I've been waiting my whole shift for a lull so I can take Dane aside, but we've been slammed since opening. It's been the kind of day that led to the decision I want to tell him about. He's not going to like it.
Maybe if I thought about it more I'd decide to do this a different way. That's not going to happen, though, and I know it. In a kitchen running at full tilt, you literally can't hear yourself think. Any tender shoot of thought that dares to sprout gets blasted by a pyroclastic flow of noise before it can grow into anything useful. After a while you learn not to even try.
Around five-thirty, there's a brief hesitation in the rush. I glance out into the dining room and see more coats and less menus than usual. By pure chance, the place is turning over almost en masse, and it's the busboys who'll be slammed now. The kitchen has a few minutes to recover. Not long enough for the smoke break I'm dying for, but long enough to clean up and get organized.
It'll have to do.
Dane's fussing with his mise en place. He's incredibly anal about it. Not just what's in it, but where everything is. Like his bowls have to be separated by at least two inches of space, and if he grabs pepper and drops some in the garlic he throws a shitfit and has to get new garlic. Okay, not always, and only a real shitfit if there's time for it to be funny, but it seriously bothers him. He's not even unusual like that. Everyone back here is strung that tight. Except me.
"Oi Frenchie," I say, and kick him in the ankle.
He kicks back without looking and misses. "Oi Russkie."
"Oi. Jap." Since both our names are nationalities, this is the obvious running joke. We don't even try to be clever about it anymore.
"Oi, Limey." He throws a pinch of kosher salt in my direction without looking.
Roderigo on the grill station puts in, "What?"
"Not you, Roddy."
"Well, fuck you then," he says amiably, and goes back to his frantic attempt to scrape down the grill before he has to put something on it.
Dane is still pissing around with his little bowls, and now I know he's doing it on purpose. "Whatchoo want, Yank?"
"Yank doesn't count. We are Yanks."
"You are. I'm a fucking Viking."
I reach out and put my hand over the shallots as he reaches for them. He dodges by grabbing a cut of meat out of the lowboy and starting to mince it.
"Check this out," he says. "Ryan slipped me some tongue."
"Yeah, but it's not his so it doesn't count." I sigh exasperation. "Dane. Seriously."
He finally looks up, a little scared, a little angry at me for making him show it. He doesn't like 'seriously'. "Scott. What."
His face is red in the heat. By this point in the shift, we are all tomato-human hybrids. But even like this, with his blond hair sweat-clumped in the back where his hat doesn't cover and the pits of his white jacket soaked through, he's cute. His blue eyes are guarded, though.
A sneaky little chickenshit impulse in the back of my head is telling me he doesn't have to know. I can just vanish. Then I won't have to see his reaction.
I refuse to listen to my inner whiner.
"I gave my notice last night. I'm quitting."
The hurt in his eyes is tiny and quick, and he slams it out of the way with a snort that's for his own benefit, not mine. He turns back to mincing calf tongue. "Your delivery needs work, dude. You gotta tell me what my line is if you're gonna get your punchline out."
"No. Dane. I got a job at the glassworks. I'm seriously quitting."
His knife winds down like a clock. He doesn't look up. "So you're --" His voice dries out, and he gives a little grunt to get it started again. "Going from the frying pan to the fire pretty much literally."
"Yeah." The word is a weak laugh.
There's a pause. Would be an awkward silence if there was any silence around here ever. I watch him gather himself together, twitch by twitch, knife accelerating back to its proper speed, face assembling a joking expression out of the remains of his hurt.
"You got balls telling me this while I'm holding a knife."
"You wouldn't stab me, man. You love me."
"Not until you shower, dude, you got sweat all up in your crack, I seen you picking wedgies over there."
"I never pick wedgies on station."
"I seen you."
"Nuh-uh, I am decorum itself. My ass smells like daisies."
"Dane? Scott?" Ryan the Chef's voice cuts through the noise like wintry alley-door wind through dishwasher steam.
We both snap to slightly guilty attention. Ryan's got a clipboard in his hand, and for a second I have a blind hope he's going to tell us to inventory the cooler or something. Everybody is supposed to hate that, but being in that dark little room with Dane, especially right now...
But no, he just gives us that look he has when he knows he should be chewing us out but he's not really mad. "Your gay, gay antics only entertain when performed at very high speed."
We get the message. "Yes, Chef!" we yelp in unison. I book it back to my station.
A moment later, Dane gives a cry of outrage. "Who fucking touched my meez? Scott!"
I turn and show him an innocent smile, sucking the last specks of crumbled bacon off my fingers. Then I duck. The shaker of superfine salt he whips at me goes over my shoulder and lands with a splash in the dish sink.
"Sonofabitch!" Gilberto the dishwasher fishes it out and holds it up between thumb and forefinger like it's a baggie of dog turds. "Next time, cabrón, I throw it back, I don't care if you got five steaks in front of you, I'll fucking do it!"
"Sorry, Gil," Dane sings sweetly. "It won't happen again."
And then he shoots me a half-second look of utter betrayal. It won't happen again because I won't be here. I know, Dane, I know. If anything could make me stay, I'd stay for you. But nothing can.
Then the printer starts chattering, and Deena the expediteur starts hollering, and my thought is razed off flat. There's no room in my head for anything but four petits filets, two med rare, one med, one med well, one glazed duck breast, one roast lamb well. And what kind of philistine orders roast lamb well done, and "Goddamn it Rosa, haricots, not artichokes!"
"Apricots?" Rosa tosses back with a big grin.
"Astronauts?" Roddy echoes.
"Hugenots!" Dane declares.
"Coconuts," I say, but my heart's not in it.
We run our mouths while we run the kitchen. Nothing is actually said.
"This is Scott," the chef announces to the room in general, and I do my best to look alert and trustworthy. Nobody looks at me, though. A few absent greetings are hollered. I expect that the next step will be introductions, that the chef will tell me everyone's name, that I will have to remember them. But he just gives me a hard pat-shove in the direction of the dish machine and walks away.
Okay, no problem. I can do this. I ran the dish machine in the college caf for almost a year, and this one looks substantially the same. Smaller, newer, but still basically a stainless steel box with a lever on it, a big sink, a sprayer hose hanging overhead on a springy lanyard. There are no dishes to wash, though. Do I wait? Do I go looking? Do I --
Suddenly I'm yanked aside, and a stack of sauté pans hurtles past me to clang into the sink, where they sizzle menacingly. I freeze like a rabbit. Were they aiming for my back?
"Dude, when somebody yells 'pans', you gotta move," says the guy who pulled me out of the way. "Cuz shit is incoming and they are not looking at you, okay?"
He's sweaty and red-faced and there's a smear of something green down the front of his apron, but his eyes are sweet coral-reef blue and there's friendship in his smile. I smile back as much as I can manage. "Thanks," I say. "Scott." I offer a hand.
"Dane," he says, and doesn't shake. I feel dim as I realize his hands are full of a knife and some kind of weird fruit. "Dude, we're both named after nationalities."
"So we are. Have your parents explained why? Because mine don't seem to know."
"Cuz I'm a fucking Viking, dude. Go wash that shit before Ryan catches you slacking." He kicks me in the ankle, but his eyes are twinkling at me like manic stars, and I'm hooked.
I haul down the sprayer and dive in. I am going to belong here. I'm going to make it happen.
No matter how early I come in, Dane's already busy. He's the sous-chef, his hours are at least as long as Ryan's, he's got more work than anyone can actually do. I know this. But I keep hoping he'll make time for me. All that happens is I get my prep done well in advance and still have time for a smoke break.
The fourth day of this, I'm sitting in front of the door when Ryan comes to unlock it, and he gives me a Look. He points sternly down the street. "Go to the deli, get yourself a coffee and a newspaper, don't come in until your shift."
I go. There is a limit to how high-school I am willing to act even under these circumstances.
That night, at closing, I'm desperate enough to knock on the office door. I know Dane's in there, I saw him go in. But it's Ryan's voice who calls for me to come in.
Dane's sitting across the desk from Ryan. Both of them have notebooks and calculators. They're figuring out orders. Ryan has a computer, and there's even a special program to do cost-per-unit and keep track of inventory, but he still uses pencil and paper as a first step, and Dane is learning to do it the hard way. Dane likes the hard way.
"Dane, do you have a minute?" I ask, without much hope.
"We're kind of in the middle of something," Dane says coldly.
Ryan grunts annoyance. "Don't you have each other's phone numbers? I'm getting tired of this. Work it out on your own time."
"Sorry," I mutter, turning to go.
"Oh, Scott," Ryan calls in a just-remembered-something tone. I pause, glancing back. He says, "Can you come in tomorrow? I want you to start training Roddy while it's slow."
So he's bumping Roddy up to replace me. Good. Roddy can handle it. "Yeah, Chef. I can do that." It'll be the last time. Factory jobs don't make you come in on your day off.
No one has anything more to say, so I leave. I can't hang around waiting for Dane to get done. The bus stops running out to my part of town at one. Dane knows that. He knows I won't call him. I know he never answers his phone unless the call is coming from the restaurant.
This is so much worse than I thought it would be.
It's just like a family. It's better than a family. After we work together, we go out and party together. And man, these guys can party. These guys make the party animals in my old dorm look like fourth graders in paper hats. They do this every Saturday night, because Sunday is late opening. At first I felt like some tag-along little brother. Then I blinked and a year had passed. I blinked and I'm on the fry station and Dane is my best friend and we do this every Saturday night.
We've hit three bars in two hours, and we seem to be out on the sidewalk yet again. I'm so tanked, I don't even care where we're going next. Dane has been making it his personal mission to grab my elbow whenever I wobble, and now he's just steering me around by it like I'm a shopping cart.
"You are totally a fucking Viking," I tell him solemnly. I think he will like to hear this.
"No shit, I pillage and everything. And you..." He slows down to study me, so I slow down too, so everyone starts leaving us behind but who cares? Dane is tall and has big hands and I want to suck on his lower lip like a goddamn pacifier. I start to sway in toward him, but he puts his hand on my chest to steady me and that keeps me back.
"You are a secret spy agent," he concludes at last. "You're morose and floppy and look like an emo wanker but it's just a disguise. To lull people into complacency and then BAM."
"What, I'm a fryer spy?" I've got a crooked grin on now, disbelief at his lameness. "That's retarded, Dane. You suck." And then I push forward against his steadying hand and kiss him.
By the time we catch up with the rest of the crew, we're so tousled and untucked it's completely obvious what happened. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that everyone's too drunk to notice.
It's business as usual in the kitchen. We joke around like normal, we get the work done like normal. Everybody knows by now that I'm leaving, and Rosa even called me a stinkin' traitor, but I'm pretty sure they're not actually mad. People move on. At least I gave notice and am training in my replacement.
Not that Roddy takes a lot of training. He's been grillardin as long as I've been saucier, and he's been watching me. I wonder if he knew I wouldn't stick.
I wonder how Dane didn't know.
The last of lunch is winding down, and it looks like we'll have a proper lull before dinner. The new dishwasher is chugging away like a machine. She looks happy in her soapy little corner. Good, Ryan hates the sullen ones. My dinner prep's done, my station's clean, it's one of those moments that used to make me think I liked it here.
I walk by Dane. "Oi, Chinaman. Smoke break."
"I quit smoking," he says quietly without looking at me.
"The hell you did. Come on."
I slam my hand down on his board, suddenly furious. "Goddammit, Dane," I growl under my breath, "stop being such a pussy. We have to talk."
"No," he murmurs, "you want to talk. And I don't. So fuck off."
I'm shaking as I walk away. I don't cry. I don't punch the vent hood. I just walk out the door.
Gil's out there already, leaning on the alley wall, puffing away. I lean opposite him. It takes great concentration not to drop my cigarette on its way from the pack to my mouth. Gil has a not-unsympathetic laugh for my trembling hands and stunned face.
"Holy shit, dude, you finally tell him?"
"Tell him what?" I say wearily.
"That you're gay for him. Cuz like, everybody knows, okay?"
I sigh. "Gil, I doubt that news would surprise him, since we've been screwing for almost a year."
"Oh." He doesn't know what to make of that. "So how come you're all like..."
"Fuck, I dunno. He's mad I'm quitting. He's being a girl about it."
"Like you're not."
"No. I'm not."
We smoke in silence for a minute or two. Gil's look is benevolent; my departure bumps him up the ladder, he's got no cause to grumble.
"So how come you're leaving?"
"I start at Bailey Glass next week. Health insurance. Weekends off. Paid overtime. I never wanted to be a chef. This was always just a job."
"Yeah, man, same here. Dane, though, he got a dream."
Prep bins rattle as he hammers into me. I've got my legs around his waist, my arms around his neck, my tongue in his mouth, my heart on my sleeve. There's an ice-cold metal shelf digging into my back and I don't care.
"Scott. God." He gasps into my mouth, kisses me desperately, drops his head to groan against my neck.
Under my clutching hands, I can feel the heat of his shoulders through his thin white t-shirt, I can feel his muscles tensing, feel the flexing of his spine. He feels huge inside me. He feels like part of me.
"Touch yourself," he begs hoarsely.
I do, for him, but I don't need it. I feel like I could come just from his voice. I know he's close, I know he wants to feel me tighten around him, and oh fuck this is so hot, he's so hot, we're both babbling nonsense and making stupid noises and I'm right on the edge --
"ohgod Scott loveyou ohgod"
I throw back my head as I come, arching into him, and it's so good I think I might've blacked out for a second.
Prying ourselves off each other is a little tricky, since we're both jelly-legged and this isn't the kind of place you want to just collapse on the floor. We lean on each other and kiss and laugh weakly while we do up our pants. After some wicked consideration, Dane deposits the knotted condom in a bin of pickles. I hope I'm around when someone finds it.
"Oh man," I snicker, "your shirt's fucked."
He looks down at the mess on his t-shirt. He reaches up behind him and pulls it off forward so it doesn't have to go over his face. Grinning, he puts his jacket back on over his bare chest.
Then his grin fades into puzzlement. He leans sideways to see around me. He takes my shoulder and turns me slightly. Touches the back of my head. Shows me fingers daubed with blood. I glance behind me and see a thin red shine on the edge of a stainless steel bin of butter. Fat dark drops on the shelf. And we start laughing out loud, because we both realize at the same moment that we have the opportunity to create a legend.
The story would be told in this restaurant long after we're gone: 'These gay dudes were fucking in the cooler and the one guy cut his head open on a bin and they just kept going. Blood everywhere, man. Those dudes were crazy.'
Dane gives me a towel for my head. I can feel the ache now. It isn't much. I look at our potential legend and sigh through a grin.
"Nah," I say, "let's clean it up. That's ten pounds of butter in there. Ryan would cry if he had to throw out ten pounds of butter."
"Scott?" Ryan beckons me off the line. He takes me into the little hallway between the kitchen and the butcher area. "Looks like Roddy's fine on his own now. What do you think?"
I've still got three days before my new job starts, but I know where this is heading. The margins are razor-thin in the restaurant business. Paying someone you don't need isn't a good idea. At least he has the decency to talk to me about it. I could use the money, but I won't lie to get it.
"Yeah. He's got it down. He hesitates a bit sometimes over which orders are his, but that'll smooth out, he just has to retrain his instincts."
"Okay. I don't want to cheat you, Scott, but having you come in and do nothing..."
I understand. I almost say I understand. But the words stick on something hard in my soul, and I decide to be a bastard. Because it's important. Because I'm selfish. Because Dane's a fucking moron.
"Tell you what," I say. "You get Dane to have a five minute private conversation with me, and then I'll go."
Ryan looks shocked. Then angry. "Are you seriously bringing your personal drama into my kitchen? Are you seriously fucking doing that?"
"I was thinking the office."
He tries to stare me down.
It doesn't work.
He snorts and looks away. "If you guys have sex in my office I'll carve you like a roast. And fire Dane."
"Dane! Can I see you in my office please!"
Dane sees it coming. When I follow them down the stairs, he begins to say something indignant. Ryan gives him a glare that shuts him up. He looks hurt. Probably feels like the boss is betraying him.
"Five minutes," Ryan says, and shuts us in the office.
I know Ryan. He'll give us twenty.
"You're an asshole, Scott," Dane says.
I put my back against the door so he can't run. He could shift me if he tried hard, but it'd be a battle. He outweighs me, but I'm wiry. I start to cross my arms, then realize that's the kind of confrontational body language that will get us nowhere. I put my hands in my pockets instead.
Dane is just staring at me. His heat-flush is fading in the cool basement office, leaving his face blotchy like he's been crying. His red-rimmed eyes complete the illusion. He must be smoking a lot of pot these days to have eyes that red. You'd think he'd be mellower.
I clear my throat. I swallow. Still the words don't want to come. They're too naked. I have to force them, and they come out funny. "Dane, I'm leaving the restaurant, not you. Why --"
"Bullshit," he snaps. "We only ever see each other at work."
"We could change that!"
"Yeah? How? I practically fucking live here!"
"You have days off."
"Like maybe two a month! And I know what you're gonna say next, skip Saturday night, but getting hosed with the crew is like a, like a fucking team-building exercise, okay? I need that time with them! Especially now Ryan has me running the kitchen most nights, I can't be aloof, things would fall apart! You know that!" His eyes have an ominous shine in them by the end.
"I know." God, don't cry, I'll cry too and it'll be a big stupid mess. "But Dane, that's why I have to go. Everybody's so fucking high-strung. I love these guys, but come on. It's like a cross between backstage at a fashion show and the A-Team on meth. I can't take it anymore."
"I thought you felt it, man. How we're a family. You told me once you felt like you belonged."
"I used to feel it. I have a lot of good memories. Especially of times with you. But I'm burnt the fuck out, Dane. I'm always tired, I'm never clean, something always hurts, I can never finish a thought, we're always talking but no one says anything. This is the kind of shit you can only take if you love the work, if you have a dream, and I don't."
"It's all I want to do," Dane says softly.
"You're good at it. Really, really good. I'm not. I never will be."
"We were going to get our own restaurant." There goes the first tear. The first crack in his voice. Oh hell. "You and me. We were gonna be on the cover of all those stupid foodie magazines. Write cookbooks and shit. It was gonna be so awesome. Yeah, I know," he sniffs, and rubs the heel of his hand angrily into his eye, like his tears are hot embers he has to grind out. "I should've checked with you before like... marrying you in my head."
My chest hurts like I'm having a heart attack. I don't even bother wiping my eyes. My sleeve is dirty anyway. "You're going to get your own restaurant. I'm going to work a job with normal hours and no weekends so I can go back to school. Finish my degree. And. Somewhere in there. We could -- Dane, if you want it enough -- God, do you realize we haven't even dated? Don't you even want to try that?"
The look he gives me is so hopeless, I'd laugh at the melodrama if I weren't giving him the same look right back. He says, "I love you, Scott. But I'm not giving up my dream for you, and I can't have you and the dream both." He takes a deep breath, enunciates clearly, like a drunk: "At this stage in my career, this restaurant is my world. Do you understand? You are leaving my world."
"I... oh fuck." And that's a sob right there, damn me. Why'd he have to go and say he loves me? "You know my number," I beg. "You know where I live."
He just shakes his head slowly.
So I yank the door open and stumble away.
Ryan is sitting on the stairs. I babble out something as I try to give him my white jacket, which he won't take. Something about thanks for all he's taught me and I hope he knows just how dedicated his sous-chef is and maybe I'll see everyone around sometime. I don't know what he says back.
I go out the delivery door so I won't have to face the kitchen. It feels like it should be night, but it's still mid-afternoon. I feel like I'm floating on a morphine cloud above some mortal injury. There's no pain now, just this distant, horrified awe. And I know perfectly well how immature I am to take it so hard. I know it's not that big a deal. You don't have dissociative episodes over a breakup, for crying out loud, especially when you weren't even dating. But God. It feels like somebody fucking died.
He said he loves me. But he won't date me because he's too busy. Yeah, nobody I tell will remotely get it. Not that I have anyone to tell. I left all my friends in that kitchen.
I swing by the liquor store on the way home and buy a whole lot of something very cheap. The plan is to get rolling drunk. Late into the night, listening to breakup songs and crying my eyes out. Maybe write some terrible poetry. Get it out somehow.
Instead, after two coffee mugs of box wine, I fall asleep with the lights on. I sleep for twenty-four hours. I don't dream.
It's been a hell of a night. We need a smoke just to go back in and face the cleanup. I think a cigarette would've been enough for me, but Dane doesn't want to smoke a whole joint by himself, so I help him finish it off. My ears are ringing. I wonder if the tintinitis will eventually become permanent.
Dane's knuckles bump gently against mine. He turns his hand over. We lace our fingers together. We stand there like that in the cold alley, quiet, until someone calls us back in.
My first day at the glass factory, I fully expect to be thrown in at the deep end. I'm braced for it. Instead, there's a lot of paperwork and then a two-hour safety briefing. Then I get to try on protective gear and sign for it, and there's another briefing on company supplies and how to sign for them. Then I'm taken to meet my supervisor, and he introduces me around. People shake hands. I'm kind of in shock. Half the day gone and my shirt is still clean.
After that, I get to do some work. The ground-floor, entry-level, clueless-newbie job is shoveling scrap glass into a furnace. It's hotter than the kitchen, but I have gloves and a face shield, so I actually get burned less. It's louder than the kitchen, but I have ear protection -- mandatory ear protection -- and I don't have to listen for people shouting things at me. When my supervisor wants me to know something, he steps into my field of view and waves.
It's boring. It's predictable. It's like a goddamn vacation.
I know I won't really fit in here. This is a bastion of old-fashioned American social values, and I don't do that closet thing. Sometimes I plan how to let people know, just to get it over with, and what to do if it gets ugly. I can do that: make plans, think things through. The clang and roar around me demands nothing from my mind.
I get to know people's names, have little conversations with them over lunch. I love lunch. It happens at lunchtime. I don't have to wait for a lull to cram something in my mouth. There's a buzzer that goes off and everyone downs tools and goes to the lunchroom and eats. It's like magic.
The guys are amazed at what I bring in my lunches. "I used to work in a restaurant," I explain every time someone points it out.
"You wanna make my lunch?" someone always asks.
"I used to work in a restaurant," I answer, and it always gets a laugh.
I keep my mouth shut when they talk about their relationships. It's not so much the flood of heterosexuality that shuts me up, it's more the clean and sincere tone of it. The women who work in the glass factory do not strive to fit in by being filthier than the men. There's raunchiness and inuendo up to a point, but that point is inviolate, and I don't really have a handle on it yet.
Then one day my supervisor Tom turns to me and says, "You're real quiet. You got a girl, Scott?"
Well, here we go. Don't make a big deal out of it and maybe they won't either. "Nah. I had a boyfriend at my last job but we broke up when I quit. We only ever saw each other at work."
There's a silence. Awkward, not hostile, so that's maybe a good sign.
Ginnie the forklift driver pats me on my arm. "That's a shame," she says, and I think she means it. "I have a nephew you should meet. You'd like him. He's a vet at the zoo."
I laugh a little just from the relief. "I don't have time to date. I'm working on my degree."
The others are starting to thaw. Tom says, "Yeah? What kinda degree?"
"Master's in education. I want to teach high school science."
"So you're gonna be leaving us, huh?"
"Not for a long while. I've barely started. Anyway, I like it here."
Ginnie pats my arm again. "I think you'll be a good teacher."
In the days after that, I wait for people to treat me differently, but it never happens. I go on being the quiet guy. They go on being okay with it. Ginnie periodically reminds me about her nephew. I actually do think about it; a vet at the zoo sounds like an interesting person. But I know I'm not going to meet the guy. I tell myself I'm too busy to be lonely.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Maybe this is the place, maybe this is where I belong. But after work I go to class, and that reminds me that the glassworks isn't my destination either. It could be that someday I'll settle into some school somewhere and that'll be home. There are no guarantees. Home is not an inalienable right.
Sometimes the sullen teenager in my head tells me the only place I ever really belonged was in Dane's arms. That's song lyric bullshit, though. I miss him, that's all.
"We were going to get our own restaurant," Dane croaks, tears rolling down his heat-blotched cheeks. "Yeah, I know, I should've checked with you before marrying you in my head."
For a moment I need to be part of his dream. For a moment I'm willing to do whatever it takes. Then I imagine another year, another fucking day in this bolgia of chaos they call a restaurant, and my heart breaks, because I can't do it. And he's right. I can't have Dane without the kitchen.
Ringing yanks me out of a dream, and at first I'm not sure what's real. I'm still half asleep when I open the phone. "Don't eat that," I inform my caller. "It only looks like cheese."
Several seconds of muffled music and conversation; bar noise. Then an incredulous laugh I know like an old favorite song. "Dude, are you talking in your sleep?"
I sit up, rubbing my eyes. They itch like hell. "I'm awake now. Uh. Hi, Dane. What the hell time is it?" Clue is trickling into me grain by grain. "Never mind. Doesn't matter. I'm just glad to hear from you."
I am, too, I realize, and not in a dumped-and-desperate way. He was my best friend. I'm not even going to yell at him for waiting four months to call me.
"It's like one-thirty. Sorry. And I'm extremely wasted. Sorry also for that. Had to screw up my courage, you know the drill."
"I'm honored to be at the top of your drunk-dialling list," I grin. "I am at the top, right? Hint: the correct answer is yes."
"No way, man, I just got off the phone with my mom."
I laugh. "You asshole. So what's up?"
"Well, I uh..." He gulps. He doesn't go on.
I try to finish the sentence in my head, while my heart starts speeding up. I can't live without you. Too corny. I was wondering if you wanted to come out drinking with us. He's gotta know the answer's no; even if the bus was still running, by the time I got there they'd all have passed out. I was thinking about all the fun we used to have and I think we should get together this weekend. Please, please, please.
"I got my own restaurant," he says.
"What." It's not so much a word as a strangled noise. That, I was not expecting to hear. "What the fuck. How?"
He launches into a rambling, drunken explanation, repeating himself on minor details and leaving out basic information, but eventually I get the gist. The owner of our old restaurant bought a cute little bistro as a pet project for his wife. His wife hired a real artiste of a chef, who proceeded to run the place into the ground. Now that the fun is gone, they would like to see if it can actually be made to turn a profit.
"And Ryan handed it to me," he concludes. He sounds baffled. "So uh... I am an actual chef now."
"Dude." This does not fully express my happiness for him. "Dude." Still inadequate. "Holy shit, Dane. That's awesome."
"It's not gonna make me famous or anything," Dane cautions. "Trying to cook like a famous guy is where the other chef fucked up. It's just a little neighborhood bistro. But you know, if I can pull it out of the nosedive..."
"It'll look great on your resumé, that's for sure."
"No doubt, man. And besides. Uh." A long pause.
I resist the urge to interrupt. He'll get there. He's not as drunk as he thinks he is.
Finally the rest of it comes out. "We do eighty covers a night, tops. It's like... relaxed. And my sous-chef knows her shit. And the neighborhood... they pretty much roll up the streets at ten. I am so rested."
Is he saying what I think he's saying? God I hope he's saying it. I'm not over him. Not even a little bit. He's not going to know that unless I tell him, is he? "I have class after work on weekdays," I say, "but my weekends are wide open."
"Got a pen?"
I fell asleep with my school crap all over my bed again. I laugh. "I am made of pens. Fire away."
As soon as I get off the bus, I know why an artistic chef was a bad idea. There are three high-rise retirement communities on one side of the street, and a park full of swing sets on the other. As I walk toward the address he gave me, I pass a lot of quaint little storefronts. Gift shops, antique shops, picture framing places, art galleries. Dry cleaning. Alterations and tailoring. Poor Dane, he's going to be chewing his own arms off, cooking for people who are tired from shopping and just want to eat. There are going to be children in his dining room.
The bistro is even smaller than he led me to expect, squeezed in between a self-consciously quirky clothing store and a florist. It's the classic item. Awning with the name on it, brass on the door, red-and-white check tablecloths. Though it's one o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the place is only half full. Women with shopping bags, a few business types of the more casual variety. No children small enough to screech, thank God.
I see a lot of smiles, though. People look relaxed. I like that.
There's no dedicated host. A waitress leads me toward a table by the kitchen door. Before I can sit, Dane comes out of the kitchen. He's... oh shit. He's so gorgeous. I've never seen him so gorgeous. He's not overheated. He's not tired. His hair is clean. His skin glows, his eyes are full of self-directed amusement, and I want to throw myself at him and hang on and laugh like he's an airlift out of Hell.
Instead I hang my jacket on my chair and grin at him. "Oi, Kraut. Looking good."
"Oi, Irish -- Jesus, you're buff! How'd you get so buff in just --"
"Four months." I shrug modestly. Yeah, I put on twenty pounds of muscle. Yeah, I'm a god. But I'm not going to preen. "I've been shoveling cullet."
We sit down. We still haven't touched, not even to shake hands. He says, "What the hell's cullet? Sounds like a type of shellfish."
"It's scrap glass. I shovel it into a furnace all day, wherein it melts. It's very relaxing. And they make me wear safety gear, which let me tell you, you need it. If I don't get all my hair under my hat it burns right off." I show him my forearms, where the line between glove cuff and sleeve is visible as a bald patch.
He reaches out to rub his fingers across it, and we both shiver. Our eyes meet. He pulls his hand away, swallowing like his mouth is dry.
"This is a nice place." I'm trying not to sound as awkward as I feel. "I see what you mean about the neighborhood, though. You can't get too clever in a neighborhood like this."
"The old chef had no clue, man." He's rallying by the moment, I can see it. "Not only did he get way too nouveau, he played menu bait-and-switch."
"You order a tuna melt? You get tuna seviche on a sesame millet cracker, a squiggle of asiago mayo on the plate, and a few threads of warm crucolo. Oh, and one string of caramelized onion, carefully curled into a spiral. I am not making this up," he adds in the face of my mirth.
"Oh my God," I laugh.
"It kept getting sent back. 'This is sushi! I didn't order sushi!'"
"Oh my God. Who is this idiot?"
He names the idiot. We laugh harder.
As we wind down, he reaches across the table to flick open my menu. He points: 'Tuna Melt'.
"Let me guess," I say. "Normal tuna melt, best ingredients."
"In-house baker. Local artisan mozzarella. I do garlic mayo, but don't judge me, it's lighter than you think."
"Feed me, Dane. Feed me right in my face."
He blushes as he laughs. He stands up. "Get the stuffed mushroom appetizer, my sous will love me for reccommending it, it's her baby." He disappears into the kitchen.
I get the stuffed mushroom appetizer. While I eat it, I think about what he would've had to tell his staff about me, if his sous will love him for making me try it. It's pretty damn good, actually.
So is the tuna melt. I've never had tuna salad where the tuna was grilled before flaking. The crunchy jicama is a nice touch; just close enough to the traditional celery not to scare anyone, but so clean and bright. And the freshly made potato chips with kosher salt are amazing.
When he rejoins me, he's out of uniform. He's wearing a soft blue sweater with a stretched-out neck. That glimpse of collarbone makes me shift in my seat.
He reaches over and picks a crumb of potato chip off my otherwise empty plate. "Praise me," he commands, then pops his fingers in his mouth.
"That. That was. They serve that in the truck stops in Heaven."
Dane beams. It's not put on for humor, either. He really looks perfectly happy. "Mission accomplished," he sighs.
Marry me. No, Scott, you can't say that. Take me home and fuck me. Home's too far away. Do you have a walk-in cooler? Stop that. Let's go on a date. "Let's go on a date."
He blinks, startled. Then he laughs. "I thought this was a date."
"Dane, you were in the kitchen. I ate alone. Let's go see a movie. Or. I dunno. Get a drink. Walk in the park. Something. Let me see you outside in daylight." I reach across the table, wondering if he'll let me take his hand. Here, in his workplace, in front of his customers.
He turns his hand over and laces his fingers with mine. His eyes are suspiciously shiny. "Let me get my coat."
~ end ~