I broke it to Claire that I’m vegan the first night we went to dinner. We’d had one coffee date and several Zoom dates where we watched old episodes of M.A.S.H. from our respective bedrooms, and she’d given me signs that she might accept a dinner invitation if I asked her. In that way of new acquaintances who aren’t yet comfortable saying, “I like you,” Claire’s signs came in the theater of her eyes—the way they held my gaze a beat longer than necessary. “I like you,” those eyes said. “Even if you’re forty-one and have a torso that’s ever-so-slightly bell-shaped, I think you’re rad.”
When I told her I was vegan, though, her look was more like, “Really? With your body?”
I blame it on Iowa. Iowa doesn’t readily produce vegans, so in the imagination of my fellow Iowans, ‘vegan’ equals ‘titan of impulse control.’ And, probably, ‘ripple-abed, hard-bodied sexy-man.’ They think of Adonis, in other words. In other words, they don’t think of me.
I allowed her to sit with it, pretending to occupy myself with my menu. I hoped she was reimagining her definition of veganism to see how it might include me—that it’s a choice some of us make to save the planet or to end animal cruelty or because cheese makes us stinky. Probably, though, she was imagining the copious quantity of kale it would take to give a vegan like me a body like mine.
Ultimately, she accepted me, weird diet and all. And last night, for the very first time, she slept over.
This morning, we were cooking breakfast together, standing closer than was necessary, leaving miles of unclaimed space in my tiny kitchen, bumping against one another to remind ourselves of our elbows and hips and hands. My dietary restrictions meant I was in charge. Claire was my sous chef, because she’s sweet.
When her phone buzzed on the counter, she craned to look at the screen. “Yikes,” she said, “it’s my dad.”
“Things not good with your dad?” I asked, arranging my brow to display concern.
“He’s just a lot lately,” she said, lifting the phone. “He’s dating again at seventy-five.” Then, she said, “Hi, Daddy.”
I smiled, chopping tomatoes and eavesdropping, feeling magnanimous—Claire’s new man allowing intrusion by his decrepit predecessor.
“I’m at a friend’s…a guy friend…yes, the vegan.”
She’d talked about me to her dad. Adorable.
“He’s busy…he’s cooking…Daddy, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”
I cocked my head.
She rolled her eyes.
“He wants to talk to me?” I asked.
Her pantomime said, absolutely not.
“I mean, I’ll talk to him.” I extended my hand, open for inspection.
Claire refused—verbally to the phone, and gesturally to me. I was somewhat unprepared, then, when she passed me the phone. “Fine,” she said, “his name is Alvin.”
“Hey, Alvin,” I said.
“I hear you been kissing my daughter.” His voice was high and sprightly.
I looked at Claire, who hid inside the chopping of an onion.
“Just kidding, buddy,” he said. “That girl’s been around the block a time or two. I hear she’s even banging a vegan.”
“What can I do for you, Alvin?” I asked, approximating control for my audience of one.
“Right to the point. Good man. I just wanted to know why you do it. The rabbit food, I mean. Is it fitness? Are you jacked? Glowed up?”
“Exactly,” I said, “I’m gorgeous.”
“God damn, you don’t say. See, I recently put myself back up on the auction block, and I’m taking pointers where I can get them. These are different times, and I figure who’d be a better ambassador than an honest to God vegan? Until the other day, I wasn’t sure you all actually existed.”
“I can assure you we do.”
“So, I’m told. Did you know that for years my daughter only ever dated bikers? Big, gnarly, scary dudes. That’s why, when she told me she was seeing a vegan, I thought, ‘That guy must be packing some magnum-size new-age secret sauce to turn her away from Viper or Joe Pimpin’ or whatever that last bruiser was called.”
I stared at Claire, trying to picture her in some meth den, draining the aquafaba from the chickpeas of Joe Pimpin’.
“So, how’s the vegan sex?” Alvin chirped. “Is it bussin?”
“You know, the cat’s pajamas. A lady friend taught me that. She’s younger. Heard it from her granddaughter.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate…”
“Why? Because your nailing my daughter? Don’t worry about that. I can redact her from the scene. You spill the tea and I’ll just picture it like you’re going to town on a big black garbage bag.”
My ears burned. I thought of the previous evening with Claire, my failed attempt at intimacy. Performance anxiety, or my soft belly putting too much stress on my heart and lungs, or some mineral deficiency encumbering blood flow. Then that image changed to Claire with some biker, leather sheets and sweat, mouths close and greasy, nibbling both ends of a kielbasa while still entwined, round after round of climaxes. And it was here that the real Claire, standing in my kitchen, chose to smile.
I went lightheaded, which happens sometimes.
“You still there?” Alvin asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Bussin. The sex is lit.”
Alvin responded with something like, “Woo boy, I’ll eat my greens,” but I’d already pulled the phone from my ear, so I can’t be sure.
“What did he say?” Claire asked, coming at me like she thought I might collapse.
“Nothing at all,” I said, attempting a smile. “Hey, do you mind grabbing the mung bean scramble from the fridge? I just need some protein.”
“I knew it was a bad idea to let you talk to him,” she called from behind the refrigerator door. “He can be so ornery.”
“Yeah,” I said, “a real pistol.” I accepted the carton of egg substitute from her, smiling at that sweet woman I knew I’d never call again.