25 Feb Jared T. Fischer
BARBECUE DOUBLE DATE
Jin called Pete over to a group of servers huddled in a corner by the coffee and tea station. They worked in banquets at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. A pigeon suffered on its side stuck to a mouse trap, one of those glue boards. Its beak snipped, its throat and chest pulsed, but it was giving up on the flapping of its free wing. Jin looked to Pete. “Is there anything to do?”
“We have to put it out of its misery.” Pete didn’t think they could separate the bird from the trap. They had found mice on them before, but it was never this bad. Seeing a creature with the ability to fly grounded and humiliated paralyzed the crowd. “Turn it over and crush it with your shoe,” someone suggested. Pete glanced at Jin. Her eyes quizzed him.
“I’ll take the pigeon down to the loading dock.” Another guy orbiting Jin named Daniel accompanied Pete. The bird breathed pitifully in Pete’s palm. On the elevator, the wing violently fanned his face. When they got to the garbage-splattered platform and saw the sun of the harbor neither of them could accomplish the objective. A mercy killing was inconceivable. Pete lofted the trap into the dumpster and it landed upside down before rolling over. The shocked body pulsed at final rest on a sick bed of trash bags.
Another day Jin approached Pete by the steamy dishwashing room and handed him a photo album. “My wedding, when my husband flew to China.”
The first photo was stunning. Jin wore a pink robe with pale orange lapels and embroidered flowers. She stood in the center of a rustic shed, popping a decorative umbrella and laughing skyward. Her mother in a black and white robe clutched her arm. No husband or father in the picture. Three other young women gathered under the shed for the shot. A band of scraggly trees bristled on the hill. The scene advertised Jin’s beauty and humor.
Subsequent photos welcomed an intruder. Her husband Jeff stood beside her—a slob in an ill-fitting sports coat and baggy pants. His comb-over and fat deposit about his chin repulsed Pete. Jeff’s entirety looked sweaty. Pete had a hard time accepting this revelation. As Pete began to imagine Jin’s life with this unsavory man, they got sucked into a busy corporate buffet. They worked side by side but did not discuss the album.
Jeff came up again in conversation when Jin asked Pete about his college education. Few banquet servers outside of the international hospitality management interns held degrees. Jin heard Pete was among the enlightened. He told her he studied French literature. She lit up and reciprocated, “I was an attorney in my country. I worked for a pharmaceutical company.”
Jin said she was respected, paid well, and loved going to court. But when the government started investigating corruption in the company—the bribing of doctors to push certain products—leadership didn’t give her a chance.
“The executives insisted I disappear. I cried to give up my work. My mother pushed me to consider life abroad. That’s when Jeff and I met online.”
“And you’re happy?”
“I mean . . . I feel I love Jeff—as much now as when we started talking. But our life together is less desirable in some ways.”
“Jeff runs a cleaning company. He hires women without a chance, because of language, education, drugs. He has them clean filthy homes for very little. When he can’t find a woman to work, he forces me to. He stands over me like he can’t trust me to do a good job. He comments on everything—it’s like he doesn’t know who I am.
“Then a few times he grabs me because we are fighting. He starts complaining about our bathroom. When he asks me, it’s punishment.”
“That’s ugly. Fuck that.”
“I work here, which I like better. I’m earning more than he does for us.”
Jin asked Pete how things were with his girlfriend who worked downstairs in the restaurant.
Cindy and Pete had hit another rough patch. It was too much—living together, working at the same hotel, and enduring nights of silent treatment, which was still preferable to voicing suspicions. In the last few months, they had discovered or heard things about each other that were explosive but concealed their ammunition whenever they could. They’d broken up a number of times. They fought on drives to and from work, hated where they lived in the county, and had trust issues.
“I don’t know, Jin. These days I can’t say for sure that we’re together.” Pete braced himself every day for the break-up with Cindy.
Eve, his friend in banquets, could read his body language and had heard of his distress. Her idea of supporting Pete was to sexually harass him at the top of her lungs with rap lyrics. “Boy, let me relieve that woman. I will slob on that knob like corn on the cob.” Pete liked Eve’s joking but was embarrassed for Jin to hear it. Jin laughed.
Jin had a friend Ji, a hospitality management intern from Korea. The Irish intern clique ignored Ji. But Jin, like an older sister, confided to her in Korean. Jin explained to Daniel and Pete that she was fluent because where she lived it was one of the languages spoken, her community being in close proximity to the border with North Korea. Jin and Ji’s giggling at the sidelines of various unfoldings in the world of banquets was infectious.
Increasingly, Daniel and Pete were competing for Jin’s attention, and Ji absorbed a share of their fawning. By the salad cart, Jin tilted her head to listen to Daniel. He got out a few words of Mandarin. Jin repeated each word with the correct pronunciation. “That’s good,” she delivered with a sparkle in her eyes. Pete complimented Daniel. There was no stealing his thunder. Pete poured hot water into teacups.
Daniel was older, balding, may or may not have had a military upbringing. He maintained a thin mustache, adding class to a protruding lip; he wore black gloves cut off at the fingers, a back brace, and something for tendonitis. He’d taught himself Mandarin.
Daniel’s presence, and Ji’s also, translated and defined what Pete was feeling. If Pete thought of Jin as he took a bus home or walked the harbor’s footbridges he felt a warmth on his cheeks and a dizziness that was addictive. He wanted the next workday to come. He wanted to turn around and work the dinner shift with Jin.
Scraping dishes from a prayer breakfast, Pete and Jin talked cuisines. Korean barbecue came up because of Ji. Apparently, Ji and Jin had found a good spot with a buffet on Charles Street at a corner of the small grid of blocks offering karaoke, 24-hour diners, nail salons, a travel agency, and dry cleaners.
“You never had it? You have to try it,” Jin demanded, pushing Pete’s arm so his body twisted to Ji who came up and poked his ribs. “Let’s go!”
Pete consented enthusiastically, but after work he complicated their plans. He told Cindy on the drive home and invited her.
Cindy drove Pete to the buffet after the morning shift. Pete told himself he was answering Jin’s repetition, “I want to meet your girlfriend.” But he knew that wasn’t it.
Jin and Ji hugged them both. They had a table. Pete and Cindy hung their coats. Jin called the waitress, who directed the newcomers, “Grab from the buffet, and I’ll bring your barbecue.”
Cindy apologized that she was vegetarian. The stunned waitress turned to Pete.
“He’s a vegetarian,” Cindy announced. Confusion ensued. Jin and Cindy looked through Pete at each other.
“Oh.” Cindy ducked her head toward the table.
“When in Korea,” Pete threw up his hands. “Bring on the barbecue!”
“There you go,” the restored waitress applauded and shuffled past tables to the back.
“So wait,” Cindy flung her head back, “what else haven’t you told Jin?” Cindy touched a finger to her bottom lip.
“We talk at work—”
“Want to grab a cigarette, Jin?” Cindy asked.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Oh. Hey, I almost forgot—I got this new perfume and lipstick. Come with me to the bathroom. We’ll doll up.”
“Um, sure.” Jin and Cindy got up and left. Ji and Pete looked around awkwardly.
“I’m excited for the barbecue.”
“Spicy and sweet,” Ji assured Pete.
Minutes passed. They didn’t talk much. On the table Ji had a portion of the savory beef. She showed Pete how to take the meat with the leaves. The waitress came back and set out small dishes and a delicious soup. Pete drowned his nerves in broth and ignored the time. His chopsticks pecked at kimchi and seasoned mung bean sprouts.
The bathroom door banged open.
Jin and Cindy came back smelling like cedar, with lipstick applied. Cindy had her hands on Jin’s shoulders as if giving her a massage.
“My girl,” Cindy called out. “Find us in the club like,” Cindy twirled, bent low and twerked right as the waitress was coming by with an arm decked out in plates, including Pete’s barbecue. One of Cindy’s buns connected with the waitress’ hip.
“Oh god! I’m sorry. Shoot. Pete, would you help clean up and pay? I promised Jin we’d rush out of here and go buy clothes for dancing tonight. I have to work the dinner shift, so there’s no time.”
Cindy pushed Jin. “Grab your coat.”
Jin looked from Ji to Pete. “That’s fine with you? We’re going dancing!”
“Totally fine. Pete’s got it.” Cindy took Jin’s coat and draped it on her shoulders, bouncing her toward the door. “Bye, y’all.”
Ji couldn’t stop giggling after they left. She ate mung bean sprouts to stifle it. Pete crouched down to help the waitress clean the carpet. She shooed his help away. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring some more.”
“I feel bad.”
“No. Don’t worry. Plenty of barbecue to go around. Happens all the time.”
“Eat the rest of mine,” Ji said, pushing the plate toward Pete.