They were seated in one of the private dining rooms meant for groups. The small space was dominated by a square table in the middle, with two chairs facing one side and a long bench against the wall on the other. The men’s briefcases and coats dangled on the bench in such a way it looked like a fourth member of the party, who might have drank too much too early and was already bowled over in slumber. A sliding door made up one entire wall of the room, a portal between the outside world and the private one within.
It was one of those nights where time didn’t seem to exist. The hours and minutes blended together like ingredients in a smoothie, poured out in one tall glass of laughter, conversation, good food and good beer. Maybe one pint too many for all three of them, but who’s counting? It’d been a long, hard month. With the world going to shit at the rate it was going, it seemed all anyone could do just to stay afloat long enough to prevent downright drowning. This small rectangular room, barely large enough to fit the bulk of the three men and their belongings comfortably, felt like a life raft, and each of them were red in the face from desperately trying to keep it afloat. But alas, if one chooses to wear a watch, sooner or later one will be confronted with its unflinching face.
“Damn, is that the time already?” yelped one man, he of the potbelly and the fat wife at home. She did not like it when he came home late, disturbing her sleep as he snuck his way in. She especially was not happy when he did so smelling of his excesses. This generally led to the cold shoulder treatment, something he could stand for three days at most before cracking; his wife could hold on for a week at least. Many people thought of his wife as jolly, perhaps attributing her size to an image of Santa Clause, but he knew full well at the centre of this lollipop was no chocolate sweet.
“Ah shit, guess it’s been too long eh. I could probably stay here all night with the two of you boys!” said the second man, turning his long face away to stifle a yawn. He was sitting on the bench closest to the coats and bags, his own jacket lying on top of the pile with his wallet dangling precariously out of its pocket. He knew just behind the wallet sat his car keys, patiently waiting like a child, for him to come and pick them up.
Goddamn, can’t afford another DUI, he thought nervously, the lawyer’s bills from the last court case helping to fan his guilt. But I have that stupid meeting in the morning, I’ll need the car to drive into work. Ah fuck it, the trains are almost stopped now anyways, there’s probably no cops out on the streets at this time. Cops need sleep too right. He fingered the clasp on his wallet, opening it up.
“Should we ask for the bill?”
“Oh wait, before we go guys I almost forgot,” the third man puts down the pint glass he’d just drained with a gulp. “The owner of this place is a friend of mine and I just ran into him in the hallway on my way back from the toilet. He mentioned he’s going to send us out some special desserts on the house, so let’s not go before it arrives.”
“Oh right, okay sure,” says the second man, reluctantly closing his wallet back shut.
“Alright. A wise man once told me only a fool turns down free food,” says the first man with a chuckle, absentmindedly patting his pot belly. He didn’t really want dessert, but he didn’t really want to see his wife either. “That’s very kind of your friend, of course we won’t go until it arrives.”
“Great, I will just let them know we’re ready.” The third man reached out a hand automatically towards the black buzzer sitting at the end of the table, the signal to summon the waitstaff into the room. He paused, halfway there. “Wait a minute, this is supposed to be a gift right, not an order? Doesn’t it seem rude then if I buzz them and demand for it directly?”
The two others, caught off guard by the question for they had not thought about it at all, found themselves nodding their heads automatically and making noises in agreement.
“Soudane,” said the second man.
“Hai hai it’s too direct, you’re right,” agreed the first. “We don’t want to seem ungrateful or entitled, especially in the face of such generosity from your friend.”
“Okay, we’ll wait until they serve it to us first, and then we can ask for the bill at the same time,” said the third man.
Another round of head nodding swept through the room like a wave, and the matter was settled. All three sat back in their seats and relaxed, sinking into easy chatter in wait. Thirty minutes passed, then forty. At the nearly one hour mark, the second man looked nervously over at his wallet, lying forlornly on top of his jacket, his car keys just out of sight but beckoning him silently. The third man caught the look.
“Maybe they forgot about us?” he said with a nervous laugh.
The first man looked up at this and shook his head. “No, no, that wouldn’t happen. I know places like these,they always have top notch service. Remember, they even offered us dessert on the house! No, they didn’t forget. I’m sure they are just extra busy with the other clientele at the moment, but they’ll be here, don’t worry.”
Now it is the other two men who quickly nod in agreement at this statement, followed by more murmurings of soudesune and tashikani. Faced with more waiting, the conversation in the room started up once more, though the effusive joy which earlier seemed endless had, without their noticing, taken up her things and stolen away like a thief in the night. Without her the room felt small, restrictive. They all kept breaking off from finishing their sentences in order to strain their ears, listening for the sound of footsteps approaching, or the existence of those other guests who so inconsiderately occupied the time and attention of their elusive servers.
When it had passed the one hour mark, the first man stood up. “I need to use the toilet. While I’m outside I’ll tell any server I meet, discreetly, that we are ready for them to send dessert.”
“And the bill! Don’t forget to ask for the bill. That way we don’t have to trouble them to make two trips,” said the second man. The first man nodded confidently, slid the door open, and disappeared. With the initiation of action the room visibly relaxed. The third man opened his hand, revealing the dirty napkin he’d been gripping hard enough it was beginning to shred.
The second man reached confidently back for his wallet. His fingers grazed his car keys as he picked it up, and he could almost hear the engine purring in his ear as he anticipated starting her up. He was almost sober again, he was confident, there should be no problems getting her home tonight.
Minutes later the sliding doors slick open. It was the first man framed in its fluorescent backdrop, and he is alone.
“Are they coming?” asked the second man.
“I didn’t see anybody,” chokes the first man, a little shell shocked.
“Can it be they’ve all left already?” asks the third man glancing down at his watch. “Yabai! It’s already after midnight. Do staff at restaurants usually stay on so late?”
“Don’t be stupid, of course they don’t!” snapped the first man. “This isn’t some cheap dive bar or teenager’s club. You think a nice place like this would make such unreasonable demands of their staff? What does this look like, a combini to you?” Some colour was rising back into his cheeks as he spoke, his face getting more animated.
“So what do we do?” sputtered the second man, “Leave too?”
“Are you crazy?” the third man asks, turning with narrowed eyes. “We haven’t even paid yet, and you want to leave? Do you realize that’s stealing? And it’s stealing from people who’ve been nothing but gracious and extremely generous to us?” His eyes were starting to bulge, the words he spoke burning like firewood stoking the fire to his own convictions. “I honestly can’t believe you would make a suggestion like that. It makes me think I don’t even know you. Is this who you really are? Is this how you were raised?”
The second man sputtered and physically shrank. He didn’t know how to defend himself against such an onslaught of direct accusations, managing only to mutter out a weak, “Ie ie that’s not what I meant! Of course we wouldn’t pay, I mean leave, I mean stay. You, you got me all wrong!”
But two pairs of eyes were looking at him, filled with what he imagined must be hate and disdain. The only thing he could do now was try to get back into their good graces. They think they know me but they’ve got no idea, he thought bitterly. I will stay here without fail, no matter how long it takes, without a single word of complaint. Only his wallet, waiting patiently by his side this whole time, heard these thoughts and looked up in alarm. Keys and wallet clutched at each other, making one last attempt to plea with their master, begging him to reconsider and take them home. But the second man had made up his mind, and steeling his heart to his decision he turned a deaf ear to their cries. Eventually they went silent, as all noises must.
With his adversary abjectly subdued, the third man sat back on his moral high ground with a smirk. But his self smug expression was no match for Time, who snuck in and dabbled sand into every man’s eyes until even the most righteous amongst them succumbed.
When the men woke it was with a start, for the stuffy room boasted no windows. A monotonous fluorescent bulb from the ceiling provided their only light, but no information as to the passing of time. The first man’s instinct was to reach for his phone upon waking, automatically pressing on the home button to check his notifications. A slew of messages and missed calls awaited him, a shock that woke his disoriented brain right up.
Oh shit. He felt his heart rate quicken as he realized he’d forgotten to tell his wife where he was and what predicament he’d found himself in. Fighting back a feeling of dread, he clicked on the phone’s message button intending to send out a quick reply. Just as he was about to hit send, the phone screen turned blank. Eh? he thought, before realizing his battery had just died. Shit, now I’m really in for it.
“Anybody got a charger?”
“Oh damn, no I left mine at home.”
“I think mine’s in the…office,” the second man made up. The charger was actually in the car just a few meters away, but there was no way in hell he’d be mentioning this to the group now. What if they assumed this was another attempt to leave? He wasn’t about to give them any excuse to question his loyalty to the room.
“My phone’s dead.”
“Shit, mine’s too.”
The second man discreetly turned his off. “Same here.” Silence fell as all three contemplated this rare moment of disconnectivity. Discomfort palpitated like a common heartbeat.
The first man cleared his throat. “I’m sure it must be dinner time again soon. The staff will come back from their break and check in on us, and we’ll be out of here before you know it.” Having dodged the immediate bullet of speaking to his wife, the first man was starting to feel cheerful again.
“You’re right,” said the third man, catching onto his lifted spirit. “Just imagine their faces when they realize what happened. We’ll forgive them for their mistake of course…but first we’ll let them know how this experience has really tainted our impression of their service overall.” The second man nodded enthusiastically. The other two ignored him.
Soon in that sun abandonded corner of the universe where life stood still, a seldom seen rhythm took over. Time became known not by numbers (digital nor otherwise – reading the unstoppable hands ticking away on wrists became too depressing), but by the grumblings of stomachs which had been fed only by the few remaining scraps from dinner. Thirst they took care of by drinking furtively from the sink inside the toilet, which all three did when they thought no one was looking. Since none of them ever ran into anther soul during these sojourns beyond the sliding door, it’s safe to say no one ever did.
At one point, by what must have been the third day, the first man, having never before spent such a long period of time without proper nourishment, wondered aloud if they couldn’t use the buzzer to order some more food. Sensing an opening, the second man pounced.
“Certainly not!” was the scathing reply. “How on earth do you think that will look? We already haven’t ordered in hours, indicating our meal is done. I’m sure our bill has even been made. It would be so inconsiderate of you to order now and trouble everyone else, don’t you think so?”
Now it was the first man’s turn to sputter. But the onslaught wasn’t over. The third man quickly joined in.
“Besides there’s the fact that we three have been staying here, holed up at this table holding up valuable space that other customers could be occupying. Don’t you think we’ve done enough damage already? Or do you think only about yourself?” He gave the first man a pointed look down to his protruding stomach. “It’s not like you couldn’t afford to skip a few meals anyways.”
“I’m just saying,” ventured the first man in a valiant effort to defend himself, “if you think they want us to leave, why don’t we do just that?”
“BECAUSE WE ARE NOT RUDE PEOPLE.” Everyone was surprised at the vitriol in the second man’s voice, even the second man himself. But his outburst seemed to satisfy the argument, and nothing more was said after that. Inside, the second man felt a weight lifted off his shoulders. He was no longer on the outside. The battle lines had been redrawn, he could tell, and he was safe. The first man squirmed uncomfortably like a pig on a roast. He could feel the heat of discontent creeping near him ever closer.
For a time nothing more was said. The ravages of hunger cared not about loyalties and attacked all three with equal viciousness. To save energy, each man took turns making beds out of chairs and the bench, lying prostrate upon them. One unlucky person could only sleep on the cold floor, for the table was too small to fit a grown man comfortably.
Eventually in hunger all the edible things in the room, such as dirty napkins and the occasional cockroach wandering in, had been fought over and consumed. Then, when even the previously assumed non-edibles, such as wooden chopsticks and laminated menus, had been valiantly attempted, there was so little collective energy left in the room you could hardly hear the sound of breathing.
At one point the third man stopped moving altogether. He stayed in this immobile state for what seemed like hours, but it also could have been minutes, or days. The second man laid drifting, sliding in and out of consciousness into lucid dreams. In them he walked gaily arm in arm with his wallet and his car keys, all three laughing giddily as they dined in fancy cafes, and shopped for expensive outfits. Wallet and Car Keys lavished their attention on him, fluttering their perfectly coiffed eyelashes and laughing coyly into their champagne at all his jokes. He could stay in this vision forever. Oh how he loved being the man! Just as he leaned down to kiss the luscious lips sprouting from his wallet, it spoke.
“Ugh, urghhh. Nani?”
“Wake up,” it was the voice of the first man. He was lying on the floor parallel to the second man resting just above him on the bench. “I think he’s dead.” He nodded in the direction of the third man lying at their feet on the far side of the room.
“What?” The second man, still groggy from sleep, opened his eyes. His wallet pouted angrily, dropping his arm in one forceful motion. No, wait! he thought, trying to reach out his hand desperately. But Wallet was already turning around, grabbing onto Car Keys as she went. Together the two of them sauntered off without a backwards glance, whispering and giggling into each others’ ears until a small click of the sliding door was the last sound he heard. They were gone. He’d never felt so abandoned in his life. What he would give to go off after them…
“We aren’t going to last much longer I’m afraid. Please, he’s dead, I need you to press the buzzer. Ask the server for the bill before we all go the same way. It’s closer to you and I don’t have any energy left to move. Please, I miss my wife. All this time since we’ve been married I never thought I would say that. But it’s true, I miss my wife. There I said it again. Maybe I do love her after all.”
The second man turned his head, the sound of the first man’s blubbering cries waking him slowly back into consciousness. “Dessert?” he asked groggily.
“Screw dessert – wow something else I never thought I’d hear myself say. Who am I anymore? Just get us out of here! Press the damn buzzer!”
Moved by the urgency in his voice, the second man blinked rapidly trying to orient himself. He moved his head a little to the right where he could see, raised up on the table above him, a little black button just out of reach. Stretching out one arm, using all the strength he had, he moved his fingers within reach. Just a little further, add a little bit of pressure…
“Don’t you dare!” a hoarse sound reverberated through the room, startling the second man into dropping his arm. It landed by his side with a thud. “You coward! You imbecile! Don’t think I’m not watching you. I’m always watching you. When I make the rules you follow them. You don’t get to question or defy. You think I’m dead? I’ll never die. As long as there is one person left breathing I will always survive.”
The body of the third man shook with what might have been rage. The first man continued to sob from his place on the floor, great racking cries from either sorrow or regret. And, of course, hunger. The second man brought his arm in tight and cowered. He’d never felt such great terror in his life. Even memories of his wallet and keys no longer brought any much needed comfort. They had managed to leave. He was truly alone.
Then a new sound permeated the room. First a soft rumble turned into a sonorous cloud. It grew and grew, completely masking the noises of the first and second man, relegating them to oblivion. The third man’s laughter escaped out of his lifeless body, shaking it like a rag doll in a child’s hand. He laughed and he laughed – a noise so big it projected through the thin walls and out the sliding doors. It made other patrons in the restaurant pause and look over their shoulders in envy, wandering why they weren’t having an equally gay time at their own respective parties. Even the manager, upon hearing the laughter, sighed deeply. He despaired that the three guests, holed up in one of the private dining rooms taking up valuable space, would ever ask for the check and leave.
The laughter went on for what seemed like hours, though it could easily have been minutes, or days. Then suddenly, as mysteriously as it appeared, it stopped. Only silence trickled out from under the door of the room.