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A Fun Guy

“Are you coming tonight?”

 

Alex asks this as he steals another olive from my lunch box. He did this on our first day, and I didn’t voice my annoyance at him then, not wanting to sound uptight and selfish. To be singled out simply for wanting to eat my own lunch. Liesl complained about the temperature in the office once, and the staff still throw their coats on her as they come in and call her the ice bitch behind her back. Too much time has passed, too many olives stolen, to cause a fuss now. And I’m not as thick-skinned as Liesl for all that harmless office banter that would inevitably follow.

 

“Andraaaaaa, are you listening to me?” 

 

He drags out the two little syllables of my nickname in a little sing-song like he is talking to a wayward child. My name is Alex, too, by the way. But we couldn’t have two interns called Alex, so I got stuck with Andra. This fact is almost as annoying as the olive stealing. They are Nocerella olives imported from a specialist deli in Florence. They are the only luxury I can afford on my intern salary, and he gobbles them down like he would a bag of cheap peanuts. I grind my teeth in frustration and take a deep breath.

 

“I wasn’t invited,” I spit out.

 

He grins then, a light in his eyes ignite in understanding with a flicker of cruel delight.

 

“So, that’s why you are in a mood,” he declares. He scrapes his hair back with his hand and rubs his face, physically exhausted from figuring out what must be the mystery of the century for his simple mind. Triumphant in his success, he rests his chin on his hand, his elbow on my tiny desk. The casework I’ve been working on for days starts to crumple under the minute movements of his elbow as he starts talking again.

 

“Bitter doesn’t suit you, Andra, sweetie. Have you asked Bertie about it? I am sure you were invited. You are at the top of our cohort, after all. Well, after me, of course.”

 

I am at the top of our cohort, not after anyone. But his lopsided smile as he tilts back in his chair, thankfully releasing my work from the weight of his oversized muscular arm, makes me hold my tongue. He needs to feel superior; I don’t. I will use this to my advantage one day, but not today.

 

“Thanks, Alex. But I will not beg for an invitation to a dinner party I am not particularly interested in attending.”

 

“You’re nuts!” He leans forward now, his fists about to hammer down onto my desk to punctuate his point. I swipe my paperwork out of the way just in time. “It’s the party of the year. They are going to announce which of us will be taken on as real employees with real cases! Gianna Rossi is catering.”

 

I pretend I am too absorbed in reading the documents whipped away from the tornado that is Alex, but I can’t control my reaction to the name. Gianna.  My hands start to shake; my fists clench, creasing the papers I tried to save moments ago.  I involuntarily whisper her name.

 

“Thought that might get your attention. Pegged you as a bit of a foodie.” Alex looked smug. Like he’d just figured everything about me out in a matter of seconds. If only he knew. “Look, if you have such an aversion to speaking to Bernard, you can tag along as my plus one. But you’d owe me.”

 

“You can bring a plus one, but I didn’t even get an invite?” I can’t hide the resentment in my voice this time.

Being overlooked is nothing new for me, but throwing a plus-one party without inviting the entire office first feels like a deep stab wound in the chest. After all the work I’ve put in, I’m subjected to attending my own firm’s party as this imbecile’s plus one. My nostrils flare, but the anger flashes quickly across my face. It sparks in my eyes for a millisecond before I paste on a warm, grateful smile.

 

“That is really very kind of you, Alex. I would love to come as your plus one.” The words hiss out of my teeth.

 

Alex rolls his eyes as if it’s nothing. He even waves his hand a little as if batting away my gratitude. He doesn’t note the undertone of sarcasm, the words basted in mockery, dripping in condescension. He doesn’t notice any malignant tones from anyone. It doesn’t fit into his view of himself: kind, generous, loved by all.

 

“Nothing I wouldn’t do for my bestie. But you do owe me.”

 

The accentuation of the word owe, coupled with what Alex must think is a charming little wink, is unnerving. I smile and excuse myself, not needing to look back to know he is already leaning over my desk, scoffing the last of my lunch. The sad thing is Alex is my bestie; no one else bothers with the mousy little brunette with oversized glasses and a wardrobe their grandmother would consider dated. I still haven’t figured out why Alex, the office superstar, singled me out on our first day. Maybe our names trivially bonded us, or perhaps it was a dare or a prank at my expense, yet to reach fruition. Maybe he genuinely likes my company. Whatever the reason, he might feel differently after this party.

 *

 

Alex arrives late to pick me up, enough for doubt to snake into my mind. Winding, wrapping over rational thought until I freeze and forget how to breathe. I took an unprecedented afternoon off to prepare. For the first time since I have known him, he was speechless when I opened my flat door. I am not surprised. I spent almost six months of my salary to look this delectable.

 

I check my phone every few seconds in the car, growing more anxious with every second ticking past 7 pm – the time the party started.

 

“Relax, Andra. It’s important to be fashionably late to these things. I’m more concerned we’ll be the first ones there.”

Being late to your boss’s dinner party didn’t seem like the right approach, but who am I to question Alex? He is Bernard’s golden boy.  Bernard still hasn’t learned my name.

When we arrive, I am showered with attention. My work colleagues are scrambling over each other to bathe in the ethereal glow made by expensive clothes and professional make-up artistry. I can count on one hand the number of times they have spoken to me in the past year cumulatively.  They all assume I am Alex’s date; their eyes blank when I explain who I am.

They are still causing a fuss about who I am when Gianna finally enters, in her chef’s whites and wearing that easy smile—arrogance I once mistook for quiet self-confidence.

Eager to get a look at what has caught everyone’s attention, what is pulling attention away from her and her culinary mastery, she balances on her tiptoes to get a better look. Being adorably short, she promptly gives up and claps her hands, causing the crowd to turn and begin shuffling out in a line like school children being reprimanded for being too rowdy in the playground.

The last person to move is Alex, who is standing directly in front of me, shielding my fullness from Gianni’s view. Her eyes widen, her perfect mouth parts ever so slightly as if all the words in the world are caught on the tip of her tongue. This shock is interpreted in different ways by my colleagues. I am radiant. We are the greatest legal minds of our generation. We are all such self-important high flyers. Who wouldn’t be in awe of us all?  But I know what this look means. She never expected to see me again. Her wife. Her dead wife.

 

She composes herself with a deep breath and switches straight into theatre mode.

“Good evening, honoured guests. Welcome to tonight’s ramble through the dark forest. Thanks to my fruitful foraging today, I am pleased to be able to offer you some of our planet’s most delicious and frightfully dangerous edibles. Please be seated in the main salon to peruse the menu at your leisure.”

 

Everyone begins to whisper excitedly after Gianni’s announcement, shuffling into the dining area as instructed.

The foraging was hers to begin with. Humble, living off the land, offering tours for the small sums of real money she needed for things she could not pilfer from Mother Nature directly. That is how we met and quickly fell in love. Well, I thought it was love. The gastro-foraging idea was mine. Nature is hers, marketing mine. As we were about to hit the big time, she made me my last meal. Why? I don’t know. But maybe tonight, finally, I will find out.

I suppose it's time to admit that, beyond looking fabulous, I didn't come here with a plan. Every idea that came to mind didn't feel right. The shock when she first saw me was delicious, but it wasn't enough. She tried to murder me. Any doubt about that subsided when the colour drained from her face at the sight of me.  She had always been deviously smart - there was never proof of the poisoning, and if she knew I had survived, she'd only try again. She was tenacious like that. But I've hidden for long enough. It's my time.  If I play the night right, there's a chance I can out her for who she truly is.

 

I take my seat next to Alex – mandatory as his plus one, I suppose.  Everyone is getting drunker and louder with startling efficiency. The sudden sparkle of my appearance seems to have waned, and they have fallen into their routine patterns of bitching about people who aren’t there and cosying up to the people they either like or intend to stab in the back in the near future. While it is fascinating to watch the obvious treachery being planned behind the eyes of these vultures and the steamy one-night stands that burn in the cheeks of the others, I am more interested in the menu set out in front of me. It is my design, the bitch. Delicate black calligraphy is set on a thin slice of a silver birch tree, detailing simple yet elegant courses.

 

Wood sorrow sea foam

 Nettle consommé; mushroom whip

 Chicken of the Woods with a wild garlic crust

 Crickets;  rhubarb and ginger crumb

 Mystery course – this exclusive  course will be presented to a single guest at random as a special treat by the chef

 

Mystery course? That’s new but not surprising. It serves to make her food, her art, even more exclusive. Bernard has clearly read the menu, too, now. He is shouting over the din at the perversion of choosing a guest at random for this ultra-exclusive menu. This is his party; it should automatically go to him.

Alex places his hand on Bernard’s arm to get his attention and calm him down. He is the only one of us who would dare do this and the only person for whom it would work.

 

“Don’t worry, Bernie. You know you’ll get it. They have probably just said randomly to make it sound fair,” Alex says gently.

 

He is also the only one who would dare call him Bernie.

 

“Yeah, good point, Al. That’s why you are my right-hand man. You keep the cool head when I’m running hot, you know?”

 

He says this last part as he stares at my chest. It’s the most attention I’ve got from him this whole year. I realise now how grateful I am for my billowy, high-necked blouses.

 

The night moves slowly.  Wine is being poured freely between courses, and with such minute portion sizes, the wine is hitting everyone much harder. Tiny portions. Minimal cost. Huge profit. I taught her well. She appears after every course, lapping up the praise like a thirsty dog, avoiding my gaze each time and getting visibly annoyed that I am not showering her with compliments like everyone else. The nerve of this woman. I don’t need to ask her why. I know why. She is bathing in the glow of adoration, the attention she craved and never had from anyone but me. And I wasn’t enough.

 

We finally get to our last dish – the mystery course. Despite the drunken rowdiness, people around the table are still coherent enough to fall silent as Gianni solemnly enters the room, one arm behind her back, the other holding a large plate covered in a silver cloche.

As she gets nearer to the table, the details of this cloche become more visible. It has an ornate hare head for a handle, silver studs protruding along its base, and Gucci inscribed across the middle in Gothic font.

The graceful steps she takes to the table, the sombre look as she approaches me, any hint of recognition replaced with the love of her craft, all contribute to the reverence of the moment. She takes an elegant, humble bow before placing the final course in front of me, slinking back and away from the table, nothing more than the whisper of a spirit. All staged. It's so dramatic that it’s bordering on the pathetic.

The rest of the guests stared open-mouthed at me, at the gift in front of me. I can see the purple-blue vein dancing on Bernard’s forehead, his cheeks flush red with rage. I clear my throat.

 

“Bertie – this is your party; you should have the final course,” I say.

 

Bertie’s face contorts into what passes for him as a smile, the hideous grimace broadening as the idea seeps into him: a cat and his cream.

 

“NO!” Gianni shouts. I turn to find her still lurking behind me, eyes wide, hands trembling.

Everyone snaps to attention as she fumbles to find her calm demeanour. “I mean, uh..” she stutters, “I understand that you want to appease your boss, signora, but this is part of the experience. I choose who tastes the final course. These are the terms in which I am hired.”

 

Signora. I am nothing more than that, an obsequious underling. I have the sudden urge to spit the word back in her face, mimicking the broad Bronx accent she had when I met her. I push the word to the back of my throat. If I'm ever going to take her down, it won't be on something as petty as her fake Italian accent. 

 

Bernard grunts. “It’s fine… uh… Alice. You have it. The rest of the meal was decidedly average. I can’t imagine this being any better.”

 

I’m surprised at how quickly he backs down, but not by his scathing and untrue review of the meal. He can’t help but be a bitter old man. 

I also don’t need to look at Gianni to know she cringes at his comment. Yet, she holds her tongue. Her breathing noticeably pauses as I open the cloche to find a simple bowl containing a single mallow flower topped with a mound of grey sludge. One of my favourites once. The flower, of course, not the unidentified paste spilling out of the middle. She doesn’t need to tell me what it is. I know. She has made it for me before.

 

Before Gianni can do anything, Alex lunges from my left and sweeps up the flower. Before I can say anything, he has thrown the flower into his mouth and looks at me with childish glee as he over-masticates. The grey sludge sticks to his teeth as he grinds the gummy flower over and over. Bertie is chuckling, but the rest of the group is staring at Gianni, who is sputtering behind me. Both Alex and I turn to face him together. Gianni is sweating, trembling as her gaze darts from me to Alex and then back to me. Alex finally swallows his stolen fare.

 

“Oh, don’t get upset, love. Andra doesn’t mind sharing with me. Do you, bestie?”

 

I tear my gaze from Gianni’s frozen little frame to Alex’s sweet, ignorant little face. “No, I don’t mind at all. Bestie.” 

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