BY LAURA JANE/ ILLUSTRATION BY JEN
My eye problems are flaring up again so I’m wearing my glasses and I’m riding the tube and I’m praying the ride will last forever. I’m drinking a venti skinny peppermint mocha (I’m not capitalizing “venti” anymore, I just decided. The time it takes to press down on the shift key to make the V isn’t worth it to me; what's the point, it's not a proper noun) and I’ve got If It Makes You Happy by Sheryl Crow on my headphones; that’s just how I’m rolling these days. I am too tired to chew and 1997 was an amazing year for popular music. I want to sit forever and never stand.
I’m giving myself a pep talk about my glasses. John Lennon wore glasses. He wore glasses so goddamned well they named an entire style of glasses after him! That’s something to aspire to. I’m going to buy myself a pair of the sickest glasses. Big fat sick fucking glasses.
The tube ride doesn’t last forever which is cool because it means I’m not dead. At work I ask my boss if I can wear red lipstick during service or is it too flash for fine-dining and she says “Go for it!” so I “Go for it!” But at the end of the night my sommelier tells me I can never wear red lipstick during service again. It’s too flash for fine-dining.
Now I’m pouting. I’m doing other things too. I’m using every tool in my physicality handbook to communicate that I find this censorship unjust. It is two-o-clock in the morning. I have recently finished polishing seventy-five wine glasses and am about to crack on with the second polish. I am not at my personal best. In fact it could be argued that I am floating around somewhere dangerously close to my Personal Worst.
My eye hurts. My voice sounds like someone crinkling up metallic plastic when I tell my somm I feel ugly with my glasses on and at least the lipstick makes me feel kind of okay about myself. It is weird of me to tell him that, since we are not friends. “Don’t worry, you have a very sweet face,” he says, which is an interesting compliment.
He pulls himself up to sit on the kitchen counter like a cool rebel. It is shiny silver. He is eating the end of the bread with butter off a butter block and Vacherin out of the paper tub. He is giving me a lecture peppered with an obscene amount of life lessons, the gist of which is, “Don’t screw up your job.” It is also a lot about Michelin stars. He cares so much about Michelin stars. We don’t even have a Michelin star, but any time I screw up I can tell he’s thinking, “Laura just lost us our Michelin star,” our fictional Michelin star that only exists in his head. Michelin stars are the way he understands value. They are the only way he can make himself valuable to himself.
I don’t think very much about Michelin stars. Michelin is a tire company. I can’t really find it in my heart to care too much about what a tire company thinks about the restaurant I work at. I think I work at an excellent restaurant, and the people who come and eat at my restaurant think I work at an excellent restaurant too. They think I’m funny and nice and have a kooky North American accent, I gulpily pronounce the word “sparkling” like “sparkulling” and my descriptions of the food and wine they consume are accurate but also detailed, poetic even, and the food itself is weirdly delicious, it’s special they say, and when they ask me to get them something I get it for them and I’m always eagle-eying the levels of their water and wine glasses so they always have nice full glasses of wine and water in front of them. They are happy and well-hydrated people. That means something to me. I’d rather the tire company liked my restaurant rather than didn’t like it but the same is true of any entity. Whether they are a tire company or not is inconsequential.
The sommelier gets himself started on talking about how fucked it is that I accidentally started clearing Table 4’s plates before Position 3 had fully finished eating his foie gras. He could still be talking about it when I am editing this paragraph a week and six days later if he hadn’t had to go to bed and wake up and come back to work and go to bed and wake up and come back to work again and again forever. I agree that in general it is preferable to not make mistakes but the shape of things begins to change when he says: “That was a Big Deal.” And I just believe in words too much to let someone say that clearing a person’s plate two seconds before their friend eats his last bite of foie gras is a Big Deal. I’m sorry, but that’s just not a Big Deal. It’s so obvious that it isn’t. No one reading this paragraph is like, “Nah, she’s wrong, it’s definitely a big deal.” To further prove my point,
Here is a list of things that are actually a big deal:
1) Race politics in the United States of America
2) How much I love my boyfriend
3) Winning the lottery
4) Somebody murdered John Lennon
5) If Paul McCartney ate dinner in the restaurant
6) Someone dying in the restaurant
I call an Uber mid-convo because nothing about this one-sided conversation is working for me. We both have to be back at the restaurant to perform the same performance all over again in eight exact hours and having a nice man named Sami drop me off at my front door in a well-maintained Toyota Prius seems like a way better utilization of my time than listening to a man mansplain plates and stars and lipstick. I get home and hug Mark and I would never try not to cry because I love crying but I thought I wasn’t going to cry and then I cry after all. I always cry.
These are sharp, yelpy sobs. They sound like somebody is stabbing a dog who loves it. If my sommelier were here he would be lecturing me about how you shouldn’t cry, you can’t cry, you have to be tough and strong and I would tell him to go away and let me live my life and be alone with my beautiful boyfriend for the twenty fucking minutes of my day we are both awake at the same time.
In real life, back in the kitchen, I tell him that maybe he should stop focusing on the negative? He looks aghast. People have no idea who they are.
I continue. I’ve really fucking had it with the way I’ll allow people to walk all over me just because I am lazy and standing up for myself takes too much effort. I tell him not to bother with trying to convince me that clearing that plate was a big deal because we obviously have different ideas of what big deals are and he says “What if it was you? What if you were eating, and someone started clearing your friends’ plates away?” and I tell him that example is wasted on me. I tell him I would never care, I would never notice. I tell him I’ve seen God and nothing he could say could ever touch me.
A man and his wife eat dinner at the restaurant. They are on the older side of things but not old like they are going to die anytime soon. Probably they’re around the Beatles’ ages. The lights go off in the restaurant. All the equipment in the kitchen turns off. My sommelier stands in the kitchen with his head in his hands while I dance around the dining room, light as a fairy, a little Tinkerbell with a light in my gut. People like it. People like when the lights go off. It feels like you’re from two hundred years ago, writing with a feather by candlelight. (It’s pretty crazy to think how far we’ve come since writing with fucking feathers. We literally had to rip our pens off of birds.)
The lights come back on and I am sad about it. I want things to be unusual, not usual, again. I pour the oldish man and his elfin old lady a couple glasses of their Sauvignon Blanc— it’s the one I wrote about last time, the one that tastes like spritzy lime and sugar snap peas. The man looks like George Harrison, a broader and more strapping George Harrison, like if in his youth George Harrison had been the captain of the football team. Not football like soccer, football like football. In America. Rugby, maybe.
The man asks me where in America am I from? I say Toronto, Canada and he says “Oh! Sorry!” which happens a lot in England. People think I’m going to be so heartbroken or offended that they thought I was American for one second but I don’t care at all. It’s a natural thought to think.
He says he went to Toronto in the seventies and I say well you’re one step ahead of me then; I’ve never been to Toronto in the seventies. Ha ha ha I’m so funny. He says he imagines it might've changed a little since the seventies and in my head I’m thinking “Well, my dad doesn’t work at a bookstore anymore”— all I can think of is my parents. To me, Toronto in the seventies is a slideshow of images of my parents living and working in that grainy yellow time when they existed together but without me. I think about my mother behind a cash register at the Eatons and maybe the man went to Eatons and my mom helped him pick out at a hat. Maybe he went to the Book Cellar and my dad helped him pick out a book. That is how lonely and small I’m feeling. I need to make up stories about how a stranger might have boringly met my parents once forty years ago so I can feel closer to my parents, closer to the stranger.
I ask them where they’re from and the man says: Shropshire. I say the only thing I know about Shropshire is the cheese.
“Stropshire blue!” he says.
“Stropshire blue!” I say.
“No one’s ever been to Shropshire,” he says. I ask him where it is and he says it borders Wales to the west. I tell him I’ll go there one day and says that he doubts I’ll ever go there but I insist that I will. I leave him alone to live his life without me and look up his booking on the iPad to check if his last name is Harrison. I’m thinking maybe he is George Harrison’s older brother. He isn’t. He is a doctor. That night I get home and look up Shropshire on Google Street View and the first thing you see is a field of sheep and then you rotate the arrow and the whole world there is just patches of different-coloured green as far as you can see. It looks like a Battenberg cake.
I’m thinking about Shetland ponies, fireplaces, and the smell of burning wood. He is everything that’s good about Christmas. I’m imagining his little life as the only major doctor in all of Shropshire and it sounds pretty good to me and I’m thinking that maybe Mark and I should ditch London and go live in Shropshire. Maybe Shropshire would fix everything.
(Shropshire Fantasy Life: I open up a wine shop in Shropshire. It's fucking cute, and also a smash hit, and Shropshire is cheap, so we buy a house and Mark doesn't have to work, he just takes pictures all day, and I can write my novel while I'm working at the wine shop and we wear big old cream jumpers with mucky Wellies and we buy a bunch of dogs and take hikes with the dogs and if we ever get sick we stop in and see Dr. George Harrison and he will fix us up.)
When I space out at work my sommelier tells me to stop “mesmerizing.” The first time he ever said it he just said “You’re mesmerizing” and for a second I thought he was telling me I was mesmerizingly beautiful or really charming but nope. He was just criticizing me.
"Stop mesmerizing," says my sommelier.
Eventually Dr. and Mrs. George Harrison finish up with their dinner and get started on their journey back to Shropshire and I walk them to the coatrack and I help Mrs. George into her coat like she is my little daughter. I tell Dr. George not to forget his hat and he says he would never forget his hat and I get down on my fucking knees and start sobbing and scream “I love you! I love that you wear a hat! You are perfect! Your hat is perfect! Please never leave my restaurant! Do you have a dog?”
As he walks out the front door he tells me to give Toronto his love and I tell him I will and this is me doing it.
He loves you, Toronto. Dr. George Harrison loves you.
John Lennon was murdered thirty-four years ago and I am sitting in a dark room shivering and thinking about how John Lennon was murdered thirty-four years ago which means that next year John Lennon will have been murdered thirty-five years ago and so the media will make a slightly bigger deal out of it than usual but it doesn’t really matter if John Lennon was murdered one or ten or nineteen or thirty-seven or fifty or a hundred thousand years ago. It will always be the exact same amount of sad.
I’m bummed to be sitting in the dark room shivering but it feels appropriate to be suffering slightly on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. “Deathiversary” is a cute non-word I used to use to describe John Lennon’s relationship to the date December 8th but I don’t want to say Deathiversary anymore. I am too old to say Deathiversary. I want a glass of champagne and a cigarette.
The other Junior Sommelier is back from being out sick with a mysterious illness that the commis chef and I were wondering if he was faking. I don’t mind if he was faking. If he was, well I think that’s a cool move and I respect him for it.
I ask him how he’s doing flatly and without a question mark. I mesmerize while he responds.
He and the sommelier are talking about wine and I am complaining about how bored I am to my boyfriend via text message. I no longer make very much of an effort to participate in their boys’ club. Other Junior Sommelier is from Canada too and when it is just the two of us I feel a certain familial warmth toward him, like I would protect him if I had to, but when Sommelier is there they talk like they’re being interviewed for a wine magazine in 1991 and I think they’d think anything I naturally might bring to the conversation to be silly and trite. It is not. It makes me feel like a sad lil mouse not to be taken seriously but it also makes me feel like a blasé she-wolf who can’t be bothered with wasting her cool and non-traditional she-wolf wine opinions on deaf ears. I accuse them of sexism in my head sometimes but I don’t know if it is fully sexism. I think if I were a boy and thought about wine the way I think about wine they would still ignore me. I think if I were the same gender that I am and thought about wine the way they think about wine they would take me seriously. It is sexist in that the way they think about wine in a long-standing and therefore patriarchal tradition. The way they discredit any other way a person, regardless of gender, might think about wine is closed-minded in a way that transcends plain sexism.
It is the night of our work “Christmas jolly.” The three of us walk to my boss’s flat in Ladbroke Grove. We drink champers at the flat and then take a taxi to The Square. The Square is the name of a restaurant in Mayfair.
I squash into the backseat of a cab and I wish I was at a pub with Mark but I know that once I start to drink more I’ll feel less sad and get into the swing of things. I feel like my eyes are two pearl onions and someone’s peeled off the top layer of their onion skin. They and I feel raw. I’m wearing glasses and a lacy black dress and my little bob has been scraped up into a ponytail and I scrape off all my lipstick in the bathroom. The walls are paisley and the individual stalls have been soundproofed so you can’t hear the sound of another person’s trickling pee hitting the bowl of water. The restaurant has two Michelin stars.
The dining room is drab. The art is abstract expressionist in golds, browns and burgundies. I comment on the lack of music and someone tells me “At this level of dining, there is very rarely music.”
Someone places a little metal black thing in front of me. There is a hole in the metal thing and slotted into the hole is a sheet of thin pastry someone has shaped into a cone. The cone has been pumped full of whipped foie gras. The sommelier is a sexy Italian lady with the same haircut Nick Carter had at the beginning of the Backstreet Boys. Everyone falls in love with her. Our first wine is from Jura and is made in the style of a sherry, which means that a thick sheet of gross yeast forms across the top of the wine in a vat and then they scrape it off and the wine tastes like shit. Everyone hates it except the boys. While selecting the next wine I overhear Other Junior Sommelier tell the hot Italian, “There are ladies present,” to mean that our next wine can’t be a weird masturbatory pick like the first one. All of us stupid ladies and our stupid palates. We’re so stupid! We only like the taste of sugar and strawberries! I like the way “There are ladies present” implies that the Italian sommelier is not a lady. She is a cool man like they are.
First course: game consommé accompanied by three game canapés. You drink the consommé out of a little hourglass-shaped cup. It reminds me of being a little kid at a skating rink, drinking soup out of a Thermos. I don’t know if I ever actually did that or if it just a false memory that has been bred into me on account of my being Canadian. I’ve definitely been to a skating rink and I’ve definitely drank soup out of a Thermos but if I ever did both at the same time I guess I’ll never really know. It seems unlikely. My family wasn’t a hockey family.
Next wine is a very restrained Savennieres that makes me think about how nice it is when a person wears the exact perfect amount of cologne or perfume. We have it with our fish course: sea bream with Savoy cabbage and parmesan and salsify and celeriac milk puree. It reminds me of the color bronze and a cassoulet. It delivers on the promise of a cassoulet. The meat course is accompanied by a little oval of mashed potato that looks like it’s made of glistening ceramic. The wine is a Nebbiolo that I like for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Maybe because there’s nothing not to like about it.
The restaurant quiets down. I hear the no music louder but— thank you wine, thank you bream— I, Laura, am softening. I am less elbowy, less shouldery, calmly allowing myself to process everything I find problematic about my surroundings. I am a hot island breeze, living out this night as if it’s already a memory I’m remembering several years later. I decide: there is nothing about this experience that I desperately need to continue replicating. The food is good and the wine is good but I am keenly aware of how this place exists primarily to distract rich people from how bored they are of being rich. It is doing a horrible job of distracting me from anything I might like to be distracted from. I don’t want the bream that reminds me of a cassoulet or the consommé that reminds me of the Thermos. I want the real cassoulet, I want the real Thermos.
A couple days later my boss asks me, “Do you reckon we would have had a better time if we’d just kept on drinking bubbly at my flat?”—
I reckon that we might have.
But then we hit the dessert courses, and I begin to sing a different tune. Brillat-Savarin cheesecake with clementine sorbet. Okay hi you are a kid again. There’s a clementine in your Christmas stocking. Your mom puts a clementine in your Christmas stocking every year and the joke is it’s some sort of inside joke you have with Santa? Crazy Santa and his crazy obsession with always wanting to me be eating a clementine. I’m eating a clementine. There are three globules of clementine jelly on the plate and the cheesecake is a perfect fucking rectangle like something a computer would make if you entered a rectangle-making algorithm or whatever into the computer. Someone probably measured it out with a ruler. When you work in fine-dining everyone’s always joking about their having OCD, a joke I am exempt from— OCD is one of the few cognitive disorders I’ve never been able to convince myself that I have. Oh I just like it all so messy! I like things like: a stack of Donovan picture-sleeve 45s and a George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau bottle from the eighties and a chipped porcelain figurine of a fawn on a broken coffee table with a chessboard built into the top of the coffee table next to a mud-splattered plaid umbrella from Shropshire leaning up against a bookshelf stuffed with Penguins non-arranged in alphabetical disorder. If something is out of alignment I don’t notice it and if for some crazy reason I do I would just leave it as is and carry on as gay and fancy-free as ever. I’d like it even better.