There is a strip mall outside the glowing center of a certain desert town, and in it, you can see the mountains from the parking lot. Without the mountains, you could be in any other strip mall. About five years ago, a very worldly, vibrant former pro tennis player bought some restaurant space in this strip mall. I never knew his last name, something Spanish or French, but his first name was Cesar. This guy never won any of the big tennis championships, but he played with a lot of the big names, from what I heard. After he was too old to play, he took on cooking wholeheartedly and even had enough money to be trained by some legendary chef in Napoli. That’s when he brought his passion of cooking to the desert, and opened this little café, Cesar’s. It was a casual place, serving a range of pretty inexpensive bistro-style foods and pastries. Cesar created the menu for Cesar’s, applying to it all his lessons from the sunny kitchens of Napoli.
Back when I lived in the desert, this girl I knew worked there part-time, so I would come in on slow nights to hang out. This meant I was there every few days or so, because Cesar’s had slow nights often. Lea, the girl who worked there, would text me on these nights and I’d walk there from my apartment. If Cesar was there, she’d write “c at the end of her message, and I would put on a hat and a sweatshirt. If Cesar was there, I would have to order something, too, which wasn’t a bad thing, since he made good food. But even though it was good food, it was just better when he wasn’t there.
I was half-watching the news one night after I got back from the studio and around eight, Lea texted me to stop by Cesar’s and hang out. Her text didn’t end with a “c” so I slid my flip flops on and left. It was late summer and the sun was in the middle of its setting. Desert sunsets don’t get boring like ocean sunsets do. Ocean sunsets are undoubtedly pretty, I wouldn’t deny that, but seeing the sun hit the different crevices and angles of the mountains like it does is something more nuanced. It’s a ceremony with different rites of passage as the light moves down and caresses each edge of rock, in a timed progression. The sun is bigger above the mountains, too. Living there, I felt closer to the sun than anywhere else I had been. This wasn’t just a feeling though. I learned after I left that the desert city I lived in was nearly 2500 feet above sea level. I was closer to the sun.
Soccer practices were ending, people were getting off work and running their nighttime errands, so the strip mall was crowded. I cut across the parking lot to get to Cesar’s and as I was putting my hair into a ponytail, a car zoomed around the corner. The sun glinted off the windshield. It reflected into my eye and instinctively I let go of my handful of hair and tripped over my flip flops. The car braked and didn’t hit me luckily. The driver of the car mouthed something at me as I gathered my hair up again, the remnants of the shards of the sun still in my eyes. I squinted as I stood up, brushing off my scraped knees. It was always hard not to mentally paint moments like that in sepia tones of the Wild West. I had a tendency to overdramatize those mundane suburban encounters after the fact, as if they had occurred between two hardened cowboys with their faces shadowed by the brims of their sun-beaten hats instead of between me and a stressed mom.
Viewing my experiences there as part of an imagined John Wayne-esque adventure was my secret childlike pastime that brightened life, and instead of scoffing back at the woman in the minivan that had nearly hit me, I smiled at the thrill of another brush with danger in the desert.
I pushed open the doors to Cesar’s and Lea greeted me at the counter immediately. I surveyed the place as I walked up. Two tables were filled, but the rest of the place was empty. Jack the cook’s laugh bellowed from the kitchen, momentarily drowning out the light alternative music playing in the background. I noticed two of the plants Cesar had recently put on the windowsill were dying. Lea had probably forgotten to water them. I didn’t see the other waitress who usually worked with Lea, whose name was Carmen. I knew she had been there though because the pastries were arranged on crumb-less plates, in neat piles. Lea never bothered to put the pastries in piles, not that Cesar cared either way. Lea could puree the pastries and sell it and Cesar wouldn’t mind.
“How was the studio today?” Lea asked.
“Fine, we’re working on stuff for the performance in three weeks. Do you still want free tickets to it? It’s in three weeks, on the 11th,” I replied.
“I’ll have to double check I’m not working, but if not, I want to go.”
“Has it been this slow all night?”
“We had a little rush earlier, the old couple who always is here came with friends, but since then, slow.”
“Can I have a croissant?” I asked with a hopeful smile. Lea looked around the corner, jokingly making sure no one would see her giveaway, then got the croissant for me. I sat down at a table near the counter while Lea tended to one of the occupied tables. Jack waved to me from the kitchen window and put a finger gun to his head then pulled the imaginary trigger.
As soon as he was done imaginarily ending his life, the door busted open and hit the wall behind it. In rushed Ken, the manager of Cesar’s. I shifted in my seat; the sheriff had just crashed what had been a peaceful night at my local watering hole, and he was looking for someone. A small man, with tiny eyes and a wide mouth, Ken surveyed the room as I had when entering. His tiny black eyes darted rather than panning the scene. No one could have been more observant of everything happening inside of Cesar’s than Ken; he knew more about Cesar’s than Cesar himself did.
He nodded at me without looking me in the eye, he did the same to Lea. Ken always had stacks of important-looking papers with him, but I never saw him do anything with them except carry them. He glanced at one of the tables with people at it. The four of them were picking at their sweet potato fries and one had half his veggie burger left, but Ken motioned to Lea to go take their plates. Lea rolled her eyes but went anyway. Ken was notorious for acting on his belief that good service meant ridiculously fast service. I never could pin down that part about him, its origin. He was constantly agitated about the speed of operations at Cesar’s. He would clear tables prematurely, assume people’s orders before they said them. His foot would start tapping impatiently the second he handed an order to Jack in the kitchen, as if the fact that the food hadn’t materialized immediately after he handed Jack the order was annoying. You would think Cesar’s was the busiest, most prestigious Michelin-starred restaurant in the world by the unyielding urgency with which Ken operated it.
The people with the sweet potato fries and veggie burger said they were still eating, so Lea didn’t need to take anything away. She gave Ken a look. Ken said, “You could have taken the utensils they weren’t using,” then walked to the back. He backtracked, turned around the corner, and motioned to Lea to follow him. Lea rolled her eyes again and did not follow.
Although Cesar’s wasn’t actually a bustling, five-star establishment, Ken truly did view the place as such. Ken’s insistence that this vision of Cesar’s was to be adopted by the entire staff was often the punchline of everyone’s jokes. However, his ardent belief in it was often thrown onto other people forcibly, violently, making Lea and the other workers nervous, even scared of Ken.
“Lea, now,” Ken demanded, his head peeking out from around the corner of the wall. His face grew redder with each passing second that Lea remained still. Lea eventually followed the red-faced manager to the back, tentatively.
Around half hour later, Americano Woman entered. As usual, she was alone, but dressed for a night out. High heels, leather pants, and a sparkly scarf. She looked more downtown than suburbia, not that she was the only one out of place. Cesar’s itself didn’t fit in with its neighboring businesses as a somewhat upscale European-style cafe with homemade pastries on a strip mall. Cesar was similarly a misfit.
“Just an americano please,”
“Any pastries with it?” Lea asked. At the sound of the door, she had returned from the back with Ken, who had been going over some new menu items with her. Maybe that’s what all those papers were.
“Um,” she gazed toward Carmen’s stacks of pastries, like she did every night, and then said, “no thank you.” She always came to Cesar’s and she always got an americano and she always was alone. She never got any pastries.
By that point, Lea, Americano Woman and I were alone in the front of the cafe, nighttime had quieted the place and we didn’t speak for a period of time. Our three invisible spheres of energy surrounding us existed harmoniously in the space. There was no awkwardness in our silence. My eyes didn’t tiptoe to watch Americano Woman’s sad ritual, in which she took long sips of the coffee and then followed them with dreamlike gazes out the window at the parking lot. I knew that was what she was doing without seeing, and I felt no need to analyze it. In the same way, Lea did not feel the need to entertain me, nor I her. Our triangle was balanced, each point of it afloat in the silence. It was a perfect quiet, like still water and it relaxed me. I sunk into in the peace of my strip mall evening.
Then, a face flashed in the glass of the door, with wide eyes and wide smile. I locked eyes with Lea and then Americano Woman, trying to grab onto the peace of our now destroyed silent moments, trying to find refuge in that perfect calmness we had experienced. It was long gone though. At the unexpected sight of him, Lea’s body condensed, as if she was trying to hide inside her own skin. She shrunk a little. Americano Woman put on her sparkly scarf like a blanket, fully covering herself. Cesar pushed open the door and came in.
“Good evening, ladies,” he said to Lea and me. He didn’t see Americano Woman, who took a final gulp of her drink, left a tip on the table, and sulked out of the place unnoticed.
“Hi, Cesar,” Lea said.
“Hello,” I said. He walked across the floor to the counter uncomfortably slow. I regretted one thing in this moment and that was not wearing a hat. In my head I was wearing one, and peering out slyly at Cesar from underneath the brim. The shadow of my imaginary hat couldn’t obscure my face in reality though, so I just looked at the plate in front of me.
Lea quickly went to clear Americano Woman’s table before Cesar could get to the counter and I grew angry that she hadn’t told me he was coming tonight. Maybe she didn’t know. He turned around and stretched his arms into the air while watching Lea lean over the table to get the dirty dishes. I breathed in the air, now humid with a thick moisture of tension and Cesar’s aftershave.
He rested his elbows on the counter and smiled at me. I had learned to play with him rather than look away, so I revved my engines within me and got myself to smile. He said nothing, just looked. My next move was to say, innocently, “What is it?”
“Nothing, I was looking at your shirt. Bien fait. You know what it means?” In another, younger man, outside the confines the mountains made around the city, I might have found his accent appealing. I had my second regret and that was not bringing a sweatshirt. My shirt’s words would have been covered had I grabbed a sweatshirt before I left. Lea looked at me with the dishes in her hand from behind his back.
“‘Well made’, right?” I replied. He sat in a chair near me.
“Yeah, something like that, it is too what we say when you say in English like, ‘nice going,’ or ‘nice try’ like sarcastically, you know?” I nodded. My next defense was to balance between seeming very interested and completely uninterested. If I perfected that ratio, he’d likely be satisfied and go away. I wondered where Ken was.
Cesar suddenly stood up and walked to Lea, who was making her way to the kitchen. “Like, if Lea dropped all the dishes from her hands,” with this he went to Lea and pretended to knock over her dishes, spinning stupidly around her. “I would say to her, bien fait!” he yelled with a smile. He made one last pretend jab at Lea’s pile of dishes that came close to her chest then laughed. Lea laughed afterwards.
“I see.” I said.
Jack suddenly came out of the kitchen and switched off the neon ‘open’ sign. He waved to Cesar and walked to his truck in the parking lot. I sat there with my arms crossed watching him go, wishing tonight would have been a night where he had to stay late and mop the kitchen. It was now only us three in the cafe.
Lea had gone to the kitchen with the dishes and was undoubtedly taking her time so as to not have to deal with Cesar more than she had to. I couldn’t leave her here alone. Cesar leaned over me, intentionally brushing my hair with his forearm, and took my croissant plate, slowly.
I then found in myself a version of that same gritty eagerness to engage in a desert showdown with this man like the one I had had in the parking lot. It was a building excitement, but unlike the sensation I had in the parking lot, it was not characterized by that love of risk. If my feelings were realized, it would not be a satisfying mixup with chance where we both walked away, with only a few scuffs on our boots.
I wanted to do more than scuff boots. I wanted blood in the dust when it settled because his actions were too familiar. What could happen in the bathroom wasn’t something I was willing to throw dice at. It was something I wanted to assure wouldn’t happen to Lea as she had insinuated it had in the past. So, I wasn’t looking for a fight for a fight’s sake. I was hungry to fight for victory’s sake.
He prowled around quietly to the kitchen. “Lea!” Dishes rattled. “You can do the bathrooms tonight?” A few seconds of silence and the drive within me almost threw me out of my chair and at him.
“Sure,” Lea replied.
Cesar grabbed a macaroon from the glass case of pastries, disrupting one of the neat piles. He took a lasting bite, a performance he put on for me. He gestured it to me, offering it to me with wide eyes. My throat felt hot thinking of swallowing a cookie fed to me from his hand.
Lea emerged with the bathroom cleaning supplies. A look of panic and despair washed over her face when she saw the forty-year old licking his fingers of the macaroon crumbs. The room quelled with the vibrations of tight, wet air and my accumulating energy. Lea turned and began a foot-dragging trudge to the bathrooms.
She had told me about cleaning the bathrooms without being explicit, so I wasn’t leaving. Now was the time to fight. “Lea, let me help you so we can go to the store before it closes!” I yelled past Cesar. My words shot through that humid air, pushing away some of that ebbing, overbearing negative energy for a brief, heroic moment. I followed Lea to the back and Cesar followed me.
There were two single stall bathrooms. I grabbed some supplies and went into one, Lea the other. Between us, in the hall, Cesar stood. I wanted this to be the cunning moment of escape, in which I let myself be captured in order to make a grand exit and turn the tables on my foe. My body would not be buried in this untraceable desert cave. Cesar walked into the doorframe of Lea’s bathroom and stretched his hamstrings, which he often did, while trying to talk to Lea about exercises she should try.
Summoning the same control I had when I smiled at my opponent earlier, I wiped the toilet and sink without crushing the porcelain with a blow from my coiled fist. The light music was muffled in the bathroom, emphasizing Lea’s and my concealment from the rest of our environment.
Lea responded to Cesar loudly, so that I could hear that she was still ok. He had moved into the corner of the restroom, edging increasingly closer to Lea, his voice crawling down the volume scale, toward a greasy, nauseating whisper in Lea’s ear that was inaudible to me. Lea had said this is how cleaning the bathrooms often went, but I had thought maybe since I was there, he’d leave her alone.
The door of the bathroom they were in squeaked and I peered out to see Cesar’s hand around the edge of it, closing it gradually. I determined that I could not let the door close. Lines of the stories Lea had told me about Cesar whipped past my eyes like uncountable stars. I wished in that moment that I could actually look at the stars over the mountains instead of the tiles of that bathroom. The lines that were stars formed brass knuckles curved around my fist.
Cesar pushed the door closed more and I couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore and then there was a noise that sounded like skin smacking against porcelain and it happened three quick times so I punched the bathroom mirror and it shattered.
We ran together through the parking lot, laughing at our narrow getaway. Not a laughter propelled by humor but one propelled by the confidence-filled high you get when you win a fight. The sky was such so that you could still see the mountains, and they cheered us on. The dust in the parking lot hung in the glow from the streetlights, and as we ran, I glanced down to see my hand sparkling red in that light. It streamed drops of blood into the dusty air, like I had wanted. I could have run like that forever.