We all worried. The recently papered-up windows of the building across the street had everyone fearing the worst. The worst was that the space would house a business that was a better version of our businesses. The convenience store people thought it was going to sell energy drinks and lotto tickets. The vintage store people heard that it would be selling retro clothing and jewelry. The bar people were certain it would have cheaper booze and a wider selection of beer. The fancy restaurant people thought it would have a higher star rating—names of famous chefs rumored to be attached to the project were uttered like prison sentences. Those at our establishment suspected it would be a better brunch café with more vegetarian options. None of us had any real evidence to worry, though. It was just that any indication of something new, in those days, felt like a sudden plunge in temperature.
Our café had more urgent issues. We feared health inspectors. We feared someone with a clipboard and a badge coming in and asking to see the back rooms, the prep kitchen, the basement. At any time someone could shut us down because of the obvious rat infestation, due in part to the ancient rotting building in which we served, and also because of the stagnant river the alley became after a rain. Rats had been seen by customers and we’d grown used to making red-faced apologies. We set inhumane traps in the basement, the ones where the creatures would get stuck in the strange smelling glue and starve to death behind a wall, or worse, gnaw their own legs off to escape. We laughed about it and made nervous jokes. The singular nickname we gave them began to be spoken more frequently. “I saw Chloe the other day,” we’d say. Or, “Chloe dropped by to visit,” and “Chloe says hi,” and so on.
Across the street they took the paper down and all of our worries were unfounded. It was tacos. There were three owners: two sisters from Mexico and an American guy with an Irish last name. We made up stories about how they’d fail. The space was cursed or the owners were shady. We invented stories of blackmail and deception, of sexual deviance. We weren’t sure why we did that; we supposed it made us feel better about our own problem, the Chloe problem. We’d tell these stories in the basement, late-night, drinking from, then smashing, beer bottles so we could mix the broken glass with the wet mortar that we used to seal up rat holes. The idea was that they could chew and claw through the mortar, but would cut themselves on the glass shards and bleed to death.
There also arose the significance of a new we, different from the we of the neighborhood, different from the we of the crumbling café building. It was not the we of the wheatgrass, nor the tofu scramble we. It was not the we of compulsive sweeping, or sealing up the places where alley water slowly dripped in. It was a we who had bigger fish to fry, and real fish at that, not meat substitutes. It was a we who would go off together on an adventure, to Europe, to Africa. The two of us had been spending more time together, beyond work, in the off hours. We went to the bars together. We went shopping together at the vintage store. We made plans to eat at the fancy restaurant, even though one of us was in a relationship (but we knew that wasn’t anything serious, surely not a long term thing).
Business was not going very well for the folks across the street. We started to feel bad for the owners. We felt even worse for having made up those stories about them. We went in and bought tacos and tortas with sides of guacamole and sour cream that came in little plastic lidded containers. We ate the food in the basement while drinking beer and smashing the emptied glass bottles into little pieces. The consensus was that it was delicious.
The two of us had a very luxurious dinner at the fancy restaurant. We talked about our aspirations, where we saw ourselves in the near future. This turned into jokes about Chloe. Chloe could never seem to get a reservation at this place. Chloe would have joined us but she was denied entry because of the dress code. Despite our neighborhood discount, it was expensive. After, we walked a little way but then we had to stop, just stop right there under those train tracks because, goddammit, we couldn’t go on any more without having it all out, spilling our guts out, saying the things that needed to be said. But where we were it was hard to hear, there was a train going by over our heads, and by the time that one was gone another one was pulling in to the stop from the other direction, tough to hear anything at all.
Across the street they’d begun to charge extra for those little plastic cups of guacamole. Conversely, anyone who bought anything from them got a “Free Taco” card for use on their next visit. They’d been open for three months, and a corner of the “Grand Opening” sign hanging in their window had detached and slouched away from the glass.
We rounded the corner and passed the taco place where only the one owner, the Irish-last-name-guy, sat staring into space, a plate of uneaten food in front of him.
A rat made a very conspicuous appearance. It was during a lunch rush, the busiest time of day. The animal ran out of a corner—presumably from a hole that we’d failed to glass-mortar—to the main brunch counter, reversed, went back to the dining area. People jumped. People gasped and gave quick smiles and sideways glances to one another. Some lunged to pull their coats and purses out of the way. A lot of us were startled as well and indeed too shocked to run and grab a broom handle. We stood along with the customers, watching the animal traverse the floor and scurry over to the water-filling station and do a gravity-defying climb up, tracing a cursive S on the brick wall, and then back down, zigzagging on the hardwood and out through the back hallway. The only thing to do, it seemed, when we’d returned from the prep kitchen where the rat had disappeared, was to make sheepish smiles at the customers and point thumbs over our shoulders and say, as if what they’d just seen was an eccentric relative: “Chloe…That was just Chloe.”
We called it a diaspora and maybe it was wrong to call it that. We eventually did get shut down by the health department, but that wasn’t the reason for our closing-for-good. The ultimate closing had more to do with tax issues and other debts that the owners couldn’t repay. We called it a diaspora. Maybe we shouldn’t have called it that but we did. Some of us went to better or similar restaurants in different neighborhoods. Some of us went to work downtown. Some went on to pursue the careers we’d planned and studied for. Some of us moved to the east and west coasts. Some of us married and moved to a farm in California and watched avocado trees dry up and die. And some of us stayed, kept working in the neighborhood still. It’s not like we didn’t have options or that we feared change or something like that. It’s just that we’d already found our comforts and we held on to them for dear life, that’s all.