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May 9, 2017
Missed Connection W2W: Los Angeles—Los Feliz

A work of fiction about a friendship that’s been chiseled apart by sprouted almonds and coconut water.

I was Googling almond-crust prosciutto pizza recipes at a café in Los Feliz. You walked in and told the barista you were there to pick up a ham sandwich. “On white bread with extra mayo,” you said. Everyone within earshot looked up.

I looked at you more closely. I would have known your voice anywhere.  You and I had been best friends when we were kids. We’d moved together from Houston to Los Angeles, though we hadn’t seen each other in over a year. I moved with my laptop towards the back of the café, to a shadowy corner where I wouldn’t be spotted.

Eighteen months before, I’d been spiralizing a zucchini in our shared kitchen at our apartment in Echo Park. You’d walked into the room with your boyfriend, Christopher, and taken a seat. Christopher was moving in, you said. I needed to vacate my bedroom immediately. So furious I couldn’t respond, I turned up the dial on my Vitamix to drown out the sound of your voice.

I had to know, you went on calmly, that things between you and I hadn’t been good for a while. You referenced an episode the previous week in which I’d replaced your leftover Taco Bell with a Tupperware full of riced cauliflower. I’d imagined you would be grateful. You weren’t.

That afternoon, packing my things, I wrote your older brother in Houston an email to tell him about the real problem: Christopher, your boyfriend of six months, a coke dealer who directed porn for the Internet. I told him all about Chris’s pale bloated body and his large white hands, one always pawing you, the other never without a flip phone in it. By the time I finished typing this description out, it almost felt true.

I didn’t, of course, tell your brother the real truth, that Christopher was a line cook at a Glendale chain restaurant specializing in reheated chicken fingers, and otherwise, an entirely decent guy. I didn’t think I had to. I wanted to save you. I thought I was doing something good.

Your mom and dad in Texas, believing your L.A. boyfriend was a 41-year-old porn-directing drug dealer, cut you off financially, and hauled you back home. You clawed your way back to Southern California practically on your hands and knees. I hadn’t seen you since. Until today.

Now, you ordered a can of Sprite to go with your ham sandwich. The man at the table one over from mine nearly fainted. “A Topo Chico, sure, I heard him whisper, “but a Sprite? They don’t even serve it in glass bottles here.” For my part, I hadn’t known Sprite was something people could still buy. At that moment, a wave of nostalgia washed over me, so dense I could almost taste it. It tasted of store-bought bread. Of packaged meat. Of yellow mustard. Of freedom.

Later that night, as I pressed $30 worth of organic sprouted almonds into the bottom of a pie tin, I told my boyfriend I’d seen you. He asked me why I hadn’t said hello.

“I mean,” I said, “She ordered a ham sandwich.”

“It’s 2017,” my boyfriend said. “You’re not celiac. Don’t you think it’s time to let the sandwich issue go?”

“Bread is Satan,” I said. “You know that.”

“I’m just saying. It’s weird. I’ve seen you drink entire shot glasses full of beef tallow. You say you’re paleo, but you love ramen. Plus, you eat more bacon than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Bacon is fine,” I reminded him. “We’ve all decided bacon is fine now.” Red meat was also fine if it was organic. Processed sugar was okay if it was in a dessert you had really been wanting to try, like cereal milk gelato or churros. Other than that, I was practically vegan.

“We also both eat an extraordinary amount of cheese,” my boyfriend reminded me.

“Cheese is FINE. Besides,” I said, changing the subject. “It was just so pedestrian. I mean, a ham sandwich?” Frustrated, I exhaled loudly. The almond flour clumped beneath my hands.

“This isn’t working,” I said. “Let’s go out for dinner. I’ve been wanting to try that new gluten-free French place. They’re supposed to have an excellent Croque Madame.”

“You know a Croque Madame is just a ham sandwich with a fried egg on top, correct?”

“Exactly,” I said, glad he finally got it. An egg on top. How droll. “Anyway, it’s gluten-free. And it costs a lot. It’s healthier.”

“We drink a lot of bourbon. The CDC links drinking definitively to seven types of cancer. If the point is to be healthy—”

“It’s not,” I said, though to be honest I’d forgotten what the point was. “Anyway, all food can be good for you if it’s harvested sustainably—”

“Like that lobster roll place you like that flies its fish in from Alaska every day? Sustainable like that?”

“Lobster rolls are having a moment,” I said through gritted teeth. But I bowed my head, deflated. Who had I become? You’d been my best friend since I was six. We’d once spent whole weekends at your mom’s house baking cookies from dough in a plastic tube. We’d taste-tested different flavors of Fanta. I’d thought about you every day since our relationship died. I still knew your phone number by heart.

“You really should call,” my boyfriend said, spooning cacao nibs over two bowls of avocado chocolate pudding and placing them in the refrigerator to chill. I agreed. In fact, I told him I’d do him one better.

The next day I went back to the cafe. All morning, I rehearsed in my head all the things I would say to you. We would talk about the sweet corn muffins at our high school cafeteria we’d both loved. About the days when Cool-Whip was a perfectly acceptable dessert. It had never seemed right eating in Los Angeles without you. Being anywhere without you. I would tell you that, and that I was sorry. If I had to, I would wait all day.

At two in the afternoon, you showed up again for your takeout, ordering a chai tea to drink while you waited. Hidden in my corner, I rolled my eyes: Did you have any idea how much sugar you were consuming? Also, everybody knew chai meant tea. You didn’t actually have to say both. I swallowed my scorn and stood up, readying myself to approach you.

Before I got close enough to do so, I saw the chef’s face. He’d come out of the kitchen to hand you your sandwich directly. He smiled at you, not in mockery but as if the two of you shared a secret. That was when I understood.

It had been you, all along, who got it. Mayo ham sandwiches were only the beginning, soon to be followed by tuna melts, meatball subs with blood red sauce, salads drenched in French dressing, jarred pasta sauce with the meat already in it. Bagels. Beef soft tacos. Baked chicken. Jell-O. You’d learned a thing or two during your exile to our shared hometown. I’d missed it all because I’d been here.

My boyfriend was right. It was 2017 now. Everything had changed. Antioxidants meant nothing. Middle America was back.

I looked down at my chia seed pudding and kale salad bento box, imagined the chef laughing at me behind his hands as he made it. I thought about my Instagram, still peppered with images of beet and goat cheese salads, artfully arranged Swiss chard cooked in pork fat, coconut water and kombucha. No wonder you’d pitied me too much to speak to me when you’d seen me the day before. You probably thought you were sparing my feelings, what with me living in the past as I was with my avocado toast, my raw organic almond butter, my cashew milk and my chia seeds. My cold-pressed juice. My brussels sprouts. My salmon.

Too embarrassed to speak, I moved back to my table and sat back down. You left the café, once again, without noticing I was there.

I went back every day for five days after that. You came in each afternoon around the same time but you never saw me and I never said hello.

So what I’m trying to say now, I guess, is hello.

I ordered us cake.

This story was published in TASTE’s Spring 2017 Fiction Issue. More stories from the issue can be found here.

Sarah LaBrie

Sarah LaBrie is a librettist and writer. Her writing for the Industry’s opera HOPSCOTCH was featured in The New Yorker as well as The New York Times, LA Times and on NPR. DREAMS OF THE NEW WORLD, a choral piece commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and written with composer Ellen Reid will premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall next year. Her work has also been performed at Julliard. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and is the editor of The California Prose Directory 2016: New Writing From the Golden State (Outpost19). Her writing also appears in The Literary Review, Epoch, Lucky Peach, the LA Weekly, Lit Hub, the Millions and elsewhere.