My husband, a food researcher, introduced me to the concept of mouthfeel. The term refers to the physical sensation of a food or beverage, which contributes to the overall experience of eating or drinking. I’d say the mouthfeel of Midwestern breakfast food is sticky indulgence and buttery regret interspersed with the promise of comfort.
When I was sixteen, my job as a busser meant I had to clean the rubbery remnants of over-easy eggs and greasy crumbles left from coaster-sized sausages. Every now and then I’d help the host by taking customers to the next available table. But mostly I scraped old food into trashcans and worked the dish line. This was my first restaurant job, and the quick tempo of the work was intimidating at first. To slow my pulse, I snuck in tiny bottles of vodka and kept to myself.
The workers at this breakfast chain, a restaurant known for its biscuits and egg and potato bowls, weren’t awestruck by teen angst and my alchemical relationship with vodka. That was child’s play, and besides, I was a child. Most of them were older. Late twenties to mid-forties. They were smarter and more aware, too, harnessing their creative energy for one-liners about the cook’s overly pomaded hair or the new busser’s resemblance to Gillian Anderson from The X-Files.
Raunchy and quick-witted in the kitchen, the veterans were effective on the dining floor, memorizing orders and chatting up regulars—servers knew to flash a charming smile and laugh too enthusiastically with a family four-top, while quickly dropping the smile to address an impatient businessman and efficiently get him the maximum caffeine and sugar intake within a short period of time.
One of the most impressive people I worked with was a woman named Kim. She was a redhead like me, only she was in her thirties. Not yet able to imagine twenty myself, I thought that was old. But something about her was ageless. It might have been the cocaine she did on breaks.
Kim wore autumn-hued lipsticks and too much eye makeup. She’d lean over me, her large breasts pushing against my back, and gossip about the regulars. “That one’s an alcoholic. See how his nose is red there at the sides? Broken blood vessels. And his tips are shit. But the skinny guy next to him who looks like he might fall apart with a strong breeze, he’s a baller. Ten-dollar tips daily, no matter what. He eats eggs and sourdough like a kid, picking at his plate, and tips the price of his bill.” She’d scan the restaurant and continue. “The squatters are the worst. Teenagers . . . people your age coming in hungover and philosophizing over eggs. A waste of time. Anyone who brings in a book or knitting will sit around all day. Bare minimum service.”
While I snuck off to spend time with my vodka companion or smoke a cigarette at the back of the store near the dumpster, I’d cringe at the workers who would do lines in the breakroom when the manager was on the dining floor. I’d never tried hard drugs; I knew I wouldn’t survive them. I’m not sure where this awareness came from, but I’m grateful for it. Nevertheless, I was fascinated. I watched the way servers’ and cooks’ pupils became wide and flat like little discs and their energy shifted toward the erratic. I noticed the subtle changes—the slight but repetitive twitch of a thumb or unsteady eyes. I could pay attention to such things, but I was sometimes sloppy with the daily tasks.
One day, while hauling a few ketchup bottles to the back, where I’d ceremoniously “marry them” (combine the remains of half-empty bottles) on the counter next to the dish line, I let one slip from my hands just as I passed one of the more standoffish servers. The bottle fell fast and burst open with fireworks of dark red. The viscous liquid splattered her khakis, and she spoke to me, for perhaps the first time, through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to kill you,” she said.
Tina wore three shades of eyeshadow that blended up toward her brows. Her face looked doll-like, but the rage bubbling to the surface in that moment was enough to create more of a clown-like vision. I couldn’t help myself. Quiet and self-conscious as I was then, my laughter was loud and rolling. Even the thought of her killing me over ketchup was hilarious. After everyone in the kitchen joined in my laughter, I caught myself and apologized profusely. The incident solidified me as part of the team. And the laughter, somehow, showed the kitchen staff that I was as unhinged as the rest of them.
Soon thereafter, they’d try to indoctrinate me.
When I was invited to one of the work parties at the apartment of a server named Owen, I almost didn’t go, but Kim told me it would be fun. The address was close to my mother’s, so I figured I had nothing to lose, and found myself with a pasted smile and darting eyes as I sat on a prickly couch and crossed my arms for warmth. After an hour, there were five of us and enough liquor for thirty. We played Spades and laughed about the regulars at work. Everyone did lines but me. Tina arrived late and rolled her eyes when she saw me, but I smiled and apologized again.
“Did the stain come out?” I asked, hoping I wouldn’t have to offer to pay for new pants.
“You’re fine,” she said, nodding toward the glass mirror that was passed around the circle. I handed it to her with a please-like-me smile.
I was comforted knowing that my colleagues were on another plane, because I was still mostly uncomfortable with a sober world in any capacity. But after a cook named Richard, who was still in his work pants and tee shirt, won the fourth game of Spades and no one wanted to play or pay him anymore, I was surprised to hear someone suggest we play Truth or Dare. “It’s like middle school. I’ve got this,” I said, and awkwardly offered Richard a high-five. He laughed.
“Truth or dare?” Richard asked Kim. She picked dare, and he pointed to me. “With tongues.”
Kim curled her finger and leaned forward. I was younger, expected to follow along, and so I did. I knelt between her thighs, and we met at the tip of what I thought would be a quick peck on the lips. She shoved into me, though, spread her lips, and I felt her soft tongue exploring my mouth. I didn’t want to ruin the moment with thought or a clumsy response, so I just paid attention. As the sounds around us got louder—all of them male coworkers laughing or cheering us on—I pressed the mute button on the world. When I came to, Richard had his hand up for another high-five and Tina was rolling her overly made-up eyes again.
After a few more rounds (before it was my turn to pick truth or dare), I realized it was after midnight. I stood up and tried to navigate the dizzy world I now inhabited. Once I felt steady enough, I looked around for my purse. I was eager to walk, to digest the experience and get my bearings, but when I grabbed my coat, Kim stopped me. “It’s dark. Let me drive you.”
“It’s only a few blocks,” I said, unable to make eye contact as I replayed our kiss and the way my body vibrated with her gaze.
“Come on. I got you.” She grabbed her keys and told the rest of them she’d be back. Once we were in her blue Toyota, which smelled clean and citrusy, she started the car, and talk radio blared. The narrator was telling a story about a cult in California that believed aliens wanted them to leave their bodies, so they mixed my good friend vodka with phenobarbital to create an ascension cocktail. We both listened as she drove to the end of the street and stopped at the light.
“Crazy,” I said. I wanted to say something smart and impressive about the cult, but I was confused by the story and unable to stop wondering why they chose vodka. I also wanted Kim to adore me, to tell me that our kiss was the best thing she’d ever experienced. Maybe I wanted her to kiss me again.
Instead, she looked at me the way my mother used to look at me: deep concern creasing her forehead. “You were OK with that, right, honey?” she asked. Her tone was soft. It wasn’t the tone I’d wanted, and it stole from me all the adrenaline that had been surging throughout my body.
“I thought it was good. I had fun,” I said.
She smiled and gave me a look that felt like a pat on the head, which broke something that wasn’t quite my heart. If I were another version of me in that car, I thought, I’d kiss her. If only I could find that audacity. I could tell her I knew what I wanted—or wanted to know what I wanted—and that I was ready.
“It was a game. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. Just want you to know that.”
“Not at all!” I said.
“These parties aren’t all that great after a while, you know. This it, your place?” she asked, gesturing to Mom’s sliver of an apartment. I nodded, hesitating before reaching for the door handle. “See you Tuesday, early shift,” she said.
After that day, Kim never leaned over my shoulder to give me the scoop on the regulars or offer any advice. She’d smile warmly as I bussed sticky tables and began indulging Owen’s subtle flirting, but I wanted her to be jealous. Maybe adrenaline is overrated, and the true ascension we’re all looking for comes from something less definable. All I knew was that Kim was my spaceship, and Owen was something else. We went out on a few dates, and he always wanted me to come back to his apartment afterwards. We’d kiss and hug awkwardly, then he’d hold me too long or stare without breaking his gaze, never once worried about my age. I tried to like him and make it work, but he was dull and desperate, and his neediness seeped into every interaction we had.
My experience at the breakfast diner peaked and plummeted at that party, with that one good kiss—my first. Every day began to get longer after that, and the crew seemed less mysterious. Owen and I agreed to be friends, while I kept trying to engage Kim. I clung to every look, every smile. I stole glances at her in the breakroom as I reread the same issue of Glamour or watched in awe as she reapplied her mascara without a mirror. Tina laughed at me one day, whispering that I should stop staring. But I couldn’t stop. I was stuck, unable to understand how one intimate moment could impact two people in such opposite ways.
Jen Knox lives and writes in Ohio. She teaches leadership at Ohio State University and creative writing at Thurber House and via Unleash Creatives, a holistic arts organization she co-owns. Jen's first novel, We Arrive Uninvited (Spring 2023) won the Steel Toe Books Award for Prose. You can read more of Jen's work at jenknox.com.