“I’d like the veggie burger, please, with fried mushrooms.”

Sarah nodded, writing on her pad.

“I’d like it well-done,” Derek had to say.

Sarah looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Well-done, eh?”

“Yeah. Uh, yes please.”

“What for?”

“What?”

“Why you want it well-done?”

“I like it crispy.”

“It’s not a real burger.”

“I like it crispy.”

“It’s made of peas, or mung bean; tofu; it’s not–”

“I like it. Crispy. On the outside.”

“Crispy.”

“Well-done.”

Sarah shook her head.

“Oookay.”

“And a coffee. Please.”

“And how would you like yer coffee?”

“Black.”

“Burnt or fresh?”

 

Sarah attended to the booth behind Derek’s, where three new customers had seated themselves. He chafed at bit the delay in getting his coffee — “fresh, please” — but any mild aggravation he felt was utterly demolished by the heat in his veins. His body was abuzz. He had to force himself not to stare at Sarah’s every, beautiful, move. Their flirting had definitely intensified. Weekly visits to this place, the Billow, had paid off. He was just about there.

 

Flirting? Sarah wouldn’t call it flirting. That’s not flirting. She could show you flirting. That wasn’t it.

Jesus. Making routine exchanges more interesting and fun, maybe. Goofing around. She knew there was a sparkle in his eye for her, that was obvious. But she was used to guys staring at her body. Though if she had known what Derek was thinking, what he considered their interaction, she might not have stopped to talk when the following week they met in the street.

“Yeah I been wondering why you think a veggie burger can’t be well-done.”

“It’s–”

“Like you think it’s not a ‘real’ burger for some reason.”

“It isn’t–”

“You gotta kill an animal for food to be ‘real’?”

“Would you stop interrupting? Do you always ask a question then interrupt?”

Derek pretended to be startled.

“You vegetarians, you’re so rude.”

“It’s because we’re so angry.”

“Yeah well.”

“Hey you didn’t even ask me how I wanted it done.”

This stopped her. It was true.

“You show your bias, you’re carnicentric. You’re vegephobic.”

Sarah considered herself an excellent waiter, while at times unorthodox in her dealings with customers, one who would bring a glass of water unasked for, would always do quality checks (Is everything alright here?) would without fail empty ash-trays upon serving food, clear away empty creamers and unneeded condiments when passing tables. She had waited all through undergrad, and now, well beyond teacher’s college, at least was earning good money until she could find a teaching job. She had been working at the Billow for the last year.

She smiled, but was quiet.

“Yeah well,” Derek echoed.

Sarah looked at the sidewalk. “I used to be vegetarian, not even fish.” Her voice trailed off.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know, it became too difficult I guess, I’m not much of a cook.”

There was always more to these lapsed vegetarian stories, Derek knew. He regarded her newly now. He didn’t look at her differently (that skin, that ass) — he regarded her in a new light, that was the way to say it. He had had her pegged as a vegetarian. It was the progressive thing to be, was it not? Maybe an ex-lover had been veg — or better, vegan — and her commitment had waned after the relationship ended. First, chicken — to re-assert her sense of self. Maybe she had always had a weakness for lamb. The chewy bits of roast beef. Likeliest of all, certainly most common, she was lazy and ill-informed about a proper vegetarian diet and had had a protein scare — you vegetarians have to be careful — that had nudged her back to meat.

Typical.

Sarah looked down the street, her body leaning away now, clearly about to move on. She was shaking her head even before Derek asked her out for coffee.

“Don’t drink caffeine.”

Derek could take a hint.

He avoided the Billow for a while.

 

Prepping for Sunday brunch. Putting out the little jars of maple syrup, wiping the bar clean of the after-hours drinking the night before. Pre-pouring the small glasses of fresh orange juice. Sarah drank several while stocking the dedicated shelf in the windowed cooler behind the bar, lining up the rows of orange.

That guy Derek had become an annoyance to her, she was glad he hadn’t been around for a while.

It had been chicken. And not in a pasta dish or otherwise diluted. A breast, a piece of thigh. It was years ago, while she was working Sundays at a mid-town restaurant whose owners had a business relationship with a French tour company. Busloads of tourists, most in their 50’s, the men and women both wearing pastel cotton shirts with complimentary light-knit cardigans, would pile into the place on Sunday afternoons to be fed and dispensed with. Soup to start, chickenriceveg, salad, fruit and coffee. Waitstaff would eat the extras after the group left, before cleaning up.

It was the day after O.J. Simpson’s remarkable flight in that white pick-up truck. The Ford Bronco. Everyone was talking about it, except for Sarah, who, the only one on the face of the earth, hadn’t heard of the murder and the surreal chase that had followed. She had spent several days closed off to the world, staying in bed, reading, trying to bring herself to orgasm. Rejuvenating, she optimistically told herself. Despairing of ever being able to find a job as a teacher in “this climate”. But she was not one to admit to being depressed. She had dragged herself into the restaurant for her shift working the tour-group, electing (once again) to pretend she did not speak French.

It didn’t matter that particular day. The tourists were not talkative, watching the televisions above the bar tuned to CNN. Fifty French tourists silent as their guide explained the footage, playing it for laughs where he could.

“What?” Sarah asked afterwards in the staff area as the servers ate. “What is this thing with O.J. Simpson?”

It was explained. “O.J.’s wife was murdered and the guy took off down the freeway.”

“What?”

“It’s what Americans call highways. Holding a gun to the driver’s head or something. People held up signs along the way, Run OJ Run! All the way OJ!

Sarah knew what a freeway was. The staff largely found it quite amusing, except for Sarah who, instead of eating the usual two servings of riceveg, helped herself to some greasy chicken, a breast, a piece of thigh.

All the way OJ!

Because, once again, nothing really mattered anymore, and she was seized by an anger for flesh. And she found herself wishing she too was a vacationer among the happy pasteled French, sitting in a Canadian restaurant (not understanding for one moment the crazy Americans and their Sunday sports), picking out the white meat.

Peeling off the skin.