The last three years I had hosted at Le Phoque, Paulo Embretti’s newest endeavor. I absolutely loved that job. It had been everything. More than a paycheck or social circle, I had a tiny piece of real estate in The City – a booth at striking restaurant. A moderate space filled with handcrafted tables and chairs, amber lighting, and the sounds that accompany evenings filled with joy – glasses clinking, hearty laughter, smiles, and conversation. Every night, after the rush of service had dissipated and the restaurant was cleared, Chef Paulo and Mr. Dean would rattle off sales numbers, and give out two vintages, one to the night’s top earner and one to the hardest worker. Then came a beautiful, sit-down, family meal – wine, laughs, and dishes from that night’s menu. Everything that I loved about living in The City was attached to that job, and without it, I felt alienated, orphaned. Surely there was another restaurant just like it, right? After all, there are thousands of restaurants in The City. But, like my dad used to say, “Nobody wants to get sent back down to the minors. Nobody wants to ride that damn bus, again.” I gave that place my identity, and, in turn, it gave me back something refined, something better, a version of myself that I’d been waiting for my entire life. And then I got fired.
The circumstances surrounding my dismissal would be best described as unfair, I mean, that’s what I thought of them then and that’s what I think of them now. It was Friday, and we had had one of those nights on the books. Stress levels were higher than normal that day because Chef Paulo had fired his Sous that morning, a move I had celebrated (Quentin was a complete asshole), but at the time was also unaware how far down the chain the dominoes would fall. An hour into service, the kitchen was already behind. Chef Paulo was on the line, and Mr. Dean was expediting. These two had opened the place together, but it was obvious from the beginning of the evening that they were having a hard time deciding who was in charge of service. What should have gone smoothly became a mess. Even in the brief moments when I had walked back into the kitchen to tell the guys about a couple of VIP tables, I’d heard them bickering about who was responsible for some miscommunication on a couple of tickets, why two of the pork belly specials had been fired instead of three, and a moment when Chef Paulo actually told Mr. Dean to get back out on the floor where he “fucking” belonged. But, you know, it was business as usual in a way, so we all (the rest of us) did our best to act professional and get through what was clearly going to be a long night in the weeds.
By the third hour of service, reservations were behind thirty-five minutes. I told Michaela (my partner on the weekends) to comp drinks for the people waiting. I left her to run the host stand while I took a few seconds here and there to bus tables or run a couple of cocktails from the bar. Everything was behind, and, from time to time, that was just how it went, and all you could do was smile and look for the light at the end of the tunnel and know that, even if you couldn’t see it at the moment, it was there, somewhere past the darkness.
Michaela had been working with me for six months. So, you could hardly blame her for what happened, and, really, you could hardly blame me. But in the end, it was my fault (Mr. Dean’s words, not mine). There was a folder that lived under our host stand that has portraits of the important restaurant critics that work and live in The City. Everyday before service, whoever’s hosting is supposed to flip through those photos, get acquainted with names and faces, and then notify the server, the bar manager, and the kitchen. Well, on the night that I was stripped of the only job I’ve ever loved, Michaela didn’t recognize J. Miller from The Post. I’m not sure if it actually would have mattered at that point because we were already so deep in the weeds, but, regardless of hypothetical scenarios, the reality was that he waited in the corner with his date for an hour. About the time that they had finally been seated, we began to flip the restaurant. It was a madhouse, and the servers, apparently, forgot to stagger their orders, because everything came in at once. To try and help out, I sat people every five minutes, regardless of how long they’d been waiting – one table at a time, hoping that I could restore some of the natural rhythm and order to the performance. After another hour, however, it was obvious that my attempt at righting the vessel had been in vain. We weren’t running in the fashion that we were used to, smoothly, and Paulo and Dean had both, clearly, underestimated the pivotal role that Quentin had played, a common occurrence for Sous Chefs, it seems.
I abandoned Michaela, again, and I started running drinks from the bar and food from the kitchen. However terrible the night had actually been going, this was my favorite part of the job, discovering the uncanny ability to move faster and think clearer through the thick fog of chaos. I had grabbed a couple of martinis from the bar and weaved my way through a crowd to Table 12, and when I began setting the drinks on the table, apologizing to the customers for the wait, I looked up and saw J. Miller. He was tearing off strips of his Bev Nap and looking both bored and dissatisfied. I addressed him, thanked him for joining us that evening, and I asked him if there was anything I could get him at the moment. “Our server would be nice,” he said, “I haven’t seen her in about twenty minutes.” I told him not to worry, that I’d send her right over, and then I ran to the kitchen to tell everyone the awful news.
When I walked in, Chef Paulo was screaming at Mr. Dean. There were plates double and triple-stacked in the window, a line of tickets hung from the rail, and the chefs were standing by, idly. “We’re not cooking another fucking thing until all of this shit goes,” Paulo said, pointing at the window in front of him. I told Mr. Dean to give me the next tray, and on my way out the door, I turned around and said, “Oh, by the way, J. Miller is at table 12. I think he’s been there for a while. So, you guys better play nice.”
When Chef Paulo and Mr. Dean fired me, they said three things. One, J. Miller, or any other critic for that matter was not an “Oh, by the way,” piece of information. Two, how long had he been there, and why didn’t I know? And three, it wasn’t my job to tell them how to interact with each other, “We’ve been business partners for fifteen years,” they’d said. And then they let me go.
I guess I was feeling kind of down on the city, and the fish tank seemed to help (some). Aside from the job, nothing had changed, and I should have been able to bounce back relatively easily. Even with the horrible weather, The City was still dancing. During the last couple of weeks, I would peek out the living room window from my nest, down onto the street, and see people running around the neighborhood, going to the bars and restaurants, out on their happy, coupled excursions – being normal and (apparently) unaffected by life. Certain of their identities. But life wasn’t really going on, for me. I felt isolated (in a city of millions, weird, right?). So I surrendered to whatever the universe was trying to tell me, and then I started spending a lot of time in front of the fish tank.
The funniest part about it (if there was any humor at all in this dumb situation of mine) was that my roommates hadn’t even noticed that I’d been spending all that time at home. Why would they notice? It’s not like they were ever there. There were three of them, roommates, I mean – Mike, Kelly, and Isis – and like plenty of young professionals in The City with jammed agendas and social calendars, they were hardly around. I mean Kelly and Mike basically lived with their SOs. Isis slept at home, but that was it. She’d come home, walk straight to her room, and close the door (hello, goodbye). You’d really only see her if she needed to use the bathroom or answered the door for the cute bicycle messenger guy that always brought her Chinese food. Also Isis worked early, so she was always up and out before anybody else.
The first time I spent the whole night on the couch watching the fish tank, I surprised Isis in the morning. She was on her bleary-eyed way to the shower. I was on the couch wrapped up in my comforter to keep the chill off me – the irritatingly miniscule gust that blew through the uneven edge of the window. I said, “Hi” as she walked out of her bedroom. Isis shrieked, like my presence was something to be frightened of at that time of day (frown). What was I doing up? Oh, I couldn’t really sleep so I’d come out to the living room to look at the fish tank in hopes that it would be boring enough to knock me out (Ha-Ha). I kind of mustered up this weak smile, and it must have made her feel awkward, because she just said, “okay,” and then took a shower, got dressed, and left for work without any further interaction with the sad girl on the couch (me).
Our apartment wasn’t that big, but it was definitely big enough when you were the only one who was ever there, with nowhere to be. And when the weather looked like it currently looked, and time passed like it was currently passing, it was definitely big enough. For. Just. Me.
The fish tank wasn’t even mine, either, it was Mike’s, and I’d always wondered when he fed the fish. He’d been basically living at Victoria’s (his “spectacular” girlfriend – he’d actually called her that once, spectacular) since they’d started dating. I got the answer to my question when on the same day that I’d surprised Isis, Mike came home on his lunch break and fed the fish. Not working today, he said, and I shook my head and watched him tap, four times, on the plastic bottle of fish food, sprinkling the flakes into four different parts of the tank.
Mike was in realty. I’ve never been exactly sure what he did (I mean within the realty world, like if he sold houses or made deals or pushed papers, or whatever), but I know that when he first got the job he had a lot more money and was really stressed out all the time when he was home, and then he started putting together the fish tank, because he’d heard from a friend of his that watching fish would help him relax after a long day of hustling through The City. Now I was the one trying to get something out of that fish tank, and after two weeks I was starting to think that it might just be working.
Kelly literally hadn’t set foot into the apartment in the last two weeks. I was certain of that, because I hadn’t left (and, yes, I’m completely aware that’s something I shouldn’t be proud of). It’s not like anybody ever complained about Kelly’s absence, because she still paid her rent on time and when she had been around in the past we’d kind of realized that we’d had some poor judgment in letting her move in, because she had one of those personalities, you know those ones. Maybe you don’t know. How do I explain it? Well, she was one of those types that you could only talk to for five minutes at a time (per week, really), and then after she was done shouting shrilly noises, you felt physically exhausted and needed some type of deep tissue massage and some scented oils and the sounds of nature to help you get through the rest of your day without replaying over and over again exactly how much you couldn’t believe that she annoyed you, and then you couldn’t believe she annoyed you that much, and then you couldn’t believe that you’d been spending such a large portion of your day thinking about how much you couldn’t believe that she annoyed you that much. She was pretty bad (but, you know, in that harmless kind of way). And, I have to say that as much as I didn’t miss Kelly’s presence in the apartment, she was punctual when it came time to send in rent. If nothing else, that’s a silver lining, right? (Go Kelly).
The second day that Mike had come home around lunch to feed the fish, he’d asked me if I’d gotten a new job. I told him that Rosa, the bartender, had quit and they needed me to fill in for her schedule and that meant a split between lunch and dinner shifts. He asked me if I liked the change, and I told him that I was still adjusting. Then Mike asked me if I wouldn’t mind feeding the fish, because it would help him out “a ton” (he’d actually used the words, a ton, spectacular) if he didn’t have to drive back across The Bridge every day to feed the babies (his words), and he’d give me twenty bucks a day. That would net me over five hundred dollars a month from my rent, if I did it every day. So, I mean, that decision was obviously easy to make, because I was, you know, unemployed (our secret). So now I fed the fish every day around two, and my unemployed, sorry butt only needed to come up with a thousand bucks to make rent by the end of the month, instead of fifteen hundred.
The first day that I took over food duty for Mike felt kind of weird, weird and, sadly, harder than I’d imagined. It was exhausting to do anything (I know it sounds ridiculous). I knew that now I played a pivotal role in their survival, and it felt good to be needed. I lumbered up to the tank around the same time that Mike had come home the day before, and I just stood there. I knew that all I had to do was grab the white bottle of flakes and feed the fish, but it honestly took so much energy to even lift my arms to the top of the tank and grab that bottle. Then I opened the three, large black plastic pieces on top of the tank that flipped open, and they should have weighed next to nothing but, somehow, felt like they were built from solid granite. It was pathetic how exhausting it was and I caught my breath as I stared down into the bubbling water below. I tapped the bottle and when the flakes hit the surface a couple of fish swam up to the top, and I saw them open their mouths in this funny, reversed bobbing-for-apples way. Like they were gasping for food. When I tapped the flakes out into a different spot in the tank the little family of five that looked like black corn chips started nibbling at the surface. It was different looking down on them like that; instead of over from the quilted island of seclusion I’d made for myself on the couch. All the little families took their turns swimming to the top of the tank and eating. It was all very communal and friendly, almost cordial.
After that, I retreated to the couch. I looked outside (where it was still super grey and snowing), and I sunk deeper into my comforter. The last few little guys had gotten their fill, and then they kept going about their day just like normal. They went about it in a funny way, too. Their life took place in a miniature, submerged city of rocks and plants and this giant log was their only skyscraper, and the families moved together, yet separate, swimming around the tank in a way that made them aware of each other but never let on that they were actually paying attention to anybody but themselves. Sometimes all the families would navigate the waters by carefully avoiding contact with one another, and others they would occupy their few gallons of the tank while swimming in small, concentric circles – almost fearful about crossing the invisible barriers that existed within their rectangular, aquatic world.
That next week in the apartment wasn’t much better. I was still sleeping on the couch, but you really wouldn’t call it sleeping (at least, I wouldn’t). Isis would get home and disappear into her room for the evening. It would go from dark to darker outside, there wasn’t really any sunset or anything like that, a muted ray of grey light might attempt to poke through the overcast sky before ducking behind one of nearby buildings, and then the light in the fish tank would click on, and it would glow this gorgeous blue (God, it was incredible). Seriously, I started believing that there were healing powers in that light that changed the entire aura of my living room. In those hours, my space felt like some Caribbean lagoon that was bathed in the soft twinkle of bioluminescent plankton and I was floating, swimming in a soft glow. But then at three in the morning, the tank’s timer would click again, and the light would go out. Then I’d sit in the dark, alone, and the only glow that came into the living room was from the streetlights on Division, and the only thing I felt was the cold little whistle that came when a gust of wind pushed the broken window off its seal and the night air joined me in my misery. So I’d drown myself in my comforter and the other blankets I’d squirreled away over that past week, and I’d tell myself that maybe tomorrow things would be better, and the fish tank would heal me even more.
There was a nightly hope, but there really wasn’t (it was all kind of half-hearted). I was horrendously blah-ed out, and I felt ill every time I even considered going outside. Deep cramps radiated under my lowest ribs, strong enough that I imagined them stifling the flow of blood to my vitals. I thought that maybe I was dying (which wasn’t really the answer that I was looking for, but imagining dying as the reason for why I felt like I felt lent a strange, serene quality to all of it). But there’s stuff going on out there, maybe you wouldn’t be so bored and feel so useless if you went out there and tried having a good time with all those people. Oh gee, thanks, me, like I wasn’t aware of all that? Look, we’re just going to have to hunker down and hope it all passes, okay? Can you do that for me? I’m really not asking for much, am I? If you could just stop torturing me for a couple of days, then maybe the fish tank will be able to work its magic a little better, okay? Do you get it? I don’t need constant reminders of how much stuff is going on in The City all the time, and how you think I’m worthless, because I won’t go out there – or leave the couch. It doesn’t need to make sense to you, okay? I just don’t feel like it, and I don’t want to know why yet, so please, please, give me a break.
On one of those days that next week I stumbled into Isis’s room by accident (I thought it was the bathroom for some reason which over the course of eight years had never happened, so congrats, Kristin, you’re finally losing it). I reached over to turn the light on to the bathroom, and when I flipped the switch I rapidly came to the conclusion that I was standing in Isis’ bedroom. I felt like I was losing complete control over my body (first the mind and then the body, or whatever people say about Alzheimer’s… maybe I had that?). Or maybe it was something out of some Sci-Fi type movie where my intentions were always misinterpreted by my brain and my body’s guidance systems (“Doctor, she can’t come on this ship, she’s ill”). I stood at the entrance to her room, and although it was one of the smaller ones in the apartment, Isis’ space felt so much better than my own. There was a tiny twin bed in the far right corner, with these gorgeous red sheets, and they looked so inviting. The walls were littered with bookshelves and photographs, like this incredible homage to all these people who had done fantastic things with their lives. And then this wave came over me, and I kind of just crumpled to the floor and started sobbing. That lasted until my eyes couldn’t give any more.
The next thing I knew I was rummaging through Isis’s stuff. I opened her desk drawers and looked through pencils and pens and paintbrushes and markers (keeping an eye out for maybe anything I could borrow), drawers filled with cameras and photography equipment, lenses, stuff like that. I flipped through her old photo albums I found underneath the desk in these two shoeboxes that had this collection from her childhood (first day of elementary school, family vacations to the beach, etc.). I sifted through her closet; letting the soft fabrics of dresses and skirts caress my hands. I even managed to try on a few dresses. I paid careful attention to put everything back in its place (I didn’t want to leave any evidence). Laying in her bed, I pulled a magazine from the pile on the floor next to the bed, and started reading a little bit about camera equipment. I imagined myself as Isis, in her bed reading about this Cannon Lens, that Nikon filter, and that felt nice, it felt good to be someone else for a bit. Her space hadn’t transformed me in any physical sense, but as I lay there looking at the new space around me, I felt O-K (like whatever had come over me couldn’t get through the frame of Isis’s bedroom door). Well maybe not exactly okay, but it didn’t seem to take as much effort to try on a couple of dresses as it did to feed the fish…
I spent the next day in Mike’s room. Mike had a king sized bed, a hideous monstrosity that took up half the room, and a dresser. The dresser and the bed frame were both black, very chic, and he had black and grey sheets. Honestly, Mike’s room felt like something out of some futuristic porn set that the set director decided would look better if they spent the entire budget on two pieces of really expensive furniture instead of actually putting together a cohesive, plausible set. After lying in Mike’s bed for the better part of the day imagining myself as him, I stepped over to the dresser and opened his sock drawer – which actually made me laugh (that hadn’t happened it a while). I had no idea Mike wore so much argyle below the knee. Orange, Blue, Pink, Purple, and Green, you name it and the man had it. Socks, who knew? I searched through the rest of his drawers and saw sweaters and slacks and jeans, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing of interest – an unremarkable wardrobe suitable for a businessman. The top of the dresser was coated in this thin layer of dust, and I wondered if he ever noticed that layer of filth and then thought to himself how he should probably just take the next step and move all of his stuff over to Victoria’s place. I opened Mike’s closet, and it was completely empty. And I do mean completely empty. I couldn’t believe it, not a single thing. I left Mike’s room and went back to my spot on the couch and watched the fish tank for the rest of the day. Mike’s room had brought me down again.
It was sometime in the next two or three days (I don’t know, leave me alone) that Mike actually came home. It was already dark out, again, and the blue lagoon had clicked on, and he saw me on the couch and must have noticed that I needed some cheering up, because he told me that he had a present for me and looked all happy like he was about to solve my problems (like he knew anything about my problems). Mike told me to wait right there (I’m not going anywhere, Michael, trust me on that one), and then he bounced out the front door. When he returned, he was holding a plastic bag filled with water. Mike said that he bought something for the tank, and I asked him why he needed another stick for the tank (weren’t there enough inanimate objects in there already?). It’s not a stick, Kristen, it’s an eel, he said, and then he effortlessly opened up one of the tank’s lids and upended the bag and poured in the black, stick-looking eel. Mike spent some time cleaning the tank that night, which, believe me, was a process that I couldn’t have even imagined mustering up the strength for, and then his phone rang (Victoria) and he left.
I don’t even know where those next days went. A week might have passed. Two. I wasn’t really paying that much attention (I was past the point of caring). The tank’s magic of the previous weeks had seemed to come to an end. Blue lagoon clicked on, it was night, it clicked off, it was still night, the sun tried to come up, the fish swam, I fed the fish, the sun tried to go down, the blue lagoon clicked on, etc. I spent a lot hours over those days (or whatever) lying in Isis’s bed. I always made sure to make her bed before she came home for the evening (it was the least that I could do, and the most). I’d gone through her things more times that I care to count or mention, and the only thing that seemed to bring me any sense of normalcy was lying in the bed of a person who I used to feel embittered towards because of how much time she spent in her room. But there I was, in a room that wasn’t my own.
I hadn’t left the apartment in over a month (just thinking about that makes me hate myself). Things were getting progressively worse, that was obvious. I didn’t know what to do anymore. It was awful, really. My limbs felt like they all weighed a hundred pounds. My body felt swollen, my hands and feet were constantly sore. I was hardly eating. I had retreated fully into the confines of my own mind. I’d look for the Mike’s eel every day when I fed the fish, and I could never find him (the little shit). There were the Black Tetras (with their little zebra faces and dark tailfins), the Blood Fin Tetras (my Aztec warriors, with their ashy-grey bodies and fins highlighted in war-paint), the Bumblebee Cichlids (these gentlemen had been appropriately named by Darwin or whomever), the two Sucker-Fish (Leroy and Belvin), and the other family of four (I couldn’t remember what Mike had told me they were called). And then there was the elusive, invisible, nearly nonexistent, black stick of eely proportions that was nowhere to be seen. Ever. I’d named him Houdini. Although I hated it, it made sense that a guy I’d known since I moved to The City tried to do right by me (getting me a gift for his fish tank), and it ended up as if nothing ever happened in the first place.
Then sometime after that, I’d pretty much stopped eating altogether, and I hadn’t ventured into Isis’s room in over a week. I was spending all day on the couch, wrapped in my blankets, hurting. The dull aching had consumed my ability to feel anything else. But in the midst of all that pain, I thought maybe the answer lay in Kelly’s room, so I managed to heave myself out of my prison and venture into her realm of superficiality. Try on her identity for size.
I leaned my forehead against her door, and I was shocked that I had sunk to the point that I was seeking answers from the uninhabited mess of a cheerleading, stretchy-pant wearing, giggle-bubble (but it was the last thing I could think of).
I opened Kelly’s door and I found myself standing in a time capsule, a high school yearbook (her high school yearbook). There were all these multi-colored poster boards, tacky foam core with glossy three by five photos of spring breaks, dinners with friends, and field hockey (prom!). Medals from what looked like every sport you could ever play hung on pins and were draped over the gold-coated, molded plastic lumps of the tops of participatory trophies, throw pillows in places that didn’t even make sense (they weren’t even on the bed, just sitting, stacked in the corner), these hideous gold sheets and a green comforter, and there was a floor to ceiling shelf filled with shoes. I’m being serious; the entire thing was filled with shoes. I even have a decent collection of heels (not that I’ve needed them in the past month L), but I was astonished that I’d failed to notice her obsession with shoes. The entire space made me feel worse than I already felt. I should have never gone in there. You shouldn’t have opened the door, Kristen. You shouldn’t have done that.
It took almost all of my remaining strength to close the door behind me. I was feeling so low. Like there was nothing left, and everything that I tried to take in from the others, Isis, Mike, and now Kelly, couldn’t even imprint on a blank slate, and at this point I had become a exactly that, a blank slate – the dark ink on the page of my life, once recognizable, had faded over time and left nothing. When I got back to the living room, I took my seat on the couch, straightjacketing myself in the duvet, and I noticed a bit of water on the floor in front of the tank. I followed the trail of water and saw a small, black stick slowly squirming across the floor towards the front door. Houdini was gasping.