The Problem With Imaginary Food
    Andrew Carter Koch
An illustration of why Isabelle and I fell apart: We're walking around through the city and she notices that I can't stop yawning.

"Am I so boring to you now?"

"Hmmm? What? No, no, of course not. I just got up, you know."

"If you're so bored maybe you should find somebody else to spend the day with."

"I said I'm not bored, I'm tired. I can't help it."

"You're always tired."

"No, I'm not."


We're standing on a corner waiting for the crosswalk light, one step away from a full-blown argument that I don't even understand, but I know that it isn't my yawning at isuue, it's a whole heap of things deep down in the mud of our relationship. It won't be the first time.

Desperate, I take her elbow and turn her around. "Here. We'll just grab a cup of coffee. Then I'll be fine."

There's a cafe right there and she follows me inside to the counter where I ask for an espresso; the barman waits for her order too. She considers a moment, scans the blackboard menu, then decides. "A t-bone steak, please, very rare."

There's just no hope for us, you see. We're two people held together only by the desire to strangle one another.


Later we're walking again. She's happy now, playing peek-a-boo from behind lampposts, trying to trip me up. She even sings a song in a little girl voice. Buy her a ten dollar steak and she's civil for a half hour. Wait till she finds out I don't have enough cash for the movie now.

"Let's get a brandy," she says, veering for the corner store where we usually buy our booze.

"How about cough syrup instead?"


"That's all I can afford, baby."

"What's wrong? Are you pissy now?"

I shrug. Do I really want to get into it? Isn't it so much easier to just let things slide and confront them later? or maybe not at all? As if a day will come when we can forgive each other everything.

A couple is approaching us on the sidewalk. They're being boisterous and animated, nudging each other, pretending to fight. "You're a bastard!" the girl says, laughing, and the guy gasps in mock anger. He sees us coming, and we all look at each other. He looks at Isabelle, then at me, then at his girlfriend, then says to me, deadpan, "You want to trade?"

We stop and look at each other. I look at the girl. She's tall and lanky with blonde hair to her shoulders and pale green eyes. She stares at me, then at her boyfriend. A long moment passes, then Isabelle is pounding on my shoulder. "Hey!" she yells. The other girl wallops her boyfriend in the arm, shouts "Bastard!" in his ear and chases him past us around the corner. He shrugs at me as he runs away, laughing.

I shrug at Isabelle. "Well, it was an interesting offer. I had to think about it for a second."

"That was more like two seconds."

"Well, I made the right choice, didn't I?"

"Did you?"

"Well, I'm here with you now, aren't I?"

She narrows her eyes at me then leans into my shoulder and I put my arm around her. But I make a point of remembering that girls' face.

No money for the movie. We head into the subway, Isabelle and I, and start the game without speaking: we stand a ways apart on the platform and when the train arrives we board and take seats at opposite ends of the car like we don't know each other. I sit across from an old woman and a businessman reading a paper; Isabelle is sitting near a cluster of tourists and a few schoolgirls.

For some time nothing happens. After a few stops I pat my jacket pockets and draw out an imaginary apple. It rests snugly in my palm. I buff the invisible fruit on my jeans, then gaze at it appreciatively. I take a crisp bite. Inasmuch as an invisible fruit can taste good, it is delicious.

The old woman is staring at me; the businessman casts surreptitious glances over his Times. All the way down the car, Isabelle is watching me intently. I eat the apple the way any normal person would eat a normal apple: turning it on its core, nibbling it down to the seeds, inspecting the remains for any leftover juicy bits. When it's nothing but the (phantom) core, I look around for someplace to dispose of it, as if I hadn't thought of that when I started. Then I notice the subway window is vented open a bit, and I reach up and deposit the core into the rushing void of the tunnel.

Several people observe this curiously. Meanwhile, I notice that Isabelle is fiddling with something in her lap. She appears to be peeling an invisible orange. As in real life, she painstakingly peels the rind, attempting to remove it all in one piece. Evidently, she gets frustrated and ends up picking off the remainders in chunks. Then she halves it in her lap, pulls off a zest, picks away the pulp, and pops it in her mouth. She chews with delight. Then she spits a seed into her hand, and tosses it under her seat.

Several people near her are openly watching, as well as my mini audience. Here is a beautiful young woman, well dressed and outwardly normal, savoring a completely invisible orange on a crowded subway. I watch her with astonishment: the game, remember, is that we don't know each other.

Before she can finish her orange I search my pockets again and come out with an imaginary bottle of wine. I pretend to use a corkscrew to uncork it, grimacing with the effort. Isabelle, absently brushing invisible rinds to the floor, watches fixedly. (I almost lose it when she licks each one of her apparently sticky fingers.)

After taking a swig I offer the bottle to the old lady, then the businessman; both shake their heads, but the old lady is smiling. "No, thank you," she says quietly. Then I hold the bottle up in Isabelle's direction. She stares a moment, then begins fiddling in her lap again as if with some sort of contraption. It's mysterious to me what she's doing until she reaches both hands back over one shoulder, then flings her arms out straight, watching some invisible object sail the length of the subway car: she's casting a fishing line.

I give a jump when the line catches my bottle, then release it as she reels it in; I suck my finger where the ethereal hook nicked me. Isabelle reels in the bottle, delicately unhooks it, and raises it to her lips with a smile. By now nearly everyone sitting in between us has noticed that something unusual is going on.

It's not like we're mimes or something, it's just a way to entertain ourselves and draw reactions out of people. We've also discovered, in fact, that the painstaking mimicry of eating food can actually curb hunger. Imagine that: subsisting on imagination alone.

Now I'm savoring a phantom t-bone steak, cutting morcels on a plate in my lap, sopping up the juice with a bit of bread. I take such big bites that my cheeks are ballooned out with air, and I chew with real savor. Isabelle is glugging the wine and then, when she meets my eye, tosses the bottle my way like a football. Startled, I jump up to catch it--a tourist between us actually ducks his head--and I grab the bottle in mid-flight but my plate has now fallen to the floor and I stand there dejected, looking down at the invisible mess among everyone's shoes. Isabelle is giggling. Now the train is roaring into a station, and she gets up to head for a door. I grab the steak off the floor, brush the dirt off, and slip it into my pocket, still clutching the bottle. When the doors open I rush into the station after Isabelle, already darting through the crowd, laughing. We meet up on the platform and pretend to introduce ourselves to one another, shaking hands. Then we turn to the subway car where everyone is staring out at us in curiosity and disbelief. We wave as the train moves off into the tunnels again, and it's gratifying to know that it will feel empty and dull now to the people left behind. Isabelle and I, we go up the steps to the street, sharing an imaginary cigarette that nicely rounds out a delicious meal.


But life is so cruel that not even our imaginations could keep us together. Not only are subways lonely, but real apples and oranges taste like nothing to me now. Where does love go when it's gone? And how much good is there in pretending that it's still there?

With her things out of my place now I spend more time walking through the city alone. To be lonesome in a room is to be locked up inside your own crazy head, but to be lonesome on the streets of a lighted city is to be free of everything. I go to the river and along it, then across the bridges, from the tourist districts to the cinemas, through the courtyards of churches and across boulevards. Every turn of the sidewalk is comforting and familiar.

And then, meandering the aisles of the corner store on a Tuesday night, I see her. Not Isabelle. The other one, the one from the sidewalk, with the boyfriend, the mock argument: tall and lanky, blonde with green eyes. I'm immediately sure it's her, filling a plastic bag with green beans, and then I begin to doubt it until I have no idea if I've ever seen her before. It had only been a brief encounter, weeks ago, and we hadn't even actually spoken. But I had made sure to remember her face, and decide to trust my instinct.

She's going through the produce section, carefully picking through everything before making her selections. I scan the rest of the store but there's no sign of her boyfriend. She's in old jeans and a raggedy sweater, which makes me think she must live nearby--after all, the sidewalk encounter had just been down the street.

Is she cooking pasta primavera tonight? She has all the fixings for it. I watch her select a gorgeous eggplant, ripe as a breast, and slide it into a plastic bag. When she's moved on I inspect the eggplants myself and, though she evidently got the best one, I find a worthy second. And though I came here to buy my own groceries, I set my basket aside and follow the girl to the register carrying only my eggplant in its plastic bag.

I'm standing right behind her at the checkout as the cashier is ringing up her groceries. I hold my eggplant like a baby. Just as hers is slid onto the scale and the cashier's fingers are clittering over the keys, I clear my throat. They both look at me. I hold my eggplant up to the girl and say, deadpan, "Do you want to trade?"

She stares at me. I meet her eyes. I repeat myself.

"Why would I want to do that?" she says.

"I think this one's much better than that one."

She looks at my eggplant, then at hers. "But I think I got the best one."

"Yes, but I really -- Do you remember me?"

She shakes her head slowly, but her mind is searching. "I don't think so..."

"No, of course not. You were having fun, playing around."

She doesn't respond, just watches me until I step back. The cashier resumes her job, eyeing me a little suspiciously. When she's finished, the girl pays and stands there stuffing her things into plastic bags. I buy only the eggplant, and hold it out to her.

"Here. It's for you. I don't even know how to cook the damn thing."

But she doesn't say a word -- how could she? -- and she steps aside to let me go out the door. I slip past her and go onto the sidewalk. The eggplant's in my arms. I'm walking for the end of the block when I begin to feel weak, overcome with hunger. It's hard to even keep moving. Coffee? Wine? A sandwich? I don't know what the hell I need but I need it quick, and someplace to sit down. You can't just cry walking down the damn street. I go into a familiar cafe and lean on the bar with my eggplant in front of me. The barman is there, wiping the counter.

"Espresso," I say, but I'm not tired. The guy is fixing it when I see the blackboard menu. I call him back over. I'm not tired, I'm not thirsty, I'm not hungry, I'm not awake.

"T-bone steak," I say, "very rare."

A.C. Koch has lived in southern Europe and eastern Asia, and presently resides in central Mexico on the highplains desert, subsisting as a jazz guitarist in the group Clean & Sexy. Koch's short stories and novel excerpts have appeared in Nexus, Tower of Babel, River City, Red Booth Review, and Mississippi Review.


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