June 26th, 2011


I can't emotionally handle waitressing.

The woman walks into the restaurant smiling. I see her only out of the corner of my eye because I am busy getting something for another customer, but I watch as the hostess leads her to a round corner booth, setting down two menus. The woman sits, sliding deep into the booth and stares dreamily out across the restaurant. She is wearing a white jacket that looks like something my mother would find at TJ Maxx and would hold up to me on a hanger, asking, “Isn’t this nice? On sale! Thirty dollars!” She is in her mid sixties, maybe, wearing a modest, mid-length black skirt and black, open toed flats with pantyhose. She has a slight thickness to her ankles and her wrists and her neck—her hands she places on the table, one on top of the other, drumming her fingers across the tops of her opposing fingers. Her hair, which is shoulder-length, has been dyed a deep red, and is dry and frayed at the tips. Under her jacket she is wearing a black top with a small bow on it, from which a loose thread protrudes onto her neckline. She smiles and says,

“There are going to be two of us!” and I nod and say,

“Can I get you something to drink while you wait on the rest of your party?”

This is always what I say to tables that are waiting for people to arrive. And she says,

“May I have a coffee, please?”

She grins while she asks, showing all her teeth. Her eyes get small and squint when she smiles and she reminds me of a good-natured British housekeeper from a movie. And I nod, happily—I am in a good mood because it is Friday—and leave to get her coffee. When I return there are three gifts on the table wrapped, alternatingly, in gold paper with white curling ribbon and white paper with gold curling ribbon. The gold paper has the imprints of stars on it. The gifts are shabbily wrapped or have been tossed around a bit—the corners are pushed in and the paper has wrinkled in places, but she sets the three boxes on the table, one stacked on top of the other, creating a tiered wedding cake of presents. I pour the coffee, setting down the milk. I place a sugar caddy on the table but she waves it off, saying, “No no, it’s fine, I don’t need it,” and I place the caddy back on the tray. I ask her,

“Is tap water all right or would you prefer sparkling or still?”

and the woman, smiling but anxious, waves her hands over the tops of the glasses, saying she doesn’t need any water for now. The coffee is fine. “I’ll wait for him,” she says. “I’ll see what he wants.”

I walk away from her table for a while and she sips her coffee and stares out into space. Sometimes when people are sitting by themselves for a while they will pull our a newspaper or start doing SuDoKu puzzles or will play round after round of Angry Birds on their iPhones, but she does not begin doing any of these things. She will occasionally pick her black patent leather purse, which is the size of a VHS tape, unzippering it and pulling out her cell phone. She opens the phone and then immediately closes it, putting it back in the purse. She continues to sit.

And I am still working so I begin to move around—ordering a lentil salad and an order of mussels for the two Japanese women in my section. A mother comes in with her adult daughter and orders a chopped salad and a chicken club, which are my two least favorite things on the menu. They both order diet cokes. I glance at the woman with the coffee but she is fine—still sitting alone, still staring ahead blankly. A man who comes in twice a week or so comes in and is upset that we are out of salmon and begrudgingly orders pasta. And when I apologize that we don’t have what he wanted initially he suddenly becomes calm and says, “It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it.” Two women sitting in the back order wine and ask about the beet salad appetizer with enthusiasm.

I stand by the computer, punching in orders and out of the corner of my eye notice that the woman who ordered coffee has been joined by a man of about forty. The man has a crew cut and a crisp light blue work shirt and khakis, and is sitting with his legs hanging out of the booth, as if riding side-saddle on a horse. He looks a little bit like a young Steve Jobs and it becomes apparent that the woman is his mother, who, judging by her excitement, does not see him all that frequently. She has fluttered to life like an excited bird, fawning over her son, talking to him with enthusiasm while he calmly fields her questions with a contrived energy. I walk to the table and ask what sort of water they would like and the man asks for a Champagne and says no water—he doesn’t need water. I bring the Champagne back and he continues sitting awkwardly, his legs half out of the booth, with the woman handing him the presents. I ask if they have any questions on the menu and the man turns to me and says, “No food, I’m not going to eat—I have a dinner later.”

I keep an eye on the table and after a few minutes the man calls me over and asks for another champagne and then asks if I can order him an omelet with American cheese and then charge his card right away. And I get him the Champagne and order the omelet. He pays with an American express black card, which means that he has tons and tons of money. Several minutes later he hugs the woman quickly and abruptly leaves the restaurant.

I go back to the table, where the woman is once again sitting alone. The gifts the man was given are unwrapped, piled on the chair. On top is a birthday card that reads, “I can’t believe you’re 40!” with an image of a cartoon man with very long arms putting his hands to his cheeks in disbelief. The woman, re-adjusting to the silence, sits quietly. I ask if everything at the table is ok and she says, “Oh yes, everything is fine.” Her omelet arrives and she eats it slowly, in small polite forkfuls, staring at nothing. Her son’s empty Champagne glass sits opposite her on the table and I pick it up, as if to erase the evidence that this was originally a two-person lunch. When she is done eating she politely pushes her plate to the side and begins re-wrapping the gifts in tissue paper and bubble wrap. There is a book with a polar bear on the front with the words, “Snow Day,” written across it in blue letters. I do not understand why a 40 year old man would want a book like that, but it seems like something the woman would buy, thinking it was cute, possibly for a grandchild. In the store she must have been excited—the polar bear and the glossy paper of the cover and the discount (30% off the regular price!). But now the woman’s hands have become heavy and her thumbs move slowly as they clumsily re-wrap and re-pile the opened presents, which are still sitting beside her. She had counted, I think, on her son taking them—on his saying, “Thank you, mom! This is indispensable! These are so cute! This is exactly what I wanted!” and sitting down with her to a long, chatty lunch. But it did not work that way. He is gone, but she is still here and the things that she tried to give him are still here.

When everything is re-wrapped the woman quietly asks me if we have a bag somewhere that she could use to put the gifts in, since it will be hard to hold them otherwise. I say, “Oh yes, don’t worry, I’ll find a bag for you just hold on one second,” and run downstairs to get something—anything—that will help her. I find a bag used for take-away orders and my hostess finds a large plastic bag somewhere and between the two bags, we are able to fit in all of the gifts. The woman says, “Thank you very much,” and I say anxiously, “I hope everything was ok,” and she smiles and says, “The food was delicious.” She grabs the bags with her son’s gifts and 40th birthday card and picks up her black patent leather pocketbook, holding her head high. She smiles like a news anchor. She smoothes her skirt. And then, just as my heart is breaking, she walks out the door and disappears into the city.