This story is by Christine Foy and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“We appreciate the attention with which you put together your application materials. After careful review…,” the email began. Kate didn’t have to read more. At this rate, she’d have to move back home, head down, to mother’s. She’d miss the well-lit sidewalks and shaped hedges of Seattle, the people’s casual intelligence that said, “Look at me, I’m progressive and scrappy.” It had only been five months, and her boyfriend Frank dutifully paid her rent. This had been her first real lead.
She was on the phone with Frank now. An image of the interview committee flashed through her mind. All were smartly dressed around the conference table, men in button down shirts. The women wore infinity scarves or bulky bohemian earrings, intentionally casual. The lighting was muted.
“Take a seat, anywhere,” one woman with red rimmed glasses said. Kate thought of an octopus when she looked at the woman’s head and pursed lips. Her gaze traveled along the paneled walls cut from pine. Large windows revealed a muggy sky. Obscene, the gobs of money it took to achieve this modern, rustic look.
She chose one of three empty seats scattered around the table. Was this a test?
They grilled her for the next hour about her experience as a copywriter, ping-ponging questions. Kate had been half of the on-the-ground marketing team of her company. She made its vision concrete, sellable, but this was, they were careful to mention, a much larger firm than the one she’d worked for before. Could she handle it?
On the phone with Frank, Kate’s heart sank. Sharing the memory raised an idea she’d initially discarded. About the job, she asked him, “What do you think?” and waited several beats.
“Their loss,” he answered and asked what might be for dinner. He’d be over after work. Kate looked in her refrigerator in which were scattered leftovers that looked as unwanted as she felt. She hated asking but heard herself in a small voice. “Can we order in?”
He was supposed to come by, but she just left a note. “Was feeling restless. Be back in about an hour.” She had to make a decision and forced herself into action. Turning the corner of a brick building, a breeze smacked her in the face. Right on time, she thought. This was not her city, but she loved it. Only recently had cracks surfaced in her affection for it, little things you don’t find out till you’re committed.
She was almost to the Starbucks and her heart fluttered a bit. A steady stream of people flowed in and out, importantly carrying oversized cups, most with the warmers stuck in the holes. The drinks carried a familiar smell of the season, pumpkin and all spice. The smell was as natural to her mind as summer was to baseball, beer, and hot dogs. She took a deep breath and caught the door as someone exited. She looked around briefly and not seeing whom she was looking for sank into a padded chair, sighing. She placed her folder and purse in a jumble on the side table. Looking in her compact, she scanned her face. She sighed again and applied little lip gloss, smacking her lips with a slight, popping sound. As she waited, Kate got lost in the whir of the espresso machine and patron’s names called one after another. Dishes clanked and workers moved with the precision of an operating room. The lighting was dark and the room lined with wood chairs that scraped the floor. People sat in front of devices plugged into hidden outlets doing what seemed relentless, heady work. She was brought back to the present when a young woman—girl, really—approached her. The girl wore a green apron and had hair pulled back into a twisted bun, hair escaping the hold in clumps. A vacant nose piercing betrayed her past. She held a manila folder and smiled broadly. She indicated the folder next to Kate and hesitantly asked if she were here for an interview. Kate nodded yes.
“So, you are Kathryn?” the girl asked directly.
“Oh, yeah. Kate, actually” she corrected the girl.
The girl sat next to her and got right into it, ignoring any sting the correction might have caused. “Good to meet you, Kate.”
The interview went forward with lightning speed. When it was done, Kate couldn’t remember the girl’s name: Ashley or Cadence, maybe. “It’s not uncommon that someone of your experience ends up here,” she’d said, though. The word experience was a euphemism for age, no doubt. During it all, a firebrand of shame burned inside, and Kate hoped it didn’t show as disdain.
She made her answers as short as she could. Life circumstances, moved here recently… (for love, she left out), job market a lot tougher than she thought it would be. Her real passion was art. She stopped herself. How much of this had this girl heard before?
“So, you’re ok starting tomorrow?” the girl had asked.
“Yes, yes,” Kate stammered.
Then there were the details of the uniform, down to belt and boots.
Kate walked home feeling somewhat proud, mixed with concern that the money surely wouldn’t be enough. She’d talk to Frank about it. She made a stop on the row. Dinner would be set with china and tablecloth, centered with two candles set in brass holders.
He called. “How’s it going?”
“Good,” she answered, trying to sound light. She was tired of complaining.
“Listen,” she heard him say, his voice turned away from the phone. There was commotion in the background. “Gotta stay late. No notice. The boss wants a working dinner, you know?”
“Hmm,” Kate hesitated, searching for the right question. Only after she hung up did she realize she hadn’t been invited. She went to call him back and the phone rung, paused, and went to voicemail. She ate on the tablecloth anyway.
“So, you’re the new girl?” the boy asked, reaching over the top of the espresso maker for a filter.
Kate huffed. “I’m hardly a girl.”
“Excuse me,” he said, holding hands out in front of him. His name was Mason, and he was young, so young. She’d been paired with him for her first day, and Kate couldn’t decide if he was attractive. He was interesting but a pain. “Yell the orders like this,” he said as she took orders. Her senses were overloaded, and it was enough for her to remember the simplest drinks. She’d felt slow and dumb as a dinosaur.
He moved fast, though. A whip of his hair fell forward, and from the scarring on his face, it looked like he’d played around with piercings. His sleeves were rolled up only so far. Had to be a tattoo there. Scratch that—tattoos.
“This is how you make an espresso,” he showed her and kept talking. He asked questions, too.
“Well if you’re not a girl, I guess you don’t mind me asking how old you are?” or, “What brought you here?” As he was moving, his arm brushed hers. She was wearing a polo, and the hairs of his arm were soft and wiry, a strong forearm perceptible underneath.
Kate kicked herself for answering him. Told herself it was first day jitters but also coached herself to hold back. There was something quick and distrustful in his movements, like a carnival hawker. The hand is quicker than the eye—n’yeah!
Eventually, Mason took over the register and called the orders. Kate stood by a friendlier girl who taught her to make basic drinks. Mason’s calls hearkened to full service diners, the help suited in all white–up to bowties–who made flourishes of placing napkins and dinnerware but who ironically gave the rich a window into low-brow culture.
“Mason thinks he’s the shit,” the girl said under her breath. Kate smiled, head down. “You’ll get used to him, but don’t get too close, if you know what I mean.”
“There’s no way. I’m seeing someone.”
The rush passed. Mason gave an exaggerated sigh and with hands on hips, looked at his new charge. “Not so bad, huh?”
“You’re hard on me.”
“Well, we get really busy,” he remarked lightly and playfully wound a towel.
Kate wiped down the espresso machine. Out the corner of her eye, she sensed Mason looking. But when she looked again, he was pulling down a box of cup lids.
At the end of shift, Kate quietly exited the back, apron in hand.
“You don’t look so old,” Mason said. Kate scoffed. He was having a cigarette, squatting against the brick wall. Dumpsters off to the right lifted a faint, rancid odor. He stood up.
“I’m in a relationship,” Kate protested. Mason edged closer, his gaze nothing like love. “We’re going to get married,” she said, hands crossed in front of her, apron clutched in them.
“Yeah? Then why aren’t you wearing a ring?” He flicked the cigarette.