The year I moved to Canada, following a man I had met in my travels, I found a job at a busy bistro in downtown Vancouver. It was on the block of Cordova Street wedged between the historic, touristic Gastown and the rougher Downtown Eastside, where the beautiful heritage buildings fool you into believing that you’re in Europe. Our bistro was surrounded by little shops: an antique shop, a photographer’s studio, and a couple of boutiques selling vintage and locally designed clothing. We served Mediterranean Italian cuisine and fine espresso but the family who owned it was actually from Iran. They had been living in Vancouver for thirty years.
My first day on the job, Sam, the son who ran the café, a sprightly young man with thick black hair, watched from a bar stool as I prepared sandwiches, poured shots of espresso, and foamed milk. “Very nice,” he said as I served a customer a layered ice latte. “Great work.” He nodded at my frothy cappuccino. After the lunch rush he climbed on a bar stool and high-fived me from across the bar. “Awesome job,” he said. “Thank you so much.”
Sam’s father, a lean man with thin-framed glasses, walked in every afternoon carrying boxes of fresh vegetables and bags full of deli meats and sliced cheeses. He once told me that when he first arrived in Vancouver it had rained for forty days straight. He always wanted me to make his coffee and I felt honored, as if I was chosen for my espresso-making expertise. Then one day, the mother, a petite woman who always wore a suit and heels, told me he had been ordered by his doctor to quit coffee. He liked my coffee simply because everyone else was making him decaf. I was to start making him decaf from then on. He never caught on.
The mother had held a prestigious government job back in Iran until the time of the revolution, when they had to flee the country. Now she was bringing flowers and art to the café, helping her son with the interior design. It was a charming place with high ceilings and orange walls that turned golden and briefly Mediterranean at sunset. Large bay windows overlooked Cordova Street, and the back alley was shared with other restaurants facing Water Street. After the lunch rush, when I went for a cigarette in the alley, I found cooks in white coats stained with pasta sauce sitting on milk crates, smoking.
At the end of the shift, the mother sent me home with bags full of leftovers and day-old pastries. As I walked back to my West End apartment, I would give some to the homeless and bring the rest home to my Canadian boyfriend. The two of us would eat our dinners silently in front of the flickering television screen. Sometimes, his friends would come over and we’d all drink on the balcony, facing the eerily still, gray waters of English Bay. Some nights, I’d leave them and go for a walk on the beach, sit on the rocks and watch for ZIM cargo containers in the distance. Like me, they had come all the way from Israel. I’d get a thrill whenever I saw the Hebrew lettering on the metal, out of place against the cool, bluish sea and mountains. On warm nights, I’d dip my toes in the icy water and wonder how I’d ended up here, on the other side of the world, by this sea that was nothing like the Mediterranean, in this apartment, with this man.
During the year I worked there, we went through a long list of cooks. There was the glum East Van girl who spent her days hiding in the tiny kitchen, burying her face in the pots and pans. She rarely spoke, and made no effort to befriend any of us until one day, as we were both crouched down behind the counter, picking up pieces of broken glass, I told her about my failing relationship and she told me about hers.
Before or after her was the funny, pear-shaped East European woman who was so short she only reached my breasts when she pulled me into a hug. She used to come into the bar area during the lunch rush, flailing her hands and rolling her R’s. “I came here for a reason,” she would cry. “I know I came for a reason.” Sometimes she dashed out of the kitchen, flung her apron on the counter and said, “I have to go. It’s an emergency,” which was a code for her needing to use the washroom.
And then there was Russ. The first day we worked together he looked me up and down, his small, black eyes staring intensely at me from their deep sockets. “Where are you from?” he asked. His tone was demanding, almost accusing.
“Israel,” I said.
He squinted. “You don’t look Israeli. You look Arabic.”
I shrugged. “Many Israelis look like me.”
He examined me for a moment and then said, “What is an Israeli girl doing working for Iranian people?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why not?”
He sneered and walked away.
Russ was half native, half Irish, a small man whose lean body was strong and defined. He was one of those people who wore their life story on their faces—an art piece made of scars, wrinkles and veins, drawn in jagged lines. His face was older than the rest of him and gave him the appearance of an actor in some Hollywood mob film. It was the kind of face you wanted to photograph and study like a map.
Unlike the others before him, Russ was a professional chef who had studied in a culinary academy. His soups were the stuff of fancy French restaurants; his hollandaise sauce smooth, creamy, and rich. We all began looking forward to his daily specials: pasta with smoked salmon in rosé and dill sauce, linguini with roasted garlic and marinated eggplant, orange soups spiced with curry and saffron. On weekends he made eggs Benedict with spinach, prosciutto and goat cheese, baby shrimp and avocado.
For the first couple of weeks, Russ was on his best behavior, muttering to himself on occasion about the size of the kitchen or the incompetence of the staff. “This kitchen is a joke,” he said. None of us took it to heart. After working for a few years in the restaurant industry, we were used to cooks being capricious and demanding. We’d learned to expect it.
Then he started making more noise. There was the slamming of pots and pans, the banging of the oven door, the vigorous chopping of vegetables and the high-pitched shrieks of blades slicing through the air as he sharpened the knives. This tactic was familiar to me. My own mother spent the years after my father’s death letting out her anger and frustration on kitchen appliances and ingredients in a very similar way.
As soon as Russ felt more comfortable around us and assumed the kitchen—as small as it was—as his territory, he started yelling. Whenever the place filled up and the orders began pouring in he became flustered, then angry. Angry because a customer asked for no garlic in his pasta sauce, because four different orders came at the same time, because the can of tomato paste was not where he knew he had put it. He yelled at the busboy, pointed fingers at Sam and made the other barista cry, but he left me out of it. For some reason he wasn’t interested in engaging with me.
Until one day, in the middle of a busy lunch shift, he stuck his head out of the kitchen and screamed at me, the fat vein that sliced his forehead threatening to cleave it in two. I yelled right back at him, “Hey, don’t talk to me like that. I do not work for you and I won’t take your shit.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then his lip curled into what I later learned was a smile. He stepped back into the kitchen without a word.
After the rush was over, I went out to the dining area to have my lunch and found Russ eating at a table. He moved the chair next to him toward me with his foot. I sat down. We ate in silence. Russ ate quickly, slouched over his plate. The tense energy that had surrounded him like a barbed wire fence seemed to have dissipated. When he finished, he straightened in his chair and pushed the plate away from him. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, glanced at me and shook his head, laughing.
“My Palestinian friends would never believe me if I told them I had lunch with an Israeli girl by choice. I swear I never liked an Israeli in my life.”
We began having lunches together, during which he offered his opinions on Israel, told me about his Arab friends and the Jewish girl he once dated. I told him how life was in Israel, how not all Israelis support the occupation. The issue was soon dropped and we began talking about other things, sharing travel stories, anecdotes from our daily lives. When he asked what I was doing in Canada, I gave him the abridged version. I met my boyfriend on a beach in India. We fell in love. “And here I am now!” I concluded in a cheerful tone. He eyed me with a narrowed look, and nodded slowly, as if he could see right through me. Our friendship was easy, simple: I made him espressos and cappuccinos and he made me food. We smoked together in the back alley, bitched about work and customers. “I’m working with a bunch of amateurs,” he said, complaining about the family and the staff as if I weren’t one of them.
“Why do you work here?” I asked him one day as we sat on the steps in the alley. “You could work anywhere. You’re a pro.”
Russ took a slow drag from his cigarette. “It’s just a first step,” he said, squinting across the alley. “I’ve been trying to get clean. Get my life back in order.”
After a few weeks Russ brought his own set of knives in a soft case that unfurled to display a row of glinting steel.
“These are my babies,” he said. “A real chef never goes anywhere without his knives. I wanted to make sure I was staying here before I brought them.”
“What’s wrong with the knives we have here?” I asked.
He snorted. “You don’t know anything about knives, do you?”
That day he showed me how to hold a chef knife for best control and maximum precision. He stood beside me and demonstrated what he called “The Blade Grip”—his thumb and forefinger rested in front of the bolster, directly on the blade. I imitated him: the knife felt secure and yielding under my grip.
“Once you become good at handling knives,” he said, “you develop a callus on the base of your index finger.”
‘My Palestinian friends would never believe me if I told them I had lunch with an Israeli girl by choice. I swear I never liked an Israeli in my life.’
He looked over my shoulder as I cut vegetables and corrected me, coaching me how to slice mushrooms and julienne peppers, how to curl the fingers of my other hand inwards like a claw to protect my fingertips, my knuckles against the blade, how to mince parsley as fine as a professional chef could. It was the kind of stuff my mother, a gifted self-taught cook, never bothered passing on.
“Restaurants are often judged by how fine their parsley is chopped,” Russ said. Soon I was running into the kitchen to get his approval for my parsley, which was now as fine as sand. “I declare you the queen of parsley,” he announced one day. I giggled, pleased.
One evening, toward the end of our shift, after the sunlight had leaked off the orange walls and the bistro was quiet and abandoned, we got into an argument about the Holocaust. Russ didn’t think it had happened.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“It was a conspiracy,” he said.
“Oh my God. You’re serious. Why would anybody make it up?”
“So they can get Palestine, of course.”
I stared at him without speaking, my mouth drying. I swallowed. It was the first time I’d met somebody who’d said that to my face. My own family came from Yemen, not Europe, but growing up in Israel the Holocaust was embedded in our national consciousness. Not only was it in our school curriculum, in art and books, and commemorated annually, but the survivors were still walking amongst us, faint purple numbers tattooed on their arms. As a child I was haunted by images of children in striped pajamas, of death trains and gas chambers. Despite the obvious geographic improbability, the threat felt palpable. It could have been me. “There’s hard evidence,” I said finally. “Pictures, documents. Eyewitnesses. I have friends who lost half their families.”
“I’m not saying Jews didn’t die, but the numbers are grossly exaggerated.”
“That’s crazy. What are you basing this on?”
“Hey guys, can you keep it down?” Sam peeked nervously into the kitchen.
I took a couple of deep breaths. I knew Russ identified with minorities and despised the white upper class, so I said, “Why do you find it so hard to believe that white Europeans would do such a thing? Look at history, look at what happened in Africa, look at slavery, look at what happened to the natives in North America.”
Russ was quiet for a moment, wiping the counter in circular motions, and then said, “I guess you have a point.”
When I got out of the kitchen I found a customer waiting at the bar with a horrified look on his face. As the man ordered coffee to go in a thick German accent, Russ peered out from the kitchen and we exchanged amused glances. The man left in a hurry but not before tipping extremely well. I ran to the kitchen, and opened my palm to show Russ the coins. “Look,” I said, “the poor guy was so freaked out we got ourselves a guilt tip.” We laughed until we had tears in our eyes.
One day I arrived early and greeted Russ good morning as I walked by the kitchen. He nodded without looking at me and then turned to face the wall, sneaking a long object into his pocket. A pipe? I stopped. His cheeks were puffed out as if he was trying to hold water in. The room smelled metallic: cheap perfume and burnt plastic. A thin cloud of smoke swirled up to the kitchen’s ceiling. “What are you doing?”
He laughed, letting out smoke. It didn’t smell like pot.
My heart sank. “It’s not cool. You should at least step outside on your break.”
“Whatever, we’re not open yet.” He sprinkled salt into the soup of the day. “Good morning to you too.”
After that I started to notice the drinking. In the beginning we’d both sometimes tip a splash of Baileys into our cappuccinos. It was no big deal. But then I saw Russ pouring wine into a mug as he was mixing it into his pasta sauces, sneaking more Baileys into his coffee when he thought no one was looking. What was I supposed to do? The one time in my life I had confronted a friend about his addiction he got angry and distanced himself from me. I was afraid to alienate Russ. And I couldn’t tell the family. As long as he had this job, he still had a chance to get better.
One evening I passed by the kitchen on my way to bus tables as Russ was changing into a T-shirt. His tattooed skin was taut over his muscles, sharp pointy angles that wouldn’t make for good cuddling. When he saw me, he covered himself up a little too quickly. On my way back to the bar, he poked his head out. “Can you come in for a sec?”
He was sitting on a stool, nodding somberly toward a milk crate. I sat down.
“I have to show you something,” he said. “And I don’t want you to freak out.” He pulled his sleeve up. On his right bicep he had a faded tattoo of a swastika.
“Oh my God.” I gasped, hand on my mouth. My stomach caved, then filled with a sick, helpless feeling, like that time in Greece, when a blond-haired tourist yelled Heil Hitler to my friend and me as we walked by. Then my nausea was replaced by rage. I started punching Russ’s arm, hard, right where the swastika was, as if I could make it go away, fist clenched, aiming to hurt. He just sat there, swaying with each blow, his face frozen and vacant, a slab of rock.
“Are you OK?” he said when I stopped, rolling down his sleeve.
My knuckles throbbed. “No, I’m not OK. What the fuck, Russ. Why? Why do you have it?”
He pulled his other sleeve up, revealing an anti-police tattoo on his left arm. “Look, I have this and my father was a cop. I was young when I got them. I hung out with the wrong crowds.” He searched for my eyes. “I’m not proud of it.” Apparently a couple of weeks earlier the father had noticed the tattoo. Disturbed, he had asked Russ to make sure that I never saw it and forbade any further conversations about Israel, the Holocaust, or Jews.
We sat there for a moment, quiet.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really like you. I just wanted you to know. I didn’t want to hide it anymore.”
“What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you mad?” My boyfriend paced around our West End living room. “Because I’m furious.” In high school, my boyfriend once found himself in a skinhead house party. He was tipsy, so it took him a moment to notice the whispers and stares, the number of shaved heads, the fact that he was the only brown person in the room. His white friend rushed over and whisked him out before something happened. When he first told me that story I was horrified. I thought of Canada as a haven of diversity and tolerance. I didn’t know there were neo-Nazis there, and that one could randomly wander into one of their parties.
“Sure I’m mad,” I said, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t get it.” He stood with his arms on his hips, looking at me as if he didn’t know me. “How can you possibly be friends with someone like that?”
I gave him a half-shrug. I didn’t know how to explain my friendship with Russ. How sometimes Russ’s impoliteness, bluntness and hot temper felt familiar, strangely comforting, reminded me of back home. How it felt as though we were both outsiders, somehow, neither of us belonging, both alone in different ways. I didn’t know how to tell my boyfriend that hanging out with his friends wasn’t enough. That sometimes he wasn’t enough. That some days my loneliness was like a living thing I carried everywhere with me and couldn’t shake off, that it was heavy, and I was tired. That I walked around the city desperate for someone to call my name on the street, tap on my shoulder, chat with me on a street corner. That I walked through our neighborhood streets, watching the rows of windows and the people living in them, and wished for a single door that I could knock on.
In July, the coffee shop became as hot as summer in Tel Aviv. The orange walls blinded our eyes, reflecting the sun. Tired fans provided some breeze for customers but not much for the staff, working near the ovens, toasters, and coffee machines. Sweat poured down my face and from my armpits onto my shirt.
In August, I took off to Mexico for a week with my friend, a flight attendant from New York who offered me a cheap buddy pass I could afford. We shared a beach hut in Tulum with sand for a floor and woke up at night to crabs crawling on our bed. In the mornings we opened the door and walked straight into the sea. We subsisted on rice and beans. It was the rainy season and every afternoon it rained heavily and briefly, cooling the intense heat. The quietness, the vastness of the Caribbean Sea, and the distance from my boyfriend gave me ample time to confront my doubts, my increasing discontent. I longed to travel again. Alone. Sitting with a few travelers, all on their way to somewhere else, I thought, What if I didn’t show up to the flight tomorrow? What if instead of going back I took a bus to Guatemala or Belize? The desire for a different life ached in my chest.
When I returned to work after my vacation, I found a man in a neatly pressed white coat chopping onions in the kitchen. I looked around. “Where’s Russ?”
“Who? Sorry, I’m new.” He wiped his hand on his apron and extended it for a handshake.
The mother was sipping coffee by the window. “Welcome back.” She placed her hand on the small of my back. “How was your trip?”
“Good,” I said. “Where’s Russ?”
Her face darkened. “Russ is gone. I’m sorry. I know you two were friends.”
“His anger problem was getting to be … too much.” She was choosing her words carefully. “It affected business, customers were complaining. We had to let him go.”
I stared at her for a moment, nodding wordlessly. I wondered if they had caught him smoking crack in the kitchen, but I couldn’t ask without implicating myself. Though I had known all along that this might happen, I felt blindsided by Russ’s sudden departure, by this abrupt end to our friendship. Our relationship couldn’t have sustained itself outside of work, I knew that; our lives were too different. Still, I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to offer something as a parting gift: sympathy, gratitude, maybe even a hug.
“Good riddance,” said my boyfriend when I got home that night. We were sitting on the sofa, sharing leftover pasta from work, the dark living room washed blue by the television light. I stiffened, stirred my pasta and said nothing.
In our galley kitchen, I pulled out a day-old cherry strudel from a waxy bag for us to share. Our one decent knife struggled to cut through the thick, gooey crust, the cherry filling dribbling out the more pressure I put. Frustrated, I tossed the knife into the sink, and it made a loud metallic ring as it bounced against the stainless steel. My boyfriend looked up, startled. “Whoa there, knife thrower.”
“Our knives are shit.” I tore the pastry into two and handed him the mangled, smaller half of the strudel, heaving myself on the other end of the couch. “I told you we need new ones, like, weeks ago.”
“Umm, then buy new knives?”
“With what money?”
He frowned. “What are we talking about?”
I knew I was being unreasonable. I knew I should stop. I knew he hadn’t done anything to warrant this. Instead, I raised my voice. “You never listen to me.”
My boyfriend studied me for a moment, forehead furrowed. “Wait, you’re mad at me?” He shook his head. “Wow. OK.” He grabbed his smokes and stepped outside on the dark porch.
I chewed my strudel silently, watching him behind the smeared glass door, shoulders hunched, the tip of his cigarette lighting up as he inhaled, illuminating his pursed lips, the tight muscles around his mouth. At that moment, swallowed by dark shadows, he looked like a stranger. My loneliness weighed so heavy on my chest that I could hardly breathe.
The cook who came after Russ was a soft-spoken Salvadoran guy who had a bit of a crush on me. He made me special pastas that were not on the menu and huevos rancheros for breakfast. As soon as he found out that I liked spicy food, he began spicing all my food to the extreme. My boyfriend, who once shared a pasta he sent home with me, said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a crush on you. He might be trying to kill you.”
I ended up walking out on the job in a fit of anger. It was a particularly hot day; a customer complained his espresso didn’t have crema, the layer of foam that indicates an espresso made right. I took pride in my coffee-making skills. Telling me my espresso didn’t have crema was a personal insult.
“It had crema,” I said in true Israeli fashion, still untrained in the polite Canadian style of conversation. “You let it sit on the counter for a few minutes while reading the paper and it dissipated.” I grabbed his espresso cup and emptied it into the sink.
Sam’s father walked over from where he sat. “Make the customer another espresso.”
“I am.” I pressed the button on the grinder. “I was just saying it had crema.”
“I’m sorry—” The customer started, looking at the father for help.
“Don’t be sorry.” The father held his palm up like a stop sign. He raised his voice. “Why are you arguing with the customer? He said there was no crema. Make him another coffee.”
I paused in mid-action and looked at him. Anger washed over me and swallowed me in. I undid my apron and threw it on the counter, grabbed my purse and walked out into the bright afternoon. I didn’t even make it to the end of the block before the rage melted away. What had I done? I sat on the stairs of a nearby building and cried. I wished I could walk back in as if nothing happened but I knew it was over. I found a pay phone and called, said I was sorry and that I wanted to make sure they were OK. “I can come back and finish the shift if you want me to.”
“No, it is fine,” the father said. I could tell he was still mad.
The next day I called Sam and apologized again. I didn’t ask for my job back, just wanted to let him know I appreciated them giving me my first job in Canada and how much I’d enjoyed working for him. Sam wished me well. I promised to come and visit. A few months later, they sold the coffee shop and bought a bigger one on Main Street.
I always thought I’d run into Russ again. For a while I wanted to believe he’d found another job in an upscale restaurant downtown, one with a spacious kitchen and stainless steel appliances. Still, whenever I passed by the Downtown Eastside, I searched for him in the weathered faces of the city’s underbelly, hoping not to find him.
The family and I kept in touch. Sometimes they came to dine at the restaurant where I worked next, after my relationship ended yet I stayed—the loneliness that once burdened me lifted off, and the anonymity felt liberating, thrilling. We hugged, kissed, and talked at length. One evening, Sam came in and we sat in the smoking room and reminisced. I told him that I saw the East Van girl sometimes, that she seemed better, less glum. Then he said, “Guess who I ran into last week? Russ.”
“You did?” I let out a sigh. “How did he look?”
“Not good.” Sam shook his head. “Looks like he’s been doing a lot of drugs. He hangs out in the Downtown Eastside.”
“I’ve looked for him there,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about him. I don’t know why some people get stuck in your head like that.”
Sam said he also ran into the Salvadoran guy but I wasn’t listening anymore.
For a while, I looked harder for Russ whenever I passed through the Downtown Eastside, scanning alleys and parks and the lineup outside the safe injection site, until it started to feel foolish and pointless, his face blurring in my memory like a fading photograph. Finally, I stopped.