"Captive" by Emma Landry
The world continues spinning, but I’m stuck in place. The universe doesn’t notice us. It doesn’t see us imploding. The universe just sees a planet spinning in circles with no real change. Just continuing on its path.
I haven’t done much of anything since March, and unlike the world, I have stopped spinning. I’m stuck. I dream of the day that I get to feel like my life is mundane again, but now it has all but stopped. It’s like having cabin fever in a world where I can leave whenever I want. Maybe I can’t go into a movie theater or sit in a restaurant, but I can get in my car and drive across the country if I choose. I’m trapped in my mind. I’m trapped in a less than mundane routine.
My mind is filled with thoughts of how to get myself out of this trap as I lay in bed on a Thursday morning contemplating why I even bothered to wake up. Work is always the same. It's always way too much work for what I get paid, we’re understaffed, and the customers are awful. I deal with this five days a week and still live paycheck to paycheck.
I roll out of bed to take a quick shower and brush my teeth. I pull the same black leggings over my unshaved legs and some random-colored t-shirt with the restaurant’s name on it. After putting on some socks, I get up to brush my hair and put it in the tightest bun I can, even though I know it’s just going to fall out and I’ll have to redo it later. It always does. With hair this long and thick, it never stands a chance. I drag myself downstairs and put on my sneakers and walk out the door to begin my drive to work.
When I arrive, I look in the mirror one last time and put on my mask, practicing my customer service smile that doesn’t actually involve me smiling. Since we’ve started wearing masks, I’ve mastered the art of smiling with just my eyes. It’s a small victory, but it feels like a small win when I don’t give some grumpy middle-aged woman a smile she doesn’t deserve, or smile the awkward away when some old guy calls me sweetie. Small victories are all I have now.
I clock in and go up to my first table.
“Hi, how can I help you?” I say, my voice a few octaves higher.
“We just sat down. Can you give us a minute? I’ve hardly had time to read the first thing on the menu,” the woman snarls. Her husband just looks up at me and gives me a little side smile.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I just started my shift and wasn’t informed that you were just seated. I’ll leave you with the menu for a few minutes,” I trail off as I start to walk away.
“You’re not even going to ask for our drink order?”
I look at the woman for a few seconds before responding. I need the time to calm myself down. The first customer of the day and she’s already testing my patience. Her poor husband, too. I can tell that he’s embarrassed. This woman, though. She’s the kind of person that makes me absolutely despite my job.
“Of course, Ma’am, what can I get for you?” I respond calmly, making sure my eyes are smiling, just for her.
“Coffee. Two Splendas and not a drop of milk,” she doesn't even bother to look at me.
“I’ll have a coffee, too, please. However you normally make it or black is fine. Thank you,” her husband responds. Poor guy. He’s so nice.
I go over to the coffee pot and pour their coffees. For just a split second I consider putting a few drops of milk in her coffee just so I have a reason to throw it on her when she complains about it, but I need the tip. I may have already lost her tip, but maybe her husband will be in charge of the bill, even though he seems to have no control in their relationship. Even still, I may not have lost my tip yet, but I surely will if I throw hot coffee on the woman.
“Here are those coffees for you,” I set them on the table.
“Thank you,” her husband mumbles before taking a sip.
“Finally,” the woman rolls her eyes and takes a sip, making a sour face, “this is disgusting!” she slams her coffee down on the table, making it splatter about.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, is there something else I can get for you?”
“I’m not paying for this.”
“Alright, no problem. I’ll take it off of your bill. Are you ready to order?” I pull out my paper and pen from my apron pocket.
“I’ll be checking to make sure you do. I wouldn’t be surprised if you decided to charge me for it,” she stares at my nametag, “Natalie.”
I silently run the numbers in my head. How badly do I need this job? Is it worth losing my job to have the satisfaction of telling this woman she’s being insufferable and telling her she needs to leave? Why doesn’t this man tell his wife to get it together? I can’t do this anymore.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, if you have a problem with me being your server, you’re more than welcome to leave. I’m the only server here right now, so those are kind of your only options. It’s me or you can leave,” I finish with my smile eyes.
“Excuse me!? Did you just tell me to leave?! Where’s your manager. This is the worst service I’ve ever received.”
“My manager isn’t here right now. You can either treat me like a human being or you can leave. I’m not here to be your punching bag, I’m here to give you food. Everything sucks for everyone right now, but wow are you making it so much worse. We’re all getting angry and impatient. Being an asshole won’t make anything any easier for anyone. So, would you like to leave or are you going to tell me what you want to eat?”
I snapped. My patience has been running thin for months, but I never imagined I’d ever actually end up saying something. I’m in way too deep now, though. I can’t take it back, all I can do is hope that she somehow finds my honesty refreshing and doesn’t demand that I be fired. By the look on her face, that is absolutely not the case.
The woman stands and dumps her coffee on me, “I cannot believe you treat customers like this! We pay your bills! I will never be coming back here ever again and I will tell everyone I know to boycott this restaurant. You are disgusting!”
I stare at her in awe. I can’t even say anything back. I don’t know what to say. She’s insane.
As she walks out the door, her husband hands me a twenty and quietly tells me that he’s so sorry. He’s going to have a talk with her about it. Blah blah blah.
I go to the back to change and clean the burning coffee off of my delicate skin, just as my boss walks through the door.
“What happened to you?” She muses.
“I yelled at a customer for being a bitch and she threw her coffee on me.”
“Natalie, that’s not funny. What actually happened?”
“That is what happened.”
“Oh, whatever. Just get cleaned up. Someone just sat down.”
“You’re not going to fire me?”
“For what? Spilling some coffee? I know you’re kidding. Just hurry up, please,” she grabs what she came for and walks out the door.
I finally got to yell at a customer and I didn’t even get fired for it. I didn’t even get fired. I’ve been waiting for the day I got to do this and I didn’t even get fired. Ridiculous.
I finish up my shift and make my way back home, doing the usual. I make a quick dinner of spaghetti, take a shower, and crawl in bed. I set my alarm for 7 am and drift off into a restless sleep, dreaming of getting fired and being forced to finally do something with my life that makes sleep seem boring.