“Have you ever been attracted to psychoanalysis?” asks Hilda Rubenstein, nodding her thanks to Philip as he sets a goblet of white wine before her.
“Are we speaking of undergoing psychoanalysis?” asks Philip, stepping back from the table where Hilda is dining alone. “Or studying the methodology?”
“Undergoing,” says Hilda, tasting the wine. “Oh you’re right, Philip. I love this. And for so long I thought Riesling would be too sweet for my taste.”
“Wine appellations often confuse more than clarify,” says Philip, pleased she likes the wine.
Hilda is Swiss, seventy-four, tall and sturdy with long silvery gray hair she always wears in a braid. A Jungian psychoanalyst, she has lived in Berkeley, California for forty years. Widowed nine years ago, Hilda’s one child, Tamara, is a playwright and professor of Drama at a university in Oregon, no grandchildren in sight. And though Hilda has many acquaintances, her husband was her best friend and she misses him.
Philip’s mother was French, his father Italian American, and he grew up speaking French at home, English in the outside world. He is forty-seven, childless, and has been a waiter for twenty years, the last nine at the famed Le Scélérat in Berkeley. Graceful and slender, with dark brown eyes and curly black hair, he has been serving Hilda every Wednesday evening for his entire tenure at Le Scélérat, and she is by far his favorite customer.
“To answer your question,” says Philip, speaking French with Hilda as they often do when she dines alone, “no, I have never considered undergoing psychoanalysis. Both the cost, which I cannot easily afford, and a preference for more body-oriented therapies led me elsewhere.”
“I would like to offer you free sessions,” says Hilda, replying in French. “Twice a week for an hour and a half each time. If this appeals to you, let me know.”
On a warm day in September, Philip and his sweetheart Lisa are picnicking on Baker Beach in San Francisco with their friends Marcel and Andrea. Lisa is thirty-nine, a massage therapist, Marcel is forty-four, a waiter at Le Vagabond in San Francisco, and Andrea, Marcel’s wife, is forty-one, a sous chef at Le Vagabond.
When Philip mentions Hilda’s offer of free psychoanalysis, Andrea, girlish with short black hair and tattoos of small flowers scattered sparingly on her arms and legs, says with a faint German accent, “Oh you must, Philip. What an opportunity.”
“Is she in love with you?” asks Marcel, who also has short black hair but no tattoos, his French accent not faint. “Beware, Philip. Transference and so forth.”
“She’s fond of me,” says Philip, smiling at Marcel’s characteristic skepticism. “She’s semi-retired and doesn’t need the money. This would be a gift to me and a fascination for her.”
“So much for the vaunted neutrality of the therapist,” says Marcel, staying in character. “The process is already compromised by your friendship.”
“She’s a Jungian,” says Lisa, her brown hair shoulder-length, her accent purely Californian, though she was born in Brazil and spoke only Brazilian Portuguese until she was ten. “They are not so enthralled by the Freudian insistence on the therapist remaining emotionally detached.”
“Psychoanalysis,” says Andrea, who in the privacy of her thoughts is in love with Philip. “You’ll be analyzing your dreams with a dream expert. How fantastic.”
“And delving into why you chose to be a waiter,” says Marcel, arching an eyebrow, “rather than continuing your stellar career as a chef.”
“Oh I know why I fled the kitchen for the tables,” says Philip, enjoying the passing parade, many of the beachgoers naked.
“Why did you?” asks Andrea, sounding surprised. “I didn’t know you knew.”
“Nor did I,” says Marcel, looking at Lisa. “Did you know he knew?”
“Of course,” she says, smiling at Philip. “He has no secrets from me.”
“I became a waiter,” says Philip, with a meaningful shrug, “because I knew I’d be a good one and I’d still be in the restaurant business without the killing pressure of having to make three hundred perfect entrees every night.”
“But why not an actor?” asks Andrea, who thinks of Philip as a movie star who has yet to make a movie.
“I’m too shy,” says Philip, comically covering his face with both hands. “And I’m not much interested in acting.”
“But why are you so shy?” asks Marcel, affecting an exaggerated German accent. “Zis vee vill uncover in zychoanalysis.”
Stuck in a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge going back to Berkeley after their day at the beach, Lisa driving, Philip says, “I’ve decided not to accept Hilda’s gift of psychoanalysis.”
“Because?” asks Lisa, taking her foot off the brake to let her little car roll forward a few inches before she applies the brake again.
“Because,” he says, searching for the right words, “I think I may have become too important to her.”
“You’ve waited on her every week for nine years,” says Lisa, whose clients frequently fall in love with her. “And you enjoy each other.”
“Yes, and our enjoyment is enhanced by her not knowing all the details of my past,” he says, looking to his right as a turquoise Mustang convertible draws even with them, the driver a striking Latina wearing a sleeveless white scoop-necked T-shirt, her mop of curls bubble-gum pink, her companion in the passenger seat an enormous black and white hound.
Lisa gawks at the pink-haired gal and the giant dog and says, “Imagine being in a relationship with her.”
“If only her hair wasn’t pink,” says Philip, relieved not to be entering psychoanalysis with Hilda. “I have no problem with the rest of her.”
“Humor me,” says Lisa, playfully. “We’ll be stuck on the bridge for at least another half-hour. Imagine this bombshell is your wife.”
“I can’t imagine she’s anyone’s wife,” he says, smiling at the woman, which causes the woman to wave coquettishly.
“How old do you think she is?” asks Lisa, intrigued by the bombshell. “And what does she do for a living?”
“Twenty-five,” he guesses. “An exotic dancer, otherwise known as a stripper.”
“I think she’s thirty-two,” says Lisa, smiling at the woman. “Cuts hair in a hip salon.”
“Her muscular arms,” says Philip, admiring the woman’s physique, “speak of pole dancing.”
“Ask her?” says Lisa, hitting a button so Philip’s window goes down.
“Hi,” says the woman, just a few feet away from Philip. “Does this suck or what?”
“Yes,” says Philip, trying not to stare at the woman’s beautiful breasts. “We’re trying to guess your profession and how old you are.”
“What’s your guess?” she asks, pursing her lips as if expecting a kiss.
“Exotic dancer, cuts hair in a hip salon,” he says, wishing he could see her without pink hair and makeup. “Twenty-five and thirty-two.”
“I’m thirty-seven,” she says, giving him a sexy smile. “I make people happy. You want my card?”
“Sure,” he says, reddening.
“You two look like fun,” she says, handing him a bubble-gum pink card.
Now drivers behind them sound their horns.
“Thank you,” says Philip, glancing at the card and seeing the name Desea writ in vermillion.
“Call me,” says Desea, winking at him as she pulls ahead. “I love doing couples.”
The next time Philip serves Hilda at Le Scélérat she is dining with her daughter Tamara, who is forty, and Tamara’s partner Celine who is forty-five.
“How nice to see you again,” says Philip, bowing to Tamara who resembles Hilda to a remarkable degree, her dark blonde hair in a braid identical to her mother’s.
“Philip,” says Tamara, in a businesslike way, “this is Celine.”
Philip bows to Celine, a regal African American woman with glossy black hair in four intricate braids threaded with yellow wooden beads.
“A man of few words,” says Celine, making a comical face. “What’s not to like?”
After a bit more chitchat, supper is ordered, and Philip goes to the wait station to enter their order into the computer.
Now he stops by the table of another of his regulars, Miles Levinson, a blustery fellow in his sixties who Philip serves three times weekly, Miles fabulously wealthy and possessed of an apparently inexhaustible supply of younger women to dine with.
Philip arrives in time to replenish the wine glasses, Miles’s companion tonight a striking Serbian named Sophie. She’s wearing a red skirt and a black tuxedo jacket barely buttoned over her otherwise uncaged breasts, her red hair in a long braid coiled atop her head.
“This Marcassin Pinot is everything you promised,” says Miles, watching Philip divide the last of the bottle equally between the two glasses. “Shall we have another bottle, Sophie?”
Philip turns to Sophie.
“I certainly don’t need more wine,” she says, yawning majestically. “I could go to sleep on this table right now.”
“Then no more wine,” says Miles, waving the thought away. “We’ll have cheesecake and chocolate mousse and I’ll have a large glass of sherry. You know the kind I like.”
“Of course,” says Philip, turning to Sophie. “Coffee for you?”
“You are a genius,” she says, kissing the air in his direction. “Why didn’t I think of this?”
Philip checks on Hilda and Tamara and Celine mid-meal, and Hilda says to Tamara, “Tell Philip about his part in your play.”
“Please,” says Philip, glancing around his section and calculating he has a long moment to tarry with them.
“Comedy of manners,” says Tamara, nodding approvingly as Philip refills her wine glass. “Barely masking the tragic, of course. Several key scenes take place in a restaurant, and I’ve modeled the waiter after you, though the only person who could ever do the waiter justice as I imagine him, is you.”
“I look forward to seeing the play,” says Philip, who often feels he is an actor playing the part of a waiter. “My friends and I very much enjoyed your play Jumbo Shrimp at Berkeley Rep last year.”
“Well actually,” says Tamara, clearing her throat, “I would love for you to vet the restaurant scenes. It’s crucial they be authentic. I’ll pay you for your time, of course.”
“Does the waiter appear in any scenes other than those at table?” asks Philip, gazing intently at Tamara.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “He’s purely a functionary. But an important device.”
“Except at the end,” says Celine, nodding knowingly. “He’s not at the table at the end.”
“Oh of course,” says Tamara, chagrined. “The dream sequence. But he’s still a waiter. Only in a different context.”
“I’d be happy to vet your scenes,” says Philip, refilling Hilda’s glass with the last of the Reisling.
“Shall we have another bottle?” asks Hilda, looking from Tamara to Celine.
“Oh why not?” says Tamara, happily drunk. “It’s so good. And to think I always thought Reisling would be too sweet.”
A few days later, on one of his days off, Philip reads Tamara’s play Ziggurat and makes notes on the pages of the several scenes involving a waiter serving the main characters. He marvels at the way Tamara weaves the waiter’s minimal lines into the lengthy dialogues that occur in his absence.
“She uses his coming and going to create suspense again and again within the scenes,” says Philip, describing Tamara’s play to Lisa over supper at a Chinese restaurant. “Sometimes to set up punch lines, sometimes to give the audience a moment to wonder what the characters will say when the waiter departs. It’s a brilliant device, and she’s absolutely right, the more believable the waiter, the more thrilling the dialogue surrounding his coming and going will be.”
The next time Philip serves Hilda at Le Scélérat she is dining alone and he takes the opportunity to inform her of his decision not to enter psychoanalysis with her.
“I’m disappointed,” she says with obvious sorrow. “I was looking forward to getting to know you away from this setting where our conversations are so brief and we only seem to scratch the surface of things.”
“I, too, wish to connect with you away from here,” he says, replying in French. “Only not through psychoanalysis. And it occurred to me you might like to join me and a few of my good friends for supper at my house when I unveil the latest versions of recipes I’m working on for a cookbook I hope to publish one day.”
“Oh Philip,” she says, tears springing to her eyes, “I would be delighted.”