a fresh, steaming Reuben

So I’m sitting there about to tuck into a fresh, steaming Reuben, when he makes this face, this quick scowl, like he’s smelled a fart.

“Salad no good?” I ask.
“Actually the salad is quite delicious,” he says, but I doubt it. The thing’s just a few wisps of wilted lettuce, sprinkled with matchstick carrots gone white and dry with age, a couple of oblong cucumber slices on top. He spears one with plastic tines, crunching deliberately to show just how juicy it is.

The Reuben is warm heaven in my mouth. “You wanna try some?” A few red-orange drops fall to my tray.

“No thanks,” he says, and hurries a heaping pile of soggy greens into his mouth. “I don’t eat dead bodies,” he adds, masticating the veg. His lips turn up into a smile around the salad, which he chews with his mouth open, the pig.

“Oh, so you’re, like, a vegetarian,” I say, eating a couple of fries as though to commiserate with his meatless plight.

“Yeah, kinda.” His gaze ranges over to the lunch counter. There’s a break in the line, a brief hiatus in the rush, and the sweaty lunch ladies look relieved to have a chance to rest on their stools. “Listen,” he says. “Do you want something to drink? My treat.”

“I guess,” I say, swallowing another succulent mouthful of Reuben. “A coffee, three milks?”

For an instant he looks alarmed and bewildered, as though I’d just pushed him past the yellow line, onto subway tracks below. He gathers himself and says, “Just a sec.”

I set my sandwich down and wait, picking at the fries. The lunch counter isn’t so far away that we couldn’t speak, but he stares straight ahead as one of the lunch ladies drags herself off her stool.

He returns with two disposable cups; his, predictably, is a green tea.
“Thanks,” I say, and take a sip. The liquid is black and bitter. “Whoa, what is this? Tastes like a piece of wood.”

“No milk,” he says, spearing more salad. “Milk hurts cows. I thought you might like to try it without.”

“I guess I have, now.” I replace the plastic lid and push the cup aside.

“The dairy industry is even worse than the meat industry,” he intones, like a mantra he’s memorized and repeated before.

“Ah,” I say, from around the remains of my sandwich. I offer him some fries.

“No thanks,” he says. “I’ve heard they fry in beef tallow here.”

At this I only nod, and finish my Reuben.

“Well, this was fun,” he says, as we wipe our lips on serviettes.

I get my phone out and flash him a non-committal smile from behind the screen.

“So, do you want to catch a movie, or something?”

“You know, I’d love to, really, but I’ve got to get back to–” and here I hesitate a second, seeking something believable, before settling on ‘work’. Plus, I add, I’m really not looking for a relationship right now.

He grabs my wrist from across the table. “Me neither, actually,” he says, but he doesn’t let go.

I pretend I’m getting a call though my phone doesn’t ring. “Sorry, really gotta take this, great to meet you, see you later,” I say in an unbroken stream, holding the phone up to my ear, breaking his grip. “Janet! No way! You’re kidding,” I say, much too loudly, drawing blank stares from the lunch ladies. I hurry out the door as the vegetarian buses our trays in glum silence.

a writing exercise incited by Sharon English