It’s Saturday night and Café Machiavelli is packed. There are so many customers in the dining room that the mass of their collective bodies forms a swirling vortex of need and want, collapsing perspective and time into an emotional black hole. As I walk across the restaurant’s stone floor, I skirt the edge of the maelstrom’s event horizon, loop around the hostess stand, and park myself in a safe orbit behind the dessert station. It’s only when my legs come to a complete halt that I realize my heart is racing. Breaking out in a cold sweat, my vision tunnels and darkness starts to overtake me. I’m going down.
Instinctively I drop to one knee, grab the edge of a Formica counter for support, and point my head towards the floor. As I start driving air in and out of my lungs, the blackness makes a frenzied attempt to finish me off. Like a fighter pilot struggling though a nine gee turn, I clench the muscles in my thighs and buttocks, forcing blood from my lower extremities into my oxygen starved brain. In the background, the restaurant clatters and roars as it gorges itself on money, decency, and sweat. For a moment I think of letting myself faint. At least I’d get to go home.
A hand falls on my shoulder. “Are you all right?” the person it’s attached to asks.
Instead of answering, I concentrate on my breathing. If I open my mouth I’ll throw up. The friendly hand on my shoulder provides a steady warm pressure, helping me throttle my heart back into a normal rhythm. After a minute the blackness slips away and I stand up straight. When I open my eyes I see Jimmy, Café Machiavelli’s youngest busboy, looking at me with concern.
“I’m okay,” I say, suddenly feeling very thirsty. “I just felt faint.”
“You were white as a sheet there for a minute,” Jimmy says.
“Too much running around,” I say, pouring myself a glass of water.
“You need any help?”
“I’ve got to make nine cappuccinos and plate eight desserts. Think you can give me a hand?”
“Sure,” Jimmy replies. “I’ll do the desserts.”
I finish my water and get to work. My table ordered four regular and five decaf cappuccinos. The only way I can avoid going into the weeds is to cut corners. I whip a plastic soda pitcher full of milk into foam, brew a pot of decaf espresso, line up nine glasses, and start assembling my coffees assembly line style. Everyone’s getting decaf tonight.
Suddenly Willem, the restaurant’s manager, makes an appearance.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he asks Jimmy.
“I’m helping him make desserts,” Jimmy replies.
“Get back on the floor,” Willem yelps. “Making desserts isn’t your job.”
“Back on the floor!” Willem barks.
“It’s okay Jimmy,” I interject gently. “I can handle it from here.”
After Jimmy exits the dessert station Willem sticks his face two inches from mine. His breath stinks and his chubby face is beaded with desperate perspiration.
“Why the fuck can’t you handle your tables?” he asks me.
“There’s only four servers on tonight,” I reply. “What did you expect?”
“Don’t give me that shit,” Willem says, shaking his head disgustedly. “You walk around here like super waiter but go in the weeds over a few desserts. I don’t know where you learned to wait tables, but you need to work faster.”
“Gimme a break” I groan. “We’re all busting our ass tonight.”
“Shut up and get your ass in gear.”
Anger detonates in my chest. I’m sick and tired of being treated like a fourth grader by a bunch of kindergartners.
“There’s a difference between fine dining and working in a diner Willem,” I retort hotly. “And if you weren’t such a jerk to work for, then maybe everyone wouldn’t be quitting.”
“How many bus people have we lost this week?” I ask. “Three?”
“The bus people are not your concern.”
“It is when I can’t get my tables cleared.”
“I’m gonna talk to the owner about you,” Willem gloats. “He’s gonna fire you.”
“Get the fuck out of my face Willem,” I reply, my voice compact with menace, “Or I’ll run right over you.”
Surprised, Willem whitens with shock and slinks away. I finish assembling my cappuccinos, place them on a large tray, and deliver them to my table.
“I’ll be right back with your desserts,” I say, setting the last coffee on the table.
“Waiter,” the table’s host says icily, “Everything’s been slow tonight – the service, the kitchen, and now dessert. What’s going on here?”
“My apologies, sir. We’re short staffed.”
“And where’s Gwendolyn?” the man asks. “She always used to wait on us.”
“She no longer works here I’m afraid.”
The man shakes his head. “Everyone here is new,” he mutters. “No one knows what they’re doing.”
There’s nothing to say so I say nothing. I return to the dessert station to finish plating my desserts. When I get there Willem’s waiting with the owner.
“What’s going on?” the owner asks.
“Your manager doesn’t know how to handle people,” I reply evenly. “He’s rude, arrogant, and socially inept. If I hear another word out of his mouth I’ll quit right now.”
“I don’t want you to do that,” the owner says.
“Then tell him to get off my back.”
Willem’s face registers betrayal, shocked that the owner threw him under the bus. Since we’re down so many staff, I knew the owner’s reaction would break my way. That Willem couldn’t predict this outcome means that his days are numbered. He storms off, furious.
Undaunted, I finish delivering my desserts, grab another table’s coffee order, and head back to the espresso machine. As I garnish my demitasse cups with lemon rinds I look at the dining room. It’s a nightmare. The customers are angry that everything’s taking so long. No one is smiling, everyone looks miserable, and the restaurant’s atmosphere is light years from being hospitable. Café Machiavelli seems to be sucking the life out of everyone tonight, including me. Maybe that’s why I felt faint earlier.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Willem struggling. He’s got a tray laden with drinks in one hand, a plate of food in another, and an impatient customer trying to get his attention by tugging on his apron. I consider going to help him but decide against it. I want to watch Willem get sucked into the center of the restaurant’s black hole and be annihilated. I shake my head. I’m at a point in my life where I can no longer deal with people who suck the life out of me. I’m know I’m being self protective, but sometimes defending yourself involves being ruthless and cruel. I don’t like that part of myself.
Without lifting a finger to help him, I watch as Willem falls into the restaurant’s whirling center and gets crushed inside its ravenous core.
“Better him than me,” I say to myself, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.