Swallowing Carolyn
Cecile Barlier

Lulu is late for lunch and drives a maroon wagon in a part of L.A. she doesn’t know well. The car has a stick shift; she keeps changing gears to adjust to the traffic flow. As part of the amenities, a GPS device is sucked up firmly onto the windshield, and the GPS lady keeps shouting to bear left, to turn left, to stay in the left lane; she tries to follow directions but eventually cannot keep up with all that left and makes a right. The GPS lady seems unabashed by this and claims that they have reached their destination and indicates their total driving time. That’s fine, she thinks, fine to know how long you’ve been driving, fine to know you’ve reached your destination. She thanks the GPS lady silently and turns her off.

That’s fine, she thinks once more; but as she steps out of the car, she notices that the buildings on the street are in motion. Earthquake, she thinks, although the doors to the buildings are in motion too—a motion quite incompatible with an earthquake wave. The door to the restaurant, for example, keeps changing size. One minute it looks humongous like the threshold to a pyramid, and the next it looks tiny as a rat hole. She wonders whether she will fit through the door, whether she will go in at the right time—a time when the door will be large enough to frame her body and not so big that she will get lost in it. Arrhythmia, she tells herself, objects around her expand and contract like a muscle in sync with the one inside her. That’s all there is, she assumes. She will ride the motion; she will fit through the door, and the red, slimy thing inside her will stop puffing.

She has to lean her whole body against the glass door to make it in, and, indeed, she fits through it.

Inside, the restaurant is long as a tunnel, and tables are placed in one single open-ended row. The place looks like the infinite reflection of two mirrors facing each other. She smiles a big smile with lots of teeth.

The four of them are sitting at the first table and turn their heads toward her at once. Carolyn’s husband and her three sisters. Like in a Chekhovian play. They hug her and she hugs them back, surprised at her own strength. She presses them hard onto her chest, even the husband; she closes her eyes and closes her fists. They have had appetizers already, and their wineglasses are full.

The waitress brings in an extra chair for her, and she sits at the end of the table; a place that is not meant to be since it is blocking the way. That’s the only place there is, she tells herself. The waitress comes back and fills a fresh glass with an expensive red wine. She hasn’t checked the label, but she can tell the wine is expensive just from its onion-skin color. She fills her mouth with it and lets it drip deep inside her throat. It makes noises on the way down, but the noises are covered by the wind inside the restaurant. The wind keeps blowing through the entry door as people come in or go out. It is funneled through the narrowness of the place in a Venturi effect. It is Carolyn’s wind. A wind that messes with their hair and their napkins. The husband has no hair, and yet the wind finds ways to mess with him too, through his eyebrows or his lashes, the wind inserts itself into creases and membranes. Carolyn, she thinks.

She won’t talk much; she is intent on listening. She will listen to what they have to say, especially the husband. She is also keen on watching them interact: the sisters and the husband. She has much to observe and much to learn. An awful lot for just one lunch but she does not set the rules. The rules set themselves. At first, she lets herself spin through their small talk. She learns about upcoming trips to New Zealand, about property purchase projects, about baby-making projects, about layoff risks, about interior design and medical billing rates, about urban safety, and, yes, also about the ocean temperature. It is easy to listen, and it is equally easy to shut off and go blank inside. And she keeps swinging from open to shut with the help of the onion-skin wine. For a while she observes the tangible flow of their numbing appetites: appetite for food, for holding conversation, for holding a fork and a knife, for smelling wine, and for resting elbows onto the table, for crossing legs and uncrossing them, for smiling vaguely and elegantly, for asking questions, and for not waiting for answers.

Such close yet loose observation makes her slightly sick, like someone reading the paper in a moving car. She feels the tightness of the tissue around her stomach and realizes how extremely hungry she is when the waitress drops a menu right in front of her. She has not actually seen the waitress drop it, what she has seen is the thick-folded ivory page descending slowly onto her napkin. The menu is animated like a floating snowflake.

While she waits for the slow motion descent to come to an end, she also notices the silence. A silence so abrupt, it has fallen onto them like darkness at the flip of a switch. The husband and the three sisters keep on talking, but they speak without making any noise, just moving their lips; even the silverware is turned off as it tinkles or scrapes against the plates. She yawns widely down her sleeve to pop her ears. It works for the most part, although she knows that the volume is now down a bit. Carolyn is helping me focus, she tells herself, mute what’s unessential. She tries not to laugh hysterically with her dead friend and starts reading the menu.

It is a du jour menu, which means that the cook and his team must reprint it every day. Maybe they just change the date and keep the rest. Maybe the cook wakes up at dawn and walks to the market for only the freshest ingredients and then builds his cuisine around them. Maybe everyone is doing this—building their life around the freshest events. She can see that. Yet three years after the accident, Carolyn’s death is to her as fresh as this morning’s tomato.

Carolyn was petite and made a grand exit. She thinks how small people take up so much room, overcompensating for their size. The coast guards never found her body, and maybe that is one of the secrets to Carolyn’s freshness, her inability to rot, the pervasive expectation that she will pop out on some exotic island, wearing a straw skirt and a hibiscus necklace. Lost at sea, just lost.

She has to skip the appetizer in order to catch up with them, and the menu offers a limited number of entrees: a Colorado rack of lamb (huge and sacrificial), a traditional coq au vin (drowned in Burgundy), pan-seared day boat scallops (…), and a roasted halibut. It is an easy choice, almost a non-choice: It is the halibut. She nearly shouts it to the waitress as she comes near. This makes Carolyn’s youngest sister turn to her suddenly and ask: “Are you okay?”

Simple things are hard to explain, she thinks. She does not answer and just offers a bashful smile that is immediately returned by another smile: this one, affectionate and honest.

The youngest sister’s smile provokes an uncontrolled flood of sadness in her; like often when she relaxes, when she is offered shelter or warmth, when strength or restraint are no longer needed, she feels ruptured like a dam. Almost. You can resist if you want to, she tells herself. Grief, much like jet lag, comes in waves, but she has long learned to ride them. Her eyes stay dry like a desert.

She remembers how those waves were merciless in the year that followed the accident. Carolyn’s absence everywhere—from her kitchen cabinets to the glove compartment of her car, from the chirp of her cell phone to the burgeoning holes in her socks. Carolyn wouldn’t let go. Just let go, she begged. But no, she wouldn’t. Days of Carolyn’s underwater hair tangled around her, and all she could do was gasp in the hope that her friend would let her resurface at some point.

When she finally reemerges from her thought bubble, Lulu needs to go to the bathroom. She asks for directions and Carolyn’s second sister points to a door at the very end of the restaurant. She is surprised at her own confidence in standing up and heading that way, her legs not even numbed from being crossed awhile. She feels ridiculous pride for it. She realizes how she isn’t walking but rather gliding to the bathroom, surfing on the husband’s suspended gaze along her back.

Once locked behind doors, she absentmindedly watches herself in the mirror. She notices a woman and that takes her slightly aback. She has never thought of herself in womanly terms, and there in the mirror is the clear image of a female specimen with long lashes and high cheekbones. Carolyn had once joked that she didn’t think of her as a man or a woman friend; she thought of her as a “neutral” friend. Now she wonders whether Carolyn had really meant “neutered,” and that makes her smile. This day and around one thousand days into Carolyn’s engulfment, she is finally shedding her “neutral” skin and taking a gender side. She understands this to be one of Carolyn’s gifts. Carolyn had always been bighearted, but her death had been the most unbearably generous act of all. Lulu sits on the toilet and goes about her business. She remembers the many times she has peed with Carolyn in the same bathroom, Carolyn curling her lashes or plucking her eyebrows. Their intimacy had been open and simple.

As she comes back to the table, she focuses on the husband, a man once passionately loved by Carolyn. Inexplicably (another simple thing). In fact, it is the first time Lulu is seeing him after the accident. It is also the first time she attends the memorial lunch. She has been invited each and every year, but she couldn’t bear the thought before and gave excuses. Lately, her emotions have worn into a more accepting condition. A condition she doesn’t know whether to embrace or to hate, but a condition, after all, that has made her come to L.A. and rent a car and fit adequately through the glass door of the restaurant.

The husband is laughing, showing off the big gap between his two top front teeth. She knows Carolyn revered that gap; she wonders whether he smiled at Carolyn during their terrible crossing, whether her friend took with her the image of that hole, that opening of his, that display of innocence in her faulty captain. That he killed her is beyond question (and who is asking?). That he now pursues a life without her is also beyond question (???). She knows, however, that Carolyn wants her to watch, to smile at that man still embalmed in her nagging passion. Lulu wonders whether one day she will reach through the hole, whether one day the two of them will talk. She never talked to Carolyn’s husband, even before her death, never really. He raises his glass and cheers with her and then cheers with the three sisters, one by one. No one names what they are cheering to, and they drink the wine with their eyes interlocked among them. The cheering lights up Lulu’s memory exit sign again.

She checks out of the now and pictures herself two weeks before the crossing in a Manhattan bar with her friend. The two of them clink their glasses, and their smiles cross as in multiple handshakes. Carolyn keeps saying a journey will do her good, even (especially?) with the husband. There’s a lot of food. Carolyn has ordered small plates, too many of them—she is never too tired for food, experimenting with a continual growth spurt that doesn’t deliver. Carolyn has the body of an eight-year-old on stilettos.

Now Lulu tries and fails to fully capture Carolyn’s silhouette. She thinks of how one never knows when they see someone for the last time and how one obsessively gropes for those moments like for car keys in a room full of darkness. She can see how last times are inevitably half-lived and how the memory of those times is unfinished. Lulu’s brain catches Carolyn raising a toast between gulps of seawater.

She takes another sip of the silken wine and feels a blow in her right calf, which makes her let out an ouch. It isn’t Carolyn this time, and she mentally blames the flirtatious husband.It is not the husband though, but the oldest of Carolyn’s sisters. The sister apologizes and becomes momentarily bright red. Lulu thinks red is the color of happiness, and she intensely wants the sister to lock the color in her skin and stay red forever.

She doesn’t know that sister very well, but she has always sensed her as a cool, calm, and collected being, and, indeed, it takes but a minute for her to get back to her typical composure. Lulu watches her being so smooth and so poised again, and she wonders where she hides all the suffering. She imagines how the suffering is collected inside the sister, like rain in the basin of a cloister’s garden.

The same sister is asking the husband a question. They are talking as if in a parlor, and it hurts her to watch them. She forces herself to hold her gaze longer, but all she can see is a burned disc as if looking directly at a bright light. She winks once or twice, but the disc is still there, like a stubborn eclipse. Whether the brightness between them is genuine or affected is irrelevant; it is not their light: It is Carolyn’s.

* * *

She rubs her eyes impotently. Carolyn was family and now she is blocking her from them—like she does not belong, sitting her at the end of the table and blinding her with all the light. She asks her friend to please just let her sit and watch, but she won’t.

* * *

The invisible waitress brings her plate at last. It is a big, round plate and right in the center is the halibut on a bed of lentils. It is rectangular and slightly roasted and slightly alive. It is half and half. Not fully roasted and somewhat alive. Not alive in the sense that it can swim from the plate. Alive in the sense that it breathes gently, regularly, and very clearly. The flesh is so white, it borders on transparent. Lines on the flesh are bent, like biblical arches, holding the air above them, flutters of steam escaping at the top.

The fish has lost its eyes, and now the eyes swim underneath it. Either they have migrated out of it, or they have been pulled out of its sockets by the chef’s knife. She knows that, either way, the fish has not fought. The fish has let go, and now the lentils are watching her, demanding explanations. She watches the crowd of eyes on her and feels a little nauseated. She feels hungry too.

She starts with the lentils, like a child, keeping the best for last. She pops them individually between her tongue and her palate. Long time, no sea. It lasts forever. She cannot swallow right. Some of the seeds are not quite pureed, get stuck midway, and she has to wash them down with liquids. Sisters and husband watch her pretending not to notice. She is talking to them throughout the process, now strangely animated and warm, practically bubbly.

The halibut is nearly cold when she takes the first bite.

Eat it, she hears, this is my body. She takes another bite followed by another.

At one point she looks up from her plate and asks if anyone wants to try some.