by Kim Sutton Allouche
Three years after our divorce, my ex-wife Michelle phoned to ask me why I’d chosen that particular time to leave her. It was just an ordinary summer, she’d protested. It was. Once again, I turned the events over in my mind. She hadn’t even asked until then. Not really. I fumbled; I answered in shorthand. It was the waitress. Michelle hung up. She misunderstood. I don’t know why I would have expected that she wouldn’t.
The summer in question, on the hottest night in July, Michelle phoned me at my office in the city from our beach house on the Jersey shore. We’re gonna have dinner with Bobby and Amber, she’d said. Once a day she’d phone, either to tell me the plans or to ask for favors. In our twenty-two years together, I’d learned to prioritize her requests. That summer it was about espresso doses and French cheeses from Dean & Deluca that stunk up the car before I could escape the chokehold of the Holland Tunnel.
Our calls were brief. She’d ask me to please this or that, and I’d say sure. She always ended with “Don’t be late.” It was already 5:30. I closed my computer mid-report. Figured I’d just come in early on Monday. Michelle would definitely not want to keep her big brother, Bobby, waiting. He could get pretty sarcastic. His third wife, Amber, would just sit there and grin as he went on and on. But really, what could anyone do?
On the turnpike in Newark, I was doing ninety, like when the twins were little and Michelle would put them down to bed if I couldn’t get there by seven. They’ve got to be on a schedule, she would say. I was sweating hard. I slowed down and lowered the A/C. C’mon, Joe, I told myself. Better to be a few minutes late than get pulled over by Jersey cops. Michelle would kill me either way.
Mostly, we got along. I imagine most marriages were like ours after a while. Guys stick it out, surrender a little; in exchange, you get something, a life, something, a life not alone.
As I pulled into the gravel parking lot at Bella’s on the Shore, I noticed my wife’s SUV with the bumper sticker from the twins’ university alongside Bobby’s Mercedes S-class. Of course S-class. There they were, a story above me, seated on the deck tossing back martinis, overlooking the blue-black waves of the Atlantic. From where they sat, the ocean must have looked beautiful. Up close though, I could make out a plastic tampon cover and two syringes washed up among the bright blue mussel shells the seagulls had devoured. I pointed out our table to the hostess before asking her to keep the melted Brie in their fridge. Bobby was a regular; it would be all right.
“So you finally made it,” said Michelle as she continued to apply lipstick over already pink-stained lips.
I was seven minutes late.
Before I could answer, Bobby was up and bear-hugging me, almost shouting, “Hey, my man, wassup?” Kind of making fun of himself. Other diners turned to look. Forever cool. I noticed his Italian loafers, his sockless, suntanned feet. Designer, but not obviously designer clothes. Planned to look spontaneous. I patted him back.
“It’s all good, Bobby, all good,” I answered.
I bent to kiss Amber on her cheek. Michelle turned her head away slightly as I aimed for her lips. I pretended not to notice. Bobby sat and reached for Amber’s hand, which he gripped on the tabletop, tight like a squirming rodent. Her newly thickened lips remained in a smile that emphasized her slightly buck teeth. I looked away from her fake, tanned cleavage.
Bobby was the king of our little shore community. He said something about a charity fund-raiser, who showed up and how much they gave.
“How’s the rest of your summer going?” I asked.
“You know, man,” he said in an uncharacteristic bout of honesty, “I kinda hate everyone.”
Maybe his narcissism had reached its peak. As in, I no longer have to pretend in a social way. As in, whatever I think and feel is okay to express to the world. Me, I wanted a drink.
And then, the waitress appeared. She was about our age or older, mid-forties, I’d say, but she was too skinny, which made her seem boyish or haggard, younger or older, depending on how you were looking. Speaking in an Irish lilt, incongruous enough on the Jersey shore, she brushed straight black bangs out of emerald eyes.
“Still or sparkling?” she asked, smiling. “Or would you prefer tap?”
“Listen, honey,” Bobby started in. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, which he dabbed with a linen napkin. Yet the heat was fading fast as ocean breezes dragged in some grayish clouds from the east. “Bring us a bottle of each. And can you do something about the music?”
On the wall above Bobby, who faced the ocean, was a speaker that piped in Italian love songs. The waitress looked confused.
“Can you change the music?” said Bobby. “It’s Italian.”
She smiled even more, wiping her bangs again. She may have thought he was joking.
“It’s Italian music in an Italian restaurant,” she said. “What kind of music would you like?”
My insides tensed. Michelle and Amber stopped talking to each other to listen to Bobby. It could have gone bad.
Then he chuckled. “Anything…even Polish, I don’t know.”
Good one, Bobby.
“I’ll talk to the manager right away. Yes, you’re right under the speaker.”
Quickly, before she walked away, Bobby tugged on her apron, and we ordered drinks. As the waitress turned away in her mannish uniform, Michelle looked directly at me for the first time since my arrival.
“She’s so mousy, don’t you think? I hope she gets that order right.”
Something had changed in my wife when the kids left home or maybe even before. She was still good-looking in a blond, athletic kind of way, but certain lines in her face deepened and cut her like parentheses around her nose and mouth, and between her eyes. She always looked angry.
I tried to touch her hand, imitating Bobby and Amber, but it stiffened. Then just as it relaxed, I pulled mine away, getting the timing all wrong.
Mercifully, nightfall approached. The waitress came back to the table as the wind picked up and the sky behind the sunset darkened into a bruise. She balanced a tray filled with ice, water bottles, and drinks on her bony forearm. With her free hand, right as she was serving Michelle, a busy busboy brushed her back, causing the waitress to drop Michelle’s second martini right into the crotch of her skintight white jeans. My wife let out a shrill yell. I wished it had been me. I wouldn’t have minded.
“I’m sorry; so, so sorry,” said the waitress as she handed Michelle napkins. “Really, I’m very sorry.”
“No worries,” said Bobby
Michelle glared as she grabbed the napkins.
“No worries,” I repeated without thinking.
“Are you okay, honey?” asked Amber, readjusting her bra strap.
Half of Michelle’s mouth rose in a distorted smile for her new sister-in-law. Amber patted Michelle’s hand like she’d just survived a car accident. The waitress hovered, smiled, and said all the right things. I studied her profile, her sloped nose and the narrowness of her frame, thin like someone whose life had been rough, and in her eyes there were tears that she blinked away and brushed back into her hair. As she walked away, I noticed the stingy sliver of moon, which was rising above us.
Springsteen howled through the speaker, and Bobby thanked the waitress in what his sister would surely take as a betrayal. Like a palm reader, I’d learned to read the future in the lines on my wife’s face.
“You’re a doll,” Bobby said to the waitress. “Now, make sure the fish is grilled in olive oil, no butter, and I want the pasta al dente. And bring me another double, this time straight up, three olives. Where’s the accent from? You Russian?”
“Dublin.” She laughed. “You’ve got an ear for foreign languages.”
I watched her carefully, but saw not one trace of a smirk or iota of condescension. Humor, for sure, but no one was excluded from the joke. Her green eyes stayed fixed on Bobby as he talked over Amber’s attempt at ordering.
“So in Ireland, you throw drinks on your customers, sweetie?”
The waitress seemed to be holding back. In the quick flicker of her eyes, there seemed to be a thousand possible answers to his idiotic question. He must have felt it too.
“I’m just teasin’ ya, doll,” he said.
Amber chimed in, a baby diplomat. “Oh, don’t mind him; he can be a horror. Trust me, I know.” Then to Bobby, “Down, boy,” in a loud whisper that was meant to be funny.
Bobby turned to face Amber. We all turned to face Amber, the waitress included. Bobby said to his new wife, “You got something to say, sweetie? You got an issue with me teasing Ireland here?” Amber froze, and you could almost see moistness coming into her eyes. Her full lips parted.
“Maybe you’re the one who needs the double vodka,” the waitress said to Amber, commiserating with humor and kindness so deep it neutralized any sting in the air.
Amber laughed. Even Michelle finally smiled. Bobby leaned over and gave Amber a kiss. Bullet dodged.
Who was this waitress? I wondered. She was old to work at Bella’s. Strong or fragile? How’d she end up on this pitiful side of the black, polluted ocean? Did she live alone now? Had she always? I wanted to be in a place where I might get those answers, to know her. And I knew that I would never be in that place.
After Limoncellos, after dessert, Bobby yelled, “Check please, pronto,” as the waitress passed our table. By that time, the ocean winds had totally erased the heat. The night had turned chilly. The wives put on sweaters. Almost all of the other diners had gone home. We had the place to ourselves except for one group at the other side of the deck, late arrivals even for the shore.
The waitress came by with another tray of drinks. “Doll,” he said, reaching out again to grab her apron, “lemme ask you a question?”
“Of course,” the waitress answered.
“What’s the maximum amount of tip I can leave?”
“What?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.
“The maximum. The absolute maximum amount of tip I can leave?”
The waitress looked at him, somewhere between confusion and amusement.
Those double martinis having caught up with him, Bobby pulled just a little too hard on her apron. “Whisper it in my ear, doll, what’s that maximum amount of tip?” As he pulled her down toward him, a glass of white wine tipped right into his ear.
Then the waitress began to laugh. She put down the tray and laughed so hard and so long her emaciated body began to shake with it, and she held onto a wooden banister, leaning over, pressing herself in a way that almost worried me.
We all laughed too. Bobby took it well, shifting into clown mode and pantomiming shaking water out of his ear, slapping himself on the opposite side of his head. I looked at Michelle, who was smiling along with the rest of us, but those anger lines suggested she might be just a bit annoyed her brother handled his drink-dousing with more humor than she had.
After composing herself, the waitress looked right at Amber. “He had that coming, didn’t he?” She continued smiling right at Amber, tears in her eyes again, deep dimples, mouth open.
“The maximum,” Bobby said again, spitting out the words between deep chuckles. “Still gonna tip the maximum, if anybody will tell me what that is.”
The waitress tottered away, over to the other side of the deck, almost a new spring in her Irish step.
As usual, my wife and I drove home in separate cars, but that night, unlike others, she beat me inside. I’d forgotten the Brie. Back in the parking lot of the restaurant, I sat there in my car, windows open, inhaling the ocean smell, dreaming of a woman who could laugh and cry, a woman inside of life. I pushed open the car door against the force of the wind, the roar of the waves. I walked across the wet sand to the water’s edge splashed and spun by the weather. And I could not make myself go back inside for the cheese.
The following Saturday, the second hottest day that July, we returned, the four of us, to Bella’s on the Shore. This time, there was no ocean breeze at all, barely even a ripple as the Atlantic turned into a flat, dark lake. A blond college girl with a nautical tattoo came over to take our order. A Jersey girl. I looked around for the other waitress.
“Where’s the Irish girl?” Bobby asked. His remembering surprised me.
“Oh, she quit last week,” the new waitress said, twirling her hair.
“No great loss,” murmured Michelle.
“Oh, Michelle,” I wanted to say, “what a loss, what a loss.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story