• de Martinez

Twenty-One Deglazing | (chapter three)

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

To be fair it may have been more than two days; but in any case it didn't take very long and, nevertheless, within three years it was over. My twenty-first birthday may itself have been a bust, but my twenty-first year was tumultuous, to say the least. Although 2006 began with me living with my parents and Jenny living with a roommate near the University (where she worked more than she attended school), the Main Event that broke us for good was entirely out of both of our hands: One of Jenny's very good friends and colleagues shot himself. And although that's not exactly my story to tell, it obviously affected me (and our relationship) enough to bear mention. I don't know exactly what Jenny saw, but I know she saw a lot more than she'd ever expected, and that it was traumatizing, in more ways than one.

She'd told me she loved him. As we were deciding to break up, discussing our options. Being honest with each other like you're supposed to be with the people you care about. "But I'm actually in love with him," she told me. "Or I think so. I'm just not sure." I think we were sitting on the couch in our second apartment; but at the time I might have believed myself right back at Wal-Mart three or four years earlier, staring at a wall of batteries while she told me she was going to have to cancel so she could go hang out with Video Store Guy. Even though she'd promised me.

How did we get to this point, again?

Truthfully, I don't know that I ever got over the Wal-Mart phone call; which means that I don't think I ever really trusted Jenny. Which sounds horrible when read straight like words on a page, and sounds even worse, perhaps, if you happen to have ever known (or know) the real Jenny. But it was not an overt lack of trust, it was an undercurrent, sometimes stronger than others but always contributing to the surface waters above. This is what informed my reaction when I found out shortly after we'd moved in together, that she was hanging out with a (different) co-worker with whom she'd had relations while she and I weren't speaking (the first time)—a reaction and series of events that eventually caused her to call off the friendship altogether, and which ultimately set the tone for the course of our relationship, even though neither of us knew it at the time, or didn't want to admit it to ourselves if we did.

I didn't trust her, but I took her for granted. Felt that I was owed something of her heart and her love, a good solid effort at the relationship on her part because wasn't I the better guy? Isn't that, after all, why she'd chosen me? But of course there was no contract, and no established method or amount of repayment. There wasn't even an understanding of there being any kind of debt in the first place (and there never should be, I know that now). She cut off all ties with nearly every male in her life, because I was jealous or would become jealous. We kept only one friend from our high school crowd, and that friend was a female. And I, of course, still high on the idea of my books and my future as a famous writer: I decided that I would write full time, trying to supplement income by opening a publishing company specializing in hand-bound books (I believe I wrote something like fourteen novels during this period, and made a whopping $750.00 in nearly two years because although I knew how to build a website and understood the Google AdSense and pay-per-click programs, we lacked any real capital to actually attempt establishing a business, and many of the programs themselves simply were not as integrated and efficient as they appear to be nowadays).

We rutted, but not in the sense of copulation: We became stuck in a financial rut, incapable of doing much of anything for ourselves or for the health of our relationship because we were living on such a shoestring budget. We became stuck in an emotional rut: Jenny had issues with depression for as long as I'd known her, but it was getting worse day by day, and I wasn't providing a very good reason or environment in which to try and pull herself out of it. And we got stuck in a relationship rut: Co-workers told her she should leave me, because I was just taking advantage of her. Which only fueled my penchant for jealousy in a different manner than before—me against them (no longer just "him"), and always "fighting" to keep her by my side, to convince her they were wrong and I was right.

In fact I was wrong, in many ways. Emotionally abusive, one might say; taking advantage of the situation, might say another; doing my best at the time, I might try to justify. But neither of us had any clue about anything—and that's the truth. I didn't realize I didn't trust her, but because I took her for granted it was on Jenny to be by my side while I pursued my dream. I needed time to write, I needed time to dedicate to learning everything I could about the publishing world, marketing, and web design: I couldn't be at work, working for someone else and distracted from the real work, the "writing thing" was going to take time and a lot of patience on both our parts. Meanwhile, she had the job and pulled enough for us to squeak by, I was managing the money and in fact we often spent less than I'd figured, relative to the budget, so it was not uncommon that we'd "have a little extra" change to do something or other.

Little may be an understatement, to be sure; and whatever "extra" thing I might have tried to do for Jenny throughout those first few years, never amounted to much more than a hollow reminder of Our Situation. To be perfectly fair and honest, how could I not expect her to fall for him? He was troubled, he was loyal, he was a good person with some inner demons. He had a job, he was tall and handsome, he made her laugh. He made clear (to her) the fact that I wasn't the only option, and he listened to her when she talked about me. I don't know how often they might have met up, or if they ever actually got together while Jenny and I were broken up or perhaps even before....Ultimately I think he really was (mostly) just a friend; and, as stated, he was loyal: He, too, was in a relationship. Not a very good one, if I recall, but that wasn't necessarily a full-on reason for eschewing his moral code even if he did have options. Such was their obvious commonality.

Just a few weeks before the devastating news, I'd announced my intent to become a full-fledged chef. Despite its being what might be called an addiction obsession fixation of mine, upon breaking up with Jenny and ashamedly moving back in with my parents I put aside everything and anything to do with the books and the publishing company, except for writing and editing those manuscripts upon which I'd already spent so much time (fourteen novels in two years perhaps, but they were all handwritten and needed to be digitized if I was ever planning to do anything serious with them). I bit the bullet and got a job at Burger King because fast food was the fastest, easiest thing more me to get into, and within a very short amount of time there were discussions regarding promotion (which has always been a pattern throughout my career, sometimes intentionally masterminded, other times much more accidentally so). I might not have known exactly what I wanted to do with my life (if I wasn't going to be a famous writer, that is), but I knew I didn't want to be that guy.

To be clear, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with managing a fast food establishment. In fact it's probably one of the more important jobs in the industry, considering just how many Americans tend to eat fast food on a regular basis. Fine and dandy to do so, but those burgers might not be so consistent if you didn't have someone managing the folks preparing them. The importance of the corporate fast food or -chain restaurant manager may go unrecognized by those who label themselves foodies, chefs, cooks, critics, reviewers, and any other kind of bully supposedly serious about food; but it's up there right along with teachers, doctors, lawyers and dishwashers (which is only my way of saying that, in the social sense, in fact no one job is more important than the other).

But I digress: It may be an essential and crucial role in the service industry, but at that time I simply didn't see it as an actually serious, adult-type job. It was something for someone like me if I chose not to apply myself. Or, it could be something for someone like Melissa's younger, stoner-dopey but kind-hearted brother Mark, if he just so happened to get lucky (I'll get to those two shortly). In the meantime, relative to this new-found determination to aspire toward chefery, my stepfather recommended me to Thalia Baker, his best friend's wife, who still owns a thriving bakery-cafe to this day.

Following a fairly straightforward interview (which included my proclamation of aspiration to be a chef) presently I found myself with two part-time jobs, racing the old baby-blue Bronco (white top, back seat, spare tire and tailgate removed, lifted and four-wheel drive) either from Burger King to the bakery or vice-versa. Days off became half-days as I had to work one job but not the other. It cost me a lot in gas money, but I was learning and absorbing and eager to get my hands dirty. I wanted to be in the bakery, baking, but I was always schedulled at the register, the espresso machine, or the savory line. Although I can understand her stance now, I didn't realize I was being inoculated. I didn't realize the importance of learning every station; and I had, of course, no idea of the idea that I might have to start at the bottom and work my way up. Fast food is fairly even because there are cooks and there are shift leaders and managers (nevermind the pranksters): When it came to "real" kitchens, I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

Meanwhile, I (still) worked at Burger King with a seventeen year-old named Mark. Mark and I got along because he appealed to my darker, more careless side thanks to his youthfulness; he responded well to my instruction and guidance as his trainer, seemingly because he lacked structure at home and my own neuroses tend to prevent me from being anything but the leader of the pack (and if I'm not, I'm probably not going to be part of your pack). He normally kept his head shaved close but when I first met him it'd been a few months since his last haircut; and he may or may not have showered every day, but he always had a ready smile and he was more loyal than most (usually). Grungy, faded black jeans that probably first belonged to his father and seemed barely to stay about the waist even with a belt and his work-shirt tucked in. He may often have got in trouble for wearing his hat incorrectly, but no one (position of authority or otherwise) cared about how much pot anybody smoked, or the fact that the Assistant Manager took advantage of the security camera-blind spot and overcharged drive-through customers so he could pocket the difference, which he often split with the night crew because they helped him get away with it.

Mark and I usually worked mid- and opening shifts, so we didn't usually have to deal with Arm-Sleeve Steve (he had a lot of Celtic tattoos up and down the arms, always had to wear a long-sleeved shirt even in the middle of summer because as much was against dress code policy). Our main manager and shift leaders—the ones we dealt with most often—were Lung Cancer Larry, Cocaine Curley, and Big Man Mexi-Can. Curley and Big Man tended to rotate mornings, nights, and mids; but Larry almost always worked days and Steve worked nights just as often: I don't think they really liked each other. Both of them had had different lives before attaining their positions, and both of them were not bad people per se. Steve was a father (and an unfaithful misogynist), Todd was an unrepentant American and a pack-a-day smoker who didn't care about the no-smoking-indoors policy; but life had pushed back and choices made along the way either led them or forced them wind up at that particular location. I didn't look down on them, but it seemed to me they were there at least partly due to those past choices. Like I said: I saw myself, unapplied.

Regardless of the accuracy of my judgment of their character, I had a vision and an end-goal in mind. Big Man had told me he had a friend who used to work in fast food who he got a job as a chef and now made bank. I liked the sound of that, and I began to see my time at the burger place as being limited; perhaps even at the bakery too, because I certainly wasn't making any kind of bank there—I got less hours and paid the same as at BK. I was serious, and I wanted something that would be actually advantageous to my career.

And then I met Melissa.

In a chronological sense it may seem that I moved on pretty quickly from the high school sweetheart with whom I'd intended to spend the rest of my life, to the new girl named Melissa. And perhaps it was only a short time from the moment Jenny called me one night to tell me that she didn't love me anymore, or at the very least that as much was not a question she wanted to deal with, considering the whirlwind that was the suicide, our breakup, her own career goals, and the loneliness of a girl-woman thousands of miles away from the family she'd always known; but according to my perception of the chain of events, I'd been without Jenny for nearly half a year, by then.

Although I'd not wanted to admit it, the melancholy "happy anniversary" call and the twenty-first birthday casino bust (my parents and Jenny were going to take me to the casino that day, but my twenty-first birthday happened also to fall on Easter and, lo, the casinos are closed on Easter (as we discovered);—so the celebration consisted of one margarita each for Jenny and myself, sipped at while eating Lord-knows-what at an Applebee's on the south side of Tucson, and then a stop by Walgreen's on the way home to pick up a twelve pack of Sam Adams, less than half of which which I drank by myself because Jenny went home as soon as we got back to my parents' house);—plus the growing infrequency and overall shortening of our phone conversations, showed clear signs of distance and apathy. The call to put an end to it all was just the thing to push the right button: Indeed it was done.

Melissa was quite different when compared to Jenny, definitely of the sort I'd never believed myself capable or worthy of achieving. Brunette versus blonde, but both had long hair. A bit taller than Jenny, much more fair-skinned and freckled; very cute, one might say overall, but she had curves and she smoked more cigarettes than I did and she had a bright, smart fashion sense. She was pretty but she wasn't perfect-pretty, which gave me a small amount of courage when it came to making first contact. That, and the fact that Mark had already "talked me up", which meant I had Mark's blessing.

Express lane, lone customer lone cashier, me three or five bottles of something or another but she knowing exactly why I was getting so much alcohol at once and flashing a smug, knowing grin as I walked up all nervous and clammy hands: She wore almost-white on white—white denim jeans with some black faux-leather belt, and a loose but well-fitting ivory blouse, embroidered with shimmering white flowers. She knew I'd be dropping by the store after Mark and I got off work, because Mark and I were having a get-together at Mark's parents' house (where he lived with Melissa, along with their two brothers Matthew and Michael, and one other little guy: Melissa's toddler son). A couple of BK associates would be coming along or at least dropping by, and although Melissa had to work that day she might get off early and join the party if it "wasn't too lame". Meanwhile, said associates were still on the clock, and I had transformed into Mister Old Enough: Now I was the only one who could buy liquor without a fake ID.

And apparently I was okay not only with that, but also with the fact that this young woman (two years my junior) was in truth a single mother: Knowing which, anyone who knows me should automatically be able to detect my desperation, and should not be surprised that, ultimately, this proved to be yet another relationship that didn't work out....Did I mention that Melissa also had a boyfriend when I met her? Would you be surprised if I told you I convinced her to break up with him (actually I provided an out, nevermind that that, too, is eerily similar to the circumstances under which I met Jenny—Melissa wanted to be done with him, but she feared being without a companion), or that we were technically eventually engaged when I left her?

Perhaps not, even if you don't know me, if only because it seems glaringly obvious that I was simply replacing Jenny with a new model (pretty literally). The surprising thing, is that the relationship actually only lasted about a month. Very intense, in more ways than one. Over the course of approximately thirty-five days, I

  • Met Melissa and moved out of my parents' house to shack up in the bedroom she called home, located inside her parents' house;

  • quit my job at Burger King and the bakery literally so I could spend more time in bed with Melissa (my stepfather was quite disappointed at how I'd so abruptly quit working at the bakery, because landing that job had been on his word, his recommendation, to his friend's wife; he actually drove down and apologized to Thalia, and not on my behalf);

  • got a job at one of the gas stations in town (which lasted about two weeks);

  • decided and undecided to go to le Cordon Bleu up in Scottsdale (too expensive), to ultimately decide to get a job at the nearby Cracker Barrel because one night at the gas station one of the cooks came in and told me to apply (he made quite the impression—good-looking and clean-cut, pristine white shirt with four gold stars on the collar, an air of pride and a sense of accomplishment about him—honestly breathtaking to one such as myself, who recognized refused to admit the futility abomination rebellion absurdity of my present situation);

  • agreed to become a stepfather by asking Melissa to marry me;

  • learned the game of Magic: the Gathering (and became obsessed with it, playing long long nights with her older brother Matthew); and,

  • although I'd not been writing much what with all the working and partying, nevertheless I managed to pen the fundamental, pivotal novel which would both "complete" one of the genre-bending series I'd long been working on (a number of those fourteen volumes, plus some from before and after), as well as come to haunt me for more than a decade thence!

In the end it was too much, too fast. I felt claustrophobic and I knew I needed to get out of there. Oh, and Melissa wanted to have another kid—with me—even though her mother did most of the care-taking as it was. And I'd started talking to Jenny again, on the phone, about three weeks into the whole ordeal—which, as one might imagine, only added to the growing confuddlement of my beer-soaked, Magic: the Gathering-provoked, twenty-one-year-old lust-be-stoked mind and body.

And—in the end—I snuck out in the middle of the night. Quietly packed my bags and loaded up the Bronco, then started loading the drums. I didn't wake anyone but Mark, the very same who'd introduced me to the woman I was now abandoning. And her child, whom I'd held and felt sleeping on my chest and to both of whom I'd ridiculously and outlandishly promised a lifetime of care-taking (ridiculous because I could barely take care of myself, so who was I to promise such things?)....Mark, awake but still half-asleep: He blinkingly asked what I was doing and I said, “I've gotta get outta here. She wants to have another kid, and I'm having trouble with the one she has now; and I'm feeling real claustrophobic.”

Mark nodded, gave a sleepy half-smile, and then proceeded to help me finish loading the drums (apparently this wasn't his first experience with a boyfriend abruptly leaving his sister, which made me feel somewhat better about it all). One o'clock in the morning, exhaust-leak-be-damned, I started up the old Bronco, pulled out of the drive, and made my way back to my parents' house. Thankfully I still had a key, and after a bit of angry-but-also-concerned conversation discussion talking-to (the following afternoon), they let me have my old room back. And, I still had my job at Cracker Barrel. I didn't have the comfort of female companionship, but I was still going to make it happen.

During the interview I told the General Manager that I wanted to be a chef. He chuckled and told me he might be able to get my foot in the door but there were no chefs at Cracker Barrel. Not in the sense that I meant, anyway. Of course he was right, but I was determined: The same intensity of my relationship with Melissa carried over to my work. I picked up as many shifts as I could, I worked every station possible, I got a hard-on when we got tickets so long we had to hang them sideways to prevent them from getting into the food and grease, and I got off at the end of the night when the griddle was spotless stainless silver clean, everything stocked mopped swept and ready for the next shift. I paid attention to every rule (except the no-smoking rule), I took every test (that's how that guy had earned those gold stars on his collar), I flirted with every server and made the "best" dishes for those with whom I was keen to get a whole lot more personal (nevermind the fact that I was talking to Jenny now and again, it was strictly platonic and we didn't even see each other in person for weeks on end, and nevermind the further fact that when I finally did manage to sleep with one of those servers—Caroline—one following morning I left her in my bed because there was a sale at the music store in town: I needed a new snare drum, and I was schedulled to meet with Jenny thereafter, no matter that I still smelled like Caroline's perfume, tasted of red wine, and was actually still half-drunk at ten in the morning when I arrived and the girl was just barely waking).

I was a fucking mess and I was loving it. Work hard, play harder, simple life with no steady girlfriend (or fiance). I was only six months into my of-age drinking career, yet already I was drinking a bottle of wine almost every night, sometimes nearly two; if not that, at least six or eight beers; exhibiting rash decision-making; making lofty and ultimately empty claims and promises; beginning to see myself as nothing but a book a bucket a beer glass wine glass of lies manipulations aspirations expectations: I went from underage to coming home from work everyday and heading straight for the beer in the fridge. Sometimes I'd hang out with the girls after work, drinking at their house and then driving home (usually to drink some more). Thankfully Caroline lived fairly close to my parents' house, but if I pushed my limits with anyone it was certainly with Caroline, if only for that reason: And, one night driving home from her house, I got pulled over.

It was the first time I'd ever driven while seriously intoxicated. I was driving down the middle of the road because there are gaping potholes in both lanes and the smoothest ride to be had, is found by driving right down the middle. It also helped to keep me driving straight, a trick that I'd learned from my stepfather when he taught me how to drive in the first place. I was still in my Cracker Barrel-branded work clothes, having dropped off Caroline that night and then been waylaid by a couple bottles of wine on a completely empty stomach; didn't realize, on leaving, that I was so drunk that maybe I should have listened to her and stayed the night. Justifying and feeling safe because technically there was no one on the road, the road seemed to stretch forever, the night seemed particularly black, the Bronco's headlights particularly bright, the contrast of yellow stripes and blacktop appeared strangely vivid, justifying and feeling safe but also just hoping I'd make it home before anything bad hap—

And the cop's lights flashed in the rear-view mirror.

And I pulled over, terrified. I'm only twenty-one; it was just a mistake; I'll be fine; oh my God, am I going to jail; just act cool; be normal, give him your license and all that; where is he, he must—

“Can I see your license and registration?”

Screaming in my head. I've always had extreme attacks of anxiety in getting pulled over by a cop, even though before that night I'd never done anything more illegal than drive with a broken tail light.This time, I was drunk and I'd never been in that sort of situation before. Quickly I reviewed what I could recall of my driving as the officer returned to his vehicle. Had I swerved? Had I been going to fast? Too slow? Did I have a tail light out, again oh no here he's coming back and—

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

Play dumb. “Um, no, um...I'm pretty sure I was going the speed limit, but...” Don't blabber, they always blabber in the movies when they're nervous.

“Did you realize you were driving in the middle of the road?”

I don't know how someone more well-versed in police matters (or less drunk) might have responded, but I felt a sense of relief at this silly accusation fact and blurted: “Oh, yeah, I do that all the time. The road's better there. Everyone tells me I'll get pulled over for it, one day, but I guess I just didn't believe 'em.”

Looking me over, flashlight over my body in my eyes so blinding bright. “Where you comin' from?”

I couldn't see his face but I suspected he was squinting suspiciously. I answered as nonchalantly as I could: “Oh, my friend's house. Her car's broke down, so I gave her a ride home.”

“You work with her?”

“Er—Yeah!” Why did I sound like someone who'd just heard a grand idea? Still couldn't see his face but I figured if he wasn't suspicious before, certainly he must be now. My heart pounding so hard I thought it must certainly be visible beneath my shirt.

“Down at that Cracker Barr'l?”

I looked down at my shirt: Perfectly still, aside from my breathing. Clammy hands, eyes back to the shadow-face behind the flashlight glare: “Yeah. We work long hours, some nights we get out later than others.”

“Prob'ly makes you pretty tired, huh?”

Friendly-heavy sigh, whoosh right in the officer's direction but I didn't think about it because I was playing natural and in fact I didn't know yet just how aromatic alcohol really can be. “Oh yeah. I been workin', like—ten- or eleven-hour days, an' I just found out I gotta work a fourteen-hour double, first day of the new year.”

Nod of the shadow-head: “I know how that goes,” in a detached, impersonal voice. Pause, then a clearing of the throat: “Welp”—stepping back, directing the flashlight toward the ground—“you just be careful, right? You're pretty close to home as-is, so just try and stick to one side of the road, all right?”

I said, "Will do, Sir," and, with that, he headed back toward his vehicle and started 'er up. The officer watched me for a while as I carefully drove off and away, I know that because I saw the flashing lights in my rearview mirror for quite some time—all the way until I reached my next turn, and perhaps even a bit longer as I continued down the next road; but I did stick to one side of the road, and I did not swerve—the experience had been quite sobering, to say the least.

It would be three more years until I got my first DUI, but I was having fun figuring things out as I went along: A fucking mess, and loving it. Wasn't sure if I was doing the chef thing "correctly" per se, but I knew I was working hard in a kitchen and earning my keep at home. One of the main things that grounded me throughout most of the year, was my overall dedication to pursuit of my ultimate goal: I was going to be a chef. Maybe Jenny would take me back if I had a real job and an actual career path; maybe she wouldn't, but if not I certainly worked with plenty of women, and the industry is not exactly known for full-fledged monogamy. Despite everything that happened that year, "chefery" was my foundation, my fond.

When you're building a braise or a sauce, you've got to know how to deglaze, unless you either want to burn the fond to nothing, or naively discard what might make your dish great. Somehow in the three years since moving out with Jenny I'd developed a taste for beer, despite my initial experience with it back when I was a kid (and, apparently, for wine). Being quite far removed from the greater city, and considering that my stepfather was anything but "for" pot-smoking, it was much easier to stop by the little convenience store on the way home and grab a six- or twelve-pack of beer than to risk getting caught with Mary Jane at work, or drive all the way into town for a pick-up: Such was my deglazing.

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