May 2, 2010
“Fillet mignon, medium rare, up on 23 – it's yours, Jamie,” said the chef, sliding the china plate under the warming light and glancing briefly in his direction before turning quickly back to the kitchen.
“Thank you, François,” responded Jamie, straightening his black vest and tie but, the chef's attention was already redirected.
“I need 'tortellini al pesto' ready in 30,” the chef recited to his frantic staff toiling over steaming and deliciously perfumed pots, pans and trays. “'Poulet au jus avec champignons' up in 1.” The chef continued his litany, scanning the overhead screen where the orders appeared, timed to the second.
“Yes, chef,” came the unified and obligatory responses.
Jamie poised himself and then slid the warm plate onto his silver tray. Lifting it to shoulder height, he bumped through the kitchen door and into the silent, candle-lit, reserve of the dining room.
'Chez Antoine' was, quite possibly, the finest restaurant in the city, catering to an affluent, discerning and often elderly clientèle. Jamie, after working there for 7 years and having achieved the internal status of 'first waiter', knew this and took pride in his work. He nodded, exiting the kitchen, to Corinne, the maître d'hôtel, who smiled graciously at him as he began his smooth and practiced ballet among the tables heading toward '23', currently occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Gluckheim.
Despite his dedication to his job, Jamie knew, arriving at the table, presenting the dish and then automatically refilling glasses with water and a delicious, fresh Bordeaux, that his mind was elsewhere. He received Mrs. Gluckheim's praises with a smile and wished them 'bon appetit' before moving purposefully away to check on other clients.
It was Leah, far away in New York, who would not leave his thoughts and, although with somewhat of the air of an automaton, he continued his usual performance in the dining room, he continued to worry about her, her job search and the sorts of people she might meet or the disasters she could easily encounter. It was constantly on his mind – a persistent tumult of what-if's and contingencies that left him, at times, breathless.
Leah, a tall and finely sculpted girl of 26, had moved to New York only months previously from small town Kansas with a mind full of dreams but no more to her name than a large suitcase, a cat-box and a Masters degree in finance from KSU so fresh that the printer's ink still threatened to run. She had managed, through sheer force of will and determination, to secure a small, uptown apartment with a fashionable address but none of the amenities and land a low-level finance sector job although, she was quite certain that her manager, a man who's body had, long ago, given itself up to middle-aged spread, was more interested in what was under her tailored business suit than the leadership qualities Leah yearned to exert. Overall, it was not an ideal situation. Then there was Richard, a colleague of hers in another department; a tall sprig of arms and legs, a shy smile and dark brown eyes that always seemed to be touched with boyish mischief. She was entirely uncertain what to do about him.
Jamie looked at his watch, anxious for his shift to be over, while aiming toward the bar to collect coffee and liqueurs for Mr. Thorne at '27', the CFO of a downtown bank, and his 'friend', an exotic, simmering, dark Latina, who was definitely not Mrs. Thorne.
“How's your night going, Jamie?” asked Alexa, behind the bar, while filling over-sized cups with strong brew. She placed them on Jamie's tray and then went to fetch the liqueur bottles.
“Pretty good, Alex. Thanks. No lack of stories around here, are there?” he commented once she returned with the bottles and simultaneously versed the shots into waiting glasses. Alexa laughed softly.
“You got that right! Say, Jamie, how is Leah doing?” Jamie frowned for a second, thinking how to answer.
“It's pretty confused right now; she's got probs with her boss – he's a lech.” It was Alexa's turn to frown.
“Not cool at all,” she said, severely. She looked briefly over his shoulder and then added, “you'd better go. Mr. Hot-to-Trot is champing at the bit and anxious for the real race at the Hilton tonight. No doubt, he took his Viagra with the appetizers and is just about to burst through the gate by now.”
Jamie and Alexa stifled their outbursts and then grinned affectionately at each other before Jamie, still fighting to regain his composure, recovered his tray and headed back to '27'.
It was true that Jamie had spoken of Leah so often to his colleagues that they assumed she was an online girlfriend – someone for whom he had developed not only a strong affection but also who he respected for the struggles that she was facing and her strength in forging onward with courage. That was also the case but their perceptions were incorrect.
'I think it's an HR issue, Jamie,' had commented Francisco, out of the blue, one evening in the locker room as they changed from their uniforms and into baggy jeans and sweatshirts. Francisco had also worked, he said, in finance and knew the potential for impropriety.
'Leah should absolutely not let this slide. The more she does, then the less reliable becomes her complaint once things do go over the top.'
'But shouldn't she try to straighten it out – straighten him out – first, before resorting to HR?' Jamie acknowledged the input of his younger colleague but couldn't help wondering if she couldn't take some wind out of the guy's sails. Jamie carefully folded his trousers and placed them in his backpack along with his shirt, tie and vest, waiting for the response.
'She'll have to be good – really quick on her feet and just take him out with a one-liner. Wish her my best will you please, Jamie?'
'Thanks, Francisco. I will. Have a great night.'
By 11:30, Jamie was frantic to be on his way. Corinne approached him, smiling the effusive and seductive sensuality that seemed to come off of her in waves of spice and perfume.
“You've been distracted tonight, Jamie. Don't worry, it's not a problem – your service was perfect, as always.” Her voice was low, vibrant and intoxicating to a man.
“I'm sorry, Corinne. I've got some things on my mind.”
“OK. Get out of here and talk to her. I'll take care of your tips and give them to you tomorrow. Enjoy.”
They embraced quickly and then he was off, running. He quickly made his rounds, thanking the kitchen staff and the other waiters and, then, already too anxious to change clothes, simply stripped off his vest and tie, deposited them unceremoniously in his backpack and flew to his bike, chained to the stairs of the back exit.
He pedaled furiously the 15 minutes and 8 blocks to his apartment, startling the orange cat, Mickey, as he burst through the door, kicking off his shoes. He flicked on the laptop and, moving toward the bedroom, stripped naked, revealing a pale, wiry physique, all bony protrusions and thin, chord-like musculature. He emerged from the bedroom seconds later wearing only black sweat pants which, tied loosely, sagged over his narrow hips. He punched some keys on the computer and then, while the instant messenger logged in, poured a large glass of red wine in the kitchen and returned immediately.
He was relieved, upon returning, to see that his few close friends were all showing 'offline'. He sighed gratefully and switched windows.
The document was already 150 pages long but, he knew there was so much more to do before he could get her to where she needed to be. He began to write - slowly choosing the words and the descriptives, plotting each scene as though it was the last:
On Wednesday, Leah entered her office filled with trepidation for the confrontation that was certain to come but confident, enclosed in her severest black suit, that she would emerge, in the end, vindicated, and in a more powerful position. She only had to wait and then take charge of it.
She did not have to wait...