A History of Color
She first noticed them on her second Sunday of work.
Nakajima Meiko, like many would-be actresses, had to work a day job as a waitress to support herself. Dressed in the pink-and-white uniform of the Soleil Bistro, Meiko worked hard to serve the customers. It was only temporary, until she managed to land herself an agent.
After the hostess showed them to her section, she went to take the couple's order. The man – smoking a cigarette, despite the "no smoking" sign displayed on the table - didn't even bother looking at her. Instead he kept his eyes fastened on his companion, although Meiko couldn't understand why.
She supposed the woman was pretty enough, but her posture was demure and her head was tilted downward in a shy manner. But the man... well, she couldn't see his face clearly in the semi-lit room, but he had an attractive body and a confident quirk in how he held himself.
Meiko knew she should remind him to put out his cigarette, but the hostess hadn't made the correction, either. Her instincts warned her not to mess with this man.
"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked politely, smiling at them with her best "cute waitress" fashion.
"I'll order now. We'll both have the Saumon Mariné à l'Anis," the man said without asking his companion. He tossed his menu – the one the hostess had provided them – in her vague direction. "And bring us a bottle of the house white."
She glanced over at the woman, but saw no protest. The woman's eyes were focused on the table's centerpiece, not wavering in the slightest. She hadn't even picked up her own menu to take a look.
Meiko collected both menus and murmured a polite promise to return with their drinks before stopping in the kitchen to deliver the order to the chef. "Two of the house specials," she said, turning to fetch the bottle of wine from the bartender.
It took several minutes to get his attention, since the man was wrapped up in a broadcast of Tsuruga Ren's latest movie. Meiko scowled resentfully, wishing she had the time to watch, too. She didn't have money to see films in the theater, which left her waiting for the television airings.
She'd been taught about the proper way to serve wine during her orientation, but was still new enough to the job to find herself nervous. Wine sales were an important part of the business, since it helped raise the bill's total. After grabbing a white linen cloth and chiller, she set two wine glasses and the bottle on a tray.
The man had finished his cigarette by the time she'd returned, and she knew the busboy would be discovering the ashes and butt on cleaning up after the meal. She hoped the tablecloth wasn't ruined, but suspected it was the carpet that had ended up as the final depository. She blanked those thoughts from her mind, knowing that treating a customer as suspect would not be wise.
She set the chiller down in the middle of the table before placing the glasses in front of each diner. Turning, she prepared to display the bottle to the man to ensure he was satisfied, but found herself surprised when he took it out of her hands.
"I'll handle it," he said brusquely, grabbing the corkscrew.
Meiko felt her jaw drop a bit in shock before she reminded herself to remember her manners.
"Yes, sir," she murmured, watching as he easily uncorked the bottle and served them both. The woman's glass was less than half-full when he was done, while his own threatened to overflow.
"Here," he said, tossing the corkscrew back at her in a careless fashion. She barely managed to catch it.
He didn't even look her way, picking up his own glass and downing half of it in three swallows.
Meiko felt herself flush with annoyance as she stalked back to the kitchen. She wasn't sure if she was more annoyed with the man, for being rude, or the woman, for taking it. While traditional roles called for a woman to be subservient, that didn't mean she had to be a doormat.
She wasn't surprised when the man sent both meals back to the kitchen (twice) for some imagined wrong. She forced herself to remain calm, drawing on the acting classes she had taken, but whenever she got back to the kitchen, she found her mask frayed, and she indulged in bitching with the other waitresses. Her senior, Nanako, who'd been working in the restaurant business for more than two decades, simply gave her a sympathetic smile.
"There's plenty of jerks who come in," she said. "You just need to learn to endure."
She nodded and smiled, even though she felt more like gritting her teeth. "How does she put up with that?"
"The woman with him?"
Nanako shrugged. "She's probably getting something out of it – she's dressed like an office employee, not a wife. If I was to guess, I'd think she was his mistress."
"Really?" Meiko had always imagined mistresses lived more glamorous lives, confident women who knew how to get men to spoil them.
Nothing like the woman out there.
"There's no way of telling what her circumstances are. Besides, he is rather handsome, and some women like being treated like doormats," Nanako said. "Any attention is better than no attention, and she's a bit plain-looking."
Meiko tried to keep her mind carefully blank as she returned to the table to present the bill. As she laid the bill faced down in front of the gentleman, she angled her face slightly to try to get a closer look at his face.
She could see, then, why a woman might put up with this kind of abuse. He was one of the handsomest men she'd ever seen. The man's face was striking, with smooth skin and beautiful cheekbones. Long lashes fringed around brilliant blue eyes, and despite the slight sneer on his lips, his mouth was attractive as well. The man didn't even acknowledge her presence, picking up the bill and gesturing for the woman to follow.
Meiko watched the couple rush out, her annoyance threatening to bubble over again. She couldn't help but think that the man looked familiar, but surely she would have remembered serving such a rude customer before.
Just as she was about to spin away so the unfortunate busboy could do his work, a glint of color out of place caught her eye.
From under the woman's plate, she pulled a small letter, written on cute, floral notepaper... and puzzled for a second at the message. Gochisosama deshita.
You were an honorable host.
Meiko stood holding the note, frowning. How very peculiar.
It was a different couple that caught her eye, exactly two weeks later. Meiko had been taking an acting course through LME, and the teacher had made a point of stressing how important it was to watch how others interacted, especially when interactions were unique.
This time, it was a man and a teenage boy that managed to make her wonder.
The man was maybe ten years older than his companion, too young to be his father but too old to be a normal acquaintance. The man was dressed in business attire and had his dark hair brushed back from his forehead with a liberal use of gel. The boy, in denim and a sweatshirt, wasn't dressed appropriately for the bistro, and was wearing one of the ties the hostess handed out to help people meet the dress code. The incongruous tie hung over the boy's Tokyo Giants shirt, but somehow managed to look cute instead of silly.
"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked, her voice friendly but distant. Something about this pairing was setting off her alarms, and she didn't want to get pulled into whatever undercurrents she was sensing.
The boy shot a curious look at the older man, whose lips quirked in what might have been an indulgent smile. "Would you like me to order for you?" the man asked.
"I'm sure you know what would be best, Konishi-san," the boy said softly. "I've never been anywhere this nice before."
"We'll each start with a mineral water," the man told Meiko. "We should be ready to order when you get back."
She smiled and pleasantly agreed to fetch their drinks, despite her internal disquiet. Upon returning the man ordered two different four-course meals, consisting of appetizers, the main course, cheese course and dessert. The boy listened as the man spoke in semi-decent French, expertly asking for adjustments to taste. Meiko had to scribble quickly to avoid making a mistake.
The boy's eyes got rounder and rounder, and by the time Konishi was done speaking, he looked a bit appalled. "Surely we're not going to eat all that!" he protested. "I don't even know what any of it is!"
"Didn't I promise you an adventure, Kasahara-kun?" The man sounded amused. "You don't need to eat everything, but you should at least be willing to try a bite of each dish. Who knows? You may discover a new favorite food."
She paused to catch her breath after dropping the order off in the kitchen. The restaurant was fairly quiet, and Kasahara and Konishi were the only ones sitting in her section. Standing behind the kitchen door, she peered out the window, trying to pinpoint why she wasn't comfortable with this pair.
On the surface, they were pleasant enough, thanking her for the drinks and not treating her like she was a piece of the restaurant's furniture. Both were easy on the eyes, and Kasahara was so charmingly naïve that a part of her wanted to pat him on the head, like a puppy. Konishi was tall, dark and handsome, exactly the type of man she'd like to date.
Nanako, returning from delivering dessert to one of her tables while humming the tune of Fuwa Shou's latest song, noticed her introspection. "Something wrong?" the older waitressed queried.
"No... at least, I don't think so," she corrected thoughtfully. "Just a little mystery I'm trying to figure out."
"Oh?" Nanako canted her head to the side, her curiosity plainly written on her face.
"I'm having a hard time figuring out what that pair is doing together," she said, pointing to Konishi's table. "They don't seem to be related, they're the wrong age to be friends, and... well, they just don't match."
"Ah?" Nanako, who was a good four inches shorter than Meiko, raised herself up on her toes to get a better look out the window. After about ten seconds, she started to giggle, letting herself settle back onto her feet. "I think it's pretty obvious."
"Well... you know," Nanako said, holding up her little finger. "Like that."
Meiko blinked, recognizing the relationship implication Nanako was making. Then she started shaking her head. "No, that can't be right."
Nanako's face turned sly. "Watch their body language and tell me that," she said, before giving Meiko a playful shove toward the kitchen. "Bring their appetizers, and you'll see what I mean."
Feeling a bit rigid, Meiko did as Nanako told her. She returned to the table to set the appetizers down - crudites and caviar – before stepping back.
"Enjoy," she invited.
Neither of them turned to acknowledge her, their attention focused entirely on each other. The boy reached over to spoon a large clump of caviar onto a cracker, but Konishi caught him by the wrist. "Not like that," he corrected with a smile of amusement, before showing Kasahara how caviar was meant to be enjoyed.
His touch lingered just a bit too long on the boy's wrist, but the boy didn't pull away.
Meiko managed to contain her frown until she got back to the kitchen, having to admit that Nanako was probably right. She had never gotten into boy-love manga, mainly because her older sister had been such an otaku about it. Any kind of PDA was embarrassing, really, but seeing two gorgeous men taken by each other (and did her mind really have to think "taken" instead of something more innocuous, like "dating?") made her grumpy.
Nanako couldn't stop snickering as she winked at Meiko. "So?" she said.
Meiko grabbed a nearby linen off the counter and threw it at her friend.
It was another couple that caught her attention about two weeks later, a man and a woman again, but very different from the businessman and his mistress.
The woman was the one who caught her attention, dressed in a brilliantly red, low-cut blouse that showed off the curve of her breasts. She had long, equally red hair, and her lips were painted a shade of crimson that reminded Meiko of blood. She had hitched her chair around the table so she was sitting next to her companion, running a red-nailed hand over his lower arm.
The man was a handsome blond, but he didn't look like he belonged with the vamp. He sat with a slouch in his shoulders, and his thick, horned-rim glasses obscured his eyes. He was blushing heavily, like he wasn't used to having a beautiful woman so close to him. All in all, he looked like a geek from one of the technical companies.
This was a mismatch of the worst kind, Meiko couldn't help but think. The woman was going to eat the poor man alive.
"Hello, how are you two this evening?" Meiko greeted pleasantly.
"Very good," the woman drawled, speaking for the both of them "Do you mind if I order for us, darling?" Her voice, unexpectedly sweet, was in contrast to the rest of her appearance.
"G-go ahead," the man replied, with a hint of a stammer. "Order whatever you'd like."
"A bottle of red zinfandel, the best you have," the woman said. "And whatever course your chef recommends to accompany it."
Pricey, Meiko couldn't help thinking, and predictable. "Any allergies?" Meiko asked carefully.
"We can eat anything, as long as it's well-made," the woman replied. "Isn't that right, darling?"
'Darling' squeaked an affirmative. Meiko wondered if the woman thought she was doing a good job hiding where her hand was.
She pasted a pleasant smile on her face, agreeing to bring out something wonderful. When she got into the kitchen, she couldn't keep from bursting into gales of laughter.
"What's so amusing?" Nanako wanted to know as she balanced a tray of dirty dishes.
"It's nice to see a lady with a man so thoroughly twisted around her... little finger," Meiko replied. "Though I do wonder how much of her attraction is to his bank account."
"You mean the blond and redhead I saw Akari seat in your section a couple minutes ago?"
"Yes," Meiko said, unable to suppress a snicker. "The quintessential man eater and her hapless prey."
"Oh," Nanako said, and turned around to set the tray down where the dishwasher could easily collect it. Surprisingly, she didn't add anything else.
Meiko looked at her senpai, wondering if she was missing something. "Spit it out," she said after a long moment, deciding a direct approach was best.
"It's nothing, hon," Nanako demurred. "Don't you have an order to get to the chef?"
Meiko gasped slightly, a hand reflexively covering her mouth. "I almost forgot!" she exclaimed in horror, the lack of attention to her work flustering her tremendously.
The chef cheerfully agreed to match the bottle of red zinfandel the bartender had provided. He liked couples that let him experiment with the menu, because the bistro attracted far too few adventurous types for his liking. Most diners preferred to stick with "tried and true" meals.
She returned a couple minutes later, ready to serve the wine, and hoping that her tardiness hadn't been noticed. She showed both of them the label, and the woman nodded with approval. "That should be fine," she said, smiling as she stroked the hand of her dinner companion.
Meiko cut the casing and removed the cork, pouring out a couple tablespoons worth of the valuable liquor (which retailed for around 40,000 yen a bottle). The woman took it from her gracefully, holding the glass up to the light to inspect the color as she swirled it to check the wine's legs. A smile curved her (red, red) lips as she held it under her nose to smell the bouquet. Then she took a sip, letting the wine linger on her tongue before swallowing.
"Very good," she said, before indicating Meiko should finish pouring the wine.
Meiko finished pouring, unable to avoid noticing the smooth elegance of the woman as she raised her glass again. After setting the bottle on the table, she went to fetch the hors d'oeuvres.
Chef had outdone himself, she thought as she saw the lobster bisque he had whipped up, served in tiny demitasse cups with spoons garnished with dollops of crème fraîche. It was a bit unconventional, but this couple seemed the type to appreciate it (or the woman would, and anyone looking at the two could tell who had control in that relationship).
She made her way back through the restaurant, noticing how the woman was actually leaning against the man's arm. His eyes were fastened on his date's face, which made Meiko pause for a bit. With the outfit the woman was wearing, most men would be focused on her chest. Especially considering the casual contact the woman kept indulging in.
It was a slight note of discord to the image of "vamp and victim" Meiko had mentally formed of the couple. The woman smiled and thanked her as she set the food down, before picking up the spoon and taking a small bite of the spicy bisque. "This is wonderful," she said, a blissful smile on her face. "Please pass my compliments to the chef."
Despite her expectations, the couple proved to be remarkably easy to serve. The woman took the lead in their interactions, offering compliments – though not excessive ones – on the creative meal the chef sent out, while the man gave her shy smiles of approval.
Meiko was feeling decidedly off-balance by the time she'd served the cheese course. She was used to being able to judge people fairly well, but this couple wasn't playing by the script. By the time she gave the bill, she was utterly shocked when the woman claimed it before the man even had a chance to move.
"It's my treat, darling," she said. "I told you we were going to celebrate your promotion, didn't I?" Then she leaned in close to the man, whispering something in his ear that made him blush a brilliant scarlet.
Meiko dodged back into the kitchen to wait for the couple to pay their bill and leave. She was heartily embarrassed, and didn't like to think what could have gone wrong if she'd continued to follow her assumptions.
Nanako smiled understandingly when she came in herself. "You okay?"
"I almost made a huge fool of myself," she confessed, feeling mortified.
"The woman wasn't a gold digger, eh?" Nanako said wisely. "Sometimes it pays to wait before drawing a conclusion about people."
She felt the flush of shame on her face, and hung her face slightly. "Yes, Nanako-senpai."
"You'll do better next time," Nanako reassured her. "If you pay attention from the start, without prejudging people, you might be surprised at what you learn."
Two months after she'd started waitressing – and eight failed auditions, but who was counting? - she was starting to feel balanced in her job. She hadn't made any horrible mistakes, and it'd been a month since she'd screwed up an order. The bistro wasn't a bad place to work, since there were people like Nanako who made the environment pleasant.
Aside from the occasional grumpy customer, she liked it.
And that caused her to worry, because she was starting to get comfortable. She wanted to be an actress, but a small part of her mind was urging her to settle for a more comfortable, assured life.
It was a Sunday again when a fourth couple managed to shake her awake.
The couple arrived a little past two, just when the lunch rush was making its final exit, and long before the early dinner diners would appear. A traditional French dinner could span most of the afternoon, but luckily few of the Japanese diners followed that custom. She smiled as Akari showed them to her section, glad to have something to do aside from polishing silverware, arranging flowers, or doing whatever other busywork the manager would find for her.
The couple were both dressed in business attire, properly pressed and not an inch out of place. The man politely held out the chair for his table mate, a woman with long black hair dressed in a navy-blue pants suit, before claiming his own seat. He was powerfully built, with wide shoulders and plenty of height, and she could easily imagine him intimidating anyone as he made cutthroat business deals.
The couple's body language wasn't right for this to be a date; the man wasn't trying to sneak any sly touches, and the woman was brisk in her movement, not flirtatious. Both of them declined wine, instead asking for virgin drinks since this was a luncheon. The woman made a point of requesting a duplicate receipt "for business purposes" as they ordered just appetizers and entrees, skipping the other usual courses.
"We need to be back to the office by four if we're going to meet our lawyers," the man pointed out.
Meiko thought it was weird to be closing a deal on Sunday, but knew that some businesses worked weird hours. She smiled as she took the order back to the kitchen, pausing as she glanced back at the couple.
On the surface, they were exactly what they appeared to be, but she hadn't missed the inadvertent way the man's voice had softened as he spoke to the woman, or the way the woman was careful not to look any longer than appropriate at her dining companion. They each held themselves stiffly, but not in the usual manner of business professionals. Instead, their stiffness seemed to be derived from fighting an unwanted attraction.
Nanako was in the kitchen again, polishing silverware (as Meiko had been saved from doing it). "Everything going alright? You look thoughtful."
"There's a pair out there that are... curious," Meiko said. Grinning, she held up her little finger as Nanako had done a month ago. "They want to be, but..." she paused. "Never let it be said that the Japanese don't have perfect work ethics."
Nanako looked at Meiko's pinkie, before chortling. "Like the boy and that man last month?"
"Much less fulfilled," Meiko said, before stopping. Something about the memory of the bishounen and his would-be lover struck her then.
And like a jigsaw, it all fell together. "Every two weeks," she said softly. "Every two weeks."
To her credit, Nanako didn't play stupid. "They've been doing this for years," she said. "The staff just plays along, since they're such excellent customers. Whenever we get a new waitress, they're seated in her section so the act is a bit more natural. You caught on pretty quick – it took me four months to figure it out."
"Who are they?" Meiko demanded. The whole idea of dressing up and acting at a restaurant, without an audience, struck her as a bit insane.
"I promised I wouldn't tell," Nanako said piously, before offering a wink. "Though I might confirm if you guess right."
Meiko allowed herself to scowl, but really was intrigued by the challenge.
She thoughtfully twisted a strand from her ponytail around her finger as she thought on the situation. Nanako expected her to know who they were, which meant they were likely famous. It also wouldn't do to let them know the gig was up; if they'd been coming here for years to play this game, management would not be thrilled by an outright confrontation.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax. Mentally she cataloged the parts of her body – neck, shoulders, arms, back, waist, hips, legs, feet – and concentrated on releasing the tension there.
So they wanted to act? She was an actress (wanna-be), too, and she could play their game.
She fetched their non-alcoholic drinks and came back out, noticing how rigidly each was seated, and how they were taking care to avoid even the most casual of eye contact. It was like watching a very bad first date, she thought, as she set the drinks down in front of them.
"I'm sorry for the wait," she said. "Your appetizers should be out shortly."
They made polite, distracted murmurs of acknowledgment before picking their drinks, using the glasses as additional shields from each other. It was wonderful improvisation, she couldn't help thinking jealously.
She couldn't stare at them for too long, not without making her suspicions clear, but she took a chance to smile at them, hoping they wouldn't notice her attention. The man's features were still very fine, the kind of handsome that naturally drew the eye. His hair had been dyed a very dark black, and she noticed how the cut of his suit was designed to turn his lean frame into something slightly larger.
But the woman was the true chameleon, changing from meek mistress to bishounen to vamp to businesswoman. The roles were all very different, and Meiko had been taken in by them all. She studied the woman's face, noting the way lipstick had been put to make her lips look thinner, and the trick of eye-makeup to make her eyes look deeper-set.
Meiko would have studied them longer, but knew she had to be leaving.
She waited an appropriate amount of time before returning with their mundane appetizers, puzzling what she knew. The couple each accepted graciously, though the man made a request to have his glass of water refreshed.
She went to retrieve the water pitcher, convinced that she should know who they were. Famous actors that would be together on Sunday. Famous actors that would be together on a Sunday, outside of work. Famous actors that were able to portray a variety of different characters...
As she returned with the glass, she smiled as the man shifted his shoulder back so she could reach the glass.
He smiled at her.
Meiko knocked his glass over in shock.
Like a lightning bolt, her mind instantly solved the puzzle.
Tsuruga Ren was smiling at her.
And that meant his dining companion-
But there was no time to dwell on that. She knew her shock had shown, that she had just performed a major gaffe. Instead of admitting the mistake, she tried to cover it up as a normal accident.
Meiko had her pride as an actress, too.
"I'm so sorry, sir, my hand slipped!" she said, pulling a cloth napkin off an unoccupied nearby table and attempting to blot the water up. "Are you alright?"
"It's okay. None of it splashed me," the man said forgivingly.
"Would you like to change tables, or I can get you something else to make up for it?" Meiko asked, focusing her attention on the man (do not think of him as Tsuruga-sama, do not let it slip...).
The woman scowled across the table at them, suspiciously. Meiko's actions could be taken as those of a flirtatious waitress, trying to get the attention of a man. "We're fine," the woman said smoothly, in a voice like glass, hard but with underlying fragility.
Meiko apologized several more times, sketching a too-deep bow of apology that offered a nice look down her blouse. The man, thankfully, didn't take advantage of it by staring, but the woman was radiating irritation.
She managed to make it safely back to the kitchen before giving into her jelly-like legs.
"Nice save," Nanako complimented her. "Would you like some water?"
Meiko might have taken that as a mean-spirited joke if her throat hadn't been so dry. She nodded, and Nanako poured her a glass. Her hands shook as she took the glass, and she took a couple of sips before finding her voice. "Oh. My. God," she managed to gasp. "I'm so embarrassed!"
"Yours wasn't the worst reaction I've seen," Nanako said, patting her on the shoulder. "Actually, you made a very creditable save..."
"I just spilled water on Tsuruga Ren."
"You're exaggerating. He said you didn't get him wet."
"Nanako-senpai!" Her voice was a wail of distress. "I just made a fool of myself in front of Tsuruga Ren and Kyouko."
Meiko couldn't think of worse people to offend. Tsuruga Ren was Japan's best-known star, courted constantly by Hollywood after winning back-to-back Oscars as best leading man. His wife, Kyouko, was equally celebrated in Japan, and the personal inspiration for almost all young up-and-coming actresses. Kyouko was known for her ability to play any role, morphing into the character she was cast as. Rumor had it that she'd just been cast as a lead for a major Hollywood production of a modernized Macbeth as Lady MacBeth herself.
"You might have made a slip, but you improvised well," Nanako said. "If you want, I can take over waiting on them."
It was a gracious offer, since Nanako was already juggling three other tables. It would be a way to save face, and prevent further embarrassment, but it would be taking the easy way out.
"I'll do it," she said, setting the glass of water aside, and forcing herself to straighten her back. "The show must go on, and all that."
Nanako's laughter helped buoy her spirits further as Meiko mentally slid herself into the role of a competent, cheerful waitress who was attracted to her customer. It might have been pushing things to flirt with Tsuruga Ren, but if he was an average customer, she might choose to do so. Men liked sweet waitresses, after all.
For the rest of the meal, she threw herself into the role – it wasn't that far from her real personality, but it was different enough that it was a challenge. By the end of the night, she felt an adrenalin high, knowing she'd done a good job acting in the role, even though the small role-play had only involved three.
Maybe the reason Kyouko and Tsuruga Ren were the best was because they loved acting so much they did it in their free time, quiet little dramas that only amused themselves. It was something to think on, Meiko recognized as she handed over the separate bills to the couple.
On the way out, she could have sworn she saw Kyouko wink at her playfully.
Two weeks later, when the middle-aged newlyweds showed up, Meiko threw herself into her role.