Last Night I Knew What To Say

Autor invitado: Chuck Pedroza

Last Night I Knew What To Say

“This is how it happens, he thought. When you catch someone’s eyes across a room and never forget them, or see someone at the far end of a crowded subway platform that could have been your double, or hear a laugh on the street that could have been the laugh of the first girl you ever made love to-“

Stephen King, The Stand.

For C.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Claudette are her fingernails, the way those small rose ovals always sported a different, extravagant tonality whenever I saw her. The volatility of someone willing to spend each day painting them in various fashions should have alerted me of what would eventual happen but the feeling of finding something about someone that they never shared, that you figured out on your own, was enough to displace the worrisome thoughts I should had been developing.

She always compared her hands to mine. The difference was apparent to me whenever I held hers, but she still pointed it out sometimes. Mostly when we were in bed, her body between my arms and her hands on mine. Hers were pristine, unblemished; completely foreign to any sort of labor. The hands of the bourgeoisie as my old man would’ve said. Her fingers were long and regal, slim yet not bony. Mine, on the other hand, were marked by five long years inside the kitchen: they had been burnt, lacerated, and calloused through long hours of cutting, chopping, sautéing, braising and grilling; they were rough to touch, heavy yet nimble, the polar opposite of the French girl I loved.

We met during my semester abroad in Paris. I was doing an apprenticeship on L’Atelier under Chef Joël Robuchon and I usually saw her on a bar on the 14th Arrondissement. It took me three months, and several glasses of wine, to finally get the nerve to speak to her and by the end of the night, after enduring lengthy discussions in broken French and German with her friends about American immigration policy and racism in Europe, I got her phone number and a goodnight kiss. Afterwards, I spent most of my time off with her.

She was the daughter of an American diplomat and a French actress, studying journalism in the Sorbonne. She spoke fluent English, but we normally spoke on French (she helped me on mine) or Spanish (I helped her on hers). Although, to be honest, we barely ever talked. The precarity of our situation was apparent: between my shifts and her classes, we barely had time to see each other. Furthermore, my European adventure would end in two months, where I would have to return to New York and culinary school, and her father was about to be shipped off somewhere else, meaning that Claudette would probably finish her last semester in another country.

We spend most our time at my apartment (if you can call that piece of shit one), drinking wine, seeing movies and fucking. I didn’t learn much about her or her life and didn’t offer much about mine since she didn’t ask. I rarely was invited to her numerous events and didn’t meet any of her friends besides the one’s I already knew. Nevertheless, in bed, we had perfect chemistry, our bodies synched perfectly, our rhythms were in tune as a perfect melody and we communicated better through our bodies than with our words. When I left we exchanged cell phones and Facebook accounts but didn’t really stay in touch. Our parting kiss was the last contact we had until, 2 years later, she texted me to let me know she was now living in New York.

Our relationship picked up right where it left off and was, at the same time, completely and utterly different. In bed we were still unprecedented, a pairing so perfect that when I talked about it with the guys after a shift I had to switch back to Spanish to completely express the fullness of the emotion. I never considered the improbability of our meeting. I never told her, I think, but I wasn’t meant to be going to France that semester. It was entirely out of the question until, at the last minute, one of the aspirants had an accident and dropped out. To think how one man’s disaster became my greatest luck. I’m not much of a believer on fate but there’s a story for you.

Our get-togethers, constricted as they were by our schedules, expanded into the daylight. She was now a cultural writer who appeared on numerous publications, from The Atlantic to the New Yorker and The Times. I always assumed that her father had something to do with it but I knew better than to ask. Nonetheless, she knew her stuff. She read everything, her conversations turning seamlessly from Austen to Franzen to whatever was winning the NBA next; she consumed movies voraciously and saw enough plays to comment on Tony snubs or why some off-Off Broadway director was about to blow up.

She taught me a lot. She took me along to whatever premiere or opening she was going to, persuaded me to read between services, introduced me to hedge fund managers, lawyers, millionaire producers, some of which later on would help set up the restaurant that became my livelihood. At first, I thought she was grooming me up for success, getting me ready to be able to hold conversations with the people that would eventually set me up for life. Later on, I figured that, since I never met her parents until a four star of CAMILA was posted on the New York Times, she was actually turning me into a good enough prospect for their standards. Whether that was conscious or not, I don’t know. I can’t really blame her; it was her upbringing. I think she would have liked me even if I was a still a dishwasher on a Dominican joint on Queens.

Whenever she stayed over, I laid in bed and admired her sleeping body next to mine. She wasn’t much of a smiler but she always fell asleep with one painted across her face. She was petite, as she said with that lovely accent of hers. Our height difference was considerable, but she said she loved it since she could always wear her highest heels. Her skin wasn’t pale, not exactly, but it still turned a bright red by the slightest touch from the sun; her eyes were one of the deepest brown I’ve seen, which is saying something, thoughtful yet bright and inviting; her nose, her lips, everything about her screamed for attention, your brain wouldn’t process on where to focus, forcing you to see her as a whole: a true vision.

They say that learning new languages makes you think differently and I think that is true. In French, Claudette was decisive, confident, flirtatious even, totally in control of the situation, a trait desirable on a lover that leads you around Paris when you barely know how to translate kitchen lingo; in English, however, she was hesitant, every word came with an inflection that made it sound like a question rather than a statement; on Spanish, she was plainly adorable, her accent infusing the nastiest of curse words with inherent sweetness.

Once we were walking across the bridge and she asked me: “Why do you like me?”

I laughed.

 “Who couldn’t? You being so hot and all…” I laughed, putting my hand around her and she smiled.

“I’m serious”

Now, you know how we always say that everything we learn in school won’t help in our adult life. I, for one, find that to be mostly true. I still haven’t found a recipe that asks me to find x amount of eggs. Nevertheless, there is one thing I truly believe it prepared us for. You remember those multiple choice questions, where there is one very correct answer, one mostly correct and two barely correct, and they expect you to be able to score higher than a D? Well, I think life is like that. There are certain questions that have lots of seemingly right answers but only one is the one the other person is looking for.

So why did I like her? How to even begin answering that question? What could I say? That I liked her because she made me laugh? Because there was lightness in her that made the days seem ethereal, her smile capable of turning around the hardest and toughest of days and made it seem like an 18-hour job was merely a walk on the beach. Or should I say that she challenged me? Kept me on my toes, always wanting to make me better and wiser but inspiring me to achieve both, to read more, listen instead of speaking, stop glancing and start seeing. She was a better person that I was, all things considered, but having her around me, towering as a beacon, as Gatsby’s green light, aiming to be worthy of her. But she was also worse than me and that made me like her even more, because she was a complete person, layered and complicated, contradictory as smart people tend to be. She was stubborn and uncommunicative, almost impenetrable at times. She could be petty on occasions, and always felt guilty about it, and could start the fiercest of arguments and forget all about them a couple of hours later. She was so supportive, more than I deserved. So tell me, how could I answer such a question? Where can I begin? How can I start elucidating the wholeness of her? So I said the next best thing that came into mind:

“I like that you are absolute gorgeous and that’s not even on the top ten things I like the most about you”

And she smiled and took my hand so that couldn’t have been such bad of an answer.

But  one day it just stopped. We were at my apartment. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was making us a midnight snack when she emerged from the bedroom fully clothed.

“Is everything okay?” I asked foolishly

She just looked at me, like if I wasn’t really there or as if she was very far away.

“I can’t do this anymore” she said and then she left.

I guess the signals were there for a while but most of them I just actively ignored. There was something about her, a melancholy hidden behind her eyes. I could see it when she thought nobody was looking. One time, we were out with a group of friends and somebody told a story and everybody laughed hysterically, gasping for air, but then she just stopped mid laugh and got all serious, as if she had just remember something awful. Sometimes I would leave for work in the morning to find her at midnight in the exact same position I had left her in eighteen hours earlier. She could go on weeks without speaking to anyone, completely disappearing of the grid and then reemerged as if nothing extraordinary had happened, as if she had just awakened from a very deep slumber. I noticed these and many other things, but attributed them to quirks of her personality, “French stuff”, as a way of denying the seriousness of what they represented.

In the following days there were a myriad of apologies, of curse words thrown vilely, drunken phone calls. I tried to reason with her but she wouldn’t budge. I contacted her two best friends, a couple of French expats, playwrights on the rise, and whom I figured would easily bribed into talking with wine and meal than her sister, the only other person who probably knew what was going on.

After the first bottle’s contents were emptied on glasses, the conversation started flowing in her direction.

“Did she mention anything to you guys?” I asked

“Rien. Not a thing.” said Oliver

“You know how she is… fickle is it?” said Jean Pierre

“It seemed final” I deadpanned.

They looked at each other and silence pretty much engulfed the room after that.

Finally, on their way out, Olivier grabbed me by the shoulders, and slurred at me “Don’t you give up on her, ok?”

And I tried not to, believe me, but naturally we drifted. She was unresponsive at best, always busy and keeping irregular schedules. Meanwhile, down at the restaurant, I had decided we were going for a Michelin Star, so I was working eighteen hour days, full throttle. Being busy helped. I was so focused I barely had time to commiserate, and when I did, I was too tired to do anything but sleep. She came by the restaurant a couple times, but always on my day off, so we didn’t cross paths and our regular spots were completely different so there was little chance of running into each other. I heard rumors of flings she had but nothing that lasted. Neither did mine. I told myself I was too busy to get into anything serious but even Mario, the dishwasher, who listened as I rambled about my problems during closing time, looked at me with a face that said “Sure pal, whatever let’s you sleep at night.”

Six months later, the star came and she texted me to congratulate me but never responded when I said we should celebrate. Life went on. Day in and day out. New patrons, new dishes, and new faces I wouldn’t remember the next morning. Until Oliver texted me an address: “It’s C’s Bday. Be there” it read.

I arrived at the bar an hour late. I couldn’t even decide what to wear. I almost arrived already drunk, just to deal with the anxiety. I hadn’t seen her in months. On my hands, carefully wrapped by my pastry chef, was a first edition of her favorite book, Rayuela, which I had gotten a couple weeks before we broke up in order to surprise her. When I approached the group, there was a moment of awkward silence. Even after all this time, her group of friends was the same, so of course they all knew me. They must have known each other very well too because everyone immediately turned to Oliver who greeted me with a drink on each hand to escape the stares. Claudette then reappeared and she saw me. We stood there on tense stillness and then she smiled, and like a vacuum sucked the awkwardness away.

“I’m guessing we are all doing shots?” she said and the crowd cheered.

I am not proud to admit it but the truth is the rest of the night was kind of a blur. We drank heavily, we swapped stories, the conversations around us are a mere buzz drown out by the music and our voices, getting louder by the minute. A song she liked started playing and next thing I know we were dancing. We moved to the sound of the music, staring into each other eyes. After the song ended, she lowered her gaze.

“I am sorry”

“Don’t worry about it”

“I just…”

“You don’t have to explain”

“I’m really fucked up”

“Yeah. But so am I”

“It might be the same thing all over again”

“There’s that possibility”

“I can’t promise you anything”

“I don’t need you to”

She looked at me again.

“Maybe we can try”

As I leaned into her lips, I figured that, after all, trying is all anyone can really do. Try.

 

 

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