It was my friend Lewis’s fault. Actually, he’s not a friend, just a person I do some consulting with, a K-street Kommando, more Facebook friend than friend-friend. Lewis was the one got the American Ambulance Assoc. to switch to Patton Boggs LLP, and parlayed that into a Venn Strategies gig. We’re talking a person has Susan B. Hirschmann on speed dial and can tell the Koch brothers apart. So who’d peg Lewis for an anime freak? Not me. When he suggests liquid lunch at the new Jap place in Crystal City I have no idea.
The cafe is in the underground shopping arcade near the blue line metro. You go down this tunnel of carpeted stairs and there’s a sign by the entrance explains how Pinky Cafe is ‘populated by aliens from Planet Ribbon’ who came to Earth ‘long time ago’ to ‘deliver lots of smile.’ The wooden door folds like a concertina and the chimes above it jingle-jangle and a girl in a maid costume with cat ears comes charging at you screaming ‘Irasshaimase!” and does a little cutesy routine involving much mad curtseying and magical happy speak.
“My name is Meow-Meow,” she says, all breathless. “I’m a cat!”
“I’m glad to hear it,” I tell her.
Another girl appears at my elbow and whispers “okaerinasaimasen goshujinsama,” which translates as “Welcome home, illustrious great Master,” and hands me a menu and a wipe towel. This cutie is decked out like a French maid too, the dress, petticoat, pinafore with the bow looped in back, white stockings, the lot. The outfit’s not as sexy as you’d think since the dress is only a few inches above the knee and that plus the white bow and knee highs makes the maid more a cross between a Victorian schoolgirl and one of those anime lovelies with the colossal eyes is always getting herself raped by octopi. The high cuteness factor is the basic idea. When Alice smiles (her name would be Alice, pronounced Ali-su) I see she’s wearing braces, which fits the whole ‘I’m little girly innocent’ deal and I figure I might as well let her take me into her pink, ruffled, alien care.
Meow-Meow leads us into the cafe proper which has two sections–one with tables and chairs like a regular coffee-shop and the other with three long rows of seats facing one direction, theater style. She sits us at a table by the pink heart-shaped stage. There are thirty other customers and even with a half dozen maids scurrying around, I see it will take a while to cater to us. A couple of old guys in mock turtlenecks are sitting in pink chairs eating ice-cream sundaes decorated with kitten faces while they ogle the two maids doing a song and dance on the stage.
It’s like being trapped inside a giant manga illustration, but there are no windows so there’s nothing for you to throw yourself out of.
Ali-su starts a pink digital timer and since I’m a newbie gives me the rundown on meido kafue rules: you pay by the hour and need to order one thing off the menu every hour. If I want, she will ‘play game of Connect 4 or Hungry Hippo,’ or ‘can get picture taken with,’ or will ‘draw cute kitten face on dessert with big squirt bottle chocolate syrup.’ For a little extra she will even feed me by hand.
Lewis says that for ten bucks she will also meow sexily while squishing the bun onto my hamburger.
“That very popular,” Ali-su informs me, earnestly.
“Brought to you,” says Lewis, “by the same folks brought you tentacle porn, Tamagotchi and the Bataan death march.”
“Racist much?” I say.
Meow-Meow lights a plastic, battery-powered candle with her ‘magic claws’ and kneels to take our order, her eyes low, demure. Lewis says ‘watch this’ and tells her to please bow her head all the way to the floor. She does it. No hesitation.
“They have to do things when you ask them,” he informs me.
“What if I ask one to commit hari-kiri?” I inquire.
“Within reason,” he says, proving how just because you make 200 hundred grand a year and shill with Bob Livingstone doesn’t mean you have any sense of humor.
As we wait forever for our food, Lewis explains how it’s like a romantic version of a strip club. Instead of a lap dance you buy displays of innocent affection, which is why house rules are no touching, no asking for a maid’s personal info, no photos unless you pay extra.
“Why would I even want to do that?” I say.
“Well,” he explains, all peppy. “The maid will hand-decorate the photograph for you.”
“Why would I even want to do that?” I say, again.
“You might make an effort to get in the swing of this, Jimmy,” he says, snarky.
Actually, part of me enjoys being immersed in pinky cuteness, but another part, in the vicinity of my groin region I do believe, is imagining Ali-su in bed. She’d keep the maid outfit on obviously, and her braces, and I’d be O.K. with her sobbing ‘illustrious great master’ at me every now and then just to sustain the mood. See, I get the whole fetish element, but when it comes to paying for maid-to-order affection I’m not getting the picture. I mean, literally.
The maids on stage roll their eyes and hiss and pretend to be in a catfight and keep tripping over things, a rehearsed stumble. I suppose there’s just something about a pretty girl looks like she could fall flat on her face. A phalanx of lobbyist-types watches on in awed silence, having come to this pink room to pay for puppy love. I notice that not all the maids here are Japanese. There’s a long-legged redhead in a fox-tail carrying a tray of jam tarts and a tall blonde girl by the kitchen hippity-hopping in rabbit ears make her look like, well, a big rabbit I guess. Maybe there aren’t enough Asian teens with the right submissive attitude living in D.C. up for this waitressing.
Lewis explains moe is the word describes a consumer’s adoration of young innocent-looking female characters.
“You mean the moe the merrier,” I say.
“Huh?” Lewis says. “Where’d Meow-Meow get to?” he adds, looking around.
A Pentagoner in naval uniform exchanges a nod with the kitchen staff. I’m curious what percentage of customers are repeat visitors.
“Maybe Meow-Meow had to go use the litter box,” I suggest.
Lewis is annoyed I’m not taking his little geisha fantasy seriously, so we chat for a while about how many congenital morons are on the House Appropriations Committee and the Caucus Race and how Americans For Prosperity has a new radio ad out says the Obamacare rollout shouldn’t have used a steam-powered website.
When our order arrives, Meow-Meow announces she has to cast another spell to make the food taste good. We have to shout “oishiku nare, moe moe kyun!” which means something like ‘make this food yummy, bibbity bobbity boo abracadabra!’ Major clapping is involved in the first part of the spell, the ‘moe’ bit requires the hands to shape a heart you bounce from right to left and the “kyun” part turns the hands from a heart into a gun that ‘shoot good taste yum’ into the rice. Lewis’s done some work for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action so I can see he’s really into that. When Meow-Meow decorates his omelet rice with a caterpillar lettering design in ketchup, the poor sap looks near to creaming his pants.
We still can’t eat though because another table orders a shaken cocktail. This requires the entire restaurant to clap in unison while the maid doing the shaking sings. Then I have to join Ali-su in singing this other cutesy song she’s directing at my beer, presumably in an attempt to. . . actually I have no idea what it’s an attempt to do. I can’t figure out the nonsense words, just make snuffling noises, and I don’t get the little hand-jive goes with it, so flail around and fake being semi-normal.
The service is so slow you can’t possibly finish in an hour. So we pay for another. Lewis buys some photos of Meow-Meow doing a snarly cat pose and I get a game of Jenga with Ali-su. Figuring we might as well get our money’s worth, we also order this giant, crazy, expensive dessert that is a mixture of all the other desserts on the menu, with whipped cream and chocolate dripping and marshmallows splurged on top. When it’s wheeled over, Ali-su turns on a cheesy disco ball that splashes the table with revolving blue-green lights. She holds up a tiny toy microphone and amp and I’m scared we’re involved in some weird-ass karaoke situation.
“How does this dessert make you feel?” Ali-su asks.
“Ka-waii!” I cry into the microphone. ‘Cute’ being the only word I ever need here.
We get more pictures taken posing with the dessert and learn the Pinky dessert chant. You whirl your fingers in the air and sing: “Make this delicious!” Then chant: “Lubbu-lubbu Pinkyyyyyyyy!” and finish by squeaking, “Yaaaaay!” and smacking your hands together.
When I was a kid I hated party palaces like Chuck-E-Cheese. Cold Stone Creamery left me a stone cold screamer. But I play along here because I want Ali-su to like me See, I’m on Planet Ribbon, where girls just want to make you happy, and they’re aliens so they have no idea how humans are supposed to act anyway.
Meow-Meow kneels by the table to stir the sugar into Lewis’s tea, and starts spoon-feeding him. Ali-su tells me she learned English growing up in Seattle, and just graduated college in Hokkaido. She laughs at all my jokes and confesses how she secretly hates anime and thinks otaku are total losers. I love how she does things artistically, like how she takes extra time to pour my cream so it doesn’t splash, and stirs so the spoon never clinks against the sides of my cup. I lick this marshmallow-strawberry-truffle concoction off the spoon she holds to my lips and our Jenga stack trembles at the center of the table. Hell, so do I.
“I’ve always had a yen to do this,” I tell her.
“What?” she says.
“A joke,” I say.
“You so funny,” she giggles.
More customers trickle in, sitting at the bar leafing through tankōbon or fiddling with smart phones while the maids bless their drinks. Lubbu-lubbu Pinkyyyyyyyy! I wonder how it is for a maid to have a creeper she doesn’t like, to have to feed him and giggle, give him lubbu-lubbu even though he’s a massive dickhead. Which is worse: to lap dance one song or do the wide-eyed puppy adoration shtick with the same asshole for an hour? Tough call.
“I have go now,” announces Ali-su, standing up.
“What?” I say, seriously startled.
“My shifting over now,” she says. “Yokimo or Chi-Chi finish up you, master.”
“I don’t want Chi-Chi,” I tell her, sounding ridiculous. “I am wanting you.”
The tall blonde maid is standing beside our table giving me a smile like a surgical wound. Ali-su puts her hand on the big rabbit’s shoulder.
“This is Yokimo,” she says to me. “She very cute. Veeeeeeery cute. Yes?”
Yomiko is about as Japanese as Lindsay Lohan. The other maids have a very thin line of eyeliner on the top of their lids to make the lash base look thicker and cuter, and a couple sweeps of a black mascara to darken and elongate the lashes without making it look like they have too much on. The idea is that the eyes look super soft and friendly and alien. But the rabbit has overdone the mascara and looks more like a startled raccoon. Also, on her the maid costume is not so much Maid in Akihabara as Sound of Music.
Gorgeous little Ali-su bends to hoist up her white stockings before waving goodbye. “Oh, Jimmy-san, domo arigato. I’ll remember you for the rest of my life.”
“Arigato,” I say, aggravated, seeing as how wonderland has been cancelled.
Yokimo stares at me aggressively while shuffling a pack of cards, ready for a game. She was all big smiles and over-the-top enthusiasm a few seconds ago, but the façade has cracked. Then I realize this is because she totally recognizes me. It’s Carol from back in the day at GW.
Must be six years ago now. I believe I met her at a Beta party junior year when I was still in the Eliot School. We were fuck buddies a few months, is all it was. Some Saturdays if nothing else was happening I’d text her and meet her at her place in Dupont Circle. We didn’t talk, just got physical. Can’t say it was a ton of fun, more a necessary routine, like pumping gas. I believe she was a painter because her room was full of creepy charcoal illustrations of what looked like dancing lobsters. I never asked. That’s probably why she was working in Pinky Cafe, there’s no future in art. She had a cute roommate back then too, Maria somebody, whom I hooked up with later when she worked in the Foggy Bottom Au Bon Pain, and which I vaguely remembered one of them being upset about.
I honestly couldn’t recall a solitary interesting conversation the two of us had, except for this time when Carol sat up in bed with a sheet wrapped around her and asked me serious as anything what I wanted to ‘do with my life.’ I told her I had signed on for an internship with Ernst & Young and planned on being a self-made man.
“But you want to do good things too, no?” she said.
“You got to make choices,” I told her. “You can’t have everything.”
Then she asked me why I always texted and never called her. And I said, ‘why would I want to call you?’ and she said–get this–to ‘hear her voice.’ I was, like, ‘just to hear your voice? Are you shitting me?’ And she pulled her knees up to her chin, and the sheet slipped off her shoulder, and she sat there all hunched and naked like that, looking lost and vulnerable as if she’d soon start tearing up a pool in the sheets to earn a hug or something. And she made me feel so bad for a minute I did, holding her while she cried. Comforting, I guess.
I suppose Carol’s working in a place like Pinky Cafe, pretending to be a giant rabbit maid or whatever, proved she was still lost. But she was also destroying the fantasy that is the cafe for me. She was way too real, like an escapee from another world. Those pretty maids all in a row looking so young and sweet and innocent, like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and I knew exactly what this one had had in her mouth and it wasn’t a stick of butter exactly. So, after the initial super awkwardness of the mutual recognition, and with all these ancient recollections of college life welling up, I get this urge to humiliate her a little, which is bad I know, but understandable in the circumstances.
“So, Yokimo,” I say, tapping my teacup. “Could you come here and blow on this? It’s a little too hot for me.”
So she skips over in her little outfit with that smile like a gash, and gets down on her knees and purses her lips.
“You’re good at blowing aren’t you?” I say. “You look like you’ve had lots of practice.”
“I do what you want, okaerinasaimasen goshujinsama,” she says, softly, “after a long day’s hard work.”
The way she says ‘work’ bothers me, like there’s a subliminal suggestion. I sip the tea and suddenly feel very, very small.
“What can you do with syrup on my dessert?” I ask. “You like drawing, Yokimo?”
Carol’s eyes are like slits now, and it’s not because she’s pretending to be Japanese.
“O.K. Yokimo?” says Meow-Meow, big-grinning it like a Cheshire cat.
“Everything all right?” asks Lewis, achieving a smile.
“Yeah,” I tell them. “Yokimo’s making me a cake picture.”
So she slowly squirts the chocolate syrup on what’s left of the white icing and it looks like the same cat Meow-Meow draws. But it’s not. It loops into a human figure with horns and a tail, a Satan type deal, only with a miniscule penis. Carol looks at me all pink-eyed now, and then scribbles ‘Jimmy Wanker’ in cursive underneath, which is not my name, obviously. Then she lops the cartoon me’s head off with her finger and licks the icing.
“What the hell?” Lewis says.
For a second, I feel bad for her, the way her sad bunny ears are drooping, and how she’s pathetic and so totally out of a job now. “So, Carol. . .” I begin.
Which is the moment she reaches across and grabs my silk Charvey and pulls my goddamn face down right into the big dessert cake. Right away I can’t breathe between the massive chokehold she’s got on the tie and my nostrils and mouth being deep-sixed in cream cheese and submerged in marzipan and such. I start sputtering and coughing and choking up a storm. It’s like I’m drowning in all that sweetness, blacking out on sugar, falling down this deep dark chocolate well and all around are screaming voices and cascading Jenga pieces and cards that are scattering everywhere, flying diamonds and clubs.
“See,” Carol whispers in my ear, pushing me deeper. “You can have your fucking cake and eat it too, master.”
There’s a thick layer of ice cream in there is giving me a serious brain freeze and it’s an absolute eternity before they finally manage to haul her ass off me and get her restrained and my head properly extracted from the big cake. I can’t see a thing, between the sticky icing gumming my eyelashes and Meow-Meow continually thrusting this big stack of wipe-towels into my face. Of course my spanking new William Fioravanti is a total right off, which also means that afternoon’s Northrop Grumman strategy session is a no go, which will cost me.
On top of which I also feel like a stupid-ass clown.
As security frog-marches the big rabbit away, she yells over at me ‘was it like looking in a glass for you?’ and I realize what we have here is one seriously disturbed individual, mad as a March hare. But you also have to consider what sucking up to rich patrons all day must do to a person’s self-esteem.
The whole affair was like a curious dream, and I for sure don’t see me going back there. As compensation for the face-cake trauma, the proprietors gave me a special ‘red card’ membership, which is good at all Pinky Cafes. I’m told they’re opening everywhere these days, spreading like a good plague. The executive privileges include super special shoulder massages and ear waxing, but I’m thinking, given everything went down, that I’ll probably pass.