, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The waitress took my order without much interest. It was pushing 2:30p.m and I was one of her few customers. After she brought me an iced tea, she went back into the kitchen and I heard her on the phone clear as day.

“Can’t you just bring me my medicine?” Pause. “What?” Pause. “You’re such an asshole. I’ve been working since 6:00a.m. I don’t feel well. You can get off the couch and bring me my medicine. You’re a shit. What?” Pause. “A real shit.”

That was the end of the conversation. She didn’t slam the handset down because she didn’t have one to slam. All the drama and power encompassed in a landline phone had been reduced to a silent tap on a pathetic cellphone.

In the delay that followed, I imagined her trying to calm down before she came out of the kitchen. When she did, she went up to one of her customers—a heavy-set man with a pink face—and stood stiffly as she set down his order of toast and poured him some searing hot coffee. He didn’t say a word.

I pretended I hadn’t heard her phone conversation, staring into my phone as if something riveting was happening there. All three of us customers were trying to pretend her words away, as if we could go back before the toast popped.

Why do we do that? Why do we pretend not to hear? Human nature, I guess. She had needed to make a phone call, but the only place she could make it while working was within our earshot. So we were all part of her story. We didn’t know whom she had talked too, but it sounded bad. Real bad. I felt badly for her.

She turned and went back into the kitchen and came out with my turkey sandwich. She put it down a bit more loudly then necessary. “Anything else I can get you?” she asked. Her face flushed with anger, not tears.

“No, I’m good.”

When I went to pay, she took my twenty-dollar bill and gave me back my change slowly, as if she was thinking about something.

“Thanks,” I said. Then, as I stepped away from the cash register, she said, “My husband is such an asshole. I work two jobs. He works one. We’re living in a hotel while we try to get our lives in order. I take care of the kids. He doesn’t help. He can’t even bring me my medicine. When I serve him with divorce papers, he better not act surprised.”

“I’m sorry you work two jobs and he works one,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s so lazy. So lazy! I can’t even stand it.”

I saw the short order cook look over at her as he scraped at the grill. I could tell he had heard her story plenty of times before and he was going to keep hearing it, whether he wanted to or not. He looked at me, but not with an I feel sorry for you, customer, that you had to listen to her story kind of look. No, he just looked at me as if to say, Isn’t this the way everyone lives, listening to each other’s kitchen stories?

Somehow her story struck me as a universal one: the deadbeat husband—well, almost deadbeat, the unhappy wife who pulls all the weight. The home that isn’t really a home and the children stuck in the middle of all the unhappiness. It was a story I heard plenty of times while teaching my community college writing class, from some of my older female college students who had families (Only without the swear words. After all, they were writing for a grade).

All I could hope for this waitress was for her to have a little privacy and the strength to change her story so she wouldn’t have to tell it to strangers again and again.