“Excuse me. I said I wanted the Berry Banana Bonanza,” the blond girl drawled, tapping a red-painted claw on her styrofoam cup.
I’d been leaning on the counter daydreaming about a world in which I wasn’t wearing a hot pink apron and visor emblazoned with the words “Smoothie Station” in yellow piping. I wouldn’t call myself a fashion goddess, but hot pink and yellow? There’s just no way to save that. But I could have been wearing a potato sack for all it mattered. My cheeks thoroughly matched the apron when the girl shoved the cup at my face and shook it like an angry maraca.
Embarrassment slithered through me. Of course, I’d screwed up. Of course. “Sorry,” I muttered, taking back the smoothie and dumping it in the trash. I had only worked here for four days and already I was more appreciative of food service workers than ever. How did they remember all this shit? Berry Banana Bonanza. I frantically scanned the menu. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, sprinkles. The angry blond girl tapped her nails viciously against the counter. I was about ready to throw my visor on the ground and stomp on it. Cool it, Chloe, I tried to tell myself. You need to relax.
Or cry. But there was no time for crying either. This job was paying for a chunk of my college tuition, along with the loans that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Besides, girls like that just have some kind of laser eyes and my threshold for tears is shamefully low. Crying at puppy commercials low. So there I was, cowering in front of all those buttons and levers, panic clutching at my chest, throwing all five thousand ingredients into the blender as fast as I could.
Then something lurched, and I was being splattered with five kinds of berries and two kinds of nonfat frozen yogurt. There was no time to feel humiliated, even with all the people loudly laughing behind me, because I was too busy flailing at the machine trying to turn it off. I’d just got beaned by a blueberry in the eye when someone gently shoved me aside and flicked off the switch. The machine stopped with a groan, leaving me dripping yogurt and half-churned berries while angry girl and her friends cackled like television witches.
I could have crawled under the counter and died. My entire face and the front of me was dripping with yogurt and berries and to make matters worse, Smoothie Station was right in the middle of the food court, which was just a fenced off area in the middle of the mall.
In other words, every person sitting in the food court and everyone walking by had a full view of my berry-splattered self, including perhaps the hottest guy I had ever seen in my life. Maybe that’s a little extreme, but seriously. He was the kind of guy my mother would have narrowed her eyes at. Not because of the tight black shirt outlining a very toned stomach, but because that shirt was emblazoned with the logo for some scary-sounding metal band, and because his black hair was brushed down across one eye as though he played for said band. He was the total antithesis of my limp brown hair and basic wardrobe, but when our eyes locked, I could feel my heartbeat in my fingertips. Just to add the cherry on top of my hell sundae, he smirked. And then he laughed. A big, freefloating laugh, just before he disappeared behind a Directory kiosk.
I was a statue made of mortification.
Once I started breathing again, I remembered that I was covered in dairy products and blond girl was waiting for her Berry whatever. But after I wiped the goo out of my eyes, I found myself alone in the kiosk with Alicia Santos, the girl who had saved me from the renegade machine, who had presumably made the angry girl’s smoothie while I was busy reveling in shame and making eye contact with attractive emo boys.
Alicia was pretty in an understated way, with brown skin and thick dark hair and cute red-rimmed glasses I’d never have been able to pull off. Up until now, I’d been too intimidated to speak more than a few words to her. Not because she was especially scary-looking, I just had the social skills of a recluse. I could have given Emily Dickinson a run for her money.
I could feel my heart in my throat. Alicia must think I was such a dumbass. “God, thanks for saving me. I don’t know what I’d have done without you. There are just so many darn…buttons,” I finished lamely.
She giggled, but not in an unkind way. In the few days I’d known her, I’d seen her smile and laugh more than anyone had a right to. She seemed to be that kind of happy cheerful person who couldn’t be dampened by something as trivial as exploding smoothie. I wish I knew her secret. “I know, right? You get used to them.”
I felt instantly more at ease. Her smile was magical. “How? There are like a billion!”
“I’ve been working here the last three summers. It took me, like, maybe two weeks before I started remembering what they all did.”
Two weeks of getting splattered and stared at? This was going to be hell. Because I couldn’t help but do otherwise in the glow of Alicia’s smile, however, I smiled. “Thanks. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.”
Alicia helped me towel myself off, and then began talking about everything, as though trying to make up for our first few days of companionable silence. Like all the buttons on the smoothie machine and how to keep the lid closed, and all the different flavors and how working at Smoothie Station was way better than working in the clothing stores because you didn’t have to buy all kinds of fancy outfits just for work, and how this really cute soccer player was totally checking her out earlier only she wasn’t exactly sure because he might have just been looking at the smoothie list and….well, it went on like this for a pretty good while. I decided that I really liked Alicia, even though she really didn’t seem to get that there are some things you just don’t tell almost-strangers, like how you once threw up in your purse in the middle of class. Then again, she didn’t seem all that embarrassed about it. It was like she was immune to humiliation. Like she was actually okay with who she was. She was a college sophomore, so maybe something magically happened after freshman year to boost your confidence. I could only hope that happened with me.
Seemed fake, but she was definitely more self-assured than smoothie klutz aka me.
We hit a slow period after the morning rush. Alicia popped her bubblegum at me. “So, what’s your major?”
I hated this question. “I don’t have one yet. I want to be a writer but that’s not really practical so I might do business or something.”
“Who cares if it’s practical?”
I snorted. “My parents.”
Alicia nodded knowingly. “Ah, yes. Mine don’t think a math major is practical either but wait until I’m a professor, then we can talk about practical.”
“Oh my god I’m terrible at math. I barely scraped by in calc last year. I don’t know how I’m going to do it again in the fall.”
“No worries!” Alicia grinned that magical grin. “I’ll help you if you want.”
My stomach did that squirmy thing again. She wanted to help me! In the fall! Which meant she saw us as still being friends! Maybe she was just being friendly, chill out, Chloe, but still. I felt tears press up against my eyes, like I’d just watched a heartwarming dog-related commercial. Luckily I was able to blink them away before any fell. That would be so humiliating, crying on my first day at work.
Right. I actually had to answer. “Yes, I’d love that!”
“And you can help me in English. I hate writing papers. Too many words.”
“I’m glad you didn’t quit. I was afraid after this morning you’d walk right out.”
I’ll admit, the thought had briefly crossed my mind. “Can’t afford to. I have to pay for tuition.”
“Oh yeah, that sucks. Hey, I love this song!” The radio shifted over to Ariana Grande and Alicia started to dance. In our booth. My jaw almost dropped. I was always too embarrassed to dance even at school dances, let alone in the middle of the cafeteria. Okay, I needed some of Alicia’s confidence. “Come on, dance!” she cajoled, and poked me in the arm.
“I can’t,” I whined. Like a small child. Ugh. “It’s…scary.”
“No one’s around, who cares?”
“After this morning, I need to lie low.”
“Come ooon, just a little?”
And she wouldn’t let up until I gave a little wiggle of my hips. She clapped. “There we go! Chloe, I think we’re going to be good friends.”
And I could have cried. Because I thought so too.
The rest of the day was nowhere near as eventful as the first part of my shift, which was good, because I think otherwise I would have quit right then. And as far as summer jobs go, Smoothie Station was way better than working at McDonald’s or mowing lawns. I hadn’t survived my freshman year of college just to fry burgers. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I still had enough problems with acne; I didn’t need any more grease in my life.
At lunch break, Alicia invited me to sit with a few other mall workers who she was work-friends with. They were all in various years of college too. They welcomed me like I wasn’t the weird girl with smoothie still matting down her hair, even though Alicia told them the story immediately because apparently she didn’t realize how humiliating it was.
“You have a strawberry in your hair,” said Ethan. He reached out and plucked it away, smiling shyly. I plastered on a smile. He was cute, blond and spattered with freckles, but he also struck me as the kind of guy who needed constant reassurance in order to function socially. He kept looking at me every time he said something or made a joke, eager for my reaction. It made it really difficult to eat knowing someone was watching me chew so intently.
Everyone had been delighted by my smoothie story. I felt like a small-time celebrity instead of a freak. Annika, a reedy black girl with blue-tinged braids, shrugged away my effusion of embarrassment. “Everyone has a bad first week. My first week at the Taco Hut, I accidentally gave carnitas to a vegetarian and my boss chewed me out. You’ll get used to it.”
“My first week at Kung Pho I spilled broth all over myself,” said Joey, a tall, fat white guy with blue, blue eyes.
My eyes only widened in further alarm at these horror stories. “I’ve got your back,” said Alicia. We shared a smile. When we returned to Smoothie Station, she coached me through everything. I even started to memorize those inane recipes. When the end of my shift hit, I almost didn’t want to leave.
“See you tomorrow?” said Alicia.
“Yeah!” I promised. And for the first time at any job, I felt a little sad to be leaving.
My little brother Jeff bounced up to the door as soon as I got in, probably hoping to get a glimpse of me in my Smoothie Station visor. He sniffed.
“Why do you smell like fruit?
So I reluctantly told him the story.
“You what? Oh my god I wish I’d been there with my video camera. We could have gone viral!”
“Over my dead body.” I couldn’t count all the times I’d had to wrestle his camera out of his hand to delete some embarrassing footage of myself tweezing my eyebrows or dancing in my pajamas to Nicki Minaj.
“Dude, you have yogurt in your ear.”
We glared at each other.
He broke first. “You wanna play Smash Bros?”
“I gotta make dinner.”
“Ugh fine. I’m gonna go play COD with Marcus.”
Mom wasn’t home because she was pulling a late shift at the hospital, again, and dad was still in the post-layoff blues, which meant watching Three Stooges reruns in his robe with his iPad open to the job listings on the footrest. He grunted amicably at me as I walked through the living room. “How was your shift, honey?”
“Fine!” I piped. I didn’t want to rehash this story yet again, so I quickly escaped into the kitchen. Since I only knew how to make pasta, that’s what we were having for dinner, for the third time this week. I was really getting sick of dad’s lack of effort. I knew he was bummed about getting laid off, but he could have at least helped me with dinner when mom wasn’t around, which was oftener than ever these days as she picked up more shifts to cover our expenses. I felt like Cinderella picking up the slack, but someone had to, or else we’d all be eating cold cereal in front of the TV.
No one really talked much during dinner and I left as soon as the dishes were washed to go jump in the shower and get rid of the last of the smoothie residue.
By then I was exceptionally exhausted, so I only read for a few minutes before trying to sleep. As I was lying in bed in my duckie pajamas, I thought back on my first day at work. My brain kept snagging on what should have been the smallest, most insignificant part of my day: the black-haired boy. Our eyes had locked for just a second. A second during which he was snickering, and I looked like a cotton-candy-colored Swamp Thing. Everyone had been staring so it shouldn’t have mattered, but there was just something excruciating, something that made my stomach fill up with butterflies, about someone so gorgeous getting to see me like that. Such an unfair turn of the universe, adding insult to injury. It was a good thing that someone like him would never look at me again, because there was no way I could bear the shame. My cheeks would go as red as the strawberries that were splashed over my apron just a few hours ago.
Nope, I’d definitely never see him again. I was pretty damn good at being invisible.
Little did I know, I was dead wrong.