I lived six doors down from the Butcher’s Block on Ninth Street in 2005. I sauntered along the speckled gutter every Friday for five-dollar steaks and would, each time, thank Kyle profusely because we both knew Five Dollar Fridays were just for me. Returning to my apartment raw steak in hand, I would think of inviting him over next time. I never did. Finally he invited himself; he made a joke about how he had been paying for my dinner every Friday and it was about time he came along.
He was lazy about it. He told me he couldn’t that night but could he give me a call? It was two weeks and one — almost two — skipped Five Dollar Fridays later that he called and demanded why I had not come in yet. I arrived at a quarter to nine. He grinned and dug his knife into pork liver. Then a plucked duck. I ate the spinach rolls he set out for me and watched him slice away. Finally I told him I was starving and he looked up from his bloodied counter and grinned some more. He put his meat in the giant freezer behind him, hung his apron and walked out to me. It was the first time, I realized, that I’d seen his legs. I could tell they were brawny behind his jeans. In fact he looked like a hockey player and I wished he did that instead of dismembering dead animals all day.
He stuck out his hand, to my surprise, and said, “I’m Kyle. Shit. I forgot our steaks.”
I was grateful not to shake his hand because mine were greasy and his were bloody, horrifically bloody. He stepped again behind the counter and I lost his lovely legs.
“Have you really not eaten yet?” he asked.
“Nope,” I lied. “I was waiting for our date.”
“How’d you know I’d call?”
“I was joking.”
“I was just busy.”
“Yeah, I got you.” He sliced a fat piece of filet mignon and started in on another.
“But honestly I’m not that hungry,” I began, but he’d already cut the second piece.
“You better eat this, girl,” he laughed, “This ain’t no Five Dollar Friday meat.”
“I always have an appetite for steak,” I said, and smiled. But I was thinking he was like one of those bartenders that gives free drinks to the ladies he likes, as if from sheer generosity, when really he’s robbing his employer blind by handing out Grey Goose and soda in hope of getting laid. I was also thinking he was nothing like my ex-boyfriend, not the clean college athlete type, not the I-dipped-my-face-in-Ralph-Lauren-aftershave-and-want-you to-delicately-lick-it-as-I-pet-your-silky-hair type.
Kyle literally had blood dripping down his neck. I rubbed my own neck beneath my hair and gave him a close-mouthed wide-eyed smile. Kyle laughed, wiped his neck and said, “Sometimes it squirts.”
He cleaned his knife, and his hands this time, stuffed the wrapped meat in his back pocket, and returned to me.
“Laura Laura,” he had said, as we walked the gutter to my apartment. And after a moment, “Is this a date?”
“You tell me.” I laughed.
“If it is it’s a first.”
“Unless you count your five-dollar steaks as taking me out,” I joked.
“No I mean. Oh. Should we?”
“But what I meant,” he continued, “is that I’ve never actually taken a girl on a date before.”
I laughed louder than the humming street and louder than I’d intended. He sounded like my father, who used to call my mother a one-hit wonder. I could never be sure what it meant, but when I asked a few years after their divorce if he had gone on any dates he declared, “Laura, I don’t date.”
“How old are you?” I asked Kyle. His eyes were much higher than mine.
He shoved me playfully off the sidewalk, and my tennis shoes squeaked against the metal of the gutter. The night haze looked purple and dry.
“Well then it’s a date, kiddo,” I said.
He threw the steaks down on my portable grill and they smelled rich and wet. I turned on music as they heated and pulled out two beers. He popped the tops and we took long gulps as the steak browned. We talked about jobs and what he wanted to do with his life and my apartment.
Finally I said, as he flipped the fillets, “You must have been a real asshole if you never took a girl on a date.”
He grinned that grin and said, “Why buy the cow when you can get the meat for free?”
I observed him incredulously. But once our breath smelled of seared steak, he got the meat for free that night, he a flopping cow carcass atop a little fish.
The next time I saw him he was dancing behind the counter to the Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb” with a whole turkey propped on the butcher’s block in front of his groin. He was stroking it like a pet, occasionally whipping its loose tissues to the side, some of which remained, dangling off his fingertips.
“Back for more?” Kyle said, gripping his turkey, oblivious to my horror. By this point in my previous relationship Rob had brought me flowers, had shown up to my door in a suit and had said, batting his eyelashes, “You’re beautiful.”
“Yes,” I said.
We had many more Friday steak nights. He started closing shop early because I would get hungry. We would kick our way home with wet meat cold and tender in our pockets, and then he would cook it until the sour turned smoky and dance with me. It seethed on my grill. We threw the scraps to the begging cats on my balcony and he would knead his hands into my back and bite my ears saying, “Holy cow you’re sexy.”
Friday steak nights became let’s-go-to-a-thriller-movie nights even though I never even liked scary movies. I squirmed in my seat waiting for the moment I could grab his beefy thigh in terror, wondering as we walked out with goose bumps is this what love is? Rob had never had me on the edge of my seat.
My father despised comfort. When I told him I wanted to stay in-state for college he had scowled at me. “I’m going to pay two-hundred-thousand dollars for you to be special,” he had said at last. I moved to Washington, DC and became a small fish in a big pond. His graduation advice was a disappointed, “Don’t you ever move to Cincinnati, Laura.” For him, Cincinnati was the epitome of all things ordinary. It was the home of my mother’s side of the family. With dread and elation I moved to New York. Staying in DC or going home or anywhere comfortable would have been damnation to commonness. Rob, I discovered once in New York, was too predictable. I remember the Twenty-Eighth Street Starbucks sign illuminating the tears clumped on his lower lashes as I watched him walk away after I dumped him. I knew how soon he’d call me. Kyle never called; he just came over. Kyle gave me that inner-thighs-squeezed-together kind of anticipation. Kyle gave me an appetite.
The ending was the sound of a mosquito before the imminent bloody bite. He started coming over later than usual, and one night he simply never showed up, didn’t answer my calls. He arrived the next night carrying eight pounds of ground beef — the almost-not-fresh kind that needs to be eaten really soon.
“What the hell am I going to do with this,” I asked as he entered.
“This is too serious, I don’t like this,” he said. He dumped the meat on my counter then looked at me. “You’re cute. You’re so cute, Laura.”
“‘This’ isn’t anything,” I said. I told him to chill out. We made ground beef, rice and Worcester sauce stir-fry together, one of those desperate butcher’s tricks.
But soon Five Dollar Fridays were axed. He returned half my phone calls. He held me at arm’s length, and I thrashed about like a crab caught on tuna bait. It felt like I was losing the love of my life.
Sometimes he still came over after work on Fridays. We still grilled marked-up wet meat, salivating as it stank through my apartment. We gnawed at it in silence, my hair ruffled like a mating chicken, and he could not get out of there fast enough.
Years earlier my father told me that relationships were a lot like hunting. “You need to track your kill,” he said, “shoot it dead, drag it home.” The most effective strategy, he said. I hunted Kyle like a Shiras Moose. But my killer instinct was misguided. It was thrust under the bed and in its place was this sappy sickened sinew. I slipped about with Kyle in pleasure and ignorance and self-loathing. Any healthy instinct would have made me realize he was not worthy of the chase. Any healthy instinct would have made me realize he was just a bum butcher but I was sloppy-wet.
“Why aren’t you dating that football player anymore?” my mother asked at Christmas. It was the opposite question of what I had asked her throughout my childhood, variations of “Why are you still with dad?” She seemed to think that being with someone was always better than being with no one. When she went on business trips, leaving me with him was, she said, obviously better than leaving me alone, though she watched me claw the windows until my nails bent back as she pulled out of our driveway.
“I haven’t dated him for a year,” I said, thinking of Kyle’s Italian sausages hanging from the ceiling, dripping a pale red onto the checkout counter.
I must have looked morose because she told me, “These choices aren’t easy.”
“You love me,” I said mid-March, pressing the meat of his chest and thighs against the smoked wall of my kitchen.
“Laura Laura,” Kyle had said, shaking his head. “You’re pretty.” He was pinching my breast hard. I looked down at his overgrown cuticles, thought of them ripping off into his hand-mixed ground turkey.
“Ouch,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, letting go. He left before the steaks hit the grill. The smell of his beef lingered.
I didn’t cook the steak he left. I watched it rot in my refrigerator. Days threw themselves under me like spitting gravel on the highway but I wasn’t going anywhere. I sneered in my sleep and stopped feeding the cats, spent hours on my balcony hearing a high-pitched street. Breathing hurt. What a bore.
I packed up late May. Six months — more – wasted and it was time for a change. I emptied my refrigerator just before I left and threw the damned beef, raw wet sour, to the cats. That was the year I moved to Cincinnati.