One time, I lied about being a vegetarian.
Jan, the office manager, had seen me with a grilled cheese sandwich on my first day at Carton & Moore.
“Oh! Do you not eat meat, Regina?”
Both of her brows shot up over the wire rim of her glasses. She seemed so excited that the question felt like a trick or an accusation. “Well, I– “
Then she cut me off.
“No no, that’s fine, Regina. I’ll just make sure we have a vegetarian option at the Christmas party.”
I wanted to tell her: No, I love pork chops. I’ve eaten foie gras! But I couldn’t force the words out, because this woman was staring at me as if a white peacock had just landed on the break room floor. I didn’t want to be a disappointment. I thanked her and ate my sandwich. Fanned my tail.
The next day, I brought a salad and had lunch with a good-looking junior associate who told me about his vegan ex-girlfriend from Waukegan, how she sprinkled brewer’s yeast on everything she ate and forced him to eat brown rice. On Wednesday, Jan came back and brought Dean, the systems guy.
“Dean, this is Regina. She’s new in data entry, and she’s a vegetarian.” She gestured toward me with her fork, waved a piece of orange chicken.
I smiled and slurped a spoonful of miso broth. It tasted fishy, like a Chinatown grocery store smells.
“I’ve always been envious of anyone who can commit to that.” Jan stuck the fork in her mouth and pulled the chicken off the plastic tines with her teeth, started chewing. “I mean, I just don’t think that I could give it all up.”
I could see little white shreds of meat on Jan’s tongue when she spoke and started to hate her. “It’s not for everyone.” I looked down at my Styrofoam tub of soup. The seaweed had all floated to the top and coagulated into a dark green film that made me think of the Saganashkee Slough in August, when it’s all dragonflies and carp bones, and the whole place stinks like salt and rot and soil. I felt sick and excused myself.
That night, I cleaned out my fridge. Everything had to go – the lunchmeat, the shrimp cocktail in the freezer – packed it all up and gave it to Mrs. Rosati over in 2A.
“You sure you don’t want this, Regina?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Rosati. I’ve quit eating meat.”
“You’ve quit eating meat?”
“Why, Regina? Are you sick? Is something wrong?”
“No, Mrs. Rosati. I’m just going vegetarian.”
Amidst the turkeys and gravies of the holidays, I became a connoisseur of soy. I learned the difference between hummus and baba ganoush, soft and firm tofu. I talked about complete proteins, and I shopped at Whole Foods. I felt great. I liked being a vegetarian.
I still hated Jan. Every morning she asked what I’d brought for lunch and sometimes added an anecdotal report about some other herbivore who I didn’t know.
“My daughter’s neighbor’s boy is dating a girl who is a vegetarian. She’s very skinny.”
“I saw on Channel 9 last night that all the lettuce has E. coli.”
It wasn’t so much all this, though, that got me: it was the peek. Jan peeked over the wall of my cubicle at 8:03 every morning and honed in on whatever Tupperware or Saran-wrapped dish I had brought, as if to make sure I hadn’t told her garden rotini when, in fact, I’d secreted in a BLT. She did it every day, right up to the Christmas party.
La Pomme Rouge looked more like a swank opium den than a restaurant. The main dining room was encompassed by raised recesses, little dark naves partitioned with velvet drapes and beaded curtains, where the partners all sat with their wives. The dark wood of the tables and chairs reflected the dim lighting and played against the burgundies and olives of the walls and cushions, and the place smelled like braised meat, cinnamon, and whiskey. On the wall behind the bar, there was a gaudy, life-sized painting of a Bridget Bardeaux Eve fondling an apple. The place was decadent.
Dean to my right, Jan and her aged husband across from me, I sat with the rest of the support staff, and we applauded when Gerald Carton finished his dinner speech. The chatter resumed.
“I’ve heard the food here is excellent.”
“My brother-in-law said the lamb is phenomenal.” It sounded like phenaaaahmenal.
“I wonder what they’re serving.”
I drained the last bit of Riesling from my glass when I saw the wait staff carrying platters out of the kitchen.
The offering: skewers of meat caramelized with onions and char-roasted tomatoes, pastries stuffed with spinach and ground lamb, cubed fillet mignon mounded atop a bed of peppers and cous cous. I salivated. I agonized. I imagined what one bite might taste like, one brown and dripping piece between my teeth, even a scrap, a trim of fat off of the beef, sizzled crisp and melting in my mouth.
My options came next: dishes filled with potatoes and more peppers, baked goat cheese, piles of pita with yogurt sauce. These things, too, tempted, but they seemed thin next to the meat, as if I could eat all of it and still feel hunger. I began to fantasize.
What if I just reached across the table and plucked a kebab from the platter and, without even setting it on my plate, I smiled at Jan, tipped it toward her as a sort of cheers, and tore into it? Just ripped the meat with my front teeth. I would chew emphatically and keep my eyes on hers, watch her mouth open into a shock of an oh, those damn eyebrows would raise in surprise. Dean, who had drunk two Chiantis to each of my whites, would laugh food-mouthed and his face would contort in a display of grotesquery to rival my carnivorous rebellion. All Hell would break loose. I would stand on my chair then, skewer raised in one hand, and bellow to my coworkers, “This is divine!” It would be a roar, a declaration free from the guilt of confession, and Jan would be able only to tremble.
Maybe I wouldn’t take it that far.
What if I choked? What if nobody saw me do it, if I got the meat in my mouth and no one knew until Dean, heroic, had to administer the Heimlich and my lie hocked right out of my throat and landed there, chewed, on the table?
I started to laugh. It was a tiny thing at first. It came from my chest and escaped near-silent through my nostrils, something small that I couldn’t control. I could feel my lips pressing together in suppression and my eyes bulging as it grew. Then my stomach started to tremble with the joke. I tried to keep it in, but the force of air racing up my esophagus and into my sinus cavity erupted in sound, and there it was. It was out. Dean, neither drunk nor co-conspiratorial, stared at me, as if to say,
What is wrong with you?
Everything, I would say.