The story “Backburner” first appeared in Chain Linked: Stories by Michelle Blair Wilker.
My friend Michael has a theory. Guys always have several burners going at once. Sometimes you’re on high heat up front, and sometimes they move you to the back to simmer and bubble up slowly. They never focus on just one dish, cooking eggs, bacon, and spaghetti sauce at the same time. Occasionally, they stir and test the temperature, but mostly they’re saving you for later. For when the fry pan up front gets crusty and cools down.
I’m definitely on the backburner. I can feel it. I got shifted up front for a split second. It gave me enough incentive to stay engaged, but it was like the flash of a summer firefly and now I’m on low behind the large soup tureen. Besides, who wants soup on a hot summer day? It’s just an appetizer before the main course.
I try to sip my Mudslide, but the consistency is so dense that it cakes up the straw. I remove it and take a gulp of the creamy tannish liquid. Chocolate streaks line the glass, and it’s chilly and lumpy as it travels down my throat. Mandy convinced me to come to Liars. I wanted to stay home, swing on the hammock, and feel sorry for myself. But here I am listening to her drunk as hell singing Sheryl Crow.
“Tip your fucking bartender,” she chimes in after she screeches out a lyric. You would think it was a line in the song, because she yells it out every other minute.
I have been reduced to Friday-night karaoke at a dive bar in Montauk with the legendary local lesbian. We met Mandy last summer at Liars, where she insisted that we had hung out the previous year. We hadn’t. But she was just nuts enough that we went along. She told me I had great cheekbones and that Harry had a fantastic sense of fashion. She wanted to discuss the Israeli– Palestinian conflict.
“Do you follow it?” she asked.
“Yes,” Harry replied.
“Bullshit. Hey, you’re pretty handsome. High five.”
She smacked his hand, did a shot of bourbon, and went up for more Sheryl Crow.
“Tip your fucking bartender!”
It was like her anthem. The bar smelled of sea salt and beer, and the dark wood was scratched up and sticky. There were wall-to-wall people. The summer season had just begun, and all the Upper East Side douchebags had begun to arrive. Well, they don’t usually come to Liars, but still it was quite crowded. Montauk makes me miss the East Coast. It’s like the real world with genuine live people. Not shiny, blonde, tan humans with bright white teeth. There’s grit, fisherman, loud Brooklyn accents, and beer bellies. You know where you stand. It’s not like swimming in a murky sea of unknown intention and phony sentiment.
It’s nice to sit in the real world, even if it’s only for a few days. I can smell the rain too. Everything is fresh and green and I’m not thinking about my backburner status. I’m calm, I’m comfy, I’m present.
“Rach, c’mon. Let’s do some Go-Go’s. If I hear Mandy squeal out one more Sheryl Crow, I’m literally going to lose it.”
Elisa is facing away from the bar staring at Mandy and attempting to drink her Mudslide. She’s guzzling it down in thick chunks like it’s ice cream. Mandy moves her hips back and forth and jumps up and down as she screams into the microphone. Her short, blonde hair bounces, and her acid-washed jean jacket looks a tad yellowish underneath the dim lights.
“I mean she’s not in tune and making up half the lyrics.”
Elisa was right, but Mandy was having a blast. You could see it in the way she danced, and frankly she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. She closed her eyes and smiled. The expression on her face said it all.
I visit Montauk every summer to see my old college roommate, Elisa, and her boyfriend, Harry. They live in Brooklyn but come to Montauk on weekends to escape the sweaty city and stench of rotten hot garbage. It’s different out here. It makes you forget. It’s serene and smells sweet. It reminds me of the Cape. All the cedar shake houses and lilac bushes, lobster rolls, clambakes, and families pedaling along on bicycles. It’s quaint and Norman Rockwellish. It’s certainly not Los Angeles. An ocean of traffic jams, smog, and Botoxed flakes. The sun always shines like it’s Groundhog Day. Nothing changes. Montauk makes me feel whole.
“I found ‘We Got the Beat,’” Elisa says. “I signed us up. There are a million people in front, but who cares?” She slams her glass on the bar. It skims the surface and knocks over a saltshaker. Tiny granules sprinkle across the jagged wood like delicate snowflakes.
“Cool,” I nod. Thankfully, we’ll never sing. The queue is too long and if I know Elisa and Harry, they will get sick of waiting and want to go to 7-Eleven for late-night pizza and hot wings. Mudslides always give her the munchies.
I click my phone. No messages. It’s been a week. I don’t know why I care. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve been shifted to the backburner. I got sucked in with sweet words, promises, and three months of daily messages. We were going to surf Lower Trestles and eat fish tacos, go to a Kings of Leon show at the Bowl, and wine taste in Santa Barbara. I wanted to believe it because what was the point? Why say it if you don’t mean it? Meanwhile, he likes my vacation photos on Instagram. See “backburner.”
Finally, we get a break from Sheryl. A tiny preppy redhead starts rapidly rhyming Kris Kross’s “Jump.” She’s actually pretty good. She knows every word by heart and doesn’t even glance at the monitor. The words zoom by so fast, I can’t even read them. The Liars crowd cheers and claps noisily. The French couple next to me starts to hug each other and do some weird dance where they are tangled and hopping. It looks like a potato sack race. Good thing she fixed her shoe with duct tape five minutes ago. She propped her foot on the bar and wrapped six large pieces around the tip of her sneaker.
“It fixes anything.” She lobbed the roll back to the bartender. “Merci.”
Mandy stands to the side bobbing her head, waiting patiently for her next opportunity. The little redhead’s rendition is quite catchy, and I tap my sandal against the base of the stool. How does she even know the words? It looks like she isn’t old enough to have been born when the song was top of the charts. Besides, those Kris Kross kids’ rhyming was pretty complex and dope.
“Rach, stop checking your phone. Who cares about that guy? Not even worth a second thought.”
“I wasn’t checking.” But she knows me. I dot my pinkie into several salt snowflakes, cleaning up some of the scattered flecks.
She’s right, but the worst feeling in the world is to be ignored, disposed of, replaced. I feel worthless. Hollow like a rotting tree stump. Like something’s wrong. Why didn’t I get picked? I know it’s not me, but there is that little voice deep down. That nagging nasty alter ego. The “glass half empty” me. The one that says yup, it is you. I’m not sad, I’m not heartbroken, but it stings a bit. Almost like a pesky mosquito bite.
“Hey there, hot stuff.” Mandy is now pressed up against the bar and has her arm draped around my shoulder. Her face is two inches from mine, and I can smell a combination of smoke and cream on her breath.
“Check out the cheekbones on this fox.” Mandy points above my head. “Mudslide for Mandy.” And she bangs a twenty onto the bar.
Elisa has moved on from Mudslides to Coronas and is now sitting on Harry’s lap in the corner. Her legs dangle and don’t quite reach the floor. She’s pretty drunk and flips her dark hair and giggles. Harry squeezes the back of my neck, shrugs, and then continues to watch the hockey game. He looks pretty worn out after spending all day laying Sheetrock in the laundry room. He’s still got smatterings of white dust on the cuffs of his jeans.
Elisa and Harry take care of me and treat me like family. We don’t talk all the time or see each other more than once or twice a year, but when we reunite it’s like we were never apart. We don’t skip a beat.
“Mands, tell Rachel to forget this West Coast asshole and his Real Housewife girlfriend.”
“Forget ’im. You got me. Besides, who has cheekbones like you? Who could pass that up? What an idiot. I’ll fix you up with a real man. What about that hunk in the lobster shorts?”
Mandy nods in the direction of the dock, where a tall guy with salt-and-pepper hair is chatting with friends. The boys are deeply sunburned under their eyes and wear various pastel shorts with scattered random objects. Crabs, tennis rackets, whales, and strawberries. Ray-Ban pilot glasses top their heads like shiny golden crowns.
“Thanks, but no thanks, Mands.” The last thing I needed was Sheryl Crow’s biggest fan to be my wingman.
“Suit yourself. But I got game.”
Elisa and I glance at each other and try not to laugh. I take a large gulp of my Mudslide. I mean, Mandy is the best. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
“Thanks, lady. You sure do.” I clap her on the back. Her jacket feels a bit damp. She flashes me the “hang ten” sign before heading up front to bully someone into letting her do more Sheryl.
I think I’ve come to terms with my backburner status. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be? Maybe I’m one of those people who is destined to be alone? To be the rainy-day option when it doesn’t work out with the Playboy bunny or cheerleader. Fuck that. I’m not waiting around for when he comes to the realization that the shiny new object is insane. I’m good with it, yeah. Montauk has fixed me. Reminded me of who I am. It tugged at me deep down and said, “Hey, you’re an East Coast girl at heart. Embrace it. You’re real, you’ve got spunk, you’ve got me. Remember my pinky-orange sunsets; lumpy, steep sand dunes; and pebbled rocky shores. My decadent ice cream– filled summer and daily Ditch Plains surf sessions.”
I glance at the front and see Mandy trying to convince the little redhead to do a duet. She’s selling her everything she’s got. She’s making loud gestures and flashing her best “Mandy smile.” The bar is loud, but through the muffled chatting and piercing Journey song I can hear a foghorn in the distance. The moon is a tiny golden sliver, and the sky is clear enough to see some twinkling stars. It’s almost time to drive Harry and Elisa home. I can tell she’s close to craving those hot wings.
My phone buzzes and slides across the salty surface.
Hey Girl! How are you?!?! 😉
I study the energetic text and silly emoticon and without hesitation press Delete. I take a deep breath, my shoulders relax, and that thick, twisted tummy knot loosens. I let out a chuckle.
“Hey, can I buy you a cocktail?” Lobster Shorts is standing next to me and grinning. He’s pretty cute, even with his Ray-Ban crown at 10 p.m. His eyes have tiny creases underneath, and his pink shirt is buttoned all lopsided.
Mandy’s back to Sheryl again. This time she’s playing a little air guitar and has removed the acid-washed jean jacket. She stops, points at me, and winks before going back to shouting into the microphone. You would think she was playing Madison Square Garden.
“Cheers,” Lobster Shorts says.
“Tip your fucking bartender!”
Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Whistlingfire, Unheard LA, Felix Magazine, Storgy, and The Huffington Post. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. In 2017, she attended DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and was featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her first book, Chain Linked: Stories was published in June through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster. The collection was recently selected for the 2018 Montana Book Festival.
Image: Flickr / Justin