Turning The Tables
A short story…
The bell above the front door jingled, distracting me from the blonde woman before me.
“Sorry, how did you want your steak?” I asked again, finishing with an awkward smile.
Her eyebrows rose as her nose scrunched up. “I said medium rare.”
“Right. Sorry.” I mentally shook myself back into focus as I noted it down.
Her partner across the table piped up, asking me to relay the whole order back to them. “So we know you got it right.”
I drew a breath as I looked up to see a new couple take a seat on table two. Damn that bell. It explains so much about this place. A constant reminder that our attention cannot be trusted. As if we need regular prodding to do our job.
But that’s not the whole problem here. I also suffer from anxiety. And as a struggling writer who still works in hospitality, tonight was not faring well for me.
I raised the pad in my hand and read aloud: “One porterhouse steak, medium with mash and veggies, and a scotch fillet steak, medium rare with chips and salad. Did I get that right?” I wasn’t aiming for it to come out as abrasive.
“You don’t have to take that tone with us.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, lowering my head. “It’s just a little busy tonight. Did I get your order right?” I asked again, feigning a smile.
The couple looked at each other before returning my gaze once more.
“Yes,” he said.
I nodded and told them their order will be with them soon. But little did I know then that I wouldn’t be there to give it to them, nor see them eat it.
As I stood before the register, tapping in the couple’s order, Alison, the restaurant manager, walked over to me.
“Ryan,” she said. “Could you take an order on table two?”
She always does this. Giving orders to us as if we’ve never worked in hospitality before. What else did she think I was going to do? There were no dishes ready to take out, all the tables had drinks, and I’m currently putting in an order for a table I just served.
“I was just getting to that,” I said, sending her a smile.
“Well get to it now. They’re waiting.” Her right hand flapped at me, graciously as ever. Some things never change. Not even after two years. I processed the order and went to the new couple.
From far away they looked like a date, but up close they seem a little more acquainted. More likely business associates or good friends. I whipped out my pad and pen as they looked up from their menus towards me.
“Hi, welcome to Meat Me. Are you ready to order drinks?” It was light and welcoming.
“We’ve been waiting for more than five minutes,” the man responded.
I was taken aback, as would anyone who was told an obvious lie in such a direct tone.
“Sir, I did see you walk in about two minutes ago,” I said, trying to sound as respectable as possible.
“Are you accusing me of lying?” He said, not loud enough to startle the surrounding guests, but loud enough to startle me.
“I’m not accusing you of anything, sir. I just…” I took in a decent breath of air as I softly closed my eyes. Now was not the time. Arguing would either delay the inevitable or destroy it completely.
I released my breath in a light sigh then altered the conversation: “I apologise, sir. It’s a busy evening as you can see. I am sorry to keep you waiting.” I shared a smile, hoping to both calm the situation and myself. “Would you like to order?”
“Yes,” he replied, lifting up the drinks menu. “I’d like to order a bottle of your Cabernet Merlot.” And then, looking directly at me: “I’d also like an eye fillet steak, medium, with mash and veggies. Fran, what would you like?”
I turned my gaze to Fran as my hand made marks on the pad.
She pointed at the menu. “Can I have the porterhouse? Medium to well done with just salad?”
I nodded, noting down the order while flashing her a smile. “Of course. I’ll just be back with a jug of water.”
"What about the Merlot?" the man said as his face bunched together.
"I'll get that, too.”
What I couldn't rightly swipe from my mind as I rushed to the credenza to get their water was how much this hospitality work was impacting my writing career. It's quite hard to focus on great writing when your mind buzzes with anxiety. And let’s not forget Alison’s part.
Ever since I left university two years ago with a communications degree, I had hopes of becoming a great writer. To share to the world all there is to know about travel, food, entertainment and life itself. But no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to be failing me. I have a website that hasn’t taken off. I have hundreds of published stories that never amounted to much. And none of the places I applied for seem to be interested. For months prior to tonight, these thoughts played like a never-ending slideshow in my mind. It was as if my brain was trying to tell me something. And thanks to Sally, my favourite coworker, it had been struck like a match an hour before.
"You need a holiday, darl," she had said. Her thumb flicked the growing residue off the end of her rolled cigarette.
“I should. But do you think I’ll keep this job if I do?”
“Why does that matter? You can get hospo work anywhere.”
I took a drag of my cigarette, contemplating.
“True,” I replied. “Hospo work is a good backup for a prospective writing career.”
“You and your writing career. Darl, you just need to keep pushing. And you need a holiday.” She pressed her smouldering butt into the overflowing ashtray. If Meat Me ever gave out medals for team player, this ashtray would win by a mile. It never cajoled or ridiculed; it just sat there, taking on all the troubles and tribulations of its many coworkers.
I finished off my cigarette and followed her back inside. All the while, my mind sunk into her last sentence. How much more push do I need to give? What more could I do? But then, writing is limitless. There’s plenty to do.
I just need a break. Whatever that break may be.
An hour later, I was off to fetch water for the impatient couple. I would have gotten the bottle of red, too, but that involved getting two glasses as well, and carrying it all would look clunky and unprofessional. I eventually returned and swiftly poured water into their glasses.
“Where’s our Merlot?” the man asked.
“It’s coming now, sir,” I said with an overdone smile, placing the jug on the table and turning for the bar.
I tapped in the order on the register and then sought out the Cabernet. It’s a South Australian drop, simple and effective on the tongue. I then slipped two wine glasses between my fingers and returned to the restless couple.
“Here we are,” I said, setting the wine glasses on the table and cracking open the bottle. I was about to pour into the man’s glass when he covered it and motioned a hand towards Fran’s glass.
“Ladies first,” he said, grinning at her. She looked back at him with displeasure. I poured their glasses, starting with Fran’s, and all the while feeling uncomfortable in the silence. Maybe they’re a couple after all. A couple that needed a break, just like me.
It’s an exhausting thing, silence. Exhausting in the thoughts that pervade my mind. Most notably the thoughts about my wayward career. It seems that no matter how hard I chisel away at it, it always seems to slip loose from my grip. They say anxiety is a fear of uncertainty; the fear of what will happen next. For me, it’s the uncertainty of what won’t happen.
With the glasses filled and nothing immediate in my attention, I began to browse slowly through the room. Silence among noise. I could hear the clatter of cutlery, the clinking of glasses and the generic flow of conversation. It’s the same sound I’ve heard for two years now. Perhaps this was what’s holding me back. My job. If it’s not working for me here, perhaps I need to find a new job. Or maybe just a long holiday.
Or perhaps it’s not so much a holiday that I need, but a new change of scenery. A new way of reconnecting with myself. A new way of looking at writing. All in all, it seems the most important option was quitting this job. In a way, I felt my time here was coming to an end. It was time for me to push forward, as Sally had said. And perhaps a holi--
Alison broke my concentration, waving me down from behind the bar. I picked up my pace and went to her.
“Ryan, there’s been a complaint on table four. You failed to take their order in time. I had to send Sally to get it from them.”
I looked over at table four and, sure enough, there was Sally taking their order. Honestly, I do not remember them waving me down. I had walked past their table at least a half dozen times.
“You need to pick up your game, Ryan. Or else I’m gonna have to let you go.”
I looked back at her, suddenly vexed by what she just said. It struck within me, burning me up inside, but not in the destructive way that it should have. As my mind took in her words, mulling it around like a swish of vino, I missed the next part of what she was saying. All I could think about was how easily she wanted to let me go. As if I had no control at all.
I had allowed my life to get to this point. I had allowed the world to push me along, yearning for control while fearing uncertainty. I stood there, finally realising that I needed to take control of my life. Eventually my mind swallowed her words, along with my own thoughts, and for the first time that night I sighed with satisfaction. It was time I took the reins of my life again. And that began with two simple words:
The passion from it was resounding. I didn’t yell it, nor did I whisper it; I simply stated what I’ve wanted to say for so long. It’s a simple statement. Two words that convey a message of letting go and moving on. But for me it was a release of all the tension that had been building up over the past two years. I’ve reached the peak, with nothing else left to give, and all I could do was move forward. I needed to drill more into writing, and even if that means taking up some new hospitality job somewhere else while I work on that, so be it. But this job, in this steak restaurant, with the most unhelpful restaurant manager, was not my life anymore.
“You can’t quit now in the middle of service,” Alison said. A harsh whisper.
“I can,” I said. “I’m casual, so I don’t need to give any notice.”
Her chest was slowly rising and falling while her eyebrows strived to meet each other. I could have said that she would easily find someone to replace me, but what good would that do? Of course she’d find someone to replace me. My job is replaceable. And she would have to, anyway. It’s her job requirement.
I smiled at her, a genuine smile. “This is not the job for me, anymore.”
Alison continued to look at me, as if there was something I did wrong. Then her expression changed from contempt to contemplation.
“I guess I can see that,” she said. “And I guess I can’t really stop you either.”
I nodded, smiling at her before heading behind the bar to collect my bag. Sally was there and asked me what I was doing.
“I quit.” The second time didn’t feel as strong as the first, but it was good nonetheless.
It’s funny how this moment doesn’t feel so ecstatic. I’ve just quit my job, the biggest decision I’ve made in a long time, and yet my mind oozed a placid happiness.
Sally smiled back and wrapped her arms over my shoulders. I clutched mine behind her back.
“Good luck, darl,” she said into my ear. “Your writing career awaits you.”
We parted, and I placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Sorry for leaving you with all the work.”
Sally waved her hand at me, grimacing. “Don’t worry, they’ll all get fed eventually.”
I hitched my bag over my shoulder and walked through the tables once more. My eyes were fixed on the door, anxious to see what’s coming beyond it. My future was uncertain. It would always be. But one thing was for certain: I still had control.
As I brushed past the impatient couple sipping their Merlot together, I finally realised how much I’ve been in control. I built a website, I published hundreds of stories, and I got a degree in communications, all because I took control. Hell, I even served these tables for two years. I was always in control, but I let fear get the better of me. The fear what comes next.
Success comes from the embracing of uncertainty. It’s a way of enjoying discomfort. You can sit in your chair and wait for the world, or you could stretch those legs and take control. And sometimes that means quitting your job.