Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

A Killer Soy Milkshake — Thomas Petrino

Veganism is a feminist issue.

At least that’s what Isobel told her colleagues. She had come across several scholarly articles that argued there was an intrinsic connection between veganism and the feminist agenda. These pieces, invariably authored by women with hyphenated names, always had provocative titles. The most recent essay she had read was entitled, “Why Have Western Feminists Ignored the Enslavement of Female Fauna?” It was certainly attention-grabbing, and it had a nice shaming effect; it seemed to accuse you of misogyny if you so much as glanced at a glass of chocolate milk.

Transitioning to veganism was not Isobel’s idea: she was making the switch at the request of Diana, her idealistic 24-year-old girlfriend. But her hoity-toity coworkers didn’t need to know that. For all they knew, her newfound diet was, indeed, a political statement, a symbolic message that she believed in the rights of all sentient species, thank you very much. Isobel often suspected that everyone in the gender studies department was secretly competing in an unofficial contest to be crowned Best Feminist. Isobel usually snorted at her self-serving fellows with disdain, but she had to admit she was relishing the opportunity to become the department’s first full-on vegan.

So in spite of herself, she wore her vegan badge at work with great pride. Now that Dr. Isobel Brewster had stopped eating animal products, she had gone from dark horse to frontrunner in the Best Feminist race, and the other professors had taken notice. Everyone pretended to be happy for her, flashing wide smiles, shaking their heads, and uttering the rote incantations of non-vegans: “Wow, I just could never do it,” and “But isn’t it so difficult?” Isobel, at thirty-one, the youngest member of the department, normally considered herself above the personal fray and professional rivalries that characterized academia, which made it even more satisfying to see the members of her cohort so jealous of her dietary selflessness.

Of course she wasn’t really being selfless. In truth, Isobel was actually quite critical of academic discourse that connected veganism to feminism, and when it came down to it, she just plain loved eating animal products. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Spaghetti Bolognese. Clam chowder. Lemon meringue pie. Embarking on this journey was going to require sacrifice.

But Diana was a vegan, and Diana was lovely. Di had told her that “it’s all good if you don’t want to climb aboard the vegan train,” but Isobel knew how important it really was to her. She remembered using similar lines when she was Diana’s age, telling a lacrosse player with a blonde buzz cut that they could date, even if he didn’t “get the feminism thing.” That relationship had ended two weeks later, after the meathead had refused to read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Regardless of what Diana was saying, Isobel knew that converting to a plant-based regimen was crucial to winning her heart, so, it had to be done. Plus, Isobel assumed that, like the SAT and sudoku, veganism was probably a lot easier than it seemed.

*          *          *

       Giving up meat, eggs, and dairy was, as it turned out, just as difficult as it had sounded. Not only that, apparently vegans couldn’t even eat honey. Yeah, bees were animals, technically, but really? Honey?

“The whole honey thing is really just obnoxious,” Isobel said one evening after the credits had started rolling on the documentary they had rented from Redbox.

“Did you ever even eat honey before we started dating?” Diana asked. Isobel was giving her a neck massage, and they were starting in on what Diana called an “un-fight,” an argument devoid of hostility.

“No, I didn’t,” Isobel admitted, “but now that I can’t have it, I want it all the time.”

Diana laughed, and used Isobel’s remote control to turn off the television. Then she strode to the kitchen to start reheating some leftovers for their dinner. They were in the stage of their relationship where Diana hadn’t yet moved in, but she felt completely at home at Isobel’s place.

“Seriously, Di,” Isobel continued, “this whole veganism thing is going to be the death of me, and you know I’m not prone to melodrama.”

Diana didn’t say anything, but shot her a mirthfully scolding glance as she scooped food onto two lime green dinner plates.

“Okay, maybe I am prone to melodrama. But seriously, the struggle is real,” Isobel said, taking a seat at the dining table. “I’m pretty sure I had an erotic dream about a Philly cheesesteak the other night.”

“There are tons of meat and cheese substitutes I can show you!” Diana said, playing footsie with her lover under the table like a seventh grader. “It’ll make things way easier, I promise.”

“Yeah, well, so far I’m not exactly impressed with the deliciosity of this diet,” Isobel responded glumly, forking a piece of tofu stir fry and fantasizing about the twenty-four hour drive-through at the Burger King on Sixth and Dollison. The tofu was spongy and bland, but she swallowed it dutifully.

Isobel wasn’t sure whether “deliciosity” was a word, but Diana was the kind of person that wouldn’t call her out on it. That was what was so refreshing about Diana: she was smart as hell, with a psych degree and proficiency in three languages, but she wasn’t stuffy or pretentious like Isobel’s colleagues. Di was chill, the epitome of easygoing and the antithesis of judgmental. And she was sexy, her slender frame fortified by Pilates. She wore her white-blonde hair in a boyish pixie cut that seemed infinitely cooler than Isobel’s long dark locks. But what was most sexy about Diana was her laid-back nature. When she argued with someone, you could hardly call it an argument. “Un-fights” were the norm; her knack for finding common ground was uncanny.

Isobel knew that agreeableness was something that she should look for in a partner. But still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Diana felt somehow wrong, like stained glass windows on a cloudy day, or forgetting the words to her favorite song. When Isobel found something they disagreed on, like religion (Diana believed in God, while Isobel was an agnostic), Diana avoided the topic like jury duty. Isobel wasn’t accustomed to someone who didn’t want to argue with her. Dating had always felt like a competition, but so far it seemed like both of them were winning, which was puzzling.

Finding common ground was not Isobel’s forte, nor was it something she strove for in the first place. In her undergrad days, she had been referred to as a “feminazi bitch” on Internet message boards and in person alike, for daring to make the bold stance that women were people, or something like that. Nowadays, she stuck to more professional settings, and the insults thrown her way had been upgraded to “abrasive” or “extremist.”

Four months after they started dating, Isobel still wondered how she, a tactless firebrand, had landed a woman as gorgeous and affable as Diana.

Hours after the tofu had been devoured and the plates had been loaded into the dishwasher, Isobel and Diana were in bed, making out like a couple of horny teenagers. Isobel broke away for a moment. Ashamed of her vulnerability, she pulled the patchwork quilt up over her face and asked, “How are you still putting up with me? You’re so sweet, and I’m, well, me.”

Diana chuckled heartily. “Isobel, you know how I feel about you. To some people, your personality might seem a bit… prickly. But I knew we would get along the moment we first met.”

“Oh yeah?” Isobel stared back into Diana’s eyes and tenderly moved her hand to the small of her girlfriend’s back.

“Oh yeah,” Diana said. “I’d never met someone as outspoken as you. Someone so unlike me. You’re oddly endearing.”

“Yeah, I think I just find it difficult to get along with idiots,” replied Isobel. “Luckily, you don’t fall into that category.” They resumed their passionate kiss.

It had only been four months, but for now, things were good. Diana was easy to talk to, a great kisser, and she was always willing to try new positions with ridiculous names like the Bermuda Triangle, or the Strap-On Sizzle. Even if things sometimes felt “wrong,” Isobel had no reason to complain.

Except for the veganism. The diet was certainly wholesome, and Isobel “felt” great. She “felt” healthy. But mostly she just really wanted a thick country fried steak slathered in gravy. She was missing something. Veganism left her feeling lightheaded and unsatisfied.

Diana said this was normal, that she would get used to it. But Isobel wasn’t sure she wanted to turn into someone who could be satisfied by such a lifestyle.

Maybe the health benefits were worth it. Maybe.

*          *          *

       The smell of baking bread assaulted Isobel as she approached Ricki’s Bakery. She wanted to stop in to indulge in a scone, or better yet, a banana nut muffin. But she wasn’t sure if Ricki’s had any vegan options, and in any case, she was running late.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, one of those days in late April when people consider that maybe summer is on its way after all. She was meeting Diana at Singh’s, a new fusion restaurant featuring gluten free options, for their thirty-third date. Yes, they were still keeping count. It was sickeningly adorable.

“They make a killer soy milkshake,” Diana had raved. Isobel had rolled her eyes and kissed her square on the lips before Diana could say anything else that would feed into the granola girl stereotype.

Still not used to her new dietary regimen, Isobel thought about how much of a douche she would feel like ordering a soy milkshake. Worse yet, she thought about what her abuelita, who cooked everything in bacon grease, would think of her ordering a soy milkshake.

She was making a mental note to call her grandmother that night, when a lanky guy with a dark crew cut stepped out of the bakery and ran right into her, his onion-garlic bagel making direct contact with Isobel’s beige blouse.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” he said, before realizing who he had plowed into.

Agitated, Isobel dusted off her blouse, and looked up into the man’s milk chocolate eyes. Her annoyance turned to surprise. This was not a random stranger. Just her luck, it was an ex-boyfriend.

“Just watch where you’re… I mean, be more careful next time,” Isobel said, flustered. She hated not having a snarky response, but this was Manuel, a guy with whom she had not exchanged as much as a voicemail in ten months.

“Izzie! How are you?” Manuel’s eyes brightened. He had always worn his heart on his sleeve, and in that instant, she knew that he had missed her all this time. She wrinkled her nose. She hated being called Izzie.

“I’m alright,” she replied after a few seconds. This was not in the game plan.

“Just alright?” asked Manuel.

“No, no… I’m great, really,” she said, avoiding his gaze.

“I’d love to chat for a bit. Do you want to sit down?” he asked, gesturing to the wrought iron furniture outside the bakery.

Still dazed, Isobel’s brain couldn’t access the words she needed to get out of this situation. They sat down at a table under one of the awnings in front of Ricki’s. To a random passerby, it would have appeared as if they had made plans to meet there.

“Wow,” Manuel said, shaking his head and grinning. “It’s been so long since I’ve heard from you, Iz. How’s work? How’s life?”

Isobel averted his glance and tried to formulate a response to his question. “Work is… fine. Next semester I’m teaching a class about gender in the global South. Oh, and I got tenure. Needless to say, I’m pretty ecstatic.”

“Tenure? That’s fantastic!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty surreal.” She realized she should probably feign interest in his life, for pleasantries’ sake. “But what about you? How’s the writing career going?”

Manuel took a big bite of bagel right at that moment. It seemed like an eternity before he responded. “Well, a whole lot of writing, and not as much career. I’m waiting to hear back from The New Yorker on a short story. I know it’s a long-shot, but I have a good feeling.”

Isobel scoffed internally. She had read plenty of Manuel’s fiction, and she knew The New Yorker was more than a long-shot.

“So, Super Writer Man, what is your mild-mannered alter ego, Manuel Lopez, doing to earn his keep?”

“I’m still waiting tables,” he said, clearly embarrassed. “At this new place uptown, called Singh’s.”

Isobel’s satisfaction with knowing she was doing better than her ex quickly turned to horror. She tried, with little success, to mask her alarm. “Singh’s? Are you working today?”

“No, it’s my day off. Why do you ask?”

“Um, no reason. Was just… wondering if you were in a hurry to get somewhere.” She made a mental note to never return to Singh’s after that day. If this was the last time she ever saw Manny, she wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

“Nope, I’m not headed anywhere in particular. So we can just talk.” He beamed.

Nausea bubbled inside Isobel like soup coming to a boil. She could think of at least forty-three different things she’d rather do than sit here and talk to her ex, including waiting in line at the DMV, or drowning. She knew this would somehow turn into one of their usual arguments. Manuel would disagree with her about something, as he always did, and just like old times, she would end up infuriated, even more convinced of her own correctness, and hankering for a comforting Snickers bar. Their relationship had been an exhausting cycle that resulted in too many tears and her moving up a dress size.

“Well, Manny, I’d love to, but I’m actually headed somewhere.”

“Where are you going? I could walk with you and we can catch up.”

Fuck. She couldn’t very well tell him she was going to his own workplace to get a bite to eat with her lesbian lover.

“I’m… going to lunch. I’d really better run.”

“Well, why don’t we make plans to meet up this weekend?” Manuel offered. “We can get dinner at the Metro, just like old times.”

On the inside, Isobel groaned. Getting out of shitty situations was usually in her wheelhouse, but this was different. This was Manny. He had a power over her that had always made her uneasy. A power he had used to ensure she gave him head for weeks after she had privately admitted she detested him. Each blow job had filled her with more shame than the last.

“I don’t think I can eat at the Metro these days. Steakhouses aren’t exactly vegan-friendly.”

Manuel laughed, a raucous, genuine sound from deep within his belly.

“You? A vegan?” he asked incredulously. “That’s hard to believe. I could see you eating cardboard before tofu.”

Isobel shrugged. He had a point.

His eyes brighter than ever, his mouth still upturned in a grin, Manuel sighed and said, “I’ve missed you, Iz.”

Isobel groaned again, this time audibly.

“Yeah, well, I’m seeing someone.”

The smile slid from Manuel’s face like a piece of spaghetti thrown at a wall. His expression dimmed. “Oh. Who is he?”

Isobel’s mind wandered back to the drowning fantasy, and she took a deep breath.

“She. Her name is Diana. We met at my spin class.”

A ladybug landed lazily on the metallic tabletop. Manuel reached over and squashed it with a satisfying crunch. “So, what, you’re a lesbian now?” he asked, glowering. She shuddered, reminded of his frequent mood swings.

“I don’t know what I am, Manny. You know I’ve never been a fan of labels.”

He scoffed derisively. “I’ll say. It was six months before you called me your boyfriend.”

“Well,” she replied, matching and exceeding his condescension, “you asked me to move in with you after our third date, so I think one of us had to slow things down a bit.”

Manuel’s face reddened and he glanced at his phone to avoid the now-awkward eye contact. Isobel sighed and looked at her own smartphone to check the time. She was very late.

Just as she was about to stand up to leave, Manuel opened his goddamn mouth once again.

“Jesus Christ. The Isobel I knew liked cheeseburgers and Gilmore Girls. She wasn’t a vegan who takes spin classes. I’m saying this as a friend: what the fuck has happened to you?”

“I don’t have to justify anything to you, Manny, but in case you didn’t know, people change. Diana has helped me make a commitment to self-betterment, and right now I feel happier than I ever have.”

The words were barely out of her mouth when she realized she didn’t know whether she actually believed them. Was feeling healthy the same as being happy? Manuel was right. Veganism was something she never would have chosen on her own, something she was merely learning to tolerate. Veganism was something she would wrestle with for just three more months, before gradually transitioning dairy, eggs, and meat (and honey) back into her diet, after an anticlimactic breakup with Diana, who was beautiful but just too boring.

Manuel looked bewildered. “Come on, Iz. You sound exactly like the kind of person we used to make fun of.” He reached across the table and grabbed her left hand in his right with an intimidating squeeze.

Isobel glanced at her phone once more. A text from Diana lit up the screen. I just got us a table, followed by a reassuring smiley face.

She looked up, pulled away from his powerful grip, and stood.

Years from now, still single and nearing her fortieth birthday, Isobel will be looking over a takeout menu, and she’ll come across the words “tofu stir fry.” It’ll remind her of the smirks of her colleagues when they noticed her bringing a turkey sandwich into work, dishonorably stripped of her vegan badge. It’ll remind her of Diana, and she’ll look back on the memory of this April afternoon and shake her head in amazement at how sure of herself she had felt in that instant.

When she thinks of Diana, Isobel will regard her ex-girlfriend in the same way she thinks of Manuel, as a background character, a fleeting shadow of what her earlier self had persuaded her into wanting. Memories of Diana will seem foreign yet familiar, like listening to your parents’ stories of your toddlerhood, or being reminded of things you did while you were drunk. Isobel will know the events happened but she’ll find it hard to believe that they were stories from her own life.

“Sorry, Manny, I have somewhere else I need to be.”

She took a few steps away from the bakery and looked back at Manuel, at the back of his head. Then she set out down the sidewalk again, at a brisk pace, eager to kiss Diana hello and order some roasted eggplant.

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