Trigger warning: this story contains frank language describing on-the-job sexual harassment, emotional abuse, casual racism and deals with rape.
“Wendy, would you mind taking table seven?” Veronica wasn’t typically in the habit of giving away money, especially this close to the end of the month, so Wendy peeked up from the register to scan the table. Recognition crossed her face, “Oh, don’t tell me you know them.”
“Is that a problem? I mean, I don’t know all of them, but Sean is Tom’s best friend.” Wendy indicated who she meant with a subtle movement. Veronica’s face went white at that, which made Wendy ask, “What’s the matter? What happened?”
Veronica just shook her head, “We’ll talk later. I’m going to do my side-work, cash out and have a smoke. Think the rest of your tables will be done in an hour?” She also had to do her silverware rolls, which would take up the lion’s share of her side-work. “I’ll even do rolls if you take this table?” She practically plead.
Wendy nodded, “Sure, but I need a full report after I cash out.” She checked her pens, book and name tag, then went back out onto the floor.The table of four was raucous, and refused to pay attention to her despite her repeated attempts to introduce herself. She took a deep breath, wondering why the worst table is always the last of the day, and went into the server’s station so that she could return with ice water for the table, which was usually a successful way to interject as she needed to.
She returned, cleared her throat and introduced herself again, then started to hand out the water until she was rebuffed with, “Excuse me, sweetheart, but we didn’t ask for any water.” Sean’s friend said.
Her face went red and her pulse raced, not knowing what to say or do, still holding the glass of ice water. The man who had interrupted her sighed, rolled his eyes and made room for his glass of water. From here, she was able to get through her greeting, and take drink orders. She didn’t bother to act as if she knew Sean, since he made no indication of that. She simply took the drink order to the register to order it up, wondered who drank long island iced teas for lunch, especially a business lunch as they were all dressed to the nines.
Shortly, she returned to the table and handed out the drinks. Sean’s friend again made his presence known, this time in a way that he probably thought was subtle, by tracing his eyes over her body and then winking when she sat his drink down. “Hey, sweety, how old are you?” This came from another of Sean’s friends. Internally, she was hoping that Sean wasn’t close friends with any of them, due to her not wanting Sean to be a bad impression on Tom.
She cleared her throat and began, “Have we all decid-”
She was neatly cut off, “Hey, I know you aren’t educated enough to work a real job, but my friend asked you a question.” This was from the third person at the table. Thus far, only Sean hadn’t said anything aside from his drink order.
At this point, now feeling very small, she was beginning to understand why Veronica gave up this table, especially to someone that the rest of the staff had generally seen as fairly unshakable, a part of her reputation that she was clinging on to. She cleared her throat, “I’m 29, sir.” She kicked herself for how small she sounded.
“Baby, you have got to get-” The third guy began.
She forced a big smile, “Have we all decid-”
“Look. I don’t know how you were raised, but my parents drilled into our heads that you don’t interrupt or try to speak over a man when he’s talking. Now.” He produced his wallet and pulled out a few five dollar bills and laid them on the table. “From here on out, every faux pas that you make, we’ll deduct a bill from your tip. Right now, you stand to make twenty dollars. And if you even think about handing us off to another server, they won’t get anything in the form of a tip.” She looked helplessly at Sean, who was intently watching his friend. “Now. As I was saying, with a face as pretty as yours, and an ass like that, you really should get yourself a sugar daddy. Get yourself off of those feet. Maybe learn some manners, too.”
Wendy made a fist inside of her apron, over and over as she counted to ten and tried her best to calm herself and to slow her breathing down. Her smile was gone. “I’ll take that under advisement, sir. Now, are we all ready to order?”
The man with her tip drew a bill back. “You should smile, sweety. You look so much prettier when you smile.”
This drew a laugh from the entire table, including Sean. At this point, she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She was somehow able to smile. “Are we all ready to order?”
Their orders were simple enough, and gratefully the rest of the meal went off without too much of a problem and were low maintenance enough that she was able to do her side work as she kept watch over the table. They all left within an hour of sitting down, didn’t leave a mess and she was relieved to see the full twenty dollar tip in the check presenter. That was, until she pulled out the credit card slip, which she would have to give to her manager before she could leave for the day. At first, it was a relief that Sean was paying, and that he was using a credit card, but when she looked at it, she nearly started to cry as she read, “Whenever Tom’s not around, you should have me by for a good time.” There wasn’t anything else there to indicate who wrote it. For all anyone could guess, Wendy herself had written it.
She swung by the table that Veronica was seated at, all of their silverware rolls taken care of. “Lemme go cash out and I’ll be back.” Veronica nodded, chewing on her fingernails and looking like a frightened cat. Wendy wondered how she, herself, looked as she entered into the manager’s office to complete her day. “Um, Benjamin? I was wondering if we could talk.”
“Of course! Step right in and close the door behind you.” He said in his usual, avuncular way. “What’s the problem?”
“That last table, the four-top at table seven, were harassing me throughout my meal. They demeaned me, condescended to me, and look at what they wrote on the credit card slip!” She exclaimed as he went through her proof of sale and slips.
“Well, that seems friendly enough. What was so wrong with what they said?” The usual, smiling face that he wore shined up at her.
“I…what? He insinuated that he’d like to sleep with me behind my husband’s back.”
“But he used your husband’s name. It must have been a joke, that you just aren’t taking well.” He was now using his shaming voice, which he often employed to diminish people’s confidence and make them feel as if they were on the spot. This tactic was working exceptionally well at the moment. “So, what I guess I’m saying is, ‘do you have any proof of what you’re accusing?'”
“Well, no, but-” She began.
He cut her off neatly, “So, you’re just trying to slander four of our customers because they didn’t tip you?”
“Well, no, but-” She began again.
“So they tipped you well, and you’re trying to chase away business because…” He waited a beat before he said, “Well?”
“I can’t prove that they had a shitty attitude or that they were a bunch of misogynistic assholes!” She couldn’t control her words or the volume of her speech at this point, but just the same couldn’t help but notice the way that he rolled his eyes when she said ‘misogynistic’.
Benjamin raised an eyebrow and smirked in a way that she instantly recognized as being the look he takes on when he’s won. “Well, that just sounds like your opinion, sweetheart. Maybe you should get better at taking compliments?” He held out the money she had earned that day, “Carry on.” He motioned her away after she took her earnings.
She opened her mouth, then shut it and stomped out of the room. She swore that she would update her resume and get out of this store, but just like every other time that Benjamin had been pointlessly cruel to her, she knew that she’d be back the next day for more.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” She said to Veronica after she had punched out.
They were soon seated in Veronica’s car as Wendy’s knee bounced up and down. She chewed on her lip and looked outside as her friend studied her. “Smoke?”
“Please.” Officially, Wendy had quit smoking years ago. And she kept that as the official line, regardless of how many smokes she had bummed off of various friends at times. So long as she hasn’t bought a pack, she is an ex-smoker.
“Benjamin didn’t believe you or care?” Veronica said as she lit her friend’s cigarette.
“You tried to tell him, too?” Wendy said, emotion missing from her speech.
“He asked me why I was making shit up, and trying to scare away good business.” She took a drag and blew the smoke out of the window, cracked just enough in the cold February afternoon.
“Basically what he said to me.” She sighed and drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. “So, you said you’d tell me what happened after everything was done.”
Veronica used the dead cigarette to light another. She pitched the butt outside to join all the others in the employee parking area. “That guy you said was named Sean? He picked me up at a bar last night, and forced himself on me when we went back to his place.”
Wendy felt numb and cold all over. She almost dropped her cigarette on the floor of Veronica’s car. “…what?” She couldn’t help but ask.
“So, I went out to have some drinks last night and settled down at a place I hadn’t been before. They were advertising lady’s night, and were offering two-for-one margaritas. I had that really shitty party yesterday that only tipped me ten percent, so I needed something to make myself feel better, right?” Wendy nodded to show that she was still listening. “Sean was there, and he bought me my drinks. He was easy to talk to, and I thought I’d like to see him again. Soon enough, he’s gotten enough drinks into me, and had me buttered up enough that I accepted when he asked if I wanted to come over. Whatever.
“We get to his place, and right away he tries to shove his tongue down my throat. I thought he was just a little aggressive, and since he has such a nice place, I kind of already assumed that he would be. I push him back a little, which made him push me against the wall. I tried to tell him to stop, that I wasn’t comfortable with what he was doing, and he did it anyway.” There was silence for a moment before she said, almost as an afterthought, “Bastard even had a condom and lube to keep from leaving any evidence. It would be my word against his if I tried to bring charges against him.”
The car was silent until Wendy reached over the center console and gave Veronica a tight hug. Neither one of them said anything else before parting, not knowing what else could be said.
Wendy compromised with herself, saying that it was just going to be one pack, and that it didn’t mean anything. That she would be sure to go to the gym five times the following week to make up for it, but just the same, she was two into a fresh pack of cigarettes at the townhouse she shared with Tom by the time he came in. She ashed her smoke in a bowl nearby, as he greeted her.
“Bad day?” He asked tenderly.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” She rested her smoke on the bowl and ran to her husband. She burrowed into him, and resolved not to say a word about what had gone on. She wanted to leave work at work, and try not to let any of it bother her.
Tom could tell that something was going on, so he did his best to help her out. He helped with dinner prep, and regaled her with tales from his office, along with a generous helping of gossip. She could feel her anxiety melting away as he insinuated himself behind her as she chopped carrots. He rubbed over her stomach, which was the best way to soothe her nerves. “So, Sean told me that he dropped by your restaurant today, and that you were fantastic. Said he’d be back next week for sure.”
Her knife held still above the remains of the carrot, while distantly she was aware that the sauce reduction needed to have the heat turned down. She broke away from Tom, and futzed with their dinner, before he put his hand on hers, “Hey, you gonna tell me what’s wrong?”
She shook her head a little, once again kicking herself for feeling small again. “I really would just like to put this day behind me and not worry about it again.”
“Come on, it must’ve been a bad day if you bought a pack of cigarettes after we quit together at the engagement party. You remember that, right?” As if she could forget. He was so mindful of how she felt when he presented her the ring, not wanting to put her on the spot or make her feel embarrassed, while also inviting only their closest friends to be witnesses. Large crowds and all of that always made her feel nervous.
She sighed heavily began to recount her day off to him, busying herself with their dinner as she did, so as to not have to look at him as she told her husband about the way her husband’s friend had allowed and later joined in on her harassment, and then dovetailing it off into Veronica’s story. When she was finished, she was taken aback to see that her husband was wearing a very nonplussed face. “What? What’s that look for?” She asked.
“Well, I think you should just be a little more patient with these guys. I mean, it sounds like they were just having some fun and blowing off steam.” He said in a blase tone.
“More patient? They were-”
“Honey, they didn’t touch you and they gave you a big tip. I don’t see what the problem is. Besides, you know how these finance guys are, it’s a big boy’s club! They just forget where they were at the moment.” He went to give her a hug, but she placed her hand on his chest and looked up at him, confused and hurt. “What? What’s the matter?”
“You don’t believe me?” She nearly squeaked.
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you, just that you should know how to take a joke by now. I mean, you’ve known Sean for years by now.”
“And he’s never acted like that around me by now, Tom!” Her face was turning as red as it was when she was taking the table’s order. “And he said that he wanted to sleep with me!”
“Actually, you said that there wasn’t a name that went with the message, so you’re just accusing him of stuff as far as I can see. Did you bring the slip with you?” He was wearing a condescending smirk, one that she’d only seen him employ when talking to an especially thick child.
“You know I didn’t! You know I ca-”
“So, you really are just accusing my friend of harassing you and trying to get into your pants. How is that any different from your friend claiming that he raped her?”
The world dropped out from beneath Wendy, “Claimed? Veronica wasn’t ‘claiming’ anything. She didn’t want to fuck him, and he did anyway!” Dinner was now forgotten at this point.
“Well, does she have any proof?” There was that condescending tone again, and Wendy wanted to scream. Who was this that she was talking to? Where was her husband? The man who held her and soothed her and comforted her after their miscarriage last year, and who had even said that it was ‘their’ miscarriage.
“He didn’t leave any proof! I even mentioned tha-”
“Well, that just sounds very convenient to me. The way that you’re trying to throw Sean’s friends under the bus like you are. Trying to get them banned from a restaurant just because your little friend regretted being easy.”
Wendy’s head was spinning. “None of this is convenient for either her or me! What if it was me, Tom? What if I was raped? Or would I need two male witnesses to back up my testimony?”
He tried to soothe her by touching her shoulder, which she withdrew as if his hand were on fire. “What is this all about, honey? I’ve never seen you get so worked up.
“Answer the question!” She struggled to keep her volume under control. She could feel her cheeks heat up and her vision started to blur with tears which she cursed herself for.
“Well, I…I would have to weigh up the evide-”
“Seriously?! You wouldn’t trust me?”
“I mean, we’re supposed to be impartial in crimin-”
She backed up away from him fast enough that she nearly knocked a pan, which was now issuing smoke, off the stove. “Do not. Do not dare give me any of that ‘devil’s advocate’ bullshit. We aren’t talking about an abstract or anything like that. What if we were talking about me, and not my friend?”
He looked bewildered, as if he were totally lost in the woods, “Can you just please calm down and try-”
“Weigh your next words very carefully. If the next thing that comes out of your mouth is ‘be rational,’ then I’m out of this house and I won’t be coming back.” He didn’t say anything and she swept her hair out of her eyes, passing her palm over her forehead. “Funny how quick you were to believe all of Clinton’s accusers-”
“And you didn’t?” His exasperation didn’t escape her notice.
“Bill Clinton wasn’t running for president! We-we are not having this argument again. I have made peace with your Trump vote, and now I’m seeing if I can make peace with this.” She reached for her phone and unlocked the screen, creating an audible ‘click.’
“Who are you calling?” He took a step towards her, with a look in his eyes that made her back up. She felt as if she were in the Twilight Zone, that her husband had been replaced with his evil twin.
“I’m calling my mom. I’m done. I’m leaving before one of us says or does something we can’t take back.” She put her phone up to her ear to start the call, but he snatched it away from her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He backed away with the phone in his hand, “Honey, I think you need to calm down. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”
She narrowed her eyes on him, “I’m blowing my friend’s rape out of proportion? Because of your shit-bag friend who you know, for a fact, made a pass at me during our Christmas party?”
“He was drunk and you know it! We, all three of us, talked about it afterwards and there was no hard feelings afterwards!” She was liking his tone less and less.
“No hard feelings from you or Tom, I just said that so that the two of you would leave me the hell alone. And now you just hand wave at my being objectified and demeaned at work, and try to tell me that Veronica was just impugning your friend’s character because, what, she just wants to ruin some rando’s reputation? Am I blowing that out of proportion, or is am I blowing the fact that you snatched my phone out of my hand while I was calling my mom out of proportion? You’re going to have to be more specific, since I’m so poorly educated, and because I only good enough to be a trophy wife, according to the people who you’re defending?” She had to scale her neck up to meet his gaze, but she did it just the same.
“I’m not giving you your phone until you calm down.” He put his phone in her pocket.
“Then you can keep the phone, and I’ll walk over to Veronica’s place.” She walked over to put on her shoes and jacket, but he was quickly standing in her way.
“Please just slow down before you do something that we can’t take back.” He put his hands up as if to ward her off, but she advanced on him, forcing him to back up. As she put on her shoes, he turned to lock the door out of the apartment.
“Do you intend to keep me here as a prisoner? I can call the police for that. Are you going to move out of my way?”
A slow mix of emotions crossed his face. He went from concern to confusion and settled on anger, which she had rarely seen on his face. “You’re going to call the police? On your husband?”
“If my husband continues to try to detain me in my own home, I certainl-” She was on the floor, and her ear was ringing before she could even see his hand raise from his hip and go across her face. She looked up to see her husband’s face, now a mask of panic, as tears ringed her eyes. She promised herself that she would never cry for him again as she stood back on her feet. “Give me my fucking phone and get out of my fucking way.”
He remained standing in the way of the door, and was showing no sign of moving until smoke began to trickle out of the kitchen, “Oh, you better go get that. Your dinner’s going to burn.”
He hesitantly went to the kitchen, still with her phone in his pocket. He turned before he entered the room completely, plaintively saying, “Please don’t go anywhere.” By the time that he returned to the living room, she was gone. He sat down heavily on the ground, buried his face in his hands and just stared at their creases as the phone in his pocket vibrated, knowing that it would eventually stop.