By Stephanie Early Green
Featured Art: Happy Couple Jason Douglas and Mallory Valentour
The first meal we share is ribeye steak with scalloped potatoes and three wilted strands of asparagus cowering on the side of each plate. He takes one bite of potato. I pretend to cut my steak but don’t eat any. I don’t want to ruin my lipstick, or get steak-fat caught in my teeth. We talk about our families, and how we both value the concept of family, and how we both hope to have families of our own someday. We agree that we have a ton in common. We find out that we both enjoy country music and have corny senses of humor. We tell each other knock-knock jokes. Mine are better, but I laugh at his, while still trying to look pretty. It’s difficult to laugh out loud and not look a little ugly, a little wild. The trick is to keep your eyes open, and gently scrunch your nose, but not open your mouth too wide, so as not to expose your gums. When a man sees a woman’s gums, he is put in mind of a horse, or a chimpanzee. That’s what my grandmother always said, anyway, and she was a smart woman.
After dinner, we kiss. His breath tastes like white wine and scalloped potato. I hope my breath smells minty fresh, since I snuck a breath-mint while no one was looking. When the date is over, I’m ravenous. I go to my hotel room and order a burger, no bun. It comes with French fries, even though I didn’t order them. I eat the burger with a fork and knife while sitting on the vast hotel bed. I watch a trashy reality show in which women drink and cry and hug and scream. I would never make such a spectacle of myself on television, shrieking and clawing, mascara running down my cheeks. I’d sooner die. As I take the last bite of hamburger, a blotch of ketchup falls on my white hotel bathrobe. Later, I fall asleep with the television on, and have strange dreams. When I wake up, there’s a French fry on my pillow, curled sweetly next to my cheek.
The second meal we share is a picnic on a bluff overlooking False Bay in South Africa. The water is radiant blue. We’re not allowed to wear sunglasses, so I squint as the sun hits the water, shooting dazzling rays into my retinas. I worry that squinting so much will make the skin around my eyes appear wrinkled. But sunglasses aren’t allowed because they reflect the cameras. We have to pretend the cameras don’t exist. We are supposed to be alone on this bluff, the two luckiest people in the world. I know I’m fortunate to have gotten this date with him. One of the other girls got a date in which she was plunged underwater in a cage and made to jab at sharks with a spear. She had to pretend to like being in the cage, and that she wasn’t scared of the sharks, even though she was on her period and swore that the animals could smell the blood. One of the sharks snapped its jaws right at her, and she had to stop herself from screaming into her scuba mask. I try to enjoy the picnic.
The food is spread out on a red and white blanket: fat purple grapes, an assortment of crackers, a brown and red rainbow of cured meats. I eat one grape. He eats a cracker in tiny bites, so as not to get crumbs stuck in his teeth. We share a bottle of white wine. By the time we’ve finished the wine, I feel as if the Earth has been sped up to double-time, that if I let go of my grip on the picnic blanket, I will spin off into the atmosphere. I look up. The clouds are chasing each other around the sky, and I feel dizzy. I look down at the water and wonder what it would feel like to dive in, to splash headfirst into the shocking cold, then to surface, to look up and see the bluff towering overhead, and upon it the tiny picnic basket, the checked blanket flapping in the breeze, the little empty wine glasses. I wonder if everyone who visits this bluff thinks about tossing themselves over its side. No, of course not. The jetlag must be getting to me. I need to keep my wild thoughts to myself, or my date will think I’m insane. He’ll send me home on the next flight. No one wants to marry a crazy woman. I eat another grape and pretend I’m full. My date asks me if I like South Africa. Yes, I say. What an amazing country. Such rich history.
The third meal we share is fresh halibut, garnished with lemon wedges, served with a side of pin-thin julienned potatoes. This time, he does not eat even one bite of the potato. I eat nothing. I drink sauvignon blanc and beam sweetly as he tells me anecdotes from high school. Even though he was the starting quarterback and very popular, he says, deep down, he’s always been a goofy guy who likes geeky stuff, like video games and movies from the 1980s. I add that I, too, am a nerd at heart, who feels most comfortable in sweatpants and glasses, reading cheesy romance novels. Even though we both value our alone time, however, we agree that friends are so important, and that neither of us would be who we are today without the support of our incredible friends. And our wonderful families! Family, we reiterate, is so important to both of us. We both have great moms, who are the rocks of our respective families. And strong dads, who showed us what it means to be a man. And our siblings! Our siblings are so great. They’re truly our best friends. We reflect, again, on how we really do have so much in common.
After we finish the wine, we leave the table. The halibut, untouched, glistens under the floodlights. Its white flesh looks like it is melting. He leads me out to a balcony overlooking the dark Caribbean Sea. We are in Bonaire, and have seen nothing of the island except for a small, private beach and this seaside restaurant, devoid of other guests. Now, we stand on the balcony and wait, holding hands. The fireworks start seconds later, bursting loud and glittering into the sky. I watch as the sparks fizzle into dust. I wonder if fireworks contribute to pollution, if the residue will land on the coral reefs below and poison the fish and the crabs. He turns to me and asks, Isn’t this amazing? I say Yes, so amazing. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He seems like the kind of man I could marry. A family man who loves fireworks. I imagine him hoisting a small child — our child — onto his shoulders for a better view of the sparkling sky. Yes, he is definitely the kind of man I could see myself with, in the long term.
The fourth meal we share is in a pastel pink hotel suite in Curacao with his family. His mother has red eyes, like she’s been crying. His father complains about the jetlag, even though there’s only a one-hour time change from Chicago. His sister smiles at me with closed lips in a way that tells me she does not like me. I smile back with slightly parted lips, in a way that communicates that I understand her concerns, but do not care. I am falling in love with her brother. No one can stand in the way of that. The meal is catered by the hotel: steam trays of pale, glutinous fusilli and curdled alfredo sauce, a soggy iceberg lettuce salad with shredded carrot, a tower of dry brownies. I eat a few pieces of carrot from atop my salad and pretend to enjoy the pasta. I am trying to avoid processed carbs since the camera adds ten pounds, but his family is from the Midwest, and I don’t want to seem high-maintenance.
Over lunch, we discuss our values. The family asks if I am a Christian and I say yes, absolutely. My faith is so important to me. This is not entirely true, but I can make it true, if necessary. His mother sniffles and asks what I see in her son. I say that he is such an amazing person, inside and out. His father asks if I plan on working after I have children. I say that while marketing is my passion, I would be more than willing to put my career on hold while raising my family. Family comes first. It really is so important. To both of us. His sister asks if I am ready to get married. So ready, I say. Ready as I’ll ever be. None of them ask me why I am here, why I signed up for this, and I’m glad. I would have to tell them that my best friend signed me up as a joke, that neither of us expected me to end up here, in Curacao, falling in love. But here I am.
The fifth meal we share is breakfast in our hotel suite. We’ve just gotten engaged on the precipice of another cliff, the wind whipping our hair. He dropped to one knee and told me that I was his perfect match, the person he couldn’t wait to grow old with. He slipped a large, canary-cut diamond ring onto my finger, the exact shape and color I had specified to the producers.
After a champagne toast, we head to our Romance Retreat, a hotel suite with rose petals scattered on the snowy white bed. A basket of fruit sits on the teak desk. I’m hungry and want to eat one of the bananas, but my fiancé has other ideas. He pulls me down onto the bed. As we make love, I gaze at the fruit basket. When we are done, I go to the desk, tear the cellophane wrapping from the fruit basket, and peel a banana. I wolf the entire thing down in three or four bites, hardly chewing. I feel as though I haven’t eaten in days. He watches me from the bed, eyebrows raised. Whoa, tiger, he says, half-smiling. Slow down. I glare at him before I can catch myself. He is my fiancé now, my partner for life. This is what I signed up for. This is what I wanted. I can’t be irritated with him already. We’ve been engaged for fewer than six hours.
He suggests we order room service and I agree. We ask for eggs and bacon. They only bring us only one plate and one set of cutlery. I guess they think it will be more romantic if we have to share. The eggs are gloopy, the bacon limp. I try not to eat more than my fiancé, but it’s difficult. He’s a slow eater. After he’s eaten at least two of the eggs and most of the bacon, he says that his mother makes a better scrambled egg, and much better bacon. He likes his bacon crispy, not soggy. Why does no one in this country know how to make decent bacon, he wonders? Is it because Curacao is so humid? Jesus Christ, he says, letting the fork clatter to the plate. I’m relieved that he’s taken the Lord’s name in vain. Maybe his commitment to Christianity is more flexible than I thought. I’m still hungry but don’t say anything because I don’t want to seem greedy. I make a note to get his mother’s secret scrambled egg recipe. What could she possibly put into the eggs to make them so superior? I must find out.
The sixth meal we share is on the airplane back to Los Angeles. We’re seated in first class and have a choice between pea risotto and turmeric chicken. I choose the chicken. The sauce makes me sneeze, but I eat the entire thing. I am so hungry. My fiancé chooses the risotto, and complains that it’s lumpy. He tells the flight attendant he wants to switch to the chicken. I’m embarrassed, but the flight attendant doesn’t seem to mind. She’s probably used to dealing with difficult customers in first class. She brings him the chicken and he says, loudly enough for her to hear, that it’s rubbery. He asks for two refills on his champagne, and then he falls asleep. As we fly over the Gulf of Mexico, I listen to him snore. His breathing sounds strangled. I wonder if he has some sort of medical issue.
The seventh meal we share is dinner at our rental house in Los Angeles. The building is pink stucco, squat and sturdy. In the scrubby little backyard, a single, beat-up looking palm tree huddles in one corner. Inside, everything is white, like a hospital. We sit at the white table and my fiancé orders Chinese takeout on his phone. I ask him to order a beef and broccoli for me. But when the food arrives, the beef and broccoli is not there. They must have messed the order up, he says, as he spoons lacquered red General Tso’s chicken onto a paper plate. Sorry, babe. I smile, tell him it’s no big deal, and begin to scoop fluffy white rice onto my plate. He says, I thought you didn’t eat carbs. I do sometimes, I say. Oh, he says, frowning.
After dinner, he says he needs to go to bed early. He has an audition tomorrow and needs to be well-rested. An audition, I repeat, trying not to sound surprised, or worse, judgmental. For what? A pilot, he says. It’s pilot season, babe. But, I say, I thought you sold software. Isn’t that your job? He looks miffed. I’m taking a hiatus from that, he says. It’s not my passion. Oh, I say. Okay. He goes into the bedroom at eight o’clock. I stay up and catch up on work emails. When I come into the bedroom at eleven, he’s still awake, scrolling through his phone. He is wearing a mud mask on his face. Oh, hey, he says, when I come in, but doesn’t look up from his phone. It takes me a long time to fall asleep. The glow from his phone is so bright. Later, I’m awoken in the middle of the night by his snoring. I’m really starting to wonder if he should get that checked out.
The eighth meal we share comes several weeks after the last. My fiancé has been busy auditioning. He’s had many important meetings with his agent and his manager and his social media strategist. His agent thinks he should go on a popular TV show in which celebrities learn to roller-skate. My fiancé thinks this will be a boon to his career. I’ve been working remotely for weeks but my boss back in New York is getting antsy and needs to know when I’m coming back to the office. I tell my fiancé about this over dinner. We are at the rental house, sitting at the antiseptic white table. He has ordered Thai food. I am eating the broccoli florets out of the pad see ew. I want desperately to eat the flat, greasy noodles but now I feel weird about eating carbs in front of him. Maybe I will eat the leftover noodles after he leaves the room.
So, I say, my boss wants me to come back to work. How much longer do you think we’ll be in LA? He stares at me like I’m crazy. Then he stabs a piece of chicken out of the pad Thai container and pops it in his mouth. Indefinitely, babe, he says as he chews. This is where I need to be right now. Well, I say, spearing the last piece of broccoli, what about me? I need to work. I thought LA was just a temporary thing. He looks wounded. I thought you supported me, he says. I thought you were behind me one-hundred percent. It’s important that we’re a unit, babe. I thought you understood that. I chew the broccoli into a pulp, swallow. I thought you were in software sales, I say. I didn’t think your passion was roller-skating. He pushes away from the table, grabs the container of pad Thai, and disappears into the bedroom. When I come in, hours later, there are shards of peanuts on the white sheets. He is asleep, snoring loudly.
The ninth meal we share is on the set of Roller-Skating With Celebs! My fiancé and his roller-skating pro partner, Mishi, have just finished warm-up. I watched from the bleachers as my fiancé fell repeatedly on his butt. Mishi, a pixie-like woman with a shiny black ponytail, patiently hauled him to his feet again and again. Now, off the rink, my fiancé’s face is flushed and I can tell he’s embarrassed at how terrible he is at roller-skating. He assumed he’d be good at it. He’s been good at most things in life he’s tried, after all: football, dating, television. But he is very bad at roller-skating. I stand beside him at the craft services table. He’s piling his plate with hummus wraps and chocolate-chip cookies and mac and cheese. I opt for a kale salad with walnuts and goat cheese. The walnuts are shriveled, like wizened little faces. I try not to look at them staring up at me. It was a good first effort, I say, rubbing my fiancé’s back, and he shakes me off like a horse getting rid of a fly. No, it wasn’t, he snaps. I suck. I’m going to get eliminated the first night. This wasn’t the plan, babe. Well, I say, maybe someone else will be worse than you. What about that pro-wrestler? My fiancé scowls. He’s amazing, he says. He never falls. And he can do a spread-eagle. Well, I say again, but don’t know how to finish the sentence.
The tenth meal we share is at a swanky sushi restaurant in Hollywood. My fiancé has just been eliminated from Roller Skating With Celebs! and he’s feeling depressed, but must put on a brave face. This restaurant is known for celebrity-spotting, which means paparazzi will be here, which means our picture will probably make it to the middle pages of at least one of the tabloids. I wear a black dress with a plunging neckline. My fiancé wears a fashion sweatshirt and blinding white sneakers. We get a table near the front so that people can see us as they walk in. We order miso soup and a sashimi platter. He drinks vodka martinis and stares over my shoulder at people coming in the door of the restaurant. He tries to catch their eyes, but no one stops to ask for our autographs. No one seems to notice us at all. By the end of dinner, my fiancé is drunk, and his face is red and shiny, like a slice of raw tuna. When we leave, he does not grasp my hand or hold the door for me. The next day, one of the tabloids halfheartedly speculates that we are approaching Splitsville.
In the morning, he buys a copy of the magazine and drops it on the white kitchen table, where I am drinking coffee out of a white mug. Look, he says, we made it! This is great. I stare at him. This says we’re breaking up, I say. How is that great? It’s publicity, babe, he says. Duh. He is holding his phone in one hand, ready to share the news of our continued relevance with his sprawling social media network. The phone starts buzzing. His mother is calling. We both look at his phone, his mother’s name bright on the screen. Then he presses Decline and puts his phone in his pocket. Whatever, he says. I thought you’d be excited. But I guess I’m the only one invested in this relationship.
The eleventh meal we share is in a black car. My fiancé has been hired to sign autographs at a nightclub for two hours. His agent said I should come along so that people know we’re happy and in love. We won’t have time to eat at the club, so we are eating vegan protein bars in the car. We got them for free from one of my fiancé’s Instagram sponsors. The bar I’m eating is supposed to be chocolate-chip cookie dough flavored. It tastes like chalk, with a vegetal aftertaste. My fiancé’s is supposed to be apple pie flavored. His breath after he eats it smells pungent, like vinegar. On the way to the club, my phone keeps buzzing with emails from my boss. She’s angry that I’m still in Los Angeles; she wants me back in New York ASAP. I send her an email saying I’ll be back as soon as I can; I just need a little more time. My fiancé asks why I’m always on my phone, why I always put my job above him. I ask why he spends more time posting selfies on Instagram than he does talking to me. He says he’s developing vital brand relationships and building engagement with his key audience, and I should understand that by now. I ask if flirting with cute girls on Instagram is part of developing brand relationships, or if that’s just a side perk. He accuses me of being petty and jealous. He says if I wanted to, I could get sponsors, too, if I tried. It’s not his fault I have no hustle. I turn away and stare out the window at the city flashing by. We do not speak for the rest of the car ride.
At the club, we smile broadly and hold hands. His hand around mine is clammy and limp, like shellfish. One of the women who stands in line to get my fiancé’s autograph, a petite blonde with red lipstick and a stud twinkling in one nostril, leans in and kisses him on the mouth. He laughs and tells her she’s adorable. He does not look at me. I boil with rage for the rest of the appearance but pretend that nothing is bothering me, that I’m the luckiest woman on Earth. He loves me, I tell myself. He is behaving this way so that his fans will feel special. That’s all. I have no reason to be so upset, to want to scratch my fingernails across his smirking face until I break the skin.
The twelfth meal we share is broiled salmon with a side of roasted broccoli, garnished with pine nuts and pecorino cheese. I cook the meal in our rental house. We’ve been here for months and it’s the first time either of us has cooked anything in the pristine white kitchen. I want him to see what our life will be like together, once he comes to his senses and realizes that he won’t be roller-skating and signing autographs forever. I want to remind him why he picked me, out of all the others. I tell him dinner will be ready at seven. He shows up at eight-thirty. He had a personal training session at seven, he says, and it went long. Gavin had him do so many squat-thrusts, it was ridiculous. The food is cold when we sit down at the white table to eat.
My fiancé holds his phone in his left hand and eats with his right, shoveling flaky bits of salmon into his mouth while running his eyes over the phone’s screen. Anything interesting happening? I ask, trying to be a good sport. Nah, he says. Just checking to see how many likes my gym selfie got. When he’s done, he gets up from the table and drifts into the bedroom, still looking down at his phone. He does not thank me for cooking. As I scrape the leftovers into the garbage disposal, a wave of exhaustion crashes over me. It’s all I can do to remain upright, to rinse the dishes, to stow our forks and knives in the dishwasher, to wipe the countertops. When I enter the bedroom, aching to collapse into bed, my fiancé is there, scrolling. I must physically restrain myself from pushing him off the bed, from stomping on his phone until all that’s left is shards of glass.
The thirteenth meal we share is in his agent’s sunny office. We are given boxed turkey sandwiches and little packets of potato chips, as if we’re at summer camp. I eat my whole sandwich and a few of the chips. I no longer care if my fiancé sees me eating carbs. He should know who he is marrying: a woman who enjoys bread. I am living out loud. My fiancé’s agent, Grant, is a very tan white man with a receding hairline. Grant thinks my fiancé and I should do a reality show called Help, My Relationship Sucks! Grant explains that we’d have to live in a mansion with four other couples for three to five weeks for filming, and would make twenty-thousand dollars. Let’s do it, babe, says my fiancé, not even looking at me. That sounds awesome. But, I say, it’s called Help, My Relationship Sucks! Our relationship doesn’t suck. After I say this, no one speaks. We all avoid each other’s eyes. My stomach curls around the turkey and bread that I consumed and I feel sick. We agree to do the show. Now that my fiancé no longer has a full-time job, we could use the money.
The fourteenth meal we share is in the Help, My Relationship Sucks! mansion. It’s the first day of filming and the production company has provided us with a buffet of fried chicken, coleslaw, corn on the cob, and biscuits. I take a piece of chicken, a biscuit, and an ear of corn. The food is lukewarm and over-salted, and I hardly eat anything. My fiancé eats three chicken drumsticks, two ears of corn, a glob of coleslaw, and three biscuits. He says he’s starving because Gavin has been working him so hard lately. So many kettlebell swings. The other couples in the mansion are people I’ve never heard of, but I pretend to have heard of them, because it seems very important to them that everyone has heard of them. One of the men, a DJ with a frosted goatee who was famous in the ’90s, asks why we’re doing the show. My fiancé says for the brand exposure. I am glad he answered first, because I would have told the truth: because our relationship sucks.
The first night in the mansion, there is a cast party with an open bar. My fiancé gets very drunk. I nurse a vodka-soda and watch him lurch around the room, swinging his arms and slurring his words. He bellows out a story, one I’ve heard many times, about the year in high school he won prom king and homecoming king. He grins, waiting for people to be impressed, but the other cast members’ expressions are glassy. I remember the first time he told me this story, on our second date, how I ooh-ed and aah-ed. I start to feel nauseated, even though I’ve barely had one drink. When my fiancé starts breakdancing, throwing his body inexpertly at the floor while others laugh and point, I go upstairs to bed. He doesn’t notice that I am gone.
Later that night, I wake up in a cold sweat, the unfamiliar sheets plastered to my damp limbs. My chest feels tight, as if someone with large hands is squeezing my lungs in his fist. My fiancé is snoring beside me, his phone nestled in the crook of his arm. I go into the marble-and-brass bathroom and splash cold water on my face. Then I creep back to bed. Babe, I say, and shake my fiancé’s arm. Babe, wake up. He rolls over, squints at me through the darkness. What? he mumbles. His breath is sour from alcohol. I feel weird, I say. I think maybe I’m having a panic attack. He closes his eyes again. Babe, wake up, I say, louder this time. I can’t breathe. He opens his eyes. Obviously you can breathe, he says, because you’re talking. You’re fine. You’re just freaking out for no reason. Take deep breaths or something. He rolls over and a moment later, resumes snoring. I sit on the edge of the bed and steady my breathing. Then I begin to collect my things. As I put my shoes and clothes and makeup into my suitcase, my chest loosens. I can breathe again. I’m fine.
The next meal I have is on a one-way flight from LAX to LGA. I purchase the Mediterranean snack-box because food isn’t complimentary in economy class. The box contains a wedge of orange cheese shrink-wrapped in plastic, a sleeve of seeded crackers, and a bunch of purple grapes. The food reminds me of the picnic overlooking False Bay, the blinding sun, the crashing waves, the hungry sharks swimming just under the surface of the water. I rip open the cheese and eat the whole wedge in one velvety bite. I eat the crackers one after the other, crunching them between my molars, grinding the seeds between my canines. I pop grape after grape into my mouth and close my eyes as juice trickles down my throat. The flight attendant comes by. Finished, ma’am? she asks, surveying my ransacked snack-box. Yes, I say. This was delicious. The flight attendant furrows her brow. No one has ever said that before, she says. But I’m glad you enjoyed it. I smile up at her, cracker dust clinging to my chin, orange cheese caked over my teeth. Maybe I was just hungry, I say. But that really hit the spot.
Stephanie Early Green’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Bayou Magazine. She was a finalist in the 2019 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Literary Awards, the 2019 Salamander Fiction Contest, and the 2018-2019 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Before turning to writing full-time, Stephanie practiced international investment arbitration law for three years in Washington, DC. She now lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and three children. She has recently finished a manuscript of a novel.