The Rise

“Aubergine” by Cara Lynn Albert

11 October 2019 on Blog, Nonfiction   Tags: ,

“His name is Eggplant,” said John as we examined his dying fish inside the large aquarium in the middle of his living room. This was before we started dry humping on his couch, but after he confessed to me that he was a convicted felon.

The little fish struggled to avoid the water’s surface. Though his scales were dark and dull, he was the black sheep among the bright green and neon yellow hues of the other fish. When Eggplant swam behind them, he appeared to be their shadow.

“Why Eggplant?” I asked John.

“Because of his color.”

Small, black fins floundered against the water, as though he were swimming through thick honey. Thin, plastic pieces of algae danced effortlessly around the other fish.

“But Eggplants aren’t black,” I said.

“He’s not black. He’s a very deep shade of purple.”

I raised my eyebrows at him.

“No, really,” said John. “Look closer.”

I tracked the fish once more. There was no detectable trace of purple—until he angled his body and caught the hazy, yellow lights above the aquarium. His fins and scales took on the inky, plummy shade commonly associated with eggplants.

“I see it!”

“Told you,” said John, smiling and tracing the tips of his fingers between my shoulder blades, then making a line down my spine. He grabbed my hand and led me past the clean, colorful fish tank to the dingy couch in the middle of the living room. Strings of distressed fabric unraveled at the sofa’s seams, and his pillows were saturated in dark stains that smelled like expired beer. John settled onto the middle cushion and pulled me on top of his lap.

John was only the third man I had ever kissed, and already I could tell his lips were too puckered. He suction-cupped them onto mine, making the whole situation sloppy and soggy. The taste of rotten fruit filled my mouth when he parted my lips with his tongue. John moved down to my neck, and I glanced at the aquarium behind the couch. Eggplant was now swimming sideways, just inches from the water’s surface.

*

A few weeks before I found myself in John’s apartment, I was working as a line cook at a rustic French restaurant that had been deemed “appropriately approachable” for Orlando’s culinary scene. Watch enough cooking shows as a kid, and you’ll grow to idealize a career revolved around the creation and consumption of food. During my senior year of high school, I would buy a sack of potatoes or carrots on my way home from class and spend hours practicing my knife cuts. Brunoise, batonnet, juilenne. One-quarter inch by one-quarter inch by two inches. I’d often pull out a ruler and measure each individual dice. Soon after I started my new position, I was gifted a $200 professional chef’s knife as a congratulations! for achieving my dream job. To my inexperienced eye, it resembled the fancy cutlery I’d find on display at Williams Sonoma. The kind that amateur cooks buy when they believe their culinary skills are worthy of overpriced German and Japanese steel. Thin but strong, the blade created an extension of my arm. Currently, it resides in my old knife roll, stuffed at the bottom of one of my kitchen cupboards.

The restaurant that hired me had been opened for about 40 years, and the kitchen still looked like 1975. The once brick-red floor was cracked and muddy. Sticky gunk grew in the grout, its removal having long been dismissed. Wooden countertops were permanently discolored by spilled juices. When roaches made their way onto visible surfaces, my fellow cooks fought to be the first to crush them, like it was a game. The new, steel appliances were the only distinctive items among the staleness of everything else. They were silver and slick, and Chef wiped them down himself every night.

During nights when Chef was particularly short-tempered, I hid downstairs in the back of the meat freezer. It smelled sweet, but not perfumey. The little room was filled with the rich juices of raw duck, rabbit, lamb, and pork. Some of them were immersed in marinades made of honey and lavender.

On a busy Saturday night, a table of nine was seated with no reservations. Ticket after ticket printed in the kitchen, and the other cooks started working immediately. Grease danced off a hot sauté pan when the boy that was hired before me threw in some butter and chanterelles. He was a student at a local culinary school. Even after endless begging to enroll in one upon graduating high school, I was pushed to wait until I’d earned a real college degree.

The sous quickly glanced at the tickets before he grabbed a squeeze bottle full of canola oil and drizzled some into a large, cast iron skillet. The thing was twice the size of my face, and I struggled to lift it using both arms. He swirled the pan to coat the bottom in oil with one swift gesture of his wrist. Chef put some plates in the oven to warm while he waited for us to finish our tasks.

 “What’s the matter with you?” asked Chef once he noticed my state of paralysis. I had backed myself into a corner next to two large refrigerators. They held pre-cooked carrots and legumes, together creating the “seasonal vegetables” that accompanied every dish. Much like the Floridian seasons, that veggie variety hadn’t changed in years. The carrots were my favorite. They still had a slight bite to them, and their natural sweetness was enhanced by the earthy, rosemary-thyme broth in which they were boiled. I’d stuff a few of them into my face as a provisional dinner before busy weekend shifts.

Chef directed me to fetch the prepped food. I nodded and rushed downstairs to the meat freezer, repeating the order over and over so I wouldn’t forget.

Three Canards, two Poissons, two Tournedos, one Carré d’Agneau, one Aubergine. Duck. Fish. Steak. Lamb. Eggplant.

I bound my hands in latex gloves, stepped into the freezer’s sweet, familiar scent, and piled each piece onto a large sheet pan. Before reaching for the eggplant, I grabbed new gloves and a clean pan to prevent contamination.

The vegetable felt light in my hand. Or was it a fruit? An old culinary textbook informed me that some fucked up botanist categorized the eggplant as a berry. Whatever it was, I never cared for the spongy texture or bland taste. Eggplant recipes only exist as attempts to add some flavor variety to the weak produce. Even the restaurant’s preparation of Aubergine was guilty of this. We stripped the plant of its best quality, the lovely purple skin, then quartered the insides, double-dredged the pieces in the three-step breading process, and fried them so that the only discernible flavors were oil and Cajun-seasoned breadcrumbs.

I ran my thumb across the raw crumbs, watching loose bits fall onto my black, non-slip shoes. There was a bald spot on the eggplant’s surface—a small section where neither egg nor flour clung to. The exterior felt soft and porous, and fragile underneath my fingertips. I dug my thumb deep into it. Juices exploded onto the surface, and its flesh coiled underneath my nail.

The freezer door swung wide open. Chef stood at the entrance. His disapproving pout proved that he didn’t need to use words to scold me. Secretly, I’d hoped that he gave me more credit than he’d let on. How could he not have understood that I was purposefully trying to avoid the kitchen, and him? I wasn’t ready to admit it, but we both knew I was never going to last there.

“Sorry, Chef,” I said. He walked back upstairs to the scorching stoves and competent cooks. I threw the gouged eggplant into the garbage, put two new, fresh pieces on the sheet pan, and followed him.

*

In the time between my job at the restaurant and dating John, I adopted a daily habit of wearing bold lipstick shades. Makeup was never something I cared about when I was pursuing a career in food. Why bother when most of it came off in either sweat or tears?

My first tube, bought two days after I found myself unemployed, was a toasted red shade labeled Cayenne. The rich pigment coated my lips in one swipe. Standing in front of my mirror, I sieved through an array of smiles to test the color’s versatility. Lips pursed. Flirtatious laughing. Sly smirk with a raised eyebrow. Who needed dreams of an ambitious career as a distinguished executive chef? I had new lips that could break the world.

John and I met, and before each of our dates, I purchased a new tube of lipstick using the money I’d been saving for culinary school. Bold reds, bright tangerines, deep burgundies, and even sea greens found a place on my face. My mouth would be saturated in John’s saliva, and I pitted lipstick against lipstick to find the shade that lasted longest. Cayenne defeated Truffle. Pepper defeated Cayenne. I invented the “March Madness” of lip colors.

On the night John admitted his felony conviction to me, he brought us to his apartment for the first time. My new shade that evening was called Saffron, an intense crimson with flecks of pink and gold glitter that glimmered prettily under artificial lighting.

I was reminded of our age difference when he offered me a bottle of banana bread-flavored beer. Being a legal drinker for over seven years, John didn’t give a second thought to buying or drinking alcohol. But only a year before I met him, I was a teenager in high school and beer was a rare commodity. When I brought the bottle to my lips and tasted phony fruit, I learned how John obtained his awful breath. I had expected a bready ale with subtle notes of sweet banana, but instead tasted the artificial candy equivalent. The kind you find in neon yellow Laffy Taffy.

As we observed his large aquarium, John mentioned that the little fish swimming sideways was his probation officer’s favorite of the bunch. I waited for him to explain himself, but John remained silent. His eyes followed the purple shadow rising higher in the tank.

“You were arrested?” I finally asked. He saw my concern and laughed.

“Yeah. Did I not tell you about that?”

“No. You didn’t.”

He was working at a local Steak ’n Shake earlier that year, and a lady left her Louis Vuitton handbag at one of his tables. John brought it to the back of the restaurant where there were no cameras, pocketed over $500 he found inside her wallet, and tossed the purse into the trash compactor. Of course she came back for it, of course he was searched, and of course they found the money in his pocket. He was arrested, spent the night in jail, and was still working on his community service when he met me. Management had banned him from the building.

“It’s just that one Steak n’ Shake, though,” said John. “We can still go to any of the others in town.” As if that was my biggest issue with his story. I don’t know which detail bothered me more—that he stole the money, or that he was dumb enough to throw away the purse, which was probably worth much more.

If you asked me why I stayed with John after learning this information, I wouldn’t be able to give you a redeemable answer. I considered crafting some vague excuse that would allow me to leave. That’s what most people would have done. But John was giving the type of positive attention I hadn’t received in a while, and all I had waiting for me at my single apartment were piles of half-eaten junk food and empty tissue boxes.

By the end of the night we were tangled in his bed. My bra and panties were on the floor while he was still wearing most of his clothes.

“I don’t know what I did to earn this,” he said. I asked him what he was referring to, and he replied with “the hot, naked eighteen-year-old lying next to me.”  I didn’t respond because I was too preoccupied with finding something commendable about John. Anything to justify pursuing the relationship.

“If you could do anything with your life, regardless of money or education needed, what would you want to do?” I asked. He looked confused. “What are you passionate about?”

He considered the question for all of three seconds.

“I don’t know. Maybe something in retail.”

*

The following morning, I woke in John’s bed to a new message on a dating app. I’d been using the same profile I’d used to meet John. The kid was much younger and more attractive than the snoring man lying next to me. A video game designer, he had plans to move to Los Angeles by the end of the year. He asked me if I was free that night, and I sent him directions to my apartment. Be there at 9:00.

I crawled out of bed and stepped into my jeans. My underwear was shoved into my back pocket and hung out the backside, swinging like a pendulum whenever I took a step. Glossy posters that I hadn’t noticed the night before were tacked across his room like wallpaper, all picturing new models of the Ford Mustang. No doubt a nod to “Johnny Mustang”, the self-dubbed nickname John created after his mother bought him a 1999 model when he was in high school. Ten years later, it sat on the pavement outside, chipped paint boiling in the Florida sun and a tired engine that croaked like a jammed robot coupe.

I dashed out of the room, shoes in hand to prevent any noise-making. I was surprised to find Eggplant still alive, though he continued swimming sideways. His rich, purple scales were more visible in natural sunlight. I wished him luck and silently shut the door behind me.

That night, I slipped into a sheer pink lipstick named Meringue. The sleek, wet finish plumped my lips until they were almost dripping. Three knocks hit my front door, and I opened it to a young man carrying a cheap gas station pizza in one hand and a cheaper bottle of wine in the other.

If you’ve never been to Naples, if you’ve never tasted sweet, volcano-grown San Marzano tomatoes on a charred, crisp crust, I promise you that you’ve never eaten good pizza. And while you can get close with pies you find in America, this 7-Eleven slice wasn’t cutting it. The “dough” was gray and collapsed into damp sand under the watery sauce. Mealy mozzarella floated on top like a raft.

We quickly killed the wine, and after my third trip to the bathroom, I entered my kitchen and found him over the sink, shirtless, and rinsing some white cloth under a delicate stream of water.

“I spilled,” he said, and though I never saw the stain, we threw his t-shirt into the washer. Five minutes later, I matched his bare chest. Ten minutes, and we were inside of each other’s pants.

What surprised me more than anything was that John was still on my mind. But I felt no guilt. In fact, I wished he could witness what I was doing with the naked, attractive man lying underneath me, my bare lips leaving a wet trail down his abdomen while my hair spilled out of his fist. See? I can do better than you.

*

My relationship with John and my position at the restaurant both concluded with a text message. Stubbornness, impatience, a lack of empathy. All of Chef’s worse traits, and I learned cowardice. I read his words and my bones faded into a familiar soft and porous texture. Like if I so desired, I could dig my thumb below my skin and feel the pulp curl under my nail.

I called Chef and agreed that his decision was for the best. John confessed that my breakup text felt like it came from out of nowhere. I thanked Chef for the generous opportunity. John asked me if I was seeing someone else. I ignored his question and lied about wishing things had worked out between us. When I requested an update on Eggplant’s status, I waited over an hour to receive John’s response.

“He died.”

*

After several months of unemployment and dateless nights, I grew bored of the tired face that lived in my mirror. Even without a set of test lips at my disposal, I fled to the department store.

A new collection of reds was on display. The wax was glass-like, twisted entirely out of its tube, and carved sharp to the point, resembling a set of bloodied, gummy knives. But a fiery fuchsia shade near the back demanded my attention. A sales representative approached me as I was observing the lipstick.

“Would you like me to apply it on you?” she asked in her sweet, retail voice. I grinned and handed her the tube. She reached for one of the disposable applicators at the back of the display, swirled it over the creamy surface, and slid the syrupy, luxurious product over my lips. I pressed them together and she handed me a mirror. The color was vivid but innocent, like raspberry jelly.

“Do you like it?” she asked me. I granted myself another smile.

“I do. What’s the shade name?”

She turned the tube upside down to read the bottom sticker.

“Aubergine,” she said.

I frowned, and she noticed my dismal expression.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

Purple fish scales saturated everything in sight. I picked one out of the air and jammed my nails into the delicate membrane.

“This isn’t the color of an eggplant.”

***

Cara Lynn Albert is a prose writer originally from Florida, and she is currently completing her MFA in fiction at the University of Colorado Boulder. She lives and teaches creative writing in Boulder, Colorado.

"The Rise" is a painting by Virginia Sitzes. Virginia is a printmaker, painter, and muralist living and creating in Oklahoma City. Originally from Denton, Texas, Virginia received her BFA from the University of Oklahoma where she studied printmaking and painting. She has exhibited, as well as taught workshops, across Texas and Oklahoma. Her work has been featured in Art Focus magazine, Oklahoma Gazette, The Gayly, The Tulsa Voice, and the “Inspiring Conversations OKC” and “Whatcha Makin’?” podcast. Virginia is also an active arts organizer. She co-founded the emerging artist collective, Art Group OKC, and has curated various pop-up shows in houses, alternative art galleries, and non-traditional venues. You can find more of her work on her website and instagram.

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