Opium

by Julia Park

I used to work the cocktail shift at Vivaldi, an upscale cafeteria-style eatery in the Financial District of San Francisco. The shift started at five thirty and went till two a.m., when we closed, but of course I couldnít leave at two, because I had to cash out and tip the bartender, wipe all the tables and empty ashtrays. That was after a full day of telemarketing in a barn of an office nearby, third floor, minimum wage, computer screen, headset, cubicle, no windows, no talking. I usually walked out the door of Vivaldi by two thirty, my purse heavy with coins, though never enough to pay the rent, the PG&E, the babysitter, and still eat. Iíd drive down to the Excelsior to pick up my sleeping baby girl, then drive home to the Mission, put her back to bed and fall asleep a little after three. Iíd do it again the next day.

My friend Donna got me the day job; I had just quit my other job at an industrial print shop, where the owners, an elderly father and his middle-aged son, screamed at each other in Greek all day over the clank and hum of presses, and the son wanted to take me out, and he was just too desperate. He made some crack at me one day and I couldnít take it, so I left. That night I told Donna about it as we were filling the napkins and setting up the garnish trays. She called me from work the next day and I went in, and got the telemarketing job. So we both had two jobs then.

Donna and I always worked together at Vivaldi on Friday nights. The manager said that was the only night he needed two girls, and the rest of the time, Donna and I alternated. Sunday night was the worst Ė no customers, no tips, barely enough money to pay for parking and the babysitter. Saturdays rocked, busy enough to keep one waitress moving all night, from the first Seven-and-Seven to the last Bacardi-Coke. I made up on Saturdays what I was sure to lose Sundays. But Fridays were the busiest.

Customers burst through the door like kids getting out of school, happy, loosening their ties, reaching for their wallets. The women went into the bathroom and came out with their hair gelled up and their makeup refreshed. More than one came out sniffing, wiping her nose and laughing with her friends. The after-work crowd was steady, pounding down the drinks and tipping well, asking for Glenfiddich and Stoli, import beers, a couple of margaritas and white wines. The rush would last till about seven-thirty. Weíd have a bit of a lull and eat something in the kitchen before the Friday night partiers came out to play.

Marni, the DJ, set up her station and began to play at eight. She was this beautiful woman, like a model, who worked at the perfume counter at Macyís during the day. She always looked exotic in skintight leopard print pants and a silky black top, or something purple or shimmering gold, clothes I could never carry off. Her black hair was cut short and she wore makeup like Cleopatra, streaks of dusty color over each eye, lips pouty and red, and a mole she must have painted on her cheek. She turned on the colored lights over the dance floor and started the evening with some slow R&B, then she came up to the bar for a drink.

She smiled at Bruce, the bartender, and he gave her a glass of ice and a chilled bottle of Perrier. He twisted the cap and tossed it over his shoulder into the garbage can.

"Nice shot," she said. She turned slowly and went back to her station. Bruce watched her go. I asked for a clean towel to wipe tables during the lull.

I had been watching Bruce myself for a few weeks. He wasnít much to look at, really, kind of a cross between a computer geek and a film nerd. He was from New York, from some wealthy family, and he had gone to Clark, and had been to Europe. He was smart and I liked his New York accent and directness, and the way his wire-rimmed glasses slid down his nose, and the way he read the Times instead of the Chronicle, as if there was nothing out here that could possibly interest him. Last time he went to New York, he had brought me back a souvenir Ė a subway map. It was like a vision of Nirvana to me, a way out of here, a means of escape from this bullshit grind, this everyday hell. I pinned it on my wall in the apartment where I could see it when I woke up and when I went to sleep.

Pretty soon the customers began coming in, and Donna and I were busy. Marni picked up the pace and people started dancing. We had a lot of orders for G&Ts and wine coolers, lots of beer and Long Island ice teas. By nine oíclock it happened, like clockwork. The first group of twenty-ones Ė kids just past their twenty-first birthday Ė came in. It was as if they traveled in packs. Nine, ten, eleven of them at a time, and theyíd pull a bunch of tables together so you couldnít get around them, and theyíd order blended drinks, the sweeter, the better. Every single one ordered something like a strawberry margarita or a pina colada or a mai-tai, with the pineapple garnish or the whipped cream and cherry, and the little umbrella on top. Every one ordered a drink that cost $4.50 or more and not a one of them tipped. Weíd have to carry these heavy trays through the crowd, one hand up to shield them from the jostling, the other arm straining to carry the tray, and squeeze around their makeshift enclaves and scream the prices to them over the throb of the music. The only good thing was that they usually paid for their drinks together, rather than individually, so Donna and I had a pact; we tacked on a couple of bucks to make up for the tips they never gave. After a while, we started tacking on to almost everyoneís bills, at least those who paid for several at once. Donna called us the Tacky Tackers. One time I almost got caught when a customer complained about the price of his drink, but I played dumb and pretended that I didnít know the price of his scotch rocks. Guys are so easy to fool.

The pina colada crowd kept us running for about two hours. By the time all of them were into their second drinks, they began to mellow and slow down, and we had a chance to stand a minute and survey the place. A couple of Bruceís friends had come in while I was serving. One was a heavy-set guy who sat there on a bar stool and didnít say anything. He just drank one Miller after another. I never saw him pay for them. I never found out his name. The other guy, Jeff, always sat on the bar stool at the end, right next to the waitress station, and he had a really good singing voice. He looked like hell Ė always in some ratty t-shirt and threadbare jeans, and a couple of dayís growth of beard. But when he sang along with whatever Marni was playing, he started looking pretty good. Thereís something about a sexy singing voice, I guess. The third friend was this very cool blonde who was apparently independently wealthy, because she always had some fabulous leather jacket on, and she drove a Jaguar that she parked right out front in the no parking zone, and she always paid for her drinks with hundred dollar bills. She bought the drinks directly from Bruce, though, so she never bestowed any of her riches on me.

Sometimes I heard Bruce talking to his friends and it seemed they must be some kind of music buffs, because they liked to get together and have blues parties. They were always talking about the last one and planning the next weekend get-together and laughing. It sounded like fun to me, and thought I was no blues fan, I had gone to the San Jose Blues Festival two years before, and it was all right. I kind of wanted to go to their party. I kind of wanted Bruce to ask me out.

Not that I had time to go anywhere. Saturdays and Sundays were the only time I had to sleep, and haul my clothes to the laundromat, and play with my baby. Every other weekend, Kayla went to her dadís house, where he would pass her to his sisters and go on fixing his truck or watching TV. The weekends I had her, I took her to the park and pushed her in the swing. I never let her play in the sand because it was full of dog shit and broken bottles. I pushed her stroller up the street to the Mexican market to see how far my ten-dollar food budget would stretch. Oranges, rice, eggs, a tomato, and milk for Kayla. That was it. Most of the time she ate at the babysitterís anyway, and I could eat at the bar, whatever potato skins and nachos were on the menu for appetizers that night. I helped myself to tea bags and single-servings of jelly from the restaurant; when I went home to see my parents, I left them playing with Kayla in the living room and quietly filled her diaper bag with cans of peaches and green beans from the cupboard. I couldnít ask for help. I just couldnít.

Sometimes, when the tips had been good, or Kaylaís dad decided to gift us with a child support check, I could go shopping. Or my version of shopping. Down Mission there were a bunch of shops that catered to the Asian and Hispanic families in the area. They sold tops and skirts and dresses of cheap polyester in the latest styles, vinyl purses and accessories, and low- priced makeup. For ten bucks, I bought a short black dress with a slit up the side from one of those shops and I often wore it when I waitressed. I knew that the sexier I dressed, the better the tips were. Another time I found a shop that sold incense and candles and scented oils with names like Rain and Wild Apple and Mountain Spring. There were imitations, too, of expensive perfumes: Obsessive, White Shoulder, Channel 5. I smelled the little vial of something they called Opiana, for Opium, and I liked its cinnamon and musky undertones, and for two dollars, I bought a vial. I wore it when I wanted to feel pretty.

Around eleven thirty, Marni took a short break and came up for a fresh drink, and the dancers cleared the floor. They waved at me and Donna as we passed, picking up empties.

"Iíll be right with you," I said again and again. More pina coladas, more margaritas, more of the same for everyone. My feet hurt and I was pretty tired. It had been a long week. It was my weekend alone, though; Kayla was going with her dad, so I could catch up on sleep. I took my laden tray and edged through the tables, distributing drinks and collecting money. I replaced dirty ashtrays with clean ones and mopped up spilled drinks, then came back to the bar with more orders.

Marni was still standing there at the waitress station. Up close, her skin was so white next to her black hair, and she smelled of tea roses. Her silky blouse was open at the neck and I could see Bruce and his friends trying to look into her cleavage. Marniís nails were oxblood curls at the ends of her fingers. I gave Bruce my order and stood waiting to fill the glasses with mixer and garnish. As I stood there, Marni took hold of my forearm with her long cool fingers and turned it over. She pulled my wrist almost to her lips and sniffed lightly, as thought tasting wine.

"What is that?" she asked me. Her face was very close.

"My perfume?" She must be joking. I probably smelled of lime juice and sweat and cigarette ashes.

"Yes Ė what is it?"

"Opium," I said, unable to move or pull away.

She sniffed again, as if to imprint the scent on her memory, and released my wrist. "Itís very different on you." She picked up her Perrier and walked back to her station.

I picked up the mixer gun, added 7-Up and tonic to the drinks, and dropped in wedges of lime. My wrist tingled where sheíd held it. I gave Bruce the money for the drinks and slid my hand underneath the tray.

"She likes you," someone said at my ear.

I turned to see Jeff, the singing barstool dweller, smirking at me. I didnít know what to say, so I hoisted my tray and took the drinks out to the tables. I forgot to overcharge, and someone asked me how much his drink was, and I got confused. "$3.25." Not even the right wrong price.

"Oh, I thought they were $3.50."

"Iím sorry," I said. "Iím new. Iíve been getting mixed up all night." I tucked a strand of hair back over my ear.

The customer smiled. "Thatís okay. Everybody makes mistakes." He put five dollars in my hand and squeezed it in his. "Keep the change."

"Oh, thank you," I said. "Thanks so much." I went back to the waitress station. The music grew loud and pulsing again, and the dance floor filled. I asked Bruce for a short glass of ice and squirted Coke into it from the mixer gun. I wanted to walk out the door and breathe the cold night air. I wanted to drive away in my little beat-up car and take a long hot shower, and then sleep for a week, a month, a year. I wanted to wake up in a cloudy white bed with someone who loved me and would take care of me and my baby, and I wanted to stay at home, some sweet little home, and bake bread and plant flowers and rock my baby forever.

Bruce was laughing with his friend on the other side of the bar, and the cool blonde was wiping her nose and sniffing, and I knew she was high. She probably had everything she wanted, with her leather jacket and her Jaguar and her bourbon laugh. I called Bruce over to me and beckoned him near. He leaned over the bar and I stepped up on the brass foot-rail and got right up to his ear. "So when are you going to invite me to a blues party?"

He laughed a little and shook his head. "I donít think itís your cup of tea," he said. But he slipped his hand around into my hair, and stroked a strand, and I closed my eyes and for a moment, I felt safe, and there was a promise of something sweet and warm there, and when a customer beckoned me, I walked away knowing Bruce was watching me.

The clock ticked past twelve, and onward. Donna spilled a drink on some girl who pitched a fit, and we had to give their whole table free drinks. Fortunately the manager was gone or it would have come out of her tips. Marni got the dance floor moving with "La Bamba" and "Twist and Shout," the way she always does after midnight. Jeff, on the bar stool, sang along, harmonizing. People drifted out in twos and fours, and others came in after the late movies. You could tell who was on a date and who was just friends, which couples were still shy and unsure, and which ones were lovers. I wanted to be out on a date and have someone order my drink for me, and not be worrying about how much the babysitter is charging and how little sleep Iím going to get tonight. The dancers crowded the floor, hooting and laughing. Then I heard Bruce shouting, "Last call!" and Donna and I circled around for orders. Marni played one more song, a slow dance for those still inclined to move.

Then Bruce turned up the lights and the bouncers at the door started to call, "Goodnight, goodnight!" People took their jackets and their drinks and walked to the door, sipping and swallowing, and left the empties on the ledge as they went out. Bruce handed a last beer to his friends, and washed glasses fast as they joked back and forth. Donna and I brought up all the empties and ashtrays, and wiped down tables. My ears rang from the sudden quiet, and although I was sick of that place, I felt, for a moment, something like peace.

We sat at the bar and cashed out: a mound of quarters which I saved for the laundromat, some dimes and nickels, mostly ones and fives. Donna made fifty-two bucks and I had made sixty.

"Tacky," she said under her breath. We had to give some to Bruce, ten percent, and when I gave him my six dollars, he held my fingers for a second before releasing me. Donna and I walked out together to the garage. We were too tired to joke around. I drove to the babysitterís way out on Geneva and got my baby and drove home.

I would have slept in but it was his weekend, and he came early to get Kayla, and then I was up already, so I took all our clothes and my quarters down to the laundromat, the one at 24th and Hampshire. I sat there looking at an old People magazine that someone left behind until the clothes were dry. Then I hauled everything back to the apartment and drank some tea while I folded and put them away. I made some scrambled eggs for lunch and then went back to bed for a couple of hours. When I woke up it was already five oíclock and I had to be at work by six. I took a quick shower and put on a skirt, because the girls werenít allowed to wear pants at Vivaldi. Before I left I dabbed a bit of Opiana on my wrists and throat. I had to put on my makeup in the car, eyeliner at stop lights, mascara on the long stretches, and my lipstick last thing. I knew I looked good because Bruce did a real double-take when he saw me, and I felt like anything could happen on a long night with just one waitress, and nowhere to be until Monday. I set up my garnish trays and made sure all my napkins and straws were full, and Marni started the music, this slow song that I loved called "What About Love?" which I hadnít heard in a long time. It had a great line in it: Liviní on daydreams, walkiní in my sleep, and I stood there just listening to that song and thinking, "Oh, thatís me."

Jeff, Bruceís friend, showed up then and he started singing a harmony as he sat down. What about making room for two? What about love, baby, what about you?

I glanced over at Bruce with Jeff singing right in my ear and my heart did a little squeezy thing when he looked back at me, smiling as he pushed up his glasses on his nose. Jeff kept singing until the song ended and it felt like one of those perfect moments you see on TV, when the song fades out and the guy and the girl are looking at each other and you know everythingís going to work out like a dream.

Saturday nights are busy, like I said, steady but not as wild as Fridays; not the same sort of crowd, either. Seems like there were fewer dates and more groups of friends coming in Ė a couple of single guys, then a handful of girls, then a bunch all mingled together. I got a couple of tables of twenty-ones, but mostly they were older, lots of beers and Long Islands and vodka- tonics, and they were tipping all right. When thereís just one girl on the floor thereís not much time to stand around, and I ran back and forth for hours. Jeff sat there singing the whole night, downing beers, and after a while the blonde came in with the heavy-set no-talker, and they kept Bruce busy on their side of the bar. I heard them say "blues party" again and I wanted to go.

I said in Jeffís ear, "So whatís the deal with the blues parties?"

He smiled and took a long swallow. "Nothing, just a party. Couple of friends. You know."

"And you sit around and listen to blues music, right?"

He laughed under his breath. "No," he said. "No music at all." Marni put on something loud and thumping, and the dance floor filled up. I stood there fiddling with the napkins like I was trying to straighten them out, but I didnít understand, and I didnít want to ask again.

Jeff laughed, watching me, and rubbed his stubbly chin. "Forget about it. Itís not your cup of tea."

Someone hailed me from the floor and I went out to get his order. When I turned back toward the bar I could see Bruce leaning over the bar listening to Jeff, and then they both glanced at me and laughed. That pissed me off. I came up with my drink order and Jeff sat smirking into his beer. I called the drinks, "Two vodkas tall, and a white wine," but I didnít even look at Bruce. I shot the vodkas full of tonic and dropped in the limes, and handed the money to him. He took it like he had last night, his fingers touching mine a little too long, but he had laughed at me, and I pulled my hand away and took the drinks out to serve. I stopped to clean some tables and then went in the kitchen to get a clean towel for a bar rag. The truth is, I was so mad right then that I wanted to walk out of that stupid shit hole, and I had to get by myself and wipe the tears out of my eyes without smearing my mascara.

I took a couple of deep breaths and was checking my makeup in the silver door of the walk-in freezer when I heard someone come into the kitchen.

"Oh, there you are," Bruce said. "Someone had an order, but I told him youíd be right back."

I shrugged, afraid to talk.

"Are you all right?" he asked, putting a hand on my shoulder.

I had been, just about, but the feel of his hand made my eyes tear up again, and I blinked them back. "Yeah, Iím fine. Itís just been one of those nights." I looked down so he wouldnít see my eyes.

But of course he had to touch my chin with his fingers and tilt my face up to see, and then he was kissing me there in the kitchen, warm and slow, and he pulled me into his arms for a minute. I could smell his scent, like mine, ash and beer and sweat and a little of something else, some cologne he must have put on that morning that had faded, all but a trace of it that I could almost taste. "I gotta get out there," I said, pulling back.

He caught my hand. "What are you doing after work?"

"Going home, I guess."

"Why donít you come out with me for a while? We could go down to North Beach, have a drink, or go to my place. Just listen to music and talk, if you want to." I saw how brown his eyes were behind his glasses and that there were little flecks of gold in the brown.

"Okay," I said. "That sounds fun." I pulled my hand away, though I wanted to hurl myself into his arms and kiss him again. He put his arm around me and propelled me back out onto the floor, where about six tables wanted me at once, and Marni was looking at me and Jeff was laughing, and a bunch of guys were leaning on the bar, yelling at Bruce, "Gimme a beer, for cryiní out loud!"

Those five minutes in the kitchen cost me any luxury of standing around, and I rushed and ran from the bar to the tables for the rest of the night. But there was a kind of symmetry to it, like a dance thatís been choreographed. I was too busy, crazy-busy, but nothing spilled, and I laughed and joked at all the tables, so they tipped me well, even with the extra I tacked on. When I called my order, there was a sizzle between Bruce and me, a little rainbow of anticipation, and every song that Jeff sang might have been written just for us.

And when the night was over, I cashed out and counted almost a hundred bucks, but I didnít want to say so, because if I had that much over, I could maybe get a new dress or a pair of shoes tomorrow. So I gave Bruce only eight dollars, and when no one was looking he pressed the money, folded small, back into my hand. I put it into my purse with the rest and put on my coat.

Usually one of the bouncers walked me to my car on a Saturday night, but Bruce said, "Iíll walk her out." We went out and took the elevator down to the garage and he said, "Why donít you drive?"

I laughed because I knew he didnít even have a car. He had this New York idea that there was nowhere to park and that cars were too much trouble in the city, and we talked about that as I drove out of the garage and along the Embarcadero until we turned up and headed into North Beach. I had to park on the street in a place where there was six a.m. Sunday street cleaning, and he made a joke about sleeping in and getting a ticket, and I knew I was spending the night, as if I hadnít already known.

There were still lots of places open up and down Columbus, and I thought we might take a walk and keep on talking. But he put his arm around me and took me up the stairs to his apartment. It was dark inside and he told me to wait while he lit a few candles.

"Oh, thatíll just make me sleepy," I said, and he smiled.

"Then letís go to bed."

When we were kissing and lying together, just getting started, I told him that Iíd only been with three other guys. It wasnít true, but I knew he wouldnít believe me if I said he was the first one or the second, because he knew I had Kayla, and even the third was probably hard to believe, but I wanted him to feel like there was still something unsullied about me, and I wanted the night to be special. I wanted it to grow longer and deeper, into some kind of something, I donít know what. But that was too much even for me to say out loud, so I just kissed him again, and let it go.

Afterward, we lay for a few moments, entangled, and he said, "Wow, I find it hard to believe youíve only been with a couple of guys." I lay there in the hollow of his shoulder wondering, what was that supposed to mean? "Youíre such a wild thing" he said a minute later, giving me a little hug with his arm. I didnít know what to say so I stuck my tongue in his ear. He pulled his head away and sat up.

"Where you going?"

"Nowhere," he said, fiddling with something on the crate that he used for a bedside table. It took him a minute to find whatever he wanted, and then he put something in his mouth and lit a match. I didnít know he smoked, and I leaned up on my elbow to make a joke about smoking after sex, and then I saw his face. His eyes were almost closed, and he looked pale and very young without his glasses. He held a tube like a hash pipe in his mouth, with one hand held a piece of foil, and with the other the lit match. On the foil there was a little ball of something like mercury, resinous, rolling with a life of its own around the foil, and he followed it with the match and sucked in the smoke.

He held it in his lungs for a second then blew it out away from me. I didnít want to ask like a fool, but I had to know. "What is that?"

"Chasing the dragon," he said, his teeth on the pipe, and sucked in the smoke. I watched him chase that little ball around as it rolled and shrank, until it almost disappeared. Bruce looked at me a second and made to offer the pipe to me. I shook my head. He sucked up the last of the smoke and lay back. He put his arm around me again, but I felt weird, cold and stiff and a little afraid.

"Better that you donít try it," he said into my hair. "Itíd probably make you sick. Marni got sick at her first blues party."

Marni? I shrugged my shoulders away from him. As if he hadnít noticed, he stroked the skin of my arm with his fingers. "God, you feel so good," he murmured.

I sat up and reached for my clothes.

"Whatís the matter?" he asked, his voice husky, almost sleepy. "Where you going?"

"I gotta move the car. Itís almost morning," I said, pulling on my skirt and top. I shoved my underwear and my bra into my jacket pocket and looked around for my pantyhose, but it was too dark, they were black, and I didnít even care.

"Get me a beer?" he asked in that slow voice.

"Yeah," I said. "Be right back." I took my purse and car keys and let myself out the door and down the stairs.

There was no one on the street. The air was cold on my bare skin. I got into my beat-up car and locked the doors. I put the key in the ignition, then rested my forehead against the steering wheel for a moment. Through the windshield, beyond the streetlights and telephone wires, I could see the sky, leaching toward dawn, the color of hyacinth.

Julia Park is a Bay Area (CA) fiction writer and journalist.


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