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I’m that girl who always smells like banana peppers and cheese bread. The one who says, “Welcome to Subway, what can I get for you?” in a voice two octaves above normal. I don’t want to be that girl, but I’m stuck here behind containers of chopped chicken and sweet onion sauce, forcing myself to wear khaki pants and this stupid baseball cap with a ponytail pulled through the hole in the back. I don’t even like sub sandwiches.
Ever since my parents decided to send Little Bobby (he’s my kid brother) to this fancy-pants charter school instead of to the public one across the street, I’ve had to scrape money off the bottom of my shoes just to get through college. I’m not even full time because Little Bobby can’t take the grind of the public middle school. I mean I got through it without a scratch. But Mama says he hasn’t got my backbone.
“Hey, I said a foot-long! And I want Italian, not whole wheat, genius.”
My eyes snap up and lock with the human Pillsbury Dough Boy. “I’m so sorry, sir, let me get the Italian for you, my mistake.” I even have concern in my tone! Damn, I could become an actress. There is this diner in Chicago (it’s called Ed Debevick’s), where the entire wait staff is rude and abrupt with the customers on purpose. My friend told me they’re all actors, but I don’t think you’d have to be an actor to be rude to the customers. Now this here, what I’m doing in this stupid Subway uniform trying to communicate with a piece of dough, this is what I’d call acting.
There was a time that my life was amazing--I have to keep reminding myself that. But it’s hard to remember what “amazing” tastes like when you’re surrounded by a bunch of dead-beat coworkers that are too busy toasting sandwiches to even acknowledge your existence. I see groups of people, my age or a couple of years younger, standing in line together. And even though they’re all rude as hell to me, they stand there and joke about their crazy science professor or quote lines from the newest episode of Modern Family. The sound of their laughter echoing off the glass case in front of me resonates in some small corner of my being. But the cord of energy that binds me to a normal life is stretched more and more every day. Sometimes, I believe the cord will just snap and I’ll fall into some dark, descending cavity of the earth where no one can find me. Sometimes, I think I already have.
“What would you like?” I say to the girl with dragon teeth.
“A chopped salad.”
CHOP the spinach. CHOP tomatoes. CHOP off my fingers.
Little Bobby came home from school yesterday. He was wearing a disheveled uniform and his eyes were glassy. There was a time when I would have asked him about his day. I might have offered to help him with his math homework (because God knows I’m no use with English) and if I was really having a good day, I’d have handed him a few of my Cheez-Its. But things are different now. There is no David with the strong arms and the black jeep picking me up for late-night runs to Taco Bell, no Mr. Mason scribbling little smiley faces on my calc tests, no long days burning dollar bills at the mall with my girlfriends. There aren’t even Cheez-Its in the cupboard because now that we spend all of our funds on Little Bobby’s fancy-pants charter school education, there’s only off-brand “Cheezy Squares” in the cupboard, and those things taste like cardboard. I glance over at Bobby and breathe in his adolescent stink of sweat, dirt, and boy. All I can do is walk around him and up the stairs and into my room. As I slip the door shut I can still hear Mama’s muffled voice asking, “Bobby, are you okay?” and “Bobby, why is there dirt all over your sleeves?” I like to believe there is enough concern in her voice for both of us. My lock clicks into place.
When I first started this job, my friends came through the line on a regular basis to visit me. Jenna would tease me about my uniform and then wink as she slipped an extra 5 into the tip jar. Brian would order a salad and ask to substitute the lettuce for shredded mozzarella. That was almost a year ago. Now my friends have all transferred to 4-year colleges and barely communicate with me. I understand why. But now I’m alone because I don’t have the time or the patience to make new friends, especially because I’m older than almost everyone else. But there is this guy who comes through the line once a week at 3:02 p.m. that I would love to be friends with. I’m not gonna lie, he is fine. He is silk eyes and raspy voice, a blue backpack slung over sloping, muscled shoulders. I love making sandwiches for him. I’d do it for the rest of my life if I could. Turkey? You want that on whole wheat? Mmm, I’d be happy to do that for you. Oh, you want that toasted? Mmmmm, of course you do. I ask him anyway because I want to hear the sound of my voice rolling off of him like smoke. Veggies? Hell yes! Lettuce, black olives, and banana peppers. At 3:02 on Thursday afternoons, I love my job. Sometimes, I even love my life.
“I’ll have a 6-inch parmesan oregano, please.”
I stare at him. I wish I knew his name. “What kind of sub are we making this?” Like I even need to ask.
“Tuscan Chicken.” A fringe of chocolate brown hair grazes his eyelid. Holy--
“Would you like that toasted?” What is your name? Please tell me your name.
God, my parents would love this guy. He’s so polite. If he started picking me up for late night drive-thrus, I wouldn’t complain that I have no money for a car or for life in general, because I wouldn’t need it. I might even consider inviting Little Bobby to come along once in a while.
“What kind of veggies?” I know! I know already! Lettuce, black olives, and BANANA PEPPERS!
“Lettuce, black olives, and banana peppers—yes. Perfect.”
He grabs his sandwich, fills his plastic cup in the fountain with Dr. Pepper, takes the straw wrapper off with his teeth, and then walks away. Hey, no worries! I’ll just be stuck here behind this counter forever, with the stink of vegetables on my skin and ponytail pulled through the hole of an ugly baseball cap. And I’ll wonder what your name is and whether or not you like Cheez-Its. Maybe next week, I’ll ask.
When I go home, the first thing I do is step into a hot shower. I don’t want to see Little Bobby and his gray cheeks, and I don’t want anyone to ask how my day went. Yes, I have no friends, and no, I don’t talk to anyone. I have no boyfriend and no money and I smell like cheap food. Because people stop asking you to do things when you have to spend every waking moment behind a glass counter. The steam melts off the black edges of the day, with every bitter thought and every rude comment getting sucked down into the rusty drain. As the last of the banana pepper fumes slip off me for the night, I think of the boy who visits me on Thursdays, the boy that has no name--the boy who is always on time. I smile for one beautiful instant, turning my deep green eyes to face the mirror and breathing in the sweet fog of vanilla soap and towel-dried hair. Two seconds later, my knees buckle, and something cracks against the tile floor.