They Don’t Love You Like I Love Youby Liam Kruger / Illustration by Swishyboy / 21.04.2014
“Would you like to move on to something a little heavier?” asks the waitress. “We’ve got the unfiltered, which is sort of, amber…”
“Um. I’m sorry. I don’t really know beer talk,” I manage.
I’ve been trying to avoid my usual trick of falling in love with whatever aproned undergraduate is bringing me fancy beers and artisanal whatevers for money. But this line, this opening line from a bad story about insights made from behind a café window, snares me hook and sinker.
I look up at blue eyes that I’m already trying to find a simile for and say that the amber beer would be fine, thank you.
She smiles like it’s her job or something and walks away. I watch her go, and then quickly look away because the place is nearly empty and the dour bartender is watching me eye his retreating colleague. Already I can feel the familiar despair.
I’m going to over-tip.
It’s not complicated, or surprising. This young woman is pleasant and attractive, features without which she wouldn’t find employment in the service industry (thanks, patriarchy). She brings me alcohol and treats, and is required to stop by to make sure that I’m tolerably content every couple of minutes – and then, crucially, leave. I do my god damnedest to alert myself to the fact that I’m being conned by that gorgeous trifecta of:
1) The veneer of nurture and sustenance (what up Oedipus?).
2) The conflation of service with subservience (how’s it going master-slave dialectic? I totally understand what you are).
3) The belief that if a pretty girl, or any girl, is talking to you, sex is in the room (you backsliding, misogynist, collapsed prostate).
But it’s too late. I’m already paying more attention to the room I’m in than the book I came here to read, more to the waitress than anything else in the room. You had me at “are you ready to order, or are you waiting for someone?”.
And it’s this that nearly spoils my heirloom boutique vegan beetroot sorbet; that this waitress says hello and I’m hearing love me, that she makes eye contact and I’m deciding it’s significant, that she smiles when I tell her I’ll have my coffee black and I’m thinking she really gets me.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not worried about the presumptiveness, about the naked arrogance of assuming that a neutral glance is flirtatious. Me and presumptiveness, we’re like crossed fingers.
No, my problem is with the gaping void between intention and interpretation; what this girl does, and what I take it to mean. And how often this happens to her – how often a cheery message on a bill reads as desire. How often a less-than-immediate response to a question gets labelled as attitude. How often, under the weight of a dozen assignments and rent being due and a deadbeat mother and this thing with a boy that just isn’t panning out and being alone in the city for the first time, what they notice is that she mispronounces ‘fillet.’
How often a couple of bored words with some customer on a slow night is turned into a story that she has no say in.
It’s a little like walking into a restaurant with a book, and that being interpreted as an attempt at flaunting your literariness, as a conversation starter, as a prop, as anything other than what it is.
Except all the time.
And about everything you do.
“What are you reading?” she asks, as she waits for the swipey-card-machine to finish printing evidence that it has successfully sucked money out of my account and hurled it into her boss’s, so that he can buy more kooky mismatched furniture and truffle oil, maybe pay his employees.
I slide the book over so that she can see the cover.
“I’m not familiar,” she says. “Is it good?”
“I think so? I don’t know. I mean – I feel like I’ve been tricked into liking it.”
“Tricked?” she asks, and I feel myself wince, because of course I wanted her to ask me that, and then she did, and I am so very sorry.
“I mean – usually I can only decide whether or not I like a book once it’s done, and I can see the whole thing. But with this – I’m twenty pages in and I’m already sort of convinced. Which worries me.”
“Well, maybe it’s just good,” she says.
“But what if it’s actually terrible? Now that I’m expecting something good, the disappointment might ruin me.”
She laughs, and I am trying to will myself invisible. “You’ll have to come back and tell me if it turns out horrible.”
“I’ll keep you up to date,” I say, my voice cracking a little over how desperate I am for this to be over, for whatever persona I’ve slouched into to stop making an impression. Or for this person to stop feeling the need to banter with me to compensate for the ridiculous anxiety tip I’ve left her. Or for whatever disappointing compromise between those two options is operating to stop.
She smiles and tells me that she hopes I enjoy the rest of my evening, and I say I’ll try, and she gives a little confused laugh and so do I. I silently promise myself to stop coming to these places hungover. The frowning bartender sees my lips move and frowns harder. I put on my coat and leave.
The stars are out and beautiful, and the wind is up, and cold, making life difficult for people with actual problems.
*Illustrations © Swishyboy