It was about half past seven when I arrived home that night; I’d spent plenty of time chatting with Roger, catching up on stuff. He was right, it was nice to talk to a friend once in a while.
My mother heard the front door closing and shouted from the kitchen, “Xander, is that you?”
“Yeah,” I shouted back. “I’m home!”
“Good, dinner’s at eight!”
“Okay!” I answered, and then climbed the stairs up to my and Lena’s rooms. Sighing, I sat down heavily on my bed. These past two days had been a month and a half.
I heard a soft knocking, and I looked up. Lena was standing in the doorway, looking at me, a neutral expression on her face. “Hi, Alex,” she said. “How are you doing?”
Wordlessly, I waved her inside my room. “’m fine,” I replied. “Mostly. There’s been some stuff today at university but nothing really that big.”
She pulled the chair out from my desk, sat down facing me, and smiled. “Wanna talk about it?”
I nodded, and started recounting my day. I summarised some parts, but by the end her smile was still there. “Seems like you found some good people to help you,” she said, earnestly.
“Yeah, looks like it,” I said, then hesitated. “Um… About what Miriam… The counsellor, I mean. About what she said.” I looked down, and shuffled my feet. “That I may want to… Try something. To dress up, see how it feels.” I paused, then blurted out, “Can you help me with that?”
Lena got up from the chair, sat down on the bed beside me, and placed her hand on my shoulder in a comforting gesture. “Sure,” she answered. “We’ll find a day when mom and dad aren’t home and we have the house to ourselves, and then we’ll try it.”
“Kids! Dinner’s ready!” we heard our mother call from downstairs. I placed my hand on Lena’s, which was still on my shoulder, and gave it a squeeze.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Anytime,” Lena replied. “Come on now, let’s get to dinner. You know mom doesn’t like it when we’re late.”
The next day I skipped training. I said I was feeling a bit unwell and since I had work that evening I didn’t want to risk it, but in reality I just couldn’t stand the thought of being in the same changing room with a half-dozen partially-naked boys. It was a bit weird: I hadn’t minded it until then, but after I… Realised… I had become more aware and more conscious of myself.
I didn’t really want to go to work either. I didn’t want to face Molly and Chef Belletti and everyone else, after my breakdown two days before; but it couldn’t be helped, I had to do it if I wanted to work. And I liked my job, as weird at it sounded, so I didn’t want to lose it even though I really didn’t strictly need to work. And besides, my parents knew I liked my job, so me saying I’d quit would surely be met with uncomfortable questions.
I pulled into the restaurant’s employee parking lot, shut down the engine, and sighed. Here we go.
When I walked through the restaurant’s back door, I almost ran into Molly. Literally. She was coming out of the girl’s changing room, and we almost slammed into each other. We paused briefly, looking at each other; she looked like she wanted to say something, but then looked away, said “Excuse me,” and slipped past me towards the dining room. I sighed again. Was I going to be treated as a pariah from then on?
After changing into my work uniform and putting away my spare set – I’d remember to bring it this time – I stopped in front of the kitchen door. I really didn’t want to go through there and have to bear the stares of all the back-of-house staff, all the whispers, all the gossip, but there was no other way to get to the dining room except through there. Unless I took a big detour, exiting through the back door, walking all the way around the building to the front door, and entering again through there. But that would’ve been absurd, and everyone would immediately understand I was avoiding the issue.
I took a deep breath, and stepped through the door to the kitchen.
As usual, there were chefs and cooks hurrying around, doing the final bits of prep before the start of service. The hustle and bustle didn’t slow down a bit while I was walking through the room, heading towards the dining room. Huh. Maybe no one did care after all. Or if they cared, it wasn’t enough to make them stop their work to point and laugh at me.
Maybe that night would be alright.
I reached the door leading to the dining room, and froze when I heard Francis, the sous-chef, calling me. “Hey, Xander!”
I turned around, a smile fixed awkwardly on my face. “Yeah?”
“Chef wants to talk to you. Asked me to tell you,” Francis said. “She’s in her office.”
I nodded. “Alright,” I replied. I turned around, and walked back through the kitchen once again – the chef’s office was in the back, near the changing rooms. When I reached the door I once again hesitated: why did she want to see me? Many possible scenarios played through my mind. Maybe I would get fired for making a scene two days before? No, I didn’t think so. The chef seemed honestly concerned about me when she saw me off. But there was still the possibility hanging there.
Ah well. There was no other way to find out. I knocked.
“Enter!” came the chef’s voice from inside. I opened the door and stepped in.
“You wanted to see me, chef?” I asked.
Chef Belletti nodded. “Ah, yes. Please do take a seat, and close the door. I will be right with you.”
I complied. The chef finished typing something on a laptop that was set on her desk – it looked like she was balancing the restaurant’s books – then closed it, and turned to me.
“Okay,” she said. “First. What should I call you?”
I blinked. What? Why would she say that? “Why do you ask?”
“I have… Noticed. The last time,” chef Belletti said. She was speaking slowly, carefully, almost as if she was afraid of saying something wrong. “I have seen that when I told Molly to help you change, you seemed uncomfortable with the name Xander. And I was wondering if you prefer something else.”
I just stared at her for a few seconds. I’d honestly not expected her to notice. “Alex,” I said. “I’d like to be called Alex.”
The chef nodded. “Okay. Alex.” She paused, then continued: “Are you all right?”
“No problem. I can pull my weight tonight at service,” I replied.
She shook her head, and smiled gently. “That was not what I was asking. Alex, are you all right?”
Why would she ask that? She was a business owner. She was my boss, and a real strict taskmaster at that. I would’ve thought she would instead ask if I was okay to work, instead of caring about my well-being.
“I am.” The answer sounded unconvincing, even to myself.
Chef Belletti cocked her head slightly to the side. “Are you really?” she asked again.
“I…” I began, then hesitated. “I… Will be. I think.”
The chef looked at me carefully, without speaking, for a while. “Are you talking to someone?” she asked, finally.
“Look, why do you even care?” I snapped. Probably a bit too harshly than I should have, but I disliked being put on the spot.
It was the chef’s turn to hesitate, again. She seemed to consider her next sentences carefully once again, before speaking it. “I do care, because I have seen this happen before. I have seen the problems… Not talking about things can create.” She sighed. “I do not wish what I have witnessed before to happen to anyone else.”
Why? What had she witnessed? What shouldn’t happen to anyone else? And what did she know, exactly? I wondered if I should ask for an explanation, but in the end, I didn’t.
“...I am talking to someone,” I replied instead. “My sister, and the counsellor at my university.”
“That is good,” the chef nodded in approval. “Do keep talking. It will help.”
She paused briefly, seemed to consider something. “In fact, do you want to come to dinner to my house?”
I blinked. What. “What? Why?” I asked.
“I…” the chef began, then stopped. “I apologise if I am being too forward, but there is someone I would like you to meet. Someone you can talk to.” She smiled. “Not alone, if you do not want to. You can bring your sister along also.”
I stared at her. “I will think about it,” I finally said.
“Good,” she said. “You of course have my number, just call the restaurant and ask to speak to me.” Then she looked at her watch. “Okay, I think we should both go along now, it is almost time to begin service. Go, I’ll come in a minute or two.”
Still bewildered from the conversation (and the completely unexpected invitation), I stepped outside the chef’s office. I was still thinking about what was said as I lined up with the other waiters and waitresses for the usual inspection before service; while I was getting in line, I caught Molly’s gaze for a fraction of a second, but then once again she looked away.
That irked me a bit.
“Good evening, everyone!” said the chef, walking into the room. “Tonight we have no reservations, so it will be a slow night. Do your best, and everything will be fine.”
She ran her gaze up and down the line. “Molly,” she said.
“Yes, chef?” Molly replied.
“Please do straighten your ponytail, it is a bit crooked.” She kept looking for a little while more, then said, “Okay, everyone else is fine. Work well, everyone.”
We broke ranks and started going about our usual business, prepping the dining room for service. Through the whole thing, Molly avoided me; she kept deliberately getting out of my way, and going out of her way to avoid being too close to me. And when we were forced close together, like when we went to the linen cupboard to pick up the tablecloths, she made a point of looking in the other direction and not speaking to me.
She kept this up during service too: once or twice, I noticed her slowing down, so we wouldn’t have to be in the kitchen to pick up orders at the same time.
I was really annoyed by that.
In the middle of service I saw her talking to the maitre’d, before going off to take her break. I quickly rushed to deliver the plates I was holding to the table I was waiting, then told the maitre’d I was taking my break too; he gave me a weird look, but let it slide.
When I went out to the employee parking lot, Molly was crouching against the wall beside the door, smoking a cigarette, her gaze lost in the distance. She looked up as I went out, and her eyes widened when she saw me.
“Got a light?” I asked, waving my own cigarette. She wordlessly picked up the lighter from the ground where she’d left it, and handed it to me. I lit my cigarette, and took a deep drag.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” I said.
She looked up at me again. “Figured you didn’t want to talk to me,” she said. “Not after what I did to you two days ago.”
“Stop avoiding me,” I replied. “I…” I took a deep breath. “I’m not mad at you. The opposite, in fact. I’m kinda grateful.”
Molly’s voice betrayed that she was puzzled at what I was saying. “You are?”
I nodded. “I am. Kinda, as I said.” I took a drag of my cigarette before continuing, “Now, don’t go around telling this to everyone, but what you did forced me to face something I’d repressed for a long time. Oh, it was terrible, a shock to the system, no doubt. My sister is quite mad at you for it.”
“Your sister?” Molly asked.
“...Never mind,” I said. “I’ll tell you some other time. Thing is, if you hadn’t…” I gulped, “If you hadn’t dressed me up, I probably would’ve gone on for many more years without confronting my feelings.”
I turned my head to look at her. “So, thank you.”
“You’re… Welcome? I guess?” she replied; I nodded. “Alright,” she kept going. “Xander--”
“Alex,” I mildly corrected her.
“Alex, okay,” she nodded. “I’m still sorry, I shouldn’t have…” She sighed. “Look, I’m working at this restaurant to put myself through beautician school. I like dressing up people, doing their make-up. Two days ago, I kinda… I only intended to give you my blouse to wear, but I got caught up in the moment. You didn’t protest, so I thought you didn’t mind, but I really shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I replied, waving my cigarette around.
“So…” Molly said, a bit hesitantly. “We good?”
I nodded. “We good,” I said, and extended my fist towards her. She bumped it.
“Alright,” I said, flicking my cigarette butt off in the distance, “We should really get back to work, or chef Belletti will get mad at us.”