I tell the girl I would like a certain style of cheeseburger and she is like, I’m not sure we can do that. That wouldn’t really be a cheeseburger, she says.
I’m not sure how to react because I have only been a vegetarian for a couple of hours and I don’t really know how a vegetarian reacts in fast-food situations.
Over the girl’s shoulder, I see that the people assembling the burgers have wordless charts illustrating their task: there is a cartoon sesame bun and then a plus sign and then a cartoon lettuce leaf, etc. I point and tell the girl it’s exactly like that chart says, but skip the part with the plus sign and the cartoon beef patty. She looks at me like she wants to tell me she doesn’t appreciate my tone but of course I am the customer and I am entitled to my tone of choice.
She says I’m free to remove the beef from the burger post-construction, but I’m not going for it.
She asks me to reconsider given that this order will necessitate a conferral with her manager, who is relatively inaccessible behind the frying machines. I tell her I’ll wait even though impatience has always been my greatest fault, alongside constipation. If I become the kind of person who does battle with his faults it is far more likely Johanna from the lab will sleep with me.
The girl goes to find her manager and there are groans behind me, all down a really long line of people in flip-flops, some in swimsuits because we are near the public pool. The chlorine smell goes with the burger smell in a way that reminds me of my wealthy cousin’s backyard and kids with inflatable wings yelling “polo” while my cousin pokes beef on the grill and his friend from work tells him not to, they will dry out.
In the next line over, two dripping kids with goggles on their foreheads are counting change on their open palms, looking back and forth from the coins to the price of ice cream. The smaller one wants hot fudge on top but if they do that they’ll have to share instead of having two plain cones.
I can see the manager in the back, having a big group discussion about whether a burger is a burger if it’s just a bun and cheese, when after all the patty is the catalyst in the equation.
The kids’ fudge sundae with its two spoons appears on the counter between the two registers but they have not seen it. They are clutching their receipt and checking they didn’t get overcharged and not understanding sales tax and gaping at the machine that churns the ice cream and gaping at the illuminated prices overhead and gaping with four eyes apiece because of the goggles.
Their ice cream is paid for and on the counter and sitting there. The hot dark on top begins its slow conquest of the cold vanilla below. I reach for it and take it and walk out past all those rubber sandals flopping impatiently on the linoleum. Because a cheeseburger probably isn’t real without the burger part and in most cases you don’t have to kill a cow to make this kind of thing, just squeeze it a little on the udders.
* * *
Johanna’s not one of those in-your-face political vegetarians. You can’t be if you work here. She just doesn’t like the taste of meat or even the smell, which means if I do get to sleep with her I won’t wake to her cooking me bacon in another room, which is how I’ve always imagined it. As long as I get to sleep with her, though, it’s okay.
Carl says it’s easy to get a girl like Johanna in bed “if you know what buttons to push” and I’ve never pushed said buttons successfully, but this time I’ve decided to really apply myself.
Like: I tell Johanna I “like that color on her” every day.
Like: I ask Johanna if she would like to make dinner for me.
She doesn’t know what to say at first, but then she asks me if I am aware of her vegetarianism.
I tell her that I have recently become a vegetarian myself, but that I am still a little confused. I tell her I haven’t really eaten lunch today because I wasn’t sure how.
She laughs. Just like in the lab when Carl makes one of his dumb jokes. Johanna and I didn’t hit it off so well at first. She wanted to put a yogurt six-pack in the mini-fridge (the one that is not for specimens) and I’d left some chicken nuggets in there that got kind of stinky. I’d found a little piece of cartilage in one and I was going to take it back and demand free lunches but then I forgot.
I cautiously ask Carl what to wear when I have dinner with Johanna. I don’t want to let on that I’ve never done the sexual act, because to me it seems like everyone else just does it nonstop whenever they want. They just order up. For various reasons, it has never been like that for me.
Carl says clothes don’t matter; he can walk into any of the college bars and take a girl home no matter what. All it takes is a bottle of pink wine and “their legs will spread faster than methicillin-resistant staphylococcus.” I know for a fact that it is not that simple. Still, I buy a wine with frosty glass that claims to be pomegranate flavor.
This could be it.
* * *
There are cats, just like Carl said there would be the first day we laid eyes on Johanna. That one is a crazy cat lady, he’d said. Then he said “danger” several times in an imitation robot voice. I count at least three, staring at me from the gaps in the banister like there’s no way I’m getting upstairs.
Right off, Johanna says that she doesn’t drink, but after some long pauses she decides to open the wine anyway. She doesn’t have clean glasses so we drink straight from the bottle. I’ve never really seen what the big appeal about alcohol is, but of course I’ve always paid too much attention to my studies. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering what will happen with her hair. It could easily ensnare nearby objects if there is a lot of thrashing around.
I ask her if she likes the wine and she says it’s “funky” and that the whole scenario of us having dinner is “frankly unusual.” I have no idea what this means, so I just ask her what we are having for dinner anyway.
Johanna presents several bowls of unrecognizable food, much of it in pellet form. A lot of it skitters right off my fork. I can’t go too much longer without some chicken grease, so I go for broke.
I tell her she is very attractive. More: She is beautiful. Everyone thinks so.
She laughs, but walks over to my side of the table and kisses me. She sits on my lap and reaches backwards for the bottle.
I slide my hands beneath her and squeeze. Firm.
Very beautiful, I say again. So beautiful.
She kisses me until the area around my mouth is covered in saliva.
The cats are staring, but I ask if we can go upstairs.
But it happens really quickly. And then we are talking without our clothes on.
Her hair is really tangled. She asks me what Carl said.
“I mean Carl sent you, right? To let me down easy.”
Then Johanna tells me that Carl was the first person she ever did it with. They were doing it a lot for a couple of weeks and she thought she was getting pretty good at it, but recently he’s been ignoring her.
Johanna says that she always thought of herself as smarter than everyone else, but the older she gets the more she realizes that everyone else doesn’t seem to see it that way. By everyone else I know she means people who don’t study infectious diseases. People who’ve been having sex since prom or even before.
I don’t have anything to say, so I just step into my pants and go downstairs. Maybe she’ll think I’m one of those people she mentioned.
The orange cat is blocking the door, and when I hoist it out of the way its belly feels warm, so I take it with me. It stands with its paws on the dash, looking concerned.
“Don’t worry,” I say, “The place where I work is fully stocked with mice. No more canned stuff. I think you’ll really like it.”
Maybe I’ll bring the mice back live and let him hunt. I’m not squeamish about that stuff. I think he’ll enjoy getting control of the food chain.