America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)



A Sandwich to Remember

13 March 2017

grilled cheeseSunday lunch selected, seven fifty presented, a golden grilled cheese changes hands. I seize the shallow wood basket and make my way to our table. Ours─my friend’s and my own, no one else’s, with an agreeable view of the street.

Katherine and I take our places. I compliment her on her skirt, wish I’d worn something like that instead of three-year-old jeans, washed pale and thin at the ankles.

“That looks good,” she says, eyeing my sandwich, and I nod in agreement, realize what needs to be done. I slide my telephone out of my sleeve and turn on the camera function. Katherine is patient. She knows: this isn’t a lunch; it’s a life, and it deserves to be shared. I shoot the sandwich from eighteen angles, kneeling on my chair and the table, darting outside to capture it through the window. It came with a high-quality napkin and a glass of fresh water, and I want to make sure these appear but don’t overshadow the star.

I catch the winning image and post it online, on the site that’s my second home. Actually, it’s a virtual commune, home to Katherine and the busboy, Britney Spears and the Pope, Pele and my uncle and everybody I know. In a single second, 4,723 of my closest friends taste the grilled cheese with their eyes. The photograph is inspirational, moving (by way of a caption, I have typed “Lunch with Katherine”). The bread is toasted, and my good fortune is toasted, instantaneously, by cherished friends far and wide. Messages land on the part of the site that is devoted to me.

The page is a sort of primer on me, invaluable to those seeking to familiarize themselves with a singular presence among us. If it had a title, it would be either “Me for Dummies” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Through pictures and thoughtful remarks, I reveal my mind, my heart and my soul, and what kind of mustard I like. Visitors can see where I’ve been and speculate as to where I am going; they learn that I bowl and tend to favor sanctions over the use of force. In my favorites column, they find Manchester United, washable wool, Saturdays and the name of a prominent martyr; bands that would never slum on the radio. Viewers enjoy screen after colorful screen, testimony that I’m all right. That I’m proceeding according to plan. I am reassured, too. Regardless of how I might feel, the facts are plain in the pictures: this person is never bored, and she never goes thirsty.

By spending time on my page, friends can participate in my solitude and in my social endeavors. The site houses groups as well as individual humans; I’m a member of Cooking with Heart and Cayenne, Fallen Arches DC, Bring Back Sanford and Son. Our Founder, the young visionary who created the site, has my best interests at heart. Above all, he wants me to connect: to find myself and others like me. He has, as it were, gifted me a shovel to dig through the layers of time. With his help I was able to unearth the children I played tag with on Derby Street, in Woodland, Virginia, when I was seven years old. Virtually reunited, we expressed amazement at each other’s growth and continued existence; every few months, we reconvene online to renew these sentiments. In any case, taking my rightful place in the Derby Street diaspora has strengthened my voice and brought clarity to my mind.

Thanks to the site, I can also establish personal relationships with people that I admire. Last month I became Roger Federer’s friend; now I am a part of his struggles, and he is a part of mine.

For the moment, the sandwich is who I am─the photograph under my name. It’s an image that says─that fairly well screams─that I have access to quaintness and you don’t. I have an auxiliary napkin and the use of a whimsical wooden basket. Beyond these things, I have friendship, purpose─a handle on what life means. Tonight I will be an oak leaf lying majestically in a puddle; tomorrow I’ll be my ankle, braided rope bracelet around it. Last weekend I posted photos from the Unibrow Awareness Walk; the shot of the survivors distributing tweezers at the finish line was particularly poignant, and garnered a record number of votes.

As Katherine and I remark on the unusual length of the week, votes of confidence come rushing in from all corners. I’ve made my landlord’s nephew hungry (this is a good thing, he assures me, with a smiley face at the end of the comment); a woman who gave me a haircut in 1986 says that the cheese was clearly grilled by an expert.

Katherine is having the soup of the day. It is off-white in an off-white bowl─unlikely to be liked on a visual basis alone. She puts it aside, sensing that it’s not part of the essence of this moment. October seventh at 1:57pm is about the view from her side: a sandwich and a companion, a painting of Florence behind them.

She seizes her phone from the inside of her bra and asks permission to shoot me. This is silliness, politeness─she knows I enjoy being shot when the greater good is at stake. And what is the alternative? Without documentation, we’re two women in a café. No one will relish this afternoon but us; our conversation will consist of two thin voices alone. While it lasts, we can absorb as much light as we can, but it will pass in an hour and leave us both in the cold. With pictures our lunch is immortal, property of the world: despairing individuals can visit my sandwich whenever they want to, and Katherine and I can marvel at the time that was had. Without them, we will forget and be forgotten.

I pose, hoping my smile says tons of fun and the freedom from cares─in short, the agreeable truth. Finally she gets the right slant and offers me a view of the portrait. I don’t know who’s come better, the sandwich or the young lady: both are glowing, robust, self-assured and well made. For a moment, I am envious of the cheerful diner I see. She is at the peak of her beauty; surely I’ll never be half as handsome or content, but it is something to shoot for.

Katherine posts the photo and sets her phone on the table beside mine.

“How’s your day been?” I ask.

“Alright,” she says, adding crackers to her soup.

My phone vibrates itself an inch to the left, and I pause our conversation with a raised finger. I’ve received eight messages in response to the sandwich (“Wonderful!” my college RA says; “Sure beats gruel,” writes my old gym teacher from prison), and eleven updates on the adventures of others. I am obliged to respond; after all, this is community. These are the welcome burdens of friendship.

Katherine understands when I’m called away, and vice versa; without the site, she and I would have only each other. If necessary, she’d testify on my behalf. That I was worth an hour on alternating Fridays. That I tried. She and I would back each other up if questioned: confirm that we are not lost, not terrified by what we don’t understand. That what we have is what we hoped for and then some. With any luck, things will not come down to this.

Ten minutes later, I raise my eyes to Katherine. “What were you saying?” I ask.

“I was going to tell you about the grocery store this morning,” she says.

Actually, most of her morning has already come over the wires: the desire for tea and the discovery that she had none; the shower that turned cold halfway through but recovered in time for a cream rinse. Nevertheless, I let her go into the story.

She is selecting a shopping cart when her phone starts to sing (she has it set to play “I’ve Gotta Be Me” whenever a message comes through). She raises a finger and seizes the phone. Evidently, the picture of the grilled cheese and me is a smash; approbation flows in from all sides (I went to her page and voted for it myself).

My own phone is buzzing again. I revel in expressions of longing, in praise and good-natured jokes. News of a quashed rebellion comes through. “Outraged,” I write. “I am outraged.”

A minute later, tidings of a goldfish, departed. “Saddened,” I write. “Deeply saddened. Nemo III touched us all.”

My neighbor is on a hayride. “Good times!” I write, half sad that there is no hay where I am.

“Enjoy!” I write under a shot of a pizza and suddenly wish that I had one.

To the right of the updates, there are blocks containing the website’s suggestions for me. The Founder is thoughtful and wise. He understands that select goods and services can make a clearly fantastic tenure on earth even more so. This afternoon we have fondue pots and blankets suitable for a picnic. The day I joined “Allergic to Capitalism”, I received Claritin, waterproof spray paint, and Che Guevara on a bath mat. I don’t know how the Founder follows the rhythms of my mind, the rhythms of everyone’s minds; his instincts are uncanny.

A sudden silence comes to our corner. The screens are still, our hands are still, and we put the phones down. Katherine resumes her account of the tea search. “I went to two different stores,” she says, “And I still couldn’t find any Jasmine.” Listening to this is like reading an hour-old paper; I’ve already scanned the internet headlines and learned what I needed to know. I love her, but only a Katherine James scholar would require this level of detail. I guess I am such a scholar these days; I know, for one thing, that she’s been divorced for six months. The website still lists her as “married” (with the word comfortably settled inside a big blue heart): in the photograph section, she and her husband appear arm in arm or cheek to cheek beside various bodies of water. The marriage is over, but the status stands; no sense, she said, in ruining a perfectly good day for the butcher, or her cousin in San Francisco.

I myself don’t feel the need to talk much. She’s already been informed as to how my weekend is going. I cut my finger trying to open the phone bill. I made cookies. I saw a squirrel that looked like Tom Cruise. In addition to these things, I joined Facial Mole, Upper Left Quadrant. Up to then I’d been hanging out with some lower left quadrants, but I always felt out of place; the LLQ’s just don’t appreciate our culture and viewpoint, our history as a people.

Our phones are at it again. This time, I receive mostly updates from friends. The excitement about my lunch seems to be dying down some; in response, I am less convinced about it myself. Not wanting to see the end of the furor, I post on the other website, the one dedicated to poetry. I speak to my followers using the Haiku format:

#Cheddar on #sourdough
Proof that I’m better than you
Friends, this is living!

Katherine is experiencing a similar lull on her side. We ride out the moment for what it’s worth, stoking the last embers of glory. The period of public admiration is over, and so it seems that our luncheon is over. As an afterthought, I eat the sandwich (it is rather dry and cool by this time). Katherine drinks the last of her soup, and the two of us leave the café.

casey alexanderCasey Alexander is an English professor living in Barcelona. She has a BS from Georgetown University and an MFA from Emerson College. She can be reached at CaseyAlexander921 [at]