THE DIETARY RESTRICTION
My senior year of college, I interned for the public relations department of a contemporary art museum. They had me do small tasks, mostly data entry, but I was 21 and I thought the position would look good on my resume. During an exhibition opening for a cheeky British artist, my boss asked me to walk around with a clipboard and request that visitors share their email addresses for a mailing list. I wore a houndstooth dress and heels and smiled as I asked. Most people were friendly and said “yes.” Only one person said no: a guy who went to my college, a friend of a boyfriend of a friend. They were all in a film lecture together.
“Why don’t you want to sign?” I said. I smiled.
“I just don’t want to,” the guy said, looking me directly in the eye. He wore this baggy white button-down and his dark hair was all wild. He’d grown out an unkempt beard, and he looked the part of an aspiring artist. Like the half-mad figure in that Courbet self-portrait, The Desperate Man.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks anyway.” I kept smiling.
The next week, the guy threw a party at his apartment, and my friend who was dating his friend invited me. I made sure that, by the end of the night, I was sitting next to the guy in some room, that when the joint got passed to me, it was still wet from his lips. We were positioned across from our dating friends, and they suggested we all get tacos the next night. Great, I thought, it’s a double date.
So the next night, I dressed up in clothes I thought made my body look appealing. The guy and I sat next to each other, across from this couple, which made me feel like the guy and I might one day be a couple too. We ate, then the couple said goodbye, and the guy invited me to continue on the night with him. We went to a bar, drank more beer, then went back to his place.
He lived on the second floor of a sunny duplex, out of the way from where my other friends lived. His bed bumped up against a bay window that looked into an alley, and it was covered with a rumpled white bedspread.
“I’ll be right back,” the guy said, and I lay on his bed as he went to the bathroom.
He’d left his wallet lying on the bed, and I flicked it open. I was curious about this guy. I’d take what I could get, and he hadn’t revealed much about himself to me throughout the evening. What I saw surprised me: Inside some grimy plastic casing lay his California ID. His cheeks looked much chubbier in the picture than the cheeks I’d been looking at all night. I scanned the rest of the card. It listed his weight at 240 pounds. But this guy had pigeon legs. I had only a vague conception of men’s weights, but I knew 240 was getting into football player terrain. I thought this guy couldn’t be more than, say, 165. I think my father weighed somewhere around there.
By the time the guy came back from the bathroom, I’d shut the wallet, and I knew a secret about him that I wasn’t supposed to know, at least not yet, because he hadn’t told me. I knew that he’d once been fat.
But instead of saying anything to this guy about it, I decided to keep this little secret to myself, because now it was my secret, not his. And as he kissed me and took off my clothes, I felt less intimidated by him, because I thought I had access to some of his vulnerability. It was empowering. It made the sex better, my feeling like I had something on him.
As we lay in bed, I asked him what the carrot tattoo on his ankle meant. Earlier in the evening, he’d told me he dreamed of being a chef.
“It’s to keep things growing,” he said.
In the morning, we fucked again, and he cooked me oatmeal with blueberries. He made it on the stovetop, and it took a while, and I became convinced that the whole episode evidenced some care he might have for me. No one had ever spent 20 minutes making me breakfast before.
Once we’d eaten, the guy said he had to go to the Apple store, and he dropped me back at my apartment. I did not hear from him again. I texted him once, asking him what was up, and he replied: “thinking about sweet potatoes.”
I had a little self-respect. I didn’t follow up again. I felt rejected, thought about this once-fat boy now jilting me, and decided to avoid him. I was graduating from college in a couple months anyway. I’d never have to see him again.
But first, I decided I’d put my anger into a story. I was taking a fiction writing class, and I wrote a story in which a girl goes on a date with a guy who says he had a carrot tattoo on his ankle because he wants to “keep things growing,” and she finds out that he once weighed 240 pounds. Then he expands like a balloon and just keeps expanding and expanding and the girl pops him with a pin.
In his response to my story, my instructor wrote that the thing about the carrot sounded “lame” and that the girl in the story seemed too smart to fall for that line. I was flattered by this reading of my story. The instructor did not understand why the girl was so mad at the boy. But since she was angry, the balloon popping seemed a little tame. What if the girl murdered the boy?
So I put the story aside for a while, and saved up some money over the summer, and then I moved out to New York City so that I could work with artists, as a publicist. What I really wanted to do was write about art, but I didn’t think I had the experience or the talent.
Friends from college had also moved out to the city, and we all still saw each other at house parties and bars. One friend invited me to an art opening in someone’s basement, and that was where I saw the guy from college, the carrot / sweet potato guy, for the first time since graduation. He was standing by a sculpture made from empty beer can packages. This was his contribution to the show.
We got to talking, and at one point I said, “well, you always end up running into exactly the people you don’t want to run into, don’t you?” and then he walked away.
It took years, but finally I was writing about art. I got a job at a company that sold art and published articles about paintings. When I attended a company happy hour, the first Friday after I started my new dream job, I looked across the room and saw him: He was working here too, as an archivist.
At this point, we were older. It had been six years since we’d fucked. But I still felt shame and rejection and desire when I looked at this guy, whom I’ll admit I really hardly knew. Who knows why these things remain in your system for so long?
In his spare time, I discovered, the guy ran a catering side business, cooking for chic, exclusive dinner parties that photographed well and looked good on Instagram.
A month after I started work, when my department decided to have a “team bonding dinner,” the head of my department invited the guy to cater the meal. “Please email with any dietary restrictions,” the guy wrote to our team.
“I am allergic to sesame!” I wrote back.
The guy responded to let me know he’d seen my message.
The night of the team bonding dinner arrives, and we all gather at this funky event space a few flights up this building on Canal. It’s the kind of place where they host launch parties for books by small publishers. There’s a long table in the middle of the space, decorated with spare, colorful flower arrangements. By the door there’s a fish tank with a few fish swimming around. In minutes, the guy will pop these fish from the tank and swiftly cut off their heads.
Everyone on our team takes our places at the table, and then the guy explains the menu. There’ll be ceviche, and then the main course. And the guy looks right at me as he says: “It’s bass wrapped in a sesame leaf. And there’s a sesame cake for dessert.”
I hate to tell you that as he says this, I want him more than ever. He’s sweating from the kitchen flames and his hands are covered in dead fish bits, and I think he’s never looked better. I stare and I stare at his beautiful, tiered sesame cake, my mouth watering at what could destroy me, at what exactly I cannot have.
A. Cerisse Cohen holds an MFA from the University of Montana. She has published journalism at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, The Nation, and The New York Observer. Her fiction has appeared at The Forge.