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On The Fly
Hurried steps on the sidewalk painted with ancient chewing gum and cigarette butts pass me as I reach for meter change that fell to the ground. I insert a quarter into the small metal slot, listening for the click as the machine registers my money. I check the time on my cell phone: 5:46. A single quarter is all I need, buying me 12 minutes until the meter stops running at six. I smile at the homeless man with a stained coffee cup as I walk down Robinson Avenue on my way to work. “Not today, sorry,” I tell him as I pass. I stand at the corner and count down in my head from seventeen as soon as the left green arrow lights up, stepping into the street a moment before the white light summons me to move forward. I turn onto Fifth Avenue and high five my coworker Erick as he heads to the delivery car. A group of teenagers with scruffy facial hair in skinny jeans and black tee-shirts linger outside of Café Libertalia, presumably waiting for Crest Comedy night, which begins at eight. The bartender at Number One’s smiles at me as I pass him on my way into work, a crowd consisting of mostly middle-aged gay men have already begun flowing in after the end of their Friday shifts.
As I enter Pizza Fusion I notice the greeting sign has fallen. Please wait to be seated, we love you. I readjust the hostess stand-- straightening the menus so the green edges all line up on the left side, separating the beer and wine lists from the soup and salad menus, and rearranging the to-go flyers into a fan shape-easier for grabbing quickly on the way by. I look out at the floor. Five tables occupied, a couple seated at the bar-slow, but not abnormal for this early on a Friday evening.
“What’s going on?” I ask Nancy as I head towards the bar, motioning to table twelve where Barry, the owner, Jason, the kitchen manager, and CrazyBobby sit. Barry and CrazyBobby are deep in conversation. Jason exhales deeply and takes a sip from his 2-liter water bottle as Barry turns his laptop towards CrazyBobby. Nancy looks up at me as she drops a pizza stand into the bin behind the counter with extraordinary force. The chopstick in her hair falls askew, and a few kinky black curls have drop in front of her face.
“Thank god you’re early. S***’s going down tonight. Need coffee.” She fumbles in her apron, pulling out a ten dollar bill and attempting to straighten it between her fingers. “Grande iced caramel macchiato with an extra shot of espresso. Get yourself something too; you’re going to need it. And don’t forget to tip an extra dollar, they save our asses over there.” She drops the ten on the bar before I have a chance to respond. She answers the phone on the second ring and I head to Starbucks without a word. I return with Nancy’s macchiato and an iced coffee for myself just in time to clock on for my six o’clock shift.
“Trevor’s on at seven and Bobby might take a few tables after the meeting, but otherwise for now it’s just me and you babe.”
“And this meeting is about…?” I ask, turning back to table twelve, where Jason is talking to CrazyBobby as Barry nods his head in agreement.
“Done?” I ask, peering behind the bar in the secret crevice where Kristen stashes her nude-shine lip gloss and a pack of gum. It’s empty.
“Done. She didn’t show up for work yesterday and couldn’t get a doctor’s note when Barry asked her for it. I think she’s out.”
I can understand why Barry fired her. Picture this: you are a middle aged restaurant owner with a reputation for having a giant stick up your ass. You hire a 34 year old bartender with lots of experience, but who has never held the same job for more than a year. She is spunky, hard working, and organized, so after five months you promote her to store manager. You put her on salary when she threatens to quit because she works over 50 hours a week. She’s developed a strong relationship with many customers, so you can’t afford to lose her. At the six-month mark, she begins to slip. She shows up late and hung over more often than not, and quickly shoves off her closing duties to the kitchen closer or dishwasher so she can leave early and hit the bar next door. She and one of the new cooks, Kevin, regularly disappear into the storage room where there are no cameras. You confront her about missing bottles of wine, and she shoves it off on Jason. When you tell her Jason wasn’t working that night, she quickly retorts, “then it must have been Ramon.” When you walk in to a restaurant full of frazzled customers to find her sipping water out of a bendy straw because she “can’t handle this s***” you let her sit, taking over the bar while the only other server holds down the whole restaurant, because you know her dad recently committed suicide and you don’t want to push her overboard. Instead of taking your kindness as a gift, it becomes an expectation. Now, she is always an hour late to work, usually slurring her words, or hiding pints of Stone IPA in the walk-in behind the big green bins of cheese. You confront her, but she denies it. When she doesn’t show up to her opening shift on a Friday morning, you call her twice, then her roommate, who tells you she’s still in bed. “It was a long night,” he explains. But you have no choice. You have to fire her.
“And Bobby?” I ask Nancy.
“Is her replacement.”
“No f***ing way.”
“How? He hasn’t been here two months!” I look at table twelve again. CrazyBobby is speaking now, his hands gesturing madly as Barry listens intently. Jason looks agitated.
“Sucks a lot of dick, that’s how.” Ramon interjects from the kitchen. He adjusts his charred SD hat, blue with a now burnt-red rim from repeated exposure to simmering temperatures. I look at him, startled. He smiles. “Bobby,” he explains, “the dude sucks a lot of dick. That’s all he’s been doing since he started here -- kissing ass to get the best hours. Barry eats that s*** up.”
“I know. It’s classy. And I’ve been here for 18 months but who’s counting?” Nancy laughs. “But I swear to God if he is going to continue to talk to himself, I’m going to have to ask him to respond to himself too, because otherwise I just get confused. Door.” She points to the front of the house where a family of four has just entered.
“Hey guys! I’ll be with you in just one second!” I yell from behind the bar as Barry shoots me a heated glance. Rule number one: never, ever leave customers waiting for a table for more than ten seconds without acknowledging them. I turn on my hostess smile and head to the door. “How are you folks doing tonight?”
“We usually sit over there, at the tall one. Furthest from the door where it’s not as cold,” the mother tells me through a thick Russian accent as she runs her hands through her tinted-gray hair.
“God mom, can’t you try something new for a change? We sit there every time. And you get the same thing every time. Live a little, Jesus Christ, you’re so boring.” As the teenage daughter reprimands her mom I stifle a laugh.
“Some people like order, there is nothing wrong with that” I tell the daughter. “Any open table you want is fine ma’am.” I say as I grab menus and follow the family to their table. “We have new soups if that interests anyone.” I drop the menus. The mom snatches the wine list, leaving the soup and salad menu laying flat on the table. “I’ll grab you all some waters and Nancy will be with you in a few minutes to take your order.” When I turn, Nancy is already on her way with a tray of waters.
“I got this if you can grab some silverware from the back? We’re out of knives at the bar.” I nod and head towards the kitchen.
“Did you get my note?” Ramon asks from behind the oven as he scrapes residue off the top shelf as it rotates.
It started with a note. Do you want to be my friend? Yes or no. Ten words scribbled in red sharpie on a ripped up sheet of paper and I was gone. Done. Fallen into a black hole of midnight texts and too many cigarettes. He hesitated at first, afraid to grab my hand, afraid to stand too close, but never too afraid to hold on too tight as he hugged me goodbye. The tension was tangible. I could feel it on my skin as our noses touched.
“And this isn’t right.”
“It isn’t wrong.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Then don’t,” I told him, stepping away and leaning against the dusty pickup truck parked in front of my car. I turned to look at the sidewalk, unable to face him. He pulled me closer then, hands on my hips as he forced me to look at him.
“You know that’s not an option.” And he kissed me. Right there on Robinson Avenue as cars drove by unaware that the event they had witnessed had altered the lives of two individuals indefinitely. Before that moment, the tattered slip of paper I had in my pocked was just a note. He was just a coworker, and I was just a girl. But that moment, that note, that kiss, changed everything. I transformed. He left his sweatshirt in my car that night and told me it was on purpose; two weeks later I could only fall asleep by his side.
“Yeah, I got it.” It was a different note he was speaking of now, one I’d found clinging to my dashboard on Sunday after my first kitchen shift. The same slanted handwriting written on another ripped up sheet of paper in black sharpie this time. I heard you’re going to be working in the kitchen now. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. He signed his name as if to remind me who he was- an indiscernible scribble with Ramon Gomez printed underneath. As if I could have forgotten.
“And the pizza?” My last shift meal a Spinach and Artichoke on heart-shaped Multigrain crust.
“Yeah, I saw that too.” He nodded then, a confident nod accompanied by a tilted smile that threw me off balance.
“What?” I asked him.
“Nothing, nothing.” Friends, I reminded myself. We are just friends.
The restaurant began filling up as soon as I returned with silverware. The German group had reserved a 10 top for7 o’clock, meaning we had the table set by 6:15. They came in once a week, always at least a half hour early, ordered too much beer and too little food, pestered the servers about the amount of cheese while refusing to pay the charge for additional toppings, asked for 10 separate checks, and tipped European style- meaning almost nothing. At 6:20, the leader of the German pack walked in, a round-faced man with a thick accent who always asked for extra garlic. He motioned me to come over and talk to him as he surveyed the floor.
“This table, over here, is it for me?” He points to the table Nancy and I had just finished setting for this occasion.
“Yes sir, feel free to sit and wait for the rest of your party to arrive.” I smile my hostess smile and turn to lead him to the table.
“Miss?” I pause and turn back to him. “What about those tables, right there,” he points to table 23 and 22. “Can you push them together? I want to be closer to the door so people can see us easier. I don’t want them to think we’re not here.” I exhale, trying to contain my frustration.
“Well sir, I will be at the door to direct members of your party to your table if they can’t see you.” I stop myself from pointing out that the restaurant is small, only twenty tables, and all of the tables are fully visible from the entrance. I smile again, a wasted effort since the man refuses to move. I can feel Barry staring at me. “I’ll to grab Nancy so we can pull these tables together for you sir.” He nods. Rule Number Two: never, ever tell a customer no unless the request is physically impossible. I pulled Nancy from behind the bar to help me pull the tables together as a line formed out of the door. The German man sits alone at the head of his ten-top, waiting for the rest of his party that is not due for another thirty minutes.
After seating two four tops, a family of five, and a young man with intricate tattoos and his pregnant wife, who politely refused the wine list, I head to the kitchen to pull glasses from the dishwasher. Kellen is standing at the pizza line shifting through delivery tickets while the orders spitting out from the ticket machine continues to grow. Nancy walks in behind me.
“Kellen I need a side of goat cheese, you forgot it on the Four Cheese and... Whoa.” She stops herself, looking at the disheveled pile of tickets stacked on top of the metal shelf where the - the line where the tickets stick is already full of deliveries. She turns to me. “You trained on Sunday right?” I nod, wide eyed. “And Jason showed you how to stretch dough?” I nod again. “Put on an apron honey, it’s time to pony up. Trevor’s due any minute, I can handle the front till then.” She pats Kellen’s back. “Be nice to her, or I’ll kill you.” She directs him before turning and walking out of the kitchen, forgetting her side of goat cheese. Kellen is still standing, wide eyed.
“Who the f*** orders 7 personal pizzas for one table?” He groans as I pull a dirty apron from the bin above the line. As I struggle with the button on the back of the apron Ramon calls from behind the oven.
“Come on girls, get it together. Those pizzas won’t make themselves.” Kellen mumbles under his breath. I glance at the first ticket on the line, and pull four multigrain and three original personal sized balls of dough from underneath the line.
“I stretch, you make. Deal?” Kellen nods, still standing still. I turn the multigrain dough in my hands twice and drop the ball into a bowl of flour. I sprinkle corn meal and flour on to the pizza board to prevent the dough from sticking. After turning on the machine, I run the dough through the top part once, turn it around, push it through the top again, and then guide it through the bottom twice. I slide the pizza on to the board and hand it to Kellen. Top, turn, top, bottom, bottom, repeat. After the seventh pizza, I move on to the next two orders before I switch the machine off and move to the line. Kellen is working on a Big Kahuna, his caramel hands moving methodically across the rows of toppings, pulling accurate amounts of pineapple, bacon, and red onions, which he sprinkles evenly across the almost-round crust. I pull the ladle from the container of sauce and pour it on the center of the dough in front of me. As I struggle to disperse the sauce evenly around the crust, Kellen starts another pizza behind me. He dollops sauce on with ease, evenly applying cheese to smooth out the edges of the crust before moving around me to begin topping the pizza. I move down the line hesitating between each topping, keenly aware that each motion is tentative, each measurement inaccurate, a stark contrast to Kellen’s methodical motions. Kellen cracks a smile as I fumble to break apart a clove of garlic. Ramon slams the oven shut behind us. “Who made this barbeque chicken?” He demands.
“Uh, I did.” I inspect the pizza he just pulled out of the oven for missing toppings.
“Did you bother to look at the ticket?” He holds out the ticket in front of me.
“Yeah, personal barbeque on original crust. That’s what that is, right?” I motion to the pizza sitting on the counter.
“The red writing on the top. Think that might have been important?” I take the ticket from his hand, squinting to read the red print through a grease stain. To go. “Pick up orders are stretched perfectly round, not ovals. This wont fit in the box.”
“I’m sorry I”
“Wasn’t paying attention” he interjects. “Jesus Mary, just f***ing pay attention to what you’re doing.”
“I’m sorry I really didn’t notice, we had like seventeen orders and I guess I got distracted.” I point to the ticket machine for emphasis, six tickets are still stuck to the line, waiting to be made.
“Whatever. Just stop f***ing around and pay attention.” He pulls the ticket out of my hand and turns back to his station.
“I’m sorry. Really. I’ll be more careful.”
“Dude don’t apologize to him he’s an asshole.” Kellen speaks up. “People make that mistake all the time it’s not a big deal, you just have to cut out the middle part, no one can tell the difference. Ramon’s just in a bad mood and is taking it out on you.” Ramon turns around again, shooting Kellen a nasty look before turning to me.
He stares directly at me as he responds to Kellen. “Yeah, well, Mary knows just how bad I can be.” His words startle me. I catch my breath and turn back to the line, unable to face him. Ramon resumes his work behind me, squeezing the misshaped pizza into a too-small box before placing it on the top of the oven to stay warm before the customer arrives to pick it up. I go back to my pizza, breaking apart clumps of artichokes while Kellen stands still beside me. I turn to him; he shakes his head slowly but does not break his stare. His light green eyes read into mine, finding the confirmation he needs before I have a chance to turn away. F***ing asshole, he mutters, before turning back to the line to resume his pizza.
I wait at the bar for Kellen to clock off at the end of my shift. The restaurant has emptied out after a late rush. A few customers linger at the bar, Brent and Sarah, who come in at least twice a week, are finishing their sausage-and-tricolor-pepper personal pizza and Vertical Stone Epic as Kellen curses at the computer screen.
“I’m closing tomorrow?” He asks Nancy.
“Sorry honey, Jason’s running his marathon tomorrow and needs you to cover. It wasn’t my decision.” Kellen nods and walks behind my seat, squeezing my shoulders.
“Finally.” I wave goodbye to Jason and Nancy, secretly thankful Ramon is making gluten-free pizzas in the walk in so I have an excuse to leave quietly. Kellen and I walk towards the exit together, pausing just outside the door so Kellen can fish a pack blue-teal Newport Menthols from his pocket. He offers one to me, I shudder.
“Menthols are nasty. It’s like smoking a mint.”
“That’s the point!” He laughs. I pull one from the pack reluctantly.
“Don’t take one if you won’t enjoy it.” He mocks me, attempting to snatch the cigarette from my hand.
“Shut up.” I tell him, digging a lighter out of the front pocket of my purse. Kellen raises his eyebrows.
“White lighter?” He asks.
“I’m all kinds of bad luck honey,” I laugh. “Don’t stand too close.” He moves towards me then, analyzing the lighter in my hand as I tilt it towards him to show the red seven-eleven symbol on the front. “Just kidding, I’m superstitious as s***.”
“Can I borrow that for a second?” He reaches for the lighter as I exhale.
“No no no,” I reprimand him, pulling my hand away. “Pretty girls never light their own cigarettes.” I flick the lighter with my thumb, igniting a small orange flame that I carry to the unlit cigarette perched between his lips. He rolls his eyes as he inhales.
“So Black Swan tonight? Are you in? Amie and Lindsey are picking me up at 10. You’re welcome to come with us if you want.” I open my phone to check the time- 9:42.
“I wish I could, I’m meeting this guy soon. We’re seeing Black Swan too. Are you going to Landmark?” I point up Fifth Avenue; the sign for Landmark Theatre is visible in the distance.
“This guy?” He asks, “Are you cheating on me?”
“It’s a set up.” I tell him, “My friend Amy decided she’s tired of me being single so she hooked me up with her boyfriend’s best friend. And don’t be mad you cheat on me all the time!” I poke his arm for emphasis. He pushes my hand away, laughing.
“I can’t help it, there are too many attractive men in the world for me to try and resist them all.”
“I wish I had the same problem,” I tell him. “Text me though? I’ll need an escape plan.” I hug him awkwardly, his left hand held out straight so he doesn’t burn me while I hold my right hand behind my back.
“Yeah. We might show up there, Landmark is way closer then Mission Valley, but I’m not driving so I’ll let you know.” He kisses my cheek. “Have fun babe, you never know, this guy could work out for you.” I look at him, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah, right.” I turn and head back down Fifth Avenue, pulling out a dollar from the folded wad of tonight’s tips in my pocket to give to the homeless man on the corner.
First dates are supposed to be terrible. Especially when he wears a black biker hat that reminds you of your stepfather. When, even though you would have denied the offer, he doesn’t attempt to pay for your movie. When the only topic of conversation that sticks is a tentative list of the pros and cons of pineapple. When he doesn’t offer to walk you to your car even though it’s one in the morning and you’re parked a mile away. When, ten minutes later he drives by in an old white van and waves at you while you are still trekking to your car. When, as you drive home, a small red sports car starts tailgating you, flashing it’s brights behind you at each stop sign until you pull into an abandoned parking lot and turn of your car. When, after the beat-up red sports car pulls in next to you, you pull the keys out of the ignition, take off your seatbelt, open the door, and face the bitter cold of the long-after-midnight February air.
“Hey.” Ramon says to me, standing straight up as I lean against my car door.
“What are you doing out so late?” He asks.
“I saw a movie.” I kick gravel dirt beneath my feet, noticing the dust as it collects on my black boots.
“Oh.” I look up at him.
“So you finally got your tattoo,” I say. The dark lines of ink barely visible on his coffee toned skin above the v-neck of his shirt.
“Like three weeks ago, you haven’t noticed?” He zips up his sweatshirt.
“I haven’t seen you outside of your chefs jacket in over a month.”
“Oh, right.” He looks down now, putting his hands in his pockets.
“What does it say?” I ask him.
“Cest la vie.” He pauses. “Such is life.” I look at him. “Why are you standing so far away?” He asks, his face softer now, as I step forward and let him pull me into him. He smells like cigarettes and fabric softener. “Shouldn’t you be getting home soon? It’s late” he whispers as I relax in his arms. I step away.
“I don’t have a curfew, you know that.” He chuckles.
“Yeah, I guess your mom never really waits up for you huh?” I laugh then, remembering the nights we walked straight through to the back room of my without my parents stirring.
“They’re not home anyway.” I tell him. “They’re visiting my sister in LA for the weekend.” I hesitate, reading his face has he attempts to hold back a smile. “You can come over. If you want, I mean. It’s getting cold out here.”
“That might not be a good idea.” He warns me. He smiles as he looks down at the ground.
“Since when has anything we’ve done been a good idea.” He laughs again, a warm laugh, and then pulls me in to him tightly, kissing my forehead.
“You’re bad news Mango. You know that? I’ll meet you there.” He kisses my forehead again, and then my lips, gently, squeezing my hand as he turns back to his car. I open my car door and sit down in the drivers seat to adjust my review mirror. He honks as he pulls out of the parking lot. I put on my blinker and wait for a pickup truck to pass before turning left into the street, finally heading home. Finally heading back to him. Such is life.