They shuffle in their shiny shoes, gazing at the sidewalk. Standing apart, as if to hide from each other.
“The password,” I say.
The boy mumbles something. I tell him to speak louder.
“Red dragon,” he says.
I open the door all the way and they dive past me, seeking out the refuge of shadow.
This is not uncommon. Everyone has a line. For most people, that line is the back door of my restaurant, and it takes courage to cross.
More people will turn and run than stay to eat.
The door safely closed, the couple unclenches. I get a better look now that they aren’t backlit by the harsh light from the street. The boy is blonde and squarely handsome, freshly-shaved. The girl is brunette, small, hair-straightened. Pretty in a way that would fade into the background of a pleasant group photo.
They’re dressed neatly. Collars and buttons and smooth fabrics. Not married, but from the way his outstretched hand hovers near her, considering it.
I turn up my palm and smile. They can’t see me smile because they won’t look at me. But the boy sees my hand. He pulls a wad of bills out of his back pocket and places it on the flat plain of my fingers. The wad is folded over once and secured with a purple rubber band. I flip through. All there.
Without another word I move through the narrow hallway toward the black door. They follow.
When they get this far, they always follow.
I open the door to a small wood-paneled room, barely bigger than the one table and two seats in the middle. Atop the table is a skinny candle in a silver candlestick. Bach’s cello suites play low.
Points for ambiance.
On the white-clothed table are two plates. Each plate is set with a silver fork, a silver knife, a folded white cloth napkin, and an empty wineglass.
Piled atop each plate is a wrinkled nest of red cured meat, streaked with thick bolts of white fat. Next to the meat is an orange dollop of chipotle mayo, two slices of crusty bread, and three cornichons. The plate is wide and curved, the food arranged like a painting.
The couple lingers by the door. I stand aside, hold out my arm. Welcome them. Smile, even though they won’t look at me.
“Please,” I say. “Be seated.”
They move into the room like it’s a theory they’re testing. They settle into their seats and I produce a cork on a silver platter. The boy looks at me, unsure what to do, so I place it down and pour a taste for the girl. She swirls it, takes a sip, and nods, like she understands what’s in her mouth.
Box wine, poured from a recycled bottle of 2003 Latour Bordeaux.
The drinks poured, the guests settled, they finally look up at me. Their eyes wide and soft. Quivering.
“You are about to join a very elite club of diners,” I tell him. “After this you will be different. Embrace it. Do not fear it. Do not concern yourself with what society thinks. Society is behind the curve for people like us. You are pioneers.”
The girl stares at the nest of red meat on her plate, her hands folded in her lap. She opens her mouth and stops. She opens it again, and asks, “Who…?”
“Do you really want to know the answer to that?”
She shakes her head.
No one ever does.
And no one wants an audience for this. I bow, deeply, and take my exit.
Close the door and head back to the kitchen.
Pull the wad of bills out of my pocket and count it off.
Pick up the phone, and place an order for another ten pounds of jamón ibérico.
Expensive at $90 a pound. But you can sell it at a 500 percent markup when you can trick yuppie foodies into believing they’re eating human charcuterie.
And in ten minutes, when I clear the plates, which will be empty, or untouched, or covered in vomit, I will regret nothing.
Only the strong survive the astronomic rent of the Meatpacking District.