When I ask him what his favorite kinds of pretzels are, he says rods. I tell him those are better than sourdough, but nothing beats traditional. He asks me how I define “traditional” and before I answer he tells me it’s subjective, that it doesn’t matter anyways. I tell him, the twisty ones, you know, like Snyder’s of Hanover, those are traditional. He nods but then argues for sticks–sticks are traditional. I tell him no, though I have no proof of what came first, the sticks or the twists.
“Besides, like you said, it’s subjective.”
“I bet you’ve never had the Amish kind,” he says. And before I can tell him that pretzels are Amish, he continues, “The real Amish. There’s this one gas station in Pennsylvania. I can never remember the exit. They’re homemade by the Amish. Those are actually my favorite.”
“Exit 49?” I’m bluffing. I’ve never had an authentic Amish pretzel.
We’re supposed to be talking about a cornflake story I wrote in his writing workshop. In class he told me he liked the Tori Amos reference better than the Beatles allusion. “Pick one,” he said. Now we’re talking about pretzels—the hards, not the softs—at a local dive bar that smells like dirty ashtray. His choice. He told me in an email that he often brings his students here.
I have a Guinness. When he asks how it tastes, I say it tastes like Guinness. “Better on draught than out of a bottle.”
He doesn’t say anything, so I ask, “How’s your soda?” When I ordered my beer, he told me that he doesn’t drink when he still has work to do. I told him that I could just get a soda too and he said that no I should get the Guinness and enjoy it and think of him while I drank it. I almost told him that he’d enjoy sitting in my tummy but I didn’t.
“Fountain beats can,” he jokes. His hair is greasy, not washed in the last four to five days, I guess, but not quite a full week. He wears contacts and one of his eyes crosses in. He’s hunched and huddled and sad. His wife left him two years ago but he hasn’t gotten over it.
“Why fountain over can?” I ask, though I know the answer.
“Can taste. Rusty. I don’t care for rust.”
Rust reminds me of the scent of the brown-blood time of my period cycle. I almost share this but as I’m crafting my response in my head, he interrupts me and tells me he’s hungry after all of the pretzel talk. He needs to eat. There’s a look in his one good eye.
We order shrimp first. I eat 2. He eats 3. He offers me the odd one, the fifth one, before he eats it, but I refuse. I tell him that shrimp reminds me of limp dick after he puts the cocktail sauced piece in his mouth. “It’s the Guinness,” I tell him, shaking my head, pointing to the near-empty beer, repeating, “it's the Guinness.” He nods and asks me if I think it just looks like one, a limp dick, his words now repeating mine, and I tell him that sure that’s part of it, but also no, it’s more than that—it’s the fleshiness, the durability. I tell him most people would think of sausage and he tells me sausage feels more hard than limp, and I tell him that’s right, it’d been so long I’d almost forgotten. I giggle. I’m not a giggler so it sounds off, unlike me. I mask it by pretending to choke on my beer. He pats my back with a force I wish were harder.
“Thank you,” I say. Before he can answer I look at the hand that hit my back. “You have small fingers,” I tell him.
He tells me he’s still hungry and then he orders salad with lox. Small. I tell him that’s a lot of fish. He agrees and orders a small salad with steak instead. Small? I ask in front of the waiter. He tells me yes, small. I tell him go for the large. He says fine. He doesn’t even fight it. He doesn’t know what he wants. I’ll have the same, I say, but small.
He returns to the shrimp talk. “I don’t think you’re really articulating what it is about shrimp.”
“Something on your mind that you don’t want to say?”
He thinks for a second. Finishes his soda. He’s a bottom of the cup slurper which is both unsettling and charming. “Get every last bit there?” I ask. He ignores my last question and returns to my previous one with his own thoughts about the smell.
“Of shrimp? Salty. Fishy.” I look down and take a whiff in. I’m on the ovulation stage of my period cycle, the kind that smells like sour milk and bad fish.
“This might sound strange,” he starts to say then catches himself. “Never mind.”
“Just say it.” I nudge him with my elbow. I want him to feel my charge. He won’t tell me. I tell him he should order a Guinness since I’m going to have another. He says no.
I say, “C’mon, peer pressure.”
His tone shifts, and he says, “We’re not peers. You’re my student.” He’s trying to assert his power over me because he knows I have been the dom of this exchange. I choose silence to make him feel bad.
He doesn’t say much else. He doesn’t finish his salad when it comes out. Too large. Before we leave, though, he says, “Send me more stuff.”
That night I write a story about this day but with a twist—one of the characters wears an invisible top hat, the other can see the invisible top hat but neither of them can speak of it out loud. There’s an agreement not to though I haven’t figured out why yet. I send him an email, “Here’s something. It’s still in its early stages. Maybe that’s obvious.”
I see him in class a week later. We’re both early, the only ones. He says hello. I say hello back. I tell him I emailed him a week ago. He says he didn’t see my email. I say well I sent it. He says well let me check again. He says he got a new app. It’s not reliable. I don’t care for the reason, I just wish he’d been waiting for it to come through. I sit there staring, not meaning to, it’s just a habit. He found it. “Invisible top hat.” Yes, I say. People start walking in.
“I will read this and then I will email you back,” he tells me. He nods his head. He looks me in the eyes. He sees me.
“Okay, sure,” I tell him. I see him too.
Five days go by. I know he’s playing the game. He’s making me wait. When I finally get a response, it’s almost the same message as the first time except that he calls the restaurant The Ashtray—our inside joke—followed by, "I go there with all of my graduate students.” It’s written above his signature. It replaces a “best” or a “warmly.”
“Tomorrow?” I ask, hoping if I respond quickly, he will too. But he doesn’t. He responds the following day. “Today? 6?”
“See you then. If it’s easier you can text me at the number below.” I include my phone number in my signature. He doesn’t text.
I arrive early. This time I order a gin and tonic with a sprig of lavender. It’s dinner time and this story is more of a gin and tonic story, sultrier than my last. He arrives late. He apologizes and I tell him that it’s okay and he asks me what I’m drinking. I tell him and he says he’ll have one too, but not gin, he can’t drink gin. He says he’s going to get whiskey. He loves whiskey. I tell him that no one loves whiskey. You learn to like it, but it doesn’t actually taste good. His man tongue can’t be any different than mine. I’m surprised he's getting a drink, not because he didn’t the last time, but because I read a mediocre piece of writing he wrote once about being on Zoloft and how taking medication and drinking made him sleepy and sometimes horny but not horny enough to get it up. I wonder if he’ll get sedated. If I’ll have to bring him home, slap his face to wake him up, place him in a dungeon somewhere. Suck his dick until he gets hard then have his baby. Name it Peaches.
Then he asks why there’s a stick in my drink.
“It’s not a stick, it's a sprig. Of lavender.”
“Eating lavender sprigs?”
I tell him lavender isn’t for eating; it’s for infusion. I pull the sprig out of my glass and ask if he wants to chew on it anyways, something my invisible top hat character does to seem like a mad hatter. He looks around as if someone might be watching, then sticks the sprig in between his lips like a cigarette, blows fake smoke out of his mouth, and plops it back in my glass.
“People who don’t think shouldn’t talk,” I say but he doesn’t get the reference so I open the stained menu.
“I think I want to get the chicken parm,” I pause. “You can’t go wrong with chicken parm.”
He repeats my words, slowly, each one emphasized. “You can’t go wrong with chicken parm.” He says it again. And once more. I say it too.
“Write that down,” he says. And when I don’t pull out a pen, he says it again. Write that down. I pull out my phone and put it in my notes app. I show him.
“I’m going to get the salad with lox again,” he says. I don’t push the large this time even though his good eye looks at me like he wants me to.
He turns towards the door. I turn too and see his ex-wife. She sees us. He looks away. I offer a small smile, half wave–the kind that acknowledges someone but doesn’t invite them over. She comes over anyway, ignoring my subtle cues. The two of them engage in small talk, boring stuff. I excuse myself to the restroom so they can talk about me while I’m gone. I don’t even pee (though I have to) because I want to keep it quick and my streams are often long.
When I return the ex is gone. I don’t feel as powerful as I thought I would, sitting there with him, being seen publicly like that.
He’s different when I get back. Our small talk sounds like their small talk, the same way old people talk about the weather and the weekend and the noticings of other people’s food.
I drink down the half of my gin and tonic that’s left. I notice he’s finished his whiskey too.
“Another?” I ask.
“I think one is good tonight.” I can’t tell if he means for him or me or both of us.
“So boring,” I say. I roll my eyes.
By the time my chicken parm comes, I’m not hungry anymore. I don’t want to look like the kind of girl that doesn’t eat but I don’t want to look like the kind that does eat either. I scarf down one slab of chicken fast and excuse myself to the restroom again, this time to throw up what my stomach can’t hold. I pass the ex as I walk in. She looks right through me. I avert my gaze and walk straight to the first toilet without even closing the door.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and head back to our table. “I’m ready when you are,” I say.
“I still want to talk about my stories, though, since we didn’t do that.”
“Let’s say late afternoon.”
I write my address on a napkin, just like the girl in my cornflake story and leave, assuming he will pay.
The next morning I email him with the subject line “still on for today?” In the body I write, “thinking 3-ish?”
Two hours later he responds. “Yes, I will be there. Looking forward to talking about your work.”
Because he made me wait, I email him again, “actually would 4:30 work for you? if not that’s totally fine.”
He responds half an hour later. “I can do that, but I will need to leave by 5:15.”
When he comes over in the late afternoon, I offer him a kombucha because I want to know what he’ll say, if he cares about cleaning out his gut. He tells me that he’s never had kombucha before but that he’ll try it. I ask him if he wants it in a glass or by the bottle. He takes the bottle, sniffs it, and comments on the smell.
“Vinegary,” he says.
“I also have beer,” I offer. I want him drunk in my apartment. I want him to feel weak. I want to have the upper hand.
“I better not,” he says.
We’re sitting outside on my patio. I put a bowl of traditional pretzels on the table. I joke, “The ants aren’t interested in these,” as I put one in my mouth. I forget to chew with my mouth closed and bits fall down my shirt.
He pulls a bunched up wad of papers out of his jacket and puts it on the table next to the pretzels and gets right to it. “You might consider getting rid of the hat.”
“In your story. I’d cut it.”
“But that’s the core of the story. It’s on every page.”
“There was a famous writer, though I can’t remember his name, who said to cut your darlings.”
“Kill your darlings, you mean?”
“No. Cut them. And feed them to your reader piece by piece so that they don’t even know what they’re eating.”
He sips his kombucha and makes a wince-face. “It doesn’t pair well with the pretzels.” He chews with his mouth open, but nothing falls out. I notice molar cavities. “Rold Gold?” he asks.
They’re clearly Whole Foods brand. Rather than tell him he’s wrong, I say, “The story doesn’t exist without the hat.”
“I think you’re using it to get at something else.”
“And what is that?”
“I don’t know.” He digs pretzel bits out of the back of his teeth with his finger then eats the remains from under his fingernail. “You’re not very direct, I’ve noticed.”
I’ve always been told I’m too direct. I once told the mayor of my small town that he had a big head. I once spit in a guy’s face who tried to choke me while we were having sex. I published stories about people, used their real names and their real experiences, and would send them the links.
The 4.2% alcohol comes out of me and I tell him that he needs to be more direct, not I. I have been direct. I tell him that I don’t think he’s really a pretzel aficionado after all. I tell him his favorite pretzels are probably the cheap chocolate dipped ones from CVS. It’s an insult but he asks what’s wrong with those. I tell him that everything is wrong with those. They taste like dust. I tell him I thought I knew what his favorite pretzels are and now I don’t know because it was all a lie and everything we talked about with the loch ness monster and Orion’s belt and all of the other floury conversation other than the pretzels was just a fiction. I might as well have made it all up myself but I didn’t. And now it’s too real-fake to even fictionalize.
As if I have said nothing, he asks, “Where is your bathroom?”
I point him towards the bathroom. “Make sure you hold the handle down for like 3.5 to 4 seconds.”
He grabs a handful of pretzels in his left hand and bunches up my story pages in his right. I follow him inside. “Refill,” I say, pointing to my near-empty glass.
After I pour my drink, I wait by the bathroom door. He’s gone for too many minutes. I try to listen for a pee stream or even a plop. Nothing but shallow breath.
I almost do the everything-okay-in-there thing, but on the chance that he’s masturbating thinking about me, or masturbating to one of my stories, I realize that asking him if he’s okay might ruin the sexual explosion. I want to smell it later. Find it in a wad of toilet paper in the trash.
I give him space and step outside. I slip my hand under my skirt and touch myself. Just as I’m about to get there, he comes back. He tells me he’s changed his mind.
“The hat.” He loves the hat. “You’re really doing something different.” Before I can say thank you, he admits he did lie though. He has had kombucha before and he doesn’t like it and he doesn’t like pretzels either but does like me. Then he catches himself and says he means he likes my writing and I tell him that I could never be with anyone who doesn’t like pretzels and then I tell him that that’s hypothetical because I’m not talking about him when I’m talking about possibly being with someone I just mean in general and he tells me I should figure that out and that he thinks it’s time to go but before he does he tells me to send him more stuff.
I grab a few pretzels with my slicked fingers, drop all but one back in the bowl.
“You sure you don’t want any for the road?” I ask, dropping a pretzel in my mouth.
Even though he says he doesn’t like them, he takes another handful.
Later that night I respond to our previous email exchange, “Thanks again for your feedback. I appreciate it! (And sorry about the kombucha lol).” I expect a “haha” or a “you’re welcome” or another reminder to send him more of my writing, but he doesn’t reply.
A few days later, after he cancels class, I go to the bar to conjure inspiration for my invisible top hat story. While I’m drinking a gin and tonic, he walks in and sits with his back to me at a table near the bar. He pretends not to see me. A boy from our class joins him. I’m close enough to catch every few words of their conversation. They both order Jim Beam doubles. His hunch straightens as he’s talking. He enunciates like his words are very important. The boy takes notes, and as he says something about the changes he’ll make to his story, he looks in my direction. I look down at my computer and pretend to see neither of them. We all pretend until we don’t know what’s pretend and what’s pretending to pretend until at some point it’ll all be so entangled it won’t matter anymore.
I twirl the lavender sprig from my gin and tonic between my fingers when their food arrives. The boy ordered the lox. He ordered the steak. Large.
I finish my drink and contemplate eating the sprig. I put it between my teeth and chew.