Monday, January 29, 2007

party of one

The pots and pans rattle; the din of the kitchen is suffocating. I push open the door and take in a deep breath of the smoky air.

The restaurant is full, our clientele diverse. A group of well-dressed women heartily devour their steaks, medium-rare or they'll send them back, while an older couple enjoys a quiet dinner, exchanging glances and bites instead of stories and anecdotes. On the other side of the room, a young couple fights. My experience tells me they are breaking up; her with him, she's fallen in love with the gardener. Or pool boy. Or tennis instructor. Or something of the sort. I stand right beside one of two birthday tables this evening. A young lady celebrates her 18th birthday; she blows out her candles in two breaths, laughing hysterically and flashes go off in an attempt to capture the moment forever. The cake, immaculately covered in pink icing, is cut to reveal a divine chocolate filling, punctuated by raspberries which seem to bleed with each slice. I look over to the other birthday table. There is quiet conversation and the atmosphere is altogether more serious. No party hats, no cameras, no cake. So sombre that I would have never guessed there was anything to celebrate at table 12. The young man's mother had come earlier to request that "no birthday stuff" be brought out. She had left her credit card to take care of the bill, slipping a crisp $100 bill in my hand as she said goodbye. I thanked her, assuring her that it was unnecessary but she insisted that I take it, asking me to take the utmost care of her son. I didn't think it wise to ask any questions. I slipped the bill into the tip jar.

As I meander through the dining room, I note that the most popular dish of the evening is the grilled fillet mignon, each cooked to perfection, even when ordered "very well done", much to the horror of my head chef. Maurice's heart breaks in two every time a waiter waltzes in with an order, "Table 6. Two steaks. Well-done." Pause. "Sorry Maurice." Earlier in the kitchen, I heard him mumble under his breath after Antonio walked in with an order of seven well-done steaks, all for the same table. "Les americains..." he muttered. I ignored him, what do the French know about food anyway?

It is now almost closing time. A few tables are still occupied. The fighting couple is making up, over a good recommendation of Beaujolais Nouveau by Collin, my newest English recruit. The birthday group is still here; not the young lady's 18th but surprisingly, the young man's. He beckons me over. "Please, enjoy a glass of wine with us. You have done so much to make this evening so memorable for me." I politely decline. He insists. I take a glass and pull up a chair. A night like so many others, I doubt I will remember much of our conversation the next morning. I drink the wine; it slips past my tongue and down my throat; welcomed like an old friend. I drink a little more. The young man (his name is Gregory, I learn) tops up my glass. I thank him, and drink the rest. At this point I notice that the dining room is almost empty.

I walk over to the only other occupied table. Four attractive women look up at me as I get closer to them. One whispers something to the only brunette at the table and she smiles seductively at me. I think of my wife and daughter at home, probably fast asleep by now. Another day that I've missed away from my family. "Hello ladies," I say, "I trust you've had an enjoyable evening?" The brunette answers on their behalf, "Of course, the food has been exquisite. But if only it hadn't taken you so long to come over." I smile, flattered by her intended compliment. She looks at me, waiting for me to say something witty to which she will quickly deliver an equally-witty reply. But all I say is, "Will there be anything else, ladies, or would you like me to bring the check?" The brunette seems a little surprised but nevertheless replies, "Not at all. It's getting late and we must get home." As I wait for their check to print, I cautiously look back at their table. The brunette looks back at me. I hurriedly look away, slipping the check into a leather-bound envelope. Taking a chance, I also slip in my business card, with my private cellphone number written on the back. When I walk over to the table, the brunette picks up her glass, downing the rest of her Pinot Gris. "I'll take that, thank you," she says, gesturing for me to hand her the check. As I walk away, her friends all interrupt with pleas of "splitting the bill" but she will have none of it. She slips my card into her purse and they all get up. All are taller than I would have imagined. And slimmer.

She doesn't look at me again. The party of four walks out of my restaurant, the three blondes leading the way. As the door closes behind the brunette, she turns around and with a quick motion, takes out my card, crumples it up and leaves it laying in the gutter. She smiles at me, raises an eyebrow and after pausing for a minute, walks away. I am stunned.

My attention goes back to the birthday table. Gregory and his friends are getting ready to leave, feeling they may have outstayed their welcome. Most of my waiters have gone home. A couple stand outside, smoking a cigarette. Gregory comes over to settle the bill but I explain it has already been taken care of. He thanks me again, and with a warm handshake, tells me that his birthday was everything he hoped it would be.

As the last person walks out of my restaurant, I sit in an empty chair by the window, and with every passing minute, watch the cars whiz by. I look at my watch; it is almost two in the morning. I go into the kitchen to close up. Maurice has left it impeccable; all that is left for me to do is switch off the lights. In the dining room, I add up the day's total. Not bad for a Thursday.

I step into the crisp November night and, for the first time that day, breathe.

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