Thursday, October 11, 2012

Smaller Words

We’re all sitting very still in a massive Blackhawk helicopter tearing across the jungle. “Five minutes until lineup.” Nobody’s eyes move, “Yes, chef.” The canopy below us is dark green and shiny from the rain. Jason is wrapping bandages around his hands. Chef is texting on his phone. Everyone is armed to the teeth with rifles, grenades, pistols. I reach to my side, to feel for a gun. The drop down holster is empty. I am completely unarmed. Kelly asks, “How many hostages is it again?” Chef doesn’t look up from his phone. “Fifty-three.” In unison, we all quietly swear in disbelief. How are we supposed to pull this off? A sense of mild panic washes over me, not just because I have no idea how we’re supposed to recuse fifty three hostages, but also because it is becoming obvious to me that I’m dreaming. And that’s usually when things get ugly.

Its finally cold outside, so instinctively, I go to get whiskey. I see a bottle of my favorite Japanese whiskey on the bar, forgotten behind some other bottles and I ask for it neat. It tastes so good I want to get up and smash my chair to pieces. This is a reaction I have to good alcohol that I first observed maybe six years ago at a steakhouse. I was drinking a Zinfandel, and I think my exact words we, “Emily… this wine is so good… It kind of makes me want to get into a fight.” Perhaps in the same way a really good punk show might make you want to punch someone in the moshpit in the face, really good alcohol makes me want to brawl.

Of course, I’m not just here for whiskey.

She materializes out of nowhere and spots me, “Oh I see you already have a drink, fine.” She snatches the tumbler away and noses it. She puts it down and as she’s walking away asks, “Is that 12 year Yamazaki?”

It is.


If you want me to leave you alone, do not walk up and identify what whiskey I am drinking by simply smelling it. Do not do this if the idea of me wanting to hang out with you bothers you. At all costs, do not demonstrate an expert-level understanding of my favorite spirit.

I’m more or less speechless, and she’s back. She’s working, moving quickly and not making eye contact. “I was struggling with Japanese whiskies, then I realized they kind of smell like rum. Plus, a lot of them use this very distinctive type of Japanese oak that they typically use for building temples.”

STOP STOP STOP SAYING INTERESTING THINGS GODDAMMIT. I mean, my heart and my mind are fully prepared for not ever seeing her again. However I just have to laugh, because every time I start successfully deprioritizing her, she says or does something remarkable, and I’m like, do you want to go drive around listening to music in the car until 5 am sometime? Just one last time, Bird?

I close my eyes and I see bits and pieces. Fake electronic candles flickering behind bottles, a huge pile of crumpled up money that she is counting. A shot glass full of cigarette ash. A text message: I’m still here deck brushing but I got some wine for when we get out.

I told myself that writing would be a healthy, cathartic exercise. I’m afraid it’s just not the case. I find myself stepping outside of my comfort zone as often as possible for the sake of good stories to write about. What’s worse, I end up using the truth and fiction interchangeably- and leaving everything up to the reader, probably not the best idea. But I do love a good story, so I continue to push.

“You’re staying with your goddamn ex girlfriend in New York City? Not to mention her new boyfriend is your friend and was your mentor?? Are you insane?”

She’s pushing a meatball around her plate, incredulously.

“More or less.” I say. Other times my general response to this kind of question is, “I’m trying to make my life more like a Woody Allen movie.”

I have the easiest job in the restaurant, as a server-sommelier. However, that doesn’t prevent it front sinking its teeth into the delicate flesh of my dreams, and populating them with the most realistic nightmares I have ever experienced.

I dream of the restaurant, every night. I see diners sitting in the seats. They have been waiting for their food. For 20 minutes. For hours. For years. I am running to the kitchen to fire their next course. I’m looking for chef. Where in the fuck is my chef? I have to fire their course. They have been waiting for decades. They are looking at me, and they are furious. The restaurant is empty, save for their table. I have no excuse to fall back on. This is unquestionably my fault.

In another nightmare, the restaurant is full. Everything is going normally, then I look back at the kitchen: and everyone is gone. The grill is still on, the food is all out, but the entire Back of House has blinked out of existence. Horror. Nobody in the dining room notices, and as time stretches on, people start getting upset that their food isn’t coming out.

Did you have less than stellar service from me at some point? Trust me that it is more upsetting for me. As my brain will not let me live down a single gaffe.

These are fairly mundane nightmares, but they are so vivid and real. They are so real that I will be aware of lying in my bed, in my pajamas, and I am still gripped by a sense of life-or-death urgency to push my tables forward. There is always another turn coming. A thousand turns. We have seven thousand on the books tonight. I need two hands to count the number of times I have finally fully woken up to find my thumb hovering over my chef’s phone number. Because I was going to call him. To fire tables. If I weren’t utterly terrified by my flimsy grasp on reality, I would laugh at this scene.

Never before in my life have my conscious and subconscious mind become so dangerously intermingled. And really, it isn’t just that, but my sense of a timeline in my life has become blurry. Old memories are rising to the surface, and current ones seem like they happened eons ago.

The one thing that has remained constant is that every night I have a nightmare about the restaurant, that is punctuated by other, more topical nightmares.

I take it to mean that there are a lot of things in my life that mean a lot to me right now. The success of the restaurant seems to be the big one. One thing I can’t explain the increasing presence of the girl from the facility.

I’m sitting outside the psychologist’s office, which is located inside the facility. This is the first memory I have of listening to other people talk about me and learning something from it.

“Your son has been an… extremely unusual addition to the community here.”

My parents are naturally horrified by the vagueness of this statement coming from a mental health professional. “Is he getting worse? What is so unusual about him??”

“No ma’am, we actually took him off suicide watch after the first day. I can assure you that your son is not a danger to himself or others. I don’t think he ever was.”

“Well then what?!”

She’s excitedly searching for words. “He’s uh, trying to help all of his peers. At group therapy, he is actually helping the other kids resolve their conflicts. His roommate Tony has a history of… violence. He turned in a sharpened toothbrush to us yesterday. His explanation was that Justin talked him out of using it.”

I’m instantly transported to that moment when Tony asked me, “Hey man, you got a quarter? I want to call my girlfriend and tell her I love her before I go kill one of the orderlies.”

I’m 13, and really grateful Tony listened to me. My Dad, still upset, interjects, “Make sure the kids you make my son sleep next to don’t have fucking weapons. That’s your job.”

I fast-forward 14 years to New York. I’ve got maybe six hours left before I have to get to the airport. I’m in the bathroom, washing my hands, applying lotion to my still-fresh tattoo that is weeping blood onto my shirt. With out even trying, I overhear “So what’s he been like this whole time?”

I move closer to the door. Adrienne projects, even as she is attempting to talk more quietly, “He’s a completely different person. He used to be really loud and animated. Now he’s just… silent. It’s bizarre. I don’t recognize him anymore.”

I’m trying not to laugh, not just because I’m a voyeur at heart, but because I’m looking in the mirror, and maybe I can’t recognize myself anymore either.

I’m back in the facility, and I can barely recognize this girls face. I started seeing her more and more in the last three months of my nightmare diet. I remember her being gorgeous, her black eye doing nothing to discourage me. I’m eating fish with her and some friends in the cafeteria and saying, “This is so gross, its funny how gross it is. Like they’re trying to kill us.”

She’s ignoring my banter because she has something important to say.

“Hey. I kind of like you. It really meant a lot that you stuck up for me the other day at group.” She slides a piece of paper across the table and walks away wordlessly. I open it up, and it’s a phone number. It says:

For when we get out.

Wendy reaches across me for the paper, and I can see her two-week-old scars from slashing her wrists with a box cutter. “Dude. You just got a hit on in a mental hospital.” I am grinning so hard I’m afraid my teeth are going to fall out. Wendy stuffs the number into my shirt pocket. “What’s she in for again?”

While I’m watching her walk away, she turns back to look at me, and winks, with flawless execution. This is the first time this has ever happened to me. Did it set a precedent?

“Anger issues and violence.” I wave at her.

I’m walking on gravel covered in fallen cherry blossoms. This place is unreasonably pretty, just like in the pictures.

I’m in the Ibaraki prefecture in Japan. I feel like I walked here. Obviously I’m looking for Hitachino. Specifically I’m hunting for the No Shizuku brandy, but my goal here is to get whatever I can find. Then my sense of smell kicks in. It smells like someone is burning a vanilla bean with a blowtorch. I rotate on my heels to face a massive Japanese temple, with a faint light glowing inside. I walk in to investigate.

I’m inside and the burning vanilla bean smell is getting stronger. I’m sweating, and as I wipe sweat off my forehead I can see the temple bursting into flames. Someone was waiting for me to get here. I’m vaguely scared, but the fire pouring up massive wooden support beams mesmerizes me. The wood has been burning for a long time, and is now black and shiny. Paper walls are turning beige, then brown, then black, and finally vanishing in a puff off smoke.

I rarely see her make an entrance, she just kind of suddenly appears. And here she is. She knows I’m here, but she’s not looking at me. She’s spinning a bar blade on her finger. I’m relieved at this clue that I’m dreaming, because she never spins the blade in real life. I’m the one who is obsessed with spinning bar blades. She’s talking, but the sound of the fire and the temple starting to collapse is really loud. I can hear her say, “I’m annoyed at myself that we ever crossed the friend boundary line.”

“I’m playing it cool, Bird. It’s not like I expected you to be my girlfriend or something. It was nice getting to know you.”

I read the words CO-RECT INDIA on the bar blade.

I can barely see her, the air is shimmering from the heat, and everything is starting to turn grey-black from smoke gushing in every direction. I can hear an ear-splitting snapping noise: the ceiling is collapsing. Sweat and smoke are stinging my eyes.

She thinks I’m more upset than I am, “You’ll be fine. I’m just a girl.” I roll my eyes.

I’m trying to form words as the whole temple comes down on my head. I sit up in bed, a red light from the window unit means I forgot to turn the A/C on.

Note to self: going to bed and leaving the A/C off causes fire death.

Note to self: going to bed drunk causes falling death.

Note to self: going to bed hungry causes starvation death.

Note to self: going to sleep at all will result in service nightmares. Put the phone out of arms reach so I don’t accidentally call chef. At one point before I went to bed this week I actually said aloud to myself, “There are no more guests in the restaurant. You will not have to wait on anybody until you get back.” It super didn’t work. Maybe stop sleeping?

I’m at the restaurant, and we’re in the thick of it. The fever pitch of service is happening, and I’m one step behind everything. I’m rushing to catch up. Need to fire table B. I look back at the kitchen, and everyone is gone. No. No. No no no. This is not happening. I rush into the kitchen, and to my complete terror, it is actually happening. I’m looking for signs that I’m dreaming, and I can’t find them. Some zany mistake my subconscious makes when writing my dreams is missing here. This is goddamn fucking reality, and the entire kitchen has disappeared. I am so fucked. Then I see Mark pop up from behind the line, and I realize what was happening. Five cooks simultaneously dropped down to their knees to plate the stone crab and kombu aspic dish, and I cannot see them when they do this. I swear I almost ran away in terror.

That weekend, I’m confidently pouring whiskey into my flask, and the opening is very small. I feel cool because there is a 2-millimeter margin of error between me filling this flask up with delicious whiskey, and spilling it all over the ground. Right as I begin mentally patting myself on the back, I feel a cold wet sensation on my feet. Goddammit. Don’t look down. Bad enough that my dreams are coming to get me while I’m awake. I walk out the door, my sandals wet.

The helicopter is vibrating, shaking all of us inside. The sun is setting over the Jungle, and I am paralyzed with fear: I do not have any guns. We are somehow supposed to rescue 53 hostages from a military prison complex. How am I supposed to do that without weapons? “Willet? Can I borrow a gun?” He doesn’t hear me.

This is a common dream problem for me: being unarmed in a situation where I need a lot of guns, usually a zombie apocalypse situation or an Escape from New York type deal. However I went to bed drunk, and I’m in a helicopter, so I know exactly what’s going to happen next. I see an enormous rainbow macaw gliding along side the chopper. I say to myself and point at it, “Jungle Bird.”

The helicopter starts turning and the pilot is cursing shit shit fuck shit DRONES. We hear an air raid siren go off below us, suddenly there are glowing lights turning on beneath the canopy for hundreds of yards beneath us. The mist reveals a dozen targeting lasers from SAM sites, fixating on us. Austin closes his eyes hard, “Oh… no.” Gunfire erupts. Explosions and the crackle of machine gun fire begin in the distance and then resonate with a tink tink tink on the side of the chopper. Chef looks up from his phone and stares at me.

“You know how I can tell when you’re telling the truth on your blog?”

Suddenly the tinks increase in frequency, and an explosion causes the Blackhawk to lurch forward violently, and I feel my intestines fly up into my chest. We are spinning in a free fall. Alarms are going off in the cabin, and as we spin the front of the cockpit catches a stream of gunfire. Bullets explode through the cockpit and tear the pilot apart, spraying dark blood on everything. His arms flail in death like a ragdoll as we plummet towards the ground.

I’m falling, we’re all falling. Clutching onto the side of the helicopter, bracing for impact. Everyone is hanging on for dear life except my chef, who is sitting calmly, as if the forces trying to throw us out of the cabin are not affecting him. He leans forward.

“You use big words and flowery language to entertain yourself when you lie, because lying doesn’t excite you the same way the truth does.” He looks out the door. Everything is a blur. We’re no longer over the jungle canopy. We’re about to crash into the prison. Men and women with rifles run to avoid the impending crash of our helicopter. The ground is rushing to meet us.

“When you’re telling the truth, you use smaller words.”

We collide with the earth like a meteor. And as I’m thrown from the chopper and through the ground I begin to wake up. I fall out of bed and stumble to the bathroom, where I puke my guts out. I look out the open door into the living room. There are damp whiskey footprints on the ground. I need to take it easy, I think to myself. Once I’ve unburdened myself of my stomach full of poison, I stumble back to my bedroom.

I should be working harder to find balance. I should be trying to do whatever everybody thinks it is I’m supposed to do. But this path just feels right. I’ll be more responsible when the Bird is gone, I say to myself, unconvincingly. I want to call her, but I need to sleep. I decide to split the difference.

I raise up the remote to my window unit, and turn the A/C off.