That restaurant again!
Michele would spit at it, except that would leave a mess in her car. So, instead, as she drives by she gives it the finger. Then she tells herself this is stupid. But it doesn't seem to matter. Like it or not, Michele hates the place.
There can be many reasons to hate a restaurant. Food poisoning for one. Michele’s had food poisoning once and that was more than she ever needed. Two days of wishing for death and an ER visit was enough for her, thank you very much. Ever since then, she’s avoided The Black Cow in Orlando. Who could blame her?
Another reason to hate a place is if it has bad food or if the waitstaff is surly. But this food was edible. Honestly, it was pretty good if Michele told the truth. No her hatred is irrational. And that's the kind that runs the deepest.
The restaurant, which is more like a cafe, is called The Thinking Greek. It's walking distance from Michele’s office where she works as a prosthetist/orthotist. Supposedly Guy Fiero once visited the place; she doesn’t know. She can’t think of any reason he’d go there. It’s a hole in the wall, not even as big as her small three-bedroom house. Michele walked into it for the first time to get her car from Alex. She stood, looking at the paneled walls and the white tile floor. The place smelled of chicken and Lysol as if someone had taken advantage of the quiet to mop. To the right is the high Formica counter for ordering and behind that separated by a partition is the kitchen. Left of the counter are about ten tables along a narrow room. Behind them is a refrigerator with a glass door. And there was Alex, curly hair tied back and tucked under a hat, stocking the sodas. Other than the hair he looks nothing like his mother. He's thin with a long nose while Patty is short and round. Alex smiled when he saw her and made some joke about making her walk home. Listening to all this was Patty, the manager, and Alex's trainer. She sat at a small table eating her gyro plate. Michele knew her well, for Patty was also their part-time billing manager. Last month she’d suggested Alex apply for a serving job. Two days ago, she told Michele his application had come up and did he still need a job?
"Yes," Michele answered. “I think Alex is interested. When’s the interview?”
“He’ll work Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for training. When I’m there,” Patty answered.
“No interview?” Michele asked, wondering how desperate they were. No interviews were-
“Naw, he just needs to be quick,” Patty said.
“Okay,” Michele said hoping Alex could be. He worked hard but at his own pace. Still, one never knew if they didn’t try, right? “I’ll tell him.” His first real job, Michele thought. Not that Alex hadn't worked before. He'd done some temporary work at her office. Answering phones, when her boss was out of town. He'd painted the doors behind the building. But this was different. This would be steady work. Michele shook her head and focused on what Patty was saying.
“If I hire Alex, it’s just business, right?”
Michele looked up from the patient's chart she was working on and nodded.
“It’s between you and him,” she’d said and meant it. It was time for Alex to be an adult and deal with things without her. Despite that, she went to Walmart and bought him the black baseball cap Patty wanted him to bring. And the next day Alex wore it along with a black shirt and pants. Alex rode with Michele to her office. As he got out it started to rain, then pour.
"Mom, can I take the car so I don't get wet?"
"Yes, I'll get it when I'm ready to go home. But listen," here Michele tucked a piece of curly hair under Alex's hat. "Be careful pulling out, okay? These idiots on this road speed like-"
"Mom I know."
Michele got out of the car, and Alex came around to the driver's side. As he got in, she called his name.
“What? I’m going to be late!”
Michele smiled. “You got this,” she said. But inside there's a voice that whispers never let someone you know be your kid’s boss. It doesn't always end well.
It’s said some people start a job as an intern or maybe the mail clerk of a large corporation. They do well and rise rapidly in the company. They don’t have sleepless nights worrying about their job performance or fights with their coworkers. Their climb to inevitable retirement and their pension is smooth and easy.
Michele was not that person. And apparently, neither is her son.
Patty was a coward. She said to Michele what she could not to Alex. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the knife was quick, if not painless. There would be no days or weeks of struggling to learn a job only to be fired during the probationary period.
In Alex’s case, it only took a day.
The day after Alex started, Patty came into the office. After discussing what charts needed to be worked on, she said, not looking at Michele, “It’s not going to work out with Alex."
Michele had been afraid this would happen. Aren’t all parents? “Why not?”
“He keeps ignoring people who come into the restaurant.”
This didn’t surprise Michele. Alex didn’t warm up to people quickly. There had been a time he didn’t speak to anyone at all. He wasn’t selectively mute. Michele had had a friend like that in high school. Of course, no one called it that. The girl was just brutally shy, only speaking just above a whisper if she did at all. Alex spoke to people. Still, everyone in Alex's life had been concerned at one time or another. When he was a toddler, he was so withdrawn that her sister-in-law thought he was autistic. Her mother would call him antisocial because he preferred to be alone. In scouts he was like a shadow, quietly standing off to the side. He had a horrible time asking for help or speaking up. Michele always felt it was a terrible ordeal for him.
Maybe ADHD and speech apraxia do that to a person.
Maybe it was his father teasing him. Or it was all just Alex’s personality. None of it mattered though. Michele couldn’t tell Patty any of this. Not that it would’ve mattered as far as the woman was concerned. She continued, while Michele sat in the next room where thankfully a door divided them. She didn’t want Patty to see the expression on her face. She was sure she'd gone pale. Meanwhile, the woman went on as if nothing mattered.
“I told him five times he had to greet everyone,” she said.
Crazily, Michele wondered if Patty had really counted. “He might need practice-”
“The owner came in,” Patty said, “and he turned away from her. She was pissed, Michele.”
Michele leaned back, trying to meet Patty's eye. She was sitting at a side desk and all Michele could see was her profile and ridiculous blue hair. Never mind that Michele had once done her hair purple. Patty's hair was now stupid. “It’s his first day," she said. The first day, no one knows what to do. Everyone is hesitant about speaking up or doing anything. Aren’t allowances made anymore? She was both stunned and wanted to cry.
“We can’t have it,” Patty said. “He’s not to come in Friday.”
“YOU tell him that,” Michele answered, telling herself to breathe.
“This is why I hate hiring people I know,” Patty said.
Michele leaned back again and this time Patty turned her head towards her. “I told you this is business,” she said. “Nothing to do with you and me. But you have to tell Alex.”
“I'll call him today,” Patty said and went back to her computer.
Michele turned back to the computer trying not to cry. Not here. And why did she want to anyway? It wasn’t about her. But in the back of her mind, there was an echo. You’re a failure.
Where did that come from?
As much as she wants, the light won't go off.
Michele pulls on her short hair until it's sticking up all over. She's standing outside a hospital room trying to will up the strength to go in. She knows the patient is waiting for her inside. After all, they pressed the call button, didn’t they? But just getting out of bed took all she had. Michele had thrown up before leaving her apartment. And nearly threw up again in the hospital’s parking lot. She's only inside because she's too stubborn to quit. Now Michele is standing outside the door unable to go in.
You got this, Michele tells herself.
No, I don't. I’m just a student. And I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Or that’s probably what Michele would think if she could at all. She feels like she just smoked a joint or drank half a bottle of wine. It’s like being in that dreamy state where nothing matters. Except this isn’t a pleasant dream. Instead of the sweet smell of pot is the sharp cold smell of antiseptic and Ensure. This feels like a nightmare where the smallest mistake means death. Every little thing matters but she can’t think. And she’s certain everyone is staring at her.
Someone needs the bedpan, bandages changed, a drink of water, or they were bleeding out. Michele doesn’t know and doesn’t want to. She flees back to the nursing station and pretends to chart. Pretends she can see the words in the patient’s chart.
She won't make it through the second year. Eventually, her advisor failed her out of the RN program. They suggest counseling. Michele goes, but can't explain what happened at the hospital. Eventually, she changes majors and hopes for the best.
Michele fought back tears on her way home. She told herself this was stupid, it wasn’t about her, and that this was for Alex to figure out. Not that any of that mattered, but she managed not to cry. She took a deep breath, crossed herself, and went into the house. There was Alex of course, playing his video game on that way too big TV her boss had given her when he bought himself a new one. Who needs a sixty-inch screen anyway? But it was free so she tolerated it. When Alex saw her, he turned, smiled, and said hello. Michele asked about Patty and his smile faded. He turned back to the game. “I’m not going in tomorrow,” he said, which is Friday. “I guess I’ll just go on Saturday.”
“That’s all Patty said?” That bitch. She’s going to make me do it.
“Yeah,” Alex turned from playing Elf Rings to face his mother. “She hung up before I could ask why. Pissed me off, to tell the truth.”
“She said it was because you weren’t greeting people,” Michele said. “She had to tell you like five times.”
Alex rarely raised his voice but there was still annoyance in it. “I need practice, Mom. And I can’t do that if they don’t give me a chance.”
No one gives me a chance to explain.
Michele is packing to go back home and wishing she’d told her boss to fuck off when he fired her. But she didn’t have the strength.
The coworker’s name is Leroy and if he dropped dead Michele would spit on his grave. He made the workplace a living hell. Because back then she wasn't round. She was thin and apparently good-looking. Or Leroy just saw easy prey. In later years Michele would guess it was the latter. He wanted control and to hurt women.
“Why won’t you give me a chance?” he asked her nearly every day.
“Because you’re married. And I have a boyfriend.”
“Who allowed you to leave.”
“I had to go.”
Go to your hometown, they said. It will be interesting they said.
Michele had gone to New Jersey from Florida for this job. It was only supposed to be temporary, a prosthetic internship. A year away while Don, her boyfriend, finished college and she’d be back. And now here she was with a man who was relentless. Leroy came closer to Michele. She moved away until she felt the workbench behind her. The place where they did their fabrication was tiny and jam-packed with every plaster cast Gene the boss had ever made. They were under the workbench, along all the walls, and on shelves above her. The air was heavy with dust and resin. Michele felt claustrophobic like she couldn't move. She would have kicked Leroy's bad leg except this was her second job in six months. Her first boss was impatient with her lack of experience and her hesitancy with patients. She’d only lasted three months there.
Michele couldn’t afford to lose this job.
“Leroy, you’re married,” she said again. “I don’t get involved with-”
“No one needs to know.”
“I would know.” She stared at the short man just inches from her. Leroy wasn’t much taller than her five foot two inches. Even if he’d been drop dead gorgeous, she wouldn’t have wanted him, and he was far from that. His dark face was pinched and lined, as if he’d lived hard. He was of average build but had gone soft in middle age. And he smelled of whatever greasy gel was in his hair. Michele doesn’t know what it is, maybe pomade, but it’s overwhelming.
“I think,” he said, “you need to be nice to me. Rumors get around, you know. We wouldn’t want that to happen.”
Of course, when Michele tried to complain to Gene she’d been let go. And there had been no HR to go to. She supposed she could’ve sued but who would believe her? After all, something must be wrong with her. Sitting in his drab office, she’d said only one thing to him. “This isn’t my fault, you know.” He’d stared at her as if he believed her, then shook his head.
“I just can’t have trouble here,” Gene answered. And Michele had walked out without a word.
Now she packs, not even telling the relatives she’s living with that she’s going. She’s too ashamed. She waits until they’re all out of the house and alone, wrestles her mattress on top of her mom’s old Corolla, loads it up with boxes and leaves a note. I went back home. I’m sorry.
She wonders if this distant cousin she’s spent the last six months with will even care.
Michele was appalled to see Alex was getting dressed on Saturday. She asked him why and he said he was going to work.
“Alex, Patty told me-”
“She didn’t tell me anything.”
“She’s a damned coward, Alex. And that owner is a jerk.” Or you know, maybe you could’ve greeted people. How fucking hard is it to say hello?
Alex starts looking for the bobby pins to hold his hair back. “Patty told me not to come in Friday. She didn’t say anything about not going in on Saturday.”
Damn this woman for not being clear. And damn Alex too. “Text her before you go over there.”
“Goddamn, Alex! Text her!”
Alex stares at her. Michele went on in a rush. “Alex, you can’t ignore people. They’re going to think you’re a snob, that you don’t care.”
“I know that! But I need the practice! If I don’t go how am I going to learn?”
Michele isn’t looking at Alex now. She can’t. “She’s trying to let you down easy. Just...text her.”
Alex grabbed and jabbed at his phone. Thirty seconds went by, then he said, “Patty said, ‘I told you on Friday.’” His face is unreadable. Well, Michele thought, the truth is here now. Words come before she can think.
“I told you, Alex but you didn’t want to listen.”
“You’ve got to get over things yourself, Alex. Ain’t no one going to do it for you. You hear me?” Michele started to pace. “Damn it Alex after one damn day, dammit!”
Alex picked up a pillow from the couch and threw it across the room, startling his mother. “Well, maybe I’m just a dumbass. Patty should’ve told me that and that they didn’t want me!”
Michele froze and they stared at each other. Alex rubbed his eyes hard.
“You’re not a dumbass,” Michele said.
You're just an idiot. First, you drop out of college to look for a job. Now this-But then Michele thought about the work he’d done for her boss. He was meticulous and worked hard. But still, who can't greet people?
Some voice inside her spoke up then. Panic attacks. Those were probably panic attacks you were having at that hospital.
"Look Alex if you're a dumbass I'm one too," she said quietly.
He's standing in the living room but his gaze is on the back door and the yard beyond that. Michele went on.
"My first job after college my boss was an ass, Alex."
He looked over at her.
"You need to improve your social skills," she said.
Michele held up a hand. "But they could've given you longer than one day. Also, I'm never eating there again."
Alex shrugged. "Their food is good though."
"I don't care." Michele got her wallet.
"What are you doing?"
"Let's get out of here," Michele said. "Let's go to the mall or something. Anything is better than moping around here."
Michele watched Alex put on his hat. Not the black baseball cap but the one he wore everywhere. It was a white Panama hat he'd bought in Asheville on a trip. Then he picked up his pink heart sunglasses. Michele wondered what they would've thought if he'd walked into the restaurant with the white hat and smiled.
If nothing else Alex had his own sense of style. Nor did he care what people thought. I look gay? Oh well, he'd say. Maybe I am. Michele was still sad, worried, and scared. Probably Alex was too. But the pink sunglasses gave her hope. Maybe he doesn't have this yet, Michele thought. Just like I didn't. But there's always a second chance.