THE WOMAN WHO LIVED IN A RESTAURANT
One high day in February, a woman walks into a two-tier restaurant on a corner of her busy neighbourhood, sits down at the worst table – the one with the blind spot, a few feet too close to the kitchen’s swinging door – and stays there.
She stays there forever.
She wears a crisp cotton white shirt with a good collar and cuffs and a soft black skirt that can be hiked up easy. She has careful dreadlocks strung with silver beads – the best hairstyle to take into forever. There is no more jewellery: her skin is naked and moist. She keeps a tiny pair of white socks in her handbag, and in the cold months, she slips them onto her bare feet.
She watches the waiters, puppeting to and fro, the muscles in their asses tightening and relaxing, thumbing coin and paper tips, tumbling up and down the stairs and past her to the kitchen, careful not to touch. The maître d’ has a big belly and so does the chef, who is also the owner of the restaurant. Nobody holds it against them; this is not fat, it is gravitas, and also they work very long hours and eat much of the chef’s extremely fine food. – Smile, smile, the maître d’ says to everybody, staff and customers alike; he has been here for the longest and she never hears him say much more in front of house, although you would have thought he might.
She goes to the restroom in the mornings and evenings, to wash her skin and to put elegant slivers of fresh, oatmeal soap to her throat and armpits. She nods at the diners, who bring children and lovers and have arguments and complain and compliment the food and some that get drunk and then there’s the sound of vomiting from the bathroom that makes her wince. So many propose marriage, eventually she can spot them on sight: the men lick their lips and brandish their moustaches and crunch their balls in their hands. They all flourish the ring in the same way, like waiters setting down the pièce de résistance: fresh steak tartar or gyrated sugar confectionaries that attract the light. Their women – provided they are pleased – do identical neck rolls and shoulder raises and matching squeals, like a set of jewellery she thinks, all shining in their eyes, although one year a woman became very angry and crushed her good glass into the table top.
– I told you not to kill it with this lovey-dovey shit! she yelled at the moustachioed man, and stalked out. The man sat with the napkin under his chin, making a soft, white beard. The napkins here are of very good quality.
– Hush, said the restaurant woman, like she was rocking the small pieces of the leftover man. The people around them ate on and tried to ignore the embarrassed, shattered glass.
– What shall I do? he asked, rubbing his mouth with the napkin.
– Love is what it is. She stretched one finger skyward, as if offering an architectural suggestion.
He hurried out and away, his shoes making scuffling noises like mice.
These days she must rock from cheek to cheek to prevent sores. But mostly she sits and waits and smiles to herself and her lips remind the male waiters of the entrails of a plum, so juicy and broken open. They see that she is not young, although she has good breasts and healthy breath. Watch how she taps her fingers on the table and handles the glass stem, they whisper: this is a woman of authority. She has been somebody. Some of the waitresses weep but most of them hiss that she is a fool.
– Mind the chef kill you, the line cook whispers.
One waitress deliberately spills fragrant, scalding Jamaican coffee onto the woman’s wrist. The woman rubs her burned flesh and smiles. The waitress shudders at her happy brown eyes. – Stupid bitch, the waitress hisses. – Why are you here?
She is fired the next day, as are all waitresses who hate the woman.
A young, male waiter fills the vacancy, three years and thirteen hours after the woman arrives to live in the restaurant. She sees him come in for the interview: nervous with his thick, curly hair and handsome bow legs.
On his first day, the waiter comes running to the pass to say that he has seen a woman bathing in the restroom sink, and that her body was long and honeyed and gleaming in the early light through the back window. He didn’t mean to see her, really, he says. He was dying for a piss and opened the wrong door.
What he does not say is this. That when he opened the door, the woman was sitting naked, with her shoulder blades propped up against the beam between the cubicles. Her legs were spread so far apart that the muscles inside her thighs were jumping. She had the prettiest pussy he’s ever seen, so perpendicular and soft that he had to shade his eyes and take a breath, and then, without knowing he was capable of such a thing, he stopped and stared.
– Put simply, he says to his closest friend, that night, while drinking good beer and wine, she was too far gone to stop.
They sigh, together.
The woman, who had been rolling her nipples with the fingers of both hands before he came in, put a hand between her legs. At first he thought she was covering herself, but then he saw the expression on her face and realised that this was a lust he’d never seen before. The woman took her second and third fingers and rubbed between her legs so fast and hard that the waiter, who thought he’d seen a woman orgasm before this, suddenly doubted himself and kept watching to make sure. In the dawn, the woman’s locks could have been on fire and even the shining tiles on the bathroom floor seemed to ululate to help her.
– Ah, said the woman. – Oh.
The smallest sound, so quiet. It was like a mouthful of truffle or a perfect pomegranate seed on the tongue: an unmistakeable quality.
Weeks pass, and the new waiter is miserable, not least because he knows now that he has never made a woman orgasm.
– What is she doing here, hardly ever moving from her seat? Does she not have a home?
– Mind the chef kill you, they whisper around him.
Despite their warnings he rages on, making the soup too peppery and the napkins rough.
Finally, the maître d’ tells him the story, in between cold glasses of water, changing tarnished forks, and cutting children’s potato cakes into four pieces each. All through it, the waiter tries not to look at the woman under his eyelashes, although when he does, she still glows and when the chef sends her an edible flower salad for her luncheon, he can smell the salt on her second and third fingers when he puts it down in front of her.
The maître d’ explains that the story is in the menus, if you read them closely enough.
The chef is that kind of man who is in love with his work. He has owned the restaurant for twenty-two years and it is everything. He creates ever more beautiful and tasty dishes; he admires the beams and wall fixtures and runs loving fingers over the icy water jugs and bunches of fresh beans in the kitchen. The mushrooms are cleaned with a specially crafted brush. Hours must be spent in the streets talking with butchers and fishermen so that the restaurant has the freshest, most rare ingredients. Each tile in the floor has been hand-painted. Each window-sash hand-made. He has been known to stroke the carpet on the stairs, and he knows the name and taste buds of every regular customer.
He is a happy and most successful man.
But then he meets the gleaming, honeyed woman in a farmers’ market. She is buying a creamy goat’s cheese and several wild mangoes, and he will not ever be quite able to say why, but he stops and talks and points out the various colours of the dawning sun above the market, and the gathering day draws purple shadows over the woman, like bruises, and he likes her very much indeed. He thinks there is something missing from his life, and that he wants something from her.
At first the chef did not worry, says the maître d’ to the young waiter. He knew that he could love, because he loved the restaurant and while some might say one cannot love a restaurant the way one loves a woman, both take time and attention, so there we are.
– There we are, where? snaps the waiter. – We are not anywhere. Why is that woman sitting there for years?
– You understand nothing, says the maître d’. – You should wait for the rest of the story.
The chef, says the maître d, prepared for change. He would do so-and-so at a different time, so he would be able to kiss the woman. And this ingredient, well, he would not be able to rise quite so early to collect it, and would have to make do with another version, for after he and the woman were lovers, he would not want to rise quite as early in the morning. And so on. The chef brought the woman to see the restaurant and she sat on its couches and chairs, and admired its warm stove and brightly coloured walls. She brought several good and mildly expensive paintings, as obeisance, and very good flowers, bird of paradise and swamp hibiscus, walking around both tiers, lovingly arranging them in bowls. But even then, it seemed, she knew something. She stayed out of the kitchen when the chef was busy, even when he smiled and called her in. – The steam will play havoc with my hair, darling, she said, for these were the days that she hot-comb straightened it.
– We all knew it was coming, of course, says the maître d’, signalling for the boys to peel the potatoes louder and to bang the pots, so that the chef cannot hear his gossiping. –We all knew, for after all, which sensible man introduces his girlfriend to his wife?
Three months after meeting, the sweethearts decided to consummate their affair. On that fated night of intention, the woman arrived for dinner and stayed until 1am, which was as early as the chef would close. The staff waited to be dismissed, glad for a break and glad for the lovers. The chef tried to stop looking like a cat with several litres of fresh cream – and tried to stop sweating. The woman, ah, so sweet she was: nervous and happy. They were transformed in their anticipation of the lovemaking: like young things, and neither of them young.
They were leaving through the front door when the restaurant moved two inches to the right.
That’s correct, we all felt it, standing there, says the maître d’. It was hard to explain, even today, and the architect who came to see the torn window frames and the shattered tiles said it was an earthquake, albeit a very contained and small one. Electrics twisted, stove mashed, water from burst pipes running down the coral dining room walls. They opened the crooked fridges and out belched rotted fowl and fauna, blackened, sweet with ruin, filling the air, making them all choke. So much money lost! – Smile, smile, I told them all, but the sound! The plumbers said it was the pipes and the electrician, she said it was the wiring, but no one knew, except all of us.
The restaurant would not be left on its own, so it was crying.
– Will you not kiss me, said the woman, tugging at the chef, but no, he was unable.
–We could go far away from here, she begged, but he looked at her as if she was mad.
– I would not hurt her, he said, almost stern.
– A restaurant? she said, and she tried to fit all the pain of that into those two words.
– It is a good restaurant, he said. And turned back to work.
The newly hired waiter interrupted. He was almost stuttering in his outrage.
The maître d’ pulled a pig haunch close to him and began to burn the bristles on the hot stove. It was not his job, but he liked doing it.
– So, the woman came to live here. She stays here so that she can see the chef, and the restaurant keeps watch.
The maître d’ smiled, almost sadly, tossing the hot pig from palm to palm. –They sit together, between service, and talk. They do not touch. He shrugged towards the restroom. –We have seen her too, my friend. It must be terribly frustrating.
The woman becomes aware that something has changed. Truly, she has seen staff appalled before this. Seen them lounging around her, trying to get her attention. But this young waiter seems more determined, in that way of youth, and he keeps touching her.
– Will you not come to the front door with me? he says, over her porridge breakfast, sent out strictly at 9.31am. – There are pink blooms all over the front of the restaurant, and ivy, and it is so very good.
– You can describe it for me, she says, smiling and ripping her languid eyes away. There is lavender, sprinkled in an intricate pattern, on top of her porridge.
The next day: come for a walk with me upstairs, he says. To the balcony. It will be good for you to have the air. The chef – she moves her shoulders in delight at the sound of his name and slices into the waiter’s heart – the chef, he has gone out to buy vegetables.
– I know, she says. – He tells me everything that he does. But I’ll stay here. It will be better.
– Better than what?
She laughs, shifts, pats his shoulder. – Better than missing his return, she says, as if he is a stupid child. She gestures to the front door, which is clear because it is too early for the madness of diners. – I will see him with the sun against his back, and he assures me that from that distance, he can see the purple shadows on me. It will give us much pleasure.
One afternoon, the waiter can control himself no longer, and pulls the woman to her feet, feeling her burning skin beneath his fingers. He is surprised to find the chef suddenly there, standing between them, belly glaring, his best knife tucked behind him. The waiter need say nothing more; his job, perhaps his life, is in jeopardy.
But still, he thinks of her. At night, he pulls himself raw. He thinks of her over and above him, and in time the fantasies become vile and violent things; in his desperation he can think of nothing but defiling her, mashing her lips against the wall of his bedroom. He becomes a whisperer, appals himself by hissing at her, like others before him. At first she cannot hear him when he mutters under his breath. – Stupid bitch, he says. – Stupid fucking bitch. But soon he cares less and says it when he passes her sweeping, and as he puts filo pastry, with fresh bananas, passion fruit sauce and black pepper ice cream in front of her. – Stupid bitch, I hope it makes you fat and ugly. She looks away, smiling into the distance.
A diner complains.
– Each time I come here, that woman is served something exquisite, off menu. Last week it was out-of-season cherries with kirsch. Last month it was avocado rolls. Why does the chef show such favouritism?
The young waiter rushes over. – Madame, that is because she is a stupid bitch, and he is a cruel bastard.
– Oh my, says the disgruntled diner.
That evening, the waiter is fired. Before he leaves, he pisses in the fish stew on the stove, throws out a batch of very expensive hybrid vodka and flashes his cock at the calm and waiting woman sitting at the table, circling her wrists and pointing her pretty toes under the tablecloth. Her backbone makes a crackling noise.
– What are you waiting for? he screams at her, as sous chef and maître d’ wrestle him out. – What are you waiting for him to give you?
She answers him, but there is a noise in the walls of the restaurant and so he cannot hear what she says.
In the lateness of the night, she rises from the table. After these many years, she has become attuned to the restaurant, and to her beloved. They work in tandem. She can hear the eaves sigh in the wind, feel the dining room chairs sag with relief as the frenetic energy of the day finally draws to a close.
She pushes open the door to the kitchens and steps in, light.
The chef is slumped over a stained steel surface, tired, a good wine at his head. He looks up and smiles at her. It is the best part of his day. The love of the restaurant around him, and now, this sweet woman. She leans on the work surface and faces him, smiling back.
He remembers her complaining, wailing friends. One tried to get the restaurant shut down. Another threatened arson. Her brother, he was the worst. He came to his home, and begged.
– If she does this, my friend, she will give up everything. Home. Job. The chance of children. And worst of all, she will be second best. You make her second best.
– I know, he said. But she is stubborn.
He has learned to live with guilt. Some days, he thinks it is harder for him. So many of the staff become angry, especially the women. To love them both is tiring. But he has come to respect the woman’s choice.
He groans, content, as she steps behind him, puts her arms around him, nestles into the sensitive skin at his neck.
– Hello, my love, she says. He reaches behind him, hooks his hands at the small of her back. They look up, towards the ceiling, as if making architectural decisions.
– Has anything changed? she asks, like she has every night, for years.
They listen to the restaurant, creaking and warm.
– No, he sighs.
– Ah then, she says. Perhaps, tomorrow.
It is the same as it always is, except it seems to them both that the kiss deepens and ripens, year on year. First he kisses her eyelids, brushing his lips over lashes and the small wrinkles beginning to sprout nearby. He swallows her breath, and she his. They lick each other, something like small animals at the mother, nipping, careful, so they do not hurt, or encourage fire. They are slow and careful and respectful, listening to the room around them. He can taste her smile on his lips. She can feel the change in his body, the way his skin thickens when she touches him, the shrug of his shoulders as he controls himself, again. She thinks that if there is one single night when his wanting is gone, she will leave this place; if there is one night where his shoulders flatten and the kiss is the kiss of a brother.
He makes a small, grunting noise against her lips.
She can feel the kick of his penis against his belly, and the love in his fingertips, as he pulls his face away and kisses her fingers.
She is happy.
Few, she finds, understand.
The woman who lives in the restaurant stays there until her hair turns and her muscles soften. The chef dies at home, in his bed, thinking of her and of his restaurant. A week later, the maître d’ finds her still and cooling body, her head on the soft white cloth of the table, and thinks again, as he often has done, about slicing off her still-juicy lips and sautéing them in butter to make a pie. He tries to move her body, but finds that her atrophied feet are welded to the floor. He yanks and tugs, calls for help, and several men pull and push, saying well now, be careful, respect to the lady dead and all that, but there is no success. Eventually they stop when the restaurant begins to creak and to roll dangerously, like a ship listing on a bad sea.
By the time the maître d’ returns with an undertaker and a pickaxe, the woman’s feet have become tile like the floor; her body is no longer flesh but velvet; and her eyes are glass beads. In fact, as the maître d’ looks on, he sees that the woman has become nothing more than an expensive dining chair, pulled up to the table, and perfect for it.
– Love, grunts the maître d’. He is very old. He taps the restaurant walls and leaves them to it.
© Leone Ross
This electronic version of “The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It appears in Best British Short Stories 2016 edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt Books, 2016. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission.
Please see our conditions of use.
The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization
Leone Ross is a Jamaican/British award-winning writer, editor and lecturer. She is the author of two novels, All the Blood is Red (Angela Royal Publishing) and Orange Laughter (Anchor), and numerous short stories. She won an Arts Council award in 2001. Her short story collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in spring 2017. She works as a senior lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London and her third novel, This One Sky Day, is forthcoming.
author website: www.leoneross.com