Why You Should Not Date a Chef

by Liz Green

He tells you there are so many words for love in Arabic, yet he says none of them to you.

The last time you fucked, looking up at your face he whispered You are so beautiful.  

Among a serpentine lace of live-oak branches, his apartment seems to float.

His roommate Elizabeth likes to snatch your earring off in her beak almost before you feel anything. You worry about the diamond stud in her mouth, its sharpness.

Elizabeth is an Eclectus parrot with red and blue feathers. Occasionally a downy, plum-colored feather appears on his floorboards, from somewhere. Her eyes are all iris, like dark buttons, achingly alert.

Each eye has a ring of fine turquoise feathers around it like eyeshadow, you say. He’s had her for two years, since before he knew you. Since his divorce.

In the breakfast nook – an alcove off his kitchen – he’s set a café table for two with a red-and-white checkered cloth. It reminds him of a Sicilian restaurant in L.A. where he worked as a teen. He lights Chianti bottle candles, wax stuck to the glass in gnarled ripples.

From California, he’s since traveled and lived in Egypt, India, Morocco, Thailand. He began reading Islamic mystical and philosophical texts to figure things out.

In the beginning, he texts from the wine bar where he’s executive chef, checking if you’re still awake. He taps lightly at the door to your place – one half of a shotgun house with peeling, dirty paint and a roof strangled in vines. With the door still open to the dark street, he’s already fiercely kissing and biting your mouth, pulling your hair, startling you. His black apron is food-stained, his hair mussed by sweat.

He reads parts of the Qur’an aloud in Arabic, wanting you to hear the perfection enacted by the rhythms.

His tongue tastes of black licorice from the glasses of pastis he drank, emerging from the kitchen to sit at the loud bar where he desired you, lifted his cell phone from his clothes.

After your first breakup, whenever you drive to the grocery you feel a pang of arousal in your clit just passing Soniat, the street you’d turned down on the way to his place.

I feel the world has closed its doors on me, you note in a journal.

High up on either side of his breakfast nook, shelves are crammed with empty wine and champagne bottles from nights, you’re sure, with the ex-girlfriend he talks about, the one he was insanely in love with. An actress and oil-money heiress. Below the shelves hang framed art – a black-and-white photo of a granite angel, her delicately serene, age-blackened face.

It was taken in an old cemetery in Metairie, a nearby suburb. The angel is one in a series of gorgeous, creepy figures that stand, heads downcast, on top of mausoleums that secure the lost loved ones inside, keep them from drifting away in floods.

Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey,
Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky…

In the beginning, he texts you song lyrics.

He leaves country radio on for Elizabeth, her cage pushed up to arched windows that open sideways, whenever he’s gone to work. So she will feel less alone.

When he’s home the parrot swoops around, hangs out on his shoulder and gently pecks at his hair. He sometimes brings her in the shower thinking that she misses tropical downpours in the Solomon Islands, home of her species.

When he naps between double shifts at the wine bar she sleeps, too, standing on his chest.

You sit at the little candlelit table sipping red wine from a goblet as he moves around his kitchen chopping and sautéing in his chef’s black uniform, or monkey suit, as he calls it. A fish spatula pokes out of his back pocket. He makes timballo, a Sicilian lasagna. Strip steak seared in a sherry pepper glaze. Thai fish curry. Spaghetti carbonara. Garlic-mashed potatoes and roast chicken brined into tenderness.

In all weather, the window sash is propped up with a piece of wood. The air is perfumed, he says about New Orleans, your sinking city.

You always close your eyes during the first taste, flooded by happiness. One panel of the gauzy white curtain drifting up against the side of your face. 

Below, on St. Charles Avenue, streetcars go by every few minutes from the French Quarter to Carrollton and back. They make a shrill metallic, heavy gliding sound. Musical and almost unnoticed after you’ve heard it many times.

There are 11 stages of love in Arabic. They progress from hawa, attraction light as a breeze, to huyum or insanity. 

Elizabeth perches on your wrist walking tiny paths up and down. You keep your arm raised to balance her, your elbow on the tablecloth. Her talons dig painful red crescents into your skin.

The next day, you will pick up your two-year-old daughter from your ex’s and go back home on your own. You’ll watch the little footprints on your arm fade away.

You look at a painting of a café in Havana in 1954, across from you in the breakfast nook. A country where your beloved wants to go. People at tables lingering over coffee while outside the windows, others walk past in lemony sunlight. 

The café inside in silhouette, the long-ago patrons all shadows. 

The first summer you know each other, he suddenly stops calling you several times a day, stops leaving rambling, meditative voicemails like he used to when you couldn’t pick up.

He emails you the lyrics to “Better as a Memory Than as Your Man.” This is the song that converted me to country, he writes, especially the line “goodbyes are like a roulette wheel.” 

On your back under him, you feel him go still, begin to rock your hips forward. Stop it, he whispers into your mouth, stop that.

A week after your August birthday, he emails, It’s Saturday. This is our night, the night we usually get together…all I want to do when I get off from work tonight is drink rum, read Al-Quds Al-Arabi, William James…

The first time you ever slept together, he tied your wrists to his bed. Your separate moans of relief.

…maybe watch a movie or strum my guitar for a bit, and then go to bed. I’m sorry.  

The first time he dumps you, you start writing about him. Your sharp profile, the muscles in your arm on the steering wheel, your thick dark brown hair and eyebrows. That you can still taste the iced Nescafé he made in the mornings – what everyone drank in India, he’d said. How he’d walked around his apartment in a light green towel wrapped high on his waist.

You could have watched him forever. 

I also sense a great deal of psychodrama awaiting us if we continue our relationship any further

The next spring, he begins buying Japanese hanging scrolls on eBay. They show fleeting moments painted on them centuries ago, a gushing waterfall, skeletal branches in bloom, a black wisp – wings – crossing empty space. He mounts them all over his apartment.

The Messenger of God said: “I seek refuge in His pleasedness from His annoyance, I seek refuge in His forgiveness from His anger, I seek refuge in You from You…” he quotes, from a text called The Large Exegesis.

The oldest scroll was created in the 1700s. Many are being sold astoundingly cheap by young people in the generation below yours, who don’t want to decorate with them.

To grab his attention, Elizabeth learns a cellphone-like trill. It sounds exactly like his phone ringtone, but ear-splittingly loud.

This is after your second breakup.

You watch him unwrap and unroll the scrolls, kakejiku, from the cardboard boxes they arrive in. They flower open.

He starts reading about ukiyo or the “Floating World,” a term that refers to the time period of 1615-1868 in Japan when his scrolls, a subcategory of ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world” were made.

In the walled-off Yoshiwara of what’s now Tokyo, surrounded by rust-gold drowned grasses that swarmed with insects, men enjoyed highly ritualized interactions with women in brothels, tea houses, kabuki theaters. Implicit was a contrast to the humdrum of everyday obligation.

The wooden fuchin or scroll weights at each end of the ancient rolls of paper bump against doors and walls as you stumble to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or to the kitchen for water after too much wine and vodka.

You wake in his black sheets to him staring upwards, tense, his eyes reddish.

Bad dreams.

The scroll he hangs on the living room door – his favorite, the one he relates to – shows a stag walking alone in a winter landscape. The creature much tinier than its huge, bare environment.

Despite being surrounded by exquisite beauty and every earthly pleasure, his book explains, the merchants and samurai who partook of the Floating World seem to have been plagued by the feeling that their lives were meaningless and unchanging. 

A year after the fourth, final breakup, you’re driving over Lake Pontchartrain on the Causeway Bridge, miles of gray watery cloud all around, and your cell phone rings.

Elizabeth’s dead—

Your daughter naps in her soft flower-patterned child seat behind you with her mouth open.

He is crying, muffled, maybe holding the phone away from his face.

Is every person in our lives just a version of another, earlier one, you write sometime in the months you don’t speak to each other, leading back to those who first cared for us, whose love taught us whether the world felt safe or lonely?

Right away he gets rid of the parrot’s cage, which is about your height. White, wrought-iron, full of silly, shiny toys. It takes him and his friend Louis to haul it from his bedroom down three flights of stairs out of sight.

A mirror, plastic keys on a ring, bells hanging from cloth cords, bits of apple or sweet potato in a tiny dish.

After your dinners, he used to light candles and tea lights in that same room around his bed. As he fiddled with the matches, you ached to feel him.

Shadows of flames wavering.

Liz Green is completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she received the Dr. James H. Wilson/Paul T. Nolan Creative Writing Award in Drama and performs as a member of The Milena Theatre Group. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Liz works as a licensed mental health therapist (LPC) in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in journals such as Forklift, Ohio; anderbo.com; H_NGM_N; The Hunger; Fourth Genre; and Bending Genres.