You are the worst waitress in the world. You can’t remember orders, or you write them down so messily that they’re indecipherable. When you try to read them out to the chefs you can’t untangle the scribble, and you have to go back to the table and ask again. By the time you get back to the kitchen you have forgotten what they reminded you of. You are clumsy.
You can’t balance a tray. The plates are hot and they burn you despite your grubby serving cloth. Once you even dropped a plate from sheer pain and crack—splash—clunk—the plate had broken across the hard floor and your shoes were splattered with gravy.
What’s worse is you can’t conjure up a smile, for the love of God, can’t you just be charming for a second? That’s the real trick of waitressing—more than culinary knowledge or swiftness or the deft handling of a tray of drinks—just smile, just apologize, just be sweet and wide-eyed and they will forgive you. But you find this extraordinarily hard. Your cheek muscles freeze in place and your lips press together and you stare at the angry faces dumbly. The chefs shout at you. The diners shout at you. The other servers shout at you. Even the dishwasher shouts at you. You don’t blame him; you would shout too, if you had someone to shout at.
After two weeks the restaurant manager calls you up and tells you not to come in, it’s just not working out, honey, and I’m sorry ‘bout that. You shudder with relief and dread and mumble an okay and a thanks and a sorry. You stare at the phone in your hand, screen cracked because you dropped it, what a surprise, what have you not broken? You come back into yourself and you realize you’ve been worrying at the skin around your nails again. Your middle finger is twisted into your mouth and you bite down on the loose skin too hard and then hold your finger out so that you can see that vibrant drop of red begin to swell. Your mother used to tell you off for that, used to smack your hand away from your mouth, but she’s not here.
So you just keep making your fingers bleed.
When you were young you thought that being an adult meant being able to buy as many sweets as you wanted. Now you know that being an adult means that there’s no one there to tell you this is a bad idea. You stuff Reese’s Cups and Mars Bars and bags of Skittles into your mouth until you feel sick, until your stomach convulses the sugary mess up into the toilet bowl, and because you are an adult there is no one to ask if you’re ok. You straighten up when your stomach has stopped earthquaking and you look at your face in the mirror. It’s an interesting shade of yellowish white and you can see the drops of sweat on your forehead; they look like plastic, like beads of glue. You wash them from your face under the cold tap and stare down the drain of the sink. There must be layers of skin there, and saliva and dirt, with hair holding it together like netting.
You brush your hair. It is knotted from sweat and misuse and you rip at the tangles relentlessly with comb and brush. There is one particular snarl that is a hard little nest of hair, right at the nape of your neck. You get your nail scissors from your grimy makeup bag and cut it out. You hold it between your fingers and then shove it out the reluctant window and let the breeze take it. Your mother used to do that, for the birds to line their nests with, she’d say, but you don’t know if there are birds in this neighbourhood.
You get dressed. Your clothes are tight in places they were never tight before. You fold your soft skin into the waist of your jeans and pull your sweater over your hips. Your flesh is loose and you can gather a handful of it. You cover up. Your feet go into socks and your socks go into shoes. You always dress your left foot first because you read once that it’s lucky. Your luck is bad but you don’t want to stop because things might get worse.
You pick up your bag. You should wash it, mend the fraying strap, buy a new one if you can ever afford it. You turn out the lights and pull the door closed behind you, giving it an extra tug because it always jams. You lock the two locks but they are barely a defense against a determined shoulder. You have nothing to steal but you don’t want anyone in your space, in your room. You turn away and walk down the corridor. It’s just a space people travel through. The stairs are creaky. The banister is there but you don’t touch it because who knows what’s on people’s hands.
The air outside isn’t fresh but it’s better than inside. The trees are turning into their bare winter selves and you think that you could appreciate the reds and yellows and browns of the leaves if you could forget that they were dying. You wonder if the leaves feel as if their circulation has been cut off, like looping an elastic band tight around a finger. Probably not, you decide; they’re just leaves. You stand by the pole that holds the bus stop sign up. You count your change out. You will be walking home. You wait.
You sit at the back of the bus, in the corner by the window. You slouch down on the blue plastic seating and look outside. The sky is blue but everything else is grey. The sky is clear and beautiful; it is being blue as hard as it can be. You wonder if you could get a job as being the sky. But if you were a sky you’d most likely be a dense smog that doesn’t protect from heat or promise rain. You would be the worst sky in the world, too.
You watch sidewalks pass and buildings pass. Things are broken down here. People are strewn on the sidewalk. You think that they look like toys left out by a careless child. Every trash can has a person to root through it. You rest your face on your hand and pretend that you are a tourist. I’m on holiday, you say to yourself. Beautiful British Columbia. I’m here for two weeks. I’m on a cruise. My family is here, too. We’re staying in the Shangri-La Hotel. Shangri-Laaaaa. It sounds like the name of a beautiful woman who would stroke your hair and touch a finger to your cheek. Shangri-La, you say again, a little louder.
You notice that the girl sitting beside you is looking at you out of the corner of her eye. She is pretending to read but you can see that her eyes aren’t moving but flicking sideways at you. You are making her nervous.
How funny. You, of all people. You look at the cover of her book. Ella Enchanted. Is that a fairy tale? A book for children? Maybe this girl is just nervous by nature. Or maybe she is younger than she looks. You can see her snatching glances at your scabbed hands, at your hair, at your breaking bag. You wonder if you smell of vomit. You can see her looking up, reading the red-lighted next-stop messages. You can see her wondering if she can sit somewhere else. You want to comfort her.
Don’t worry, you say to her. She looks at you. Her eyes show the white all around. What, she says to you. I’m not crazy, you say. You raise your voice a little as she must not have heard you the first time. Oh, she says, I didn’t, I know you’re not, I. She gives you a smile that is there and gone again, it’s that fast. I’m staying in the Shangri-La, you say. That’s, she says, that’s nice. Yeah, you say, me and my family. She nods and says, ah. She looks back down at her book again. It’s high up, the floor we’re staying on, you say.
Yeah, she says. She doesn’t want to look at you but she does. We can see the pigeon nests from our window, you say. Really, she says. Their nests are made of hair, you say. She nods. You’re not explaining yourself very well.
We’re on a cruise, you say.
You wonder why people get so worried when a stranger speaks to them.
It’s natural, isn’t it? To talk? Why is she so tense? Her hands clench her book and you can see the damp left on the pages from the sweat of her hands. Your hands sweat, too. It used to make the plates in the restaurant harder to hold. The girl looks up as the robot voice announces the next stop. Somebody dings the stop wire. She closes her book and puts it in her bag. She stands. Have a nice day, you say. And you, she says, you too. She breathes out as she sways down to the back door to wait for the bus to lean to a halt. You stand up too. This girl is so nervous, you think. You want to protect her. You wait behind her. She looks over her shoulder, looks straight ahead again.
The bus stops and she slams her hand against the yellow bars to open the doors. She jumps to the ground, turns left swiftly, walks fast. You walk behind her. She looks back at you. She walks faster. Her hands tighten on her bag. You follow her, wanting to tell her not to worry, to relax, that you don’t mean any harm, that you just want to make sure she gets home ok. You hurry to catch up. She looks back at you again. You can hear her breathing fast.
You are almost close enough to touch her when she turns around, fast and sudden. Hey, you say. What do you want, she says. Her voice is wavy and high. Nothing, you say, just want to make sure you’re ok, you seem like a nice girl and. But she cuts you off. Do you want some money, she says. You shake your head but she is holding out a note, a five dollar bill. No, I’m, you say, I’m not. The bill is shaking in her hand. Here, she says. She’s so scared. You realize you can’t help this girl. You take the money. Thanks, you say gently. It’s fine, she says. You can smell her relief. She turns, fast and sudden again, and walks away. She’s running now.
You stand and look at the note in your hand. You put it in your ratty purse and put your purse back in your bag. You turn back the way you came and walk slowly down the street. You look in the bright windows of clean shops. You smell food cooking. You stop at a diner, a shoddy looking thing. There are lighted signs in the window that say open and come on in and take-out available. You see a printed page stuck in the window. Staff wanted, it says in marker. Fluent English required. You push the door open and walk in. There is a dark-skinned man leaning behind the counter. He is wearing a stained white jacket and is looking at his phone. Hi, you say. Hey, he says without looking up. Are you hiring, you say. He lifts his head. He says, you any good at waitressing? Yes, you say. You hide your fingers behind your back. He looks at you. You wait.
Clara Kumagai is a playwright and author of fiction and children’s writing. She has been published in Icarus Magazine, Irish Theatre Magazine, and Inis Magazine, and is Executive Editor, Promotions at PRISM international. Formerly of Ireland, Clara now lives in Vancouver, where she is completing a Creative Writing MFA at UBC.