Oeuf en Gelée
The bistro was tucked into an obscure corner of the West Village, on one of the narrow cobbled streets where tourists always had to stop and look at their maps. Laurel supposed she ought to have heard of it; from her seat next to the window she could see a growing cluster of hopeful patrons shivering outside. Max explained that it had been written up in a magazine, and poured more red wine into her squat short-stemmed glass.
The place was so small, everything had been downsized to fit. Patrons settled on wooden stools at little round tables where tea lights flickered in miniature votives, and cut into their food with slender, weightless forks and knives. With the low ceiling and dark wood beams, it was like being inside a wine cask. At the table in front of Laurel’s, two girls with the angular look of models sat narrowly on their stools, like Egyptian cats. To her right, a pair of white-haired men in tweed jackets sat so close she could smell the bitter vapors rising from their tiny shots of espresso. Even the food was small. That was because it was French.
Though Laurel was herself petite, she felt oversize, clumsy on her wooden stool. This was her second date with Max—“short for Makoto,” according to their online exchange—and she was drastically out of practice.
Between them, their first course waited coldly on a little porcelain saucer. Apparently it was the restaurant’s signature dish. “The article said barely any places in the U.S. serve it,” Max was saying. He was Laurel’s age, late thirties, with dark, adeptly tousled hair that made him look rakish. Online, he had written in all lowercase, giving him a busy, no-time-for capitalization air. Laurel liked him so far. Enough that she had agreed to a second date, and to the oeuf en gelée.
She tapped at it with her fork, dimpling the gelatin. The dark yolk stared up, little green peas hovering in the aspic along with a strip of ham, some parsley leaves, and a truly diminutive cornichon. The ocher tinge of the aspic made these elements seem ancient, like insects fixed in amber.
“Wait.” Max slipped his phone out. “Don’t think less of me for doing this.”
He snapped a photo.
“One of us had to do it,” Laurel said. “Though, to be honest, I don’t understand how the cosmos hasn’t imploded from all our food photos.”
“Right, for all we know they mate and replicate.”
“There should be a collective graveyard or something.” She didn’t mean to sound morbid.
Max lifted his fork. His fingertips were slender, his nails pale and square. He scooped the fork sideways through the gelatin, into the egg. Laurel watched the velvet yolk begin to seep out. There was also a leaf of something green. Max took a bite with a crust of baguette.
“Is it good?” one of the white-haired men asked.
It was as if they were all on one collective date. “Mmm-hmm,” Max said, still chewing. He didn’t seem to mind these strangers observing their courtship ritual. Probably Laurel was the strange one, from having been out of the ring for so long. When she’d first signed up on the dating app, she had tried to explain: I was caring for a sick friend. Though it was the truth, the words looked wrong, cloying, and she had deleted them. If she’d been a widow, she could have said, “My husband died,” and it wouldn’t have sounded odd. But there wasn’t a word for who she had become. And although a full year had somehow managed to pass without Viv in it, Laurel still felt like a teacup someone had smashed and then glued back together.
“Your turn,” Max said.
Beside her, the white-haired men spoke in murmurs. Laurel lifted her nearly weightless fork, the tines clinking against the edge of the plate, and a wisp of thought blew through her, gone before she could catch it. An uneasy feeling—she shook it away, cut into her half of the egg. Her bite tasted of peppercorn. One of the cat girls said, “It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s that I’m morally opposed to him.”
With a disc of baguette, Laurel dabbed at the yolk. “It’s good,” she said.
Max’s eyes brightened. He must still like her, then, to care what she thought of the food. Even so, it seemed to her somehow incredible that they could ever become closer than they were right now, eating from opposite sides of an oeuf en gelée. That people could somehow go from being strangers atop separate stools to couples exchanging quiet, easy murmurings.
Max helped himself to another wedge of baguette. Maybe he, too, searched, sometimes, for a missing friend in crowded streets. Maybe he, too, held conversations in his head with a dead person.
“I knew an artist,” she told him, “who, when everyone was starving in South Sudan, started doing these paintings of food. She had an office job during the day, and she’d come home in the evening and, instead of making dinner, she’d do a watercolor of a fruit bowl or, you know, a loaf of bread.”
The first painting was a single McIntosh apple; Viv said she had been about to eat one but had instead made herself paint it for an hour while her stomach twinged. After that, every evening, she would take some item of food from the fridge and sketch or paint it for as long as she could bear.
“Aren’t they still starving in Sudan?”
“You’re probably right.” Laurel took a gulp of the dark red wine. “It’s like time compresses. I don’t know what’s from last week or five years ago.”
“But, I mean, go on—your friend’s paintings.”
“She’d always donated to causes like that, even though she didn’t have much money. But it made her feel guilty to just make a donation and then look away. Doing the paintings was different. Although, of course, she knew her hunger wasn’t anything like actual starvation.”
“It was an act of solidarity.”
“Except she realized she wasn’t doing it right. It took a few days, but she realized she couldn’t have the actual food in front of her while she painted. She needed to have to imagine it.”
Max was nodding. “Was she right? Did being hungry affect how she pictured the food?”
“I guess really you’d have to see ones from when she wasn’t hungry. To compare.” Most of the paintings had gone to Viv’s parents, but Laurel had kept three: one of the McIntosh apples, a bowl of red peppers so curvaceous they were nearly pornographic, and a hard-boiled egg lying pristinely next to a thick slice of bread. Sometimes, panicked that she was already forgetting, she made herself picture the others, too. Though perhaps longing had warped her memory of them. “But, yes, that was the idea. That absence would become tangible.”
“A presence,” Max said, and grinned. “You can write the exhibition notes.” Laurel took another forkful of egg. Even though she had never believed in ghosts or an afterlife, for some reason she had expected to feel Viv near her in some way. She kept waiting to sense some whiff of her. But Viv had been an atheist and refused to make an appearance. Only when Laurel managed to forget to miss her—sometimes for hours, or even, lately, almost entire days—did she think she could sense, like glowing coals, Viv’s hot fury at being ignored.
“How long did she do that for?” Max asked. “Painting while hungry.”
“I don’t remember exactly.” Viv had kept drawing and painting until there were no more treatments to try, not even hideous experimental ones. But Laurel didn’t want to talk about that. Either there would be time for that later or there wouldn’t be.
At the next table, the morally opposed girl was asking for the check. Her face looked impossibly smooth. Max said, “Here, have some more before I finish the whole thing.”
Laurel reached with the stunted fork. Again she felt a hint of something barely there.
A tiny platter of ceramic food. A miniature balsawood table built from a kit. Her dollhouse—she hadn’t thought of it in ages, not since she’d given it away to a girl she babysat. There was a cat that was really a little black pom-pom with glued-on plastic eyeballs and whiskers of white thread, and a bedside table that was really a wooden spool with a circle of fabric secured over it, and little rubber-limbed dolls with painted-on shoes.
Something in her relaxed, now that she knew what the feeling was. That it was a memory, and not Viv’s hot fury. She mopped up more egg with the baguette while one of the men at the next table reached to wipe some crumbs from the other’s mouth. An automatic gesture, of which neither seemed aware. Max had made more progress on his side of the egg, and Laurel quickly took another bite to catch up with him before the main course arrived. By now the aspic had been reduced to a thin gelatinous border.
“You finish it,” Max said.
“No, you. Really. I don’t mind.”
“You can say if you didn’t like it. Oh, God—did you hate it?”
“No, no.” To prove it, she took another scoop, and what was left of the gelatin crumbled.
Using a scrap of bread to draw a theatrical swoosh through the air, Max swiped up what little remained on the plate. “Gone.”
On the sidewalk, waiting patrons huddled in clusters, monitoring the diners’ progress. Through the warbled glass of the windows, the room was a dim chamber of light and shade. A waitress twisted her way between tables, ferrying a check along. Seated so close, stooped over their meals, everyone seemed to be confiding something. Candle tips winked like caught fireflies.