Table 5 by Padmini Krishnan

The commercial street in my town was busy, littered with youth on Valentine’s Day. Youth buying something, youth cuddling with each other and youth engaged in bargaining. Senior and middle-aged citizens were stared upon that day. The coffee shop in which I worked was no different. With dim lights and soothing background music, our management ensured that the customers got the ambiance they desired.

 A guy at the fourth table snapped his fingers at me, “Hey!”

 “Get me a chocolate milkshake and…” his voice became all soft, “What else do you want, darling?”

 His darling looked agitated and shook her head. Then he said, “and that is all.”

 After he nodded me off, I went in to communicate his orders.

 In the kitchen, Chaand looked at me with concern, “Are you ok, Ruby?”

 “Yes.” I lifted my head and tried to smile. “Perfect.”

 He poured a generous amount of ketchup into a small bowl and placed it on a tray, near a plate of hot sandwiches. “The ketchup bottle was half-open yesterday night and I found baby cockroaches crawling on top of it, but none had entered the bottle, I hope.”

 Just at that moment, Valerie rushed to the kitchen, picked up the sandwich tray and hurried to table 2.

 “Chaand, one of these days, someone is going to fall sick.”

 “I have been working here for five years and no one has fallen sick. I receive compliments all the time.”

 I stared at him, wondering if I should report him.

 “You don’t understand; it just adds to the taste,” Chaand said with a sick smile.

 I shook my head and walked out of the kitchen. Chaand was just fooling around, I was sure.

I looked at the empty table in the corner. ‘He’ had reserved table 5 for the whole month, but I knew that he would not turn up. I took his order a couple of months ago. I remembered it was a rainy Sunday. Our coffee shop had turned a little cold and dark, requiring no enhanced ambiance.

 He had come with a group of people who looked and dressed like him. I assumed they were relatives or friends and all of them belonged to the middle-east.

 He looked into my eyes when I placed his order. Then, he looked back into his glass, seemingly shy. Since I could not afford to be shy, I went to the next table to take orders. He came to our coffee shop every day with his entourage. After a week, he started coming alone. 

He was late one evening and someone else took his table. I turned to look at the door again as I took a tray from Chaand.

 “This is the sixth time you are looking at the door.” He winked.

 Then I saw him, huffing inside, as he took his seat at another table. Apparently, he was not used to walking fast. He seemed slightly overweight.

 I stared at him. We never smiled at each other. I smiled at all my customers and was amicable to the regulars, but never to him. Valerie waited at his table. He said something and she came to me, smiling. “That customer wants your services.”

 “What will you have, sir?” I hoped I was being crisp and professional.

 He touched my nails, painted in red. “Your name is Rubina? Ruby! Ruby! Jameel!” he whispered. “Red doesn’t suit you. Pink does.”

 I pulled back, scared. My legs shook, my body shivered and lips quivered. I had not dated for the past 3 years and had even forgotten what it felt like. I neither knew nor read of a guy touching a woman’s fingernails. I felt better after looking at his frightened face.

 “Strawberry milkshake and chocolate cake…” he stammered.

 He came early the next day.

 “He must like you. Even after your bad performance.” Valerie said.

 Valerie did not like him though. He was effeminate, neither athletic nor masculine, she said. I quivered with happiness the next time he brushed my fingers. His attitude seemed more human. At least, he was not a ‘manly’ man; over-confident and pretty sure of being accepted.

 Over time, I learned that his name was Rizwan and he was from a small, oil-rich country, next to Qatar. Graduating from a UK-based university and spending three years in Europe had not deprived him of his middle-eastern accent.

 He said that he currently worked as an apprentice in an auditing firm in Indonesia.

 “Do you have to work? I assumed that all Arabs are rich.”

 “That is what everyone thinks. Our oil reserves are depleted. My dad had to close down his petroleum company. The situation is that bad.”

 “So, you cannot afford to get trained in any wealthy country?”

 He nodded sadly. “I like it here in Indonesia though. My brothers don’t. They have gone back.”

 “The seven guys who came with you are your brothers?”

 “Yes. I have two more in my country and five sisters.”

“Oh. Wow!”

 “How about you?”

 “I am the only daughter of my parents. They almost decided not to have me.”

 He was silent for a moment. “I am glad they decided to have you, Jameel,” he said and leaned towards me. I leaned too and we kissed. It was neither aggressive nor urgent nor domineering; I soaked in the pleasure and hoped it was the same for him. After two months of intimacy, I found myself drifting happily to my workplace one afternoon.

 “I have something exciting to tell you,” I told Valerie and June, the other waitress.

“Is it about Rizwan?” asked June.

 “Rizwan? No.” I thought about him quite often. But now I had an appointment offer for an accountant job I had applied for; this is what I had wanted to share with them.

 “Well, we have something to say about Rizwan. Take a look.” Valerie thrust the morning newspaper at me. I turned to the sports column. 

 “Not sports news, stupid.” Valerie pushed the first page in front of my eyes. 

Rizwan, in a traditional Arab dress, was walking the red carpet with the neighboring country’s president. The caption read, ‘The crown prince of Jameel, Rizwan ul-Ahmed, began his official visit of the country. He will be here for two days.”

 I sat down, my head spinning. Is that why he kept saying ‘Jameel’? I thought he was complimenting me.

 I heard Valerie and June’s voices vaguely.

 “His net worth is around $20 billion,” June whispered.

 “I am surprised no one recognized him,” Valerie said.

 June took me aside, “He has an ailing father,” she whispered. “He might ascend to the throne at any point. I would jump at the chance if I were you.”

 Valerie was seething, “Don’t even look at him. Cheat!”

 My heart thudded at the cheap pleasure he had with me. Getting cheated was nothing new for me. This was the second time this had happened. I was sure there would be a third time and that I would never learn.

 He came back the next day, wearing a crumpled blue shirt that he wore last week. What an actor! I pulled back angrily when he touched my nails, as usual. He looked shocked when he realized that we had found out everything. He followed me as I went to the kitchen. I was just in time to see Chand scooping up the Black Forest cake from the doormat. He dropped it into the fancy plate, whistling. He backtracked when he saw me and Rizwan. He winked at me and told Rizwan, “It happens, you know. It tastes better this way”

“That is why it tastes…” began Rizwan who always ordered chocolate cakes. I took the opportunity to get to the back door. Rizwan followed me and said that his family wanted him to marry one of his cousins. So, he had refused and asked for some time to think about it. He had come to my country for a distraction. He sighed and his voice became low. He was just beginning to understand what life was. He said, “I am doing all things by myself; I struggled in the beginning. But, now, I feel satisfied and worthwhile. For the first time, I feel bound by law and order. In my country, we established the rules. But, now, I have to follow rules. I realized that I needed this discipline all my life.”

 “If only you would be my life partner…” his voice trailed away and he looked at me with hope.

 I was still upset and asked for a couple of weeks to decide. It had been one week since that day and despite his lies, my heart said he loved and cared for me.

 Now I looked at the empty table 5. I had already forgiven him for lying. How could he say the truth and risk recognition? All he wanted was to lead a normal life in a foreign country. 

 I was a little confused about our relationship though. Now that I knew he was royalty, should I treat him the same way? Would I feel the same way about him? Perhaps there was no need for me to worry. Perhaps he would not turn up at all.

 The guy in table 4 snapped his fingers again. He was alone now. “Get me a cold coffee.” He said, irritably. I smiled and noted down his order. Table 5 was now occupied by a middle-aged couple. The teens and the twenties stared at them, aghast. 

 I turned to Chaand, angry that he had seated some people in Rizwan’s special place. 

 “Sorry, the manager didn’t want to lose customers. Apparently, he read yesterday that the royal family had departed for the Kingdom of Jameel.” Chaand said, apologetically. I felt numb and mechanically placed the cold coffee in table 4 with a thump. The customer looked at me and frowned. I frowned back at him and kicked the chair opposite to him. “If you don’t like me, I don’t want you here either. Why do I have to put up with people like you? Why does this always happen with me?”

 I rushed to the kitchen, my mind blank. I opened the window screen. A mild breeze caressed my face, touching the whites of my eyes, filling my cheeks with tears. Would the manager come now and order me out?

 I turned to see a shadow outside the kitchen. It was Rizwan. “I was telling them that this was my table.” He beckoned towards table 5 and chewed his nails. I felt all alive again. 

I did not know what happened for the next 2 minutes. Then, I heard Valerie whispering, urgently. “Don’t sob so loud. A customer almost barged into the kitchen.” 

 I pulled a chair for him in the congested kitchen while I sat on the kitchen table. We both looked at Chaand adding ingredients to the garlic bread as he sneezed. Rizwan made a face, then looked at me and smiled, “My younger brother has taken over as the crown prince of my country.”

 There was hope in his eyes and also a slight fear of the unknown. I felt drizzles in my heart and for the first time took note of the couples in our coffee shop. The guy in table 4 was now standing, his face flushing with excitement. The lady who had walked out on him had now returned and was arguing with him. He caught my eyes and gave me an apologetic smile; I smiled back. Even our manager was speaking softly on his mobile, hardly noticing his customers. I could see a couple outside our dimly lit shop, walking hand in hand, occasionally pausing to admire the puffy clouds, brimming with the joy of partaking rain.

 Jolted back to the present, I looked at Rizwan. Was he ready to leave his powerful, extravagant lifestyle for the sake of regular life and my company? “Aren’t you disappointed?” I asked.

 “Relived. Hey, I have something exciting to share with you. Last week, I really got a job as an assistant to an auditor.”

 “Wow. Next month, I am joining Luthria & co. as an accountant.”

 “We are in the same line.” He caressed my nails again.

 “I will wear only pink nail polish from now on, your highness.”

 “Jameel! Jameel!”

 A little upset, I asked, “Your country, Jameel?”

 “No. You.”

 “Oh come. I am hardly Jameel.”

 “To me, a hard-working girl like you is Jameel.”

 “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I whispered to him.

Padmini Krishnan was raised in India and now resides in Singapore. She writes short stories and poetry. Her works have appeared in Stonecrop Review, Balloon Literary Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Page & Spine, and The Literary Yard. Her haiku e-chapbook, Pinewood Hills, was published in Proletaria.

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