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Novelists in Restaurants Eating Food

Café de La Esquina

Between love and tacos, sometimes it’s better to choose tacos. Our series continues where we ask novelists to dine out, then write us something that 1) is a restaurant review; 2) is not a restaurant review.

Café de La Esquina, Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Jami Attenberg.

I’m eating dinner with the man I slept with two years ago, last year, and maybe this year, too. We’re sitting at a weathered picnic table, gorging ourselves on spicy fish tacos and beer. We don’t usually eat out when we see each other because he doesn’t ever have any money. On our first date we ate slices of pizza, standing, because there weren’t any tables available at the restaurant. Once he bought me a bagel the morning after a night of tremendous sex. I can’t recall any other meals we’ve shared besides those. The only reason why we’re out to dinner now is because I offered to pay.

The first time I dated this man we were both nightmares. Both our careers were wounded and whimpering. Also he had just split with his wife and was incapable of expressing any emotion beyond a calculated sexual desire. I was traveling so much my head was spinning and I was looking for a place to land my feelings. “I can’t be your boyfriend,” he told me the third time we slept together. I said, “I don’t want you to be my boyfriend because the way you take care of yourself distresses me.” This was an actual conversation we had with each other. I can’t be there for you. It’s OK, I don’t want you to be there.

The tacos are tart, tender, and lightly battered. I watch him dump more El Yucateco on them. He has no tastebuds left. This man is a smoker. Sometimes in the middle of the night he’d get up out of my bed, put on clothes, leave my apartment, go to the stairwell, smoke a cigarette, come back to my apartment, take off his clothes, and get back in bed, smelling like a freshly smoked cigarette. In the mornings, as soon as he left, I’d spray the bedding with Febreze. I smoked cigarettes for 20 years and the whole time I was smoking the thing I hated most about it was how I smelled afterward. I know people who quit smoking and miss it, and love to stand outside with smokers, asking them to blow the smoke in their direction, and I think they are nuts. In my mind his smoking is a deal breaker. I have always had that in my back pocket. When you’re ready, just say it’s the smoking. But I have never even needed to use it.

Our pronouncement that we didn’t want to be in a relationship with each other killed our affair. Two months later, I asked him if he wanted to go to Coney Island with me. “Let’s catch up,” I said. “Let’s,” he said. I let him smoke in my car, seething the entire time. When we got there he told me he hated Coney Island. He had grown up in a pristine beach town out west and Coney Island offended his aesthetics. It was late spring and it was a Tuesday so it wasn’t crowded. The beach was empty, the sky purple and grey, the sand deep brown, the fresh air, the smell of it all fantastic and refreshing. But he walked around griping nonetheless. I was wearing sunglasses and crying behind them. He didn’t even hug me, didn’t reach out at all. I was having all the feelings and he was having none of them. It was both a burden and a joy.

The waitress brings us another round of beers, cold enough to chill my fingertips. He drinks his beer greedily. Half of it, gone. Then, in a shocking turn of events, he excuses himself to go have a cigarette. 

A year after our trip to Coney Island we started seeing each other again. No one was more surprised than I. What happened was this: I went to a group show he was in and I stood and stared at the two paintings he had on the wall until he came over to me and put his arm around me and said, “There you are,” as if he had been waiting for me to show up the whole night.

I think about a line from my favorite Grace Paley story: “She thought I was too skinny. I am, but girls like it. If you’re fat, they can see immediately that you’ll never need their unique talent for warmth.” I wonder if I can keep him warm. I’m not sure if I can.

This time around he was much nicer to me. Finally he was ready to give himself to me. I texted him without fear of consequence or rejection. He called me sweetie and smooched me on the street corner. We had even more sex. All the sex you could have was what we had when we were together. When I told him I was feeling blue he came over to cheer me up. He started showing up drunk late at night. He would open my refrigerator looking for beer. Then I started hiding the beer before he arrived. He was disappointed when I didn’t have any beer. I got tired of hiding the beer. I broke up with him in my mind but forgot to tell him. I started dating someone else, someone with money, someone with a job, someone who brought their own beer. A thing I said to a friend: This guy may not be interesting, but at least he doesn’t drink all my beer. One day I was holding hands with this new man and we ran into him in public and I gave him a look that said, “Please don’t ruin this for me.” To his credit, he didn’t. That was for me to do.

I idly wait for him. I will always be waiting for him to finish his cigarette, I think. For eternity. The waitress tries to clear our plates and I stop her. She is wearing a leather mini-skirt and a shirt that says “Sexico.” Finally, he returns. He motions at the tacos. “Are you going to eat those?” “You keep going,” I say. “I’m taking a break.”

One week before tonight’s taco dinner, I went to his solo show. The gallery was in my neighborhood, 10 blocks away. I pass it every day on my way to the subway. I had seen the sign up for a month, his name, a picture of one of his paintings, the time and date of the event. It was his first show in a long time. I couldn’t not go, is what I’m trying to say here. At the party I watched him from across the room being charming and intense and charismatic and I didn’t talk to him because I didn’t feel entitled to interrupt. I went home and I sent him an email. I told him that I was proud of him. He wrote me back and told me he didn’t sell anything and he’d spent all his money on materials and the only people who showed up were people he went to grad school with and girls he used to date who broke his heart. “I’m broke and I’m broke,” he said. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Your paintings are beautiful. In that way you are the richest man in the world.” I told him I’d buy him dinner, anything he wanted. He said he just wanted tacos. 

And now there is only one taco left. We talk about what it’s like to get older. Things feel different in our forties. This is as real and important a conversation as I can have with someone in my life. He is a member of my tribe.

He asks me if I want the last taco and I tell him to have it. He says, “Are you sure?” I insist on it. He is a thin man and I am not thin at all. I am luscious and healthy. I take long walks and I get up early in the mornings to go swimming and I ride my bike and I eat and drink and am merry. He stays up late drinking and smoking cigarettes and often forgets to eat unless food is put on the table in front of him as it is now. 

I think about a line from my favorite Grace Paley story: “She thought I was too skinny. I am, but girls like it. If you’re fat, they can see immediately that you’ll never need their unique talent for warmth.” I wonder if I can keep him warm. I’m not sure if I can.

He finishes his beer. His eyes get shiny and irresistible because three beers is his sweet spot. He tells me how happy he is to be there, right there, with me, in this moment. He speaks just enough to allow me to fill in the gaps by myself. Then he kisses me with a gentle but present lust. I look at him and think: What am I going to do with you? What am I going to do.

Café de La Esquina, 225 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn, NY. Telephone: 718-393-5500. Hours: Monday to Thursday from noon to 10 p.m., Friday from noon to midnight, Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Jami Attenberg is the author of four books of fiction, including The Middlesteins. Her next book, Saint Mazie, will be published in June 2015. More by Jami Attenberg