My cousin Ariel comes over after we close the restaurant to talk shit. It’s just the guys in the kitchen, one of the waitresses, my dad and me half-listening. Ariel's holding a V8 can full of Hennessey and smells like he just smoked a blunt. He’s wearing those aviator shades, the fake Gucci ones with the rhinestones, even though it’s past midnight.
“I just came from a domino game." Ariel sips from his can. "There were bottles of Brugal, Patron, Grey Goose, even real Presidentes straight from DR, not that water they sell here.”
Vlady, the chef, bangs a saucepan against the kitchen sink. “What the hell do you know about Presidentes? You were born here.”
“Presidente was started by an American, you know.” Miguel winks at me as he carries the steel containers crusted with the last of that night’s kidney beans into the kitchen. He knows it turns me on when he spouts random information. For a second, it gives me the illusion that we’re on the same intellectual level.
Ariel waits for Vlady to turn his back before flipping him off. “So I’m filling my plate up in the kitchen and I see this girl...”
Juan, the dishwasher, whistles the way he does when any woman has the misfortune of walking past him. Ariel tips his V8 can at Juan in salute. Sometimes I make out with Juan in the storage room. He doesn’t smell like food at the end of the day like Miguel does. He smells of cologne, not the Calvin Klein or Hugo Boss the guys I’m used to dating wear, more like the imitation ones by the register at discount stores.
Ariel sips. “Real cute chick. Long black hair and curves like a guitar. Like Marleny.” He lifts his shades to wink at our waitress who blushes brighter than the pink dishtowel she’s using to wipe down a table. She holds down a corner of the table so it doesn’t wobble and the scent of Mistolin drifts through the place, at odds with the stench of rotting food from the garbage bag Juan hauls through the dining room to the sidewalk. I shake my head at Marleny, my face deadpan to say, don’t fall for that shit. She shrugs.
Ariel burrows his elbow into the nicked armrest of his chair. “I don’t know who this chick is though. She looks familiar, but she could be someone’s girlfriend or something so I chill. I just wanna eat, drink, win a few hands and bounce, you know? Last thing I need is a fight over some girl.”
“Last thing you need is to get your ass beat. Remember last Christmas?” Besides being our chef, Vlady is also my brother’s best friend since grade school. Until they graduated high school and my brother ran from the restaurant and the metastatic breast cancer that took our mom, into the army. We inherited Vlady.
My brother is stationed as far away from New York as he can be—Anchorage, Alaska—and he comes home once a year, for a week, in between deployments. The first day he’s home, we’re hugging and grinning like idiots. By the middle of the week, we’ve hit a few happy hours with friends from the neighborhood and laughed at all the old stories. How he used to dutch oven me while we watched movies on the floor in the living room. How he’d do diving double axe handles on Vlady, like he was Macho Man Randy Savage, off the top bunk of our bed and I pretended to be Miss Elizabeth. By the end of his stay though, my brother is yelling that we can’t have a drink without me crying and blathering about him not being around. At the airport, he hugs me too tight and says real low into my hair, “you know you can call me, right?” I never do.
“What happened last Christmas?” Juan stands closer to me than necessary.
“Ariel got stomped on the block for getting fresh with someone’s girlfriend. His eye was like a plum.”
My dad’s gaze is on me before I can step away from Juan and busy myself restocking take-out trays. From behind the bar where he’s drying beer glasses, my dad says, “Every man should get punched in the face at least once in his life. Builds character. You ever been punched in the face, Juan?”
I slip out for a cigarette, Juan’s laugh fading behind me. Halfway through my Newport, my dad lumbers out. I let the cigarette drop from my hand and inch my foot over to put it out.
“You know how unattractive women look when they smoke?” He swats my protests into the night air. “We need to talk.” He glances toward the restaurant door.
My stomach plummets. Juan. Just that morning, I shoved his hands out of my jeans and told him to stop being stupid when he said I should leave my “boyfriend Miguel” for him. I bet he let something slip to Ariel. Those two spend Friday nights on the stoop of the building next to us, snickering and then getting quiet if I walk over and say what’s up. Ariel would never say anything though. Three years ago, I caught him right on the corner of 103rd with a blunt. He was thirteen. I slapped it out of his hand and yelled at him, but I never told. Maybe Vlady saw something. In high school, that asshole told my dad I snuck my boyfriend in the house after school. My dad broke my beeper on my head that night, but I didn’t cry until he said he was ashamed to call me his daughter.
“I went to the doctor last week.” My dad wipes his glasses with the hem of his green button down shirt. “They found cataracts.”
“Okay…they can operate and…”
“And I’m up from pills to insulin. I’m almost sixty, Karin. I’m tired. Maybe I have another ten years in me, if I’m lucky.”
“Ay, here you go. Why do you always have to talk like that?
He shrugs. “I was thinking. You’re not really doing anything right now…”
“I’m doing plenty of things. Plenty.” It’s true. I am.
“Your brother already made his life. Why don’t you make yours?” He points his bearded chin towards the restaurant. He calls my brother’s absence “making his life” but making my life means sticking around.
“Here? Oh hell no. I can’t anyway, I got a call…”
“Karin, if you don’t take over, I’m selling and retiring to Santo Domingo.”
Miguel goes to the check cash every Friday to wire money to his mother. Juan crossed the Rio Grande just months before walking into the restaurant one day and asking if there was work. Vlady's two kids are my brother's godchildren. Marleny just started an ESL class, now that she has a steady work schedule.
“That’s not fair.”
My dad walks away toward his SUV and tosses me the keys to close. “Think about it. Not even thirty and you’d have your own business.”
I don’t tell my dad that I got a job offer that morning. Instead, I smoke another cigarette before heading inside.
“Yo, she had these dynamite lips. Real juicy. You know what that’s good for, right?” Ariel asks the guys in the kitchen.
Juan jerks a fist in the air towards his mouth and pushes his tongue against his cheek, pantomiming a blow job, and they all crack up. Miguel shakes his head, says something unintelligible and slaps the back of Juan’s neck. Juan calls him a puto, rubs the back of his neck, and burns holes into Miguel with his eyes. My temples start throbbing.
Listening to Ariel, Marleny’s eyes are as big as a child’s hearing a curse word for the first time. I can’t understand why temptation is all over her face. Don’t get me wrong, Ariel’s handsome. He keeps his hair cut and his goatee lined up, even if he’s gotta spend the last twenty bucks in his pocket. He also has a habit of doing push-ups whenever he’s too broke to go out so he’s carved out a solid build for himself, nothing exaggerated, but you’d be impressed when he asked you to feel his bicep—which was all the time.
“So, I go to the kitchen to pretend to get another plate…” Ariel continues.
Marleny empties out the pockets of her green apron. “I’ve seen you eat. I’m sure you weren’t pretending.”
“That’s only because I like to watch you serve, mami.” Ariel winks. “So you know what she says to me?” He shoots a two-pointer with the V8 can into a trash bin.
“That you’re the man of her dreams,” Marleny says on her way to the ladies’ room.
“That you’re the man of the night.” Juan wiggles his thick eyebrows.
“Wrong.” Ariel points at Juan. “She asks me if I’m still hungry. But the way she says it, she’s not talking about food.”
I walk past the guys, into the kitchen and grab a beer out of the pack we all chipped in for. It’s nobody’s first round; we’d all started drinking an hour before closing—everyone except Marleny—sneaking sips from takeout coffee cups.
Vlady catches the fridge door before it swings shut. He opens a beer and takes a long swig before picking up a clipboard and retrieving the pen behind his ear.
“So what was that about?” He doesn’t lift his eyes from his checklist.
“That always means something. Your dad finally tell you to stop messing with the help?”
“What the fuck do you know?”
“I know Miguel would quit if he knew and he’s the best line cook we’ve ever had.”
I snatch the clipboard out of his bony hands and throw it on the stainless steel counter. “Fuck you, Vlady.”
“What? The way I see it, you have an out. Take the job you got called for…”
“How the fuck?”
“The wall between the bathrooms is paper, c’mon.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Take the job. Tell your dad I can run things.” I don’t answer, then Vlady says, “No more twelve hour shifts, no more pain-in-the-ass customers, no more sore feet. Your world is nine-to-five, happy hour, brunch on Sundays. And these two?” Vlady glances in Miguel and Juan’s direction. “Can you really imagine bringing Miguel around your friends? He can’t talk about the Giants game or whatever book you guys are reading when he can’t speak English. And Juan doesn’t even have papers. He got lost the other day right in Soho. They can’t wipe this kitchen off like you can. They don’t even know how to try. This is the easiest decision you’ll ever have to make in your life.” He gives me that shit-eating grin he’d give me when my brother wasn’t looking, before he strolls off to the storage room.
The beers are making my armpits damp. Or maybe it’s being in this damn restaurant day in and day out, ever since I quit my job at Columbia Presbyterian. Before that, I was only here as a customer—really as the owner’s daughter—and that’s the side of the counter I prefer. I’ll be right back on that side as soon as I accept the offer I got this morning for an admin position at St. Luke’s. Yes, it’s doing the same shit I was doing before—answering phones, making appointments, pulling charts, dealing with insurance companies—all of which left me more exhausted after eight hours than twelve hours at the restaurant does. And yes, that last doctor, a urologist, was nuts. Whenever I couldn’t schedule forty five patients a day for him, the man either wouldn’t speak to me or he yelled so loud the nurses wouldn’t look at me walking out of his office.
Miguel is staring at me from the dining area. So is Juan, standing right next to the stereo where we all argue every morning over whether to listen to corridos or hip-hop or bachata. The flat screen hovers above them, the faces of the B-movie actors twisted into laughter or anguish. It’s muted so I can’t tell. Miguel and Juan are both from Mexico, but different cities. The first day they worked together, Juan said Miguel sounded like he was gargling when he talked and Miguel called him a pinche chilango.
One night, when I still had a real job, Miguel sent a fat slice of Dominican cake—the first he’d ever made on his own—filled with pineapple and covered with yellow flowers, to the table I was at with some friends. It was airy and moist, dissolving almost instantly on my tongue. The customers at the surrounding tables all started asking after it even though it hadn’t been brought out to the counter yet. Miguel stood in the kitchen doorway, waiting for me to look up at him and we smiled at each other. He was so different from anyone I’d ever liked, straight black hair down to his ass. I peeked at him the rest of the night, at the strain of his biceps tattooed with Aztec symbols, when he was chopping or stirring something. I offered him a ride home after his shift.
When I started working at the restaurant, it was even easier to end up together at the end of the night. I’ve never messed around with a co-worker before, let alone two. I guess it was insurance against staying at the restaurant, the way sleeping with a guy on the first date cancels out a relationship. After talking to my dad though, I’m thinking the guy—in my case, the restaurant—might be relationship material, but it’s too late to do things right.
“What was her name?” Vlady’s beady eyes are unfocused. “And don’t think about it or else you’re lying.”
“Miosotis,” Ariel answers.
“It’s a flower.” We all look at Miguel. “You guys call them…forget-me-not.”
“This motherfucker’s such a liar. He didn’t get any.” Spittle gathers in the corners of Vlady’s mouth.
“You’re just hating since your wife don’t give you any.” Ariel flies out of his chair, sending it crashing to the floor. Vlady barges into the dining room, chest-first.
“Okay, everybody go the fuck home!” I clap my hands together so hard they sting.
They all look startled and Ariel is the first one to snap out of it, slamming the door behind him. Marleny leaves quickly enough to catch up to him. Before he leaves, Vlady unnecessarily reminds Juan and Miguel what time he’s expecting them tomorrow and they help me with the rolling gate outside. Juan avoids looking at me and clears his throat before wishing me and Miguel a good night. He walks up Amsterdam to the room he rents.
“Your place?” Miguel still bothers to ask. He lives crosstown on 103rd Street in El Barrio, closer to the restaurant than I do, but the one time I went over, I counted eight toothbrushes in the bathroom.
“Not tonight. I’m exhausted.”
He frowns, but says fatigue is a common sign of anemia and promises me steak and eggs for breakfast when I get in to work.
If you’ve ever had a good stretch in your bed on a cold morning under the blankets, the type that ends with each of your limbs pointing towards a corner of the bed, that’s what Broadway looks like at night, like it yawned and splayed out after the day it’s had. I decide against taking the West Side Highway and go local. If I don’t accept the job offer, I’ll have to sell my car next month. I might as well enjoy it. There’s an occasional drunken shout from the sidewalk, the steady change of traffic lights, the faint scent of lavender from the air freshener clipped onto the heater vents on the dash. I’m barely on 110th Street when I spot Ariel. I honk, pull up to the curb and open the passenger door. He has a fresh V8 can. I reach out for it, take a sip, and pass it back.
“So what happened with the girl?”
“She was my boy’s daughter.”
“So did you sleep with her?”
“Are you crazy? I play dominoes over there every other weekend. You don’t shit where you eat.”
“What if you didn’t mean to shit where you ate? Like you didn’t know you were gonna keep eating? Like you shat there because you thought you never wanted to eat there again, but…”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see his can pause in mid-air. His head turns slowly, lashes fluttering, long and fine as hair netting. Ariel, the same Ariel that annoys the crap outta me by asking in the middle of a movie what’s happening, has better sense than I do.
“Nevermind.” I turn the radio up and Ariel flips back and forth between hip-hop on Hot 97 and hip-hop on Power 105 until I drop him at his building on the corner of Ft. Washington and 162nd. I head to 155th Street to take the Harlem River Drive that’ll put me on the FDR to go to Miguel’s, but on my way, I get a Facebook notification on my phone that my brother posted a picture. I pull over by the cemetery on 155th and Broadway.
My brother is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist in the army. He diffuses bombs. The pictures he posts are always of some shit blowing up in the middle of nowhere, big gray and tan cauliflower-shaped explosions that look like marble sculptures. Some look like the spiky ball on the end of a flail straight out of the Middle Ages. They would be beautiful if you didn’t know any better. This one he just posted is an orange orb of flame with black crusts of smoke. My finger hovers over his name on my contact list, but he’s in Afghanistan for another month.
I once asked my brother what it was like to be close to a bomb.
“If it doesn’t go off, it’s great,” he laughed.
“What about the ones that go off?
He thought about it, a meaty hand rubbing his receding hairline. “A long boom and then you go deaf. Smoke and dirt and debris raining down. But if you can see that then it means you’re still alive. And if you’re still alive, you can do what you gotta do.”
I make a U-turn and drive home.
Glendaliz Camacho was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing appears in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press), The Female Complaint (Shade Mountain Press, forthcoming), and Southern Pacific Review, among others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, currently working on a short story collection, fantasy trilogy, and book of essays.