Not done writing today yet. I’m sure I can accomplish another thousand words sometime today, but I did complete the scene from yesterday last night, and for anyone who might be following, I thought it would be kind to show you how it ends. I should also add, for anyone who may think this angry diner is too exaggerated and lampoonish, that this is a character straight out of my real life. This situation (right up to the point where the room stops, anyway) occurred at one of the many restaurants I worked at during my years of serving. In real life, however, I was forced to move on, ignore the comment and cry quickly in cooler. It was endlessly therapeutic, then, to get to write this scene the way I wish it had actually played out. It could’ve – had I just been a little more fearless and a little better about saving money. Live and learn. Anyway:
I stop. The room stops. For all that I want to keep moving forward, ignoring what I’ve just overheard, my body may as well have come up against the Great Wall of China. Sometimes it is good to let them think they have won, Heidi’s sing-songy voice tries to wrap itself around my head.
Not this time.
The room is in motion again: servers fly by me, arms loaded with stacks of empty plates, glasses clink anew, laughter erupts from a nearby table. I turn around and take the three steps back to the dread table and Angry Dad.
“Excuse me,” I say, in order to break into the conversation they obviously plan to continue despite my appearance tableside. “I’m sorry about your wine, sir,” I start, and here all eloquence goes out the window. “But fuck you.” I could stop there, because the startled look on everyone’s face is straight out of the pig’s blood prom scene in Cary. Priceless.
But I don’t stop. I’m on a roll. “You might be more careful in the future about how loudly you make comments about your server. You’ll find a giant fucking batch of comment cards at the hostess stand where you can write down that kind of ill-thought-out crap for us to read at a later time when it might not sting as much. Or maybe you’re not at all concerned about my feelings, because I am just an idiot who, you know…. abides by laws, and is busy out of her fucking mind and grabbed one wrong dish from the kitchen…” People are staring now. It occurs to me briefly that this is what every server dreams of. The consequences, however, have not occurred to me. Yet. “But sometime you might try thinking about the life of just one god damn stranger, about how, maybe, it’s not an easy, privileged life, maybe it’s a life of stress and hard work and very little thanks…. You have no idea who I am!” By this final sentence, I am enraged, and to emphasize the word “idea” I’ve slammed the plate of now-cold steak and fingerling potatoes down on the table.
I take one last mental snapshot of the family’s shocked faces to cherish for all eternity: Mom, blatantly embarrassed, head down, ringing her napkin with one bony hand, Dad’s eyes darting wildly about as if some agent in a suit and dark glasses should’ve taken me out by now, daughter fighting off a nervous smile, mystery guy pressing a tight mouth to his knuckles. Then it’s time for a hasty exit.
Sadly, these things go much more smoothly and without a hitch in the movies. Heidi has been notified of what is going on and is on her way over to the table. My car keys, coat and purse are in the back wait station. I avert my eyes to avoid meeting Heidi’s, duck into the kitchen and sweep past the line. I’m at the side wait station and almost to the entry to the back dining room, when I run head-on into Trevor. At this point my face is the very color of the lobsters being boiled to death in Zeta’s colossal pressure cooker, and I’m likely crying, though I can’t really tell because I’m sweating horribly also.
“Julie?” He’s holding my arms, gently, but still, I’m temporarily delayed. “Are you okay? In the weeds? What can I do?” He doesn’t know what’s happened. I’m safe.
“I quit, Trevor.”
“What?” He looks incredulous.
“Actually, I’m fired, but I quit, too, just in case.” I hear him try to get more from me, but I’ve removed myself from his grip and am barreling into the back dining room. I run though to the wait station, ignoring the looks, snatch my balled up coat and purse, and push through the broken back entrance where a hand-written sign reads, “Please use other door.”
The parking lot is drenched in moonlight, and the icy air calms my burning face, especially the damp skin around my eyes. It feels incredible. I try to remember where my car is parked, and press the “lock” button over and over until the beep of my car alarm and flash of the red taillights show me the way.
I am free. And fired.
In the car, I am shaking, and initially I think it’s the below-freezing temperatures, but I’m now parked in front of the house, heater on full blast and, yes, definitely still shaking. I am quivering with the immensity of what I’ve just done. And, probably, the sudden reality of it, also. Tempting as it is to bask a while longer in the warmth of the car, I see lights on in the house, and I can’t wait to confess what I’ve done. To gloat, this is, and maybe get some reassurance that I haven’t made a huge mistake.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, sweety, but are you fucking crazy?” Kip says, not furious, just dubious. Still, not the appreciation I’d hoped for. Note to self: next time I fly off the handle and make a scene worthy of prime-time drama, run it by Tasha first.
“Maybe?” I reply, still uncertain myself. “But I feel really good right now, Kip. I’m talking weird, euphoric, too-many-drugs, Nirvana-type good.”
“Then why are you crying?” he asks. A valid point; my eyes are rimmed with hot, pending tears.
“Because I’m scared?” I’m still wearing my puffy, winter coat, and Kip wraps me in a big bear hug, which only makes the crying easier.
“Oh, Julie,” he says, close to my ear. “You did the right thing, pumpkin. I wouldn’t have done it, most people wouldn’t have done it, but it was right. I’m sure that guy deserved every awkward minute of your tirade.” His laugh shakes my body. The scene is probably even better in his imagining of it. “You’re a smart, talented girl. Maybe this is a kind of universal kick in the ass to move you along from waiting tables.”
I picture a giant, swirling mass of planets and moons and suns and space debris descending upon Zeta, causing mass destruction and giving me a swift kick out the door. For a second I wish this is actually what had happened. “I’ll start looking for work tomorrow,” I say, all congested and heady, wiping at the makeup that is probably smeared heartily under my eyes. “I think I’ve saved enough for one month’s rent and a little extra. If I’m good, I can make it last unit I find something.” I say, helpfully, to myself mostly.
“We’ll make it work. Don’t worry about that. You worry about finding yourself a decent job. You know, maybe one that uses your degree would be good,” he says, sounding way too much like my mother. “No more restaurants, though. You’re done with that. It was killing your soul, was it not?”
“Yeah, I know,” I say, fully aware of how difficult it will be to find another gig with the pay and flexibility of fine dining service.
“But right now you need to clean yourself up. You’ve got a great story to tell at dinner.”
“Dinner? Kip it’s like 8 or 9 o’clock.”
“Yeah, a bunch of people from work are meeting at Café Grey. We’re already late, so get moving, cupcake.” He turns me and pushes me to the stairs by the shoulders. I can take it from there. I can’t look too horrible, is what I think, but the mirror informs me that that oh, honey, you can and you do. But Café Grey has a mean wine selection, and I could use a drink. Come to think of it, that’s about all I remember them having, so I can’t figure how this will qualify as dinner.
Giving my face a good wash and throwing on some makeup and a new set of clothes is the best I can do. I dump my black shirt, black pants server uniform in the bathroom trashcan. The hair stays pulled back, the eyes still puffy. It’s a bunch of Kip’s friends from work, though. He manages the local GLBT community center, so you can imagine there is no one for me to impress. No one will care that I look tired and smell questionable.
We decide to walk, as it is only a block one way and a block another to get to Café Grey. The snow has stopped falling and didn’t accumulate at all, so it’s actually quite a beautiful walk when I can pull my hood over my head and forget it’s almost winter. Walking up, the cafe appears warm and crowded. Little white lights line all the windows and the awning over the front door. The patio’s summer tables and chairs have been replaced by a thick carpet of damp leaves. Kip opens the door wide and steps aside to let me pass under his arm.
We’re greeted wildly by a table full of people I’ve met once, maybe twice in my life, but whose reaction to our appearance would suggest Kip and I are long-lost blood relations returned from the dead. We are late, and they appear to have a good head start on a few bottles of wine. We’re ushered into the fold (they’ve pushed a large round table close to the fireplace) and supplied with chairs and eventually glasses and eventually wine and plenty of it.
After reintroductions, it’s not long at all before I’m goaded into telling the tale of my evening. Kip ends up taking over about halfway through, as he thinks I’m doing a horrible job of the retelling. So I’m left to answer the questioning glances from around the table at various points of the story with raised eyebrows and nods assuring everyone that, yes, Kip is being fairly accurate, if not a little theatrical.
The rousing conclusion elicits applause all around, to which I humbly nod my now-tipsy head. I’m in desperate need of a glass of water and totter off to the counter. I’m peacefully spacing out, watching the water spill from the spigot of the water jug into my plastic cup, when a body appears in my peripheral vision. “This is probably going to sound like a stupid question,” says this guy.
“Then why would you ask it?” I ask, not cruelly, but genuinely curious. I surprise even myself with my own frankness. The guy looks harmless enough, if not a little obnoxious due his dress: navy polo, collar popped (shutter!), under which he wears a white, long-sleeved t-shirt, too-perfectly distressed jeans and, mother of god, flip flops. I want to ask him also if he knows that it snowed today, but manage to contain myself.
“Umm, yeah, that’s a very good question. Out of control curiosity? Maybe?” I see in his eyes he knows he’s sinking fast. I don’t disagree. “It’s just, I think I’ve met you before,” he says.
“I don’t think so,” I say. I’ve never seen him in my life. “Sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong girl.” The one you’re looking for is probably playing beer-pong in a frat house somewhere; if you leave now you might just catch her! It’s getting harder to keep these thoughts to myself. He must leave before I’m forced to be outwardly sardonic, or make fun of his hair.