“What?” Charley looks up from the charcoal-gray register and searches for an upturned cup or puddle among the sparsely filled tables. At almost 9:00 P.M., there aren’t many people coming into the burger-pizza-everything-you-can-stuff-onto-a-menu restaurant. All that’s currently there are a few groups of friends, a couple making more noise cutting their food than speaking, and an old man who arrived nearly two hours ago but has yet to finish his drinks.
“What? No, nothing spilled. Geez, you’re so literal,” her co-worker, Laura says, and slaps her arm covered by a neon-yellow t-shirt. “I meant spill the gossip, the tea.”
“Ugh, stop being annoying. You know what tea I mean.” Laura flattens herself against the partition separating them from the dining room to let another waiter named Brian pass before lowering her voice once he passes. “A certain strong brew named Noah.”
Charley blinks at the register’s keyboard, her eyes glued to the buttons for margarita pizza and bacon cheeseburger. She had done everything in her power to keep Noah’s name from her lips, although she had been less successful in keeping him from them.
“Why would I have tea on him?” she asks, trying to keep the strain of secret holding from invading her words.
“Oh, I don’t know.” With a haughty shrug, Laura smirks. “Maybe because he keeps giving you these mysterious, lingering glances with that blue steel.”
Charley snorts, and smirks right back. “Are you sure you’re not talking about Derek Zoolander?”
Laura rolls her eyes towards the popcorned ceiling, and Charley’s follow. The restaurant had been built in the 1980s, and while the owners had said they hadn’t renovated to retain the charm, Charley didn’t see much in the frosted glass dividers or the flickering neon. More, she believed the owners were using it as an excuse to hold off on updates, either stemming from laziness or money troubles. Charley’s dad, the manager of McCormack’sーwhich the owners creatively named after themselves and Kevin Bacon’s character from Footlooseーhad made it seem that it was a combination of both.
“Haha,” Laura pans, her face as serious and scolding as her ultra-strict fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Hanson. “Don’t deflect.”
“I’m not trying to deflect,” Charley says, although it’s exactly what she’s aiming for. Isn’t that the point of back alley kisses and afterschool rendezvous? No talking, barely any acknowledgement except for the passing looks and brief whispers in the supply closet. Enough for her and Noah, but too insignificant for anyone else to pick up on.
“Let’s say he was looking at me, that doesn’t mean I know anything. Maybe he just has a case of the stares.” Charley reaches for the receipt in the black credit card holder, and slips into the register’s cash drawer for safe keeping. “Besides, what am I supposed to know? I’m assuming you have some idea.”
“I do,” Laura nods. “But, since you refuse to acknowledge that he’s eyeing you up, you probably won’t care that Vince said he’s been talking about this girl that he may or may not be dating.”
She pulls taut her raven ponytail and sneaks behind the wall to take a sip of her water from behind the partition. She tries to ignore Laura, who is conveying the utmost smugness as she stands with her head cocked and arms folded across her chest.
“He is dating her, or he isn’t?” Charley asks.
“He’s being elusive,” Laura says, waving her fingers in the air as if there’s magic to Noah. “The only reason I think Vince got him to say there even is a girl is because he had a hickey.”
Dammit Charley, she thinks. This one is her fault.
“Ladies, let’s try not to talk about hickeys out in the open.” The admonition comes from Charley’s dad, who pushes through the kitchen door behind them with a notepad in his hand, and a stack of “thank you” coupons in the other, ready to do his rounds at the tables, asking about service and such. “Also, let’s try not to get any or give any.”
This is the reason she and Noah are left to cryptic comments and sneaking in shadows. As manager, her dad feels it’s enough of a conflict of interest for her to be working at McCormack’s. If she dates someone who works there, people could see any kindness her dad gives to him or her as preferential, and if they broke up, any negative comment as payback. Which is why she’s been instructed to not date, flirt, or hold any gaze longer than a few seconds with her coworkers.
Her dad’s standards felt so rigid, and she considered finding another place to work. Maybe at the coffee shop a few blocks over where she could listen to acoustic rock and get paid to stay caffeinated. That is, until Noah, flipping hamburger patties a foot into the air, caught her eye, made her laugh, and made her feel as though this could be a place she found more than dirty napkins and food remnants under tables.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hernandez, we won’t. Right, Charley?” Her eyes sparkle with mischief, which makes Charley want to send the tip of her Toms into Laura’s shin.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Charley’s dad says and heads over to a table, quickly striking up a conversation.
Charley follows Laura through the silver door, and into the room where meat sizzles, and, from the heat of both the grill and of the company, so does the air at times.
In front of the black coils of the grill, Noah slides a chicken breast onto a bun beside a heap of curly fries. He lifts his head, and from under a mess of auburn curls and the brim of his weathered baseball cap, gives her a flash of a smile.
“Your steak burgers and veggie burger are ready to go,” he says, tipping his head towards the warming shelf. “By the way, I want to meet the person who’s ordering the veggie burgers with all that meat around them.”
“She seems like a badass,” Charley says, and wants to recount how the woman shut down her chuckling compatriots with a simple glance, and how it reminded her of when Noah said his mom could let him know he was in deep with a tight-lipped smile, but she files that away for later and slides the plates onto her tray.
“I know some of those,” he replies. As he places the chicken plate on the shelf, his eyes flick to her. It’s fleeting, probably unnoticeable to most, but not to her, not when 90 percent of the time they’re living on crumbs of each other.
Skirting around behind people’s backs for just a few, albeit precious, moments? A few times, she considered calling it off, letting Noah date someone who can actually love him not in the quiet, but the noisy thoroughfare of real life out in the open.
But, she’s never stepped off the cliff, because what she wants for him is also what keeps her from letting him go: love. Maybe it’s naïve and hormone-charged like every teen rom-com has warned her, but that doesn’t change the feeling.
“Do you?” she says, raising her eyebrows.
“Mm hmm.” He goes into the fridge and brings out more ground meat. “Pretty awesome. Probably not as much as that woman, but, you know, up there.” With all this hiding and second-guessing and doubting, she’s not sure she feels like such a badass. If anything, she feels more like a coward, toeing the line rather than embracing the life she wants.
“I got to get this one out there before she shows how much of a badass she is and comes in here looking for it,” Charley says, more at her tray than him, and hoists it up. “See you later.” In the hall. Outside. In his car parked on her street. Wherever they can find each other for their next few moments of time.