Tina slowly looked up from her laptop and then leapt out of her seat as she caught a glance of the silver and white wall clock on the opposite wall. She knew she had a habit of losing track of time so the clock was the first and only piece of décor she had unpacked since getting the job and moving into her new office. It hadn’t been much help.
She quickly closed her laptop, wore her blazer and slipped on her shoes. The ‘red bottom’ stilettos had seemed like a good idea this morning, but knowing now that she would have to walk a distance to find lunch this late she was beginning to regret the choice. With a resigned sigh she picked up her purse and walked out to the Receptionists desk to find out what restaurants were still open for lunch at 3.30 pm.
A phone call had come in just as Sarah, the receptionist, had been about to give Tina directions to a branch of the popular PIÈRRE’s restaurant chain they had been discussing, so Tina picked up a copy of the restaurant’s flier and set out. She really didn’t mind having to find her way, Tina decided as she stepped into the elevator, this would be a good chance to see her surroundings and finally see part of her new city. As she stepped out of the big glass doors and felt the sun on her face, she put on her sunglasses, beamed a smile at no one in particular and turned left.
After what felt like an hour of walking, the last twenty minutes of which she was certain she had spent walking in concentric circles Tina found a bus stop canopy to sit under and admit that she was lost. “Why didn’t you go right?”, she murmured to herself over and over again, wiping the sweat off her brow with a Kleenex and trying to run a hand through her hair. The sunlight she had been so happy to step out into earlier had suddenly turned angry about two minutes into the sojourn and the wind had picked up five minutes later in what had seemed to be an attempt to blow it out. Her feet hurt, and when she looked down at them she shrieked as she discovered a scuff on the toe of her left shoe, probably from that one time she stumbled. She felt the tears begin to well up.
That’s it, she thought as she pulled out her cell phone and brought up the Uber app. She was going to take an Uber back to the office and forget about lunch, after all, she would probably need to forfeit many more lunches to pay for another pair of shoes like these ones. There was one problem, though – the Uber app needed to know where she was, and so did she. So she began looking around for landmarks or sign boards, anything to tell her where she was, and that when she noticed it. Sitting between a small clothes shop and a book store was a large door way set into the side of a building across the road, and above it, arranged in an arch, was the familiar PIÈRRE’s logo.
Tina hopped off the bus stop bench in excitement aiming to race over to the restaurant, but all she could manage with the pain now shooting up her ankles and into her knees was a slow hobble. As she shuffled closer she realized that the number underneath the logo was 51, not 61 as Sarah had told her it would be. Had Sarah been mistaken? No, Tina clearly remembered Sarah explaining to her that the PIÈRRE’s franchise numbered their branches in increments of 10, with the flagship restaurant downtown being PIÈRRE’s 01, the next, in Midtown being PIÈRRE’s 11, a few others scattered around town being numbers 21 to 51, and the newest and closest to their office was PIÈRRE’s 61. Did this mean Tina had wandered so far off the path that she had found the wrong branch? Well, it wasn’t like she really cared, if there was food, a cold drink and a colder AC in that building the number above the door was of no significance.
By the time the she crossed the road and ducked into PIÈRRE’s 51 the lunch crowd was emptying out and she found herself a quiet table at a corner. The moment her bottom touched the seat she kicked off her left shoe and picked it up to assess the damage. It wasn’t as bad as she had thought, she saw; the shoes would live if she could find a good cobbler, she wasn’t so sure of her feet. Why hadn’t she listened to herself when she had suggested a nice, sensible pair of flat shoes this morning, she asked herself, still staring at the shoe. Why hadn’t she gone right at the office doors? Why hadn’t she left for lunch when others had gone? Why hadn’t she… And that was when she noticed a waiter standing quietly by the table, waiting for her to finish the monologue she was having with her shoe.
She thought of the picture she presented – wind tussled hair, glasses perched precariously on the edge of her nose, hunched over, scolding a dusty left shoe – and immediately felt the overwhelming urge to cry again, it had been a long day. Noticing her distress the waiter glanced back to be sure his supervisor wasn’t close by and then asked if he could sit for a minute. She nodded numbly even though she couldn’t see how he could possibly help. When he got up to take her order ten minutes later she was laughing uncontrollably at stories he had told her about his sisters’ bad shoe days. His name tag said Tony.
When her lunch was over and she called for her check Tony came over and handed her a plastic bag containing a pair of purple flip flops. If she didn’t mind going back to her office in the flip flops, he said, he could drop off her shoe at the cobbler’s upstairs and then bring them back to her at her office at the end of his shift; again, if she didn’t mind. She tried half-heartedly to refuse the gesture, knowing she should say something about not wanting him to go out of his way, but he picked up the shoe anyway, and took them through the employee only door. He came back a minute later with a plastic bag for the right shoe which he wrapped up for her and placed on the seat beside her and then he scribbled his name and number on a napkin and handed it to her, “Give this to the police if I don’t show up and you think I’ve stolen your shoe”, he said with a serious face. He got her office address and waved goodbye as she tried to control her laughter.
She took an Uber and arrived back at the office in an excellent mood. For the rest of the day she caught herself recalling snippets of her conversation with Tony and smiling to herself. He was really nice, she thought. And handsome. He didn’t fit her typical picture of a waiter, she thought, one might even say he looked slightly nerdy with his glasses and nicely carved haircut. Really, if she had passed by him on the street she certainly wouldn’t have thought ‘waiter’. Yeah, he was cool, she allowed as she got back to work.
Tina glanced up at the clock, it was 6pm and Tony hadn’t returned with her shoe. Well, it wasn’t like a person could steal one shoe, right? Besides, she still had some work to do, if she didn’t hear from him in 30 minutes she would call.
Damn it!, Tony thought, as he ran up the front stairs of Tina’s office building and rushed through the glass doors. He had forgotten he was covering for Paul when he offered to have the shoe repaired, which meant he had twice his regular number of tables to clear before he could leave the restaurant. Ah, who was he kidding? Even if he had remembered he knew he would still have offered to fix the shoe, she had really looked like she needed help. Yes, that was all it was, he told himself as he deliberately ignored the part of his mind that wanted to dwell on how beautiful she had looked huddled up at that table with the wind tossed hair and glasses. She was just a lady who needed help and he had been raised a gentleman. So much of a gentleman that he hadn’t even asked for her number, so what would he do if she had left for home?
He crossed the main lobby, got to the elevator bank and was about to press the button when his phone rang, it was Tina. When he told her he was downstairs she said she would join him there. He walked back to the lobby and found a seat.
Tina had almost walked past Tony when she recognized him and was stopped in her tracks, he looked really different out of his black PIÈRRE’s uniform. She had known he was good looking when she saw him in his uniform, but in the white T-shirt and blue jeans he now wore she felt like she was seeing him for the first time.
He stood up when he saw her and immediately apologized for being late, but still being stunned at the transformation from waiter to very attractive male Tina couldn’t manage a reply.
Damn it, Tony thought again frantically as he watched Tina stare at him without replying to his apology. She was really upset, wasn’t she? He knew he had to do something, and before thinking it through he blurted out “Dinner!”
“Huh?” she asked, finally finding her voice.
“Dinner”, he repeated. He knew it was a bad idea on many levels, but he couldn’t back out now, so he continued, “Please let me buy you dinner. I made you stay late, it’s the least I can do.”
Tina felt her face break out in a smile, and though in her head she had formed a polite but firm refusal she heard herself say “I would love that!” Feeling slightly embarrassed at the enthusiasm in her voice she spun sharply towards the door and began to walk out, and that was when, reflected in the glass doors in front of her she saw him pull out his wallet and look worriedly into it.
As they stepped out into the now cool air Tony asked her what she felt like for dinner. “A burger!” she said quickly, “A fat, greasy, unhealthy burger with fries and coke”. She told him she had been on a diet for months, eating nothing but salads and tasteless soups and now she wanted to be decadent. In truth she had never dieted a day in her life, but since she had seen the worried look he gave his wallet a minute earlier having to tell a little white lie seemed a small price to pay in order not to hurt his pride or wallet.
Tony heaved a silent sigh of relief and told her he knew just the place. He looked at her feet and saw she was still wearing the flip flops from this afternoon so he suggested they walk with a solemn promise that, unlike certain people, he knew where the restaurant he meant to go to was. This earned him a playful swat on the arm and made him grin like a school boy.
Strange she hadn’t noticed his lopsided smile earlier, or the dimple that seemed to pop up from thin air on his chin, Tina thought. She was almost certain she noticed a chip on his front tooth but she caught herself staring and looked away. As they walked she told him she had graduated college six months earlier and even though she had had to move, leaving her family and friends behind, she considered herself lucky to have found a job so quickly in this economy. He stopped in his tracks and cocked his head at that. When she asked what was wrong he told her he had pegged her as one of the smartest women he had ever met after talking to her for the first 5 minutes earlier in the day. He said as far as he was concerned it was the firm that was lucky to have her. “Oh”, was all she could manage in answer.
As she talked about home and her friends and school she found herself leaving out certain bits of information and editing certain stories. This wasn’t like her, but for some reason she couldn’t bring herself to mention what should have been the most important part of her life to him. So she stopped talking about herself and asked him about himself.
Tony had found her stories about college and her family very entertaining, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was holding something back. That was understandable, though, since they had just met. And so he was surprised that the fact that they had just met didn’t seem to hold him back, and as they walked up to the food truck he found himself telling her about his childhood, his teenage years and the mistakes he had made. After they had placed their orders and he had paid, they moved aside to let other patrons order and he told her about how he had had some minor run-ins with the law as a juvenile. When the chef called out their number Tony went to the food truck to pick up their food and led Tina to a park bench under a canopy of colourful Christmas lights. He told her he had chosen that bench because it was well lit, so she wouldn’t think he was a creep, but he knew he chose it because he wanted to watch the light play across her face as they talked.
He laid his jacket down on the seat so she wouldn’t get her skirt dusty and then sat beside her. She asked him to continue talking. He said he wasn’t trying to make excuses but it had been tough growing up as one of nine children, mostly because that meant that every time he fell by the way side he had to be the one to pick himself up by the bootstraps since everyone else had always seemed to be occupied with one of his other siblings. And so when he had dropped out of college a second time and one day found himself engaged in a street fight –he pointed to the faint scar above his right eyebrow – he had had to give himself a talking to and straighten up. So now he was back in college earning a Bachelors’ degree in Biology and planning to head on to medical school afterwards. But since medical school wasn’t going to pay for itself he was working at PIÈRRE’s alongside.
He had thought that the fact that he had made a mess of things earlier and was now waiting tables to get through school would put her off but it turned out she had many questions. Many questions. About being part of a large family, about being part of a rough crowd, about medical school, about everything, and he enjoyed answering them. So by the time she looked at her wrist watch and swore he looked at his as well and was surprised to see that they had been talking for over two hours. And he knew he could sit there talking to her for two hours more.
Tina regretfully heaved herself up from the park bench, she didn’t want to leave; Tony had mentioned he would be off work tomorrow, but she wasn’t so lucky so she knew she had to go. When he reached out his left hand to help her down the two stone steps that led away from their bench she gave him her right hand, and he held on to it as they walked to her car, this time in silence.
When they got to her car she opened the driver’s door and stood by it. He handed her the left shoe he had been holding all evening and she laughed embarrassedly and apologized for putting him through all the trouble. He told her it wasn’t any trouble as there was a short cut from her office to ‘51’, as the restaurant he worked at was fondly called. In fact, he suggested, since he was going to be off work tomorrow he could come by and show her the short cut in hopes that she would make ‘51’ her permanent lunch place and he could see her every day. Again, her mouth disobeyed her and she heard herself say she would like that.
Tony had to stamp down the urge to whoop in delight as Tina got into the car and he shut the door for her. But when she started the engine and waved goodbye to him he stood still as all the elation drained. He had noticed for the first time, the sparkle of the diamond on her left hand.
Tina got back to her apartment and refused to think of the day she had just had. She wouldn’t let herself think of Tony. He was just a friend, nothing more; she was engaged to Dan and she loved him. She told herself this over and over again as she paced around her living room. To push Tony further out of her mind, she picked up her phone and called Dan. There was no answer. She tried again half an hour later and still got no answer. She undressed, took a warm shower, put on a night gown and tried Dan again. This time he picked the call and 5 seconds in she could tell he was in a bad mood. She tried to lighten the mood as best she could, even suggesting a Skype call, but he snapped at her and said he had had a long day at work. She tried to explain that she only wanted to help but after a while she realized she was speaking to herself, he had ended the call. She sighed as she put away the phone and tried to sleep. It had been this way since she had had to travel for her new job. She knew he resented the fact that she had left, but she had told him she only needed to be at this office for six months, after which she could transfer back home. He obviously wasn’t satisfied with that and took every opportunity to let her know, sometimes in the most hurtful ways. This was why she knew she couldn’t see Tony again. Dan had his bad days now and then, and though the bad days had recently become more frequent and though she was beginning to feel more and more neglected she had promised to marry him. If she met with Tony again and he was as nice to her as he had been today she knew she would begin to compare both men and Dan would come up short. No, she couldn’t see Tony again, the future of her relationship with Dan hung on that.
At about that time Tony couldn’t find any sleep either. He had tossed and turned for a few hours wondering what to do. Obviously he had feelings for Tina, but even though throughout the evening they spent together it had looked like she reciprocated those feelings he now wasn’t sure. She was engaged to someone else, for goodness sake. Probably someone who had his life in order and could give her everything she deserved. But shouldn’t he at least make his feelings known so she could give him an answer one way or the other and put the issue to bed? No, definitely not. He had never been any good with rejection, and he knew he couldn’t measure up right now to whoever had given her the diamond. He also knew that if she took up his offer to come over to PIÈRRE’s 51 for lunch every day and he had to see her every day he would one day blurt out his feelings for her, and that certainly wouldn’t end well. He knew what he had to do.
The next morning Tina came into work forty minutes late. She had barely slept the night before and kept getting distracted with thoughts of Tony and the best way to let him know she couldn’t see him again. He was an amazing man she would have liked to get to know, but she also knew that when such temptations came one had to flee, and that she would do, starting with never going to PIÈRRE’s 51 again. So she walked over to Sarah’s desk again, waited till she had her full attention, and asked for proper directions to PIÈRRE’s 61. Next, she turned off her phone, if Tony couldn’t call her he couldn’t come to take her to the restaurant like he had promised. She knew she should wait to take his call and explain, but she had chosen the coward’s way out. Hopefully, he would get the message and find someone else who was unattached and could give him what he deserved. She returned to her office and tried to get back to work.
It was noon and Tony was seated opposite his manager, Richard, at the restaurant, watching the clock tick. He had just told Richard, without offering any detailed explanations, that he could no longer work at 51 and needed a transfer to a different PIÈRRE’s location. Sensing from his demeanour that the request was important to Tony, Richard asked to be given some time to make a phone call and ushered him out of the office. Half an hour later he called Tony back in and told him that there was an opening just down the road at PIÈRRE’s 61 which he had requested specially so Tony wouldn’t have to move too far away. He was surprised when Tony thanked him for the consideration but asked if there were any other options.
Two hours and multiple phone calls later Tony cleared out his locker at PIÈRRE’s 51, picked up his uniform and headed out to the bus stop across the road. PIÈRRE’s 11 was two buses and eight bus stops away, but he would rather make the trip than risk running into Tina like every fibre of his being wanted him to. He couldn’t have taken the job at 61, knew that when he didn’t show up to take her to 51 like he had promised she would probably go to 61 instead, so this was the wise thing to do. At the bus stop, after he had checked the bus schedule, Tony pulled out his phone and typed out a text to Tina. He knew he should call her and give his apologies and reasons in person, but he was going to take the coward’s way out. Maybe she would think him a jerk and dismiss any further thoughts of him. The thought of that hurt, but at least it meant he wouldn’t be standing in the way of her being with someone who could give her everything she deserved. He could see his bus approaching, he sent the text.
Tina slowly looked up from her laptop and sighed as she caught a glance of the silver and white wall clock on the opposite wall. She had looked at it five minutes ago, and five minutes before that, the time just seemed to drag. She was fighting the urge to turn her phone back on and see if Tony had tried to call and it was getting more difficult with every minute. Maybe it would be best to leave the office and get some lunch and distraction.
On her way out Tina passed by Sarah’s desk and confirmed that she had the right directions to PIÈRRE’s 61, she couldn’t risk getting lost and ending up at Tony’s restaurant again, she thought. And then it hit her as she began to leave – if Tony couldn’t reach her because her phone was off, wasn’t it possible that he would try to look for her at 61, the only other PIÈRRE’s location he knew she knew? She couldn’t risk that. She went back to the reception and asked Sarah for directions to a different restaurant, any different restaurant. As far away from the office as possible. Sarah had sensed that the PIÈRRE’s franchise was somehow playing an important role in Tina’s weird quest for a meal today so she picked up a pen and wrote down an address and directions. “Is that far enough away?”, she asked, handing Tina the sheet. Tina read the instructions and nodded, it was perfect. Sarah was sending her to yet another PIÈRRE’s, but PIÈRRE’s 11 was two buses and eight bus stops away and she would rather make the trip than risk running into Tony or admitting that every fibre of her being wanted her to.
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