Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books) and the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume). She teaches Food Writing at Chatham University and writes a regular food column for Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine. An essay about the Tam-O-Shanter bar in Lincoln, Nebraska is forthcoming in the anthology Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food. Co-founder of Into the Furnace, a writer-in-residence program in Braddock, Pa., she also serves as series editor for At Table, the food writing book list at University of Nebraska Press.
The South Side is raucous, even on a Thursday night. Pittsburgh can be cruel—its weather, its people—we know this. But we want to eat, and we want to not talk about Sage. So we make our way down the long main street, circle around the slushy alleyways and into a parking spot. We ignore the bellowing, drunken college kids as we hold hands, walk toward 10th Street.
The plate glass window of the storefront steams. The scrolled words Cafe du Jour are hard to make out until we're right in front of the place. The door—painted an historic dark green—has a gold knob that turns easily. And there is Chef Paul. In his baggy shorts and T-shirt, he doesn't look like your typical chef. He smiles his big loopy smile. Always happy to see us.
The idea of being carefree regulars at a restaurant has already become a hazy memory. Seeing Chef Paul makes me catch my breath. He asks how we are. We smile. We say, Fine. We're fine.
Bottles of wine line a no-longer-used deli case in front of his small, open kitchen. It's tiny, the restaurant. Just a few tables in winter. Wooden. Simple. In summer there's a hidden garden in the back with a pond where turtles live and cafe tables with flickering votive candles. The outdoor dining area is magical, and in some ways I'm glad it's closed for the season. I believe its charm would crush me, because right now I live in an uncertain, confusing world every day.
Tonight, happy looking people who appear healthy, intelligent, and fascinated with each other eat at the tables scattered in front of us. Their skin glows in the candlelight. They seem normal—every single one of them. They seem sane, content, and the restaurant is full of their murmuring conversations. There's one empty table for two. Our table.
These people are so unlike us, I think, as we stand there in our misery, waiting to be seated. Can't they see how we touch shoulders to keep each other upright? How we clutch our coats to remain rooted to the here and now? But they don't notice us at all. It's as if we're invisible. They nod and smile and tip their heads to listen more intently to each other. They toast. What is it they talk about? I want to know.
Luk, the only waiter who has ever served us here, seats us, nods hello. He's always charming and has become a distant friend, someone we wave to on the street. Luk is from Canada and has a hockey game muttering on the radio; the low banter challenges the cozy atmosphere, contradicts the food and the gentle light, but we don't mind flaws these days. They remind us we're not alone. We hand Luk the bottle of wine we've remembered to bring. He uncorks it, says it's so great to see us again. He asks where we've been.
I try not to weep. We are here to not talk about Sage, who is out in the night, creeping around our lives, not coming home. Our undoing seems to be her goal, and she just might succeed. I look into my husband's steady green eyes. I've known him for 10 years, and he's never let me down. We're both trying. We smile at each other. I say, Well…. I ask, Should we get an appetizer? He says, I'm not sure I'm that hungry. I say, I like this wine. He says, Me too. We're cautious to only focus on what's in front of us, to not delve into the dark world outside this moment.
Midway through the meal, though, I can't take it anymore. I say, I don't know if I'm going to make it. He says, I know.
When we leave the restaurant a couple hours later, the smell of Paul's cooking will have seeped into our clothes. We'll carry that smoky, garlicky scent home with us where we'll crouch at the kitchen table talking about my husband's daughter in soft whispers if she's in her room. We'll talk about Sage in our regular voices if she's already raged out of the house, slamming doors and screaming. We haven't yet had her arrested. We haven't yet discovered the photos on her computer, haven't yet seen what she's been doing out there in the violent night. I haven't gone through her backpack or looked into her eyes the night she can't seem to form words in her own voice anymore. It isn't that time yet. But almost.
Back at the restaurant, my eggplant dish arrives. It's perfect—rolled and stuffed with fresh mozzarella, walnut pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes. The bread is warm and crusty. The potatoes are salted and charred in rosemary and olive oil. The salad, scattered with pepitas, is crisp and light.
I don't taste a thing. But someday—when it's all over, after years have passed and we're on the other side of this time—what I'll remember is the taste of this meal. The memory will help me confirm that we tried, during the tumultuous, no-looking-back years of saving my husband's daughter from herself, we tried to be kind to each other. The distinct memory of the food will help keep the chaos of that time straight in my head. The memories of this night will help me remember simple graciousness and love.
Now, as we finish the bottle of wine, I shake. It's slight. No one can see. I shake all over—a tiny tremor. I let the silence descend around us. I clutch my napkin, reach for my husband's hand across the table.