When my forehead was on the counter yesterday, it didn’t feel like this. I flick my orange lacquered fingernails against the pink granite edge. The clinking sound isn’t right. I press my tongue to the surface. The cold, slick sensation is expected, but I’m missing the slightly bitter taste of the lavender disinfectant I use to wipe down the surface every night.
I lift my face and wipe my eyes carefully with a cocktail napkin. I have plenty of time to fix any smears—the crowd won’t be here for another few hours—but I hate having to use any extra makeup. Some time ago I calculated my daily dolling-up cost. I think it’s somewhere around ninety cents. I try my best to keep it under a dollar.
Anyway, the magenta-hued lights stay low here at Café Ôm. And I strategically picked a light gray-purple eyeshadow and pale pink lipstick so that minor application flaws are harder to see. I’m pretty sure I’ve walked around with smudged lips and eyes and no one noticed. But I think that’s also because people rarely look me in the eye when I bring them their cognac or coffee.
I stretch my arms and shake out my hands. Looking around the room, I see Mr. Bui, one of our gentler regulars, watching the silent Paris By Night video playing on the TV. I keep thinking that he doesn’t exist. That he’s some character I made up and see because I’m losing touch with reality. But I’m not sure why I’d conjure up a quiet man in his late sixties who has a cappuccino, biscotti, and glass of water every day at 4:00 P.M. I know the other girls see him too.
Behind the coffee bar, I kick aside the strappy silver stilettos that the owner, Mrs. Huynh, requires us to wear as part of our uniforms. Thankfully, she comes to the café at seven, so the heels stay off my feet and behind the bar until then. No one seems to mind.
I walk to the biscotti jar on the other side of the bar, fish out an almond one, and bring it to Mr. Bui’s table. The floor feels strange. It’s slightly sticky, but it doesn’t feel like the same tiles as yesterday. Feels like plastic.
I place the biscotti to the right of Mr. Bui’s cup and smile. The room is as empty as usual for this time of the day. Trinh’s working today too, and she’s applying a bright teal glaze to her fingernails a couple of tables away. As she blows on each completed nail, she looks up at the TV to try to decipher the song being performed, and then quickly looks away.
The silence is too unsettling, so I return to the bar and turn on the approved music, mostly selected by Mrs. Huynh. She thought that Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como made the only music worth listening to, but I was able to sneak a few Jobim and Gerry Mulligan albums into the café. And she unknowingly accepted them.
I turn around and see Mr. Bui looking at me. I know he usually watches as I walk around and prepare for the evening crowd. He tries his best to avert his eyes whenever I see his face, but I can feel the energy of his gaze. At first, it bothered me, but after a while I didn’t mind. I’ve gotten good at deciphering the difference between a harmless look of curiosity or interest versus that of obsession or lust. Mr. Bui’s staring was oddly one of affection. Besides, I did have to wear a slinky halter dress and heels everyday here, so if I didn’t expect to be watched, then I probably shouldn’t have taken this job.
I make an espresso for myself then pour a glass of water for Mr. Bui and re-approach his table.
“Can I sit with you, Mr. Bui?”
Surprised but calm, he smiles and nods.
“How are you today?”
He shrugs. I realize I don’t have any memory of him ever speaking.
“Can I ask you something?”
He looks concerned. He pauses for a few seconds then nods.
“Do you live nearby?”
“Where do you usually go after you get coffee here?”
He points his thumb to the right towards the direction of the grocery store next door. The store was the perfect size. It had everything you would ever need for a Vietnamese kitchen plus a small counter that served lunch and dinner from steam trays of pre-made food. I usually picked up my dinner right before the store closed each day.
“Ah. Do you get the chả trứng? It’s my favorite.”
He laughs and nods. “I also like the sườn ram mặn.”
His voice is deeper, hoarser than I expected. I’m glad I know what it sounds like. We both look down at the table and take in sips of coffee. I hear Gerry Mulligan’s saxophone in the background.
“Do you like working here?”
I wonder if I’m bothering him, but he doesn’t look concerned. I shrug then smile. I look around the room and nod.
“Why do you work here?”
I shrug and smile again. I used to wonder why any woman would want to work at a sexy café—that’s the American name they’ve earned over the years—but growing up, my grandmother always referred to them as café ôm, the hug café. It only seems appropriate that the one I work at is actually called Café Ôm. I like the frankness in the name.
“I used to do something very different. I used to build a lot of things that were very important to many people. And what I did helped some people, maybe harmed some. And made some people a lot of money. But I got tired.”
Mr. Bui took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “I understand.”
We sit together in silence. I think about the night ahead. I try to picture what Mr. Bui will do when he returns home. I assume he’s doing the same.
I finish the last of my espresso and start to get up.
“Mr. Bui, would you like another café or more nước lạnh?”
He shakes his head and starts to pull out his wallet. I collect our empty cups and glasses and bring them back to the bar counter. I rinse out the remaining coffee residue in the bottom of the cups. Mr. Bui approaches the counter and quietly lays down ten dollars.
“Cảm ơn.” I wave goodbye. We exchange smiles, and he walks towards the door. We go through this ritual every day, but aside from our short conversation, I sense there’s something a little different today.
6:50 P.M. Mrs. Huynh will be here soon. I slip my silver heels on. I’ve cleaned all of the glasses and cups. I’ve set all of the tables. I’m ready for the nightly onslaught.
I lean on the counter and stare down at the metallic gold flecks interspersed between the small pieces of rock. I see a cabin in late fall. The forest surrounding it isn’t lush. Most of the trees have lost their leaves. They’ve been stripped to their skeletons.
I enter the cabin. I sit in a corner and look at the fungi patch growing nearby. I lie next to them and imagine their pseudo-root systems tracing through the blood vessels in my lungs as I breathe in the wet air. I dig up the earth with my fingers. I’ve escaped to this place in my mind many times. I don’t know where it is, and as the years have passed, I’ve started to realize that it likely doesn’t exist, even though I’ve desperately hoped to find it in real life.
Today, this false haven has taken on a new scent. And suddenly, I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to return. And I feel a sense of dread that I’ve felt before, but never here in the cabin.
I close my eyes and open them again. Reset my vision. I’m not in Café Ôm. I can’t see anything around me. It’s dark. My stomach is growling. I feel thick, hard plastic under my feet. I feel cool air brushing the skin of my chest and upper thighs. I’m partially clothed. I hear a slow sequence of beeps and a constant low hum. I feel a mild throb above my right ear. There’s a sudden, loud ring and the sound of liquid running through pipes nearby.
“Hey! Is the model ready?”
I jump at the question. I turn in my chair. It’s Hunter. He’s wearing a navy hoodie and light jeans, a uniform he committed to a few years ago. He preached the gospel of cognitive optimization: limit trivial choices to preserve brain power for important and harder tasks. He wore his sandy blonde hair in a style designed and maintained to look nonchalantly tousled.
Hunter was always proper with me. He was even one of my biggest advocates at the agency. Yet, every time I interacted with him, I felt intensely annoyed. I knew this was irrational. There wasn’t anything offensive about him, but I had spent most of my life around people just like him. Different names, slightly different faces. All the same outlook and mannerisms.
“Um. No. The random search is taking a while to run because I wanted it to be as exhaustive as possible. I checked the logs, and it should wrap up before lunchtime today.”
“That’s fine. Let me know when it’s done.”
My knees are stiffening. I haven’t stood up from my desk for at least four hours. I decide to walk across the street to the park to get some air and movement.
Popping my head above the translucent walls of my cubicle, it suddenly hits me that it’s nearly Christmastime. I look around at the glass and steel office for any holiday paraphernalia and find only sleek elegance all around. Walking through the halls, I finally see a Christmas tree in one of the lounges near the kitchen. Perfectly interspersed red and gold ornaments. Evenly distributed bright-white lights. Gold brocade ribbon wrapped around it. The tree was almost too exemplary.
As I exit the building, I find myself heading towards the nearby shopping strip. I have this enormous desire for Christmas window stickers for my cubicle walls. I’m sure the nearby dollar store has some.
I quickly browse the Christmas section of the store and select a giant snowman vinyl sticker and a bunch of holly-shaped gel ones. The snowman’s smile looks up at me from the plastic basket. I pull green and red metallic garland off of a hook and gently drop it onto the snowman’s belly. We stroll happily under the fluorescent lights to the register.
Everything I once owned was refined and yet wholly unspectacular. Much of my life is still like that. So lately, I’ve re-embraced garishness, and I feel liberated. I’m thrilled by the idea of Mr. Snowman on my cubicle wall.
I rush back to my office because my model has likely completed, and I know the team leads are eager to find out the results. As I approach my cube, I see Hunter pacing nearby. He looks up at me and smiles.
“Yeah. Needed to get some air. Been going at that hyperparameter tuning pretty much all night and all morning.”
I throw the bag of decorations into my file cabinet and pull up the command line window. I log in to the server and check the model.
“Well, how does it look?”
I pull up the output report.
“I think we’ve got a good candidate here.”
“That’s great news. We’re hoping to test the sensory replication features with the improved nutritional tablet at the end of the year.”
“Alright. I’ll send over the report now.”
“Awesome. Thank you.”
I move the report from the server to the company’s shared file system. I send out an email to the team leads. And I sit back and stare at the screen. At first, I feel accomplished.
Then I’m struck with a feeling of disappointment and purposelessness. I solved the problem. I did it well. But does it really matter?
I need to cut off these thoughts, so I decorate my cubicle. I put up the snowman to the right of my desk. I stick the holly gels on the inside and outside of my walls. I wrap the green garland around the left arm of my chair and the red around the right. I step back and feel immensely satisfied.
3:00 P.M. I join the rest of the machine learning team in the conference room for our weekly meeting. I sit down at the far end of the table and stare out the window. Lucas leads today’s discussion. I give updates on my latest modeling endeavor and then listen to recent developments across the group. Incremental progress all around, but nothing too eventful.
I return to my desk and start to think about the next features I want to work on or other ways I could improve the model. I try to find some inspiration by reading some journal papers on new methodologies, but I feel drained. I turn my chair and stare at Mr. Snowman.
“Um. Hey.” Hunter says with some hesitation. I look at him, and he’s clearly looking for an explanation from me. I don’t offer one.
“Yep. What’s up?”
“Umm.” He’s surveying my cubicle and his eyes stop on the garland on my chair.
“Do you have any documentation to share for the model run? I want to make sure I’m making the right assumptions.”
“Sure. Sending over now.”
I smile as I turn back towards my screen. I re-read the documentation I wrote a couple of days ago and update it with results. I send it off. Time to leave.
I pass by the towers on the way home. I try not to look at them, but inevitably see them in my back window. Some part of my model will be tested there in a couple of days. I hope that the people there will have better nutrition and living dreams from my work.
I realize my instincts have directed the car towards Hunter’s house.
A couple of months ago, he threw a team BBQ to celebrate a major release. Everything was pleasant. Great food. Plenty of fresh flowers on the tables. Lights strung up all around a massive, minimalist wood and steel gazebo. His wife was lovely, and his two children were too. But I could barely speak the entire time. I looked around the backyard, around the tables. I felt like everyone was speaking a language I once knew, but couldn’t practice anymore. Nothing they said seemed to be based on any observation of the world around them. I heard conversations about local and global minima and maxima. Some about a new model that generates images from thoughts that never have to be expressed in any language. I looked down at the blankness of my cream-colored linen sundress. I felt a throb at the front of my head. I put down my glass of wine, got up, and left.
Pulling up to Hunter’s house again, I get out of my car and sit on its roof. I trace the curves and edges of the house with my fingers. Then I do the same for the house to the left and then to the right. I imagine the digital surfaces and equations that inspired them. There’s something funny about multiple houses built to specification using the same exact parametric design. Each of these homeowners must feel they think differently—why else would they embrace parametricism for their residences—but they’re all the same.
No one is home yet. There are no cars in any driveway. No bicycles or children’s toys either. And definitely no Christmas decorations on any lawn. I climb back into my car and head home, laughing to myself along the way.
I hear the lid of a pot shaking and see steam rising from the stove top. I don’t remember putting on any water to boil. I get up from the living room couch and look in the fridge.
“Use the boiling water for rice noodles. You have leftover bò kho. You made it over the weekend.”
I obey. The apartment fills up with the smell of beef broth, lemongrass, and star anise. I think I made it on Sunday. Right, I had to look up a few recipes because I had forgotten how to do it. I was embarrassed, but thankfully no one is ever around to judge.
I put on an Ahmed Jamal record and serve up my dinner in a large blue bowl. I try to chew as slowly and quietly as possible to avoid covering up the saxophone notes. I leave the empty bowl on the glass table. I curl up on my leather couch. I fall into the music and lose track of time.
It’s Friday. I’ve called in sick. I’m restless, so I go on a long drive. I end up in the paint section of a hardware store. I put a roller and six replacement heads into my cart. I go to the self-service paint counter and pick up a bucket of red, white, tan, and dark brown gloss enamel. I grab four paint trays. I probably don’t need all of this, but I don’t really care.
After driving around for about an hour, I find myself at Hunter’s house again. The neighborhood is quiet. 1:45 P.M. Everyone’s at work or school. I start setting up the rollers and trays. I’ve lost control of myself. And before I can stop my hand, I’m rolling bright red paint onto the face of the house. Outlines of mushrooms in a variety of shapes and sizes start to cover the windows and walls. I don’t feel like I’m here, but the dizzying smell of the paints confirms my presence.
There’s a sharp pain in my left temple. My eyes are heavy and closed. I open them up slowly to darkness. I hear a loud beep. Then five steady clicks. My stomach feels bloated. I feel a thick syrup coursing through the arteries of my right arm. I try to reach out in front of me, but I see and feel nothing. I step forward and backward. I know I’m in some sort of container, but I can’t find any walls. I can only feel the plastic bottom against my bare feet.
2:00 A.M. Tonight’s crowd is mostly gone. Good tips. No grabs. I did alright.
The last two tables are friends of Mrs. Huynh’s. They meet here once a month right before closing time, and they always ask for Trinh to attend to them, so I usually get to stay behind the bar and make their drinks. Mrs. Huynh once told me that they thought I wasn’t warm enough. I heard her once say to them that I was just a little shy and that I was a nice girl, a hard worker, and most importantly, very pretty, which makes customers return.
I pour eight small glasses of cognac. I spoon condensed milk into the bottom of four glasses for cà phê sữa đá. I place everything on a tray for Trinh and start cleaning up the bar for the night.
I hear Mrs. Huynh and her friends laughing and talking about her recent trip back to Vietnam. She goes once a year, and she usually brings back gifts for everyone. She brought me some gold fabric embossed with pink jasmine flowers and offered to take me to her favorite tailor for a custom áo dài. I told her that I hadn’t worn one since I was six, and that I don’t have any occasion to wear one anyway. She paused, laughed, then said I could wear an áo dài to work as long as it was sleeveless and cut to frame my waistline. I’m seeing the tailor next week.
The idea of wearing an áo dài to work was once inconceivable to me. I thought it was too typical, too obvious for a Vietnamese woman, but I don’t mind it so much anymore. I don’t speak the language well, and I never really spent time in the community before my job here at Café Ôm. But I’m Vietnamese, and so is everyone around me, so why not?
Halfway through cleaning a cup, I feel a shock in the back of my head. I manage to put the cup down without breaking it, and I drop my head to the counter. There’s some indecipherable code on a computer screen in front of me. I shake my head aggressively, close my eyes, and reopen them. Mrs. Huynh’s friends are leaving. I smell enamel. I close my eyes again.
“You okay?” Trinh asks as she puts her hand on my forehead. Her hand is warm, but doesn’t really feel like one made of human flesh.
“Yeah, just one of those headaches again.”
“You know, you should probably go to the doctor about that. It’s getting worse.”
“Hey, can I ask you something? I’ve been wondering about this for months.”
“You used to be a famous scientist, right? My mom told me you were once interviewed by one of the local papers.”
I laugh. “No, not famous. Yes, a researcher.”
“Why are you here?”
“I got tired. Too tired.”
Trinh looks at me then at the strappy gold sandals on her feet. She sighs and says, “I hear you. But isn’t that better than this?”
I look around at the dim, magenta-lit room. I still smell the enamel paint. I hear the muffled sounds of Hunter’s screaming from the end of his driveway. Everything suddenly takes on a blue-white glow. I close my eyes. I hear more beeps. I open my eyes. Parts of Café Ôm are missing from my vision. A large, dark splotch covers up Mr. Bui’s table. A small splotch covers Trinh’s face. The rest of the image shakes and pixelates.
“I made this. I chose this.”
There’s a loud beeping from behind my left ear. I close my eyes and keep them closed for three seconds. I open them again and see Trinh smiling at me.
“Yeah, another one.”
“Why don’t you go home? I’ll finish up here.”
I throw my silver shoes into a paper bag. I take off the pink polyester halter dress and change into a linen jumpsuit. I slip on my sneakers and walk towards the door.
“Wait. Don’t forget your dinner.”
Confused, I turn around and see Trinh walking towards me with a white plastic bag. I look inside. There are two oranges, still on the branch with deep green leaves, on top of a styrofoam container.
“Mr. Bui dropped this off earlier. I think you were serving drinks to table twelve in the back.”
My eyes well up. I smell the enamel again. I hear the low hum. I smile and head to my car.
When I get home, I peel the oranges and put them on a small plate. I open the container and look at the bright yellow patty of chả trứng and the pile of golden brown sườn ram mặn on top of rice.
I know I could do more. I know my models actually do something.
I hear the sound of liquid traveling through the pipes that I can’t see.
I hear the five steady clicks again. I wonder if they took down Mr. Snowman. I wonder if they peeled off the holly gels. I feel a sharpness in my left temple.
I won’t go back. I can’t go back. I step forward and backward in the dark container. Then right. Then left. I’ll never find the walls. And that’s fine by me.