Infinite Bread-Sticks Of The Soul, Mind And Body (Reality Vs. Pasta)

“There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors,” she said, pushing on the door that was clearly labeled with a sign in a large lettered font that indicated the door was recommended to be pulled, rather than pushed. I stood patiently, not knowing if this would be the last door or the first of many more. Most in my situation would have an overwhelming feeling of impatience, anger even, but there was no reason at this point to feel anything but a hopeful tremor of positivity along with deathly ambivalence. Regardless of the outcome, if we were to die here in this Olive Garden, it had been an experience worth living a lifetime for. There had been bread-sticks, yes, but that is not the sole reason one ventures to Olive Garden. Just like soggy skinned chicken wings is not the sole reason one ventures to a Chili’s. There was something a bit more ethereal about just being here, much less being stuck here for what seemed like and what actually may have been an eternity.

There was a time where I would have balked at the very idea of venturing to an Olive Garden, much less a chain restaurant. However, earlier that morning while I was adding entirely too much sugar to my coffee, she proposed that we go somewhere tonight. I suggested that we try a new Greek restaurant that opened a few blocks away, she, holding the weekly coupon mailer, suggested something that would shake the very foundation of not only our relationship but reality as well. In that moment, I was still smitten by her morning glow (as I was wont to be before we dressed and headed to our respective jobs) and was very agreeable. Both coming from Midwest towns with limited food choices, when she held up a coupon for the Olive Garden and gave me that smile that ensured my support no matter the question, I could not argue. I would not argue. Frankly, after a month of wildly annoying stress, a large bowl of carbohydrates and tumblers of wine sounded pretty fantastic. She tossed the coupon flyer at me as she passed me on her way to the bedroom and I knew that I was both terribly blessed and hypnotically doomed.

Years later we would both be telling this story to our children, laughing while recalling the day, still not sure if this was our reality, or we were still stuck in the Olive Garden.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I can’t be quite sure if it even matters, if you can even hear me or discern these words for the reality they represent. I may perceive one thing, she may perceive another. Perhaps she is still back in our kitchen, wondering why I’m staring off into space, the coupon flyer in her hand, her coffee cooling on the counter. Me, sitting in a daze, lost in my own mind. Or perhaps I’m still at that table, waiting on the waiter to write something down. How come they never write anything down? Or perhaps I’m in front of the first door we pulled opened, the one that felt like an amusing trick, rather than an endless cycle of topped off pasta bowls and guffawing mid-westerners, their outlandish bellies slapping against the edges of their tables. Their stench, of minivans and Parmesan cheese, permeating every corridor as we trudged forward. Their laughing faces, blushed with no shame as they stuffed cake slice after cake slice into their maws. At first, both of us were disgusted, but after a few dozen doors she started to make jokes, turning from frustration to sarcasm. She always knows how to keep me level, as my frustration level was brewing after only a few doors. I joined in on the joking, verbally poking at the infinite blubber of lasagna gorging humans. Soon, we were casually strolling through the restaurant, tossing over trays, drinking and eating whatever we pleased and verbally insulting the wait staff and patrons in a tone that would get us kicked out of most restaurants. If only that would have been true here.

Several dozens of doors later, maybe hundreds, I had honestly lost count at this point, nor was I counting, she held my hand. It was a strange feeling. We’d been together for quite some time and of course there was always physical contact, but neither her nor I was much for holding hands in public. There was something commanding about it that neither of us wanted to embrace. It was like one was always leading the other. Rather, we used tender pokes and pointing to indicate direction changes or something we wanted the other to see. But now, she held my hand and I stopped with her. There was sadness on her face, most likely reflecting the sadness on mine. There was less a sense of not being able to escape the Olive Garden, but a sense of just being in this paradigm to begin with. I could sense her questioning our reality as fervently as I was in my head. Were we really here? Where was here? Why was no one reacting to us? Were we dead? Was this a Beetlejuice situation? Except, when we walked outside there were no sandworms, there was no outside, there was just more Olive Garden. The cycle began again. We had tried every door. The front, the emergency exits, the kitchen, the ladder to the roof (which gave us a moment of hope as we pulled open the hatch and saw what we thought was the dark of the sky but only opened up into the floor above the wine cellar). Were we trapped? Was this our dimension, on Earth? Or was this some other reality into which we had slipped? A parallel dimension where we did not belong, where Olive Garden was as endless as the bread-sticks, where god was Alfredo sauce in gallons and there was no smoking at the bar except cigars, which made less sense than the situation we were in.

She looked into my eyes, mine into hers. She smiled at me and slowly raised a bread-stick to her face from out of sight and took a bite. I laughed. Like I said, she has a way. If we were to be stuck in this shitty reality of pasta Americana at least we wouldn’t starve to death.

So then we frolicked. We could interact with, but didn’t appear to be physically in the Olive Garden. It’s hard to explain. The staff and patrons paid us no mind as we ate their food, flipped their cups and put linguini on their heads. Yet, every time we opened a door and strolled through, the scene would reset and we’d be back at the moment we walked into the Olive Garden. Except no one would ask to seat us, there was no wait for us at this Olive Garden, except a seemingly eternal one. It was fun, exhilarating. We shed our clothes and rolled in tomato sauce. We made out on a table while a hipster couple debated their theory about dining at chain restaurants and how bread-sticks actually made them more hipster. We went into the kitchen and threw knives at things. We drank all the alcohol. We slept. We fucked. We puked. We did it again and again and again. Each door, a clean start. Each door another step closer to eternity. Each door a never-ending glimpse into what actually may be hell. Or heaven, depending on what you believe. We weren’t physically suffering, but the mental toll, while unseen, was building. Olive Garden, if not our final resting place, was killing us.

We were slowly descending into madness in this reality, to the point that she had to drag me through the doors, where I was content to just wallow in the mess we had created in one instance of the Garden. Stuffing bread-sticks in my face, sitting on a pile of broken plates, soaked with wine and blood from punching tables and walls, she would plead with me to reset, to clean up and start fresh. We were both mad in this reality. Her, thinking that each reset would bring a glimmer of fresh hope as if anything would change. Me, content to just wither away and die in the lobby of a shitty restaurant that was owned by a conglomerate and would scoop up my body, toss it in the dumpster out back and move on. Oh, how I dreamed for such a result.

I thought about killing myself. I spun a knife on my finger, considering what would happen if I did. Would I wake up in Olive Garden? Would I die? Would she be left alone in this place, this Formica laden, cheaply carpeted coffin? We had been through so many doors. I was tired. She was ready for the next door, which was the same door. I was not. She bunched her fists and glared at me. I just spun the knife. What was the point? Another door, another Olive Garden, another dead end reality. A dimension that is one goddamn Olive Garden after the other, ad nauseum, infinity. She always had a way of lifting me up though, this time literally. She slapped the knife from my hand, grabbed both my ears and pulled. I stood. Stubbornly, I would not move. I stood, but would not move. She grabbed my hands and pulled, I would not budge. Again, she pulled. Again I stood my ground. I was done. So she dropped my hands and walked around behind me. She put her back against mine and shoved. I stumbled, but held my balance. She did it again, this time harder. I fell forward, caught myself and stood. I was a few steps closer to the door. I braced for her to do it again, but instead she walked past me to the door.

She considered the door for a moment. There was a sign above the handle that said very clearly ‘pull’. We had been pulling. Every door. Every single time. I knew what she was doing. I stepped forward. We could be wrong, but she smiled and turned to me and took my hand. “There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors,” she said as she pushed open the door with her free hand. The fucking double hinged Norman door opened, as it had roughly 999 times before. This time, we left Olive Garden.

******

h/t Helen Rosner for the writing prompt. If you are curious, she donated my dinner cause there’s no way I’d actually ever again eat at Olive Garden.