lydia davis

 

KAFKA COOKS DINNER

 

 

I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t. I tell myself each morning that it will be different this time, I will plan the meal today, days ahead of time, but no—as though I am indeed my own enemy, the hours pass and I thrust the thought away from me: dinner, no, I will not think of it. Oh, such sickness, this is truly the sickness unto death. 
The thought of the dinner has been with me constantly all week, weighing on me in the same way that in the deep sea there is no place that is not under the greatest pressure. 
This morning, for instance, shortly before waking up, which was also shortly after falling asleep, I had a dream which has not left me yet: I had caught a mole and carried it into the hops field, where it dove into the earth as though into water and disappeared. When I contemplate this dinner, I would like to disappear into the earth like that mole, or else stuff myself into the drawer of the laundry chest. (Then I would keep opening the drawer to see if I had suffocated yet.) It’s so much more surprising that one gets up every morning at all. 
I know beet salad would be better than Kartoffel Surprise, but probably only very slightly better, and perhaps not better at all—that is, if she comes on Thursday, as planned, if in fact she comes at all. Perhaps I should give her beet salad and Kartoffel Surprise both, and a piece of beef. Perhaps a piece of beef does not require any side dish, perhaps it is best tasted alone, and so the side dish should come before, in which case of course it would not be a side dish at all but an appetizer. Or it should come after, if it is a salad. But whatever I do, perhaps she will not think very highly of my effort or perhaps—which would of course be much worse—she will be feeling a little ill to begin with and not stimulated by the sight of those beets. In the case of the first, I would be dreadfully ashamed, of course, and would not know what to say, and in the case of the second I would have no advice—how could I?—but just a simple question: would she not want me to remove the beets and all the rest of the food from the table? 
Not that the dinner alarms me, exactly. Probably, and hopefully—I do after all have some imagination and energy—I will be able to make a dinner that she will like. There have been other, successful dinners since that meal I cooked for Felice which was so unfortunate—though perhaps more good than bad came of it. I was excited as one always is by something new, naturally somewhat frightened as well. I thought of cooking her something light, French, but also thought that a traditional German or Czech meal might be better, even if rather heavy for July. I remained for some time undecided even in my dreams. Those negotiations between one part of my brain and the other, which went on without my knowledge, may well have been terrifying. At one point I thought of leaving the city. Then I decided not to leave, although simply lying around on the balcony may not really deserve to be called a decision. At these times I appear to be paralyzed with indecision while my thoughts are beating furiously within my head just as a dragonfly appears to hang motionless in midair though its wings are beating furiously against the steady breeze. At last I jumped up, like a stranger pulling another stranger out of bed. 
The fact that some careful planning went into the meal was probably insignificant. I thought I ought to prepare something wholesome, since she needed to build up her strength. I remember the mushrooms I gave her. I remember gathering them in the early morning, creeping among the trees in plain sight of two elderly sisters, who appeared to disapprove deeply of me or my basket! Or perhaps of the fact that I was wearing a good suit in the forest. But their approval would have been much the same thing, after all. However, that is in the past and should remain in the past. 
As the hour approached, I was afraid, for a little while, that she would not come after all, instead of being afraid, as I should have been, that she would in fact come. At first she had said she might not come. It was strange of her to do that. Why didn’t she simply beat and strangle me? And so I was like an errand boy who could no longer run errands but still hoped for some kind of employment. 
Just as a very small animal in the woods makes a disproportionate amount of noise and disturbance among the branches in a shrub or among the leaves and twigs on the ground when it is frightened and rushes to its hole, or even when it is not frightened but merely hunting for nuts or perhaps mating, so that one thinks a bear is about to burst out into the clearing whereas it is only a thrush or a chipmunk—this is what my emotion was like, so small and yet so noisy. I asked her please not to come to dinner, that it would be better for both of us, but then I asked her please not to listen to me but to come anyway, that I couldn’t go another day without seeing her. Our words are so often those of some unknown, alien being. I don’t believe any speeches anymore. Even the most beautiful one contains a worm. For two days afterward I reproached myself for making the request; even while making it, I was reproaching myself. 
And yet I told myself that if she did not come, I would enjoy the empty apartment, for if being alone in a room is a prerequisite for life, being alone in an apartment is a prerequisite for happiness. I had borrowed the apartment for the occasion. But I hadn’t been enjoying the happiness of the empty apartment. Or perhaps it wasn’t the empty apartment that should have made me happy, but having two apartments. In any case, she did come, but she was late. She told me she had been delayed because she had had to wait to speak to a man who had himself been waiting, impatiently, for the outcome of a conference concerning the opening of a new cabaret. I did not believe her. 
When she walked in the door I was almost disappointed. She would have been so much happier dining with another man, someone more suitable. She was going to bring me a flower, but appeared without it—at the last minute she must have considered it too good for me. Yet I was filled with such elation just to be with her, because of her love, her kindness, as bright as the buzzing of a fly on a lime-twig. 
I was both moved and ashamed, happy and sad, that she ate the meal with apparent enjoyment—ashamed and sad only that I did not have something better to offer her, moved and happy that it appeared to be enough, at least on this one occasion. She really deserved, instead, something like a baked sole or a breast of pheasant, with water-ice and fruit from Spain. Couldn’t I have provided this somehow? As I gazed at the finished dish I lamented my waning strength, I lamented being born, I lamented the light of the sun. It was only the grace with which she ate each part of the meal and the delicacy of her compliments that gave it any value—it was abysmally bad, and I could prove it easily except that my disgust would outweigh the evidence. 
Despite our discomfort we proceeded with our dinner and ate something which unfortunately would not have disappeared from our plates unless it was swallowed. And when her compliments faltered, the language itself became pliant just for her, and particularly beautiful, more beautiful than one had any right to expect. If an uninitiated stranger had heard her he would have had to think, “What a man! He must have moved mountains!”—whereas I did almost nothing but mix the kasha as instructed by Ottla. I hoped that after she went away she would find a cool place like a garden in which to lie down on a deck chair and rest. As for myself, this pitcher was broken long before it went to the well. Even worse, though, than confronting the memory of meals that were obviously bad is confronting the memory of those we once considered to be good. How naive I was! 
It was last week that I invited Milena. She was with a friend. We met by accident on the street and I spoke impulsively. The man with her had a kind, friendly, fat face—also a very correct face, as only Germans have. After making the invitation, for a long time I walked through the city as though it were a cemetery—I was so at peace. 
Then I began to torment myself, like a flower in a flowerbox that is thrashed by the wind without losing a single petal, so long as it is healthy. But really, I have hardly confronted the thought yet, only flown around it the way a fly circles a lamp, burning my head over it. 
Like a letter covered with corrective pencil marks, I have my defects. After all, I am not strong to begin with, and I believe even Hercules fainted once. I attempt all day, at work, not to think about the dinner, but this costs me so much effort that there is nothing left for my work. I handle telephone calls so badly that after a while the switchboard operator refuses to connect me. So I say to myself, Go ahead and polish the silverware beautifully, then lay it out ready on the sideboard and be done with it. Because I polish it in my mind all day long, this is what torments me (and doesn’t clean the silver). 
I love Kartoffel Surprise (made with good, old potatoes) even though its heavy Germanic quality, its coerciveness, almost, make me feel a little nauseated even before I taste it—I feel I am embracing an oppressive and alien culture when I swallow it. Although something French and light would seem to anyone, including myself, to be a better choice, it is the heaviness of the Kartoffel Surprise that my heart embraces. But perhaps if I offer this to Milena I will be exposing a gross part of myself to her that I should instead spare her, a part of myself that she has not yet encountered. On the other hand, a French dish, even if more agreeable, would be less true to myself, and perhaps this would be an unpardonable betrayal. Above all I wish that the dishes I will be preparing meant more to me, so that the act of confiding them to her would be a greater sign of my trust in her. 
In contemplating this dinner I have been just as full of good intentions and yet just as inactive as I was on the day last summer when I sat on my balcony watching a beetle on its back waving its legs in the air, unable to right itself. I felt great sympathy for it, yet I would not leave my chair to help it. It stopped moving and was still for so long I thought it had died. Then a lizard walked over it, and in sliding off tipped it upright, when it ran up the wall as though nothing had happened. 
My own appetite is never large, and for a long time now I have not tasted meat, though I eat milk and butter. I am thinner than I should be, but I have been thin for a long time. Some years ago, for instance, I often went rowing on the Moldau in a small boat. I would row upriver and then lie on my back in the bottom of the boat and drift back down with the current. A friend once happened to be crossing a bridge and saw me floating along under it. He said it was as if Judgment Day had arrived and my coffin had been opened. But then he himself had grown almost fat by then, massive, in any case, and knew little more about thin people than that they were thin. At least this weight on my feet is really my own property. 
I bought the tablecloth on the street yesterday, from a man with a cart. The man was small, almost tiny, weak, bearded, with one eye. As for the candlesticks, I borrowed them from a neighbor, or I should say she lent them to me. 
Felice and I were not engaged at the time of the dinner, though we had been engaged three years before and were to be engaged again one week later, though surely not as a result of that dinner, unless it was that Felice’s compassion for me was further aroused by the futility of my efforts to make a good kasha varnishke, potato pancakes, and sauerbraten. Our eventual breakup, on the other hand, probably has a few more explanations than it really needs—this is ridiculous, but according to certain experts even the air here where we live may encourage inconstancy. 
I will offer her espresso after dinner. As I plan this meal I feel a little the way Napoleon would have felt while designing the Russian campaign, if he had known exactly what the outcome would be. I may start the meal with beet salad after all. I am filled with such indecision, I might as well be sitting in the garden of the insane asylum staring into space like an idiot. 
Torturing myself is pathetic, too, of course. After all, Alexander didn’t torture the Gordian knot when it wouldn’t come untied. I feel I am being buried alive under all these thoughts, though at the same time I feel compelled to lie still, since perhaps I am actually dead after all. 
And yet despite my present indecision, I know I will eventually settle on a menu, buy the food and prepare the meal. In this, I suppose I am like a butterfly: its zigzagging flight is so irregular, it flutters so much it is painful to watch, it flies in what is the very opposite of a straight line, and yet it successfully covers miles and miles to reach its final destination, so it must be more efficient or at least more determined than it seems. 
She may not even want to come anymore, not out of fickleness but out of exhaustion, which is understandable. If she does not come I would be wrong to say I will miss her, because she is always so present in my imagination. Yet she will be at a different address and I will be sitting at the kitchen table with my face in my hands. 
If she comes I will smile incessantly, I have inherited this from an old aunt of mine who also used to smile incessantly, but both of us from embarrassment rather than from good humor or compassion. I won’t be able to speak, I won’t even be able to be happy because after the preparation of the meal I won’t have the strength. And if with my sorry excuse for an appetizer in my hands I hesitate to leave the kitchen and enter the dining room, and if she, at the same time, feeling my embarrassment, hesitates to leave the living room and enter the dining room from the other side, then for that long interval the beautiful room will be empty. 
Ah, well—one man fights at Marathon, the other in the kitchen. 
With Felice there had been the accident, too. I only realized I was kneeling because I saw her feet right before my eyes. Snails were everywhere on the carpet, and the smell of garlic. Perhaps even so, after the meal was behind us, we did arithmetic tricks at the table, I don’t remember, short sums and then long sums while I gazed out the window at the building opposite. Perhaps we would have played music together instead, but I am not musical. It is not such a misfortune, however. I value it because I share this lack of musical ability with my family and I feel it ties me more closely to them. Now I don’t deny that all this, and worse, happened the way I have described—I just don’t know why it’s so boring. 
Our conversation was halting and awkward. I kept digressing senselessly, out of nervousness. Finally I told her I was losing my way, but it didn’t matter because if she had come that far with me then we were both lost. There were so many misunderstandings, even when I did stay on the subject. And yet she shouldn’t have been afraid that I was angry at her, but the opposite, that I wasn’t. 
She thought I had an Aunt Klara. It is true that I have an Aunt Klara. Every Jew has an Aunt Klara, but mine died long ago. She said her own was quite peculiar, inclined to make pronouncements, such as that one should stamp one’s letters properly and not throw things out the window, both of which are true, of course, but not easy. We talked about the Germans. She hates the Germans so much, but I told her she shouldn’t, because the Germans are wonderful. Perhaps my mistake was to boast that I recently chopped wood for over an hour. I thought she should be grateful to me—after all, I was overcoming the temptation to say something unkind. 
I have been working at this meal as if I were being forced to hammer a nail into a stone for a whole week, as if I were both the one hammering and also the nail. At other times, I sit here reading in the afternoon, a myrtle in my buttonhole, and there are such beautiful recipes in the book that I think I have become that beautiful myself. 
Anyway, if she spends an hour in my company before dinner, she probably won’t need either lunch or dinner but a stretcher where she could lie down for a little while. 
I long to be with her, not just now but all the time. Why am I a human being, I ask myself—this extremely vague condition? Why can’t I be the happy wardrobe in her room? 
Perhaps, in the end, the simplest thing would be to make for her exactly what I made for Felice, but with more care, so that nothing goes wrong, and without the snails or the mushrooms. I could even include the sauerbraten, though when I cooked it for Felice, I was still eating meat. At that time I was not bothered by the thought that an animal, too, has a right to a good life and perhaps even more importantly a good death. Now I can’t even eat snails. My paternal grandfather was a butcher and I vowed that the same quantity of meat he butchered in his lifetime was the quantity I would not eat in my own lifetime. But for her I will make sauerbraten again. 
One more misunderstanding and she was ready to leave. We tried different ways of saying what we meant, but we weren’t really lovers at that moment, just grammarians. Even animals, when they’re quarrelling, lose all 
caution: squirrels race back and forth across a lawn or a road and forget that there may be witnesses nearby. I told her that if she were to leave, the only thing I would like about it would be the kiss before she left. She assured me that although we were parting in anger, it would not be long before we saw each other again, but to my mind “sooner” than “never” is still just “never.” Then she left. 
With that loss I was more in the situation of Robinson Crusoe even than Robinson Crusoe himself—he at least still had the island, Friday, his supplies, his goats, the ship that took him away, his name. But as for me, I imagined some doctor with carbolic fingers taking my head between his knees and stuffing meat into my mouth and down my throat until I choked. 
The evening was over. A goddess had walked out of the movie theater and a small porter was left standing by the tracks—and that was our dinner? I am so filthy—and this is why I am always screaming about purity. No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—you think you’re hearing the song of angels but it is that other song. Yet I decided to keep on living a little while longer, at least through the night. 
Today I happened to look at a map of the city. For a moment it seemed incomprehensible to me that they would build a whole city when all that is needed was a room for her. Before I knew her, I thought it was life itself that was unbearable to me, but then she came into it, and showed me that that was not the case. True, our first meeting was not auspicious, for her mother answered the door, and what a strong forehead that woman had, with an inscription on it which read: “I am dead, and I despise anyone who is not.” Felice seemed pleased that I had come, but much more pleased when I left. 
Once when we ate together in a restaurant I was as ashamed of the dinner as though I had made it myself. The very first thing they brought to the table ruined our appetite for the rest, even if it had been any good: fat white leberknödeln floating in a thin broth whose surface was dotted with oil. It was a dish so clearly German, rather than Czech, and certainly not French at all. But why should anything be more complicated between us than if we were to sit quietly in a park and watch to see whether the hummingbird that had just visited those petunias would fly off from the top of the birch tree where it was resting? 
I have decided on the menu now and I imagine our dinner, every detail of it from beginning to end, and repeat this sentence to myself senselessly, my teeth chattering: “Then we’ll run into the forest.” Senselessly, because there is no forest here, and there would be no question of running in any case. 
I have faith that she will come, but along with my faith is the same fear that always accompanies my faith, the fear that has been inherent in all faith, anyway, since the beginning of time. 
After all, I am not graceful. Someone once said that I swim like a swan, but it was not a compliment.