An excerpt from “The Travelling Roadshow Of The Countess Maritsa”
Copyright 2011, Morgain McGovern
Claudia Miele was the kind of person who would buy six packs for homeless people hanging out in front of the 7-11 on Santa Monica Boulevard and throw in a pack of smokes for good measure.
I would wait for her in the car and watch her as she came out of the store, irritated that she was spending her hard earned money on shiftless, able-bodied men who should be working during the day instead of drinking themselves to death. She would joke with the rotten-toothed hoboes as she handed them the precious packages, like some kind of alcohol faerie who came back to them from a long forgotten dream.
They would stare at her when she laughed with them, hypnotized by her. The scruffy guys would glance at each other, not really believing their incredible luck and beauty of this woman who’d been so kind to them. When she tossed a few packs of Marlboro lights into the bag and handed it over, they were overcome with silent awe, as if they’d been visited by the holy spirit.
She was tall, with cascading chestnut hair that tumbled past her shoulders and fell midway between her shoulder blades down her back. She wasn’t what you would consider a typical California girl, she was first generation Tuscan-American and her European looks were suited more to the streets of Florence than of Santa Monica. Her light green eyes were flecked with specks of gold, almost iridescent-like a piece of tiger’s eye stone on a woman’s bracelet. Both of her parents had immigrated to the United States from Tuscany in the mid-1960’s, and raised Claudia in Orange County. They taught her how to be a fantastic cook and the importance of healthy food.
I met Claudia when I was waitressing at Rosti, on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. She was a waitress and assistant manager there, but she never lorded it over me, like the other servers did when they got a promotion. We came to be friends one Saturday morning when we were both scheduled to open the restaurant.
That was the morning I was was late for work and trying to outrun the fumes from my hangover. The stale wine smell was still on my tongue and I needed to slam some coffee. It was just another day really, when I rushed in and saw that Claudia was already there, setting up the restaurant.
I don’t even think she realized I was ten minutes late. She was over by the side cabinets in the hallway, checking the levels of the salt and peppers and had lined them up like little soldiers with silver tops, getting ready for the day’s battle. She kept fidgeting with them, polishing the shakers over and over again, and counting all the sugars and splenda’s to make sure they were all equally alike and aligned.
I threw my bag under the cupboard, tied on my apron and made myself some coffee. Another wave of nausea hit me and I thought about the one hitter in my car. I needed to make stealth mission and go to my car and take a hit of weed. I didn’t know Claudia very well, but I didn’t think she’d tell on me to upper management if she smelled it. She seemed cool.
The creamy tendrils in my coffee cup shook a little as I walked over to help her fill up the rest of the sugar caddies. In the morning, it was hard for me to grab anything and it took a while for my hands to get strength back. The waves of nausea I could take care of with a bongload, but I didn’t know any tricks to keep my hands from trembling. I was twenty-three but felt like an old woman who’d spent the night at the Elks Lodge, drinking well Manhattans. I was twenty three and the only way I knew how to cope at night was with wine, I hadn’t started therapy yet, but I knew it would help.
Over at the side bar, she had made an assembly line with big plastic buckets of blue, yellow and pink artificial sweeteners. The powdery dust of the Splenda mist wafted up into my nose and burned a sweet napalm path into my lungs as I walked over. I hated the smell and knew that once it got into the back of my throat, it would stay there all day. Sugar caddie sidework sucked and the chemical smells made my head pound harder.
We worked quietly, with only the clank and clatter of the cooks gearing up their station to break the quiet. We had to hurry, the lunch rush that would slam us in about an hour and we still had a shitload to do before we opened the restaurant. Plus, there was always an old person who’d shuffle in at 10:30 and try to get served early. Most Merkels get up at the crack of dawn and think 10:30 am is lunchtime.
After we filled a few caddies, Claudia turned to me and said, “I just found out that I have stage 3 breast cancer, they’re going to cut off my breast on Monday.”
I said the first thing that popped into my head, which usually isn’t practical or helpful, “You can’t have cancer, that’s for old people.” I said. “You’re only twenty-eight.”
She cracked a faint smile. “That’s what I thought.” She said, and let out a deep breath like she’d been holding it in all morning.
We talked for a little while about her treatment and who was going to cover her shifts and what she was going to do. It had already spread to her rib bone over her heart; literally eating its way through her body.
She said, “ I only came into work because I couldn’t stand staring at the four walls at home, they were closing in on me.”
I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I guess it’s better to stay busy dealing with these entitled bastards, then you won’t think about it so much. ”
We went back to work and I tried to shake off the feeling of fear and sadness that shook me, but I couldn’t.
Most of our lunch rush consisted of ridiculous Santa Monica bitches that came in with their Yoga pants on and massive SUV baby strollers, after fanatically working out all morning. For some reason, they were terrified of getting fat and losing their asshole husbands who’d come in later and try to hit on the pretty waitresses.
Our restaurant was tiny and without fail; at the height of the rush, one of them would park a massive stroller the aisle, blocking the way for anyone trying to get through, completely oblivious to their idiocy. Then they’d put their baby in a highchair on the end of a table, in the blocked aisle, right in the line of fire of a server carrying a scalding bowl of soup or plate of gnocchi with steaming sauce. Most of them came from wealthy entertainment families and seemed kind but entitled and bewildered by life.
Before this fateful day, I used to invite Claudia to go out with us for a beer after work, but she never did. Chelsea, Michelle, Chicken and my roommate Stephanie were all good friends and liked to drink and go out and have fun like I did. But Claudia never took up the invitation.
She told me that she sometimes had her son on the weekends-a cute little grinning seven-year-old boy with bright green eyes. I’d seen him when he came in with his grandparents, visiting the restaurant. Most of the time she just said she was beat and going home.
But, she did smoke cigarettes and she and I would go outside on our breaks and talked about life and how things always are never what you expect them to be. “It’s like, everyone is walking around with these huge gaping holes in their chests, and we’re all pretending we’re okay.” I would tell her my theories on life and she’d listen. She got it.
“But it’s nothing a six-pack can’t fix.” I said, half-kidding.
She looked down and shook her head as she laughed and smoked her cigarette.
After she told me she had cancer, we became closer and I started going over to her beachfront home. It was a beautiful, million-dollar glass and creamy toned high-rise apartment over looking the entire coast and pier. She told me her parents were in real estate and did well in the 1970’s Las Vegas boom.
“Holy shit!” I said when I walked in, “Do you need a roommate? This place is like something out of Architectural Digest.” It was breathtaking.
Claudia had come of age in the Mission Viejo mid-80’s surf culture, partying with shaggy haired boys, smoking weed, skateboarding, listening to rock n roll, and making out with pouty rebel boys who would later grow into Orange County Republicans.
“It’s Cleaverland down there,” she’d tell me, “ It’s not like LA at all. Little kids play soccer and moms are moms.”
She had been a young mom and owned her house when she lived there, before her divorce. I was fascinated by this culture. She said families would hang out with their neighbors, took camping trips together, and on Sundays, worshipped at a big super church.
I grew up moving around a lot and didn’t have this kind of childhood experience. I didn’t learn how to cook until I started watching the chefs at the restaurants where I worked and then Claudia came along. She taught me the tricks and delicacies of garlic and how not to over season things, the importance of bringing out the full flavor of ripe tomatoes and pasta textures, and don’t ever, ever overcook vegetables. My mother had borderline personality disorder, so her cooking sprees were sporadic. Mom would take us through the drive through at McDonald’s almost every day, because it was easier and cheaper than cooking for four kids.
Claudia was horrified and amused when I showed her how I cooked. I threw in some spaghetti in a pot of lukewarm tap water and waited for it to heat up and get soggy.
“It cooks faster this way.” I explained to her.
“Morgain, the Tuscans have been cooking for a long time and that’s not how it’s done.” She tried to be patient with me. “Here, I’ll show you the directions on the box.” She tried to hide a smile as she helped me learn.
After she got too sick to work, we’d just sit in front of the huge floor to ceiling window that overlooked the beach and smoke bong loads, watching the huge waves crash against the shoreline.
One night at her place, I asked her why she never wanted to get high with me before she got cancer and she said, “Because I’m an alcoholic and I was sober for 3 years. When I found out I had cancer, I started drinking and smoking pot again.”
I had never met anyone that didn’t drink before, or had willingly stopped.
I said, “You’re not an alcoholic. You’re just young and like to party! But I hear what you’re saying. I have to stop hanging out with all of those girls. I’ve done pharmaceutical grade Ecstasy twice in my life, and both times Chelsea was involved.
“The last time I went out I thought ‘I”m going to die if I keep hanging out with them.”
She laughed and looked me in the eye and said, “ Morgain, I’m an alcoholic. And so are you.”
I said, “How did you know?”
She said, “Because you came into the restaurant hung-over every shift, smelling like booze, you smoke pot everyday and you drink like I do. We can spot each other. ” She took another rip off the bong.
I looked at her. “Yeah, I’m 23. That’s what people do.”
She laughed at me. “Morgain, I know your story. Normal people don’t drink like we do. You know the people that have one drink? Or maybe half a beer and then go home? They’re not alcoholics. You and I are the ones that like to do shots and close the bars down. Normal people don’t smoke pot everyday to cope with life. We’re alcoholics. ”
I bent forward and took another hit off the bong. I knew for a fact that there was such a thing as one drink.
I tried to talk some sense into her, “ You were just in some weird cult and now you’re free!” I hugged her, “It was just a phase. Maybe you grew out of it. I will too.” I was glad she didn’t push it.
She looked at me and said, “Someday, not now, but someday, you’ll want to stop. Then you’ll get sober. I’m going to go back to meetings soon, just not right now.” She took another bong load and blew out a hit. “This is the only thing that takes the nausea away. Everything I eat or drink tastes like dirty pool water.”
I tried to make her laugh “They should patent the chemo side affects for dieters. Cheer up! Think of how skinny you’ll get!” I poured her some more wine.
“Do you think there’s a difference between an alcoholic and abusing alcohol because you’re in a terrible place or to help numb your emotions?” I asked her.
“Yes, absolutely, you can abuse alcohol and not be an alcoholic. But if you start drinking and cannot stop, then that’s how you know. Only time will tell, Morgain” She said to me.
She let out a deep breath and looked around.
She said, “For the last five years, I’ve wanted a boob job and a tummy tuck. Now I’m getting one.” She lit another cigarette and looked out over the ocean. I knew she was thinking about her little boy.
Then we told each other stories until deep into the early hours of the morning.
As the night wore one, we stared at the sparkling lights of the Santa Monica pier and started talking about our mistakes and what we’d do over if we could. We talked about her getting better and all of the fun things she was going to do with her little boy when she beat this thing.
As the weeks went by, I watched her long glossy hair fall out in big clumps. One night, she asked me shave the rest of the patches off, with a little pink plastic razor. She didn’t want to ask her Mom or sister to do it, because it would break all of their hearts.
After this, we’d sit on chaise loungers on her balcony, talking to each other about beauty. “It’s almost worse when you’re used to being pretty and you lose your hair.” She said, “Especially in California, when the standards are so high. I cry every time I see a Victoria’s Secret commercial, because I used to have hair like that.” She would catch a look at herself in the mirror and give me a rueful smile.
I thought about how all the stupid little problems in my life had melted away and now I just had one big problem. My friend’s cancer kept spreading.