“I’m here,” read Seth Grady’s text, as if I’d been expecting him.
“Here where?” I texted back on my q9 keyboard. Across from me Luna, the other co-op student at this elementary school sat cutting out half-sheet booklets for tomorrow’s lesson.
“At St Amelia’s,” Seth replied. “Where you told me you’d be.”
My eyes widened as I stared at the text. I gulped hard. Seth couldn’t be here, at my co-op placement! I hadn’t planned to see him until 6:00pm that night.
“Why are you here?”
“Too nervous to go home. Come meet me out front.”
“Luna,” I said, my voice just over a whisper. “Seth Grady is here.”
“The Seth Grady?! Like from your stories?!”
I nodded slowly, trying to figure out what to do. I had to act fast because I didn’t want him to leave. “He says he’s in the parking lot out front.”
“Let’s go get him!” Luna urged excitedly. “Ohhh, I can’t wait to meet him!”
“But what will we do with him?!” I wondered out loud, starting to panic. “We have to finish all the booklets still, I can’t just leave!”
“The teachers’ meeting won’t end for another hour. Bring Seth in, we’ll finish cutting the booklets, and then you guys can go, and I can cover for you when Miss Materelli comes to sign us out,” Luna decided. She was a year younger than me but so much braver.
“Okay,” I agreed. Miss Materelli always acted like I was a charity case because I had an after-school job. Like I was impoverished. I played with a technicality. “Tell her I got called in early to The Tap.”
We went to the front of the school and sure enough, there was Paul Woods in his brother’s huge black pick-up truck. Beside him sat Seth in the passenger’s seat and in the back I spotted Stewie Goode and Drew Nodar.
“Wow, they’re all so hot!” Luna whispered to me. I blinked and realized this was real life. These guys had somehow become my friends over the latter course of the school year and now they were here, at my co-op placement, in my neighborhood. I waved meekly at them, trying to play it cool.
Seth must have made some joke as he grabbed his backpack because they all burst out laughing. Then he climbed out of the truck and came to meet me and Luna. Luna nudged my side murmuring, “and he’s the cutest one!”
After introducing these two people from very different parts of my life, I explained to Seth that we still had some work to do. He agreed to help, and we snuck him in through the school’s back door. With Seth’s added assistance, we were finished making the booklets in no time. I thanked Luna for helping me leave early and before I knew it, Seth and I were free, with an hour to kill before our shifts.
“We could walk to The Tap,” I suggested. “It’s about half an hour over the highway bridge. Easier than waiting for the bus.”
“Yeah, sure,” Seth shrugged, his eyes concentrating on the pavement in the back school yard. “I just want to get this first day over with.”
It hadn’t really occurred to me that this wasn’t just Seth’s first day at The Tap. It was his first time working anywhere. I’d started working two years earlier, and The Tap was already my second job. I was an old pro in the working world, but Seth was fresh faced and worried.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” I reassured him as began our walk. Back in January, when we’d first started chatting on MSN, when I’d tell Seth stories about working at the family steakhouse, he’d reply firmly that he’d never want to work there. Six months later, and here we were. I wasn’t sure what had changed. Two weeks back, he’d just asked me to get him an interview out of nowhere. “It’s a Monday, so it’ll be dead, and we can go slow. James probably isn’t even in.”
But I was wrong. I spotted his silver SUV in the parking lot as soon as we were close enough. My stomach did a lazy flip flop remembering when I’d asked James to interview Seth for a busser position last week.
“He’s a friend,” I’d told James, the owner of The Tap.
“Like a boyfriend?” James had asked in a teasing voice.
I’d frozen up, and to my own surprise, I’d heard myself answer, “maybe someday.”
I’d spent Seth’s entire interview silently praying that James wouldn’t say anything about that to Seth. After the interview, all Seth had told me was, “it felt like I’d automatically gotten the job because I knew you.”
Once in the restaurant, we went into our respective staff bathrooms to change into our black dress shirts and black pants. Then I showed Seth how to punch in on the computers, and gave him a tour around the restaurant. I introduced him to Shala, the matronly busser, who worked almost exclusively in the back rolling cutlery in linen napkins and polishing wine glasses. I introduced him to Aaron Widge, the opening server and Rob Hiramoto, the kitchen guy, who flirted with me a little. When we saw James, he greeted Seth formally, then winked at me when Seth walked by. It felt cool to be bringing a friend into The Tap.
Seth was quiet throughout the introductions. His face was blank, and he just nodded at all the new people. He followed me as I showed him where the busser station was, never once making his quick-witted comments. Finally, we were able to begin our rounds of the dining room alone, where Seth was to shadow me and help me clear the tables once the diners had left the restaurant. As predicted, the night was very slow and there were only ever a few tables in there at a time.
“I thought you said you were shy,” Seth commented as I showed him how to arrange the empty wine glasses on his tray for equal weight distribution.
“I am,” I insisted. I spread out a white serviette over the glasses and instructed him to carry it to the dish station. “I just know these people because I’ve worked with them for a while now.”
At 9:00pm on the dot, James came over and told Seth his first training shift was done for the night.
“Can I stay and help Alexis close?” Seth asked, unexpectedly. He glanced sideways at me. “I just want to see what it’s like.”
“You can..” James replied suspiciously. “But you can’t get paid for it. You’ll have to clock out.”
“That’s fine,” Seth nodded.
“And since it’s pretty dead, it’s probably a good night for you guys to take a J cloth and clean the crumbs out from in between the crevices in all the booths,” James said, almost threateningly. “You up for that?”
Seth nodded again.
“Okay, well, I’m heading home in a minute,” James went on. “Do you have any questions while I’m here?”
“Yeah,” Seth replied. “What’s that dessert in a big bowl with vanilla ice cream and chocolate?”
“It’s a brownie sundae!” I exclaimed.
“You want to try one before you start cleaning the booths?” James asked. “It’s on me. First day perks.”
Ten minutes later, Seth and I were sharing a brownie sundae at the back metal prep tables behind Shala. James winked at me again as he left for the night out the back door, and I felt my cheeks flush as red as the maraschino cherry atop our sundae. Seth let me have it.
James, of course, had known what he was doing keeping Seth around for voluntary free labour. Cleaning the tight bread filled cracks of the leather seats in the dining room took forever. Every wipe felt akin to rug burn. But Seth never complained. We just laughed about it as we worked our way through the dining room, doing one half of every booth each, so we could still talk.
Finally, as we were punching out for the night, I took Seth over to check out the schedule for the rest of the week. I pointed to his name on Wednesday. “You’re training with this girl named Galina, she’s really nice, and she’ll -“
“I don’t want to train with her,” Seth cut me off, his anxiousness from earlier in the day returning. “I want to train with you again. Can’t you ask to take her shift?”
I thought about it for a second. Typically, people reached out to each other when they needed their shift covered. It seemed really weird to ask to cover someone’s shift without them requesting it. But one look into Seth’s pleading brown eyes, and I knew I would. I was so flattered. “I guess so. She never really wants to work. I’ll text her tomorrow.”
“Saturday too,” Seth said pointing to the schedule again. “I don’t want to work any shifts without you.”
“Oh yeah? We’re a package deal now?” I teased him.
“That’s right,” he smirked.
“And at Shire University next year? We’ll take all the same classes?”
“Every single one. You better be good at economics.”
“And when we die?” I pushed, trying to go for the most insane scenario I could think of. “They’ll mix our ashes together in the same urn?”
Seth paused for a second to study my face. I regretted saying something so bizarre almost instantly. It was supposed to be funny! I mocked shaking up an urn. He burst out laughing. “Yeah. That’s what we’ll do.”
And for such a long time, I believed him.