Blue turned into black and then faded away. Well, actually, blue turned into sickly yellow and green and then purple and then black and then, eventually, after weeks of wearing long sleeves in the heat (it was that or having to explain “no. I really did fall down the stairs” ) faded away.
What didn’t fade, though, were two things:
- a small but hard and mildly disconcerting lump of tissue that I move around when I am fidgeting and
First of all, Howard was not my type. I was into guys who would charm me and then steal the last four digits of my social. Guys who looked like a young Tom Waits meets… well, an old Tom Waits, I guess. You know the kind. A guy who has every vice you can think of which smothers every talent you can think of and wants a girl he can have a Who’s Crazier Contest with and always win… That’s the kind of trouble I would usually get into.
Howard… Howard was none of those things. But somehow, he hooked me.
I worked at the French place for too long. The manager was my best friend and he told me I was the best waitress he had ever met. I told him that was a dubious distinction. The truth was I was burnt out from years of serving others.
You know what waiting tables is? You’re the host of a party thrown for a bunch of ungrateful people you’d rather not know. They party and generally act like idiots, asking you questions like “What do you do, really?” (to which I occasionally replied “I am a bounty hunter”) They say things like “Is the chef actually touching the meat with her hands? Ew!” Then, they drop what, for you, amounts to a month’s rent on their dinner and leave you to clean up the mess.
I had really hit a wall. I knew it when I told a customer one of the specials was “excellent” and he found it just hilarious that I repeated the superlative when asked about each one of the specials. He couldn’t know that I not only repeated the word ‘excellent’ five times at his table, but that I most likely repeated it no less often than 35 times that night alone. Boy, that would’ve really sent him into a gale of giggles. So he laughed at my redundant use of the word, and I asked him quite seriously if he wanted a slap.
So…not exactly friendly customer service…
I asked another customer if he was storing water in his hump for a long journey. I must have emptied half of the East river into the dude’s glass and he was only on his appetizer at the time!
And, I screeched at a drunken foreigner when he tried to light a cigarette when I had twice told him smoking was not allowed.
It was only a matter of time before I physically attacked someone.
Still, my manager friend would not fire me and he told me he would not let me quit. I was on a downward spiral of surly and found little pleasure in my job. And, while I could blame the restaurant business til the cows came home, what was really going on was I was dying inside.
I was an actress, damn it. I was an actress who waited. I waited tables. I waited for my agent to call. I waited in line for cattle calls and, most of all, I waited for something…anything… to happen to me. But nothing ever did. Until…Howard.
Howard came to the restaurant with a friend, a woman with a sort of Irishy/Jewishy look about her – middle aged before her time, affable, humorously irritating. Howard was quiet but his eyes were bright blue and alert. I came to the table and took a drink order and filled the water glasses. Then, I gave them the specials. They actually listened. They didn’t interrupt or ignore me or make me repeat myself (I really hate to repeat myself) like so many tables do. Then, I went to do a few other things and when I came back Howard asked me my name.
This is a thing customers do sometimes and I find it off-putting. They often ask with a tone that suggests I should have told them already. “And your name is…??” Eyebrow raised, head cocked to one side like a particularly curious pug. But I don’t agree. I feel that my anonymity is one of the few benefits of a low level job like mine. I dislike random diners, whom chance has set in front of me, taking it away, especially when I know they will forget my name anyway. Sometimes I give them a fake name. “I’m Mandi!”
Still, I tell Howard my (real) name and take his order. Awhile later, after their monkfish and seafood veulle au vent arrives, I check on the quiet man with the sharp eyes and the brassy lady at table 20.
How is your food?
Delicious. Thank you.
Would you like something else to drink?
Not just yet.
Very good. Enjoy.
He remembered my name. He said Lila, not “Miss…”
You are like a bird. Did you know that?
No. I…excuse me?
You are gifted at what you do here.
I laugh a bitter laugh before I can stop myself. But he continues.
I know this is not likely your dream job. But you perform it with a great deal of elegance.
I begin to walk away. I am bewildered by this show of appreciation. As I am going, Irishy/Jewishy says
Howie! Tell her why… she’s like a bird! Lila! Wait just a second… Tell her!
So he tells me.
Lila, you stand in the center of the room and your neck, which is fairly long, cranes out of the collar of your shirt and your head darts about, your eyes jump from one table to the next and I see you processing all the information before you are off again, flitting away to see to the needs of our table or the next one, gathering twigs, as it were.
I stare. I don’t know what to say. I feel odd.
And then he says
And, I hope you don’t think I am rude but I see you have a bruise.
I defensively touch the huge, hideous bruise on my arm. It’s covered by my shirt. How did he know?
As though he could read my mind he says
I saw it when you used your sleeve to grab the hot milk pitcher when you were making a cappuccino for that woman in the corner.
So he’s observant…
He was talking about the female half of a couple we liked to call the Vampire People. They almost always came in 2 minutes before closing and ordered the pork loin and the chicken or something equally as time consuming to cook as well as an entire bottle of white wine or Champagne.
We hated the Vampire People because they always seemed to show up on the slowest nights, so we ended up staying until well after midnight for a fraction of the tips we should have made for that amount of time. This was one of the few times I had ever seen them before 11:00 PM.
I looked at Mrs. Vampire now. She was a strange woman. I had always thought so. She looked nervous and Mr. Vampire kept patting her hand reassuringly.
Hmm. Maybe that was why they always came in so late. Maybe she didn’t like crowds or people (well, I couldn’t blame her there. I didn’t like people too much myself these days.)
Howard interrupted my thoughts about Mrs. Vampire.
I only bring it up because, well…
And here he popped open the cufflink on what was certainly a custom made French blue shirt and rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal a bruise, hideous in color and stretching from wrist to elbow – just like mine. A matched set.
I laughed then. I rolled up my own sleeve and we folded our elbows like we were each making muscles and compared wounds.
Me: You should see the other guy
Him: I am the other guy
Me: I had it coming… He did it because he loves me.
Him: I had it coming too. She did it because she doesn’t love me.
Me: Ah… royal blood. Anemia has it’s drawbacks
Him: but it’s worth it for the throne…
And we went on like that for a minute or two, making ourselves and Howard’s dinner companion laugh.
Before they left that night, Howard introduced himself to me and shook my hand warmly, as though we had just had dinner together.
And, as my (and Howard’s) bruise healed, I continued waiting… but now, Howard was there. Howard of the bright, keen eyes. Howard, who had nothing in common with the scrappy, straggly-haired actors and drug-addled musicians I dated. Howard who dressed like a man out of time and did everything with humor and intention. Howard who was a writer who defied his wealthy family and left his job at The Hedge Fund to become a writer.
He came in at least once a week, sometimes with friends like Ellen (Irishy/Jewishy), usually alone, and sat in my section. He often came when it was slow so we could talk, but never stayed too late or made anyone work too hard.
He would, during the little lulls in business, tell me about his observations. He was an avid watcher of people and got a real kick out of the Bourgeoisie Boho clientele the West Village restaurant attracted.
He would compliment me in unusual ways, ways I had never been complimented before.
He would order simply and elegantly and was always grateful and satisfied with what he received. He tipped very well and he always made me smile.
Then, one day, Howard asked me on a date. He said
Lila, I’d like to take you out.
I know, Howard.
But I blushed as I said it.
Then, I said
Ok, Howard. I’m off tomorrow. I’ll meet you outside.
When Howard arrived he was wearing a beautiful black wool suit. His eyes were like two beads of water shining in the dark.
You look lovely. You look like Snow White. If she were a real person.
Where are we going?
I am taking you out.
And then Howard, who had been a privileged child, Howard who had made billionaires even richer, Howard, who knew the difference between Cashmere and everything else but never talked about it, took me to Tast-ee-cup.
He held my hand as we walked up 8th Avenue and he stopped us in a puddle of halogen light from the sign above. Together we looked in the window at the orange formica counters lined with customers holding paper cups of milky coffee and perfect Os dusted with powder and sparkly sugar.
He looked at me as he led me to two empty swiveling stools at the counter. And then Howard ordered for me.
We will have two coffees, regular, and two different doughnuts. You choose.
The man behind the counter grinned as though he had been given a compliment and said
coming right up!
Ten minutes later I, who had no joy in my life, I, who hated people, I who had been waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen, couldn’t wait anymore.
I kissed Howard on his sugary, powdery lips, and that was it.