He Always Ate Alone

It was not going as well as she had imagined—college in this crisp white town, Aysha thought as she cleared the tables and scraped off dishes while impatiently looking at her watch. Three hours left. For the first time in her life, it was dawning on her what it was like to be different: her name, the color of her skin, her faith—most of all her faith. She was not like them. She knew it and they knew it.

Until now she had taken for granted the diversity that had insulated her in her gritty hometown, but it was different here. Here people believed what they heard on the news. The quaint old world campus that had seemed so ideal in the brochures was coming up short—literally. In fact, it was only by bussing tables at Oliver’s that she was able to make up the difference between her scholarships and her student loans.

The clientele at this upscale bistro was not unique considering its location. Oliver’s was situated in between campus and the financial district, attracting both academics and investment bankers, and in a couple short weeks Aysha had learned to identify just about everyone—everyone, that is, except him. He was not like the others, too young to be a professor and too casual (rough-looking jeans with a nice shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbow) to be an investment banker. Yet something about him reeked of money. There was a planned carelessness about him that could only be spelled designer and she had been watching him intently: his easy strides, his dark features, his warm smile. Every time he walked into the restaurant she could feel her palms sweat and her pulse quicken. Today he was seated at a corner booth away from the activity of the restaurant. He always ate alone, that’s why it never occurred to her that he might be waiting for someone—and then she walked in.

After all this time Aysha finally noticed the glint of his wedding band as he stood up to greet her, this well-coiffed young woman not too much older than Aysha herself. The woman, Aysha noticed, was a tigress with a luxurious mane of honey blonde and a self-satisfied smile that reminded her of a well-fed cat—albeit one that came with very sharp teeth. She carried herself with a poise and experience that went beyond her years and when the man greeted her coolly, she seemed not to notice. For a moment all Aysha could do was stare—that is, until her supervisor noticed her vacant expression.

“Aysha, table three needs clean-up,” he said, his gruff voice breaking her trance.

She turned and nodded in his direction.

He gave her a look that meant “right away.”

She wiped the sweat off her brow and headed to table three, suddenly feeling self-conscious about herself, her clunky shoes, her dark complexion, her wild hair that always seemed to be spilling out of her ponytail. Of course she would deserve him, thought Aysha, as she brushed back a stray lock. They made a handsome couple, Ken and Barbie, perfect for this plastic town.

Clearing table three, she looked up again at the power couple; the two were now immersed in a heated discussion. At first, the woman spoke calmly, stroking his hair and kissing him lightly like old lovers do, but the man rejected her advances.

“Cut it out, Angie. You had an affair. I’m not just going to forget that…”

A cold look crept into the woman’s eyes and Aysha could see that her mouth had turned into a snarl as she hissed her response. The man remained calm, although the pleasantness had drained from his face and he looked at the woman intensely. Although Aysha tried not to listen, she couldn’t stop the sound of muffled words being spit into the air like bullets, ugly words likepre-nup… settlement… scandal. Even as she made her way to the kitchen she could feel the tension in the booth rising and seeping out like acid and although the tigress still wore that hungry smile, her words made the man’s eyes darken and jaw tighten.

Aysha was relieved that her next table was all the way across the room where the air was still light and the conversation still pleasant. A party of ten had just finished a lunch for a colleague. Humming softly to herself she began to clear the table—the unfinished drinks, the half-eaten chocolate cake. Chocolate cake had always been her favorite while Zeba, her best friend, had always preferred cheesecake. Now Zeba was married and living in another country and Aysha was on her own, friendless, loveless, with only this mysterious man to occupy her interest. She watched him, thought about him all the time.

Absorbed in her own little world, she started thinking about the man who had unknowingly become such a large part of her life. She started to wonder what it would be like to be sitting in the booth next to him, to smell his cologne, to feel his breath. She let these thoughts warm her soul and became lost in the depths of her own imagination. When she suddenly looked up, he caught her gaze. Her heart stopped and a slow blush crept across her face. The man noticed her embarrassment and bestowed upon her an amused smile, until his wife’s cold words wiped it off and turned his face to stone. The tigress slammed her hands down on the table and was about to leave, when he grabbed her wrists and forced her to sit back down.

Aysha hurried into the back, glad that it was time for her cigarette break.  Downstairs in the dark parking lot she could close her eyes and take a deep drag of her cigarette, letting the tension leave her body. When she returned to the cool air-conditioned restaurant, Aysha could see that the couple’s discussion had gotten worse and before she could understand what was happening, the woman flung her wedding ring at the man and began to storm out.

The diamond-encrusted wedding band bounced off the booth and landed in the aisle where it spun round and round until a two-year-old from a neighboring table grabbed it and promptly stuck it up his nose. Unruffled, the man straightened his shirt before sitting down, ordering a scotch, and finally finishing his meal. The restaurant was now quiet and would remain so until the dinner crowd trickled in.

What a friggin’ crappy day, thought Aysha as she packed up and got ready to head out, looking forward to finally getting off her feet, going home, and sinking into a bath and the half-finished novel she had left by her bedside. But before she could exit, her manager caught up with her.

“Hold up a minute,” he said, giving her a little wave that seemed unusually delicate for such a large man.

Aysha panicked, afraid he was going to reprimand her for eavesdropping or worse, but before she could explain, he said, “Good job, next time we’ll let you waitress a couple tables and, by the way, can you change your shift to Friday instead of tomorrow?”

“Sure,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“And,” he continued, “I was wondering if you could train—” But he was interrupted by the blaring of his cell phone. He handed her a small envelope. “Before you leave, this belongs to the gentleman in the corner booth.”

Paralyzed, Aysha stood there for what seemed like an eternity, holding the tiny envelope in her hands. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Finally, after much deliberation, she gathered her nerve and cautiously approached the alluring stranger whom she had only watched from afar.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, holding out the envelope. “This belongs to you.”

He looked up at her, making Aysha catch her breath and feel a little lightheaded—as if she was floating.

“Why don’t you keep it,” he said, and walked out the door.