Monday, June 1, 2020

"Reasons for Restaurants" by Matthue Roth - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Reasons for Restaurants
Matthue Roth

The restaurant was vegan but it still priced its entrees like steak. That was one of the reasons why I picked it. I’d never needed a reason for a nice restaurant before.
            “Wow,” said Itta when she saw my entourage. She took it all in, giving me a once-over like the sleazy guy does to the attractive and immodestly-dressed woman in every bad movie ever.
            I wouldn’t say I wasn’t worth it. Maybe I didn’t look lust-inducing, but you could for sure say I looked interesting. I looked like an adventurer, if you were in a generous mood. 

            It was the day after Thanksgiving. I’d just gotten back to New York. I hated traveling with suitcases—it felt like too much of a commitment—so I boarded the bus with two shoulder bags, the backpack I usually carried, another backpack filled with books, and this awkwardly bulging duffel stuffed with early-autumn warm-weather clothes and late-autumn wintry clothes that I thought I’d be able to just hold in my arms. The circumference formed by my possessions was too clogged—I had more bags than I had room around my body—and I had to constantly keep one package raised up or pushed out. This had created quite a problem on the subway. Compared to the flush of embarrassment currently writhing its way across my body, however, I would gladly have chosen another rush hour on the B train.

            “Don’t mind me,” I said. “I, uh, didn’t want to waste time unloading before I saw you.”
            “I don’t mind,” she consoled me, taking pains to summon a forgiving smile right before she raised her water to her lips, likely to hide that forgiving smile, likely because she had no idea what to make of me. That was okay. I didn’t know what to make of myself. I excused myself, hustling to stow my luggage in the restaurant’s back room—I knew it was there; I’d been here before; it was a kosher vegan restaurant; of course I’d been here before—and stopped in the restroom on the way back, dousing myself thoroughly with whatever was in the soap dispenser. It was a sticky, liquidy, oozing thing, roughly the consistency of semen, but with a minty pine overture. I hoped it would drown out the airport. I prayed it would.

            I got back to the table, eyes on her, trying to pretend I hadn’t just come in looking like a bag-person Santa Claus. “So,” I said, “how was your first Thanksgiving?”
            “Shit!” she said, palm flying to her forehead. “I forgot to take a picture of the turkey.”
            “Shit!” I repeated, letting the word tickle up and down my oscillating teeth, the rollicking of my lips, my clicking tongue. “Wow. That word. It sounds so much better in your accent.”
            She looked embarrassed. “I’m an Ozzie, mate,” she said. “We curse. You might have to get used to that.”
            “I look forward to it.” I grinned, stupidly. And then, lest she thought I wasn’t Orthodox enough, I added: “I know. I wrestle a lot with cursing, too. I mean, I try not to do it except when it’s something I really believe in. Like, when I’m saying something with a real about-to-explode spiritual intent.”
            “Um,” she said, “right,” she said. And then she retreated to the menu.

            Itta had landed the past week, on Thanksgiving, right before dinner. She went straight to the house of her best friend from yeshiva. She and her husband lived an hour or two upstate, in an old wooden house. It was going to be Itta’s first Thanksgiving ever, since—and we mused on this extensively, drawing it out on our phone conversations for hours, hours—they didn’t have Thanksgiving in Australia. For about two seconds I contemplated inviting her to my parents’, and she contemplated inviting herself. It took us that long to decide it would be awkward. Hi, great to see you again, yeah so are we actually dating or not?, and by the way, here’s my parents. Of course it would be awkward. It would be the most awkward thing in the world. Or at least that was our thinking then. Right now, it felt like this very moment, this conversation, was winning the award for most awkward thing ever, beating out whatever competition could possibly exist by a landslide.
            “Couldn’t you guys just do it again?” I said.
            “Thanksgiving?” She looked at me like I was the Australian and not her.
            “Sure. Do a reenactment. An instant replay.”
            “Heresy! You can’t wave a wand and make it happen again. Karen’s father carved a whole turkey. The gravy boat was rich enough to drink. Gravy,” she said. “What a funny word.”
            “Do you guys have a different word for it?”
            “We just call it ’juice,’ I think.” Her brow furrowed, as if trying to reenact some long-ago distant Australian Thanksgiving in her mind. “Sometimes I have to use it in a sentence to be sure. In my mind. It’s creepy, how the American word for everything becomes the word that everyone uses.”
            “Usually I like the British words for things better,” I said. “I mean, you say ’aubergine’ instead of ’eggplant’ and everyone just stares at you like you just won a Nobel Prize. But, juice? That sounds so ordinary. I guess it’s more, like, raw...”
            “Not to offend you,” she added quickly. “About the meat.”
            “Not to offend you,” I shot back. “About the British thing. I know you’re not British.”
            “It’s fine,” she said. “Everyone mixes it up.”
            “Even though you gained your independence in 1784?” I said.
            She looked at me like I was joking. I thought that I was, too—only I thought it’d be a good thing. You wouldn’t figure it, with someone whose name was as rare as hers, but Itta had been damn near impossible to Google. She was on Facebook, and some other personal pages, but I’d left a trail of a million internet hits, and she barely had any. Even her Australian Idol performance was shrouded in mystery—apparently, Australians were less trigger-happy with posting everything online than I was. I abandoned internet-stalking her and reverted to doing Internet research about Australia, which was the closest thing I could get.
            “Are you sure?” She picked at her fake steak uncertainly, thinking perhaps that the menu had misspelled the word seitan. “That talking about meat doesn’t freak you out, I mean?”
            “I’m actually really fascinated about meat,” I told her. “Last Yom Kippur, when the fast started and I couldn’t eat anything, I pulled down all these cookbooks. I was staying at my friend Sonja’s, and she’s a chef, and we spent hours looking at pictures of food. All kinds of dead animals twisted and fried into all of these weird positions. It was bizarre, but it was kind of incredibly fascinating.”
            “Fascinating?” I’m not even fascinated by meat, her face was saying, and I EAT it.
            “It was a strange night.” I tried to backpedal. “And, you know, she’s a chef. She could explain all that stuff.”
            “My roommate, I mean. Well, my housemate. I mean, that’s what people call it. I mean we didn’t live in the same room or anything....” I was heating up. I was feeling starkly conscious of how my life sounded, and of how it sounded to someone who’d grown up Orthodox.
            “Have you been here before?” she said, fast. “What should we order?”
            “Whatever you like.” I willfully ignored my wallet and smiled.
            “Appetizers, then.” She flipped her menu back open—this time purposeful, for real, no longer a mere diversionary tactic. “What looks good to you?”

Appetizers. When we ate, it was always appetizers.
            Some things you inherit from your family. Not just politeness, rules and customs and values; things deeper than that. Like when my parents were at Mike’s parents’ house and Mike’s mom offered them a glass of wine; they turned it down, but only after a long pause, as if to ask, really?On a weekday, and before sunset? Not even with a meal?

            It was the same pause that my parents used before answering when a waitress at a restaurant asked if we wanted appetizers. Nearly as expensive as a main course, but not as filling, and one more thing you’d have to wait for. For the price of appetizers and dessert, you could go out for a whole second meal. They never said this, of course; it was all I could piece together, read from their silences and sideways glances, and the waitress’s apologetic retreat. Do we look like appetizer people to you?

            Itta and I discussed appetizers. We ordered big nachos, with avocado and habaƱero, drippy black beans and stiff sour cream. It was an orgy. It was good—solidly, warmly good—and it was stacked on a plate almost as big as the table. When we had finished, dinner was almost superfluous, but we ate it anyway. I had a good appetite. She ate gladly, joyously, more than me. I knew I was supposed to think that girls should only eat plain lettuce or whatever, but it felt good to see her devour her food with such abandon, like we’d dispensed with the formality of behaving fakely in front of each other. I was more conservative—we were at a vegetarian restaurant, and I’d unwittingly ordered an entree that was stuffed with beans. I ate it gingerly, nervous about investing in possible future farts. I’d heard of Orthodox dates going twelve hours long. I wasn’t sure if this counted. I still didn’t know what Itta had in mind.
            “Should we keep going?” I asked her, once we’d finished dinner and stepped outside. The night was cold, but it was a brisk cold, the kind that fired you up.
            “I can keep going if you can. Do you have something for us to do?”
            “Definitely. I told you I’d plan everything tonight, right?” I didn’t—my idea of planning had been to load a Google Map of everything in the area that was open past 8:30, including convenience stores and a laundromat—but I’d spent enough time studying everything so that I could sound like I was uber-prepared.
            “Lead the way,” she said.
            She stepped up into the night, enveloped by December. Wisps of dragon breath curled from her mouth as she spoke.
            Because I wasn’t sure if she drank alcohol, or if she drank alcohol with boys, I took her to a tea house. Actually, it was a health store owned by Israelis that sold tea in the back. We got cups of it and climbed to the roof of the building, a heated tent with chess boards on the tables, and we didn’t play chess, but we talked about it instead. When we were finished tea, I asked what she wanted to do next.
            “Should we have a beer, then?” she said.
            I re-tallied. She was Australian. She was Hasidic. Her entire family was Russian. Okay, maybe I was the weak-stomached prude of the two of us. I hadn’t even thought of looking at bars.
            But this was New York, and it was easier to find a bar than to find a subway stop. We went to a basement Irish bar on Second Avenue, and then to a trendy bar near Union Square. There was a DJ playing in the corner. A bunch of Williamsburg kids kept pretending not to look at us, but the whole time they were trying to work out what we were doing, whether it was kosher or not, whether we were going to make out. My yarmulke, her skirt, our non-black-and-white clothes. Itta kept glancing over to them, uncomfortable. I grinned.
            “It’s good,” I said. “It keeps them on their toes. We can play with them.”
            “What would you want to play with them for? They’ve got nothing to do with us.”
            “Except that they keep watching us.”
            “Screw ’em! Look. You can either suspect that they’re thinking negative things about Orthodox Jews, which will make you worried and paranoid, or you can hope that they’re just curious and want to see native Orthodox people in their natural environment, acting like regular people. And then you give them a little show. Like talking.”
            “Or dancing.”
            “Dancing? Really?”
            She stood up. I want to say she pulled me up, and she did, but not by touching me. Just the way her body sashayed out of that barstool, a twist as natural as a car changing lanes. I weaved. I matched her.
            The song they were playing was something I’d grown up listening to, something heavy and bassy and trippy, hip-hop-influenced without being actual hip-hop. It was loud, so loud that the DJ was wearing earplugs inside his headphones, and so loud that even if you couldn’t really dance you still felt your body being moved, being vibrated, to one direction and the other. I never knew how to move my hips—wasn’t even sure where my hips were, really—but I felt them moving. Itta swayed slow, calculated, almost not-dancing, still holding her thin beer glass in her hands. The meniscus didn’t even shake. She was amazing. The soul that let black people dance, that thing that had eluded white people for centuries, somehow had buried itself deep in Itta’s body. She barely moved. She didn’t have to.
            My eyes fluttered, half hypnotized, half from lack of sleep. “Who are you?” I said. My mouth was dry.
            She smiled. As if she knew the true, hidden answer to this question, as if she’d never tell me.
            The song changed. The music was louder now. As if G-d was telling me, you don’t need to talk now, quit while you’re ahead. Just be here instead.

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