“I know the deli can be a lot to take in, but no one expects you to remember it all on your first day,” my manager, Marie, says to me for the tenth time today. “You’ll never be alone here.” I nod and use the break in the waves of customers to catch my breath. I feel shaky from the large number of strangers I’ve had to talk to in the past few hours. My face is a splotchy red color, I’m sure, and I have to force myself not to bite my nails. Marie stands over a tray of wings, boxing them in plastic containers while her eyes remain fixed on the hot case, probably noticing how the mound of fried chicken is slightly lower than it should be. I’ll soon learn the importance of forethought when it comes to frying chicken and boiling bags of mac and cheese. I watch her hands spin the boxes and flatten the stickers over the top without missing a beat.
It’s a few years earlier and I’m sitting on the floor with two old friends, legs stretched out in front of me. The room is filled with gossip and laughter which helps quench some of my first-day-of-class butterflies. A young man suddenly bounces into the classroom on his toes, and the conversations ease into silence. He spins in circles across the hardwood floors with his arms rounded like he is holding an imaginary beach ball, his eyes staring at the opposite wall. He snaps to a bend and explodes into a forward split, hanging in the air for a second before dropping into a pose with his leg thrusted to the side, toes pointed, and both hands above his head. The room is silent until someone starts to clap. He lowers his arms and rolls his eyes, waving his hand. “No, stop, please, that was awful. I’m usually not that pretentious, but it’s the first day.” He glides across the floor. “I’m Mr. Srirecha. Yes, like the sauce but with an ‘e.’ You can just call me Mr. S.”
After every shift when my boyfriend gives me a ride home, it’s the one time I feel like I can finally shed the perky persona I take on when I’m talking with customers. I recount honestly the daily tales of the deli, making him wince and laugh in sympathy.
An incomplete list of things that could kill me: the knives that fall from their magnetized, thin strips of metal periodically, the meat slicers which love abusing the tips of my fingers whenever I try to clean them, the spilled oil near the fryers that even non-slip shoes can’t save you from, the ovens which are a foot taller than me and which I have to strain to grab heavy trays of molten, grease-puddled turkeys from, and the trash compactor that could easily hold a body.
I’m so concentrated on these dangers that I forget the hazards of everyday life. I cut my hand on the corner of a cash register drawer, making blood drip onto a plastic grocery bag before I realized I had even hurt myself. I quickly switch out the bag and carefully hand the customer their food with my left hand, giving them what I am sure is a deranged smile. I learn to start carrying Band-Aids in my bag to work. The deli is constantly running out, mostly because of me.
My class and I stand on our toes with our shoulders back and our arms hovering in a half circle in front of us. It’s been three eight counts. My thighs scream and my shoulders ache, and I have to force my shaking legs to stay straight. “And relax,” Mr. S. finally says, and everyone drops to the floor instantly with groans. I rub my feet back to life. Inspecting them, I see the beginnings of blisters stretching under my toes.
“God, my feet,” someone complains. Mr. S. walks down the aisles between the sprawled-out bodies of the class, saying, “Are you guys finally getting those blisters on your feet? Good. They’re God awful at first and I remember when I first got them, and I didn’t think I would even be able to stand. But you need those blisters to turn into calluses so they'll help protect your feet.”
Two weeks later, my feet split across the blisters, and I almost pass out from the sight of the blood. I can barely stand on my bandaged feet, but I force myself not to miss a single day of dance class. In the locker rooms, I pull Band-Aids from my backpack and carefully change the bandages. It will take half a semester for the cuts to fully heal, but once they do, beautiful calluses will settle under my toes and across the fleshy part of my feet. I finally feel like a dancer.
I drag garbage outside twice or thrice a day. When I struggle to pile the bags onto the cart, Marie sees me and offers to help. We shove the bags that weigh more than both of us combined into the trash compactor that's taller than either of us, both of us in a relevé. Old ham and sushi, moldy cheese, and discarded wings wafts over us. I swear the smell sinks into my pores by the end of every night. A hole rips in the bag and a brown sludge covers my fingers. “Ewwwww,” we both groan and laugh. “God that’s disgusting,” Marie says as I shake out my hand. “Good thing it’s only your hand. I once tore a bag right over my foot and had to walk around smelling like garbage all day.”
Mr. S. snaps his fingers as he starts the music. “Five, six, seven, eight!” My arms swing out, feet spinning in on themselves, and eyes trying their best to spot the wall as I chainé across the floor. "And jump!" Mr. S. yells, and the class leaps, doing their best impression of an aerial arabesque, legs and feet pointed, back arched, one hand to the side, one out in front. We drop in the same beat and roll over ourselves before jumping back up to chassé. By the time we reach the other side of the room, we’re all out of breath and give each other high fives for having survived. Sweat puckers by my hairline, and I wipe it on my shirt, dreading having to walk around the rest of the day smelling like sweat.
The dance concert is in a couple weeks, and Mr. S. is relentless. He makes us run laps around the dance floor to warm us up and to stretch out our muscles. Lady Gaga thunders from the speakers as we do high knees then fall to the floor for twenty sit-ups, legs straight up and then splayed in a split, before jumping back up to do another lap. “I’m gonna get you guys abs by spring,” he says when we groan.
It’s my first night alone closing the deli and exhaustion soaks me through to my socks. Bandaged and smelling faintly like grease and turkey, I feel like I’m sleeping as my body goes through the steps with my nightly dance partner, the mop. My back aches from being hunched over and I quickly stretch, relieving the tension for only a second before once more hunching over in a Martha Graham style contraction. I twist and re-soak the mop, depressing the handle to squeeze the water out of it. I’m anxious to finish on time. The clock ticks down above me, mocking me as I fumble through what will become my nightly routine. I stand upright to get a better angle to scrub a spot of escaped wing sauce, feeling like my ab muscles are on fire. I’ll quickly learn what each sauce looks like after hours of drying into a crust on the floor. I don’t know why, but it’s always buffalo sauce. By the time I’m finished, the floors shine like a stage.
The first time I stand on the stage a couple weeks before the dance concert, the bright lights blind my eyes. I look around the large, empty auditorium that offers over three hundred seats, and my stomach turns. That’s over six hundred eyes. My mind switches to escape mode as I stand frozen in my spot. I consider running away and changing my name, finding a small house in the north somewhere, and living to a ripe, old age with a German shepherd pup named Hogarth, instead of dying of anxiety at seventeen. I feel a sudden need for a paper bag. What am I doing here? The butterflies in my stomach threaten to choke me and we’re still weeks out from the concert.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to dance,” Marie says randomly one night. She pulls on over-sized oven mitts that I know are greasy where the outside seam meets the inside, a fact that bothers me to no end. I watch her grab a full tray of eight rotisserie chickens from the oven which is taller than she is. Her muscles strain against the weight as she chainés towards a cart, still on her tippy-toes, and sets the rows of chickens down. She uses tongs to plop the chickens into their containers. One, two, three, one, two, three. “But I doubt I’d be good at it.” Her fingers smother the lids over the still steaming chickens, and her wrists flick the labels around the containers. Her eyes watch the customers walk by. I shake my head and rotate one of my feet to relieve the pressure, feeling the beginnings of a blister on my heel. I wonder what she would say if I told her she was already a dancer.
Customers appear from the once peaceful aisles, and they stand in a semi-circle around the deli. A casual mob, that’s my cue. The lights rounding the deli blind me if I stand in just the right spot, and the people outside the world of the deli become shadows. I quickly stuff meats into plastic bags, force a smile on my face, and make my voice sound perky when I say, “Have a good day!”
My class and I sit on the stage a few hours before curtain doing stretches. “Hey, Mr. S., do we have to smile in these dances?” someone in my class asks, grinning a huge, false smile to show him what they mean. “Yes, but don’t do that big, cheesy smile, those are the worst. Just try to look pleasant at least and show some attitude,” he says, strutting in front of the stage like a model and making us laugh.
A couple hours later, and my class stands around me in the back wing in full makeup and costume. It’s dark and deadly quiet. A single whisper will carry through the whole auditorium where a rumored full house sits. I worry I might hyperventilate or black out. I’ve never been more nervous. I take deep breaths one after the other as some of my classmates take their places on the blackened stage and the poppy, upbeat music starts. I watch from the wings, waiting with fear for my own cue. The smiling and sassy girls on stage shine under the lights in sequined yellow and black tops, and I can’t help but feel proud of them.
One more deep breath and I’m rushed on stage by the girls around me. I run to my spot as the music swells, swinging my hand and kicking my leg. When I gather enough courage to look into the audience, I realize they’re all in shadows. The lights on us are too bright to see anything but vague outlines coated in blackness. I smile and focus on the dance, letting them fade back into silhouettes.
Standing by the counter and watching the clock tick, I wait for the store manager to come relieve me from the deli. The store seems darker. During the day, hundreds of people come and go, but now, at almost eleven p.m., the aisles are mostly empty aside from the occasional straggler. The only sound is an old pop song that I’ve heard three times that day. The manager quickly circles the deli and gives me a high-five and a nod with a small smile before leaving. He used to work in the deli and knows the struggle. He’s my favorite manager.
I look around at the empty deli. I consider taking a bow to an imaginary audience but realize that would be crazy and I’m sleep-deprived, though I swear I can hear people cheering as they throw roses at my shoes covered in grease.
The concert ends with all the dance classes lined up on stage. There are dozens of us, and we’re all squished together so we all fit. My class stands near the front, and we hold hands as the crowd roars. We laugh at each other and shout even though we can’t hear a thing anyone is saying. The crowd stands on their feet, and we all beam as we raise our hands and bow. My eyes scan the crowd until I see my family, and I wave to them. Some of the girls push Mr. S. from the wings to the front of the stage and he takes a bow before throwing the applause back to his classes and leaving the stage.
A man asking about pita chips interrupts my daydreams. I gesture to them, finally knowing where most everything in the store is. I walk out of the deli with a sigh and a tired but proud smile, not bothering to look back. Tomorrow will be my last encore performance of the dance of the deli.