The four friends were the last to leave the pizzeria at the strip mall. The end of exams, the end of college! Woo-hoo! Glorious freedom! The friends paused outside the doors of Mr. Tomato, squinting under the harsh lights of the parking lot, savoring their last evening together, wondering what possibilities the night might hold. The occasion seemed to call for something more than the usual fond farewells after a shared meal.
The two-foot-high curbside Mr. Tomato sign was a perfect photo op and soon everyone was looking for their cellphones out to immortalize the moment. Sitting atop the sign was the franchise symbol, a giant tomato, a round fiberglass imitation about three feet high. Its bottom was attached to the top of the sign, surprising loosely, they would discover later that night.
Raven dug her hands into the pockets of her sleek leather bomber jacket. Godalmighty, these new Christian Louboutin shoes were killing her. She’d slipped the damn things off under the table, to rest her feet a bit. And now, with the shoes back on, she ignored the pain as she sidled up beside her best friend. Sara was the witty, slightly neurotic, New York intellectual who’d landed like a miracle in Raven’s two-dimensional life. Sara of the untamed hair, the ultra-wide smile. Sara, whose wit sometimes came laced with sarcasm.
Quinn slapped the side of the giant tomato. His boyish face was highly photogenic, so Raven tolerated him, but he didn’t give her the same warm fizziness as Sara did. “Nice and ripe,” he said. “Fruit or veg?”
Raven took a selfie with her three friends around her, and the giant tomato looking like a fourth jolly companion. Such obliging friends she had: they posed and mugged for nearly all her shots. They hadn’t complained earlier when the pizza cooled off while she took pictures of that, too. They knew (and were proud of the fact) that they were fodder for RavensNest.com, a lifestyle channel she was developing.
“We need to liberate that fruit or veg!” Sara said. “He has the right to self-determination!” Raven laughed giddily at Sara’s bold, wacky declaration—and thought how, she, too, yearned for the right to self-determination. But her parents would have a fit.
“Mighty Tomato,” Piotr said, “look at how sad and fat and lonely he is!”
Hold on, thought Raven—did that guy just say “sad” and “fat” and “lonely” in the same breath? Why was he looking at her like that? Shit, was four slices too much, did he think she was a pig?
“Forlorn,” Raven said, scrambling to say something. Otherwise they’d think she was bothered by sad-fat-lonely.
“Growing up as an only seedling,” Sara said in her maudlin play-acting voice, “always wanting another vine to cling to.” Raven laughed softly. Oh yes, her friend could invent a poignant backstory—even for a lowly tomato—as easily as breathing. Sara was graduating double honors in literature and philosophy. She had cried over more dead English poets than Raven had even heard of. Whereas Raven had no story sense, had merely slouched through an education degree—to satisfy her parents, who were convinced her attempts to establish herself in social media would end in disaster.
Raven leapt in, also play-acting, and said, “But no, forced to work for the man.” She was an entrepreneur and did NOT work for the man, but she knew her classmates were worried about finding a job and getting co-opted: crazy scenarios like vegans working in meat-packing plants or environmental activists getting hired by Big Oil.
“A giant mascot to consumerist overconsumption,” Sara said.
Her friend always looked at the big social issues, and Raven vowed to be a principled social media influencer. Do her proud.
“A gentle giant kidnapped by the pizza chain,” Piotr said.
Raven heard “chain”—quick, she wanted to riff on that word, so she blurted out, “A chain gang.” This was about as clever as adding “S” to a word in Scrabble. Her heart sank; Sara would think she was a total idiot.
But Sara took the phrase and bounced it. “Forced to labor, day and night,” Sara said, “to sucker in the customers.”
Raven watched her: how beautiful Sara looked, even under the glare of the parking lot lights. But wait: was Sara implying that Raven had to “sucker in the customers”?
“Eating,” Piotr said and paused dramatically, “to cover up his feelings of unlovedness.” Damn, again that guy was staring at her. Raven did grow up unloved. She did fill the psychic hole with food. If only she could win Sara over. Raven was returning to family in Connecticut tomorrow, but she had many excellent excuses to visit New York.
Raven scanned the lot, now filled with spooky shadows. Maybe she could persuade Sara to look for comfort in her arms tonight. “And his natural anxiety about the creepy parking lot,” Raven said as she kept looking at Sara, waiting for an acknowledgement that the riff on Mr. Tomato was at an end.
But Sara never looked her way and soon, somehow, Raven’s heart began to break. The pain in her chest overtook the pain in her feet. For a stupid distraction, she became part of the effort to lift a giant tomato into the back of Quinn’s truck.
The magic of her final evening with Sara vanished.
All evening, Sara felt feverishly horny. Exams were over, degree completed: she was free and available for fun. She wanted to pick up a guy. Not just any guy. She had a habit of picking losers, and she didn’t know why. Tonight, she resolved to reel in someone nice, normal. Decent, handsome. Someone … maybe like Piotr. Sure, he had that strong Polish Catholic background, but didn’t guilt around sex make it that much hotter?
And now here was Quinn, giving her the eye as his hand caressed the plump curve of the tomato like the haunch of a Turkish concubine. “Nice and ripe,” he said. “Fruit or veg?” He surprised her with this and, thus, instantly caught her attention. Quinn looked like he’d stepped out of the pages of J.Crew. Waiting for his yacht. Not quite her type… but maybe she should give him a try.
“We need to liberate that fruit or veg!” Sara said. “He has the right to self-determination!” She threw a teasing glance at Quinn, at Piotr, as if to say, okay guys, what can you do with this? Foreplay always involved the brain.
“Mighty Tomato,” Piotr said, “look at how sad and fat and lonely he is!”
Sara squealed softly. Her estimation of Piotr was rising now, too. She appreciated his silhouette, the broad shoulders and tiny well-muscled ass, surely a sign of discipline at the gym.
Raven murmured, “Forlorn…,” and Sara saw with dismay that Piotr’s eyes glommed on to her friend. Raven styled herself as a Kardashian look-alike: golden skin, jet-black hair, a pampered persona. No wonder the pay-per-clicks kept mounting for RavensNest.com.
Jealousy flashed in Sara like summer lightning. But wait: she was Sara—top improv artist at the student club!—so she would lure Piotr to her. “Growing up as an only seedling,” she said playfully, seductively, “always wanting another vine to cling to.”
“But now,” Raven said, “he’s forced to work for the man.”
Sara’s eyes telegraphed: get lost, Raven; this guy’s mine. Sara said sweetly, “A giant mascot to consumerist overconsumption.” She thought: take that, you horrid money-hungry bitch, you. Her eyes took in Raven’s sponsored clothes, her slick high heels—those red-bottomed tarty shoes that she’d slipped off during the meal.
“Mr. Tomato is a gentle giant kidnapped by the pizza chain,” Piotr said, and Sara drew closer, waiting for the moment when she could accidentally brush against him.
“A chain gang,” Raven said.
Sara’s look shot daggers as she said, “Forced to labor day and night, sucker in the customers.” She meant it as another shot at that spoiled bitch. Shit, no wonder she was always ending up with the loser guys—that damn Raven kept hogging the good ones. What kind of friend was that?
“Eating,” Piotr said, not taking his eyes off Raven, “to cover up his feelings of unlovedness.”
Sara realized she was doomed to die alone and unloved. Sort of like a giant fiberglass tomato. Brittle and hollow.
To hide her anguish, she played along with the gang. The next thing she knew, Quinn was slowly backing up his half-ton while the three of them waited near Mr. Tomato.
As Piotr left the pizzeria, he tried to keep step with Raven, but she insisted on hanging back with her friend, crazy Sara. Why was Raven giving him the cold shoulder now? She’d seemed encouraging to him throughout the meal, surprising him even with a touch of her hot naked toes. He could barely eat, he was so maddened with lust. Until midway through the meal when he got up, went to the washroom and, so to speak, took himself in hand. He felt calmer now.
He barely noticed Quinn patting the giant tomato. Raven took her phone out, was already snapping more pictures. Piotr rubbed his hand over his lower face. Hopefully no sauce to make him look like a real goof.
“We need to liberate that fruit or veg!” Sara said, “He has the right to self-determination!”
Oh, that Sara, thought Piotr. Give it a break, girl. Still, he knew he must do something to catch Raven’s attention. He threw his arms around the big red blob. “Mighty Tomato,” he declaimed. “Look at how sad and fat and lonely he is!”
Raven said, “Forlorn…”
Aha, Piotr thought, it worked: Raven was in synch with him. Exploring the psychology of the tomato. He watched how she slunk about in high heels, and imagined her strutting around privately for him before she toppled onto his bed.
Sara said something he couldn’t catch.
“But no,” Raven said, “forced to work for the man.”
Wait, what? Were they talking about him? He’d completed his B. Comm. and sure, he’d taken a starter job at an insurance company back home in Detroit, but he wasn’t seriously “working for the man.” He just needed the money. For travel and adventure. He would give Raven a list of the World’s Top Ten Instagrammable Places and invite her along.
Sara said, “A giant mascot to consumerist overconsumption.”
Piotr relaxed; they were still going on about the bloody tomato. He darted a look at Quinn; he’d sensed that Quinn had a thing for Raven. But the guy could scarcely figure out how to join this conversation. The girls always jumped into psychological profiling—inner thoughts of cute dogs, ugly cats, and now giant tomatoes—and that left Quinn the Engineer at a disadvantage. Well, too bad, Quinn. Watch how it’s done, man. Piotr said, “A gentle giant kidnapped by the pizza chain.” There, he gave Raven the word “chain” as something to riff on. She smiled—a radiant smile—a gift—and he flushed with joy.
“A chain gang,” Raven said, teetering slightly in those sexy pumps.
Sara said something but Piotr was mulling his next response. It had to be something more of a psychological nature. He saw a dark future for this overweight fruit. “Eating, to cover up his feelings of unlovedness,” Piotr said. A heavy dose of emotion: that ought to get Raven tumbling into his narrow bachelor’s bed.
Raven said, “And his natural anxiety about the creepy parking lot.”
Piotr was suddenly alert—she mentioned “anxiety” and “creepy.” He must go softly, so she wouldn’t associate these words with him.
“Come on, don’t just blabber about it,” Quinn said, “I’ll bring around the half-ton. You guys help me get this tomato into the back.”
Ah, the most excellent truck! It was a tight fit, four adults in the cab of Quinn’s half-ton. Tight but fun. Piotr wondered if he could coax Raven to sit on his knee.
On leaving the Mr. Tomato pizzeria, Quinn saw a chance to grab Raven’s attention. “Nice and ripe…,” he began as he stroked the giant tomato on the curbside sign. Then he paused. He genuinely did not know. “Fruit or veg?”
He felt hopelessly dazed around Raven; she just tolerated him. And now he’d forgotten: was a tomato a fruit or vegetable?
Sara said, “We need to liberate that fruit or veg! He has the right to self-determination!”
Sara made Raven laugh—and hate flooded Quinn.
“Mighty Tomato,” Piotr said, “look at how sad and fat and lonely he is!” Quinn scowled at him as if to say, back off Piotr, can’t you see I’m after the prize?
Quinn reflected on the unfairness of it all. He’d been hanging around with his friend Raven from the beginning. He was Raven’s third subscriber on the RavensNest channel, out of what, twenty thousand subscribers now? He followed her like a cat follows a laser pointer. Could not get enough of her. He loved watching her recommendations on saucy lingerie and high heels, like the ones she wore out tonight. Although they looked unstable and a little pinchy.
He loved watching her, loved that black curtain of glossy hair as she swung her head, talking to friends like she did tonight. Everybody going on about the frigging tomato. And he’d started it! He especially loved watching Raven’s hair as she ducked her head low—and every night he imagined her head ducking low on him. Whoa, stop; don’t get carried away imagining the end of the evening… he would drop her off last, pretending he needed her help to unload the tomato.
Soon his thoughts were absorbed by the practicalities of a prank. How to detach the tomato, how to lift it into the back of his truck. Where to hide it.
Raven said, “… natural anxiety about the creepy parking lot.”
Quinn looked around and thought, damn, it is a creepy parking lot for a beautiful woman in high heels. But he knew his truck would be a safe spot for her—and cozy, too. He just had to remind her of this. “Come on, don’t just blabber about it!” he said. “I’ll bring around the half-ton. You guys help me get this tomato into the back.” He was an engineer; he took pride in making things happen. Most people talk your ear off sooner than actually do something. Raven would be impressed.