MY LIFE NOW
by Lindsey Baker
The restaurant was like this: rain or sun, we opened every day at 11 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m. I was there most mornings at ten with a cup of burned coffee, crumbs from a pop-tart pimpling the skin around my mouth, flipping chairs off tables and filling the shakers with salt and pixels of pepper. I didn’t mind the work, and I didn’t even get bored. When I was there and we were busy, I sometimes forgot that I could never see Ed again.
Issue #147 soundtrack: Jon Shina “Discovering the New”
The general manager, Mark, was an older man with a bad hip, and he hobbled around the restaurant like a wind-up toy, stopping to reset himself occasionally with a glass of warm Sprite. He was cruel if he didn’t like you, but he liked me. I reminded him of his daughter, he told me once. She lived in Montana with her husband and two kids and flew down every other year for Christmas. I liked Mark because he cared about the restaurant and because sometimes he asked me how I was doing, waiting for a response that sounded real.
Here’s what I did when I missed Ed and I wasn’t at the restaurant: I worked with clay. I made little sculptures that looked like people and animals. Not that I had any training or was a professional or anything. I only liked the way the clay felt in my hands, wet and dry at the same time, the dry heat of the oven as I baked each new piece. I watched television while I worked, laughing along with recorded episodes of talk shows, booing with an audience as if I were there.
Sometimes when my coworkers asked me about myself I would lie and say I was working at the restaurant to put myself through school. I got a late start, I’d say. Nursing, I’d say. I thought it made me sound selfless, like the good Catholic woman my father wanted me to be. He used to read Mother Theresa’s biography out loud to me before I went to bed so that I dreamt of Calcutta, of oozing sores and pulled teeth.
My apartment was up the road from the restaurant. The complex was nestled between two strip malls, one with a Hooters and an Olive Garden and one with a tattoo shop and a Goodwill. My roommate Rebecca worked during the day as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and came home smelling like floss. She went out for long stretches of time at night by herself, never mentioning anything to me, coming home in the early morning hours. I lied and told her that I was from Texas and she believed me.
“Things really are bigger there, right?” she said, holding a corner of my newly-purchased mattress, helping me wedge it into my room. It was the only real piece of furniture I had. “The dentist is from San Antonio and he’s big all over.”
I was young enough to start over after the divorce, or that’s what everyone told me. I quit my job as an executive assistant to a prim woman at a nonprofit, the days spent scheduling her flights to places I never went. I picked Roswell, Georgia, one night when I couldn’t sleep. The restaurant was the first place to call me for an interview, and I took it, throwing myself hopefully into it, like a new diet.
Another thing I did when I missed Ed: I had sex with one of my coworkers named Jeremy. He had a concaved sternum and thin legs, but he smelled good and he always helped me run my food out to my tables, even when I didn’t ask.
Jeremy and I were closing together one night, and the last customer, a regular who sat at the bar sucking Diet Cokes, left. We moved to start stacking the chairs on the tables.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“Yes. Appletree Apartments?”
“No way,” he smiled, breathing heavy from lifting the chairs. “I live there, too.”
I invited him in that night because I was feeling sad, and I didn’t want to face all my untouched mounds of clay. Rebecca would be out late again, only the crash of her keys on the kitchen counter when she got home in the morning before she left for work.
“Mind if I smoke in here?” he asked.
I couldn’t remember if Rebecca was okay with smoking or not, so I just said sure. Jeremy pulled out a grinder and a bag of weed.
“Do you smoke?”
“No.” I used to, I almost added. Ed and I would get high and play Mario Kart for hours, tangled together on the floor under the television, laughing when we failed. Now I didn’t like how everything felt like it was too far away when I was high, like light and air were bugs crawling up on the ceiling.
“Man. That’s good because I spend a lot of money on weed. I started smoking it in high school. Wow,” he laughed, packing a bowl. He had a wart on one of his fingers. “High school was almost fifteen years ago for me now. I bet if I put all that money together, I would have something big. A boat or a house.”
“Maybe so.” I was sitting on the couch next to him and trying to look at the room as he might. Ed kept most of my things in the divorce, and I let him, so almost all the furniture in the apartment was Rebecca’s except for a coffee table I found at the Goodwill. It was cheap particle board, but it had these pretty Asian-looking golden flowers blooming on the legs. “But do you want a boat?”
He considered, holding the smoke in. “Sure,” he said, “who doesn’t want a boat?”
Sometimes while we had sex he kissed my wrists softly. He slept over a few times, but mostly he would pack up his work apron and his weed and head back to his place afterwards. I was pleased with this arrangement because it felt like I was doing something, that I was moving forward in some way. My sister threatened to come visit me often in our weekly phone calls, and if she ever actually did, at least I would have this to prove that I was trying.
Rebecca told me that Jeremy slept with basically everyone in the complex. It was a rare Sunday morning where we were both home, and I decided to make breakfast for her.
I was scrambling eggs when she told me. “Basically everyone?”
Her eyes were swollen, and she was holding up spoons that she froze every night for this purpose. Her robe was open a little, and I could almost see a nipple. It felt like I was back in college, cooking in the community kitchen with my roommate, Marcy, using pans with grease left over from the meals of strangers.
“Mmm. Everyone says so. He’s fucking gross. I don’t know why you want to date him anyways.” She took the spoons off to look at her reflection in the toaster. “Find a man that has money and a real job, something in finance.” We hadn’t spoken this much since I had to ask for her help with my mattress.
“I don’t want to date him.”
“Okay, don’t.” She poured herself a cup of coffee, unwrapping a straw from my server apron so the coffee wouldn’t stain her teeth, and then poured another one for me. I was touched more than I should have been. Maybe Rebecca and I could be friends. “And don’t let him smoke in here anymore. It smells putrid.”
Sometimes when the restaurant was slow, Mark pulled up pictures of mountains on his phone. He was a rock climber when he was young and his hip wasn’t so bad, and he reminded me of this frequently. I looked at the mountains with their crooked points, their millions of dimples, and tried to imagine a young Mark pulling himself up them, sweating with ropes tangled around his hips. I tried to imagine his ex-wife watching him from below, how afterwards they would make love in tents by the fire.
Mark knew about Jeremy, and even though he never said anything, I think he was disappointed in me. Sometimes I caught him looking at me while I rang things in on the computer, while I twisted my hair into a bun, his lips set in a thin line. One day I showed him pictures of my clay sculptures on my phone. There was an orange old lady holding a cane in one hand, the other hand clutching her back at the base of her spine. Another was a small fish, its scales green and blue.
“Can I have that?” he asked. He pointed to it again, and then used his fingers to zoom in on the screen. “Reminds me of this fish I caught. My uncle used to take me out on lake Peigneur when I was a kid. Before it got drained by those miners.” I promised him I would give it to him, and he looked pleased.
That night I watched television while I wrapped the fish up in some pretty orange paper. I printed off a blurb from the internet about how fish are symbols of prosperity and fortune, how in some cultures fish are used in healing ceremonies. I wrote in cursive, Mark-- For your hip! Love, Alexa.
I was thinking about how when you’re a kid, you can only imagine yourself dying young. Being old seems like an impossible reality, irreconcilable with who you are. Then, at a certain age, you start to wish for it. Daydream about it. How calm you must be in old age, how sure of yourself and the world. The way things happen no longer seeming random. Without letting myself think about it, I dialed Ed’s number on my cell phone. It rang once, and I hung up. I waited until another commercial break interrupted the movie I was watching, something about Wall Street, and I dialed it again, this time waiting while it rang and rang.
“Hello?” It was Ed. He sounded tired, and I wondered if that meant he wasn’t sleeping well. I bit a swollen part of my lip, hard, until tears gathered in my eyes. I didn’t know what to say. I hung up and tucked my phone into the drawer of my Goodwill table, tracing a petal on one of the golden flowers.
I couldn’t pay attention to the movie, so I turned it off and put on my uniform for the morning because I didn’t want to dirty any of the clothes tucked in my closet, things I hadn’t worn since I unpacked. I grabbed Mark’s package too, careful not to crease the delicate paper.
The night was cool and damp. Every other street light was dark, leaving the parking lot patched in yellow. Jeremy’s car was there, but I didn’t feel like seeing him, like smiling along with his stoner philosophy. He could talk about the way shadows worked for hours. About how we knew more about space than we did the ocean.
My car smelled like old French fries, and I decided that I would go get some food. That seemed like a normal enough task. There was a diner a mile away that I passed when I got groceries, and I thought they might have milkshakes. A man on the radio was talking about a mattress sale, 40% off, financing options, memory foam that would never forget the contours of your spine.
I met Ed through Marcy at a housewarming party after college. Marcy gave a toast at our wedding, something sentimental and raunchy, something that made my father shake his head. Later I found her throwing up in the bathroom, Ed’s brother holding her hair and whispering into her ear. That was one of the last times I saw her. Ed was quiet and nerdy-looking at the party, but he was handsome and kind, and I let him touch my breasts in our host’s upstairs guest bedroom. He closed his eyes while he did it, leaning in to kiss me and then leaning back, studying the shape like a blind person, learning.
The lighting in the diner was terrible, and it made me feel old. I sat in a booth, placing the little orange package of the fish on the table by the sugar after checking to make sure the table wasn’t sticky. I wasn’t sure why I brought the package in with me, but it felt nice having it there. It gave me a sense of purpose, like I might be meeting someone. It wasn’t too late yet, and the tell-tale slump of drunkness was missing from the rest of the customers. There was a couple sitting together on the same side of one booth, taking turns dipping fries to ketchup. The server wasn’t in a cheesy diner dress or anything like that, just nice jeans and a t-shirt and red sneakers.
“Do you like the burgers?” I asked.
She looked at me, shrugged. “The meat isn’t great, to be honest. I like the grilled cheese.”
“Grilled cheese, please. And a vanilla milkshake.”
She walked off to the back somewhere, and I felt very awkward without my phone to occupy me. It was still tucked into the Goodwill table. I wondered if Ed called back. The number was new and only my sister had it. I thought about giving it to some of my old friends, but I didn’t know what I could say to them, how I could possibly chart out the details of my life now.
If I had my phone, I might have looked up pictures of mountains so I could talk to Mark about them. I was thinking about getting into climbing myself, couldn’t resist the draw of pulling myself up and up, of sweating everything I had ever done out of me.
The door alarm sounded out, and a girl walked in. Short black dress, tall plastic heels, dark makeup messied around eyes and lips. She was blonde. It was almost a costume. She sat in a booth facing me, but she didn’t make eye contact. Her thighs squeaked against the seat as she pulled out her phone, hunched over it and the table, sniffled a little. When the server came over to take her order, she ordered a cup of coffee and a plate of fries. I noted that her eyes didn’t move very much when she talked. How she said thank you without smiling. She moved her hair back, and I saw a bruise on her neck, old and brown like the skin of a banana. I could see her bra through her dress.
I wondered where Rebecca went at night. There weren’t very many places around Roswell where you could go late, except for one dark and damp Mexican club in the middle of a strip mall, next to a Title Max that never seemed to close. I pictured her there with the girl in the next booth, pictured them dancing together, passing a Corona back and forth and taking sips, the easy sharing of close friendship. How they would laugh together and check their lipstick in the single bathroom stall, how the men might track their movements across the sticky room.
I got up and went over to the girl. I wanted to talk to someone.
“Excuse me,” I said. The girl didn’t hear me at first. She was reading bubbles of text messages, monologues so long they went out of the reaches of the screen.
“Hi,” I said, trying to make myself sound young. I couldn’t remember how to do this, how to branch across to another woman, how to initiate friendship.
She looked up at me.
“Hi,” she said. Her voice had the same dead chill as it did when she spoke with the waitress. Her hair was loose and willowish around her face and I realized she was far younger than I had thought, one of those girls who bloomed early and fast.
“I was wondering if I could borrow your phone to make a quick call. I lost mine,” I said, the lie coming to me simply, “I was at a rest stop off 400 a while back and someone took it from the bathroom counter. I need to call my husband and let him know I’ll be there soon.” I thought she might invite me to sit down. She kept looking blankly at me. “I don’t want him to worry,” I added.
The server brought my milkshake and my food over to where I was sitting and looked questioningly at me, and then at the girl. “Are you moving, or?”
“She’s just borrowing my phone,” the girl said quickly. She handed her phone to me, the case thick and jelly and pink.
“Thanks.” I went back to my booth. The girl’s phone was unlocked, and I pulled up the screen to dial. I didn’t know who to call. I thought about calling Marcy in Virginia and reminding her of those nights we spent sitting on the roof of our dorm sharing a blanket and a cigarette. Instead, I went to the screen with the girl’s recent calls and found someone named Lover embellished with several pink and blue hearts, someone the girl called a lot. I put the phone up to my ear and listened to the ring, for the third time that night, and inhaled sharply at the sound of the man’s voice.
“Hello,” the voicemail greeting said, his voice smoky-sounding, “you’ve reached Dante. Leave a message.”
I waited in the silence after the beep for a minute before I said, “Hi, it’s me.” I looked up to see if the girl was listening and she was, watching me closely, an eye of caution. “Just wanted to let you know I’ll be home soon.” I imagined there was someone listening on the other side. “I love you, babe,” I said, and hung up.
I got up and passed the phone back to the girl, smiling brightly down at her. “Thanks, I mean it. He gets so worried if he doesn’t hear from me.” She looked blankly back at me. “You know how that goes, I’m sure.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Thanks again. I really appreciate it. Let me buy you your food.” I could tell I was pushing too hard, that becoming friends with this young girl was already an impossibility. I tried, instead, to give her a motherly look. “I insist.”
The girl looked dully at me and then back down to her phone. “That’s okay. It’s cheap anyways.” I wondered if Dante, the girl’s Lover, had listened to the voicemail yet. I wondered if he knew the girl well enough to tell our voices apart, and decided he had to.
I went to the counter and asked the server for a box and a to-go cup for my milkshake. After piling the food into the Styrofoam, careful to wipe the grease off my hands, I pulled out two twenties and put one on my table and one on the girl’s. “Thanks again, sugar,” I said, as if that was how I talked all the time. I grabbed the orange package and stepped out into the night. The street was mostly empty, spread out in either direction like a lightless desert highway, the trees still and stiff like cacti. Maybe I’d ask Mark to take me out to dinner tomorrow, after the morning shift, somewhere easy and bright, somewhere people his age went. I’d present him with the package and the little green and blue fish and he would smile, with tears in his eyes, remembering the way things used to be.
Lindsey Baker lives and writes in Atlanta, GA. Her work has previously appeared in The Molotov Cocktail and Blood Moon Rising Magazine.
Alexis Wheeler is an abstract artist living in New York State. Alexis has spent the last 25 years working as a hairdresser, and has been the owner of Crown Salon in New York City for the past 8 years. Her work with clients in the salon is about helping them bring their inner selves to outer expression, using a combination of texture, intuition, artistic technique, and connection. This process informs all of her other creative endeavors. When working in a visual art form, Alexis is relating to her internal space and the tools that inspire her: shapes, forms, colors, as well as repetitive patterns found in nature. In this way, she is following intuition, creating work that resonates with the universal quality of emotions and memories. For more, visit awheelerart.com or follow her on Instagram.
Jon Shina used to live in Brooklyn, and now lives in the hippie woods of western Massachusetts. He is of Iraqi decent and is extremely depressed these days. Jon Shina has played shows for over a decade (playing in China and Thailand as well as all over the USA). He has done many things with VICE over the years, and he even wrote record reviews for the magazine. Jon wants to make everyone feel ALL the emotions when they listen to his music. You can find more of his work at: jonshina.bandcamp.com.