One rarely expects to sit down at a big table at a popular restaurant with the idea that “this is it, tonight is the night we die.” It’s just not a thing that happens outside of gangster movies, usually.
Or so I assumed.
For the graduation celebration of my friend, who earlier that night had opened the big gallery show at our university’s fine art museum that represented the culmination of their PhD in Fine Arts, we all packed our queer and genderfluid and “artfully eccentric” selves into a mainstream Italian-style chain restaurant. Drink specials, okay? Okay.
We were shuffled into a wing of the restaurant that is only opened up when the place is mad crazy busy, and while we had hit the tail end of the rush, that was where we got seated. I knew that we would close that wing down, but since we took up most of it anyway — sitting at a huge round table like the top Mafioso family in town (if Mafioso families were less gender restrictive) — I figured service would still be acceptable. Honestly, I thought that as long as our drinks made it to the table without spilling we were golden.
The waitress was a young woman with a quiet demeanor, who had that world-weary attitude carried by anyone in the food service industry who is on the last hour of a busy shift. As she circled around taking our (multitudinous) drink orders, she…kept looking out the windows. She stood next to me, asked me my order, wrote it down on her pad and the whole time was staring out the windows.
All of the windows.
It’s not like she was glancing surreptitiously to see if someone she was waiting for had parked out back. No, she rounded the table, staring out of the windows and never making eye contact with anyone. At one point after we ordered food but before it was served, she went from window to window and just stood there, focused on the dark shadows of the parking lot.
I got that feeling that she was the omen: the person in the movie who knows the hit has been ordered, that it is coming, but can’t just run screaming out of the building. They have to keep the victims in place, serve them their final meal, set them up for the hit.
Between appetizers and drink #3, I started getting nervous. By then, all the other customers in that wing had filtered out. We were there, alone, in the middle of that huge room.
“Sitting ducks” came to mind.
I started glancing out the windows myself, expecting to see a slow-moving black sedan rolling by. I tried to analyze trajectories, and whether I could pull anyone down to the floor with me fast enough to save them should the windows implode from splattered gunfire. My hands started shaking. How many long trips to the bathroom could I get away with? Just how cowardly would it be to abandon everyone to their fate and walk three miles home in the dark?
You might wonder what I’ve done in life that warrants fear of assassination, and I can’t tell you. You might think that I wouldn’t tell you, even if I had something like that to notch on my belt, and…that’s fair. I wouldn’t. BUT I am not a ‘made’ woman or any kind of crime family lackey (I assume I’d have better shoes if I were, because there has to be perks to that job, right? Molls always have killer heels, right?).
I wondered if anyone at the table had witnessed something they shouldn’t have. I started checking everyone for a case of the nerves. The witness protection program is a thing – how well did I really know those people? Was it too late to start googling background checks for everyone on my phone?
By dessert I was a nervous wreck, and so was our waitress. She would put a drink or dessert down, then physically turn to look out a window. Didn’t matter if you were talking to her to point out something inconsequential like “This isn’t my drink.” Nope.
SOMETHING was coming, and I had left the witness protection theories behind and was now on to B-rated super villains, escaped dinosaur genetic experiments, and sharknados.
When the last plate was scraped clean and the drink glasses empty, I threw money at the guy clearing our dishes away. I paid for everyone’s meals and drinks in one go, unwilling to wait for the waitress to turn away from the window she was parked at, her back to us…waiting.
I all but pushed everyone out of the building and into their cars, claiming a dozen maladies (drunk! Headache! Exhausted! Pinched nerve!) in order for everyone to hustle into the damn cars and get a move on already.
We left our waitress behind, still standing at one of the windows, still staring out into the dark.
We left alive.