When I realize it's not a pepper, I stop chewing. Blaire sits across from me, her pancake makeup thick on her cheek. I bet I could pull it all off with one tug at the corner. She discusses video sex with the boy she's come to visit in Manhattan.
"He screen-captures me,"she says. "Then zooms in on Photoshop and does special effects. Like lasers coming out of certain places. Then he'll send me an email: please refer to the attachment."
Blaire is the little sister of a friend I had long ago, a friend in Colorado with whom I speak intimately on the telephone. Blaire is visiting the city for the first time in her eighteen years of life. Though she's game enough to strip for an anonymous internet boyfriend, she's unprepared to fill her own weekend. That's why she's having lunch with me, a thirty-year-old frump, celibate now for years.
"Is that any good?"Blaire asks.
"Certainly,"I say, through the non-pepper. With the word, my tooth pierces the bulb and my mouth fills with a rusty, sour taste. I raise a napkin to my lips. I don't want to cause an event, so I shunt the thing across my tongue and take the stem. Blocking the operation with the napkin, I pull the item out of my mouth. The texture is uneven: mostly fuzzy, then crisp. I lay the non-pepper behind my salad bowl, blocked from Blaire.
"Do you like salad?"Blaire asks.
"Sure,"I say. "I dream about it. Endless fields of mixed greens. Downpours of zesty Italian."
"I dream about Nathaniel. We're into role-playing, World of Warcraft mostly. Dark lords. When we play before bed my mind goes hyper."
"It's the same with the salad. I'm not going to get to sleep tonight after this lunch.”
I finger the non-pepper but can't get a read through the dressing.
"Have you ever looked for a third?"Blaire asks, her pale lips rimmed with hamburger juice. "We've had all these interviews but no one's right.”
"You're getting a job?"I eat a carrot to cover the lingering taste. "No, a third party. In bed."
"You mean polyamory?”
"Yeah, that. We just want a fun night, and it has to be so, like, complicated."
Blaire won't stop looking at me. If she looked away I could dissect the false pepper and decide what's itching my tongue.
"One of the candidates told us he has crabs. And he didn't feel like treating it. We told him it was a requirement and he said no. He says he doesn't mind them. It tickles or something. We told him, please treat it and we'll accept you. Then he stormed out. It was, like, mental.”
Blaire accepts duck livers from the waiter. I think I'll have a moment to poke the non-pepper but she doesn't take her eyes off me.
"Another person, a girl,"she says, a blue-bellied tongue slipping out with the word. "Was super hot, but she only wanted Nathaniel. She didn't want anything to do with me, sex-wise, and that was totally a deal breaker. Cause I really want to sleep with a girl. That's like, half the point.”
Blaire pops pieces of meat into her cheek. Her waist twitches, snakelike in a tubular jersey. "Have you ever slept with a girl?"
"Not that I recall."
"Listen, this is the thing. It's probably obvious but we wanted to ask you. This would have been an interview but Nathaniel's at work. What do you think?”
I reflect on the last time I had sex. An online date with a man whose features were much larger in sum than they were in the piecemeal photos he pushed through my firewall.
"We'll make it easy,"Blaire says. "I know you're in a dry spot.”
It's an understatement, but I'm angry my friend in Colorado hasn't kept my confidence. Is this some form of kindness sent through the bodies of two naked eighteen year olds, kneading my breasts and grinning?
I look at Blaire coldly, so she'll turn away. She does, and I snatch my fork and scrape at the dressing. I uncover a soft field of fur, and then, turning the body, a patch of red porridge where I bit down. I dip my napkin in the water glass to use for a sponge. The dressing dissolves, and I find the mouse's face. Crumbs of yellow teeth curling into a smile, delighted to be found out.
is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Astraea Foundation and Harvard University. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she is pursuing an MFA. She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin and at Oakhill Correctional Institution.