My friend set us up because she heard Neil was interested in literature. He’d chosen the restaurant, Légumes, because he was vegetarian and I wasn’t too familiar with vegetarian dining options, being a meat-eater from Nebraska. I wouldn’t say my hopes were high, but I’d recently dated a bunch of STEM types who thought English majors just lay around reading novels all day, so I was at least prepared for a refreshing evening.
Neil showed up barely within the fifteen-minute rule I had to institute due to an exciting but ultimately frustrating booty-call situation I won’t get into here. He came up on his bike, dismounted, and swept off his helmet, hanging it from one handlebar. Forebodings filled me.
He wasn’t bad looking—this I had already ascertained from Instagram. His dirty blond hair was drawn back in a pony tail, revealing a face that was all angles—aquiline nose, prominent cheekbones, long, narrow chin—but softened by two shorter locks that had escaped from the pony and artfully draped themselves on either side. His body, though he was tallish and bony, gave a pleasant impression of agility.
But the chivalric flourish with the bike helmet and the faded Occupy t-shirt with men’s yoga pants set my alarm bells ringing. The sound only got louder when he put his hands together and bowed before we had even properly introduced ourselves.
“Namaste,” he intoned.
“Gesundheit,” I responded.
He raised his eyebrows. There was a pause. Then, relaxing, he smiled and stepped forward. “Let’s start again. I’m Neil.”
He pointed at himself with his left hand while extending his right. This annoyed me, especially since we already had each other’s full contact info, but I set that aside and put my hand in his. “Lanie,” I got out, just before, tightening the grip of his long fingers, he pulled me in and kissed my cheek.
I barely had time to stiffen defensively before he let me go and began locking his bike to the railing in front of the restaurant and stowing his helmet in the black knapsack he wore slung over one shoulder. “Maybe he’s French,” I thought, wiping my cheek, but I didn’t think so.
When he was ready, we walked up the short path to the restaurant. I told myself I was being hard on him. The garden on either side promised farm-to-table freshness.
Légumes was in an old house with steps going up to a wide veranda. While I was waiting, I had seen people dining, and the men had shirts with collars. As we entered I noticed nobody was wearing yoga pants, either.
Nevertheless, the hostess twinkled at my escort. “Hello Monsieur Neil,” she said, with giggling familiarity. “I saved your favorite table for you.”
“Thank you, Shay,” he responded, in a caressing tone. I had a sudden vision of myself as the latest in a long parade of female companions, and I wondered how many had been hopeful aspirants, like Shay, and how many, like me, had helplessly sensed the Neilotine poised above them.
Neil’s favorite table was alongside one end of what seemed to have been the dining room in the old house. Banquettes, small tables, and playfully decorated old chairs had been installed here, and above these, dominating the room and now my evening, was a large painting of an overflowing dumpster. As we reached his table and Shay turned around, flashing a triumphant smile at Neil, he suddenly did an end run around me and slid into the banquette.
“You wouldn’t want to miss the Verhein,” he explained, taking in the masterpiece with a sweep of his arm.
Shay spared me a reply. “I know, right? I’m so lucky—I get to see it all the time.” I was gazing at her in disbelief when, under the spell of the painting, she poked me in the nose with a corner of the menu.
“Oh! Sorry, hon,” she said, and then, sliding coy eyes in Neil’s direction, “You guys’ server will be here in just a minute, ’kay?”
She frolicked off. My attention was now divided between Mr. (I assumed) Verhein’s obsession with permutations of light striking variously hued garbage bags, and the literary invention of the menu writers. I don’t have anything against vegetarians. I admire their commitment to health, ecology, and the ethical treatment of animals. Still, the idea of a salad made from “the greens and zest of organically grown root vegetables,” or what my parents would call “compost,” had an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it, especially with bulging garbage bags I could practically smell impinging on my deliberations.
To be fair, the picture gave no indication that the bags would emit a foul odor. A fresh-looking head of lettuce, a bouquet of roses only just beginning to wilt, a child’s plush elephant, in good condition, a few old books, and some papers and piano music were variously spilling out or piled around, but nothing was obviously decaying.
Nevertheless, the ripe, swollen state of the bags left ample scope for the imagination. The painting began to exert a mysterious fascination over me. My eyes kept furtively flicking to it throughout the evening, and never-to-be-answered questions, like, “Why on earth?” and, “What is that orange smudge in the lower right-hand corner?” began to haunt me.
I had just settled on the compost salad with the optional goat cheese, followed by the bean cassoulet with carrot foam and herb roasted potatoes, the whole to be washed down with a glass of biodynamic Chardonnay, when Neil got into the act again.
“So, Lanie, are you spiritual?” he asked, with a casual air.
I regarded him narrowly, trying to crack his code. Back home an evangelical classmate had once asked me that, and my hesitating “I guess so” had become an uncomfortable comparative religious study I was too polite to back out of. With Neil, I expected I might end up being grilled on Hinduism or Zen. Or perhaps he, like many people since I’d come East, thought I might be Jewish because of my German last name, and he’d chosen this roundabout way of asking. Maybe he was just itching to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement with a real live Jew.
Rapidly weighing my options, I folded my arms and nodded. “Intensely.”
Was I serious? He couldn’t tell. I got the taken-aback eyebrows again, followed by backhanded gallantry—“We don’t have to talk about it if you’re not comfortable.”
While Neil was misinterpreting my death smile, Alec, our waiter, arrived. To my relief, he was highly professional, and, though he gave Neil the once-over, proved unsusceptible to his charms. I ordered my two courses and wine. Neil ordered only an entrée, but I ignored this because I felt he wanted me to ask about it.
When Alec left, I did try to steer the conversation into friendlier waters. “So,” I asked, “were you in the Occupy protests?”
He heaved a sigh. “I was only sixteen. Mother was worried. I definitely went in spirit. My older brother brought me this, and I tried to make up for missing out by volunteering for Bernie, but it’s still a painful topic.”
“What about the Women’s March?” I asked.
He put his head on one side and smiled at me. “Do you have some kind of checklist?”
I didn’t have to answer because Alec arrived with drinks. My biodynamic wine was delicious. As always, I savored it all the more because it was a taste I had acquired only since leaving Nebraska, where nobody I know drinks anything besides beer. But tonight I was also enjoying it in defiance of Neil, sipping his water across the table. He said nothing, but his sorrowful face and the two imposing trash bags on either side buffeted me with waves of disapproval.
I have friends who will pretend to get a text requesting emergency services and then leave. I don’t do this, for a lot of reasons. Not enough moxie to carry it off, too much interest in people, guilt due to niceness ingrained by my Plains State upbringing, to name a few.
So after Alec served my salad, I tried one more tack. “I hear you’re interested in literature.”
Neil wet his lips delicately and set down his water, smirking. “Goes with the territory for a writer, I guess.” He brought the glass to his mouth again, with elaborate insouciance.
Now it has been my dream to be a writer ever since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid—before I learned how politically incorrect she was, so save the lecture. Anyway, I’m a closeted writer—never show anyone—besides which I am pleasing the parents by majoring in computer science as well as English. The plan is to get out, get a job, and get involved with a writing group on the side.
So Neil had riveted me there. I contained myself, though, and gnawed my greens for a while before remarking “I think it would be good if more writers read.” Trying to match his indifferent air, I added, “What kind of things do you write?”
He leaned back amid the garbage with a wry smile. “Right now, travel pieces, for the coin,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “But I’ve just been honored with a small fellowship and a residency from Moonrise Press to work on my poetry collection.”
I prevented myself from goggling but forgot to congratulate. “Moonrise Press? I don’t think I’m familiar—”
He waved his hand deprecatingly. “I wouldn’t expect you to know it. Until recently, it’s just been a small press, dedicated to mindfulness, but since Random House has bought it, who knows? I hope it won’t be just another corporate sellout.”
Happily my amazement was disguised by Alec, who swept away my salad plate and presented our entrées like the genie he was. By the time I looked up to gabble agreement and congratulations, Neil was pressing his fingertips together and nodding over them with his eyes closed.
I passed the time by tracing the tines of my fork through my carrot foam. After a long moment he exhaled slowly and opened his eyes with a beatific look that stank worse than the painting.
“All good?” I asked, spearing a big white bean and an endamame with a skillful jab.
There was another pause. Daintily he lifted a sliver of purple potato coated with parsnip coulis toward his thin lips, but stopped halfway, turning his fork this way and that to examine the specimen. “That’s an interesting question. Sometimes I wonder how anyone can take pleasure in so-called ‘fine dining’ when so many people are going hungry.” He regarded the saucy tuber with ineffable sadness.
Yet Shay had recognized him as a regular. Taking refuge in my wine, I rolled a leisurely sip around on my tongue, appreciating the subtle floral notes before meeting his accusatory gaze and nodding in agreement. “Sometimes I don’t study because there’s so much illiteracy in the world,” I said, and let him chew on that, along with his morsels of potato.
Either I hadn’t masked my resentment that well or he had a better grasp of deadpan irony than I thought, because we accomplished the remainder of our meal in a kind of pregnant silence presided over by the brooding garbage bags and the watchful eyes of solicitous Alec and envious Shay.
When Alec had removed Neil’s ostentatiously full plate and my empty one and we had both declined dessert, though I was still hungry, Neil surprised me by asking for the check.
“Thank you,” I said, as we got up. I was torn between not wanting to be beholden to him and feeling it was the least he could do.
“Noblesse oblige,” he said, putting his hand over his heart and bowing sententiously. “Maybe I’ll let you get it next time.”
While my mind reeled, he got ahead of me and led the way out. Shay was holding the door open for us. He embraced her warmly, she writhed with pleasure, and he only remembered me again as we crossed the veranda.
Walking backwards toward the steps, he was squinting at me oddly. I thought of squinting back, but that seemed childish, so I humored him. “What are you looking at?”
He paused in contemplation, letting one hand drift to his chin. “I was just wondering. Have you ever had anyone read your aura?”
“No,” I said, trying to indicate as little interest as possible.
“Hmm,” he murmured, frowning. “It’s very yellow.”
“Air pollution,” I said, waving away imaginary sulfur clouds. It seemed a fittingly out of tune note to end on. Intending to descend briskly to my car, I stepped forward.
He stepped back and to the side like a matador perceiving the bull has been over-stimulated. But his foot met only air. The patient curve of his incredulous smile suddenly opened into an “O” of horror and an indignant cry escaped him. The next moment he lay crumpled at the foot of the steps with his knapsack under his shoulder.
“Don’t move him!” Shay screamed in my ear. “I’m calling 911.” She ran past me down the steps, followed by her hair.
Before she could fish her phone out of her pocket, however, Neil popped back up, claiming he was fine, other than a slightly injured ankle, and exhibiting no signs of the sadder, wiser man I was hoping for. His insistence, with the arrival at Légumes of a large grazing party, finally discouraged Shay Nightingale, but once she was gone he leaned on me a little, contradictorily asserting that he hated people fussing over him and wondering if I could give him a ride home.
Cursing the decency ingrained in me by my wholesome farming family, I agreed. Inevitably, he lived in a third-floor walk-up, but the climb went pleasantly enough, with Neil sharing intimate details about his chakras and me trying not to fall while supporting his weight.
By the time we staggered into his living room, he seemed to feel we had bonded. With one arm around my shoulders so I could support him, he waved the other proudly around the tiny space, made tinier by the stacks of books and papers covering every available surface. “Enter my home, enter my soul,” he declaimed.
“Is that from something?” I asked, adding, “Let me,” as I saw him trying to clear a space on the sofa while hopping on his good leg.
“Thank you,” he sighed, and leaned on a table while I removed a column topped by The Dharma Bums. “But to answer your question, that was mine—one of my more Vedantic moments.”
“Ah,” I said, not wishing to engage in a discussion of Vedanticism with him. I could always do a search on it later. I looked up expectantly, hoping he would sit down and let me go.
But he pointed to some pornographic material masquerading as illustrated Indian erotic poetry. Without even a hint of embarrassment, he suggested I clear another stack and sit with him awhile.
“Well—I really should be going,” I said.
One of the drawbacks of a wholesome upbringing is not enough practice in phony excuses. I had just thought of one after a suspiciously long pause, when he made his long face even more melancholy and pleaded, “Just for a few minutes. It’s going to be a long night just sitting here trying not to think about the pain in my leg.”
“What could be the harm?” I thought. He didn’t seem like a rapist, and if he tried anything, I could kick him in his injured ankle. Besides, I felt a little responsible for startling him into his fall. I removed the porn, dropped my purse on the floor, and sat squashed against a stack of notebooks so as to make space between us.
When he lunged forward I froze and forgot to kick him. For a split second his peppermint Castile soap filled my nostrils while the wiry strength of his body blocked my movement.
But before I could unfreeze or scream, he was back in his spot, clutching a notebook from the stack behind me. I noticed that someone had taped an intricate pattern of creepy eyes over its cover. “Pardon my reach,” he said, “but I want to give you something in return for your kindness.”
“Really, it was nothing,” I managed, reaching down for my purse.
He raised a hand, stopping me. “No. No, I admit I was somewhat put off by your—blasé attitude—at times. But when I saw how you couldn’t keep your eyes off the Verhein, I suspected you were a sensitive soul underneath all that armor, even before my accident forced you to show your kindness. Maybe others have misunderstood you, but I see you. I feel your worth—so strongly that I’m moved to share a—a tribute, if you will.”
I flinched as he thrust the eye tapestry toward me. I wanted to cry out, to run away, to make him understand how utterly he had misread my polite pity, but the eyes pinned me to the sofa. Behind them, Neil was soon completely absorbed in his own pleasure. His words ebbed and flowed relentlessly with the throes of his passion.
I was trapped. Trapped by small-town inhibitions insisting that I play the “nice girl,” the considerate guest; trapped by academic codes dictating that the lover of literature listen quietly until the reading was over, no matter how horrible it was. And this was surely horrible, unless it was actually good, which would be even more horrible.
Unable to make him stop, I let the words wash over me without understanding, as if I wasn’t really there, only observing my own helplessness. But as the ordeal went on, I took pity on the figure cringing on the sofa. “You can reach your purse,” I told her. “Get your phone. And for once in your life, lie.”
I was back in my body, stealthily groping downward while warding off line after line of verse, willing myself to concentrate on the lie, an inspiration bred of desperation. As soon as I grasped the phone, I waved it at him, shrieking with feigned excitement. “Shay texted me!”
The outpouring shut off like a tap. He closed the notebook. “Shaay.”
Something about the drawn-out vowel, the caressing downturn at the end, told me I wasn’t the only woman he had foisted his poetry on. “She’s worried about you. Wants to know you’re OK.”
“Ohhh . . . ,” he sighed, leaning his head back and pressing the notebook to his chest with both hands.
I didn’t believe he was that put out. “She wants to come over.”
He threw his arms out helplessly, slapping my thigh with the notebook. Then he gave me a cunning, sideways look. “How do you feel about that?”
“Oh well,” I said putting my purse strap over my shoulder. “It’s getting late. I’ll let her in downstairs, but then I should be going home. Family get-together tomorrow—very boring.”
He gazed at me, appreciating my sacrifice. “You have a capacious soul.” From between the leaves of his notebook he drew a small pamphlet with a close-up photo of a candle flame on the cover. “I want you to take this with you,” he said, placing it in my hand and folding my fingers over it. “It’s a signed copy of my chapbook, Soulfire. I would love to hear what you think of it, next time we get together.”
While I was thanking him, he drew me in and kissed me. I turned my head to avoid lip-to-lip contact, but he managed to keep his mouth pressed against my cheek for far too long.
When he was done, I rose. “I’ll wait for Shay downstairs,” I told him. “Get well soon.”
I hurried down and called Légumes. Shay was just leaving, and though her squealing wasn’t easy to understand, I gathered she’d be right over. True to my word, I let her in and directed her to Neil’s cave before heading out to my car.
In the parking lot a dumpster loomed, full, but not overflowing. Before I left, I tucked Soulfire out of sight in the top layer of garbage bags.