It was a Sunday. We knew better than to go to Tennyson Street for brunch at 11 on a Sunday morning but we did it anyway. And, no, we hadn’t thought to use that app that lets you hold a place in line before you get there. So, we show up for some monstrous piles of biscuit, fried chicken, cheese, and all the fixings only to be told that the wait will be an hour fifteen to an hour and a half, would we like to wait?
We would not.
Holding the door for me as we left, you said, That’s alright, we’ve never tried that new little place down the street. Do you want to wander that way?
I didn’t know what new little place you meant. We’d lived a few blocks away from Tennyson for years, since your mom died and we moved in to her house, and it seemed like a new brunch spot or clothing boutique popped up about every week now. You’d just been telling me a few days ago about how crazy it was to watch this place you grew up in transform. Como estas personas son de un mundo diferente, you’d said. Like these people were from a different world.
But a few blocks later, sure enough, there was the cottage with its sign of chirpy pastels swinging in the grass and, behind, white people sitting at tables eating waffles and omelets. Some had orange juice and coffee, others a bloody mary or mimosa. Everyone looked pleased enough, even if they all still had their jackets on like they were ready to stand up and leave at any moment. We turned down the cobblestone path toward the door.
A little early in the season to be eating outside, right? Coffee’d get cold in, like, two seconds, I said. Or something like that because it really was still too chilly to be eating outside and I wanted you to know that I’d prefer to sit inside. I said it so you could tell the hostess when we approached her perch and she inevitably asked you, not me, How many? Would you prefer inside or outside?
And, because you heard what I was trying to say when I made the comment about the peoples’ coffee getting cold, you told her, Inside.
Are you sure? I can seat you immediately outside. It’ll be twenty minutes for inside. We were sure.
During our wait, which was exactly twenty minutes, we had a chance to check out the restaurant decor.
On the walls, a local artist had their work displayed, available for purchase. Every piece was vibrant blocks of color separated by thin back lines to make a loud image. A print of a gray monkey in a suit, mouth open in a scream, canines hanging long and sharp, its hands clawing at the loose flesh of its face, a blank black background swallowing it up. Two husked pieces of corn with childlike eyes and rosebud lips reaching out tiny, white-gloved hands to one another—one touching an implied breast, the other touching where genitals would be. Further down the hall, toward the bathroom, I pointed to one with a twisted mass of naked plastic baby dolls, each pink face filled with human eyes rather than marble.
You thought it was all a little to weird and dark for a brunch place, especially one a family with young kids might stumble into. Lucky we’d left our own with your brother for the weekend. Rosa, she was maybe six then, would have been asking too many questions about what she was seeing in the paintings.
I thought the place was kitschy but in a good way, a way that worked for the vibe they seemed to be going for. Urban, bright, poppy but hipster in a way that, even then, I could admit was kind of creepy.
Then, while we were being seated, you noted that only a few of the tables were occupied and that there was something disconcerting—your word— about those occupants but you just couldn’t quite put your finger on what. I looked at them, talking and laughing, and said, What? They’re normal people getting brunch. Annoying we didn’t get seated right away, though. You think they’re short staffed or something?
You shook your head and kept looking at them, trying to figure out what it was, exactly, that bothered you.
At the table, checkered cloth napkins in our laps, we chatted for a minute about what looked good right off the bat, if we were in the mood for something stronger than coffee, that sort of thing, until our waiter appeared. White-blonde hair in a bun at the back of his head and a full, brown expertly trimmed beard covering the lower half of his face. He fit there. Especially in his baby pink t-shirt covered in melted ice cream cones and tight aqua pants. With a broad smile that revealed a set of perfect teeth, he said, Welcome in! My name’s Pete and I’ll be taking care of you this morning. Can I get you folks something to drink? We have a build-your-own bloody mary bar in the back on Sundays until noon, so you’re just in time!
I looked to you, letting you take the lead on this one. You declined, you just wanted a coffee, thank you. I was somewhat disappointed in your decision but compromised, in my own mind, and ordered myself both coffee and a blood orange mimosa. You grinned, one side of your lips turning up just for me to see, like you knew I wanted the bloody mary but that I wouldn’t order it if you didn’t. Like you didn’t order it just to tease me. I grinned back and you said, On second thought, I’ll do a mimosa too. Lingonberry, please.
Pete nodded and told us he’d give us a little more time to look over the menu and he’d be right back with our drinks. Looking at the options again, I curled my upper lip.
It’s all so expensive, I said. $21 for chicken fried steak? That’s absurd.
You reached across to touch my arm and said, so no one else around would understand, Conseguiremos lo que queramos.
I brought your hand to my lips, and said, Yes. But, still, it’s absurd.
You nodded, saying, These places. I guess it’s how they pay rent. Lord knows we’d have a hell of a time with it in this neighborhood these days if the house wasn’t already ours outright.
Then, we had time to really take in our surroundings. I stared at the increasingly disturbing art on the walls. The more I looked at it, the more I couldn’t look away. The bright colors and shocking combination of implied innocence or purity with violence and sex held me. What was wrong with the person who made these images? Or,was it just that I didn’t grasp the “deeper meaning” of the art?
You, on the other hand, kept glancing around at the customers sitting at the other tables. After a while, you gasped and took me away from my gazing. I asked, What is it?
You said, They’re not eating. None of these people. None of them are eating.
I remember, that’s exactly what you said because, looking at each group, I saw that you were right. Not a single person had food in front of them. No drinks either. It made the hairs on my arms stand up.
I was about to ask what you thought about it but, right then, our own drinks arrived, like you’d conjured them with your wondering.
As Pete set them down, you, being you, asked, Why isn’t anyone else eating? Is there something wrong in the kitchen?
Pete chuckled, flashed that huge smile of his your way and was like, Oh no, how funny. No, we just had a bit of a rush so their food’s coming. What funny timing! But no problems in the kitchen or anything so what can I get you folks to eat?
You didn’t return his smile and your eyes went squinty—scrutinizing— at him as you told him that you’d like the classic Eggs Benny. He stared at you in uncomprehending silence. I wondered if you’d said it in Spanish but, no, you hadn’t. You repeated yourself, more slowly this time, and he jotted it down on his notepad. It took him a second longer than I expected to write it, as if he was writing the entire sentence rather than just the words “eggs benny.”
I got the chicken fried steak—white gravy and, yes, the side of mashed potatoes would be good, thank you. Once Pete strode away, you started looking around the room again. You flicked your eyes to the people, to the art on the walls, out the windows.
I took a drink of my mimosa and asked, What’s your deal? It’s a city brunch restaurant, there’s nothing wrong with it. Pete’s maybe kinda slow but nice enough. And the vibe is a little... eclectic but, I mean, look, our drinks came right out.
You shook your head but followed suit, sipping your mimosa carefully.
You said, I wish we’d’ve done the bloody mary bar.
I laughed and then we talked of other things. I don’t remember, exactly, what those things were. The kids and more trivial minutiae of our lives. Rosa was going to need another new pair of tennis shoes before summer started. Camila was dropping hints about going to a summer camp for a week or two sometime in July but you didn’t think we’d be able to get her into the one she wanted. I was having some kind of drama at work with the new woman who was twenty years my senior who couldn’t seem to figure out how the Outlook calendar worked or something. You were upset that you hadn’t jumped at the opportunity to buy something or other on Craigslist— probably some kind of dirt bike you’d been eyeing, one that doesn’t come up for a reasonable price on Craigslist very often. Normal things.
And then the food came out. Not our food but all of the other food that had been ordered by everyone else, apparently.
It was incredible and it was eerie. All of a sudden, there were eight different waiters, dressed in colors as bright as Pete, in a dance, sliding and sashaying around one another, each gracefully lifting and lowering trays full of smothered burritos and pancakes and bacon in synchronicity. Not one plate slipped off and crashed to the floor. Not one elbow bumped into a shoulder.
We watched in awe.
So, just as suddenly, every table but ours was covered in brunch that those laughing, talking people were digging into with a voraciousness we could hardly believe. It was like each of them had been starved and now had no choice but to devour whatever happened to be placed in front of them.
The wait staff slinked off, back to wherever they had come from, so silently we scarcely noticed their departure.
You looked at me, mouth slightly agape, for a moment but neither of us said a word. I felt my pulse in my temples. We looked on.
All of that food was gone in minutes, no one uttering a peep while they heaved it down their throats. God, do you remember? It was like they were in on the performance with the waiters, the way they all put their forks and knives down at once, not a crumb left on a plate. And then the waiters were back and taking those forks and knives and plates away but not giving anyone a check.
So those people, they just kept sitting there, talking and laughing again. But not eating or drinking or paying or leaving.
I remember, you were fidgeting with your straw sleeve, wrapping it around and around your finger. I was picking, picking, picking at my cuticles.
¿Deberiamos ir? you said. Should we go?
But, at that moment, our brunch arrived. And damn, did it smell good—like grease and meat and fresh ground black pepper.
You watched me pick up my knife and start carving into the food, as if you wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to shovel the food into my mouth and swallow it, almost without chewing, as the others had. Honestly, part of me wanted to. The creamy white gravy, puckered with sausage, was slathered over a chicken fried steak the size of your foot and a mountain of smooth mashed potatoes. I was salivating like I, too, had been starved for days before this meal was placed in front of me.
The problem was, the meat wasn’t cutting. I could only force the knife through the gravy and breading but my sawing was getting me no further. The gray meat underneath was run through with tough, stringy tendon or fat or something else that refused to separate.
You watched me give up, set my knife down, and take a bite of smothered mashed potatoes instead.
They tasted like they smelled—like grease and meat and fresh-ground black pepper—but so intensely that I spit it into my napkin rather than force it down my throat. It was like they had taken the flavors and doubled them and then doubled them again until they were unbearable.
I hesitated as I reached for my mimosa and brought it to my lips. A whiff of blood in the orange made me set it down, gently, cautiously.
We should go, you said, This place isn’t for us.
If not us, who, you know? I asked. It’s just a bad piece of steak and some weirdos making breakfast into performance art. Nothing to get worked up about. I’ll just order something else when Pete comes back. Try your Eggs Benny, I’m sure it’s good.
It was not good. The moment you stabbed your fork into the gooey egg center, the yolk fouled the air with that same grease and meat and fresh-ground black pepper scent. We watched it slide across your plate, settle against the hashbrowns.
We should go, I said.
I jumped as Pete appeared, saying, How’s everything tasting over here, folks? Anything I can get you right now? Ketchup or hot sauce? I see your mimosas are getting a little low, can I bring you a couple refills?
He was still smiling that smile. Our mimosas weren’t even half gone.
Um, actually, you were starting to say when Pete cut you off with a, Switching to coffee? Very economical.
Excuse me? I said.
I’ll be right back with those, Pete smiled.
He started walking away.
Pete! you called after him.
He stopped right there, mid-step. His whole body froze, his left arm swinging forward, right arm swinging back. Frozen. But the melting ice cream cones on his t-shirt shifted around him with the abrupt pause, adjusting to this non-movement too slowly. Then, he turned back toward us, the broad display of teeth plastered on his face.
When he was standing over us, he said, Yes, sir? Is there something else.
Something like glee was creeping into his voice.
By now you must have known I was uncomfortable. Or, I guess, maybe even scared. It was hard to tell at the time because it was all so much, so fast. But you were calm and you had an exit strategy. And that was enough for me.
You were looking him right in the eye when you said, We don’t want coffee, Pete. We don’t want this food. We want to leave.
Certainly, Pete replied, I’ll get you folks your check.
He turned to leave again but you grabbed his forearm, keeping him there, and then, immediately, you pulled back like you’d gripped a cactus. He rotated towards us, his smile somehow bigger, bulging.
Please, sir, Pete said, do not touch me. Or I will have to call management over.
You said, I wish you would, Pete. We’re not paying for this food. We haven’t even touched it. It’s inedible.
Pete stared at you. You stared at Pete.
Neither of you were paying attention to me but I felt eyes on me; I felt it with the flesh on the back of neck. My gaze shifted nervously around the room, trying to make sure we weren’t making too much of a scene or, if we were, that at least the other people in the restaurant would see that we were being reasonable, that we weren’t the ones at fault here.
At first, I thought it was good that no one was looking our way. Then I remembered they weren’t eating or drinking but, realized now, they weren’t talking or laughing either. They were all just sitting there silently, empty eyes staring at empty tables. For the first time, I noticed there was no music playing overhead. Somewhere in the back, in the kitchen, I thought, water was running.
You and Pete were still staring each other down, oblivious to the strangeness surrounding us, trapping us. By this point, it almost felt like the tension was expecting something from us. Violence or subversion by which it could demand, once and for all, that we had gone too far, that we could not belong. But, also, we could not leave.
Braving a look at a picture on the wall, one of a brown dog riding a blue bicycle, I almost suspected I would find its eyes pointing to me. Thank god, they were not. Thank god.
Finally, you broke the silence, saying, Okay, then. We’re going now. Pete said, Not until you’ve paid.
I whispered your name and broke the spell. You looked at me. The silence of the room bombarded you and the color left your face. I wondered if you could feel the eyes too—the ones I couldn’t find but felt.
Taking out your wallet, you did the math for our uneaten meal out loud. $21 for my food, $18 for yours. $9 for two mimosas—$11 for mine, I had to correct you, since it was a “specialty flavor.”
Accounting for tax and the hurry we were suddenly in, you took out three twenties, left them on the table, but Pete interrupted you again, saying something like, Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t take cash. Only card.
Bullshit, you said.
And we stood to leave. The eyes in the room found us and we couldn’t not look back. Not a single face had any sign of recognition or sympathy, each its own uncanny valley. It was like they had no idea that they were complicit in all of this, even if it only seemed to me that they were. They ate the food with rapture, they said nothing when Pete refused any kind of service, and now they were sitting there, empty, watching us go.
Do you remember how I thought, just for a moment, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman start to stand up like she was maybe going to come to our aid, to stand up to Pete? But when I looked in that direction, everything was static. No movement at all. Pete didn’t try to stop us again.
Outside, the sun had warmed the air into a beautiful spring day. New parents with strollers idled on the sidewalk. A runner with a skinny dog went past. I still swear, some jerk on a unicycle rode by on the street, but you still claim you didn’t see it. And, on the cottage patio, behind the hanging sign in the lawn, tables of people ate and drank and laughed and talked.
What time is it? I asked.
You laughed and said, Almost noon. Our table at the Biscuit Company would be ready right about now.
I asked, Do you want to try there again? The wait probably isn’t so bad anymore. No, you said, let’s just go home.