October 18, 2021

The Young Waitress

by Sue Brennan

Aaron figured out which waitress was the one in the story. He’d come here before midday because in the story Eva complained about having to get ready for work while trying not to disturb her sleeping boyfriend, Geoff. Aaron varied his visits between 7am and midday over a week. There were three who regularly did the morning shift—Emily, Summer, and Alison according to their name tags.

“Is that your real name?” he asked Emily.

He leaned against the counter. There were no other customers waiting. Two tradies over in the corner tucked into bacon and eggs.

She pursed her lips, looked him up and down, and seemed about to say something rude. “Sure is.”

“Been working here long?” he asked. Eva had worked at the cafe for two years— in her last year of high-school and her first year of uni. She was nineteen.

“Long enough,” Emily said.

He saw her frown then. It was faint, but it was there. She whacked the portafilter on the bin to expel the old coffee grounds. He didn’t want to annoy her, so he tried a different tact.

“Good to be out of lockdown, hey?” he asked. “Business go down?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Must’ve.” He fiddled with the sugar sachets in a basket by the cash register. “Sad to see lot of places go under.”

She made no sign of having heard him. She steamed the milk and looked dreamily out the window while he noted her almost-black hair with blue-dyed tips and the silver stud underneath her lower lip. Eva had short hair the colour of blood and a face full of metal. Finally, she put the coffee on the counter and moved to the register.

“Four-eighty, thanks,” she said.

He gave her a five-dollar note and said, “Didn’t affect me too much. Live on my own. Study at uni. That went online…everything went online, right? Yeah, nice to be out amongst people again, right?”

She nodded and put his change on the counter beside his open hand. She didn’t smile or return his have a nice one. He sat at a table where he could look out onto the mall but also see the goings-on of the cafe. Emily disappeared for a while, then emerged with a spray bottle and a cloth and cleaned the large window on which the name of the cafe was painted. Aaron asked her what the wifi password was, and she told him to look at the bottom of the menu. He asked her if she was a uni student.

“You look like one,” he added.

She stopped wiping, looked around the cafe and then came closer. In a low voice she said, “It’s none of your fucking business what I do when I’m not here, okay?”

He smiled. “Sure.”

Yep, that was Eva alright.

***

Aaron wasn’t a uni student, and he wasn’t a reader of short stories. He worked for an IT company designing websites and consulting about telecommunications, mostly corporate, and occasionally government stuff. Business had increased due to COVID-19. So many people scrambling to go online made Aaron feel a little smug. When the city council contacted them for the upcoming 10th Annual Writers Festival, Aaron was tasked with the job. He’d grown up in the city and never knew it had a such festival. He was more interested in the burgeoning craft brewery scene and the local footy club. He remembered the pain of having to read Jane Austen and Kate Grenville at high-school and writing essays about themes and plots.

The list of invited speakers over the festival’s three-day programme was extensive; he didn’t recognise any of them (they weren’t Jane Austen, or Kate Grenville, or Shakespeare) despite the awards they’d won and shortlists they’d been on. There was a prose and poetry competition associated with the festival, as well as a creative non-fiction section, whatever that was, and a local writer sub-category. It was good money—$1000 for the winners of each category.

The festival organiser—Yasaman Fadel, a bug-like woman in her sixties, with white hair and large round glasses—wanted to FaceTime at least twice a day. She was a micro-manager, and he was used to dealing with them. You met fire with fire. You sent off twenty technical questions way above the client’s head and watched them back off. Yasaman wasn’t so easily deterred, though—she persisted with her demands and ignored his questions.

“I know what you’re up to,” she said, amused. “Now, back to the ticketing options. What I want is…”

Anyway, he grew to like her and she him, as far as he could tell. During their final FaceTime meeting, when it became clear that there were no further issues to deal with, she sighed dramatically and leaned into the camera. “You’re going to miss me, aren’t you?”

He laughed and said he thought he might. He wasn’t used to dealing with her type. She was fun.

“My type?” she asked and sat back in her chair. “Female? Artistic? You couldn’t possibly be referring to my age, could you?”

“Writers,” he said. “Arty people.”

She did her best to persuade him to attend some of the sessions, even highlighting ones she knew he would find interesting. He fended her off, saying he just wasn’t into it, sorry. He assured her he wasn’t a bogan.

“Not into reading,” she repeated, serious. “I see. Right. Well, it’s not too late, that’s all I can say.”

He spent the weekend of the festival working on a telemedicine website and doing weights in the living room while watching Vikings. On Sunday afternoon when he’d usually be at a pub with mates, he went for a jog along the beach. Then it was home for a Zoom meeting with a client in Perth.

The following week, he went to the office to pick up a hard-drive. He stood in the doorway and talked to his co-worker, the only other person there, and then sat at his desk. There was an envelope with his name and address written in large loopy letters. The sender’s name was in the top left corner—Yasaman Fadel. Inside was a small magazine with The Lapidary Word printed above a black and white picture of an out-of-focus bird flying over trees. To the right was a list of names. He opened it, skimmed the blurb. The bottom had been underlined. It said they were also pleased to include this year’s winners and short-listed writers from the festival, particularly the award for ‘local writer’. Yasaman had written, See what you missed, you bloody philistine? Read something! and drawn a smiley face with glasses.

***

The poems he didn’t get. Well, there was one about a river he almost understood. There were essays with titles that he didn’t understand. In the ‘Fiction’ section were fifteen entries. The shortest one was five pages. The first lines intrigued him—Eva traces her finger in circles over the veins of her sleeping boyfriend’s outstretched arm. The tangle of blue threads at his wrist makes her want to cry. His first thoughts were: what kind of person does that? A druggie? There was no mention of puncture marks. And why was it written in the present tense? As far as he could remember, stories were supposed to be written in the past, when stories happened.

Eva had met the five-years-older boyfriend, Geoff, when she was fifteen. The relationship caused a lot of problems between her and her mother, so she moved in with him at the beginning of her Year 12. Geoff was supportive, and she passed with a good enough score to get into uni. During her first year, head bursting with ideas, she wanted to be an artist. He got nasty. Not physically abusive, but he called her useless, and her new friends losers and weirdos. He was always in a bad mood. She retaliated by staying out late, partying until 2am. He responded by locking her out of the house and leaving her stuff in the front yard. Her underwear hangs from the branches of the tree, like a surrealist painting. Her red bra is a distress signal, unseen on the dark street.

Aaron lowered the magazine and stared across the office, imagining the scene and Eva’s despair, wondering how he’d react if he was driving along and saw such a thing. Also, he mused, what kind of guy did that shit, and why was she crying while looking at the veins in his wrist? Eva grovelled, abased herself, and life went on. She went to uni and continued working at the cafe. She dealt with customers efficiently, robotically, but allowed herself the fantasy of flirting and chatting. Nightly, he invades her. In the morning, she picks up clothes from the floor and puts them on.

He found it difficult to believe guys like Geoff still existed. It was 2021 for fuck’s sake. Aaron’d had relationships—he was twenty-nine after all—but never treated any woman like that. He kept everything casual. Loose. If a woman wanted to spend more time with her friends, cool, he found something else to do. If she wanted to see other people, also cool. Back on Tinder he went. He wondered if Geoff had any friends, what his job was, and his previous track record with women.

For her final assessment, Eva began working on a mixed-media project. Discarded lumber from the sculpture studio was hammered together into a tree-shape. Hung from it were pieces of underwear, small self-portraits drawn in red biro on the back of beer coasters, and written on paper serviettes were fantasies about customers who came to the cafe: BLT on Turkish bread with a flat white—You lick my arse as I tell you about the time I went to Melbourne. Skinny latte and a cherry-coconut slice—I ride you on my parents’ saggy green couch while they’re at a friends’ house for card night. Aaron felt himself getting hard.

“Still here?” his co-worker asked. He stood at the door, ready to leave. “What’s that?”

Aaron closed the magazine and shook his head. “Some crazy shit.”

***

At the end of the story was written: Monica Moniker is an artist and a waitress. This is her first work of short fiction. What she looks like is none of your fucking business. Aaron flicked through the rest of the magazine and saw that the other contributors included photographs and a list of all the publications they were in and prizes they’d won. Some had Twitter and Facebook pages where they could be found. His googling of Monica Moniker yielded nothing.

Identifying the cafe had taken leg work and loitering. He knew it was on the mall, but that was it. Most places had shut down or were only serving takeout. He drank more coffee than usual for a few weeks. When restrictions lifted and everyone flocked back, he followed. It was only after re-reading the story that he realised he’d overlooked a vital clue. Eva said that the name of the cafe was sickeningly cutesy, like its owner. A woman who isn’t a child, yet dresses like one.

He ran through the names of cafes that weren’t Starbucks or Gloria Jeans: Mike on the Mall, The Sunshine Cafe, Beans, Hot Mess Espress…Polly’s Secret Pocket—truly vomit-inducing. It had closed entirely for a month, then reopened for restricted hours and takeout, and now, like everywhere else, it was as if nothing had ever happened. A week of morning coffees and there she was—Eva, as real as the chipped cup in his hand.

***

He waited a week before going back. He thought if he established regular patronage, he’d be the guy who came in every Tuesday, or the guy who always ordered a cappuccino and sat by the window. No big deal.

It was lunchtime and busy. There were three staff—one on the register, one barista, and one doing everything else. None were Emily, which was disappointing. He ordered a toasted sourdough with avocado and pea mash, a coffee, and found a table in the back near the toilets. The waiter who finally brought his meal was whippet-thin and frazzled.

“Emily on today?”Aaron asked before he hurried away.

“Err…Emily?” the waiter asked. “Sorry, I’m new. Maybe?”

Aaron told him it wasn’t a problem, but inwardly kicked himself. He should’ve come earlier. He shouldn’t have waited a week. Emily probably thought he was a jerk after he asked her about herself. Disappearing reinforced the notion that he’d been trying to come onto her, got rebuffed and slunk away. Which he hadn’t. He just wanted to know if he was right.

Eva cajoled and teased and needled until Geoff agreed to go to the end-of-year student exhibition. She wore a vintage emerald-green velvet dress, studded choker and Doc Martins. Her hair was shiny and stiff with gel—a vermillion skull cap. Geoff wore jeans and a Ramones T-shirt. The exhibition space consisted of a long corridor for works to be hung. Leading off that were various studios assigned to groups of three or four students who had completed installations and sculptures. Due to its scale, the studio at the end of the corridor was entirely Eva’s. She led Geoff towards it, plying him with wine, acknowledging the greetings of fellow students but not lingering.

On the door was the label, My Boyfriend’s Tree ~ Multi-Media ~ Eva Martin. Geoff looked at Eva, eyes narrowed. The room was dark, the tree illuminated from above by a spotlight borrowed from the drama department. There was a soundscape, too—songs she liked, songs he liked, police sirens, movie trailers, gun shots. Half a dozen people milled about the tree, leaning in to read the fantasies or look at the portraits. Assembled at the base of the tree, were clusters of clay penises. Attached to the smallest one was a post-it note on which was written, his. Eva tugged at his hand to bring him closer and encouraged him to look and read. She sees the smirks on peoples’ faces as they leave the room and knows it is amateur, pretentious bull-shittery. She’ll be lucky if she gets a pass. She doesn’t care.

Aaron felt embarrassed for her. He knew what it was like to not live up to your own dreams—he’d thought he’d be the next Bill Gates at one point—but to have such a public fail? No thanks.

When the food arrived, the waiter said, “Oh, I asked, and Emily isn’t in today.”

“Thanks mate,” Aaron said.

***

It was eight-thirty in the morning the next day. There was a woman behind the register whom Aaron hadn’t seen before and immediately figured was the owner. She sported an enormous pink bow. This headdress atop a middle-aged woman could only lead a person to conclude that she was mentally challenged. Otherwise, she seemed normal—a low-cut floral dress displayed her décolletage, crinkled from age and sun damage, and a chunky lapis-lazuli ring adorned her finger. She spoke to him in a high, little-girl-all-alone-in-the-world voice that was distracting.

“How’re you this morning?” she asked. “What would you like?”

“Um…” His mind went blank.

“Would you like to see the menu?”

He ordered a cappuccino and a brioche, paid, and sat in a corner near the window. There was a group of four at a table, all with laptops open, talking loudly. They were the only ones there apart from him. The owner busied herself behind the counter. Some music played, but it was so low, barely discernible. When Emily appeared from the kitchen, Aaron swiftly looked out the window. At the clatter of the plate on his table, he turned and feigned surprise. If she remembered him, she didn’t show it.

“Thanks,” he said.

She nodded and went over to collect the plates that the group had put on a table next to them.

“Excuse me,” one of them, a woman with a face all angles like a Picasso, said, “I asked for a side of mushrooms.”

“You did?” Emily asked. “I’m sorry. I don’t think it was on the order. Do you want—?”

“It’s a bit late now,” the woman said. “Finished, haven’t I?”

Well, why didn’t you say something? Aaron thought.

So why didn’t you say something?” Emily asked. She lowered the plates and cocked her head to the side. 

“Excuse me?” The woman looked around at her colleagues as if to say, can you believe this?

When I brought the meals out,” Emily said. “If you’d told me then—”

“I was busy,” the woman said as though speaking to an imbecile. “I didn’t notice.”

Emily shrugged and turned. “Stupid fucking bitch,” she said under her breath as she walked past. Aaron tried to catch her eye and show solidarity.

“What did you say?” the woman called after her and then turned to her colleagues. “Did you hear that?”

Aaron listened to the four of them talking about how un-fucking-believable it was and what they should do. The woman stood, finally, and brushed the crumbs from her tight navy skirt. She looked at her companions as if to say, I’ll-show-her. Aaron checked his emails as she walked by. He couldn’t hear what was being said, but the owner seemed to be listening very carefully to the woman and checking the order. She appeared apologetic. There was a lot of smiling and nodding and then frowning. The owner called for Emily in the kitchen. Emily appeared holding a dishcloth and didn’t seem particularly remorseful, as far as Aaron could tell. She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.

The woman gave up and returned to her table.

“Well?” they asked.

“Jesus,” the woman said and then looked over at Aaron. “You heard her, right?”

“Sorry?” he asked and roused himself, as though deeply engrossed in an email. “What?”

“That girl,” she said. “You heard her call me a fucking bitch, right?”

He looked vaguely around the cafe. He wasn’t sure why he was on Emily’s side, but he was.

“Forget it,” the woman said. “Jesus.”

Life was so much more interesting in the real world, Aaron thought, with everyone here together in cafes and shops, trying to get along.

When the group left, the owner came out, glanced at his table but not him, and hummed as she worked. Emily appeared without the dirty black apron tied around her waist. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Back soon,” she called.

“Thanks, love,” the owner called back.

Aaron watched Emily leave, pause to take a selfie, and walk away. She was pretty, he realised, despite the rolled-out-from-under-a-hedge look. Not his type—toned, older, more put-together—but definitely appealing.

“Sorry about that business earlier,” the woman spoke to him suddenly. She perched on a chair beside him.

He said he didn’t know what she was referring to.

“That woman.” She rolled her eyes. “She didn’t order mushrooms. I have my faults, but senility isn’t one of them.”

“People,” Aaron said. He found the cadences of her voice fascinating.

“And then the nerve to tell me who I should and shouldn’t employ? Please.”

“Really?” he asked. “Because of the mushrooms?”

“No, no,” she said and waved her hand. “About Em.”

Em? M!

“I don’t understand,” Aaron said, not wanting to confirm or deny what the woman had accused Emily of saying.

A customer came in, and the owner stood. “Honestly, people are so sensitive these days,” she said and headed towards the counter. “You can’t say anything.”

Aaron agreed, but thought if he was in charge of someone who spoke to clients the way Emily did, he’d definitely have some feedback.

“Anyway,” the woman continued, almost as an afterthought. “Not about to sack my own kid, am I?”

***

At the end of the story, Eva is homeless and ashamed. She crashes with a uni friend who encourages her to ditch the multi-media crap. Write! Draw! But for Christ’s sake don’t do both at the same time. The friend, after a time, becomes a lover, then a friend again. Eva decides to write about that and watches each person that comes into her life, curious about how she will fall again, and how far.

Aaron couldn’t explain, not that anyone was asking, what he wanted from Emily. If he had to articulate it—if Emily demanded, what do you want?—he supposed he might ask, “How much of you is Eva? How much of that story is true?” But he also didn’t even know why he wanted to know that.

A few days later, he took his laptop to the cafe and was pleased when the owner said, “Hello again.”

It was mid-morning, mid-week, and surprisingly busy. He recognised the skinny waiter, no longer new, bustling around the cafe floor loading a tray with dirty plates and cutlery. Aaron ordered a coffee and an almond croissant. Behind the owner, he saw Emily in the kitchen. She wore a grey T-shirt, and there were dark patches under her arms visible as she reached for something above her head. He paid the owner and quickly nabbed the only free table. There was one chair—the other, he assumed, taken by the group of eight who were crowded around a table for four. He was forced to sit with his back to the counter due to the space they took up. He opened his laptop, determined to appear like any other customer.

“Is there something going on today?” he asked the waiter who brought his order. He noticed the name tag—Shane. “It’s super busy.”

“Not sure,” Shane said. “Wish they’d all go home though.”

It was probably the glorious weather that had drawn everyone out. There were plenty of other cafes he could be sitting in now—cafes with enclosed gardens, or rooftop terraces, or beach views. Aaron kept checking over his shoulder for an empty table—he felt exposed, vulnerable, positioned as he was. The large group, he observed, were an odd mix of teens and much older people. They passed a booklet around and spoke quietly. A rotund and perspiring man had an air of authority.

Aaron got caught in an email rally with a client questioning the status of a project. Aaron called him, despite not wanting to conduct business in public. The client didn’t pick up, so he left a long message, cupping his hand over his mouth.

“Thought you were a uni student,” Emily said, suddenly beside him and squinting at his screen. “Instructional Televised Fixed Services are essential to…Wow. Interesting.”

He snapped the cover shut.

“Whoa!”

She twirled the string of her apron and backed away, smirking. His initial reaction was to leave and never come back. It was an over-priced cafe with a view of the mall. He could do better. When a table was vacated that allowed him to have his back to the wall, he shifted. He worked more easily and monitored the whereabouts of Emily. Just before midday when the cafe had emptied, he watched her come out, backpack on and phone in hand. As she opened the door, she looked at him and smiled. It was genuinely friendly. Nothing could be construed as snarky. Perhaps she was flirting.

This unsettled him. There wasn’t a huge difference in their ages, nothing to raise an eyebrow, not that he cared much about that. His mates—whenever he saw them again—would be puzzled but approving. Aaron supposed Emily would make an effort and ditch the flannel shirt and ripped jeans for something suitable. Something fitted and sheer. He was pondering how to proceed with Emily, when her mother stepped out from behind the counter. The bow in her hair was adult-sized, but the lacy ankle socks were pre-teen. Not just pre-teen, but pre-twenty-first century.

“Still here?” she commented as she surveyed the cafe.

“Yeah,” he said. “Lot to do.”

“Don’t know how you can work with all the noise.”

“Any reason it was so busy today?”

She said she had no idea and crouched to straighten up the bookshelf. She pulled out a book and showed it to him—a bible.

“No thanks,” he said.

“That big group that was in,” she said. “Eight of them and only four teas and a jug of water. Then this? Fucking Christians.”

Aaron had to laugh, but he could see that from a business-owners point of view it was annoying. He decided to try and get some intel on Emily.

“Any of the other waiters here your kids?” he asked, nonchalant.

She looked at him as though he were speaking gibberish and then laughed.

“No,” she said, “just Emily. Last birdie to leave the nest. Needs more help than the other two.”

Aaron commiserated, as though he too were dealing with that problem.

“Old heads, young bodies,” she said. “Got to let them figure things out for themselves.”

He agreed it was so.

“Wants to be one of those influencer-things,” she said. “That’s not a job.”

He told her it seemed implausible, but some made a lot of money. It’s how the world was. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She walked away, sighing loudly. Aaron wondered what she’d do with the bible.

***

The chairs had been removed. The tables pushed together in the centre of the cafe were loaded with bottles of cheap Chilean wine, glasses, and plates of mini-things—quiches, sausage rolls, sandwiches. Aaron expected to see Emily—that was the only reason he’d come—but couldn’t find her anywhere in the mostly middle-aged crowd. Apart from a school trip to the National Art Museum in Year 10, he’d never voluntarily looked at art.

The five-dollar entrance fee he’d paid got him a glass of wine and one plate of nibbles. No one was monitoring that, and two men helped themselves as though they were in their own kitchens. Aaron poured himself a large glass of wine and surveyed the food.

“Well, well,” a familiar voice beside him said. “He has legs.”

It was Yasaman Fadel.

Apparently, she was one of the organisers of the Cafe Art Walk—a council initiative to get people supporting local businesses. Twenty cafes were involved, all showcasing local artists, and tonight was the official launch. He congratulated her on the idea and what was obviously going to be a very successful enterprise.

“This your first stop?” Yasaman asked. “Have you looked at the work yet?”

He admitted that it was and, no, he hadn’t.

She linked her arm through his—“Isn’t it lovely we can do this now?”— and led him over to the main wall.

It wasn’t as bad as he expected. There were recognisable landscapes, seascapes, pots of flowers, people in profile. The prices were ambitious—one drawing of a house cost $300—but incredibly, there were a few red stickers indicating items had been sold. Yasaman rabbited on about artists being forced to use online forums during the lockdown in the attempt to make a living.

Aaron said, “Most younger people are pretty au fait with it now.”

“Yes, but you can’t beat a boozy art opening, right Yasaman?” said Emily’s mother who had materialised beside them, resplendent in something shiny.

They reminisced like old friends while Aaron scanned the room for Emily. On the adjacent wall, he saw a portrait of a girl. He left the women and went towards it. It was Emily—the ready-for-a-fight expression captured perfectly despite the poorly executed skin tone and hair. He liked the bare shoulders suggesting total nudity. He looked closer at the signature in the bottom right corner.

M.M.

“Your daughter,” he said looking around for the cafe’s owner. “Whatshername…she’s an artist?”

“Emily? Lord, no,” she said and laughed, looking at Yasaman. “He thinks my girl did it.” She then called out a greeting to someone across the room and left.

“Here’s your artist,” Yasaman said and tapped on the label to the right of the painting. “Monica Moniker.”

“She wrote a story in that magazine you sent me,” Aaron said.

“Journal,” Yasaman corrected him. “Yes, I believe so.”

Aaron got a little excited as he recounted how he’d read the story and identified the cafe and the character Eva as the waitress here in the picture. As Emily.

“You might be right,” she said vaguely. “Very pleased you read.”

“So who’s Monica?”

“I think the name’s an indication that the artist—and the author—don’t want that information known. Maybe they don’t think it’s relevant.”

Aaron thought that sucked major balls. Why do it if you didn’t want people to know? Yasaman said there was a long history of writers using pseudonyms, of women using male names. Perhaps Monica was a man?

Disgruntled, Aaron allowed himself to be led around, looking at the other work, and talked into accompanying Yasaman to another cafe. As they were leaving, the owner disengaged herself from a group and thanked them for coming.

“See you again?” she asked Aaron. “Seat by the window?”

“Yeah,” he said, though doubted he’d be back.

“I can’t call you seat-by-the-window,” she said. “Not if you’re a regular.”

He told her his name. She held out her hand and, cautiously, he took it. Was hand-shaking alright now?

“Maxine,” she said and winked. “Maxine Martin.”

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