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86'd

First place winner

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I was out back smoking cigarettes with Dominique the deaf dishwasher during Tuesday lunch rush when someone said the restaurant reviewer had just come in. We came inside to peek out at her. She was sitting there sipping iced tea with a guy who looked like a Ken doll with a walleye. She was scanning the room for, what? Other restaurant reviewers? Who knew what she was looking for.

I sent Pat, the head waitress, out to spy on her while Dominique and I watched out the kitchen door. Pat swished back and said she was babbling about nothing. Her name was Gail Straight, or something like that: Looking out at her now I couldn't remember the last time I read the newspaper.

Everybody went about their business and tried to ignore Gail Straight. Technically they weren't supposed to know who she was anyway. She made a half-hearted effort to do different things with her hair -- I'd seen it ash blond, black-as-coal, roasted chestnut, and now here was a drop-dead red that hurt your eyes -- but she was under 5 feet tall and spoke in this annoying whisper-voice and of course everybody in Charleston knew exactly who she was. A couple of divorced men I knew wanted to date her, but she seemed to only ever be seen with two or three obviously gay local TV news guys.

She ordered the artichoke appetizer and ratatouille. Lotta acid in that combination. I'd ordered extra artichokes for a wedding party that night and they were perfect. The ratatouille I'd made that morning, with some of the summer's best-looking tomatoes. We'd give Gail a couple free glasses of wine and we'd be golden.

But standing there staring out the kitchen door I started to wonder why she -- any of them -- were out there eating our leftovers. Half of it was warmed-over crap from the night before, but they lapped it up, left their desk jobs and spent two hours over thin house wine savoring crepes that should have been served and out the door eight to 12 hours before.

The restaurant was run-of-the-mill French, tucked in a city corner. We had only a teeny garden of dill and rosemary and a couple other slightly dirty herbs grown about 6 feet from the street. Most of the waitresses looked a lot like last night's wine, done up to look pale and bored, with red lipstick and no base, serving up iced tea and waiting around for dinner. Which anybody with any sense would know is when we'd want the restaurant reviewer to show up, since who's on their toes at lunch?

Rick was my ex and worked down the street at a new bistro called Pamela's, which was owned by a guy named Paul, who hired Rick as head chef when we split. Three years of living together and running the kitchen at our place and poof, one day he was gone, his clothes and CDs and about $2,500 worth of Williams-Sonoma pans whisked out of the apartment, and no one to cover his shift at the restaurant. Paul also hired Marta, the waitress he left me for.

I spent about 10 minutes just staring out at the dining room door while everybody buzzed around me, doing stuff for the restaurant reviewer, and I started to be glad she was there. Dominique and I had been shooting the shit out back for most of the last hour. I'd been trying to figure out which of the fish was fresh enough to make it through the night. Now I had to get it into gear. Go in, help make some lunches. Go out after a bit and schmooze up Gail. I thought, this is great. I haven't thought about Rick for about 25 minutes.

Which immediately got me thinking about him. Luckily, in the last couple of weeks it had seemed to pass from the blinding, throwing-up sort of thinking to become a low, sick sort of thudding thinking. It was getting easier to manage. I could sleep and eat normally; I thought I looked reasonably not insane.

Only problem was that I kept thinking I saw him. On my walk to the restaurant in the morning I'd see five or six men I thought were him. I would start watching their feet as they walked toward me and then, in a blink, look up to take in the whole body. So I knew in half a second whether the approaching figure was Rick, someone who looked like him, or something else entirely, like a long-haired woman or a large black man or a Doberman. I developed a circumnavigating sweep-vision that took in every human being within 500 feet, immediately assessed them to make sure they couldn't be Rick, and then dismissed them from my periphery, where they fell away like peanut shells.

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