endless rain

In The Pit Of Your Stomach

Short Story

“Are you even listening to me?” she asked him.

Joel first pierced the pickled radish, then the charred pearl onions. Then he used his knife to shimmy the slice of raw fish onto his fork. He looked at the arrangement, satisfied, before carefully placing the thing in his mouth. As he chewed he tried to remember what the catch of the day was, what type of fish he had just eaten. It was tender and fatty and pale pink, and the combined acid of the bright, citrusy marinade and earthy pickled radish did well to cut its richness. The pearl onions provided a touch of sweetness, and their char left his mouth with a wisp of delicate smoke. The maître d', Sarah, had recommended it, the crudo. He smiled as he realized he remembered her name but not the type of fish.

“You should really try to get everything in one bite,” he responded.

She scoffed and folded her arms.

The truth was, Joel was listening. Closely, in fact. He just didn’t want to talk about it. He looked up from his plate and at the girl sitting across from him. Behind her were rows and rows of bottles filled with wines of different shades, from pale yellow to darker yellow to orange then light red and then darker red. He imagined all of the places these bottles came from, where and when the grapes had been grown, harvested, pressed, fermented, bottled. He spotted Cabernet from California, 2014. Shiraz from Australia, 2019. Rioja from Spain, 2018. He tried to remember his life in 2018. Some detail, anything. Nothing came to mind. He thought about how these grapes had traveled oceans and continents and ended up in this dimly-lit, blandly elegant dining room with him, and her. It made him sad, so he stopped thinking about it.

“You know this place has a Bib Gourmand. That’s just a step below a Michelin Star. The taco place downstairs has two stars. Michelin just started reviewing Miami this year. So we’re pretty hip.”

She glared at him.

“What? I tried to get a reservation downstairs. This was the best I could do.”

Just then, the server returned with their second dish, grilled oyster mushrooms.

“Looks great. Thank you,” Joel told the server, before placing one of the massive mushrooms on his plate. Really it was a dozen or so smaller mushrooms still attached to one another by their… mycelium? He couldn’t remember the word. His butter knife cut easily through their delicate fibers, and he swiped some potato puree and crisped quinoa onto his fork before taking a bite. He was surprised at how much it tasted like meat – the umami of the red miso marinade, the bitter char and subtle smoke from the grill marks. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was eating meat and potatoes. A less refined palate might have been fooled.

“Why are you avoiding the conversation?” she asked him after a few minutes.

Her tone was earnest, pleading. Her eyes were wide and he could tell they were beginning to fill with tears. Her head tilted just barely to the left and the corners of her mouth were pulled into a subtle frown. Just subtle enough that he could get away with pretending not to see it.

“What conversation?” he replied, taking his time to chew his mushrooms. “I wanted to have a nice evening with you for our anniversary.”

He took a final bite of mushroom, potato, quinoa.

“Please, Joel, can we just–”

Their busboy suddenly appeared to take their empty plates, and she quickly dabbed her eye with her cloth napkin.

“Finished with these?” he asked.

Joel looked up at him, made eye contact, and smiled brightly.

“Yes, thank you.”

As the busboy finished clearing the table, another server brought their main course, agnolotti, and two small bowls. He left quickly and the two were alone once again. She watched him as he ladled yellow pillows of agnolotti and the near-black porcini mushroom broth into his bowl. Joel cut the piece of pasta in two with his spoon, exposing its off-white filling, then scooped up one half of the stuffed pasta and some of the dark broth into his mouth. The pasta was overcooked; no bite to it. The filling was spectacular. Rich, creamy taleggio cheese and sweet roasted corn. The broth provided enough salinity for the whole dish, as long as he got some broth with every bite of pasta, and that motif of delicate smoke appeared yet again.

Joel was the first to break the silence, between bites of pasta.

“I really don’t see what else there is to talk about,” he said nonchalantly.

“Joel, please,”

“It’s fine. We don’t have to talk about it tonight. We can just have dinner.”

“Joel, I want to talk about it,”

He looked up, his face expressionless and his tone suddenly serious.

“You fucked him,” he said, loudly enough for the server and the couple next to them to hear. “What else is there to say?”

Her face flushed red, and she stood up from her chair abruptly, pushing it into the shelves of wine behind her. She picked up her purse and walked out of the dining room. Joel did not watch her leave. His eyes were fixed on the wine bottles still wobbling from the impact of her chair. He thought about what a shame it would be if one of those glass bottles fell and shattered, the wine spilling onto the floor of the dining room. What a waste of those poor, precious grapes. The bottles stopped shaking, and he was relieved. He looked over at the couple sitting at the table to his right.

“More for me, eh?” Joel said to the man. The man offered a sheepish smile, and quickly turned back to his date. Joel finished his pasta in silence, except for the occasional slurp of mushroom broth.

The busboy returned after some time to clear the empty plates, and a second later the server brought dessert to the table – a bone marrow bread pudding with medjool dates, brûléed and topped with a perfect sphere of coconut ice cream.

“Everything okay this evening?” the server asked.

“Yes. Great,” Joel responded. “She had somewhere to be,” he added, after an awkward beat.

The server nodded and smiled politely, then carefully poured a shot of rum on top of the ice cream and pulled a light blue plastic lighter from his apron. He clicked it to life, and brought the light slowly to the bowl. The rum caught, and the ice cream was engulfed in a blue flame.

“It will go out on its own in a moment. Enjoy.”

He removed two dessert spoons from his apron, then put one back. He placed the other next to Joel’s plate, turned, and hurried away. Joel watched as the alcohol burned off. It was taking longer than he anticipated and he suddenly had the urge to grab the flaming ball of fat and sugar and hurl it at the wall. The flame went out.

Joel picked up his spoon. He pushed it first into the ice cream, then cracked through the brûléed sugar and into the bread pudding, then pulled up along the inside edge of the bowl. He made sure each component was present before taking a bite. His palate was immediately overwhelmed with dizzying sweetness. He squeezed his eyes shut as he felt a dull ache in his temples. Eventually the acrid taste of burnt sugar provided respite, and he swallowed. He took a sip from his water glass, then chugged the rest after realizing he’d not drunk any water that evening. He picked up the carafe and poured himself another glass. He took another bite of the pudding, again careful to get a piece of everything. Again, overwhelming, almost painful sweetness only eased by bitter, carbonized sugar. He took another sip of water. He didn’t taste any bone marrow.

Joel struggled down the last of the saccharine pudding. He dragged his spoon through the puddle of melted ice cream, drawing shapes and letters that would disappear in an instant. Some time passed. Joel wasn’t quite sure how long. He looked around and noticed the dining room had emptied. The maître d’, Sarah, returned to the table.

“How was everything?” she asked.

“Good, yeah. Great. Thank you,” he responded absentmindedly, still looking down at his empty bowl.

“Is there anything else I can get for you? Coffee, amaro–”

“No. Thanks,” he interrupted. “I’ve had enough bitterness tonight.” He smiled at her, proud of this joke she wouldn’t get, and she smiled back politely.

“In that case,” she pulled the check from the front pocket of her navy blue apron and placed it on the table, “whenever you’re ready,” and she walked away.

“Oh,” he responded to no one. Joel was surprised the check had been prepared already. He felt like they were pushing him out, like they wanted him to leave. He shook his head, knowing he shouldn’t feel hurt by something so small. It was a matter of convenience. He pulled his billfold from the pocket of his jeans, took out three bills and placed them in the check’s faux leather book. He wiped his mouth with his cloth napkin and placed it on the table. He pushed back in his chair and stood up.

Joel looked around the dining room. It suddenly seemed much smaller than when he had arrived. A gaggle of servers and bussers stood in one corner by the swinging doors to the kitchen. They noticed him looking at them, and once again gave him those eerily polite, tightlipped smiles. As he walked down the stairs and out of the restaurant, he began to feel sick to his stomach.