Our 2015 CNF Contest Honourable Mention.
It’s my job to iron the napkins. There’s hundreds of them, enough to do two back-to-back weddings in a single weekend, or a three-day golf tournament without re-washing. I don’t mind. It’s quiet down here in the basement laundry room, the thrum-thrum-thrum of the washing machine drowning out the barked commands and rattling dishes in the kitchen upstairs.
I love the chaos of the kitchen on a Saturday night, when all of the club’s private members come in for dinner and drinks and a bit of gossip in the lounge. I get high on the rush of it, the haul-ass-and-we-might-keep-up anxiety, the relief when the last dessert goes out. I’m the best kitchen helper; all the chefs like to keep me on their shifts. I always have the plates warming just as the food is ready. I always notice when the sauce is getting low and find the backup in the cooler before it runs out. I always remind them to take a break, have a smoke, sit down, when the lull arrives.
Still, one day a week, I come downstairs and I spend five or six hours washing napkins, grateful for the quiet and the reprieve. We send out the tablecloths – they’re too hard to do with just a regular washer and dryer and a hand-held iron – but it’s cheaper to get me to tackle the mountain of napkins once a week.
It sounds like it might be a lonely job but it’s not – there’s staff in and out all day picking up supplies. We keep everything down here: tampons and Aquanet for the womens’ locker room, spray deodorant for the men’s, plastic cutlery for the golfers pit-stopping for food midway through their 18. All the banquet supplies are here, too, linens obviously, but also the chafing dishes and the huge cutting board that the baron of beef goes out on.
I get so that I know who’s approaching by the sound of their shoes on the stairs.
Soft and quick: that’s the head waitress. She reads a lot of books written by psychics, and has crystals hanging from her rear-view mirror.
Bah-bum bah-bum like a heartbeat: that’s the dish washer. He’s two years older than me. He has a dimple and a Hollywood smile. He’s a charmer, and all the girls like him. He likes all the girls, so that works out well. To me, he’s a big brother: sweet, platonic.
Slow, solid, steady: that’s the GM, who’s gruff and seems to be trying to catch me in the act of stealing tampons and Aquanet. I routinely go home with two or three tampons in my pocket but I leave the Aquanet for the old ladies and their helmet hair.
Clomp, clomp, clomp: That’s the head chef, wearing clogs. He’s tall and slim, not much older than the dishwasher, and he gets excited by food the way other guys get excited by cars. He talks a lot about going overseas, to cook and travel. Someday. He and the dishwasher windsurf together on days off.
No sound at all: That’s the lunch cook. He has a Grizzly Adams beard, and makes jokes about Dolly Parton’s tits. Which would be fine, except he looks at my tits while he makes these jokes. He also comes down the stairs like a ghost, silent, invisible until he’s standing right behind me while I’m bent over a pile of laundry and I jump, terrified, when I realize he’s there. He likes scaring me, I think.
The head chef knows all my secrets: half I told to him over cigarette breaks, or during after-work beers (I’m only 18 but everyone looks the other way, including the bartender at the local pub), or when we sit in his car in my driveway till 2 a.m. laughing and listening to music. The other half I told him while laying in his bed, on sunny spring mornings, our fingers twined up together. We shouldn’t do this, was all he said the first time he kissed me. But we did it anyway. Impossible not to, at that point.
He teaches me how to make caesar dressing from scratch, his hand holding mine over the measuring cup to help guide the speed of the oil pouring into the blender. He winks at me when the lunch cook makes cracks about Dolly Parton, to tell me he knows he’s daft and foolish, to make it harmless. On days off, we go to odd little diners and fancy restaurants, trying new foods and checking out menus. We go see movies, drink coffee, read books. We lay in bed, talking about the future (not our future, that would be pushy of me) and about people we know and politics and the news. We make out for hours, endless. He never demands more than I’m ready for, more than I want. After weeks and weeks, I lose my virginity to him in a big bed with white sheets and a half dozen pillows. Afterwards he spoons me, kisses my shoulder every few seconds till I fall asleep, then wakes me in the middle of the night for more. In August, we go to a bed and breakfast for his birthday, take the row boat out from the dock to a small island, and laugh so hard we cry when the oar breaks midway through the crossing.
It’s perfect, like a story someone wrote about first love.
Everyone knows. Mostly they pretend not to. The head waitress catches me alone in the break room and raises her eyebrows at me.
“Be careful, girlie,” she says.
I smile back, lower my eyes, pleased like the cat that ate the canary. I like that other people know I have a secret.
“You know what I mean,” she adds.
She means I’m only 18, and he is too old for me (five years older, to be precise) and that I will get my heart broken. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.
“But have fun,” she whispers, winking, the corners of her mouth turned up in a sly smile.
I will, I tell her.
I am, I say.
I wait for the clomp-clomp-clomp on the stairs as I iron, fold, iron, fold, iron, fold. The napkins pile up, wrinkle free, pristine. He always comes down when I’m doing the napkins, pretends he has to get some coffee cups or plastic spoons or something that’s on a shelf closest to wherever I’ve set up the ironing board so that he can brush close by me. Today, he leans in behind me, one hand coming around and up to cup my breast, and kisses at my neck.
“I can smell your perfume on me,” he says.
“You should have gotten up earlier, and had a shower,” I say, smiling.
“I couldn’t get out of bed with you still in it.”
And then we’re not alone: the lunch chef, always so quiet, is standing at the door.
He’s grinning at us. At me, specifically. Not the way the head waitress did when she told me to have fun. Not the way the dish washer did when he hollered “get a room” through the pick-up counter when we were making eyes at each other.
No, not like that at all. The lunch cook grins, wicked, and it makes my heart skip-hop, my shoulders tight. I nudge my way out from behind the ironing board and say “Oh, the next load is ready” and busy myself with the washing machine. Later in bed, we will chuckle about it, make it seem small and silly, make him seem small and silly, but right then I want to vomit knowing he has heard our sweet words, that his audience has turned them shameful instead.
When fall comes, there are fewer sunny mornings, fingers twined. He’s busy. Very busy. I’m not sure why. We take a break, something I offered thinking it would be declined. It isn’t. I ask “breaking up, or a break?” He says the latter, just the latter. I push: “This is your chance to say so, if it’s not that.” No, he says. It’s just a busy time, a crazy time, he needs to be alone a while. I do alone well, stoic. I’m not pushy, or expectant.
When Christmas comes, it’s the usual holiday rush of banquets and parties and the napkins pile up, endless. I find out there is another girl. I find out that everyone else already knows this. Even the dish washer, who is sheepish and has the decency to blush when I ask him why he didn’t tell me. I find out she’s not a stranger, but my friend, someone I’ve confided in before. I find out that the head chef is leaving, going overseas to cook and travel, after the holidays. With her. I find out that I’m the last to know this. I shouldn’t be surprised, really. We spent so much time talking about the future (not our future, since that would have been pushy.)
It’s quiet now down here in the laundry room, just my napkins for company, and the thrum-thrum-thrum of the washing machine for a soundtrack. There is no clomp clomp clomp on the stairs anymore. The noisy clogs are gone, far away. There was a last-day apology, a hug for a goodbye, a whispered “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” I squeezed, breathing in the smell of him, memorizing it, tucking it away. I couldn’t say it was OK, so I didn’t say anything at all.
People come down for coffee cups and cutlery, to look for a clean tablecloth but they don’t stay. Everyone knows. Mostly they pretend not to. They keep their distance, hesitant. Except the lunch cook. He stands a little closer every day. Sometimes he sends me to the cooler to get oranges, and then presses in behind me to reach for the lemons. Sometimes, in front of me, he asks the head waitress if there’s been any news from the head chef, how his travels are going, how he’s enjoying his time with the other girl. “Lucky girl,” he says to the head waitress, while staring at me, “off around the world with her boyfriend.” Sometimes he winks, like we share a secret. Sometimes, he looks at my breasts, gets closer than even the close quarters of a kitchen permits. He grins a lot.
I’m in the laundry, mid-swipe with the iron over a napkin, when I realize the cook is behind me. He’s so quiet, I didn’t hear him coming, didn’t hear him till I could already smell his musk of deep fryer oil and aftershave floating up into my nose. I don’t move.
“I just came to get some … cups,” he says. But he doesn’t move to the shelf with the cups. The palm of his hand slides over my ass, his fingers gripping just slightly.
“I think you must be lonely down here these days,” he says, low.
I’m frozen. Horrified. Shame burns up my face like a match to dry grass. I can’t think of what to do. The iron smokes on the napkin, ummoving. Bah bum, bah bum, bah bum on the stairs, loud: the dish washer is coming. Saved. The lunch cook moves fast, silent, grabs cups, and gets to the door just as the dish washer arrives through the frame. They do the joking dance, you first, no you first, no really after you, having a chuckle at themselves. Finally, the cook is gone, and the dish washer starts sorting through the buckets of industrial cleaner, looking for the one that has run out upstairs. He finds what he needs, then looks up, smiles at me the same way he has for weeks now: with an apology in it, a little ashamed for his part in the deceit.
“Hey!” he shouts suddenly, pointing halfway down my body. For a second, I think he’s pointing at my chest, at my heart, the evidence of its wounded state somehow obvious, but his finger is lower, jabbing towards the iron in my hands.
“You’re burning it,” he says, loudly.
I lift my hand, and the napkin – burnt black and brown – comes up with the iron, stuck to its flat bottom.
“Oh,” is all I can muster.
“Be careful,” he says, shaking his head and laughing.
When I’m silent, he says, imploring like a big brother: “Promise?”
Yes, I think, I’ll be careful. Very, very careful. So careful I might become invisible. So careful I might stop existing all together.
“Promise,” I tell him.