When Etienne started working at his father’s café the summer before he turned thirteen, he was an awkward young boy busing the tables with the air of someone terrified that he would shatter something important. It took him two weeks before he finally broke something, realized it wasn’t a big deal, and loosened up at last. I remember coming to the café for lunch every day, watching the boy slowly leave his insecurities behind, just as his father wanted. Jean-Michel and I have been friends since l’école maternelle when he smeared paste in my hair one day. I remembered our own awkwardness as we’d approached our teenage years, and seeing skinny little Etienne rushing around from table to table brought me back to those good old days.
A few years short of puberty, Etienne was still scrawny and short, the black polo tee loose on his small figure. It seemed to drape from his bony shoulders, and I swear he could’ve fit another person in there with him. His pants looked as though they’d fall off without his belt, and his shiny leather shoes had room for him to grow into. He’d pine after the pretty girls who stopped for a coffee—every centime tip he treasured like a love note. I felt bad for him sometimes, but I hoped this petit Etienne would grow up into a strong man like his father, Jean-Michel.
I needn’t have worried. The next summer he graduated to seating guests and filling drink orders between busing tables. He’d grown a good ten centimeters and bulked out a bit, although his elbows still seemed to stick out at funny angles from the sleeves of his polo tee. Even I could see he’d grown mentally as well, for he went from stammering to casual with the girls and was always gracious with the other patrons as well. Plus, his London education made him very popular with the American and British tourists who came wandering through the café like lost sheep. I pointed this out to Jean-Michel one afternoon, and the next week I saw Etienne had begun waiting tables for tourists. I thought he did so quite well, although I must admit my English comprehension is not fantastic. I am quite sure, however, that their laughter was not laughter of derision, but of delight with this French boy with the British accent.
The next summer, Etienne looked so much like the college Jean-Michel that I almost cracked a joke with Etienne about our Art History professor from the Sorbonne. He was stronger than his father by then, his arms corded with lean muscle and his shoulders strong but not bulky, just like his father had been in his college days of rock-climbing and parkour. I lost to Etienne in an arm-wrestling match one afternoon, and Jean-Michel just laughed at me. The boy’s eyes were sharp, too, and I knew he had at last learned to extend his mage instincts to his everyday life—no more could I slip him the euro notes his father refused. He waited any and all of the tables now, along with Marie, the young woman Jean-Michel hired earlier that spring. They made an amazing duo, joking and teasing one another as they competed for tips. Etienne always won five of the seven days they worked, although I think sometimes he let the older Marie win. That summer, I also met one of his friends from boarding school, Olivier Leclerc. I’d actually met Olivier once ten years before—his parents and I have been good friends since college, and I’d seen Olivier when he was six, heading for his first year at the boarding school in London. He, too, had grown up into a handsome young man with a good head on his shoulders. I spent one afternoon discussing internet identity with him, until Etienne shooed us away from the good table by the tree. And oh my, how the girls swooned around them both…
I wonder where the boy is now, with the world in turmoil. He learned fast on all fronts, and I’m sure he’ll adapt to whatever lifestyle he’s leading now just as well as he adapted to life at the café. I’d like to think watching Etienne grow up each summer makes me an essential part of his life, and I’d like to watch the next chapter of his life unfold. But alas, the world is not what it once was, and our lives are no longer what they once were. I’ll miss the young boy who thought breaking a cup would be the end of the world as much as I’ll miss the young man who broke four plates, two saucers, and three cups in a single day without blinking an eye, except to wink at Marie. I’ll pine for the lunches in the warm summer afternoon, but I know Etienne has moved on—I only wish that I could see it for myself.