“My life. It’s over.”
Arthur says this into the phone succinctly and utterly without feeling as he loafs around his Tribeca apartment, kicking aside a pizza box and Thai takeout cartons as he makes his way to the windows. He’s made loafing into a fucking art the last three days. That and tracking himself with Google alerts to figure out when he can safely show his face in public again, though mostly to satisfy his own morbid curiosity. He’s come up with a point system to determine if the Internet is laughing at him or with him—three points going to reputable news sources, two going to disreputable ones, one to personal blogs and YouTube comments, which gets cut down to half if they can’t fucking spell.
“It’s not over,” Ariadne says firmly, “it’s just—on hiatus. It’s a momentary setback, Arthur, people bounce back from this kind of stuff all the time. Look at Jay-Z and Beyoncé.”
“Jay-Z and Beyoncé,” he says flatly, even though he thinks he might need to breathe into a paper bag, “what the fuck are you on.”
“Okay, bad example maybe,” she concedes. “What I mean is, the Internet is fickle and current news becomes old news in minutes. People have already moved on and found fresh meat. You stopped trending on Twitter and Facebook in less than twelve hours, Arthur, stop moping around already and get your shit together.”
“Yea, okay, but they’ve all seen the video, I can’t make them unsee it,” he punctuates his argument with a flailing hand, “no one’s gonna hire me because they all think I have anger management issues and I respond to criticism by punching people in the face. Oh my god, my life is over.”
He collapses onto the couch then lets himself slide inch by inch off the cushions until he’s on the floor because leather upholstery is actually absurd and why did he ever buy into it.
“Arthur, okay, number one: enough people in the city know you that you punching a guy one time is not going to ruin your reputation, which was stellar last time I checked. Number two: the review was bullshit and Nash knows it, and you’re just letting that poor excuse for a human being win by hiding away and wallowing in self-pity. And number three: he deserved that punch and you exercised an amazing amount of self-restraint by only doing it once.”
For a minute Arthur just lies on the floor and stares up at the ceiling, listening to Ariadne breathe through her anger. He doesn’t regret the punch, he really doesn’t, although he still can’t believe Nash didn’t jump on the chance to get him charged with assault, aggravated if the little shit thought he could pull it off. Nash makes a living out of destroying people’s dreams. Granted, no food critic has ever survived on being nice, but Nash takes perverse pleasure from being cruel. He seeks out the up-and-comers and picks off the vulnerable ones one by one, padding his credibility with a few well-placed connections, schmoozing with the industry darlings. Arthur was the one who got away, and Nash has been chasing him ever since. There’s no rhyme or reason to Nash’s behavior, nothing Arthur’s done to antagonize him; he just plays the game because he likes to win, and that’s what riles Arthur the most. He hates, fucking loathes the idea that this Food & Wine debacle was never, at any point, about the food; it was about the competition.
Then Ariadne asks, “Have you talked to Eames?”
His back stiffens against the rug. “Eames? Why would I talk to Eames?”
“Yusuf told me he was thinking about tweeting a response to the review.”
Arthur scrambles against the couch to prop himself up. “Why the fuck would he do that?”
There’s a pause, which means Ariadne’s doing one of two things: shrugging or rolling her eyes.
“He wants to? I don’t know. Half the review is about him, right? It’d be weird if he didn’t say something. His publicist wants him to keep quiet, though.”
Arthur blinks. “He has a publicist?”
Of course Eames has a fucking publicist. He lives for the attention and he loves making waves. Huge, glittering tidal waves that bring one celebrity after another to fill his tables. Arthur’s never cared for any of that, he’s never striven for it. All he ever wanted was to feed people and watch them light up with a passion for the food, and if none of those people had ever graced the cover of Vogue or changed the world, then he’d still feel like he did something right.
“Yes, he has a publicist, Jesus, Arthur, when was the last time you talked to him?”
He pauses before responding with a blatant lie. “I don’t remember.”
By the end of the week he’s gotten his shit together. Mostly together. He’s cleaned the loft from top to bottom, restocked the fridge, sharpened his knives, and made a list of contacts he thinks won’t let his calls go straight to voicemail.
He’s whipping up some grilled cheese with prosciutto and asparagus on the sourdough he made in the morning when he gets a text.
we shld talk how abt coffee at 3 -e
He’s almost, not quite forgotten how much he hates Eames’s texts. The flagrant disregard for punctuation, the initial at the end like the phone doesn’t fucking tell him who the sender is. The flagrant disregard for punctuation.
And he still doesn’t see why he needs to talk to Eames. Why everyone thinks he needs to talk to Eames. Eames hasn’t called or texted or knocked on his door in six months. Eames was the one who pulled off his apron in the middle, in the middle, of plating a lemon basil tart and left after accusing Arthur of being afraid to dream bigger.
But Arthur replies because he doesn’t want Eames to think for a second that he still dwells on any of it, that he ever lost any sleep over it.
I’ll see you at 3.
After lunch, he takes the 5 to the coffee shop a block and a half down from the restaurant, tucked unassumingly between a nail salon and a florist. They’d discovered it the day before their soft opening and walked in only because the name, Latte’da, resonated with Eames’s stupid fondness for puns. It turned into a weekly routine, breaking down new menus over espresso and scones—moist, perfectly sweetened, to-die-for—at the same round corner table with the same stupid grins that told each other they made it, rain or shine.
When he walks in Eames is already waiting, and that makes him stop dead in his tracks just to check his watch. It’s 3, so he’s punctual, which means Eames was early, and he’s staring at Arthur now, having just spotted him, mouth twitching like he set the whole thing up so Arthur would be wrong-footed the second he walked in the door.
He skirts around the line at the counter and sits down opposite Eames, jaw set, arms crossed over his chest.
“Triple-shot, extra hot, extra foam,” Eames says by way of a greeting, pushing a drink over to Arthur’s side of the table.
Arthur doesn’t budge. “You wanted to talk. So talk.”
Eames looks at him intently because Eames is always trying to read people, figure out what they’re hiding by what they show he always said. He tried to pull that shit on Arthur the first time they met. Turned out Arthur has a fucking incomparable poker face.
“How are you?”
Then Eames says that, and Arthur wants to laugh, laugh and then punch him in the face, because everything remotely related to Eames has always made him feel so goddamn violently, and apparently these six months haven’t done a thing to change that.
In the end, he deadpans, “I’m fucking peachy. Having the time of my life being unemployed and universally ridiculed.”
Eames frowns a little. “Nash deserved it, the rat-faced bastard. What he wrote about you, the restaurant, it was vicious and despicable, even for him.”
“Yea, well, I don’t need you to throw me a pity party,” Arthur bites out, fingers digging into his forearms. “It was nothing I wouldn’t expect from Nash. And maybe he was right. You had the charisma, you added the flair. The customers came for you. Reservations dipped after you left. Maybe I was just riding on your coattails.”
For a moment Eames looks devastated, like this isn’t what he wanted for them, not before and not now, and that makes Arthur grab for his coffee and take a generous swig, wincing a little as it burns its way down his throat, feeling his anger spike. Six-month-old anger that feels brand new again, hotter and thicker the longer he looks at Eames, bursting from the stab wound in his back that was too deep to heal with any kind of conviction.
Then Eames says, “I regret the way I left,” averting his eyes because they both know what he’s not saying. He’s not saying he should’ve turned down Saito’s offer, had more faith in them, stayed.
It’s a fucking half-assed apology if Arthur’s ever heard one. It makes him figure if there was ever a chance for catharsis, a purging of this bad blood that’s probably more one-sided than he cares to admit, it would be now. But he’s not hardwired for messy outpourings of emotion. Even as he opens his mouth he can feel the walls coming up on instinct, compartmentalizing Eames’s non-regrets.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he shrugs. For all he’s deflected Ariadne’s logic, he knows she’s right. He has no business running a restaurant if he collapses under the weight of one scathing review riddled with dangling prepositions. “I’ll make some calls this week. I just need one person to still think I’m not deranged and dangerous.”
“Maurice Fischer is a bloody idiot,” Eames says frankly. “I’ve always had my suspicions, and now they’ve finally been vindicated.”
Arthur thinks that’s rich coming from him. Fischer might be a ruthless, unfeeling, egomaniacal asshole, but he’s never pretended to be anything else. He’s never once made Arthur think that he values loyalty over ambition. But Arthur compartmentalizes. He compartmentalizes like it’s his fucking job.
“He was afraid of the backlash. Can’t say I blame him.” It’s actually the one part of this whole media disaster that he’s easily accepted. It doesn’t take someone with considerable, or any, business acumen to see that Arthur’s become more of a liability than an asset. “I didn’t expect him to risk being guilty by association.”
Eames doesn’t respond, just settles for watching him, so he waits, having known Eames for too long to get unnerved by his stupid staring contests.
“Why did you punch him?” Eames finally asks, looking back and forth between Arthur and his coffee cup as he tears at the cardboard sleeve. “You’ve taken shit from him before but you’ve never lost your head like that. What did he say to you?”
In hindsight, Arthur should’ve seen this coming. Eames never takes anything at face value if he can help it, always starting with the assumption that there’s something to be found if he goes deeper, whether it’s dark or beautiful or incriminating. And with Arthur he seems bent on being both more dogged and more painstaking than with anyone else.
He pauses for a second too long and Eames narrows his eyes.
“Arthur, what did he say to you,” he repeats, voice low and a little dangerous, like Arthur needs Eames to defend his honor, needs Eames to be his goddamn champion after six goddamn months of radio silence.
“He was saying the same stupid shit, all right?” he snaps, fingers twitching with the impulse to strangle Eames for being so infuriatingly perceptive. “He had this self-satisfied—demented grin on his face and it was the last fucking straw. My virtue has limits, so sue me.”
He turns to his right and looks out the window, realizing it started to rain sometime after he walked in. Thin silvery pools have collected on the window sill and the pavement is already drenched. He swallows and breathes, and imagines against his better judgment that nothing’s changed. That they’re still walking the same road through the same dream filling in the same landscape, Eames with broad, exuberant strokes and Arthur with careful, compulsive detail, their skill sets perfect complements.
“You’re a fucking terrible liar,” Eames tells him, not for the first time, but it doesn’t matter. He decides all of a sudden that he has to go. Being at this coffee shop, sitting across from Eames—it’s making him go down the list of everything he’s lost, thrown away, fucked up, and he can’t breathe.
“I have to go,” he says abruptly, pushing his chair back and making it scrape loudly against the floor before running away.
Two hours later he’s reading the Times article he saved two weeks ago on the versatility of the artichoke in modern gastronomy, except he’s read the same sentence about ten times and he doesn’t actually give a fuck about artichokes.
So he gives up and opens a new tab, pulling up the video from his history to watch it for the third and final time, emphasis on final, not that he hasn’t already crossed the line from morbid curiosity to straight-up masochism.
Someone caught the entire thing on a cell phone and uploaded it even before Arthur had time to get home and put a bag of frozen peas on his knuckles. They’d been standing close enough that both Arthur and Nash are identifiable, but too far away to pick up any piece of the conversation, which actually seems halfway civil for the first thirty seconds or so. Arthur looks passive, a little stiff but unbothered. Nash is smiling, which, from a distance, comes off as “good-natured fellow” rather than “smug prick.” He’d made an untimely arrival just as Arthur was heading back into the kitchen after having sucked down a smoke, a habit he picked up from Eames he hasn’t tried all that hard to kick.
42 seconds in is when it all spectacularly goes to hell. Arthur watches himself go stock still at something Nash says, then turn as if he’s about to walk away. Except he turns back, quick as lightning, to punch Nash in the face, throwing his entire weight behind it, and it’s just a little sickening to see Nash’s head snap to one side before he stumbles backward, falling into a crowd of patrons gathered outside the restaurant.
The thing is, Arthur hadn’t thought twice about the punch. What made him turn his back was crippling, unadulterated anger, not indecision; he hadn’t for a second considered taking the high road. And that’s because what Nash said to him wasn’t about him, it was about Eames, and no matter how hard he’s tried to learn that it’s every man for himself in this business, he still cares too goddamn much, which seems to have, so far, turned out fucking fantastically for everyone but him.
He closes his laptop with a bang before the video runs all the way through. He knows Nash is still fucking smiling at the end of it. If he thinks about it, he also knows why Nash didn’t press charges. The fucker thinks he’s already won, that he’s humiliated Arthur and cracked him open, and there’s nothing left to do but to toss him aside.
“Enough,” he says to the empty room at large, and it sounds disappointingly less resonant out loud than in his head, but isn’t that how it always goes.
He walks over to the kitchen and opens the fridge, surveying the contents. He doesn’t have a fully-formed plan but he doesn’t let it bother him. In this dimly lit room with only stainless steel appliances to keep him company, he remembers what Eames said the day before he walked out. He said Arthur’s head was the one thing that always held him back, told him to play it safe all the times he could’ve gone for broke, and made him capable when he could’ve been a revelation.
It had stung then and it stings now because it’s the goddamn truth, but this time he doesn’t want to bury it and hide from it. He takes a deep breath and shelves his fear, his doubts, and his self-pity, because what’s crystallized in the wake of this train wreck of a week is that somewhere along the way he lost sight of where he started. Which wasn’t the day he dropped out of college or took his first apprenticeship, or when he first felt that secret, reckless desire to be a chef instead of an engineer. It was as a kid, swinging his legs against the couch eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with his mom pressed against him, watching Julia Child use obscene amounts of butter and handle kitchen disasters with aplomb. Watching her delight in cooking and eating, bold, unapologetic, and utterly without inhibition. And then watching his mom imitate her as she smiled and hummed to the radio, which was when it suddenly didn’t matter if his dad had walked out on them, having found something better. It didn’t matter that they had to move to a tiny apartment where his bedroom had no windows and the pipes burst every winter, or that his mom worked double shifts and came home after he’d already fallen asleep.
So this time he thinks about all that, digs up that essential piece of himself and wipes off the grime, before he starts to cook.
He scrubs the mussels he bought on a whim at the morning market and keeps them in the colander to soak while he slices the sweet onions for the French onion soup, and readies the bacon and the chicken livers for the mousse. Then it takes no time at all for the kitchen to fill with aromas, sweet, savory, decadent, that make him take deep, hedonistic breaths, feeling pleasure, comfort, flood in and soothe all the places in him that had rattled and shook and fucking ached all week. And for the first time in a long time, there’s no voice in his head barking at him to do it cleanly, do it perfectly, do it the way someone else wants it done. There’s no extraneous noise, just the sound of sizzling, simmering, steaming, and Billie Holiday wafting earnestly through his speakers.
He’s about to slide the mousse into the oven when Ariadne calls.
“No, I’m no longer moping. Yes, I’m getting my shit together. And congrats on the promotion,” he says before she can get a word out, “I meant to call you earlier but something came up. I’m happy for you, I really, really am. You deserve it.”
“I—” Ariadne starts, sounding a little emotional, and Arthur smiles, tucking the phone against his shoulder as he opens the fridge again to get the eggs for the chocolate soufflé. “Thanks. This isn’t how I wanted it to happen, not even close, but thanks. For taking a chance on me in the first place, for getting on my ass about every little thing until I wanted to strangle you with your apron. For making me better. I mean it, Arthur.”
He grips the door, throat closing a little with nostalgia, slightly bitter but mostly sweet, and that’s when he thinks he really is starting to move on. He figures change has long been overdue.
He’s quiet for so long Ariadne follows up with, “Arthur, are you crying, you big softie, you.”
“Ugh, no,” he says unconvincingly, clearing his throat and then pulling out the eggs.
“Anyway, I’m calling because I have an idea,” she tells him, pausing to build the suspense.
He just waits as he separates out the yolks and drops them into the bowl of the stand mixer, knowing she’ll tell him whether he wants to hear her out or not, and then she’ll harass him until he agrees to it. Needless to say he had not been surprised to hear that she’d once made a killing as a telemarketer.
“I think you should open a food truck.”
“Wait, what?” He turns off the mixer because he’s not sure he heard her right.
“A food truck,” she enunciates. “It’s still kind of a niche market but it’s expanding fast and this is the perfect time to be a part of the revolution. People love it because it offers delicious, well-crafted food at reasonable prices. You can make it gourmet without being an asshole about it. You can reach out to people who can’t afford to go to high-end restaurants. You can do whatever you want, make whatever you want, and you can travel, get out of New York for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love this city, but it can wear you down after a while, you know?”
He blinks and switches the mixer back on, turning the idea over in his head, sifting through her argument before he remembers he’s not supposed to be overthinking, overanalyzing. He doesn’t have to lay every life decision out in a spreadsheet and do a cost-benefit analysis. He just needs to fucking live, and dropping everything to open a food truck actually sounds like the goddamn perfect way to do it.
“Where would I get the truck?” He won’t rationalize it, but logistics might be important.
“Oh-my-god-are-you-really-considering-it?” she says in a rush, and then lets out an alarming squeal, presumably to indicate her excitement. “I got Dom to find you one. It’s seen better days, but the foundation’s solid. You just need to outfit it with some new equipment and you’ll be good to go.”
He frowns, still stuck on the first sentence. “Dom. Dom Cobb found me a food truck.”
Ariadne sighs like she knew he’d be difficult about this. Him. Difficult.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what he’s trying to do. He screwed up, we were all there. He was crashing and burning, and he almost took us down with him. But we pulled through and it’s over now. You can’t hold it over his head forever.”
Arthur grinds his teeth and dumps in the cooled chocolate. He’s not one to hold grudges, he really isn’t; he just seems to get mixed up with people, two people in particular, who don’t make forgiveness easy.
“Maybe not forever, but a good long while wouldn’t be unreasonable,” he says flatly. “I thought I could trust him and he didn’t just throw that in my face, Ariadne, he made me into an asshole for convincing the rest of you he could be trusted.”
“Arthur, the two of you had been friends for years. You had every reason to think that. At no point did you do anything I wouldn’t have done,” she says, sounding as weary as Arthur feels about rehashing this for the hundredth fucking time, but he just hasn’t been able to let it go. “He acted like a dick, it was selfish and unthinking, but sometimes—sometimes grief makes you do terrible things, turns you into someone you’re not. And you can never go back from that, you can only go forward.”
She says it like she knows exactly how that works, reminding Arthur that he’s never actually asked her about her life before culinary school because he’s a fucking shitty friend, and that makes him come down from his anger, enough to try to be better.
“Okay,” he takes a breath and closes his eyes for a second, “okay, I’ll call Dom. It’s terrifying how you can basically talk me into doing anything.”
“I know,” she says, and he can hear her smile.
He swings by Dom’s office on the Upper West Side the next morning, bright and early because he hates delaying anything he could be doing as soon as humanly possible. Their phone call last night was fine, if a little stiff. Short. Neither he nor Cobb has ever been much of a talker. Mal always enjoyed saying that they built their friendship on a foundation of companionable silence.
In an effort to be a better person, he takes a quick detour to pop into his favorite bagel place to pick up half a dozen bagels and a tub of scallion cream cheese, full-fat because anything else is for people who don’t know food. When he gets to the building, right at the tip of Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson, the truck’s already been pulled up to the loading dock.
Cobb walks out a minute later, looking good—happy. As hard as Arthur tries, he can never forget the way Cobb was in the week following Mal’s death. Wrecked, haunted, hollow, like the life that filled him was tied to Mal, indistinguishable from Mal and buried with her. For all Cobb had disappointed him, he knows Ariadne’s right. He can’t understand that kind of grief, the kind of loss so sudden and acute you barely remember how to exist.
“What do you think?” Cobb tips his head at the truck. “She’s a fixer-upper, I know, but she runs just fine.”
Fixer-upper is pretty generous. It’s a couple steps up from scrap metal, coated with what looks like a decade’s worth of grime under which Arthur can just make out the word Meatyballs. A couple of the letters are peeled off but it’s not hard to fill in the blanks.
“I’ll take what I can get,” he says, walking up to inspect the inside. “Jesus, were people having food fights in this thing?”
Everywhere he turns he sees grease and unidentifiable food stains, and possibly non-food stains. There’s a pool of something gelatinous in the corner of the stove. The floor is no doubt a veritable breeding ground for bacteria and living things. He’ll have to hose it down from top to bottom with fucking industrial-strength bleach.
But he’s smiling, honest to God smiling for the first time in what feels like months.
“The flattop still looks surprisingly usable. The rest you’ll probably want to replace. Don’t even think about opening the fridge.”
Arthur takes a few steps back and stares at it, lacing his fingers behind his head as he estimates the overhead, what he can skimp on and what he can’t.
“What kind of menu are you thinking?”
He knows Cobb expects him to already have a plan of action, a plan for his plan rounded off with several backups, all detailed in anal-retentive spreadsheets.
“Fuck if I know,” he says blithely. It feels incredibly liberating, admitting that out loud.
Cobb’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline.
“Sounds like you’re going through an existential crisis.” Then he pauses, considering. “Are you going through an existential crisis?”
Arthur takes a deep breath, arching his back and feeling a tight spot in his spine pop sweetly, before turning to Cobb.
“Maybe,” he says, smiling before remembering how easy it used to be between them, how they didn’t bullshit each other, how there was no need to go digging exhaustedly for the truth because they laid it out, plain and simple. But that was before Mal died and left Cobb nearly unrecognizable. Before Arthur started learning for himself that trust is a rare commodity in this world, and that if he were smart, he’d play his cards close to his vest.
“I feel like I’ve lost touch.” He drags both hands through his hair, which he hasn’t bothered to style or make at all presentable in the last few days, figuring it’s the least of his problems. “I don’t know. I think it’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to what I’m doing, what I’m cooking. It’s like—it’s like I’ve been on auto pilot, working a 9 to 5 job to keep myself occupied and pay the goddamn bills, and that’s not fucking okay. That was never what I set out to do. I was putting whatever Fischer wanted me to put on the menu because I figured, he knows what people want, right? But I think about that now and I realize that I fucking hated it, because it wasn’t what people wanted, it was what got people through the door. Jesus. And the more I think about it, the harder it gets to brush off—”
He drags his hands down his face, suddenly feeling like he hasn’t slept in days, which actually isn’t far from the truth. He’s technically slept more than zero hours, but that’s a low standard even for him.
“Nash couldn’t hack it as a chef years ago so he goes after the people who can,” Cobb says bluntly, not so much for Arthur’s benefit as to generally clarify that Nash is scum. “If there’s any truth to his words, then it’s pure coincidence. He’s tabloid writer. He survives on sensationalism, not integrity. You can hack it, Arthur. You have hacked it. So maybe you lost your way. Everyone does at one point or another.”
Cobb shrugs, and it’s both casual and helpless, like he’s caught between inventing a new way to apologize and just accepting that some things once broken are irreparable.
Arthur goes for a safe middle ground and hums in acquiescence.
“Guess I have my work cut out for me,” he says, then nods at the truck. “If I catch an infectious disease, I’m forwarding you my hospital bills.”
Cobb gives him all the cleaning supplies he needs and it takes him a good two hours to feel sure he’ll pass the initial health inspection with flying colors. It was the first thing he mastered as an apprentice—keeping his work area spotless and his sleeves as impeccable when he left as when he walked in. Cleanliness was next to Godliness; his mother instilled that in him early on with a borderline fanaticism that turned her soft lines hard. Their kitchen always gleamed with a vengeance, sat there cold and sterile until she put on her apron. That was when she worked her magic, filling every nook and cranny with a culinary fantasia of blissful aromas.
At the end of the two hours, he stands back and dedicates a minute to admiring his handiwork. For all he’s gotten used to a certain degree of success, he still gets a thrill from the nitty-gritty of building a thing from the ground up. With the cleanup done, he’s laid the first brick and he only feels mildly apprehensive that he might’ve picked a sinkhole to build it on.
When he climbs back in to inspect the hardware, he bypasses the fridge. It sounded like Cobb had been adventurous enough to try it out and the images still haunt him.
He’s leveling an appraising stare at the flattop when he hears Eames’s voice behind him.
“If this is a mid-life crisis, you couldn’t have just bought a motorcycle?”
Eames is leaning insolently against the bumper with his arms crossed over his chest, looking in with undisguised amusement, like it’s a toy Arthur will play with only until it breaks.
He grinds his teeth. “First of all, we’re not in the fucking Dark Ages, 33 is not mid-life. Second, I’m not in a crisis, there is no crisis, why do people keep saying that? Why can’t I be spontaneous and try something new?”
Eames raises his eyebrows a fraction of an inch. “Who are you and what have you done with Arthur. I will fight you for his soul if I must.”
“Fuck you,” Arthur says, with less bite than he intended. “How did you find me anyway?”
Eames hops up onto the truck and resumes his leaning, this time against the oven, in close enough range that Arthur can smell the spice of his aftershave, though it looks like he hasn’t actually shaved in two to three days. Probably closer to two; it’s still more stubble than beard. Which is when Arthur decisively shuts down that line of thinking because the state of Eames’s facial hair should not be occupying any part of his brain. For fuck’s sake.
“I have my sources,” Eames deflects.
Ariadne. He should’ve known. She’s too sneaky by half and persistent to boot. He’d have words with her except he knows he could talk himself hoarse and she still wouldn’t give a goddamn inch, empowered with enough righteousness to topple a fascist regime.
Then Eames adds, gently, “You left our last meeting a little open-ended.”
It makes Arthur turn away from the flattop to look at him, at his momentary slide into uncertainty and then a flawless recovery that might’ve fooled Arthur three, four years ago. Then Arthur thinks about what Ariadne said, about forward being the only way, advice cleverly shrouded in self-reflection, and he figures he can at least try it on for size.
“Since you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful,” he says, carefully, though, so Eames doesn’t mistake a temporary truce for reconciliation. And he would. He’s too comfortable with getting exactly what he wants with his less-than-wholesome charm and one-size-fits-all smile.
Arthur would say that’s the smile Eames is using on him now, except he’d be lying, because this one isn’t charming, it’s beautiful. It’s the kind that makes him feel like gravity isn’t working quite right, that North and South are relative rather than absolute.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Arthur looks away. “I need a new fridge.”
Before they walk into the store, he sets his budget at a reasonable $8,000 to cover the fridge, a new combo range, a deep fryer, some extra shelving, and the necessary cookware. By the time they walk out, he’s overshot it by $4,000 because Eames is an asshole and outrageously adept at convincing him that what he wants and what he needs are one and the same.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into buying a 1300-dollar knife block set that includes a boning knife. It’s a food truck for god’s sake. I’m not planning to bone anything—”
Well, fuck, he walked right into that one.
“Isn’t that a shame,” Eames says with a salacious grin. “But I suppose you mustn’t confuse customers about what you’re selling.”
“The knife block set, Eames,” he says flatly, refusing to let Eames bait him.
Eames gives a cavalier shrug as they cross over to Sixth. “You’ve let me talk you into worse.”
And isn’t that the truth. Skinny-dipping in the dead of night, trying fugu in fucking Jacksonville of all places, cliff diving into Lake Michigan. All ill-advised and largely life-threatening.
“In any case, you need proper knives to make proper food. So it’s a food truck, not a Michelin-starred restaurant. Doesn’t mean you should settle for anything less than what you deserve.” Eames pauses to look at him sideways, like he knows Arthur will resist the idea. “And you deserve the best.”
It sounds so easy the way Eames says it, and he looks down at the pavement because he has no idea what to say. He’s never been good at taking compliments and with Eames it never just sounds like a compliment, it sounds like a truth, a rule governing the goddamn universe, forcing Arthur to confront the possibility that he’s worth more than he’s made himself believe.
He’s working his throat around something appreciative and halfway articulate when Eames follows up with, “I can get the truck repainted for you if you want. I know a guy who owes me a favor or three.”
Arthur looks up, blinking at the sudden 180.
“Um,” he says eloquently.
“And unless you’ve come up with a name already, I think I’ve got the perfect one. You’ll love it, I promise,” Eames tells him, with what Arthur would call overconfidence, except, as with most things concerning Eames, Arthur feels his belief overriding his skepticism, this time because he knows, even though it hasn’t been said in so many words, that Eames has made it his unofficial job to figure Arthur out the last four years, through and through.
“No puns,” he stipulates, just in case, “of any kind, Eames, or I swear to God—”
“What? You don’t trust me?” Eames asks before his smile slides off his face, remembering that they no longer have a perfect record.
But the thing is, the thing that knees him in the gut and makes him look away so Eames doesn’t see him breathless is that he does trust Eames, he trusts Eames despite himself, and it doesn’t so much terrify him as it makes him fucking ache, makes him want to reach out and lash out all at once.
In the end he just says, “Get the truck back to me in one piece and we’ll go from there.”
His mom calls that night and effectively turns his worst nightmare into a reality.
“When were you planning on calling to tell me about this internet video of yours?” she demands, making it sound distressingly like porn.
“I didn’t want to worry you, mom,” he sighs, leaning back in his chair and staring at the magnificent spreadsheet he’s made breaking down costs and revenue streams for his new venture. He’d foolishly hoped she wouldn’t catch wind of his moment of insanity and have cause to despair at the terrible human being her son has turned out to be, despite her best efforts.
“The man in the video, he was the one who wrote that preposterous review of your restaurant, wasn’t he?” she goes on, anger jostling with her concern. “I’ve never read anything so mean-spirited and small-minded, he has some nerve calling my son a—”
“Mom, it’s fine, you’re getting more worked up than I was,” he smiles, tipping his head back and letting her aural presence soothe him down to his bones.
“In any case,” she adds, to temper her vitriol, “you shouldn’t have hit him. You’re not that kind of person, Arthur, you use your words not your fists.”
“I know,” he says, and now he just feels like a terrible son for not calling her and telling her himself, owing up to what he did instead of hiding from it. But maybe he can start making up for it by telling the truth, so he adds, “it was stupid and impulsive. I probably—I know I gave him exactly what he wanted. But I can’t say I regret it. He—I’m sorry. The last thing I want to do is disappoint you, but I don’t regret it.”
“I’m not disappointed, sweetheart. You don’t have to try so hard to be perfect. No one’s perfect,” she says gently, and then pauses. “Does Eames have anything to do with this?”
Maybe it’s because they haven’t talked in a while. Maybe it’s that every time they do talk, he reverts to his ten-year-old self, that age when he still readily sought his mother out and enfolded himself in the breadth of her love, which, to a kid already familiar with abandonment, felt both safe and limitless. But he suddenly wishes she were here, to make the world feel less messy, more defined, lend him some conviction because his has been a hapless ebb and flow that won’t stay put. He wishes she were in the kitchen with him, cooking up something like boeuf bourguignon that calls for more time than attention—an indulgent, unhurried labor of love—so he can ask her what he’s doing wrong, how many times he’s supposed to fuck up before he gets it right.
But she’s halfway across the country so he’ll just have to make due.
“I’ve recently come to the aggravating conclusion that most things have something to do with Eames,” he says dryly, thinking all the while that truth is appreciably easier when he has nothing to lose, not with the one person he knows will forgive him everything, whatever his faults.
“You’ve been unhappy—”
“Mom—” he tries to protest but she cuts back in.
“Just listen to your mother for a minute, Arthur,” she says firmly, brooking no argument. “I know you’ve been unhappy. For some time now. You try not to show it but I brought you into this world and raised you for eighteen years, you didn’t think I’d figure it out? Eames hurt you when he left, no one understands that better than I do, and maybe he had his reasons, maybe he didn’t. Don’t you owe it to yourself to find out?”
She takes a deep breath and he waits. He waits because while it hurts like hell, hearing out loud what he’s just starting to admit to himself, in all their years together she’s never led him astray.
“The world is chaotic and unpredictable, and sometimes you feel like things never go the way you want them to so you think maybe it’s easier to just stop trying. But you only have one life, sweetheart, and if that’s not good enough reason to keep trying, I don’t know what is. You have that one life so you try to live it well, and that means you also try your damnedest to hold onto what and who you love. Even when you’re terrified of failure. Especially when you’re terrified, because that’s usually a pretty good sign that it’s worth the risk.”
Her voice is low, full of iron will up until the very end, and then he hears the strength of it bow and shudder under the specter of regret. He knows it’s never stopped haunting her. He knows for all they’ve built an incredible life, just the two of them, she still thinks she should’ve tried harder. That maybe if she’d been more generous, more accommodating, more loving, just more, they would’ve had something tantalizingly close to perfect. He thinks, with a twist of his gut, that he could’ve been better at reassuring her they’ve gotten pretty damn close anyway, and that she loves more openly, more fearlessly than anyone else he knows. Then he thinks if even one person could say that about him, he’d be living his life well. And at the very least he can give her that.
“I’m unbelievably terrified,” he finally admits, swiveling around in his chair to stare at the blank wall he’s been meaning to cover with art.
It’s something else his mom figured out on her own. That he’s in love with Eames. In fact he wouldn’t be surprised if she figured it out before he did, because falling in love with Eames had been so remarkably easy it was almost unremarkable. But maybe that’s just how it goes; he’d never been in love before that. He also never imagined it to be so agonizing and impossible and persistent. That letting go of it didn’t mean for a second that it let go of you.
“So you’re already well on your way,” she says, and he smiles.
True to his word, Eames brings the truck back in one piece. And true to his word, he hasn’t incorporated puns of any kind. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Arthur loves it.
“Well?” Eames says as he hops out from the driver’s side, looking at Arthur, eager as a puppy.
And Arthur just stares, swallowing thickly because of course Eames remembered. He had the entire thing painted over in a light blue-green then detailed in subtle ochre with the oblong shapes of kitchen panels and the concentric circles of kitchenware hung up next to them. In the foreground are the words Bon Appétit in a scrawling elegant font, like a chef signing off at the end of his love letter to food.
When Arthur walks a little closer, he sees a border running around the length of all three sides, made up of the words of Julia Child. If you're afraid of butter, use cream. Life itself is the proper binge. People who love to eat are always the best people. And Eames’s personal favorite: A party without cake is just a meeting.
“Eames,” he finally says, trying to not sound sappy and choked up, but, Jesus, he really is. Not just because Eames remembered, but because Eames gets it, and he’s so unpredictable, so indefinable, so goddamn aggravating sometimes that Arthur forgets just how much Eames gets it, gets him. How Eames convinces him, with no effort at all, that he’s not tripping over his own two feet, taking shots in the dark; he sees where he is and where he’s headed with perfect clarity. That maybe most things in the world don’t make sense, but if you’re lucky, you find a few things that do and that’s more than enough.
“If there’s something you want to add or change,” Eames says, rubbing at the back of his neck, looking nervous, and, well, isn’t that just the darndest thing, “hell, if you want to redo the whole thing all together, my guy’s just a phone call away.”
Arthur wants to say, it’s perfect, it’s everything I didn’t know I wanted until now, it’s everything.
Instead he says, “What do you say we test out my new goddamn food truck?”
They make a quick grocery run, which in actuality isn’t quick at all because they bicker for a solid half hour about what kind of food would be most appropriate for christening a food truck and then a good fifteen minutes about what kind of cheese they want for the sliders.
On their way back Arthur texts Ariadne. About to break in the food truck. Come see the monster you’ve created.
“You got the onions?” he asks Eames when they climb into the truck and lay out their ingredients before scrubbing their hands clean.
“My onions will rock your world,” Eames tells him, grin heavy on the self-satisfaction as he reaches over for the chef’s knife.
“I don’t know, my onion standards are pretty fucking high,” Arthur says, mouth wanting to match Eames’s grin inch for inch. Because he might be crammed inside a food truck, sweat already trickling down his neck, with no income and no idea if this crazy scheme will even get off the ground, but goddamn it, it feels right as rain, cooking what he craves and cooking it elbow to elbow with Eames. Eames who’s stupidly adept at caramelizing onions, and at making Arthur feel like, come what may, everything will be just fine.
“The terrifying thing is, I know you’re being completely serious,” Eames says, peeling and slicing the onions like a ninja master, then adding butter and olive oil to the griddle.
Arthur starts dicing the chipotle peppers for the mayo. “I’ve never asked—maybe this is stupid to ask—how you’re so good at it. I still burn them three times out of ten.”
“Are—are you admitting I’m better than you at something?” Eames looks up like he’s having a mild heart attack. “My life is flashing before my eyes.”
“Just this once, so savor the moment.”
“Mmm, and how sweet it tastes.” A deep, exaggerated sound of pleasure escapes his throat and, Jesus Christ, Arthur almost slices off the tip of his index finger, it’s so unexpected. No doubt Eames did it on purpose, the asshole. “I learned how to do it properly at a young age, actually. My mum liked to use cooking to teach me patience.”
That makes Arthur look up, because Eames doesn’t talk about his mom much, and it hadn’t been hard to figure out that it’s not because he doesn’t have good memories, it’s because he has so few, and that makes him possessive of them, fiercely protective.
“Caramelizing onions, browning butter, making a reduction sauce,” Eames continues, smile shifting and shaping into something achingly tender. “It’s not just that patience is a virtue, she used to say, but if you want to add real flavor to life, the best flavor, it always takes time. And it’s always time well spent.”
Arthur wants to say, she was an incredible woman. Or maybe, she and my mom sound like kindred spirits. But then he hears a knock against the service window.
Ariadne’s waving enthusiastically when he turns to look, and he pushes one side open.
“Eames did an amazing job designing the exterior! Didn’t he do an amazing job?” she gushes immediately, eyes twinkling at Arthur.
Arthur glances at Eames, who’s stirring his onions smugly.
“Yea, amazing,” he concedes, mouth twitching. “Come in and I’ll show you around.”
She climbs in through the back and he turns around in a circle once, palms up.
She grins, setting her hands on her hips. “I love what you’ve done with the place. Has Cobb settled the permits? When are you embarking on your epic food tour?”
“He said he’d be done in a couple days,” Arthur says slowly, and then it hits him; he’s really doing this. “Jesus. I’m really doing this. I don’t even have a route planned out. I don’t have anyone helping me. I can’t do this by myself.”
His world’s starting to narrow a little and he thinks he’s about to have a fucking panic attack.
Then Ariadne says, “Eames can do it.”
Arthur stops in the middle of sucking in a deep breath and then lets it out in a loud whoosh. “What? Don’t be ridiculous, Eames has an actual restaurant to run.”
He looks at Eames, who he realizes has stayed curiously, suspiciously quiet.
“You haven’t told him?” Ariadne asks Eames with a stern look.
“Told me what?”
“I—ah—well, you see,” Eames rubs at the back of his head and it’s one of those rare, bewildering instances where he’s stumbling over his words, “I no longer have a restaurant to run. In fact, I have all the free time in the world because, well, I quit my job.”
Arthur blinks, stunned. “You what?”
Eames averts his eyes to check on the onions, the goddamn onions, as if he didn’t just change all the rules, change the fucking game, making Arthur think they were lazing around on the putting green and then sending in a 250-lb linebacker to knock him clean off his feet.
Then he hears, “Hey, you guys open for lunch?”
When he turns, he sees a guy in a hard hat and a reflective vest standing outside the window pulling off his gloves.
“Me and a couple guys are patching up the road over there and figured we’d check. The closest food joint that’s decent isn’t for a few more blocks.”
Before Arthur can even open his mouth, Eames leans over and says, “If you’re all right with burgers, then we’re absolutely open for lunch.”
The guy grins like he’s hit the jackpot. “I’m more than all right.”
Ariadne runs to the shop for more beef and fifteen minutes later they’re dolling out chipotle sliders to the entire roadwork crew before sitting down with them on the curb. They all dig in at once, elbows on their knees, letting the juices run along their fingers and drip onto the asphalt. Arthur breathes in deep and savors the flavors—rich, sweet, smoky, laced with a kick—for a moment just letting the world dissolve into soft white noise.
“Oh, yea, this hits the spot,” says the first guy—Pete—around a generous mouthful before chewing and swallowing. “Reminds me of the burgers my grandpa used to grill up at all the family cookouts. Hot, humid days in Houston that didn’t get much cooler when the sun went down. Us kids jumping through the sprinklers, seeing who could spit their watermelon seeds the farthest. Reminds me of home.”
That makes Arthur look at Eames, who’s already looking at him with half a smile, eyes telling him what he’s already thinking: that if they get to hear this just once a day, hear their food satisfying something deeper than hunger pangs, then they’ll have a good thing going.
Ariadne rushes off after lunch, now the only one of them with a real job apparently, and for a few minutes Arthur busies himself with the cleanup, trying to figure out the most diplomatic, least aggressive way of confronting the elephant in the room, so to speak.
In the end he gives up and asks, hands gripping either side of the sink, “Why did you quit?”
He figures if they’re really gonna do this, they might as well remember how to be straight with each other. He didn’t used to say one thing while thinking the polar opposite, or feel so goddamn suffocated by the weight of things unsaid.
Eames pauses for a second in the middle of tossing out the last piece of trash.
He opens his mouth, then closes it without a sound, probably about to deliver a teeth-grindingly insouciant quip before thinking better of it because he can tell Arthur’s playing hardball.
“Because I hated it,” he finally says, and just lets the words sit for a moment, heavy and self-incriminating, in the space between them. Arthur waits and stares at the faucet, every muscle tight as a highwire, thinking he should breathe but he fucking can’t. “I hated that I left, and then I hated every second that came after. It wasn’t the same. I lost my passion for the food, I just lost it. It felt dull, uninspired. Cooking became tedious, for god’s sake, like I was just going through the motions. But I kept going because, well, Saito went out on a limb for me and I couldn’t let him down, could I. I’m a man of my word. But I wasn’t happy, and if anything made you think I was—then it’s only because I’m bloody incredible at faking it.”
When Eames finally shuts up, he sags against the cook-top and drags both hands down his face.
“Good,” is all Arthur has the breath to say before he turns to face Eames, chest and everything in it feeling bruised and abused, like a fighter who’s taken one too many hits to the same goddamn spot.
“Good that I gave an Oscar-worthy performance, or good that I was unhappy?” Eames asks, mouth twitching but eyes—Jesus—eyes trying to asphyxiate Arthur with sincerity, with apology, as if to make up for every day of the last six months that went by without one.
“Both I guess,” says Arthur, swallowing. “I thought I was the only one who was fucking miserable.”
At that Eames smiles outright, which should be entirely nonsensical but instead makes perfect sense. Because they’re idiots who took the path of most resistance to get from A to B. They made the lonely climb on opposite sides of the same goddamn mountain, but now they’ve met at the peak, air renewing their lungs, pure and sweet, and the shared view is something else.
“Does that mean I’m hired? I have fantastic references,” Eames says, smile unflagging. “I also make a mean chowder.”
“Yea, yea, you’re hired,” Arthur says, throwing his soppy sponge at Eames, who catches it against his chest. “You can quit exploiting my weaknesses.”
“Oh, but then that would be playing fair, and where’s the fun in that?” Eames grins this time, with the kind of swagger made for a center spread in Gourmet and the bedroom walls of young impressionable women.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t hire you for fun, I hired you to work.”
“More’s the pity,” Eames murmurs, eyes going from warm to hot without so much as a warning, making Arthur burn, remembering the one and only time he brought Eames home to stay, asking Eames to stay, and feeling the soundless litany of yes against his mouth all the way down to his thigh. Saito’s offer had come two weeks after that.
“Eames, I—” he starts, then stops because he doesn’t want to ruin the moment, that feeling that everything’s just about fallen into place after being thrown into complete chaos, and he wants to enjoy it for a while longer. “How about making our way down the Eastern seaboard? As far as this thing will take us. And no set menu. We change it to suit the city.”
“That is bloody genius,” says Eames, lighting up like a kid in a candy shop. “We’ll take the country by storm.”
Arthur grins. “We can sure as hell try.”
Their first stop is Philly. They strategically park a block away from UPenn’s main quad and watch the students gather like moths to a flame. They serve up thick-cut fries topped with ribbons of tender rib-eye, melted provolone, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers—easily made sans beef for the vegetarians—and pork fritters using a giant, heavenly slab of porchetta they pick up in the morning from a guy with a thick Italian accent and a staggering enthusiasm for their entrepreneurial spirit.
Forty-five minutes into the lunch rush, Arthur decides, definitively, that running a food truck is the worst and best job he’s ever had. Worst because, yes, he has Eames, but Eames is not an entire kitchen staff and the quantity of orders they’re handling is, frankly, insane for a two-person operation. What’s more, he thinks he’s suffocating slowly and one fan will not be enough to keep them alive. But—it’s the best job because the food is fucking good and he gets real-time reactions. He sees the kind of unadulterated enjoyment that takes a person by surprise, and then convinces them, if only for a moment, that they’ve achieved utter fulfillment, no matter what they’ve been going through life thinking they’re missing.
When he relieves Eames at the window to take the next batch of orders, he hears:
“Hey, no way, you’re the guy.”
He looks and sees a girl peering at him from below. Short brown curls, heart-shaped face, headphones hung around her neck, eyes telling him in no uncertain terms that she’s equipped with a steely sharp intellect and she’s not afraid to use it.
“You punched out that food critic. The video went viral a couple weeks ago. Dude, that was hilarious,” she grins unabashedly.
“Oh, shit, yea, that’s the guy,” says the student in line behind her, which sets off a ripple of murmuring through the crowd, and, Jesus, Arthur’s completely forgotten about the video until now.
“Um. Thanks,” he says haltingly, not quite decided if he feels like a celebrity or a freak show, probably somewhere in between; God, what has his life become. “What can I get for you?”
“The fritters, please. Can I get a picture with you? Just to prove to my friends that we met,” she clarifies, as if that makes the request perfectly reasonable and not at all bizarre or mortifying.
“Uh, well,” he hesitates, because he’s terrible at saying no to people but, goddamn it, his dignity is on the line, “we’re pretty busy right now—”
Eames suddenly pops up by his elbow, making him start a little.
“I’ll take the picture for you!” Eames offers gallantly. “We need a break anyway, I’m close to passing out back here, it’s so hot.”
“Eames,” Arthur hisses, glaring daggers while Eames pays no attention whatsoever.
“Awesome,” the girl beams before digging her phone out of her backpack. “It’ll only take a second.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you a good one,” Eames winks, fucking winks at her, although why is Arthur even surprised. “We may need multiple takes. Arthur blinks a lot despite being outrageously photogenic.”
“I’m going to kill you,” Arthur promises with fervor as they walk through the truck, open the back, and hop out, “with my 1300-dollar knife block set.”
There’s a bit of commotion when they walk around to the side, and Arthur stands with the girl next to the Bon Appétit! as Eames snaps a few pictures, telling them to say cheese, all the while apologizing to the crowd and weaving a masterful tale of how they came to own a food truck, wrapping up his spiel with a remark about the Eagles that draws a few loud cheers even though he doesn’t even fucking watch football. (American football, not to be confused with real football, he likes to assert.) And Arthur just stands there and watches Eames charm them, these random strangers, like there’s already something connecting them, and Eames would say there is. Eames uses food to start conversations, bring people together who otherwise would never meet and help them discover, loudly and vibrantly, a mutual understanding, a mutual love that runs deep through one soul and straight into another. Arthur’s never been so good with loud or vibrant, so times like this make him feel a little bereft maybe, but mostly lucky that he has Eames here to fill those spaces.
When Eames hands the girl her phone, she says suddenly, “Hey, you two want a picture? You can start a photo timeline or something, documenting your food-trucking adventures.”
Arthur blinks, a little caught off guard because it’s an incredibly thoughtful gesture, and he looks at Eames, who shrugs.
“Why not? Thirty years from now, we can look back and be unbearably sentimental over the free-spirited days of our youth, when we still had the guts and the legs to chase dreams for a living.”
Arthur stares at Eames without really listening because he’s stuck on thirty years from now. He’s stuck on how easy that sounds, how absolute, as if Eames takes it for granted, except Arthur knows he doesn’t by the way he’s smiling, all careful intent and reckless optimism.
“Speak for yourself, I’ll still have fantastic legs in thirty years,” Arthur says, just to see that smile get brighter.
They get back to work after that and the girl thanks them again for the picture and the food (this is legit) before she leaves. Less than an hour later they sell out of everything, which is just about when Arthur’s hand starts cramping up from scooping a a ludicrous number of pork fritters into the deep fryer. They close up the truck, promising the stragglers who miss out that they’ll be back in a few hours.
They fill up most of the afternoon meandering through the Rodin Museum, Arthur for the Beaux-Arts architecture, the whiff of Parisian elegance, and Eames for the Rodin. Arthur knows nothing about sculpture so he lets Eames be his audio guide, because for all Eames calls it a hobby, he doesn’t approach art like an observer, he approaches it like a curator, with a single-minded intensity reminiscent of the way he plates his food, poised on the brink of a masterpiece. So Arthur listens to Eames expound on the castings of The Thinker and the eroticism of The Kiss in hushed, reverent tones, watches Eames’s breath go weak at the painstaking detail, and thinks thirty years won’t be nearly long enough.
In the last hour or so before they head back to the quad, they go to Butcher and Singer and sit at a corner table tucked into the back of the restaurant. It’s quintessential old Hollywood, just how Arthur remembers it. Classic white linens, dark luxurious upholstery, low lighting, making him feel like he might spot Bogart and Bacall sharing a smoke and making eyes at each other over their dry martinis.
If he had it his way, he’d be wearing a suit and tie, something understated but sharp, and definitively not the t-shirt and jeans he’s currently wearing, although it helps that he’s with Eames. Eames can never be bothered to be self-conscious, an attitude that rubs off on Arthur when they’re in the same room, for better or for worse. Mostly for the better because it also means he’s not as mortified as he could be over what Eames is wearing, which makes him think someone somewhere has found the foolproof formula for making the world’s fucking ugliest shirt.
So he's not self-conscious, at least not uncomfortably so, but fuck if he isn't a little nervous, sitting across from Eames in this kind of ambiance. They've dined out before just the two of them, in Michelin-starred restaurants soaked in atmosphere, but this time he feels like he's teetering on the edge of something unexplored, toes pushing the line between familiar and thrillingly foreign.
He orders the brown butter branzino and Eames the dry-aged Porterhouse, medium rare, because Eames lives adventurously but never when he's ordering a meal. No matter how culture and gastronomy evolve, he likes to tell people, perfectly-cooked steak will never go out of style.
"Beurre blanc," Eames says after the waiter leaves, fiddling with a corner of his serviette.
Arthur smiles, settling back into his seat and crossing his arms. It's a game they used to play when they were commis chefs at La Cuisine, a way to pass the time and one-up each other when they had to shuck corn for two hours straight and assemble bouquet garnis until they could do it in their sleep.
"Reduce white wine with vinegar and shallots. Whisk in cold butter. Easy peasy,” he says. “Velouté.”
They’d been more or less on equal footing, Arthur with a slight edge if only because Eames reserved most of the space in his head for innovation rather than memorization. His instinct was to create, to break the monotony of imitation, be an original. He was classically trained but everything about him screamed avante-garde. And Arthur, who’s instinct was to go by the book, pretended he didn’t envy that, because at 29 his technique was already goddamn flawless.
“I wonder if anyone’s broken my potato peeling record,” Eames says as their waiter appears with their food.
“I’m sure at least one fresh-faced, doe-eyed apprentice has made it their life’s goal to usurp your title,” Arthur deadpans, smoothing his serviette onto his lap and then flaking his fish with his fork.
Eames cuts into the center of his steak and the juices run perfectly pink.
“I’ll have no choice but to challenge them to a potato-peeling battle,” Eames declares before taking a bite and making an ecstatic, fucking preposterous sound that makes Arthur’s toes curl and his fork scrape against his plate. “Oh, you need to try this.”
Arthur swallows and gets his shit together in time to see a piece of meat thrust in front of him, tender and glistening, dripping onto his branzino. He looks up at Eames watching him as he takes the proffered bite, watching his mouth close around the fork and slide off, throat moving like they’re tasting it simultaneously, and, Jesus, Arthur can barely breathe with those eyes pinning him in place, potent and heady like the salty umami making his saliva pool.
“It’s good,” he says, voice rough, licking his lips and watching Eames’s eyes follow diligently, colored a blue as inimitable as the summer Mediterranean lapping against the Spanish coast, “but not as good as your filet mignon.”
“One compliment from you is worth a thousand patronizing restaurant reviews.”
“I mean it. And I hold back only because, you know, I worry about your ego.”
“It comes with the charm, darling. A two-for-one deal,” Eames says magnanimously, popping another bite of steak into his mouth.
Arthur’s fingers twitch around his fork. No one’s called him that in months. No one calls him that, period, except Eames, who acted from day one like it was interchangeable with Arthur, and what runs through him in that moment is a pang of regret, and of homecoming.
The dinner rush is busier than lunch, but they picked up an extra fan at the hardware store on their way back so they power through until 8pm, when dusk starts falling over the treetops. By the time they finish cleaning up, Arthur legitimately can’t pinpoint the last time he was this exhausted. He feels like he’s run a fucking marathon, and probably puked somewhere along the way, but he finds he doesn’t have one single complaint because he’s fucking happy, infused with the kind of joy immune to cynicism and time that he imagines people spend their entire lives looking for.
“Jesus, we brought in almost a thousand dollars today,” he tells Eames after organizing the bills into three manageable stacks. “Our biweekly paycheck at La Cuisine was barely a thousand.”
Eames leans against the counter and crosses his arms, chewing on his lower lip for a second before a smile starts spreading, beautiful and dangerous.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Arthur knows all too well that this is code for I’ll cajole you with no effort at all into doing crazy shit you’ll definitely regret later, but he gives in, he always does, and the thing is, he’s never regretted it.
So they agree that their first success merits celebration in the form of unjustifiably expensive alcohol. They buy bottles and bring them back to the truck instead of going to a bar because Eames knows without having to hear it that it’s what Arthur prefers, knows he’s not a misanthrope; he just has a distinct upper limit for crowds and chaos.
They sit on the floor up by the driver’s seat, legs splayed, aprons tossed in the corner, and drink 21-year-old single-barrel bourbon out of red solo cups.
“Crazy how things turn out, isn’t it?” Eames says, tracing the rim of his cup with an index finger. “Makes you wonder if there’s any point to laying out a plan for the future, arriving at some sort of certainty of what you want. Four years ago, hell, six months ago, I never would’ve imagined—this.”
Arthur takes another swig and tips his head back, letting the bourbon coat his entire palate before it slides down his throat.
“I always thought I’d run my own restaurant. Actually run it, without anyone breathing down my neck.” He’s gone through the spiel with Eames before, but that was when he thought he was still on the right track, confident his life would unfold exactly the way he envisioned, or pretty damn close to it. “Maybe this is just the world telling me I was never cut out for it.”
He doesn’t say it with any real bitterness, but Eames leans forward all of a sudden, looking deadly serious, and Arthur thinks he’s only seen him like this once, the day there had been a small kitchen fire on his day off and he thought Arthur had perished in the flames.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth.”
Arthur just blinks at the strength of his righteous indignation.
Eames leans back and says nothing for a moment, turning to look out the window. Arthur studies his profile, the sharp slope of his nose, the cut of his jaw, lines so exquisite they make him want to crawl over and cover them up with his hands, because maybe then he’d stop aching like he might fucking split open and fall apart.
Then Eames starts talking again. “You’re the reason I had any success at La Cuisine. I hated the job when I started. I might’ve had the talent but not the patience or the conviction. I wouldn’t have lasted a month. Then you came along and you didn’t say much, didn’t sing along to ABBA with the rest of us, rolled your eyes when someone drew penises on the food labels, but—I watched you that first week, and every week after that, and, God, you were good. Not only good at minimizing your fuck-ups and doing your job, you were—you had something that couldn’t be taught, you know. You had heart. This insane, bright, fiery power source that made you chop and cook and peel bloody potatoes like it all went into someone’s last meal on Earth. Just watching you made me want it more. You’re the reason I’m here.”
Eames finally quiets, chest heaving a little, but all thoughts have fled from Arthur’s brain. Everything except a voice, calm and weighted with certainty, that tells him this is a window of opportunity that might present itself again but if he were smart, he wouldn’t wait to find out. So he moves, because the voice is so goddamn compelling and the bourbon’s hot in his bloodstream now. He moves, setting a hand on Eames’s thigh first, pausing to offer him an out, and Eames just stares at him, stock still, face half in shadow, throat moving but mouth sealed shut.
He moves, and straddles Eames’s hips, fingers scraping against denim then skirting along Eames’s arm before settling around the curve of his neck, skin giving off heat like a fucking furnace cranked up in the middle of goddamn July. Now—now he can see Eames, the childhood scar bisecting his right eyebrow, the slightly asymmetrical curve of his upper lip, his laugh lines, his worry lines, and his eyes, so goddamn eloquent there’s really nothing left to say.
So Arthur kisses him, two soft pecks on his mouth, then a coy flick of tongue before Eames takes Arthur’s face in both hands and presses in, angling their heads and tasting, all slick heat and greedy lips, making Arthur feel like he can’t fucking get close enough, can’t feel enough. He grinds down and Eames tries to meet him halfway, bucking up, fingers digging into Arthur’s hips now, and they’re gasping, breathing sloppily into each other’s mouths, swapping air and sounds, and, Jesus Christ, Arthur thinks he might pass out but he sure as hell isn’t letting go, it’s sweet, stifling, just shy of painful, and goddamn perfect.
Their mouths and hips settle on a rhythm, utterly graceless but so, so fucking good, and Arthur’s about decided he’ll ride this edge for as long as he can handle when Eames fumbles his jeans open and plunges a hand in, wrapping around him, rough and uncoordinated, and Arthur’s done for.
“Fuck, Eames, fucking—”
He drops his head against Eames’s shoulder and bites down, hearing Eames fall apart before his own orgasm slams into him with the force of a semi, and for a moment he can’t breathe or see, he just clings to Eames, shuddering, until he settles into himself again.
“Fuck,” Eames echoes shakily as he cleans them up with a dishtowel and then throws it aside. He scrapes his fingers against Arthur’s scalp then down his nape, lapsing into silence until he says, quietly, “I’m sorry. I know I haven’t said it yet. I’m sorry. It’s my biggest regret to date. Maybe my only regret.”
Arthur doesn’t lift his head up, just presses his sweaty forehead against Eames’s sweaty shoulder and asks, “Why did you leave?”
Eames pauses and the pressure of his hand disappears. “Why didn’t you come after me?”
This time Arthur moves to look at him, breathing in air thickening with mid-summer humidity.
“I thought I didn’t need you. I thought I could get over you. I thought—” He’s agonized over the why so many times and still he can’t quite package it neatly or beautifully the way Eames would, but he figures it’s an exercise in futility so he just keeps babbling, on the off chance that something will make sense. “I was so—God—so fucking angry but then I thought I’d be better off. I was there to be a chef, I was there for the food. My dreams existed before you came along and they’d exist long after you were gone. They wouldn’t—they wouldn’t collapse without you there. So I decided I wasn’t actually in love with you, I was in love with the way you cooked, how well we cooked together. But now—now I know that it’s stupid to separate the two, because it’s how we work, it’s—I guess it’s why we work. I think—I’ve been cooking since I was ten, but I realize how—lonely that was now that I’ve shared a kitchen with you.”
Arthur shuts his mouth then, thinking he’s never said so many words in one breath, never so impulsively defied his instinct for self-preservation, and it floods him with a swift, stinging rush of adrenaline that leaves him shaking in the aftermath.
Eames just stares at him for a moment, breathing a little erratic, eyes wide and unnaturally dark, drawing him in and down onto an infinite stretch of untamed shore, the perimeter of a secret kingdom in which time moves too quickly to tell or not at all. They ask Arthur to stay, stay forever.
“I wanted you to take a leap of faith with me,” Eames says, taking his turn. “I wanted you to trust me, trust that whatever happened, we’d make it work. And then it just came down to petty jealousy. I hated that you did it for Cobb, but you couldn’t do it for me.”
It’s the last thing Arthur expected to hear and he feels blindsided for a minute, blinking stupidly.
“You were—” he starts then stops because it’s so ludicrous he feels manic laughter working its way up from his chest to his throat. “Are you seriously telling me you were jealous of Cobb?”
“You put a hell of a lot on the line for him, you have to admit,” Eames says, a little defensively.
Arthur worries his bottom lip and looks at Eames, wanting to argue it was different, Cobb was a friend, Cobb was a fucking wreck, Cobb isn’t Eames, but none of that has any bearing on the fact that Arthur fucked up and they’re long past making excuses.
So he lifts a hand to Eames’s face, thumb tracing the slant of a cheekbone, and simply says, “I’m sorry,” and he’s given plenty of apologies over his lifetime but maybe never one so earnest as this.
Eames smiles, dazzling in the dark, and tells him then, “I always suspected I’d fall in love with a chef.”
In Baltimore they serve up a crusted crab mac and cheese and fish tacos with tilapia and spicy mango salsa, finding time in between to eat oysters by the harbor until Arthur thinks he’s hit his limit on shellfish for the next three to five years.
In D.C. they switch to sweets—no-bake raspberry chili chocolate cheesecake bars on popsicle sticks and churros, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, drizzled with honey or rolled in cinnamon sugar. When the heat index rises into the triple digits, they duck into the Air and Space museum and gaze up at the old, dormant aircrafts hanging from their strings. Arthur tells Eames about the model airplanes he built when he was a kid before he traded them in for wire whisks and paring knives.
In Raleigh, they get smoky, succulent barbecue from a pitmaster hailing from Washington state, although you never would’ve known it from the way his pork melted in your mouth. They serve it alongside generous helpings of creamy red cabbage slaw and roasted corn hush puppies.
On the way to Charleston they take an hour and a half detour to Myrtle Beach to stand on the shoreline and let the water lap against their feet. Eames looks out over the ocean and tells stories for a while about his childhood trips to the Scottish Highlands, a vast, lush green playground at his fingertips, and his mother accompanying him on his adventures until well past dark, eyes gleaming with starlight.
In Charleston they decide on shrimp and grit cake sliders and BLTs with fried green tomatoes. During the dinner rush they replace the shrimp with Andouille sausage and change the BLTs to lettuce wraps after running out of ciabatta, even though Arthur remembers getting a whole fucking lot of ciabatta. They close down at exactly 8pm, clean up, then clamber up to the top of the truck to lie down because the humidity’s finally dropped below 50% and there’s a cool breeze off the river slipping underneath the thin cotton of his shirt.
Eames drops down next to him, groaning as he splays out his legs. He slides his hand down Arthur’s forearm before linking their fingers together loosely, brushing against the sharp peak of Arthur’s wrist bone with his thumb, rough and calloused from his years in the kitchen, wielding and cutting himself on every implement known to man and collecting burns that never quite fade.
“I’ve been thinking we got it all backwards and we should’ve gone North, maybe into Canada, where it wouldn’t feel like we’re cooking in a bloody shipping container dropped inside a volcano. Is there a market for street food in Newfoundland?”
Arthur looks up at the sky tipping from dusk into darkness and smiles.
“Is there a market for anything in Newfoundland?”
“Someone at the market a few weeks ago informed me of their burgeoning aquaculture industry.”
Arthur presses his hand into the heat of Eames’s palm.
“I think that’s just a fancy word for ‘fishing’,” he says before his phone starts ringing, and he rolls towards Eames to dig into his back pocket.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Oh my god, have you not seen it yet?” Ariadne demands, dispensing with all appropriate greetings.
“Amy Weinstein reviewed your food truck. Amy Weinstein, do you hear me?” she all but yells and Arthur scrambles to get upright, elbowing Eames in the shoulder.
“What? How? Why? When?” He thinks he’s about to have a fucking coronary. “Jesus. I’ll call you back.”
He promptly hangs up and pulls up his browser, hands shaking from the adrenaline, powering through him like he’s just been woken up by a goddamn defibrillator.
“Arthur, what the hell is going on?”
He mistypes his search three times before he gets it right.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
And then he sees it, the second link in the results.
Bon Appétit, Street Food for the Soul – NYTimes.com
“Eames,” he says, looking up, heart wild in his chest. “Eames, Amy Weinstein reviewed our food truck. The New York fucking—”
Eames’s eyes widen before he grabs at Arthur’s wrist, twisting so he can look at the screen.
“Bloody hell,” he breathes, fingers tightening like a vise. “The title sounds good, right? I think it’s good. It’s positive. That’s a good sign. Read it—”
And then his phone rings. He lets go of Arthur’s wrist to answer it and Arthur steels himself to meet crushing disappointment before tapping on the link.
He’s sloppy on his first read-through, too terrified to do anything more than snatch up keywords to get the gist of the article. On his second read-through, he goes line by line and tries to breathe.
Gourmet street food is a fad. It’s a gastronomic travesty, not real appreciation. Genius can’t take root in a makeshift kitchen on wheels. Or, so the brick-and-mortar restaurants like to scoff. In all honesty, I haven’t felt the inclination to choose a side, having been both encouraged and dismayed by the food trucks I’ve tried off the beaten path. Then I found Bon Appétit. And its owners, Arthur Klein and Daniel Eames, show with unassuming ease that genius not only takes root in their kitchen, it thrives.
Amy Weinstein. Amy Weinstein, the fucking Beyoncé of the restaurant industry, thinks what they’re doing is genius.
You already get a sense of it when you spot their truck, a modest, tasteful homage to the late and great Julia Child. I see it at the corner of Pennsylvania and 10th as I languish in the unrelenting clutches of rush hour traffic, and I’m immediately struck by an irresistible curiosity. I have my poor assistant hop out into the steaming D.C. heat to battle the crowds and when she comes back with cheesecake pops and churros, I temper my expectations. The desserts have a compelling aesthetic—clean lines, beautiful swirls, pleasing symmetry, clearly the work of a trained chef—but they’re not particularly daring or innovative. They look satisfying but conventional, nothing to write home about. Then I take my first bite and I stand corrected, because my eyes might err, but my taste buds are never wrong.
Arthur looks up and sees Eames hanging up his call.
“The cheesecake is decadent, no holds barred, yet delicately whipped and lays on my palate like a cloud,” Arthur reads aloud, voice even, like this kind of thing happens every fucking day. “The raspberry is tart and balanced, and the chili is an unexpected, delightful kick as I start to swallow. But the churros—the churros are manna from heaven. They make me close my eyes and think I’m in Sevilla, the Sevilla of my childhood, fingers smudged with thick hot chocolate, feet dancing on the cobbled embankment of the Guadalquivir.”
He quiets and waits for Eames to say something, to shake him and wake him up maybe, but Eames just watches him, eerily calm.
“What? Is something wrong? Who were you just talking to?” He feels a thrill of fear down his spine and figures this is the part of the story where balance is restored, where the world reminds him that there’s no comedy without tragedy.
Eames takes a deep breath. “That was Saito. He wants to back us. We start a restaurant, any restaurant, and he’ll bankroll us.”
It takes a minute for Arthur to understand and then he thinks he needs to lie down, so he does.
“He read the review.”
“He read the review,” Eames confirms. “And he wanted you, you know. He got me, but he wanted you. He’s just making another play. A bigger one.”
“Fuck, I need a minute,” Arthur says, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking about the last five years, then the last twenty, starting with the first time he cooked sole meunière with his mom by his side and charred it beyond recognition in their tiny kitchen that was definitively not up to code. He thinks about all the hours he’s spent on his feet, the late nights and early mornings, maybe in pursuit of something life-affirming, but mostly because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else, being anyone else.
“Stay with me,” Eames murmurs, shifting and settling on top of Arthur, propped up on his elbows. “Breathe. Breathing is good.”
He splays a hand against Arthur’s chest, right over his heart, a warm, solid, sharply-defined weight that tells him this is real, the world isn’t pulling a fast one, it’s showing him all the cards.
Arthur opens his eyes and studies Eames hovering over him with nothing but wide open sky overhead sprinkled faintly with stars, making him feel like they’re suspended in space, defying gravity.
“What are you thinking?” he asks, even though he sees everything with perfect clarity.
“We won’t find a better offer,” Eames says frankly. “Saito recognizes talent. He nurtures it, and he protects his investments. I think it could be the start of a beautiful partnership. But nevermind what I think. Anywhere you go, darling, I’ll follow.”
Arthur didn’t need to hear it, but still he shudders at the heart-stopping resonance of Eames’s delivery.
He rolls his answer on his tongue as he reaches up to curve his hands around Eames’s nape, fingers dipping underneath the collar of his shirt, and then decides someone else has already said it better.
“You never forget a beautiful thing that you’ve made. Even after you eat it, it stays with you. Always.”