“No, sir. I apologize.”
Teo hunched over to show the customer other selections on the wine list. His back strained as the man took extra time reading it, pulling the menu deeper into the table to show his friends.
“But you had it three weeks ago. Why isn’t it still here? Are people supposed to enjoy something and never expect to have it again?”
This one’s new, Teo thought.
He grinned and held steady on his legs as he again expressed his sincerest regrets to ease the situation. When the man was told they had unfortunately just run out the night before, he pointed at a random bottle instead before shooing him away. In actuality, it had been more than four months since the man drunkenly gulped down that wine on a miserable date. Teo knew better than to say anything, though. Customers didn’t dine there because they wanted to hear facts. They were only there to eat great food and have a good time.
The dimmed restaurant bustled with excitement behind Teo as he entered in the order. The soft light of the screen illuminated his face, with a blaring chorus of a busy Thursday night dining room unfolding all around. Everyone was moving and hustling in some sort of celebration. There was a strong and momentous force created by the collective vigor of chewing, talking, laughing, and imbibing—producing an energy so palpable that even the staff could not stay idle.
At first glance, the company policy of no uniforms made it hard to differentiate between customers and employees. But then it became clear from watching who was running around and squeezing through spaces that seemed to morph with every table change. Their stride included workplace nuances that repeated all throughout the night like an effortless performance. Used plates held behind one’s back were handed over to a faceless teammate like a baton. The same nightly specials were repeated with easing confidence since the chef always expected it to be the first thing that sells out. Jokes from customers that had been heard countless times before were laughed at with sincerity while thinking about the other four things that needed to be done in their section. The pride they all felt for their jobs was deeply connected to the dedication everyone put forth. And for each customer who walked in those doors, it was that feeling they wanted to be a part of as well.
“I’m next,” singsonged Em. She used the glare near Teo to read over her order and made sure it was coursed correctly. The true beauty of her face surfaced from the computer glow, completely transforming her to the Em-at-Home or the Em-Out-With-Friends. All of the tables to her back would never have the pleasure of meeting those versions, but Server Em had her own special appeal.
“Oh my god, I have a funny story to tell you later,” she said. She swung her head and looked over her shoulder. Even though it was extremely busy, Em’s tables were all easy to deal with. She was having a nice shift so far, and it’s always a pleasure to have a good day at work. She fought the urge to touch her hair as she waited for Teo, using one of the few still moments of her night to think about how much money she would be making instead.
Teo finished up and stepped to the side as he dug into his apron for a wine key.
“Me too!” he said before scurrying away.
The wine glasses were the last elements to be gathered as Teo prepped for his table. Each one was carefully inspected under the only decently lit light bulb of the room right above the wine fridge. He wiped a smudge off one and gripped everything in his hands with a firm lightness. Here we go, he thought.
When Teo got out of work, he walked over with one of his coworkers to their usual spot. Em and some others were already there waiting and most likely drunk and rowdy, soldiering on through the late night with fumes of excitement from hours earlier that were on their last leg.
“Teo and Johnny are here!” screamed Em. She pumped her beer into the air and used it as an excuse to cheers the lively group, which moments before had been for her song coming on the jukebox.
Everyone’s pockets were abound with fresh cash, desperate for a hole to burn. Teo joined in on the festivities like they were all seeing each other for the first time that evening, and incorporated himself into the natural rotation of buying a round of shots. The burning in his throat from tequila didn’t hurt as much as the one in his pockets. He sucked on the lime to forget about all the hard work he had put into his shift, and the money he was blowing from it.
“Here Teo, this one’s on me,” said the bartender as he poured out two shots of bourbon.
“Ben, I can’t, man. That’ll kill me.”
Ben gave him a wink and held up a shot glass, alluring Teo to raise his own and clink in camaraderie. The lingering numbness in his throat made this one go down easier. He hated to admit it but Ben had been right. The alcohol felt nice, lubricating him enough to forget about the first shot and happily rejoin the gang.
Teo marched towards the back of the bar where they had all settled. His arrival somehow gave a sense of completion to this motley crew, sliding in like the final ingredient of a dish now ready to be served. Each one of them complimented the next in variables that either instantly made sense or was always realized later down the line. There were about a dozen of them altogether in a constant flow of revolving conversation. Each added an anecdote here and a laugh there before being pulled or propelled to another. Their effortless merry-go-round of chatter dominated the entire space.
Nearby tables studied them in curiosity and wondered who this diverse group of likeminded misfits were. Ben constantly fielded questions from customers at the bar about them.
“They’re a bunch of friends who work together,” he would always respond with a smile. “They’re here all the time.”
Teo and Em finally had a moment to chat after Johnny loudly proclaimed that he had to pee. He had stopped mid-sentence during his story about a drunken customer and stumbled towards the men’s room.
“Okay, Em. So, that funny story. Remember that table last night, where that tall guy with his three friends got really drunk? And then he signed his receipt but left his credit card on the table?”
“Tall guy...” slurred Em as she took another sip of her drink.
“Yeah, you know! The cute one! They were sitting at Delta-West. He had on that shirt with the funny collar.”
“Oh, yeah. Tall guy!”
“Well, Lola worked a double today. And she said he came in during lunch to pick up his card, but ended up staying to eat alone. But then he got so drunk again and forgot it again! Isn’t that hilarious? It’s like, wow, I want to make it in life where I can do that, too.”
Teo took a moment to ponder how that would be. To go eat at any restaurant he wanted at any time he felt like, that’s when he would know that things are good. This was especially true about having a leisurely lunch on any weekday. If he wanted pasta, he’d go have it. Or if he felt like eating Korean barbecue, he would. I have to make that happen, he thought.
“So what’s your funny story?” he asked.
“Funny story?” Em asked perplexed.
Teo took another sip of his beer and waited for her to remember. He knew it would just take a second.
“Oh! Funny story. Remember that interview I went on last Monday?”
“The one you almost missed because you woke up late?” he chuckled.
“Well, I didn’t wake up late. I was hungover, so I needed to sleep a little more.”
“Sure. That one. Yeah.”
Teo tipped the bottom of his pint glass into the air before grabbing Em’s hand. Her drink had been empty for some time and he brought her to the bar to get them both another. As they waited for Ben to finish pouring, Em remembered she was still in the middle of her story.
“So, that interview. Well, I got the job! I’m moving to Pittsburgh in two months.”
Teo’s face would have remained frozen in shock if it hadn’t been for Ben.
“You got a new gig? Congrats, Em! This one’s on me, you guys” said Ben.
Em smiled with complete jubilation and did a dance on the spot. For now, she hadn’t been planning on telling anyone other than Teo. But hearing her first congratulatory best wishes made the news finally seem real, and she pumped her body down low as Ben cheered on. Teo stayed absolutely still except for his eyes, as they followed her gyrations in disbelief.
“Yeah. Cheers, Em.” he declared before downing his entire glass.
Countless drinks later, Teo’s wobble gained strength only when with a cocktail in hand. He was oblivious to his state, and being steered by a voice who sometimes played substitute to his sober self. The kind of teacher who knew they would never have the same roll call twice. Where both curiosities and rages were explored, and choices were made that only left confusion in the morning. He had lost count on the amount of alcohol he’d consumed or the money he’d spent. But he was smiling and laughing and enjoying himself. And in moments like those, there was nothing else that mattered.
When Teo woke up hours later, he was still drunk. The first thing he noticed was the silence as he darted his eyes around in panic. He was relieved to be in his own bed alone. But when he looked towards his clock, he screamed in alarm and ran for the bathroom. He was late for his lunch shift as the opening server, and knew how much trouble he would be in. This was a serious fuck-up even he was surprised by.
As manic as he felt, Teo still was able to doze off on the subway ride. When he got to the restaurant, he squeezed by the host, Kristen, and the large group of customers who were clamored around her at the front vestibule. She screamed his name as she looked up from mapping out tables on her clipboard.
“Oh, I heard about last night,” she giggled. “Damn, dude. Good luck in there!”
Teo grimaced with a sigh before dashing inside to look for his manager. The same four-letter word repeated over and over in his head as he scanned the busy dining room. All of the servers, bartenders, and busboys were slammed with customers. None of them even had a chance to notice Teo standing there in the middle of it all. Maybe I can just go drop off my stuff and get on the floor without anyone knowing, he thought.
Teo headed downstairs towards the lockers through the restaurant’s narrow staircase. When he got there, he was incapable of doing anything but standing absolutely still. He could smell last night’s booze coming out of his pores as droplets of sweat slowly dripped off his chin. His stomach gurgled from the jumble of everything inside it fighting to discharge from his body. The sudden nausea and exhaustion he felt had him fantasizing about making drastic changes to his life. He would quit drinking and finally get out of the industry. He would stop going out and get his shit together. He couldn’t remember how many times he had had this epiphany and made these promises to himself. But today was the final straw, he told himself. This is rock bottom, I can’t do this anymore, he thought.
Teo rested his head on the wall of lockers as he closed his eyes to the world. The dim basement was still except for the silhouette of him doubled over in pain. The strong urge to either cry or get some sleep were equally fighting for his attention and depleted him of energy to think of anything else. Teo wondered how he would get through his double-shifts for the day as the throbbing in his stomach sharpened. Just thinking about having to be on his feet for the next 10 hours was already overwhelming. His thoughts were engrossed with only nightmare work scenarios happening: rude customers, the credit card machine breaking down, or fucking up an order to be reamed out by the kitchen.
Without hesitation, Teo let out a rank fart that provided his first feeling of relief in the entire day. He sighed in comfort and managed to smirk with his eyes still shut.
“That is so fucking gross,” said his manager, Lizzette.
Teo squinted and focused in on Lizzette with his bloodshot eyes. He didn’t know how long she had been standing there with her arms crossed.
“Oh my god, Lizzette! I’m so sorry. I know! I totally fucked up and let you down. I’m sorry for coming late and messing things up today.”
“You’re actually early for work today. So go chill out in the office before you start as the closer.”
Lizzette studied him with pity disguised by disgust. She had always liked Teo and knew he was sincere in his apology. He rarely had incidents like this at work while other employees made it a regular habit of theirs. But she knew dealing with this sort of behavior just came from being a restaurant manager. She had been there before in that same position, just like everyone else she knew. And Teo had lasted almost two years since being hired without a mistake this bad, so she had to give him credit for that.
The presence of Lizzette put Teo at ease. Her voluminous curly hair in dirty blonde and large doe-like eyes suddenly made him feel better as she lead him towards the small office near the staircase. She unlocked the door in silence and quickly rearranged some chairs and containers to clear out a space in the corner. Items from an old lost-and-found box in the closet were laid out in layers with a generous pile at the very end for a pillow. Teo watched as Lizzette produced this makeshift bed with expertise. He had never seen this before, and had never heard of any of his coworkers talking about it. But this couldn’t be Lizzette’s first time doing this, he thought.
Teo’s instincts immediately had him collapsing on the heap of strangers’ clothes. His eyes were shut before his body hit the ground. Lizzette watched him curl up in happiness from under the doorway before turning off the lights.
“By the way, Em switched shifts with you. She came in early this morning to be the opener,” Lizzette said. “I’ll wake you up in an hour for your closing shift. Sweet dreams, Teo.”
Teo’s entire lunch shift as the closing server went by in slow motion, and it forced him to endure every detail of it on a microscopic level. The way a customer’s nostrils flared when they pursed their lips to decide on their order. Or the amount of energy needed to yell “pick-up!” and dart to the pass in response to the expeditor screaming for help. The entire lunch service felt like an out-of-body experience with Teo’s head in a far away place. He used the little energy he had to simply coast for the next few hours.
All of his fellow servers and front-of-house colleagues stayed out of Teo’s way and left him alone. Only a handful of them had lasted late until the previous night to witness Teo at peak blackout point. But gossip among restaurant workers traveled fast, especially if they were friends. The multiple group chats that existed within the different social circles among them had been on fire earlier in the morning. Everyone had been glued to their phones, texting one another with gasps and laughs on the various subway lines they took for their commute to the East Village. And when Em showed up to cover Teo’s opening shift, those working on the floor were quick to sneak a moment on their devices to share the news.
The kitchen and back-of-house staff, however, were on Teo’s case. Most of them knew about what happened through the small tidbits of information a few of the servers had shared, and that Teo had missed his opening shift. They were practically watching him like helpless prey, salivating at the idea of having a reason to give him a hard time.
And when Teo realized he had forgotten to enter an appetizer for a table’s order, the color drained from his face in fear. He added it into the computer system with his stomach in knots. He knew the kitchen would want to know why the dish hadn’t been entered with the entire meal to be coursed correctly. He also knew that he’d have to tell them he needed the appetizer on the fly, meaning another table would have to wait longer for theirs. This one small error had a cascade of consequences. The kitchen loathed mistakes like this.
Teo reluctantly headed towards the pass of the open kitchen in the back of the dining room to go explain the situation. Customers all around were happily eating and enjoying themselves, oblivious to the danger Teo was walking into. The sous chef had an entire bird’s eye view of the restaurant, and was already awaiting him with the ticket in hand and grin from ear-to-ear.
The expeditor always stood at the pass like a gatekeeper between the kitchen and dining room. They were one of the few employees who were a part of both the front-of-house and back-of-house, acting as a liaison for the two different worlds. Together with the sous chef, it was their job to make sure each plate that came out of the kitchen looked beautiful, while commandeering which dishes needed to be taken to which tables. The expediter, Noah, made eye contact with Teo as he slowly trudged along towards him and the sous chef. Knowing what was to come, Noah immediately turned to face the kitchen because he took no pleasure in witnessing Teo’s takedown.
“Chef, I’m sorry but I forgot to add in the—“
“Shut up! Stop coming in to work late and all fucked-up, you motherfucker! This is why shit like this happens, dickhead! Stop making mistakes and get your shit together! I don’t give a fuck about any excuses that are about to spill out of your dumbass mouth. You think anyone here gives a shit? You piece of shit motherfucker who can’t even enter in a goddamn order right!”
Teo stood there as the sous chef continued to berate him without mercy. The entire kitchen staff had stopped what they were doing to merrily look on and snicker. They laughed at his ordeal and took pleasure in the sous chef chewing out someone who wasn’t one of them for once. It was way more pleasurable and entertaining. Teo understood this was how it worked, though. He had expected repercussions for what happened, and tried not to take things from the kitchen personally.
He managed to survive the rest of the shift without any major issues. Teo recounted the money from his closeout for the third time before handing over his bundle of checks and cash to Lizzette. He was feeling slightly less hungover and more human at this point, and stood at the office door as she double-checked it all. He stared at the corner he had napped in just a few hours earlier, which was back to the way it always was. Lizzette gave him the thumbs-up while still looking down at her work, and said he was free to leave until he started his dinner shift.
However, Teo did not move. He waited to think of the right words in expressing his gratitude for Lizzette’s help from the morning. It was the least he could do.
“Lizzette, I just wanted to—“
“Bye!” she said while still concentrated on her work.
“But I just wanted to say thank you for—“
Lizzette put her pen down and looked at Teo for the first time since the morning.
“Teo, get out of here. Go get some air,” she sternly said.
Teo bolted to a nearby park a few blocks south on Second Avenue. He plopped himself down on a bench facing an old church and tried doing some people watching. It was a beautiful spring day in the East Village, with hoards of revelers that would normally soak up his attention. But he couldn’t shake off the feelings that still enveloped him from his shift. This novel sensation of being the person everyone at work hated shook him. He felt drained of energy except for what was needed to have a complete breakdown.
A dog sitting on the bench next to him locked eyes with Teo. It was grey and small with wiry hair, and Teo peered into its soul with envy. I wish I could trade places with you right now, he thought. The dog’s owner was playing a game on their smartphone with the sound blasting, and Teo looked harder into its eyes in hopes of finding the answers to fix his life.
“Teo, that dog’s not going to tell you about what happened last night,” said a voice from behind.
Teo turned around to see his coworker Lola holding two iced coffees.
“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.
Lola handed Teo his drink before digging through her purse for something.
“Here,” she said before presenting his cellphone. “I found this on the table last night after you left.”
Teo stared at it, absolutely frightened to check what was waiting for him. The rhythm of its beating heart pulsated throughout his body and made his hand tense into a clawlike form. He wanted to fly away and drop it into the ocean.
“Fuck,” he angrily muttered.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t go through or read anything. But you have a lot of missed calls and text messages.”
“Fuck,” Teo sighed.
“So, you want me to tell you what happened?”
She secretly held back again on giggling as thoughts of what Teo did crossed her mind. Even when she first noticed him just now sitting on the bench while running errands before her dinner shift, she had burst out laughing. In fact, she had laughed so loud and heartily that she was sure Teo had heard her from across the street.
When Teo lit up the screen of his phone, there were twenty-eight missed calls along with seventy-two unread text messages.
“Fuck!” he screamed in frustration.
Lola continued to quietly take sips of her coffee.
“I charged it for you,” she said as an offering of good news.
Teo rested his on head on Lola’s shoulder before thanking her.
“Was it that bad?” he asked staring at nothing.
“Yeah. It’s pretty bad,” she confessed.
An hour after Em had made her announcement last night, Teo stopped what everyone was doing and gathered who was left of the crew. It was so late into the night that they were practically the last customers left at the backroom of the bar.
“Hey! Hey! I have something to say!” he yelled.
Including Lola, there were six of them sitting with their attention on Teo and Em. A wall of empty booths to their left and their right stood as a strong reminder of how much more livelier and fun the environment had been earlier. Each of them sat there on the edge of passing out. They were ready to go pee one last time before leaving (which used to be a reoccurring suggestion from Teo that that somehow became a way of life for them all), and then it would be time to go take the subway home.
Lola had been the last to arrive from work that night and had just sat down with a new drink. In her condition, this cocktail was the one that would take her to the point of no return. It’d be the beginning of a second wind and where remembering things could possibly get spotty, which was the realm everyone else was already in.
“What is it?” she screamed like a jerk before laughing and mouthing I love you.
“My friend, Em, here. My good, good, friend who’s also my roommate! Well, this girl right here. I have exciting news about her!” he slurred.
Even in their drunken stupors, the table noticed Em’s look of suspicion as Teo dragged her next to him. He put his arm around her shoulders as his cup dangled from the same hand. Its melted whiskey soda sloshed along inside as he spoke, truly coming close to spilling over only once.
“Oh my god, Teo!” Em nervously laughed while clearly drunk. “You better stop!”
“I just want to say congratulations, Em,” he continued.
With her eyes half closed, Em pushed Teo’s arm off of her. She slowly sat at the edge of the booth seat where Lola was and moaned in happiness because she was finally off her feet. She sat at a slight angle with her back towards everyone, secretly mouthing “let’s go” with force to Teo as he ignored her.
“Shut up, asshole!” she laughed. “I’m too tired. Let’s just call a car home already. I’ll pay for it.”
“Everyone!” Teo continued. “Em got a new job and is moving to Pittsburgh!”
Teo began clapping his hands at a speed that lacked in drumming up excitement about anything. His palms sometimes even missed, which only made Teo laugh and become happier.
The anger in Em’s reaction came slowly as everyone at the table jolted a little more awake to congratulate her and ask questions
“Wow, congrats! Where you headed?” asked Rhamon.
“Is it another restaurant?” asked Mark.
“That’s so cool, Em! Congrats!” said Lola as she gave her a hug from behind.
Ian, Julia, and Santiago became full of energy and sat up straight again. It was their suggestion to get another round of celebration drinks that made Teo jump up from excitement.
“Yes! Great idea! You guys stay here, I’ll get them!”
The group’s attention turned to Em with a barrage of more questions.
The fact that they all knew wasn’t what made Em uncomfortable, but she hadn’t planned on telling anyone else at work until her two-week notice. She had specifically told this to Teo earlier in the night, and could feel her sense of betrayal transforming into rage from the alcohol. She kept it together in front of everyone but also entertained the idea of smashing a chair over Teo’s head.
She had planned for her remaining time in New York to be busy while preparing for the move, but that schedule for herself was now in jeopardy. Em had worked at the restaurant practically the longest out of everyone. This wasn’t because she was the oldest, but because she was one of the first hires. And over the years, she had accumulated a large amount of return favors in the form of covering shifts with the entire front-of-house staff. For Lola alone, Em owed her two dinner shifts and a lunch shift. But anytime Lola had needed help in having her shifts covered, there was always a reason why Em couldn’t. “Sorry, I have a family thing that day,” or “I so wish I could but I just can’t,” she would defensively insist. This is why Em had planned to act like it was a last-minute move. That would make it appear as if she barely had time to work her own normal number of shifts.
Lola could sense Em’s anger as they waited for Teo to return with drinks. Everyone else was back to talking about a new employee while Em laser beamed holes into the back of Teo’s head. Lola pulled Em close to lean against her and put her arm over her shoulder as if she was hugging her again. She could feel the weight of Em’s upper body next to her and made sure to have a good grip.
“Teo!” shrieked Em at the top of her lungs.
Teo turned around from the echo of his name while at the front end of the bar. He gave a thumbs up and yelled, “Be right there! I almost got them!”
He spun back around to the bar and continued pleading.
“Come on, man! One last round, I swear, Ben. One, last one. Please. Please, please!”
“Dude, you’re pretty gone. I can’t.” responded Ben.
“Yes, you’re right! But everyone else isn’t. It’s just me that’s like this,” he petitioned. “And I’ll give you a crazy tip. Come on, it’s for Em’s new job. Eh? Yeah?”
Ben finally said yes but refused to serve them tequila.
“Absolutely no way. You guys are getting Polar Bear shots, and then I’m closing up. You got me?” asked Ben.
“Yes! Thank you. Thank you, Ben!” Teo responded.
By the time he returned to the table, nobody even asked what the shots were. They each grabbed one while Lola still held on to Em. Teo stood near the center of the table and lead the toast for everyone sitting down. Em slammed down her shot glass as everyone else thanked Teo for buying the round.
“Okay, I got to go pee now,” Teo said before turning around.
The conversation at the table continued as Teo took two steps forward with his back to everyone. He swayed in front of a nearby chair with Em’s open handbag on the seat and proceeded to inch closer towards it. Lola and Em watched it all unfold in slow motion as Teo unzipped his pants and started to urinate directly into the bag.
While Julia and Santiago immediately pulled out their phones to capture it all, everyone else screamed for Teo to stop. Ben noticed all the commotion from behind the bar in the front area and jumped over the counter to start charging his way. Em couldn’t take it any longer and struggled to escape from Lola’s grip. She freed herself and stood strongly on her left foot as she kicked Teo in the middle of his back with her right. She sent him flying forward to knock out face down onto the floor.
When they all gathered around Teo’s body, Ben got onto one knee to inspect him at a closer look.
“Yup, this motherfucker is snoring,” he shrugged.
The glow of the restaurant’s neon sign provided a warm welcome to Teo.
Its hushed buzzing of fluorescent pink light lit up the compact section of the sidewalk in front, making for a captivating spectacle on the mostly residential street. The only other business nearby was a dry cleaner two stores down, which illuminated nothing during evening hours.
Teo’s closer peek through the restaurant window outlined its small space of twelve tables and eight bar seats, almost dark and nearly unoccupied. A woman who sat facing him at the only table of diners inside immediately noticed Teo’s roving gaze shadowed in a salmon hue, causing the two to immediately look away after locking eyes.
Teo’s instincts had already brought one foot behind the other as he leaned back to refocus. He was still the lone person standing on the block of Waverly Place where it meets the southern end of Gay Street. There was no sign of life anywhere in his realm but his heaving chest, no one else in the city doing anything but waiting for him to take advantage of this moment so the next could go.
Teo always hoped to hear a bell on the other side of the door jingle when stepping into a restaurant. But there was none as he walked into Bread Fun.
It took only a few paces for him to reach the end bar seat. The worker behind the counter had already completed setting up Teo’s menu and silverware with a warm greeting by the time he sat.
“Hi, my name’s Teo. I’m friends with Booker. He told me to drop by today?”
Teo looked the entire space over again to make sure he hadn’t missed Booker, and confirmed the couple dining together and two kitchen staffers were the only other ones there. Teo stole a moment to stare out onto the quiet street through the restaurant’s large front window. It was framed in neon lighting, practically luminescent, and he couldn’t figure out whether it was the outside or inside of this fishbowl that was supposed to be gawked at.
“Hey, Teo. I’m Nick, the manager here. Booker actually just stepped out to cut his hair, but told us you’d be coming. So, welcome.”
“Nice to meet you,” Teo smiled.
Just from watching Nick work, Teo understood why Booker would put his trust in him. Beyond his colorful hair with blunt bangs and an ornate face piercing, Nick appeared genuine and capable, and provided an ease of being in very good hands. It was a feeling that allowed customers to let their guards down and enjoy themselves. There would be no anticipation of rudeness or annoyances to ruin the night, but only pleasure from being guided by a true professional.
“Booker said you guys used to work together,” Nick mentioned as he poured Teo’s wine order.
“We did. That feels like such another lifetime ago. It was during college when I was a freshman and he was a senior. We both worked at this sports bar in Midtown. It was always crazy busy. I think it was the first true serving job for both of us. Anyway, we immediately became close because we were the only Asian guys working there.”
“Aw, that’s cute,” he chuckled. “I would’ve killed to see little baby Booker working at a sports bar.”
“Well, he used to be scared shitless!” Teo joked.
Nick continued to make small talk while monitoring the restaurant at the same time. He stayed alert for any situation possible. His attention was split between the entrance, Teo, and the existing diners. Nick knew any pedestrian or passing silhouette from outside could easily be a customer about to walk in. But it wasn’t just that. There was a twitch of anxiety in his countenance that Teo recognized. An anticipation, dreading of some sort, like the ascent of a roller coaster before its countless journey of loops and turns that both exhilarates and drains. Nick was waiting for when Booker would return, because it was in that split-second he would push his smile to be a little wider and his body to be a tad more nimble. Every time he came through the door, he wanted Booker to catch him in a moment of superlative service, where giving it everything he’s got translated to only a standard norm required for any restaurant of Booker’s. And it was this drive Teo respected the most because in the end, it only made the customer’s experience better.
“So, how long have you guys been open?” asked Teo.
“Today’s the third day, and it’s been great,” responded Nick with enthusiasm. “The weekend could’ve been super quiet since Booker didn’t want to make any announcements or anything. But you know, we got pretty lucky. It wasn’t crazy busy, but the restaurant was full at some point on both days. Lots of people from the neighborhood noticing us and walking in. It was nice. We got to talk with a lot of them.”
Teo was happy to hear that and imagined the empty dining room filled with customers.
Mondays in the restaurant world were known as one of the slowest days of the week. That made it a favorite for industry night, when workers take the day off to visit their bartender, chef, and server friends at other restaurants. Teo chose his one night off of the week for this specific Monday after Booker asked him to swing by. Because Booker’s texts about it had been so casual, Teo assumed the space was still under construction. He’d expected to be surrounded by paint cans and unassembled bar stools Booker was going to coax Teo’s assistance on in exchange for food, booze, and conversation. But the restaurant looked to be in great shape with the smell of new hopes for sloppy times emanating from all of the barely used surfaces.
“You guys opened this weekend?” Teo asked in slight disbelief. “It looks great. Congrats.”
Teo sipped his wine and knew Booker had walked in the door through the shift in Nick’s expression.
“Teo!” screamed Booker as he gave a bear hug to his back. “You made it! Welcome to SoGay!”
Teo swiveled around to hug him properly and grabbed tightly onto Booker’s strapping body.
“SoGay?” asked Teo with a laugh and a pat. “I think the only thing that’s so gay is us. The sign outside says Bread Fun, no?”
Booker threw his belongings behind the counter and stood directly in front Teo, as if he was about to take his order or cite the day’s specials. Booker’s almond-shaped eyes and strong nose appeared more prominent with the expert fade of his fresh haircut. He went to the barbershop at least once a week, and always maintained a clean-cut look except for the dark stubble around his mouth that was more strategic than people would think. Whenever they were together, strangers always thought he and Teo were related. Perhaps brothers or cousins from the same Korean-American family, with Booker being the hotter, and more affable one that was named from his dad’s love of literature.
“It is,” he responded. “But we’re south of Gay Street, so this neighborhood’s called SoGay. I made it up.”
Booker poured himself a generous glass of wine just shy of a centimeter from the rim. It was the amount of wine Teo always fantasized about getting when ordering a glass at any bar or restaurant. He loved that he and Booker were so alike, and that their appreciation for imbibing was one of the strong foundations to their bond.
“I even bought this restaurant space for that reason,” Booker continued. “It’s small and was a complete dump, but was the only empty place in Manhattan that is technically just south of Gay street. I’m SoGay, bitch!” he laughed.
“You need to put that on a t-shirt,” Teo joked. “Well, okay. I guess congrats? On creating a whole new neighborhood in New York? But can you just do that? Don’t you think your neighbors will mind this new rebranding of the area? Don’t you have to notify City Hall or something?”
“Honey,” Booker assured as he scooted his body closer to Teo over the bar. “Who wouldn’t love living in SoGay? I mean, a catchy acronym is money. New Yorkers practically brag about them. Look at district under the Manhattan Bridge overpass for DUMBO, or triangle below Canal for TriBeCa. Gay Street in New York is some tiny little street in Manhattan that runs a single block in length. It was only time before a homosexual entrepreneur like me came and built something on it.”
Even though there wasn’t much left in it, Booker raised his glass and grinned. He waited for Teo to do the same, and they both cheersed before finishing off their little remaining wine.
“But SoGay does have one strict rule,” Booker noted as he refilled their glasses with his signature heavy pour. “The one rule of the neighborhood is: no pissing into people’s stuff!”
Booker cracked up so loudly that it drew the attention of everyone inside Bread Fun.
“Asshole,” said Teo before taking a big gulp of his wine. “I knew you knew about what happened! I had a hunch. But who told you? Is that why you invited me here? To make fun of me for being a drunken idiot?”
“Aw, Teo,” Booker snickered. He walked around to the barstool Teo was planted on and gave him a sympathetic look along with quick peck on the cheek.
“Em told me about it. And yes, of course.”
Teo spent the next few hours filling Booker in on what had happened. He had been evading the subject for as long as possible, deliberately sliding into his workplace minutes before his shifts to dodge conversation. Over the weekend as Booker quietly celebrated the opening of Bread Fun, Teo had been desperately trying to fly under the radar at another restaurant. His daily mission had become to simply put his head down to steer clear from any interactions that would deplete him of the little mental bandwidth and dignity he was barely hanging on to.
Recounting everything to Booker was the first time he had thought of the story in its entirety, with the parts from his own memory and then bits pieced together from what others had told him. He had fought thinking about it over the past four days by filling his head with intense self-hatred.
“You know,” Booker confided, “Em wants to talk with you. I know you’ve been avoiding her since it happened, but it’s just pissing her off more.”
Teo grunted and took another swallow of wine. To his surprise, the restaurant had become filled to capacity over the span of three bottles of Riesling with Booker. Teo was surrounded in a crush of Monday commotion that reminded him of a Friday night.
Being the professional he was, Nick seemed to have the front-of-house situation under total control on his own. Even as he bussed his own tables, there wasn’t a single diner in lack of anything. The chef and line cook were also running a smooth operation from the kitchen. Booker appeared completely unbothered. In the occasional moments he helped Nick out by attending to someone along one of the other bar seats, Teo took a moment to take the scene in. This was Booker’s third restaurant, all of which had become quiet successes. And Teo was happy to be there before all of the social media influencers and restaurant groupies eventually invaded the space. It was the Booker Kim magic touch, where the formula of a small restaurant serving quality food, great service, and a fashionable crowd to people-watch lured in customers nonstop.
“Look, all I do is scroll through photos of pasta nowadays,” Teo confessed. “I’m like really stressed out and can’t talk about this anymore.”
“I know you, Teo. I know you’re scared but you can’t avoid this like you do for other stuff. I mean you two live together for god’s sake. You need to talk to her.”
“Well, I haven’t run into her the entire weekend. And she’s been off from work so I wasn’t sure what to do,” Teo claimed.
“Darling, don’t pull that bullshit on me,” Booker laughed. He poured another glass of wine for Teo. “I know you’ve been sleeping at Steve and Fynn’s place the past few days. Why aren’t you going back home? Or returning any of her texts or calls?”
Steve and Fynn lived just a few blocks away from Teo’s Bushwick apartment. They had a strong relationship and surprisingly, had actually met at a bar. It happened years ago with the both of them day drinking solo at the same neighborhood spot. Their friendly bartender had noted the comedy in serving Steve and Fynn at the same time, which was the catalyst that lead to love at first eye roll. Steve and Fynn had immediately laughed after their simultaneous mental mockeries, which lead to an intense locking of the eyes. Stirred curiosity brought Fynn to his feet, making the first move by grabbing his belongings to plop down on the empty bar seat next to Steve. Their conversation lead them to learning about their parallel lives that had never intersected until that moment. The same age, similar backgrounds, and professions in accounting. Their undeniable chemistry passed the test hours later while in deep passion at Steve’s apartment, which Fynn moved into soon after. Their partnership was recognized by everyone they knew as being built off the strength of true destiny. It proved to be a strong foundation looked up to by Teo, Booker, and the few others in their friend group who were chronically single.
Steve and Fynn were used to Teo crashing on their couch after dinner parties or drunken nights out. His habit of zonking out was especially adored by their dog, so they accepted Teo as a permanent fixture of their living room like a worn-out cushion set in plush greenery and natural light. Coming home to see him splayed out on their custom-built furniture didn’t even make them flinch.
Teo knew Booker was right. He couldn’t avoid Em forever, so he reluctantly pulled his phone out of his backpack and powered it on. Its bright screen had him squinting as he moved his thumbs rapidly across it before planting the device face down onto the counter with a bit of resentment.
“By the way, I’d like to report the rude service here to the manager, please,” Teo proclaimed before bringing his wine glass to his lips. “But okay. Yeah, I told her I’d be coming home after this.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” said Booker with a grin. “Because that’s how we do it in SoGay!”
Em had yet to respond to Teo’s messages by the time he got to the street level of their subway station. He wasn’t sure if she would be at their place when he arrived, and was surprised to see her look up at him from their sofa when he did. With furrowed eyebrows, Em appeared to be in the middle of an intense scrolling session on her phone.
“Hi,” he timidly said as he locked the deadbolt.
“You pissed in my bag,” she said.
“Em, I’m so sorry,” he pleaded as he stayed by the door. “Like, seriously. I really messed up.”
“You pissed in my bag.”
“I know. I’m an asshole! Look, I’m really sorry. I fucked up.”
“You pissed in my bag!” she screamed before sitting straight up.
“What can I do to make it up to you? You know I’m sorry, right? Em, I promise I’ll buy you a new one. I swear.”
“You can’t afford to, bitch!”
Teo knew that Em was furious. He recognized her expression and tone from the time a customer at the restaurant had almost succeeded on dining and dashing in her section.
Em jumped up from the sofa and shoved the screen of her phone into Teo’s face.
“You see this Gucci bag, motherfucker? You see this picture, huh?” she egged. “Well that was my beautiful bag before you made it smell like the New York City subway, dickhead. Look at it!”
Teo quickly obliged and stared at the product listing of the website. However it wasn’t the gorgeous craftsmanship he was studying, but more the $3,000 price. Em was right, there was no way he could afford to get her a new one at the moment. It was a feat that seemed as impossible as paying off all his student loans this month in one sweep. Teo eventually backed away and wordlessly apologized again through the look on his face. It made Em turn away to sit back down on the couch with her head in her hands. She focused her concentration down at the floor and spoke calmly after taking a moment to regain her composure.
“I literally hate you right now. What the fuck, dude? I can’t believe you did that.”
Tears silently flowed down Em’s cheeks. Throughout their friendship starting from college, Teo had never seen her like this. But that was also because he had never done anything like this to her. From their countless nights of going out together and getting wasted, Em had never been the brunt of Teo’s drunken behavior. It had always been some other fool, with most of the time, it being Teo himself. It hurt him to see her upset knowing he was the cause of her pain. It had been six years since they met in school. He being a reserved student always tucked away in the corner of whatever space he was in, and she being the center of every raised hand or burst of laughter around her. They quickly became best friends, but also while living parallel lives from different worlds.
Graduation day had them both in the same auditorium screaming madly in excitement together for their futures, but it was Teo who had a clearer understanding of how different his journey to that point had been in comparison to hers. Because for Em, the less bumpy road allowed a privilege that did not require introspection or an analysis of the past in order to prepare for the future. She could simply just be, and it wasn’t until her family’s major financial downfall the week after she tossed her square academic cap into the air that took away this undeserved innocence.
“What am I going to do for money,” Em cried out. “How the fuck could my parents lose all their money right after I graduate college? It’s so not fair!”
With anguish, she mustered the energy needed to scoot off the oversized trash bag stuffed with her clothing that was being used as a makeshift beanbag. It was just one of many in a sea of her belongings that had taken up the entire living room of her new apartment with Teo in Bushwick. The modest space that had seemed ample in the morning just hours before Em moved in was now dwarfed by all of her stuff thrown about it, including her crinkled cap and gown from the week prior. Em reached for the bottle of wine on the floor to refill both her and Teo’s red plastic cups to the top.
The cups’ discretion and expendable qualities had them being Em and Teo’s preferred drinkware for the next two years as roommates, and could be found scattered about from the bathroom sink to the corners of their rooms. Neither of them found any absurdity in standing at the sink and rewashing the plastic red cups among their normal plates and silverware. They would simply stack the bright and glistening receptacles to dry and reuse again atop the hodgepodge of plateware in the dishrack. The lifespan of each one lasted surprisingly long considering they were utilized daily in lieu glass cups, mugs, or wine glasses. After the plastic cups would eventually crack near the rim, they were tossed in the trash and immediately replaced from one of the unopened bags that were always stocked in a cupboard above the fridge.
“Teo, what am I going to do now.” Em whined. “Like, I have to find a job and stuff.”
Teo sighed and offered an idea he knew she had yet to truly consider.
“Well, you do have a degree in architecture now. Why don’t you put it to some use?”
Em chuckled at the thought.
“Bro. Literally, come on. That’s like not what I’m trying to do right now.”
“At least you have some time to think a bit,” he reassured. “And you’re good on the first month of rent because of your fam, so I don’t know, you’ll figure it out.”
“How about you? What are you going to do now? Are you going to wait tables again?” she asked.
Teo had just quit his most recent server job before graduation, intent on finding an office gig where he would finally start a career with his creative writing degree. His time throughout school had been filled with what seemed like chaos, and he was desperate to begin his new official life as a college graduate. Being forced to move out from his Queens home lead him to living in six apartments over the past four years. That same time span was also filled with a constant change of restaurant jobs while juggling a full load of classes, internships, tuition, and the social pressures of college. Under Teo’s impression, he had rightfully earned the start of this new chapter of adulthood. He had paid his dues and then some, and deserved all of the success and money he was expecting to come his way. My struggles are over, he thought.
The first and only resemblance of this momentum was moving in with Em. Teo had been traumatized by a string of nightmare living situations, so Em’s last minute plea to find an apartment with her had come at the perfect moment. He had been days away from finalizing another shithole room with no window that knew he was being ripped off on. But this new pad with Em was clean and livable, making for the perfect foundation to the stability he so wanted. He had shed the majority of his personal belongings after years of frantically moving his stuff alone by Gypsy cabs and UberXLs. Beyond a bed and his clothes, he had come to consider everything as dead weight that would only have to be lugged around again. But now he dreamed of investing in things like picture frames to put on his room walls or a decent frying pan to eat eggs whenever he wanted. At long last, Teo’s firm roots would clear up some headspace which was usually dedicated to worrying about his housing insecurity, and he could already feel the difference in what that did to his body.
“Nope, I’m done waiting tables,” Teo said with confidence between sips of his red plastic cup.
“So you’re going to get a real job now?” asked Em.
Teo always hated this question. Working as a server was a real job. It came with its own tangible stress and set of challenges, and required more skill than just writing down people’s orders and bringing out their food. The physical demands of it alone were enough to exhaust any able-bodied undergraduate. It was a profession and an alternative in a world where corporations were replacing vocations with part-time work and paychecks that seemed criminal. Waiting tables was a livelihood, vital in keeping society fed, entertained, and socially mobile. And not just anybody could do it. Teo had plenty of experiences with people who were terrible at it and couldn’t even begin to count the amount of times he witnessed coworkers fired. But answering the question on this day felt different because he was certain it would be one of the last times he’d ever have to do so.
“I guess so,” he replied.
But by the end of the next month, both he and Em were working at the same new restaurant in the East Village. Em had reluctantly begun to do so after the insistence from a random hookup who was already working there. But when that guy was fired shortly after, she recommended Teo as a replacement. Em had never worked in a restaurant before, and Teo practically trained her on all that she would learn. Shift by shift and table by table, he outlined the basics of good service as she faked it until she made it. The owner chef and manager were too busy ironing out the kinks of a new restaurant launch to notice. Em and Teo eventually became an indispensable part of the close-knit team and within a year of opening, the restaurant had gained serious recognition in New York’s food scene with a string of awards and explosive popularity. It would come to define the era of a new type of dining experience within the city, swarmed by customers desperate to be considered regulars and who often tried hard to impress the staff.
“Do you even know how close Lizzette was to firing your ass after she heard about what happened?” screamed Em with rage.
“She literally told me Chef had discussed it with her directly, dipshit! Even after what you did to me, I saved you from getting fired!”
“Em, I’m sorry!” he pleaded again with sincerity.
Em got up from the couch and tied her long beautiful hair into a ponytail.
“I love you, Teo. But I’m moving out next week,” she declared.
“Wait. What? But what about next month? We still have a month on our lease, you can’t just leave before it ends.
“Look, that’s not my problem. You think I’m going to spend another month after next week with your pissing ass? Literally, not happening. I’m leaving next week and I’m leaving all my crap here.”
“What? That makes no sense,” Teo said with frustration. “Then I can’t even rent out your room.”
“All I know is that I am not spending my last month in town living with you. And I will not fucking go out of my way to move my shit all rushed either.”
“Em, you can’t be serious. You know how broke I am. How am I supposed to pay double my rent? Do you realize you’re like really messing with my money right now?”
“Oh, you mean just like you literally did with me?”
Teo stood there stunned as Em disappeared into her room to pack a weekend bag. The slamming of her door was followed by a silence that eventually prompted him to stagger into his own bed before collapsing into it. A familiar panic locked his body as he began to worry about how to come up with Em’s portion of the rent by the end of next week. Racing thoughts carved his brain into thin slices to serve an assortment of stress sandwiches. Each one packed a romanticized idea on how to make some quick extra cash that Teo could not recognize as truly just being a disturbing thought. He was sure there were older men out there who he could use his body as collateral with. Or then there was the dark web. Or perhaps even the possibility of simply not paying the rent. Maybe he would move out at the same time as Em and walk away the situation entirely. Could the consequences from that be so bad, he thought. Then there was the idea of borrowing it from someone, but this wouldn’t be the first time doing so, and Teo was tired of always being known as the broke friend short on cash.
The bleakness of his options exhausted Teo. It left him no choice but to close his eyes. He watched the field of light before him pulsate with stimulation in a million directions as phosphenes fluttered about. He imagined this to be the same view as someone flying through the countless galaxies and universes out there, where existence was defined by all of the things that were passing before you with no control to see its details or understand its purpose. Teo always loved looking out windows of every kind; busses, buildings, and bursts of energy alike. And for these moments with his eyes shut, he had come up with a practice on trying to capture how it all looked like, just before the impression would again disappear forever. This was the only activity he could do well for long periods of time that involved nothing else but his attention. But on this day, he had had more than he could handle after only a few minutes.
“Fuck this shit,” he muttered.
Teo grabbed his phone and checked his Instagram to see if anyone he knew was out and about. It was close to 11pm and he saw that some of his coworkers were drinking in the East Village together. This was around the time when the opening staffers from the night’s dinner service would’ve gotten cut from work, and while he was tempted to DM them to say he was on his way, he didn’t feel like trekking it all the way back into the city from Brooklyn. Plus, it would be an odd scene to see him walking into a bar to meet them after weeks of desperately trying to act like he wasn’t in the same room with them. Teo switched over to the two dating apps he liked to use and scrolled through the familiar list of nearby torso shots that had been ignoring his messages for years. He attempted to make conversation with some new profiles he had never seen before, but was unsuccessful in soliciting a single response.
As he continued to scroll, Teo suddenly became aware of the fact that he had the apartment to himself. And not just for the rest of the night, but for practically an entire month. He had never lived with anyone who had an office job and traveled on business trips, or even a roommate with enough extra money to afford a vacation anywhere, ever. Those rare nights to himself normally only happened when a roommate was sleeping over at a hook-up’s place, which Teo would never realize until they’d stumble back home the morning after.
The novelty of having the place to himself felt thrilling. Teo jumped out of bed to open the door and stared out into the living room.
The first thing he did was take his 10qt cooking pot and place it on the stove filled to the top with water. He rummaged through the array of pasta in his designated cupboard and decided on bucatini before placing two unopened boxed on the counter. When he realized he didn’t have enough of his own ingredients to make a sauce, he happily took whatever he wanted from Em’s cupboard and laughed with glee while yelling “thanks for the food, asshole!” to no one.
Teo leaned against a kitchen wall and made himself more comfortable with one of Em’s expensive beers from the fridge. Each sip reinvigorated him to the cheerful state he had just been in hours earlier with Booker. And after every swig, Teo sighed in content with great obnoxiousness as if to taunt Em like she was inside her room. He purposely left the television off and his phone out of view to take in this rare moment of eating solitude and listened for when the water had come to a boil. When it was ready for the pasta, Teo ripped open the packages and poured their entire contents into the pot. He reveled in being able to cook that much bucatini for himself at one time because he had never done so before. He normally fought back the urge to binge and would only eat a third of a box in one sitting because he was too embarrassed of what Em would think, and was always self-conscious about how much anyone who he lived with saw him cook or eat. Em and all of Teo’s previous roommates never knew about the secret trash can in his room, for it was this receptable that was truly the window into his soul. Often filled with fast-food wrappers and evidence of meals from places no person who gave a shit about their health would patronize, Teo was careful to stuff any proof into his bag every morning to get rid of it as quickly as possible. The New York City transit system probably had surveillance of him furtively dropping plastic bags into trash cans at subway stations all over the city, Teo thought.
Initially, the massive steam from the pot hid the fact that Teo’s generously sized colander could not strain all of the noodles in one go. He stumbled around for a bowl big enough to hold the first batch of pasta in order to drain the remaining, but realized something of that size did not exist in the house. Teo settled for a plastic container not usually meant for food and eventually placed all of the bucatini back into the 10qt pot to use as his serving dish. The pasta sauce he had cooked was simple, and in a way, irrelevant to the moment’s bottom line. He combined it in and stirred everything with all the strength he had.
Teo felt the dense weight of the pot as he placed it down with both hands on the living room coffee table before falling back onto the couch.
As he had been preparing the food, all he could think about was how ravenous he was and the joy that would come from savoring each bite until everything was devoured. But with wide eyes, he looked at the intimidating amount of carbs before him and instantly knew he was not hungry. But there it was, the serving of bucatini he had always fantasized about eating alone inside the comforts of his own home. Dreams do come true, he thought, and I need to seize this moment.
Teo turned on the television and put on a random show as background noise before he began to eat. That first sensation of the pasta in his mouth awakened him like a luscious French kiss with perfectly al dente noodles. His tongue swished around in ecstasy as the carbs caressed every pleasure point of his orifice before gliding down his throat. With each gulp and each swallow came a validation he so longed for. He twirled forkful after forkful of food into his body to relive that sensation without shame or judgement because it brought upon emotions of feeling loved and wanted that overwhelmed him, and he did not want it to stop.