This piece was inspired by a homework assignment for a writing class: “write a story that shows the character in an honest and negative light”
It was as if, all these years, I had been flirting with the idea of meditation like I had once flirted with the engaged chef at a restaurant when I was barely twenty and should have known better. He was at a safe distance, behind the grill. I was a bored waitress — a bold waitress — waiting for the steak to be well done and looking for some distraction, a bit of risk-free adventure. I had fun leading him on, my flirtation harmless, he was engaged after all. Nothing would come of it. The act of watching him cook, his capable hands and attention to detail seduced me. I was protected by the long steel counter where he would reach through, under the heating lights, to pass me the still sizzling steak.
The flirtation carried on, each evening shift from five pm until midnight that long boring summer. I wore more makeup, a shorter skirt, a tighter white buttoned shirt. I liked his attention, it made me feel powerful that I could distract him from his engagement. As if I was better than someone else that I didn’t even know. His greasy hair was charming in the haze of the dinner rush, the way he managed fourteen orders at once, his adrenalin a powerful charm.
But then there was a catering event and we had to transport the long chafing dishes, the glassware and food to the other kitchen up the hill. The night was tiring; we were glad it was over as we cleaned up and got ready to leave. But then I stiffened when he asked me
“Can I get a ride down the hill?” In his hand was a tray of desserts. Behind him were the baskets of flowers that also needed to be moved.
I hesitated but also didn’t have a reason, the words to refuse. Everyone else had gone. Wasn’t I a nice, a good person who would give a co-worker a ride?
“Of course,” I said as we walked to my car and I opened the door to the back seat where he set down the tray of half-eaten Napoleons. I felt nervous to be alone with him. I felt nervous without the distraction of the busy kitchen. I felt nervous to have all my false words hang in the air between us, but with nothing in between.
I got in the driver’s seat as he got in on the other side and things felt like they were in slow motion as I quickly put the car into drive. I wasn’t surprised by the awkward silence that filled in between us after all that talk. I suddenly had nothing to say. I was suddenly shy, frightened by what I had said that I hadn’t actually meant. My façade of boldness had disappeared, I was no longer protected by the pick-up counter and the heating lamps, the buzz of a fast-moving kitchen where our little quips back and forth were absorbed into the frenetic pace. In a random twist of circumstances, all my words — all my suggestions — of what we might do together had we been alone rushed into the present. How I wished I could take them all back, my ill-conceived pretense of being someone who I was not. What had I been thinking? Hadn’t my friends warned me not to be a “tease?”
I saw him more clearly, now that we were alone, his mid-thirties beer belly slumped out from under his white chef jacket. I kept my hands on the wheel. I heard his breath. Any charm was gone, replaced with the reality of his perspiration and his age, his misinterpretations. It had all been a game, I wanted to say, we weren’t being serious, right?
We had reached the bottom of the hill on the dark unlit road, I put the car into park and waited for him to open his door. It was almost over, the ride alone, I was waiting to feel the relief of his departure and rambled on, in the most platonic boring way I could muster, what a busy night it’d been, how tired I was, how I wish I didn’t need to work the next day. I reached for the radio, still staring ahead, when the movement next to me snapped me to attention. His hand, not on the door handle, was instead un-zippering his black checked chef pants as he reached over and grabbed my head pressing his mouth on mine. My body recoiled as I leaned against my door, and pushed him away as I emphatically reminded him, scolded him, tried to bring him to his senses.
“You are engaged, ENGAGED!”
It was the only thing I could think to say, to put the onus on him, to remind him of the woman he really loved, the woman I so easily disregarded in the weeks before when it had just been a game. Suddenly she was crucial.
Suddenly she mattered.
My horror snapped him out of his fantasy, his plan of actualizing our talk. He backed off in confusion that twisted into anger, and zipped up his grease stained pants. Relief overcame me, followed by tremendous guilt as he opened up the car door to get out. I pulled away after he unloaded the dessert tray.
I felt responsible for the situation, my careless flirtation with someone engaged, for recklessly leading him on; I wondered if I had broken some kind of law. Would he tell his fiancée that he had tried to kiss me? Was the kiss my fault? What happened if they broke up? How would I apologize? Maybe she would try to hunt me down and kill me.
I returned to work without any of my usual excitement; I would have to face the aftermath of being an accomplice to a biblical crime — was I an adultress? Without question, I had been a tease, a person who really didn’t mean what she said. But, of course, he should have been thankful that I didn’t mean what I said. I wondered how we would pass the time. I made plans to spend more time at the sous chef’s station. He was a nice older Asian man who diced carrots in perfect tiny squares. I had not flirted with him. I was safe in that corner with his sharp knife, his attention to detail, his strong set of ethics that made him focus only on the chopping and arranging. As far as I could tell, beauty on a plate kept his needs fulfilled.
The chef was contrite on the day that our first shift overlapped. In front of the entire staff, he recounted a ‘dream’ from the night before.
“I dreamed we were kissing in the car,” he said to all of us standing there, waiting for our orders. I stared back at him and said
“That’s a strange dream. Did you tell your fiancée?”
“I did,” he said.
“I told her about the dream.”
Luckily the summer was nearly over, but the guilt followed me for years. I had stood precariously on the edge of nearly ruining someone’s life. It had been the wrong risk to take, a poorly thought out solution to my own boredom, a cheap way to have adventure where the risks fell entirely on someone else.