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Contemporary

TW: domestic abuse


I was a pale, plump university graduate, applying my Bachelor of Arts to my first city job, as a sandwich artist. My first boyfriend, Stuart, was a tall, serious sociology student, who worked campus security. We lived in a dorm apartment which it seemed I only saw during the day, sliding out in the still-dark to open the sub shop, or limping home, onion-scented, bathed in cold cuts, after the cabaret crowd had surged and ebbed. 


Thinking back on that summer, it seems to throb with thumping music and spicy peppers, and all the downtown energy of the bar-goers, without my seeing much firsthand bar scene action. My security guard was not one to go out to clubs, being annoyed by drunk people and afraid of having a campus grudge enacted upon him beyond the bounds of his authority. Most of the rest of my university friends had left upon graduation.  


Our days were spent in the cool dim interior of our apartment, entwined or making Serious Life Plans in shades of sepia and gray. All the colour, light and energy of that time are collected around the sub shop. 


One hot June night I was working a Friday close shift. This meant showing up at 8 or 10, and working until 4 or later. I was there at 8, which meant I got a few blessed hours to do prep work out back while my coworker tended the counter. Gigi was also plump and pale, but she had dimples and wore a short skirt with her uniform shirt, and generally received more flirty attention than I did at work. She was happy to leave me to my obsessive meticulous vegetable chopping. It slowed at about 9, and she leaned at the doorway to the prep area, one eye on the counter, catching me up on work gossip and choosing the CD soundtrack for the night. 


“Jaymie got a diamond from her boyfriend, the law student,” she related. “She was running around yelling, “SPARKLE SPARKLE” and waving her hand under everyone’s nose. It was kind of gaudy. I don’t even know why she works here, it’s not like she has to.”


She was rifling though the CDs with a small frown. “The mix with the Cece Peniston song is back by the player,” I offered, waving the lettuce knife.


“Ah! Thanks doll!”


I had more extra meat, lettuce, tomato, onion and peppers sliced that we could possibly need. The cheese was prepped. Bathrooms stocked. Music thumping like a heartbeat. The rush wouldn’t start until about 11. I dealt a hand of double solitaire which we carefully played in the wedge of counter space invisible to the front and out of line of sight of the security cameras they kept on us out back. Gigi baked an extra pan of cookies, and wrote off half as burned. We ate them as we played, pausing when the occasional customer caused the front doorbell to tinkle. 


Lana was scheduled to join us at 10, but it still wasn’t super busy, so we called, left a message and didn’t bother calling the manager when she didn’t appear right at 9:55. At 10:20 it was starting to pick up a bit, and I asked Gigi if she thought Lana wasn’t going to show. We could still call and see if someone else would come in… Jaymie or maybe Peter. Gigi shrugged. The likelihood of getting someone now was vanishingly small, I knew. 


As we served customers, I told her more about Stuart and I, and as Gigi did, she half-smiled and looked at me from the corner of her eye, saying, “So why are you always flirting with Peter if this Stu is so great?”


Since this was true, I could say nothing, so I stuck my tongue out at her and carried on.


I was on cash as she prepped three subs for a small family. I saw two more customers come in behind the family, and turned to wash my hands. I heard the doorbell tinkle again and a commotion as someone came to the staff door. I saw a glimpse of Lana’s yellow and white hair as she turned her key and entered. I was relieved. Gigi and I would have had a tough night keeping up with a long line of drunk customers without her, and Lana was a take-no-shit person. She was great to have around when the place was full of drunks. 


I assembled two cold cut specials, with extra mayo on one and extra pickles on the other, rang the pair through and still didn’t see Lana appear. Gigi had one customer waiting past the one she was helping, so I risked ducking out back to find out what was keeping Lana. 


I heard a muffled noise and found Lana huddled, knees to her chest in a corner of the floor. Streams of viscous snot trailed her face. Both eyes were ringed with red and the left one was swollen and surrounded by blue and purple. Her lip was puffy and split. 


I dropped to the floor, instinctively wrapping my arms around her, and then jumped up to grab toilet paper from the bathroom.


“What is going on? What happened?” I was agog, my mind racing. Ice, ice for the bruises…. I grabbed paper towel and wrapped it around a few hunks of ice from the ice machine. Lana kept quietly sobbing, not speaking. Maybe she couldn’t. 


Gigi called from the front, “A little help here?” 


Lana’s watery eyes blinked at me and she gestured for me to go. I hesitated. “Should I call the police?” Her head shaking violently from side to side scared me more than anything. “I’ll be right back.”


I headed out. A line of five or six customers had assembled and Gigi was frowning at me. “Is she coming out?” 


“Something’s up,” I muttered, stepping up to the counter before the next customer. 


As I added vegetables to the sub I was making, a voice from the door yelled, “Hey, if it isn’t the dom and the sub!” Peter, a classic Peter joke line. I waved him in. As I handed the customer their change, Peter came to the side of the counter. He smelled like beer, and his warm brown eyes twinkled at me. “Miss me?”


I wanted to join in our regular light flirting but the image of the shattered woman behind the half wall wouldn’t let me.


“Peter, I need you to stay and help.” He picked up on the sombreness of my tone. 


“Shit, Cass, I been drinking.I can’t. Who’s supposed to be here?” 


I leaned in to whisper “Lana is out back, but she’s had an accident or something, she can’t work. I’m worried about her.” I touched his hand, feeling a twinge for pushing too far, and said, “Can you just come in for like a half hour? So I can check on her?”


Without another word, he waved his buddies on and I opened the back door for him. He took my uniform hat and apron. He patted Lana’s shoulder and said, “Let Cassie take care of you, kay, Lana?” Then he headed out front.


I got Lana up and into the bathroom, and as she rinsed her face, she talked. “Jason. Came home mad. I think he lost his job. I was getting ready for work, to come in early, and he got m-mad because I didn’t make him supper and then I was putting on make up and he fucking backhanded me, and th-then he punched me and kicked me and and and…” she was gulping air. 


“Take your time, it’s okay. How did you get out?”


“He-he was drinking and I said I have to go to work they’ll come fucking looking for me, and then you guys called, and he was like, Okay, go, but I will be picking you up at 3 and you better be ready to go. He dropped me off.”


“He thinks you’re working? Like this?” I was in disbelief. I tried to think about what Lana had shared about her personal life. No kids. Was Jason her husband? Or boyfriend? I couldn’t remember. I felt guilty. 


“Lana, we need to get you out of here before he comes back.”


“No, no, he- he will find me.” She sounded weary, despairing. Lana was nearly 40. This was her third job. She was also door staff at a club during the week, and she waited tables at lunch at an expensive restaurant.


I remembered working with her a few months before. Some guy had been dropping acid, and after finishing his footlong meatball sub had climbed on a table by the window. He was winding up to jump into the window when she yelled “BUDDY” at such a decibel level that everyone in the place froze, including him. She then hopped over the counter and strong-armed the tripping dude and his catcalling friends out the door. 


Lana was not someone you thought of as vulnerable. 


I knew I was soft. I was weak and Lana, like most of my family, called me “book smart,” which was the opposite of “street smart”. 


I wished she would let me call the police. I felt helpless. 


Gigi came back. “Peter told me what’s up. Cass, why don’t you go out front for a bit and let me talk with Lana for a while?” Without waiting, she turned to Lana, shaking her head. “Damn, girl, I told you not to let him stay with you while he was on parole.”


I headed out front, feeling useless. At least I could make subs. I whipped through the line, with Peter managing the cash and extras. Before I realized it, it was 1:00 am. Peter was still there. “Sorry I ruined your night,” I said as we washed our hands. “Nah, this is better than goofing around with those losers. I’m glad I could help. Is Lana going to be okay?” 


I kind of shrugged. I hoped so. T minus 2 hours till we expected the abusive guy. My insides were jelly.


Gigi came out and we all worked through the post-bar rush. Lana was fine, she said. She was going to rest for a bit. At 2:30, I was caffeine-jittery, and couldn’t stop staring at the door. Gigi pulled me to the side of the counter.


“He’s coming back for her at 3,” I said. 


“Cass, it’s okay. We are going to be okay. He wants Lana, and she’s not here now.” 


“WHAT?” I stared. 


“I got her out the back inventory door.” I had forgotten that door existed. It was usually locked and alarmed. “I know the code,” brushed away Gigi. “I told her to take my car and go to my place.” 


I felt relieved and … empty. The inside of me echoed with all the life experiences I did not have, all the things I didn’t know. Even my first aid training had been no help. I couldn’t let go of the feeling of strangeness from seeing strong, capable Lana unable to talk. What were men who could do this? 


“Let’s close early,” said Gigi. The franchise manager, Kelly, had one rule and it was, if the hours say we’re open, we’re open. Closing would mean trouble. But this was an exceptional circumstance, and I was okay risking it. 


Peter had three people left in line when we flipped the Closed sign. We hustled the last drunk girl out the door at 2:45 and locked the place. I gave the dining room a quick blessing with the cleaning cloth and then the three of us went to the back room to tidy and wait. At 3:05 a banging started at the front door. 


“We could call the police now,” I hesitantly offered. “He’s causing a disturbance.” Peter put his arm around me, but I knew neither he nor Gigi thought the police was a good idea. The gulf between us was wide. 


We waited, listening as the man angrily kicked at the glass door. I expected to hear broken glass. Finally, the noise stopped. After five minutes, I peeked out. He was gone. I drew a deep breath. “Why don’t you guys head home?” I offered. “I’ll finish tearing down here.”


Peter said, “Don’t be silly. We’ll get it cleaned up here in a jiff.” We all silently tore down and put things away, disinfecting the counters and cleaning the dishes. It took nearly an hour. When everything was done, we deposited the cash into the safe. Gigi said, “I’m going to head out and check on Lana.” 


“Will you be okay?” I asked. 


Gigi laughed. “I am fine!” 


“Will she go back to him?” 


Gigi half shrugged. “He’ll have flowers for her tomorrow, and he’ll apologize.” She took a deep breath. “You can’t always fix people. They have to fix themselves.” And she swung out the door and hailed a cab. 


Peter came up behind me as I stood watching her leave. I let him put his arms around me and I leaned back into his chest. 


“Man. Lana.”


“I know.”


We were quiet for a minute. 


“Stu waiting for you?” He finally asked.


“He’s probably sleeping. He works early tomorrow. Today,” I corrected myself, seeing the first rays of the sun peeking over the bank building across from us. 


“Want to get breakfast?”


I nodded, hoisting my bag. He took the keys from my hand and locked the door behind us. We walked out into the early sun, sweaty, onion-and-salami-scented, holding hands as if we carried a vanishing treasure between us.


June 21, 2021 23:28

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