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Romance at The Cheese Cellar

Phyllis Gutterman

On the seventh floor walk-up of a Chelsea apartment in the middle of a winter whose date I choose not to remember, I lost my virginity to Gary Greenburg.

Our friendship blossomed into romance working Sunday brunches at The Cheese Cellar in Midtown Manhattan. We were hired the same week and quickly fell into a routine. He'd arrive late, missing the first half of the wait staff meeting and crouch behind me to change into his uniform. My big hips hid Gary in the dimly lit basement of the restaurant noted in Triple A Magazine for it's "Fondue Specials." Steve, the weekend manager, never noticed Gary's tardiness and I enjoyed the rustling at the back of my legs as Gary tried to button his shirt in the dark. Without his asking, I'd hand Gary the comb out of my apron pocket and marvel at his receding hairline. He had such a small amount of hair, and yet it was the perfect combination of dirt from his previous night of partying and static from the hood of his grey parka. Reaching on my tip toes to clip his bow-tie, I would whisper tidbits from the meeting into Gary's ear about the newest technique for lighting a fondue pot or who was the employee of the week. The title never went to us; it was always awarded to the newest hostess our manager wanted to sleep with.

The business district is a ghost town on Sunday mornings. The only worse time a waiter can work is Sunday evenings. Gary and I worked both. We were terrible at our jobs but too nice to fire, so Steve kept us employed by giving us the least popular shift. Our nickname for Steve was Mr. Scum because he talked with his mouth full of food which made colorful stains all over his short sleeved polyester shirt. No need to memorize the chalk board at the bar when we could find the daily special on our boss' pot belly.

After the morning meeting came set-up time. This included preparing a small buffet table next to the bar and stocking the coffee station behind the kitchen's swinging door. To dress the table, Gary would hold a maroon drape and I velcroed it every five inches to create a giant rippling dust ruffle to the floor. The fabric only covered the table front, leaving us a secret place in the back to stash place settings. If we could not reset our tables quickly, we could not turn them; and, if we did not have customers, we could go home early. The rest of the set-up included decorating a giant platter of exotic hard cheeses, mostly stale cheddar and Swiss cubes leftover from the fondue orders, with toothpicks and bales of wilted kale. We were told by the chef kale looks like parsley, but it can be re-used for months when properly refrigerated.

"Dare you to eat a leaf without making a face." Gary challenged me.

"Only if you do it first." I countered, never imagining he would eat the nasty greens, let alone chew them. He did. I didn't. I thought to myself, "Either he's trying to impress me or he's really stupid." Months later, I found him not only to be the latter, but also flaky and immature .

To stock the coffee station, Gary held the metal pitchers and I poured the milk. Once he pretended to be the blind man from Mel Brook's film, "Frankenstein" by closing his eyes and moving the jug in all directions. The milk spilled all over the table, the floor and his arm. Fearful Mr. Scum might catch us goofing off, I quickly mopped up Gary's mess.

Gary did not believe in separating regular coffee from decaffeinated coffee. "Why bother? They both taste the same."

The cap from the cappuccino machine was permanently loose, and Mr. Scum was too cheap to have it fixed, so it exploded all over Gary's apron. Dessert was rarely ordered by customers after witnessing their waiter splattered with espresso grinds. When I came to Gary's aid and told customers, "his brain may be fried, but don't worry, he's not burned". They often fled the restaurant without leaving a tip.

Was this love? Probably not, but I was no longer in college and had never had a boyfriend and this guy was the only male I had ever gotten close to who wasn't related to me or gay.

Following a super Sunday shift, 9:00am to 9:00pm, Gary and I walked uptown thirty-two blocks to my studio walkup. We collapsed into each other's arms, and made out for the first time. Maybe I was the stupid one, mistaking our exhaustion for passion. With our unbuttoned coats still on, Gary managed to fondle my breasts for maybe fifteen seconds before passing out on my folded futon. The combination of the weight of his snoring head on my chest and the heat of my roused body from his skinny fingers on my chest made breathing very difficult. But nothing disturbed his slumber that night, neither the radiator whistle, nor me as I rolled him onto the carpet with a thud. I finally fell asleep at dawn, but not before watching Gary creep out the front door, without one glance in my direction.

During the week, I did not receive a single call from my new boy friend. How dare he? I knew I had given him my telephone number, I'd written it all over his order pad. On the following Sunday morning, all my anger melted into an imaginary fondue pot the minute he came running down the stairs, late for the brunch staff meeting. My legs buckled when Gary lingered longer than usual to change into his uniform.

Hearing our laughter, Mr. Scum approached us. "Gary Greenberg, what the hell are you doing on the floor back there?"

"Steve, I'm just checking something out. Give me a minute, dude?"

With bits of muffin spraying out of his reddening face, Mr. Scum yelled, "You'll have loads of time on your hands, dude, when I fire you!"

The entire wait staff ducked in unison to avoid the flying food and the confrontation. Gary managed to crawl under the nearest table, button his shirt and pull up a squirming mouse with its claw glued to a cardboard trap. Instead of firing Gary from The Cheese Cellar, our brilliant manager promoted him to bar duty.

With Gary's new appointment, our brunch moments were history and my chance to lose my virginity was narrowing. I'd have to have sex with him soon before his attention wandered to one of the bar waitresses. On my way to the kitchen after taking an order, I made sure to saunter past Gary and give him a "come hither" stare. During our break before the second shift, Gary sat down next to me in the booth with an order of fries to share while I folded the dinner napkins.

"You never told me you wore contacts," he said with ketchup dribbling down his chin.

"I don't wear contacts!" I snapped back.

The suggestive approach completely failed me, and being angry at Gary accomplished nothing except his bewilderment. The next move had to be brazen, and it had to come from me. Being forward wasn't in my nature, but I refused to turn twenty three years of age as Mother Theresa. With only two months to go before the birthday, I made a desperate move. I threw the napkin over our heads, placed one hand on his crotch and wiped the ketchup off with the other. "I want to go home with you tonight."

"Okay," Gary replied and his eyes lit up in our make-shift tent.

After closing, we walked downtown thirty two blocks and up seven flights of stairs to his apartment. No coats tonight. We threw them on the floor, along with the rest of our clothes, stripping each article in unison, mirroring each other's gestures, but never touching. There we were, playing a child's game like all the other games we regularly played at The Cheese Cellar. Naked, except for our socks, we drank a six pack of Budweiser and listened to the Bee Gee's, "Saturday Night Fever", his selection, not mine.

Gary was about to play his favorite song, "Shadow Dancing" again, when I blurted out, "Do you think I can see your futon?"

"Sure." Gary smiled and led me to his bedroom, a closet on the other side of a curtain.

"Can you turn out the lights?" I asked, not wanting him to see my face in case I lost my nerve.

Once the lights were off, I was more comfortable giggling, groping and, eventually, falling on to his futon. Other than the excitement of having sex for the first time and not physically hurting, I don't remember anything. I don't remember what his body felt like, what my body felt like, or who interrupted us with, "Gary, I can't believe you finished off my beer again. And you owe me for rent."

Only later did I discover that the mystery intruder was his roommate, a beautiful actress named Bonnie, who shared more than the apartment with Gary.

A week later, back at the restaurant, Gary pretended nothing had happened between us. Our Laurel and Hardy escapades continued. Why should I care so much we were buddies instead of lovers? I used him, he didn't use me.

One Sunday, he was late, but instead of running to me, Gary hid behind the newest hostess, Leeanne, a former prom queen from Georgia. He asked Steve to be removed from coffee duty and placed on bar set up, putting him closer to the hostess station. He flirted with her differently than he had with me, there were no mishaps or silly faces. At the end of the shift, I headed up the stairs, alone.

"Wait up," I heard Gary call out. "You want to come see my new headshots?"

"Sure," I responded.

Back in Chelsea, without unbuttoning my coat, I ripped his photo in two and stomped on it.

" You're really nice, but I want bubble gum, I want danger," he said.

"You want a prom queen, you moron!" I screamed.

Danger he wanted, well I was very dangerous. I wanted to strangle him, slowly, then scalp the hair I had combed for the last ten Sundays. Reason won over anger and I tore out of his apartment, speed walking in the middle of the street for the sixty-three blocks home.

Five years later in the village, I stumbled on Gary in a dimly lit bar and my first instinct was not to murder him.

Bear hugging him, I said, "Gary Greenburg, meet Larry Gutterman, my fiancé."

"And this is my fiancé, Bonnie," he said.

"Oh, we've already met." I replied, totally free of jealousy.

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