Read Nowhere but Home Online

Authors: Liza Palmer

Nowhere but Home

Dedication

FOR EVERYONE WHO THINKS THEY'RE TOO DAMAGED TO LOVE AND BE LOVED IN RETURN

Epigraph

Each time you happen to me all over again.

—Edith Wharton,
The Age of Innocence

1

Bottle of water, Fig Newtons (snack size)

My mother was an unwed teenager from the Texas Hill Country. As it turned out, her parenting was questionable at best, criminal at worst. But as she stared into my squinty eyes on the day I was born, she vowed to do right by me. She'd name me something that would instantly give me social standing.

She blamed the fact that she was a pariah on her name: Brandi-Jaques Wake. It was just too easy to shorten her name to BJ. BJ Wake. She was a laughingstock, the town slut . . . and our mother. On that brightly lit morning, she did what she thought was right for her new baby girl. She gave me a name that would guarantee me entry into any castle.

“Queen Elizabeth,” she whispered. “You're going to be famous.”

 

“Name?” the girl at the concierge desk asks. I see her every day. I know her name is Keryn because she wears a name tag, just as I do. I have built entire narratives around the spelling of her name. It's her way of reinventing herself in the Big City, I muse. She's not just Karen from Small Town, USA! She's Keryn taking a bite out of the Big Apple one sassy mouthful at a time.

“Queenie Wake,” I say, pointing at the name stitched on my dark blue chef's coat.

She doesn't look up.

“Have a seat and I'll let him know you're here,” she says, typing busily.

I look around the hotel lobby for a place to sit and the tiny kiosk selling snacks catches my eye instead. It's past two
PM
and I have yet to eat besides nibbles and the occasional scrap from the kitchen. I buy a bottle of water and a pack of Fig Newtons. I sidle back into the lobby, hoping that Sassy Keryn will tell me it's time to see the boss. She doesn't, so I try once again to find a place to sit. I've walked through this lobby a thousand times, but never once sat down. I find a seat near the bar as the smooth jazz wafts through the 1980s once chic décor. I take a swig of my water and a big bite of my Fig Newton. I settle in, watching as the harried tourists push their way through the revolving door as if they've just run a marathon. As they make their way to the quiet of their hotel rooms, I can see them decide that New York is no place for “normal people” to live.

Which is exactly why I came here in the first place.

“Hey . . . yeah—he's actually at the main office over in the West Village. He wants you to meet him there.” Sassy Keryn is standing directly over me as she hands me a business card. I look up at her and take the card that is just centimeters from my face.

“You're in the service industry, correct?” I say, standing. I glance down at the card. Keryn's swirly handwriting is sprawled all over the card, as if an eight-year-old girl with a can of pink spray paint and a bad attitude went rogue somewhere in an American Girl store.

“My job is to cater to the needs of the people who stay at the hotel, not the people who
work
at the hotel. The address is on the back. He wants you there in thirty,” Keryn says, walking back to her station. I follow her, winding my way through a pack of German tourists weighed down with souvenirs.

“Did he happen to say what this meeting was about?” I ask, hoisting my backpack on both shoulders as I hunker down for a dash to the F train, just by Rockefeller Center.

“We had another complaint about the continental breakfast,” Keryn says, smiling wide for another couple of tourists.

“About the food?” I say, stopped in my tracks.

“No. About you,” Keryn says. A Japanese businessman steps forward as Keryn welcomes him to the hotel.

“About me?” I ask, nudging in front of the businessman. Keryn ignores me. I continue, “Am I about to be fired?”

“Probably,” Keryn says with a smile. The smile is not for me, it's for the Japanese businessman. I wrench my fingers around my backpack straps as the Japanese businessman averts his eyes.

“That's just perfect,” I say, flipping the business card back in Keryn's face.

“You'll need th—”

“I know where the head office is. He's my boss, too. I don't need the address,” I say, turning away finally.

“You're welcome,” Keryn says, her voice lilting.

I ignore Keryn and push through the heavy revolving door of the hotel. I put my head down and hurry to the subway. I'm on autopilot. Another job lost. Another kitchen I've been banished from. Another job where the food wasn't the issue, I was. At least I was at the McCormick Hotel the longest. Almost six months. That's progress, right? I trot past the Dunkin' Donuts in the Rockefeller Center subway station and take note. If all else fails, I can ask them for an application on my return trip.

“I'm not fired yet,” I mutter, finally shoving myself through the subway turnstile.

I stand on the subway platform and allow myself a moment. I close my eyes and breathe in. I can win this job back. I can change. I'll plead my case. My food is good. It's better practice to keep an already existing employee than to train someone new. This guy's a businessman. He's got to know that. The rush of air signals the incoming subway cars, and I can feel the crowd shift forward on the platform. I open my eyes. Even after two years in New York, I've never grown tired of the subway. I think it's beautiful. I would never say that out loud, because it would surely brand me as a wide-eyed newbie just waiting to be taken down by this city. I can't help it. Despite mounting evidence that New York has apparently grown tired of me, I have yet to be anything but spellbound by it. As I board the subway, bound for the West Village, I can't blame New York for my inability to fit in. The city itself isn't cruel. It's just indifferent.

I tuck in next to the back of the car. I've never liked sitting on subways, always preferring to stand. I can't even settle into a simple mode of transportation without some quick exit strategy. My stomach roils as the subway jostles its way under the city. I practice my speech. I won't blow up. I'll listen. I'm thirty-one years old and I'm about to be unemployed. Again. I've got nowhere to go if this job doesn't work out. I negotiated a room in the hotel along with my salary. If I lose this job, I lose a place to stay. My hand grips the metal bar as I'm bumped and crowded. Even if Dunkin' Donuts is hiring, where will I live? Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

I exit the subway and run up the stairs. I rush the three or four blocks to the head office trying to steady my breathing. I find the intercom and push the corresponding button.

“Yes?”

“Queenie Wake to see Brad Carter,” I say, trying to sound cool. The door buzzes open. I walk inside trying to smooth my hair, wiping the sweat off . . . everywhere. Get myself under control. More lobbies, more elevators, more long hallways until I find myself standing in front of a large desk. I've finally caught my breath.

“He's ready for you. Down the hallway. He's in the corner office,” the woman says, her face kind.

“Thank you, ma'am,” I say, her momentary kindness breaking through my guard, yielding an embarrassing slip back to my Texas roots. She nods and I know she's obsessing about me calling her ma'am.
“I'm too young for her to call me ma'am,”
she'll sob to her girlfriends over cocktails later than evening.

I walk down yet another hallway and see an open office door. I steel myself. I will win my job back. This is not my last day. I knock on the door, peeking in just a bit.

“Queenie. Come on in,” Brad says, looking up from his desk.

“Thanks,” I say, taking off my backpack and sitting.

Brad doesn't look up. He's typing something. I wait. My smile fades. I've met him only once before and maybe seen him a handful of times at the hotel. As he ignores me, I study him. You can tell, at one time, Brad was a good-looking guy. He's effortless and cool. Golden curls cut short, crinkled blue eyes from being out in the sun frolicking. Probably in the Hamptons.

I look around his office. I've never been in here before. The walls are laden with every pop-culture reference most people either don't “get” or wish they could forget. Hugh Grant's mug shot framed and signed by Divine Brown, her red-lipsticked lips kissing Hugh's cheek. A Shepard Fairey–style poster, but this time instead of President Obama and Hope being heralded, Brad's got Charlie Sheen and the word “WINNING.” On the wall just to my left is a large painting that takes up the entire wall. Light brown strokes of paint cut a wide swath over the canvas. I can't make out what the painting is of. I blink and lean back just as Brad stops typing and checks his cell phone. I take in the entire painting. As he sets down his cell phone, sighs, and leans back in his chair, I realize what the painting is of. It's of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in the front seat of a car. It's an artist's rendering of that infamous paparazzi gutter shot—quite literally—where we the public got to see every last inch of Britney . . . whether she liked it or not.

“I'm going to have to let you go,” Brad says. I whip my head around from staring at the painting and meet Brad's disappointed, half-masted gaze.

“Why?” I ask, moving forward in my chair.

“Come on,” Brad says, his voice offhand and cutting.

“It's not about the food,” I say.

“Never is.”

“So?”

“We're in the hotel business. The food's an afterthought.”

“That's kind of bullshit.”

“True.”

“So?”

“You yelled at some poor schmuck from Iowa or whatever because he wanted to put ketchup on your eggs.”

“Yeah, so?”

“That's what I'm talking about.”

“Who puts ketchup on eggs?”

“Who the fuck cares?” Brad laughs.

“But don't you love that I do?”

“Not really, no.” Brad has stopped laughing.

“What?”

“These tourists want some free food before they head out to buy mugs, T-shirts, and shit with I heart New York on them. They want to take pictures of the Statue of Liberty. And if they want to put ketchup on their eggs, we let them.”

“But don't you want to own a hotel that's known for its cuisine?”

“I already do and it's definitely not the McCormick. I'm going to be renovating it later this year anyway.”

“Well, then put me at another hotel?”

“You're kind of a bitch, Queenie. And . . . I get that—I mean, I've already got these other asshole chefs, don't get me wrong. But it's not as if you're known for any one kind of food, right? You cook what we tell you to cook. Adding your down-home whatever to our recipes every now and again isn't enough to have to deal with your attitude.”

“Down-home whatever?”

“Yeah, you know, wherever you're from. The south?”

“Texas.”

“Yeah. The south. I mean, if you came to me with some really cool southern recipes and tried to do something with the McCormick's menu, we'd be having a very different conversation.”

“Why didn't you tell me that before?”

“I don't have to tell the other chefs.”

It's as if the wind has been knocked out of me.

“And I don't have an attitude.” My voice is a defiant growl in a feeble attempt to resurrect some shred of dignity from this meeting.

Brad just looks at me.

“Fine. Maybe I do, but it's because I'm passionate about food. That should be a good thing.”

“Yeah, well . . . it's not. Plus? Your passion about food only goes so far, doesn't it? You're passionate when it comes to complaining about our menus, but not passionate enough to suggest any recipes of your own.”

I'm speechless.

Brad continues, misidentifying my stunned silence as an invitation to enlighten me further. “People put up with a lot of shit when someone is talented. Believe me. But if you're just going to be another drone? You'd better be a quiet one if you want to continue to get work.”

“I don't want to be just another drone,” I say.

“Yeah, well . . .”

Brad's phone vibrates and he checks it. Tapping and scrolling through a few e-mails as I begin to have a nervous breakdown in a chair decorated with pillows that look like iPhone apps. I tug at the Twitter app pillow that's now folded itself into the small of my back. I bring it around and clutch it tightly. Brad smiles at something in the e-mail, absently flipping the phone back down on his desk. He looks up as if he's surprised I'm still there.

Brad continues, “I know you're living at the McCormick, so I'll be flexible with you moving out, but you
will
move out. We're done.”

“Don't I get probation or something?”

“You were already on probation for telling that British dude that your bangers were probably bigger than his dick, so what would he know about it? Remember?” Brad's cell phone vibrates again.

“Oh yeah.”

“Look, I've got to take this. I'll give you a good recommendation or whatever, so don't worry about that. You really are a good chef, I just . . . I can't have you in any of my kitchens.” Brad picks up his phone and starts talking with whoever is on the other end. He extends his hand to me and I take it.

“Good luck,” he whispers as we shake hands. He lets go of my hand, spins around in his chair, and continues talking on his cell.

“Thanks,” I say, picking up my backpack. I stand and make eye contact with the painting. I just nod my head. Yep.

I was just fired in the shadow of Britney Spears's vulva.

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