The Derecho


Gregor knew the Chilean sea bass was not Chilean sea bass but it’s not as if anyone would ever find out. His job was to stand there, serious as cancer, with his Hitler hipster haircut (long but neat on top, shaved on the sides) and relate that the Chilean sea bass was marinated in an infusion of pine sap water and Syrian orange blossom water, served on a bed of ramps, accented with inamona. When he would leave the tables sometimes he would see people take out their iPhones to look up what the words meant. The worst customers were the ones so pretentious they refused to do this, pretending they already knew that inamona was crushed roasted candlenuts.

By 2 am the last of the diners had departed, each waiting for their respective Ubers. One Capital Hill type stepped into an anonymous black sedan, the door held open by a man with an earpiece.

In the back room, Gregor counted through his tips. Most here tipped in credit, but some still left cash. Twenties, fifties, hundreds, tucked into the carved rosewood boxes—imported from India—that they served their checks in. Four-hundred and twenty-two dollars for dinner for two, including two cocktails each, an amuse bouche which was free but wasn’t really, the bison for her, the short rib for him, the “adult” macaroni and cheese, and the Valrhona chocolate mousse.

Gregor stuffed the cash into his front pocket and exited out the thick frosted glass doors into the soupy humidity that is DC from June to mid-September. It was actually mid-August—thunderstorm season. Gregor turned off 14th street and onto T street. Not a good idea to walk around with so much cash. He thought this frequently of late but kept doing it. Homicide rates were up. Kids getting killed, stabbings, someone shooting at a metrobus at the Safeway up in Petworth. All the Safeways in DC had nicknames—the Soviet Safeway for its long lines and lack of products, the Social Safeway for its alleged singles scene. Some called the Petworth Safeway the Swift Safeway, not for the speed of its lackluster employees, but because this was the name of the apartment building above the grocery store. But how could it be anything but the Shot Safeway now?

His roommate was zonked out on the couch, Xbox controller still in hand. Gregor grabbed his cell phone charger, which was sitting on the kitchen table next to a smattering of bills and headed into his bedroom.

The sheets were in disarray on top of his bed, a mess of clothing spilling off onto the floor. Ironic 80s product t-shirts like Mr. Bubbles and jeans that he never washed because they were the expensive kind you were not supposed to wash.

Matej Kovačić was a man about Gregor’s age living in Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb was the capital of Croatia. Gregor had picked Matej’s Instagram because Croatia had seemed as remote and obscure as possible. Actually that wasn’t true. He had started looking at Croatian Instagram accounts because during his one year of college at American, there had been a Croatian guy down the hall who wore tight pants way before anyone was wearing tight pants. He and his roommate had started calling the guy the Croatian Sensation.

Matej, no doubt, was also a Croatian Sensation, but not too much of one. Not enough to make him an Instagram celebrity who was too easy to find. He was just a guy with a rugged, closely trimmed beard, piercing green eyes, dimples, and the sort of physique that should have at least counted as a part time job to maintain. He had some douchy pictures—shirtless bathroom mirror selfies where he was almost but not quite making a duck face. Him wearing a tank top with arm holes so substantial that he might as well have been shirtless. If Gregor looked like Matej, he would always be shirtless. Beneath that rugged face were muscled shoulders and a smooth chest, an eight pack leading down to the dents of his pelvic bones. Matej had a couple of pictures cut off just a millimeter above his cock, him squinting ever so slightly at the camera, smoldering.

If you had a couple of these, but cultivated alongside them some of Matej’s more Croatian-next-door pictures, you could imagine the persona Gregor had created online for himself. The Greg who went surfing and sailing with his painfully photogenic friends. Greg, dimples blazing, at night, holding a sparkler in one hand, beer in the other. A selfie of Greg home alone, a cat on his chest. The cat’s wide green eyes making his own eyes pop.

What was life like for Matej? What was it like to wake up looking like that? To have hundreds of girls write you on OKCupid, as Greg did when Gregor put up the profile he had created using Matej’s pictures. Gregor was not bad looking, but he was solidly plain. He did not have ab pelvic bone dents. When that girl was hired as hostess at the restaurant, the unreal hot one that everyone wanted, Gregor didn’t even bother. Men invited her to yacht with them, as if yacht were a verb. He had dreams sometimes, lucid dreams, where he ran his hands forcefully over his face and body, trying to transform himself from the pasty too-soft Gregor to the lithe musculature of Greg. It did not work even though you were supposed to be able to control lucid dreams.

Obviously the girls who wanted to meet right away he had to delete. Ditto the crazy ones. The two Republicans.

Hey babe, came a message on Kik. Gregor had downloaded the anonymous messaging app solely for this venture. The Hey babe was from Lexie, every day a Hey babe. Once he met her he stopped talking to the others. Even with his insomnia, he only had so much time.

If he could literally create his ideal woman, Lexie was her. She was 5’8”, her dark hair alternating between super trendy cuts you could only pull off if you were beautiful. She was. Big hazel eyes, full lips, heart-shaped face. The occasional bikini shot and semi- nudes showed a toned, curvy body. She had tattoos snaking up her arms, one nesting under her left breast. Studs lined her right ear lobe. She was the sort of girl who dated war reporters and helicopter pilots. The sort of girl who went sailing in Croatia.

She wasn’t real, of course. She couldn’t be.

Hey sweetness, he wrote.

Did you bring me leftovers?

He quickly found a picture of the Parker House roll and sent it to her. Some of the pictures he sent her were real. The God light peaking through thunderclouds just as a summer storm ended. Precession, the restaurant on 14th where he worked, was known for their Parker House rolls, buttery little breads that they made from folding and folding the dough and working in herbs and more butter. He had taken a picture of one that had turned out looking remarkably like a buttery vulva.

lol never gets old

Gregor got into bed, plugged in his phone, and sent her a picture Matej had taken the other night, him in his own bed, the light of his cell phone reflecting back contemplatively in his eyes.

I missed your face, she wrote.

How’s Keema? Her dog had gotten into a batch of chocolate chocolate chip cookies.

☹ ☹ ☹ They gave him an emetic and theyre keeping him overnight. Possibly two nights $$

He braced himself. Vets were expensive. The dog had seemed real enough. Pictures of the lab with her at the beach, the two looking impossible carefree. She might ask for money. She might ask and it would all be over. Please don’t ask.

Poor pup, she wrote. I hate the thought of him sleeping there in a cage

Maybe all the dogs are partying

She sent back a link to YouTube which turned out to be an audio recording of that Who Let The Dogs Out song.

Worst. Joke. Ever.

Whatevs you love me, she wrote.

I do.


Family meal at Precession, the hodge podge meal served to the staff before dinner service began, was sometimes odd, but typically good. They ate together, all of them talking about why Cody was missing—because he was a fucking coke head. They shook their heads slowly and changed the subject to Michele Obama’s visit two months ago. Once you went Obama, where else was there to go?

Gregor had a bit of time before his shift. He checked Matej’s Instagram. A picture of some flowers in a cone of newspaper. He was visiting his mother in the hospital. #pray

Lexie had sent a message: Clean bill of canine health

I’m relieved.

That dog had helped her through some rough stuff. Her father had died of cancer. A best friend had run off with an abusive ex of Lexie’s.

My cat provides me with no support other than trying to suffocate me, he wrote.

Pobrecito

His cat had allegedly helped him through some rough times too. But while the cat was not real, the rough times were. Dropping out of college and the eight months of couch surfing that followed. The maelstrom that was his relationship with Aimee, a wound so scarring that he one time took the long way around Meridian Hill park because he saw a girl who might have been her even though Aimee had definitely moved to San Francisco. Now, as it had been in the beginning, there were long days where he should have been sleeping where he messaged Lexie for hours, talking about their relationships, the small slights of the day, how her father used to whistle, and how nothing had ever tasted better than the water from a garden hose on a hot day when you were a kid. Sometimes in the summer when it rained the sidewalk smelled some way, like wet sidewalk, a smell so specific that it piqued those memories of drinking out of a garden hose. Running with friends pretending to be Thundercats, tripping and scraping knees, daring each other to slap the front door of the haunted house down the street.

The Chilean sea bass here is not real, he wrote.

What?

It says Chilean sea bass on the menu. 35$ dish. But I saw the box it comes in. He realized he had walked into a trap. Talking about different types of fish might bring up catfish. Catfish the TV show was about naïve individuals who were fooled by people misrepresenting themselves on the internet. Some of the online relationships stretched into years or even offers of marriage. The victim would suggest meeting up, but some excuse was always offered. When the perpetrator was revealed, sometimes they turned out to be closeted and gay, posing as a sexy woman when they were really a tortured young man living in a rural town. Oftentimes they were overweight and used pictures of people caged off the internet to Frankenstein the perfect person: the attentive, dependable personality of someone who was imperfect on the outside and moved through the world propelled by hard work and good intentions but not very much luck—this combined with the physical perfection of beauty on the outside. It was the show that had given him the idea.

Gregor had never proposed meeting. Neither had Lexie.


While dinner service that night had been a bit grueling, when he got home, he didn’t sleep much. Some of the other waiters would go out afterwards, meeting up with other people in the restaurant industry to drink and party, but he hadn’t felt like it. Then he’d wake up at 3 pm and head into work at 5. At that time on a Saturday, people were already out. Couples with sporty dogs sat outside at the wicker tables at Le Diplomat, drinking tiny cups of coffee and pretending they were in France. Bros congregated at the open front of Pearl Dive, loudly screaming about Game of Thrones. An outrageously gay twink called out a greeting to his bitches as he jogged to the entrance of Barcelona. 14th street was hopping.

Friends and bros and couples and bitches.

The inside of Precession was over-air conditioned, turning Gregor’s sweat to ice. DC has two seasons: swampass and blizzard.

Rick was wiping at his hands with a small towel. “Dude, there’s supposed to be a derecho.”

“What?” Gregor said. “I didn’t hear that.”

“What’s a derecho?” Mindy asked. She was the sommelier. She was the shortest sommelier ever, but she was good and the customers liked her, liked her crackly voice and her formal way of holding her elbows back.

“Land hurricane,” Gregor said. He had been trapped in his car in Adam’s Morgan during the last one. Out of nowhere it started raining violently, wind ripping through the tree-lined street he was driving. A tree had fallen, trapping a line of cars, and another massive branch fell on the hood of his car, denting it. In the morning after the freak storm, the news reported that one person had died, the only other victims were trees and cars.

“Fucking Pepco,” Rick said, pausing in his hatred of the power company they were all mercy to to take a sip of the watermelon jalapeño shrub they were serving tonight. “Power’s going to go out, bet you a million.”

Mindy was looking up derecho on her phone.

“You like that shit?” Gregor said, gesturing to the pink drink.

“It tastes like salty ass.”

“Oh, so you like it.”

Rick laughed.

The derecho did not make an appearance until half an hour before opening. They had already donned their long, spotless black aprons, reviewed the specials on the menu. The shrub everyone got for free. Gregor didn’t know why the fuck they called it “shrub” rather than “some fucking juice we made up.” The amuse bouche was a small spoon containing a tiny toast made from a sourdough starter imported from Hungary that dated back, allegedly, two centuries. On top of the toast was roasted squash, as bright yellow as Burt or Ernie—Gregor couldn’t think of which—and a little quail’s egg. They were making sure the silverware was perfectly straight, the napkins properly folded. The Parker House rolls ready with their buttery lubrication.

One minute it was sunny, the light streaming in from outside, people jogging by training for marathons and others carrying wine from that Russian liquor store. The next minute it was ominously dark and it began to rain as if watery angels were shitting directly above them.

The first table arrived, soaking wet and laughing nervously. “Seriously, it’s bad out there,” the man with greying temples said. Just as Gregor had seated them, right by the window, the wind began to gust so hard it was frightening. There was a parking sign just outside that window, a mere few feet away, and it shook so hard it wasn’t inconceivable that it might break and fly into the window. They ordered the Parker House rolls.

The wind ripped down 14th street in gusts so big that the water within them seemed like an entity and not a thousand drops of water, but like something living, twisting down the street with fierce life. The sewage system in the city was so old, everyone talked about how old it was, that it needed to be overhauled, but it would cost millions and take forever. When it rained hard, and now it was beyond raining hard, the streets would quickly flood, the sewer not having enough capacity. The street, normally peppered with pedestrians, bikes, and cars, was a river with only an occasional car eking its way forward bravely.

Some reservations called in and said they weren’t coming. Some, Gregor knew, just wouldn’t show up at all. But from his experience with the last derecho, it wouldn’t last that long. Other people scurried in from outside without reservations, laughing and flicking the warm water off their bodies. They were seated and provided with extra napkins.

Gregor was just setting down some watermelon shrub for table 23 when a flash of light burst and a loud crack filled the air. There were some shouts of surprise, co-occurring with the lights going off. “Pepco fail,” someone said loudly and all of the tables in earshot laughed. Stories about Pepco began to circulate. The waiters quickly moved to provide extra table candles.

Sandra, one of the other waitresses, the one with her hair dyed an unnatural shade of grey, met him just outside the kitchen, waiting to receive plates from the chefs. Her pupils were dilated in the darkness. “It’s all going to start going bad—everything in the fridges,” she said.

“Power’ll come back on,” Gregor said, picking up two plates of fish.

The power did not come back on.

Some customers ate and then lingered by the door, waiting for the rain to let up, but it didn’t. “I could deal with getting wet but I’m honestly scared of that wind,” a young woman said. She had ordered the flourless chocolate cake and left exactly one bite on her plate. Girls did that a lot, Gregor noticed. Men were never so modest, or perhaps they lacked the self-control.

“I can’t swim for shit, and I’m not swimming in that,” her friend said.

Other diners stayed at their tables, dawdling with dessert and coffee and ordering more drinks. It didn’t matter, them taking up the tables, because reservations weren’t showing up. Or it didn’t matter until 10 or so. Now it was pitch dark, that strange green light no longer filling the sky. The wind had died down except for the occasional violent gust, but the rain was still going strong. Gregor paused to look down the street and saw tall apartment buildings with darkness inside. People in bright yellow duck raincoats arrived, girls in yoga pants with wet ankles, and tourists. They didn’t have power in their apartments, their hotels. They got seated. Some went to the bar and began to get progressively drunker.

Gregor walked quickly to the kitchen where he needed to pick up four chickens, one burrata, and two raviolis. The manager was back in the kitchen, talking to the chefs about how quickly the food would spoil. “Fuck, well cook it all. These people are here.” He was not resigned so much as pleasantly indifferent to acts of god.

People poured in, bored of being cooped up in their powerless buildings, hungry and wanting cocktails. Soon the bar was standing room only. Ad hoc specials were made from the items that had to be cooked right now. Discounted drinks were poured and Mateo raised a bottle of champagne over his head, shouting “Happy Anniversary!” and people applauded heartily. Three hot cougars made Gregor take a shot and it buzzed in his stomach. The tables were getting rowdy. The thirty-something lawyer types at table 4, they looked like an ad for a nighttime political drama, but they were quippy as fuck and soon Gregor stopped biting the inside of his cheek every time he happened to be around their table, no longer pretending he wasn’t listening. They were out of table space, so the Swedish tourists sat with the four black grandmothers and they talked about the blizzard last year, Snowpocalpse or Snowbama 2.0, depending on who you asked, and they ordered four desserts to share because who on a night like this would count calories.

It got crowded and crowded and people got sweaty and several of the waiters got the idea to all open Spotify on their cell phones and put them all over the restaurant and they began to play music. The waiters danced between tables, handing out plates of bacon-wrapped-dates that were sloppy but perfect because they were sweet and they were salty and they were there and practically free. The young women got up to dance, unabated by their damp dresses and slippery flip flops, their hair gorgeously stringy, their arms in the air. The dads loosened their ties and in the candlelight no one judged their inherently dad-like dancing. People were drunk, some on alcohol, some not, sins were forgiven and strangers shimmied together.

The candles glowed, warm, and in the middle of the restaurant a tangle of waiters and busboys and customers laughed and spilled drinks and it felt a little like a wedding, like they all didn’t really know each other, but there must have been someone getting married that brought them here. For a brief moment, the music pulsing, Gregor laughed at Mindy smacking Edie’s ass as they danced and his eyes teared very abruptly and it occurred to him that right now he was happy, and something about that happiness, in its sharpness, its brightness, was something he knew was temporal, but was something he wanted to keep. For a split second he thought about Lexie, and Matej, that this weird night was just the sort of thing someone would want to capture on social media omg this crazy night happened and everyone danced, that there was a part of him that after it all ended would want to tell Lexie about it. But Mateo was there, teaching a twelve-year-old kid how to do the stanky leg dance and it was just so funny that to stop dancing to take out a phone seemed absurd.


The party ended, as all parties did eventually. They bused the tables and mopped the rainwater and alcohol off the floor. As the sun began to rise they yawned and cracked their jaws. The power came back on but no one had the energy to celebrate this. The chefs inspected the fridges and the waiters headed home. Gregor fistbumped Mateo and Andrew, who were smoking outside, on his way out. The river had left detritus strewn down the street, water bottles and soppy chunks of paper. Parts of someone’s artificial hair.

He took out his phone. Lexie had sent him a picture of her looking coy.

You know I’m not real, he wrote.

She did not answer.

Even several hours later, she hadn’t answered, which wasn’t like her. Gregor, feeling a little heady, leaned against his window and with his roommate watched people come out of their houses to look for their garbage cans, to point at the trees that were broken and to inspect their cars.

Gregor opened his laptop and pulled up Matej’s Instagram. That close up shot of him with the cat. That was the sort of picture that had been perfect because yes, obviously, he was handsome as fuck, but also, his eyes. They weren’t just eyes for the sake of eyes, but there was something behind them. A sadness.

Gregor scrolled, then found the picture of the flowers in the newspaper. #pray.

He moved the cursor, then began to type out a comment. Hey man hope everything is ok with your mom.  

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