Mark had been glancing around nervously, palms getting sweaty as soon as he walked in and couldn’t see Nina dancing across the floor from table to table in the section he’s been sitting in since the first night he discovered the badly lit restaurant with the door half hidden in the dark alley that lined its left side, overshadowed by the big, brightly advertised and too loud bar that sat on its right. He chanced going in because he was hungry, and it was on his way home, and though its exterior was a little disheartening, the food was amazing and there was always something fun and upbeat playing from the old school jukebox in the back corner and Nina was about as understanding as anyone else was, and she was there night after night, giving Mark the chance to become familiar with her. Once he did, they were something akin to friends, so he only had more reason to keep coming in five days a week.
Except now, he can’t find Nina. He catches sight of someone walking towards his table and he snaps his gaze to the napkin holder almost but not quite in the exact middle of his table, and the short but deep ridge in the table top that it normally covers. They stop at the side of his table, the newcomer, and even from the corner of his eye he can see that it is definitely not Nina. There’s a black button down half covered by a folded apron and pulled tight across a flat abdomen where Nina had baggy green t-shirts hanging loosely around her thin waist, sometimes half tucked into the skirts she said she preferred to wear over the usual dark colored jeans most of the servers wear. There’s a rough dress code, Mark figures, just from watching different servers work throughout his years of eating at the diner, a high turnover of college students who wander in from the nearby campus, but nothing specific or harshly enforced. He’s watched, probably, two hundred different kids working the same shift, when there are never more than six servers at a time during dinner, watching the four sections of booths and long bar that separates the dining hall from the kitchen. At least as many different hostesses have greeted Mark at the door, but none of them have ever stayed long enough for Mark to say anything back. Nina is the only one he’s ever interacted with directly.
Mark clenches his clammy hands, and then uncurls them to wipe his wet palms across his jeans and then folds them carefully in his lap, fingers twitching, itching for anything to do while he struggles to try and ask where Nina is, and if she can serve him instead. He swallows thickly around the words, a vague voice in the back of his mind that almost sounds exactly like his therapist scolding him, saying it would be rude, and that he needs to adjust to meeting new people. It tells him that he might hurt the new server’s feelings, but Mark can’t really find it in him to care, because even if manages to ask the question, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to tack on a “no offense to you, we’re friends, she’s been serving me for six years”. The words are still stuck in his throat, even as he imagines himself saying them, even though he can picture his mouth moving to make the right sounds, can hear them being spoken in his own voice, but when he does open his mouth, all the comes out is a soft, shaky rush of air. He feels his throat constrict painfully around the sentence he cannot speak and there is a familiar tightness in his chest, one that he experiences regularly, but hasn’t felt sitting at this table in over five years. His stomach drops and he’s not sure he even has an appetite anymore, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s not going to be able to order anything to sate it if he does.
Mark hears a smooth voice ask him what he would like to drink over the dull ringing in his ears. It’s gentle, far gentler than Nina had ever sounded speaking to him, even on their first meeting when Mark couldn’t look her in the eye and had to choke out his request for water so quietly she made him repeat it three times before she understood. He managed then, his first time in the diner, to get his order across to her with just as much panic rolling through him as there was now, but this was different. Then, it had been brand new, and Mark had come in knowing full well it would be uncomfortable and difficult but he had done it anyways. Since that first night, he’d gotten comfortable, and there was a stable routine. He sat at the same table and ate, more or less, the same thing and after a year and a half of stilted, nervous almost-conversation, he could ask Nina about her day and make the occasional joke that had her far more interested than she had ever been when he was a stuttering, sweaty guy who couldn’t turn his head in her direction without feeling like he was going to puke. It had been the start of a friendship, albeit one that only really existed Monday through Thursday and almost every Saturday from seven at night until roughly eight fifteen, depending on how long it took Mark’s order to arrive, in periodic two minute interactions.
But, now, Mark was thrown for a loop. What had been familiar and safe was now unusual and frightening. Mark suddenly can’t remember how to say the word water or what it even means and he knows it’s what he wants but he doesn’t know how to get the sounds to come out and his heart is beating so fast it’s making him a little dizzy and it’s too late to leave, he can’t just push past the new server without a word and run into the street, even though it probably doesn’t feel like the walls are closing in and the temperature is rising to three hundred degrees out on the sidewalk. Mark pushes his palms hard against his knee caps and feels his shoulders tensing up, his back hunching slightly as his body tries to fold into itself but he’s stuck seated in the booth. He’s as frustrated with himself as he is with the situation, trying to remember back to the last time he’s had a panic attack in public but being unable to think of the date, it being so long ago. He doesn’t know how to get his breathing back under control without visibly hyperventilating and where the fuck is Nina and he’s already dooming himself to forty minutes of panicking while the new server decides he’s fucking crazy, and maybe he is a little, but before he can get too caught up in himself or his panic, a white pad of receipt paper and a blue pen slide into his view, covering the little hole in the table that’s been there since before he started sitting at it.
That same soft, kind voice tells him that if he writes it down, it’ll be right out, and a rush of relief so intense floods Mark’s entire body and he’s not sure he’s ever been so grateful towards another person in his life. He’s embarrassed when he picks up the pen, the object in his hand only serving to make it more obvious how much he’s trembling, and the straight lines of his W are more like waves, but he gets the chance to take a few deep breathes as he takes his time writing out the word and, comforted by the fact that he won’t have to even think about speaking to his new server for at least the next three to five minutes, and by the time he makes it to the R his lines are a little straighter and his heart is slowing down a little and it doesn’t feel quite so much like the entire world is going to end if he can’t say this one word.
Jackson takes the small pad of paper back and smiles even though his customer won’t look at him, and he doesn’t mind, really, he’s just glad he seems to be calming down. There’s two other tables he needs to stop by to greet and he can see from where he’s standing that one of his orders is up, but he still goes to get the water first, because it looks like this guy probably needs it more than his other customers need to be tended to.
He’s stopped by Alex in the back, the guy who’s meant to be training him since he’s the current longest working employee, having been there for five years total, the past two consecutive, even though he mostly just told Jackson to wear black pants and a shirt and it’s just like serving anywhere else, take the order, bring the order, smile, act polite, you’ll do fine, probably, and if you don’t, they’ll just hire another kid off campus and you could try the coffee shop two blocks down the road. He didn’t assume the guy was a regular, actually thought it was probably the first time he’d ever stepped into the diner, but Alex corrects his assumption with a soft click of his tongue and a sympathetic look.
“Sorry you got stuck with Nina’s section,” Alex offers him a rough slap on the shoulder, “that guy’s been coming in here since even before I started working, I guess. She served him every night.”
Jackson perks up, a little, at the news. It’d be fine to have him write down his order, too, but Jackson saw the way his hands shook and how carefully he made each letter to be perfectly legible and the way his eyes kept darting from the paper to Jackson’s waist like maybe Jackson might get mad if he didn’t hurry up or get annoyed with him for not speaking up, and thinks it might be better to cut the interaction down as much as possible.
“Do you know if he had a usual order?” Jackson asks, and Alex looks a little confused but relays the water that Jackson is supposed to be getting and informs him that it’s, most nights, a hamburger with no onions and a side of macaroni and cheese instead of the usual fries. Jackson takes a chance and calls in the order while he’s pouring the glass of water.
Alex catches him again, on his way back out into the dining room, “Seriously, if you need someone to take over, someone more experienced, I can have someone help with your section. Nina was the only one who served him for, like, years. She said he was real fuckin’ weird. We never really figured out what was wrong with him.”
Jackson carefully shifts himself so Alex’s hand isn’t holding his elbow anymore while still not spilling the glass of water he poured a little too high, and says softly, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him.”
Mark is sitting quietly, still staring at the table, the worst of the panic subsided by the minor attack leaving him exhausted and his chest feeling wrong, when a tall glass, filled to the brim with water appears in his view along with the pad of paper.
"My name is Jackson," Mark’s new server finally introduces himself, "I’m Nina’s replacement. I’m sorry she won’t be back, but if you keep coming at this time, I’ll be here from now on. Someone in the back recognized you as a regular, so I asked if you had a usual, and I called in an order for a hamburger with no onions and a side of mac and cheese, but if you want something else tonight, you can write it down and I’ll cancel the first order."
Mark isn’t that surprised that Nina quit. She’d been working there since she started college and he knew that she never intended to stay forever. He knew that she was finishing up her Master’s degree in May and he hadn’t asked, but the way she spoke, he knew that she would be moving back to her home state. He thought they might be close enough, by then, that she might actually say something to him before she did it, but Mark has never been that good at having friends, and he guesses he doesn’t really know how to tell when he has one. He’s not that surprised that someone else there knew him, and his usual order, considering he’s been getting more or less the same exact thing five nights a week almost every week for six years, but he is surprised that Jackson asked about it.
Mark gives a jerky nod that Jackson takes, correctly, as “my usual is fine”, even though he asked an either-or question. Jackson slides his pad and pen back into the pocket of his apron and gives Mark a bright, wide smile that Mark can just barely see when he chances a glance sideways at his server. He’s known Jackson for probably twelve minutes total, and he’s done nothing but embarrass himself the entire time, but he still thinks that the smile looks a lot nicer and far more genuine than the usual, awkward, I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-put-up-with-this-weird-bullshit-but-I’m-getting-paid-to-be-polite-to-you kind of smiles he usually gets from customer service employees.
When Jackson brings his food, he speaks softly, Mark too distracted by his own thoughts to catch exactly what he says, before carefully placing the plate in front of Mark. While he refills Mark’s water, he tell him that he likes his shirt, and Mark knows that, normally, you’re supposed to say “thank you” when you receive a compliment, but he’s wanted to thank Jackson for a lot more than that since the moment he first slipped his receipt pad onto the table and he hasn’t been able to yet. Jackson doesn’t really seem to mind, that he doesn’t, or even expect it. He just flashes Mark another big grin and turns to tend to another table.
Mark still doesn’t get to say thank you, not when Jackson clears his plate and offers his pad for a dessert order than Mark doesn’t make, not when he refills Mark’s water three times while Mark loiters around trying to build up the courage to thank the first person who hasn’t treated him like a child or like there was something wrong with him, just like he was any average customer, who didn’t give him strange looks or laugh when he didn’t think Mark was looking or whisper insults in the ears of his coworkers. At least, for the last couple, Mark was pretty sure he didn’t. Jackson didn’t seem like that type.
Mark doesn’t know how to get the words out to say he’s grateful and that it’s the first time he’s felt okay his first time in a new situation, even if it started out a little rough, or how to thank Jackson for the little note on the bottom of his receipt that claims Jackson hopes to see him again soon, or how to say that he will, every night for, probably, the rest of his time working there because Mark values routines so much and Jackson made his transition into a new one so smooth without even being asked, so instead he just leaves a twenty dollar tip that he’s pretty sure Jackson wasn’t expecting, or trying for, and stays up late, staring at his ceiling, picturing Jackson’s face and whispering the world “Hello” over and over again until he thinks he might be able to say it at dinner the next night.