In the very beginning, cold soup and space travel were both equally improbable. Even with all my various faults and shortcomings, I still know that soup served cold and black hole transportation both stand against the natural laws of the universe, but exist anyway. That’s something Cliff, even with all his various talents and blessings, still never understood. Cold soup is disgusting. Inter-dimensional portals shouldn’t exist, decent people never peak in high school, and I don’t like music, so for the love of god, Cliff, please turn off the radio. These things are the pillars that hold up our universe, concrete and final. The universe, as it tends to do to the ranks of humans, knocked me flat on my ass and proved me dead wrong.
Things have always been this folded, but that wasn’t always so public to me. I am a normal teenage girl to my very bones. With my B-average grades, earth sign tendencies and perfectly inadequate boyfriend, I remain unremarkable. My universe folded in on me inside a Bulgarian restaurant. Donka’s Diner is like myself in the way that it too, is completely unremarkable. I hate Bulgarian food, actually. Cliff chose it the same way he does all of our outings, without consulting me first. He picks me up from my dad’s house at 5:00 pm, because I guess we’re secretly senior citizens and should eat before the sun sets. I climb into the rag, Cliff’s horribly named ‘89 camaro, and immediately turn towards him to get greetings over and done with.
“Hey. You smell especially female today.” he says while throwing the car into gear.
I scoff. What a d-bag. I know he’s trying to provoke me, but I don’t bite. Not because I don’t have a sizzling retort, because I totally do, and it involves his traditionally “female” personality, but I don’t care enough about any of it to banter with him. I just want free food.
He turns to me, almost sheepishly. But I’ve already forgotten about whatever it is he was just talking about. So he opens his mouth and starts his usual spiel. Having already suffered through many car rides with nothing but Cliff’s incessant bitching and equally innumerable jazz discs, by the time he pulls into the lot, parks the car, climbs out, and shoves his keys in his jacket pocket, I have been successfully tuning him into white noise for the past ten minutes. He is, really, at the very core of our relationship, white noise. Like leaving your fan on in the middle of winter so you can fall asleep. Comforting, familiar, and freezing cold.
Donka’s Diner was mostly empty. Probably because it’s Bulgarian food, and who ever goes out for Northeastern European? Cliff, and now me too apparently. The inside, apart from the obvious lack of sentient life, is dingy and darkly lit. Everything is green, sort of. There’s no host, so we seat ourselves at a booth towards the back of the restaurant. Cliff sheds his trendy bomber jacket, revealing a white undershirt, and places it next to him. He looks good in the shirt, I think. Fitted to reveal his physique and the color contrasting with his medium-toned skin nicely. But I would never tell him this, mostly because he already knows it. I clamber into the booth and sit across him. There’s a vase of plastic flowers on top our vinyl table, placed against the wall. Our waitress comes with soiled menus and ice water soon after we sit down, and she too is completely unremarkable. As I pretend to read the menu, Cliff resumes his talking at me.
“-this audition I have on the 21st is really cutthroat, I mean the rest of the guys in my ensemble are taking it super seriously-”
“And you’re not?” I ask without lifting my eyes from the word ‘soups’.
“No.” He says, taking up a defensive tone. How dare I, a lowly non-prodigy, question the art of the brightest, youngest, rising star in the jazz world this side of the Mississippi River? “Of course I’m taking it seriously, it’s for a really important gig, Adah. I’m the only brass player in the whole ensemble, so obviously I’m taking it seriously.” Then he goes on to further explain how very seriously he is indeed taking this.
“The venue is really cool, I mean this gig is fancy. It’s pretty high class stuff here, Adah-” and on and on he goes. Gig. I hate that word. If I had a penny for every time my musical genius boyfriend said the word gig, I could buy a shotgun and finally blow my brains out before I ever had to hear it again.
“So have you all decided what you want, or do you need more time?” a woman’s voice asks from above. I realize that our decidedly non-Bulgarian waitress has appeared, and is now taking our order. Damn. I haven’t actually read the menu at all yet.
“I’ll take the Tarator, please.” Cliff says, flashing the waitress a bright smile simply because she’s a member of the female race and decidedly non-me. I search for what he ordered on the menu, hoping I can just piggyback off his order and alleviate myself from the burden of decision-making, but when I see what he ordered I nearly gag. Cucumber yogurt soup. Served cold. I’m appalled by the Bulgarian race of course, but the fact that Cliff ordered it produces a white hot anger within me. I can hardly stand to look at him.
“And I’ll have the Ovcharska Salata.” I say. Shepherd’s salad seemed to be the least nauseating thing on the menu.
“Alright, I’ll have that out for you two in a bit. Let me know if you need anything else.” As our waitress walks away, I find myself wishing I could think of something to ask her, if only to keep her company a little while longer. Not that it was especially great, but I find every minute I spend alone with Cliff today to be harder than the last.
“-Adah? Adah? Are you listening?” I hear Cliff say. I guess I wasn’t listening. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember when he started talking.
“Sorry, what’s that babe?” The use of an endearing pet name seems to placate him some, I so rarely use them. For reasons obvious. “I’m sorry, I’ve been a bit ‘out to lunch’ today, literally and figuratively.”
He reaches across the table and takes my hand in his. “It’s okay.” He say, tenderness heavy in his voice. “I know how hard this year has been for you. But you gotta keep moving forward, Adah. Live your life, look to nature and find peace. I know you can.” Easy for him to say. He has hiking boots.
Cliff loves me. And in some selfish, small, and entirely masochistic way, I love him too. At least, I used to. I think the part of me that feels human connection broke along the way, like a car battery finally fizzling out halfway across the Mojave Desert. Cliff and I have been boyfriend and girlfriend since the summer before freshman year, and now it’s winter break of junior year. It feels as if I’ve never existed without him. He is a constant hum; the one who holds my virginity in his back pocket and gives me the roses that are thrown at his feet. And now, in the middle of a dingy Bulgarian restaurant on a cold December day, with his hand in mine; I feel nothing.
I meet the dark eyes embedded in his warm brown head. He really is beautiful, long lashed and with the sharp face of a man. “Thank you Cliff. You always know what to say.” I squeeze his hand, eager to let go. With a smile on my cracked lips, I tell him I love him. I kiss him. Then I wait patiently for my food.
That comes not much longer after, placed in front of us by the waitress. Mine warm, and his ice cold. Disgusting. With my expectations extremely low, I prepare myself to dig in. At least it’s sustenance. But before I even take my first bite, something strange happens. Cliff’s cucumber-yogurt-vomit soup, which is cold like a slurpee, begins to bubble and steam with heat. Cliff starts to call the waitress back, but is cut off by something even more shocking. Rising from my boyfriend’s soup bowl is a fully sized hooded figure, covered in the green goop. The lights around us flicker, and I think I hear the waitress scream, but I can’t be sure. My hearing has turned fuzzy, like a radio barely picking up the station. Dark purple smoke billows out of Cliff’s soup bowl, which impossibly holds the being inside its very self, like a bottomless pit has opened through the china. The figure is now fully emerged from the white china bowl, and they rear their head right at Cliff. Lifting skeletal hands to remove their black hood, the gaunt face of a woman hidden beneath the fabric is revealed. Her demonic figure floats in the middle of Donka’s Diner, dripping with green goo. Her yellow, burning eyes fix on Cliff and bore right into his very being. Then terrifyingly, the woman opens her mouth, revealing long sharp incisors in layered rows, and begins to speak.
“Clifford H. Dunaway.” She speaks in whispers, slurs almost, that somehow echo through my skull; her voice the sound of yellow and purple and the darkest depths of the ocean. I am terrified to hear what else she has to say, and I can barely look at her. What was once Donka’s Diner is now filled completely with dark mist, as thick as smoke. The only light is emanating from Cliff’s bowl of soup, but what was once green upchuck is now an endless pit of white light, gently humming like a computer coming to life. Before I can register the impossibility, the absurdity of this, the cloaked woman speaks again. “Why would you ever take a nice girl like this one to go out for Bulgarian food? And you ordered the most repulsive thing on the menu and had to go and get it all over me.” She began to wipe of the green glop from her robes with her skeletal hands, flinging it onto the linoleum floor in disgust.
I turned to look at Cliff For the first time since our visitor arrived. His handsome eyes were widened to absurdity, his usual brown complexion turned white with fear. He was possessed by fear, looking like an invertebrate about to be crushed under boot. As usual, Cliff was no man at all in the face of conflict. Despite the fear, confusion, and wonderment that kept my blood pumping and my feet planted in that very moment, I was nevertheless ashamed of Cliff for being weaker than I. This shame is what stirred me out of petrification and made my voice work again.
“Cliff. Cliff! What the hell is going on here? Do you know? Why did- how did– a woman materialize from your Tarator?” I say, my voice sounding alien in my ears.
He turns to look at me, his face a white moon hanging in the purple smoke sky. He, for the first time in his life, is ugly. He looks about ready to swallow his own mouth. Thin-lipped and bloodless. A boy, lost in the reaches of space. Pathetic. Trembling.
Cliff avoids my gaze and speaks in a scratched voice. “Adah, this is Asenath. She’s… well she’s auditioning for that gig I was telling you about with a competing company of my current symphony.” He turns to the now-named entity. “Asenath, this is my girlfriend.”
Asenath looks at me with circular eyes, the color of mustard gas. A chemical warfare agent that burns my skin on contact under her gaze. “Oh, I’m well aware of who this one is, He told you about the audition? Must not like you very much.”
Cliff coughs, and Asenath rears her demonic head his way instead. Surprising me, Cliff meets her eyes. “Leave her out of this, Asenath. I didn’t explain anything to her.” Cliff looks at me quickly, his face grim in the haze around us. I can tell he’s trying to communicate something to me, trying to speak with his eyes. Something urgent. Something I can’t read.
He regards Asenath, again meeting her eyes. I’ve seen Cliff perform enough times to know that that’s exactly what he’s doing now. His face is pale but hard set, hands steady but his body swaying slightly. Wearing the mask of a fearless man to cover the face of a cowering boy. Cliff is trying to trick Asenath into thinking she doesn’t scare him. “So I guess you’re here to, what? Turn my body inside out from my throat then?”
Asenath only laughs, a manic one that sounds of space madness. “Of course not, Cliffy! Why would I come all this way just to do that when I could simply think you inside out from the comfort of my own galaxy? No, I’m afraid my mission is far more complicated than crushing bugs. I came here to kidnap you. Obviously.”
The restaurant falls back into silence, leaving only the sound of Asenath’s whirling portal. For a split second anyway. Once Cliff has processed what Asenath has said, and once Asenath sees this realization in his face, all hell breaks loose. Actually, more like hell opens wider.
Cliff tries to make a run for it, springing off the ground and hurling himself in what I’m assuming is the direction of the door. I watch, petrified, as he quickly disappears into the fog. Leaving me all alone. I hear Asenath sigh, and I whip my head around to look at her. What I assumed was a sigh of annoyance is quickly realized as a sound of utter joy. Her hands are clasped together at the base of her throat and she smiles wide enough to show all eight rows of her teeth.
“Oh yes, I was positively drooling for excitement Clifford!” Asenath sounds absolutely giddy. Then it starts.
Despite my ringing ears, I hear the loud crash with perfect clarity. I can only assume it’s Cliff’s body, telekinetically slammed against the wall. Like a plug pulled in the bathtub, the smoke that has clouded the building has begun to swirl through Asenath’s portal like water through a drain. As the smoke begins to clear and my vanishing point rapidly expands, I can see that I was right, Cliff had been flown into the wall. He took down the hanging decor with him, picture frames and the like, his body in a rubble of broken glass and the Bulgarian flag wrapped around him like a swaddled baby. He lays in a heap on the floor, looking so small. I’m reminded of my Raggedy Ann doll from when I was little. His body raises from the ground, still tucked into the Flag of Bulgaria and covered in bleeding cuts. A bad gash on his temple. His white shirt staining red. Cliff’s limp and lifeless body is lifted into the air like a marionette, and he starts to move with the still-swirling smoke, like hair traveling with the bath water down the rabbit hole. Cliff moans, which eliminates my theroy of his death. As he gravitates towards Asenath and her portal, his eyes fly open and I think his body is starting to seize. Mid air he starts to struggle, like he’s bound by invisible ropes. I realize he’s trying to turn his body towards me.
“Adah!” he chokes. “Adah!” still thrashing with all his might. “Adah!” this time his voice shrill and shrieking. “My pockets, check my pockets! The keys to the rag are in my jacket!” Desperation taking over, he repeats this sentiment long after I heard it the first time, all the while moving across the restaurant and into Asenath’s open arms. She’s grinning like the cheshire cat, teeth bared and deadly. Manic looking. Her cloak whips around inside her own personal tornado. The air is almost clear now, and Cliff is mere seconds away from the demon’s embrace. He howls unintelligibly and she starts cackling uncontrollably. Her too-big yellow eyes glint lunacy. Her beam splits her face in two. Hideous. Mad.
Then, surrounded by purple mist and lit with a blinding white light from below, the hellion envelops my still-screaming boyfriend. A mess of smoky air and cloaks and the Bulgarian flag, they too go down the drain. With a pop! the portal closes like a giant’s eye, leaving no evidence of anything abnormal at all, besides a spinning soup bowl. That cracks and explodes, splattering me with tarator and lodging a porcelain shard in my arm as my only souvenir from Cliff.
All this happens within the span of maybe forty-five seconds.
I spot our waitress, who I entirely forgot about, collapsed in the threshold of a swinging door to reveal the three-man kitchen staff, all fainted too. I decide that these guys have the right idea, and my knees buckle and I crumple to the ground.