She stepped into the restaurant and could see immediately that although the room was crowded, there was no line leading up to the maître d’s booth.
He looked up at her, his right hand moving over The List, as a fortune teller divines over a crystal ball, and she approached him, their eyes meeting at the same time with mutual acknowledgement and ultimate disinterest.
“How long is the wait?” she asked, though of course she already knew the answer.
He, too, already knew. But he glanced at The List anyway. It held a power over him that he had never had to explain, and would surely struggle to find the words for if ever placed in such a position.
“Ten to fifteen minutes. Or less.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “I’ll put my name down. Table for two, please.”
The maître d froze, a sweaty, nauseating chill spreading out and through his entire being, from all the way inside to the edges of his pink skin.
The attempt to speak fell flat, his voice failing him. He cleared his throat and tried again. This time, a small something came out, but it was impaired and strained, a weakling compared to his usual verbal stride.
He cleared his throat again, harder.
“Are you…are you sure…you…want to do that, Miss?”
“Yes,” she smiled back at him, oblivious to his internal fugue. She has very nice teeth, he noticed in this moment. Funny how a smile is, in essence, the same thing as bearing one’s teeth. Nothing had ever felt so intimidating to him in his thirty something years of life.
His voice had returned, though it now possessed an unshakeable quiver.
“You said…you’re sure?”
She was looking around the room, eyes bright and filled with anticipation.
Now he was beginning to sweat. He hated the way he sweated. It all seemed to come out on his face and his fingers at once. Perspiration had never failed to render him helplessly self-conscious. But in this moment, his battle against self-consciousness paled in comparison to the absolute terror within.
“Alright.” The word came out slowly. And the next thing he knew, the pen was in his slick hand, trembling, poised over The List.
She gave him her name and he moved point to paper. It wasn’t easy. His hand felt like a fist, trying to punch letters into invisible air and getting nowhere.
Something vibrated in her purse and she looked inside of it, paused, blinked – though only slightly – and then looked back at him.
“Looks like it’ll just be me,” she said, still chipper. “Table for one.”
He breathed an enormous sigh as his entire person turned gelatinous with relief.
“Laura,” he exhaled, the residual tremble in his voice still very much there, though undetectable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. He mustered a feeble, yet eternally grateful smile. “We can seat you now.”
He did not like eating breakfast with his wife because it made him feel inferior to her. Christophe’s appetite was voracious in the morning. He went to bed and woke up obsessed with food and he didn’t know why. His wife, Baconne, would sip her tea slowly and take painful, tedious crunches of her black toast before finally dashing off to work at 8am. The difference in their eating styles left him to wonder if perhaps it meant that she possessed self-control and he did not. He’d endeavored many times to slow his pace in attempt to match hers, but it never worked. Having to resist his food, the thing that gave him so much pleasure, made him unhappy.
In December, Christophe was laid off. The one silver lining of unemployment was being spared of these unbearable breakfasts with his wife. Before, they had both needed to be at work by a quarter to nine. Now, and for the past month, he relished the freedom of waking whenever he pleased. He would curl up like a cat beneath the warmth of his electric blanket until he heard the front door slam and lock, and when he knew for sure that Baconne had driven away, he would leap out of bed, bounding in his blue and white striped pajamas to the kitchen downstairs. Every step of breakfast preparation felt, in its own strange way, delicious to him: sliding two slices of bread into the toaster, scooping the butter and jam out of the Frigidaire to warm them on the counter while he awaited the glorious taste of breakfast in its perfect, unrushed imminence. He never bothered to brush his teeth first.
One morning, just after Christophe had pushed the bread into the toaster, the electric coils beginning their ascent to an orange fury, he heard a knock at the door. He hoped it was not his wife returning for something she’d forgotten. He did not want her ruining breakfast for him in any capacity.
“Monsieur Wohberne?” It was the deliveryman, “A package pour vous.”
The parcel was from his wife’s sister, in Copenhagen. Why he had married a Danish woman besides the fact that he’d at first been transfixed by the long, blonde hair that fell all the way to the small of her back was now a mystery to him. Her hair didn’t impress him anymore. In fact, he hardly ever noticed it.
Happy One-Year Anniversary it read in French. His sister-in-law’s French was quite good, as was Baconne’s.
Christophe slid his hand deep into the package and pulled out a jar of Danish jam.
Confiture, he sneered.
Christophe had grown up in a family in which giving food as the entirety of a gift was considered bad manners, if not downright disrespectful.
“If you can swallow it, it isn’t a gift,” was the credo his mother lived by.
His sister-in-law had, apparently, never gotten that memo. For their wedding, she had offered the newlyweds several assorted flavors of Hamburger Helper…an American delicacy of some kind, though based on the look of the boxes they came in, didn’t appear to have been very expensive (American things never did). Still, it had tasted rather delicious.
The toaster popped. Christophe ran back into the kitchen and threw the hot slices onto his plate. He paused, thinking that he might try the confiture his sister-in-law had sent. It appeared to be some kind of berry blend; he didn’t read Danish.
“I will try it on one slice first to see if it is for me,” Christohpe told himself. He talked aloud to himself when he was giddy and he was always giddy at breakfast time sans Baconne. “If it is disgusting, then I shall resume with my regular apricot confiture.”
At first, he had difficulty unscrewing the lid of the jar with his thin fingers. He ran it under hot water for fifteen seconds and tried again. He banged the lid against the counter to no useful avail. He wondered if any of these methods of jar-opening actually worked, or if they were all a big joke intended to make the person who undertook them look and feel foolish. Finally, he thought to use a dishcloth in the palm of his hand and was able to pry it off at last.
Like magic, a small amount of jam leapt from the jar onto the surface of his toast, covering it to perfection at every angle.
“Comme c’est étrange!” Christophe scratched his head. He picked up the unblemished butter knife and stared at it, noting his confused and rather pathetic-looking reflection in the silver.
“Would you like some…Axelle on your other slice, Monsieur?” a breathy, feminine voice unfurled from somewhere beneath him. He picked up the piece of toast with jam on it, searching for the source of the voice, before realizing that it was coming from a small, sexy woman sitting on the rim of the confiture jar.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am…Axelle,” she replied. “Do you like…Axelle?”
“I am not sure,” he replied. “I haven’t tasted you yet.”
“Take a bite,” she ordered, grinning and elongating her neck in a very rakish manner. “Take a…bite.”
Christophe regarded Axelle for a moment, then glanced back at the toast. A small twinge snuck up through his stomach. He couldn’t help the distinct feeling that he was cheating on Baconne.
But when he brought his teeth and lips down, Christophe felt the most incredible sensation…surpassing all joy, all appreciation for beauty or love or lust he had ever either anticipated or experienced, even in his most intense and longing-filled adolescent years.
Axelle moved her mouth in a very rakish manner.
“Are you…happy being married, Rodolphe?” It was a few days later and Christophe and his band mate were waiting for the others to show up to practice.
Rodolphe stiffened. What to say? He didn’t like the sound of Christophe’s question. In truth, he did not much like the sound of anything except music during band practice…or any other time for that matter.
“I’m not happy. At least, I don’t think I am,” Christophe continued.
Rodolphe summoned an image of Christophe’s wife, Baconne, in his head. He liked her long, blonde hair.
“At least your wife hasn’t allowed her looks to go down the toilet,” Rodophe replied after some careful thought. “She has not become fat and still dresses like an unmarried woman would. This, I feel, is God’s blessing.”
“That is all fine,” Christophe sighed. “But I crave a woman who…makes me use all of my senses. Someone who makes me feel…alive.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Rodolphe frowned. “You are alive. You do not need to feel alive to be alive.”
“You’re not listening! I want a woman…a woman who is...almost supernatural. A vixen in my mouth. And yet, an unblemished lady. Someone who motivates me to be better than I am. Who shows me that I am strong and desired. Whose very existence reminds me that I am a man.”
Rodolphe was starting to wonder when the other members of the band were going to arrive.
“You’ve been married twelve years,” Christophe said, exasperated at his friend’s unhelpfulness. “I ask because I trust you. Stop pretending to be so interested in your bass guitar strings!”
“I don’t know what to say, Christophe,” Rodolphe answered at last. “Marriage is a very difficult thing. Baconne seems like she’s attempting to maintain her appearance and youthful body. In this sense, you are in a better position than most husbands.”
“Do you want some…Axelle on your sandwich?”
She had shown him a world, a sensual paradise, that he had never been privy to before. Eating her was like the pleasure he experienced in bed with his wife times a thousand, and all in one concentrated area.
Baconne remained oblivious to these developments, continuing to leave the house every day at 8AM sharp, returning at 5:45PM to change her clothes and go for a run, then start cooking at 6:15 for dinner no later than 7.
“How is the job search going?” she would ask every evening as she dropped the serving plates onto the table before him, seemingly still out of breath from her day at work, her run, and her cooking.
Christophe would mutter a thing or two about the progress he’d made that day. Applications, phone calls, possible interviews. She never pushed for any information beyond this. He wished she would take the time to shower before dinner. He did not exactly enjoy sitting across a table from a haggard, disheveled woman in sweatpants who reeked of automobile exhaust and sweat.
“My sister sent me an email today,” she began over dinner one particular evening. “Insisting that she mailed us an anniversary gift near three weeks ago.”
Christophe had been eyeing the Frigidaire, the saliva in his mouth thickening. It took every ounce of self-control to refocus his attention on his unsightly wife.
“What’s that, Cherie? Oh, a package. I never received such a package.”
“Well I saw the cardboard remains in the recycling,” she said, locking her eyes with his, “From the box?”
“Oh. That.” He bit his tongue, wishing Axelle was on it right then just to spite his wife and her seemingly innocent insinuations. “I’m afraid it was nothing more than another box of that Hamburger Helper rubbish.”
Baconne rolled her eyes.
“Again? She has to stop!”
“I just threw it out, Chérie. It tastes all right, but that American garbage is no good for you in the long run, now is it?”
Despite having dodged a possible accusation, Christophe found that an undercurrent of panic continued to pulse through his veins. His supply of Axelle was starting to grow thin. His voracious appetite was more unruly than ever before, and his self-indulgence at an all-time high. Some mornings he allowed himself up to three or four pieces of toast with Axelle on it. It seemed now that some greater, monstrous hunger, was controlling him.
“You’re wasting me away!” Axelle whimpered one morning.
“What do you expect me to do?” he cried despairingly, “I can’t resist you and yet I am the one responsible for diminishing you.”
“You’ll have to be a man about it,” she replied, pouting her lips.
“I’m sick of you playing games with my mind! Who do you think is in charge here? I’ll break you, girl!”
He lifted Axelle above his head, preparing to throw her throw her against the kitchen floor.
“Shatter me for all I care,” Axelle mocked. “You are the one who needs moi.”
Christophe put her down, his hand trembling, and collapsed into a kitchen chair.
He knew his only choice was to exercise some self-control, but at the same time he wondered what the point was in keeping her around if she couldn’t serve the purpose she was meant for? Delivering ecstatic pleasure to him and him alone was her forté, her raison d’être. Who was he to deny her that?
On Sunday morning, Baconne got up early to go jogging around L’Orangerie, as she always did. Instead of reading the newspaper and showering after her run, she crawled back into bed with him. She kissed him on the mouth. Christophe awoke to the sensation on his lips. He tasted…Axelle.
“Oh, my love…” he murmured, utterly confused as he opened his eyes. He recoiled upon seeing that it was his wife.
“Baconne?” he gasped, sitting up, “But why do you taste like…Axelle?”
“Axelle?” she asked, “Oh!”
He felt like smiting himself on the forehead for making such a stupid slip of the tongue, but he knew that doing so would only solidify her fears.
“Oh,” she said again, “That jam you’ve been hiding from me. I finished it off.”
Baconne paused, then kissed her husband again, “I ate the last of it.”
She nodded. He searched her face for some sign that she, too, had succumbed to Axelle’s powers.
“Well,” he swallowed. “How was it?”
“It was,” she smiled, “Just jam, darling.”
She kissed him again and he kissed her back, but all the while his mouth was searching for the last remnants of his true love, for…Axelle. He thought of how far he could possibly slide his tongue down her throat, grasping for one last taste. Was such a thing even possible?
His wife mistook this unusual ardor as proof of her secret ability to control her husband, just as all women believe they can control men with sex. As he gave in and curled his arms around her, feeling the sweat on the small of her back where the many strands of her long, blonde hair ended, he remembered how kissing girls had disgusted him as a child – and he laughed; the idea of swallowing the insides of someone else had then seemed so very repulsive. How things change!
Gina Davis: "I am an African American and Chinese American writer in Oakland. California. I attended Barnard College in New York City where I received the Howard M. Teichmann Writing Prize."