by Jasper Diamond Nathaniel
Elliot lay awake, his cheeks burning as the sun crept in through the mangled curtains and came to rest on his face. “Let’s get up,” he said, “don’t you want to have a real morning?” Maxine, her eyes closed, rolled over to face the wall and squeezed the pillow over her ears. He knew what was coming next but he touched her shoulder anyway.
“Stop it,” she said, “I’m serious,” and then she pulled the covers over her shoulder and inched closer to the wall.
“Alright then,” Elliot said. He lay there for another two minutes and then he rolled out of bed. Maxine reached out, her hand brushed against his back and she made a soft sound like, Mmmwaitmmm. He paused by the foot of the bed and watched her, waited to see if she’d turn around, and then he walked to the closet. He put on a tee shirt and sweatpants and socks and gave her one last glance before heading down the long hallway, towards the kitchen. He passed the framed photo on the windowsill by the doorway: the two of them on the grass in Central Park, Elliot pointing at the sky and describing what he sees, Maxine laughing. The clouds, of course, out of frame.
Elliot walked into the kitchen and swallowed three Advil with a glass of tepid tap water. He ground enough coffee beans for five cups and poured it into the coffee maker with two cups of water. He opened the refrigerator and peered in. Milk, OJ, half & half, eggs, two and a half sticks of butter, ketchup, mustard, a bag of shredded Monterey Jack cheese, blackberry preserves, an old head of lettuce, three Brooklyn Brewery IPAs, four half-full bottles of salad dressing and endless jars with olives and sauerkraut and pickles and other relishes wedged into the shelves. He saw something unfamiliar. On the top shelf, barely visible behind the milk and the OJ, was a small, mysterious white package. Bacon. He’d picked it up at the farmer’s market last Saturday then forgotten all about it.
He pulled the package out of the refrigerator and tossed it onto the counter, then he squatted and opened the cupboard door to the left of the oven. Without looking he reached in and pulled out pots and pans. It was past eleven so Elliot felt no obligation to keep the noise down.
He found the cast iron grill pan and placed it on the stove. The pan was caked with grease. He’d heard that grease buildup on a cast iron grill pan was a good thing, it added flavor and seasoning to each vegetable and piece of meat, and he liked this idea, each meal carrying the honor and memory of past ones. But this grease was thick and it didn’t smell right so he ran the water in the sink until it was hot and then he held the pan under it. Thousands of tiny beads of water appeared on the cast iron and rolled off onto a pile of dishes in the sink, dishes Maxine had promised to wash each of the past two nights. He took a sponge to the pan, and after a minute or two of scrubbing he’d hardly made a dent in the grease, but the sponge had turned from bright yellow to a foul black and brown. He shrugged, rinsed the sponge, and put the pan on the stove.
He turned the dial on the stove and the valve opened and the gas trickled out but the igniter wouldn’t spark. He fiddled with the dial and there was a click and a spark and then a small explosion. Elliot jumped. “Whoa,” he said. He centered the pan over the flame and while the iron heated, he poured coffee into his favorite mug: A rude awakening, Steve Post’s Morning Music, WNYC/FM 93.9, with an illustration of a frowning bald man with a mustache and a party hat. He didn’t know a thing about the guy, but he’d taken the mug from his parents so it reminded him of Saturday mornings from his childhood: his mom and dad cooked breakfast together, french toast or puffy pancakes with baked cinnamon apples, while he and his brother played games at the kitchen table. He stared at the mug and he thought to himself, This mug has never been dropped, and then he took a sip of his coffee and nearly spit it out.
He opened the fridge and felt around for the half & half and while he did he googled Steve post radio on his iPhone. He poured half & half into his coffee and then he emptied two sugar packets into it. He stirred it with a teaspoon and created a small whirlpool in his mug, the coffee swirling until it was light and creamy like a caramel square. He took a sip and smiled, and then he read on his phone that just last year Steve Post died of lung cancer. “Shit,” Elliot said, and he put his phone down.
The pan was smoking so Elliot lowered the heat and unwrapped the parchment paper to reveal twenty thick, salty, glistening strips of smoked bacon. “Yes,” he said. He pinched the end of one strip between his thumb and forefinger and dangled it in front of his face and admired it, all twelve inches striped with fat and muscle and gristle, then he carefully laid it down on the grill pan perpendicular to the ridges. There was a loud hissing sound, and Elliot laid three more strips of bacon next to the first. The hissing turned into a crackling as the fat liquefied and formed a pool of hot, bubbling grease. Elliot smiled.
His phone buzzed, a text. Are you cooking bacon? Elliot put his phone down and shouted, “Yes,” and then to the microwave in front of his face, he said, “is that okay?” He lined a plate with paper towels and placed it next to the stove.
Elliot heard the toilet flush and the bathroom sink running, and then soft footsteps. He took a deep breath. Maxine walked into the kitchen in her pajamas: a long, white Morrissey shirt and a pair of Elliot’s plaid boxers. She walked behind Elliot and looked over his shoulder. “Smells good,” she said.
He didn’t turn around but he leaned back and nuzzled the side of his head against her cheek. She kissed the corner of his mouth. “Good morning,” she said. Her skin felt soft but she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet.
“Did you finish Netflix last night or what?” he said.
“Shush,” she said. She nodded towards the bacon. “Where’d this come from?”
“I bought it at the farmer’s market, forgot all about it.”
“Last Saturday morning. You were sleeping.”
“Oh. You could have woken me.” He opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it.
She reached for the coffee pot but saw that it was empty so she picked up his mug and sipped it. “Yuck,” she said, “is this coffee or jet fuel?” Maxine touched Elliot’s back but her hand slipped off as he leaned forward to check the exhaust fan, so she walked past him and around the counter and sat down on the couch in the living room, still in plain view of the kitchen. She stretched her legs and spun her body until she was lying down, her head dangling off the couch and feet resting on the wall, scrolling and tapping on her phone, humming to herself. Elliot thought about putting music on but decided against it.
The bacon sizzled, a dog barked outside. The sounds of morning.
“Hey,” Maxine said, “wanna do yoga at noon?”
Elliot checked the time on the microwave.
“Huh?” he said.
“Yoga at noon.”
“That’s in thirty minutes,” he said, “I’m cooking breakfast.”
“Oh. So much for our new year’s resolution.”
Elliot laughed. “It’s just a weird time to ask, that’s all.”
Maxine said nothing. He turned around to face her. She’d been looking at him but she quickly drew her eyes back to her phone.
Elliot used his fingers to flip the bacon, jerking his hand back when a drop of hot grease jumped like stovetop popcorn and landed on his skin. There was black around the edges of the bacon. “Shit,” he said. He picked up the strips one at a time and laid them across the paper-toweled plate, and then he placed four new strips on the hot pan. The bacon hissed.
Elliot took a long sip of coffee. He leaned against the counter and watched the bacon quake in the pan, flipping each strip after a few minutes. He removed the four strips from the pan and placed them on the paper-toweled plate next to the rest of the cooked bacon. “Perfect,” he said.
“Talking to myself.”
Maxine rose from the couch and walked back towards the stove. “Can I try?” she said. “One of the burnt ones.” Elliot picked up a strip from the first batch and handed it to her. She bit off a third of the strip and the rest of it broke into pieces which she caught with one hand against her shirt. “That’s good,” she said, and she cupped her hands and poured the remaining pieces into her mouth, leaving a spot of grease on Morrissey’s forehead.
Elliot picked up a strip of uncooked bacon and placed it on the pan while Maxine observed. “You should dump some of that grease,” she said.
He looked down at the pan and there was, in fact, a pool of grease, half an inch deep or more.
“That’s the good stuff,” he said, “you want that in there.”
“It’s too much, though,” she said. She reached for the pan but the handle was hot, so she yelped and pulled her hand back and retreated to the couch. Without turning around to face Elliot, she said, “Look at your shirt.”
He looked down. His shirt was speckled with grease stains. Maxine had bought this shirt for him two years ago in Barcelona. Elliot had booked the flights and hotels, built the itinerary, but it was Maxine’s wandering that led them into the underground theaters and the charming bodegas. It was the first part he often remembered.
“Oops,” he said. He bit his lip, and then he laughed.
Elliot sipped his coffee, which was cool now. He placed the mug in the microwave and set it to thirty seconds on high. The humming of the microwave joined the hissing and crackling of the bacon in the otherwise silent apartment. He picked up his glass and leaned his head back and emptied the last drops of water into his mouth. He placed the glass on top of the dirty dishes in the sink, but it tipped over and fell from the pile and cracked on the hard porcelain. “Shit,” he said. The humming of the microwave grew louder and a large grease bubble violently popped in the pan. Maxine sat up on the couch.
“It’s really loud in here,” she said.
The microwave beeped and the humming stopped and Maxine laid back down.
“That’s probably enough bacon, don’t you think?” she said.
Another minute passed. Maxine read a three-week-old issue of The New Yorker, Elliot watched the bacon cook, the fatty ends writhing in the deepening grease.
“Hey babe, can we go to Koreatown tonight? I want to try this soju stuff that everyone’s talking about,” Maxine said. “Russ and Emma went last week, they said it was really fun.”
Elliot said nothing. He never liked the suggestions from the Goings On About Town.
“Elliot,” said Maxine.
“Huh?” He was still facing the stove.
Another minute passed. “It’s really smoky in here,” she said, “and I’m kinda over the smell. Aren’t you going to cook anything else?”
Elliot didn’t respond.
“Hey Ell,” she said, “are you almost done?”
He finally turned around. “Want to help?” he said. Maxine’s eyes returned to the magazine.
Elliot picked up a piece of cooked bacon from the paper-toweled plate, and took a bite, his first, and then another, and then finished it. “Yes,” he said. He reached towards the pan to flip the bacon and a large drop of hot grease leapt from the pan and landed on his wrist. “Shit,” he said.
Maxine rolled her eyes, he sensed it.
Elliot opened the kitchen drawer next to the sink. The drawer smelled like old garlic. He reached his hand in and fished through spatulas and serving spoons and a cheese grater until he found the tongs. He pushed the tongs’ locking mechanism against his stomach to allow them to open up to their full width, and then he held them in front of his face and clicked them together three times. One by one he pinched each strip of bacon with the tongs and flipped it in the pan. He let them cook for another minute and then he picked up the four pieces of cooked bacon and placed them on the paper-toweled plate. A car alarm went off outside.
“Hey, we still need to buy plane tickets for Brianna’s wedding,” Maxine said.
Elliot was reaching for his coffee but his hand paused in midair.
“When is that again?” he said.
He picked up his coffee and sipped it. “We’ve got like six months,” he said.
“Prices are only gonna go up.”
“We’ve got time,” he said. He was still facing the stove.
“Okay,” she said.
He looked at Maxine without turning his head. She pulled herself up by the couch’s backrest, kneeled with both knees on the cushions. She put her head to the window and watched the lonely, wailing car.
“I wish that would stop,” Elliot said.
Maxine said nothing.
Elliot opened the fridge and looked around again. He checked the date on the egg carton. They’d expired two days before. He shrugged.
“Hey Maxy,” he said, “you want some eggs? I’ll cook ‘em right in the bacon fat.”
Maxine laughed, it was exaggerated. She collapsed onto the couch, horizontal again, and picked up the magazine. “I’ll pass.”
The pool of grease was now a small ocean with texture, waves, salt mounds, islands of burnt pork. Elliot looked at it and smiled, and he placed the uncooked strips of bacon over it. The bacon floated for a moment and then sank into the boiling grease. Maxine stood up. “What the fuck, Elliot?” she said. “Did you just put more on?” She walked to the kitchen and as she peered over the stove a drop of grease flew up and landed on her neck. “OW. FUCK.”
Elliot opened the freezer and squeezed an ice cube out of the tray and held it against the pink spot on her skin. Their faces were close, nearly touching. He felt the heat coming from her face but she looked at him expectantly. He looked away.
“You’re okay, it just hurts for a second,” he said.
“I told you to dump that grease.”
“Look, I thought you’d be excited about the bacon.”
She threw her hands in the air. The ice cube flew from Elliot’s hand and slid across the floor, coming to rest under the refrigerator. “WE HAVE ENOUGH BACON, ELLIOT. IT SMELLS LIKE A FUCKING BODEGA IN HERE.”
Elliot looked at Maxine and said nothing, and then he got down on all fours and stuck his hand under the fridge but his arm wouldn’t fit.
Maxine walked back to the couch and sat down. Elliot ate another piece of bacon and then he removed the four strips from the pan and placed them on the paper-toweled plate. He looked at Maxine, who watched him carefully. Her mouth was open. He picked up one of the final four strips of uncooked bacon, and Maxine stood up. “Elliot,” she said, “don’t.”
He looked at the pile of cooked bacon on the plate, and then at the parchment paper. There were just three strips left plus the one in his hand. “This is the last batch,” he said. “It’ll go bad if I don’t cook it.”
“Elliot,” she said, “do not put another piece of bacon in that fucking pan.”
A small pool of water had formed at the base of the fridge where the ice cube had melted. Elliot stepped in it. The water soaked through his sock, he cringed.
“Might as well cook all of it,” he said. “What’s the harm?”
He laid the bacon across the pan, it hissed like a snake.
Maxine picked up her phone and walked towards the bedroom. As she passed, Elliot kept his eyes on the pan but he moved from the stove and reached for her. She sidestepped his arm.
“Babe,” he said to her back, “I’m almost done.”
She kept walking towards the bedroom. “Alright then,” he said under his breath. His arm was still in the air, he waved goodbye to her back.
Elliot placed the remaining three strips of bacon on the pan and leaned back against the counter and sipped his coffee. He’d misplaced the tongs and didn’t care to look for them, so he braved the boiling grease and flipped the bacon with his fingers. The grease burned his skin. He didn’t mind. He sipped his coffee again and then he picked up each strip one by one and placed them on the paper-toweled plate. He looked towards the bedroom and shouted, “Finished.” He turned off the stove and then he pulled the paper towel out from under the heaping mound of pork and let it tumble onto the plate. He picked up the plate and walked with it around the kitchen counter to the dining area where he placed it on the middle of the table and sat down. He stared at the bacon for a moment and then he stood up and returned to the kitchen where he put two pieces of bread in the toaster, grabbed a tomato from the basket on the counter, and pulled the head of lettuce out of the fridge. He rinsed the tomato and the lettuce in the sink and he waited for the toast to pop and then he placed it all on a cutting board with a sharp knife and carried it to the table. He sat down again. He sipped his coffee and waited for Maxine while the pan cooled and the grease congealed into thick globs of pig fat. He stared at the bacon intently, unblinking.
Elliot heard something drop, he flinched and then looked up from the bacon. Maxine stood by the door. There was ten feet between them. Her eyes were red, she wore Elliot’s purple NYU sweatshirt. There was a duffel bag on the floor by her feet.
“There you are,” he said. He saw the bag and her red eyes but he pretended not to.
She stared at him and said nothing. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was just barely open. Her expression was frozen on her face, but her cheeks quivered.
“Maxy, I’m sorry I cooked too much bacon.” He turned to face the table, spoke matter-of-factly. “Come on, sit, I’m making BLTs.” He patted the chair next to his.
She said nothing but Elliot could hear her slow, heavy breathing. He turned around to face her. A swell of anger rose in her face.
“What fucking planet are you living on?” she said. Her voice shook. The anger in her face twisted into a near smile. He’d never seen her eyes this wide.
He stood up and took a step towards her.
“Maxine,” he said.
“Don’t.” She reached for the doorknob and rested her hand on it. Now her voice was calm, resolute. “Why won’t you book the plane tickets?”
“What? The wedding’s in six months! What’s the rush?”
“Bullshit. We never wait this long to book.”
“Why is this such a big deal all of a sudden?”
Maxine said nothing but her face told him that the question was his to answer. He closed his eyes, the apartment was silent. He wondered if she’d scream. If she’d berate him, call him names, if he’d scream back. He wondered if she’d cry, if he would, if they’d end up on the floor again, holding each other. He wondered what he’d say this time.
He wished he could stay in this moment. He didn’t want what was on the other side.
“Elliot,” she said. “Say something.”
He opened his eyes. Maxine was watching him, he looked down to avoid her searing gaze. His hands were trembling, he was squeezing the mug tight. He felt he’d lost something.
Another moment passed in silence.
He looked up. “Steve Post died,” he said.
Maxine looked puzzled. She opened her mouth but no words came out. Her face changed. “Oh my god,” she said. She put her face in her hands and let out a cry. She looked at Elliot through her hands, he hadn’t moved. She picked up her bag and opened the door, and then she paused and turned around to look at Elliot once more. He was still looking at her but he said nothing. “Oh my god,” she said again, and then she walked out.
Elliot watched the door close. He took one step towards it but then he stopped. He wasn’t wearing shoes plus his socks were wet. And he was tired. He could hear Maxine’s cries echo in the stairwell but they were becoming quieter. He turned back towards the table and ate a piece of bacon. He sat down. He let out a whimper but he knew it was forced so he chuckled at himself. He ate another piece of bacon. If there was a lump in his throat, this second piece cleared it. He sat up straight in his chair and took a long, deep breath.
I really need to clean that pan, he thought, and then he stood up and walked back to the kitchen.
Jasper Diamond Nathaniel is an entrepreneur and emerging writer. He’s currently working on a collection of short stories, and he also manages WritePlayDraw.com, a platform that helps busy people make more time for creative expression. He lives in Brooklyn with his dog, Dorothy.