It was quiet there on the back porch; you really couldn’t ask for a better place to take a break – sweat stuck to your skin; hands stinking like tequila and salsa; legs twitching from the hours of running up and down the stairs –the sudden cool and residential still like a head rush.
The wood planks sagged and buckled. I sat on an empty keg; the tap dug into my flesh. My boyfriend was also on break; we’d timed it like that so we could sit together and chat, rolling our necks and stretching out our legs, two more hours till closing.
He was telling me about that crap movie 2012 that had just come out; it looked awful but he wanted to see it.
“You think that shit’s for real?” I asked.
He gave me a wayward eye, leaned his back against the railing and exhaled a fat plume of smoke. “Please.”
In the sallow streetlight, he looked even paler, even more like that dude from Twilight.
The back door swung open and Juan appeared, silhouetted for a moment by the glare of the fluorescent lights, a big bag of compost slung over his back. You could tell cause the bag was green, made out of some biodegradable cornstarch material that was hella expensive, the owners yelling at us if we mistakenly used them for trash can liners.
He jerked his chin up at us in a nod.
“Aw, perfect, dude, perfect,” I said. “Yo Juan, what’s up with this whole Mayan Apocalypse thing?”
He paused, let out one hard laugh as he heaved the bag over the railing. It landed in the dumpster with a damp thud. “What do you mean?”
“Like, it’s not the real end of the world, right? It’s a symbolic ending.”
“What do you mean ‘symbolic’?” He looked tired.
I pursed my lips. “Like, 2012 is the end of an era,” I paused, searched, “a time period in the planet. Shit’s not actually gonna burn.”
Juan leaned on the railing; I could see the thick black of his tattoos running up his arms. He shook his head. “No.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“The old folks, they think it’s the end of the world.” Juan cocked his eyebrow at me. “Like, really.”
I exhaled. “What do you think?”
He smiled, shrugged as he opened the big metal door to go back inside.
The latch clicked behind him.
“That’s not an answer!” I called after him.
It was 2008; we were working at that restaurant in North Berkeley.
The economy hadn’t crashed yet and the restaurant hadn’t totally fallen to shit, but both had started to slide. You could see it, in the restaurant, if you knew where to look: in the faded paint and five-year-old reviews that hung framed on the walls; in the scratched floors and beaten furniture; in the bits of cork we wedged under the legs of wobbly tables.
The place had been all the rage when it’d opened in the early 2000s, the fourth in a family of restaurants that were known for pouncing on culinary trends just before they blew up. There was a free-range BBQ joint, a sustainable seafood restaurant, a wood-oven pizza spot in the works.
The restaurant I worked at was the tapas joint. Though to call it “tapas” was a stretch; the menu wasn’t light bar snacks so much as deconstructed entrees sold at entrée prices. Nor did it consist of papas bravas or any of the other typical tapas fare. The menu was composed of Mexican food, a sprinkling of other Latin American fare – what could be summed up in the more scathing Yelp reviews as “gringoized street food.”
The fact that they don’t really do tapas in Latin American seemed a technicality the owners couldn’t be bothered with. We were reduced to calling it, when pressed by a particularly informed group of diners, Pan-American small plates. Which was a mouthful but didn’t, at least then, impede the flow of diners or the hour-plus wait there’d be on the weeknights, straight until closing at 12:30am.
Juan was the head line cook when I started working there. Both he and his little brother worked the line. They were 100% Mayan, from some small town in the Yucatan you couldn’t pronounce to save your life. They were short and stocky, had round faces and glowing, almost yellow skin. They both had thick silver chains around their necks and black-and-gray tattoos up their arms, all Mayan motifs, even matching banners with the script “Maya” inked inside. Written in English.
When I got the birds done on the back of my arms, they’d grabbed my arms, twisted the skin and leaned in close. “That’s tight,” Juan had said.
He’d told me the Mayan word for swallows. His hometown was near where they flew to every year, where they spent their migratory winter. I’d made him tell me the word a few times; I’d repeated it over and over, tonguing its shape in my mouth but not able to get it right.
Juan and his brother spoke Spanish and pretty decent English too – they’d both been in the States awhile – but to each other they spoke Mayan. I’d overhear it sometimes when they were on the line, when it was slow and I was killing time, polishing silverware or pretending to study tasting notes on the bar’s 78 different pure-agave tequilas.
I’d stand there, lean my elbows on the sticky countertop and listen. I loved the sound of Mayan, whatever dialect it was they spoke; it was so totally different from English or Spanish, from any language I’d heard. I had no anchors, no cognates or meanings to attach to any of it, so it was almost like music. Its rhythms were rolling, rising, stopping at hard boulders of sound – k’s and o’s, something that sounded like sticks striking or tongues clacking.
I’d linger, my brain chewing on the sounds.
“What’re you doing?” Juan’d look up from the molcajete or the masa or the big slabs of tuna, pink and plumb and waiting to be cut. “You got nothing better to do, güey?”
I’d shrug, then give a sly smile. “Just thinking, you know, about this apocalypse of yours coming up.” I’d shake my head. “I’m kinda stressed out.”
Juan’d laugh and say, “Get back to work, huevona.”
I was working at that restaurant during the absolute bleakest time of my life. I was twenty-five; I hadn’t heard the term “quarter-life crisis” so I was stuck with just the facts: I’d broken up with my first long-term boyfriend and moved into a drafty room in a rent-controlled Victorian in North Oakland. I’d blown through my savings, could no longer afford to travel. I’d stopped writing – not writer’s block but completely stopped. I’d even stopped thinking about how I wasn’t writing.
Maybe I’ll just be a waitress forever, I’d think, staring out the rattling windows of my bedroom. Maybe that’s all there is.
So when the extremely attractive, extremely alcoholic suburban dude at work kept asking me out, I said no and no and until one day I finally said yes. More as a joke than anything else. Then we went out again, cause it was silly and fun. Then cause the sex was good; then cause I didn’t have anything else to do; then cause, holy shit, I actually liked him.
I never meant to become his girlfriend. But it crept up on me, or else I slid into it, so gradual I barely noticed.
The clientele of the restaurant had real North Berkeley flavor – UC-Berkeley types, professors and lecturers and thinkers, lots of Priuses with Obama stickers parked outside. You know, cultured people with gray hair and ethnic jewelry, mad over-pronouncing Spanish words: “guac-a-mole.”
You should have seen the place the night Fernando Botero came to town, the way those types rattled with excitement, but still bristled a little when the busboys came by. I remember a party visibly wincing when seated next to one of those cooks who’d brought his family in on his day off.
To the owners, the place was an excuse to drizzle chimichurri on two lamb chops and sell them for $17. So most of its success could be chalked up to the general manager, a skinny dude in tinted glasses who drank Jameson from a sippy cup all shift and said “um-hm” and “okay” so much it sounded like he’d belong better in some hepcat jazz club than a fake tapas restaurant. “My baby,” he called the restaurant.
He loved the sweet little drunk, because his sales were always the highest and because he’d once worked at one of Napa’s top restaurants, a celebrity-studded, uber-fine-dining spot that everyone had heard of. (I’d had to ask one of my co-workers in a whisper what the big deal was.) “I’d looked at his resume and seen A., then Denny’s,” the GM would laugh out a cloud of smoke, “and I just had to meet the man, um-hm.” The sweet little drunk would grin and look even more like that Twilight dude. “My best server,” the GM would call him.
But even the GM and his best server couldn’t hold the place together, not with the owners continually cutting corners and denying raises. So when the sous chef quit, Juan was promoted in his place.
The sweet little drunk sucked his teeth.
“What?” I asked.
“Juan’s not a chef.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, Juan’s a helluva a line cook. But he’s not…” He ran his hand through his Hollwood coif, leaned in as he lowered his voice. “He hasn’t been to culinary school. He doesn’t know food trends. He doesn’t even know who Alice Waters is.”
He smelled like cigarettes and yesterday’s Malbec, sweated out through clammy pores.
He was right. Juan had worked his way up from a dishwasher; until they’d offered him the sous chef position, he’d still kept another job as kitchen manager at the Applebee’s in the strip mall. But he was fast and organized and smart as shit, could manage a 20-ticket line without fucking up a single dish, every salad dressed to a T and each $17 lamb dish grilled a succulent medium rare.
When Juan became the sous chef, the head chef stopped showing up so much. Juan started overseeing everything, the ordering, the staff, everything. He was so good at it you almost didn’t notice the head chef was gone; he almost started getting in the way, in his crisp chef coat, the nights he did show up.
There’d already been some Mayan touches to the menu, dishes whose names stood out like the crazy boulders of consonants they were. The best was this squid dish with siquil P’ak, a salsa made with toasted pumpkin seeds, charred garlic, tomato, habanero and lime. “It’s chunky and nutty and spicy, with just a little acid,” I’d tell my tables if they asked for recommendations. “It’s cool to try cause you won’t find it anywhere else.”
(“The lamb,” the sweet little drunk had told me one night in the bus station, after he’d overhead me. “Always recommend the lamb – upsell.”)
If the table seemed down-to-earth and adventurous, I’d tell them to order the siquil P’ak, that if they didn’t like it we’d take it back no problem – something the owners would have shit themselves over if they’d heard me say. But I only had one table ever send it back; everyone else was stoked on it, would ask the name and the ingredients over and over, and end up leaving me a fat tip. One party had even gestured over to the line and asked, “Which one of those guys came up with this?”
“That guy,” I’d said, pointing to Juan, though I wasn’t even sure if that was true.
They’d gone over and shaken his hand; Juan’d had to swipe the sauce and sweat off, a streak across his chef coat.
But if the table seemed mad pretentious, I’d just let them struggle over the strange words, wouldn’t offer an explanation of the dish until they asked. I’d explain, then repeat the word a few times till they got it right.
“It’s okay,” I’d say as I leaned forward, picked the sauce-splotched menus off the table. “My Mayan is rusty too.”
Then I’d wink, so they knew I was playing with them. And they’d laugh and they’d love this dish too, usually leave me a fat tip too, though they never asked who’d come up with it.
Juan had big plans, like a lot of the guys. He was saving up, sending money back to Mexico where he had a wife and two kids – photos stored on his flip phone that he’d show me sometimes when it was slow.
He was gonna build a house, he told me. He’d already bought the land and was just waiting till he had enough money for the materials. He was gonna go back to his village and open his own restaurant and live in his house, his big fucking house with all his kids running around.
It was a great plan, I said. He just had to work a few more years, he said. I wish I had a plan that good, I said.
“But really I don’t have to worry,” I said, “cause this shit’s all gonna burn in a few years anyway, right?”
I winked and he told me to fuck off, in Spanish and in English.
I kept dating the sweet little drunk and the time slid by like crazy. I’m not sure where it all went; I remember the year in a blur of Colbert Report and late-night dim sum, walking through parking lots cut jagged by streetlight, fog creep-creeping by. I’d wake up at 11am and get a few things done before it was time to go back to work.
I was making good money, but it was falling through my hands. Then the 2008 financial crisis struck and it was like a switch had been hit: one day it was Tuesday and I was walking out of the restaurant with $250 burning in my pocket, then suddenly it was Friday and I’d barely made $100.
The owners stopped giving a fuck. They stopped buying free-range meats; Triple Sec replaced Cointreau at the bar; our paychecks started bouncing. They even found a sneaky way around the state law about providing staff meals. None of it came as a surprise, we’d all agree when taking our smoke breaks on the back porch. It’d all been building, we’d agree, or else slowly sliding, waiting for one precipitous event that would push it over.
The sweet little drunk and I would stop at the twenty-four-hour Safeway across the street every night after work; he’d count out his ones to buy a bottle and I’d distract myself by flipping through the celebrity magazines, tell him he’d been cheating on Kristen Stewart again and he’d laugh. His face would stretch into a smile; he’d be pale and puffy and almost someone else under those florescent lights.
Somewhere around that time Juan became the head chef, a promotion that caused a lot of head shaking among the wait staff. The GM also started having me manage shifts. The owners had him stretched so thin managing the other restaurants he barely had time to be at the one he loved, his baby.
I was hesitant. “Just use that smile of yours,” he’d told me, “and you’ll be alright, um-hm.”
I’m not sure why I said yes. The money wasn’t as good but I got to dress nicer, greet guests, manage the floor, handle the little problems that arose. I was good at it; I felt graceful and in control, at least for those few hours.
“It’s not like I’m the GM,” I’d assured the sweet little drunk when I’d told him about it, nervously pinching at the skin on my knuckles. He was still the restaurant’s best server, I’d said; they still needed him on the floor. They’d only asked me, I’d said, because I wasn’t as valuable.
“It won’t be weird,” I’d told him.
He’d nodded and looked away.
I forget how the sweet little drunk and I broke up; it was uneventful and bittersweet and full of hugging promises to stay friends. It wasn’t until afterwards that shit really blew up.
But it didn’t even blow up right away. It happened slowly, built slowly in this way I was only dimly aware of: misspelled 4am texts, long slurring messages, a couple shitty comments here and there – “They still need me on the floor.” He was going through a hard time, I told myself. I should be compassionate, I told myself.
But I wasn’t, at least not as much as I thought I was. I was out one night with a new guy I was dating; we’d been in the neighborhood and I’d suggested we go in for dinner. I’d scanned my mind; the sweet little drunk never worked Mondays, so we were safe. I think I’d even said those words: “We’re safe.”
But when we walked in, there he was. He froze in his place, his tray of drinks wobbled, his face turned white, even whiter. But it was too late; he’d already seen us, I reckoned, so we may as well just stay.
I felt his eyes on me the whole time we ate. Well fuck him, I thought.
It was the message he left later that night that let me know I’d really fucked up. It went on for minutes, more sobs and moans than actual words: “How could…?” choke, sob “If I were…” moan, hiccup “How dare…” growl, groan – building like that until he finally erupted, “You bitch!”
It was like I could feel the words being spit out; they cut at me as his voice crumbled to a sob. Now it was my turn to go sheet white, to freeze with the phone in my hand, wobble a little sitting on the edge of my bed in that shitty cold Victorian bedroom, feeling the place in the back of my head tingle and hum.
“You bitch, you bitch”: he chanted like that, the rhythm building with moans and chokes and other sounds that needed no signifers, any meaning other than the fact I was now scared of him.
I was the manager on duty one shift when the sweet little drunk came in late. I could tell immediately that he was fucked up by the way his eyes glazed and drooped, the way his hair hung in his face, the loose way his limbs swung.
But he didn’t smell like booze so I kept telling myself that maybe I was wrong, or if not wrong, maybe he could at least work the shift.
I remember Juan eyeing me from the line. “He’s fucked up,” Juan announced as I walked past.
I don’t remember what I said to that; I think I shut my eyes and maybe even nodded, but I couldn’t hear it. Something in me couldn’t hear it.
When the sweet little drunk dropped a whole tray of drinks, when the glass shattered around him and the booze splashed out, when he stood in the middle of it just looking down at it and laughing, not even trying to clean it up, that’s when Juan jumped across the line.
He came out on to the floor in his stained chef coat, pulled at my arm. “You need to get him off the floor.” I closed my eyes, nodded. “You want me to tell him?”
I shook my head, told Juan it was cool, I could handle it.
And I thought I could; I called the sweet little drunk over to the bus station, off the floor and away from the view of the customers. I told him he had to leave.
“No,” he said.
I blinked. “What?”
He leaned his face in close to mine. “You’re not my manager,” he slurred. “I don’t have to listen to you.”
I felt something buzz in me. “I’m the manager on duty, dude, and I say you need to go.”
“Fuck you.” He gnashed the words out, then leaned back with a smirk.
I felt the blood drain out of my face, heard a hum in my ears. Something happened then, in that moment, the same thing that always happens to me when shit gets really bad, all the really dicey situations I’ve been in in my life – something in me shut down.
It’s not like I blacked out, more like I grayed out. The sweet little drunk leaned back towards me and a surge of words came out of his mouth; I felt them wash over me. The hum grew louder. I remember looking at the wall, the faded paint on the faded wall, and thinking it was hateful shit, really awful shit he was saying, but the words were detached, almost like they became just sound.
Maybe we stood there for a minute, maybe for an hour – it was one of those times when time kinda stops. It wasn’t until Juan came and pushed the sweet little drunk up against the bus station wall that I snapped out of the haze.
It was kinda funny, cause here was Juan, this short little Mayan dude but tough as shit, thick arms tatted up and sliced with shiny oil burns, pushing this strappingly handsome American up against the wall. Juan cursed at him low – I’m not sure what he said, if it was even in English – but then he told him, “Get your shit and go.”
The sweet little drunk did; he got his bag and thundered out the back door and I stood there stunned and blinking. When we heard the metal latch of the door snap shut, Juan turned to me.
I managed a shrug.
“What’d he say to you?”
I searched my mind. The whole thing had only happened a moment ago, but I honestly didn’t remember. I honestly couldn’t tell you what he’d said to me.
I turned to Juan. “I don’t know,” I answered. I shook my head long and slow. “I don’t know.”
You’d think he’d have gotten fired after that, but everyone was still operating under this he’s-our-best-server premise, so the sweet little drunk got a slap on the wrist – a couple days suspension and a supposed talking-to, though I don’t even know who was left to talk to him.
“We’ll make sure you’re getting real manager pay before you gotta handle another situation like that, um-hm,” the old GM told me on one of the rare occasions he still came into the restaurant. A few months later he was laid off.
I said I didn’t want to manage any more shifts, whether or not the sweet little drunk was working. It took me a couple months before I found a new job, an awkward few months of averting eyes and mumbling necessary food counts. I don’t know how I did it, looking back, other than that I just kinda shut down every time I went in to work.
Because I’d asked for it, right? I’d courted that kind of explosion, chased it to the edge of the precipice. Because I’d wanted to feel something, anything other than the awful buzzing numb my life had slid into.
But wasn’t that the shit of it? – that even in the midst of the explosion, all there’d been was the buzz, the world-swallowing hum coming up around me.
Finally I did get another job, what ended up being the best restaurant job I’d ever had, a place that never skimped on anything, right down to the organic butter. I left that fake tapas restaurant and that time in my life without a lot of fanfare; I wanted only to sneak out the back door, wanted only for it to all be over.
I was sitting on the back porch, taking my last smoke break of my last shift, when Juan walked out. His arms were empty – he didn’t have to carry a compost bag anymore – but his face was tired, all lines and bags and worry.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Hey, it’s my last shift,” I told him.
He looked at me and nodded. “Well good luck.”
“Thanks güey.” I gave a half-smile and he laughed.
And it ended like that, just like that – no big explosions, no disaster-movie fireballs, just me on the tired old back porch, smoking a cigarette and listening to the hum of the night as Juan climbed in his truck and tooted his horn goodbye.