Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:
Local news was abuzz with stories of the new restaurant on Second Street that folded wishes for demonic possession into their phyllo dough, rinsed lettuce with cursed water, and prescribed personalized nightmares with their seasonal menu.
Lore wanted to try the dream-inducing food during the opening week, but we were too common to afford it. She stalked the restaurant one evening, hoping to peek through garbage they threw out, but there was none. She accosted patrons as they left the restaurant at midnight, posing as press and asking them for their opinions of their dining experience. Patrons had nothing to say to the actual press and certainly nothing to say to Lore. They stared through her and moved in a daze, their hands pressed to their heads the way people put their hands on their bellies after eating too much, as if holding something in.
3AM Eatery caused a fuss with the renovation of its downtown property. Much too modern, supporters of historic local architecture mourned. Uninviting — foreboding, even, one mother was quoted saying of its façade of one-way windows, dark and mirrored from the outside. Hard to believe it’s going to be a restaurant.
Owner and head chef Michelle Reed liked to talk in interviews about her education at the finest culinary schools, training abroad, and family recipes. In all her photographs, her grin exposed lines of neatly-filed teeth. Her hair was an unflatteringly vibrant red. People remembered her voice differently: some said it sounded like gravel; others said they could barely hear her, that she was always whispering. Lore studied reports for who said what about Reed’s voice and concluded that they were all right, because how one heard Chef Reed’s voice revealed something about the self.
I loved Lore. She dreamed of being a painter but was afraid of being bad at it and so rarely practiced. For two months, she longed to be a model, but agencies told her she was too short and her chin could be sharper. Instead, she opened an online store that sold doilies and puppy mittens and cup holders she crocheted herself. She made a couple sales every week, but there were already people doing it better who had been doing it for longer.
I understood when she became obsessed with 3AM Eatery. Six weeks later, when the excitement over the new restaurant had died down and no one had anything either scathing or remarkable to say about it, Lore managed to reserve a table for us. I knew she hadn’t suddenly made a bunch of money with her crochet business and asked if she could afford something like this.
I offered to help them close, she messaged.
You mean you work there? You found a job? Happy for you! I responded. I glanced up from texting under my desk to see nearly half the students texting under their own. At least they were quiet.
Tonight at 11
Oh, that’s soon. Haven’t thought of an outfit.
Was the last dream you had a good one or a bad one
I don’t want to pick up a nightmare there. Just try the food.
Tell me about your dream though
I glanced at the students again. It was one of those repetitive but terrifying ones. The kind you want to cry about after waking up but laugh about how illogical it is with your friends after.
But what happened
The principal walked by. I slid the phone into the desk drawer.
I don’t remember going into the restaurant or being seated. Menus waited atop the slate tablecloth in front of us, 3AM boldly burned into the center of their black leather covers. I wasn’t sure what kind of food 3AM served. The articles that had come out in the first weeks all said something different. Sometimes the atmosphere was quaint, sometimes it was edgy. Some people praised the farmhouse décor. Others said they were struck by the use of hard metal edges and glass.
Lore and I stared at the covers of our menus. The patrons around us did the same, none of them moving. 3AM’s intimate dinner lighting seemed more in service of creating shadows than a mood so, when I did look up from the menu, I had trouble seeing Lore. I wanted to talk to her, to ask her questions about the new job, to laugh about how we were having our first fancy dinner date two years into our relationship. I wanted to propose moving in together, how she could put her half-dead plants next to my mostly surviving ones on the water-damaged windowsill. I could say how I wanted to help her more. Yes, I’d start that way.
Chef Reed emerged from the darkness at our tableside. She asked us in a whisper-hoarse voice — like something she’d lost screaming herself awake — what we’d like to have. Lore lifted her head and asked for an expansive nightmare, something striking like inspiration.
The kind so vivid you can’t shake it off in the daylight, she said, the spark in her eyes the brightest thing in the darkness.
No, Lore, I thought I’d said, but my mouth didn’t move, and there was no sound.
Chef Reed smiled. Her teeth were not pointed at all like they were in the pictures. She asked what I would like.
I said I didn’t want anything. I suddenly wasn’t hungry.
The food here is weightless, she told me, so everyone can indulge.
No, I said.
Chef Reed asked about dessert.
Lore laughed. Have something. It’s on me.
Yes, on Lore, Chef Reed confirmed.
The tablecloth was red.
We use red as the palette cleanser to prepare the mind for the dream, said Lore, looking just past me into the dimness beyond.
I didn’t need to use the restroom, but I told them I did. My chair screeched across the polished concrete floor when I pushed it back, and the noise echoed with nothing soft to absorb it. I fumbled through the darkness, hands out in front of me.
In the women’s restroom, two low sofas faced each other. Between them, a marble statue of a malnourished Aphrodite stood upright in a clawfoot tub. There were no stalls or sinks and no door other than the one that led back to the dining room. Except for the spotlight over the statue, the room was dark. I pressed myself against the wall and breathed. I wouldn’t ruin this experience for Lore.
Chef Reed was gone when I returned.
I got something small for us to share if you’re not that hungry.
Oh good, I said. My hands shook beneath the table.
Chef Reed said I could eat here from now on. I could save so much on groceries.
At the cost of what? I wanted to ask but, again, no sound. The food — Lore’s food — suddenly filled the space between us. The white square of her plate overflowed with wool.
The tablecloth was black. After the palette cleanser, we use black so that you can fall, uninhibited, into the dream, Lore intoned.
A saucer to the side held a single dark chocolate truffle. Chef Reed appeared with it — not that she’d delivered the food, only appeared simultaneously — and pointed at the dessert with a long finger. She considered it, then said, in my mother’s voice, that I seemed like a strawberry kind of girl. The truffle faded to white chocolate with pink swirls. When she looked at me, I tasted overripe fruit, the kind that dimples at the touch and draws flies.
I reached for Lore, but my hand landed in the wool.
I’ll share with you, Lore said, her mouth fuzzy.