Stranger Than Fiction: The Eleventh Course
(or, When You Hallucinate After a Tasting Menu)
5.1.15 | Issue #16
We’re wild and reckless, thrumming with life as we speed down the trail, whipping past ferns and wild strawberry and bright Technicolor bursts of purple lupine.
We’ve ceased talking, our words replaced by the occasional whoop of ecstasy or pounding of footsteps on the dirt. As I launch into the air—catapulting off a jutting rock and zigzagging between trees—sweat beads my hairline, and dust clings to my face. It’s trips to Blackberry Island at summer camp, lazy feet in a creek-bed watching crawdads clamber over submerged rocks, a game of Cops and Robbers in an unlimited landscape of hiding places and thrilling chases, fireflies at night and cool shade during the day. The sun leaks over the forest floor. We leap over exposed roots and glide over gravel patches, my mind crowing for more speed, more power. Oh, to be able to run—! Really run, with the wind in your face and colors streaming by, sure of every step. We are natives, in this instant. Untouched by civilization, aware of only each other and the pulse of the woods.
But the boundaries have begun to slip, like a deck of cards being rearranged. Slowly, slowly. Just one card at a time, a laminated edge notching the stack, little by little.
I’m sitting in a dining room. It’s a nice dining room, and I’ve dressed up, even though we’ve traveled into the heart of a forest to be here and it’s the middle of summer. My clothes itch in protest whenever I move, but I ignore it, because sometimes great food demands sartorial grandeur. This is notoriously great food, and I’m nervous. And itchy.
We sit, and take one last look at the surrounding tables. This is good, because the second it all begins, they blur out, like the edges of a kaleidoscope. We choose a sturdy bottle of champagne to take us through, and the first hit of it spreads under my skin like a thin layer of aloe, or whatever that silver stuff Alex Mack was made of.
The only thing in focus is the menu, which plays out in staccato succession: end-of-season cherry tomatoes with a crème fraîche sorbet, a surf clam draped with a thin sheet of sea lettuce gelatin, then followed by its muscle, paired with shaved green walnuts and walnut oil...veal short rib with tiny orange globes of trout roe, a wedge of triple cream contralto cooked in hay, served with whipped honey and rye bread. Each new course alters the space around it, serving as an old foothold of memory—but before you think you’ve seen it, you’ve lost it, the worn step slick with rain and mud and eons of wear smoothing the surface.
There’s a concentric slowing and speeding of time as we eat, which is both thrilling and frustrating. I’m very much in the moment, more so than during any other meal I can recall, yet outside of it, watching our table anchored in the dining room as everything moves in hyperspeed around it. The service adds to the effect, coming and going so stealthily that the dishes appear borne of their own volition. After what feels like a half-hour but turns out to be three, we stand as if possessed and wave goodbye to the hostess. I don’t recall ever discussing the idea of leaving.
The air outside is still warm, and spicy-sweet bay laurel rustles in the invisible breeze. A thick mist creeps over the valley. The mountains are reduced to inky stains on the skyline, their contours indistinguishable from one another under the dome of night, and we are the only thing moving for miles. I close my eyes, just for a moment, and when I open them, we’re home. A glittering ghost river of champagne delivers me, stumbling, to bed, and everything is dark.
'I always thought I was just a good dreamer,' the chef says, 'but it occurs to me now that perhaps the line separating the waking world and the dream one is just finer than you could have ever guessed. Like all of your selves from one realm are glancing over at the others, right over the border, and if you could simply tap into it—'
My eyes snap open, and I’m awake. It’s somewhere in those in-between hours of the morning, two-something, or three or four. I clutch the edge of the mattress, which has morphed into a cliff-face, and try to slow my heartbeat. It feels like the spins (what a cruel side-effect of the brain slowly pickling in booze!), but unlike any I’ve ever felt before. After a second, I decide to free-fall, and brace for impact.
I’m in my slightly-itchy tulle confection of a dress again, but now long grass swishes around my ankles. It feels as though I might have just been running, but I can’t be sure. I’m alone. Or not quite; our captain from earlier is here, waiting, nonchalant in his pressed jacket beside our table.
“Welcome back,” he says. “We have one final course for you this evening.”
Suddenly, I understand. I’m gobsmacked by the brilliance of it. This was intentional! A menu that continues beyond the restaurant, one that only concludes when you’ve popped an antacid and eased into bed. A customized dining experience, more personal than anything anyone has ever achieved in the realm of the tasting menu format. When did they—
The me in a dark bedroom a million miles away sits up, disoriented but stock-still. “It’s still going!” I say to no one in particular. The sleeping human next to me doesn’t respond. I say it again, and the impossibility of it rings in my ears, even as I fall backwards once more, sinking through the mattress, the floorboards, like it’s nothing at all. Like it’s water.
Blackberry Island. Crawdads. Boulders warmed by the sun. Moss clinging to trees, neon sorrel at their roots. One more dish, a grand finale.
In the morning, I search. For a look on my dining companion’s face, a clue hidden in the words on our menu covered in scrawled notes, for the slightest trace of recall.