Fiction
Fiction

Tofu

Iris Moulton


He said, No I don’t care that you eat meat, but then could you at least brush your teeth first?

 

Meaning second we would kiss.

 

Meaning fifth he’d be jockeying for position.

 

But it was probably all just to get it so I’d keep a toothbrush at his house. And maybe sixth become a vegetarian.

 

He’d roast the tofu until the thin and sagging rims were brown. He’d open a bottle that I couldn’t read because it was in Thai and pour that over everything and then he’d turn on cartoons and say stuff about Marx. He and I would slice into the tofu and it’d be bald and white on the inside and water would leak onto the plates. What is this meant to substitute for, to satiate?

 

When you would get home I would pretend we all lived together in separate bedrooms and at night we would each lay awake and think about whose room we most wanted to sneak into, whose room we wanted to heat with our breath. As you walked to the fridge I would think yours yours yours.

 

At the table in the morning he and I would do a crossword, and he would lean over to show me how seamlessly YALTA met with MYSELF. I would try to sip around the greasy film of soy creamer. I would watch the black coats and thick hats on their way to work, which was probably where none of them were going, not in this neighborhood: to the studio, to the café, home from a hazy mistake. I could feel how closed your door was in the pit of my stomach, always.

 

He took my hand and began to stroke my other forearm as a suggestion that I put down my coffee and give him my other hand. I sighed and made a new ring on the table when I set it down. As he kissed each knuckle the steam from the mug grew fainter and fainter. I freed a hand to lift it to my mouth, the tepid brown puddle. Rings interlocked where the mug had been, one dried brown circle for each time he took my hand.

 

Look, I said, looking at the table. The Olympics.

 

What a wonderful mind you have, he said.

 

My dear, he said, I can’t wait for tonight!

 

He thought he had mentioned it, surely, he said, he had. He guessed it would make more sense for me to stay with him all day rather than drive all the way back here later. Because first I would have to get bundled up and second scrape my windshield plus warm up my hands again. Third I would have to get on the freeway and fourth I would unlock my door and knock the snow from my boots. Fifth and sixth: unbundled and getting used to it. Seventh: come back here.

 

The air outside looked so clean, so smoky with steam and snow, so much like being under water. Take a deep enough breath and you could drown right there on the corner.                                                  

 

                                                    ***

 

He was braiding my hair when you came in and asked if we wouldn’t mind please lessening the length of our stick of incense. We said of course and then you took it between two fingers and jammed it deeper into the potted plant. Only an inch to go. And walked back into your room.

 

Hey, he called past my ear.

 

You came back in. You were fluffing the back of your shirt like you’d just put it on and maybe you had but I hadn’t been able to see because my hair was being braided and I’d been told to keep still. He said some things to you about tonight and how we’d have to take the train but that that might make it more fun, what with being among the people and seeing their stories written all over their varied parkas. Were they poor, and if so, were they able to patch the holes, and what with? Which resort did they ski, their passes dangling from the zipper? Was that borrowed from an oversized lover? And you said maybe you’d meet us there and finished adjusting your shirt and he turned my head away using only two fingers and said he would have to start over.

 

We couldn’t stay inside all day. Much as we’d like to, he said. He went for the door. My cheeks were heavy to lift with just my lips so I checked them in the toaster to see if I was getting fat but they looked about the same. It still felt like a lot to lift.

He said he knew a place and took each of my wrists one at a time to jam them into my coat. Who says chivalry is dead, he said. When I almost slipped on the ice I couldn’t find my hands to react but he steadied me. I brought them out finally and he took one.

 

I will admit it was nice to hold hands because it was winter outside. The ice crystals I breathed in melted before I could cough them out. He held my hand and then put it in his pocket with his own, and I thought, Okay, for as long as my hand is warm in that pocket I will love you.

 

The place that he knew was a cheap Chinese restaurant. He said, I had a dream about you last night.

 

Which I hated because we hadn’t even seen the waitress yet so if the story got any longer than that or any more complicated it was bound to be interrupted once for water and a greeting and again for ordering and then again if we had to say that we hadn’t even looked at the menu yet, sorry. And all of that happened and the waitress I’m sure thought that we were so lost in each other that we couldn’t think about egg rolls versus spring rolls, fried versus unfried.

 

So, as I was saying, he said. And it was all about how in the dream I was illuminated in the moonlight and had flowers in my hair.

 

Untrue, I said.

 

True, he said, like it was a game we were about to play, like we were made children again in our love.

 

People don’t dream like that, I said. People dream that when I open my mouth a frog comes out waving the Confederate flag. People don’t dream about how beautiful other people look. People just say they do so that they can say how beautiful other people are.

 

Well, I guess I can’t help it.

 

The waitress came back and I said fried and he looked like he wanted to stop her to correct that as she walked away but she was fast and light and Chinese.

 

Of course he flipped right to the back, where the vegetarian section threatened the beverage list.

 

I turned the pages slowly. I let one plastic page slap against another, and then lifted each by its filigreed corner to double check that I hadn’t missed anything. Duck. Chicken. Pork. Beef. Seafood.  Noodles & Rice. Vegetarian. His eyes were low like he was looking at his own menu but the brown rings of his irises stayed on mine.

 

This eggplant sounds good, I said.

 

Oh, it is, he said. He nodded deep enough to almost chin the table. You should definitely get the eggplant. And I’ll get this bean curd, and then we can share.

 

Are you ready? asked the waitress. The skin of her face was slick and oily from the kitchen, but underneath the sheen was perfect and smooth and worthy of love.

 

                                                  ***

 

The smell of brown sauce and fried slowly replaced the haunt of his incense left in my sweater. Beneath that, musk, the word he used. We were almost finishing up here. We would soon go back to the apartment to negotiate the few hours before it was time to take the train, dictate to each other the lives of strangers like someone should be writing it down, and land outside of a warehouse. We would walk through the iron door, stand in front of canvases and sculptured things for the requisite amount of time, be hot but have nowhere to put our coats and hats and scarves, warm in our bare hands the cheap wine in thin plastic cups, finish it, crack the cup with our teeth.

 

I would see you across the room and you would be in conversation with some girl short enough for you to see me just over her head. I would get a good look on my face, calm, engaged with my environment. I would read the title to that piece and put my fingers on my lips to make you think of laying your head on a pillow. Like this. This is how you lay your head on a pillow. Has the title made me sad. Made me recall losses. The short girl’s head would be nodding and her hands would be making circles as she drew her ideas for you in the air. And you would smile at me and I would smile at you and you would want the relief of silence that surrounded me like I want the relief of silence surrounding you.

 

You’re so beautiful, he said, touching my face as I swallowed a hunk of lettuce like a boa constrictor.

 

Heading back to his place, some cars were already streaking their headlights along the slick road. The yards, parking slots, sidewalks, roads, were squares of white snow edged in grey. A dog had left a yellow stain and the drips had melted clean holes where it hurried back to its master.   Wind had scattered butts around the ashtray, a shovel scraped cement some distance behind us.

 

He adjusted the thermostat and blew into his hands dramatically like we were Trotskyites barely making it in Russia. With both hands he removed my hat and pushed my hair back. Your bedroom door was open. You were not home. You could be in the Chinese restaurant having just missed us. We would say later that we must have just missed you. You could have already met the short girl somewhere in the streets and be hurrying the process of getting cold out there so you can rush the process of warming up at her place. You could be kicking the black puddles away from you alone. You could be kicking the reflections in the black puddles of the streetlights so evenly spaced and the passing headlights. Voices in winter air muffled like your head is under the black water, and who is looking for you. Over his shoulder in our new embrace I saw your narrow bookcase and the arc of a coverlet to the floor.

 

He made a show of making a proletariat bed in front of the heating grate: a swish of quilts and pillows that I hoped smelled only like him, not him and me. How long would that take, and had it been that long? It could just as easily smell like you and me. You live here, too. The thickest quilt for a pretend mattress, a blanket folded back to suggest where to tuck in. He sat down and covered his legs. He blew into his hands again to warm them.

 

The floor was hard under my feet. From here I could see out the window, the bald brick face across the street from us, the mountains behind it. The wet whisper of cars just down there.

 

He took my hand to help me in. Despite all efforts his hands were cold on my breast, prompting from me a sharp inhale and from him an apology. I know how to warm you up, he said. I pretended the freckle on his ear was a piece of steak and bit it.

 

Like a waiting cleaver, like a moving train, the drop of sweat on his nose threatens. Like a jumper on a bridge. His head is laboring up and down and from side to side, trying to pull the rest of his body in any good direction, and the drop on his nose fattens. It grows heavy and I see it in the moment it loosens itself. It widens and widens and enters my eye, splashing thinly over the whole thing. I press my palm into it. The stinging takes a second but then there it is. With my good eye I see he has seen this but he isn’t slowing down.

 

When it is over we settle near each other, stick to each other, take in our own air for our own purposes. I sigh mine out.

 

My dear, what is it? he asks.

 

His face is a child’s face, hairless and soft. I think of his mother, who would touch his face like this, and I touch his face.

 

Is it anything? he asks.

 

What does my face look like, unpracticed in this expression. My brow aches. There is weight on my face and my face bows under it.

 

He puts his hands on my hands and says, Let’s not ruin a perfect day.

 

He says: Whatever this is don’t waste space on it when our love in the air is enough.

 

                                                  ***

 

We walk through the iron door but that’s it—I don’t cross the room for wine, I don’t go to greet his old professor. He points me out, and I wave. Are you hanging your coat, are you out with the smokers for a better conversation? I find a plaque and look at it long enough to appear to be reading. I look at it long enough to read: Palimpsest.

 

The cost of starting again, he says from behind me, to the painting which ends with its oil dried at my feet. I do not kick at it, I do not back away. He has brought me wine to warm with my hand, to crack the plastic cup once emptied with my teeth. Are you just now on the train? I put my fingers to the pillow of my lips. He stamps my fingernails with his mouth and we taste the same, like wine. It is like kissing myself; for him it must be, too.

 

Waste. Palimpsest. All things take time, all things take material: make and make some misshapen thing and you have wasted both. Begin again from what.

 

Or better, erosion. With time the elements will reshape the thing beyond recognition, beyond the original thing, and you yourself are freed in doing nothing.

 

We move in slow sideways steps, knocking our backs into the pensive wrists of strangers gazing from a respectable distance at the walls. We are all still in our coats, loosening our scarves and red-faced. I will not faint or fall. I put my forehead to his chin and I stand with four legs. Are you on your way or have you just left? He has been looking at this corner for so long. I know his hands are sweaty on that glass. He stinks to me. I do not want this to be true. I knew a girl who said she huffed her lover’s armpit like glue before fucking. What I don’t want is a body, any body at all, some panting thing that will first annoy me with his heat, and then second heat up to a real sweat. And third and fourth work too hard for it, distract me with sympathy until it’s over.

 

This is so lovely, he says. I do not say a thing: He is a man with only one sleeve on until he adds, not nearly as lovely as you. We part.

 

I wait. I wait for a painting on the wall to declare itself, to move me to it and align something in me, finally. Where are you? Are you home and folding your clothes or are you drunk downtown, or neither? I wait. I wait for something like you. But it isn’t you, is it. I see him on the other side of the room, caught in some net of admirers. A woman fumbles with a plate of crudités, recovers only having lost one baby carrot to the floor. I watch as everything almost happens. Anyone who will come through the door has done so already, I know this now. We all must only take our time then leave.

 

Read next: "Nomads" by David Crouse

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Iris Moulton won first place in The Literarian's short story contest for "Tofu." She holds an MFA in Prose from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She lives and works in Salt Lake City, and her work can be found in Gigantic, Parcel, Fugue, and Everyday Genius. For more: irismoulton.com

 

This story was published in Issue 10 of The Literarian