S.E.C.R.E.T. Step I

Waitresses are adept at reading body language. So are wives who’ve lived under the same roof as angry drunks. And I had been both, a wife for fourteen years and a waitress for almost four. Part of my job was to know, sometimes even before customers did, what they wanted. I could do that with my ex, too, anticipate exactly what he wanted the second he came through the door. And yet whenever I tried to turn that skill on myself, to anticipate my own needs, I couldn’t.

I hadn’t planned to become a waitress. Does anyone? I got the job at Café Rose after my ex died. And in the following four years, as I moved from grief to anger to a kind of numb limbo, I waited. I waited on people, I waited on time, I waited on life. Still, I actually kind of liked my job. Working in a place like Café Rose, in a city like New Orleans, you get your regulars, your favorites and a few you try to pawn off on your co-workers. Dell couldn’t stand serving the local eccentrics because they were bad tippers.

But I overheard the best stories. So we had a trade-off. I would take the eccentrics and the musicians if she waited on the students, or anyone with babies and strollers.

My absolute favorites were the couples, this one couple in particular. Strange maybe to say this, but I’d get butterflies whenever they walked in. The woman was in her late thirties, beautiful in the way some French women are—glowing skin, short hair, and yet she had an undeniably feminine air. Her man, the guy she always came in with, had an open face, with brown hair shaved close to his head. He was tall with a lean, lithe body, and a little younger than her, I think. Neither the man nor the woman wore wedding rings, so I wasn’t sure about the exact nature of their relationship.

But whatever it was, it was intimate. They always looked like they’d just come from having sex or were heading to do just that after a quick lunch.

Every time they sat down, they did this thing where the guy would place his elbows on the table, opening up his hands to face her. She’d wait a beat, then gently place her elbows on the table in front of his, and they’d suspend their hands, palms open, an inch from each other’s, as though there was a gentle force preventing them from touching—just for a second, before it got cheesy or was noticeable to anyone but me. Then their fingers would interlock. He would kiss the tips of her fingers, now framed by the backs of his hands, one after the other. Always left to right. She would smile. All this happened quickly, so quickly, before they’d separate their hands and scan the menu. Watching them, or trying to watch without seeming to watch, triggered a deep, familiar longing in me. I could feel what she felt, as though it was his hand caressing mine, or my forearm, my wrist.

The life I’d lived held no such longings. Tenderness wasn’t familiar to me. Nor urgency. My ex-husband, Scott, could be kind and generous when he was sober, but towards the end, when his drinking had him by the throat, he was anything but. After he died, I cried for all the pain he had been in and all the pain he had caused, but I didn’t miss him. Not even a little. Something atrophied in me, then died, and soon five years had passed since I’d had sex. Five Years. I often thought of this accidental celibacy like it was a skinny old dog, left with no choice but to follow me. Five Years came with me everywhere, tongue lolling, trotting on its toes. When I tried on clothes, Five Years lay panting on the floor of the change room, its gleaming eyes ridiculing my attempt to look prettier in a new dress. Five Years also parked itself beneath every table of every tepid date I went on, slumped at my feet.

None of the dates I’d been on had led me to a relationship of any value. At thirty-five, I’d begun to believe “it” would never happen again. To be wanted, to be craved, the way this man craved this woman, was like something out of a foreign movie in a language I’d never learn, with subtitles that were becoming increasingly blurry.

“Third date,” my boss mumbled, startling me. I was standing next to Will behind the pastry counter, where he was wiping dishwasher spots off the glasses. He had noticed me noticing the couple. And I noticed his arms as I always did. He was wearing a plaid shirt, rolled to the elbows, his forearms muscular and covered with soft sun-bleached hair.

Though we were just friends, every once in a while I was a little shaken by his sexiness, enhanced by the fact that he was completely oblivious to it.

“Maybe fifth date, don’t you think? Is that how long women wait before they sleep with a guy they’re dating?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Will rolled his dark blue eyes at me. He no longer tolerated my whining about my lack of dates.

“Those two were like that from day one,” I said, glancing back at my couple. “They’re totally into each other.”

“I give them six months,” Will said.

“Cynic,” I replied, shaking my head.

We often did this, speculated on the imaginary relationship between two customers. It was our little thing, a way to pass the time.

“Okay, look over there. See that old guy splitting a plate of mussels with that young woman?” he said, pointing out a different couple, discreetly, with his chin. I craned my neck, trying not to stare too obviously at an older man with a much younger woman.

“I bet that’s his best friend’s daughter,” Will said, lowering his voice. “She’s finally graduated and wants to apprentice at his law office. But now that she’s twenty-one, he’s going to put the moves on her.”

“Ew. What if she’s just his daughter?”

Will shrugged.

I scanned the room, surprisingly busy for a Tuesday afternoon. I pointed out yet another couple, in the corner just finishing their meal. “Now, see those two?”


“I think they’re just about to break up,” I said. Will gave me a look like I was going too far into fantasyland. “There’s almost no eye contact at all between them, and he was the only one to order a dessert. I brought him two spoons, but he didn’t even offer her a bite. Bad sign.”

“Always a bad sign. A man should always share his dessert,” he said, winking. I had to smile. “Hey, can you finish polishing the glasses? I have to pick up Tracina. Her car broke down again.”

Tracina was the night waitress Will had been dating for a little over a year, after asking me out didn’t get him anywhere.

I was initially flattered by his interest in me, but I was in no position to act on it. I needed a friend more than I needed to be dating my boss. Plus, we eventually crossed so deep into the friend zone that despite my attraction, it was less of a struggle to keep things platonic . . . except for the odd time that I’d catch him working late in the back office, the top button of his shirt undone, his sleeves rolled up, running his fingers through his thick, salt-and-pepper hair. But I could shake the feeling off.

Then he started dating Tracina. I once accused him of hiring her just so he could take her out.

“So what if I did? It’s one of the few perks of being the boss,” he said.

After I finished polishing the glasses, I printed up my couple’s bill and made my way slowly to their table. That’s when I noticed the woman’s bracelet for the first time, a thick gold chain festooned with small gold charms.

It was so unusual, a pale yellow with a matte finish. The charms had Roman numerals on them on one side and words, which I couldn’t quite read, on the other. There were about a dozen charms on the chain. The man seemed captivated by this piece of jewelry, too. He ran his fingers through the charms as he caressed her wrist and forearm with both hands. His touch was firm, possessive in a way that caught me in the throat and caused the area behind my belly button to warm up. Five Years.

“Here you go,” I said, my voice rising an octave. I slid the bill on the part of the table not covered by their limbs.

They seemed astonished by my presence.

“Oh. Thanks!” the woman said, straightening.

“Was everything okay?” I asked. Why was I feeling shy towards them?

“Perfect as always,” she said.

“It was great, thanks,” the man added, digging for his wallet.

“Let me get this one. You always pay.” The woman leaned sideways and pulled her wallet from her purse and gave me a credit card. Her bracelet tinkled as she moved. “Here you go, sweetheart.” She was my age and calling me “sweetheart”?

Her confidence let her get away with it. When I took the credit card, I thought I saw concern flash across her eyes. Was she noticing my stained brown work shirt? The one I always wore because it matched the color of the food that ended up on it? I felt suddenly aware of my appearance. I also realized I wasn’t wearing any makeup. Oh God, and my shoes—brown and flat. No stockings—ankle socks, if you can believe it. What had happened to me? When had I turned prematurely into a middle-aged frump?

My face burned as I walked away, shoving the credit card in my apron. I headed straight for the washroom to splash cold water on my face. I smoothed down my apron and looked in the mirror. I wore brown clothing because it was practical. I can’t wear a dress. I am a waitress. As for my messy ponytail, hair has to be tied back. It’s regulation. I supposed I could comb it back more smoothly, instead of
sloppily wrapping it up in an elastic like a clutch of asparagus.

My shoes were the shoes of a woman who hadn’t given a lot of thought to her feet, despite how nice I’ve been told mine are. And it’s true that I hadn’t had a professional manicure since the night before my wedding. But those things are a waste of money. Still, how had I let it come to this? I had officially let myself go. Five Years lay slumped against the bathroom door, exhausted. I returned to the table with the credit card slip, avoiding eye contact with either of them.

“Have you worked here long?” the man asked, while the woman scribbled her signature.

“About four years.”

“You’re very good at your job.”

“Thank you.” I felt heat rise in my face.

“We’ll see you next week,” the woman said. “I just love this old place.”

“It’s seen better days.”

“It’s perfect for us,” she added, handing me the bill and winking at her man.

I looked at her signature, expecting something florid and interesting. Pauline Davis seemed plain and small, which was kind of reassuring to me in that moment.

My eyes followed the couple as they left, walking past the tables and outside, where they kissed and parted ways.

As she passed the front window, the woman glanced in at me and waved. I must have looked like such a dork, standing there staring at them. I waved meekly back at her through the dusty glass.

My trance was broken by an elderly woman sitting at the next table. “That lady dropped something,” she said, pointing under the table.

I bent to retrieve a small, burgundy notebook. It looked well worn and was soft to the touch, like skin. The cover had the initials PD embossed in gold, the same gold edging the pages. I gingerly opened it to the first page, looking for Pauline’s address or number, and accidentally caught a glimpse of the contents: “. . . his mouth on me . . .never felt so alive . . . it shot through me like a white-hot . . . coming over me in waves, swirling . . . bent me over the . . .

I slapped the diary shut.

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