LUNCH HOUR. A VIGNETTE.
Ellen considered herself a food snob, a self-described “foodie extraordinaire,” and I really hated her for it most days. I prided myself in my willingness to try new foods, patron new restaurants and cook with new ingredients. But no matter how adventurous my culinary exploits, Ellen was sure to have already tried it, mastered the cooking of it and eaten it in its country of origin.
Monday mornings maddened me. We shared a cubicle at the same office, Riddle and Riddle, attorneys at law. As my computer booted and she prepped her Earl Gray tea, I’d say, “I cooked with quinoa this weekend. Two ways: as a crust for pork chops, and cooked, chilled and tossed in a salad.”
Ellen would say, “I visited a quinoa plantation when I traveled to Peru last year. They harvest it by hand, did you know? The traditional garlic quinoa is delicious with Tamales Criollos.”
The conversation went something like that every week. I would refrain from asking what ingredients were in Tamales Criollos, not wanting to sound uninformed.
Even our shared interest of trying new restaurants for lunch had a competitive air. I scoured the newspaper religiously each Saturday, looking to spot the newest restaurant reviews to share with her. Every Monday, as she heated her tea and I brewed coffee in the break room, I threw out the lurid details about the latest place like so much chum, trying to bait her into acknowledging my epicurean acumen.
“Did you see the review of the new Thai place? The Tom Yum Gung sounds amazing.” I stood at the coffee machine, carafe in hand. I poured slowly, trying not to… “Ow!” I wiped the hot coffee off my fingers and the rim of my overflowing mug. Ellen seemed not to notice.
“I first had that in Phuket,” she said in a far away voice. She turned to stare out of the window. “It’s the aroma of Thailand. Did you know?”
“Well this place is just across town. The Panang Gai got four stars.“ I hated the sound of my own voice – too much like pleading.
“Lunch?” Ellen finally seemed to notice me.
“You’re fixated on needing her approval,” my therapist intoned (as she did in every session that coincided with a lunch hour in Ellen's company). I silently disagreed with her.
“She called the Panang Gai ‘ill-prepared cat.’ I thought that was pretty fucking rude.”
“What else did she order?”
“Who fucking cares? This is my nickel!”
“Just as it was your nickel when you picked up the tab? I think your hostility is misplaced.”
“Look, I really don’t care if Ellen likes me.”
“Of course not.”
“I really don’t care if you like me either.”
Most of my sessions ended this way. My therapist pulled her bifocals down and looked me straight in the eye. “Of course not.”
Look, I really don’t care if Ellen likes me. But her one-upmanship is annoying; I can’t stress that enough. She has a perpetual air of smug surety and imperviousness. She wears perfectly matched suit/pearl sets. And her coif! The coif is hard to understand, here in the 21st century. No one has seen a hairdo like hers since Alice worked for the Bradys, unless you count Amy Winehouse. At least Amy was cool. Well…so was Alice as far as that goes.
I tried playing Amy for Ellen once. We were having lunch at a new pop-up restaurant on 3rd and Watson that had received a galaxy’s worth of stars from the top three local food critics. The hook at this place had two prongs: the table juke boxes only played Amy Winehouse, and every dish on the menu included Pop Rocks candy in one way or another. For me, it was nirvana.
For Ellen, not so much. “Pop Rock martinis? Ludicrous.” She tossed the drink menu aside.
I perused the lunch menu. “Fresh baby spinach leaves with roasted butternut squash, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries tossed in a Pop Rock vinaigrette. That sounds good.”
Ellen picked up her own menu and scanned regally. “Pop Rock encrusted tilapia. Hmm. Pop Rock ceviche.”
The waiter took our orders, left a bowl of Pop Rocks on our table and returned moments later with my Pop Rock infused tea and Ellen’s appletini. I popped a quarter in the jukebox and punched up the Back to Black album. The snappy opening chords of “Rehab” filled the booth. Ellen yawned widely.
“This album won a Grammy.”
“She probably subsisted on fish and chips,” Ellen sneered. “Fried food will kill you, did you know?” Ellen polished off the appletini and signaled our waiter to bring another.
I said, “Amy was a drunk. She died of alcohol poisoning. She was 28. Did you know?”
“Your identification with a drunken drug addict, no matter how musically gifted, is…well…counter-productive,” my therapist chided me the following week.
“Fuckery,” I muttered beneath her hearing.
“Have you considered not asking her to lunch?”
“No. Amy. Winehouse.”
“Let’s get back to Ellen. I’m still not clear what you find so…frustrating about her.”
“She disses every restaurant I suggest.”
“She eats at them, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. But she invariably bitches about something. I think she goes out of her way to find flaws. The food, service, the atmosphere, my choice of entrée – you name it, she’ll complain about it. Last week I listened to her bitch on Monday that the drinks at Mama Leone’s were too strong. Wednesday, at Charlie’s Wok, she complained that the drinks were weak.”
“Did you agree with her?” My therapist actually seemed interested in the answer. Her hand poised, pen tip angled above her notepad, she looked at me intently.
Her look irked me. “I’m not a drunk or a drug addict, you know that. I mean I have a few issues – trust, body self-image, validation… but I’ve met bigger basket cases than me.
“Than I, ” my therapist corrected. “So, do you drink during work hours?”
“Oh fuck me.” I buried my head in my hands.
THIS WAS FICTION. ALL OF IT. REALLY.