The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.