I was startled from my waking reverie by a hand on my shoulder. Mel had come up behind me. Found me standing there in the street with a blank look on my face.
“It’s good to see you, Lara.” She embraced me. “It’s good to have you back.”
“Thanks. I hope I can handle it.”
“You don’t have to go through it alone this time. You didn’t have to go through it alone last time. But let’s not get into that right now. You have a shift to pick up.”
And we were off, walking swiftly the next three blocks to the diner. Mel wasted no time.
I watched her in wonder. She could just pick up and go. She could just start up again, just like that. She made it seem so easy when I knew it was not an easy task at all. How did she do that? How could she be so nonchalant about it?
The city forces you to keep going. Life forces you to keep going. It’s hard to stop it. It’s pointless to try to stop it. It has to go on. That’s what it does. That’s what it knows to do. There’s nothing complicated about it. The sun rises, the sun sets. We either get up or we don’t. We either live or we don’t. Mel, like Eve, clearly chose the former. I realized how little I knew about her, how little I learned about her in the time that we had worked together.
It’s possible to remain so distant from the people whom we spend so much time with, whom we are around. There’s supposed to be something healthy in that separation, but I’m not sure I ever bought that. I always wondered. I always wanted to know the people. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something to tell. Everyone has things that we’d never guessed in their pasts. Everyone is a surprise.
Mel led me to the back of the shop and into the office.
“We should talk first. How are you?”
“I’m alright. Better. Better enough to be sitting her in front of you. That’s good, right?”
“Lara, don’t talk to me like I’m your principal and you’ve been misbehaving. Pretend I’m not your boss right now. For god sakes, consider that I’m your friend right now. Because it’s true. And I want to make sure that you feel alright about being here. If you need to crash for a couple more weeks and just settle back in, that’s find. I don’t want to shock you and have you disappear on me again. It was hard enough the first time, you know?”
Her brows furrowed in that way that told me she really meant it. I was surprised to know that she was so concerned. I suppose I should have had some inkling of it from the way that she reacted when I called her on the phone. Before me, in this small office in the back of a small restaurant in a very big city, was a friend.
“I’m really fine. I’ve mostly been washing dishes. I don’t really want to work with customers again, if that’s okay. I’d rather bus tables or do prep or something.”
Restaurants always prefer to have women in the front of house. We’re more personable. We’re nice to look at. We can be sweet and sassy and we get along well with people. Supposedly. I was in no shape for that. I couldn’t see myself mustering up the cheer or even pretending to be happy to be taking orders. I could fill some water glasses. Pour some coffee. I didn’t want to do much more than that.
“That works just fine. You can come back tomorrow.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a key ring. She wedged one of the keys off of it and handed it to me. I took it from her tentatively. “Here. Go get settled in. Wash your clothes. Wash your hair. Wash everything. You look like you could use a long bath.”
“Really? Okay. Thanks, Mel. You’re being so–”
“Shut up. You’re going to work for me again. And I need a housemate to bring me my tea and slippers when I get home cranky as hell tonight.” She winked at me and left the office.
Of course. Generosity. People think of excess when they think of this city, but they don’t think so much of generosity. They don’t think so much of kindness. They don’t think of strangers being sweet and kind to each other and helping each other. They don’t think of friends being genuine and authentically wanting to be together, to live together, friends genuinely loving each other for more than the sake of business.
There is so much that people want to believe about this town, about whether it’s really beautiful. About whether it’s ugly. About whether it’s a livable city. About how individualistic and anti-social this place is.
Yes, there are those parts of it. But even those parts of this place are exaggerated. Why? Because it has to be. Because that’s simply the way the world looks upon this part of itself. This is the image projected.
Maybe this city would rather keep out the skeptics and naysayers anyway. Repel the weak, repel the ones who are quick to judge and quick to leave. Repel the people who aren’t willing to see more here. Repel the people who are not going to explore this place on foot, to look into its alleys, to wander onto its beaches, to climb up its strange staircases, to discover.
This place was meant for discovering. For discovery. If you are not willing to seek, you’ll find nothing. And you will leave. And this place will not remember you. It is that simple, really.
Those who find nothing somewhere rarely leave a mark in the places they leave. How can they? People will always speak of this place with a roughness in their voices, even if they love it. That’s the nature of this city.
And people are so generous to those who come, who stay, who leave and return. Once a love has been borne for the city inside you, it seems like the other lovers can feel it, too.
I could tell that Mel was one of those people. That she could see something of herself inside me was flattering. Was surprising, really. Or perhaps it was only to be expected that I would take something of this place with me every where I went.
The yellow scarf was tied loosely around my neck, hanging beneath my shirt. In a few weeks, I wouldn’t need it to keep me warm any more. In a few weeks, it would be too warm.