Joyland

The Midwest |

Let Me Take You to Olive Garden

by Simon Jacobs

I.

The year is 2004. I just got my ears pierced! Reese is wearing eight million bracelets and boots that come up past her knees, so in order to sit in the booth she has to lower herself onto the seat first and then swing her legs rigid under the table. I think that if I ask about each of these bracelets, in turn, I will be able to carry our conversation at least through this dinner and possibly into infinity, that we could be talking forever. Instead, because I’ve been thinking about it, I ask if she thinks the guitar sound in Rise Against’s latest album makes them sound too much like a stadium rock band.

Reese juts her head forward and says “What?” and in the tone I detect that it’s less a “What?” of indignation at my bold claim and more of a “What?” like she did not take meaning from any of my words. Fortunately, the waiter arrives, and I make it about the breadsticks. “That’s the reason to come to an Olive Garden,” I say, looking conspiratorially from the waiter to my date, “unlimited breadsticks.”

Yet when she sits back in the booth, diet coke ordered, I decide that Reese is a half-breadstick girl at most, and bizarrely, it still seems to be my turn to ask a question. That said, my capacity is honestly endless; between us, I picture a giant grid, like a mega-calendar, the building blocks of our Great Love, and each blank box comprises a question, and the boxes are filled with bracelets. I imagine checking one off as I open my yap yet again: “Where did you get those bracelets?”

The grid falls to pieces. I’ve made a terrible mistake, the question delivered totally wrong—like trying to fan a candle flame by setting the room on fire—and I know the answer before it’s delivered: vague, all-encompassing, unparseable, probably two words at most, hacking off the conversation as if with a machete, and now—

Our waiter puts a wire and paper basket of seasoned breadsticks on the table. He drifts off into the restaurant. I should never have mentioned them. The sound outside of our table seems to fade. Reese looks shyly down and begins sliding the bracelets up and down on her wrist, smiling to herself, as if each one is a distinct sensory memory too private to share. “Well, this one comes from Forever 21, this one comes from Claire’s, this one comes from JC Penney…”

Her word choice is strangely passive, absent of agency, and as she moves obsessively down her forearm cataloguing every shitty clothing and accessory chain in southern Ohio I am of two minds. The jangling overcomes everything; her diet coke hisses across the table. Motion, thought slows to a crawl. Either she is victim to the most boring and compulsive gifter known to man, or she, she is a taker.

“Did you steal all of those?”

She looks up at me from across the table, her fingers playing with the chain between two sprigs of a charm bracelet. Her eyes look out in a sly drawl, the breadsticks rise between us like a yeasty monument from before time. Their seasonal glaze dissipates into the heavy air.

But before she can confirm or deny, the ground breaks open to the right of our table, and in the next second the restaurant seems to have doubled its proportions, as in the kitchen is now a football field’s width away from us, and between our table and it, everything has just been consumed. I notice the high- and low-calorie vessels moving trance-like down our table, and Reese and I reach across and fasten arms in a power grip, like bracing for the first drop on a rollercoaster. We jump from the booth at the same time, but Reese’s legs are still locked in their great boots beneath the table, so instead of clearing the area she wrenches from my sweaty hands and snaps cleanly mid-thigh, and I watch her tumbling along with the entire booth—still positioned as if sitting within it, as if freeze-framed in profile—into the widening chasm now bearing up at me: like a gaping, wet cave winding down and out of sight, its walls the same texture and color as the roof of a burned mouth. Everything in the restaurant ricochets into its depths, the patrons breaking apart on the rocks and gradually slopping down the slope to join the mound of bodies at the mouth where the cave wraps out of sight, like waterlogged meat in a kitchen drain awaiting disposal. Then I see that there are smaller, separate passages branching out from the tunnel, and flitting in and out are some kind of lithe and speckled creature, their skin like leopard print, always just momentarily visible, snatching at the falling humans as they roll past, dragging them whole or piecemeal into their caves. A faint light flickers out from these smaller passages as if from a campfire, deep below and out of sight. Screams waft up from beneath me like a song on the wind, and with them, swarming my nostrils, embarrassingly, the exact smell of my hands after I’ve just masturbated at the end of an active day, that sensation of earthy shame and empty potential. And across the gulf now eating into the kitchen on the opposite side, crumbling at my feet on this one, as my heart leaps into my throat with the sudden plunge, I find another: a woman hangs there, her arms planted on the stainless steel counter behind her, legs dangling into the crevasse, emitting the same scream over and over, like a car alarm.



II.

Molly has been upset since her dad died six years ago, fundamentally upset, but this is the night she is going to turn it all around. When she enters the LaRosa’s Pizzeria ten minutes early and sees Megan already at a booth in the far corner, her hands wrapped entirely around a frosty water glass and peeking nervously out at the restaurant, Molly knows that the date is going to be an incredible success, that it is the beginning of what is called a love connection. She has already determined their couple name: it is Molmog.

Megan throws herself out of her seat when she sees Molly coming, like a seaman flailing for rescue, and her reaction is so sudden that she bangs her knees on the underside of the table and briefly doubles over with a mysterious squeak of the booth, clattering her elbows on the varnished pseudo-wood. The violence of the attempted greeting is both endearing and terrifying, and Molly feels a surge of guilt (she ought to have announced herself!) and also the frightening desire to laugh. She races forward to the table. “Megan! Are you alright??”

“I’m fine,” she says, unsticking her arms from the table. “I’m so excited to see you!” She launches into a hug with the same frantic energy, and holds onto Molly as if for dear life, rocking slightly back and forth. “Your hair!! I love it!”

“Thank you!” Molly replies, unintentionally matching her enthusiasm. (She’s been slowly growing it out since the school year ended, because adolescence is a time of changes large and small.)

They huddle up on one tangent of the circular booth-table, and Molly thinks that there is hardly any point to this date at all, that they are already as intimate as they will ever be, as if they’ve been dating for months, that they walked in on this story midway through. After dinner, at 6:20, they are going to Cross Pointe to see Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, because there is literally nothing else. It is the tail end of June, and the great plains of summer opportunity still stretch endlessly into the horizon.

They both order diet cokes and a large flat pizza to share. The restaurant is still fairly unpopulated because it’s not yet truly dinnertime. There is a ridiculous amount of light outside, and Molly occasionally has to shield her eyes from the glare cast by the wall-sized windows perpendicular to their corner booth. Her double glasses—the soda one steadily emptying, the water one untouched—sweat feverishly. It feels inappropriate for a date. There’s another showing at 8:05 but the movie is over two hours long and both have curfews to keep, Molly’s mom is only willing to come out so late to pick them up.

And it is going so well. By Molly’s first refill their hands are already knotted together beneath the table. Megan gets up to pee, and upon her return when she rounds the partition into view Molly feels herself rise spontaneously in greeting and likewise bangs her knees on the underside of the table, a matching gesture, and she goes down clattering the same way, like they are programmed the same.

When the pizza is delivered Megan studies it for a while, looking from the pepperoni up to their retreating waiter and back again. “Which do you think looks more like a ladybug,” she says. “The pizza, or our waiter?”

As Molly ponders this suddenly perfect image—the round, shiny red face of the waiter and his sparkling silver stud earrings, the glistening pizza—realizing this uncanny ability that Megan possesses, of magical association, she simultaneously bears witness to an anomaly: the partition that separates one row of booths from the other blurs in the air and then vanishes like a bad hologram. An ear-splitting roar—like being strapped to the undercarriage of a monster truck while it revs, a monster truck that is also engulfed in explosive fire—erupts from outside, within them, vibrating the narrow passages inside her head with a crawling pain, blasting her face with heat. She casts her eyes down and sees a fiery crater ripping wide in the center of the restaurant, expanding in the same way one works their thumbs into a hole in an old t-shirt and tears it open, splitting the earth along a million tiny seams, devouring everything around their booth. Below the opening stretches an enormous, roaring lake the shade of cooking oil, churning and boiling, frothing with movement. Their corner booth is uniquely positioned at an architectural key point in the restaurant’s foundation, meaning that for a second after they leap up they’re just standing there perched on a tetris-corner span of tile as the upholstered seatback and table slide as one into the abyss, and squinting down at it through the veil-like heat, Molly makes out beneath the lake’s shimmering surface a dense conglomerate of squirming, naked bodies, filling the lake’s every inch. Around the perimeter, soot-black figures scamper head-over-heels, carrying human skewers on their backs, which they deposit into the lake with their feet, hands and teeth, like clearing speared cubes of chicken off a kebab. As each new body hits the surface—from above or below—there’s a burst of steam, a fizzing effect, and the mass has to shift to accommodate it before the body is fully submerged. And still the roar overcomes everything, becomes the only sound she’s ever heard, what she was born hearing. Flecks of the lake’s evil substance spatter her face, splash burning up onto her jeans, her contacts melt out of her eyes, and as their stubborn patch of the floor dissolves beneath them (Megan’s final gesture is that of a mime’s scream), Molly realizes that maybe what is scariest of all is how appetizing it smells, how much like pepperoni.



III.

It was basically impossible to transition as a teenager in a place like Dayton, Ohio in 2006; John knew this. Moreover, the name she’d chosen—Margie—seemed squarely planted in 1940s midwest farmland, which was a statement in the year of Borat and Clerks II. At times, John selfishly and crudely thought that it seemed like their situations should be reversed: it seemed confusing that while he, cis, like studied Dead Kennedys lyrics and clung obsessively to every scrap of his barely-experienced alt-communal west coast origins, Margie, trans, pored unironically through the 1954 Centerville High School yearbook and found the black-and-white faces of relatives who’d grown up in the same house that she did. John resents Ohio basically because he’s not natively from there, while Margie seems to have made it her own.

Even Flavors Eatery, where the two now sit, seems to exemplify this dynamic: John likes it because the owners are from San Francisco, his homeland (for his four initial years), and Margie likes it because the white sauce they drizzle over each dish makes everything taste like ranch dressing. They have wrested the front corner table looking out at the parking lot and Franklin Street, no mean feat during the second lunch period at Centerville (which is two blocks away); the fact that they’re here now means that they’ll have to wait thirty minutes for their food and will have to cram it in order to get back to school on time, but that is always part of the equation. Windchimes and sun-related art dangle above them.

The husband-owner brings their two cans of diet coke to the table. They put orange slices on the glasses here. As always, John and Margie chat vaguely with him; as always, John asks for “news from the homefront,” as if he’s a soldier away fighting an unjustified war, or as if it’s every transplant’s desire, not so secretly (just look at this place!) to return there. “Did you hear? It’s finally sinking!” the co-owner quips. Margie smiles into her soda, John’s nostalgia is kind of a joke to her.

The first time they’d come here after Margie started transitioning, sitting at this same table, the wiry wife-owner—who looked to John like the physical manifestation of every failed health craze rolled into one, meaning she did not partake in the house sauce, did not eat ever—approached their table and began absently massaging Margie’s shoulders, and neither John nor Margie knew her or her husband’s name and they didn’t know theirs, but generally it seemed like this was a safe place of sympathetically-minded people. Lately, whether it was justified or not—whether Margie needed or wanted it or not—John had been noting such places, had been compiling a list in his head. It will be another solid twenty minutes until their food arrives.

To fill this gap, John shares a theory his mother related to him the day before, innate of nothing: “My mom was telling me last night how much better she thought the world would be if every male between fifteen and twenty-five had to take a regular dose of estrogen.” He says this without knowing exactly how it will land, whether it’s more of a “mom’s-so-out-there” anecdote or a “mom’s-on-top-of-it” anecdote.

Margie’s response gives nothing away. “I love your mother. Do you want my orange?” She hands the slimy fruit slice across the table. “It contaminates the soda.”

John slurps the orange and then, over the next several minutes, painstakingly wraps the rind into a cocoon of napkin followed by straw wrapper. The table lays barren between them. After a while Margie says, “What’s up?”

John looks up from the tiny mummy. “Hmm? Nothing.”

“You’re barely speaking.”

“No, that’s—just.” He waves his hand. “Just empty head, that’s all.”

“As a matter of fact,” she says, “you’ve been barely speaking for like the last two months. Since I came out.”

The accusation buried in this hits John like a bucket of cold water, and all he can respond with is abject denial, by physically shaking it off: “No! That’s not it at all, I—” And shades of this. John suddenly feels sick, as if the careful hut he’d been trying to build for them was actually made of glass, and now people are throwing rocks at it. Behind Margie, further afield, surprisingly early, the husband-owner approaches wielding the characteristically cluttered-looking plates, piled with innocuous greens to avoid suspicion, white sauce arrayed across them in cyclonic shapes. But the cyclone is within him!

“You only talk about trans stuff now!” Margie is shouting at him. “That’s not all there is! It’s not like this has evaporated all the rest of my personality! I’m not a ball bearing!”

As he contemplates this metaphor, beautiful as it is, struggling to find an appropriate response, one that will not further wreck their glass hut but will hold up a shard of it and show that it is a mirror, as he imagines saying this, out of the corner of his eye he sees the floor pop like a blister and the husband-owner disappear into it. And as John rises instinctively from the table to see what’s happened, his face becomes a shocked mask, and Margie’s falls in response to his, and he realizes that his every move is a disaster, his every word is some poorly-planned gamble. The restaurant turns freezing, and John feels his lips crack, his hands seize and age forty years. Great chunks of the floor fall away (the counter and kitchen are already gone) and are whipped into oblivion by the winds pouring from the rending hole in the ground, revealing a furious whiteness underneath them, like a snowblind sky, and finally Margie turns around. The restaurant’s teenage diners slip on the suddenly-slick tiles; they crackle to the floor and are sucked away. As their table begins to skid towards the breaching rift, John reaches out and grabs Margie by the shoulder, pulling her from the chair, which glides on without her, and in the couple of seconds they’re successfully standing together at the edge of the void, his fingers on her elbow joint, the restaurant and its people bursting like fragile implements dipped into liquid nitrogen and then smashed with a hammer, John glimpses, below them, through the whipping snow and scalding wind, a solitary, naked figure trudging across an endless plain, doubled over himself against the cold. At that moment the figure falls to his knees, the skin of his back breaks in a line down its center, and he blooms like a brilliant red flower on the white, before his body is grayed out by the ice, buried under another stratum of endless snow. And as his Converse inevitably give way on the frozen floor, John formulates the answer to the question Margie is implicitly asking, that everyone is asking, that they’ve been asking for years; he shouts to her through his bleeding lips in the blistering gale that obliterates everything around them, he shouts “I’M FALLING IN LOVE!” and the words become instantly a part of the weather, are swallowed between them like a wave in the ocean, a turn in a wheel, between the girl and the pit at John's feet, yawning, yes, with opportunity.