By Heather Swain
Downtown Press Copyright © 2004 Heather Swain
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-7434-6488-5
Up on the roof, Eddie stands in front of me with a champagne bottle sticking out from between his thighs like a green glass penis. "Very funny," I say, but of course I laugh, because I always laugh at Eddie's antics.
Thick, blond hair falls across his green eyes as he struggles with the wire casing, then the cork. He looks up, shakes the hair out of his face, and flaunts a cunning smile. "We have to celebrate, darling!" He wrenches the cork from side to side and gyrates his hips, mumbling, "Come on, baby. Come to daddy."
"Jesus, Eddie," I say. "Are you fucking it or opening it?"
"It's the only way I can get it, sugar."
"Sugar?" I say with a snort, but I like it and he knows it.
I turn and look over the edge of the roof as he works on the cork. In the distance, the Brooklyn Bridge shines golden in the failing late spring sun. Five stories below, yellow cabs, black town cars, and graffiti-covered delivery trucks roll through the congested grid of East Village streets. They compete with rollerbladers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The sidewalks are crowded with hipsters, tourists, dog walkers, baby pushers, old women pulling shopping carts, and bums asking for change. I love this neighborhood. These are my people - the ones who choose to be in this tiny corner of the world because they find beauty in its roughness, just as I do.
"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah," Eddie moans as he works on the cork. "I can feel it now. Here it comes."
"Do you need some help?" I ask him, then tease, "from a professional?"
"O ye of little faith," he says in his sweet southern drawl. Ever since I've known him, Eddie's liked to pretend he's some hayseed straight off a cotton farm, baffled by big-city ways. But the truth is, he's been kicking around New York for the past ten years and is more citified than I am, and I grew up here. Plus, his soft gentile hands with their perfectly manicured nails and the '85 Krug Brut champagne he's opening expose him as a fourth-generation Princeton grad and grandson of a textile magnate from the great state of Georgia.
"Here it comes," says Eddie. "Just a little more. Oh, oh, oh!" He stands up straight and juts his hips forward as the cork arcs into the evening sky. Champagne shoots out from between his legs, and he howls with delight. There's nothing Eddie likes more than a party, even if it is just the two of us on a roof.
Never to be outdone by him, I grab the bottle and bring it to my lips. Let the bubbles tickle my nose before I take the first greedy gulp. The champagne scratches my throat and lingers sweetly on the back of my tongue. Before I can take another swig, he scoops me up, one arm under my knees, the other across my back, and gallops around the roof, singing, "Happy Anniversary!" to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme song. We twirl in circles. The sunset blurs. Water towers, chimneys, and satellite dishes spin. Horn honks, tire squeals, laughter, and shouting burble up from the streets and meld into an urban symphony.
In Eddie's arms, I am perfectly suspended between the earth and sky. Nothing's holding me down. I could fly away and soar past the just-rising moon with my hair on fire and my arms spread wide like a human shooting star over Manhattan. Then we collapse, champagne splashing, tiny plates of hors d'oeuvres crashing, onto a white tablecloth spread over the warm tar of the roof. In the center is a huge bouquet of yellow roses. Eddie's gift to me on my restaurant's first anniversary.
He props himself up on one elbow beside me and pants, "You did it, Lem. Congratulations!" He raises the frothing bottle to his lips.
He's right. I have done it. After ten years of regrets, mistakes, stupid moves, and pure dumb luck, I've gotten what I want. No one expected this from me, least of all myself. I came into the world as a colicky, jaundiced baby with fuzzy blond hair like a troll. My parents named me Ellie Manelli but called me Lemon, which isn't much better. They left me behind with my grandmother and four aunts in Brooklyn to pursue their beatnik lifestyle, then ended up on the bottom of a river. When I hit eighteen, I took off from the cloistered streets of my small Brooklyn neighborhood to traipse around Europe with every other lost soul looking for some semblance of self. I returned defeated and spent years wandering from job to job, never happy, never satisfied, until I decided to stop grousing and waiting for something to happen. A year ago, a shoe store went out of business on the bottom floor of this building, and I opened my restaurant, Lemon, named after me.
Now suddenly, I've became the new It Girl of the New York cooking world. Various trend-spotters have dubbed Lemon "hot" and part of the "downtown scene." I've been declared a "hip young chef" to watch. A picture of me, complete with my blond hair streaked blue to match my Le Creuset saucepans, graces the pages of Gourmet magazine this month to celebrate our anniversary.
I don't know how it happened. Who turned out to be my fairy godmother. Or if the karmic scales finally tipped in my favor. If I weren't such a cynic, I might claim that every experience in my life has led me to this shining moment, but I think that's bullshit. All I know is, my luck in life has changed, and it's about damned time.
"How about some of these here whores de vors?" Eddie asks. He pops a piece of foie-gras-covered toast into my mouth. The goose liver melts slowly, and I moan happily. He lays a roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom and goat cheese phyllo purse on my outstretched tongue. When I'm done with that, he tosses me a bright green cerignola olive. I swallow the fruity salty brine, then wash it all down with more champagne.
"Goddamn, I'm a good cook!" I holler.
"You're super hot," Eddie says like James Brown.
"A bad-ass mo-fo," I tell him.
"A kicking, killing, slamming, jamming, crazy cooking Italian." We toast again and howl our laughter at the night sky.
"But you know," Eddie says and leans in close. "You'd taste better than anything down in that silly restaurant of yours." He breathes warm breath onto my cheek. "I want to ravage you until you're as creamy as this here goose liver." He nips at my neck. "I'll whip you into a frenzy of mashed potatoes."
I laugh into his ear. He smells like olive oil. Always like olive oil. My love for the past five years. Who ever thought it would last this long? I met Eddie when I was a sous-chef at a fake Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. He came to sell olive oil from his import business to the executive chef, a lazy cook and a lout with horrible hygiene. Eddie saw through the pretense of the oversalted ossobuco and rubbery tagliatelle. I only saw his eyes, green and laughing, sharing a joke with me. I handed him a slice of my roasted red pepper ciabatta dipped in his best extra virgin oil, and he licked his lips.
His hands find their way under my chef's jacket. "You are as rich and creamy as eggs benedict," he says. "Crème brûlée has nothing on you."
When I first started going out with Eddie, I figured we'd have a few laughs, drink a few bottles of wine, and eventually part with no hard feelings. Looking at us, you'd never think that we would last. Eddie is every inch the prep school brat, certain of entitlements from the world. I embody my Brooklyn upbringing, complete with the huge chip on my shoulder carried proudly like an epaulet. But beneath our facades, each of us is as ornery as the other one. Maybe that's what keeps us together.
"I could turn you into soup," he says and flicks the snaps of my bra.
"What kind?" I grab his soft earlobe with my sharp teeth.
"Vichyssoise." He draws the word out as if it's luxury.
I look up. The sun has set, but the stars are hidden by the glare of city lights. The moon is lonely, with only red-tailed jets to share the sky.
"What else?" I beg. This is our joke. The only way into me is through food. He reads me like a menu.
"You are as tender as a lamb chop. As spicy as the best tagine." He nuzzles, kneads, and tickles my tingling skin. "You are as voluptuous as uh, uh... Oh, hell." He stops and looks at me. "What do the French call those purple things?"
"Aubergines!" he says triumphantly and slides my checked pants over my hips. My hands find him.
"I am merguez!" He rolls the word across his tongue as if he is some conquistador, and we wail at the moon.
"Now," I say, and I mean it. "Now!"
Eddie doesn't need to be told twice. He's there already. Away we go. Again, the sky blurs and sounds merge. Everything falls together like all matter sucked deep into a big black hole. My mother at the bottom of the ocean waves her bony hand, her hair is seaweed strands, she rides an electric eel. My father, buried beneath the Greenwood soil, rolls over in his grave and tells the beetles to shut their tiny eyes. This is it!
Tonight is my night, and I could devour the world. Catch it by the heels. String it up in a tree from a looping snare. Skin it, fillet it, sauté it. Serve it on a platter with bitter wild leeks and potentially poisonous mushrooms shaped like flying saucers. Surround it with delicacies of the rivers and the sea. (Gifts from my long-dead mother.) Exotics from my larder. (One thing from every place I've ever been.) An eclectic stew of me.
I let go a whoop, a holler, a self-satisfied scream for all the world to hear. I am a T-Rex skulking. A warhead launching. A woman to be reckoned with. Watch out, I warn, as I roar with delight. Nothing can stop me now!
Excerpted from Luscious Lemon by Heather Swain Copyright © 2004 by Heather Swain. Excerpted by permission.
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