His inquisitive gaze filled my vision. The frenetic clatter of plates, glasses and silverware faded as his direct (and discomfiting) query filtered through:
Are you nervous right now?
No, of course not. I, age twenty-six, miles from home, scrabbling together enough income to hold onto my apartment, my car and my insurance, new to the food service industry, shy and awkward, unfamiliar with the menu and unfamiliar with you, am most certainly not nervous in any way.
I quailed under his stare. Because for me, this question wasn’t the first time.
* * * * *
Some have the gift of poise. No matter the circumstances, they keep a cool head, a confident gaze, and the perfect expression. Are they even human? you wonder. How can they stand so high above us mere mortals?
I, unfortunately, was not granted this gift.
Time and time again, I find myself thrust into situations feeling woefully unprepared (even if I *was* prepared), frightened and fearing failure. And my emotions always manage to shine through: the fear, the worry, the panic — all of it.
Why is it so hard for me to keep it together? How can others play it cool and keep going?
Or is there something I’m missing?
* * * * *
A tornado had hit the dining room. Birthday cake and candles littered one end, with wine glasses and platters of uneaten appetizers at the other. We had pulled off a full house from open till close — and three large reservations to boot.
My head spun. I recalled setting down the first table. After that, only a haze. I couldn’t have told you my name if I had to. I had worked furiously and failed horribly. I couldn’t keep moving fast enough — drinks could never stay filled, food never came out fast enough, and don’t get me started with fetching desserts.
And then it started falling apart.
A bottle of mustard exploded behind the server station. A table’s food order nearly got lost in the crossfire. A line of customers started going out the door. The phone was ringing off the hook. We were short on forks and out of glassware. And I was drowning.
I refused to make eye contact with the other servers. I had let them down. I had crumpled like tin foil under the pressure.
The worst part — everyone could see it. Are you doing okay? Are you all right out there? Is there anything we can do? Was it pity? Was I biffing it? Was I going to get shown out the door at the end of the night?
I remember being handed a slice of chocolate cake, gluten-free and fudgey beyond belief. The manager even offered me the back office for some peace and quiet. I politely declined, and returned to my server station. I could hardly choke it down, wave after wave of shameful tears threatening to engulf me along with dark chocolate, ganache and wine-plump cranberries.
The last customer finally left, leaving behind a ransacked dining room. I started scrubbing tables, giving my coworkers a large berth.
No such luck – Joanna (who was closing) called me up to the cash register. I walked up to the front, bracing for an onslaught of pity.
She lifted her eyes from counting a stack of bills. Hey, Renee — I think you did great tonight.
Me? Done great? I chuckled in disbelief.
No, I’m being serious. She shut the drawer, making eye contact with me. We got busy, and you did the most important thing — you kept going, and you kept smiling.
That same smile spread over my lips. “Sometimes,” I said, “smiling is all that we can do.”
Joanna nodded slightly. Just remember — she added — pay attention to what you need. When you feel it coming, don’t panic. Take a step back. Breathe. Count your tables. Then keep going. Just always remember yourself first. And don’t panic.
* * * * *
There are hundreds of things they don’t teach you in school. And I’m not just talking about a dining room rush.
Don’t panic — and nothing can ever touch you. Even if you aren’t a zarkin’ frood. Some are naturals. Others (like me) have a ways to go. But it can be learned.
And most importantly, keeping chill is not about forgetting yourself. (Which I am apt to do.) If you lose yourself and panic, you’re done for. No one will be able to find your mind once you’ve lost it. To stay in control, you have to pull yourself away, take stock, and jump back in.
Just don’t panic. And remember your towel.