Excerpts


Excerpt #1 (from Chapter Six, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)

December 2007

Tears stop in their tracks as they always do, as if they are afraid of what lies beyond the safety of my eyes. I attempt to change the channel of my thoughts. With my mind constantly running, there are many networks to choose from. There’s no reason to stick with one if I don’t like the program it’s broadcasting.

I’d much rather think about Britney’s issues, as her latest song blares through the lounge. Dance music feels out of place here between jazz sets; Britney just doesn’t fit in here, or anywhere lately. Mrs. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous has really gone off the deep end this year. I feel for her. I haven’t felt wrapped too lightly myself lately.

Thankfully, it hasn’t come to shaving my head and smashing cars with umbrellas yet, but that may not be as far off as I’d like to believe.

I’m waiting for Grant, my friend of 14 years, to return to our corner booth and rescue me from the endless replay of last night’s dream. It’s the one channel I can’t seem to turn off at will.

I wonder if Zakary plants some sort of chip in my heart when he visits me in the dream state; the effects of seeing him there linger for days. It fills my heart with joy to see him, and then he’s gone and the excruciating pain of separation starts all over again. Not this time.

I’m determined not to become emotionally derailed again by someone who didn’t choose me. Instead, I am considering the man who has, again and again. Grant deserves me. So I was thinking I’d get good and buzzed tonight and let him have me.

I realize he’s picked up on my cues  because he returns with another round of drinks, sits closer and says he’ll make a fire when we get home. There was no prior mention of going to his house tonight, something I only do on the very rare occasion we push the boundaries of our friendship past the platonic zone.

I smile flirtatiously and take a sip of the wine, subtly licking my lips with the tip of my tongue for effect. I don’t feel physically stimulated but acting as if might get me there. The wine will help also, which Grant knows from experience. Hence the full glass sitting before me. Sex with Grant simply isn’t something I do sober.

You may say if I have to drink beyond my senses to do something (or someone), it probably isn’t in my best interest. But even if I regret this tomorrow, it will give me something better, or at least more original, to think about than Zakary.

Grant responds to my nonverbal confirmation that I’ll be spending the night in his bed with a surprising move. He sticks his hand underneath my shirt and sensually runs his fingers along my waist, across my ribs, even underneath my bra. His assertiveness astounds me. He didn’t even kiss me first!

Desire shoots through my body so unexpectedly that I don’t even stop him. I could never allow this uncharacteristic move if Grant didn’t respect me the way he does, which must be exactly why he’s doing it. Playing the incredibly caring friend role hasn’t been working out so well with me, so he’s changing his approach. Inviting me on a trip around the world. Skipping straight to second base in a public place.

His confidence is a major turn on. Sensing my green light, Grant steps on the gas. He starts to unfasten the top buttons on my tight black blouse, deliberately, slowly, looking in my eyes, testing my boundaries.

The only girl sitting close enough to see us glances over just as my blouse opens to reveal a sexy red lace bra. I wore it just in case tonight turned romantic, not because I predicted it would be on public display in a lounge.

But Grant presented me with quite an invitation and now I’m volleying my own with my lack of resistance. Go ahead; do whatever you want.

The girl’s eyes are transfixed on Grant’s hand until his fingers slip back underneath the lace, like they belong there. She turns her focus to my face, delivering a look that scorns, “Slut!”

Wine, adrenaline and hormones race through my system, the combination trumping any thoughts that would normally censor my actions. I just don’t care enough about this woman’s judgment to stop Grant. Unfortunately, he does.

“Are you ready to get out of here?” he asks as he notices our audience and retracts his hand. “Definitely,” I say, simultaneously appreciating and resenting his graciousness. I’m used to guys seeing me primarily as a sex kitten, their lust overpowering all mental processes. In comparison, 

Grant’s respectfulness feels like absence of desire to me. This is as close as he’s come to letting his body rule his mind and thus my body, which he just had in a hormonally charged stupor.

I announce that I’m going to use the restroom before we leave. I begin to button my blouse back up slowly, giving him a chance to change his mind, command me to sit back down and open the buttons back up. He doesn’t.

As I push my way through the crowded lounge, I’m aware that I’m one glass of wine beyond my ability to resist making incredibly foolish decisions, but no harm has ever really come of having sex with Grant, which I’ve done a few times on special occasions. 

Nothing spectacular has necessarily come of it either, but this time will be different. This time, I will really let myself go; I’ll fully give myself to him, heart and soul as well as body. Or should I wait for our trip? Maybe our chemistry will translate better in another language.

I smile as I realize it’s already translating better. Much better! Tonight. Right here on Long Island. Grant has me ready to go. I’m glad it’s a short drive to his house.

As I will the bathroom line to speed up, I realize I finally have enough love for myself to choose the guy who cares deeply about me over the one who got away. Ran away, really, like he was training for the Olympics. Screw you, Zakary. You can haunt me in my dreams all you like. But you went on with your life; I’m finally going to get on with mine.

On my way back to the table, a guy stands up from his bar stool abruptly and bumps right into me. I almost fall over when I see his face. For a few seconds, I actually think it’s him. In the history of look-a-likes, no one has looked more like someone than this young man looks like Zakary, circa 1994.

He stares at me like I’m the ghost, and apologizes before we scurry off in opposite directions. I run back into the bathroom in case the sadness streams down my face this time. But like a sneeze that doesn’t come through, my tears remain where they always do, burning my eyes before vanishing back into the abyss. Several deep breaths later, my heart rate finally slows to its normal pace.

“I can’t do this.” I say to Grant when I compose myself enough to return to the table.

“Do what?” he asks, as if what just happened between us only occurred in my imagination.

“Any of it. Go home with you. Take the trip. I want to do all of it but I can’t. Not yet. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t cry,” he says as the tears return to their starting gate, where they will again remain. He hasn’t seen me cry in over a decade. No one has. “What’s wrong? What just happened?”

“Nothing,” I lie. There’s no way he’d understand. “I just know I can’t be with you or anyone else until I get closure. With him.”

“Oh Jesus, not again,” Grant says with a tone of absolute disgust. There is no need to qualify “him.”

“I know. I can’t help it. I wish I could. I’m sorry.”

“Vienna, what’s wrong with you? When are you going to accept the fact that it’s over? He moved on over ten fucking years ago! Don’t you think it’s time you do the same?”  

 

Excerpt #2 (from Chapter Seven, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)  

March 1994

I watch the raindrops dance across the front windows of Midnight, to the exact beat that blares from the stereo. Each drop marks a place I should be, like my Psych Statistics class that I’m cutting, or a thing I should be doing, like mailing out resumes. Instead, I’m at my favorite bar, flirting with my favorite bartender. What else is new?

“I could listen to this guy’s voice all night long,” I say to Zakary, who is providing my first listen of “Superunknown,” by Soundgarden.

“You probably will,” Zakary says, leaning closer with that edible looking grin of his.

“No way, this is only a cameo,” I say, my heart rate quickening with his proximity. “I’m leaving as soon as it stops pouring. And I’m taking this CD with me.”

“The library is closed until you return the last ones you checked out!”

I laugh as I do a mental inventory of the CDs I have recently pilfered from him. Crash Test Dummies. Candlebox. Meat Puppets. Zak is like my personal A&R executive; he always knows what I’m going to like.

I know he’s kidding but I’ll just get my own copy tomorrow. Some guy on campus signed me up for a credit card with a $500 limit. When I spent it in one day, they raised my limit to $5000 as if to say, “We like the way you think Vienna!” I already funded a three-week trip to San Diego last month and I swore I wouldn’t use it again until I paid that off, but what’s a few CDS?

“I’ll get my own,” I say. “You’d never get this one back.”

“I never get any of them back!” he laughs. “Want to hit Tower tomorrow?” Mindreader. I love the sound of his laughter, and how his face looks even more delicious when he smiles. There’s nothing like a new crush; it makes you notice these things.

“If you want to go to the one in the Village! I have an interview.”

“Another record company?”

“Yeah. I want to see if I can break my rejection record this month.”

“Why don’t you look in other fields?”

As one of my closest comrades and also a fellow music worshipper, Zakary should be the last to question my career motivations.

He takes a bottle of my new favorite beer from the ice and places it in front of me, off to the side a bit, within reaching distance should I so choose to consume it. As he does this, he paradoxically warns that the rain is slowing down. It’s either leave now or I’m here for the duration. Zakary has a subtle way of encouraging the latter, while pretending to do the former.

“Working in the music industry is, like, the only way I’m ever going to be able to stomach a real job,” I explain, frustrated that I have to.

“Real jobs are overrated.”

“Maybe, but my parents are getting sick of admitting their daughter is still a waitress and bartender.”

“Why?”

“They think it’s totally pathetic. And they have a point.”

“So I’m pathetic?” His defensive tone matches how I feel.

“Don’t put words in my mouth Zak. It’s different for you; you’re gonna open your own place! And you make more money in one shift here than I do in a month.”

“Probably not this one,” he laughs. The rain drove his happy hour crowd to less remote spots and his one customer isn’t drinking. Not that it would matter; I haven’t paid for a drink here in months.

“You didn’t even graduate yet. What’s the big deal?”

“If I wait ’til graduation, I’ll have even more competition than I do now. Competition that can type!” I add this part to make him laugh. Zakary has typed all my papers this semester.

The harmony of our laughter melts whatever tension was brewing. The warm glow in my chest returns. I glance at the beer, contemplating. It’s early to drink though and who really needs alcohol when you’re already buzzed on crush rush?

Ever observant, Zak slides the beer a few centimeters closer, like a chess piece. My move.

“Get that away from me!”

“It’s a good luck drink.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s bad luck to turn down a good luck drink!”

“I’ll take my chances,” I protest. My voice displays a faint degree of weakening, which he is quick to capitalize on.

“One beer, one game,” he says, nodding toward the pinball machine. “Then I promise I’ll kick you out.”

This is how it always starts, Zakary never openly confessing his desire for me to stay, or his desire to rip my clothes off and throw me over the pool table, for that matter. He has to play it safe. One last drink, one quick game or in times of real desperation, one more song I have to hear – which inevitably turns into the entire CD.

I wonder if he knows I’d stay without an excuse if he’d just admit he wants me around. I’m no better; I have come about as close to confessing my feelings for him as I have to circling Jupiter in my very own rocket ship.

This flirtatious dance of ours is getting predictable but there’s a big reason I don’t learn any new steps. If we start something as incredible as I believe Zakary and I will be, one thing is inevitable. Someday, it will come to an end.

 

Excerpt #3 (from Chapter Twelve, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)

January 2008

“I might have to transfer.” The words don’t check what my mind thinks of them on their way out of my mouth. Tricia looks less surprised than I feel, even though she is well aware of the ever increasing depth of my debt. I would be hard-pressed to find one person who thinks switching to the Los Angeles center of my life coach training program is a good idea.

“I think you should do it baby.” One person besides Tricia, that is.

“I can’t Trish!” I say as my brain catches up with my voice.

“Why not?”

“I’ll lose my job! My boss isn’t gonna be like, ‘Sure, Vienna, take a leave of absence, go find yourself!’ And my family will think I’m moving to California for good. They’ll flip out.”

I leave out the obvious fact that I can’t possibly fund it, so Tricia ignores that also. She reminds me I’ve fallen out of love with my job, and have made far too many choices based on what others want me to do. Where has that gotten me, exactly? I’m not happy, am I?

I’m not sure I’m necessarily wired for happiness. I’ve had fleeting periods of it when things were going the way I wanted externally. According to my LA teacher, Kane, that doesn’t constitute real happiness, which he says comes from within and isn’t dependent on circumstances. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I want to find out. Surely the New York teacher must know also.

But how can I possibly get the most out of this training program without Kane? Or Jae, an instant friend who was somehow randomly selected to be my coach? In one weekend, she became a greater expert on the topic of Vienna than I have in a lifetime!

“The plan is to heal my body, mind, and finances, and I can do that right here where I screwed them all up in the first place. I hope my New York coach is ready to work!”

“You forgot your love life,” Tricia teases.

“Right, that too. Good luck Coach!”

Our laughter continues as we reflect upon a few of the gazillion hilarious scenes that took place here in the setting formerly known as Midnight. As Tricia details one to our waiter, I head toward the staircase. I may no longer feel Zakary’s presence down here, in what has become a fancy restaurant, but upstairs is home to more Zakary memories than I can count. That’s where I used to visit with his ghost, before I got over him. Or thought I had, anyway, until those dreams started again…

It’s been years since I’ve been up here but my fingers easily find and flick the light switch, which illuminates a sudden sense of sadness. The bar still stands, but that’s the only remnant in the otherwise deserted room. Even the liquor bottles that used to line the shelves are gone. It’s like going to a graveyard to visit with the spirit of a loved one, only to find the headstone has been removed.

I suddenly hear the stereo from the downstairs bar, as if the volume was raised. And because this is my life, a song from the 90s picks up right where “More Than A Feeling” by Boston leaves off. “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, from the movie “Reality Bites.”

A reel of lowlights begins to play on the projector of my memory. Flashing before me are all the scenes I wish I could film again, with dramatic differences in scripts and plot lines. I cringe as the slideshow of regret shows all the times my ego took over as head writer. The dull ache in my chest intensifies with each slide. Many of the scenes involve Zakary, including the final look exchanged between us, ever. Freeze frame.

Before I’m aware of its existence, a tear flows out of my left eye and down my cheek. Having lost the first battle, I surrender the fight. Salty drops of water rush down both sides of my face, as if engaging in a relay race. If only my LA classmates could see the tough New Yorker now!

“You say I only hear what I want to…” Lisa sings one last time. My tears fade with the final note and I feel a little lighter. Then the real memory associated with this song surfaces. It isn’t a bad one. Why does my selective memory only dwell upon those? Why does it filter out all the good ones? Which part of my brain is responsible for mercilessly beating the crap out of me and how do I make it stop?

Maybe the key to escaping the era I clearly got stuck in is recalling how the story really goes, not rehashing the guilt-inducing version my twisted memory has been projecting all these years. There had to be reasons behind all those words and actions I regret, even if I can’t remember them right now.

I know there is one person who can help me sort this all out. Someone who can help me devise a plan for making amends to Zakary. Someone who can help me forgive myself and finally leave my past in the past, where it belongs. Her name is Jae.

I’m going to California.

 

Excerpt #4 (from Chapters 3 and  17, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)

December 1993

Zak selects indiscriminate liquors that simply don’t belong together and pours their contents into a metal mixing cup. As he turns to grab a container of juice from the speed rack, I notice his eyes are closed. He swirls the liquids together, pours the concoction into a glass of ice and places it before me with a proud smile on his face.

“You expect me to actually drink this?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” he laughs.

“Maybe because your eyes were closed?”

“That’s how I always make Zak Brew!”

“What’s in it?”

“Who knows? My eyes were closed!”

“So you just like grab any bottles and mix them?”

“That’s what the recipe calls for!”

I take my first sip and fake wicked disgust, but Zak Brew is somehow delicious and he knows it. “Operation Spirit” by Live begins to blast, making it impossible to hold my frown.

“That look was convincing,” he says. You almost had me!”

“Sweet,” I smile. The acting skills I’ve been honing will be taken to a whole new level soon, when we begin fake dating. For now, they will just help me clean up when we play Liars’ Poker, a variation of the card game “bullshit” played with dollar bills. Zak is the only one at Midnight who can still beat me, and that’s going to change. Tonight.

May 1994

“You forgot something,” Zak says after I jump out of his gigantic new vehicle. He’s referring to the framed photo of my favorite Rangers that lies across his back seat. I get the impression Zakary is about as fond of Grant, who gave me the present, as he is of the team. Only another Ranger fan can understand how major and intoxicating this playoff run has been, but Zak doesn’t have anything to worry about as far as our fake relationship is concerned. Grant is just a friend.

I hop back in to retrieve my gift, taking in another blast of new car smell.

“I feel like a jerk that I didn’t get you anything,” he grunts.

“It’s all good. You didn’t know it was my birthday!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t tell anyone! Don’t bug out Zak. Presents aren’t the point. It’s about spending time with my favorite people!”

“You told Grant.”

“I did not! Tricia told him.”

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

“She thinks we’re dating, remember? I accept belated gifts if you really want to get me something.”

“What’s gonna compete with that?” he asks, sneering at Adam Graves and Mark Messier as if they just cursed him out. “It’s autographed. To you!”

“So what?” I bluff. I love that it’s autographed to me. “There is something on my wish list that only you can give me.”

“What?” he asks, looking utterly perplexed. His cluelessness slaughters my courage.

“Zak Brew!”

He eyes me suspiciously, not quite buying it. As if on cue, “Big Empty,” the amazing new song by Stone Temple Pilots comes on the radio. There is no need to verbalize that we can’t speak again until it’s over. Some songs can play in the background; others need to be the entire focus.

Well, almost the entire focus. We both reach for the volume simultaneously; my fingers land on the knob first and he places his over them. My hand vibrates, as if his is an electrical outlet that it’s just been plugged into.

We turn the volume up together and I stare at the sight of our fingers intertwining, as if they have minds of their own. This time, it’s not happening for the sake of our fake dating audience. It’s happening because it has to.

The tingling travels up my arm, across my chest and straight into my heart, causing it to beat faster with anticipation. I feel him looking at me and shift my gaze from our hands to his eyes. He leans toward me and his lips press against mine. Soft. Warm. I close my eyes. Our lips meet again and again.

I feel his tongue pressing against my lips, inviting. Slowly, I open mine; I let it in. His tongue, my tongue, dancing in perfect rhythm.

Kissing Zakary is everything I imagined it would be, completely paradoxical, just like our connection. Gentle, yet passionate. Impetuous, yet patient. Exploratory, yet somehow so familiar. I feel the prickle of his stubble against my chin and breathe in the scent of him like it’s oxygen and I need it to survive.

He exhales deeply as his hands move down my body. His touch on my bare skin just below my midriff sends a chill up my spine.

He pulls me on top of him and our kiss intensifies. The electricity now races through my entire body and I am overcome by the sense of our mutual wanting. Although our bodies are pressed together, he feels miles away with all these clothes between us and his button fly jeans are torturing me. But the first thing that has to go is his shirt. I pull it over his head and run my hands across his chiseled arms, shoulders and chest, tracing every muscle and every crevice between them.

As the last notes of the song fade, Zak does the unthinkable. He pulls his lips away and puts his hand around mine to deter them from their exploratory mission.

“We can’t do this Vienna.”

Please tell me he did not just say that. I want to do this all night. Possibly forever.

“Why not?” I return to my own seat quickly, flung by the strong brutal force of rejection. The electricity that was circulating my body has short circuited; the vibrations have been replaced with emotional lead. I feel as though I may sink straight into the leather seat below; it can’t possibly support my sudden heaviness.

“We both just got out of relationships. You know if we get involved, it’s going to get serious fast and I don’t think either one of us is ready for that.”

I stare at him blankly, too horrified to respond.

“If we act on this before we’re ready, it’s not gonna work out. We’ll screw up our friendship. I don’t want to lose that, Vienna. I tell you things I don’t share with anyone else.”

“Talk to the hand,” I think, but all words escape me. My pride translates his to the only language it speaks: rejection. What I hear is: “I don’t want you and I don’t have feelings for you. Not that kind of feelings.”

I can’t open the door fast enough, but do my best to pretend I’m cool as he wishes me a happy birthday again.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he says. We both know it’s a lie.

 

Excerpt #5 (from Chapter 18, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)   

January 2008

 

As I relay the end of the story to Jae, I feel my heart slamming shut with the door of Zakary’s SUV. My muscles tighten as if I’m back in 1994 instead of sitting by the beautiful pool of a West Hollywood boutique hotel. My ego awaits Jae’s backing as eagerly as my body looks forward to the sun’s reemergence.

“What a gentleman!” she smiles.

I almost choke on my fresh squeezed lemonade. My coach is not supposed to be on Team Zak!

“I fail to see the chivalry,” I hiss.

“Really? What do you think happened that night?” Jae asks, looking utterly confused, like we’re talking about two entirely different situations.

“He totally blew me off!”

“He didn’t reject you honey. He respected you!”

The sun appears to help melt my defenses, and I briefly contemplate her words. But it vanishes behind another cloud along with my willingness to consider this old story from a new angle.

“I know what rejection feels like Jae. I was there. It was mortifying.”

“I know how awful that feels,” she validates. “But the rejection came from you! It wasn’t what he said or did; it was how you perceived it.”

Kane says our feelings are derived from our interpretations of the words and actions of others. We think other people can make us feel a certain way, but it’s just our own mind doing that. They simply reflect our projections so we can see them. Since we usually don’t realize that, we perceive their actions as external and delude ourselves into believing they are doing something “to” us. Our responses, based on our perceptions, create the next chapters of our stories. I’ve learned to apply that knowingness to my present; it just hadn’t occurred to me to look back and see how my distorted perspectives played out in plotlines past.

“Your perception was based on emotional congestion!” Jae continues, with the excited tone of a detective who has just solved a huge mystery. “Old programming from your past. And I know just how we can clear it!”

I know what’s coming and I don’t like it.

“EFT!” she exclaims, confirming my suspicion.

It stands for Emotional Freedom Technique and according to Kane, combines the benefits of acupressure and coaching.

“Expressing Foolish Trust?” I ask.

“C’mon you barely gave it a chance in class!”

“That’s because it’s ridiculous.”

“Humor me then.”

“Now? In public?”

“There’s one person out here Vienna. And he’s sleeping.”

“He might wake up!”

“Or you might. Maybe that’s why you’re scared of EFT. It’s a lot safer to stay asleep, without awareness, thinking everything is happening to you externally. But when you got to LA, you told me you were willing to do anything it took to heal your love life, among other things. Prove it!”

I slurp the last sip of lemonade through my straw, noticing the perfect contrast between sour lemon and sweet sugar.

“I’m not scared of EFT,” I say. “I just don’t believe in it! But fine. I’ll humor you.”

Jae looks over her notes from class as I watch another cloud take over the sky. The sun may continue to shine even when I can’t see or feel it, but that’s about as a big of a perspective stretch as I have in me today. This isn’t going to go well and I feel bad in advance for disappointing her.

“On a scale of 1-10, how strongly do you feel rejection when you think back on that story?” she asks.

“Six hundred and forty two.”

Unfazed by my sarcasm, Jae immediately begins to tap on the outside edge of her hand.

“Even though I feel extremely rejected, I deeply and completely accept myself,” she says. I’m supposed to repeat that back to her while tapping on my own hand. Without laughing.

“Even though I feel like an idiot doing this and I don’t think it’s gonna help…”

“We can start there,” Jae says. She leads me through some statements on my skepticism and I have to admit I feel a bit more relaxed, if not more open. Then she  asks me about other times I’ve felt rejected, before that night with Zakary. I have no trouble citing multiple examples, dating back to my teens. While the situations were all very different, the intensity of rejection fueled many reactions I wish I could retract. We “tap” on all of them and then on some positive affirmations.

“When did you feel rejected as a kid?” she asks, just when I think we’re done. “The first time.”

“Never. I had a happy childhood. I don’t think this goes further back than junior high.”

“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t. Kane says all these patterns have roots in our first seven years.”

“If there’s some big trauma I don’t remember from back then, I prefer to keep it that way. For now, anyway. I think I’m good for today Jae.”

“Fair enough. This was a great start. I’m really proud of you for being so open and brave!”

“Thanks.”

“Now you can let go of that story about Zak rejecting you. All he did was respect you and your friendship. You see that now, right?”

I try to tune in to the crushing rejection I felt while telling her the story but it’s gone. The sensation has faded entirely, like a bee sting that has been numbed with ice.

“Vividly. Wow. Maybe there’s something to this EFT stuff after all.”

Either that or it’s just been Jae’s amazing coaching. Either way, I’m grateful for how much better I feel.

“Emotional congestion,” I jot in my journal, not wanting to forget her brilliant phrase. My fear of rejection and other issues from the past have been creating gridlock in my life for decades. I’m ready to experience love without traffic, even if I have to tap on my head like a monkey all winter to prepare for the ride.

 

Excerpt #6 (from Chapter 19, © 2014 Nancy Koenig)

June 1994

I watch in horror as our new hostess takes yet another table to my section, sans menus. The rest of the lunch staff was cut prematurely by our new GM, who knows as much about managing a restaurant as I do auto mechanics. This airhead was his first hire.

“Are the menus on strike?” I ask when I have a chance to storm the front desk. She’s ignoring the phone that’s been ringing off the hook, as if answering falls outside the boundaries of her job description.

“I keep forgetting them!” she laughs.

“I’m in the weeds; I don’t have time to keep coming up here. Or answer the phone.”

She picks up the phone on its 800th ring. The first thing the caller hears is her response to me.

“Take a chill pill Vienna! The customers don’t even need them!” As buried as I am, I have to stick around to hear her logic on this, and maybe provide some education on answering a business call.

“What do you want?” she finally greets the caller.

“Here,” she says, holding out the receiver.

“Who is it?” I ask, staring at the receiver like I’ve never seen one. My stomach twists itself into tiny knots. Only one person calls me here.

“Your boyfriend,” she confirms.

Did he really just identify himself that way? Does he somehow think we’re still fake dating? We’re not even friends anymore! We haven’t spoken a word since the night we kissed.

“Tell him I’m busy.”

“He said when you said that to tell you it’s an emergency.”

I’m not falling for this again. I grab a stack of menus and turn to walk away, but the look on her face stops me in my tracks. What if it really is an emergency?

“Vienna!” Zak says after I deliver my hesitant hello.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“What are you doing tonight?” Irritation rises up my chest, into my throat, delaying my response. You don’t start a conversation with someone you’re not on speaking terms with by asking what they’re doing tonight. Especially after faking an emergency. My pride begs me to hang up.

“Working. I can’t talk; I just got slammed. I’ll beep you later.”

“Wait! I got free tickets for tonight’s Ranger game! You want to go?”

There is absolutely no such thing as free tickets to the Stanley Cup Final. Even this early in the series, people are paying thousands of dollars for one ticket. He’s obviously lying. What else is new?

“How the hell did you score free tickets?”

“I’ll tell you on the way to the city.”

“I can’t Zak. I’m doing a double. I just told you.”

“Call in sick!”

“I can’t call in sick jackass. I’m already here.”

“So get sick!”

I can’t help laughing along and as I do, I feel some cracks forming in my wall. It’s hard to stay pissed off at this guy.

“You know they only win when I’m working,” I say.

“That’s why I’m inviting you!”

“You’re not seriously planning to root against them are you? You might get away with that at Midnight, but your survival potential at the Garden is like, zero.”

“I’m kidding. I’m rooting for them this series. For you.”

Entire bricks fall off my wall. If any other manager was here, I’d look for coverage. But this guy thinks he’s running a military bootcamp, and I’m already on solitary confinement today.

“Wish I could Zak. I’m the only one on. Gotta run.”

“Call me when you change your mind.”

“Can I get you something to drink?” I ask the couple that took the liberty of seating themselves while I was on the phone. I wonder where they got the menu the woman has her face buried in. The man has a superior, intellectual vibe; he’s the type who has perfect vision and dons spectacles for show.

“I am ready to order but she’s not” he responds, nodding toward her in case I need help establishing who he’s referring to.

“Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“No! Put in my order.” His tone is so dramatic; he speaks in a manner which suggests each syllable uttered is more important than the last. “I’ll perish from starvation if I wait for her!”

I cue my fake laughter button.

“There is nothing humorous about starvation, young lady.”

“Sorry Sir. I thought you were joking.”

“I was not. My palate wants to be pampered with a half rack of ribs today. I realize baked potatoes take longer to cook assuming you make them fresh, so bring out the meat as soon as it’s ready and save the potato for desert. But don’t go putting any hot fudge on it. I don’t want it to actually become a desert. Just deliver it after the meat so it’s hot.”

I keep myself from laughing by writing “nuke potato” on my pad.

“I’m ready now,” the woman interjects. I turn my attention to her, but nothing comes out of her mouth. If I had to choose what annoys me most about customers, and believe me, I have plenty of offenses to select from, it’s feigning order readiness. There’s nothing worse than waiting awkwardly, staring, while other customers – the ones who do know what they want – shoot daggers of impatience from their eyes.

“I’ll be back,” I say. The man yells after me but I pretend not to hear him. Feigning deafness is my greatest defense.

“Venice!” a woman at my four-top yells. Sorry, wrong European city. I carefully avoid eye contact as I make a beeline to the kitchen.

On my return, the woman gets my name right. She and her three friends are fur-donning bitches but they are regulars that tip better than most. In the past month, I have trained them not to eat tuna because of all the dolphins that get stuck in the nets. I’m waiting for the right moment to let them know what happens to the animals they wear on their backs. She orders another round of top shelf martinis and I’m happy to oblige. The higher their bill, the higher my tip.

“Can we order sometime today?” the woman dining with Fake Spectacles yells.

“Are you really ready this time or are you going to freeze up again when I ask what you want?”

I’m usually much better at tucking in my disdain for my customers but I don’t want to be here. I didn’t before Zak’s call; now it’s torture. I picture walking out, and General GM taking over my tables. The excitement this image produces in my heart is quickly killed by the sinking in my gut as I picture him firing me. He’s been making this job suck lately, but I need it until I find a real one.

My next table is another gem. All five kids order grilled cheese. The bleach blonde stick figure accompanying them tells me she’d prefer it if I wrote the order down.

“They ordered the exact same thing!”

“But you might forget the quantity, she scowls. “How many,” she adds, in case I am not carrying a pocket dictionary in my apron and need some assistance with her big word.

“Please do not equate waitressing with stupidity.” I vow to bring out one order of chicken fingers just to fuck with her. She informs me she is having water as her meal. Big surprise.

“I want soda!” one of the brats yells.

“Okay,” she says. “It’s free with your meal here.”

This is gonna be a whopping tip.

“Miss, is lunch on the house today or can I get my check?” a man from a table I’ve been ignoring yells, inviting a chorus of ridiculous responses.

“Venice, I don’t taste vodka in this!” yells fur lady of her drink, which is solely comprised of vodka.

“Where’s my baked potato?” barks Fake Spectacles, as if he requested it as an appetizer.

“We want two decafs,” yells a man at my six-top. “Make sure it’s decaffeinated.

I can’t deal with these lunatics anymore.  My heart races with adrenaline as I ignore them all and run back up front to call Zak. I’m going to fake that illness and let General GM try his hand at waitressing. If I get fired, I get fired.

One ring. I can’t pass up going to the game tonight! With Zak! Denying myself what I want is making me miserable. I’ll probably get fired if I stay! 

Two rings. I have hated this place since General GM took over. If I don’t get fired, I should give my notice. I can find a real job!

Three rings. What if I can’t? What if I have to work at another restaurant? At least I have seniority here. I better not do this.

Four rings. I have to! My head is telling me it’s too big of a risk. My heart is telling me that’s exactly why it’s right.

Zak’s answering machine picks up and awaits my verdict. My whole life could change at the sound of the beep. Am I ready for that?

 

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