her writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Offing, and the Rupture, among others. More from this author →