1. The Dishwasher
I HAD a problem with the dishwasher: I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
His hair was tied up in a blue bandana, and he had a tattoo of an arrow on his arm, shooting out the sleeve of his white T-shirt. His skin was the color of caramelized sugar right before it burns, like God was tending the syrup closely when he was made. It was one of the colors I was still trying to master, difficult because of the way light plays on the surface of skin and brings out the yellow and bronze undertones.
The spray from the dishes kicked back up onto his T-shirt, but he seemed unaware. A secret smile played on his lips, as if there were some private joke running through his mind. I wanted in on it.
“Pay me five bucks, Martin, and I’ll tell him to take his shirt off,” Fang muttered, not even glancing up from where he was dissecting a salmon into ten perfect pink rectangles.
Fang, our head chef, was a big balding white guy in his late thirties with a substantial gut and a pettiness that I found infuriating. He always said the worst thing possible, to expose or ridicule you. He was one of those people who delighted in other people’s discomfort. He’d hit on me my first week on the job. Ever since I’d rejected him, he’d made my life as a server a living hell in small ways. Like not announcing it when my food was up, or using too much pepper in the soup, or cooking the fish ten seconds too long. Melissa told me it was because he wasn’t the food god everyone thought him to be, but somehow, I knew it was personal.
“The woman at table six said your gazpacho was tart,” I said without adding that she also liked its tartness.
“I got something tart for her.” He thrust his pelvis at the stainless steel counter while his expensive Japanese knife sliced through the salmon’s flesh with the precision of a surgeon.
“No fighting,” Melissa said, piling her tray with the rolled silverware I’d just deposited on the counter. As if feeling a new presence among us, she glanced to the back corner of the kitchen where the new guy was up to his elbows in sudsy water. His muscle tone was remarkable, objectively speaking.
“Who’s that?” she asked crossly, as if his presence were a personal affront. I found that odd. The dishwashers came and went. Their pay was shit, and they were usually illegal immigrants whom our manager, Hector, hired and paid under the table. But this kid was black, long and lean, so tall that he had to stoop a little when he reached down into the sink.
Regardless of their ethnicity, Melissa had not said one word to the dishwashers in the three years I’d worked with her, so the mere fact that she’d noticed him and then also thought to inquire about him was unusual.
“That’s Andre,” Fang said. “Fell off the turnip truck on his way from Alabama. Lucky bastard.”
“He looks about sixteen years old,” Melissa complained.
Fang shrugged. “At least he’s legal.” Out of the corner of his eye, he spied me and grinned like a creep. “In one way.”
Andre seemed oblivious to our speculation. The din of the kitchen and the water spray drowned out our conversation. I was thankful for that.
Melissa’s gaze veered in my direction and the effect was as if she’d snapped her fingers in front of my face. “You’ve been sat, Martin. Table seventeen.”
I should have felt the urgency of the moment, but my gaze drifted past Melissa to where Andre stacked silverware into the sterilizer. There was something familiar about him. He caught my eye and smiled bashfully, like he’d been seen doing something silly. He had dimples. I’d seen those dimples before.
“I know him,” I whispered.
“Customers are waiting,” Melissa said again. Her knifelike eyes focused on mine. I always knew with Melissa what she wanted me to do next. Like when she demanded I move away from landscape and still life paintings and start drawing people. It was a difficult move because people can’t be studied as closely as you would a flower or a fruit, though at least they don’t expire after a few hours. But Melissa’s will was indomitable.
“A banana is a banana no matter how big or yellow you paint it,” she’d said to me not long after we’d met. “Your paintings need movement. People. Animals. People on animals. You’re too afraid of the human body. You were meant to paint portraits, Martin. Please, trust me on this.”
So I began painting people—muscles, lips, noses, eyes, hands, skin, hair, teeth, all the delicate and intimate folds of the human body—which stepped up my game dramatically. Still, it was daunting. There were like, a million shades of skin, and I’d only nailed about two dozen. In any case Melissa was right so often that I’d come to rely on her instincts.
“Ten bucks and I’ll get you his picture,” Fang said.
“Fuck you, Fang.” It was my standard response to him.
“Anytime, Martin,” he said with a sneer.
The restaurant quickly filled up, and I didn’t get another chance to spy on Andre until after the front shut down. But it was useless because Fang was there, bossing people around, talking about some stupid movie he’d watched, banging pots, and throwing his weight around lest we forget that the kitchen was his domain and we were the mere underlings who presented his creations, starting at thirty dollars a plate, to the customers.
I wanted to know where Andre had come from, how he’d landed in the kitchen of La Candela, and what was the source of my compulsion to follow his every move. I wanted to know every single thing about him, and I wanted to know it immediately.
“We’re going to Wine Bar tonight for drinks,” Melissa said, hanging up her black apron on the hook under where she’d Sharpied her name on masking tape. “You coming?”
I didn’t answer. I was watching Andre stack clean dishes into plastic crates. I could watch him for hours.
“Do we know him?” I asked.
“No, we do not,” she said with absolute certainty. “You coming or not?”
“Yeah, I’ll meet you there.”
I took my time with closing, trying to find an opening when Fang wasn’t lording over the kitchen. But he didn’t leave once, not even to take a piss. It was as if he were deliberately obstructing me. I wanted to shove him out of my way.
Finally, I gave up, drove to my studio apartment to shower and change, then met up with Melissa at Wine Bar, which was owned by a friend of ours we used to work with. He’d saved up his tip money to open it, and we threw him whatever business we could. High-end restaurants were a dime a dozen in the Grove and the competition was fierce, so even though his wines were overpriced, we went.
“You’re awfully quiet tonight, Martian,” Melissa said. It was the name she used for me when I was off in my own world, which was pretty often. “Still mad about table twenty-two?”
Table twenty-two stiffed me. One of them was the bassist from some washed-up rock band from the nineties. I didn’t know their music, even though he insisted they were famous. He was definitely a cokehead. He and his entourage drank Patron like it was Perrier, racked up a $500 bill, and left me 5 percent. Classy.
“Yeah, that was shitty.” She wouldn’t want to hear that I was really thinking about the dishwasher, the seemingly underage dishwasher, and the sense that I’d known him before, intimately.
“You’re still the hottest piece of Cuban ass east of Dixie,” she said and rubbed my back. Sometimes when customers stiffed me, I took it personally, like maybe I hadn’t performed well enough, or my appearance wasn’t pleasing. Melissa was always building me up. For whatever reason she indulged my vanity. “Speaking of which….” She arched one eyebrow, an invitation to come back to her place. Melissa and I hooked up from time to time, whenever one of us was lonely. I didn’t normally go for women, but she intrigued me. I’d painted her many times, but she was like a phantom. The light wouldn’t stick to her.
“I can’t tonight.” I dropped a few bills onto the table and said good night to our company, the servers of some of the other swanky restaurants in the Grove. You’d think after working all night long in a restaurant, we wouldn’t want to blow all our money on expensive drinks in yet another restaurant, but it’s what we did. I kissed Melissa’s cheek.
“Sleep well, Martian,” she said.
But I rarely did.