Ellen was praising her beet and pea salad and waiting for Billy to do the same.
“These are the best beets,” she said. “And the organic peas really make a difference.”
“Beet and pea salad,” Billy said. He liked to say ‘beet and pea salad.’ It sounded like a salutation of sorts, like ‘eat, drink and be merry’ or ‘be fruitful and multiply.’
They sat at the long, grey table. It was made of steel, three inches thick and ten feet long, and was constructed by the sculptor who rented them the loft two years earlier. It was cold to the touch, regardless of the weather. The edges were sharp and, if you fell against it hard enough, could probably split your skull open.
“Beet and pea salad,” Billy repeated. He took a bite and found that they were indeed excellent beets, not to mention the peas.
“This is the best beet and pea salad I’ve ever had in my whole fucking life!”
Ellen did not respond except for the tight smile that let Billy know she didn’t appreciate the cursing. He was aware of this, which is why he swore in the first place. She really did make a beautiful beet and pea salad, though. Perfect small, purple cubes of beet. Perky green peas. Some kind of understated glaze or sauce or vinaigrette. Lemony. Sour creamy. Just a hint.
“When they speak of you,” Billy said, “and speak of you they will, they’ll acknowledge your charitable contributions, your strong work ethic, and your beet and pea salad.”
Ellen sat stony-faced, ignoring him, eating and saying nothing. Billy could tell he was being a dick, but it was too late. He was already too far in to pull out, so to speak.
“Beet and pea salad,” he said again, settling the matter.
Billy and Ellen met four years after college at the famous writer’s party at a cavernous club in Manhattan. They had gone to the same liberal arts school but travelled in different circles. They had both made the acquaintance of the famous writer, whose nihilistic, exquisitely crafted, plotless novel generated a bidding war, garnering him a high six-figure book deal in his freshman year. Seeing Ellen at the party, remembering her name and realizing she was drunk, Billy was not surprised they wound up back at her house, dry humping on her couch. What was weird was that she shoved her fingers in his ass before she ever touched his cock.
Ellen was small and blonde, with hazel eyes. She had a square jaw, which gave her a default expression of determination. An avid morning jogger, her figure was tight and lean. When Billy managed to make her laugh, which wasn’t often, her expression conveyed a searching vulnerability and frailty, as if mirth caused her a degree of physical pain. Ellen’s father had left her mother when he retired after decades of service at the World Bank and ditched her for a young Ecuadorian woman he met while helping her village create workable water-filtration systems, and whom he brought, along with her three children, back to Virginia. The woman promptly became pregnant, and Ellen’s father was a new dad at the age of 71.
Ellen’s mother Katharine was a rageful British alcoholic who ceaselessly railed against the gold watch that life was pressing into her palm. Billy admired her persistently negative attitude, being self-aware enough to recognize it in himself. He secretly hated the relentless positivity people were espousing these days. All that manifesting, visualizing and affirming was clearly reductionist, overly-simplistic bullshit. Billy had no idea how to respond when people came at him with thankfulness and aspirational thinking. As if admitting to feelings of anger or even slight dissatisfaction were a sign of weakness, instead of what he recognized it to be: the mark of an evolved mind. Still, it was hard to be around Ellen’s mom, particularly after a few gin and tonics
Shortly after Billy and Ellen started seeing each other, Ellen’s 16-year-old Lhasa Apso, Calvados—named after her mother’s favorite liqueur—was diagnosed with gastrointestinal lymphoma. Ellen was distraught. Billy couldn’t understand, having never grown up with pets, unless you counted the various goldfish and guppies his mother bought him in an attempt to teach him about caretaking. As an only child, Billy never had to watch over a sibling, so the fish were supposed to be a substitute. It was a test he failed miserably; they all perished shortly after purchase.
Billy pretended to be sensitive to Ellen’s anguish, a pose he’d been able to pull off extremely well with various women over the years. He came across as caring and calming, when in fact what he was really doing was trying hard to tamp down whatever drama had flared up to which he could not relate. It was almost impossible to catch him at this and he had a lawyerly series of maneuvers he’d execute if anyone ever caught wind of the insensitivity at the heart of his sensitivity.
Everything had to be ‘the best’ with Ellen, even pet euthanasia. After Calvados was put to sleep at the best animal hospital in the city, Billy and Ellen drove out to Woodland Park, New Jersey and chose a new boxer puppy from the best boxer breeder (not a puppy-mill!) in the Tri-State area. (Ellen had an affinity for the mastiff breeds.) Ellen insisted on calling him Augustus. Naming a dog after Rome’s first emperor seemed pretentious to Billy, so he shortened it to Gus, much to Ellen’s displeasure.
Gus’s trainer, John Reeder, was considered the best on the east coast and had a short-lived show, Reeder of the Pack, that aired for one season on the Animal Planet network, meant to compete with The Dog Whisperer in the wake of Cesar Millan’s shock-collar scandal. Reeder had been described by the press as almost like a dog himself. Billy swore that once he saw him lift his left leg during a slightly edgy conversation they were having in which Billy questioned the constant “high-value” treat giving, daring to wonder aloud if all that liver snack bribery was necessary.
After a year, Billy and Ellen moved into a beautiful Tribeca loft together, with handsome built-in bookshelves and an elevator that opened into the apartment, a feature Billy had always coveted. There were skylights and windows on three sides. There was a brand-new bamboo floor and a rooftop garden where Ellen grew microgreens.
Billy wasn’t exactly sure where Ellen got her money. She had her own private catering company, but he knew there had to be some other family funds floating around to afford the rent on the loft. Billy and Ellen had an agreement that during this time, while he was still between jobs, he would contribute what he could and she’d take care of the rest. Billy felt bad about this, but sliding across the polished, wide-planked wood floor in his socks, arranging his books in the shelves and feeling like a king stepping across the threshold directly into his apartment from the elevator helped to dampen his feelings of guilt.
Billy grew up in a cramped Hell’s Kitchen two-bedroom with a grim view of an alleyway, bars on the bedroom windows and a toilet handle you had to manually hold down to flush. He’d never experienced the kind of lifestyle he was now living. It felt like he was pretending to be an adult, particularly when they would entertain, which Ellen loved to do. He felt like an old man at these dinner or cocktail parties, doddering and useless at 26-years-old, as if he should be wandering around in a smoking jacket, carrying a pipe, wearing a captain’s hat. He tended to drink too much, drawing scowls from Ellen as he polished off a bottle of his favorite Syrah by himself while she served some exotic cocktail with herbs and egg whites and muddled fruits.
Ellen elevated Billy’s palate. Before her, he was content to eat pizza, hot dogs, burgers, eggs, grilled cheese. He grew up on his mother’s chicken parmesan, pasta with tomato sauce or butter, iceberg lettuce salads with bacon bits and bleu cheese dressing and General Tso’s chicken at least twice a week from the cheap Chinese take-out place on the corner. Ellen had a lot of work to do to bring Billy’s tastes into the 21st century. He remembered watching her comically attempt to ingest his mother’s chicken casserole made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom and cream of celery soups. It was the first and last time Ellen ever joined them for a meal she wasn’t in charge of.
By contrast, Ellen would invite Billy’s parents over for dinner and lavish attention on them, with her signature cocktails, fresh produce, wild seafood, organic, grass-fed meats and always some expensive port after. It was as if she were willing them into modernity by filling their bellies with transformative ingredients meant to expand their horizons.
From time to time, when Ellen was gone for the day, Billy would sneak out and buy himself a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. There was something transgressive about the texture of the milk and butter when mixed with the contents of the flavor packet, turning into a paste that enveloped the pasta elbows and thickened with each rotation of the wooden spoon. Billy took great care to wash out the pot he prepared it in, making sure no trace of the orange powder remained. Then he’d hide the box at the bottom of the trash can, not daring to put it in the recycle bin for fear its telltale blue and orange colors might peek out from amongst the old New Yorker magazines.
“What did you do today?” Ellen asked.
Her tone was attempted neutral, but he could detect the note of impatience underneath. If he called her on it, he knew she’d characterize it as an innocent question. It was the innocent questions Billy always dreaded.
He knew she was searching for detail, hoping he had some news on the employment front. But the truth was he wasn’t really looking. The domestic comforts and luxuries he was now used to, subconsciously made him less persistent. He had spent the day flipping between CNN, MSNBC and FOX, masturbating to female dominant/male submissive porn, and reading a high body count Lee Child Jack Reacher paperback. He’d only gone out to walk the dog, who had an embarrassing bout of diarrhea, so liquified that poop bags could only really rearrange the dark puddle on the sidewalk. He received scowls from passersby as well as from the owners of the nail salon in front of which the dog relieved himself.
“Did you call Steve about the art handling job?”
Steve was Ellen’s friend Simone’s husband. He had a Guns N’ Roses cover band called Sha na na na na na na na Knees Knees, which played Long Island rock clubs on the weekends. During the week, he worked for a company that moved works of art for museums, galleries and auction houses.
But Billy hadn’t forgotten at all, he just really didn’t want to drive around in a truck all day with a bunch of dudes packing and unpacking paintings in bubble wrap. He’d rather bartend, which he also didn’t want to do.
Billy felt extremely unlikeable. He was determinedly giving Ellen nothing. Why was he immediately in defensive mode the second she walked in the door? Why was he treating her this way, this girl who paid the bulk of the rent, cooked beautiful meals, worked hard, was perfectly nice and considerate? Why did he feel such contempt for her?
In their third year together, Billy and Ellen began therapy. Dr. Barry Gold, apparently the best couple’s therapist in the city, sported the requisite beard and Upper East Side address. There were white noise machines in the waiting room and well-thumbed National Geographic magazines laid out on a brass and glass coffee table. Inside the office, APA journals filled the bookshelves and Rorschach-like paintings hung at strategically placed sight-points on the walls, opposite a large, seaweed-green sectional couch. The rumor was that Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick had saved their marriage in that very room.
Gold would poke his front teeth with his index finger, squint his heavy-lidded eyes and frequently adjust his position in his squeaky leather chair when listening. When he spoke, he was fond of slangy homilies like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or “Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” He seldom addressed an issue head-on, preferring to keep things anecdotal, telling stories about Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, or trotting out that “Because it’s my nature” anecdote about the snake and the frog, capping it off with a “You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” flourish.
Gold, in the 70s, was past his prime. More than occasionally, he’d begin a thought only to trail off. Billy had some affection for him and sometimes felt he was willing the old man to sentence completion, rooting for him to land a point.
Billy would state his views on a subject, sex usually, and watch Ellen recede with each pronouncement. He tended to speak in absolutes: “you have to’s” or “you musts.” Aside from that first night, her fingers never found their way inside him again, although he didn’t dare mention that and danced around it with generalities.
“You have to work hard to maintain passion.”
“Two people might actually have to force themselves to fuck, even if it’s the last thing on earth they want to do.”
“You need to bring the same dedication for your career or your art into your sex life.”
These were some of the theories Billy would promote in therapy. He wasn’t sure how he became a “sexpert”. The thoughts felt profound to him in his head, but the words sounded hollow once they came out of his mouth.
It happened like this: Billy was taking the dog for his nighttime walk. It was raining hard, and he could see one long, toned leg, sheathed in fishnet, plant itself outside of a taxi directly across the street. The other leg followed and a beautiful girl stepped out. Billy crossed to her side of the street almost involuntarily. Her face was perfect symmetry: almond eyes, nostrils shaped like upside-down commas.
“Do you need a lift?” he asked, having seen that she had no umbrella, offering shelter under his. It was a pickup line disguised as chivalry. He’d never approached a girl on the street before and was shocked when she smiled, her glossed, full lips sticking slightly together as her mouth parted, showing straight, white teeth. She was his height, 6”0 or maybe an inch or two taller.
“Do you want to come to the party?” she asked, as if he knew whose it was, where it was.
Billy hesitated. This girl, unsteady in her heels, was clearly drunk. The thought of Ellen in her maroon flannel pajamas dotted with little pink flowers and her nightly cup of chamomile citrus tea flashed in his mind. The whole hassle of dishonesty loomed before him, the weight of it palpable in that moment. He thought about doing the right thing, the honorable thing, the Judd Apatow-sexually-neutered-male-character thing, but instead he said “Yes I do.”
“Look at this cute little guy,” the girl squealed, kneeling down, the belt of her black raincoat trailing into a deep street puddle. The dog leapt on its hind legs, its front paws balancing on her knees. She didn’t seem to mind that her stockings were getting muddy and she allowed the dog to repeatedly lick her face while making high-pitched, cooing sounds. Billy had never let Gus do this to him—not even once. She stood and regarded him now, at eye level. He took care to hold the umbrella over her as his left shoulder got pelted by the rain, which was falling heavier now. He followed her down the block.
You could hear the party coming up the street. The large, north-facing windows on the second floor were lit in red. There was a low rumble of bass and kick drum and a misty blur of dancing bodies visible from the outside. A few people were standing in the lobby, smoking weed. It wasn’t too late to drop her off here and head home.
“Cool if I bring him in?” Billy asked, gesturing at the now-soaked dog.
“Oh, of course. Stefan loves animals,” she said matter-of-factly, as if he knew Stefan and therefore should also know he loved animals.
“Even wet animals?” he asked, but received no answer as the girl saw a slight, stringy-haired boy she recognized and embraced him. The boy seemed indifferent to her, merely allowing himself to be hugged but not reciprocating.
She grabbed Billy’s hand and led him inside. “Elizabeth,” she whispered in his ear. It was a full floor-through loft, with painted white wood floors. The ceilings were high, with the original tin intact. The space was unfinished but not raw and still retained a bohemian air, not having undergone the gut renovation most Tribeca lofts had. Gus shook himself off, spraying water. Someone stepped on his paw and he bark-whimpered loudly, pulling forward, catching Billy by surprise, yanking the leash out of his hand. At the same moment Elizabeth, who had begun dancing immediately upon crossing the threshold, started grinding up against Billy’s crotch. Then, while still working her hips, she stuck her tongue so deep in his mouth that he actually choked. He swiveled while still being kissed and saw the dog run into a corner where he was greeted by three enthusiastic girls who were sitting on large cushions, somehow managing to have a conversation over the din.
Elizabeth saw a group of people she knew and spun her way to them. Billy again noticed their muted reactions compared with her effusive affection. Next, she stood in the middle of the room and with her six-foot frame and long wingspan, carved out significant floor space for her gyrations. Billy watched her move, intimidated by her wildness but also drawn to it. She motioned to him with her index finger and self-consciously, he half-walked, half-danced over to her. No one else at the party was dancing. The lights were dim, but Billy was still embarrassed. He’d never felt comfortable on the dance floor. He had a series of snaps and pivots he would execute that he knew were not particularly compelling.
Festively dressed twenty-somethings were standing around in the lamplight, watching the spectacle of Elizabeth. Now she began to hike up her skirt, revealing that she was wearing no underwear. She kept ruffling the skimpy, black fabric as if doing the can-can, each time flashing Billy and whoever was interested in the crowd. With each glimpse of her bald pussy, Billy receded, overwhelmed by all the eyes on her and what he imagined to be their questioning glances at him. He nodded his head and tapped his foot to the beat, trying to look comfortable. Elizabeth motioned to him again, this time impatiently with both hands, rolling her eyes and shaking her head when he shyly stood his uncommitted ground.
An older man dressed all in black who looked to be in his 60s jumped in front of Elizabeth, throwing his arms open wide and embracing her, then kissing her on both cheeks. He had a full head of black, curly hair, with patches of grey at the sides. He was excessively tanned and had pronounced, swarthy, European features: bushy eyebrows, a large, bulbous nose, thick lips. Elizabeth screamed and clasped her large hands around the back of his neck.
The three girls were still seated on the floor. One, in a backward ballcap and grey hoodie with oversized black-framed glasses, was holding the dog’s paw, trying to teach him to shake hands. Another, in a silver dress with a blonde buzzcut was scratching near his butt. Gus kept trying to reach his head around to where she was touching him, contorting his body into a U shape.
“This is Stefan,” Elizabeth yelled in Billy’s ear over the loud music. He could smell the flowery scent of liquor on her breath and then she kissed him again. Stefan wrapped his hands around both of their waists. He laughed and whirled away from them, making a motion with his hands like a conductor, as if he were orchestrating their hook-up. Elizabeth had her hand on his crotch now, rubbing him through his jeans, which she began to unbutton. Reflexively, he moved her hand away. Billy scanned the room, looking for any familiar faces: there were none. She put one hand back in place and held it there with surprising strength. She had two buttons undone and her fingers found their way to his cock. She tugged at it impatiently and scrunched up her face, conveying displeasure that he wasn’t hard. He was turned on, but that feeling had somehow not located itself below the waist. They were eye-to-eye now. He had never been with a woman so tall—Ellen was almost a foot shorter. Elizabeth raised one eyebrow and he knew what was going to happen next. Slowly, with her eyes still locked on his, she sank to her knees. Billy felt her wet mouth on him for about five seconds and his eyes rolled back. Then she stood, turned her back and started grinding against him again.
That’s when he noticed the girls in the corner were gone, as was the dog. He buttoned himself up and pulled away from her. She scowled at him, but then ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” came on and she rushed back onto the floor, this time with a handful of others joining her. Billy pushed through the crowd, over to the area where the three girls had been sitting. He worked his way across the room, back into a smaller area packed with revelers and then into the galley kitchen, filled with people leaning on counters, pulling beers from the fridge, snacking on a decimated, rudimentary plate of crudites. Ellen would’ve been mortified by the raw cauliflower, broccoli, baby carrots and grape tomatoes. At that moment, Billy felt a flood of affection for her that he hadn’t experienced in some time.
He felt a rising panic about the dog. He checked the bathroom, the walk-in closet, a small study. There were coats piled on a mattress on the floor of the bedroom. He tasted Elizabeth’s gin and tonic on his lips and felt sick. The pile moved and two floppy, fawn-colored boxer ears popped out from underneath a grey overcoat. Billy ran over and hugged Gus harder than he ever had before. The dog froze, as if surprised by this show of affection and unsure how to respond. Billy wrapped the leash around his hand and led him out.
Elizabeth screamed her phone number into his ear over some Euro-disco thump-thump he did not recognize and did not protest his departure. He turned back to look at her and she was already on the dance floor, making a “raise the roof” motion with her large hands.
When he got home, it was almost an hour past what was normally a 15-minute walk. On his way up in the elevator, he searched his mind for a cover story, but Ellen had gone to sleep and she asked for no explanation in the morning.
“She’s utterly guileless,” his mother had said about Ellen after they’d met for the first time. He knew she had not meant it as a compliment.
Ellen had a full slate of catering jobs, so was gone a lot the next two weeks. They’d discussed the possibility of Billy working some events with her, as a bartender or waiter, but had ultimately decided in therapy that it wouldn’t be good for their relationship.
“I think it would muddy the waters,” Billy had said, whatever that meant.
Instead, he sat in the luxurious apartment for which he did not pay an equal share of rent having phone sex with Elizabeth while his girlfriend was drizzling balsamic vinegar on tomatoes, mozzarella and basil or shaving parmesan onto arugula salad or caramelizing sugar atop creme brulee with a culinary torch. Elizabeth instructed him step by step—what clothing to take off, what he should imagine her doing to him, when he should finish. He followed along as if in a trance, almost convinced that he had no say in the matter, that he was being overwhelmed by a beautiful, 6-foot-tall pervert who desperately wanted him, for some reason. But each time he finished he felt a rush of sorrow. He knew his relationship with Ellen was over. Still, it took him months to admit it, first in therapy and then in further discussions at home, never telling the truth for even a minute.
“I think we’ve run out of reasons to be together.” Ellen said one day in session, surprising him with her readiness to put an end to it. He realized he’d been steering her toward this goal, not having the courage to say it himself. He carefully calibrated just the right mixture of surprise and remorse in his reaction. Later, he’d remember with embarrassment the calculated quality of his facial expressions: first his raised eyebrows, then a deep sigh and finally a kind of upward twist of his lips meant to convey thoughtfulness.
And finally: “It doesn’t feel good to hear you say it, but I suppose you’re right.”
He moved into his mother’s friend’s daughter’s illegal sublet in an affordable housing complex on First Avenue in the East Village. Most of his neighbors were old Jewish couples who had lived there for decades. The apartment featured parquet floors and generic wooden shelves and cabinets that dated from the 1970s. There was a grimy little terrace with two corroded aluminium and woven blue webb folding chairs. The dueling smells of lavender-scented floor cleaner and overcooked meat co-mingled in the aquamarine halls.
Billy got a job bartending at an unironic dive bar in Williamsburg four nights a week. It was the kind of place where the owner had you measure the alcohol in a shot glass whenever you made mixed drinks. He owed Ellen money from their therapy, which she also had agreed to front. He sent her a few payments, but stopped after a while and she let him slide. He missed the dog more than he expected to and Ellen agreed to allow him two weekends a month of canine companionship.
Elizabeth, as it turned out, was not only drunk on the night they met, but every time Billy saw her after that. He quickly ran out of money trying to keep up with her party schedule. The sharp shift her personality would take when she’d finally had too much—which was every time she drank—revealed a dark, angry and occasionally racist side, abusive to waiters and taxi drivers, prone to puking and much less sexually imaginative in person than she was on the phone. He had never been with a woman so tall and beautiful and knew he never would again, and so it took months before he accepted that this relationship was over too and that it actually wasn’t ever a real relationship—just an exit strategy.
Billy sometimes missed Ellen’s well-curated, delicious meals, but was glad to be rid of the silence and the scraping of plates that inevitably followed the presentation of dinner, as well as her searching gaze that conveyed the need for each ingredient to be praised upon first taste.
It required money and effort to eat well. Billy put on twenty pounds in three months, from cheap Chinese and Mexican take-out, as well as post-shift early morning lumberjack breakfasts at the all-night diner.
On his appointed weekends, Billy took Gus for long, slow walks through Tompkins Square Park and waited for the foxy, tattooed, animal-loving girls who would inevitably approach them.
“So cute,” they’d say, to which he imagined himself replying “Thanks, but what do you think of the dog?”
Dan Siegler is a New York City native and a graduate of Bennington College, where he received a B.A. in Creative Writing. His first novel, SOFTCORE, is currently being shopped by Janklow & Nesbit. Siegler has written for Gothamist, The Brooklyner, Baeble Music and on his own 4 a.m. Music Blog. Siegler is also a Bessie Award-winning composer and has created scores for Pam Tanowitz and other choreographers which have been performed at Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, Central Park Summerstage, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, The Joyce Theater and other venues, from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires. He teaches at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
If you enjoyed ‘Oh, Silverware!’ leave a comment and let Dan know.
Feature image by Steve Salo
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