On Monday morning, I’m setting up the tables outside work. The boss has his exact settings for the white plastic chairs and tables, so he can fit more people underneath the umbrella that goes over the café’s outdoor area. He trusts me to set up, tells me, ‘you’re our best waitress.
There’s a guy who walks past every morning, carrying his mobile phone and car keys. He walks by and says hello to me. He works at the hairdresser’s four shops down. But he’s not gay. I don’t think. He told me once about how he met Bono. He said it was after a U2 gig in some country that uses the Euro dollar. He told me Bono just walked into this little bar that was practically empty, and sat down next to him. Bono said he’d come there to avoid the crowds around the band’s hotel. He and Bono had this long conversation about music, life and everything. Said Bono was a cooler guy than he expected. Changed his life. From most people this story would seem very unlikely, but I can’t imagine any reason why this guy, whom I can’t remember his name, would make up such an elaborate lie. I call him U2 Guy.
U2 Guy comes past in the morning and says hi to me. He always looks perfect, his hair perfectly set in place, seemingly without any effort. I smile and try to talk to him as he passes, but the words never come. He’s not gay. I don’t think.
Mark will come in and visit, everyday at around 10:30. Mark’s not retarded, but he’s a bit slow. You just know that he’s not quite right when you hear him speak. He’s too slow to get a job, so he’s got nothing much to do with his time, but he has a good heart and means well. He tells me I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. He compares me to actresses and singers and says none of them are good enough. Only me.
He’ll tell people I take care of him and I’m his girl. He says these things, loudly, to total strangers as they wait at the glass counter to be served or eat their morning tea nearby. He smiles and shows off how many teeth he’s lost. Always wears the same old football jumper and ripped, stained tracksuit pants.
I’m nice to Mark, I guess because I feel sorry for him, although I hate that to be the reason. Most of the other girls have had enough of him. They’re rude and turn their back on him when he’s talking. They hurry him when he orders, telling him to ‘get to the point’. They make fun of him in front of their friends.
Guess that’s why he likes me.
When Mark overheard me talking about U2 Guy and Bono, he told me how he met Peter Brock once. Brocky. Mark told me every tiny detail. Then he went on, started lying about how ‘Brocky’ let him drive the car around the track. I told him he didn’t have a license, he said, surprised as much as me, ‘I know’.
I try not to look at the clock on the wall, that way the day goes quicker. Like tricking myself, doing my impression of a magician. Now I will make time disappear. In the afternoon, I don’t know what time, U2 Guy comes in and flashes that smile at me across the donuts. He has hair dye stains on his t-shirt and color under his fingernails, making them look brown. He’s just buying a Coke. Always smiling.
‘How’s work today, Kate?’ he remembers my name from some time when he’s done my hair before. He already has the correct change in his hand. I try to look cool, feeling my breath get caught in my chest, smiling without opening my mouth. Sometimes it seems to be on both of our minds, we’re just playing a game of chicken, seeing who will speak first, watching each other’s lips. Those moments where the logical part of your brain is working against your emotions.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’ He says.
On Tuesday, Eva comes in and orders her coffee and cake and sits outside, next to the cars flashing by. She takes all the new magazines from our rack and catches up on celebrity’s lives. She says she’d never buy one of them, but can’t resist reading them here. Her guilty pleasure. She tells me everything that’s wrong with some actress-actor marriage, why they can never be. Every singer-model, royal-commoner, sports person-TV personality relationship is wrong for this reason or that.
This is Eva who’s husband left her last year. She says she didn’t understand his reasons. He just up and left. No real explanation.
‘Look, he’s no good for her, is he?’ Eva asks, pointing to a magazine as if it’s stolen her handbag. She sees the U2 Guy go past and wave to me. I forget to answer her.
‘He likes you.’ She speaks, hiding behind her big, brown sunglasses.
‘No, he’s just the hairdresser.’ I deny like a school girl, hoping he really does, feeling happy that someone else noticed. Eva stares at me, looking for something on my face.
‘You like him too, don’t you.’ I feel a smile coming across without my control. I place Eva’s coffee in front of her, turn, and walk back inside, fixing my hair and hearing Eva giggle to herself.
Sally comes in at lunch time. Sally has a back problem of some kind. I don’t ever ask what exactly. She has to walk awkwardly with crutches, her legs sort of falling where they will to support her, or she uses a wheelchair. Her Mum usually comes in with her, or else it’s a friend or helper. Sally’s always smiling, always happy and positive. Positive is the word I’m looking for.
‘Hey Sally, what can I get for you?’
‘Hey. Just a coffee today.’
‘You’re always so happy, Sally,’ I talk over the noisy coffee machine. ‘I love serving you.’ Sally smiles and shows her perfect teeth. Her Mum steps to the counter to order.
‘She’s always so happy, isn’t she?’ I excitedly tell her Mum.
‘Yeah.’ Her Mum puts her head down for a moment, staring vaguely at the floor. Sally wheels outside and over to a vacant table.
‘No stopping her, hey?’ I continue, only realizing how patronizing my tone is as an afterthought.
‘Probably three times, every week,’ Her Mum says to me. ‘She’s lying in her bed, crying herself to sleep. She pulls the doona up and covers her head when I come in.’ We both look at Sally. She’s staring at the sky outside.
‘Hey Kate,’ U2 Guy says to me. I instinctively feel myself trying to look cute, remembering tricks I’ve tried in the mirror to look like a model. He looks at me, waiting for something.
‘You don’t remember my name, do you?’ Now this could be bad. If I say no I look uninterested. It’s just now that Mark walks through the door.
‘Hi Kate.’ He yells, his big hand waving in the air. I ignore him, forcing my eyes to not acknowledge him.
‘No, of course I remember your name.’ If I remember it why don’t I say it?
‘Nah, it’s cool if you don’t, I wouldn’t expect you to or anything.’ U2 Guy says.
‘Hi Kate.’ Mark yells louder this time, leaning across in front of U2 Guy and waving his big, dumb hand in front of my eyes, almost touching me.
‘Hey, you’re busy, I’ll catch you tomorrow?’ U2 Guy smiles to me as he walks out.
‘Yeah, come in and see me tomorrow.’ His eyes catch mine for a moment, and he points in the air and nods.
‘Hi Kate.’ Mark repeats again.
‘Hi Mark, what do you want?’
‘You look nice today. I jus’ came to say hi to you.’
‘Sorry Mark, I’m busy.’ When I walk away, looking for something to do, I can still hear Mark talking. Talking to me. One of the other girls goes to serve him.
On Wednesday, U2 Guy says hi in the morning and asks me what time I have lunch. My mind falls apart trying to think, but I finally blurt out the right time. He smiles and asks if he can have lunch with me. And I can’t say yes quick enough. I see Eva, inside getting her coffee, giggling at the counter.
When lunch comes, I’ve watched the clock all day, I miss a breath every time the door opens. I try not to look, try to use my peripheral vision to see who’s coming in. Try to act cool. U2 Guy is right on time, standing beneath the clock on the wall. He holds the door for me as we go to sit outside. He quickly comes by me to take out my chair before I can. His finger touches mine.
We sit nervously at opposite side of the table, trying to get in each other’s mind. Wondering if we’re thinking the same things.
‘Do you have brothers and sisters, Kate?’ His hand is resting on the table.
‘No.’ Then my brain kicks in again. ‘Sorry, yes, two brothers.’ He laughs.
‘Yeah, I couldn’t remember about my family for a second either.’ He says.
‘My name is Lucas.’
‘Yeah, I know, Lucas.’
‘Just in case, thought I’d make it easy for you.’ His thumb is rubbing softly on the white plastic. Neither of us has ordered lunch. A car goes by and blows my hair.
I want to tell him how he’s the reason I spill coffee and drop glasses.
‘Are you gay?’ The words are out of my mouth before my logic can scan them.
‘Girlfriend then?’ Again, my mouth speaks without consulting my mind.
‘Um, no. Why do you ask?’ He’s amused by my erratic questioning.
‘Oh, because, you know, then you might not kiss me.’ I put my head down, realizing this is the point of no return, my eyes looking at him across my eyebrows. No more subtlety. That second waiting for his response feels like watching the wall clock for years. I feel my blood rushing.
‘Oh no,’ Lucas leans into the table, his hand closer to me. ‘I’d definitely kiss you.’
His finger touches my arm. I can’t think of words.
I lock my fingers with his.
Closing up the store at the end of the day as quickly as possible. Making sure everything is cleaned. Lucas will meet me in ten minutes, counting down.
‘Hi Kate.’ Mark waves to me as he comes through the door. I smile and wave enthusiastically back to him, my mind flooded with thoughts of what to wear tonight. Mark buys a Coke. He looks happy to see me happy, thinks I’m smiling because of him probably. Mark’s big hand comes over like a plane to grab a straw from the counter. But it doesn’t stop. His huge hand grabs my hair and pulls me hard onto the counter, ramming the side of my head on it. Mark holds my head there, the blow still echoing and ringing in my ears. The pain starts to come through my skull. Mark growls, close enough to feel his breath on my ear.
‘You stupid bitch, you ever treat me like that again, you don’t treat me like that, you, who do you think you, you think I’m a stupid, don’t you? I will take your, I will kill you, I will cut you up, you treat me like that again.’ And his grip loosens off my hair. My heart bangs on my rib cage like it’s trying to escape my body. I feel a warm ooze of blood in my ear. My voice won’t work. I’m screaming in my mind. And I can see Mark’s stained, ripped tracksuit pants and football jumper walk out the door, without looking back.