She made her way to the head of the table.
“And how are you doing, sire? Is there anything I can get you?”
She knew as soon as she said it that it was not the right thing to say, but it was too late. It sounded ridiculous, but the Sheikh just replied with the hint of a laugh in his voice and a trace of a smile on him lips.
“Please, call me Hakim.”
Instinctively, seeing his smile, and the rush of warm familiarity he had extended, Anita smiled too.
“And no, I’m quite all right. I hope you’re not coming out to say that the chakchouka was too much trouble after all…”
Anita shook her head reassuringly. “Oh, no. I’ve checked with my father myself. It’s no trouble whatsoever.”
“Oh, good. I hope you’ll thank him for me.”
Anita paused. At this point, a better waitress would have left him in peace to enjoy the night, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Hakim,” she said, his name rolling off her tongue easily as his full title had. “Earlier you looked like you wanted to say something. When I was talking about my family, I mean. What was it?”
There was a long pause, and she noticed him look down at her hands. She did so, too, and realized what he was looking at.
“My ring?” she asked, fiddling with the gold signet ring she had worn around her thumb from the time her thumb had been big enough.
She looked back at the Sheikh, and found her eyes darting to his own hands. There, on his right hand, was a very similar signet ring.
“It’s just unusual, is all. Usually women do not wear these rings.”
“No…” she said. “It was my father’s.”
Suddenly, she felt like he was prying. It was a sensitive subject that she didn’t share with most people. When others asked, usually she lied and said she’d found it at a flea market.
“It’s not your adoptive father’s, is it?” he asked.
One look at the Sheikh and Anita knew she couldn’t lie to him. “No,” she said. “It belonged to my birth father. It’s all I have of his. How did you know?”
“Chefs don’t wear these rings,” the Sheikh said. “Whoever your birth father was, he was an important man. I can tell you that much. Anyway, I’m sorry to bother you about it. It’s just rare to see. And it’s lovely to see a woman wearing it.”
Anita shook her head, trying to clear it. This was more than she had bargained for.
“Thank you,” was all she could say. And then she left to go tend her other tables, that would doubtless not be so fraught with emotion.
The rest of the night went well. The Sheikh—Hakim, Anita mentally corrected herself—seemed to greatly enjoy his chakchouka, and the men’s laughter bouncing through the alley was a constant, every time Anita came out to refill drinks, or see if they needed anything.
The group managed to plow through more hummus, pita and meat than Anita would have thought possible, but Hakim just kept ordering more. It was as though, Anita allowed herself to think in a particularly weak moment, he wanted an excuse to stay.
Not long before closing, Hakim’s go-between—the one who had first tried to get the table without a reservation—got up and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, it seemed to upset Hakim, who looked hurriedly at his watch.
The man, who Anita remembered was called Ahmed, signaled for the bill, reaching out his hand for it when Anita brought it over.
Anita’s heart sunk; she didn’t have high hopes for a good tip if Ahmed was the man in charge of handling payments for his employer.
Still, she held off on looking at the signed receipt until she had said goodbye to the whole party. Each of the men, all of them in high spirits, thanked her personally, so it took a little while. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and Anita found herself smiling broadly at every over-the-top goodbye. She felt more like she had hosted them at her house than that she had just waited on them at a restaurant.
When it was finally Hakim’s turn to say goodbye, Anita wasn’t sure what to expect. But he gave her the same, gracious goodbye as the others had, even telling her that the chakchouka was the best he’d ever tasted, and that he would be sure to come back next time he was in Houston.
Was it just her imagination, or did he linger just a little bit longer than the others?
When they had all left, Anita felt as though the wind had been let out of her sails. She had expected a bit of a letdown, excitement-wise, once the night was over, but she hadn’t expected this. She felt… sad. Empty, even.
She opened up the check—better get the disappointment of no tip on a huge bill over with, she thought glumly.
She blinked twice when she saw the number. $200. Ahmed had left her a tip as large as the bribe he’d originally been going to give her.
Anita squinted at the elaborately-written note on the top line next to it.
“For the best table in the house,” it read.
She smiled. Maybe the guy wasn’t so bad after all.
She began stacking up the plates, bowls and cups. She’d told the busboys to go home early, as they had come through for her when she needed it, so she’d have to get all this put away on her own.
She tried not to let her mind wander back over the night. Her energy was waning, and now that the adrenaline rush was finally gone for good, she found that she wanted nothing nearly so much as to be upstairs in bed.
But she couldn’t help but wonder, again, if Hakim had seen the carving of her name, and if he had put it all together. Her gaze flicked up to the head of the table where he had been sitting.
That was when she saw it: just a glint of gold amongst the reflection of the twinkling lights.
Anita dropped the pile of dishes heavily on the table, not caring about the crashing sound they made, her heart beating faster as her body managed just one more little jolt of adrenaline. She rushed over to the glint of gold.
It was just what she had thought: Hakim’s ring, left behind by accident, she could only assume.
She scooped it up and took off at a run. Her tired feet stumbled, but she’d navigated the dining room so many times that she didn’t trip over any of the tables or chairs strewn about.
She reached the front door and looked frantically left and right. She could only hope they were still there.
It was dark, and it took her eyes a minute to adjust, but she was able to make out a limousine down the street to the left. The cluster of dishdasha-clad men around it made it clear that this was her aim, and she stumbled towards it, moving as quickly as she could without looking like a complete fool.
When she was close enough, she called out Hakim’s name. She saw him turn, so distinct in his suit. She saw him look down at her hands, and the precious object within them, and break into a wide smile.
“My ring!” he said when she reached him.
Anita set the ring in his open palm. Her fingertips grazed his skin as she set it down, and her heart, that had begun to calm, started racing anew.
This was no time for a crush, she thought. This was not the man to get awkward feelings for.
But it certainly wasn’t helping that he stepped closer to her as he picked up his hand to get a closer look at the ring.
“I fiddle with it sometimes,” he said, under his breath. If he hadn’t been standing so close, Anita doubted she would have heard him.
“I’m glad I caught you in time,” she said. Her mouth was running away and talking without permission from her brain. “I can’t imagine what I would do if I lost mine.”
“No…” he said, still apparently mesmerized by the ring he’d almost lost.
And then, as if released from a spell, he slid it onto his finger. “You must let me thank you.”
“I mean it,” he insisted. “You’ve saved me from losing something precious. Please, let me have your number. I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
Take her out? To dinner?
Ahmed was behind him. “Sir, we really must be on our way. They’ll be waiting.”
“Yes, just a moment,” Hakim replied, then focused his attention back on Anita. “I’ve got to go. Let me have your number, so I can work out the details with you.”
The flash of the anger in Fadi’s eyes flitted through Anita’s brain. But in the rush of it all, there was nothing else she felt like she could do.
She spouted out her phone number, feeling ridiculous as soon as she did so—his phone wasn’t out, there wasn’t a pen, and she’d left her pad of paper inside.
“You’ll forget…” she said, silently cursing herself for having put the pad away.
“Never!” he said with a wink.
Anita blushed as the Sheikh disappeared into the limo and sped off into the night, leaving her standing in its wake, unsure what exactly had just happened, but certain that whatever it was, it was something good.
It turned out that a good way of getting a second wind on a night that had been punishingly busy and stressful was to get asked out to dinner by a handsome sheikh.
Or so Anita was finding. The exhaustion that had begun settling in when the Sheikh’s party had gotten up had left her completely.
It had been a hard night, and there was no one left in the restaurant but her and Fadi. Fadi had sent the dishwashers home, not realizing that Anita had already sent the busboys home, leaving them with no one left to help them close up for the night.
So they did it all themselves.
Anita could tell that Fadi was still in a sour mood, it was just that it was hard to care when she was floating on a cloud the way she was. She turned up the music, which they would normally turn off during cleanup, and danced around him.
She was determined to pull him out of whatever kind of funk he was in, but Fadi wasn’t having any of it. She couldn’t remember a time when he’d so stubbornly committed to being upset, so she tried harder, turning her enthusiasm up a notch, and putting on a song that she knew for a fact he liked, even if he would deny it if she ever told anyone.
She sang in his ear. “Shake it off, ah ah ah, shake it off!”