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Sweetbitter
Stephanie Danler

Summer

I

YOU WILL DEVELOP a palate.

A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.

I DON’T KNOW what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.

It is fast money—loose, slippery bills that inflate and disappear over the course of an evening. It can be a means, to those with concrete ends and unwavering vision. I grasped most of that easily enough when I was hired at the restaurant at twenty-two.

Some of it was a draw: the money, the sense of safety that came from having a place to wait. What I didn’t see was that the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was the blur of a momentary madness. Ninety percent of us wouldn’t even put it on a résumé. We might mention it as a tossed-off reference to our moral rigor, a badge of a certain kind of misery, like enduring earthquakes, or spending time in the army. It was so finite.

I CAME HERE in a car like everybody else. In a car filled with shit I thought meant something and shortly thereafter tossed on the street: DVDs, soon to be irrelevant, a box of digital and film cameras for a still-latent photography talent, a copy of On the Road that I couldn’t finish, and a Swedish-modern lamp from Walmart. It was a long, dark drive from a place so small you couldn’t find it on a generous map.

Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.

Yes, I’d come to escape, but from what? The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it? It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.

Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.

SOUR: all the puckering citrus juices, the thin-skinned Meyer lemons, knobbed Kaffirs. Astringent yogurts and vinegars. Lemons resting in pint containers at all the cooks’ sides. Chef yelled, This needs acid!, and they eviscerated lemons, leaving the caressing sting of food that’s alive.

I DIDN’T KNOW about the tollbooths.

“I didn’t know,” I said to the tollbooth lady. “Can’t I squeeze through this one time?”

The woman in the booth was as unmoved as an obelisk. The driver in the car behind me started honking, and then the driver behind him, until I wanted to duck under the steering wheel. She directed me to the side where I reversed, turned, and found myself facing the direction from which I had just come.

I pulled off into a maze of industrial streets, each one more misleading than the next. It was irrational but I was terrified of not being able to find an ATM and having to go all the way back. I pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts. I took out twenty dollars and looked at my remaining balance: $146.00. I used the restroom and rinsed off my face. Almost, I said to my strained face in the mirror.

“Can I get a large iced hazelnut coffee?” I asked. The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.

“You’re back?” He handed me the change.

“Excuse me?”

“You were in here yesterday. You got that same coffee.”

“No. I. Did. Not.” I shook my head for emphasis. I imagined myself getting out of the car yesterday, tomorrow, and every day of my new life, pulling into the Dunkin’ Donuts in motherfucking New Jersey, and ordering that coffee. I felt sick. “I didn’t,” I said again, still shaking my head.

“I’m back, it’s me,” I said to the tollbooth woman, rolling the window down triumphantly. She raised one eyebrow and hooked her thumb into her belt loop. I handed her money like it was nothing. “Can I get in now?”

SALT: your mouth waters itself. Flakes from Brittany, liquescent on contact. Blocks of pink salt from the Himalayas, matte gray clumps from Japan. An endless stream of kosher salt, falling from Chef’s hand. Salting the most nuanced of enterprises, the food always requesting more, but the tipping point fatal.

A FRIEND OF a friend of a friend, his name was Jesse. A spare bedroom for $700 a month. A neighborhood called Williamsburg. The city was in the grips of a tyrannical heat wave, the daily papers headlined with news of people dying in Queens and the outer boroughs where there were blackouts. The cops were passing out bags of ice, an evaporating consolation.

The streets were wide and vacant and I parked my car on Roebling. It was midafternoon, there wasn’t enough shade, and every business seemed closed. I walked over to Bedford Avenue to look for signs of life. I saw a coffee shop and thought about asking if they needed a barista. When I looked through the window the kids on laptops were thin lipped, pierced, gaunt, so much older than me. I had promised myself to find work swiftly and unthinkingly—as a waitress, a barista, a whatever-the-fuck-job so I could feel planted. But when I told myself to open the door my hand objected.

The waterfront skyline was plastered with skeletons of high-rises, escalating out of the low buildings. They looked like mistakes that had been rubbed out with an eraser. Creaking above an overgrown, abandoned lot was a rusted-out Mobil gas sign—all around me ambivalent evidence of extinction.

This new roommate had left the keys at a bar near the apartment. He worked in an office in Midtown during the day and couldn’t meet me.

Clem’s was a dark spot on a bright corner, the air conditioner rumbling like a diesel motor. It anointed me with a drip when I walked in, and I stood blinking in the airstream while my eyes adjusted.

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