FICTION: My Open-Faced Indulgence by Abbie Doll

The last time I saw Francine, the two of us were secluded in the back of some hole-in-the-wall shop sitting across from one another in a dilapidated booth. While she sat slouched, submerged deep into the worn cushions, sobbing over the messiest of meatball subs, I kept my back straight—determined to maintain my composure with perfect posture and maximize the distance between us, protecting myself from her unsightly marinara splash zone.

A disaster was unfolding before my eyes, and it was tough to ignore. Tough to endure. Francine’s lips were chapped, lubricated by a chili-colored coating of grease, not to mention the alarming splotches of sauce popping up like a dense patch of chicken pox on her chin and flushed cheeks.

Flecks of parsley clung to her curls, too. I watched in a speechless state of bystander terror as her sloppy hands, rendered useless by the mess, attempted time and time again to wipe away the stream of tears. The poor girl was in a sad state—a total wreck, really—and I found myself torn between tossing a mile-high pile of napkins her way or topping off that car wreck of an entrée with another dusting of the cheap dandruff parmesan clumped together in the canister beside her.

At this point, my shoulder was done being a landing zone for her tears. Worrying on her behalf was no longer my concern.

Yet I continued to watch.

The snot trailing down the mountain slope of her agitated nostrils looked as if it was about to collide with her sub at any second, adding what I assumed would be an unwanted and uncomplimentary condiment to this heart attack on a bun that she’d savor on any other day.

But as I said, her needs, her problems. Not mine.

We’d called it quits.

Well, let me clarify. I had.

She, on the contrary, wasn’t coping all too well and seemed to be focused instead on this bombardment—aiming all of the remaining artillery in her arsenal at combating my contentious decision. We were currently in the cry-until-you-feel-so-bad-for-me-that-we-have-to-get-back-together phase, which, unfortunately for her, wasn’t going to happen. My sympathy reserve was long depleted, which isn’t to say that I’d never drizzled salty tears onto my share of ill-constructed sandwiches. But still, it was hard to watch and even harder to engage.

Francine was mourning our lost love with a toasted sammie smushed between fingers fated to press too hard. She just couldn’t let it go. Everyone in the shop could see so. By everyone, I mean the two of us and the poor dude behind the counter pretending to scrub every stainless surface in sight.

On some level, she must’ve known the sandwich wasn’t me, wasn’t a substitute for our soured relationship, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at her. She clutched the lump tight to her chest—toiling to reassemble that which had begun as a piping hot assortment of spices and decadence but had rapidly cooled into this congealed mess that no reasonable person would ever consume.

And the cruelest crumb? My rationale for instigating the breakup was lousy; my tastes had changed, that’s all. They hadn’t even evolved, just mutated to a profile that refused to tolerate her any longer. Beyond that guilt-ridden admission, there wasn’t much I could add.

A series of unendurably long moments passed in which neither of us spoke. I was determined to wait it out, wait out infinity if I had to—anything to get out of this for good.

As luck would have it, my silent loitering was soon brought to a merciful halt. The employee working the counter crept over to announce closing time, doing me a lifelong solid by slicing straight through the insurmountable tension lingering in that cramped booth. As he returned to his post, Francine let out a whale of a wail. I moaned, too, but it was more my being mortified by and exposed to this raw bundle of angst in her outburst. I tried to bury my face in my jacket collar but to no avail—the shrapnel from her heartbreak still got me right in the gut.

I felt her eyes glued on me, begging me to say something—anything to soothe the aftermath of this terrible encounter—but I couldn’t bring myself to meet her puffy gaze. I busied myself fussing over my winter attire, considered writing a quick note of thanks to the employee for all those tears he’d have to mop off the table. Tears I’d caused and tears I refused to take responsibility for, as if the act of any hands-on interaction would somehow obligate me to her further.

As we stood to leave, our aproned friend made no hesitation in locking the door behind us. The second our trailing scarves were out of reach, the lock clicked into place and I felt Francine flinch at its fate-sealing severity.

This was it for us.

No final faked pleasantries were exchanged, no awkward embrace goodbye—she and I merely parted ways, she heading south and I in any other direction.

As she walked out of sight and out of my life for good, I was overcome by a desperate urge to drown out the nagging echo of her hiccupy snuffles. As if on cue, my stomach chimed in with an all-too-audible gurgle, and I just about giggled.

I let my gut guide me toward a ramen place a few blocks north, determined to escape this tiresome wintry slush, hellbent on securing any other taste in my mouth, any other image in my head.

I could envision it now—an ornate porcelain bowl big enough to drown in, topped with golden bamboo shoots, those adorably bulbous enoki mushrooms stretching their way across the rim alongside stunning agate slices of pork belly, all bathing in a rich umami broth spicy enough to grace me with my own endorphin-born sniffles.

Abbie Doll is a writer residing in Columbus, OH, with an MFA from Lindenwood University. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Door Is a Jar MagazineThe Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Ellipsis Zine, among others. Connect on Twitter or Instagram: @AbbieDollWrites.