April 7, 2009
The Back Room
“…the North American dream. What it’s become…”
Willa, table five, Jessica says instead of hello, tapping at the computer screen like she’s trying to scare fish in a tank, her blonde hair tied back into a pokey French braid, her white eyeliner beautiful and scary.
And we have a staff wine tasting tomorrow, are you coming? she asks.
I consider a way to tell her that I place wine connoisseurship in the same category as marriage and the economy – Things That Only Exist In Our Minds.
You’re out of it today, Jessica cuts off my dial-up speed search for words, looking at me like a toothbrush dropped onto the floor of a Super 8.
Can I use your ‘puter? A stray little girl tries to hijack the screen.
Trust me kid, I look down at her, you start pushing their buttons, soon they’ll be pushing yours.
It’s a touch-screen, she corrects me, wandering back to her Blackberry engulfed mother at a nearby table.
The restaurant is full. Pleasant conversations among stylish salt and pepper shakers set to poor Norah Jones stuck on a gerbil wheel of her four greatest hits. The usual designer consignment store clad West Van crew with their complaints that the focaccia bread tastes like it was run through the dishwasher, being placated by servers with efficiently clenched hearts and brows clamped into punctuation marks that may in the end cost more to correct than the tips they’re clamping them for.
Marcel stands behind the bar polishing a wine glass and singing: Ten percent, every now and then I get a little bit more but it always evens out to ten percent … to the tune of Total Eclipse of the Heart , his classic Timmy from Lassie grown-up, golden boy looks a dead match for his show tune warbling.
Here, he hands me a MasterCard. Will-a you ring this through for me?
I take the card and for a guilty flash understand how those shady identity theft circles get started – plastic so much more relaxing to steal than an armoured car.
Willa, table two. Jessica Tasmanian-Devils by. And table seven.
Since I moved out of the rentals’ house – a childhood of Calgary winters I thought were cozy because I was always sheltered from them – life’s changed. Every moment based on tasks completed for money, when you break it down. Money doesn’t buy happiness? Well it does buy the backdrops on which happiness is set. The costumes, the lighting, the props. So: how do I fuel my life? Oil not the only resource up for ethical debate. If serving West Van retirees clinging to their dropping Canadian dollars and deadweight property investments is not a sustainable fuel source, then what is?
I greet my tables with plasticine smiles and free eye contact, wondering how I would prefer to be interacting with them. If I would like to know more about them than whether they want fries or salad, or if I would prefer to simply be a few hundred pages on their bedside tables, my Master’s in English Lit from UBC growing bacteria, not the Activia kind.
Table seven, an old chap from the yacht club and his lipstick-outside-the-lines wife, claps for me as I arrive to take their drink order.
Do you know what it says on the waitress’s gravestone? the cap’n asks, possibly threatening my life. It says better late than never, but never late is better, he says, pleased with himself.
Are you sure you want to take this crap?
Now, he says to his wife. What do you want, dear?
She opens her menu and takes out a small magnifying glass.
I used to think glamour would save me. Large sunglasses, heels, a daily shining sun, and a thousand cameras recording my every move. Then I realized I live in Canada. Warmth and paparazzi challenged Canada. The true North strong and free, not the true North breezy and current. So I gave the dream up. A dream based on colouring books that asked: Where Do We Go When We Die? (my drawn answer: myself on a director’s chair yelling “cut!”, the Hollywood Hills in the background). A dream based on board games where the players had to choose ratios of Love, Money, and Fame for their faux futures, my choice – all fame. Now, in between dreams like Jack Johnson – I’m blank. My mind, shaken clear like an Etch-a-Sketch, ironically forcing me to empathize with ex-boyfriends who swore: “I don’t know what I want.”
Excuse me, Miss – is the Fraser Valley Pork Loin braised? What does it come with? Can I substitute greens instead? Willa, table three. Could I get more coffee? Do you take American Express? That’s funny, the cap’n lowers his arm, for a moment I thought my hand was broken.
In the xylophone of polished cutlery against white plates, I split into a thousand shards, a three-way mirror fantasy world militia of myself. Pour, lift, wipe, ask, write, type, count, pour, lift – ouch, hot. Try to carve a piece of mental real estate for myself out of this noise, a hundred and six TV channels, and an internet of colourful blog opinions and pictures of celebrities with bottomless closets and theft-proof identities. I try to find some clarity among the impatient glances of my customers (the only flashbulbs trailing me, for now), the gradually comprehended reality that they aren’t the only ones here escalating their appetites into an insatiable me-want-cookie hunger. Maybe I should have told them the truth about the Fraser Valley Pork Loin. That it may or may not be diced with bits of murder victims and dead prostitutes. Pigs will eat anything.
Are you sure you want the thoughts that come in the quiet of clarity?
From the hostess stand, my manger, Rick, gives me a bureaucratic come hither gesture in his pretty-boy meringue dress shirt and old-world spiffy pinstripe suspenders that indicate he’s not afraid to snap those bad boys against his chest a few times. What’s with the skate shoes, Willa? he asks.
I look down at my shiny black skate shoes, sheer black nylons and a sleek black skirt helping to blend them into obscurity. Shoes of compromise. I will forfeit my individuality if you will only permit me a cushiony sole.
We’re not turning ollies at the skate park here, Willa, Rick says, drunk off authority, rolling on it like a tab of ecstasy; it grinds his jaw.
Rick, come on, don’t be a dictator, I say, printing a bill. And don’t be the first part of the word either, I mumble.
Flats or wedges, he assigns me an ultimatum.
Move it or lose it, Slowy Slowerson, Jessica hip-nudges me aside to use the computer, an elastic, never-enough-hands panic on her face, her loosening French braid an outer snapshot of the unravelling cords of her brain.
Swinging through the kitchen, Chef Tom hands me a sample of blue cheese from the special. I taste it: layers of morphing flavours all just slightly indecipherable like the crossroads of my future. Or maybe…
Tennis balls, I describe the taste to Chef Tom, taking my pear valoute soup for table two.
The heavy door smacks my butt on the way out, sloshing the soup up on the rim, the bowl burning off my thumbprint, literally erasing my ability to leave a trace. When I arrive at the table it’s unoccupied, I put the plates down and look around for the customers, locating them at table thirteen. Evidently the man at the next table was coughing too outwardly, infesting them with his public germs.
Where in the hell is my beer? The cap’n stands from his table and actually pounds a fist onto the bar. How long do I have to wait around here for some friggin’ service, he yells, a clattering fork daring to interrupt him.
Sir, can I help you? Rick listens to the cap’n tell on me like a third grade girl being chased by boys.
We’ve been waiting forever , the wife chimes in.
What’s with Sailor Joe? Marcel asks, as I load my tray at the bar.
Ever read The Twits by Roald Dahl? I ask.
It’s the recession, Marcel says, pouring me two Sapporos and a half litre of shiraz. Makes people stingy and on edge. They still eat out, they just tip less and complain more.
What is a recession? I ask him, stabbing my drink chit. Seriously. I’m from the eighties.
I imagine students writing their notes between lines on old newspapers and young ladies drawing lines up the backs of their calves. As though without money we’d go back in time, poverty the wormhole to the past.
Hey guys, Rick materializes like an unwanted apparition through the wall on a stormy night. Just remember to look like you’re working, even when you’re talking, m’kay?
Living is dying, I say to Marcel, balancing my full tray.
Drink green tea, Marcel suggests. Antioxidants.
Making my rounds, I deliver a lukewarm cappuccino to the Golden Girls
at table three, who take the opportunity to coach me on making foam like Alberto mousse, then get schooled on the difference between rare and medium rare by germaphobe table two/thirteen, who refuse to get Maple Leaf cold cuts disease and have a good lawyer. I make a self-note to stick fingers in all cappuccinos and cut incisions in all steak flanks before serving them from now on. What would I do if I didn’t have to work? Spend the day making concept art about how 9-11 was an inside job? Simulating flight paths with remote control airplanes and making buildings out of old milk cartons? Or maybe I could make indie films with infectious soundtracks that would make people feel sad and contemporary, later purchasing them on Itunes so they could feel like they’re in the film, like they ‘re being watched – the North American dream. What it’s become.
The restaurant moves around me with jolted fluidity, a long line of red brake lights slowly jerking forward – the world stuck in front of me. I empty a bill fold of loonies into my apron. If I had the money, maybe I could make films. Maybe they would even become timeless. Maybe the aliens would find capsules of my DVDs after the world blows up or gets shunned by the sun, and wonder about me. You are free, I remind myself. Free to borrow money at 18% and have a home that doesn’t belong to you until you’re too old to care for it. Bussing table seven, I open the bill fold. The cap’n has left me nothing, his pension already spent on washable handkerchiefs and Axe Body Spray that reminds him of his first bottle of Old Spice, of a time when he felt clean and noticed.
Visa haunts me like a dead loved one. How will I keep up with my expensive self? Will I end up like the kids who hang themselves over the student visas they signed up for that came with free t-shirts on the first day of university? A new meaning to pay-as-you-go.
I take a breather and go to the back room to refill the ice bucket, rain dripping through the slats of the roof, wetting the expensively pressed linens. West Coast rain, one drop at a time like held in tears. I sit on a box of coffee filters and try to meditate on the gratitude of being able-bodied as I staple together completed credit card slips with small pieces of metal extracted from the Earth – its surface being eaten away at like an apple, then transformed it into intricate, disposable things, its circumference shrinking, inch by inch. A savoury smell feathers in from the kitchen, expensive local ingredients being prepared by disgruntled local chefs stuck in the back of the restaurant away from the action like I’ve become stuck in the back of life. I long to just go home, then consider that everything I own, every IKEA lamp and pretty white piece of Apple technology is the fruit of some unwilling task. M y Ipod, a month of bitten-tongue Sundays, stopping myself from disclosing that the Foie Gras mayo is made by shoving a long stick down the throat of an already full duck.
Willa, Rick calls for me. Where are you? What’s going on?
I’m okay, I yell.
I don’t care if you’re okay, get in here, he yells.
What’s my switch up? I wonder, as Anna Olsen calls it on Sugar when she takes peanut butter cookies and turns them into peanut butter ice cream sandwiches. How do I turn the edible into the delicious?
I’m giving Jessica your tables, Willa, Rick yells, afraid of entering the back room lest it soil his delicate metrosexual threads. And your tips, he yells.
I sometimes think it would be easier just to get it all over with at once. If instead of a thousand people chipping away at me piece by piece until I melt into a pile of compliant employee, I could just sell out one colossal time and be done with it. Like the girl who auctioned off her virginity online to pay off her student loans.
Just a minute, I call up to Rick, too late.
If you can’t keep up, they replace you as fast as technology here.
I’m just re-evaluating my life and life itself, I call in explanation, fairly sure he’s not listening.
In the damp room, I curl up on a stack of white linens and crack open a warm jar of maraschino cherries. Chill with the up and coming stock of tomorrow’s meals, contemplating the chain of unhappy workers with neglected hands and permanent frowns it’s already made its way through, my past not so different. Christmas, a mass child bribery ending in a pile of wasted paper surrounding objects that can’t love you back, Disneyland, the breeding ground for virgin-whore pop stars, Gap jeans, a faraway child’s wasted life. So what now, when all you knew and loved never was? What happens when the perpetually dispensing paper towel rack of life – turning, turning, turning in public washrooms across the world daily – runs out? When the forests have all been used to wipe things clean and dry?
But Madonna said more, I remember now, having forgotten or maybe deleted the info to make room for table three’s order. I twist of the stiff gold cap of the maraschino jar and take a cherry from the jar with my fingers, savouring its throat-singeing burst of red dye. “…but no shit is worth doing unless you’re willing to die for it,” is what she said.
What am I willing to die for?
Are you sure?