by Sam Bodrojan
Sam Bodrojan is a writer and critic living in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @sbodrojan.
The day after their manager Yanelli overdosed in the single-use bathroom, the staff at Gap Tooth started showing up with shards of glass stuck in their eye. Some had assumed it was strain from the dim lights, others figured it was allergies from the stuffy dining room. During the witching hour of that Saturday’s service, though, two servers ran back to expo panicking, one sifting through the others’ bloody teardrops to fish out the irritant.
“Can you get off the fucking pass?” Chef Kal called from behind the line. “Sorry. Just please get off the pass.”
Kal didn’t pay attention to front of house. That’s what he’d hired Yanelli for. She was the first person he called about his idea for the joint back in 2019, the only person from that original team who’d stayed with him when he reopened after the pandemic. Everyone loved her. Gap Tooth was the best restaurant in Denver, probably the only one worth going to. It was a major homecoming for Kal, after he’d spent nearly a decade spearheading Michelin-star ventures across the East coast.
He and Yanelli had thought of everything—every part of the menu came from locally sourced farms, all the operations were carbon neutral, there was on-site composting, a livable wage for every staff member under their roof. Kal couldn’t have done it without that woman. The only thing he knew was food, and that he could leverage his food into something sustainable. Gap Tooth, in all its American Traditional tattoo shop decor, was Yanelli’s baby. It looked just like her living room.
That night, they’d had four call-outs, so Kal was on grill. That put him behind schedule with inventory, and he had to get the order out before morning. Seffi, one of the newer line cooks, offered to stay late and help him out. She was young, barely mid-20s, with a delicate stature and a button nose so angelic that it made Kal self-conscious. Her resume was impressive. Culinary school, a food truck down in Texas, a brief stint on the fine dining circuit. Plus, she let him borrow some of her eczema cream for when his hands got irritated on cold prep.
By the time they finished, it was close to one in the morning. The two sat in the office. Kal tore into a piece of stale bread. He held some out to Seffi but she didn’t take it.
“What was up with the servers tonight?” she asked, poking at her phone on the desk with one finger.
“What do you mean?” Kal said with a mouthful of bread.
“Apparently a bunch of them had to go to urgent care in the middle of the shift.”
Kal’s eyes went blank. “Why didn’t anyone—Are there any managers still upstairs, do you know?”
“We ran without one tonight,” Seffi spoke cautiously.
Kal turned to look at her. She was being good about not saying anything. He rubbed his face with his palms. The lights in the office were so bright. “I’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
* * *
Seffi offered Kal a ride to Bleachers, the only Vikings bar in Denver, even though it was only a 13-minute walk. (“It’s cold out. The heat in my car doesn’t work but the seat warmers do.”) Kal declined.
He showed up to the bar in his puffy white coat, flowy black pants, and a pair of Muslin Jordan 3s. Seffi was there waiting for him, in the same white tank, sweats, and Shoes for Crews loafers that she always wore to work. She waved him over, giggling. “You did a whole fit change!”
“I needed to get out of my work clothes.” Kal had never seen Seffi outside of work. He didn’t expect her to be so bubbly.
“You’re like a hypebeast!” She moved her ratty Jansport so Kal could sit.
“Is that bad?” He put his coat on the seat as a cushion.
“I just wasn’t expecting it.” Seffi pulled her water bottle out of her backpack and put it on the counter.
Kal ordered two shots of Evan Williams and a Modelo. He nudged one of the shots her way. “That’s for you.”
“I’m okay. I have my drugs for tonight.” Seffi said, giddy.
“What do you got?” Kal asked.
Ketamine, Seffi mouthed like a question.
“Is that, your thing?” Kal pressed. “Is that like what you do?”
“My thing is… I like yoga. Yoga is my thing.”
“I meant like, when you go out.” Kal tugged at his shirt.
“Oh—yeah. Sure, like after work, or on our weekends. But yoga, and hiking, and swimming. That’s what I like to do when I’m not working. I like Denver because I can do a little of that here. Not as much as I expected with the weather and everything lately. But you know how it is with a kitchen.”
Seffi hit Kal in the arm with her hand as she gestured outwards. “Oh, sorry—but you know how it is. It’s hard to nourish your physical self. You’re on your feet 12 hours a day already. So I go in cycles. I work for six months, save up, take as much time off as I can to just go camping, hiking, all that jazz. I try to stay really in tune with nature.”
Kal stretched, leaning back on his stool and wagging his finger. “See, I wish I could be like you. Really, I should just start stretching. Whenever I’m not working, I just sit on my couch and watch movies and drink. And at this point, like, my back’s all fucked up, I keep blowing money at the doctor for all this random bullshit, and I can’t pull those hours anymore, like you were saying.”
Seffi stared at Kal’s shoulders, chewing absentmindedly on the rubber straw of her water bottle. “That’s okay. You know, learning to listen to your body is a process.”
Kal ignored her. “I just don’t want this place to fall apart. I worked so hard to build it, and I just. All the farms we used to work with burnt down in wildfire season. So I’ve just been scrambling to source everything. That’s why we have to do inventory on a Saturday night. I’ve never worked at a place where they have to put in their big orders for the week on a Saturday night. And now with what happened to Yanelli—”
“Oh, yeah, how’s she doing?”
Kal had forgotten that other people knew her. “I haven’t heard anything. She’ll reach out when she’s ready. I shouldn’t talk about this with you, with staff. This isn’t the first time she’s…”
Kal trailed off. All he could see was Seffi’s water bottle, this comically massive Nalgene covered in worn-down stickers. There was a cartoon rabbit, a neon UFO, a tie-dye peace sign, a triple moon, one of those pride flags with the triangle on the side.
The last time Kal had been over at Yannelli’s place, what, two weeks ago, their last even remotely personal conversation, he’d broached the subject of cutting benefits, citing the rising cost of running a business. She exploded at him, for the first time in their friendship, cursed him out, called him a fraud, told him he was no better than those fame-chasing fucks he’d left behind in New York, what did he know about running a place like Gap Tooth, nothing, these were her people and she wasn’t about to let him push them away because he wanted out. She was right, but she wasn’t doing well, so he just let it be. Kal had figured it was just one of those nights neither person wanted to say sorry for. He’d known what was happening, but he didn’t know know. Kal had no time to think about Yannelli. He still didn’t. Seffi had started speaking again, and he’d missed the first bit of what she was saying.
“—alone, that must be really scary to think about. With any restaurant, they’re hard to make sustainable. But you’ve done a good job. Really.”
“Thanks.” Kal was irritated that she’d said that but he wasn’t sure why.
Seffi paused before continuing:
“I get scared a lot, that I’ll stop being able to do what I know how to do. When I was younger, I hated my body. I had really bad issues with food and stuff. And there was always this idea, in the back of my head, that I was… I wasn’t a girl or something…” Seffi’s hands stopped moving, fell to the counter, abandoned.
“But that wasn’t an option, not like it is for other people, or maybe it was, but I couldn’t hack it. I was so bad at the whole act, even in private. I would practice sitting like my brother, in the clothes I’d picked out for him, they were all so baggy on me, and I would look in the mirror and just be so grossed out by what I saw.”
“I don’t think you’re gross,” Kal let slip.
“What?” Seffi’s face hardened.
“You wouldn’t be gross in boy’s clothes.” He thought that was the right thing to say.
Seffi shot back with an unexpected harshness: “That shirt’s a size too big. The seam shouldn’t hit so low on your shoulder.”
They both looked down, their embarrassment condensing and pooling at a warped crease in the bar rail. They sat like that for a moment. Kal felt Seffi gathering air to apologize, so he smiled to cut her short, as if she had just told a joke.
“You were saying?”
Seffi shook her head and propped her elbows on the counter.
“So, as I’ve gotten older, I’m really proud of how hard I’ve worked to be kind to myself in other ways. I mean, that’s why I started cooking. I was paying attention to what my body needed. I still feel unnatural sometimes, like I’m doing something wrong. But it just makes sense to be a girl when you look like this.”
Seffi couched her words in a laugh. Her hands were shaking, her palms hovering an inch away from either masseter. “That was stupid, sorry. But maybe it’s the same for you, is what I’m saying; It just makes sense to work in restaurants.”
Seffi’s face went fuzzy in Kal’s vision. “I don’t hate being a chef,” he muttered.
Seffi picked at a paper coaster. “I never said that. But it’s scary to think you have to do it forever.”
The lights went up at the bar. Neither of them reacted. The bartender put the bill down in front of Kal. Seffi ran to the bathroom while he paid the tab.
“You need me to call you a ride?”
“I’ll be okay.” Seffi grabbed her stuff to head out. “Oh, you’ve got something, like near your nose—”
Kal went to wipe it off. She swatted his hand away. “Here, let me get it.”
He turned to look at Seffi. She jolted forward and jabbed the corner of his eye with her tongue. He winced. Seffi sat back, rolling a tiny speck of something between her teeth before swallowing. Kal couldn’t tell if it was blood, or spit, or a tear running down his cheek.