The Waiter/Diner Dance Of Intimacy Is A Lot Like Love

Photo: Cara-Foto / Shutterstock
waiter flirting with diner

Empty restaurant

Quiet fills the empty restaurant. To the waiter, it’s deafening— heightening, as it does, the server and sole diner’s awareness of each other's presence. Why can’t there be a couple at the next table over, exchanging banalities? the diner thinks. Or a smidgen of music to cut through the silence? 

The waiter, bored, under-stimulated, and struggling to find a focus, (unconsciously) latches onto this lone diner in pursuit of meaning to attach to his existence.  As soon as the diner’s water glass has descended a few inches, the waiter re-fills it. The minute plates are empty, he clears them. Repeatedly he asks the diner if he’s enjoying his food. 

Is there something else he can bring him? Does he have any questions? What does he need?

Sometimes he catches the diner mid-bite. Taco halfway into his mouth, the diner gives a thumbs up, worried that if he smiles the food will fall back out the same way it came in. No way to answer without spraying chunks in the waiter’s face— or drooling meat down onto his plate.

Covering his mouth with one arm, he wraps his other across his chest — holding his autonomy close at hand so that it can't be wrested (cheerfully and with a smile on the face of the unwitting perpetrator). He looks down at his food, averting eye contact.

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He's begun to feel the pressure to reassure this waiter. He's even started to feel like he is waiting on him in a certain sense (emotionally speaking).

He thinks of the Americanah passage, “‘The American customer service can be so annoying. Someone hovering around and bothering you all the time. Are you still working on that? Since when did eating become work?’”

Busy restaurant

Meanwhile, at the loud busy restaurant a few streets down, conversations overlap, silverware clangs, and timid jazz music attempts to compete with the clamor (though it shouldn't even bother).

The overworked waitress struggles to divide her attention among the multiple diners' needs. The male diner repeatedly flags her down. His water cup needs filling. He’s only had two; his usual number, throughout the course of a meal, averages at six. 

One table feels snubbed. At another, the patron’s stomach rumbles as he throws his unused napkin onto his still-empty plate amid grumbling that he’s headed elsewhere (“The waitress clearly has her hands full anyway,” he reasons).

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The health-conscious diner wants to know the meat's origins. He wants to know whether its diet was plant-based or starch-based. Yet he bites his tongue — knowing that when demand is this high, such questions would land a burden on an already onerous environment, heightening its stress.

Amidst the re-asking of the same question, the empty plate in place of a fully prepared meal for 20, 30, or 40 minutes, her attempt to make eye contact with the waitress is akin to flagging down a taxi when none of the drivers can see her, the diner feels unsupported and ignored. She feels forced into uncomfortable self-sufficiency. 

Again from Americanah: “Good customer service, good customer service. Folks here behave as if they are doing you a favor by serving you. The high-end places are okay, not great, but the regular restaurants? Forget it. The other day I asked a waiter if I could get boiled yam with a different sauce than was on the menu and he just looked at me and said no. Hilarious.’”

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The beautiful sweet spot

The waiter/diner dance is a lot like the intimacy danceGo away wait no come back, I need you. / You’re smothering me, stop, leave me alone, / Wait I didn’t mean for forever, you can come back now, stop neglecting me, what will it take to get your attention back, come on, can’t you see my cup’s been empty for 20 minutes now???!

Andrew Haigh writes of “the universal concern that all of us have, which is the two poles of security and freedom. Patrick is torn between complete freedom and complete security, and I think we all can understand those dual desires.”

Think of those times when the waiter magically appears right when you need them. Maybe it’s as if you’re realizing that you’re still hungry or thirsty. 

You look up to scan for your waitress and there she is — right there in front of you, a beam of light suddenly shining down and framing her face.

The halo surrounds her as she holds the coffee pot and asks you gently, soothingly: “More coffee?”It’s not always that easy. We’re humans, not machines. Some moments we feel needier than others. Some moments we have less to give.

That fine line between supporting and smothering. How few of us seem to master it consistently, and how remarkable it feels when we do.

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Eleni Stephanides is an LGBTQ bilingual writer and Spanish medical interpreter. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Uncomfortable Revolution, Breath and Shadow, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. Follow her on Instagram.