I Don’t Want to Ask What’s in the Cream Cheese

in the vegan sushi because when we walked in the hostess in the tiger’s eye shirt—sheer, cut to her navel—had to scan us up-down before she decided she could smile. It’s dessert, I say, for me. Another Philadelphia. It’s dessert for me and not a hibiscus: the flower is something more rare. If it’s edible I should know to eat it but if it isn’t I’ll look like a rube for trying so I cut and leave it in pieces. They’re played out, the chef on the other side of the bar says about Kobes. No, his friend tells him. Just the Mambas. Not the Red Orbits.

Out the glass, the sun shines on the new San Francisco. She is working on her white tea like she’s been drinking it all day, like we haven’t been walking and hunting bottled water. I like how we don’t force conversation, she says. I have just asked her to rank all our Airbnbs from bottom to top: Saint Louis, Santa Fe, Olathe. I wonder if I should start saying D.C. instead of Virginia when we get asked where we’re coming from. It’s all about who gets to have a voice, she says.

It’s how she answers me about her project. The sushi comes, and we tic-tac-toe the rolls. I flip them in my mouth so my tongue gets the cream cheese and the seaweed gets chewed up with the cucumber. How’s it going? the waitress walks by and asks, and she says it’s good to be somewhere with options. When I go out other places, the waitress agrees, there’s only one thing I can eat on the menu, and she says that she loves the Philadelphia roll. When the waitress leaves, I ask How’s your mental weather?

So good, she says. I’m so relaxed. 

You full?

Yeah, but I don’t feel sick. Her eyes closed, she starts swaying to the lo-fi. It’s colder than what she plays in the car, and I have my phone on the counter pretending to absorb it. I grab her hand when the chef takes out the blowtorch. Oh, she says. He’s melting down the mango. Do you want one? 

I tell her no and she asks if I’m sure. Yes, I say, and because I can’t keep anything down I say I thought you told me nobody should cook with a blowtorch unless they’re making flan. I want her face to change thinking through it but it doesn’t. That’s if they’re showing off, she says. Not if they need it.

Like I don’t get it I say Okay. The sun’s moved now from the windows to the bar, where it bounces off the black wood and on the walls and leaves motes. She shuts her eyes and I press the lever down on my teapot. I know I’ve drunk most of the debris because it doesn’t displace much. I love you, she says, still swaying, and halfway through the you the chef calls Futo maki! It’s finished with pickled radish; I’ve already watched him make it. No cream cheese, and I rub my chopsticks through what’s left on our plate. What do you think’s in it?

She opens her eyes. What?

In the vegan cream cheese, I ask her. What do you think’s in it?

I don’t know, she says. It’s really good.

I know. But what do you think they make it from? Cashews? Yogurt?

Yogurt’s not vegan. She yawns, and covers my hand with hers. I was thinking, she says, drumming her fingers over mine, we could check out the bookstore—

I think it’s like the shrimp aliens.

She starts, then laughs. What?

In the cream cheese. I think it’s like the shrimp aliens in Men in Black II. I take my hand out from hers and shift so I’m sitting legs-up. The ones that live in a locker. And the locker’s like, their universe.

You think there’s shrimp in the cream cheese?

No. She laughs again. I just think it’s cool to imagine—

What are we thinking? the waitress cuts in. We both look over our shoulders, and she moves like she’s going to clear her throat but points at a blackboard behind the chef. Dessert? No dessert? Banana donuts?

Banana donuts! She turns to me. We could definitely go for that. 

What I want to tell both of them is I had it. My second Philadelphia. I ordered it for dessert but I give the O-K sign. Great, the waitress says, and when she’s gone she whispers I’ve heard about the donuts. They’re incredible. She pushes a hair into her pigtails and smiles. Even better, she promises, than the cream cheese.

So she can know she’s right I don’t say anything. I can taste them, the pastry thin enough to melt on the plate. Plum-skin glaze, a shot of ripeness, and hot fudge. The kind of pink sugar crystals you can crunch. Inside, molecules big enough to stick your head through, and nothing like the cream cheese galaxies or the honest-to-God world. They honest-to-God don’t know anything else is out there. A billion little voices when you turn the locker door. Hello, and Hallelujah: they think you’re their God. They think there’s nothing better on, or anything called, Earth. 

The waitress brings the donuts out and they stick to my fingers. It’s so nice to see you happy, she says.

Grace Alvino’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hopkins Review, The Puritan, After the Pause, and Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia, where she researches the intersection of new media technologies and political action within 20th and 21st century literature. She lives in Charlottesville with her partner and their two dogs.

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