I chose Italian because I was craving pasta. I chose this place in particular—there are at least three new nouveau-Italian restaurants in the neighborhood—because it was the shortest distance from home. It wasn’t until I walked through the door that I was reminded it was the weekend. Couples, dates, double dates, parties of five, escalating voices, laughter, silverware clanking against plates. Everything boisterous.
As well as white.
Don’t get me wrong: I grew up in the suburbs, I went to graduate school, and my ex is from Vermont—I am fluent in dominant culture. It’s the odds that concerned me. And there wasn’t a single non-white person in the room before I arrived. Neither the diners nor the employees. A statistical improbability that’s becoming more probable over time in this neighborhood.
I spot the host and raise an arm and one finger. She scans her iPad and points to the empty stool nearest the front door, at a counter facing the window. The stool is backless, and I am forced to sit on my folded coat and balled-up scarf.
In the seats beside me are a bifocaled couple in sweaters who sign their credit card receipt and leave soon after I sit. In their wake is a relative peace that vanishes as suddenly as it appeared. A rush of late or after-theater diners swarms in, wedging themselves into the narrow alley between the bar and my back. In the time it takes for me to take my first sip of wine, I catch no fewer than six elbows and zero apologies.
From this morass emerges a new pair—tattooed at their wrists, hair disheveled, speaking in spurts. I hear everything they allow: they attended the same college; they reunite at restaurants monthly; she was promoted recently; he is contemplating law school; and they both prefer Get Out to the far superior Us. The one seated immediately to my right isn’t white. I assume Indian. Possibly Latinx; mestizo like me. The sort of phenotypical congruence that makes me curious about early human migration patterns. Our positions in the window make us an advertisement, inadvertently or not: this is a safe, desegregated space for pasta.
“It’s, like, good—of course. Brilliant, actually. But it also feels like Baldwin missed an opportunity to talk about race,” she says with a certain preening authority, like someone who crammed for a test on the bus ride to class.
“But isn’t that, literally, his bread and butter?” her companion responds. His fingers, pincer-like, wade efficiently through the oily gin. He rescues an olive.
“Right? That’s what I always assumed, but, like, he barely mentions it. The main character is Black, and it’s set in, like, the fifties in France. It should have come up.”
“Maybe it was his avant-garde way of addressing it, by, like, normalizing it,” he offers.
“Huh. I literally hadn’t thought of that until this very second. Wow.” She attempts a mannered sip from the narrow highball, but the stack of cantilevered ice cubes crashes onto her lips. She wipes her mouth and chin. “Anyway, you should read it. It’s excellent. And I’m kicking myself, because it’s literally on my coffee table right now, and I thought about bringing it to you, but I assumed you ’d already read it because I thought I was, like, literally the last person on earth who hadn’t read Giovanni’s Room,” she says.
“And I’m, like, the last gay guy in the world who hasn’t read it,” her friend responds, before depositing the expertly skinned olive pit onto the fringes of his cocktail napkin.
Believing that the narrator of Giovanni’s Room is Black after a chapter, or two, signals an obtuseness that is incongruent to this otherwise urbane pair. For a moment, I wonder if it is I who misread Baldwin’s novel all those years ago. The moment passes.
Theirs isn’t the only ill-informed conversation taking place in this crowded restaurant, but it’s the one closest to me, as I await my bucatini with fire-roasted tomatoes and a mozzarella that the server described, only moments ago, as heavenly. “Like a cloud,” she said.
It is the end of December and my twenty-third day of living alone.
We separated, my husband and me. He cheated with a coworker—a smooth-faced cherub with a long neck and eight balls for eyes, whom I ’d met at the company holiday party last year. They hadn’t yet consummated anything then, but I ’d sensed something was in the offing, like the scent of snow before the snow. The blond waif—the coworker—had a top-heavy undercut and spoke with the cadence of a runaway train: “Is the bartender making the drinks weak, or am I just an alcoholic?”; “Doesn’t this band sound like Vampire Weekend?”; “Have you tried the oysters?” The logorrhea could have been taken for a minor social unease if he hadn’t already spilled his drink while extending his hand to greet me (“You can’t take me anywhere”). I recall, too, a subtle blush across my husband’s face. But it wasn’t until months later that I realized something was indeed amiss, when, on two consecutive Saturday mornings after two consecutive Friday nights of unexpectedly working late, my husband didn’t want to have sex. In an effort to be less confrontational, I didn’t say anything in the moment. Instead I got dressed and went to the farmers’ market.
“Should I buy eggs?” I texted when I ’d nearly finished shopping.
“We have four. Maybe get half-dozen . . . ?” he responded.
“OK. Also, are you having sex with someone else?”
Typing, dot dot dot.
Yes arrived eventually.
I lowered myself into a lopsided crouch and scanned the tops of my groceries: a pair of honey-nut squashes, a pile of purple potatoes, a half-pound of creminis, a bunch of pristinely white turnips, a dirty, crenulated celeriac root, and long, dimpled Lacinato. I held the inside of my lower lip between my teeth and attempted boxed breathing. Inhale four, hold four, exhale four, hold four. It was a calming technique I ’d learned in the meditation class my supervisor had nudged me to attend after a minor dust up at work: for the fourth time in two years, a fellow epidemiologist had mistaken me for someone else—most recently, the person delivering his lunch—and I ’d taken it poorly.
“Safe sex?” I texted back to my husband.
The ellipses appeared and disappeared on my phone.
“He’s on PrEP.”
“PrEP protects against exactly one sexually transmitted infection.”
“I’m sorry. It was just once. I love you.”
By this point, I was sitting plainly on the uneven cobblestones. The ground was damp, and an off-leash Labrador was taking liberties with my kale. “You only had sex with him once?” I responded.
“No. Only without a condom once.”
We ’d had an unambiguous deal, my husband and me: be forthcoming, and wear condoms—unprotected sex was the last bastion of intimacy reserved exclusively for us.
In retrospect, we were too set in our ways to explore something so radical. If, at the outset of our relationship, we ’d been polyamorous people who were simply in denial of our true proclivities and whose only barrier to unadulterated adultery was a retrograde society, this open arrangement might have worked. But we were simply monogamous types who ’d panicked when things became monotonous.
After a few months of feeling betrayed, of living passive aggressively, of boxed breathing, even if secretly aroused by the thought of my husband’s bare cock inside of someone else, I asked him to move out. Our apartment is rent controlled, but my husband makes significantly more money than I do. It was easier for him to find a new place.
“You’re overreacting. This was your idea!” he said. “Let’s just keep going to counseling.”
But the therapist was intent on trying to get me to forgive something I didn’t want to forgive.
“What if you had sex with him, too?” my husband suggested, after the counseling had run its course. “Then we ’d be even.”
But that was a terrible idea. Besides, Greg—the millennial coworker—wasn’t remotely my type.
When it seemed that we ’d run out of options, my husband got desperate: “How about we start the adoption process? Focusing on something other than ourselves would be healthy.”
But I couldn’t think of anything less healthy.
Finally, he acquiesced: “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said, despite not being entirely certain.
The week after he left, I had one of those midlife birthdays, the kind that leave one in a contemplative haze about things big and small, past and future, specific and general. Was this my life? Had I reached the plateau on which the rest would play out? What would hindsight reveal? It was during this soul-scouring that I realized how little I truly cared about my husband’s tryst—the sex itself, that is. It was his rule-breaking that sounded the death knell for us. Rule one: be forthcoming. Rule two: wear a condom. That’s all we had to do.
I feel a firm nudge at my arm. It’s the bucatini, and the conduit is a rounded man with ruddy, light brown cheeks and a stained apron around his waist. (The restaurant’s non-white quotient has suddenly increased by fifty percent.) He places into my hands a steaming bowl of coiled noodles; they wade in a pool of red sauce dotted with orange globules. It occurs to me that I need bread, but I’m too slow; the runner has already vanished. I swivel back toward the window. A small basket of focaccia sits off to my right. It’s not mine; it’s theirs—the glib, once-a-month friends. I don’t know when their bread arrived, but I wonder why I didn’t get some too. I’m not used to dining alone; is there a two-person minimum for complimentary bread? The wicker basket rests almost exactly on the imaginary fault line between the college friends and me. They don’t strike me as superfluous carb people. I consider swiping one of the five rosemary-accented squares, but I can’t summon the nerve.
I don’t need bread, I tell myself. Diabetes is around the corner, genetically speaking. I’m not in imminent danger, but the pasta before me is contribution enough to the inter-organ weight that presages the illness. Around a nearer corner is excruciating heartburn, the result of tonight’s red wine and tomato sauce. I sip from my water and wrap a few hollow noodles loosely around my fork. Despite the displeasure of the restaurant’s crowd, their din, their elbows, their unearned privileges, I want the meal to last, the romantic notions of independence to persist, the paradox of solitude in a crowded room. I reach for the wine. “Montepulciano. 2017. Fruity. Oaky. Tannic,” the server had said.
On my left, about ten feet away, a table of four is praising Scarlett Johansson, the actor. They—two couples, or a throuple and a friend, or four siblings—have been praising her for nearly six minutes.
“It’s amazing. You have to see it,” says one of the quartet.
“She was otherworldly,” a third member of the small group chimes in.
“Her best performance. She deserves an Oscar.”
Otherworldly? An Oscar? I thought these awards were meant to honor greatness, not serviceability—how graduate school used to be.
“Did you see her other movie? About the Nazis?” asks the most enraptured one of the group, before sipping from his Aperol spritz.
“No, but I heard she might also get nominated for that one,” responds another. She, too, has an Aperol spritz in her hands. It’s December.
Of course Scarlett Johansson is going to get nominated twice in one year; George Clooney has somehow amassed eight Oscar nominations. Meanwhile Edward James Olmos has only one. Sandra Bullock took home the award a few years ago, but Elizabeth Peña died without ever getting nominated. Tom Cruise has three nominations; John Leguizamo has zero. Streep has twenty-one; Cicely Tyson had twenty less than that. Brad and Julia, four each; Wes Studi, none. (Though Studi and Tyson both had honorary Oscars presented to them at the mid-November ceremony that no one watches.) Jennifer Lawrence has four nominations, and she’s essentially the white Rosie Pérez, who only has one. But frankly, none of these people matter, not while Alfre Woodard still lives. She is a grand dame of American cinema, and she’s been nominated exactly once. Forty years ago.
There’s an argument to be made for the obsolescence of acting awards, sure. But while these vaunted clubs exist, the memberships should be equitable and meet certain standards. Without a bottom rung, after all, how does one know they’re not standing on the ground? Without a top rung, how does one glimpse the possibilities?
I analyze statistics for a living. At the city’s health department. Movies aren’t even my third favorite pastime. And yet, I can tell you who Woodard is and how beautiful and seamless her acting is. How she’s fine-tuned her craft so as to not unnecessarily take up air. How she’s mastered the art of the small, subtle gesture, sidestepping stereotypes and expectations in the process. She’s done everything right, played by all the rules. And yet, her prize seems to be invisibility.
“I ’d go see it again, if you want,” says one of the Scarlett acolytes.
“If I can find a sitter, I’ll join you!” says the one who hasn’t said much at all.
At the risk of generalizing, I loathe every person in this restaurant. And maybe not the individuals, but the people. They won’t stop moving into the neighborhood. They’re a people without standards. Actually, it’s worse than that. People with low standards. No, no, no—worse: people with inconsistent standards. Eyes so tightly shut, it’s amazing they don’t fall into open sewer holes or subway entrances more often. And they’re so freaking loud. Proudly loud. When I think of how I’ve spent my entire life striving to be quiet and humble, I could tear out every last strand of my hair.
Alfre freaking Woodard.
“Sir, is everything all right?” asks the server, who I haven’t seen since she instigated the bucatini special.
The pre-Raphaelite pulls a pen from her orange cabbage patch of hair. “Can I get you anything else?”
“No. I’m okay.”
“Can I clear your plate?”
“No. Why? I’m only halfway through my meal.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Would you like another glass of wine?”
“No, no thank you.”
Another glass of wine? I’ve had four sips of the current glass. It was a miserly pour to begin with, and three-eighths of that pittance remains. Seventeen dollars—that’s what the glass costs. The petite syrah that I buy at the liquor store down the street costs sixteen. For the whole bottle. Do I want another glass? No, I want a national health service so that I don’t have to continue shelling out monthly for my parents’ insurance supplements. I want the minimum wage to be closer to thirty dollars so that I don’t have to worry about getting jumped on the way home. I want reparations for the descendants of enslaved peoples and the repatriation of lands acquired by the United States outside of valid treaties with Indigenous nations so that I can stop feeling like the few moments of joy in my life all occur against the backdrop of genocide and settler colonialism.
The room is shrinking. I haven’t seen anyone leave the restaurant in twenty minutes. I should go home, except that leaving would constitute a forfeiture. And this meal is too expensive to be rushed. I make my way to the bathroom.
The tables are so tightly packed that I am forced to walk at an angle, arms soldier-like at my sides. In every direction, the restaurant is full and blaring. And blond—in a way that seems statistically significant. This is why my husband and I rarely went out on weekends. He was a secure person who didn’t mind crowds, but he empathized with my disdain and was rarely anything less than accommodating.
“Are you sure?” he asked, when I proposed opening up our relationship.
“Let’s give it a try,” I said. “As long as we stick to our rules and don’t make this a habit, I think it’ll be fun.”
On my way back to my seat, I take in the restaurant’s unadorned rusticism, like that of an Old World tavern. It reminds me of the set pieces in Peterloo, a movie I watched the other night. On the couch. It’s the sort of film my husband would have vetoed. Not forcefully, but he would have hemmed and hawed until I withdrew my nomination—if the plot didn’t speed along or if it wasn’t Star Trek related, he wasn’t interested. This has been another benefit of living alone. I spend very little time negotiating. This past week, I’ve watched Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Michael Larnell’s Roxanne Roxanne, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, and Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako. I’ve lined up a Wiseman and a Weerasethakul for next week.
I bet that no one here has ever seen these films. In fact, they’ve never even heard of them—movies without infinity stones or quaint depictions of structural villainy. Movies that are unafraid to hold up mirrors to their audiences. Movies that are honest in ways that no one ever seems to be. I could be mistaken, but I glean from the room a certain lack of sophistication, not only in film choices but in imagination, and consequently in envisioning a better world and, more importantly, a path to that better world. These are the sort of people who detest crassness but not necessarily tax cuts. People who never wonder about what came before them. People who saunter to the fronts of long lines and announce, I just have one quick question, even though all of us have one quick question.
“I bet none of you have,” I say aloud, as I squeeze past a server focused only on his tray of drinks.
“Well? Did you?” I say.
No one answers.
“Did you?” I shout.
The people in my immediate vicinity look up from their food.
“Did any of you see Peterloo?” The screaming is full-throated and echoes in my chest. “Peterloo! Did any of you see this fucking movie?”
The restaurant’s pell-mell halts so quickly I contemplate deafness. Until I hear the music. Music I hadn’t heard through the din. It’s Bob Dylan. “Like a Rolling Stone,” I think. What’s the point of music you can’t hear? I wonder. A simple foam lining on the underside of the tables would be an effective, low-cost noise-dampening intervention. Why don’t more restaurants employ this strategy? Why do we pay so much to be in rooms where we can barely hear one another?
“Peterloo! Peterloo!” I shout.
“Sir, please.” The host approaches me quickly but stops short a few feet. “Is everything okay?”
“No, it most certainly isn’t,” I respond. “I don’t think anyone here has watched Peterloo.”
“Sir, please. This is a restaurant. We have customers trying to enjoy their meals.”
“I’m well aware of where we are. I, too, am a customer.”
“Yes, sir, but you’re disrupting—”
“Just answer my question,” I say to the densest section of the room. “Has anyone seen Peterloo? It’s a movie. It’s by Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh is British. He’s probably most famous in this country for having made Secrets & Lies. His films are typically small, but they’re large in scope. He examines the way humans interact—what do we need? what are our motivations?—have you seen it?”
“No, sir. I haven’t. I’m sorry,” the host says firmly. She is above-average height and exceedingly thin. Pinched nose, dark hair. The hint of an Italian accent.
“You can watch it on Amazon!”
“Sir, can I call someone for you? Or a car?”
“I haven’t finished eating yet.”
“Can I take you to your table?”
“I don’t have a table. I’m at the counter,” I say and point to the window. One end of my scarf hangs from my seat, draping the floor. I imagine all of the microscopic things that are leaping onto the fringes.
“Well, I can escort you—”
“I don’t need an escort. I need to know if someone here has seen Peterloo!”
“Please, sir, relax.”
Two boxy men in baggy gray pants and black aprons approach. One is squat and has a tattoo crawling up his neck; the other is taller and reminds me of a guy I chatted with online last week. Both could be distant relatives of mine. The chubby one puts his hand on my back. Of course I’m being pitted against my own people.
“Don’t!” I jerk my upper body away. “Everyone, can you hear me? I will leave as soon as you answer my question. Have any of you seen Peterloo? It’s about class oppression and the fight for proper parliamentary representation in early nineteenth-century England.”
No one flinches. I scan the room and spot the bartender. He’s the tallest person here. He has a late nineteenth-century mustache and loose brown curls. He’s lithe and quirky: a contemporary dancer. A year ago, I gave him my phone number but didn’t respond when he texted a few days later. A bottle of prosecco rests in his hand, at an angle; a wad of bubbles drools from its head. He averts his eyes when our gazes meet.
“Anyone? It was a fascinating film. A stark reminder of how cruel England was. Remember them? The masochists who shaped the world?” Shit. I meant sadists.
The room is petrified. Not afraid, but perfectly still, like a painting without depth. Some people have stopped staring at me and are looking instead at their plates or the floor. Maybe they are afraid.
“What about Atlantics? It’s on Netflix. Everyone has Netflix, right? It’s a Senegalese film about the effects of globalization on labor. It’s beautiful. It did well at Cannes. It’s directed by a woman! These things are supposed to matter!”
The two workers grab my arms, not forcefully, but I feel caught. “Alfre Woodard! How many of you—”
“I’ve seen Peterloo,” someone calls out, rising from a table against the far wall. She sets her napkin on her chair. One of her companions mouths something, presumably telling her not to get involved. She reassures him with a pat on the shoulder.
“I’ve seen the movie,” she says, snaking her way through the tables. “I liked it. Not Leigh’s best, but a very good film. I’ve seen Atlantics, too. I preferred that one. I wished it was a book.”
This is the only person I care to know in this room.
Before my new friend can reach me, the workers resume yanking at my arms with the sort of banal force that props up fascist regimes and the TSA.
“Please don’t,” she says to my captors. My savior then tells the host that she’s paying for my dinner. I shoot her a sideways glare, which causes her face to briefly tighten. She’s opted for efficient humanity, disregarding our boundaries in the process. I respect her intention. I like her style too. Her hair is a pompadour of gray and black, like k.d. lang’s. My new friend is in her late forties. Heavy and wide-eyed. She has the humble confidence of a natural athlete and the cheekbones—pronounced, rounded—of a favorite child.
The heat beneath my skin recedes. It occurs to me to introduce myself.
“Kathryn,” she responds.
I already know a few Kathryns, but this one seems unique. A tranquil person who spends her beach time reading books and eating saltines. Just like my husband.
Kathryn walks me to the front of the restaurant as the sounds of the room stir up again. I swipe my coat from the stool. The focaccia remains untouched in its basket. I lean in and whisper to my counter mates, “The narrator in Giovanni’s Room is white. At that point in his career, Baldwin chose to deal with racism and homophobia separately.”
Before stepping outside, I glance back at the room and its diners. I recognize some of them from the farmers’ market, from the park, from years of living here and paying attention. They will cross my path in the coming days and recount the story of tonight to whomever they happen to be with. After twenty years of being an unassuming presence in this neighborhood, I suddenly have a reputation.
“Do you live far from here?” Kathryn asks, her hands tucked into her jeans.
“A few blocks.”
“Do you want company?”
“I can walk with you for a bit.”
“You didn’t bring your coat,” I say.
“I’m all right,” she responds. “How are you?”
“I mean in general.”
“Not my best day,” I say.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“I wish I could.”
There is no oncoming car traffic, but we wait for the light to change in our favor. At all four corners there are small, raucous crowds of well-fed people with their coats unzipped. All of us in denial about what warmth in late December truly means.
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. I just can’t—I can’t put it into words. It’s existential, I think.”
“That’s outside of my pay grade.”
“You a therapist?” I ask.
“No. Here in Brooklyn?”
Canadian. Makes sense, I think.
“I’m visiting friends. They’re good people, social workers too. I can give you their numbers.”
“Sure,” I say, so as to not reject Kathryn’s kindness, but I recall that one of those good people tried to dissuade her from coming to my aid.
We walk quietly along the block, past the storefronts—bakery, shuttered pharmacy, Thai restaurant, deli, another Italian restaurant. When we reach the corner, Kathryn says, “Holidays are tough.”
I smile in lieu of a response.
“Is there someone you can call?”
“I think so.”
“Will you call them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Here,” Kathryn says, and pulls a card from her wallet. A small silver chain links the leather trifold to the belt loop on her waist. “Do you have a pen? The phone number on here is old.”
I hand her a pen from the inside pocket of my coat, and she corrects the record. I scan the card. She spells her name with a C, but I was right about the Y. It says They/them in parentheses next to their name.
“You can call me, if you want,” Cathryn says. “I’ll put you in touch with my friends.”
Before I can breathe or turn away, I start to cry. The sort of blubbering that reorganizes the face. I hide in my forearm.
Cathryn’s hand lands on my shoulder, like a loyal bird. “You won’t feel this way tomorrow,” they say. “Whatever you feel will be different. Not better or worse necessarily, but different. Focus on that. Okay?”
I’m not crying because of my husband or because of the elbows or because of Scarlett or Alfre. Or because of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. I’m crying because what just took place in the restaurant was genuinely stressful. And in a way, cathartic. I’m also crying because I was beginning to forget the warmth of camaraderie.
As I search my pockets for a tissue, I realize that my scarf isn’t around my neck. Neither is it in the sleeves of my coat. It’s certainly on the floor of the restaurant, beneath my stool. It’s a nothing-special wool with a tartan design, but it was my husband’s, and it retains his natural scent.
“I’ll be okay,” I say to Cathryn, already wondering if I can ride this wave of adrenaline back to the restaurant now or risk losing my favorite scarf.
“I know,” they respond. “Now, go home and watch something on tv. Distract yourself.”
“Thanks,” I say, before stepping away quickly, before they can recommend something I don’t want to watch. Something that might undo all of this.