In 2014, I spent nearly every meal in a restaurant crying.
The staff at the Brookside Panera’s wore name tags announcing their passions. One girl’s tag said that her name was TANEISHA and her passion was MY DOG. She brought me extra apples and refills of coffee. She pretended not to notice the tears falling on my keyboard. She’d ask if she could do anything for me. I’d shake my head.
A blond waitress at Aixois told me that I looked like I could use some hot tea. A sob escaped my lips. I wrote an entry about how badly I had misjudged the place in an online review just a few months prior to the girl’s kindness. I sent her a link and she commented on it, thanking me for not complaining. As if.
For the entire year, I analyzed every encounter that I’d ever had with a server and worked my way around to blaming myself for every ineptitude. I didn’t just excuse remembered unpleasantness, I convinced myself that I deserved them. Cowed and repentant, I tipped 25% and refilled my own water. I borrowed bar towels and wiped down chairs. I shook my hands in the direction of bus-boys and carried my plate to the counter.
I became the very model of the perfect customer.
By 2015, I had begun to get used to the new parameters of my life. Correspondingly my tipping fell to 15% and I started letting the waitress clear the table again. I’d ask for clean silverware if I saw a smudge, and eventually, before the dawn of 2016, managed to send back cold food a time or two, giddy with daring.
It’s nearly 2017. I’m back to calculating the tip based upon the virtues of the person earning it. I still hover around 15% but I’ve dropped to 10% once or twice, and I tip 20% for excellent performance. I’m nearly sure, almost, maybe, not quite, that I’m entitled to be treated with kindness. Not deference, mind you; that’s reserved for royalty; those who’ve been beatified and thus would never demand it; and people with terminal illnesses.
Today I found myself driving down Oak street suddenly ravenous. I thought about the Farm Table breakfast at Aixois and decided to take myself out to lunch. But I had missed the brunch menu by a half an hour or so, and the kid at the counter gestured mysteriously toward an area of the restaurant where I didn’t want to sit. He stared over the cash register to my right and muttered something about my tardiness. He rested back on his heels, grabbed his cell phone to check a text, and started talking to a co-worker. I tried to order but he kept looking away. Finally I poured myself a coffee from the self-serve bar, sat down, and fumed.
After a few minutes, a young woman with blond hair came to my table, bent down, and asked in a soft voice if she could help me. I squinted. The same woman? From two years ago? I wasn’t sure. I told her I wanted something without meat. She lifted the menu and we talked about a possible alteration of an existing sandwich. She described it in a way that made me think I might enjoy it. I thanked her.
An hour later, she set the check in front of me and leaned down again. I didn’t charge you for your coffee, she told me. You shouldn’t have had any trouble ordering.
I felt like crying. But not in the old way, with the tight-throated panic of loneliness. These tears would have cleansed me, washing away the last vestiges of that terrible time. I held them back. I paid and packed away my little laptop. I drove home, noticing the haze of sunshine on the heavy branches of the trees in their autumn attire. I stopped at 59th and Oak, watching a woman push a baby carriage. She crossed in front of me and smiled her thanks. When she had safely navigated to the far curb, I continued home.
It’s evening, it’s the 12th day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining, and I’m all right. Life continues.