July 09, 2015
Although the restaurant was air conditioned, Nora felt like one of the steaks being fired up on the grill. Her thighs stuck to the vinyl seat, and she tried to imagine the big man across from her who waited in silence for his bone-in ribeye steak as a dear friend, not a stranger. He sipped on his rum and coke, comfortable not making small talk.
“Another drink?” Bill asked. He waved down the waitress and pointed to Nora’s glass before she even had a chance to respond.
She slurped her Long Island Iced Tea. She had planned to have just the one drink, and then, when the entrees arrived, she’d explain that she had a boyfriend, a fiancé, in fact, and that this had to be a cordial get-together. But when Bill’s rib-eye steak arrived accompanied by two large marrowbones, the plan slipped from thought.
The bones reminded Nora of her mother, who indulged regularly in this bone delicacy. As a young girl, the gelatinous gray-brown center was a mystery to Nora. Her mother relished the bone’s soft center in small spoonfuls, and would run her tongue along the inside for any remaining morsel. She grudgingly gave Nora a taste once. It surprised Nora that it didn’t taste like fat. It was different, textured and grainy. Back then, she didn’t care for it, but seeing it on Bill’s plate brought up a craving she didn’t realize she had.
Nora watched Bill as he sawed into the meat, placed a slab of red flesh into his mouth and moaned. She was appalled by his appetite, his lack of attention to her, his dearth of words.
“How’s yours?” he asked.
“Good,” she lied and pronged her fork through one of her cherry tomatoes, nibbled on her mixed greens, and glanced with envy at his entrée: a 10-ounce steak. Nora pressed the limp strands of her hair between her fingers; she had tried to curl it for the date, but her thick, straight Asian hair couldn’t hold form. She had no intention of having an affair, although she was surprised that she had only now just thought of her boyfriend Danny, who was out of town on a business trip. He seemed a distant memory, like her parents in Hawai’i. Nora snuck a glance at Bill’s untouched shank bones—wondering if he’d save them until the last, like some savory dessert.
The second Long Island Iced Tea arrived, the glass sweating profusely. Nora knew she shouldn’t drink it, but she took a swig and prepared to tell Bill she was engaged. On his plate, his rare steak was gone. What remained: a thin pool of blood and the bones. He picked up one of the shanks, upon which persistent meat and gristle clung, and gnawed on the sides.
Nora met Bill at the Coffee Kiosk on Lyons Avenue in Burbank a couple months ago. She saw him every morning when she ordered her non-fat, no-whip mocha. In the drive-through window, Bill’s broad shoulders filled the frame. She imagined he must have played football in high school.
Just that morning, instead of handing Nora her usual fifteen cents in change, he leaned out the window and hovered over her as if she was a breakfast pastry sitting in a case. Nora managed a smile, but felt slightly afraid he might press in and take a bite. She rarely received this type of attention anymore. It had been a while since she felt lusted after, and there was something appealing about his hunger. A sudden hot rush had run through her.
Across the table, Bill’s lips pressed around the bone. The yellow-gray marrow began to ooze, slipped and splattered into the blood.
In the parking lot, Bill asked if she wanted to grab a coffee.
“If we go to the Coffee Kiosk, I could brew a fresh pot,” he said.
Nora remembered how he had looked at her that morning and imagined being pressed into that tight, cramped space with him. “Is there somewhere else we could go?”
“Sure, I know all the coffeehouses. But you know what you’re asking of me, right?”
He stood over her. “To support one of my competitors…” He smiled and came in closer. “But for you, I don’t mind.” He brushed her neck with his fingers.
Nora caught the scent of grilled steak and gristle.
Nora said she’d drive and meet him at a coffeehouse they both knew. Once in the driver’s seat, she spotted her engagement ring in the ashtray, and remembered Danny, the perfect prescription to any woman’s romantic woes. Danny enjoyed grocery shopping and found particular joy in buying things in bulk—a huge 4 x 4 block of toilet tissue, socks that came in a twenty-pack, and sanitary wipes by the case. He liked blowjobs on Monday nights after football, and his idea of excitement was a rented DVD with a bag of buttered microwave popcorn.
Just that morning before he left on his business trip, he knelt on one knee and asked Nora to marry him. He presented her with a one-carat solitaire diamond ring with platinum band. She said, yes, of course, but then waited for the feelings that should come as he placed the ring on her finger: joy, excitement, love. Instead, she felt aggravation; the ring didn’t sit right; it scratched the soft sides of her finger. Although it was the right size, it seemed to dwarf her small hand. In the bathroom, she took it off and examined the interior, but there was no particular irregularity that should cause the irritation. After she left the house, she pulled the ring from her finger and put it in the ashtray, among the loose change she never used.
The kiss happened inside of Lulu’s Beehive, an independent coffeehouse with mismatched tables and chairs. Some amateur paintings hung on the wall, presumably to be sold. Nora and Bill sat across from each other at a checkerboard-painted tabletop.
“So, where are you from?” Bill asked.
Nora explained that she was from Hawai’i and didn’t go back very often. Her parents were divorced, but both still lived on the Big Island. They often fought over whom she should stay with, and if she chose a hotel, they invited her to dinners and other outings on the same days.
“What about yours?” she asked.
“They’re still together. My father’s a superior judge in Connecticut.” Bill appeared to search for something else to say. He seemed at a loss, like a fifth grader asked to spell a difficult word. Nora was going to kiss his cheek to ease the pressure to say more, but when he leaned forward to meet her their lips met. Bill moaned, the same moan that had escaped his lips when he bit into his steak. Nora had not meant for the kiss to happen, but now she wanted more.
Nora’s father was a mechanic. He didn’t make a lot of money, but Nora’s family never went hungry. Aside from his day job, he managed to raise chickens and pigs, and bought beef by the cow from the local slaughterhouse. He hunted wild boar and slit the animals’ necks, pulled out the innards, and hung the bodies, allowing the blood to drain from the meat. He was also a skilled fisherman, bringing home buckets full of fish.
The kitchen she remembered from her childhood was filled with whole animal carcasses—heads, necks, and tails. Her mother understood the connection between flesh and bone. She braised pig’s feet, slowly simmering the hooves in their own unctuous sauce. The cartilage and tendons melted down, yielding a thick, flavorful base. She fried fish so crisp Nora could crunch straight through the body. From large fish heads, her mother sucked the eyes out of their sockets until she drew the salty mucous from their orbs.
Since moving to California for college, animal bones had disappeared from Nora’s diet. She and Danny prepared meals from precut, pre-packaged meat. Their recipes called for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the leanest cuts of beef or pork tenderloin, and perfect fish fillets.
The one time her mother came to visit her, she chided Nora. “No bones?” she said. “But that’s where the meat is sweetest and most tender, baby.”
That night her mother made a beautiful rack of lamb. Nora savored its gamey succulence, and as promised, the meat was full of flavor.
It was her father who had wanted something different for her—to leave the islands and go to college. He was proud she wore smart business suits to work and drove a brand new Volvo whose complex computer circuitry he had no idea how to fix, and he would be equally pleased that she was now engaged to a man who never needed to break a chicken’s neck.
Nora hoisted herself into Bill’s truck. She touched his throat and pulled him to her. Their lips met, soft and parted. They kissed gently at first. His mouth felt patient and safe, with a tongue gently probing her own wet space. She could feel herself giving way to its slickness. Inside, desire gripped the base of her pelvis, tightening. Somewhere in the center of her, like a cherry truffle, she felt fluid ooze, soft and slow. It flowed between her hips, and something in her gave way. She bit her lower lip, trying to stifle her next thought.
“Let’s go to your place,” she said.
Nora had never witnessed her parents in the midst of affectionate touches or whispered intimacies. Dinners were always quiet, just the sound of forks and knives clinking on ceramic plates.
Nora’s mother had been more like an older sister than a parent to her, teaching her about boys, French kissing, and finger banging. One day when Nora was ten years old and her parents were still married, she caught her mother having sex with another man. Nora had been cleaning and opened the door to their shower house. She had never seen two bodies so naked. Her mother was lying on her back on the floor; her large brown breasts fell into her armpits. Mounted on top, the man’s white ass clenched. Her mother’s limbs were sprawled open, arms out and fingers grasped tight into the tousled clothing on the floor. Her mother’s knees were pushed up to her waist, calf muscles contracted, and head thrown back in an expression of agony.
The man turned, and just before he slammed the door in her face, Nora caught a glimpse of his erect penis slicked with some of her mother’s blood. The sound of her mother’s moans would haunt her for years afterward.
When Bill unlocked the front door to his apartment in Hollywood, he walked in ahead of her and dropped his keys on an entry table. It was dark, so Nora stood in the doorway.
“Sorry, the light bulb went out in the living room last night.” She heard his shoes squeak over hardwood floors. He flicked on the kitchen light, but it was behind a partition. It was enough for Nora to make out a worn sectional sofa with one of the sections missing. From the kitchen, she heard water running, then the suction sound of a refrigerator door opening. “You want a beer?” Bill called.
Nora didn’t like beer, but she could use a drink. “Sure,” she said and looked around. There was a small bookcase with a dozen or so books lying on their sides. Two large televisions sat next to each other on an entertainment center. The walls were bare. Beyond the TVs, the kitchen table was covered with partially dissected computer towers, fast food containers, and beer bottles.
Bill came back to the doorway, took Nora’s hand and guided her further inside so he could close the door behind her. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting guests,” he shrugged sheepishly, looking around as if seeing his place for the first time.
Stacks of papers and files littered his couch. He cleared a place for her to sit and set the papers down on the kitchen table.
“Why do you have two TVs?” she asked. “Is one not working?”
“Football. On Sundays, between the two, I can catch all the games.”
They stood looking at the TVs as if expecting they would turn on, but they remained cold and gray. Bill put his hands at the front of her neck, resting over her clavicle, which both scared and excited her. What did she really know about him? His fingers could easily close around her throat.
He moved more papers onto the entertainment center. “I hate living like this, but it’s all I have time for these days. I have ten stores now and bookkeeping’s a bitch. Of course, I have an accountant. But organizing everything still ends up being a handful.”
“You own the Coffee Kiosk?” she said.
“Yeah, the concept of drive-through coffee is catching on. Our small size is an advantage over Starbucks. But I don’t want to talk business. I finally have a beautiful woman in my apartment.”
Bill sat next to her on the couch and rested his hand on her thigh. She wondered what had happened to the beer he offered her. She motioned toward a picture on the entertainment center. It was too dim to make out faces, but she could tell it was a family portrait—father and mother seated and two boys standing behind them.
“Yeah, that’s my family. Good old Dad never approved of my business.” Bill interlaced his fingers. “He’s judge and jury, not much impresses him. My older brother went to law school, followed in his footsteps. I’m the black sheep.”
“Ten stores. It’s quite an accomplishment,” Nora said, realizing she had read Bill wrong. He wasn’t some minimum-wage worker. He was an entrepreneur, and his business probably prevented him from having much interaction with women.
Bill explained how he had felt almost a religious experience when he first walked into a Starbucks during college—their abundant choices of coffees, espressos, and accompanying sweets. He spent many late nights drinking designer coffee brews to study for finals, and worked at all of the major franchises to earn money through college. He borrowed the money to start Coffee Kiosk from his father. He insisted Bill pay the loan back with interest and demanded continual kiosk expansion with the profits.
Nora felt sorry for him.
Bill went quiet. He had spoken loudly and fervently about his business, and in the long pause, he seemed to grow self-conscious and embarrassed. “I always looked forward to the days you came by,” he finally said. “I imagined you frequented the kiosk to see me, but now I know the truth. You were just interested in my espresso.”
They shared a small laugh and their conversation was about to hit another lull when he leaned forward to kiss her. With his large body, Nora was practically beneath him, the full weight of him upon her. She reached under his shirt and felt the broadness of his mid-section, ran her fingers over his ribcage. He took this as permission to press his body more firmly against hers. He paused briefly, but she could feel the pressure of his thighs easing her legs apart.
He brought her hand down over his jeans so her fingers pressed on the hard bulge in his pants. She imagined his penis as thick as the rest of him. An image of the steak bones on his plate shot through her mind, the marrow sliding out. She gasped. In one quick motion, he pushed her dress up above her hips and his big sausage fingers were inside her. She moaned, but he quickly covered her mouth with his, so she could not object. His teeth grated her lips.
He was pushing his face into hers and just when she thought she couldn’t breathe, he pushed aside her thin panty and thrust himself inside, driving against her cervix. In one quick motion, he grabbed her legs and pushed them back so her knees rested to either side of her face. He arched himself further and grunted out in pleasure. She felt an explosion of heat. The warm mess seeped out and leaked down her ass.
“Damn. I’m sorry. You were so tight.”
Nora was disappointed. It had happened so fast, she hadn’t had time to get aroused and now there was pain.
He kissed her forehead and got up to go to the bathroom. The light flashed on and stung her eyes. He closed the door. She heard water running, as if he was washing his hands, but it ran for a long time. She was going to ask for a towel, but he didn’t come out. She wondered what he could be doing for so long, and then she heard the shower.
She stood and liquid rolled down her thighs. She ran to the kitchen sink and wiped herself with paper towels she ripped from a roll sitting on the counter. She realized she was bleeding a little bit. She cleaned up as best she could, slipped on her shoes, and ran out the front door, letting it swing open.
Driving home, Nora fished through her purse for her cell phone, and tried to run through what had just happened. Her display indicated seven missed calls and the icon for new messages was lit. She dialed her voice mail and her hands shook as she held the phone to her ear. Instead of Danny, it was Bill. “Where the hell are you?” She deleted the message without listening to the rest of it.
She pulled onto her street. From the end of the block, she could see her bedroom light was on. Had she forgotten to turn it off? Or had Danny come home early? He had left that morning to visit clients in San Francisco and was supposed to be gone for three days. She saw his familiar silhouette cast a shadow on the bedroom blinds.
She opened the garage and parked. The clock on the dash read 1:20 am. She checked herself in the mirror, smoothed down her dress, and went inside. As she closed the door behind her, Danny came into the kitchen.
“You’re home!” she said. Her thighs itched. She had an urge to scratch, but restrained herself. Her upper lip twitched.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to spend our first night as an engaged couple away from you. I caught the last flight into Burbank.” He sat at the kitchen table. She noticed the grey strands in his brown hair and that it was getting long, half an inch over his earlobes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you’d be home. I went out for a couple drinks after work.” She came over and kissed him on the lips. She wondered if she smelled like steak, like Bill, or some combination of the two that might give her away.
“Were you drinking? Maybe you shouldn’t have been driving,” he said.
“I didn’t have much.” Looking away from him, she was afraid she might cry. She scanned the kitchen for something to distract her, but even the cereal bowl and coffee cup she had left that morning were washed and put away. The recessed lighting gave off a soft light and she could see her own reflection in the window. Her hair had gone completely straight and her make up had been wiped away during sex—she looked exhausted.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Just a tough day. I stopped at this place called Lulu’s Beehive to get some coffee.” She shook her head trying to shake away the thought of Bill’s dark apartment, his angry voice on her phone.
Nora pulled out a chair and sat next to Danny. He took her hand in his and held it for a long while. “Where’s your ring?” he asked.
She looked at her finger. After everything that had happened, she had forgotten to pull it from the ashtray and put it back on. “It’s in the car.”
“Were you trying to pick up guys at the bar?” he smiled.
She pulled her hand away, felt as if her life was closing in on her. She tried to compose herself, but there seemed to be no way around telling him what happened.
“Hey, I’m just kidding.” Danny got out of his chair and paced the kitchen. “When I came home and you weren’t here, I assumed you were out with Angela. When you didn’t answer your phone, I called her.”
Nora felt a tightness in her throat, as if the truth was caught there and making its way out. She closed her eyes and recounted the evening, wondering where she should start.
“Angela said you were quiet at work, that you hadn’t even mentioned the proposal.”
It had been a mistake, that’s where she’d begin. A small truth, and from there the rest would follow. Danny removed a small black box from his pocket. He snapped it open. Inside was another ring; this one a filigree with a round one-carat centerpiece, and the setting, a latticework of fine etching and diamond-set flowers. The white gold band was imprinted with a wheat pattern and braided in an antique style. It was delicate and dainty.
“I knew as soon as you looked at that other ring that you didn’t like it,” Danny said. “It bothered me all day, so I came home early to see my mother. She offered this ring for our engagement. It’s a family heirloom. What do you think?”
Nora felt something shift, liquid and thick inside her; she was still bleeding.
Danny placed the ring on her finger. It felt weightless and seemed to nestle perfectly around her slender fingers, as if it belonged there. She was stunned at how comforted she felt by the ring’s presence on her hand, and relieved they’d still be married.
He drew close and stroked her hair. The gesture made her feel like a child. Danny’s eyes were bright and expectant. Something like love, or maybe just relief, overwhelmed her.
“It’s just the thing to make it right,” she said.
But as she looked down at the band, it appeared like bone in the dim light. It made Nora think of her mother, how she tongued the inside of marrowbones; how she went back every week to the local butcher shop that carried the best beef shanks. The thought jolted Nora forward; she buried her head into Danny’s shoulder and tried to block out the next image: Bill’s brawny knuckles, the fat wrinkled skin around his finger joints. Her stomach growled, hungry.
TAMMY DELATORRE is a writer living in Los Angeles. She enjoys paddleboarding, photography and culinary delights. In previous lives, she’s worked for a Nobel-prize-winning biochemist; helped to design, build and race a solar car that won the World Solar Challenge in Australia; and danced the hula despite being teased of stiff hips. Her essay, “Out of the Swollen Sea,” was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the winner of the 2015 Payton Prize. Her writing has also appeared in Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Rumpus, River Styx, and Many Mountains Moving.