By Peter Halsey Sherwood
For David Freiberger
“Well, that conversation was years ago and fleeting anyway, Florence,” the man said, raising his voice just a bit to be heard over the sound system.
He paused to look up, his irritation sufficiently quelled for the moment by her cookie jar cat eyes drenched in candlelight.
“I know you can laugh about it but I’m still rather angry. But one can hardly be expected to recall all the minutiae…” He waved her away. “Now, calmez-vous, woeful guttersnipe. I have to take my notes.”
He ran a hand over the back of his thinnish gray scalp out of habit, momentarily considering days when his scalp ran rich with long chestnut brown curls.
The couple was seated in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, ensconced in Trouvez, a newly arrived haunt dressed up for indiscriminate, young club-goers who needed to eat and a scene that afforded them to seen. The man had been feeling steeped his late forties from the moment he entered unnoticed—and apart from a few other linen covered tables (including the one next to him), he and Florence were decidedly the oldest of the lot. She was aware of this, he knew, but they both pretended to ignore this nagging (preposterous!) sense of disintegration and exchanged winks instead. (It used to be them dancing on the tables.)
The man attended the opening of Trouvez a few weeks ago and it was fairly appalling, but he had to concede this latest effort was not without appeal or addled fascination in the often constipated, mercurial culinary world. It was not with infrequent dismay that he sat through otherwise unmemorable dinners unmoved, where the exorbitant costs of opening a fashionable restaurant often ended with the décor of the dining room proper (sometimes the bathrooms and hallways were abandoned when the money ran out). The end result was that the food became a near afterthought.
So here he was again. He paused to note the modern opulence, the ornate frippery around him, scored by a subversive white pulse over the murmur of voices in moaning French: the sweeping milky marble bar flooded with pink peonies stuffed into etched vases; the dangling, glittering crystal chandeliers overhead; the midnight-blue and ivory flocked wallpaper; the faux rococo sconces; the glossy, oversized, exaggerated framed photos of slinky, dewy-eyed models clad in heroin-chic.
He turned to his refillable, worn leather bound notepad, turning off the clamor of clanging flatware and the escalating sound system. He pulled the cap off of his ballpoint pen to make desultory notes of the flaccid, grilled Caesar salad (an interesting enough notion a few years ago but a failed execution here) that he and Florence had both just stuck their finicky forks into. For many, achieving a resonating Caesar was grasping at peril but it needn’t be. He felt contempt toward the limp romaine lettuce and the fact that the dressing hadn’t achieved that perfect apogee of sprightly tang, slight heat and feather light creaminess. He eyed the $22.75 price tag on the menu with fair despair. Apart from the heft of the cost, that dangling cent amount really bothered him. Such gentle, obvious hacking and yet so indecisive—why not just round up (or preferably) down?
While the man jotted down an idea or two to sort through for his column, he felt a fuzzy black tingle in his shoulder as he became aware of another diner to his left, observing him through progressive lenses perched on his nose, seeking to make conversation.
“Are you a critic? I see you taking notes… I was a journalist myself,” the prep school-collared contemporary said, separating himself temporarily from his own boisterous discourse with the pinched woman seated across from him.
Great, the man thought. A talker.
He’d been through this before; a neighboring patron, upon observing him and his twitching pen, asked hesitantly and curiously, if he was a critic. Most people just left him alone, which he preferred. Once someone purporting to be an avid fan of his work was fool enough to ask him how he knew so many words! He had replied, “I simply have always loathed the word nice.” However, discreet as he tried to be (legs crossed, notepad under the table), sometimes some galling stranger just had to ask him about his business.
The man nodded casually, eyeing the fellow up and down, with some obvious irritation at the interruption. He was boyishly dressed (still), with carelessly tousled hair, casual blazer, neck tied up in an Oxford knot of collegiate stripes.
“I don’t mean to bother you, but is that so? Food critic, right?”
“That’s fantastic! Magazine?”
“Which one? Here in New York?”
“If I told you, I’d have to murder you with the steak knife that will most undoubtedly arrive with your entrée.”
The heavyset, dark-haired woman with a fresh blowout and a pinched face laughed.
“Yes, how’d you guess?” She asked. “But we both ordered steak.”
“Years of observation, I suppose. I’m not solely interested in grappling with the mere idea of food, but how and why people eat what they do. That sort of thing is relegated to more of a personal interest—and doesn’t go in my column. Now, you—” he addressed the woman, whose look indeed appeared thwarted (limp hair, shrugged shoulders tenting a slate gray crêpe blouse, the bare, fleshy and pale arm clutching a glass of murky red wine)—“are choosing a well-trounced filet mignon. And the gentlemen… I believe the steak au poivre medium-rare-ish might just suit you, no?”
“Yes, yes! Were you eavesdropping?” The woman asked, chewing the table bread with incredulity. “Oh, this artisanal bread! Did you try? Lavender and fennel powder honey.” She pulled at a little spoon from a pot with a cracked glaze. “Anyway, Perry likes his steak red as a spanked baby’s bottom. I must have it black as a boot. I’m Patricia,” she said in a faint Australian accent, releasing her glass to extend a hand. Such welcomeness seemed out of character for her upon first observation. Patricia was immediately unlikable and probably could be a real bitch for a nickel.
Flinty, certainly, and not the sort to comfortably be referred to as Patty, the man thought. Perry and Patricia.
The man’s lips absently pursed around the hard consonants.
“I’m Enoch,” he said, supplying an alias—this one, for some reason, was sprung from a figure in Tennyson. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“This is my husband, Perry,” she said.
“This is my fiancée, Florence.”
“Oh, congratulations are in order, then!” Patricia said through a mouthful of the doused Caesar. “Is this news recent?”
“We’ve been engaged for five months.” Florence said, fluttering a hand, offering the sizable ring for display. “But we’ve been together for six years. Officially. The wedding is in June; a glad event to look forward to when we are finished with this frigid spring. Oh, and we’ve known each other since we were in elementary school. Enoch,” she said coyly, assisting her fiancée’s anonymity, “threw me a message during math. It whizzed clear across the room. I believe it was also his first attempt at caricature, pretty good too—our teacher, Bernice Twombly. Rotten name. Difficultly affixed, I always thought, insurmountable really, but wholly appropriate. I mean, can’t you just picture her? The mousy hair, parted in the middle, straggling down… the beaded chain attached to her glasses like a rosary. You know, all of it. Bernice Twombly…” She let the name hover after she spoke it. “I used to wonder what her young life must have been like, growing up with that name.”
“Try being Enoch,” Enoch said, looking directly at her, enjoying the subterfuge.
“No, come on,” she said, ignoring him. “I’m asking you, how might being saddled with that name have changed her? After all, what promise could it propose to hold for her? She never married… Do we need more wine here?”
“Well, what do you think so far?” Perry asked, dismissive of the flow of conversation, as he peered onto his neighboring companion’s discreet notepad.
Enoch’s words were slowly, cohesively stringing together on the open page as he considered his review’s beginning sentence, scrawled in a pointy, precisely weighted hand—the service was terrible, the food took a tiny lifetime to arrive, and our distracting neighbors felt a compulsion to talk to me.
“It’s hard to say overall, just yet,” Enoch replied thinly. “They’ve already gotten away with the murder of the Caesar. Et tu, yes?”
He feigned amusement, woefully glancing at the soaked, broken shards of romaine lettuce on his starkly white, rectangular Bernardaud plate, and where he’d pushed the single, artistically placed anchovy-dusted crouton to the side.
“But it doesn’t much matter,” Enoch said. “Everyone here has their eyes on the door anyway awaiting whoever it is that’s just arrived. ‘So-and-so’s supposed to be here already.’ ‘We have to leave soon to meet Gilles and Andrea!’ (Accent on second syllable, pronounced dray.) Nobody here actually cares about the food.”
Enoch wondered if he’d revealed too much of his constant, simmering monologue regarding disdain for general society.
“How do you stay so slim?” Patricia asked.
Another common question, Enoch thought.
“His exercise is mostly restraint,” Florence said. “So, what do you do for work, Perry?”
“He produces a morning talk show.” Patricia said. “I’m an interior designer."
“Oh? I, uh—”
“Residential, not commercial,” Patricia said, interrupting.
“I see,” Florence said, looking at Enoch with a faint smile. “Has anybody designs on another bottle of wine yet?”
“Yes,” Patricia said firmly, flagging the waiter. “So what was the message?”
“The message. You said Enoch threw you a note during math with a message written on it. The caricature was of your teacher but what was the message?”
“Oh!” Florence said, laughing. “I can’t tell you. But he wrote it upside down and backwards.”
The story had always been pleasing to Enoch and remembered it all very well, including how giddy and nervous he was to throw the note to her at all in the first place. How would she react? With a pink candy gloss smile? Or would she march right up to Miss Twombly’s desk and tell on him? In his young mind, here was a thing of tremendous moment. Should he do it at all? There was a revolving rack of paperback books to be lent out too, in the corner; he could almost still see it. A ratty copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond or somewhere flashed among the titles. Whatever it was, they imagined the woman on the book cover (staring out at the reader, adrift in a sunset field) actually was Miss Twombly too. The thought that she had posed for the artist tickled them wildly. Odd that particular bit of orbital debris should choose to fall from the sky just now—he returned from self-immersion and ventured to speak, addressing the table quickly enough that his inattentiveness went unnoticed.
“A left-hander’s trick, that writing bit,” Enoch said. “I’ve always been able to do it. Somehow I can write upside down and backwards. I think Florence is the only one that knows that about me.”
He tore out a notebook page and took a moment to scribble something on it in the same way. He slid it over to Perry and chuckled.
“So what do you think, Patricia?” Florence asked, crinkling her nose.
“Of what?” She asked, distracted.
“This place. You said you were an interior designer. I realize your work is residential but what do you think about this place?”
“Mm-mm,” Patricia replied dismissively. “Probably one just like it next door. Gorge, certainly. Don’t you agree, pooks? But give it time, they’ll gut it. Pour another mix into the mold. This is not really my thing. The clients I cater to are more reserved, B-List celebs, for example, with a need for quiet anonymity—and I’m not really supposed to spill about them but you know who I did an apartment for recently? Mr. Chet Rutherford himself and that little starlet of his on the Lower East Side!”
“No!” Florence said. “You mean—?”
“Mm-mm,” Patricia said, nodding with a throaty, suggestive growl. “And that’s his stage name by the way. His real name is Roland—from the sticks! Chet Ford sounded too porno, he said, so his agent, someone, finally chose Rutherford. Long as they sign the checks with something, eh? So then Florence, what about you? What is it that you do?”
“Me? I’m in real estate. Couldn’t be happier.”
As words followed words, more wine poured forth, the love affair with the heady, seductive red from Languedoc continued, and they all agreed that the simply dressed coeurs de romaine with a smattering of an honest, crumbled Danish blue fared better than the grilled Caesar. A duo of tartare preparations followed: spiced raw Black Angus beef (trotted out as tartare de boeuf on the menu) filled a mason jar topped with a slightly trembling quail egg and a toothsome bluefin tuna (tartare de thon) with crisped plantains. Patricia insisted on the cocktail de crevettes, a shrimp cocktail served warm in a skillet with a colorful variety of seared peppers and singed spikes of rosemary—by now they were all sharing plates, and although Patricia had already claimed the crevettes as her own, Enoch managed to jot down the passing comment that the table felt as if it were brushed with the genially confronting aroma of rosemary as the dish was delivered to the table. That, at least, he felt was true and he was reminded of a border of wild rosemary outside the Savoy Hotel in Florence—he had been staying there while writing his book and perhaps ironically, traveled to Italy without Florence.
“But that was after I left Washington …” Perry was saying.
“You lived in Washington?” Enoch asked. “State?”
“No, D.C. It was—”
“When was that?”
“I was just about to say I moved there in 1990 for a few years after Brown. I thought politics, although I’d studied journalism and business. I did an internship at a newsroom in D.C. and well, broadcasting, if it’s a bug (he inserted air quotes here), caught on and brought me to New York. I realize you’re taking notes, Enoch, but I was just concluding anyway with how I landed my job as producer of the show … eventually,” he said, stressing the last word. “I hate talking about myself.”
Enoch suspected quite the opposite was true. His father might have called this fellow a “large feeling bastard.” He envisioned Perry at the boys’ club, running a finger along a glass of the same scotch his grandfather greatly admired, complacent in his purchase of a new Porsche, the trips to St. Bart’s for bargain Louis Vuitton luggage, champagne-popped afternoons at polo matches, and equally comfortable ordering Chateaubriand, mistaking it for a costly red wine.
“Oh, how strange,” Enoch said, easing into the enveloping effects of his wine, curling a forefinger about his upper lip and a middle finger below his chin.
“Strange, how?” Patricia asked.
“Well, I was there too at that time…momentarily,” Enoch said.
“He had just graduated from college in New England,” Florence said, picking up for him when he paused. “His friend had an apartment in D.C., suddenly found herself in need of a roommate and invited him to live with her, which he did for a while.”
“Huh,” Perry said. “D.C. is not that big but I’ve never met anyone named Enoch. I would remember that… I like it though! And I don’t recognize that name from the papers, either—ah, I see.”
He leaned back, hands flat on the table. Enoch raised an eyebrow and continued Florence’s narrative, choosing to speak for himself.
“It’s all so changed now,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll agree if you’ve been back recently. My first real job was there. I had just started work as an assistant editor at a local color magazine.”
From entries pressed and bleeding into a series of old Barnes & Noble datebooks he had kept were flashes of the pristine Metro he rarely took, the Sargent exhibition at the National, the bike messengers taking a midday break in Dupont circle near to his office building (home of D.C. Today—Entertainment News for Our Nation’s Capital), unhurried, amorphous crowds pausing in his favorite bookshop Kramerbooks (that had remained and it still managed to be thrilling for him to go there now, his own book on the shelves) or eating lunch at Childe Harold. That first apartment: the skeletal, rundown mansion in Georgetown where he lived with seven messy roommates who mostly ate out of masking taped containers with their names on them (except for the anorexic girl who subsisted on carrot sticks and butter). The bars around 17th Street. How he had loved it all, and cherished reflecting on those refracted days when he was first out on his own, feeling the rampant freedom from family entanglements and his sense of maturity, having just graduated.
The pasta course crawled out of the Trouvez kitchen with a welcome interruption but the plunge proved to be regrettably brief. But for a moment, at last: forks clinked into homemade lobster ravioli and sublime cream (“I want to bathe in this sauce!” Patricia exclaimed) with a teasing thread of tarragon—but then, splat—the risotto du jour was branded as wretchedly bland with a dispiriting cluster of lackluster mushrooms (‘foraged’) that hardly recommended it.
“I detect an accent, Patricia,” Enoch said. “Where are you from originally, Australia? New Zealand? Always fouled up by that. I can’t tell the difference.”
“Yes, my family is from Sydney—well, just outside, rather. Double Bay,” she said, intimating wealth with fleeting images of horses and grandly shaded lawns but never mentioned money outright.
“What about you, Perry?” Enoch asked.
“Ah! A fellow New Englander,” Florence said. “Enoch grew up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I didn’t realize anyone was actually from Portland.”
“Sure, but well, I’m from Wyndham, just outside. But nobody knows that, so out of habit I just say Portland.”
“Oh yes, just like Enoch’s from Portsmouth. He actually was born across the bridge, in Newcastle.” Florence said, laughing. “Look at all of you with these dark secrets. I, however, am merely a Manhattanite, born and bred. I haven’t a thing to hide.”
“Whereabouts do you live now?” Perry asked. “What neighborhood.”
“West Chelsea. Chelsea Corridor,” Florence said, looking heavenward and exposed her palms. “Depends who you ask. Right off the High Line.”
“Patty and I—” Florence gasped inwardly. She was a Patty after all! “—have been on the Upper West Side for years. Close to work for me. I was really taken by midtown east first, caught in time, you know? Except for that huge Diesel store. We should have a real drink at that funky old Subway Inn sometime. Always meant to. Anyway, my father and I stayed in that neighborhood, at the Roosevelt, when we visited back when I was in high school. First trip to New York. But when Patty and I got married we stayed in her brother’s apartment overlooking the park until we got a place of our own, which was very nearby. I need to see the green. To jog around the reservoir. That’s home to me. And, I daresay it’s the reliable…stalwart,” Perry searched for more words, “helm of the city. That’s a fairly immutable constant for you, Enoch.”
“I was married before,” Florence said with a touch of conspiracy, leaning into her wine. “Pure sputum. He was actually some asshole Enoch and I knew as kids. I detested him. Well, Enoch and I had lost touch when he moved to D.C. I moved around, too… I was going through my divorce when thanks to Facebook, Enoch found me again a number of years later.”
“Returned from the sea, as it were,” Enoch said.
“Enoch Arden,” Perry said, snapping his fingers, pleased with himself, suddenly recalling the Tennyson poem from a Brit Lit class.
“Why’d you do it, darls?” Patricia said, directing this to Florence, who was once again caught off guard.
“You called the guy an asshole. Why did you marry him in the first place?”
Florence considered just how to explain or rather, how much to hand over. Failed pregnancies. Alcohol.
“Honestly? I was afraid,” she said. “I was in my late twenties—only! If you can imagine—and he asked me. We had sort of an agreement, I suppose. The marriage was never an ideal match but it wasn’t uncomfortable, at first. But that’s another lifetime. So there you are.”
The entrées arrived just as Enoch had predicted: Patricia’s filet burned beyond recognition and Perry’s steak in green peppercorn sauce. Enoch and Florence shared the perfectly acceptable escalope de veau au citron pounded thin and outfitted with roasted artichokes, zested lemon, and a puree of buttery potatoes (that Patricia also wished to include among her ablutions, this time as a possible relieving salve for her elbows and knees).
Enoch dipped a well-seasoned fry into the velvety béarnaise sauce that accompanied Patricia’s ruined boot-steak.
“So, with sufficient wine to buoy us, now we are delighted, collectively, to discover…would you say we have actually come to the meat of the matter? I want to hear more about your time in D.C.”
Enoch swished the wine around, neatly wiping the corner of his mouth.
“So many memories have been darting about like a fit of bees,” he said. “Tell me, where did you live? Did you go out?”
Somehow it felt as if he were pleading. After a moment, he said,
“As I was saying, I loved it there, back then. Drinks, brunch on the sun-filled tar rooftop at Perry’s—”
“I do hope they comped you there, Perry. Because of your name,” Florence said quite seriously with a sudden burp. “Excuse me. Perry’s is a great place. They should comp you.”
“—and dancing at 15 Minutes (or was that just a bar?), concerts at Fifth Column,” Enoch said. "All some time ago—so changed now”—he found himself saying again, looking at Perry—“Of course, as seen through young, aspiring eyes …you know, a friend of mine who still lived in Maine at the time introduced me to an acquaintance of his that had also moved to D.C. They may have dated or were just very good friends, I don’t remember. I don’t even remember his name! So I spoke with this friend of his briefly over the phone first, of course, back in those long since retired days, mostly about our mutual friend, but then we did actually meet for a beer, in person. Several times, as I recall. Then that was it… He was nice enough, but I honestly can’t tell you where else we went or what we did, apart from that beer. A party once, I think. Anyway, I never heard from him again and later, I discovered later neither had our mutual friend. I often wonder about him. I don’t know why, but I do. He was nice enough. Where do people go…to disappear? Well, then. ‘To absent friends…’”
Patricia filled the glasses with the remaining wine and raised hers to toast. She appeared slightly confused, trying to follow Enoch but laughed just the same and looked to Florence.
“‘To absent friends’, then, isn’t that a quote from somewhere?” Patricia asked. “Did you write it?”
“‘To absent friends,’” her current friends said, leaving her questions unanswered.
Perry, in an oddly elaborate gesture, toasted with his glass lifted first just over his head.
“Not above me,” he said, moving the glass down. “Not below me,” the glass was close to his heart now, “but in here. Cheers.”
Enoch blinked. He embraced the glass under his nose and inhaled deeply before taking a long sip. Something had stirred in him. His eyes trailed upward, staring at a portrait of one of the young models with pinhole eyes gazing blankly back at him. He froze suddenly, glass in mid-air. The gesture.
A party once, maybe, Enoch thought.
The suggestion of another bottle went around the table as they summoned the waiter.
Enoch eyed Perry as steadily as he could.
“Funny, though, isn’t it?” he asked, after a moment.
Enoch carefully finished the rest of his wine.
“Here,” he said. “The Meatpacking District. MePa. Years ago you couldn’t walk through these streets without nearly passing out from the fetid stench of dead meat. Or this place.”
He tapped the table heavily with a forefinger.
“Trouvez. Pigs were slaughtered here,” he said. “Call it by any name you wish, but there were pigs slaughtered right here. But what the hell’s in a name, anyway, right? Suppose one creates a pen name for instance, assumes an alias. Like if only old Miss Twombly had gotten married and changed her name. Changed her life! But what’s really funny—I mean, it has to be—is not change itself but how everything changes. Over time. And how greatly I truly feel it creeping over me, right now, like this goddamn sound system—that tribal trip-hop, whatever it is now, a reminder—an insidious, throbbing whisper that has stealthily been growing louder since we sat down.”
He put his elbows on the table, and said,
“In this room, with these people, I am unsightly. Lost beauty… the buildings are thrown up, the buildings are torn down. Recycled. Our hair fades, maybe disappears entirely. Peppered with gray, such as yours, Perry. Some go to fat, others thick around the jaw. Our cities, the people, everything changes… Memories lose their shapes, become stretched out like a favorite sweater still so wringing wet from the wash you can’t even tell what it is anymore… The eyes don’t change, not really. They grow myopic perhaps, clouds of glaucoma, fussy prescriptions.”
He sniffed and put his pen down.
“What might be even funnier though, really killing—I can’t help but wonder if we, you and I, Perry, knew some of the same people from back then? That would be proof, wouldn’t it? It would be proof that we existed—as we once were, young—as sure as I tell you right now… Wouldn’t it?”
He became pensively still, fearful he was pleading again.
“There was someone once though, I know it, once, in D.C., at that time… I often wonder what ever became of him. I don’t suppose that you would remember a young man. Hardly recognizable now, I would imagine. A young man with long chestnut brown curls cascading down about his shoulders…”
Enoch shook his fingers loosely.
Perry had been tracing the white cloth along the edge of the table when he curled his fingers around his wife’s hand, and ran a thumb over her wedding ring. He smiled at her.
“No,” he said casually and turned to Enoch, shaking his head.
“No,” Enoch said back, smiling slightly and shaking his head. “No.”
He threw Florence a look, like a little note on a piece of math paper, to be secreted away for later, and then opened.
The waiter approached the two tables, observing they were now pushed together. He presented the new bottle, uncorking it as he asked if any of them cared to see a dessert menu.
Florence eyed Patricia and Perry.
“Doesn’t much matter either way to me,” she said. “How about you two?”
Peter Halsey Sherwood studied voice and theater at London’s historic Royal Academy and worked as a theatrical agent before becoming the dining editor of Next magazine in Manhattan. He has also written for Interior Design, New York, and Woman’s Day. As creator of the food blog Evenings With Peter, he was published in The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook. Sherwood's books include the pale of memory, the Murdery Delicious series, and Friendship Fog. Also listen to our latest podcast with the author: