I sat patiently at the small table.
I was in a Thai restaurant I’d wanted to visit for sometime. I was in the mood for quiet so I ordered my dish to-go. I was going to sit in my car and savor the goodness. The rapturous flavors and amazing textures blow my mind. Every time. Without fail.
I had parked in the back parking lot and had had to walk a long way to come in through the front. I resolved not to look at my phone while I waited. That’s hard to do, anymore. I kept starting to reach for it and almost had to slap my hand on several occasions. What a silly game I was playing with myself.
I was enjoying watching patrons through the dancing incense smoke emanating from the Buddha shrine. A loud lady at the table beside me had been smoking far too long. I kept clearing my throat to help soothe her raspy one, ‘Or at least take a sip of your Thai iced tea,’ I thought. She was carrying on about being wronged by Sandy again, vividly relating the offense in an almost drunken drawl. She was so disgusted with Sandy she was spitting nails and pad Thai.
As I eavesdropped, in the back of my mind I wondered who got to determine how long a casual glance may last before it becomes rude? I was long past that line.
And what was with the garish blue eye-shadow? I found myself so sucked into the saga that I was startled by the waitress, Sue, tapping on my shoulder. She was a pretty Asian lady and she smiled as she handed me my order in a white plastic bag with “Have a nice day” written across it in red. I was a little irked by her interruption and inopportune timing but I smiled back, noting her jet black hair.
As I gathered my belongings, I asked if there was a short-cut to the back parking lot. She bowed and pointed to a grey wooden door behind her. I smiled again and nodded as I walked by her.
‘That is really black hair,’ I thought.
The flimsy knob almost came apart in my hand and the rickety door swung open faster than I anticipated. I stepped into a small dimly lit room and the door sprung shut behind me with a dull thud.
Old binders were scattered on a crooked shelf beside fake flowers. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and after a few seconds I made out another door a few feet before me. I swallowed deeply, glanced back at the shut door and stepped forward praying to God I wouldn’t step on a cat. Or a rat. I hurriedly grabbed the next doorknob and turned it. It turned several times and nothing happened. I swallowed again and turned it the opposite direction. It turned several times and nothing happened.
My mind played terrible tricks on me and I heard people speaking loudly in a foreign language and laughing. Were they watching me? Was I even going the right way? What was this place? Panicked, I threw my shoulder at the door and it groaned. I stepped back, really lunged at it and went bolting clear through it. I took a deep breath of relief at the blinding light, and looked around, grateful to be outside.
But I wasn’t outside.
My heart raced and dropped at the same time. She didn’t look up. A dank smell filled the huge room I found myself in. Black mold crawled on the wall to my right and there were puddles on the busted concrete floor. A withered old woman sat contorted in a rickety rocking chair in the corner. She looked like she had been sitting there for centuries. Her few hairs were held in a tight bun but her deep wrinkles still flapped as a home-made cigarette dangled from the side of her mouth. She spoke and rocked rhythmically in an unfamiliar language, tending to a large pot of smoldering oil that was bellowing smoke in her face.
I froze in place, rather stunned. It seemed that I should say something, but what? I didn’t want to startle her. I swallowed deeply again and clutched my warm food to my chest. A strange noise squeaked out of my mouth and she immediately cackled and threw her head back, stirring the pot the whole time. She had 3 teeth in her mouth. The cigarette bobbed up and down as she rattled off words and fell to laughing her head off, never once looking at me.
I glanced at the door beside her. I tried not to look into the pot. I didn’t want to know what was in it and how many people were stupid enough to not merely walk out the front door of the restaurant and back to their normal lives. I was afraid I would see a residual sludge of blue eye-shadow floating in the hot oil. What was this place and how many doors would I have to walk through to get out? Was I trapped here forever, condemned to an eternity of room after creepy room?
I looked at the door again and ran for it, knowing that any minute a net would drop from the ceiling and trap me in this hell hole. The door was locked!
I started to cry as she crowed her wicked laugh. I looked at the door and saw a small lock high up on it. My desperate fingers fumbled for it, missing it several times, so close yet so far. I jumped up and hit the latch. It flipped right off and I tried the door again.
I stepped out to the glorious sunshine and the dirty parking lot. I was about to set my food on the ground so I could kiss the blessed soil when I saw a small group of wait staff, decked in their black and white uniform, smoking cigarettes on their break.
“Have a nice day!” said a young man with a mop of dark, heavily gelled hair. I looked over at them and attempted a smile and an answer. I looked questioningly from him to the door I just walked through and back to him but my eyes were intercepted by Sue’s.
She smiled and winked at me.