My First ‘No’


I’m leaning against the hostess stand, eying my boss Javier to see if he’s in a good mood. Sweat is gluing my hair to my forehead, drawn from the Santa Monica heat and bustling restaurant atmosphere. My feet ache from hours of shuffling people to their table in my folkloric Mexican blouse and traditional yellow skirt. I’m tired, and I look like an idiot in this corporate-prescribed costume, but I’m determined to talk to him. I jumped on this job five months ago as a way to stay afloat while I chase my acting career, but it’s been taking its heavy toll on both my dignity and patience. Finally, the minimum wage and mediocre Mexican food are no longer my burden to bear. I picked up a second job that’s offered to make me full time, and the only thing keeping me at Mariella’s is a love of the coworkers, and a crippling aversion to the notion of quitting something. I’ll tell Javier that I want to become very part-time. I’m not leaving altogether, but my sentimental feelings of loyalty aren’t enough to keep putting my acting career on hold and devouring cold enchiladas every night. I fidget with my green sash, harness my determination, and march up to the man in charge.

Quitting things has never been a strong suit of mine. My parents didn’t tolerate it much, for one thing, and my own competitive edge has been a real problem when it comes to honing in on my actual strengths. I spent four high school soccer seasons huffing and puffing on the bench, wiped out from my seven minutes of play time. I scratched and screeched through a decade’s worth of violin recitals, surrounded by prodigies who were half my age. As a teenager I spent two years working at a smoothie bar, where the 40 year old owner asked for a copy of my prom pictures, and enjoyed showing me the female customers he wanted to bone. I took Chemistry and Microeconomics in college, just to assert my desire to be well rounded and well informed about the world. I’m bad at quitting things. Whether it’s a sport I’m no good at, a hobby I’m half-hearted about, a work environment I’m ill-suited for, or a subject in school that makes me want to punch a wall, something inside me has always associated quitting with giving up, or a lack of integrity. I was the perfect prey for a place like Mariella’s.

During a recent phone call home, I’d told my father about my predicament. I desperately wanted to leave my job, but felt guilty about the time they’d spent training me, and the fact that they were dangerously short-staffed. I couldn’t imagine the turmoil they’d face if I up and left them, forced to replace the girl who showed up on time for work six nights a week. On the other hand, I was growing restless about moving my acting forward. I needed to take more workshops, go on auditions, find a commute that didn’t drain me of my entire day. I expected my dad to say something about honoring commitments and toughening up through hardship, but he was sympathetic beyond my wildest expectations. “Listen George: nobody, and I mean nobody, is there on the west coast to look out for your best interests, but you.” He was right. Save a few friends who were busy facing the same uphill battle I was, it was basically every man for himself out here. The only person in the entire city of Los Angeles who gave a reliable shit about my security and sanity was the girl who dropped her phone in the toilet, locked her keys in her car, and exploded publicly any time a catcaller said the wrong thing on the wrong day. I’m, of course, referring to me.

This idea that I was the only soldier in the army fighting for my wellbeing rang true, and it reminded me of some potent words I’d heard in college. On the last day of Microeconomics, the professor said something similarly profound to a classroom of sleepy students.

“You are all talented, brilliant, hardworking people,” she declared, as we fought to keep our hungover eyes open. “Soon, you’ll be entering the real world, and it won’t be long before the people around you realize just how talented and smart you are. People will start to ask you for things. They’ll want your help with stuff, they’ll delegate more responsibility to you. But remember this: nothing in this world is free. When people ask you to do something (even something you’re glad to do), they’re also asking you to give up doing something else. They’re asking you to give up time, which is the most precious commodity in the world.” This, too, made a lot of sense now.

With my professor’s wisdom and my dad’s blessing pulling me forward, I delivered a speech to Javier about how I no longer needed the hours, but that I was happy to help the restaurant a couple of shifts a week, on the days when I could. He played hard ball at first. He wasn’t about to let some 22 year old girl out-negotiate him on his own turf. He told me to go ahead and do what I needed to do, but that two days a week wasn’t worth it for him to keep me on staff. He scoffed at my offer, and pressed, “No, no, you need to work with me.” Days later, I put in my notice for good. The other managers were furious with him for losing their best hostess.

I still don’t think it’s right or honorable to flake on commitment, but there also wasn’t much honorable about Javier making his problem my problem. I had enough problems of my own, namely the cockroaches in my apartment, and I’d upheld my commitment by being a star employee. Leaving Mariella’s set me free. It was important to discover that quitting, even when loosely translated to “giving up,” can be a healthy thing. Sometimes what you’re giving up is toxicity, or heartache, or roadblocks in your path. I’d just fought the first of many battles on my own behalf, and I felt strong.