they are the lantern and you are the light

October 4, 2011

A lifetime ago I worked at the world's most ridiculous Lebanese restaurant. The prices were ridiculous, the hours were ridiculous, the money I was making was ridiculous, the two brothers who owned it were ridiculous. Working there was stepping on to the set of a sitcom every day; it left me with really great stories but not much space to breathe. Six days a week I alternated seven and fourteen hour shifts so that I could stuff my face with labneh, crash hard into my bed and repeat it all over again.

The people there became my daytime family. We laughed together, ate together, cried together, drank together and bitched together. Nothing creates camaraderie between strangers faster than working long days in bizarre conditions under a fascist regime. That December the fascist regime told us in no uncertain terms that we would each be working shifts on New Year's Eve. Or else. Then he slashed his thumb across his throat and hissed while chasing me through the kitchen with a knife. Or something. It was serious, is what I'm saying.

The result was (as anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant could predict) that my friend Leah and I put our heads together and began operation drunk waitress. Your average drunk waitress is not all that remarkable so we hammed out the details that would transform the evening from mundane to spectacular. There would be a DJ and buffet, exponentially decreasing the amount of actual work we would need to do even factoring in a full night of reservations. With the addition of thirty tiny travel-sized bottles of liquor, jello shots, and a conspiratorial bartender the stage was set. And look how pretty! We whispered details in the corner with our heads together and laughed.

Looking back on it now this was probably a juvenile way to cope with things but at the time it appeared to be the only logical way to remain sane in the face of total chaos. You can't be everything to everyone but you can be drunk and still wait tables. Well, even, if you're good enough, which we were.

That evening unfolded before the two of us like a beautiful fan. The customers were easy to please and the presence of the buffet kept us from hauling food up and down the stairs ad nauseam. I walked around keeping my tables happy in between stolen giggling meetings with Leah in a bathroom stall to make tiny mixed drinks from my apron. When I walked I clattered with the sound of tiny plastic bottles.

As midnight approached they started playing music out in the party room. People had long since given up eating and we were freed from our servitude so long as we kept the drinks coming at their request. In that last hour the room shifted from us vs them, customers vs staff, to people and other people. It was as if we had awoken from a bad dream and remembered we were human– and so did they.

I stood in the doorway and watched everyone laughing in the darkness, the light streaming in behind me. I watched Leah dancing and talking to strangers. She was a beacon in that room of everything unselfconscious and self possessed. It frozen in my mind in slow motion– her bangs in her eyes, her guffawing laugh, the light shattering over her shoulders as she danced. I admired how easy she made it look to be so full of life.

Abruptly I was swept back into the whirlwind again, beckoned to join in and I did. Flashes later we were all taking jello shots and I was talking the owner into doing one too. We laughed and danced and forgot completely that we were angry to be there. We bedecked each other in Happy New Year! party hats and threw confetti. Finally in a burst of DONE! I threw my apron stuffed full of money on top of the register and ran carefree out the door without another glance. After a pit stop for burgers that didn't last ten minutes before my swirling stomach forced me to cry uncle, I very wisely begged Jon to drive me home so we could go to sleep.

There really was no point to this story. It was a happy time, one of the best golden memories from that era of my life. Leah died this week. I keep thinking about that light inside her. Sometimes small moments brush our lives and end up leaving a deeper mark than we can explain. If you see that light in someone tell them,
do it now, don't wait.
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