The Perfect Meal: An Excerpt from I Just Lately Started Buying WingsBy Kim Dana Kupperman
August 07, 2010
Scientists found that food tastes better when you’re hungry.
-Harper’s, “Findings,” May 2004
Quentin and I wait for our cheeseburgers in the fancy hotel restaurant. We’re both a little shaky from that blood-sugar edge that comes when you’re hungry and you’ve spent the last three hours kissing someone you’ve wanted to kiss for three months but couldn’t because you live too far away from each other and are both married.
“Do you know,” he asks me, “that of the sixty-five people executed in 2003, ten ate cheeseburgers as their last meal?”
It’s the odd piece of information he’d know, and I feel a mix of delight and melancholy over Quentin’s ability to recite the last meals of death row inmates.
Maybe it’s silly to be moved by someone’s command of bizarre trivia, but my eyes are beginning to moisten, and the last thing I want to do is cry into a beige napkin in a hotel dining room. The melodrama of tears in public annoys me and I don’t want to blow my strong-and-capable-woman cover in front of Quentin. Besides, I know there’ll be plenty of crying when we say good-bye to each other three days from now. I blink back the tears.
“How many ate seafood?” I ask. I’d request Oysters Rockefeller or mussels steamed in white wine, the kinds of things I would never cook at home because they’re too complicated and messy, and all those shells in the trash mean raccoons pillaging after midnight in my rural Maine backyard.
“Eleven. Seven had fried fish. Only one guy ordered linguini with white clam sauce. Another asked for shrimp, but the prison kitchen didn’t have any so he ate snacks from the vending machine.”
When he smiles, fine lines fan from the corners of Quentin’s eyes, beyond the rim of his glasses. From conversations we’ve had over the last three months about all the ways we’ve been cheated by the world— from insurance company scams to having invented something that someone else gets the credit for— I know what he’s thinking, and I’m thinking the same thing, that requesting a final meal that can’t be prepared or delivered is exactly what would happen to both of us.
In the basement of a community college, Quentin runs a small press and makes hand-bound books.
“I’d spend all my time underground if I didn’t have to support my family. Feed myself out of the vending machines,” he once told me. He moonlights as a clown on the birthday-party circuit, and works a dayjob at Barnes & Noble.
Such a bookstore is the most unlikely place for two people who construct handmade books to meet. I hate franchises of any sort, especially those that sell books on paper that doesn’t last. And so does Quentin, but he needs the money.
I was visiting my friend Dorrie last summer.
“There’s a reading at Barnes & Noble,” she said. “Supposed to be a pretty good writer.” She knows how much I despise megabookstore chains, and I probably rolled my eyes when she suggested we go, but we went anyway. When it was time for the novelist to read, a total of nine people had gathered. Quentin, the assistant manager, was one of them. He stood next to me.
“I always feel sorry for these guys,” he said. “They travel far, read to a dozen people more or less. Then we remainder their books in a couple of months.”
“And the cruelest part,” I said, “is that their books will disintegrate in twenty years.”
“Too much acid in the paper,” we said at the same time. Both of us speaking under our breath, a habit I have when I don’t want to appear as if I know too much, something Quentin does because he’s shy and knows a lot. That’s all it took for me to look at Quentin a little more closely, the odd coincidence of two strangers realizing at the same moment that they already know something about one another.
After the reading, the novelist invited everyone for a round of drinks. I didn’t really want to go, but Dorrie had her eyes on that writer, and when Quentin said his shift was about to end and asked if I’d be joining them, the idea suddenly seemed appealing.
“I like your hair,” he said.
I felt myself blush.
“I was thinking of cutting it. It’s kind of a pain, and with my large head and all this hair, it’s hard to find a hat that fits,” I said.
God, Kim, you are a moron. Clearly, I had forgotten how to flirt, and wasn’t that what I was supposed to be doing as I sipped my drink and talked to an assistant manager at Barnes & Noble who had just told me he liked my hair?
“Don’t,” he said. He leaned toward me and our arms touched.
Three months later and we’re attending a book arts workshop on traditional bindings, in a city neither of us has ever been to, which seems fitting since neither of us has ever done what we’re doing now—talking about the final meals of dead men in a fancy hotel restaurant far away from our homes and spouses. Over cheeseburgers.
There are many ways to bind a book, but the codex—with its hard covers, hand-sewn signatures, and endpapers—is the most familiar binding. Because the codex is one of the hardest bindings to master, it’s the one that most satisfies me. Patience and exactitude are the hall-marks of the well-constructed codex. You must measure twice and cut once. Stand perfectly still while pulling the blade through the paper lest the movement of the body disturb the hand. The paste has to dry overnight. All the parts need to line up exactly. If there’s the tiniest spot of glue on a finger, a cover may be ruined. You learn to hold your breath, to see in increments of sixteenths and thirty-seconds of inches, to wait.
For me, making a book is the only way to be still. When I write, I leave my desk every fifteen minutes (and before sitting down to write, I clean the house and wash the dishes); when I talk on the phone, I pace; when I cook, I talk on the phone. When I love someone, I want everything to happen All At Once. Quentin is the opposite— for him, time is an opportunity to unfold himself slowly.
“I’m pushing fifty,” Quentin says. I already know he’s forty-seven, though he’d look late thirties if his hair were more pepper than salt.
Pushing, I think, trying to dismiss the image that the tall man sitting with me is playing the role of Sisyphus toiling behind a rock, that he’s dressed in a toga and sandals. What does it mean to push an age? Are we pushing it away from us, pushing toward it, pushing beyond its range or the expectations attached to it? Wearing a leather flight jacket that he bought at a flea market for five dollars, Quentin looks like the kind of man who wouldn’t have to push anything to get what he wants. He’s lean and muscular, has the long fingers of a pianist, and it took all of thirty seconds for him to pull me close to him, take my hair in his hand, and lean down to kiss me.
Still visible on his jacket are the previous owner’s initials, KFC. Quentin loves the novelty of someone having the same initials as Kentucky Fried Chicken, but as his eyes narrow, I see he’s also troubled.
“What do you think his name was, Kevin Franklin Connor? Keith Frederick Churchill? Who gives children the kinds of initials they’ll get teased about? Who does that to their kids?” Quentin asks me.
“I don’t have children,” I remind him.
It would have been something to have made and named a baby with Quentin, I think, realizing that what’s happening to me here is much more than extramarital kissing. I close that thought as if it were a curtain I’d rather not look behind, and imagine instead watching Quentin play basketball with his daughter, or the look on his face as he points to a painting his son just completed. I respect this man’s devotion to his children, how his voice softens and his shoulders drop when he talks about them. And it saddens me too that I’ll never know Quentin’s kids more than the stories he tells about them, or the pictures he digs out of his wallet to show me.
Quentin’s wedding band is simple compared to his complicated watch, which has all kinds of buttons and lights, a timepiece he never removes because if he did, he might forget to put it on again. He’s not the kind of man you’d picture eating a twelve-dollar cheeseburger and drinking a seven-dollar beer at three thirty in the afternoon, sitting with a woman who is not his wife. Then again, what kind of man would you picture? Would he be an investment banker in a three-piece suit with a fourteen-karat Rolex? Order sherry or cognac instead of beer? A used-car salesman trying to hide a bald spot with a combover, a DJ who sports a ponytail? A guy who covers up a paunch with a fashionable blazer, or announces his virility with an open shirt that reveals a gold chain nestled in his chest hair? A high roller who pays for your meal with a wad of cash instead of asking the waiter for separate checks?
“I don’t want to be,” Quentin says, “the cliché of a married man who sits at the bar and says his wife doesn’t understand him.”
Quentin is no cliché. What bartender would expect a clown who binds and sells books to confess to a marriage that’s lost its humor, its binding, its story? Look at me. Almost forty-five and I refuse to believe that I’m playing a pre-scripted role: the middle- aged (but young-looking) married woman whose sexual self is awakened after a decade of dormancy, who’s willing to challenge her own notions of what’s right to feel alive. I’ve just spent the afternoon fulfilling a desire that’s been forged over the course of lengthy phone calls and in elaborate letters precisely printed on handmade paper. Do I seem like that kind of woman— hair in slight disarray, lips a little swollen, one earring missing? Or do I have an air of seriousness that says Look, don’t touch, the tough demeanor of a film noir heroine—Simone Signoret or Marlene Dietrich—whose coiffure never strays and who can walk down cobbled streets in stilettos without spraining her ankle? A woman who’d tell a married man, in a voice that sounds like smoke and honey, “Call me when you figure out what you really want.”
No cheeseburger has ever tasted this good. Broiled—his medium, mine medium rare— with evenly melted cheddar, the soft buns toasted just enough. The plates are garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion, and sour pickles. The meat is succulent, the patties not too thick or thin. Quentin eats the onion, which I’ll smell on his breath later when we walk around and find a fountain. There he’ll put on his red clown nose and take two pennies from his pocket.
“Make a wish,” he’ll say.
I’ll laugh, the wind will pick up, and spray from the fountain will dampen my face and hair. I won’t mind the odor of onion that lingers when I kiss Quentin into the early hours of the morning because my wish, of course, was to do just that, kiss him again.
The cheeseburger tastes earthy and smoky, more like something mined from the earth than cut from an animal that walked above-ground and ate grass and oats. Or maybe it’s that I feel like I’m biting into a memory I need to preserve in order to feel more human, a memory packed in salt, as Yeats said, something whose taste I know will never be the same without Quentin there to share it with me.
I’m not sure I seem like the kind of woman who eats cheeseburgers, though it’s hard to say what cheeseburger-eating women look like. Are they long-haired and narrow around the waist as I am? Do they look, as someone once told me, like they’ve been eating apples (not beef) all their lives? Are they sorry about the closing of the gap between their front teeth? Did they inherit high cheekbones from their mothers? The stereotypical cheeseburger-eating women are most likely overweight, dressed in polyester, with bleached- blonde hair and exposed roots, more likely to be sighted in a McDonald’s with their children in tow. Do you think you’d see one in Burger King with a man she’d been kissing— not her husband— for three hours?
My friends understand that I’m particular about food, where it comes from, how it’s prepared and served. At home I buy organic, free-range meat. I purchase my staples from a co-op, try to grow and preserve as many of my own vegetables as possible. I write educational materials for farmers in my community; the only activism I’m involved in these days has to do with food. I’ve waited on tables and worked in kitchens off and on for half my adult life, and have standards about what I eat. I never consume fast or processed foods. If my friends could see me now, they might be disappointed that I’d be unable to pinpoint the origin of my cheeseburger.
“When I used to wait on tables,” I say, “I hated doing the ketchup.”
“What do you mean?”
I’m not sure why I’m telling this story, except that I’m holding a bottle of Heinz and it’s filled to the top and very clean. Maybe I’d like Quentin to know that I once dirtied my bookmaking hands with food, the same hands I keep clean to handle paper, the ones I’ve spent three months moisturizing so they’d be soft when I touched him. Perhaps it’s just the act of coaxing ketchup onto my cheeseburger that’s connected me to a job from the past. Or the easy intimacy of linking the Now of Quentin with the Then of my unmarried, you- wouldn’t-catch-me-with-a-married-man, less complicated self.
“At the end of a shift, we’d fill the ketchup bottles by turning them upside down on top of each other. Then we’d wipe the bottle necks and inside the caps,” I explain. “It was messy.”
He takes a bite of his cheeseburger. I take a bite of mine.
“I’d drive you crazy. I make messes when I cook,” Quentin says. “Take whatever’s in the fridge and put it all together, hope for a beautiful accident.”
I’m startled by this. Quentin doesn’t like surprises. He drives a standard to have greater control. He’s afraid of flying because he’s not piloting the plane. He’d choose the predictability of routine over the chaos of surprise because, as he says, “That’s how books are made.”
What would Quentin—a man who stands perfectly still to make books, whose studio is meticulously clean— look like making a mess in his kitchen? I picture a large room, a goldfinch perched on the bird feeder that hangs from a tree branch outside the window over the sink. Something bubbles in a pot on the stove, and he leans over a cutting board to chop garlic. I can’t make out what he’s preparing. But I know that if I don’t stop visualizing this scene, I’ll have heartburn because I feel a space forming inside my stomach and a heaviness dropping into that kitchen- shaped emptiness, and I recognize that Quentin and I will probably never share the act of making a meal. I’m reminded of all the things we can’t do together, such as waking up on an ordinary weekday and deciding to call in sick to work so we can stay in bed. Or, on a whim, go somewhere we’ve never been and get lost, revel in the surprise at what we might discover.
The lyrics of an ad from the late sixties—“How do you handle a hungry man?”—barge into my head and interrupt these otherwise serious thoughts. The singer of the jingle answers his own query with the bravado characteristic of a Western, where you expect John Wayne or Gary Cooper to be the hungry man in question: “The Manhandlers!”
A brand name invented in 1968, when I was still a girl, in response to housewives who asked Campbell’s to make a thicker soup for their husbands. Did the person who thought up the Manhandler ever consider that it might, more than three decades later, flash through the mind of a married woman who is not (and never was) a housewife and would never serve soup from a can, and who is uncomfortable being thought of as a manhandler? Sitting across from a man whose mouth and lips and tongue were, only fifteen minutes ago, thick with pleasure and willing to be handled. I sit up straight in my chair and relegate the melody and words to a place in my mind reserved for The Useless Soundtracks We Carry and Play at Random.
What the hell am I doing here? Where are Simone Signoret and Marlene Dietrich? The cheeseburger tastes too good, and I don’t want to break the spell, but there’s a voice inside me that’s saying, “Fold your napkin, get up from this table, and exit the restaurant as gracefully as you can. Go back to your room and cry if you have to, take a shower, re apply your make up, get out of the hotel, and don’t look back.” It’s not so much the moral dilemma that’s at issue here for me, at least not now. I’m more concerned with whether I’m going to become the cliché of a woman who makes herself available to the married man, who makes her wait until she can’t wait anymore and then one day leaves his wife. A woman who winds up fulfilling the prophecy I’ve heard, that married men never leave their wives for the “other” woman, as if that information came out of a self-help book I’d never buy (remaindered at Barnes & Noble), and titled, perhaps, So, You’re Having an Affair with a Married Man? A guide I’d never use because there are too many variations on this theme, and when you get right down to the reality of the cliché we call an affair, you’re still dealing with two people who are entirely different from each set of two people who’ve ever done this. When I warn myself that Quentin will never leave his wife, my hands feel weak imagining him transforming into a man with a permanent frown and panic attacks that wake him in the night. Or worse, a man who makes the same book over and over again. I take another bite of my cheeseburger, stop myself from reaching across the table to take Quentin’s hand in mine, dwell instead on the words beautiful and accident.
Because I feel unable to articulate my internal debate, and maybe too because I sense Quentin’s having a similar one in his own head, I switch gears. Tell him about the legend of the two giants on the island of Menorca, where I went in 1979 to sift through dirt and look for artifacts at the Taula de Torralba archaeological dig. It’s my attempt at impressing him one more time with what he calls my “exotic life.” I know he’ll see I’m fabricating a parable. And who knows, maybe when the fever subsides, when—in spite of what we tell each other now about loving each other forever—we’ve become friends who talk every so often, exchange brief e-mails about our most recent accomplishments, and send Christmas cards signed with Xs and Os, he’ll make a book about this legend, his way of announcing across time and space that his yearning for me hasn’t ended.
The two giants, the story has it, competed for the love of a woman. One built an elaborate well with a spiral staircase inside, and the other built a taula, a table, from two slabs of stone.
“Which giant would you have chosen?” he asks.
Quentin’s voice is soft, his smile tentative—not too broad, but gap-toothed, bemused, as if he’s quietly laughing at some joke he just told himself. He looks like someone you’d need a key to open. But I can tell— by how he leans forward to listen to me, perhaps, or how those little lines, delicate as glass shrimp, fan out from the corners of his eyes, or maybe just because Quentin seems as familiar to me as my hair—that he knows how I’d answer his question, and he’s on the verge of being sorry that he asked it.
“The one who built the table,” I say. The table we will never sit at together.
The waiter fills our water glasses.
“How is everything?” he asks. Quentin and I smile.
We’re playing the part of the perfect customers having the perfect meal. No complaints. Nothing out of place, from the real daisies in a vase to each piece of silverware, all of it set just so on the table, as if there were a universal design for flowers and utensils in fancy hotel restaurants. We’re speaking in hushed tones, eating at just the right pace; we won’t linger too long, nor do we request extra attention or condiments. No one’s shedding tears over their cheeseburgers or blowing their noses into the beige cloth napkins. To anyone who might see us, Quentin and I appear as if we’re colleagues, acquaintances maybe, having a late lunch and an early drink. Separate checks for the two guests at table nineteen. Everything is fine.
From the neck up, Quentin appears like a man who’d read Scientific American, contemplate the shape of pears for hours at the grocery store, drive his kids, then their kids, years from now, to rehearsals and games. To those who haven’t been touched by him in ways so reckless that skin will never feel the same; to those who never put their ear to his chest as he sobbed, or tried to imagine how such long, sturdy legs are attached to a man so frightened of failure, Quentin seems like he’ll edge his way into fifty sipping bourbon on the porch in summer. A guy who’ll never have a surprise party. A man whose greatest terror is that, like ink and paper that aren’t of archival quality, he’ll fade.
“You know, D . . . ,” he starts. He pauses, takes off his glasses, and cleans them with a bandana he’s removed from his pocket.
Quentin calls me “D,” short for dolce; I call him “Q,” for querido. For a minute I’m afraid he’s going to tell me the kissing was great, but it has to end before hearts are fractured irreparably and lives turned so upside down we won’t be able to right them again. I want to ask the waiter to dim the lights and make the next drink a double, bring me an ashtray so I can concentrate on the curling smoke of a cigarette instead of the words I’m certain of hearing in the next minute. I promise myself that when I return home, I’ll cut off all my hair, ask my papermaker friend Katie to use it in a limited run of paper, and send it to Quentin, who has put his glasses back on and is now dabbing at a bit of ketchup in the corner of his mouth. I rest a hand on the table and stare at my cuticles, which I’ve obsessively cared for over the last three months, as if my fingernails and the clean, soft bookmaking hands they’re attached to might make a difference in Quentin’s decision to keep kissing me.
“Only one of those death-row inmates ordered fruit as his last meal,” he says finally. “Plums, peaches, nectarines, not cut up or in a fruit cocktail, but whole. You . . . me . . . us, this . . . I want it to be like that, like something so different from what anyone else would do in the same situation.”
I exhale as inconspicuously as I can.
I want to blame my unprecedented involvement with Quentin on my hormones. After all, they pushed me over enough edges as a teenager, so why not now when I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, approaching forty-five? As my mother might have said, “Why not blame the things you can?” I tell myself that I didn’t plan any of this, that it was Dorrie’s fault for dragging me to that reading.
When I told Dorrie that the assistant manager of Barnes & Noble had whispered, “Write me” after we’d exchanged addresses and hugged good-bye, she told me, “You know, Kim, Flaubert said, ‘We don’t write to live, we write in order not to live.’ Substitute the word love for write in that line.”
This from a woman so unlucky in love all her friends call her the Queen of Hearts. Yet she managed to flirt with that novelist, even dated him for a couple of months.
Who walks into a Barnes & Noble thinking, OK, the first married man you talk to, fall in love with him? Then again, if I had had such a plan, why now? Was I trying to undo the unspoken mandate that yearning should be sublimated, dismissed as an unnecessary ache, a thing one should appreciate as nostalgia for the younger self, a thing that appears in novels or movies? Was I attempting to fall in love so as not to live in the vacancies of my life that I thought I might fill by doing something not only out of character but typical of what people do when they’re afraid of growing up or growing old? Here is the too-familiar situation of my middle-aged loneliness, probably caused by the depression I’m predisposed to genetically, my failing marriage, and the isolation of living in rural Maine. In Quentin, I find the overused excitement of the illicit—the physical intimacy we’re not supposed to have, the shaping of a love that transgresses the boundaries of marriage—which sharpens the heart’s response to a world dulled by too many mundane details (think bills to pay, groceries to buy, doctors’ appointments, etc.).
If you fall in love with a married man, I’ve learned, you have to watch yourself be boxed into any number of clichés. Especially if you confide in your friends. And no matter how different you say your experience is, they may respond with a word like affair, which grates in my inner ear, an idea I can’t invest in because it summons cheap hotel rooms, and makes me think someone’s about to brand me mistress or home wrecker. Or worse, a manhandler, uttered with an exclamation point. Implicit in affairs are the things you can’t suggest (“Let’s sleep in tomorrow morning”), the questions you can’t ask (“Are you having sex with your wife?”), and all the things you can’t do together (go to the grocery store, hold hands in public, go bowling with friends).
Like Quentin, I want this to be different. Already what we’re doing feels like an uncharted island—a place we go that’s hidden, that we’ve discovered, and only we know how to find. Not an island where one is held prisoner, but a place of shelter, escape, discovery. There are problems with this analogy, though: islands are fragile ecosystems that erode and shrink, whose shorelines change with weather and water conditions beyond anyone’s control. Without bridges, there’s only one way to travel to an island, and you might sink as readily as swim. The isolation of an island can transform it into a prison despite any notions one might have concerning the freedom of solitude.
Of course, like acid-free paper and handmade books, I want Quentin and me to last, to be one of those narratives you tell people again and again, the kind that begins “When we first met . . .” or “We knew the minute we saw each other . . .” Yet when I hear such lines, I cringe at how stereotypical they sound. Our story should be bound into a codex, sewn and glued with the breath-holding attention and precision necessary to make a book, a thing that needs stillness and the time to unfold. As I write this, I wonder if I’ll have the patience to see it through to whatever conclusion it takes.
The word cliché is a printing term from the eighteenth century, designating the plate used for making type. The French verb clicher describes the sound of the die striking the metal. It’s a shame that this word, which describes a sound I think I’d like—clee-shay, a muffled metal ching—has come to signify the thing it once produced, the stereotype. Did the printers hearing that noise grow tired of it? Would I?
I’ve never considered that the clichés I’ve headed into (including this one) are merely reminders that I’m alive, kicking around the same story over and over, trying to transcend the too familiar, sometimes unable to twist language in new ways to describe what or how I’m living. When I ask Dorrie if she thinks I’ve trapped myself in a hackneyed situation, she reminds me of her philosophy, that life is one big cliché, with details that make it either magnificent or horrible, or both.
Quentin—no cliché, but a man who has tried to hammer flat his desire, only to find it’s still there as a three-dimensional force—plays with a blue-frilled toothpick, the one stuck into my cheeseburger to distinguish its medium rareness. A toothpick I had removed slowly, trying perhaps to accentuate the caution in my fingertips, which were eccentric and careless on Quentin’s body only minutes before we sat down to eat. He snaps the toothpick into three pieces, arranges these into a K, whose vertical line is wrapped in blue cellophane.
That toothpick letter is like a miniature colophon, the tailpiece at the end of a book that describes the font used by the typesetter. The word colophon comes from the Greek for summit, or finishing touch. The little pieces of wood will be swept away by the waiter after we leave. But for now, that K, splinters protruding on its end and blue on one side, is embossed on the tablecloth, a typeface that will never be replicated.
If Quentin and I are to escape being trapped in a cliché, we will leave our respective spouses, but we won’t ride off together into a Hollywood romance that ends on a beach at sunset. In fact, our leave-takings—painful and complicated—will erode the excitement of that first long kiss in the fancy hotel, force it into the shape of a memory whose sharp and exotic taste will dull with time. But before that happens, I’ll imagine what it would have been like had Quentin and I been able to fashion a narrative of love in order not to live in the inertia of our marriages or the small despairs of our lives. I’ll ask him to consider what role I played in his separation and subsequent divorce, to admit that something other than electric attraction sparked between us, a something that warrants honest examination. He will avoid answering my question, and an unmanageable distance will keep us apart. As the time widens between that day in the hotel and some future we’ve told each other will never occur, we’ll think we shared the one and only perfect meal. But eventually, we’ll wonder why we thought it so ideal. In time I’ll be able to eat a cheeseburger again without the indigestion of regret.
Excerpted from I JUST LATELY STARTED BUYING WINGS. MISSIVES FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE (Graywolf Press, 2010). Originally published in THE BALTIMORE REVIEW (Summer 2005). The author would like to note that the husband of this essay is not her current spouse.