Ever since they started trying, there is this question about breakfast. For the wife it is no problem at all. A bowl of raisin bran, a squirt of skim milk, a swallow of coffee, and it’s over and done with and off to work. It’s all so automatic the wife doesn’t even realize it’s happening. Doesn’t even realize she’s pouring the raisin bran into the bowl. The box is in one hand and the paper in the other. She has her nose in the front page or the editorial page or the classifieds the whole time. The wife doesn’t even taste breakfast. She inhales it for fat-free energy and storms away in her Jetta, thinking either boy or girl. She thinks it day or night.

With Erv it’s different. It’s not just Julialisa who’s cutting into Erv’s sleep time. It’s breakfast. There is this question about breakfast. He begins asking it sometime after dinner the night before. Lately, it’s been even earlier than that. What will he have? What will it be? Most of the time he wouldn’t choose raisin bran like the wife. But sometimes he did. It depends. Just like trying, it’s all about mood, it’s all about chemistry, and on top of that it’s all very subtle: it’s splitting hairs.

There are lots of different cereals on hand. Boxes and boxes. Erv insists on it. On top of the dry, cold stuff there are the oatmeals and wheatenas, the stuff you heat until it bubbles. Each has its own unique flavor property, and Erv couldn’t stop thinking about it even if he wanted to. Not many choices on this earth actually make your mouth water. With Erv, all he needs to do is picture a piece of toast. That’s it. Then he’s off weighing and choosing all the different things he could put on it. Enough choices to fill three hours on the Food Channel.

The breakfast question wakes him up at any hour. Usually it’s in the dead of night, around three a.m. He’s recently been in a bagel phase, which he finds even tougher than toast. Today is a typical work day and Erv is in front of his open closet, picking out a tie. He closes his eyes and chooses – that’s it. His entire selection process took about two-tenths of a second, and he did it with his eyes shut. No hemming, no hawing, no time lost matching the intricacies of the tie to the subtleties of his shirt. He ties his half-Windsor and goes. But there was much tossing and turning, forty-five minutes of it starting at three a.m. - before he came up with the cream cheese and sliced tomato combo he made for himself this morning. It was worth it, though. The tomatoes were garden fresh. The way the wet red flesh soaked into the cool cream cheese and rubbery bagel dough was incomparable. As he sits in the gridlock creeping to work with the other human bugs he can feel the tangy remains down in his innards, sending echoes of the meal up to the taste buds dotting his tongue. It’s a lot more riveting than drive time radio.

He has a twenty-five page PowerPoint presentation due to go out today to the office in London. Erv gets to the office, opens his laptop and pounds it out like a reporter at ringside. He puts in the last bullet point, clicks on Save, then shoots his presentation over the network and across the sea. They’ll either love it or they’ll hate it. Doesn’t matter. Whether they love it or hate it won’t trigger any deep yearnings in his abdomen. You can’t eat a PowerPoint. And there is this question about lunch.

While the wife’s family-planning, Erv sneaks out of the office at 11:30 a.m. to plan lunch. Salad, soup or sandwich – or all three together, why not? He’s a walking menu. Every item is burned into his brain. He walks around the park, but he doesn’t really see the park. It’s somewhere back there, way back, back where the PowerPoint is. He feels his stomach juices flow. The glands in his mouth and throat open and spill liquid like fruit on a tree, like berries on a bush. Erv walks fast – he practically zooms – and soon he’s out of breath. He’s bigger than he used to be. Especially up on the pectorals. But it’s not muscle he’s adding. It reminds him of Marshmallow Fluff.

Erv returns from lunch with the bits of sushi still stuck in the crevices of his teeth. On a whim, he made a sudden shift to Japanese. A breeze blew as he was passing a blossoming tree. It made him think of cherry blossoms in Kyoto. The breeze blew him all the way to a sushi bar. It was extraordinary, like riding a giant wave. Walking to his desk, Erv pushes at the sushi bits with his tongue, squeezing out the last jolts of sharp ocean flavor. He can still feel the wasabi fumes swirling inside his upper nasal passages, deliriously trapped inside his forehead.

This is the moment Erv realizes that the use of a bagel is not limited by custom or convention, by anything written or prescribed. He knows that tomorrow morning he will do neither cream cheese nor butter. He may just slice little disks of hot dog, fry them up in a pan and break an egg over them. He may then place this egg and hot dog concoction on his bagel. Incomparable, but then again, he may even go further, he may choose to go with those waving cherry blossoms and fill the bagel with raw, fresh yellowtail or sea urchin. The thought provokes a new Pavlovian gush.

But as he sits down at his desk, Julialisa calls. She has broken down in her Jetta and she’s enraged at the Jetta people. She’s stuck in a tunnel under the harbor and the fumes are choking her. The traffic is backed up as far as she can see. Erv thinks that’s what she’s saying, but he can hardly tell. The cell phone cuts in and out, disconnecting on every other word. The wife sounds like she is underwater, so far away she’s not even on the planet. Erv holds the phone to his ear, but his mind is envisioning the orange pearls of sea urchin glistening on the bagel. Shimmering like little rubies. He can hear them crunch in his mouth. Erv’s wife shouts a half-erased question. She might as well be on the moon. Erv can smell the whole ocean – the salt and the kelp, it’s all right in his mouth. Saliva spills out in a fresh torrent. Erv tastes the moment, every shimmering particle of it. He tastes it down to his toes. When it hits you straight in the tongue, nothing tastes like a moment.

But what was the question? The phone cuts out and stays out. The moment lingers, briny and crisp. A Pacific Ocean of a moment. Concentrated in a single drop.

Then the phone rings again and the wife is back. There's light in the tunnel, she says, and she starts in. Ranting about ovulation. Did he avoid soy products today? That was the question. He can hear her loud and clear now. Erv’s image of the little pearls of sea urchin instantly changes. The tidbits lose their shimmer, their red-orange sheen. They turn white-gray and flat. Phosphorescent ghost-shapes in an x-ray. Globules swarming under a microscope. In Erv's scent-memory the briny whiff turns medicinal. He thinks doctor, clinic. The thermometer is in play; the lab is on standby; the wife is on an egg hunt and Erv’s job is to get his boys swimming. But she has warned him time and again. Stuff like the soy sauce he sloshed on the sushi - not at ovulation time. Bad for the sperm count.

To complicate matters, for the fortieth time the wife brings up the Naughty or Nice party she’s going to attend. Everything is targeted for the same night, tonight. Both events. The Girl's Night Out. And Erv's Night In. With Julialisa nothing ever happens in ones. It's always twos. If they score, he knows it will be twins.

At rush hour, Erv leaves work and slugs through the traffic. A near-miss with a Hummer gives him palpitations. He longs to swallow tension as though it were crème brulee. Instead it sticks in his throat - dry bread without water – and his head pounds.

Down the driveway Erv pulls up his emergency brake. He turns off the car’s ignition and tries to turn on his own. He shuts his eyes and recalls the glossy beads of sea urchin. He breathes in and breathes out. You are a wave on the ocean, he tells himself.

At the door, Julialisa meets him with a surprise. A funny Frosty the Snowman doll. It has a carrot for a nose. It also has a carrot for an erection.

“Whoa,” says Erv. “He’s more ready than I am.”

Erv grabs at his necktie, which feels as tight as a tourniquet. He eyes the staircase to the bedroom and thinks of Sisyphus. And then moussaka. If only he could have a Greek salad, at least, it might all go better than last month.

“Easy, baby,” she says, shaking the Frosty at him. “You’re not on ‘til eleven. I got this for Kara’s Naughty or Nice Party. He’s some doll, no?”

“Some doll,” says Erv. What else is there to say?

“You watch – everyone else will bring undies.”

“Me watch? How can I watch? This is girls-only, isn’t it?”

Erv stands there like a hat rack, looking at Julialisa ogle Frosty’s carrot. She winks and says, “Isn’t that a hoot?”

Still in the entry to his house, Erv feels out of it; not quite there. It’s as if he’s making a sales call. He makes himself put his coat in the closet. As soon as he does, the wife takes hers out.

Erv watches Julialisa get ready. He’s leary of Kara. To him, Kara means trouble.

“Got to run, hun,” says Julialisa. “ Kara needs me to help set up. Do not eat tofu.”

Erv keeps his sushi lunch a secret and contemplates dinner on his own. This buoys his mood a bit. The possibilities seem endless.

“Wait a minute,” he says as she’s halfway out the door. “Why Frosty the Snowman? This is still September.”

“You don’t know girls,” she says. “It’s never too early to Christmas-shop.”

Erv shrugs, granting the point.

“Besides,” she says, “it’s not like every toy figure comes with a hard-on. You try to find one.”

She’s gone, out the door with Frosty, and Erv starts to salivate. He has four hours to himself. It’s a rare guy who will make himself beef Wellington from scratch. But Erv does. And bake the crust yet keep the meat runny and rare. But Erv does.

At ten he pierces the golden brown crust and plunges into the savory red filet. At ten forty five he’s nibbling champagne grapes and licking brie off his fingers.

At eleven Julialisa walks in and shoos him up to the bedroom.

By her calculations, the fertility moment is optimal. Julialisa has her Masters in science and works in the burgeoning field of biotech. In the empirical tradition, she whips out a pen, a notebook and the thermometer and hits the powder room for one last check.

Outside the bathroom door, Erv sits on the bed. He tries to keep silent and practice his meditation. He repeats his mantra, timing it so it rides each breath. He tells himself he is a wave on the ocean; he rolls in and rolls out.

But the muscles aren’t buying it. The lungs aren’t cooperating. He feels he’s drowning, not floating.

Erv grimaces as the wife shrieks with glee at the thermometer reading.

“Get ready,” she says, “I’m coming out.”

In the ten seconds she takes to prepare her entrance, Erv changes his mantra fifteen times. The wave thing isn’t doing it. Nothing’s doing it. He’s taut as an underwire. As Julialisa sashays out in her new red Naughty or Nice costume, he begins to salivate. It’s the color, definitely. The color red. He inhales it, guzzles it. As she does her stripper shimmy in front of his nose, his glands flood his tongue and teeth. They pour out so much juice he’s beyond reason, he can’t help himself. He wants to take the color red and run with it, run where it’s taking him. Out of the bedroom and down to the refrigerator. Down to the rest of the beef Wellington. That’s the red he sees, the red he needs. He wouldn’t even bother to get a knife and fork. He’d claw away the crust. He’d rip the red meat like a wild dog.


Copyright © Paul Silverman 2003. Title graphic: "Bits and Bites" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.