I’m finishing up falafel I picked up after work when I get Valeria’s text. She’s going through it and asks if I’m free to catch up at the diner we both like. It’s been a few weeks since we last saw each other and shared a meal, and I know going through it is code for something with work, something with the family. I lick white sauce from my wrist, text back that I’ll see her in twenty. For friends, I make time. For best friends, I make room in my stomach.
Valeria doesn’t need to see the menu. She orders a grilled cheese with tomatoes and mushrooms. She skips the fries, which means she’ll pick a few from my plate; I order a chicken club then change my mind and ask for the buffalo chicken sandwich with extra sauce.
So it’s like this, she says, and begins describing her situation. She works for a ghoulish startup that approaches people in hospice care, offers to handle the writing and finalizing of their last wills. Some days it feels like I’m forcing their hand, she says. The patients are so over the process. I sometimes write outlandish, freaky shit into the document and they sign off without pause, then go right back to their morphine drips and sponge baths.
I’m trying to be a good friend and engage in active listening because the job sounds brutal, but I’m feeling terrible, physically, and getting shifty in the tight squeeze of our booth. All that extra feta and garlic whip I ordered with my falafel is starting to hit. And I’ve dairied my coffee to hell.
We stop talking when the server arrives with our food. We like this place because the portion sizes are always huge, like a dare. When the server leaves, Valeria claws at my fries.
I mean get this, get this, Valeria says, stabbing the air with a bendy fry. Last week I finally snapped and slipped in a line about this guy leaving his skin to his son. Not the snake skin boots he told me to include, oh no. His entire skin sack.
Jesus, I say, and force down a bite of sandwich. Good flavor, but the breading is impossible in my mouth. Is it too late to fix it? I ask.
Oh, and tell on myself? Absolutely not, she says. It’s been signed and sealed and it’ll be known in the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, anyway, so good luck to that family.
She reaches for another fry, so I lift my entire plate. Take as many as you’d like, I say. I tip the plate over onto hers and watch all the fries slide into their rightful home. Then I swallow the last bite of the first half of my sandwich and regret it. I poke my stomach with the back of my fork, see if I’ll pop. I can’t shake this idea of receiving loose skin, I say.
Doesn’t it sound heinous? Like, we know you’re grieving, but please take your loved one’s former casing. Valeria finally breaks into her grilled cheese though by now it’s lost its stretch factor. Also, the guy was on the heavier side so, you know, it’s a lot of skin.
I peel the breading from the second sandwich half, ball it up. It’s so dry it crumbles; my fingers are stained red. I imagine all of my skin spread out on the floor. OK, it’s a lot. The size of a king-size comforter. I think about changing my diet and losing weight; the alleged possibilities of doing so. If anything would change. If life wouldn’t be more or less the same, but with a new character design, clothes that fit properly, new muscles. Maybe, possibly. But what would it do to me? Valeria holds her mug up to a waiter for more coffee and I do the same.
I will always accept more. I order more wings during happy hour, or another bowl of pierogi piled high beneath a thick dollop of sour cream when it’s late and we’re drunk and Valeria isn’t ready for the night to end. I eat cheese by the brick. I drink beer and wine until my bladder descends and I’m ready to burst. I’m built to be a glutton. To take in, and expand. To get full and loose in the mouth and house the booze sloshing in my stomach until the bar is closing and it’s time to part ways, say goodbye to the bartender, another temporary friend, another connection I’ve held onto for several hours, by consuming, ordering more and more, by filling up a space.
I say, I’d leave you my skin. I don’t make eye contact when I say it; Valeria falls silent. She finishes her sandwich and I do the same. The last bite is all dense bread, but I swallow it anyway.
Valeria thanks me for listening. I ask if she’s looking for work elsewhere, tell her I could put in a word at my office if she needs it. We’re not hiring, it would mean nothing. But it sounds like the right thing to say.
She runs her hands through her hair, pulls it back into a messy bun. I think I might get a slice of coconut pie, she says. It’s fabulous here. You interested in sharing?
I’m at the point of full where it hurts to breathe. Another bite is another step up a staircase. Valeria makes eye contact and I can see how exhausted she is. We’ve got a lot more to discuss. I finish off my coffee, feel it thick and cold on my tongue, and pick up my fork again, ask, With extra whipped cream?
Only if that’s what you want, she says.
© Christopher Gonzalez
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Christopher’s interview]