By Amber Robbin
I emerged from the bathroom, as put together as I’d bother for a humid Windy City day, and merged with the other little black dresses careening around marble corners on a carousel of false, glittering smiles and jewel-toned cocktails. I rounded the bend at the giant glass windows overlooking the seamless lake and passed Nigel on my way outside. He was busy taking orders from a server: “But I had that section last night,” she whined “and I had nothing but two-tops the entire night! Why ya gonna waste one of your best servers on date night, Nigel, when I could be rockin’ that couch section better than any of the girls in here?!”
I kept moving past the high rollers and the fire-pit, through the dejected two-tops and one-sided glass doors to the back server station. Donny was there, bragging to some poor, impressionable barback about how no one over 22 was allowed in his bed. (Nevermind that Donny was in his 40s.) He cleared his throat at the sight of me and returned to staring down porn on his phone. I grabbed silverware and filed back through the doors, out to a new crop of customers already unhappily waiting to be greeted.
When you’re waist-deep in semi-socialites with plastic-filled wallets and faces, you have to weigh people’s perceived levels of importance. Often, the antsy or pushy customer wins out. Always, the VIP that sits with an introduction gets priority. Almost never do twosomes or tourists get first pick. I’m talking about when the elements are beating you down, you’re on your tenth hour, your feet are killing you, your brain is fried, the receipt of a beverage or utensil could mean the difference between getting treated like shit and making an extra buck, you have an impossible number of people to dazzle with your “excellent service,” and you’re already astronomically behind, otherwise known as – you’re in the weeds. I had a twosome on a pair of stools that were fidgeting for my attention. Their faces said, we’ve been sitting here for fucking ever. Why do you suck at your job so much? You must be stupid. I took their order and hauled ass to the bar.
Brittany and Cassandra were buzzing like hornets above the drink station. “Gurrrl!” said Brittany with a tilt of her head, garnishing a martini. “What are we ‘gurrrl-ing’ about?” I said, an obvious attempt at sounding casual. Brittany kept her eyes on her olives, imposed upon. “Hey beautiful, how are you? It’s nothing, just going to Vegas with this guy!” said the lovely Cassandra, genuine excitement in her eyes. She was envied by the other servers for her caramel locks and incomparable sweetness, among a laundry list of other charms. Some pegged her as ditzy. I pegged her as too smart to deal with assholes. “Oh, cool!” I said. “That’s gotta be expensive!” “Pshhhh!” Brittany burst like an exploding gas tank. “Girls who look like her don’t pay!” Cassandra giggled and tossed her hair, confirming the statement just as she brushed it aside. I left the queen bees to buzz amongst the fruit flies.
Returning to my sad, stooled duo, I served their wine with a smile and went about making my rounds. A second later, the man waved me over, “This is not what I ordered. I switched to white wine, remember?” He had a gift for condescension. I apologized and fetched the correct wine, but I was too hasty upon my return and toppled his flimsy, plastic glass from my tray, landing alcohol all over his khaki shorts. I apologized profusely, reaching for my rag, but his patience was tried and his face beet red. He stood, positively fed up, and lunged at me with his words in earshot of the entire patio: “First, we have to wait ten minutes for you to even greet us. Then, you bring our wine and get the order wrong. Finally, you bring me the right drink, a half hour later, and spill it all over me?! You are obviously a fucking idiot! I will never be coming back, and I expect NOT to receive a bill.” Off he went. I wasn’t fazed. I knew I’d fucked up. I also knew he’d never get why fucking up in that moment was to be expected.
I got pity from the customers in my section. One pair pulled me over and said how horrible they thought the man had been. Another group left me a generous tip. I went about wiping off tables subserviently as if nothing had happened. Finally, the lake dimmed to indigo as the sun dipped behind the hotel, a radiant orange slab burning to black above the West Side. I rolled silverware while Janet bragged about “rockin’ that couch section” and breaking $300. I felt the green monster inside me stir and then drift back to sleep, recalling his indifference. Staring off the side of the building, I remembered my goal, a goal different from every Janet and Brittany who spent their paycheck on bottle service. I was working there to go away. Not to stay.
I deserted the red napkins, left Janet mid-rant, and slipped into the wind tunnel at the front of the patio. Everyone had migrated to warmer tables, but at least I could hear my own thoughts in the empty corridor. The air rushed past my ears and threw up my skirt, muting the crowds with gusts of white noise. I watched designer-clad couples, dapper-suited business men, and my carefully coiffed co-workers shuffle like black ants to every corner of the rooftop. I watched fire glow on wild, Lautrec faces, boozy-eyed with absinthe abandon. I stared past the string lights at the millions of little beacons, and suddenly, there was nothing lonelier than being – in the middle of a place that everyone wanted to be – the one person with no desire to be there.
Amber Robbin is the creator of Tumbleweed Diaries. She is passionate about languages, world travel, and currently working on a book about her adventures in Italy.