Most evenings, the restaurant is a ghost town. I’m the sole waitress who waits, dutifully, night after night, for customers.
Only rarely does anybody come in. I wait endlessly. The chairs sit empty and sad, the window front is a pitiful display of loneliness; untouched cutlery that reflects the dim lighting, pop music tracks on loop I’ve heard so many times that I can’t stop hearing the sad words of unrequited love. I do my best to look ready, prepared. And busy. But nobody walks in the door. Most people march on by the restaurant, as if we don’t even exist. Every now and again, I catch eyes with a passerby, who gives me a look of pity. That sentiment throws me into unretractable resentment.
I should have noticed something was strange when I applied for the job via an email address and received an acceptance within twenty-four hours, without any fanfare or background checks.
Your application has been accepted. Your rate will be minimum wage plus tips. Your first shift will be Monday evening.
I had never served before, but it seemed easy enough. All I needed to do was to take the orders from an unfussy dinner menu which consisted of two plates: vegetarian or meat, two wines: red or white, and two desserts: fruit or chocolate. My uniform: a stiff cotton pink dress and an apron. My hair: tied back in a knot.
When I arrived for my first shift, I went to change in the back kitchen bathroom.
Sorry. The manager stopped me. We have one strict rule here: front of house staff remain front of house. Back of house staff, remain Back of House.
Where should I —
She pointed me to the customer bathroom. You can change there. We don’t open for another thirty. I changed, stuffed my backpack behind the hostess stand, tied my hair back, and went back to await instruction from the manager.
The manager had an unmemorable face, the kind of features so common and bland that they slipped right through your mind; she could have been anyone. Eyes, a nose, a mouth, and an average height body. She looked me up and down and told me that it wasn’t going to be a busy night. I would play hostess and waitress — seat the customers, take their orders, and then tap it into the iPad on the hostess stand, which would beam the orders electronically into the Back of House.
Do not go into the Back of House, she stressed. The orders will appear in this window — she pointed to a cut-out square in the wall, near the forbidden Back of House door, which had a mirror-like glass cover.
Press this button to retrieve the orders. A number will flash on this tiny screen here in case you forget. Nearly no thinking needed, the manager said. Return used plates here, too.
But what if — the seeming ease felt like a false promise. A million things of what could go wrong flashed in my head: a wrong order, a glass jam, the whims of guests. The whims of people were demanding. Mine were. Service is expected with a smile and absolute subservience.
No buts. The manager said. Just do your job. Take orders, tap it in, give the orders, clear the orders. The customers can pay with their personal devices. I must go now. Have a good shift.
That was the last time I saw the manager.
Ever since then, I’ve been waiting. There’s no clock in this restaurant. There is a muted and thick grey carpet, heavy moss green curtains on two walls, and a giant painting, a trompe d’ceil that is made to look like a window overlooking a lush, green, forest. The chairs are pink velvet, perched on gold metal, the tables are marble. Eight covers in total, eight tables consisting of places for two, three, and four guests. I have no idea how much time has passed. The windowed storefront wall is treated with a reflective material that lets me see outside perfectly, but my own reflection is distorted.
For the first hour (was it an hour?) I waited patiently. I stood straight, my hair knotted perfectly, a smile plastered for nobody. After some time had elapsed (an hour, two hours, a day), my foot began to itch in my black Mary Janes. I couldn’t remember if they belonged to me or were part of my uniform. I was desperate to take them off, but I was on the clock. Even if I couldn’t see the clock.
I began to pace around. Then I began to skip. A lightness took over my step when I realized that I was being paid to do nothing. I pounced in circles on the grey carpet like a cat. I wondered if anyone from the Back of House would hear me if I were to scream.
Nobody came in. Back to the hostess stand, I fiddled with the iPad. There was nothing to do on it, and then I noticed a forgotten book. A famous one that everyone talks about and knows the title, but so thick and obtuse that nobody has really read it.
I opened it and began reading like I was waiting for my life to start. Time suspended. The words on the page engulfed me, making no sense whatsoever.
Then, an unfamiliar noise: a whooshing sound, a gust of cold air. I froze. The front door. The lights flickered.
It was a young man, plainly dressed in a black coat, white button-up shirt, unremarkable slacks and leather loafers. His hair was a bit unkempt, as if someone attempted to style it with a slab of spit. I straightened my posture, closing the book.
Welcome, I said. Do you have a reservation? I felt silly as the words came out.
No, I don’t. He replied. His voice sounded tired or anxious. Is there a table for two available tonight?
I paused, uncertain if he was joking. The silence was thick. He smiled.
Of course, right this way. I sat him down at a corner table. The menu is here — I pointed to a QR code on the table. May I bring you something to drink while you await your guest?
He shook his head. I’ll wait. I nodded and returned to my rightful position to greet the second diner and escort them to the man’s table.
An uncomfortable amount of time passed where the two of us waited in silence. From my peripheral vision, I saw the man check his watch a few times. I considered asking him for the time, but felt that would be strange given the nature of my job — he was here to ask me for things, not the other way around.
I drummed my fingers in slow motion for some time. Then I decided to walk over and ask the man if he were sure he didn’t want a drink — red or white — while he waited.
No, thank you. He checked his watch again. The numbers were indecipherable to me. I must have mixed up the dates. The man rose and looked at me, really looked at me. There was a perceptible emotion behind his brown eyes, a wanting, a question percolating on his lips that moved.
Instead, he just said, Sorry for the bother. Another time.
No problem at all. Good evening. I waved foolishly.
I slumped at the stand, exhaled, deflated, defeated. Alone. Waiting now seemed a bit more bearable, like something might happen. Then something happened again.
Another man entered the restaurant, asked for a table for two. Sat and waited, endlessly. Refused a drink. He looked exactly like the first man, but this time, his eyes were green. He didn’t seem to remember me, so I assumed it was his twin or my imagination. He left as the first man did, except he cleared his throat right before leaving.
Um — he said.
Yes? I replied eagerly. Would you like to dine alone? I can clear this other setting, if you’d like. I was desperate to do something, anything.
No, I wouldn’t like to dine alone. He said wistfully. Then he left without another word.
It was time to wait again. I paced around the restaurant now, and noticed that my reflection was skipping. I walked towards the Back of House door. I placed my ear against the metal and held my breath, listening for noise. Silence. I moved away, but then I heard a muffled noise that made me stop. I leaned in closer. It sounded like a girl screaming.
My palms began to sweat, and before I could react further, the front door opened. I sprinted to the hostess stand, gasping for breath. It was another man, the same man, but different again this time. Blue eyes.
Reservation? I gasped, holding onto the hostess stand to steady myself. In doing so, I knocked that book to the floor.
He looked at the book, smiled, and shook his head. No reservation.
Dinner for two? I kicked the book underneath the stand with my foot.
He nodded. I led him to his table. He sat, continuing to stare at me.
Would you like a drink while you wait? I asked without any hope.
Actually, he spoke. His voice was low, deep. Would you like to have a drink with me? Dinner, even?
I looked around the restaurant, which was empty. Um, I said.
Don’t worry. I think we can manage, just the two of us.
I remembered the screaming. What the manager said about not going to the Back of the House. I felt stuck, so I sat.
As soon as my bottom hit the plush pink velvet, the door opened again. I looked up, panicked, nervous to see the manager. But it was a couple this time, a man and a woman, neatly dressed and both walking briskly, comfortably. As if they were regulars. More and more people filed in, and I looked around to see the restaurant full of chattering guests, drinking water and reds and whites, laughing and chewing on bread I didn’t know we had.
One couple was dressed in matching wacky outfits. The woman was pregnant, glowing, and the man had the resigned look of somebody who had tied himself to a fate he wasn’t sure of. He kept looking at the couple next to him, another man, older and in his forties. His date was easily two decades younger than him. Both of them looked sad, engrossed in the blue light emitting from their phones. Two other girls sat nearby, twenty-somethings, both screaming and on something, their pupils wide and rolling.
Mommy. I heard a tiny voice in front of me. Mommy. I saw a young boy with a bowl cut wiggle sticky fingers at me. Earth to Mommy.
I stared at this young child, wondering where he came from. He looked a lot like the blue-eyed man, who—
Ma’am, do you know what you’d like to order?
I snapped my attention to the voice that interrupted my thoughts. I looked up at myself, in my pink uniform, my hair tied back in a knot. I reached up to touch my hair, which was hanging in loose curls, down past my shoulders. I turned to the reflective glass front, and nearly fainted. My reflection had aged ten years. Fifteen, maybe.
I… I began. But I had forgotten what was on the menu. Can I have a few more minutes?
The blue-eyed man smiled at me, rolled his eyes, as if this were a typical occurrence, me daydreaming. The young boy giggled. Mommy always needs a few more minutes.
Just a few more minutes, I repeated.
Of course, the young waitress replied. Take your time. I’ll wait. A familiar old pop song came on, louder than ever. I closed my eyes, wondering when it would end.
Cyrena Lee is a writer based in Paris. Her work has been published in Epiphany Magazine, Into the Void Magazine, The Climbing Zine, Paste Magazine, Olit Magazine and others. She has published a non-fiction book with Sterling Publishing, A Little Bit of Lucid Dreaming and has a forthcoming YA graphic novel about a child prodigy rock climber with FSG.