These Places

It started with dark wood. That strange stickiness on the tables that clung to your cotton sleeves. The cloistered game rooms like confessionals. A Street Fighter console crowded by sweating, swearing bodies. Silver medallions labeled “Family” and “Personal” nailed to the walls. These places smelled like beer and laughter, and things not seeming as hard as they were. 

These were the places you went when you earned five Bs and an A. When mom was too tired from split shifts to make macaroni. Once, Uncle Remo and Aunt Claire brought the fat cousins from Jersey. They spilled a pitcher of Diet Coke on your lap. 

Sometimes, there were mice and bears that sang and danced. A mechanical frenzy of motion both exotic and horrifying. Herky-jerky rides that lifted you up and over the head of your father when it was his weekend. He’d put a plug of Skoll in his lip when he thought the stripe-shirted worker wasn’t watching. He’d wink and you’d laugh and fly into space.

It’s where you went when the football team won homecoming. It was where you held your first hand, beneath the table so no one could see. Later, it was where you held each other’s thighs, so everyone would watch.

Behind the pizza parlor. That’s where you felt the first flames lick your blood. Where a kiss unravelled dark wonder. The world split open and you flung yourself into the furnace.

These were the places where you grew up.

Your mother ordered you a plain cheese pizza, and you never said a word. As if plain cheese was what you’d wanted all along.

You asked for an application and smiled when she almost choked on a bite of breadstick.

The man with the moustache gave you a striped shirt and matching hat. A red bandanna that made you look like an old-timey railroad conductor. You gleamed in it, flashing it like some girls flash diamond rings. 

Bussing tables, cleaning dishes, watching them eat and drink and forget. You always sang to the jukebox, even when you didn’t know the words. When the doors closed, you and the others made pizza for yourselves and talked shit until dawn.

The night came when you stopped holding hands where people could see. You stopped kissing in the light. One night he’d given you a ride to work, the next you were riding your bike. You rode long enough to know that it’s only hard the first month. 

Life takes a different color in the alley behind the pizzeria. You take the garbage out one night and see the man – yellowed fingers, slack skin over a skeletal face. He shies from the light, scutters behind the dumpster. A bag of half eaten French fries marks a trail to where he hides. 

Sometimes, you leave him pizzas when you think no one is looking. The moustached man is always looking. 

After he takes your bandanna, you stay away from the pizzeria for a while. 

A year passes. Or three. You find someone of your own who has a moustache and smells like tobacco. You don’t think about those places any more.

A birthday party, maybe. Or a graduation. You decline the invitation. You can’t eat pizza. It’s not good for the baby. The toddlers. The kids. You almost become vegetarian. Cheese pizza is all you can stand.

He loses his job, and the tobacco smell stales. Hungry, you return to the place that will take you. You don the striped shirt and matching hat. The bandanna is blue now. It doesn’t make you sparkle, but then, not much does any more. 

When you kiss your moustached man, there is darkness but no wonder. 

These are the places where you find lost things. You take home a pair of baby toenail clippers you find between the plastic cushions. It reminds you of how the customers laugh and live, and you begin to remember to be alive.

The boy who makes pizza dough smells like October apples. You stay late to talk to him as he presses the dough with rough hands. He laughs at your jokes and touches the cheese that has caught in your hair. You forget that you’re not young enough for him to want you.

When the doors are locked, fingers knead dough, then flesh. Steam rises from the great machines, moving with you. The chasm opens and he forms you into something new.

These are the places where you begin to forget that you once believed in God. That there was a time when you thought there was just one way for a fairy tale to end.

You confide in a friend – the one who will tell you when your ass looks fat. 

My life is filled with sausage, you say. She laughs then turns reverent. You tell her that love is a thing that crisps like crust over time. Love dries out. She cries a little then.

You go on, filling your days with pizza and your nights with him. You come home, dry tears and clip tiny toenails. You leave again when no one is looking. 

The moustached man is always looking. 

These are the places where apples and tobacco collide. Where the world splits into screams and accusations and tears. Where they get your order wrong. 

Somehow, you’ve lost your bandanna. 

The children ask where the tobacco has gone. You cry and they hold you and you are not alone. You find a job where you don’t have to be close to fire. 

Your friend says your ass is looking skinny. You say it’s because you’ve become vegetarian. Laughing feels like flying.

You’ve learned to make pizza at home.

The oven sparks. It was always about these places. Or maybe the problem is that it was never about these places. You bake something personal when your babies are asleep. One with a little bit of everything. 

You take a bite of your creation and see that it is good. 

Greasy, but good.