The boy at the counter is maybe sixteen. His hair is lank and flat across his
forehead. He is pale beneath the fluorescent lights.
He’s got a bun open on the yellow counter—he split it open with his two
fingers, and with his flat spatula he’s smearing mayonnaise across its doughy
flesh. The bread resists, springs back at first, but finally succumbs to the
slathering of thick egg-and-vinegar, sinks beneath its weight, gives in. The boy
isn’t thinking about anything but the song on the radio (dreadful, distorted
guitars) or maybe about his girlfriend (enchanted with herself—new breasts,
new fuzz, so charming). In the back room, I suspect, is a calendar with women on
it—bikinis in July, Santa hats in December. Maybe he’s thinking of them.
I am thinking of him, in a way, in the way that you think about a fascinating
plant. He looks alien to me. No, it’s not true. I am thinking about the
sandwich. Will he make it correctly, just so? He’s new here, I think. The
others know how I like it: fresh bread and a quarter-cup of mayonnaise--not too
much meat, there must be room for me within its spongy cleft.
Italian cold-cut sub, foot-long hoagie, grinder. I prefer grinder; so
appropriate. I sneak it home underneath my coat—why? There’s nothing odd
about a man with a sandwich. If only they were in my head. Do the boys at the
shop wonder why I can’t have hot peppers? Have they any idea of the burn?
This new boy was long and thin, his wrists still a child’s. His tendons
moved along his forearms like snakes as he cut the sandwich in half. I am
thinking of this as I unlock the door, becoming excited. I can smell the meat,
the mayonnaise, can feel it glisten on my skin already.
The first sandwich may have been bologna (they spell it baloney now, an
abomination), bologna on white bread with a thin spread of mayonnaise and
mustard. I can still remember its mushy moistness, the resistance of the meat
along my incisors. Or was it Polish sausage, a state fair, spicy, exotic, on a
bun? Perhaps a BLT—but no, that’s too strange, the meat greased and cooked,
warming iceberg lettuce, the bread not bread at all but toast. The first
sandwich had to have been on a roll; or did I invent that out of my own
perversion, a lexical error, confusing bun with buns?
The first sandwich was eaten sitting on my mother’s lap, or my father’s;
a cool adult lap, a wide expanse of trouser or skirt, of seersucker or cotton.
Or was it eaten at school, on one of those dark kindergarten days filled with
the leering mouths of other children, of lunchtimes spent alone? Perhaps it was
eaten, the mysterious first sandwich, the fount of my perversion, at a favored
aunt or uncle’s house, upon a checkered oilcloth on a wooden table. Or maybe I
am making that up, too. What does it matter? A sandwich is a sandwich.
I get the sub home, finally, its drippings wet and slimy on the lining of my
coat, its weight comforting and frightening against my belly. I unlock the door,
first the deadbolt and then the handle lock, and close it furtively, a man
undone by his desire. I cannot shy away from my confession now, even as it
becomes graphic; I am enslaved by the sandwich, it is disgusting; how easy to be
set afire by women in stiletto heels, or, even stranger, by leather, by piss, by
household pets. I can claim no brother in lust; I am utterly alone in this
I peel away the white, heavy paper, almost panting with anticipation. A thin
string of spittle escapes the corner of my mouth, unbidden. Has he done it
right, the boy with the hair just a shade too long, with the deft hands, the
unthinking way with his mouth, his tongue pushed up against the corner of his
lip? I watched him make this sandwich, this sub, submarine sandwich, underwater
boy, his mouth working against the tide of water, opening like a fish… The
paper, taped carelessly in place, falls free to reveal the crisp, wrinkled
crustiness of the roll.
I torture myself with waiting, but finally peel apart the layers. The roll
pulls away stickily, as if it’s been loved already, its folds clinging to the
meat. Mortadella is first, the meat of death, its red muscle sprinkled so evenly
with pockets of white fat. Proscuitto, pink and sticky like a tongue, heavy
meat, such ham.
Salami; I can picture the roll from which it was sliced, can feel my hand
around its heft. Pepperoni, the most prosaic: its salt will sting, the crisp
flatness of its edges dismay, even as I push into other, more forgiving meat.
Then the cheese—provolone, the cheese of modern Italian peasants, barely aged.
Appealing to immature palates, the way American is; but greasier, whiter, like
new flesh. The lettuce is next, its crisp wetness shocking, a chlorophyll
counterpoint to moist tomato, blood red, splattering against my belly as I move
in time to the secret rhythm of Italian cold cuts, cold cutting into flesh,
arias resounding in my head, the final note echoing, a mayonnaise serenade,
gripping that incongruous Kaiser roll against my body, crying out into the
darkness of a night filled with sub shop boys driving their cars to dimly
remembered songs, smelling meat along the creases of their palms.
Claire Bagby eats cheese sandwiches in Baltimore,
Maryland, with her (blessedly) lactose-tolerant daughter and husband. When she's
not thinking disturbing thoughts about food, Claire is writing web site copy and
wearing skirts that are really much too short.