Free Short: Dinner Hour
Hungry. I am so damn hungry. Hunger has become so big it’s a new me growing inside the old me, no room for anything else. I’d like to be one of those girls who can sip water and get by, but damn I am hungry. I study the heavy menu for solutions to my hunger.
The menu describes fifty dishes that sound so good I can taste the ingredients as they’re listed: capers, onions, chicken, mahi mahi, breads, oh god I can picture the breads steaming as I break the crust and let their white bodies puff up, not even needing butter… 34. They don’t use dollar signs in a place like this. As if a dollar sign would cheapen the ridiculous number beside it. Just 34 dot.
He’s late. Not like I’m surprised. But he shows up. I have to give him that much. He shows up 17 minutes late.
“Sorry, sweetie,” my father says, sweeping up to the table. He is full of importance in his corporate uniform: tastefully dark suit and necktie.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long. Meeting went overtime.”
I realize as he says this that I am a meeting. I imagine his secretary reminding him as he pecks away at his laptop You have an eight o’clock with Ingrid.
I realize I am an eight o’clock. Actually, an eight seventeen.
“How have you been?” my father asks, motioning to the waitress.
She arrives eagerly before I can respond. It doesn’t matter. The question was a gesture of fatherhood, as is this meeting. He absorbs himself in a series of commands: steak, rare, you understand, rare. The green beans, the potatoes, wine. Salad for her. And we are in a bit of a rush.
The salad costs 24. I think of the salads that could fill my refrigerator for 24. For 24. I could buy eleven heads of iceberg lettuce or eight pounds of tomatoes or a case of dressing. But I wouldn’t. Because I don’t eat salads. Salads are what you eat when you aren’t all that hungry and I, it seems, am always hungry.
The waitress scurries to fulfill my father’s orders. He and I are left together at the table. The seconds tick by and he fills them: shuffles in his seat, arranges silverware, shifts the plate, sips his water, unfolds his napkin onto his lap. When there is nothing left to be done he waits for me to fill the silence, looks expectantly at me as if I should. Fuck him.
“Well,” he finally says, “how is your mother?”
“Dying,” I say.
Perhaps bluntness is not a common form of communication in the corporate world. He blinks. The word sits at the table without a place set for it.
Another waitress comes bearing the bottle he’d ordered. He is saved. It would be unseemly to discuss dying while a waitress waits for him to taste the wine.
He accepts her offering and she pours a glass for him, then for me, before backing away.
“She’s dying,” I say again, like I’m accusing him of something. Now he is ready for it. He takes a slug of wine; three more seconds before he has to say the right thing.
“She isn’t going for chemo?”
I recall shortened phone conversations, the ones she was too tired to extend. Early in her illness we talked at least twice a week, my mom and I. I haven’t seen my father in almost a year, despite the fact that we live across town from each other. I recall selling my car for plane fare and time off to go take care of her when the treatments were worth the suffering. I took the bus here today and, upon fast calculation I figure that what he’s ordered so far would pay for a good hunk of that plane ticket I bought four months ago.
My father takes his phone out of his pocket and sets it beside his empty plate.
“Why are you asking, really?” I make the question light, as if I wanted to know why he was interested in muskrats, or Japanese poetry.
“Christ, Ingrid,” he says. “Are we really going to do this?”
“Do what? You asked. I’m curious. Why are you asking, really? So you can go see her? So you can send money?” I feel myself regressing, slipping into juvenile hysteria. I swore this wasn’t going to happen today.
The waitress brings a basket of bread, gold loaves peeking from beneath their linen blanket. My father glowers at me. I glower back. The waitress drifts off, wordless.
“You called me,” he says finally. “You called and said you wanted this meeting. I’m just trying to make nice here and you act like a goddamn…”
He catches himself. Snaps his jaw shut. I’ll never know how bad it was, the thing he sees me as today. He washes down the wine in one tilt.
“It wasn’t always this way,” he says. I don’t know if he’s referring to us or to my mother, but he’s forcing civility into the tone. “We –“
His phone begins flashing lights with ambulance urgency. Picking it up, he notes the screen.
“I have to take this.”
He strides to the back of the restaurant, the phone to his ear. I watch him, feeling relief at the time to myself. My anger is a place on fire. I picture tamping it down with something cool and heavy, something powerful and solid enough to fill me with composure. Rage slowly dissipates into the old familiar: hungry.
The waitress returns before he does. She glances at me with something that might be pity, or perhaps she is just curious.
“He said you were in a hurry,” she says as she sets his plate in front of the empty chair. She says this as if it’s an apology. It’s gratifying to hear someone apologize and I smile at her. She sets the salad in front of me, smiles back, and melts into the crowd of heavily draped tables and senseless chatter.
The leaves of this salad are glossy with oil. It is an array of greens, some lacy and almost black, others a velvety wine color. Nestled in are a few grape tomatoes and a sprinkle of white, nuggety cheese kernels. I have never seen anything so unappetizing.
I look across the room to see my father standing by the kitchen doors. He is engrossed in conversation, eyes unfocused on this place, one hand gesturing to an invisible audience. I wonder if things would have been different had I been born with more of his genetic code. As it is I am almost all my mother; peasant-heavy, brown hair that defies any attempt at curls, eyes that might be green or brown, depending on the mood of the light. He is slim and tall, blonde and sharp. Watching his quickness I feel rounded. Awkward. I wonder if my mother felt that way too. I wonder if I will get to ask her.
The smell of his bloody steak reawakens my hunger, angry inside my abdomen. I am reminded of those failed attempts at anorexia in my high school days. I told myself that it was because of my father; his barbed comments about my shape, my snacks, my clothes. I remember denying myself food in the hopes that I’d become one of those cadaverous girls with blue-veined skin, hair all fallen out from starvation, bones jutting at grotesque angles. I wanted to stand in front of him looking like that and see what would happen next. But I never lasted a day. I couldn’t even puke up what I gorged down after holding out until four o’clock in the afternoon and I remember clinging to the porcelain bowl trying to gag out the Little Debbies, the ham slices, the tablespoons of peanut butter, the pint glasses of milk.
White edges of his plate peek out from beneath his dinner. The steak looks substantial; a thin trickle of juice has pooled against his potatoes. At a place like this the potatoes aren’t just heaped on the plate. They certainly aren’t ice-cream-scoop-round like they come at a diner. Instead they have been piped into a ridged design, browned under a broiler so the edges look crisp, dusted with herby green flakes.
I wonder why I called him. What did I think would happen if we had dinner tonight? If I had used my imagination at all I would have guessed that this dinner is exactly what I should have expected and I am surprised at my surprise about how it’s going.
My father’s empty chair pisses me off in a sudden rush that I hadn’t seen coming. I’m pissed that I called him, that he agreed to come. I’m pissed that he’s snubbing me now, barking into his phone while his chair is empty across the table. I’m pissed that he has never known how to be the kind of dad that I wanted, the kind that knows who his daughter is dating, who knows what to do when her mother is dying. I’m pissed that he ordered me a fucking salad when it’s two hours past a normal dinnertime and I’m fucking starving.
I snatch my fork and jab at the salad. An oiled tomato squirts out from under the tines and shoots off my plate onto the floor where it’s certain to be squashed by passing feet. My father makes his way back to the table, snapping his phone shut in one hand. He avoids eye contact with me. I know he ordered this goddamn salad because he thinks his daughter is a fat-ass.
With the fork clenched in my fist, I reach across the table and spear my father’s steak. The fork hits the plate through the meat with a satisfying clack. Now he’s watching. I plop the steak on top of my salad, then begin hacking a piece from one end. Jamming the meat into my mouth, I savor the fat-marbled bite, saliva surging from the glands beneath my tongue as I chew just enough to swallow before shoving in another bite. Twenty steps from the table now, my father’s eyes bulge in astonishment. I take a moment to reach back across the table, scoop up a forkful of his carefully shaped mashed potatoes, and cram that in too. My hand knocks his wine glass as I reach again and it teeters, sloshing redness down the sides and onto the tablecloth. I feel a smear of potatoes on the side of my mouth, but I don’t care. The fullness in my mouth is gratifying in a way I can’t remember feeling before as the meat works its way down my esophagus. My jaws ache from frantic mastication.
He’s stopped. The skin of my cheeks stretches around the meat and potatoes and it’s become difficult to chew. My mother is being eaten alive by her alien cells and suddenly the potatoes are the color of cancer and I imagine bulging cysts sprouting uncontrollably inside her body until there is no more room for her and I wish my father had a uterus riddled with potato-colored cysts. Nausea begins in my throat and tightens my chest, all the way down to my stomach.
The waitress starts to return. I’m sure she wants to ask us if our food is as delicious as the menu had promised. She finds my father standing beside his seat, watching me with naked disgust and me, gagging on a faceful of his dinner. We are frozen, each of us astonished in our own way. The waitress turns on her heel and heads back to the kitchen. My father’s mouth seizes up into an incredulous “oh.”
I lean over, stomach muscles tight against the pressure. Clench shut my eyes. And as if it isn’t coming from me, I hear the unmistakable sound of retching, then a splash. Again. And again.
When I can breathe, I look up. I don’t see my father, just the people at the table next to me; a woman with an up-do clutching her napkin to her mouth, nostrils flared as round and dark as her eyes. She is horrified. I am horrified. I don’t know what my father is.
Clutching for my purse, I reel from the chair. I’m not sure if the heat in my face is from humiliation or the exertion of puking up this dinner that cost more than I made at my job today, but I can’t stand the thought of one more pair of eyes on me, disgusted, angry that I have ruined the close of a perfectly lovely dinner hour.
The doors to the restaurant are hard to push open and it’s impossible to slam them behind me. Ten steps away is a bench beneath a tree. How stupid, I think, to put in a garden with a view of the parking lot. Staggering. I’m dizzy. I’m assaulted by images of what just happened; I can see it over and over again as if it wasn’t me at all. By the time I find the bench the images have changed into memories; my mother, my mother, my mother. Healthy, telling me how pleasing I look in this color. Healthy, a nothing-held-back hug when I got my acceptance letter the university. Healthy, or so I thought, talking me through the homesickness that plagued in those first weeks away while death-sickness gripped her, even if we didn’t know it yet.
I rub my eyes with my fists. Who cares about mascara? Knowing that the damage is done, that I’m black-eyed and smeary already, I rub harder until my eyeballs ache and the skin feels raw around them.
He finds me on his way out the door. I don’t see him coming. He clears his throat so I know he’s there, standing in front of me like someone wondering what to do about a stray puppy in the yard. I’m not looking. I don’t want to see what he sees.
I feel his body settle onto the bench, close enough to sense but not to touch. We sit this way for a few minutes. He touches my shoulder, then mutters something that might be an obscenity when I stiffen. I feel his arm around me in an awkward half-embrace, more a grab than a hug. If this is pity then I hate him, but at the moment I can’t bear to believe it is. When she’s gone, soon, he’ll be all the family I have left. Willing myself to let go, I lean into him just enough to make his arm fit right, splitting the cost of his concession. He sighs.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I believe him, although I’m unsure what he’s sorry for. Maybe for the disastrous dinner. Maybe for her. Maybe for all of it. Maybe for me. In the end, what does it matter tonight?