“I’m waiting for someone, thank you.” I say this to the waiter for what must be the tenth time. I don’t think he believes me anymore. He just keeps coming around and filling up my cup with more coffee. He must want a real customer at this booth but I am so glad when he brings the coffee because I have been drinking it as if it was the only way to breathe. Every time he fills the cup, I also have something to do, something that takes my eyes off the clock above the kitchen door. Taking the cream, I slowly pour it into the black coffee, watching the very point at which the two blend. Then I carefully spoon three tablespoons of sugar in to the cup. I watch every granule. Then I stir. As I stir, I play with the ring you gave me, on my left pinky. It is a beautiful gold band, with a delicately placed row of small diamonds all along the top. You said it was to remind me of you when you weren’t there. I play with it a lot. I look out the window hoping to see your coat flapping against your legs. I can only see the feet and legs of the people passing by, the diner is built into a hill on the lower east side of town, not the hippest place but it’s private and you suggested it. You would be hurrying because you are dreadfully late. I know that when I finally see your coat and legs that I will follow them with my eyes through the wall and my eyes would hit the door at the same moment that you entered. We are in sync like that. You would rush over to me then. You would lift me by my elbows into your arms and kiss me, all the while explaining why you have left me in this diner all alone for the past two hours. Alone…except for…
“Did you need a menu?”
“No, just more coffee please.” I think the waiter is getting anxious. He shouldn’t worry, when you get here, we’ll leave a huge tip and he’ll be glad he was patient. He’s kind of handsome, this waiter. His name tag says “Max” and I wonder if that is his real name. The clock on the wall must be terribly fast. I look at my watch but they have synchronized somehow since I have been sitting here. The door opens and I think it’s you, but it’s only a man with the same coat. Disappointment takes familiar stabs at my heart. It will be dark soon and I would hate to take the subway alone. I’m sure you’ll have a good excuse.
“Would you like your cup warmed up again?” I feel like the waiter puts extra emphasis on “again” like he’s irritated.
“I would like that very much. Is there a phone I could use?” I explain that you are supposed to be here and that you would never keep me waiting like this unless something was wrong. Something has to be wrong.
“Sure, over there.” The waiter, Max, points to the kitchen door. “Just past the door on your left.”
I write my name in the grime on the wall as I listen to the ringing on the other end. I am worried now that you are in bad traffic or an accident. My ring is sparkling in defiant contrast to the grayness of this hallway. I can feel my jaw clench and I think I’m getting a headache.
I realize that I’ve dialed the personal line in your office and am about to hang up but you answer. How could you answer? You should be in the car. You should be racing to get me because you are so dreadfully late. I should have called your cell so that you could have lied to me, told me you were stuck in traffic, anything, this I would have just blindly believed. But you are not on your way or even stuck in traffic. You are still sitting in your office like nothing is wrong, like I don’t even matter! “I’m such a fool.” bounces around my skull as I walk back to my booth. I can hear your tiny tinny voice asking, “Hello? Hello? Who is this?” As the telephone receiver swings back and forth in front of the pay phone counter.
I drink the recently warmed coffee black. I get up and open my wallet to get some money for the waiter who is pretending he doesn’t see the pain and anger that must be slowly taking over my face. I am shaking all over but can’t tell if it is the caffeine or the fact that you have completely humiliated me again.
I want to take a cab to the building you work in. I want to take the elevator up to the seventh floor and step into the lobby of your firm. I want to walk right past your secretary who would be getting up from her desk to stop me but I would ignore her and would be too fast for her. You have a beautiful window in your office and the sky would be all purples and oranges of the setting sun. You would look up from your monitor. Our eyes would meet for the eternity of an accusing second before I would grab the picture of your wife and pitch it across the room. My crushed heart would appreciate the look on your face.
“This is the last time I get stood up by you…ever!” I want to hiss at you. I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, caffeine, or the sweet mixture of the two but I am feeling light-headed now and sit back down. I realize that I have been standing beside the booth holding my open wallet in my hands and staring at the table. I unclench my teeth and my jaw relaxes.
“Are you okay?” It’s the waiter, a sudden benevolent voice at my side. He is wearing a denim jacket now and holding a pack of Camels, his black waiter’s apron is gone. He must see me roll my eyes over to the box of cigarettes, my chin still pressed against my fingertips.
“Want one?” He shakes the box for emphasis. “Looks like you could use one.”
” But you, are you, I don’t – yeah. Could I?”
“Yeah, sure. But we have to smoke outside.”
I am trembling, my head is pounding and think that a cigarette is the exact very thing I need right now. I mean, I know I’m not fooling anyone with the, ‘I quit’ thing. I smoke like a fiend as soon as I’m alone anyway. I follow the waiter out the door and around to the side of the building.
” Hey, I’m Max, but I guess you ah, knew that.” Max grins and points to his name tag. He takes it off and slips it into his jacket pocket. “Sorry about that.” He jerks his head at the diner and hands me a cigarette. I’m not sure if he means the coffee refills inching towards perpetuity or my being stood up.
“Yeah. Oh, I’m Fiona.”
“Fiona. Cool. Are you sure you’re okay?” Max looks as me as he lights my cigarette then his with the same match. He has same my name like he was trying it on.
“Yeah, I’m just a little hopped up on coffee.” I hold up my finger and thumb about a half an inch apart. We both have a laugh at that. It feels good to laugh now. My headache isn’t pounding so much anymore. “I must have hit the ladies room like a hundred times.”
” I know! I made three fresh pots for you alone!” Max holds up three fingers and is still laughing. He seems amused. I almost feel like I know him, standing there sharing laughter and carcinogens. I remember watching him wait on other customers, noticing his easy grin and smooth manner. Max seems to be harmless but I am half wondering do these places do background checks?
“Sorry about that. I get a little obsessive sometimes. I should have left an hour ago. I mean how late does someone have to be before you realize that they are just not showing up?” I give a half-hearted laugh, shrug my shoulders and realize that the sun is now almost gone.
Max looks at me and shrugs too.
“Cold?” Max has smoked over two-thirds of his cigarette. The veins form little hairy mountain ridges on top of his hand in the glow of the burning tobacco as he inhales again.
“No.” I inhale too trying to keep up but instead hotbox mine and the cherry falls off burning bright against the dirty sidewalk. Son of a bitch. “I should go. Thanks for the smoke.” I kick the cooling ash with the toe of my Doc Martins.
“Actually, my shift is over. You need a ride?” Max is jingling keys in the palm of his hand, a miniature eight ball and four keys hang from a ring that is hooked to a chain that appears anchored to a wallet or something I am guessing lurks in his back pocket.
“I couldn’t ask that. I live all the way across town and you could be some crazy lunatic murderer guy.” I smile at him.
“Yeah, lunatic waiter on the loose.” He winks and grins again. I notice his eyes seem to sparkle in the orangey glow from the streetlights which have just started flickering on. God I am liking that grin.
“Seriously, you want me to call you a cab or something?”
“Yeah, that would be nice.”
I want to ride home with him. At this moment, I want to buy a case of the cheapest alcohol I can find, ride home with Max, get drunk, and let the night disappear into his grin. I am about to say this when I hear a car pull up and turn to see your driver opening your door. You are running before your feet hit the sidewalk but you don’t see me as you head for the diner. You probably think that I am still waiting for you. I realize there is some truth to that.
I see your mouth forming my name. F-i-o-n-a. I don’t hear you say it. I know you are not worried about me as much as what you think I’ve said to your wife. I want you to sweat this out. I want you to feel bad. Your ring is burning on my finger. Feeling brave I grab Max’s sleeve as he stomps out his cigarette and turns to go inside and call my cab. His sleeve is warm. He turns to me. His face picks up the very last ounce of real light from the horizon.
“Wait. Um. Could you wait here for a minute?”
Max is not stupid. He has seen the car, you, and the look in my eyes.
“But isn’t that who you…were waiting for?”
I am looking at your car; the driver sees me and waves me over. I look away. My head is pounding again and Max hands me a crumpled up napkin from his pocket. I didn’t even realize that I was crying.
“Yeah. I need to talk to him for a minute. Could you just wait though?”
“If you want.”
“Yeah. I do. I’ll be right back.”
I walk into the diner and see you talking to a waiter. You are frantically making hand gestures, and I can almost hear you telling him what I look like.
“Hey.” I tap you on the shoulder.
“Oh thank God.”
You reach out for me but I outsmart your hug.
“I was so worried baby. I am so sorry. I just lost track of the time and I was working on my closing for this case…”
I let you continue, listening to the same lines I always seem to hear from you. I notice that I am twisting the ring off my pinky.
“But…you can’t! I was a little late! I said I was sorry! You have to know that I’m a very busy man and I can’t just jet off any old time. I have responsibilities.”
“You’re right. I know what kind of man you are and I am just tired. I am tired of waiting for you and trying to play keep-away from your wife, your children, your life.”
“Oh now, come on Fiona. Let’s go outside. I’ll make this up to you, you’re just mad sweetie.” There is a nervous laugh in your voice as you try to give me back the ring and turn me to go out the door.
“I’m through. We’re not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere, anymore, with you. I’m sorry. I’m done.” The words are falling off my tongue and I don’t know if I’m trying to convince you or me, but know that I mean it. I turn to leave on my own. You follow me through the door, the ring still in your outstretched hand.
You have given up the fight. Just like that. Just like I thought you would. You look down at the ring in your hand; it catches the glint off the street light. You turn and walk away. I walk over to Max and try to smile through the tears drying on my cheeks.
“Would you mind taking me home?”
“Let’s go…if you’re sure?” Max looks at me with actual concern. Interesting from someone I didn’t even know three hours ago.
“Uh huh. Let’s go now before I lose my grip on reality.”
We get on the motorcycle and I watch you leave, the driver first closing your door and then driving you off. I am hoping that I will be lucky and not ever see you again. One never knows these things.
After a long uneventful ride, I am standing on my stoop shaking hands with Max.
“Thank you, I really appreciate the ride. Can I give you some money for gas?”
“Naw, just here…take this.”
Max hands me a matchbook.
“But I don’t…”
“Yes you do, and it isn’t just matches. Inside the cover is my number. I would be happy to bring you more coffee, any time.” Max is laughing a little again. The grin is back. I am remembering how warm he was with my front pressed against his back on the ride over.
“Um, yeah…I think I’ve had my quota for the week.” I am laughing now too. We are both shivering. How can I laugh? How is it even possible?
“I guess you know where I live now too. I may need a delivery sometime.”
“Okay, but you are way out of my delivery zone, it would have to be a pretty big order.”
“Three pots of coffee big?”
We laugh and small talk for a little while longer. Max leaves. I go upstairs and into my warm apartment and feel a little better. I get undressed, take a hot shower and get into bed. I am lonely and hurt but filled with the sense that maybe tomorrow will be better. I catch myself playing with a ring that is no longer there. I stop. Things will be better. Eventually.