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Relish the moment (Short Story)

When I ran into Laura and she insisted on taking me out for brunch for my birthday, I sprung into fight-or-flight. Because when someone unexpectedly invites you to something and you don’t want to go, you have to think fast.

Getting out of an in-person invitation has one of the highest degrees of difficulty in human interaction avoidance. An email or text invite is bread and butter. You have time to plan, to think, to evade. Or if I’m feeling lazy: ‘Sorry, I’ve got an appointment.’ A phone call is tougher, but it lends you the old ‘I’m about to go through a tunnel’ trick if you get stuck. But when you’re in-person, there’s no time, no tunnel.

I didn’t want to be taken out for brunch for my birthday. It's more of a commitment than a present. I didn’t even think our friendship was at the level of a one-on-one catch up. I couldn’t say I was sick—she hadn’t even set a date yet. And that ruled out saying I wasn’t hungry too. I was scrambling for an excuse, but nothing was coming. Laura’s face began to turn. I think I even started to sweat a little bit.

“Sounds great, Laura!” I blurted out.

I really needed to tighten things up.

Saturday morning came and I was waiting for Laura by the door of the cafe with the best ratings, wondering if decor was what people really thought about when deciding where to eat. Cafes all seemed to have the same menu anyway. This place had gone for the industrial look: brick walls painted white, concrete floor, exposed light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, and little succulents on every table. It was working for them, though. The place was packed with middle aged women wearing large sunglasses.

I was almost too busy eyeballing the fauna to notice Laura had rounded the corner and was coming at me with open arms. Taken by surprise, I quickly leaned in for the kiss on the cheek, and thoughtlessly proceeded to the follow-on hug. It was an amateur move. Getting caught halfway into a follow-on hug when the other person has premeditated the ‘kiss and pull away’ is one of the most awkward exchanges possible between a man and woman. Luckily, it came off this time. I got the return hug.

“Happy birthday for last week by the way,” she said, flicking her hair and unwinding her scarf as we made our way in and sat down, placing the scarf on the floor rather than on her lap or the table—which I found peculiar.

“Thanks,” I said, praying she wouldn’t ask any more birthday related questions. Thankfully we were both distracted by the group at the table behind us, who were standing on their chairs as they took birds-eye view photos of their food. Laura and I promptly bonded over how inconsiderate those people were, which was nice. There’s no easier way to relate to someone than a mutual distaste for someone else.

I was starting to relax as we moved past the chit chat. It’s not that I didn’t want to chit or chat (I’m fine with both), it’s just that acknowledging your own birthday can be quite awkward. Survival isn’t much of an achievement anymore, so you shouldn’t be congratulated for it. For me, it’s strange to be told ‘happy birthday’ even just one day after your birthday, let alone one week after. I’d argue that on the unnecessary social ritual scale, it's in the same vein as people who say ‘Happy New Year’ in February.

After a reasonable amount of chit chat, I suggested we start browsing the menu.

“They have the best corn and zucchini fritters here,” Laura insisted. I entertained her suggestion, but in truth, I would only ever order poached eggs on toast from cafes, maybe with one extra—mushrooms or avocado. Everything else would always be so expensive.

I did suspect Laura would be paying though, so I considered treating myself. And I wanted to, I did, but I just couldn’t convince myself to order those outlandishly priced extras. $3 for tomatoes? $4 for bacon? What a joke. Where were they getting these tomatoes?

When I managed to find eye contact with the waitress, I ordered my usual with mushrooms. I liked the waitress. Even though she gave the impression she was new, she had a rather experienced customer voice. Not so joyful and bouncy that it made you uncomfortable, and not so robotic that you felt like she hated you. She did inform me that unfortunately they didn’t have pumpkin bread as a toast option, but she seemed genuinely apologetic about it. I decided to take a risk on sourdough, hoping that the crust wouldn’t be too hard. I always struggled with a hard toast crust.

“Ok, won’t be long!” the waitress said, folding our menus under her arm. A checkpoint had been reached: the table now had room for my elbows.

Laura and I spoke for a few minutes about my theory that flying would be the best superpower to have because you would save so much time in daily travel. She kind of agreed, but at the first breath of pause in the conversation, she cut straight to it.

“Alright, now I shouldn’t be telling you this…” she said, surveying the cafe like a spy, despite both of us knowing full well that she’d committed to telling me this secret. “And you can’t tell anyone.” I leaned in, not expressly promising anything. “Ok, so,” she said, “Cam and Elizabeth. They broke up. She dumped him, two weeks ago.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s a shame.”

“Yeah it is, I know, but, BUT, that’s not even the juicy part.”

“What is?”

“Well after it happened, Cam told Justin that…” Laura trailed off. “Ok, you promise you won’t say I told you?” she said again, lifting her eyebrows and lowering her head as if it made a difference. I hooked my index fingers together, which I thought was the universal sign for trust. Though in hindsight, I probably should have just pretended to zip my lips and throw away the key. Anyway, she got it. “Ok, good,” Laura went on. “So, Cam told Justin that Elizabeth only broke up with him because she needed to focus on her dog. And then, not even a week after they’d broken up, blah blah blah blah...”

I drifted off and started to wonder if I’d remembered to put on deodorant that morning. I couldn’t really smell myself, so I couldn’t be sure, but I just felt a bit uncomfortable. Forgetting deodorant is the kind of thing that you only realise once it’s too late, and the longer you leave it, the worse it gets. When I zoned back in, Laura was still talking.

“Mmm, crazy,” I said.

“I know right!” she said. “And then when Elizabeth found out that Cam got his own dog, a staffy, and called it Elizabeth II (which he claimed was after the Queen but everyone knows it wasn’t), Elizabeth got really upset and told her Dad. Then, apparently, Elizabeth’s Dad blah blah blah blah...

I drifted off again. I was getting really hungry, and couldn’t help but think about eating. The good thing about poached eggs is that you get a free sauce—the yolk. That is, assuming they don’t over-poach the egg. I know I tend to criticise cafes, but I really do like them. My mood just dips when I’m hungry. And it’s especially agonising when you’re facing the kitchen and have to watch the waiters bring out plate after plate of other people’s food. I was fairly certain that the table who just got theirs had sat down after us.

“So, anyway,” Laura said, “now he has to wear a muzzle within 100 metres of any playground in the area.”

“Sorry, who does?”

“Elizabeth’s Dad.”

“Oh, ok.” I’d missed too much to backtrack.

Finally though, our food arrived.

“Don’t tell anyone, ok?” Laura said.

“I didn’t hear a thing.”

“Good,” she winked.

My food looked so good. Soft poached eggs, buttery mushrooms, golden toasted pumpkin bread with (on first inspection) an approachable crust. There was however an unnecessary leaf of parsley, but that was easily brushed aside.

“Enjoy,” the waitress smiled. But just as she turned away, I noticed that our table was the only one in the cafe without salt and pepper. Everyone else had it except for us. And it was the good stuff too. Cute little saucers with pink himalayan crystals—pinch to taste. But we had nothing. I called out to the waitress, but she was already starting to serve some scruffy looking guy at the counter.

“What’s the matter?” Laura said.

“We’re the only table without salt and pepper.”

“Oh, that’s alright,” she said. “They probably put some on when they cooked it. Doesn’t mine look good?”

“It’s not alright. I need to season.”

But before I could try the waitress again, the scruffy guy by the counter started yelling and throwing his arms in the air. Everyone in the cafe turned and stared, complaining amongst themselves about how loud he was. Then most people turned back to their tables, that is, until he pulled a serrated knife from his pocket and aimed it at the waitress.

The waitress shrieked like a small dog, her arms jumping up. Suddenly we were all fixated, our mouths hanging half open.

“I’m not paying,” Scruffy quivered, his outstretched arm quivering, “Ok?!” he repeated, “I’m not gonna pay! Just let me out!” He started spinning around, waving the knife like a flaming torch at anyone who came within reach. The waitress was frozen, her chest heaving, unable to get a word out. But Scruffy kept repeating, “I’m not paying! I’m not paying!” Apart from the suppressed shrieks of a few hysterical women, the whole cafe had fallen silent.

Foolishly, another waiter leapt to the doorway, blocking the exit. I’m sure he thought that was a heroic thing to do, but Scruffy reacted by running around the counter and grabbing the waitress around the neck, holding the knife to her throat. Now it wasn’t just the women that were screaming. Plates and cutlery rattled as people scrambled to leave.

“Oh no, oh no!” Laura squirmed, fumbling below the table for her scarf.

“Everyone, shut up... SHUT UP!!!!” Scruffy bawled. Everyone responded straight away, and the room slowly lulled to a herd of heavy breath as people edged back into their chairs. A father emerged from a crowded corner table, fanning his hands up and down in a manner that looked tried and tested in hushing bratty children. He began the slow approach to the counter.

“Ok, ok, let’s cool things down a little, shall we?” the father said.

“Sit the fuck down Tommy Hilfiger,” Scruffy said with restraint.

The father folded like a spring, retreating carefully to his table.

“Everyone keep eating!” Scruffy demanded. “I’m gonna leave now, ok?”

From the back, one of the women with nice sunglasses echoed, “How can we possibly eat when you have a knife to the waitress’s neck?”

“I just need some salt and pepper,” I said.

“You eat like this!” Scruffy said with purpose, marching the waitress over to our table in a headlock, grabbing one of Laura’s fritters with his free hand and munching it with his mouth open. Laura gasped silently. Thank god he didn’t touch my eggs, I thought. I was seriously starving. I’d even settle for just a bit of pepper.

Scruffy led the waitress back to the counter, who was now quietly sobbing. I looked around. Everyone was in a trance, no one even seemed to be blinking. But over by the window, I noticed someone sneakily texting, presumably the police. Good, I thought, this whole thing should be over soon. The waitress will be ok once the police show up. But by then, my food would surely be cold. How long would I then have to wait before I could eat? Too long, I thought. So, carefully, I leaned towards an empty table beside ours, inching myself closer until I could finally reach the pepper.

“That’s genius,” whispered a woman hiding under the table, “throwing pepper in his eyes! Go for it.”

“Oh... yeah,” I said. Then heroically, I sprung up and clapped a handful of pepper into Scruffy’s face. He stumbled back, dropping the waitress and desperately wiping his eyes. Sensing the moment, the crowd swarmed him until he was brought to the floor, his stubbled cheek pressed hard against the cold concrete.

When the police showed up, Laura and I both had to give statements. By the time we got back to our table, my eggs were beyond cold. The waitress, a bit rattled, but looking ok, wandered over to us.

“Thank you so much for your bravery,” she said. “The cook is making you both new meals now, on-the-house. Corn and zucchini fritters and poached eggs on toast with mushrooms right?”

“Yeah! that’s right,” I said, impressed.

“Great,” the waitress said. “We’ll throw in some more extras on the eggs for you too—avocado, bacon and some relish on top. You’ll love the relish. Won’t be long!”

“Wow, she seems pretty unshaken,” Laura said as the waitress skipped away. “I can’t believe after going through something like that she’s ok to keep working. What a warrior! I’d be home in a flash. You remember in high school when I fractured my thumb in PE and...”

“We have to go,” I said.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t want relish. Relish sucks. It's a cop-out ingredient that gets thrown on top when the rest of the dish has no flavour. It overpowers the plate.”

“But you have all those other extras.”

“And because of that relish, it’ll all be for nothing. Come on, we have to go. It’ll be rude if I don’t eat a meal on-the-house.”

“Isn’t it more rude if we leave?” Laura protested.

“Maybe,” I said, “but we won’t have to face it.”

As we walked back to our cars, Laura and I debriefed the morning, wondering why Scruffy even got so upset in the first place. Laura thought he must have been homeless or crazy or something and never intended to pay at all. I suspected that he ordered too many extras and the bill crept up on him. Then Laura and I said goodbye and did the ritualistic kiss on the cheek. But just as I was about to leave, she stopped me.

“You know,” she said. “I think we’ll have to do this again. I feel like we never got to finish celebrating your birthday.”

“Yeah ok, sure,” I said, “when are you thinking?”

“How about next Saturday? We can…”

“Ooo... sorry,” I interrupted. “Next Saturday isn’t great. I’m going trout fishing with my uncle and his new wife up in the country for the weekend. How about I text you and we can figure something out?”

“Ok! Sounds good,” Laura said.

And just like that, I’d done it, successfully dodging an in-person invitation. I was back in business. I probably wouldn’t see Laura again until New Year’s.

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