Jason never did anything significant before falling in love with Ann. His life before her wasn’t quiet and desperate but it lacked crescendos of passion and spontaneity. Once they met, a rapid inflation of possibilities began for Jason, leading him to see how he’d comfortably resided in a universe that constantly eclipsed him.
There was no particular whiff of destiny to that chilly London morning but the gravity of certain moments changes everything. Perhaps such a moment requires a historic setting like London, which, despite its modern hustle and pace, remains landscaped by previous centuries.
In the middle of Marylebone is an old butcher shop with a large window to the street, serving as theater for the passing carnivorous masses. At times, small crowds gather to watch steaks being chopped or legs dressed. Then, once its curiosity is sated, the crowd disappears back into the city. However, one person came back many times for repeat performances.
Ann knew the routines of the men in white shirts and aprons working beyond the window. She knew how each moved behind the counter and the different ways they held a knife. The butchers were oblivious to her but few other men were. Ann’s cyan-blue eyes rested on impossibly high cheekbones. She was tall, with a leanness tapering down to delicate ankles. Her hair was straight and sensible but the impractically blond color with which she was born belied sensibility. Her tender nose elicited whispered rumors of plastic surgery amongst her colleagues. Hers was a nearly savage beauty, eliciting chilled admiration from a distance.
Before reaching the butcher shop she stopped for a flat white with a healthy dose of sugar accompanied by a bacon butty with brown sauce. She always asked for extra-crispy bacon. Despite the city’s grey skies, she felt jubilant standing in front of the shop with her flat white and bacon sandwich.
At 7:02 am, Ann almost had the entire pavement to herself. She waited in front of the glass with Pavlovian anticipation, gingerly sipping her coffee, for fear it was still too hot. She began to eat her sandwich by chewing off the charred ends of bacon hanging over the sides of the bread, taking care not to drip any sauce onto her new white coat. She licked the saltiness clinging to her lips before sipping her coffee.
Soon the heavyset bulk of the butcher she referred to as ‘the beefy one’ walked into the frame. He was her favorite of the three butchers. There was also a tall, skinny man with a young face wrapped in a thick, brown beard and sporting a small gold hoop earring in his left ear. He seemed quiet and shy. The second of three butchers was short and round. He had a shiny, shaven head and an expressive face. Though he was the smallest, he was the only one she could hear from the pavement. He often told jokes to customers then slapped his hands onto the counter, displaying two pudgy arms covered in tattoos. The third butcher, her beefy one, was well seasoned and serious, never looking up from his work. This day he had a pomegranate-red slab of beef in his hands. She couldn’t hear the noises from inside the shop but she imagined it made a satisfying plop when he dropped it onto his block. A smear of blood dressed up the right side his apron with a scattering of droplets trailing off to the left. He held a cleaver in his fleshy hand,
The cleaver rose and fell, slicing into the beef. She closed her eyes and imagined the cleaver in her hand as it descended through the tissues and muscle. She heard the faint tear of cartilage, like the soft accompaniment of an oboe in a symphony. She opened her eyes in time to see the steak removed and the beefy one readying for another slice.
Ann admired his Rubenesque forearms, brindled in burgundy splashes. He moved 10lb chunks of meat around with artistry. He tossed the sliced steaks onto a second table, allowing them to land with a moist smack, or so Ann believed.
He cradled the handle of his cleaver delicately but with intention, like a samba dancer cradling the back of his partner, guiding it through a precise motion. She closed her eyes and hummed to herself, as she often did. Some mornings it was The Stones and last week it had been Sondheim but today it was Lana del Rey — a haunting tune to accompany the visions of steak, lamb, and pork dancing in her head.
Ann ‘s eyes opened as her coffee cup slipped from her fingers, crashing at her feet. Her heart pattered a staccato beat but her face remained composed, transcendent like Bernini’s St. Teresa. Her gaze tiptoed from the spilled coffee to the colorful world inside the shop. The reds were redder, the pinks more sublime, and the whites brilliant. Her taste buds bubbled in her mouth. The sign next to the window read ‘Butcher’ and she thought it the best word ever.
It was in this moment of waning ecstasy that Jason first saw Ann. He was a clumsy mortal stumbling upon her and was smitten. He stopped seven-feet away from her and stared.
The sleepy street had come to life while Ann watched her show and the people on the pavement passed the two pedestrian islands in a tear-shaped flow. The butchers didn’t see Ann and Ann didn’t see Jason and poor Jason might only see Ann from that moment forward. He only looked away from her face to follow her gaze to the butcher shop window.
Out of the corner of her left eye, Ann sensed someone. She turned to the elegantly frumpy man standing next to her with his beating heart in his hands. She had suitors before but none bearing such anguished sincerity. Normally she would turn him away, but in her lingering bliss, she was vulnerable to the boyish-looking man inching closer to her. The distance collapsed between them until they stood face to face. She felt compelled, with a confusing set of urges, and was about to speak when Jason, without thinking, offered to buy her two prime cuts of aged rib-eye. Her chin trembled for a moment before she leaned in to kiss his cold lips, warming them to an appropriate temperature.
The kiss startled Jason but what was most startling was the subtle taste of bacon advancing into his freshly brushed mouth. Most of Jason’s days did not involve kissing and yet on what seemed a pedestrian morning, he found himself standing on the street kissing a beautiful woman.
Usually, he was a nervous kisser with a curious repertoire of clumsy confusion about when to incorporate his tongue or how to move his lips. He hadn’t much practice. He wasn’t traditionally good-looking but had nice hair in a Flock of Seagulls kind of way, pleasant green eyes, and a slender frame suited for fitted shirts and flat-panel slacks. In the right nebbish setting, he might qualify as handsome. Most importantly, at this moment he had timing and proximity, the lesser servants of Cupid, working in his favor.
Their kiss lingered on for fifteen seconds while busy Londoners continued to split the phalanx of their commute around the couple. The sounds of the city seemed to amplify as their lips separated. At some point Jason’s left arm had circled Ann’s back and was loitering after the kiss, refusing to give ground.
As her mercurial eyes opened and looked into Jason’s face, Ann became aware of what had transpired. She made no effort to smile or say a word. Jason apprehended if something were to be said it would be up to him. He looked into her eyes and licked at the unfamiliar feel of lip-gloss clinging to his upper lip.
“I was serious about the steaks,” he said.
The baritone in his voice pleasantly surprised Ann. She envisioned sipping red wine in her tiny Chelsea flat, while Carla Bruni sang softly in the background and she listened to Jason talk about his day.
Her voice came out in a whisper, “What’s your name?” She was eager to hear him speak again.
She cleared her throat and steadied her composure. “Well, Jason, thank you. You are very kind.”
He lipped a smile and looked towards the ground. He had something else to say but it was lost in the moment. He turned his head toward the shop, raising his eyebrows and a timid smile.“I will be right back.”
Ann nodded and Jason pivoted on his left heel, making his way towards the door of the shop. He entered, finding a place in line at the counter, as his brain began making sense of the past few minutes. Panic hit him as he worried she might walk away before he even asked her name. He cast what he hoped was a furtive glance to make sure she was still on the pavement. He could make out the top of her white, woven beanie hat but the growing crowd outside was consuming her.
Ann watched Jason walk into the shop, anchored in the wake of sudden and uncomfortable self-awareness. She thought about disappearing into the commuter stream to avoid the next embarrassing conversation but felt it would be rude to kiss a stranger on the street then leave while he went to buy her rib-eye steaks.
The rib-eye was her favorite cut of meat. She adored the glorious marbling of the fat through a red so divine it would make El Greco envious. It must be cooked medium-rare so that the marbled fat would melt and flow through the flesh, and the fatty edges should be charred. A master never over-seasons a steak, only accentuates its natural gifts with olive oil, kosher salt, crushed black pepper, and a dab of unsalted butter. Most importantly, a proper steak was a study in scarlet, not overcooked but ripe with flesh. Too many chefs ruined a perfect cut of meat. If only they were as clever as butchers.
It was in this line of thought, Jason found Ann waiting in the exact place he had left her. He had a small package wrapped in white butcher paper tucked under his right arm. He stopped inches from her, much too close for new acquaintances, and smiled a toothsome smile that unfurled from dimples in each cheek.
“I didn’t get your name before I went into the shop. It’s…” there was something else he wanted to say but couldn’t find the words.
“My name is Ann.”
Her voice carried a faint, old-world cadence that raised the hair on the back of Jason’s neck. A pregnant pause ensued after her introduction.
“You have my steaks under your arm?”
Jason’s eyes blinked and his Cheshire cat smile dissipated into a befuddled expression of fluster.“I, of, of course. Here they are — your aged rib eyes, as promised.”
She smiled, taking the package from his hand. “Thank you, Jason.”
Panic gripped him once more as he wondered what to do next. He thought he was on the verge of saying something then he loosed a sigh as his shoulders sagged. For the first time, Ann noticed the black leather messenger bag draped around his chest, the handle of which was being clenched by a knuckle-white fist. Spurred on by a charmed sense of pity, she rescued him.
“I dropped my coffee earlier and could use another. Would you like to walk with me up the street? There’s a little place on the corner that brews a good cup of Joe.”
Jason blinked. He hadn’t heard the term ‘Joe’ used for coffee outside of Bugs Bunny cartoons, or was it Tom and Jerry? The fleeting question of whether anyone spoke in Tom and Jerry raced through his brain. His pulse spiked and the sanguine rush to his head made him dizzy before he replied, “I would love some Joe.”
Some romances begin with flowers, this one began with 2lbs of red meat.