A Table for Two
Warm memories remain in places where people gather
When she was a child, Chiaki Yumura hated the words, “Thank you.”
Particularly, she got a bad feeling when adults would say it to her instead of goodbye.
She’d never been able to figure out why, but just recently, she’d had a realization.
Oh, is that why.
It was the same when people said, “Thank you for asking.”
People tell me that, but I didn’t even do anything.
To overstate it a bit, it made it obvious to her that she hadn’t done anything worthy of gratitude. She must have hated that thought even as a kid.
Chiaki Yumura had ended up working at a restaurant, and although she’d only been there a year, there were two things she’d thought of during that year with regards to her reaction to the words ‘thank you’ when she was a kid.
One of them was that her reaction did turn out to be the same as when she was a kid after all.
When a customer was going home, they would bow to her, as a dining room staff member, with a face that said, “Ah, that was delicious.”
Some of them even expressed the veracity of their satisfaction with words.
Faced with those smiles, those feelings from when she was a kid would glance off her again.
Maybe I should work in the kitchens instead. If people would praise my cooking and bow with that face, that would make me happy, but, eh, I don’t know.
The other thing that came to her mind was a bit of a surprise, even to her. She discovered that she actually liked ‘thank you.’ But it had to be gratitude felt as a result of something she’d done herself. That was what she’d learned.
That was why she’d been so sensitive to the words ‘thank you’ when she was a kid, Chiaki Yumura realized.
She felt a keen stab whenever she thought that she’d done something useful for someone, even something slight, and when she thought about it, that stab had been sharper than average ever since she was a kid.
Her first motive in wanting to work in a restaurant, in other words in wanting to serve customers, was that she liked food, but she had a hunch that there was another motive just as strong, well, maybe even stronger than that.
She wanted to feel that stab.
But as it turned out, she gradually came to realize that it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
In the first place, what even constituted, “being useful, even slightly?” The food had to be not only delicious, but also provided in a timely fashion?
She got it, but she didn’t get it. It was hard to pin down.
For instance, even the part she understood, this “presenting things in a timely fashion,” how should she do that? You couldn’t just throw things on a plate.
A few days ago, she’d been chatting with the hall staff lead Yukiko Takaki in the locker room during the late shift, and somehow they’d gotten onto the topic of their childhoods, and Chiaki Yumura had started to mention her “Thank You Response Syndrome,” but had stopped short. She had a hunch she’d be misunderstood.
So instead, she’d asked something like, “Yukiko, what kind of stuff makes you say, ‘Oh yeah!’ ”
“Like, at work.”
“At work, huh. Hm, what kind of moment would that be, anyway. I do have some moments where I’m like, ‘well that happened,’ but…”
“Yeah, there aren’t really any, are there.”
“On a minute by minute basis, nothing really makes you think, like, ‘Oh yeah!’ you know.”
After they’d finished changing, Yukiko Takaki grinned and said, “Although, when you hit something right on the mark, and they say thank you, that does feel nice.”
Chiaki Yumura had folded her uniform shirt and was tossing it into the box to be cleaned when her hands stopped moving.
Oh, is it possible this person feels the same?
The restaurant where Chiaki Yumura worked was a high class place with a French base. It was a simple space, built on a black and white foundation, and a quitely dignified air always flowed through the shop.
So then, that night.
The couple appeared precisely at the time on their reservation.
They were so punctual, it was like they’d called in to the operator and had been listening to the time being read off, and had rushed into the store at the exact moment the operator announced, “At the tone, the time will be, eight o’ clock, bing bong.”
“Your reservation was…” The store manager non-chalantly confirmed their name.
“Yes,” the man answered. His shoulders under his light beige jacket were tense, and his walk stiff. The woman beside him wore an unbleached dress. Her hair was very lovely, pulled up into a tight pony tail.
“If you don’t have any bags you’d like us to look after for you, we can see you to your seat,” the store manager said, and Chiaki Yumura led them to their reserved table. It was the innermost table, a quiet one, with a good view of the night’s scenery.
Actually, this man had already been to the store once, a week prior.
When he’d spoken, Chiaki’s first thought had been, Did he forget something?
And it was something embarrassing, too, like a cell phone with a big honking strap hanging from it. Something that, once left behind, he was embarrassed to have discovered in a restaurant like this, that kind of something.
She thought it so instantly because he seemed unreliable somehow, like he habitually forgot things. But it wasn’t like that.
“I have a request, but…” he said.
He had such a serious expression that Chiaki asked, “Did you want to see the manager?” and he replied yes please.
She immediately went to call the store manager, who was then confirming their stock of the usual wines in the wine cellar.
The store manager went up to talk to him right away. He had taken a seat in an empty chair and was waiting. Watching from a little ways off, Chiaki thought he looked like someone at a loss, like he was wandering a street somewhere.
The store manager greated him with a smile.
After a while, the store manager returned, and when he muttered, “A birthday present, huh…” Chiaki turned her head from where she’d been wiping down the tumblers at the bar. Apparently, the man had said he’d wanted to give his girlfriend a birthday present after their meal, in one week’s time.
From what he’d told the store manager, it seemed this was the first time the man had done anything like this. Not just the restaurant part, but the giving of a present, too. His plan might have been considered suddenly bold, except that he’d seen the storefront before, and thought, “If I ever do it, it’s gonna be here.”
The present was a ring. It probably had her birthstone in it.
He’d consulted the manager to ask what the best timing was for these things. In other words, he’d wanted some stage direction.
The store manager had said, “The most natural moment is during dessert, of course.” When he explained that the shop would cooperate from the shadows, the man’s face had brightened. This had all happened a week ago.
The following day, in the locker room, Chiaki happened to overhear a conversation between two of the staff.
“It must be a nice present he’s giving her.”
“I haven’t gotten a present like that since kindergarten.”
“Yeah. We were moving, so the little boy next door gave me a handkercheif.”
They were so excited about it that the converstation still hadn’t changed the following day.
What they hadn’t realized was how awkward of a presenter the man was.
Even his girlfriend was infected by it, and when he put a hand on her knee, she quickly froze. But the smile on her face wasn’t completely eradicated, and her smile did look especially great with that unbleached dress.
Things were comfortable in that quiet corner, less crowded, and there was a nice old couple sitting not too far away.
Chiaki softly approached the older couple to take their order. As she came close, the younger man was saying something in a flowing, flowery style.
Chiaki was a bit confused.
He hasn’t given her the present, they haven’t even started their meal. Is he onto the main topic already? she thought.
But it wasn’t like that.
He was slowly reading out the a la carte menu in order from top to bottom. It was like he was reciting epic poetry.
His girlfriend was seated facing him, listening quietly to this literary work, like an enthusiastic fan.
As Chiaki carried some food to a nearby table, a certain feeling surged through her. Ah, I want to do something for them.
It was a strong feeling, too. Maybe it was something about the lonely tone of his poetry recitation, she didn’t know.
He asked about their wines, and although her knowledge wasn’t flawless, there was a shared sense of investigating the question together, and they eventually decided on a California red. As she took a step back, Chiaki put the brakes on.
But just a minute ago, when she’d wanted to do something for them.
The store manager had advised her that whenever this feeling reared its ugly head, it was because her hospitality was in danger of becoming an imposition.
Now that she thought about it, she had a hunch she’d made many such errors when she was a kid.
Take a breath, stay calm, stay calm.
The main course arrived for the older couple. The husband picked up his knife and fork with great delicacy, like they were bird feathers.
As Chiaki watched this delicacy from a distance, fascinated, the hall lead Yukiko Takaki softly entered her field of vision.
Chiaki had always admired the way she made her entrances.
Customers here were encouraged to make conversation with each other. But even at tables where there was plenty of conversation, there was always an ebb and flow, like a lake.
The beauty of Yukiko’s timing was that at the exact peak of that ebb tide, that is to say, precisely when that spring of conversation was paused for a moment, she would slide up beside the table like a shadow, and pour the wine.
She didn’t stand next to the table, waiting for the ebb tide to peak. That would just creep the customers out. Yukiko would just draw near to the table, as if she’d been in the area for no special reason, and the moment that she arrived at the table, that was the instant the conversation happened to have paused.
Probably she watched things from a distance, but it wasn’t just that – Chiaki got the feeling she must be calculating the number of steps it would take to get there with some animal instinct.
Yukiko Takaki poured white wine into the innermost glass, and softly withdrew. As she did, she created an opening for the start of a whole new conversation between the older couple.
The wife quietly carried the white wine Yukiko had poured to her mouth, like a white thread. The flow of time had stopped at that table, creating a happy scene, as though the two of them were continuing a meal that had been going on for hundreds of years already.
The younger couple had decided on their order.
Chiaki put on her best Yukiko impersonation and headed to their table. But she was a bit clumsy with it. Her timing was bad. She couldn’t quite match the ebb and flow of this couple’s lake.
The woman seemed like she wanted to say something to Chiaki, but Chiaki warned herself not to get cocky and say anything stupid. But that just made things even more awkward.
No good, absolutely no good.
Just a minute ago, she’d been thinking she wanted to do something for these two, like she’d been inspired. That was almost exactly the same feeling as, “I can do something,” but what she was feeling now? This was no good at all.
It put her in a real slump. If this was the sort of thing that got her down, maybe she ought to quit the service industry, she thought to herself. But there was nothing she could do about which things got her down.
I should never have ended up here, in this job.
Simply put, that was what she was thinking. Maybe is was her, “I-want-to-be-of-some-small-use Sydrome,” she thought.
It was time to deliver the oysters. Happily, conversation was flowing between the two of them. Chiaki nimbly placed the dish on the table and stepped back.
She’d gone about five steps when the girl in the unbleached A-line dress said something in a voice even quieter than before.
“I really had a good time, Yūsuke.”
That was definitely what Chiaki heard.
So his name was Yūsuke, Chiaki thought. And at the same time: Wow, really?
His name was neither here nor there. There was something about the way she said it, she had a good time, that felt like she was earnestly looking back on the past.
Doesn’t it seem like, she’d had a good time, like, up until today?
As soon as Chiaki had that thought, for some reason she had the delusion that the two of them were old friends. It made her heart thump.
She brought out their last dish before desert.
Chiaki’s “I-want-to-be-useful-for-something Syndrome” had caved in completely. In its place was a feeling of being at her wit’s end.
If she had to put it into words, it was wrapped up in a feeling sort of like, “I want to give my two oldest friends some kind of happiness.”
Although, having said all that, there wasn’t necessarily a big change in the service that Chiaki was giving. It wasn’t like she was blurting out anything weird, like, “Please I want you to be happy.”
To an outsider, it wouldn’t have looked like anything about Chiaki’s style had changed.
But when she was preparing the oysters to go out to the table, she’d muttered a heart-felt “Good luck,” without really being aware of it. She’d muttered it three times.
It was the first time she’d ever experienced something like that first-hand since she’d started working in this retaurant.
Just in the nick of time, the climax.
“I’d be very grateful if you wouldn’t mind turning down the lights a bit at the surrounding tables,” was the cue.
The store manager had been keeping custody of the man’s present.
It was a ruby ring. Her birthstone.
The store manager had brought in a thermos mug from home. It had a vaccuum chamber like a thermal pitcher, and a lid that sealed it closed. The store manager’s stage direction idea was that they would put the mug on the table, with the ring in it, like it was dessert, and the man would then present it to the woman. It was a apparently a joke, their love would never grow cold.
“Shall we start then? It’s the final scene.”
Chiaki delivered the mug.
They said they’d been keeping custody of it for the man, but she placed it quietly in front of the woman in the unbleached A-line.
The woman’s finger opened the lid of the mug, twitched, and stopped. Chiaki couldn’t see it, but no doubt a red light rose up from inside the mug like there was a lit charcoal inside.
The woman looked silently at the man.
The man didn’t say anything either.
Under the slightly dimmed lights, she held the thermos mug in which the ruby ring had been offered between her hands, and time seemed to slow down, like slow motion filming. The staff didn’t approach them again.
Who knew how much time had passed. Even the older couple at that nearby table stood up, as if, although they had the strength in their hearts to carry on with the meal another hundred years, they were each worried about the other’s health. Some clouds had been called down to meet them, and maybe they were going to ride those clouds home. That was the feeling the scene gave. There was probably some young labrador puppy watching the house while they were gone, waiting for their return.
The younger couple stood up, too. And then the curtain pulled back on a small post script to that night’s events.
That post script was as follows:
He came back to the store, alone.
“Oh, did you leave something here?” Chiaki answered. Didn’t I see this same scene a week ago, she thought.
“Well, I did tell my girlfriend I was going to pick up something I’d forgotten, but…”
“Um, the truth is…” he started. “The truth is, tonight was really important. It would have been totally normal for things to have ended with, ‘let’s break up.’ ”
“Ah.” Chiaki’s voice left her mouth of its own accord. The words “I wondered if that wasn’t the case,” got as far as her throat, but she kept them down.
He briefly told his story.
It seemed the two of them had always spent a lot of time not communicating enough. Tonight, he said, was an incredibly difficult setting for them.
The ruby ring was possibly going to be a farewell gift. It seemed he had resigned himself to that, if that’s what was going to happen.
But things hadn’t developed in that direction.
“Even the way you handled the thermos was good,” he said. “I’m really grateful.”
“What?” Chiaki stared blankly at him.
“You left us alone very cleverly, very politely. I don’t know, time got weirdly slow, and it feels like we’ve gained back months, like we could talk to each other.”
“Oh I see,” Chiaki replied quietly, and the man continued.
“When you left us so perfectly alone, it felt like you were trying to help us out, telling us good luck.”
What? Had he heard her…?
Chiaki faked a smile.
The ruby ring had ended up fullfilling its original purpose that night, after all. The last thing Yūsuke said to Chiaki was, “At any rate, really, thank you. Nice assist!”
He bowed his head like he was an elementary school student greeting one of the neighborhood grandmas, and then left the store.
Being told thanks didn’t feel as bad as it had when she was a kid, even if Chiaki herself didn’t immediately realize it.