Sixteen Ways to Hock a Cat: One

What do you want?  If you’re expecting the witty and loopy and highly entertaining me that you’ve been told to expect, you’re going to be very disappointed.  You’ve caught me at a strange and uncomfortable moment, and I’m not feeling particularly witty or loopy or special right now.  I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.

It shouldn’t suck as much as it does, I mean, I’m in New York City, which is one of my favorite places, and Larry has taken me out to dinner at a restaurant that’s way beyond anything I could afford.  Who the hell is Larry?  That’s a good question.  I’ve known him for a while, but when it comes to serious biographical factoids, I feel like I don’t know him from Adam.

Actually, that’s not true.  He’s very clearly not Adam; Adam drives an early-Nineties full-size Chevy pickup that looks like a suit that someone slept in, and he lives in Utah and has an ill-advised tattoo on his neck.  Larry is inkless, sort of a thirty-something hipster (indicated primarily by the funky designer glasses which draw attention away from his receding hairline) and drives an Acura TL, which suits him very well.  Acuras are stylishly bleeding-edge and yet kind of soulless, they’re like sport-luxury cars for guys who prefer driving video games to actual driving.  Not that I’m suggesting Larry is soulless, but I do know that we took a taxi here instead of driving the Acura.

At the moment Larry’s actually quite animated, possibly bubblier than I’ve ever seen him. Larry loves food the way I love cars, and he’s been telling me about this restaurant which has more stars than all the generals in Dr. Strangelove combined for months and since I was in town he used it as an excuse to try the place out.  He’s having a grand old time explaining each dish to me and frankly I’m not having such a great time of it because I feel like I’m going to throw up.

Of course I don’t want to tell Larry this and ruin his experience, so I’m doing my best to keep it to myself.  It’s not the food, just a late-spring cold that had better not turn out to be a tummy bug because the weather is beautiful and the last thing I want is for Larry to think that the food here made me sick, especially after I let him order for me because nothing on the menu made any sense except occasional words like “beef” or “asparagus.”

That said, my stomach is doing a slow waltz and I’m feeling kind of lightheaded and I’m not sure I can take another sip of this peppery cold carrot soup.  There are lumps of crab in it.  I’m sure someone worked very hard on it, but my mouth and tongue have spent the past thirty-six years being trained that carrots = crunchy and so I can’t shake the image of a brace of sous-chefs back in the kitchen carefully chewing fresh carrots into gruel that’s not quite as smooth as baby food  and spitting them into a saucepan.

“I love these knives,” I tell Larry, who’s just paused in a monologue about the dishes and table setting.  “They’ve got bumblebees on them.”  Seriously, Larry’s a nice guy and I’m actually interested enough in the things he says that there’s a good chance I’d sleep with him after dinner if I wasn’t feeling so sick, which coincidentally is the reason that I’m having a hard time talking about him in a way that doesn’t make him sound like he’s boring me to tears.  He’s actually very interesting when I’m not trying to throw up.  Really. 

“It’s a Laguiole knife,” he says.  “It’s a French brand, very nice stuff.  How do you like the fish, Lexi?”

“It tastes complicated,” is about the nicest thing I can say about it.  “What was it again?”

“It’s halibut with stuffed zucchini blossom and ratatouille jus.”

None of that makes a shred of sense to me, except for the fish and the vegetable and the name of that movie.  This is how people must feel when I talk about cars, so perhaps turnabout is fair play.  “Does ratatouille jus mean the green pulpy thing next to the zucchini, or the pencil-shaped thing that tastes like cornbread?”

Larry laughs.  “I love eating with you,” he says.  “What did you think of the soup?”

“It tastes like slightly peppery liquefied carrot and deadly nightshade and  it has green paste in it.”

“That’s the cilantro chantilly.”

“Of course it is.  They really like green paste at this place,” I reply.

“Well, if you don’t like it, feel free to set it aside.”

Part of me wants to snap at him that I didn’t need his permission to not eat it, and another part is grateful to have gotten it.  I set it aside and wait for a server to come and remove it from my life.  One thing I do like is the fact that every time I finish my cranberry juice, another one magically appears.  I’ve already had four glasses, and if they had all been vodka-charged like the first one I would probably be considerably more entertaining right now.  As it stands, I’m hoping that Larry will start talking about something so that I can listen and not have to contribute much.  There are times when I would rather learn stuff than make small talk.

Larry seems to sense this, and begins telling me about his trip to New Orleans and the exciting things he ate there.  As he continues, I’m surprised there was a single crawfish left in the state after he and his friends left, a thing that would be fine with me since I haven’t got much interest in eating tiny lobsters at the best of times, let alone right now.  Bite and suck, indeed.  It would be hilarious if I was in the mood to make a dirty joke, which I’m not.  And ultimately I’m glad I don’t interrupt, because I learn a lot about the crayfish’s natural habitat, and the best way to find them.  How people came to start eating the things is a piece of information that Larry is unfortunately not privy to.

“The main course should be out in a moment,” Larry says.  “I’m going to run to the restroom, and I’ll be right back.”  He gets up and goes, leaving me alone.  A waiter comes by and refills my cranberry juice, and I drink half of it.

“Don’t like the soup?” he asks, eyeing my half-full bowl.

“It’s not exactly my thing,” I tell him.

“Me, either,” he replies with a wink that reminds me that I don’t look my age, especially not if twentysomething wannabe actors working at tony restaurants to pay the rent are hitting on me.  Not that this is a bad thing.  Lexi, you might be saying to yourself, you’re complaining an awful lot for someone who’s being treated to a dinner she couldn’t otherwise afford and who’s just been reminded that dammit, she still looks good even with that twenty-year high school reunion less than a hamster’s age away.

Give me a break.  I feel like crap.  The waiter takes the soup away and I’m left at the table alone again.  It’s a given that I don’t quite fit in with this crowd of well-to-do foodies who are here because the chef is the latest hot culinary artist.  Really, I would’ve been happy with macaroni and cheese, or a coney dog, except that you can’t get good coney dogs in New York City.  Seriously, it’s true, the only good coney dogs are in Michigan, where they were invented.  Coney Island is just a red herring.  Anyway, the décor is nice enough, very heavy on metallic autumn tones and drapes hanging from the ceiling, and I really could pocket one of these bumblebee knives, but that’s kind of tacky.

The main course arrives.  I remember from Larry’s ordering that it’s something lamb-related.  Mary never had what’s staring up at me from my plate, though, it’s a pair of barely-cooked, hockey puck-sized slices of flesh that appear to be floating in a puddle of blood.  The bones arranged in an “X’ don’t help much.  There’s some cooked root vegetable too, a turnip or a radish or something, in the corner of the plate, but all in all it doesn’t look so much like dinner as it does the remains of a ghastly kitchen accident, with a sprig of some herb on the side.  Call an ambulance!  Someone’s lost a…Jeebus, what is this?  A section of forearm, maybe?  I think there’s still hair on it.

I stare at it for a while, and then kill the rest of my cranberry juice.  Funny thing about fruit juice; you never can seem to fill up on it.  I could go on drinking juice for the rest of the night and not ruin my appetite.  Well, not any worse than the pounding head and bloody baby sheep slabs in front of me already have, anyway.  Maybe I should become a vegetarian.  No, that wouldn’t work, I like cheeseburgers way too much.

Maybe I could tell Larry that I’m a vegetarian.

No, that wouldn’t work either, he saw me eat a cheeseburger the first time we went out.  I look around the restaurant to see if he’s coming back.  The notion of quietly disposing of the meat under the table and telling him that I ate it before he returned also crosses my mind, but a) that might be a sin against all that is culinary, and Molly would almost certainly kill someone for the meal I just ate, and b) Larry is definitely paying through the nose for this and he’s probably not getting laid so the least I can do is eat it.  Or maybe if I don’t eat it then I don’t owe him sex?  These things are complicated.  In any case, the baby sheep isn’t getting any less dead whether I eat it or not, so I might as well try.  I didn’t see which direction the restrooms were in, so I’m not sure which way to look for Larry.

The waiter comes back by again.  “How is everything?” he asks, when it’s obvious that I haven’t touched it yet.  I hate it when they do that.

“I’m waiting for my friend,” I tell him, and he disappears again with a little nod.  My cranberry juice is miraculously full again.  How do they do that?  I don’t even think he was carrying a pitcher.

There’s a special kind of weird feeling when you’re sitting in a restaurant by yourself, especially when there’s another plate right across from you.  I can’t really explain it.  It’s kind of a vulnerable feeling–she’s obviously waiting for someone, it says, and I can’t help but imagine that the other men and women flitting about the restaurant and making cheerful small talk are watching out of the corners of their eyes, waiting to see who I could be waiting for.  Are they jealous?  Do they think, “I wish that girl with the glasses and red and white bangs and the cool vintage jacket was waiting for me?”  Or do they think I’m pathetic, stuck by myself, possibly even abandoned?  Maybe they think, “Hell, I’d have climbed out the bathroom window, too.  What is she wearing?”  A couple of them might even recognize me, from the days when the tabloids found me interesting.  That half-hour of notoriety was a decade ago, but it happens.

Where the hell is Larry?  Maybe he did climb out the bathroom window.  I check the time on my phone discreetly.  He’s been gone all of…well, I didn’t look when he left, so I don’t know.  But guys don’t normally take this long to pee, and Larry’s not a metrosexual sort of dude who’s going to spend half an hour retouching his hair, such as it is.  Maybe he’s feeling sick, too.  Maybe it was the carrot soup.

“The salmon…mousse,” I growl.  The couple at the table across from me hears me; they both pause and look at me, then realize they’ve paused and looked and try to return gracefully to their conversation.  I pick up the root vegetable from my plate, wipe some of the blood off of it, and eat it.  I have no idea what it is; it looks like a white carrot about the size of a bullet vibrator and I want to say that it’s a rutabaga, but I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like a rutabaga.  I’m probably just in the mood to be able to say that I ate a rutabaga.  A rutabaga soaked in the blood of a young lamb, in fact.

Oh, that didn’t do a goddamn thing for my stomach.  Should I wait for Larry to come back before I sick all of this up, or just scoot to the bathroom right now?  I am definitely coming down with something.

Oh, suck it up, Lexi Crane, I tell myself.  So you’ve got a headache and you’re not in the mood to eat weird food.  Deal.  I’m wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy the food at–what’s the name of this place again?–prepared by whatshisname, and I really ought to try harder to enjoy it.  I tell my stomach to shut up, and slice off a bit of the lamb with my fancy Laguiole knife, look around for Larry again (nope, not coming yet), and then eat it.  Fuck you, stomach.

I can taste the fact that this piece of meat would be delicious under different circumstances.  Right now, however, it tastes dead; I might as well have taken a bite out of a truck-killed possum by the side of the road.  My stomach issues a two minute warning and I look around for the bathrooms.  So much for sucking it up; apparently, I am going to blow it out instead.  My palms are clammy, the sounds in the restaurant are echoey and I’m getting that horrible pre-vomit acidic spit in my mouth.  This is not a drill.

I feel terribly conspicuous as I stand up and move as nonchalantly as I can in the direction that I hope to God the bathrooms are in.  All of the walls seem to be random draperies or framed artwork that’s hanging from the ceiling to create false walls; I can’t even figure out which direction the front door is in any more.  Mercifully, I’m going the right way; a quick obstacle course through the tables and I’m in the little alcove between two familiar doors.  What’s French for “ladies” again?  I think that’s what the door I just pushed open said.  I sure as hell hope it does, because I’m only barely ahead of the train, so to speak.

There’s time to notice that the bathroom has a row of those fancy bowl-sitting-on-top-of-the-counter sinks and no urinals and then I’m banging into the first stall, clenching my jaw to hold it back for just a moment and then there is a lot of puking.  The world goes away for a while, it simultaneously expands far, far beyond my consciousness and shrinks to become nothing but this one moment, that fractured second of agony waiting for the next wave of unstoppable regurgitation to hit. 

I don’t know how much later it is, but it’s over and I’m drooling and crying involuntarily over a toilet bowl full of what is still recognizable as much of what I just ate, plus a bunch of Skittles from earlier.  The large volume of partially-processed cranberry juice gives the whole mess a slasher-flick ambience that I’m just not going to go into here, a fact for which you are probably thankful.  I feel weak and wrung out and I can’t believe that nobody out in the restaurant heard that.

Oh, God, I hope nobody out in the restaurant heard that.  I’m still alone in the bathroom, at least.   I flush, quickly and guiltily, and force myself to my feet, willing the shakes away with limited success and spitting the last of the taste out of my mouth.  I feel better, but not what you’d call “good.” 

After taking a moment to compose myself, I muster the courage to return to the table.  Nobody gives me a strange look as I exit the restroom, but then I purposefully unfocus my eyes so that even if someone is looking, I won’t see it.  That doesn’t help, of course; I feel like all eyes are on me, can imagine the whole restaurant falling silent as the sound of my voluminous puking session reverberated through the door, no doubt sparking no fewer than five conversations about the bulimic chick in the glasses.  Larry would be at the table, catching sidelong glances of his own and wondering if I was okay, or if it was the talk of crawfish that had made me ill.  But that’s okay, I’ll just tell him I’m all right, and then we can talk about dessert.  I could do dessert.  Yes, I know I just vomited, but dessert is dessert.

Then again, Larry might not be at the table at all.  What the fuck?  I return to a table with two plates of bloody mini-racks of lamb, only one of which has been touched, Larry’s half-consumed gourmet beer, and a full glass of cranberry juice. 

Now I’m starting to worry.  Maybe he was feeling sick as well.  I sit down and close my eyes and wait for a while.  If he’s not back in five minutes, I should have someone go and check on him.  It’s a long five minutes.  I imagine Larry unconscious in a puddle of partially-digested carrot soup, or perhaps lying on the bathroom floor twitching in anaphylactic shock.  But that’s silly; if he had a food allergy, certainly he’d know. 

In any case, it’s a long five minutes.  The waiter comes back by with a quizzical look on his face, and I ask a question that immediately makes me feel like a schmuck.  “Excuse me, could you peek in the bathroom and check on my friend?  He’s been in there a while, and I want to make sure he’s okay.  His food’s getting cold,” I add kind of lamely and needlessly.  I could kill Larry for worrying me like this.  At this point I don’t even care if he’s in the middle of taking the largest poop in American history, he should’ve gone before he left home and not left me alone.

I take an experimental sip of cranberry juice.  My stomach agrees to accept it.

The waiter comes straight back.  “I’m sorry miss, he’s not in there.”

“What?”

“There’s nobody in the men’s room,” he adds.  “Should I check the other…?” 

Yes, I suppose there’s a remote possibility that Larry could be an unusually convincing drag king, but no, he’s not.  And a proper drag king would use the men’s room anyhow, but I suppose I can’t expect a waiter who hits on his female customers when their guys are in the bathroom to know that.  “I was just in there, he didn’t go in the wrong door.”

“Did he step out for a cigarette, perhaps?”

“He doesn’t smoke.  This is weird.”

“I’ll take a look in the lounge,” the waiter says.  “Perhaps he ran into a friend.”  There’s a funny tone in the waiter’s voice, but I can’t quite place its meaning.  He might be weighing his chances of taking me home instead of Larry, the cad who’s just abandoned me with a frightfully expensive meal, or he may just be trying not to laugh.  In any case, he’s gone and I’m alone with my cranberry juice and bloody lamb again.  I push the food over so the bones aren’t forming that ominous cross any more.  Seriously, what chef thought that would look inviting or appetizing?  Nothing says, “I am delicious, eat me!” like a pair of crossed bones, right?

I have bigger things to worry about than meat, however.  Three minutes later the waiter is back again, saying he can’t find Larry anywhere. Did he really abandon me at this restaurant?  I know people who would find something like this to be a hilarious practical joke, pure comedy gold, but Larry is not one of them.  He knew full well I couldn’t afford to eat here.  Hopefully he wasn’t whisked off in an ambulance or something.  But if that were the case, you’d think someone would have mentioned it to me.  Besides, he’s got his Blackberry; that thing should be growing into his skin by now, it’s always so close to him.  Presumably he’d have called if there something unexpected came up.

And if Larry really was planning on ditching me, I realize, he wouldn’t have left his coat.  Not that it’s particularly cold outside, but it’s a nice coat and if he wanted to be rid of me so badly that he’d leave it behind then I really need to reconsider my social skills.

The waiter is still standing at my elbow, and he seems kind of uncomfortable.  I consider bursting into tears for his benefit; that seems to be what he’s afraid will happen.  But I’m not in the mood to make a scene–oh, the things I could’ve done to this place if I was–so I reach across the table and grab Larry’s coat.  “I guess I’ll wait a while longer,” I say, though if Larry hasn’t reappeared or called in half an hour, then I’m pretty sure he’s not coming back.  Mostly I just want to sit so I can think a bit about what to do next, though the childish hope that he will suddenly return and fix the situation is also in there, I’ll admit.  The waiter mumbles something about the check, and scoots. 

The coat is heavier than an empty blazer should be, so I look in the pockets.

Oh, hello.  Larry left his wallet.  I guess I won’t have to pay for several slabs of uneaten meat, at least.  Am I a bitch for thinking that way?  Blame the upset stomach.  Anyway, if Larry had to run off suddenly and didn’t have a chance to tell me, perhaps he made a point of not returning for his wallet so as not to leave me stuck with the bill.  That’s what I’d do.  So maybe he’s not so much of a schmuck.  I don’t spend the next twenty-five minutes thinking rotten thoughts about him, anyway.  It’s a lot of time for my imagination to run a bit crazy and I think of all the reasons that he might have had to run off without coming back for me–a sudden family illness, perhaps, or a friend in serious need.  Maybe there was a traffic accident and he was taken off in an ambulance with his hand stuck inside a victim’s grisly wound, holding shut the edges of a wound that would have otherwise been fatal.

This is the result of the combination of an overactive imagination and a life in which a great many unusual things have happened.  Anyway, I remember Larry’s address, more or less, so I’ll just go back there and find out what happened in the morning.  With luck, I’ll feel less pukey, too. 

The check arrives momentarily.  It’s $148.  I almost throw up again, but Larry’s got the whole collection of credit cards.  In fact, he seems to have two of each, even a Diner’s Club card. I don’t think I’ve ever even actually seen a Diner’s Club card.  I’m not even sure if it’s a credit card, or if it’s more like AAA or AARP or something.  Rather than devoting too much thought to it, I hand off an Amex and the server disappears with it.  He’d better not ask me for ID when he comes back.

#  #  #

Sixteen Ways to Hock A Cat is the latest Lexi Crane adventure.  It’s not finished yet.  Uncut first-draft chapters are being posted at my DeviantArt site, if you’re interested in watching this one unfold as I make it up.  I’m not sure how it ends yet.