The camera light blinks red every couple of seconds as a warning that I am not alone—yet my boss does not know that the eyes in the freezers and fridges behind me can see past industrial steel.
The eczema on the back of my hands stings as I plunge them into the soapy water.
I have been here long enough to grow familiar with the flow of the workplace. The industrial sinks to scrub, the bins of clean and dirty, the cold water in the plastic container to drink from between wash cycles. The hum of the dishwasher is my clock, guiding my actions to be mechanical and precise. The only reminder of my own limitations is in the ache in my legs, the burning of my hands.
The camera light blinks red every couple of seconds as a warning that I am not alone —yet my boss does not know that the eyes in the freezers and fridges behind me can see past industrial steel.
The eyes watch me, hidden between the shells of the mussels and clams and oysters, the eyes that sit amidst the leafy greens and float in various containers of soups and sauces. They watch me beside the camera in the corner of the room —or the pit, as the place was so fondly called by the other dishwashers.
I can hear the guests upstairs. I can imagine the plates of seafood glistening on large trays, juice spilling onto polished floor as the guests’ manicured nails slash the optic nerves, slipping the eyes between their dainty lipstick lips, gulping the eyes down so that the last they will ever see is the darkness of the guests’ full bodies.
Their voices are faint down here, wafting through the hole right above my head. The hole has been there ever since I started working here. It sits at the opposite corner of the camera, out of reach of its gaze and the gaze of the eyes. It is relatively empty of the endless criss-cross machinations of the tubes and pipes, and large enough to fit me if I squeezed.
The hole is dark and the darkness impenetrable. A strange contrast to the fluorescent lights that otherwise flood the pit. Its darkness doesn’t allow me to guess its depth, and I imagine it is infinite.
I load the final dish into the dishwasher and slam the cover down. The familiar rhythm of rushing water and machinery fills the space.
Tchk tchk tchk tchk.
Usually one other person works beside me. He is a middle-aged man from Japan, and he likes to nitpick at my washing. In the beginning, he let me dry while he washed and we split up the work. But once I managed to catch up to his speed and became even faster, we switched.
One shift, I asked him how long he had been working here. A year, he replied. He had been there for the restaurant’s opening, as it was still relatively new. I could still remember looking down at the soapy water wrinkling his skin faster before my eyes, etching deep lines and spots, crevices that I imagined would collect dust if he left his arms to sit out too long.
Would those same lines mark my own submerged hands if I continued as long as he did, or were these scars separate from the act of dishwashing, from a time before this work? Had I limited his existence to the instance our lives intersected?
He reminded me of my father, though maybe only in their immigrant status and shared controlling nature over the way I cleaned.
Yet the former similarity is superficial. My dad moved to the United States young, and rid himself of an accent as soon as he could. For my coworker, it’s only been a few years. He tells me stories of Japan with nostalgia, while my dad rarely tells me of the Philippines.
A while back, my coworker left to return to Japan.
Tchk tchk tchk tchk—tsss.
The cycle is done. As the machinery’s noise stops, I hear another one, faint in the background. It comes from the hole in the corner. A creaking, the final noise of a trunk before it topples over, having been taken down. A sound of death suspended in time.
As I look into the dark, the noise stops. The clamor of voices and eating once again fills the background.
I am convinced it is him though —my coworker. He’s still watching me, even now. I can hear his voice admonishing me for leaving a spot on the plate or not scrubbing at the pots enough. But my arms hurt, I want to tell him. My feet ache and exhaustion has seeped into my bones so that they too feel wrinkled like my raisin fingertips, can’t I afford rest?
I often take my breaks near the hole, because it is out of view from my boss’s gaze and also because there’s a sink, separate from the one where I scrub the dishes. It releases ice cold water that soothes my red arms. But now as I turn to the sink it is for a different reason. I look up to my coworker in the hole. His arms hang from the abyss and they are smooth, spread out in an inviting manner.
When he dropped a plate two months back, I rushed to help him. The urge was not practical but maternal, protective.
A bin of dirty dishes is left outside the room and I know I don’t have much time before the work will pile up again.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, and my voice feels separate from my body. I whisper, because I don’t know if the camera can pick up sound (the eyes, I know, are unable to).
When he dropped a plate the ceramic tore through my skin, embedding itself under my skin.
There is no answer from him, and his face is hidden in the dark of the hole. Even the fluorescent light cannot reach him, only his pale hanging arms.
“You’ve returned, what are you doing here? I thought you had returned.”
My voice feels weak. It does not seem to carry even in the emptiness of the space, as if the hole sucks in all that enters it, even sound.
His mouth pries open and out comes the sound of the guests upstairs. The guests laugh, perpetual laughter that mixes in with generic jazz music that has begun in the background. Clear piano notes make their way past the steady rhythm of the drummer and bassist, and it is as if my coworker’s teeth are the keys, vanishing in and out of sight in pearly white smile.
The eyes in the freezers and fridges blink, taking in the scene before them that the camera cannot. They hear no sound, only see the sweat gathering on my forehead, burned hands shaking by my side.
When the laughter has finally died down and all I can hear is the drip drip drip of the sink, he finally tells me, “Eleanor, this is my home.”
But what I feel he truly means is that I will never grasp the meaning of return.
When my father speaks of the Philippines, it is brief, and I yearn achingly to feel a connection to that part of me.
My father holds anger in his chest, but it feels more like loss. He speaks of being broken as if I could fix him, and when my coworker dropped a plate why did I rush?
My coworker’s face now peeks out and the light hits his emaciated features. Where his eyes once were are now gaping, gaping holes, an emptiness much like his mouth.
I want to ask him where his eyes went, but the question feels too obvious, comically so. So I ask a different question as the ceramic of the broken plate itches under my skin.
“Was I born to be the mother to my father?” I ask. “Was I born to be the mother to old men who call themselves broken?”
No reply, only empty eyes staring into mine, mine which will soon meet a similar fate, trapped in stomachs filled with rich seafood and grease. Digested by stomach acid and saliva.
The itching under my skin feels unbearable now and I lift my scarred arms to the ceiling. I am pleading for him to take back the pieces trapped under my skin, but his fingertips are just out of reach and the ceiling has stretched to mock me.
“Please,” I say, and it is as if the singular word dissipates the moment. He retreats into the hole, and there is once again only darkness.
Yet another bin of dishes is dropped off at the entrance of the pit, and the guests have recklessly dumped their trash in it. I turn to plunge my hands back into the water, and they no longer sting.
All there is now is just the hum of the dishwasher, and it rinses away the memory.