Home > Sweetbitter(4)

Sweetbitter(4)
Stephanie Danler

The Hammer’s swollen, varicosed legs. Flashing her stump at me from under her housedress. Her purple fingers.

“Does that answer your question? The problem was not having a ramp, I guess. The solution was to bring out the coffee. I’m sorry, I didn’t explain it very well.”

“I think you explained it perfectly. That was a kind thing to do.”

I shrugged. “I really liked her actually.”

The Hammer was the only impolite person I knew. She put me in that restaurant. I felt it then but didn’t understand it. It was her niece’s daughter who was a friend of a friend of my new roommate in Williamsburg. Our goodbye had been tearful—on my end, not hers. I promised to write her letters, but the weeks were eclipsing our small relationship. And as I looked at Howard and the perfectly set table and the tasteful hydrangea arrangement between us, I understood what he meant by guest, and I also knew that I would never see her again.

“Did you move here with anyone? Girlfriends? A boyfriend?”

“No.”

“That’s very brave.”

“Is it? It’s been two days and I feel pretty foolish.”

“It’s brave if you make it, foolish if you fail.”

I wanted to ask him how I would be able to tell the difference and when.

“If you’re hired here, what do you want the next year to bring you?”

I forgot that I was being interviewed. I forgot about my negative bank account, my pit stains, and the noble grapes. I said something about wanting to learn. About my work ethic.

I was never good at the future. I grew up with girls whose chief occupation was the future—designing it, instigating it. They could talk about it with so much confidence that it sounded like the past. During those talks, I had contributed nothing.

I had visions, too abstract and flat for me to hang on to. For years I saw a generic city lit up at night. I would use those remote, artificial lights to soothe myself to sleep. One day I was quitting my job with no sense of exhilaration, one day I was leaving a note for my father, pulling out of his driveway, slightly bewildered, and two days later I was sitting in front of Howard. That was the way the future came to me.

The vision that accompanied me on my drive was a girl, a lady actually. We had the same hair but she didn’t look like me. She was in a camel coat and ankle boots. A dress under the coat was belted high on her waist. She carried various shopping bags from specialty stores and as she was walking, pausing at certain windows, her coat would fly back in the wind. Her boot heels tapped on the cobblestones. She had lovers and breakups, an analyst, a library, acquaintances she ran into on the street whose names she couldn’t call to mind. She belonged to herself only. She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes. And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.

As I thanked him and we reviewed my contact information, I didn’t know what had transpired, whether it was good or bad. It took me a moment to even remember the name of the restaurant. He held my hand too long and as I stood, his eyes traveled down my body, not like an employer’s, but like a man’s.

“I dislike mopping. And lying,” I said. I don’t know why. “Those are the two that come to mind.”

He nodded and smiled—what I wanted to call a private smile. The backs of my legs were damp with sweat and as I walked away I felt his eyes unabashedly on my ass. At the door, I rolled my cardigan off my shoulders, and arched as if stretching. No one knows how I got the job, but it’s better to be honest about these things.

TASTE, Chef said, is all about balance. The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter. Now your tongue is coded. A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.

II

THE SPACE WAS aesthetically unremarkable, even ugly in places. Not ragged by any means—the paint fresh, the dust banished—but defiantly past its peak. The art was dated, gaudy, some of it honestly preposterous, purchased in the eighties or whenever. The dining room had three levels, as if it had been built during different periods and linked together as an afterthought. Tables cluttered on one side of the room, sparse on the other. The cumulative effect was like someone hadn’t quite made up his mind, but insisted on having you over anyway.

THE OWNER TOLD ME at orientation, “There are many endeavors to bring pleasure to people. Every artist assumes that challenge. But what we do here is the most intimate. We are making something you take inside you. Not the food, the experience.”

TWO AREAS OF the restaurant were flawless: first, three café-style tables in the front framed by a large window at the entrance. The tables were set in the day’s changing light. Some people—I mean guests—hated to be next to the entrance, to be sectioned off from the main dining rooms. But some of them wouldn’t sit anywhere else. These tables were often held for the most poised guests—rarely a sloucher or anyone in denim.

The Owner said, “Running a restaurant means setting a stage. The believability hinges on the details. We control how they experience the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. That starts at the door, with the host and the flowers.”

And then, the bar. Timeless: long, dark mahogany, with stools high enough to make you feel like you were afloat. The bar had soft music, dim lighting, tinkling layers of noise, the bumps of a neighbor’s knee, the reach of someone’s arm by your face to take a glittering martini, the tap of a hostess as she escorted guests behind your back, the blur of plates being passed, the rattle of drinks, the virtuoso performance of bartenders slapping bottles into the back bar while also delivering bread, while also taking an order with the requisite substitutions and complications. All the best regulars came in and greeted the hostess saying, Any space at the bar tonight?

“OUR GOAL,” he said, “is to make the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction—actually any life transaction—is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

The Owner looked and spoke like a deity. Sometimes the New York Post referred to him as the mayor. Tall, tan, handsome with perfect white teeth, effortless articulation, and gorgeous gesticulation. I listened to him accordingly, with my hands in my lap.

Yet there was a tension I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something false about making guests “feel” that we were on their side. I looked around the room and suddenly everything looked like currency to me: the silver, the wooden beams, the regal floral arrangement crowning the bar. Jesus, I thought, you can get rich by making people feel good about spending their money. We weren’t on their side; we were on the Owner’s side. All the emphasis on details, all the jargon—it was still just a business, right?

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