Daniel: A Fable by K. W. Frome photos by dellas
One night, F. ate at Daniel, the famous restaurant in New York...
One night, F. ate at Daniel, the famous restaurant in New York, on the Upper East Side, just off of Park Avenue. He had made the reservation one month in advance, just as the restaurant had instructed him. Though he had a few friends and sometimes dated one woman, when the day arrived, even though he had made a reservation for two, F. decided to go to Daniel alone. He wanted to breathe in the food and the ambience of the restaurant without any distractions. F. desired to know Daniel without mediator or veil in the same way that his hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, dared to know God. Nothing would come between him and a perfect meal.
F. dressed carefully for the evening, choosing the lone hand-tailored shirt he owned, matching it carefully with his only Hermes tie. He had made sure that his shoes were polished the day before, and he wore his old Hush Puppies the whole day lest he soil his freshly varnished shoes. F. oiled his hair and slicked it back, shaved, and waxed his skin with a mask and serum and antioxidant cream. He wanted his face to glow when he walked through Daniel’s front door.
F. knew that Daniel would be frighteningly expensive, so, for the previous month, he led an austere, almost monastic life. He did not dine out nor did he socialize. F. talked to few people and made no long-distance calls. He turned his cell phone off, checking it periodically for emergency voice mails. He received none and deleted the rest of his messages. F. kept the lights in his apartment off as much as possible. As the day of the reservation approached, F. would sit, waiting, in his darkened living room almost kneeling at the end of his futon, staring straight ahead at the shadows the passing traffic on Bank Street threw off of his walls. The month of asceticism served to cleanse his palate, empty his mind and fill his wallet.
By the morning of the reservation, F. felt purified and unfiltered. He entered into a completely receptive state. He feared that any expenditure of energy would disrupt his appetite, so he dared not move all day. He dozed and stared and fasted until dinner. F. did not even take his customary 5 p.m. cocktail.
When he arrived at Daniel, promptly at 7:30, the tips of his fingers tingled with anticipation. F. was ready and open. The dining room, with its huge spray of forsythia and its handsome crowd of couples engaged in hushed conversation, received him warmly as if he dined there regularly. The maitre d’ sat him beside a column looking down on the pool of diners. F.’s dinner surpassed perfection. Perfect was perfect only in juxtaposition with the imperfect. Worldly perfection was dialectical, but Daniel was a world unto its own. Its definition needed no comparison to delineate its meaning. Daniel was extra solar. The chef must have known of F.’s devotion and of his period of financial and spiritual and gastronomical preparation, for he immediately sent F., via Daniel’s minions, a silver tower of trays of appetizers. Its cold scallops slithered down his throat and the small pastry shell full of creamy Parmesan cheese scampered playfully after them.
The sommelier handed him a bound book of wines and asked him to take some time to discover the list as if he were Columbus or an eager kindergarten student. She told him to choose well. When he picked one of the lesser-priced Pinot Grigios, she smiled at him, knowingly and patiently and said “Very Good.” She understood. She had pulled her hair back in a tight bun, and she wore a three-piece suit that created a series of inscribed triangles over her pelvis.
Soon, after a team of waiters corked and poured the wine, they handed the menu to F. He had anticipated that this would be the most difficult moment of the night because, in general, the more choices he was given, the less likely he was to choose. In order to have the perfect meal, though, he knew that he would, finally, have to choose something. To choose was to begin to unravel potential and potential, he believed, was the only perfection. F. had prepared himself all month for this hour when he would have to choose, to take a chance, to make a leap. The agony of anticipating this choice had almost overwhelmed him all through the day. When he gobbled down the chef’s complimentary hors d’ouevres, the thought of having to choose from the menu almost paralyzed him. As he held the menu, his eyes could not focus; the letters blurred. His mouth dried up. F. started to sweat, and he shivered.
The staff swirled around him like electrons around a nucleus. Bread arrived in a tray in a series of long rows. As he munched, the crumbs fell on the soft linen tablecloth; they were instantly swept away, (along with all of his other sins, F. thought), by an attendant. He ate the bread and steadied the menu in his hands, his anxiety mounting with each passing minute. A new waiter suddenly appeared. She wore a tuxedo, and her face glistened. She asked F. if he needed help. He expressed complete immobility. She smiled. She said that she understood. She said that she would take care of him. She suggested that he try the house specialty. He brought himself to ask for it bloody, but not too bloody. “Ah, medium,” the waiter took in the order as if it were a revelation. F. found that it was so simple, really, to order. It was almost pleasant to express a preference. He felt strong and grounded. F. sat back awaiting the braised short rib and tenderloin.
He continued to eat bread and its crumbs fell continuously and were again almost instantly swept up. The rib arrived at just the right interval in the form of a thick rectangle. It looked like a piece of chocolate cake. F. dipped his fork into it, and the meat fell away into moist flakes. He placed a small piece on his tongue. Mild, pleasant undulations rippled through his body. The meat was the most tender, the most sweet, and the most succulent food he had ever tasted. Here was an entrée that served as a main course and a dessert. It was meat cake; it was cake meat. He could not get the words straight in his mind as he struggled to think through the experience. F. stopped his mind. He dumped its words. He forced himself with intense concentration to transcend the traditional dualism of eater and eaten. He joined with the rib and became one with it, if only for an instant.
After dinner and after an almost perfunctory chocolate soufflé masterpiece, the waiter in the tuxedo presented F. with the label from his wine selection encased in a little book with a white tassel dangling down the spine. It looked like a diploma or a fancy prayer book. F. strolled out of the restaurant, receiving congratulations from the wait staff and a sad but hearty goodbye from the maitre d’. At the front door, a beautiful young woman, lightly tanned in a strapless gown, informed him that taxis were scarce that night and asked if she could share a ride with him. He noticed that she was the most perfectly formed and beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her face glistened too, but the thought of sharing space with her in the close proximity of the backseat of a cab revolted him to the point of nausea. He turned away and hustled to Madison to get a cab of his own.
The next morning F. woke up, starving. His hunger annoyed him. Like a spoiled child, his body was betraying him. “Haven’t you just had, only hours before, the most perfect meal?” he scolded his stomach. The hunger pains would not subside, so he went down the street to his favorite diner. The sight of the breakfast of eggs and rye toast and bacon made him sick. He could not look at the food, much less eat it. It just could not live up to last night with Daniel. F. abandoned his eggs, paid the bill in full, left a hefty tip, and walked outside.
All was gray. The snow piles were black. The pit in his stomach deepened, as did the hunger pains. F. walked to the supermarket, but the rows of vegetables and stacks of dried foods and slabs of meat all revolted him. He went home and tried to sleep, but his hunger kept him awake. F. could not bring himself to eat. Each time he fixed a sandwich or opened a can of soup, he found it depressingly ordinary. Once, he grabbed his wrist with his other hand and forced a forkful of tuna down his throat. He vomited immediately. The oil in the can had overwhelmed the taste of the fish and besides it was not as tender as F. had expected. The tuna crumbled into flakes instead of falling into a row of delicate wafers as he would have preferred.
F. did not go to work for a week. He had not eaten and so was weakened; he could not stand the prospect of seeing his colleagues again. One friend called to check in on him, but he did not return the message. When his sometimes girlfriend meekly tapped on his apartment door, he held his breathe and ignored her. No one could be as beautiful as the headwaiter or as helpful and caring and nurturing as her staff. Who among his friends and colleagues could sweep away his messes with the same loving efficiency as the bread-crumb-cleaner at Daniel? No one, he concluded, could care for him with as much purity.
The days passed. F. received an email from his supervisor to get in touch immediately. They were worried at the office. F. ignored him. He had to concentrate his full energy on eating. Two weeks had gone by, and still F. could not eat. He drank water, admittedly, but he could not force even a cup of tea into his stomach. After Daniel, the whole world had lost its vibrancy. Colors no longer shimmered. Objects flattened into two dimensions. F. drew the shades and shut off the lights again and sat cross-legged on the floor waiting for his appetite to return.
After three weeks, it did not. He ordered Chinese take-out now and then, but he could not bring himself to open the little cartons. The odor of the MSG made him wretch. F. grew faint and withdrew far into himself. At one point the police came to the door. F. opened it for them, said that he was fine, just a bit under the weather. The officer looked about the apartment and left. F. shuffled back to his couch and fell, exhausted, deep into its pillows.
By the fourth week, F. feared death. He knew that he would have to eat or die soon. His cheeks sunk, his clothes hung loose, and he no longer felt the pangs of hunger. If he did not want to die, he had only one choice. He called Daniel and begged for a reservation. They told him that he would have to wait for one month. This would not do, F. said. The maitre d’ was not as friendly as he had been the night F. had dined at Daniel. His arrogance and his aloof attitude shot a wave of despair through F.’s bones. F. felt helpless and finally asked for the next available reservation. F. asked to be called if someone were to cancel. He tried to be charming, but he started to cough.
A week went by and F. began to flicker and to fade. He would not be able to last the requisite month for his reservation. He started to prepare for the end, when the maitre d’ of Daniel suddenly phoned. They had a cancellation that night. Would F. like the table? At 7:30? He was so weak that he could barely say yes. He needed to save what remained of his energy to dress.
This time, F. did not have time to prepare. His sole purpose was to get back into the chair at Daniel, suck down a cold scallop, and begin to recover his strength. F. tried to shave, but the razor fell from his hand and clattered around the porcelain sink. He struggled into a t-shirt and striped cotton pants drawn tight around his shrunken waist by a string. F. found a black sport jacket and slippers and left the apartment at 7:00 to search for a cab. Luckily, one pulled up in front of the brownstone just as F. was closing the front door. He feebly opened the back door and inched his way into the taxi. Unable to speak, he had written the address of the restaurant on a piece of paper and handed it to the driver.
Now F. stood in front of the doors of Daniel. He had returned and sustenance was only minutes away. He was too weak to open the heavy doors, so he waited for a patron to exit and snuck in before the doors could smack shut. He approached the maitre d’ who saw an unshaven man in pajamas and a dinner jacket, his eyelids half-shut, wavering. The man said that his name was F. and that he had been to Daniel before. In fact, he was a regular customer, the man said. “I have a reservation at 7:30.” The maitre d’ said: “I remember F. We loved F. You’re not F. Besides, I cannot expose my guests to your stench. Get out of here.” F. was so thin that the maitre d’ could drag him with one hand out of the foyer, open the doors with the other hand, and fling F. to the sidewalk. “Try it again and I’ll call the cops,” the maitre d’ warned as he turned back into the restaurant.
F. could not defend himself. He had nothing left to say. He began to weep. He shuffled out to Park Avenue. The traffic sped by through wave after wave of green lights. There were many available taxis that night, but none would stop for F. A woman stumbled by, jerked along by an enormous greyhound on a leash. F. thought that the dog’s arched belly resembled a stone grotto. She looked at F. as she passed and smiled helplessly.