Friday, February 25, 2005

Amputee

A new two top is seated in my section. The girl is pretty. The boy is tall and quiet. They look young. If they order alcohol I’ll have to see ID.

I pat my breast pocket to make sure I have my reading glasses. I need them to read the small print of a license. Time and years working in dim lighting have weakened my eyes. It’s a sign I’m getting older.

I welcome the couple and ask if they’d like a drink. They order a bottle of wine. I ask for identification.

“Sorry, If you look under thirty I have to check,” I say, half jesting, to lighten a potentially tense moment.

“Sure, no problem,” the young man says. Ready to have his age checked, he pulls a license from his shirt pocket. Putting on my glasses I squint at the ID. Date of Birth – 1983. I was a high school sophomore in ’83.

“Thank you sir,” I say handing back the card.

The young woman is not so well prepared. She fumbles nervously through her purse. I notice she’s holding her bag funny. Finally, she produces a license. 1983. Good no problems.

“Thank you Miss,” I say handing her license back. She reaches for it with her left hand. Her right arm moves to open her purse. Then I see it.

The young woman has no right hand.

Usually my customers have all their fingers and toes. Caught of guard my brain performs a hard reset. I stare at the missing limb for one second. It’s one second too long.

The young woman looks at me and jerks her arm back placing it out of sight in her lap. Flushing slightly she looks at her boyfriend. He looks at her. A volume of information is telegraphed between them in a fraction of a second.

I feel the color rush to my face. “Let me get your wine,” I say excusing myself.

“Real smooth moves,” I think, kicking myself in the ass while I grab their Chianti from the wine cellar. I worked in health care for years and saw all sorts of things. Never once was I surprised or shocked. Then again, I haven’t worked in a hospital in ages. My old unconscious professional coping mechanisms have faded with time.

I return to the table and perform the tasting ritual. The young woman’s arm is still in her lap. She’s not looking at me.

“The wine is fine,” her date says looking mildly annoyed.

While I rattle of the specials on autopilot I think about the girl’s hand. She must have lost it in an accident. If it was something she had lived with since birth her reaction might have been less pronounced. Some people with similar injuries develop unconscious habits to cloak their missing appendages and avoid embarrassing gaffes like the one I’d just experienced. I went a whole year living with a college roommate before I discovered he was missing two fingers on his left hand. Dan always had his hand in his pocket or was holding a pen a la Bob Dole. He wasn’t embarrassed by his injury but explained he developed his habits unconsciously as a form of self protection. School children can be cruel I guess.

The young couple places their order. I decide that giving them extra attention or free stuff to repent for my mistake would be make a bad situation worse. Just treat then like everybody else. I thank them and punch their order into the POS system.

A little later I stop by the table and pour some wine into their glasses.

“Are you enjoying your entrees?” I ask.

The young woman looks directly at me and smiles, “Yes, everything is wonderful.”

It seems the girl recovered her equilibrium. “Let me know if you need anything else,” I offer.

“Thank you,” she says graciously.

The rest of their dinner proceeds without incident. They pay their bill and get up to leave. The girl leans forward and plants a kiss on her date’s cheek. They walk out arm in arm.

I pick up the check of the table. The tip is a solid 20%. I guess my screw-up wasn’t as monumental as I thought.

Relieved, I process the rest of my customers and the night draws to a close.

As I’m walk to my car I think about that young woman. I wonder how I would cope if, God forbid, I was in a similar situation. I once knew a coworker who lost both legs above the knee in a car accident. After rehab he became a computer whiz, cashed in on the dot com boom, married a knockout, and lives in a big house in Delaware with a veritable legion of children. He still drives his own car. I also knew a patient who lost a foot to diabetes. He killed himself soon after amputation surgery.

I shake my head. There are a lot of variables to consider. I guess it depends on the person and their prior history. I can’t help but wonder if I’d rally or fold.

I’m grateful that young couple was gracious. I think they remembered I’m only human and it won’t be the last time something like this happens to them. That young woman is going to be all right.

In any case, I wish I could relive that single awkward second.

But I can’t.

I drive home.

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