The Sous Chef Chapter 4.
I am hung-OH-ver and want nothing more than to crawl back in bed and marathon-sleep till Tuesday, but I have to visit my aunt in this god-forsaken place. I gave her my word. On the boxy TV mounted in the corner of the waiting room, a generic blonde morning news anchor coos at a shaggy-haired brown puppy with haunted human eyes.
“Wouldn’t you just love to take this little guy home?”
Not if I ever wanted to sleep again.
A janitor with a wrinkled, grease-saturated off-white McDonald’s bag passes me. I grimace as the antiseptic hospital smell combines with the odor of his fake breakfast food. I see Nurse Brenda at her station and the sound of her acrylic nails jackhammering away on the ol’ QWERTY nearly brings me to my knees. The metal shards of sound penetrate my alcohol-rotted skull but the only thing I can do to keep the pain at bay is to lay my sweat-drenched forehead on this ice-cold hospital countertop, or else the janitor will have to mop up my brain splooge and his plastic cheese-egg-stuff-nitrate-laced-ham breakfast sandwich will get cold.
“Morning, Brenda,” I sing-song like a morning person with normal levels of serotonin. She looks up from the screen and her usual happy-go-fucking-lucky face melts with worry when her eyes land on me.
“Are you ok?” she asks, more concerned than I want her to be.
I try to lift my head but physically can’t, but I don’t acknowledge this and instead do that thing where you kick at an invisible rock on the floor when you feel anxious.
“Got a little ahead of myself last night,” I say, eyes on the floor, practiced humility at its best. “Think you can help me out?”
I can hear the desperation in my voice and there’s a brief but potent moment of embarrassment that just takes a squat on my shoulders. There is no generational wealth in my cursed bloodline but my father was kind enough to pass along some addiction genes, eczema, a decade or so of trauma by way of unrelenting emotional neglect, and a generous helping of physical abuse—mostly when he was frustrated about not being able to get his personal needs met.
“I dunno, Asia.”
The look of concern on her scrunched face poses a direct threat to my needs. Time to reroute this convo.
“Come on, I don’t want her to see me like this,” I plead then gesture toward the state of me. I look pretty sloppy, but not because of drugs or alcohol. Mostly from the massive sleep debt I’ve accrued thanks to the shitty, amazing career of mine. Oh, and the unprocessed pre-grief that I’m actively ignoring so I can get through my day without truly considering that the person who I love most, who loves me most, is here for a limited time only, like a selection from the goddamn Disney vault.
Brenda looks at me for a beat, then deflates.
“Fine. But this is the last time. Ok?”
I nod, maybe a bit too enthusiastically, to signal that I believe her. Replenish my fluids, so that I may go forth and wage war against the atavistic man and his dumb ape disciples in the kitchen.
“What would I do without you, B?”
I follow her down the hall, past the wails of an unseen man, into a curtained-off cubicle. She motions for me to sit on the hospital bed, then digs around for something in the pocket of her turquoise SpongeBob scrubs. Brenda is pretty, like a TV nurse. Even her childish scrubs can’t conceal her hourglass figure. She has a great smile, always looks moisturized, and her bob is consistently impeccable. I wonder if it’s a wig. Damn, it probably is. No one has that many good hair days.
If I looked like her, I’d be on an international food tour sponsored by a wealthy, tax-evading white man with a fetish and a secret offshore bank account, not working 12-hour shifts in a third-rate county hospital.
I extend my right hand out and she swabs it with an alcohol wipe. After a quick double-tap for a vein, she swiftly inserts the needle. She’s a pro at this, though she typically does it for sick people, not the asshole nieces of sick patients who crawl in hungover. She rigs the IV and the drip begins. I wish the saline in the bag was dopamine.
“She was bragging about you to Dr. Wilson. Says you’re gonna open your own place.”
She slides a piece of tape over the needle, securing it to my skin. And I’m beaming at the thought of my aunt saying, and fully believing, this. A memory highjacks my moment of pride, and my mind flashes back to the scene of yesterday’s fuck up and the disgusted look on Chef Michel’s face. From beyond the green curtains, a man’s moans bellow down the hall like a modern-day siren trying to lure the nurse to his room for a re-up of morphine to dull his pain. I take my sunglasses off and the unforgiving hospital lights sear my retinas, but eye contact is necessary for my next request.
“So, today’s a big day at work,” I say.
She checks the line to the IV bag and secures a piece of the medical-grade tape holding the needle in place atop my skin, which is ashy. How embarrassing. Jesus be a small thing of hand lotion.
“Yeah, and I’m in pretty bad shape.”
She looks at me and then nods in overwhelming agreement.
“Yes, you are.”
“So, can you hook it up?”
I slide a wad of money out of my pocket and offer it to her.
“A little extra. For your trouble.”
She eyes it, and I see her wish she was a better person as she takes the money from my hand and slides it into the pocket of her scrubs.
“I’ll be back.”
She disappears outside of the curtain and I barely feel guilty for putting her in this position. She’s fucking the director of pharmacy a.k.a. the person in charge of securing the hospital’s medication. He’s incredibly homely and lonely, and she is hot, charming, and in need of money to fund her Etsy boutique, which she plans to grow so she can get out of this criminally underpaying job and make a name for herself as a crochet influencer. What strange times we live in.
The man’s wails grow louder.
“Oh my God, he’s naked!” cries an older woman. Footsteps bound down the hall and a wave of gasps and exasperated curses push through the hair.
“Mr. Jones, please put your gown on and return to your room before I call security,” an over-it employee threatens.
.“It’s hot in here. I’m on fire! I can’t take it no more!” shouts Mr. Jones.
I laugh to myself as Brenda returns and passes me an orange prescription bottle filled with tiny blue Adderalls. These little agents of joy and energy rattle as I give them a home in my pocket. They’re ten milligrams each, and it takes approximately eight to renew my lease on life. These are “legal” amphetamines, the fraternal sister of the illicit drug that softens teeth, craters skin, and ruins lives when abused. The government can peddle it but you better not.
Everything’s a fucking scam.
I’ll take five of these right before I clock in and I’ll be the LeBron James of food prep. Three more after family dinner and I’ll practically levitate around the kitchen like Cris Angel as I expedite my fucking heart out at the pass. I’ll face a massive comedown tomorrow when the legal speed leaves my body, but there’s no other option. This service has to be perfect or there will be no redemption for last night.
Thirty minutes later, I am revitalized and no longer dehydrated from abusing alcohol for the bulk of last night. Nurse Brenda returns and starts to undo my rig. She’s stealing glances at me. Fuck. My drug dealer is about to give me a “Come to Jesus” talk, and I don’t know how things have spiraled so quickly. Who am I kidding? Yeah, I do.
“Your aunt loves you so much, Asia.”
I’m not supposed to respond here, so I nod the most awkward nod in nod history. She slides the needle out of my arm.
“She wants to beat this so she can have the first plate at your restaurant. Says she's gonna send it back for being unseasoned to keep you humble.”
I laugh at this, but Brenda remains somber, committed to her role of concerned onlooker. She heads to the frightening orange hazard box on the wall and disposes of the needle. She returns to my side and places a pink Hello Kitty bandage on the back of my palm. I admire the novelty and then make the mistake of looking up at Brenda who is now giving me the look. Cue the afterschool special music.
“If you keep this up, there won’t be a restaurant. We both know what this shit does to people.”
Time to cook up some damage control. The recipe is straightforward: Diffuse, blame it on circumstance, create separation, appreciate, and comfort.
“Brenda, relax. This isn’t a problem. (Diffuse.) I’m just having a bad week. ” (Circumstance.)
I pause for effect: “When’s the last time I asked you for these?” I present the bottle to her in the palm of my head. Clutching it is too addict adjacent. Body language is always in play, grandpa would say when he was three sheets to the wind. “Muhfuckas will show you exactly who they are. All you gotta do is watch how they move.”
She squints, genuinely giving this some deep, deep thought. Bless her heart.
“Probably a few months.”
“Exactly. People with problems can’t wait that long for a fix.” (Separation.)
She wants to believe me, so she does. “You’re right. Just felt like I should say something, you know?”
I come from a prolific line of lying alcoholics. It’s how my aunt came to raise me in the first place, but I don’t have a “problem” problem. I just tend to recklessly self-medicate when faced with adversity. We’re all addicted to something. I slide into my squeaky Crocs and get to my feet, towering over my petite pusher. Right as rain and ready to fucking go.
“Thanks, Brenda. Really. Means a lot that you have our backs like this.” (Appreciation.)
“Just keep it together.”
I reach over and squeeze her hand. (Comfort.)
She excuses herself from the room. I wait for a moment, then peel back the curtains, and power walk down the interminable, death-fumed corridor, zipping past Mr. Jones’s room as he douses his naked brown body with water from a beige-grey plastic pitcher. The image tattoos itself into my long-term memory as I head toward my aunt’s room.