how can I help you? | a short story

It was the first day out for her since it happened. She wore the clothes, the accessories and used the perfume that now belonged to her. She put as much on her as she could, perhaps as armour, perhaps to be held together. She immersed herself in everything unwashed, lingering, in the residue that she wouldn’t let lie still.

She walked to work. Taking off the clothes and the accessories and putting them in her locker felt as if she had parted from her skin, a skin that she refused to want, but a skin that was there now, a skin that would stay this way for a while now, that skin was part of her and she felt sore leaving it behind to put on a smiling face for clueless customers. Her uniform pretended. Her face needed to be a uniform too.

That unbearable hour-long smile, the tense aching facial muscles, the high-pitched fake voice, subservient, giving it her all with nothing in return, her wages barely covered her living expenses, living, she thought, if she wanted to live she needed to pay, she needed to work, what then, if she didn’t, if she took that ridiculous name tag off her chest, would she die?

She needed to be a robot, get it done, be efficient and just human enough, be welcoming, money is the most important thing, oh no, sorry, my mistake, the customer, the customer, of course, is the most important thing, customers mean money, make them come back, come back, that’s all she heard, c o m e  b a c k.

The customers wanted a person there, but never treated her like a human being. They liked to be in power, to be served, for her to give it her all, and maybe they might feel oh so generous, the good saviours of hospitality, and enjoy the thought that whether she could afford groceries tonight depended on how much they’d tip her, if she gave it her all, after all. They’d flock in as they are, come as they are, whilst she was without skin, but in uniform, walking towards her in their salaried secure steps, potentially ready to show a little mercy, a little pity, perhaps, expecting a lot in return, the transaction worked for them, someone barely making it worked for them, work hard, work harder, if you want my goodwill, my charity, my kind-heartedness.

She wiped her tears away when the customers weren’t looking and smiled. When she finished her shift, the tip jar was still empty. She punched her uniform back into her backpack and felt like she had given all her energy, her soul, handed them out in pieces to every single customer today, leaving full and fuller, whilst she stood in the panic room of a changing room, the dysfunctional neglected toilets exhaling, the lockers smelling of half-eaten sandwiches, pressured breaks, bins with throttled cans of energy drinks, feeling emptied and robbed.

She took out her clothes and accessories like holy cloth and put her skin back on. She wasn’t alone anymore. She started walking and she was accompanied by steps that never reached the floor, unheard, unseen. As she reached the front door, one of the chefs called her back, and as she turned around, he handed her a container with food, tapped her on the shoulder and said, I heard what happened, take care of yourself.

She left the restaurant. She didn’t need to speak. Someone could hear her thoughts. She sat down on a bench and ate the food. She always carried plastic cutlery and wet wipes with her. It tasted good. It tasted like love, like attention to detail, like care, the balancing of flavours. She cried into the container, her knees were shivering, she cried with unchewed food almost in her throat. Her skin was cold around her back, around her shoulders and upper arms. And she lifted the fork again, swallowing, she could taste her tears, the extra salt, her grief.

When she finished eating, she sat there with the empty container still on her knees, in-between her hands, and stared into the city imagining her flat and how dark it was by now. A man walked by and left a few notes in her container. She didn’t call him back, she looked at the money and amidst the notes she saw a used movie ticket from yesterday and she decided to go see that very same movie that, according to the ticket, would start in twenty minutes.

Her hand was not alone. Something danced around her fingers, telling her that there is no such thing as solitude, that her rays of light are connected to the stars, that she is a part of the sky, an ever-changing palette of water and sunshine, that she doesn’t need to see in order to feel. She walked towards the cinema, the moonlight in her tears, and she felt a weight well-known on her collarbone, a familiar shape and scent, hair, the colours of a head beloved, c o m e  b a c k.

She took her seat in front of the big screen and stared at the empty seat next to her as if she could see. The screenlight flickering across the face she loved, looking back at her, and inside of her, beneath her skin, she experienced the heartfelt balancing of flavours, shooting stars.

My own drawing © Laura Gentile 2022 | Instagram: croque_melpomene

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