There was an old movie playing on the wall-mounted TV screen when Jeff and Stacy walked inside the café. It was something science-fictiony, campy, and probably from the eighties. Jeff asked the cashier about it when he stepped up to order their sandwiches.
“It’s From Beyond,” came the reply. “Anything to drink?”
The café was actually more of a takeout place, a storefront with a kitchen in the back, but there were a few tables near the window. Jeff’s girlfriend Stacy had already folded herself into a chair and was pulling out her slim laptop. Jeff took two sodas from the nearby cooler and sat down across from her to wait for the sandwiches.
Stacy leaned forward. She stage whispered, “Is that a boy or a girl?”
Jeff glanced over his shoulder. The cashier, who also appeared to be the chef—it was that small of a place—wore a T-shirt that read QUEER WEREWOLF.
“I have no idea,” Jeff whispered back.
The couple had come to the restaurant this Saturday afternoon to plan out their engagement. When, where, and of course what the ring would be like. Stacy sighed, trying to find space for her laptop on the tiny table among their drinks. Jeff wondered briefly if he should have chosen another restaurant. The place was known for wood fired pizzas and sandwiches. Jeff hadn’t considered it lacked space for their project. What he’d thought about was the food.
Over on the counter, cans of San Marzano tomatoes, bottles of olive oil, and boxes of breadsticks flanked the iPad cash register. A plate of a delicate sfogliatelle sat temptingly atop the deli case. It all seemed so promising, certain to deliver what Jeff found himself searching for so often these days—the elusive feeling of satisfaction.
Overhead, sounds from From Beyond filtered down into the restaurant’s interior. Its soundtrack was indeed 80s-inspired, pregnant anticipation, doom, and synthesizer flair. Shadows, machines, and purple and red light cast the actors in the demonic glow of science-gone-wrong cosmic horror inspired by some obscure Lovecraft story of the same name. There on the screen, a blonde woman in a lab coat was activating a big cylindrical machine. Soon, a monster emerged from its interior. It was a man, but his face and the side of his body were deformed, as though someone had grabbed the right side of his body and pulled, elongating his flesh into wetly gleaming, doughy pink ridges.
Intellectually, Stacy thought being with Jeff made good sense.
Before meeting him, her love life had been pretty numb. She’d dated one guy for a while, the CEO of a Bay Area startup that sold subscription boxes for women. Since he lived on the West Coast, he, too, was like a subscription box. She got him once a month, unpacked the temporary joys, and then went back to her usual life. It was good for a while. But then—
“Clementina or Pompelmo?” Jeff asked.
He had grabbed for them two of those flavored San Pellegrino sodas, the kind with the foil on top. Stacy had told Jeff, more than once, that she was trying to take a break from sugar. Still, rather than upset her soon-to-be fiancé, she accepted the drink.
“Grapefruit is fine.”
He was a good man. His life had a drumbeat to it, a regularity that made it clear he’d be a good father. Stacy shifted in her seat. The smells swirling around the room made Stacy uncomfortably hungry. She took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of yeast and cheese. She felt sleepy, hypnotized. Her body wanted to have a baby, and this fact was no longer something she could resist or deny. The spreadsheet swam before her eyes. She glanced up at the movie.
The mutated man was approaching the woman scientist. He had come through the machine from a realm of pure pleasure, he explained. A place rife with sensations beyond anything mere humans could experience. He reached out for the woman, who appeared incapable, for some reason, of resisting this horrifying advance. She screamed, What are you going to do to me? His reply: I’m going to kiss you.
“Jeff?” The cashier-chef was at the counter again, holding out the brown paper bag with their sandwiches. Jeff got up and went over. After some thought, he had concluded this person was a woman. Yes, an anarchist lesbian, Jeff figured, the kind of person who didn’t put up with anyone’s bullshit, who went around gloriously unshaven and perfectly arrived in the gritty, honest life she was living. Jeff reached out for the sandwich bag, whose sides were already spotted with oil, slowly and inevitably bleeding through.
“Great, thanks,” he said, ignoring the stains.
Back at the table, Jeff handed Stacy her lunch. She snapped the laptop shut and unwrapped the sandwich. Stacy was an adventurous woman. She loved to say yes to things, had a passion for her career. They would be fine together. He didn’t care about the details of the proposal, or really, even the wedding. Whatever Stacy told him to do, he was ready to say yes to. Jeff eagerly unwrapped his sandwich.
On the TV, the man-monster’s head made stretching and squishing noises, transforming into something that looked like an oozy shrimp head with enormous, slimy jaws. The jaws slipped over the woman’s head, engulfing her blonde locks in wet tentacled ardor.
“How’s your lunch?” Stacy asked Jeff.
“It’s great,” replied her boyfriend. “I love mozzarella.”
“Good,” she replied. She watched the bread crunch between Jeff’s teeth, pliant white mozzarella slabs visible between the thick brown slices. A drop of oil oozed out and dripped onto the sandwich wrapper, leaving a new round grease stain. The way he ate reminded her of masturbation. She wasn’t Christian, but had received some vague guilt about it—who knew from where. Stacy looked away.
“How’s yours?” Jeff asked.
Stacy shrugged. Having skipped breakfast, she’d risked something meaty and rich, but she regretted that now. Sausages and big, gleaming pieces of cooked green pepper were slipping out onto the flattened foil wrapper.
Stacy shrugged, and changed the subject. “So I was thinking, Sam and Julia’s holiday party, maybe? Just for the proposal, and then we do a weekend away, say one or two nights at a B&B somewhere. How do you feel about that?”
Stacy looked away, over at the counter. She had almost certainly concluded the person who’d made their sandwiches was a man. Yes, a sweet waifish gay boy, the kind who wrote unpublishable poetry and wanted to lay around on Saturday afternoons like this one smoking weed and listening to records, actual vinyl from the shop next door. He’d do this, Stacy imagined, with his eyes closed, purposeful in taking in such beautiful music.
Stacy asked, “What kind of engagement ring do you think we should get?”
Her boyfriend’s face went slack. Then: “I don’t know. What do you want?”
Stacy’s sandwich was falling apart in her hands. The sandwich came with a sizeable helping of red sauce, which had already soaked into the bread, making it soft and pink, a poor platform for holding up the hefty weight of the sausage meat.
“I want you to want something, Jeff,” Stacy said.
“What?” Jeff asked, his mouth full of cheese.
“I want you to want something,” Stacy repeated, louder this time. “I want you to care about this. I feel like you don’t. You’re waiting for me to tell you what to do, like I’m your mom. Sometimes you seem so—sedentary.”
Stacy wiped her eyes with the back of one wrist, using the paltry remaining skin that hadn’t become coated in olive oil.
The sound of the male scientist screaming in pain on the TV screen momentarily interrupted them. The camera focused on his forehead, where a disturbing bump was visibly increasing in size. After a quick shot of the blonde woman’s helpless face, there was a scene in which the bump popped, like an enormous zit, and a gleaming red appendage emerged from the opening, a thick antenna-like feeler with a bulge at its tip. It snaked around, exploring the air like a blind, newly-born worm.
“Now hang on,” said Jeff. He was finished with his sandwich. He reached out and took one of Stacy’s fallen sweet peppers. Slid it into his mouth. Disobediently, he thought of pussy. Not Stacy’s, just the idea of it generally. Jeff sighed.
His girlfriend had this way of making his mind go completely blank. Usually this impressed him. She was always so far ahead of him. His previous girlfriends had been so much more passive. They were so sweet, but nothing ever happened except watching shows and eating dinners. With Stacy, there was this sprawling feeling of incredible purpose. Sandwiches were more than sandwiches. They were what you ate as the future unrolled.
And yet, when she got picky like this, he had no resources. Brief rage spiked in his gut at Stacy’s insult. A fundamental part of their relationship ethos was that they never fought. Jeff looked away from her. Beneath the TV, the queer werewolf was leaning on the counter, guilelessly watching.
“Can’t you put on something a little more...appetizing?” Jeff called out.
“Nah,” was my reply. “I’m kind of enjoying it. Sorry, though.”
His lips tightened. He turned away from me and faced his girlfriend once again.
Stacy said, “What?”
Jeff reached up and rubbed the center of his forehead. “I want you to have a diamond.”
Her face took on a venal cast. “What kind of diamond?”
“I don’t know what the cut is called. But like my mom’s ring.”
The scientist with the forehead worm was attacking, squishing noises filling the room. He’d grab anyone nearby and eat out their brains the way a zombie does. He placed his mouth over each victim’s eye socket and sucked out the eyeball, creating a direct conduit for his tongue to reach gray matter. The forehead antenna seemed to be investigating the victim as the zombie-scientist dined, as if gathering smells or other important information.
Stacy licked her fingers. She crumpled up the sandwich wrapper. Her stomach was overfull and she could taste bile in her throat. So often, this was what eating felt like for her. “Cushion cut,” she said.
“I love you,” said Stacy’s boyfriend.
“Oh, I love you too,” replied Stacy automatically. She leaned forward and delivered upon his cheek a greasy peck.
Then, simultaneously, they stood.
In the movie, the infected scientist was attacking the woman now, trying to get at her brain. Perhaps due to some instinct, some gut understanding of how to survive, she leaned forward and bit the man’s red elongated gland-antenna, grinding down on the brain-flesh with her teeth until she severed it from the bulge on the front of his head. No longer capable of protesting the woman’s attacks or fighting for survival, his battered body slumped forward, released of obligation, limp and impotent.
Jeff put his hand on Stacy’s lower back and guided her in front of him, and out the door, leaving behind, for all of time, the hazy unreality of that uncomfortable lunch.
The next day, the café received its first—and only—one-star review.
Don’t get me wrong, the food is fantastic. It’s the atmosphere that’s the problem. My fiancée and I went there for lunch and had to consume sandwiches while witnessing something unimaginably disgusting on the TV in the restaurant. The film’s special effects were so vile, I won’t cause you to vomit by describing them here. Suffice to say it was not an ideal companion to a Saturday afternoon meal. Needless to say, the apparently-unwashed chef would not change the channel, leaving us to eat our meal revolted.
I remembered the couple. The two of them appeared in my mind, once again, as I savored the full effect of what they had written.
A month later, Jeff proposed to Stacy. They stood before Sam and Julia’s Christmas tree, everyone else in a ring around them. Jeff, clad in the red and pink holiday sweater Stacy picked out for him, got down on one knee. They had been workshopping the engagement ring for weeks, so he didn’t have to wonder if it was going to fit. Stacy’s finger was a size six, almost exactly. It glittered, the cushion cut gem.
“Will you marry me?” Jeff announced.
Everyone applauded. Jeff’s forehead ached. Stacy and Jeff reached out to each other with hands like great, slimy tentacles. Stacy screamed. Then a sucking sound. It was soft at first, but soon grew massive, far louder than such a thing should be.
Powered by Froala Editor
Powered by Froala Editor
Powered by Froala Editor