There is nowhere to go to take a break in Midtown, of which one has a tendency to want nothing more than to engage in throughout the endless and repetitive days of drudgery that punctuate this thing called making money to live your miserable life with all the comforts that were ripped from you after you turned eighteen. Sure, there are restaurants galore–from the affordable Rafiqi’s street cart to the overpriced fusion options of places like Mexicue. There are even coffee shops there now, albeit mostly more toward Third Avenue, which takes too long to walk to when the whip is lying in wait to be cracked. The problem with all of these types of places is that the density of people is always too burgeoning to enjoy the benefits of solitude. But when Serenity hit Academia Barilla at the right hour–at that 3:30-4:30 time slot–it was an unprecedented oasis amid the onslaught of energy desirous of financial gain that made her so often feel ill at ease in this portion of town.
Inside the cafeteria-like confines of Academia Barilla, which had only recently opened since she began her job at HBO in the finance department (there were no openings for anything creative, as she had originally hoped), there was a sense of peace she couldn’t get anywhere else. And for the price of just under five dollars for a bowl of pasta e fagioli, Serenity was permitted this rare luxury of, well, serenity. And don’t even get her started on the name her mother, a zaftig woman named Rachel Rebliv, had bequeathed her. As you would expect, it stemmed from Rachel birthing Serenity while living in a commune on the outskirts of San Francisco. She had met Serenity’s father, Bill, there. Bill, in turn, “met” just about every other lady inhabiting the commune as well. When he got the tenth woman pregnant, he was asked to leave by the owner of the property, who “couldn’t sustain so many added mouths on such short notice.” Thus, Serenity never truly knew who her father was, and had the damaged goods aura to back up this fact.
She often felt that this lack of a patriarch was what made her overcompensate in the working world, eschewing men at all costs in order to focus on garnering a higher salary. Unfortunately, it didn’t take her long to realize that the myth of “upward mobility” in the corporate world is just that. Unless she was willing to get a sex change or metamorphose into a shrew, she would never ascend to the top of the ladder. It was approximately at the moment of this epiphany that Academia Barilla found its way into her life. Fuck sitting in Bryant Park and overhearing banal conversations while attempting to read high literature that had passed her by at this point because honestly, if you’re not in college, no one cares what you read. Fuck wasting her paycheck on shopping at the stores on Fifth Avenue for clothes that no one outside of work would see her in. Academia Barilla was it. And that pasta e fagioli was her portal into a heated world that didn’t resemble the same hell of her office building.
The frequency with which she showed up at the exact same time prompted many of the servers to greet her by name when she approached the register. And though Serenity didn’t usually like New York for any other reason than the anonymity it provided, she was starting to grow accustomed to being a regular here. She was even finding it easier to focus on reading War and Peace, a novel she had given up on so many times, mainly because her ex had tried to get her to read it and then made fun of her for taking so long to get through even the first thirty pages. But with the help of this sacred environment and comforting soup, she was beginning to feel right at home in the Napoleonic era of Russia.
Because Serenity was still semi-new to giving up on caring about working by taking extended lunches and breaks, she didn’t foresee the inevitable fallout with Academia Barilla that was going to happen. For anytime we get accustomed to anything pleasant, the law of the universe states that it must be plucked from us just as quickly as it came into our lives.
Initially, no one could pinpoint, precisely, what ignited the fire. There were many rumors of course, mainly centered on speculation that a disgruntled employee who worked as a line cook in the kitchen started it via an intentional excess of grease. Then there was the rumor that rival Italian restaurants in the area banded together to “dispose of” this, for all intents and purposes, “elegant Italian fast food chain.” Serenity tended to believe the latter. Academia Barilla had an edge over something cheesily Italian like Sbarro and pure fake Italian like Olive Garden: the food actually tasted on the verge of authentic at an affordable price. What Italian restaurant owner in the Midtown/Theater District would want that kind of competition?
So it was that Serenity was left without her port in the storm, forced to relegate herself back in the lunch room of the HBO building, which strongly mirrored a high school cafeteria in terms of highlighting social strata. At first, she attempted other places, dabbling with the Cafe Grumpy on 39th between 7th and 8th or the Gregory’s on 40th and 7th. But nothing felt as soothing or halcyonic as Academia Barilla, the one entity that got her through the day. Now that it was gone, could she persist in the revolving door of mental breakdowns and cloying ambitions that was Midtown?
The answer came roughly two months later, when she was approached by the head of her department for a “touchbase.”
Behind the closed door of his office, Devin, a prototypical “guy in a suit,” expressed to Serenity that “certain reports” about her “behavior” had come to light that were ruffling other employees’ feathers. Evidently, working in an office had made Serenity more schizoid than she remembered, as the police started to question those she worked with regarding her whereabouts on the day of the fire. As it happened, one co-worker walked with her down Sixth Avenue on her way to the Academia, turning the corner down 40th just as she saw Serenity light a cigarette and drop the match strategically in front of the building. As the co-worker noted, “Up to that point, I had never known her to be a smoker. There was something very off about it to me, but I didn’t think about it until I heard news of the fire.”
Strange isn’t it? How we always want to destroy the things we love. Or, in this case, the things that help us remain content in our numbness.