8.08 / August 2013

The Genie

She wanted a cafe, you wanted a bike repair shop, and so you divorced.  Well, there were other reasons too, but you forget what they were and so assume they weren’t as important.  Three years after you opened, your bike repair shop isn’t doing as well as you would have liked, but you’re not ready to close.  You’ve invested your life savings and your ego in this venture, and you’re sure things will pick up the day after next.  Or the day after that.

One minute you’re behind the register selling a bike chain—your first sale of the day—and the next minute you’re wearing a white apron and standing in front of a flat top grill with a spatula, tending a line of burgers.  Your ex-wife is beside you and gives you a big hug.  You note she still wears too much makeup, but she never listened when you told her to tone it down.  On your other side is a very large man, he must be over seven feet tall, also wearing a white apron and holding a metal spatula.

“I got the right one?” he says in a thick but polite voice.

“Yes, Andre, thank you,” she says.

“Two wishes down, one to go,” he says.  “Excuse me, I think the fries are almost done.”

Your ex-wife explains the story in thirty seconds–she found a magic lamp, was granted three wishes by Andre the genie, and used two of them to be married to you again and open her dream cafe.

You slam the spatula on the grill and ask why you didn’t get a say in this.

Your ex-ex-wife looks ready to cry.

“Andre,” she says, “I thought he’d be happy about it.  We are married again, aren’t we?”

“I can bring him here,” says the genie, “and I can give you both rings, but I can’t erase his memories and I can’t make him like the current state of affairs.  That’s between you and him.”  The genie turns to you.  “Would you like some lunch in a minute?”

You say that would be a very good idea.  The genie makes excellent burgers and fries, and eating in the back of the kitchen gives you a moment to digest the situation as much as you can.

“Sorry,” says the genie.  “I know it will take a while to get over the shock.”

You nod and ponder all the other things your ex-ex-wife could have done with her three dumb wishes.  She could have cast you into the fires of hell or left you destitute in a cardboard box.  She could have gifted herself a mansion or ready-made four-star restaurant.  Instead she asked for a do-over, to declare your divorce null and void and find out what would have happened if she’d been able to open her cafe.  You’re indignant.  Does she really love you enough to try and salvage your marriage, or does she just want to prove that she was right and you were wrong?

But that question doesn’t matter because you have to get back to the grill.

The genie works the line beside you because your ex-ex needed more help in the cafe.  Luckily he enjoys cooking and offered his services for free, didn’t even charge her a wish.  At least he’s good company.

“I admire the fact your wife wants to build the restaurant on her own,” he says.  “There’s something charming about that do-it-almost-yourself-attitude.”

You find the situation far from charming and want your bike shop back, but that’s not going to happen.  It also doesn’t take long for the genie to find out what you knew all along, that you can’t cook for shit.  After you end up burning everything he puts you to work doing monotonous prep work: cutting up vegetables and fries, marinating chicken, and shaping hamburger patties.

The genie designed the menu himself, and you have to admit it’s a good one—casual but interesting food.  He makes five different kinds of grilled cheeses—your favorite is the one with apples and pears and brie–and eight different kinds of gourmet burgers.  You usually have the one with bleu cheese, bacon, and tomato marmalade, which beats the cold ham and cheese you ate every day when you worked at the bike shop.

He makes the work slightly less dull by telling you stories about past clients.  Gaining three wishes like winning the lotto–it sounds great at first, but usually ends up disastrous.  People lose their good sense if they had any to begin with, and end up poor and alienated.

“Your wife is one of the most sensible employers I’ve had,” he says.  Her wish to be back together with you also included several sessions with a good marriage counselor.  The genie sits down with both of you and three cups of coffee.  Your wife reports to him that things are not going well.  You’re sleeping on her couch, still upset about the coercive aspects of this whole deal.

“I expected some level of agitation, yes.”  The genie nods.

Your wife looks heartbroken, staring forlornly into her coffee as if it were a mug of poison.  “I can’t understand why you won’t go along with this.  You never gave my ideas a chance.”

You say that’s beside the point, she had no right to take your bike shop.

“It wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” she says flatly.

You’re quiet.  She’s probably right, but you wanted to crash and burn on your own terms and dig yourself out of that hole or sit in it and mourn/pout.

“I love you,” she says, but you’re still not sure if you believe it.  You both have an annoying desire to prove you’re right, which is in large part why you couldn’t stay married.  At least she won’t force you to sleep in her bed, and staying on her couch is better than being thrown out of your apartment.

Your saving grace is that the genie is realistic, patient, and a good teacher who shows you how to cook on the flat top grill.  You don’t want to become a great cook, just not stink.  It doesn’t help that you have long believed in takeout, and came from a family where people relied on microwaves.

The cafe is a good training ground since it’s full from the time you open at seven in the morning to when you close at nine at night.  You keep the customers happy with a steady flow of cheese fries, roast beef au jus with a homemade dry rub, a fabulous Cuban sandwich with roast pork and ham and Swiss cheese and pickles, and eggs Benedict made with fresh English muffins.  The genie makes all his own bread and buys the breakfast sausage from a guy he knows in Wisconsin who wished for a hog farm (to each his own).

On Mondays when the cafe is closed, you go bike riding with the genie and your ex-ex-wife.  She never wanted to ride with you before, but now puffs along quietly and doesn’t complain, even if you pedal six or seven miles.  She’s not gloating about the success of the restaurant much, but it’s doing well because she found a genie who can cook.  Yet she’s still your ex-wife as far as you’re concerned, no matter what any legal documents say.  You’ve got that wedding band back around your finger, and for some strange reason it won’t come off, but that doesn’t stop you from sleeping on the couch.

 

After a few weeks of training you can make decent burgers, pancakes, and assorted kinds of grilled cheese without burning anything.  You share prep work duties with the genie and joke around in the kitchen.  Company is nice.  You couldn’t afford employees in the bike shop, and when no customers were coming in, it got lonely.  You were going to lose the shop, and the thought that you really screwed up still hurts.  Or maybe you didn’t screw up, you just weren’t meant to run a bike shop in that storefront in this town.  You love bikes–riding them and repairing them and talking with other bike nerds about them–so you wanted to be around bikes all the time, immerse yourself in that culture.  You were sure the store would be successful.  But it didn’t work out.

Sometimes you cry a little before going to sleep.  Nothing loud or dramatic, just a few tears you can’t hold in anymore.  They’re the tears you feel building while you cook.  You’re sure it would be bad to cry on someone’s burger and probably violate a health code, so you have to save them for later.

No matter how hard you try, sometimes dreams don’t work out.  It sucks.

Your ex-ex-wife’s dream seems to be working out, which makes you resentful.  It’s not like she’s lazy, she’s putting in fourteen-hour days just like you and the genie, but you put in fourteen-hour days at the bike shop and it came to nothing.

“I’m sorry about your business,” says the genie one afternoon when you take a bike ride with him and not your wife.

You says it’s okay.  You know the genie knows you’re lying.

“Are you unhappy?” he asks.

You shake your head.  You don’t know.  You’re not miserable, but you’re far from your ex-ex-wife’s sense of fulfillment and you don’t see yourself moving from the couch to her bed any time soon.  Because of marriage counseling with the genie you think you can be friends with her, but that’s it.

“She’ll probably dissolve the marriage after a while,” says the genie, “when it’s clear you won’t be content.  I think she’s sensible.”

But you know your ex-ex-wife is also tenacious as all hell, and it could be a while before she gives up on you loving her.  Still, your past roommates were far worse than her.  She’s tidy, makes sure there’s no expired food in the fridge, and doesn’t blast death metal in her bedroom.

At night she kisses you on the cheek and tells you to have a good sleep.  You lie awake and wonder what you would have wished for if you had found the lamp.  More customers for your bike shop, probably.  But customers who honestly wanted to come to your store.  And who liked the repair work you did on their bikes.  And who would give honest recommendations about your store to their friends without a prompt from any genie.

Like your wife you want to have a hand in your victory, even if the victory starts out a little manufactured.  Maybe you’re too ethical or proud, but what’s the use of having a cafe or a bike shop or anything else if you can’t support it on your own?

On the three-month anniversary of the cafe’s opening, you close at nine and go out for dinner and a couple drinks at a late-night bar and bistro. You and your ex-ex-wife have a few glasses of wine, but you’re not sure how you end up more drunk than you’ve been since your early twenties.  Your wife cuddles up to you, which doesn’t make you as upset as it would if you were sober, but when she says, “See, I told you this was better than any old bike shop,” you scoot back up and slap her.

The bar goes silent.  Your wife touches her red cheek.

Two large men sitting at the bar stand up and start lumbering toward your table.

Your wife looks honestly scared.

You are sorry for the slap.  You are not sorry for the slap.

You think the two guys are going to tackle you, and you will be very sorry for the slap after that.  At least when you’re sober.

The genie snaps his fingers.  The two large men disappear, then reappear at a table across the room with full beers to keep them occupied.  The genie walks you and your ex-ex-wife home.  He sits you on the couch, then leads your wife to her bedroom.

You feel a sick urge in your throat, run to the kitchen sink, and release the contents of your stomach into the side with the garbage disposal.  You feel much better.  Most of the evil stuff is gone.  You are sorry you slapped your ex-ex-wife.  You are not sorry you slapped her.

You rinse out your mouth with water, return to the couch, and flop down on the cushions.

Sadly, you admit that you like working in the cafe more than you liked having your own bike shop.  In the end it was too much stress.  There’s another good bike shop in town, and while you used to be rivals with the owner for business, now you go there on your day off from the cafe to shoot the shit.  You like not worrying constantly about the bottom line.  You also like cooking enough to do it every day, but not so much that you feel overly invested in the cafe.  Not like your wife.

In the morning you’re happy that her cheek has returned to its normal peach color.  At the cafe the genie makes fried eggs and toast before you open.  Nobody talks.  You can’t tell if your wife is still angry, but you feel self-righteous and stupid.

The genie turns the Closed sign to Open and customers and orders begin to file in.  You ready the eggs and sausage patties and bread, spatula in one hand and grains of a compromise in the other.  You admit you enjoy the smell of bacon, and don’t even mind when the greasy perfume gets into your hair.  It’s part of the job.

 

The next day the wedding band has disappeared from your finger.  You blink at the several times because you were getting used to the weight.  You’re even more surprised when your ex-wife comes home with with two bikes–a very expensive kind you’ve been lusting after for years.  She says she doesn’t want you to be married to her if you don’t want to be.  Then she says she wants to take a two-week trip around Britain with you and leave the genie in charge of the cafe.  You agree too quickly.  You know she wants this to be a time to bond and rekindle your fire.  You’re not going to fall into that trap, but you can’t refuse the vacation.

The two weeks do give you a lot of time to consider your relationship with her as you pedal past the green hills.  You remember why you first loved each other.  You were both young, recent high school graduates, and working hard at minimum wage jobs—her at a cafe and you at a grocery store.  You admired each others’ sense of humor and budding dreams.  You were both determined, but it was hard to maintain similar goals.  You realized you needed to invest and get behind one of them, but neither of you could give up your personal fantasy.

You glance over your shoulder to your ex-wife who is still pedaling dutifully behind.  She manages a grimace of a smile, and tries to wave without crashing.  She’s trying to be nice.  She still loves you.  You feel bad enough to attempt loving her back, gritting your teeth with effort.  To your surprise, it works.  You consider how she gives cafe leftovers to soup kitchens and homeless shelters every night.  Sometimes she has the genie make extra food on purpose so the soup kitchen volunteer lady will have something to pick up when she stops by in the evening.

You feel good enough about her to let yourself sleep in the same bed with your ex as she cuddles next to you.  You make yourself think more nice things about her.  She never judges people.  She’s kind to everyone, no matter what they look like when they come into the cafe.  She’s invited a few people to the cafe who she knows who are out of work, covered the bill for their meal, and invited them to come back.  You know she has a very good heart.

You smile to yourself.  Then you frown.  This isn’t love, it’s admiration.

On the trip you realize how much you enjoy your independence.  She wants to be with someone all the time—biking, reading, chatting, grocery shopping.  Doing anything alone scares her.  You need your space, which is conformed by the way you start to find her not only clingy, but downright suffocating.  On the plane back home, you aren’t quite heartless enough to tell her that the trip had an effect that was opposite of what she intended.

You can’t live with her.  The free couch is too high a price to pay.  You pack your duffel bag, and announce your decision to your ex-wife in a low and apologetic voice.  She stomps out the living room, out the front door, and slams it closed.  You sigh and drive to your new residence.  You’re renting a room from an older lady who smells of Jergens and mothballs and only hears half of what you say, but she seems nice enough.

Later that evening you get a call from the genie, who says your wife went on a chocolate binge, eating an entire devil’s food cake with thick mocha buttercream frosting.  She claimed she was trying to kill herself, but just ended up ill.  You feel only slightly guilty and say you’ll see him at work in the morning.

You pause, and ask the genie if you still have a job.

He says yes, of course.  You feel more relieved than you expected at the prospect of flipping (very good) burgers the next day.  You will try to make up with your ex-wife, though you admit this may take a while.  For once, chocolate will not be the way to ply her.


Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), novel The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press, Fall 2013), and flash fiction collection Larissa’s Guide to Trying to Be a Good Person in the World (Pressgang, Spring 2014). Read her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
8.08 / August 2013

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