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Fiction

Gluten

Blanketed bread rolls

Words by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan 

A short story by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.

 

The year after Emmie’s older sister crashed the family car at 85 miles per hour, Emmie dated a rich man. She told him she was an only child. The rich man took her to restaurants. On Yelp they had four or five dollar signs next to their names.

She was always the youngest diner, unless there was a child. The child would be wearing a bow tie or a frilly skirt. But Emmie showed up in jeans. There was something powerful about walking past napkin origami in fraying denim. She often used the wrong fork but she never worried. She knew that she was young and that granted a sort of immunity, like being a foreign diplomat. It was different where you came from. Emmie was a college freshman and her friends argued for hours about whether pizza tasted better eaten by hand.

The rich man was not that old himself, a boy really. He had graduated only a few years before. He worked with computers. He collected Polaroid cameras. Often, as they sat down to a meal, he’d take a photo of her and place it on the white tablecloth so she could watch herself slowly appear. She never looked quite like she expected to. The soft focus of the film made it seem as if the moment were already in the past. 

There was something powerful about walking past napkin origami in fraying denim. She knew that her youth granted a sort of immunity

Her favourite part of the date was the moment the waiter brought the bread rolls. They’d be blanketed under a white napkin, which the waiter would gently lift with his tongs to display the little humps of bread, small as newborn kittens. There was usually a granary and a white and an olive, sometimes something with cheese or with walnuts. 

The first time this happened, she dithered and the waiter said softly, “You can take two if you want.”

She tore the rolls down the middle and crumbs confettied the tablecloth. She smeared on parsley butter. The bread was oven-warm against her lips. The butter’s sweetness melted into the salt of the bread. Something in her uncoiled as her teeth sunk into its embrace. So the next date, she asked for two and the next date and the one after that. The crusts were always crisp and the centres always soft.

She always ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and the rich boy always paid. She wasn’t using him for his money. But the fact of his money was a novelty. She expected that at some point, he’d slide the bill across the table and say, “Now it is your turn.” It felt like a dare to order all this food that she couldn’t afford. And she figured that she should appreciate these meals because the thing with the rich boy would end soon. She’d break it off and date a guy in her drama class or some sweetly geeky physics major. There was nothing wrong with the rich boy exactly. But she knew she should be dating a person who knew that she once had a sister. She should be dating a boy who held her in the night when she woke up having bitten her lip so hard there was blood on the pillow.

This story was originally commissioned for the 10th Voices At The Table event. For more events, click here

something in her uncoiled

Usually the most expensive thing on the menu was beef, although sometimes it was lobster. Lobster, as far as Emmie could tell, just tasted like very large shrimp. But she loved hearing herself say, “The lobster please, thank you very much.” She loved the way her lips puckered after lob.

The restaurants were usually French, sometimes Italian. Once, the rich boy took her to a Japanese restaurant. But he couldn’t use chopsticks, and he looked too proud of eating raw fish. He asked her how to pronounce all the dishes on the menu. Emmie had to tell him that she barely spoke her mother’s language. Worst of all, there were no bread rolls.

She did not like to go to the rich boy’s place, because he kept a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil on his bedside table. The overbearing mustache on the cover photo was disconcerting, as she shook back and forth on the mattress. So most nights, he’d taxi her back to her one-person-width bed. She secretly liked its narrowness because she was the one-person it was meant for. She sensed an adulthood around the bend, in which she would never be allowed a bed all of her own. If her roommate was out, the rich boy would fuck Emmie in the one-person bed. Sometimes this was nice, but often she was impaired by the painfully full arch of her belly. The lobster flexed its tail against her stomach lining. She would regret eating so much. For lunch in the dining hall the next day she would pick at the watery lettuce and the foamy tomatoes. 

She always ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and the rich boy always paid. She wasn’t using him for his money. But the fact of his money was a novelty

Eventually, she taught herself to take only one roll from the basket. She watched it lie alone on her plate. She learned to eat more slowly, to chew. She found a technique for tearing the bread without getting crumbs on the tablecloth. She started paying less attention to the menu and more to the stories of the summers the rich boy and his brother spent building forts by a deep green river. She imagined telling him about the way her sister used to make up myths – like every time you blow on a dandelion you lose a memory. But you’ll never know which memory because you lost it. Emmie still wouldn’t puff on dandelion clocks.

In the end, it was the rich boy who broke up with her.
“You’re too young,” he said. “We’re not at the same place in life.”
“I’ll get there eventually,” she replied.

The waiter came to refill their water and so, for a moment, they were both silent. She considered having a mature discussion about life goals. She looked down at her roll. Its forlorn body was barely nibbled. She shoved the whole thing into her mouth. Her throat buckled under the pressure of the crust. Her cheeks filled. She walked towards the door. She did not meet the other diners’ eyes, keeping her gaze fixed on their frizz and bald patches. A rivulet of saliva ran down her chin and onto her neck. The dribble tingled against her skin. It was a good roll. The sesame crust was salty and crisp. She tried to chew and felt crumbs helter-skelter down her shirt.

a rivulet of saliva


By the time she reached the subway, she had swallowed the whole thing. She leant back into the orange plastic seat and closed her eyes. The scene came to her without warning, her sister bursting into her room. This must’ve happened one or two years ago. By then her sister had started wearing clothes that were one size too big. The wolf on the front of the black T-shirt was snarling. But for once Emmie’s sister was smiling, and when Emmie asked, “What’s up?” Her sister dropped a book onto the unicorn-patterned duvet. The book’s cover said, WHEAT BELLY.

Emmie raised an eyebrow. Her sister said, “Apparently many people are gluten intolerant and they don’t even know it. Like it makes you feel tired and bloated and crappy basically.”

Back then, Emmie didn’t feel tired or bloated or crappy and said as much. But her sister replied, “I just wanted to tell you that I think I’ve figured out what’s been wrong this whole time.”

Emmie had thought her sister was being idiotic. But now it came to her what a lovely thought that was – that it might all be so simple. She felt a silent laugh tremble up her belly. The crumbs in her bra danced.