Chapter 1: The Alley View Grill
Part 7: Whenever You’re Ready
YOU CAN READ
hen Belinda arrives in the ladies’ room, the redhead is standing at the
sink, wiping her face with a wet paper towel, snarling at her reflection
in the mirror and saying “Bitch!” and “Cunt!” Belinda scoots into
a stall, locks the door, and pees as quietly as she can.
The redhead begins whining, imitating the Chinese girl. “I’m so worried about the ozone layer,” she says, and then in a louder voice she calls out, “Can you believe that dyke?” Belinda knows that she’s talking to her, but she says nothing, pretending that she thinks the redhead is just asking a rhetorical question. The redhead knocks on the door of Belinda’s stall and says, “Hey! Did you hear me? You must have heard what she was saying. The ozone layer? All that shit?”
Belinda says, “Well, I—did hear something about that—”
“Yeah, you’d have to. You’re sitting right next to her. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to grab your knee.” She waits a moment and says, “She hasn’t, has she?”
Belinda laughs. It’s a nervous, forced laugh.
“Just kidding,” the redhead says. “You’re probably not her type. I say ‘probably’ because I think she’s omnivorous.”
Belinda laughs again, because she thinks it’s expected of her. She hopes the redhead will leave, but the woman wants to talk. She says, “Do you believe that, that crap about the ozone?”
Belinda sighs. “I don’t know,” she says. She decides that she might as well come out of the stall, figuring that if she washes up and makes some agreeable noises, she may be able to get out quickly. She’s trembling a little. She tells herself, as she has before, that she shouldn’t be so uncomfortable with lesbians, but she’s always afraid that they will say or do something that will embarrass her, specifically that they might make jokes about her that she doesn’t understand, making her feel ignorant and horrible. Every now and then, she thinks that perhaps she should go to bed with a woman just so that she’ll know something about it, so that she’ll be protected from feeling ignorant.
She flushes the toilet and pulls herself together, takes a deep breath, and comes out of the stall. The redhead is gone. Belinda washes her hands and looks herself over in the mirror, though she tells herself that this is probably a mistake. For the last year or so, whenever she looks in a mirror she feels almost sexless. She has been finding it difficult to imagine that she’s still attractive, or even interesting-looking, to men—or to women, for that matter. This isn’t exactly a problem of aging; in fact, it strikes her as funny that she sees her young self more and more in the mirror, that the face she had when she was a girl is there, with some not-so-welcome new details—wrinkles, lines, spots—but still there, the same girlish face, and it amuses her sometimes to notice how incomplete Leila’s face is, a pretty face, but characterless, like an apartment with white walls and no pictures, something like Matthew’s apartment.
She decides to do something with her hair. She brushes it all over to one side. The effect strikes her as pretty odd, but she knows that odd is a look, and it seems somehow livelier now than it did before. She likes it. It makes her smile. It’s kind of crazy.
When she emerges from the ladies’ room, the redhead is talking on the pay phone in the hallway: “I’m just very worried about her, Mrs. Chu. Very, very worried. I’ve never seen her so crazy. Do you understand what I’m saying? She’s just—she’s really irrational. She’s going on and on about how she’s worried about the ozone layer? In the sky—in the atmosphere? The ozone layer? It’s some kind of gases—”
She nearly blocks the narrow hallway. Belinda couldn’t get by without rubbing against her, so she says, “Uhm, excuse me.”
The redhead turns around. Her face is blank for a moment, but then she winks at Belinda and points to her hair and raises her eyebrows and grins, still talking into the phone, saying, “She’s irrational, Mrs. Chu. I really think you should come down here. She’s been like this before, but never this bad. It scares me, I mean it really scares me. I just don’t know what she might do. I can’t take responsibility for her. I really wish you would come down here and take her away. Take her home. She needs help, Mrs. Chu. She really does.”
BELINDA RETURNS TO THE TABLE, the waiter arrives with the drinks, and,
in a moment, the redhead returns to her table. All this traffic in
a small space occasions some confusion, jostling, stepping aside, shuffling
of chairs, asking to be excused. The waiter stands to one side, holding
his tray, aloof from the fray, frowning through a thin smile. Belinda
seems upset. She’s trying to smile, but her forehead’s furrowed,
and her smile slips, now and then, down to a frown.
When the food arrives, shut up, everyone, please. Dim the lights. Drift off, companions. Vanish, waiters. Return when we have finished, or when we need you, not before. Don’t intrude. Please, please, don’t come back to ask, “Is everything okay?”Matthew has never managed to complain about that is-everything-okay intrusion or to respond to it with a snappy retort because the waiters always ask the question when his mouth is full, perhaps deliberately, to ensure that he can’t complain or deliver a snappy retort, only smile or nod or say “Mmmmm,” but he has thought of several snappy retorts after the fact and, disguised as BW, claimed to have made one:
We paused with our fork, our full fork, before our mouth. We turned upon our waitperson a hangdog look. “Is everything okay?” we repeated. We set our fork down. “Well, no. My wife is leaving me because, after fourteen years of marriage, she claims to have discovered that she has never loved me. What do you think of that? She said, ‘I just don’t love you. I feel sorry for you. I know you’re going through a rough time.’ That was certainly an understatement. My mother had just died. That was the time my wife chose to leave me. How do you like that? ‘I know you’re going through a rough time,’ she said, ‘but I’ve decided that I don’t love you, I’ve never loved you, and there is little likelihood that I will ever come to love you. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with someone I don’t love, so I’m catching the next flight to anywhere. I hope you understand. Have a nice day.’” Here we shrugged and said, “But, heck, that’s my problem. How’s everything with you?”Matthew samples Belinda’s pork, the sauce, the aïoli (it is aïoli), the vegetables, the rice. While they’re having coffee, he consolidates his mental notes as he sometimes does, by reciting to Belinda important judgments he hopes to include in BW’s review. This postprandial draft is a risky business. Since he looks to Belinda’s response not so much as a test of his observations but as an affirmation of them, he only tries it when he’s feeling confident. Belinda finds it a trial. Matthew tries to speak softly, but he has to speak loudly enough for Belinda to hear him. He imagines that diners nearby sometimes think he’s mad, and he is not displeased to think that thus he distinguishes himself from the crowd. He’s saying, “Both the diners and the flowers tend toward the exotic and showy—and there’s a kind of lush, tropical sensuality to the place—fecundity—a warm fecundity—dew-damp pistils and stamens—bizarre varieties of vegetable sexuality—and animal, too.”
The redhead gives Belinda a look, a raised eyebrow, a twisted smile. She might be asking Belinda whether Matthew is crazy. The delicate blonde is spoon-feeding to the Chinese girl a dessert listed on the menu as “chocolate decadence.” The Chinese girl is pretending to resist this cosseting. She keeps her lips closed when each spoonful arrives, like a child fighting puréed lima beans, but at the first touch of the tip of the spoon she parts them ever so slightly, yielding, and the spoonful of chocolate slips into the tiny oval orifice she creates. She parts her lips farther as the delicate girl slips the spoon into her mouth, just the slight bit needed to accommodate the bowl, and then closes them until only the handle protrudes from her pursed lips. Then, slowly, the delicate girl begins withdrawing the spoon, and with it, slipping out between her lips, comes the Chinese girl’s tongue, streaked with chocolate, pursuing the bowl of the spoon to lick the last of its residual decadence.
“Want some?” the delicate girl asks the redhead.
“Fuck you,” says the redhead, very softly, very sweetly. She gets up and goes off in the direction of the ladies’ room again. Discreetly, Belinda and Matthew watch her go, noticing, individually, what an alluring body she has. Belinda leans across the table and says to Matthew, “I’ve got to start going to aerobics every morning.”
Matthew realizes that he hasn’t checked the men’s room yet. On the way he takes careful note, without seeming to do so, of the other diners—their apparent satisfaction or dissatisfaction, the contents of their plates, their leavings. The men’s room has peacock-feather wallpaper.
When Matthew comes out of the men’s room, the redhead is standing at the phone, with her back to him, saying this: “You’d better come right away—it’s—oh—it’s terrible. She’s dead—she’s dead. She killed herself, Mrs. Chu. Mrs. Chu? Hello? Is this Mr. Chu?”
Beyond the redhead Matthew can see that everyone in the dining room is behaving as if nothing remarkable has occurred. Is he witnessing a grisly demonstration of contemporary indifference? A woman has killed herself and people go on munching their raddichio? As he makes his way across the leopard-spot carpet back to the table, he can see that in fact nothing has happened, and then he understands what’s going on, and he decides that it would be best to get out of the restaurant before the Chus arrive. He finds the waiter chatting with some other waiters, giving a lively account of something. “Just unbelievable,” he’s saying, “just unbelievable!” What? Matthew wonders. A concert, a movie, a love affair? He catches the waiter’s eye, and the waiter frowns.
“Excuse me,” Matthew says. “Would you bring us our check? We’re in kind of a hurry.”
“Certainly, sir. I’ll be right over, just as soon as I’ve finished with these people.”
In a few minutes the waiter does come by with the check, sets it in the no-person’s zone exactly midway between Belinda and Matthew, and says, “I’ll take that whenever you’re ready.”
Matthew has learned that, in the lingo of waiters, “whenever you’re ready” means “whenever I’m ready,” so he says at once, “I’m ready,” and hands over his American Express card.
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Reservations Recommended is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press, at $12.00.
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Copyright © 1990 by Eric Kraft
Reservations Recommended is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec “Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.