A Damsel in a Dress | Susan Rosalsky
Fire-breathing dragons, tipsy martini glasses, high-titted waitresses drawn in silhouette: above us a ceiling of signs, around us the whizzing of Kowloon. Or maybe it was just my nerves. I had to ask him his name again, and when he told me I remembered. Neil. Was this how it was done, walking with a man who was interested in me? The viper who ate my heart that year took my memory as well. I stepped into the street looking to my right, forgetting I was wrong. He hauled me back in time, saying it's the left you've got to watch for.
At Rolf's Bar, not far from the sales convention, I picked up an over-sized menu that stretched from here to there. “Oh, no,” I said, confused again.
“Hmmm...,” said he, “I see your point.” His dark brows twitched over the Chinese, resting with recognition when they got to the Arabic numbers. “Do you know what any of this is?” he asked.
“Food, probably,” I replied, wondering if I was being funny.
“Hey, then we're in luck,” said this man, whose name was Neil. “Let's pick a number, any number, and let's see what we get.”
I suggested twenty-nine, forgetting in my nervousness that I liked to lie about my age. He liked the look of twenty-four — but doesn't every man? I speak only from experience.
If Neil was anything Neil was kind. When the waiter came, we pointed to twenty-nine and pushed back with our drinks. We talked about what we hated: our jobs, the sales convention, the whole Pacific Rim. He was earnest, he was impractical. He said, “I'd like to get to know you,” though I lived half-the-world away.
I asked him about his hometown. He said, “Melbourne's dead. Let's talk about New York,” and gazed into my eyes.
Sometimes his knee brushed my own or our fingers dabbed each other reaching for the plum sauce. And finally, after several accidental brushings, I knew that he was not for me, and that here at last was nothing. I felt nothing. And I felt better than before.
We spoke freely, pointlessly. We told each other things. I was recently dumped by the guy who asked for my hand in marriage. Heartbreak followed, the usual story. And this Neil guy, he was done — finished, he emphasized — pursuing a woman in Melbourne who was married to a luckless entertainer, a dog and pony man. We ordered another round.
Soon our food arrived. There were small dishes, big dishes, pork and beef and chicken, noodles, bok choi, bean curd. There were dumplings, sprouts and brook trout, and mysteriously there was wiener schnitzel. And the sauces — I'd never tasted such an assortment of flavorful sauces: they were brown and red, black and white, piquant, sweet and bitter. The surface of our table was covered with small oblong dishes and had the lab-like look of microbes — or grid-locked traffic jammed up in some intersection.
I tried everything, I ate like the explorer that I always should have been, instead of throwing my life away on a man that I had clung to for three years. I wanted to talk more but my mouth was too full of known and unknown flavors, and there was so much more to eat. We licked our fingers and our knives and our chopsticks too; we would have licked the plates if the waiters weren't staring.
Eventually the waiter who took our order returned. Middle-aged with a comb-over, he sucked too loudly on a toothpick. “Congratulations,” he said with a nodding, knowing smile, whereupon the others followed. The maitre ‘d, the sous-chef, the guy who nailed our lobster in the tank: all of them circled around to wish us broken congratulations. They nodded and whispered, they grinned and they gawked, as if no one had ever finished a meal in Rolf's Bar before.
From between the swinging kitchen doors at the back of the room emerged a cake with three tiers. A circle of flaming candles stood atop the smallest layer and in the center two little figures dressed in black and white stood in butter cream. Slowly, it came towards us, burning brightly as it approached. At our table it stopped; it hovered; it landed. And in pink frosting were the scripted words Happy-Happy Marriage Day.
“What?” the man and I said in perfect unison, suddenly eyeing each other suspiciously.
“Marriage. I believe that is the American word,” said a tall waiter.
“What do you mean?” we asked in almost embarrassing harmony. But then I have always found something embarrassing about harmony.
“You ordered the wedding feast, is that not correct?”
“Hey, all I know is we ordered number 29.”
“The wedding feast.”
“The wedding feast,” we echoed dimly. The dark eyes of the gathering staff eagerly reflected the cake's flickering flames. A couple in the corner, having nothing better to do, applauded.
Just for one fleeting moment, the evening became thick and impassable. I felt ill. The pleasant nothingness of the Hong Kong night was suddenly the old, heavy vacuum of my life in New York as I knew it. A wedding feast: this was too much, or this was too little. A joke either way.
But then the thought occurred that I could swallow anything. After all, I had experience. I was a pro in this department. And this, I reminded myself, was nothing. So, swallowing, I picked up the knife, and I sliced up the cake, and it felt good, how easy it was going through.
“You want some, Nigel?”
The candles illuminated his dark, brow-shadowed face. The hair of his beard started high on his cheeks. He stared, tempted. “The name is Neil. Remember? Well, maybe you could just cut me a sliver.”
And that was how it began, with a sliver. But the cake was all right, sweet and rich, with an ignorable little after-taste, a vaguely chemical lemony flavor that would not stop me from consuming it. I ate with disdain for its artistry, with contempt for its three-tiered construction, with indifference for its buttercream beauty. I stuffed my mouth; sometimes I used a fork; I was a buttercream explosion. When a portion of the top tier slid to the floor, the laughter hit us. In my hilarity I brought my foot down on the plastic bride and groom and pretended it was an accident.
Finally, a waiter approached. “Uh, do you want to take home with you,” he asked, pointing to the only remaining chunk that stood like the temple ruins of a long-irrelevant god, but neither what's-his-name nor I wanted any more of it.
Outside of Rolf's the moon was shining; the breeze carried the mixed-up smell of polluted sea and island flowers.
“Would you like...” began this man, whose name still evades me on occasion.
“Well, I had some fun,” said I.
“I mean, you don't have to...” he said.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“I just thought, I have a bottle of Scotch in my hotel room. Do you want a drink?”
I hesitated and then I swallowed, and then I said, “I do.”
That was the thing that really cracked me up.