The restaurant was situated in the area of the recently renovated old town among famous historical buildings. It was build no more than eight years ago but even locals would swear that it was one of the oldest restaurants in town.
It quickly became the kind of place that a beef steak is renamed to filet mignon and costs three to five times more that it should. The marble staircase, the thick burgundy carpet and the bronze chandeliers took care that no one would ever dare protest against the establishment’s outrageous prices.
A man was sitting alone at a table against the wall. In front of him there was a pile of papers, mostly expired invoices and bills. He occasionally stopped working and looked around him dubiously. Heavy drops of sweat fell from his temples to the satin white tablecloth. He was overweight, almost obese with messy greasy looking hair that striked in absolute contrast with his expensive italian suit.
From the other end of the room his mistress Sylvia was giving him conspicuous looks but honestly, no one could care any less than he actually did. She wanted to go to Paris so badly that she had even used the old time cliche “Paris is for lovers” to persuade him. As far as he suspected Sylvia had plenty of lovers beside him. Maybe it wasn’t too late and she could always drag another poor soul there. He sighed satisfied with that thought.
He was no ordinary man. He was the kind you see either on the cover of a magazine posing as the entrepreneur of the year or behind bars for fraud. While his contemporary peers smoked imported cigars he prefered to roll ordinary tobacco and smoke outdoors. While he never sympathised “les nouveaux riches”, or wealthy people that had it way too easy, in his opinion he was in a permanent entanglement with both species. Money laundering was a serious business that required skill, dedication and a cool head. Money was never the issue, time was. Every second of it was important to him.
And Sylvia was a real time eater. To hell with her then. He took a deep breath before he went back to his paperwork. Paris is for losers, he decided.
Grin and Bear It
He grasped his cigarette from the ashtray just to hold it an inch away from Sylvia’s eyes.
-I am quitting this shit. -You should definitely do so, she said as she lit up hers.
They looked at each other without being able to speak for a while. After a long-suffering pause she muttered:
-It’s not working anymore for us, is it? -Does it make any difference to you? -No, not really. -Then it’s all right. What time should I pick you up tomorrow? We are going to Martin’s house for dinner. -Around six should be fine, I think. I have some stuff to do first.
Her voice was distant so he paused for a moment. He kept looking at the ashtray till the waitress came to pick up their empty glasses. Then, at the sound of their two glasses bouncing against each other between the waiter’s fingers as he took them away, he asked her in a playful tone:
-What kind of stuff? Is it something I should know about?
-Well, we’re going to Paris, dear. Next weekend. Everything is arranged. It’s on me this time. I meant it to be a surprise but you can always read me like a book.
-Like a book indeed. I had my suspicions long before you obviously started cheating on me but now it’s definite. So who was he this time? A well-forgotten romance from high school? A colleague from the office that transferred to France? Another sixteen-year-old boy you met online? Or one of your numerous ex-lovers?
But these thoughts remained unspoken. His bitterness was obvious but he didn’t dare expose it. Instead he pretended that he was excited about Paris. He even mentioned some good upcoming exhibitions that they should definitely visit together and later on he ordered some expensive wine to celebrate it.
Shortly after, he went to the bathroom. It was a long white room covered with large shining mirrors. As soon as his eyes caught his reflection he stopped walking. Captivated by his image he took a moment to look upon himself.
The knot of his tie was loose and the silvery gray shirt he was wearing looked wrinkly with a few wine stains. His eyes were tired and his cheeks were a bit red from the wine like those of a sad clown at the end of his career as a professional entertainer.
He tried to smile but his facial features refused to assist him. He tried again and this time a rather scary and grotesque expression appeared. He looked behind him in case someone was observing him and then in a rather childish way he grinned.
Still staring at the mirror he placed his fingers inside his open mouth pushing his cheeks up in a stretchy smile and stayed like that. He did not feel at all like going back inside.
I am quitting this shit. The “we” kind of bullshit, drinks, dinners, the shared car, the social circle of pretentious friends and all the “escape from the city weekends”. I am not happy. I never was and it’s more than certain now that I never will be.
With this thought his whole posture changed. His elbows touched the mirror’s marbled white frame. As he was leaning closer and closer to his reflection his fingers were still stretching his mouth to some wildly supernatural grimace.
The door opened and a fat kid walked in. The boy stood by him on his toes so he could also half see himself in the mirror. As soon as he got to see his face he formed a similarly looking grin showing off his new teeth.
There was a moment’s pause before he and the child returned to their tables. They occasionally shot conspiratorial looks at each other like two partners in crime while they both ordered and enjoyed the dessert paid for by their guardians.
I scream for Ice Cream
In broad candlelight coming from a bronze chandelier, a couple with their young son are sitting for dinner. They are surrounded by similarly looking candlelit tables mostly filled with couples. A young man proposes to a beautiful woman offering her a large diamond ring when back at our table the young boy finishes his bowl of chocolate ice cream.
-You always want more than you can have, dear.
-I want more.
-Honey, explain to him why he can’t have more.
-Is it really necessary to do that, I mean look, all the people from nearby tables are already staring at ours.
-You are his father so you can try to explain to Toby that he has had more than enough. -MOOOOORE!
-Why don’t you do it?
-Because I’ve done it so many times before that I’ve even started to bore myself.
-You should. -
Do you find me boring?
-Do you really find me that boring?
-Not more than usual.
-MOOOOOOOOORE. I WANT MOOOOOOOOORE. -
Are you in a bad mood, honey?
-No just the usual one.
-MOOOOOOOOORE. MOOOOOOOOORE. MOOOOOOOOORE. MOOOOOOOOORE. MOOOOOOOOORE.
-Can you make this child of yours shut up.
-I don’t think so.
-Don’t make a scene.
-You don’t even need to make one to look ridiculous.
-Goddammit Jules make this stop now or…
-Or I might be lucky enough you divorce me without getting bankrupt. But I keep forgetting you are a woman with needs.
-Is this really necessary?
-I guess if you fuck around like that yes it is.
-How dare you.
-Unlike you, I do have a mind of my own.
-Since when? I haven’t noticed any brain activity during the last decade, dear.
-Don’t call me dear.
- MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO OOOREEEEEE!
-May I get you something, sir?, asked politely the waiter as three voices shouted simultaneously:
“I am taking a cigarette break”, he briefly announced as soon as he stepped into the busy kitchen.
Everybody looked so absorbed in their duties that he managed to get away avoiding any possible questions from his colleagues. In fact he was not even a smoker. But nobody knew or cared if he was or wasn’t one anyhow. He had been there just a week and had no intention of staying any longer than that. He never felt like a natural born waiter. Not that someone is particularly designed for the job but it seems that a lot of people manage quite well to take orders, deliver trays and smile at the same time, something that John himself had found incompatible.
He was rather forgetful, relatively clumsy and absolutely incapable of performing any facial expression including smiling. He always looked kind of blunt, so that he could manage to stay in the shadow, without ever being noticed. The very few people that gave him a single glance, excluding his mother, had described him as a long thin man with a glass gaze of an unfathomable value like his entire diet was based on antidepressants.
As indeed it was. His appetite had already been poor when he started taking those little green and white pills a month ago on doctor’s orders, even though he was never diagnosed with any kind of depression. In fact they were just the standard medication you probably get prescribed after being found inside the gas oven of your own apartment and repeatedly refusing to talk about it.
The fruits of a slightly more careful medical examination could have brought to light some not so deep cuts a bit above his wrists and minor liver damage from several overdoses of paracetamol.
He was not about to discuss that with anybody anyhow. John in fact never talked unless it was absolutely necessary and even then without any signs of pleasure. His entire vocabulary mostly consisted of “yes, no, I don’t know, I really don’t, maybe, I am tired, can we skip that, I ‘d rather not, I am bored, sorry” in random order.
As if to contradict his verbal manners, his best friend was an extremely talkative and expressive girl that lived on the other end of town. They had met once on a flight to Lisbon and since then they had developed a strange kind of friendship that occasionally brought them into the same bed without clothes.
Most of the times as they helped themselves find their stuff they avoided looking at each other’s face. Mechanically they would sit at the kitchen table of John’s house drinking some cold coffee (the remainder of what a few hours earlier had been a full warm pot) looking at the old kitchen clock, fragments of frozen time.
Skipping all pretenses they could both admit it was out of mutual attraction and affection. But as miss young Abigail had recently become the wife of a well known businessman, things got a bit complicated and then they had decided not to see each other for a while.
Anyhow a couple of weeks after the wedding Abigail had mysteriously disappeared from her husband’s villa in South France, leaving no traces behind other than a handwritten note with only the word: ‘Whatever’. John hadn’t heard anything since then too and deep inside he was a bit worried but way too self-absorbed to notice.
He was now walking to the parking lot almost determined to leave his job. The monstrosity of that couple and their child had upset him. The woman’s nose was big and pointy. As she was screaming she looked like a mad witch. Her husband, on the other hand, gave the impression of a savage, despite his expensive clothes. His beard had food crumbs, his veins were pumping almost out of his skin and his eyes were red from the wine. The young boy screaming for some ice cream almost looked like an angel compared to his parents.
He sat down with his head between his knees to relax. After a few minutes the cold night breeze and the quietness of his surroundings seemed to take effect on him. He looked around the empty parking lot. The few cars that were parked there tonight were ridiculously expensive.
“To hell with this job”, he murmured as he crossed the parking lot and started walking home.
Table for One
The waiter was nowhere to be found. Annoyed she took out her mobile phone and started browsing old photographs.
It was a few days after New Years Eve 2009, the year she tried to kill herself, when she took that picture. Her memory from the event was now reduced to a scary picture. A digital photograph she managed to upload holding her laptop close enough to the window, to catch the weak wireless signal from her neighbor’s unsecured Wifi. Bloody scars on tiny wrists, dark eyes glazed with fear.
She had been about to graduate from a prestigious art college and her boyfriend wanted to marry her. A sheltered crystal palace to make up for the tiny shitty apartments she had to live in, recent deaths in the family and her deteriorating physical health.
“It was all too much”. If there were a suicide letter that would be its inscription. A life ahead planned for her without the will to live in it, day in day out as if she were a Valium princess in her crystal palace.
After the attempt she mysteriously grew stronger. She managed to graduate with three controversial sculptural pieces and a short novel. She even stayed for another year doing odd jobs here and there exhibiting her works in various places. Sadness grasped her again though. This time she knew what to do.
She fled back to her hometown taking only her beloved Bombay cat in a plastic crate. Her trunks arrived eleven days later by post. Big brown paper boxes and odd sized packets wrapped in bubble wrap taped all over with duct tape, marked “FRAGILE”.
The princess’s family coped unusually well with the fact that she had attempted to end her life a year before. Relatively speaking she was neither the first nor the last one in their Addams family pantheon with self- destructive tendencies. In absolute denial they could live happily ever after.
A new great grey era arrived. A day job, a tiny apartment and an even tinier circle of friends, all mixed with the aftertaste of menthol from 20mg Prozac she could quickly swallow dissolved in a glass of water so no one could notice in the office.
She suddenly stopped reminiscing and looked around. So many people were in that place. Others chattering, flashed from the wine, their eyes filled with tiny sparkles, while others were hastily dissecting and chewing their food with an almost primal fixation. Only a few were as silent as her.
Her gaze stopped at a large fish tank that contained lobsters. The glass reflection of her wondering eyes was the only proof of her solitary existence. Forgotten and invisible as she was, she stood up looking around awkwardly before deciding to leave.
It’s this harrowing feeling again. You can’t sleep yet you are not fully awake. Everything reeks of death: The water, the scraps of food and even ourselves as we sit quietly waiting.
You can’t take death personally. It occurs to everybody and everything eventually. Even the colors lose their shades so it’s only bizarre to act surprised at our decay as if we expected to live forever.
My fate is sealed. You stop hoping after you get here. It’s not a matter of choice. The inevitability of the situation makes you apathetic to everything around you. One by one, your comrades are taken and deep inside you know that you’ll never get to see them again.
I am just waiting for my turn. I stopped daydreaming of my rescue long before we were transferred here. My appetite is reduced to nothing. Even the few snacks they throw out of pity look nothing but edible to me. I prefer hunger as it keeps me sane somehow.
Why was I placed here with the rest of those unlucky bastards? Hour after hour it matters less. All that matters is the space between oblivion and myself. It’s a horrible and wonderful thing to know that you’ve reached your expiration date.
A life you never asked for is taken without your permission. No regrets, no apologies, no hard feelings left. Nothing matters much -the world is closing. My body knows it; my heart feels it. All I have to do is wait in my corner for a fat finger to point at me instead of my three remaining comrades.
A woman stops in front of the lobster tank and points to its corner.
-That one, please.
-Right away, madam.
A lobster arrives garnished with lemon and parsley. Two middle-aged women ignore the dish as the waiter fills their glass with prosecco. The oldest one monopolizes the conversation as she boasts and roars about her late husband Henry.
-He was a total satyr, that’s what he was.
-Are you sure?
-At his age?
-At his age.
-The doctors said heart failure.
-He was heartless but that wasn’t his cause of death. Erectile dysfunction was.
-He was too goddamn old for this type of pills.
-Well they don’t make these candies for twenty year olds.
-No, they don’t. Twenty year olds don’t need them. They’re usually in shape, have more stamina and endurance. Well, no reason to argue about that I guess.
-No, there is not. His doctor said he was surprised he didn’t turn blue on his deathbed. He must have swallowed over a dozen.
-Don’t be macabre.
-Well, why not. What is the point of keeping all pretenses now? The old bastard is dead. And it was about time he did so. We hadn’t slept together for almost a decade and then he goes and ODs for a younger woman. Well good riddance I say, don’t you agree my dear Martha?
Martha stood silent as she watched Helen emptying her fourth glass of prosecco in a single gulp. Helen walked shakily to the restroom. On her way there she started fighting with a young girl that stood in her way.
-Do you think we are too old for love? I mean at our age…
Your age fat cow, she thought. She was three years younger and intended to stay young. Botox, laser, miraculous serums from exotic ingredients, placenta from aborted fetuses, miracle oils from rare botanical extracts and half a dozen plastic surgeries, she had tried everything over the years. She also exercised daily since the mid 70s. From aerobics to Pilates she had been sweating for 35 years to keep her body in perfect shape. She had
worked those legs of hers to fit in a size 0 mini-skirt and she recently treated herself to silicon implants.
Fifty-nine years old, but she had never felt more radiant than in her silvery blond peroxide hair, all wrapped in skintight clothes balancing on high heels. While her contemporaries collected their free bus passes, Martha could be found in nightclubs being approached by men who were decades younger. But not anymore.
Martha had a dirty little secret that cost her nearly a fortune. An expensive sport worth every penny she ludicrously spent on him. He was twenty-three, out of a male model underwear catalogue. At first she hired him as a personal trainer. That lasted for two and a half months. Then he confided to her his financial difficulties. She offered to help him out and that was where their professional relationship shifted to something more intimate.
Whatever Tony wanted Tony got. He was her lover but with the behavior of a spoiled grandson. Things were turning. Whenever she felt almost used, Tony reassured her that he preferred older girls. He was not even attracted to the young ones anymore. Soon he moved in with her in a room of his own. He spent most of his time in the pool: swimming or lying around for hours on an inflatable yellow mattress. She got used to his presence. He declared that he loved her and she didn’t feel like breaking the sugarcoated illusion.
Then Tony got himself a sports car, tons of new clothes and a new attitude of utter superiority. He was away for hours but she wasn’t jealous anymore. Because Tony reassured her that his interest in her was because of her age, not despite it.
She felt so far away from Helen. She was such a doormat. Being with an old fool like Henry for decade after decade. Henry who had slept with everyone including even Martha. But that was in the past now she had everything she needed in life, a big house, money aside and a vibrant man full of youth and vigor: TONY.
In broad candlelight a young man bends on one knee to propose to a stunning young woman with an enormous ring. Everybody stops their eating, drinking or chatting and focuses on them. There is no other sound to be heard but his voice.
“Becky you are the most beautiful woman I laid eyes upon. I can’t imagine growing old with anyone else, nor do I want to. I know you’re the only one I want to share the rest of my life with. The story of our love is only beginning. Let’s write our own happy ending.”
-Martha? Isn’t that boy your gym instructor? Martha???
Silence and only silence could be heard except for the young woman’s reply.
The white mouse named Roy sprang across the tables. His tiny feet had barely touched the velvety ruby carpet. After a horrid winter in the kitchen with chefs running after him with huge knives he had recently moved to the dining area. There he had begun to feel more confident especially late at night wandering around all by himself.
Under each table he made a small stop looking for leftovers. He took small bites of each crumble tasting every different flavor with delight. From seasoned salmon, creamy pates on white bread, avocados stuffed with caviar, smoked prosciutto, various greens, pomegranate seeds, glazed pineapple and strawberries, rice with truffle oil and fresh peppercorns to fermented shark from Iceland. And of course, cheese.
Oh my god! All that cheese and its different variations; soft fresh goat cheese, half melted greasy brie, hard flakes of Parmesan dipped in balsamic vinegar and honey, he could smell the dreamy Camembert oozing from meters away. Those tiny pieces of ecstasy were spread here and there inside the thick carpet left for him to discover.
He knew he had all night. The cleaners would not arrive till five o’clock the next morning but he still felt agitated. His red eyes were sparkling, his nose twitching faster than ever and his whiskers were moving rapidly. His ears were on the lookout for trouble and his tail stood rampant, ready to assist his escape in case of emergency.
Roy felt like a king running from table to table that night. What’s the meaning of a life full as this, without anyone to share it with? He suddenly remembered all the hard times in his short life. As a former sewer rat he had lived inside the infrastructure of drains, hungry shivering from cold, barely surviving the attacks of other more menacing rats. Now his coat had been restored to its original snowy color and the scars from the attacks were hidden under it.
Now all that belonged in the past. He lived in a fine neighborhood in a beautiful hole next to the heating pipes. Food wasn’t an issue anymore. He could provide for himself and probably many others. A nice girl had recently approached him. Now it was the time to finally settle down and have a family: children and possibly grandchildren. This restaurant was the proper place to raise a family.
He climbed up a table. The white tablecloth was stained with prosecco. Next to a plate of a half finished lobster stood an untouched glass full of a sparkling liquid. Stepping on his two back legs, he managed to raise himself to the edge of the wineglass. He drunk a few large gulps and looked around.
Roy imagined the happy horde of his white offspring running free, climbing up the tables, feasting on leftovers of exquisite delicacies generation after generation. For a moment he stopped running and sat under the grand chandelier. Tears of joy sprang from his red eyes down to his furry face.