It was a warm night, a pleasant night. I’d just killed an hour slowly sipping a glass of wine in a cafe, looking at the fire escapes of the buildings across the street and listening to people talk as they zipped past on St. Mark’s Place. I half-read a book, I wrote a postcard. I thought about living here and being a real writer with a real fire escape.
We showed up at the restaurant at 9:36. Six minutes late, despite my best attempts at speedwalking in heels, because some sloppy drunk had tossed a cup of warm beer on (at?) my boyfriend in the penultimate blocks of the Second Avenue leg. I’d made a dumb joke about baptism imagery and starting over. I wanted to be chipper. We had gotten a same-day reservation at a tiny 30-person bistro that I’d become starry-eyed over after reading the memoirs of its chef/owner. I’d torn through the first chunk before I’d had it a full two hours from the library, entranced by this raw yet lyrical writing, a book suffused with a badass, salty, did-it-all-myselfedness. A writer and a cook, like I wanted to be. I craved her food before I even knew where to look for it.
But now I live in New York, where everything is, and so was this restaurant. My boyfriend was reluctant.
“It’s called Prune,” he said, making a face. “Will they have food I like?”
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “Prunes are just plums, after all.”
I wanted a Parmesan omelette, radishes with butter, pencil asparagus, and the kitchen’s speciality: bone marrow. We’d eaten it elsewhere before, and the promise of a warm and fatty delicacy spread over sourdough toasts was enough to sell him on the unappealingly chichi idea of a meal in a restaurant. I’d gone in person to get us a table that morning, and I was lucky.
But our table wasn’t ready yet. “Do you want anything to drink?” asked two separate bartenders, their t-shirts the well-fitted pink cotton of American Apparel. I said no, just water. No space for a ten-dollar cocktail in my budgeted meal. My boyfriend waved his hand, said nothing, his eyes on a two-top by our elbows that was unoccupied except by twin table settings.
Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Then forty. I rebuffed more invitations to wine or spirits, sipping the water. My boyfriend was mute, still beer-damp, and in a sour mood not helped by crashing blood sugar. I clenched my jaw, stared at the mason jars of house-pickled onions and olives and told myself it was worth it. This place was founded by a former teenage cokehead, after all, a woman who once slept on a floor and ate cheap bodega eggs-on-a-roll like I did. It was scrappy and punky, like the female bartender with an asymmetrical buzzcut who frowned at the host for us and asked why we couldn’t take the open table.
“That’s…somebody else’s table,” he said, unsuccessfully craning out of our earshot. Oh, I thought. Well. My eyes went hot and shimmery. I felt a sharp stab of shame that I wasn’t worth the seemingly democratic practice of a timely reservation, and then embarrassment for my naïveté.
A large birthday party behind us ordered another round of drinks. I stared at the folds of my dress–Ralph Lauren, secondhand–and felt tears forming.
Eventually the group showed up. Whether they were famous or just rich I still don’t know; a four-person posse, well-heeled and gray-haired with Prada shopping bags and a round of martinis ready when they sat down. My boyfriend looked daggers at them as we were finally seated (10:27) at our table in the corner. An amiable waitress brought us a tiny plate of deviled eggs as an apology. I ate one, cool and creamy and a bit sharp with mustard, and it stuck in my throat.
I scanned the menu, looking for what I’d been waiting for. Roasted marrow bones were supposed to be their signature. I must just be missing it. I asked the waitress.
“Oh, we no longer serve it.”
She was friendly, but I felt gawky and inept for even having asked. Normally I can shrug off snobbishness in the name of a good meal, but now, six weeks into living in a city that made me overstimulated or overtaxed by turns, that muscle in me was spent. I felt foolish and unwelcome. I didn’t belong even in a place that was–or so I thought, anyway–more about craft than clique.
But my discomfort went beyond the shabbiness of my Salvation Army attire and my student Visa card with the comparably paltry credit limit. I suddenly felt sick at the thought of spending thirty dollars–almost half a days’ salary–on spatchcocked poussin. Like a tongue bit mid-chew, it jolted me awake.
Even though I’d tried to shirk destiny and teach myself taste, there was no way to avoid that I am what I’ve eaten. I felt like every bite I’d ever taken of microwaved lasagna had left me with something of its mediocrity even as it gave me halfhearted nourishment, that the cells Stouffers powered were endowed with a nucleus of intractable blandness. There was something in my essence that made me fundamentally, universally unsuited to do what I wanted. Who was I to move here, to eat these things, to try and write? I am possessed of a body as mushy and white as the boxes of instant potatoes that built it, and whatever had once lit the fire in my belly felt soggy and stagnant. I had the vague notion that someone, somewhere, had fed me a lie, and now I was choking.
For the first time in recent memory, I had no appetite.
I managed to get a full two blocks away before I began heaving sobs. In New York, when you’re nobody, since you’re nobody, nobody will notice you wobble and weave as you gasp down the street. My boyfriend threw an arm over my shoulders, and we got to Cooper Square and a strange little park of blocky seats and tables where I bawled, hard, knowing in the mealy center of my bones that I was not going to make it here. People love to say that this city will eat you alive, but that assumes it’ll bother to bite.
“You need to eat something,” he said. So we walked more, stopped twice, forking over four dollars for a pint of ice cream and a buck fifty for shitty pizza. I ate and felt nauseous, but calm, at least, angst dulled by a flood of insulin. If I can’t make art here, I thought, belly up on his dorm-room bed, I can’t make it anywhere.
I awoke the next morning feeling alive but none too vital. I washed my face, dressed, got a cup of coffee. I felt no hunger, but a combination of a maternal sense of duty and a toddler-like ache for something true and sweet saw me to the greenmarket in Union Square. Vegetables and fruits arrayed not for artistry or cleverness but pure advertising appeal. Orange-fingered carrot clusters, three-fifty. A dozen eggs, five dollars. Three boxes of blueberries for ten. All products, all priced.
I picked out some food by color and feel, filling a bag with fruit for a few crumply bills. I sat on the bench and bit into a breakfast, just some raw material to fill and fuel me. Nothing chopped or sliced or peeled or dried but still whole and swollen with juice. After all, just a plum.