THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Word of Mouth

by Emily Sun

Illustration by Anzia Anderson

published March 17, 2017


 

Pauline was always calling her boss in the middle of biology class. “Okay, okay,” she would say, and I imagined her giggles appeasing a gruff voice on the other end of the line. 

I wasn’t sure what kind of friends we were, Pauline and me, if we were close because we saw each other every school day, or because we were the only two brown girls in class. Yet somehow I was drawn to her, as if I’d caught sight of a reflective object from afar and come closer because its colors confused me. Some girls at school had told me that Pauline was a compulsive liar and you couldn’t believe everything she said. But as far as I could tell, her job was real.

After she hung up she rolled her eyes and smiled, pleased and annoyed that she had to work more.

“It’s another wedding,” she said. We had just swabbed our cheek cells and looked at them under dim microscope light.

“How’d you get hired?” I said.

“I had nice legs.”

“What?”

“I ran into my boss Toni at the market. He said I had nice legs and I should work for him.”

“Do you think he needs more help?”

“I don’t know. Do you want me to introduce you?”

 

+++

 

 

I put on the shortest pair of denim shorts I owned. I had been dancing a lot this year and my legs looked good. My legs were longer than Pauline’s, I thought, even though I felt a little guilty for thinking that. I put on wedge sandals, and dangling peacock feather earrings, so everything was long, long, long. Then I got on my bike and biked to the market.

I saw Pauline first. There was a man next to her, probably forty or so, with brown hair that I guessed had another five years before it went gray. His cheeks were sunken but his eyes were alive. He had terrible posture, perhaps from stooping to serve burgers all the time, like he was doing now. I thought they looked too complicated to be burgers, but that’s what Pauline said they were.

“What’s your name,” Toni asked me.

“Emily.”

“She’s got a nice pair of legs on her,” Toni said to Pauline. Pauline gave an approving nod.

“I don’t know if I have anything regular opening up, but I’ll think about it.”

I wrote my number on a yellow scrap of paper and he slipped it into his apron pocket.

 

+++

 

 

In July, when Pauline left for vacation, my phone rang.

“Can you work tomorrow?” Toni said. His voice was scratchy, like the sound of a hair brush through tangles.

At first, I couldn’t find Word of Mouth Catering. I wandered around an empty lot on Arapahoe Ave, a place I hadn’t noticed before, even though it was a five minute walk from home. The sun made the buildings appear identical: shimmering white sides strung together by wiry shadows. I ducked through a garage door into a kitchen, larger than any I had ever seen. Two table islands floated in the center. I peered at the black trays and clear bowls of food, the vivid colors blurred by saran-wrap.

Toni popped out of a closet. We greeted each other, shook hands. I met some other servers, all young women, many Asian like Pauline and me.

I had expected, even hoped for, a training of sorts. I had imagined myself cooking, or at least arranging food on platters, fanning out tomatoes, garnishing with sprigs of parsley. Yet all of this labor had already been done, and as I packaged each dish and moved it to Toni’s car, I quickly wished away the image.

Where are you from?” Toni asked me while he drove. I watched the fields, a jaundiced yellow, swell and recede in the distance.

“Here, Colorado. You?”

“New Jersey. Have you been to the East Coast?”

“I’ve been to New York once.”

“Yeah? Did you like it?”

The summer before I had cut across Chinatown towards the Brooklyn Bridge, my legs aching yet exhilarated by movement. Half-familiar languages lassoed around market stands, anxious cameras, fish in hot oil, men smoking close to one other, braver in the shade. Sounds that were older than a particular place and time, and passed as internal echoes, as if all the bodies in me were whispering. Yet the thought of describing to Toni the decadent noise, and the pleasure they stirred in me, filled me with distaste.

“I liked it,” I said simply.

He raised his eyebrows. “Really? New Jersey is better. Beautiful green hills.”

I asked him about any kids. He said no; he was divorced. Still, I was convinced there was something magnanimous in him, that drew him to this business, to surrounding himself with people, to gathering them, in repeated service of their celebrations. I searched for another question, but none came to mind.

“Could you hand me a Pepsi?” he asked. “There should be some at the back.”

I dug around, fingers prying a can from its ring of plastic.

“God, I love these things. I’m basically addicted.” He gulped the Pepsi down. “You’re quiet, aren’t you?” He asked for another and finished it before we reached our destination.

 

+++

 

 

My eyes rolled over a manicured, spacious lawn, a crowd amusing themselves almost excessively. Faces made fearless by beer and sunblock. Meat enough for seventy spread over a row of grills, seared out of its blood, body, and past until it tasted only of a pleasure some liked to call patriotism. Billowing smoke that stung my eyes.

Toni greeted a large quantity of guests, joking around like they were old friends. I watched him flip sausages. 

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

He shook his head, winked. “Go talk to people. Guests need to be entertained.”

 

+++

 

 

I remembered when Pauline said that Toni liked her because she flirted with guests. The swarm congealed as I approached it. It could just be small talk; I didn’t know why I was making a big deal out of it. I thought of Pauline chattering, words spilling out so fast that sometimes she did not even have time to check if they were true or not. I thought of the agonizing and often hilarious race our middle-school selves enlisted in, wearing push-up bras when there was nothing to push up, admiring the loudest girls, who bared their words as easily as their chests, until I would think of my mother, her voice suddenly soft on the phone, or my father, practicing English by copying the radio, huddled in the dark of his car.

I was beginning to learn that my body could be loud. My legs often spoke foreign tongues to men I passed on the street. They got me this job. As I maneuvered through the mass, I was hoping I could count on them, but they hushed.

I soon returned to Toni. “Need anything? Maybe another Pepsi?”

He eyed me for a moment, then nodded. “You can grab a plate,” he said. “I always let my workers eat.”

I spooned mounds of roasted eggplant flecked with mint, spinach phyllo pastries, and half-moons of cucumbers and mozzarella onto my plate. A man smiled softly at me, like I was younger than I was supposed to be. I avoided his gaze, eating quickly. Pods of oil slid across the Dixie plastic. Their sheen resembled the grease my mother extracted from broth boiled for hours in the slow cooker, until the bones thinned.

By the time I came back home it would be dark, and I would count the bills in my hand, a sum far higher than I had been paid as a nanny. Then I would recount them, relishing the thickness, the heft of them pressed against my palm. I was bothered by a shadow of guilt, an abrasive sense that I had been overcompensated for the work I had done. 

The second event I worked was a Russian couple’s wedding. The women had legs like stilts, hair flat-ironed straight, wide eyes and heavy makeup. They drank more vodka than Toni drank Pepsi, and my primary responsibility shifted from feeding his habit to feeding theirs.

I could not shake a sense of inadequacy from my last shift. I tried to talk more, flirt even, as I topped people’s vodka with orange juice. I figured out that I didn’t need to try and like these people; in fact, the more I disliked them on the inside the easier it was to be a tease on the outside. Lies made the quickest approximations of intimacy: that color suits you (ew beige), you’re a resort manager? (you fucking scare me), yeah I’d drop by for a swim (ditto for deep water), let me take your champagne glass (why didn’t you finish it?), and bring you another one so we can talk more (who asks for a second champagne without finishing the first?).

During cleanup I dropped a pack of toothpicks, sending wooden splinters across the cream colored carpet. I busied myself picking up the mess, sensing Toni rush past and stop. When I looked up again, the room had almost emptied, save for two guests smiling that soft smile, the one that underaged me, that named me girlish and naïve. Their shining teeth rehearsed a forgiveness I was sure masked something ugly underneath, something closer to disdain.

That night Toni gave me a ride home. I passed him more Pepsi when he asked, but the sweet tone of his requests nagged me. I was annoyed that he seemed nice, that he was doing me a favor, for this meant I was not just working for him, but also dependent on him. I was no longer sure if I wanted to earn his respect. I wondered what respect looked like for a man like him, to whom respect’s opposite—shame—did not stick. As the bubbles fizzed around his lips, I briefly wished him diabetes in old age, or some other untreatable yet manageable illness. After we reached my home, he parked and pulled out wrinkled bills from his wallet.

“How many hours was it?”

I did the math. “Eight hours times eighteen, so one fourty-four?”

Toni shuffled his bills. “Here,” he said, pressing them into my hand. “Take the extra.”

I said goodbye, smiling hard through clenched teeth, knowing that the handsome tip was for the fact that he probably would not be calling me again. 

 

+++

     

 

One night in August I dreamt I was ravenous. The garden my mother and I nursed like a sick child all spring was suddenly teeming with red berries. We plucked them, my mother and I. I stained my mouth a deep magenta; she blamed my hunger on the sun.

Having exhausted the garden, we opened the fridge that rattled at certain hours of the night and stared into its glowing cavity. I plunged my hand into a collapsed chocolate cake, peeled slice after slice of cold cut turkey, cracked open a bottle of mustard long expired and consumed the bottle in its entirety, save for the lid, whose pulp I spat onto the tile floor. I ate a package of cellophane noodles without bothering to remove the red plastic seal. I ate corn on the cob until my teeth and gums filled with silk threads.

My mother fed me spare change. I ate the blue rocking chair in her bedroom. My cheeks, ears, arms, ankles, and belly were all swelling, so that I towered over my mother, her body frail and trembling. My clothes frayed, splitting at the seams. My cheeks floated and pressed like balloons against the ceiling, which I consumed in fistfuls. The shreds of my purple sweater sailed straight into my roiling mouth. My jeans split, but my underwear held on. My clammy stomach glowed like the moon on nights after rain. The skin there stretched to the point of transparency; it no longer felt like mine. My mother pressed her ear gently against it. Any more pressure and my skin would burst, sending organs and hair skywards. The sky was clear and it made me hungrier.

I ate the faucet, licked lemon rust off my lips. I heard liquid splash beneath me, and my mother came out with a purple baby kicking in her arms. She gave it to me, a gesture of finality. It’s yours, she said. I held it against my bra and it screamed into my chest. It looked scrumptious, like a little raisin. I raised it to my lips.

The apocalyptic hunger in my dream did not scare me. What scared me was the memory that I had possessed it before. I was standing in the Word of Mouth kitchen, admiring the mushrooms stuffed with prosciutto, tiny ribbons of pink lacing the earthy brown, or the falafel, burnt orange, fresh from the fryer, still glistening. Cloaked in silence, I slowly sneaked a falafel, then another, hurrying to swallow, my tongue peppered, my lips ringed in spice. I was about to go for a third when I heard Pauline and Toni approaching. Ashamed, I quickly turned away and hit the faucet, pretending to wash dishes in the cavern of the industrial sink.

 

+++

 

 

I talked to Toni once more the summer before I left for college. I called him, thinking I wanted to make some extra cash on top of my nannying gig. When I heard his voice it sounded unfamiliar, the way my mother would sound after I moved across the country. For a second I panicked, thinking I had the wrong number. Had he forgotten who I was?

“Yeah, I remember you. You were a good worker, but too shy. You’ve changed, calling me up out of the blue like this. I’ll let you know if something comes up. You’re on my list.”

One night, I danced in New York with girls I had only known for two weeks. The crowd was thin when we got there but soon swelled until it swarmed the club, dissolved into the flashing lights. The first guy I danced with placed his hands on my stomach with a firmness that made me dance faster, in an effort to flee or to surrender to him I did not know. My body turned detached and alive, its surfaces textured, like a tongue. I wanted to feel this now as I hung up on Toni, but I felt like I did after I came home that night, collapsing onto my bed, a ringing in my head, a throb in my abdomen, the faint echoes of trying to prove something I once got wrong about myself. 

I felt a second hunger, one that was not oceanic, but compact, a fist in my stomach, tensed like a mother’s love. This hunger was a longing for things larger than me, and I would spend a long time figuring out what it required of my body, convincing myself that I could satisfy its unnamed pangs through trial and error, through repeated modification.

 

EMILY SUN B’18 is available for hire.