They mistook my skill of memorization for interest, I think. That’s how it started. I easily remembered diners’ first visit to Cafe bord de Mer, but Margot and Sandi seemed to think it meant they were special. "Wow, you're good," they said together, sounding rehearsed. After that, they came back regularly, Sandi with some kind of wild earrings; Margot in her red, looped scarf. Like with other customers, I looked for clues in what Margot and Sandi ordered, desperate to understand them through their desires. Margot's fingers, with their snubbed-down nails, gripped her after-dinner coffee cup and hovered it around her mouth. Sandi salted everything.
It didn't occur to me at that time that anything they'd ask me - or how they'd ask - could be creepy. Their middle-agedness, their softness, their gender, inherently meant good intentions. Bit by bit, I filled them in on my first-ever semester community college coursework, my roommates, my family. I tried to turn the questions back on them: the lop-sidedness of the conversation was unbearable.
"No, no, we are not the exciting young things," Sandi would say, taking Margot's hand. They looked at me through closed coral-lipped smiles. They learned my schedule, requested me as their server, and left outrageously generous tips.
I remembered phrases or books or historical events they'd mention, and researched them. There was not a distinct correlation between those actions and my certainty that I would get a big tip after waiting on them and contributing to their dinner talk like an adult. I was genuinely intrigued by the topics, mesmerized by my own maturing.
It was on a Sunday night shift after a year that they asked me to join them at their home for dinner. Margot would cook, they said.
"We'd love to show you our home," said Sandi. Her right thumb stroking across Margot’s left knuckles suddenly felt ominous and personal. I was sure that they wanted something specific from me.
"Oh, that sounds great, but I can't."
Mistaking my declination for a scheduling issue, Sandi leaned back and brought her white cloth napkin to her mouth. She stuck a finger in the air quickly and said, "After your finals, of course," as if she'd meant that all along.
The desperation for a solution was immediate. My mouth settled on, "Sure, sounds good," and I took Margot's empty plate of risotto with an accompanying cutesy smile. They began adding an additional fifteen percent to my tips that night.
"How is studying going?" asked Sandi, two weeks later. I discussed my trouble with astronomy, and then how well a Speech A project was going, mentioning my unexpected interest in the subject.
"We're not surprised," said Margot, and the women exchanged a soft-eyed glance. Sandi picked up her wine glass, but before sipping said, "You know we think you are beyond your peers, and Speech is a great way for you to express your intelligence."
The empty coffee cup resting on the saucer I was holding began to tilt, and though it was empty, I said, "Oh, this," and ducked away.
Finals came and went, and I was equally nervous for exams as I was for the inevitable dinner invitation refresh. The restaurant was slammed the next Sunday they came in, and I was the most attentive I'd ever been to my other tables.
"Busy, indeed!" said Margot, looking around. I didn't acknowledge the extra twenty minutes they'd waited for my section.
"Summer is here!" I answered with a shrug, swiftly removing the extra place settings as they settled in. Margot handed Sandi her scarf.
"Well you know us. The usual. We'll be the easy table for you." Sandi pressed a finger and thumb to her earlobe where there was what looked like a hanging broom.
"Awesome," I said lamely, suddenly self-cast as dumber, goofier, someone less deserving of their time and energy. At their table, I laughed loudly, and gave a thumbs up in response to Margot's dessert order.
In return, they busied themselves in a conversation, bodies turned toward one another. They made little eye contact with me but still gave their coral-lipped twin smiles.
They came in two weeks later, but not at their usual early time. I was caught off guard, having allowed for many scenarios that might have signified their break from me and from Cafe bord de Mer. I easily slipped into concern when Sandi described Margot's recent illness that put her in the ER overnight.
"They're still running a series of tests, and she'll have to go to a few more specialists to get a final diagnosis." Sandi looked over to Margot, who held her coffee cup and my gaze. "If it's an autoimmune issue, which I suspect, it will likely be detected in an MRI."
There was a catch in my chest. Though the words lacked tangible meaning, I understood a gravity in Sandi's voice.
Margot was stoic, only pressing her lips together.
"I'm so sorry to hear about this," I said, my voice deep. I moved their table settings to the left.
"Well," said Margot. "This helps."
She was looking at me. 'This' might have meant her coffee; or it might have meant the restaurant; or, as I felt somewhere in the bottom of my abdomen, it might have meant me. I wondered if the illness was fabricated, yet another tactic to reel me into their seduction.
As I considered some questions that would show a specific level of my concern without being too curious, Sandi and Margot steered the conversation toward anecdotes about a new herb garden Margot had planted on their balcony.
"You can see it when you come for dinner," Margot said. The water pitcher in my right hand was suddenly heavy. "The basil is a bit of a bully. I might have to separate it from the cilantro, if they can't get along."
Sandi smiled widely and reached over to Margot's neck to give it a squeeze. Margot closed her eyes, and at that, I felt a tightness in my throat.
"We're glad Margot has the garden for an outlet," said Sandi. They both looked at me. "You'll love how we set it up, one of those bookshelf-stands made into a-"
"I'm never going to come to your house." My mouth shut, and my molars ground together.
Sandi licked her upper lip slowly. "I don't understand." Her voice was low.
In my peripheral vision, I saw that a woman at one of my tables nearby had placed a napkin on her plate. "I'm sorry, it's just not...a good thing," I said, and I went to the other customers. In the kitchen dropping off the woman's dish, I decided to relent. I could apologize, blame my response on confusion or stress. I lingered with my tables without making eye contact with Sandi and Margot, but tried to tune into their conversation and body language.
When I was finally in front of them again, Sandi and I both spoke at once, me starting with "I'm really-" but then conceding to Sandi, I said, "Go ahead."
Both women were leaning back in their chairs. Sandi put a finger to her chin and said, "We are fairly bewildered about earlier." I opened then shut my mouth. "A simple dinner invitation...how did that become so offensive to you?" Her lids lowered. Margot stared at me. "We've so enjoyed getting to know you over these months; it's been our pleasure to watch you mature." My face flushed and I swallowed. "I suppose we were mistaken, and perhaps egotistical to have thought we were part of it. Silly us." Sandi shrugged, and Margot's lips peeled back into a toothless smile. "Just a couple of old hags infatuated with an interesting young woman, who obviously has better things to do."
They both laughed and so I did, too. My newly-mobile mouth gave way to a spontaneous response: "No, not at all. You two are so important to me."
Margot reached over to Sandi's plate and took a half-eaten asparagus tip.
Sandi shook her head. "Let's not," she said. "Let's let this end in peace. We don't need your excuses. Someday, you'll see how much better life is when you don't avoid discomfort." Her eyes lowered and darkened, and I would learn to associate this particular type of regard as hunger from men with whom I'd have flings; a predatory move that electrified me. Somehow, the rest of the night moved forward. The paradox of my relief and guilt was evident in my chipperness with tables, and my fumbling of orders. Margot and Sandi ordered dessert, but only finished half, pushing away their plates and asking for the check.
"See you next week," I said, as I always did when they made their way to Cafe bord de Mer's exit.
But instead of Sandi responding with her usual "God willing," she just raised her eyebrows while handing Margot her scarf, and pushed open the door to leave.