When I arrive, she is standing slumped over a clipboard in her kitchen.
In an hour, the restaurant will be buzzing. Cooks, bartenders, servers. But, for now, it’s just the two of us, and, she hasn’t seen me yet. I’m standing, trying not to breathe, pressing my spine into the doorway, worried that she’ll smell the liquor on my breath.
Though, I know, even when she does, she won’t say anything. She keeps my secrets as well as I do.
I watch her for a minute. Scratching out her lists. Her notes. Counting heads. Imagining her plates. I know I have to tell her. But, something about the way she is standing begs me to wait until tomorrow. Something sad and tired in her movements, makes me hurt for her. We are both so tired. — Different things have left us exhausted.
I decide to wait. It has to be the last thing she hears from me. Not the first. I can’t tell her. Not yet.
Her husband walks up behind me and startles me. He’s got a big plastic tub full of ice. “Hey you! Are you ready for today?!” He shouts, rocking his head back and forth like he’s at a metal show.
“Hell yeah!” I shout back, pumping my fist, as he walks past me into the main dining room. But, I’m not ready. And, before I can face them, I run back to the office and take a long swig out of the bottle of cheap vodka in my handbag.
It’s the hottest day of our Portland summer. We are all sweating, even in the air conditioning. And, when we walk out to the street to set up the restaurant’s booth for the street fair, it feels like walking into a stick of butter. Thick and oily. Even my cigarette smoke hangs in the air like a net. And, as we walk toward the shade of the tent, I have to talk myself out of dying. Not just for my own sake, but for hers.
*** *** ***
As a drunk, there are moments that you know, without a doubt, that you have let yourself down. But, until that particular day, during that particular summer, I had never truly felt the weight of letting someone else down.
It wasn’t because of something I did or didn’t do. It wasn’t because of an unpaid invoice or because of the liquor that poured from the restaurant’s shelf into my glass. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hack the job, or the people, or the place. — It was because I couldn’t handle myself any longer. I couldn’t be available for all the things that I said I could be. But, how do I explain that to her? How do I explain that I’ve become unhinged? Every time I see her face, it kicks me in the gut. I couldn’t have known giving up on her would hurt like this — giving up on her dream would hurt like this.
She struggled with the blue awning at the left corner of the tent where we sat in the shade. It gave us little relief from the heat. She handed me her stainless steel coffee thermos. “Sare Bear — It’s time. Get me a vodka-soda.” We both laugh. But, my laugh is more an exclamation of my relief than my amusement. I’ve been drunk since this morning. But, now, I have her permission. Permission to forget the heat. — Permission to forget everything.
Under the tent, I sit next to her in a canvas folding chair and we drink our vodka-sodas from thermoses. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. But, the prep cooks keep delivering hotel pans of fried chicken and noodles for us to serve to people that aren’t there. “Fuck this shit! This is total bullshit. We’re not doing this next year,” she says surveying the near empty street. But, I know she’ll do it again next year — because she does what she has to do for her dream, even when she hates it. Even when the process pains her, she is the most utterly committed person I have ever met. I take a sip from my straw and watch her for my cues. I wait for a sign that I can read, because I have learned to read them all.
That’s the thing that kills me about it. I know her. I know when she says one thing and means another. I know when she’s playing it tough, but is headed for a breakdown in the office. I know when she’s going to smile kindly in someone’s face and tear them to shreds the second they walk out the door. I know that she is in love with her kitchen clipboard more than any of us humans. I know how this place tears her apart and lights her up in every minute she stands at her post in expo, looking out over the dining room like it’s the Serengeti, with a line of servers migrating across an empty floor. I know her. And, I know her kingdom is beautiful and tragic. And, there is so much of me that wants to stay.
But, I can’t. I can’t pull it off. Not in the way she deserves. I keep coming back to that promise I made. — I told her I could. — And. I. Can’t.
We press through the day, hot, tired, and drunk. My mind wanders. Floating in front of me like the little clouds of cigarette smoke. Her dreams. Her faith in this place. Her reckless abandon. Her laughter booming through the dining room. Her frustration, held back only by the sliding black door of the the tiny office. Her silhouette, forever bent over a clipboard full of lists. And me, with only one:
Drink. Drink with abandon. No matter who or what you abandon. Drink.
The sun sinks and my heart with it. I sit alone in the office waiting for her to come back and meet me. My hidden-purse-bottle is empty now, and I bury it deep in the bottom of my bag. I’m still tired and hot and broken. And, I fold myself over my secondhand IKEA desk and weep into my folded elbows. She walks into the office and slides the door closed behind her, because — she knows.
And, she begins to cry too — before I’ve said anything at all.
*** *** ***
We both sit at the bar with tear stained faces. “Connie, make us both something good,” she says to Conrad, the bartender who watches us lean into each other at the end of the bar. “I love you Sare Bear. And, I’m gonna miss your drunk ass,” she says looking at me and my puffy eyes. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out and my eyes well up again. “Oh, get over it, Bitch!” she shouts at me as she pushes my shoulder playfully. Connie places two cocktail glasses in front of us. “Shooter boots too?” he asks, placing little, boot-shaped shot glasses in front of us and pouring out shots of whiskey before we can answer. She smiles at me in her wild way.
Our sentimental moment has passed, and now, like I’ve seen her do a million times before, without complaint, she will regroup and rebuild, as I crumble beside her.
*** *** ***
When I picture her face, even now, I feel my heart drop into my stomach like a piece of lead. There isn’t a sufficient apology for walking out on her dream, even under the guise of making myself well again. It never seems enough. I read about her in the paper, online, and in magazines. I get a link about her on Facebook. She likes one of my Instagram photos. I send her a viral video of a pug I know she’ll love. But, my unspoken betrayal lurks. It stagnates, like a moat between us. What we shared, is gone.
To make myself feel better, I imagine going back to the restaurant, early in the morning, before she or anyone else arrives. I creep into her kitchen, still clean, untouched from the night before. And, I slide a note onto her clipboard at her station before slipping out the door forever.
I imagine, when she finds my note, she whispers “Whatta bitch!” And then, she tapes it to the wall above her mise en place, next to all her other love notes and drawings. And, she even smiles a little before returning to her clipboard, where she begins today’s list with: “Cilantro.”