Just as the customers that frequent an establishment form an attachment to the place, it can, also, be assumed that the same goes for the employees, as well. In my thirty-two years of watching the revolving door that is the restaurant business, there have always been a few constants. First, the tips on any given day may or may not be lousy. Sweet tea or coffee will always be the leading beverages ordered by southern patrons. The cooks, no matter how much I may enjoy their witty repartee about diner food, will likely piss me off by the end of each shift. And finally, Theresa Black. I call her Black…
Black was and still is a sort of institution in my living the diner life as she has been working for my family since I was just shy of a year old. It was 1985 when a bleach blond Theresa Black came stumbling into my young life after having just gotten laid off from Krystal’s, where she was flipping mini burgers to make a buck. At 19 years of age, Black was already the quintessential poster-child for teen angst and rebellion. She had feathered bangs, earrings spanning up and down both ears, and wore clothes that were always slightly a little too tight. As I grew older, Black’s fashion choices, while usually questionable, always intrigued me. She was the type that changed her hair color with the seasons. She once told me that she couldn’t remember her natural hair color, but she thought it was a brown hue. That was Black, free spirit extraordinaire. Nothing and no one bothered her. As I look back at her many faces over the years, it is striking to me how our own perception of a person may change as we change.
Up until the age of eight, I called her aunt Theresa, if that is any indication as to Black’s role in my life. I actually thought she was blood until I realized that my olive complexion and dark hair were not genetically linked to Black’s fair skin tone and hazel eyes. Nonetheless, her place in my life went unquestioned. She worked for us for five years as I watched her make sandwich after sandwich before HE was hired, and then, it all changed. The eighteen year old son of a distant relative needed a job, and my father happily obliged by giving him a cooking position. His name was Chuck. He was a typical Arab-American boy in that he was spoiled by his mother, and loved women. Please understand that not all Arab men are as such when they are young, but for the purposes of this story, Chuck was both. It must be noted that he was, also, a cook, which, looking back, should have been a red flag. As I have learned through anthropological observation throughout the years, as well as, personal experience, cooks were and are always trouble. However, those are tales for another day. In the first year that Chuck worked for us, he and Black became super close. My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, Chuck, and Black were a dynamic trio for a while going to clubs, hanging out, and living it up in the late 80s until a romantic situation began brewing between Chuck the cook, and Black.
I remember the few occasions I caught them making out in the store-room or walk-in refrigerator. To a young child of four, it was confusing. I didn’t understand why they wanted to swallow each other’s faces. So, naturally, I would get spooked and run to my mother to tattle on the kissing couple. I was most definitely a mood killer. As time progressed, the couple dated seven months before, Black found herself in the family way. To say this put a kink in their plans, was putting it mildly. However, as it happens more often than not, Black found herself with a newborn baby girl, her first of two, and no father to help. It was odd that this little girl, and my younger sister were exactly a year and fourteen days apart, which could only lead to a lifelong friendship.
This wouldn’t be Black’s only heart break. I watched her for years taking chance after chance, taking life as it came. Three years after her first child was born, Black moved in with us for about a year. I would watch her get dressed after work for her nights out, as she would brush her cheeks with blush and torture her eyelashes with blue mascara and an eyelash curler. I was fascinated. Then, I would wait for her in her room until well past midnight so she could regale me with the PG version of her night. Sometimes I would just sit and sleep with her, while she wrote letters to her little one, who was living with her parents in the Philippines at the time. This became our nightly ritual until she moved out.
For the next twenty years, Black would go through a series of heart breaks that not only defined her, but made her hard. She was always a worker. Often times, Black would take on a second job on top of the manager position she already had with my family to make extra money. It was during one of these times, that she met Critter. Yes, that was really his name. I remember the exact day she told me about him. I had come home from school and sat down to eat with her on her lunch break as was our routine. I was about eighteen years old at the time, a senior in high school. She said, “I met someone. His name is Critter.” I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. In case his name didn’t give it away, ol’ Critter turned out to be another disappointment. He did give her a parting gift, though. He was thoughtful in that he gave Black her second daughter. Fourteen years after her first abandonment, she was right back where she had started. The difference was that she now had two children to care for.
However, life smiled on Black and provided her with her on again, off again husband, Jeffrey, who not only provided a father for her new-born daughter, but a partner and life mate. Theresa Black’s decisions were usually questionable, usually when it came to her love life, but one thing that can be said is that Black always owned her decisions, questionable or not. She still does. No matter her approval rating, Black has always done what SHE wants to, and the consequences be damned. That’s what makes her who she is. She is unapologetically true to herself and her care free nature. It was during one of these unapologetic times that Black left Jeffrey, her then husband of twelve years, for Kelvin, my father’s old manager, and yes, another cook. As I mentioned previously, they are a dangerous breed for reasons that will become clearer with time. It wasn’t her brightest moment, not because of her choice, but because she fell victim to another man, an empty promise, and another instance where it felt as if she wasn’t enough.
It’s five years later and Black has since reconciled with Jeffrey, but Kelvin left a traumatic scar that becomes an aggravated wound every now and then. It didn’t help that Black had to watch history repeat itself with her oldest daughter. Part of me feels as though she blames herself, but she’ll never admit it. She isn’t one to show a weakness, which makes any tear I have seen her shed in the last ten years, not only rare, but precious. When Black cries, it’s because she NEEDS to. There is a purpose behind her sadness.
Some may judge her for the choices she has made in her life, but I have watched a woman with the heart of a fighter and the spirit of a survivor live a life on her own terms. Black has loved fiercely, lost tragically, and through it all, held onto her faith in the most troubled of times. I have witnessed. I have learned. And I have always had my own perception, even if I wanted to shake some sense into her stubborn countenance. There is something Black has misunderstood this whole time. It was never that she wasn’t enough for each disappointment, THEY were never enough for her.
*Names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent. Any similarity to real persons are purely coincidental.