By Lexi Pandell
Featured Art: When Lunches Synch Up by Mallory Stowe
In a shingled house at the edge of the Berkeley Hills—near campus with its bulletin boards covered in smeary flyers for an upcoming Angela Davis lecture and another of a white woman toting a machine gun, and close enough to the Greek Amphitheater that the roar of a concert reverberated through the thin windows—Jane Gardener sat with six other women at a kitchen table. This was a dinner party. She’d forced herself to go with the intention of socializing. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about how, though Lori said these dinners were about learning from other women in the restaurant industry, her presence felt like a charity. The stench of feet persisted despite the hand-dipped incense wafting in the corner. How could Lori purport to care about food, yet burn out her nose with cheap nag champa?
All of them were restaurateurs, except for Eartha, the German woman Jane employed as sous-chef at Dîner, whom she had invited to help her survive the affair.
“Isn’t spending time with friends supposed to be enjoyable?” Eartha had asked.
They weren’t her friends, though. Not really. Once, there had been more women in this coterie, some she’d actually liked. But, one by one, they had married and turned their attention to their home lives.
The other guests cooed as Lori plated eggplant parmesan and tossed a tender green salad. Barbara, the fish-faced woman who ran Starter’s, declared it simply beautiful. Nancy, ass-long hair braided down her back, and Maria, who had the heavy-lidded gaze of a stoner, chewed their first bites and sighed with pleasure.
Jane made her own assessment: the eggplant was rubbery, the parmesan too salty. Lori had only become the chef-owner of Gardenia on Shattuck Avenue thanks to family money, not culinary prowess. Her food was fine, not great. Jane had eaten plenty of fine meals in her life. It bored her. She had no reason to finish this one, except to avoid making a scene.
“I’m so happy to have you here,” Lori said. “Welcome, Eartha.”
The other ladies clapped politely. Eartha’s stoic face remained unchanged and Jane stifled a smile.
“As you know, I open our dinners with a topic. The conversation—and the wine—can flow freely from there. Tonight, I’d like to talk about mentorship. Uplifting other women.”
Jane gulped the chardonnay she’d brought to avoid speaking. Eartha shot her a glance that said: Why did you make me come? Jane ignored Eartha, focusing on the burden of finishing her plate.
Jane met Lori in college, at a time when Jane served at Caffe Med and also cooked at a sorority house in exchange for a free room—a converted closet, really, but a place to sleep nonetheless. Lori was one of the sorority girls, though one who participated in the Free Speech Movement and studied political science. Jane resented her, this girl whose parents paid for everything. Things changed when Jane used her waitressing money to study in France and debarked the plane to discover a dazed Lori wearing an askew beret. They bonded as Americans abroad do, eating almond croissants in the park and tapping their spoons on the crust of crème brûlée. She still found Lori ridiculous, but held some fondness for her, which is why she felt obligated to attend her dinners. Besides, she might hear some industry gossip. Lori, at least, was always good for that.
She ate a forkful of salad and decided it wasn’t particularly bad. It needed a squeeze of lemon and, perhaps, some escarole to add dimension.
“It sounds like many of us have begun this kind of important work,” Lori said. “What about you, Jane? Are you mentoring?”
Jane snapped to attention.
“Yes, tell us,” Eartha said with a wry look.
In fact, she was, and said so.
“Who is she?” Lori asked.
Oh, their world was too small to lie. She paused, and Eartha jumped in. “He, actually.”
The other women cast scandalized glances at each other from across the table. Jane picked up her glass of wine, stared into its depths, and took a long, chilly drink.
Tim had served at the restaurant for a year before he approached Jane at the staff dinner.
When Dîner opened in 1970 with a dozen employees, Jane worked to make staff dinners feel like family affairs and not work. Yet such put-ons—the fraternizing, the effort—had begun to feel exactly like that. Work. Over time, the chefs prepared food with experimental ingredients or reworked leftover ingredients to limit waste. The meals were always excellent, everything at Dîner was excellent, but the meal had to function, too. Jane sat at the head of the table. Her staff knew not to bother her as she ate unless she invited them to sit with her. Tim and another waiter, Marco, slid plates in front of each staff member before serving themselves.
The local mushroom girl had brought them a basket from Marin that morning. Jane had long considered adding wild mushrooms to the menu, but could never count on getting one variety or another. Jane had turned her away as a vendor—that is, until they began experimenting with a live-fire oven and she dreamed up a wild mushroom pizza.
At the staff dinner, the slice in front of Jane certainly looked beautiful. A lightly bubbled crust yielding to a slick of Fontina and swipes of goat cheese, the shiny mushrooms on top varying in sizes and shades. Squat hedgehog hydnum repandum, turned golden brown. Morels, which looked like halved pine cones, rendered chestnut in the butter. The long, alien black trumpet mushrooms reminded Jane of when she once experimented with the magical variety back in college and experienced a ridiculous, yet perfect, afternoon in the campus eucalyptus grove. Jane lifted the tip of the slice to her mouth, inhaling salt and musk as she bit.
The dough, with its rye flour and crispy bits of crust, served as an impeccable vehicle. The mushrooms—peppery and meaty, earthy and deep—were balanced by the tang of cheese. Jane closed her eyes and felt something dark and primal within her. She pictured herself digging into the forest floor, letting it subsume her body, breathing in the funk and allowing the dirt to flood into her mouth, and finding it good, even decadent.
Though Jane’s cooking initially propelled Dîner to fame, she eventually employed chefs who were technically superior to herself. That’s because cooking was not her great talent. Tasting was. When she ate, Jane felt transported, electrified. She experienced food in flashes of color, feeling, memories, places, dreams.
Absolute perfection. She took another bite, taking in a too-chewy, too-woodsy black trumpet. Almost.
A voice with a soft French inflection interrupted her reverie. “Excuse me, Jane?”
Her eyes flashed open. Tim stood before her. He looked as he always did. Placid, helpful.
“I don’t need anything else,” she said.
“It’s not that. I . . . may I have a word?”
Jane did not say anything in response. Just tilted her head to ask that he get on with it.
As Tim spoke—Ever since I was a boy in Bordeaux, I dreamed of having my own restaurant—Jane tried a second black trumpet. The first was no fluke. She liked black trumpets, but not these. It was as if her imagined underground forest lair had turned to muck.
Tim continued chattering, “I love serving, it’s taught me so much . . .”
She didn’t know how old Tim was, but placed him in his mid-twenties. Younger than her by nearly a decade. He had clean, rectangular fingernails and neatly trimmed brown hair. Something struck her as very sad about his face, as if he were the tragic, yet handsome, lead actor in some theatrical production. Maybe it came from his eyes, so blue they looked as if they were submerged underwater.
“Dîner is still young and already your cooks, bakers, and pastry chefs have gone on to do amazing things,” he said. “Not that I would like to leave, not for a long time . . .”
His mouth seemed quintessentially French, the way it expanded and contracted, plump one moment and slender the next. It transfixed her. French people moved in a certain way, as if they curated their gestures over their lifetime. Effortless and constrained all at once.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“Of . . .?”
“I would like to, uh . . .” He searched for the words. “To be your shadow.”
Jane puzzled, then decoded his intention. “You want to shadow me?”
Tim grinned, his lips shrinking into thin lines. “Yes, I would like that very much.”
She studied her pizza, then asked, “What do you think about this?” A test.
“The goat cheese . . .” He considered for a moment. “The flavor is very good, but it grows colder faster than the rest of the dish. The texture distracts.”
He surprised her. And, when it got down to it, she didn’t disagree.
“How could you exclude it?” she asked. “You need to cut the flavor of the mushrooms.”
“You could find a substitution.”
“Such as . . .?”
“Manchego,” she offered. She wished he’d come up with that himself, though she felt some assurance from his eager nod. “Something else about this doesn’t work,” she pressed, leaning in.
“The black trumpet mushrooms would be better in another dish.”
“Come on, you can say it.” She cast her eyes up at him. She could be an incorrigible flirt when she wanted. A little mean, a little sensual. She saw Tim notice. “Tell me what you really think of them and I’ll let you shadow me.”
Tim lowered his voice. “They taste a bit like shit.”
That cracked her veneer. She burst with laughter and called Eartha over.
“Let’s try it tomorrow with manchego instead of goat cheese, lose the black trumpets.”
Then she turned her attention back to Tim. “When would you like to start?”
A month had passed between that staff meal and Lori’s dinner party. Jane hadn’t exactly planned to hide Tim from the other women that night; it hadn’t crossed her mind that he might come up in conversation. Though as soon as he did, something caught in her chest. A feeling of protectiveness.
After the meal, Lori kissed them all on the cheek—Eartha flinched at the approach of Lori’s cool, pinched mouth—and bid them goodnight. Eartha and Jane accompanied each other home. The two women lived just a half mile from each other. They quietly trudged down the slope of Cedar Street toward Shattuck Avenue.
“At least the salad was middling,” Jane said finally, puffing into her hands for warmth. “Though I’m hardly full.”
“You led me to the lioness’s den.” Eartha raised her brows.
“Maybe so, but you were the one who let them tear me to bits.”
Eartha chuckled. “Didn’t you deserve it?”
A towering woman with the wide shoulders of someone who churned butter in her spare time (she did) and a wedge of a nose that looked like it had been broken in a brawl (it had), Eartha was someone most people would be intimidated by. But not Jane. Eartha respected that, and had said as much during that year’s holiday party when the mulled wine got to her head. “You’re a bird of a woman, but you’re fierce as anything,” Eartha said. “You’re a real . . .” She took another sip for courage. “Motherfucker. I say that with love.”
Which is why Eartha felt no need to conceal her feelings. Jane watched her chef settle back into frustration. Eartha shoved her hands into the wide pockets of her wool coat. They passed The Hillside Club, where Jane had lectured a prim crowd a few months earlier about the value of using seasonal produce.
“I know I can’t convince you of anything once you’ve made up your mind,” Eartha continued. “But,” Eartha added, “I still reserve the right to veto this if he becomes a hindrance.”
“That is, if he lasts long enough to become one,” Jane said. She laughed lightly, brushing it off. Yet hadn’t he already become a distraction? For weeks, she’d lingered on his note about the goat cheese. His quip about the mushroom. At work, she noticed his dexterous fingers sorting out utensils, his spine as straight as a dancer’s.
She invited him into her world for small moments: observing meetings with vendors, planning menus, watching how cooking unfolded in the kitchen.
When could she pick out his voice from across a crowded dining room? When did she crave his eyes on her? His proximity to her, the knowledge that she was being watched as she checked the consistency of a sauce, the scratch of his blunt pencil as he took notes? When she thought of him, her mouth watered.
She’d slept with staff before. The craftsman who designed the sign that hung outside, a one-night stand with a dishwasher. Then there was Steven, one of her chefs. They’d fucked for six months before he left to open a butcher shop a few blocks away, a move which knifed their relationship. She still sourced meat from him, though. Her personal life never got in the way of her food.
As she watched Tim watching her, Jane felt different. Was his subservience due to desire, his age, or the mere fact of their power dynamic? She found herself drawn to it, allowing herself to believe she was not alone in this blossoming desire.
Jane was so immersed in these thoughts that she caught her toe on a crack in the sidewalk. Righting herself, she saw Eartha looking at her plainly.
“You know, Jane, you can have a life outside the restaurant. One that is completely separate. Perhaps,” her inflection changed, hinting at a cruel humor, “you could adopt a cat or spend your time with people you don’t despise.”
Jane’s embarrassment flared to anger. Whatever was happening between her and Tim, she didn’t need Eartha’s permission. Turning toward Eartha, she reminded herself of her role as employer, not friend. However much she craved kinship, softness was a vulnerability. Surviving as a restaurateur meant operating as a man would. Doing things her way.
“I’ve invited him to visit Earl’s winery in Napa next weekend,” she said. Her tone didn’t allow room for questions.
They’d come to where their routes split. Eartha stopped under a streetlight and squared off with Jane, her pale eyes sizing her up in her entirety. In that gaze, Jane felt transparent, but she set her chin, unflinching.
Be careful, Eartha transmitted, but did not say. Jane nodded curtly, glad to be done with the matter, then walked into the night.
Sitting beside Jane as she navigated Route 29 toward Napa, Tim seemed at ease. His hands drummed the edge of the leather seat, playing out a beat with his fingers. His eyes trained on the landscape outside. Farms, fields, the occasional winery.
Jane’s cream-colored Volkswagen Beetle was a gift to herself the first year the restaurant became profitable. She’d imagined long country drives like this. In reality, she exclusively used it to run errands for the restaurant or to meet purveyors.
Tim plucked a pack of cigarettes from his inner jacket pocket. It surprised her. She’d never smelled it on him.
“Do you mind?” he asked.
“Those things will burn out your taste buds.”
He tucked them away. Maybe to smoke in solitude once he was out of her sight, Jane didn’t know.
In fact, Jane longed for a cigarette—thought of driving home on chilly nights when she was a teenager in Boise, returning from a shift at Paul’s Burger Hut, the only place that would employ her before she turned 16. Those nights, the dull smell of fryer fat clung to her hair, her hands felt raw from washing dishes, and her skin crawled from where patrons pawed at her ass. Paul, gruff and smelling of sour sweat, allowed her one meal each shift. Food at home was never plentiful, her mother stretching out casseroles until her father’s paydays afforded them more groceries, so Jane ate as much as she could at Paul’s. Cheeseburgers with extra slices of American cheese, chocolate shakes with malt, steaming baskets of golden French fries. She snuck extra food when she could. She learned how to lean over the refrigerator as if searching for something, unwrapping a slice of cheesecake, and downing it in two bites. Smoking grounded her as she navigated those dark roads. She hated the way Paul hassled her for being even a minute late, the dull and greasy food she served, and the soggy hunks of bun she fished out of the clogged sinks. But she liked work. The constant movement, making money, leaving so tired that she tumbled into the bed she shared with her sister without even changing into pajamas. That filled her up. Even after she had enough money from Dîner to afford what she needed, Jane rarely stopped moving and rarely ate at home. Instead, she survived on staff meals and grazing on the ingredients her staff prepared.
She nodded toward the goats dotting a property they zipped past. “You know,” she said, “people out here rent their goats to mow the hillsides. Sheep to mow vineyards. It’s an interesting business proposition for a herder. You get paid for your animals to eat.”
“Why not use goats for both?”
“Goats will eat anything. Even grapes. Sheep have more discerning taste.”
“Perhaps people are the same way. What do you think I am?” Tim arched his brows. “A goat or a sheep?”
“A sheep. Like me. Though a sheep who might sneak a grape or two.”
She laughed and they sat in amiable silence for a while, warmth winding through her stomach. After a few miles, he asked, “Have you ever thought of having a family?”
Normally, she bristled at such questions. She’d never heard someone ask a man in her industry if he desired a wife or children. If he felt lacking. Coming from Tim, however, the question felt personal. Like he could see the inquiry brewing in her not because of her gender, but because he understood her interiority.
Jane only ever wanted children as much as any other girl brought up in her time. Then she got an education, followed by a career. And the truth was that she’d never met a man she could picture being with forever, or who would treat her as an equal. She gave everything to Dîner. What time did she have to raise children?
Of course, there were times when she longed for a different life. Imagined, for example, what she might eat to alter the taste of her breast milk. Jane’s own mother had told her that, as a child, Jane had preferred to suckle after her mother ate carrots. When she thought of mothers gazing at their children with marvel in their eyes, something pinched inside her.
When she didn’t respond, Tim added, “You’d be a good mother.”
“I’m an old maid.”
“Nonsense. You, of all people, must believe you can lead whatever life you like, no matter your age. What, are you not a part of this women’s movement? You don’t read Simone de Beauvoir?”
She liked the way that name rolled off his tongue. “Let’s say I agree with some of it, not all of it. Besides, de Beauvoir never married and never had kids.”
“Ah, of course you know of de Beauvoir! Is there anything you don’t know?”
Later, at the vineyard, she watched Tim bring the wine glass to his lips and wondered if he experienced the way the acridity, silt, and juiciness built in the front of her mouth and down into her throat, evaporating into a dry finish. Wine flooding her head, making her float. If he tasted as she did, what might that mean for them?
She realized it was not children she wanted, or even a lover. But someone to share life with.
As this crossed her mind, Tim looked at her over his glass and grinned.
That night, she dreamed of lying naked across the Dîner countertop beside the roaring wood-fire oven. Tim entered the kitchen, dressed for work with an apron tied around his waist. Silently, he kneeled down and began to lick between her legs. When Jane looked down, she saw that her vagina was full of champagne grapes still on the stem. Tim plucked them off one by one with his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
“I hope they haven’t soured,” she said.
He smirked as if that were ridiculous, and with the next grape he consumed he showed her with every movement how much he savored it, how much he desired her.
Jane woke with a gasp. She’d sweat through her nightgown. Placing a hand to her racing heart, the memory of the dream disturbed and repulsed her, yet her groin tightened. She flipped onto her stomach and touched herself until she came with a yelp.
In the bathroom, she stripped and then stared at herself in the dark mirror. The silvery cooking scars along her forearms glinted and her skin shone pale from all the hours spent indoors. But her face still seemed bright and her auburn hair, though shorn into a tight pixie cut, was silky. She turned in profile to examine her breasts, small but full. In that moment, she felt like someone worth desiring.
The following week, Jane couldn’t look at Tim without thinking of that dream, imagining how he looked on his knees in front of her. Though it seemed absurd, every glance, every touch, every word he spoke now felt magnified, as between new lovers.
One morning, when she and Eartha were busy reviewing the pastry chef’s new recipe for an almond tart, Jane asked Tim to greet the mushroom girl, Ella, until she could make her way down. When she descended the stairs, she heard warm laughter. Their backs were turned to the doorway. Instead of announcing her presence, she lingered.
“My oncle would take us to forage for mushrooms every August,” Tim said. “We’d bring back satchels to my mother. She would prepare them simply. Butter, salt, garlic, fresh parsley.”
“She knew what she was doing.”
“And so do you. Your mushrooms are beautiful. I have great respect for your work.”
Jane felt herself darken. She heard him ask, “Can I see what you’ve brought?”
As Jane stepped toward them, she saw Tim’s hand on Ella’s shoulder, the two of them craned over the basket of mushrooms as Ella peeled the cloth from her mushroom basket.
Jane cleared her throat. They jumped back. Ella reddened and Tim snatched his hand from her. Caught.
“Good afternoon,” Jane said crisply. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you have.”
Ella revealed a nest of gorgeous porcini and matsutake. And, in the corner, the black trumpet mushrooms.
“Tim,” Jane beckoned. “What do you think about this?” Then, to Ella, “I hope you don’t mind. I’m training him in my way of thinking.”
“Lori mentioned he’s been working under you.”
That particular wording startled Jane before she processed the mention of her friend. Why was Lori gossiping about her and Tim? Were all of those women from the dinner—supposed champions of their gender—just lying bitches? She couldn’t help herself, she felt a meanness growing inside her.
Tim’s eyes flitted over the mushrooms, trying to redirect the energy of the room. “They seem quite nice.”
Jane locked in. “All of them?”
He looked again, but without really looking. Buying time. He didn’t say anything.
“Tell Ella what you think about her black trumpets.”
“I can’t remember. I must not have felt strongly about them.”
“Oh, I recall you felt very strongly,” Jane said. A smile played on her face. “Go on.”
“The other mushrooms I tried were excellent,” Tim began, “but the black trumpets tasted a little . . .” He hesitated.
“He said they tasted like shit,” Jane said. “And he was right.”
Ella recoiled and blinked back tears. “I’m so sorry. I won’t bring them again.”
“Great,” Jane said. “Because you know how fond I am of your other mushrooms, right? And how fond I am of you?”
Ella nodded so deeply that Jane saw the gleam of her pearly scalp. She imagined splitting it open with a kitchen cleaver.
“Don’t worry,” Jane added. “I’ll buy all the mushrooms today, even the black trumpets. Who knows, maybe the chefs can figure out a way to make them edible.”
When Ella left, Jane said to Tim, “If you intend to run a restaurant, you must speak your mind. This is business and must be treated as such. I don’t appreciate you flirting with my mushroom girl.”
Tim startled, flashing with hurt. “I would never flirt with someone in front of you.”
Jane wanted to ask: Because I’m your boss or because you care for me? Instead, she pressed her lips together and dismissed Tim for his serving duties.
Jane knew this couldn’t last. She didn’t know what might change. That she could no longer be Tim’s boss? That they could no longer carry on with this strange dance without addressing the feelings between them? She wondered if this was how a bomb might feel, an uneasy pressure building after its fuse was lit.
It happened late one night, long after the last guest had pushed up from her seat and the dishwashers had finished scrubbing.
That morning, Tim had stood beside Jane at a small, steaming saucepan filled with red wine, blackberries, a curlicue of orange peel, and a palmful of cloves. Two bosc pears sat at the bottom. She used some of the wine they had tasted together in Napa and soaked only two pears so as to not waste this precious liquid, and to show him that this delicacy was meant for only them.
“I can’t believe you’ve never poached pears,” she said. “Moreover, that you’ve never eaten one.”
“They are a delicacy in Lyon and Burgundy,” he said. “So far from where I grew up.”
“Well, these will be divine.”
She’d cooked the pears, covered the saucepan, and put it in the refrigerator until the evening.
She considered having Tim watch her fish the pears from their bath but, instead, waited to fetch him until she had plated one pear alongside a scoop of mascarpone and then simmered the remaining sauce down to a shiny, blood-red reduction. She turned the flame low to keep it warm without burning. Only then did she walk back through the dining room. She passed Eartha, who had wound a thick knitted scarf around her neck as she headed out for the night.
“Is Tim around?” she asked. Though, of course, she knew he was.
“In the break room.” Eartha pushed a wool hat on her head and made her way toward the door to leave.
Jane found him reading over the menu for the next day. When he looked up, her heart clenched.
“I have something for you,” she said and gestured for him to follow.
In the kitchen, she spooned the hot liquid over the pear, so that it enveloped it. Then, she slipped the dripping spoon inside. The red-stained exterior yielded to plump, white fruit.
“Look at those colors,” she said quietly. “Some people like to core the pears and slice them in half before they poach them. But doing it this way—it’s beyond beautiful.”
Tim stood close enough that his breath tickled the wisps of her hair. She swooped up some mascarpone and took a bite. The flavor filled her with a strange feeling. The contrast between the hot liquid and the cool pear, the decadence of wine alongside the purity of the fruit. And then the mascarpone, creamy and smooth.
With the same spoon that had just been inside her mouth, she composed another bite. She locked eyes with Tim. His lips hung open and she could see his pink tongue glistening inside. She moved closer and, as slow as if she were trying not to spook a colt, raised the spoon, summoning him. The top of her hip met his thigh as he let her feed him. Oh, how she wanted him.
She placed the spoon down. She felt strangely calm. He didn’t have to be afraid, she didn’t want him to worry that she would reject him. She needed to broach the space between them. She took his hand, which trembled slightly, but accepted her grasp. His skin felt warm and dry. Then Jane tipped her head and kissed him. His mouth was sticky from the dessert, his lips simultaneously as thin and as full as they looked when he spoke.
He pulled back. “I can’t,” he stammered. “I’m engaged.”
The idea seemed so preposterous—after all, Jane had spent all these days around Tim without hearing of a fiancée or even a girlfriend. “No, you aren’t,” she said with a tinny laugh. But then she saw that Tim’s face had turned gray, and she knew it was true.
“You know her, actually,” he said. “Annabelle. From the butchery.”
The apprentice sausage maker at Steven’s shop. The girl was pretty, though stout. Always wore her hair in milkmaid braids wrapped up in a blue bandanna. When she’d looked at Annabelle, Jane could identify all the ways time would change and ugly this childish woman. The body primed for fattening, like the suckling pigs Jane bought from that very shop. Annabelle always blushed and hurried around to get Jane’s orders. Always “Yes, ma’am” and “I’m so sorry, ma’am” and never looking Jane in the eyes. That was who Tim desired? Someone domesticated? Docile?
But, of course, it made sense. He was still, after all, a man. With Annabelle, he could live as he wished, never acquiescing to someone else’s dreams or assertions. Not like he’d have to if he’d chosen Jane.
“We met at the holiday party,” Tim added. Perhaps to fill the silence or to make Jane feel better for her hand in this union. Jane invited Steven and his staff to the Dîner party every year, as she did their florists, the offsite bakers, the wine purveyors, even some of the farmers. Jane imagined Tim and Annabelle meeting over the appetizers and expensive wines she’d selected. Pouring each other cups from the vat of mulled wine she’d made. Tim and Annabelle talking in a corner while Jane rushed around, feeling as if it were her responsibility to work so that everyone else might celebrate and socialize in peace, except for that sole moment where she connected with Eartha.
She felt unbearably foolish. Turning from Tim, she scraped the pear into the trash. A lone fly buzzed up as the fruit disappeared into the heap.
“You’re upset,” Tim said.
Jane placed the plate in the sink and blasted it with a messy sheaf of water. “I think you should leave,” she said. She only intended to mean: Go home now, tonight. But as it left her mouth, she realized that she also meant: Forever.
“You’re firing me?” Though his face strained to hold back his grief, he clasped his hands in front of his waist, as if taking an order from a guest.
She felt hot waves of pity, for both of them. But when she swallowed those feelings, she felt awash in ice. A hot sauce yielding to cold fruit.
“It will be better for both of us if you resign,” she said. “I’ll give you a recommendation anywhere you want to work as a waiter.”
“I understand your decision.” Tim’s body stiffened, his eyes searching the wall for somewhere to focus. “If you change your mind, I think—”
“I don’t change my mind.”
“Perhaps, then, you would feel comfortable recommending me for a higher level of management, now that I’ve trained under you?”
When she said nothing, he moved to see himself out. She should have stopped herself then, but couldn’t help from twisting the knife. She never could.
“You’re a wonderful waiter,” she called to his back. He paused. “But I don’t know that you’re suited to being a restaurateur.” She watched his body tighten with hurt, though he didn’t look back. His spine remained as straight as when he served in the dining room.
And then he was gone.
Jane dumped the sauce down the drain, moving without care, splattering some on her shirt. She ran the water hot and scrubbed at the dishes until her hands turned pink. She didn’t realize she was crying until she noticed a silhouette in the door.
“I thought you’d gone home.” Jane pawed at her cheeks, wishing she could take back the tears.
“I forgot the keys,” Eartha said. In fact, it was Jane’s oversight, not Eartha’s. Eartha was scheduled to open Dîner for morning prep. In her attempt to impress Tim, Jane had forgotten to hand off her set.
“Did you see . . .?” She couldn’t verbalize her humiliation.
“No,” Eartha said. “I’d realized about the keys when I was partway home. I only saw Tim leave.”
“But you could tell what happened. You know.”
Eartha nodded. Jane thought her chef might scold her for being such an idiot. Instead, walking toward Jane, she opened her strong arms. Jane almost ducked away from the embrace but, as soon as she felt Eartha’s touch, she collapsed into it.
“I’m stupid, so stupid,” Jane choked out. Eartha held her until her sobs relented, and then she kissed Jane on the temple. She held her employer at arms’ length, allowing a look of such kindness to pass over her face that Jane could hardly bear to see it, and then she released her.
“I’ll finish the dishes,” Eartha said. “Go home and rest.”
Jane savored this kindness and did as she was told.
Lexi Pandell is a writer from Oakland, California. Her short stories have been published by Wired, Queen Mob’s Tea House, the museum of americana, Peatsmoke Journal, Akashic Books, among other publications. An alumna of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Pandell was a 2020 Writing By Writers fellow and serves as the host of Desert Salon, an annual writing retreat in Joshua Tree. She is at work on a novel about the Bay Area restaurant scene.