Fiction: Jessica Ullian
Published in Upstreet in 2010
In the cramped staircase, Irene and Amy bicker over whose turn it is. Last weekend Amy took the smug family of four with the fair-haired children who wailed as she conveyed her regrets from the chef, who declined to make spaghetti and meatballs “just this once.” Irene, however, suffered a double whammy yesterday evening: a gentleman’s 80th birthday celebration (“Can we have that without the peppers? And not too heavy on the cream?”) plus a table of gnocchi-eaters and water-drinkers in town for a road race. Amy is up.
“Shit.” She sticks her head into the main dining room and nods at the hostess.
“Good girl.” Irene pats her arm and trips back up the stairs, her clogs hammering at the treads like typewriter keys.
The subjects of their fight wait patiently by the hostess stand. He is thirtyish, smooth-skinned and a touch rumpled, with light-brown hair that bristles near his crown and lumps from a wire hanger in the shoulders of his corduroy blazer. The woman’s hands lie folded atop her belly, an arcing dome pushing against her navy wrap dress. Amy watches from the stairs as the hostess presses the menus to her own abdomen, taut in clinging black fabric, and leads them with swaying hips to table seventeen.
Amy calculates and decides not to rush to them. She runs up the eleven steps to the upstairs dining room to take another order, then runs down to the kitchen to place it. She brings a wine list to the party of four in the corner and stands by as they debate Rhone versus Bordeaux. She conveys three complicated cocktail requests to the bartender before finally smoothing down her hair and greeting her newest arrivals.
“Good evening.” She offers a bare hint of a smile — this is not the Ground Round, after all. “My name is Amy. Can I start you off with something from the bar?”
“Oh, no,” the woman says pleasantly. “Not for eight more weeks!”
“Just water.” He rubs at a patch of pink skin, newly shaven, near his jawbone. “Solidarity, you know.”
“Sparkling or mineral?”
“Great.” She signals to the busboy, hovering at the edge of the room with pitcher in hand, fetches her drinks from the bar, and runs back up the eleven steps. Sabato Sera is in an old tenement in the city’s Italian section, and the staircases are rickety and narrow. The owners like to say the design is authentic. Irene likes to say that one day, they’ll all die in a fire like immigrants in a factory.
When Amy returns to the kitchen, Naj is waiting. Over six feet tall, the manager keeps his charcoal slacks and finely-woven shirts hanging in the coat closet, to avoid carrying them back and forth to the apartment he shares with a rotating cast of family members from Marrakech.
“Eh-mee,” he growls. “What the fuck you doing at seventeen?”
“Naj, I didn’t even offer them tap water.”
He shakes his head. “So she is pregnant. Why he can’t drink some wine?”
“He said it’s to keep her company.”
“Pah! Pussy-whipped. You get them out fast, Eh-mee.”
“No starter!” he calls after her. “No dessert!”
At table seventeen, the couple’s hands are linked across the table, he tenderly circling her palm with his thumb. When Amy clears her throat the woman snatches her hand away and buries it in her lap. Her husband’s empty fingers fumble for the menu lying across his place setting. He has questions, he says: where do they get their shellfish, and are the eggs in the carbonara pasteurized? A shadow creases the center of his forehead.
“Order whatever you want,” his wife says. “I keep telling you, it’s fine.”
“But I want to be able to share with you.” He turns to Amy. “You can ask the chef for us, can’t you?”
Amy has worked at Sabato Sera since the day after her college graduation three years ago. She knows who provides the fish and meat and produce, when each pallet was delivered, and if Naj took the best cuts home. She tilts her head winningly. “Of course!” she says. “I’ll go speak to the chef right away.”
“Great,” he says. “In the meantime, I think we’re ready to order some appetizers.”
They ask for the buffalo mozzarella sampler and the stuffed figs. On her way to the kitchen, another server crashes through the doors, a plate of grilled calamari held aloft. The sight of each whorled leg, pebbled and shiny with olive oil, makes her stomach churn. She pushes into the heat and steam toward the back door, and sticks her head into the cool air of the alley.
Irene is leaning against the brick wall, a cigarette in her left hand and a bottle of very good Italian wine in her right. “My last group at forty-two left me the rest of this. You want a sip?”
“No, thanks.” Amy looks at the label. It’s a Barolo from Piedmont, one she has wanted to try.
“That diet, still? You’re so good.”
She has been refusing alcohol and seafood for weeks as her strange, changing body rejects them, protecting her as if it mattered. This has unfortunately coincided with an uptick in business, and Naj, feeling beneficent, has treated them to the remains of the day’s oysters at the end of more than one night. Amy had her first oyster on a Saturday evening, six months into her job. Although she didn’t enjoy it, the pleasure of telling her disgusted parents about it prompted her to try another, and later, another, until she grew to like the cool pulsation on her tongue.
“The diet’s not so hard,” Amy lies. “But I don’t know how much longer I’m going to stick with it.” Even as she says it, she can count the two weeks remaining to the very day. After, the price rises, as does the risk.
“I could never.” Irene tilts back the bottle. “God, this is good. You’re sure?”
“More for me, then.” She takes a long swig and rolls the Barolo juicily around her mouth before swallowing. Amy lets the door swing shut and heads back into the clatter.
The party of six orders with the abandon of an expense account. They have two rounds of cocktails before the man at the head of the table asks to see the sommelier. On the stairs, the two twenty-dollar bills she keeps folded in her sock rub uncomfortably against her flesh. Hands full, she leans against the banister and shifts the money around with her opposite toe. The sommelier passes on his way to the cellar, and he whispers the price of the wine they have ordered. After delivering a platter of starters to another table she looks for Naj to share the news. He is by the hostess stand, peering unhappily at the floor chart.
“The group at twenty-five just ordered three bottles of the Spinetta.”
Naj brightens. “Really? Very good.”
He checks the wine list to confirm the markup, and Amy takes advantage of his happy distraction to shift her cab fare into her other sock. She doesn’t carry a wallet to work, preferring not to leave it in the staff room, and her black trousers don’t have pockets. Steve would pick her up, of course; he is bewildered by her recent withdrawal. But since everything has been confirmed — not merely her condition, but her decision — she cannot trust herself to speak to him, which means the last train back to the suburbs and her parents’ house. A taxi in an emergency.
Naj nods as he reads the figure on the menu. “It will make up for pussy-whipped at seventeen.” He leans in. “I saw starters.”
“Jesus, Naj. Should I tell them we’re out of appetizers?”
“Yes.” He snaps the menu shut. “Don’t tell them about soufflé, either.”
The couple is wiping their plates with crusts of bread on her return. “That was delicious,” the man says.
“I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” Amy says. She answers his earlier questions about the shellfish and the eggs, and asks if they’ve decided on their entrees.
“I’m going to have the rabbit pappardelle,” the woman says. “Even though I know it’ll give me heartburn!”
“It might be worth it,” Amy says. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Is rabbit okay?” the man asks. His eyes are a soft brown, ringed with blue-gray circles. “I mean, is it safe and everything?”
“Honey.” The woman places her hand on his forearm and tries to smile. “You’re being silly.”
“I’m just saying, there are additional risks, particularly in the case of a geriatric–”
“Don’t say that!”
Her black brows knit and release in a spasm of anger. The man shrinks from her wife’s cry, retreating into folds of corduroy. Amy takes a tiny step back. “You’re out of water. I’m so sorry. Let me take care of that for you.”
The busboy follows her to seventeen and fills their glasses. The man’s head is bowed, his eyes fixed on his thumbs, crossed one atop the other. The woman looks at Amy and forces a laugh. Her belly fits neatly under the tabletop.
“It’s our first, and he’s nervous. But I’m only thirty-seven. Technically, the doctors classify expectant mothers over thirty-five as geriatrics, which is ridiculous, right? I mean, do I look geriatric to you?”
“Of course not,” her husband says, head down.
She laughs again, a series of hollow peals from high in her throat. Amy does not laugh with her, because she assumes the man is paying for dinner. Instead she presses her lips together and makes a sympathetic face before asking for his order. She has a feeling that it will be osso bucco, which takes twenty-five minutes. It is.
Each guest in the party of six plunges into his plate as soon as it is set down, not waiting for fresh pepper or grated cheese. When she asks if everything is all right, the man at the head of the table nods with a face packed full of meat and sauce. They have spent close to seven hundred dollars. She signals to the busboy to refill their water glasses, and starts to hum as she reaches the stairs. Irene meets her at the bottom.
“Look at them. Not here, go by the bar. Tack-y.”
Amy sneaks a glance at her couple. The woman’s head is tipped back, her eyelids half-closed. Her chest rises as she inhales, and falls as she releases a sigh that makes other diners turn to look. When Amy scuttles over to the bar, she sees what was concealed by her vantage point at the foot of the stairs: the woman’s left shoe is off and her foot is in her husband’s lap. He kneads her sole with his thumbs, shoulders rounded in concentration.
Amy gapes. She cannot remember actually witnessing a foot massage outside of the movies; her parents, the only real couple she knew for the first eighteen years of her life, watched television at night in separate recliners set too far apart for her mother’s leg, dotted with freckles and webbed with veins, to stretch between them. An elderly woman, waiting for the coat-check girl to retrieve her wrap, follows Amy’s gaze and clucks. “How inappropriate.” She purses her lips. “Someone should speak to them.”
Naj, thankfully, is not nearby. Instead of seeking him out, Amy goes back to the upstairs dining room to deliver the bill to the group of six. They are already pushing back their chairs and brushing crumbs from their shirtfronts. The man picks up the small black folder and stuffs some money into it. He waves away her offer to get change and wishes her a good night. They lumber off. She lets the busboy begin clearing the plates before picking up the check. The bill has indeed come to just over seven hundred dollars. He has left her fifty.
Amy presses a fingertip into the corner of each eye before any tears can come. The hostess, being judicious, will not give her another large group tonight, She will have only tourists, the groups of two or three who order the cheapest pasta on the menu and a single glass of wine each. She whimpers softly and tells the Moroccan busboy that she is going out for some air.
In the staff room, on the mobile phone tucked into her coat pocket, a message from Steve is waiting: he will drive her home after work. This is enormously kind, in a sense; her parents’ house on the South Shore is forty minutes from his downtown apartment. However, his family lives three streets over from hers, and if he brings her back tonight he will spend the night at their house and participate in the Sunday morning ritual she has witnessed: a quick cup of coffee, hugs and handshakes in the Good Shepherd parking lot, and later, breakfast over the newspaper, with more coffee, and, because Steve has come home for the day, corned beef hash. His mother makes eggs the way each person wants them, even soft-boiled. How could someone from such a family cut short his first opportunity to start his own? Amy touches the bills in her sock again, and slips her phone back into her pocket.
Naj bursts into the room, filling the small space with his broad frame and his anger. “She is fucking barefoot in my restaurant!” he shouts. “At the dinner table!” Amy shrinks back into the corner. He points at her with a stabbing finger.
“I tell you no starters, and then starters. I tell you get them out fast, and then osso fucking bucco!”
“He ordered it! I didn’t recommend it!”
“You tell him we out!” Naj pinches his face into a smirk and pitches his voice high. “‘I am so sorry sir, but the kitchen just sent out the last one. May I suggest the tenderloin?’ This is what you do! You lie!”
“All right!” The familiar late-evening ache has settled into her lower back and her knees, and the humiliation of the fifty-dollar tip burns; it is too much for her to summon up rage. “I’ll make sure they don’t get dessert.”
“I am serious, Amy.” Naj adjusts his shirt cuffs, which have slipped up, exposing dark, matted forearms. “They stay, maybe you don’t come in next Saturday. Tuesday, yes? Doesn’t matter if they stay all night, Tuesday.”
Tuesday is restaurant purgatory, peopled with stingy diners and frantic wait staff, all bubbling with the false enthusiasm and desperate efficiency that they hope will propel them into a weekend shift. Amy forces herself to look Naj in the eye.
“They’re leaving.” She edges past him to the door. “I promise.”
“Everything was just so good,” the woman croons. Her shiny, pointy-toed pumps lie abandoned by her chair. The name engraved on the leather insole is one Amy recognizes from celebrity style magazines. “You were right about the pappardelle.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. And the osso bucco?”
“Delicious.” Relaxed by the meal, he slouches expansively. “Really filling, though.”
“I’m so pleased you’ve had a nice evening with us. If there’s nothing else.”
“I couldn’t eat another thing,” he says.
“Actually,” the woman begins.
Amy begins to miss the sounds of Sabato Sera on a Saturday evening — the screech of forks against plates, the thump of large white platters set on smooth white linen, the laughter that pours out with the dregs of a bottle of wine — even now, as she is still among them. In this woman’s contradiction lies the crisp quiet of a weeknight at the restaurant, a cache of crumpled bills growing at a frighteningly slow pace, the price of the procedure inching higher and time slipping away. She cannot bring herself to lie, as Naj would, and say that the kitchen has run out of dessert.
“I’m in the mood for something sweet, I think.” The woman blushes. “That soufflé looks absolutely decadent.”
“But those eggs aren’t cooked!” her husband exclaims.
“Who’s having this baby?”
The woman’s shrill, sharp tone contorts her face in surprise; the words have not come out as she intended. Amy presses her palms together behind her back and prays, to God and the restaurant gods and whatever God Naj believes in.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “Honey, I didn’t mean-”
“You have no idea! All this time it’s always been me. The temperatures, and the tests, and the waiting! Do you know how many months it’s been since we started this?”
His neck rash glows against his paling skin. “Seven, I thought?”
“Thirty-two! I have been counting every day of every month for thirty-two months! I have been working and working at this for almost three years! And now,” she hisses, “now that it’s all fine you want to be Mister Know-It-All, Mister Expert! It’s too goddamn late for you to know everything now!”
Her chest above the dress’s neckline shines with sweat. Ashen, he darts his eyes toward Amy.
“Soufflé, then. Two.” He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “Whatever she wants.”
His nervous chuckle pains Amy. She knows this is not a jest and he colors, knowing that she knows. The impulse rises from her deepest reserves — of pity or of self-preservation, she cannot be sure.
“When you’ve got a craving, you’ve got a craving,” she says. Then, for the first time to anyone: “I’m pregnant, myself.”
She steels herself against failure: a glance at her bare ring finger, a clipped offer of congratulations. Worse, more fury. But the woman clasps her hands together, eyes shining. “Oh, my.” Her breathing slows and her face softens. “Are you really?”
“I am. But I haven’t told anyone else here. I’m not even supposed to talk about it yet.”
“How far along?”
“You’re almost there. After twelve weeks you’re safe. In two more weeks you’re safe.” She lifts the napkin from her lap and dabs at her chest, then dips the corner into her water glass and touches it to her temples. “It’s an awfully long twelve weeks, though, isn’t it.”
Amy watches the man carefully. The gray shadows have redrawn above his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispers, and reaches across the table to take his wife’s hand again. She threads her fingers through his.
“I’ll just get you a dessert menu,” Amy murmurs. “In case you want to see the other options. The panna cotta’s quite good.”
They are still holding hands when she deposits the printed parchment at their side. As they review the selections she checks on her few remaining tables, delivering digestives and teas and friendly banter as quickly as she can without seeming brusque. If she closes her tabs before eleven, she will be able to take the train home instead of a taxi; a cab has become an unaffordable luxury. Irene is at the bar, waiting for a drink order, when Amy goes to fetch a cognac.
“Did you get rid of them yet?”
“I think so.”
If she has read the husband correctly they will decline dessert, hoping that it goes some distance to getting her off the restaurant floor, and into a chair at home with a cup of tea and a baby book. Naj will stand by the door as the husband helps the wife into her maternity coat, and wave goodbye to them as they walk out onto the cool cobblestoned street. The idea should be comforting, but it leaves her feeling shamefully sad, as if, upon opening a long-awaited birthday present, the item beneath the wrapping turns out not to be what she hoped for.
She makes a full circle around the room, stalling, and returns.
Table seventeen is empty. Amy steadies herself with a hand on a chair. She looks to both sides, thinking that perhaps she has made a mistake, that they are one table away, smiling in blue and beige with a credit card in hand. They are not.
Amy wonders if she should just leave now, sneaking down to the staff room and out the kitchen door. She steps closer to seventeen for one more look, even peering under the table to see if the woman has merely gone to the bathroom and left her shoes. Nothing.
“Miss Amy,” a quiet voice says. The busboy holds out one of the small black leather folders with “Sabato Sera” etched on it in silver letters. “For you.”
She opens the folder and relief courses through her in waves that make her tremble, so that a few of the neat green bills flutter to the floor. A tiny, precise script covers the back of the credit card receipt.
“Dear Amy,” the note reads. “We didn’t want to keep you, so we got the boy to bring us our check. Take care of yourself and get as much rest as you can! You’re almost there! Best wishes, Dell and Isabella Anderson.”
One hundred and seventy dollars, all for her, is tucked in the pocket. The unexpected high after the undeserved low conquers her. In the middle of the floor, with customers on slurping up their last bites of panna cotta, Amy begins to cry.
The night’s take is impressive, and when the last diners are ushered out the door, Naj sets several bottles of wine, open but unfinished, on the bar. Amy gets herself a ginger ale.
“Eh-mee.” Naj makes a sad face. “You are angry at me, I think?”
“No, Naj. It’s okay.”
“I do it for your own good, you see?” He pats her on the cheek. “They spend no money, and they badly behaved too. We don’t need.”
The cooks are coming out of the kitchen, reeking of sweat and beer. A small group has gathered around Irene, who is seated on a barstool, telling the kitchen staff about the Andersons.
“And she’s got her shoes off,” Irene says. “And he’s going, ‘Oh, honey, you must be tired. Oh, baby, want me to rub your feet?’” She pauses and looks at her audience. “Of course she does, after a day of getting manicures and giving the maid instructions!”
The cooks relish bad behavior; Irene accepts their laughter with a wine-stained grin. “Probably lousy tippers, too,” she adds. “Right, Amy?”
The faces turn to her, sleepy with liquor. Amy thinks of the couple, probably climbing into bed now, to chastely cuddle while watching late-night television — or, perhaps unchastely, make love. She wonders if it is better or worse with the baby between them, or merely different.
“Not so bad. I don’t think they were that rich, though. He didn’t look it.”
“A professor, probably, and those guys make bank. It just goes to show money can’t buy manners.”
“I thought it was kind of cute, actually,” Amy says. “Your feet get tired when you’re pregnant.”
“How do you know?”
Amy shrugs. “My mom told me.”
The cooks turn away, disappointed, and Irene begins to regale them with another tale from the floor. Amy takes a gulp of ginger ale and thinks of Isabella Anderson. Imagine living in fear from week to week, wondering if each exertion, each bout of nausea, signaled a calamity. She considers her own experience, carting dishpans heavy with china up and down the stairs, staggering beneath the weight of starch-laden trays. Yet her body has held fast to the life growing in her, strong and resilient. Her feet, in fact, are not particularly tired, no more than anyone else’s at the end of the shift.
The word geriatric lingers, its consonants stringy and thick like mucous. She wonders if Isabella was so brittle before she was called that and told that her life, as measured by her ability to make new life, was nearing its end. It could not be; the woman Amy had glimpsed barefooted, breathy, voluptuous in her pleasure had not always been so fragile that a prohibited dessert moved her to rage. Had the change occurred in this pregnancy, or in the thirty-two months she had spoken of before?
At the bar, everyone slides into the easy camaraderie of drunkenness. As the bottles empty, laughter will grow loud, and the distance between bodies, maintained out of professional courtesy, will disappear until someone is pressed up against someone else in the back hall. Then Naj will dim the lights and turn the key in the lock, and everyone will go, falling into taxis and speeding home in the early morning hours. This, too, she thinks could wear a person down — sitting impossibly erect on a barstool, wearing a tight smile as everyone laughs at a joke that becomes funny only after the third glass. But then, Isabella is never the sole sober one. Dell is by her side, a companion for the duration of the journey ahead. “Solidarity,” he’d said, abstaining even as his wife urged him on.
Naj reaches across the bar with a bottle in his hand. “Come on, Eh-mee,” he cajoles, waggling it over her glass. “Just a little.”
Her phone vibrates in her coat pocket; Steve is calling again. Her fingers drift to the wad of cash in her sock; it is large enough to be very uncomfortable. How strange to think of her life’s possibilities, so limited two hours ago and now splayed wide like the oyster shells she once adored. Amy smiles at Naj and reaches for her phone, signaling that she will just be a moment.
“A drop,” she whispers before she answers. “I’m celebrating.”
JESSICA ULLIAN’s work has appeared in Meeting House, Upstreet, Slice, and Slate. A former journalist, she has taught fiction at Boston University and documentary theatre at Tufts University, and currently lives in Boston with her family. “Sabato Sera” originally appeared in Upstreet in 2010.