I ordered food I could not eat.
I sat across from him and thought I might throw up or pass out and either way the bathroom was probably the best place to be. Not in the booth of the greasy hipster diner, its cushions partially eviscerated, foam distending from the red vinyl there beside his foot. Which was next to my leg, bobbing slightly to some blithe cadence only he could hear. And why now?
I ordered food I could not eat.
He ordered chicken and waffles, maybe because I was paying.
He stripped the chicken from the bone, bits left there along the corner of his mouth, an imperfect but confident method, like he’d ordered this before, like it was his favorite dish. I did not know these kinds of things. He hardly ever agreed to meet me out at places that weren’t
- the same corner of the regular bar
- his car, front seat bent way back
- the arm of the couch in his living room, the one away from the confines of the wall
- his bed but never under the covers. It was okay by me, though, I mean I don’t like to overstay my welcome.
In the diner, he poured gravy on the waffles, then the syrup. He smeared the viscous mess around with the back of his fork. James leaned over his food, his lanky elbows jutting out like carats emphasizing a word, like hyperlinks. Like he was keeping something invisible away from the $14.99 meal he was getting for free.
You should eat your food, he said through full cheeks. He gestured toward my plate with the loaded tip of his fork. Why don’t you eat?
I stared at the careful pomade-bolstered wave cresting gently up from the widow’s peak of his hairline. He’d dated a hairdresser once, he knew how to make it lay right. He wore a scruffy hoodie to offset the appearance of vanity. He had sloe gin eyes that acted like an opiate drip against my better leanings.
I can’t right now, I said.
I settled an apologetic gaze on the BLT. Halved and untouched: a perfect cross section of tomato, mayonnaise, crisp rivulets of bacon, and tiny frill of lettuce. The diner’s pride and joy. It looked like food in a photograph and James was saying things that weren’t bitingly sarcastic. That sandwich was a beautiful thing and I didn’t have the right to leave it uneaten. I couldn’t even afford it. I couldn’t really afford any of this. You can’t really eat a BLT later on.
If I was being honest I’d have said I ordered food I cannot eat and then maybe a real conversation could have happened. The unthinkable.
I could have told him that I was the kind of woman who couldn’t stomach food when things in her life were out of place. And things inside the diner were bending toward unrecognizable. I could have pointed to the metronome of his foot wagging like a dog with a full belly. Or the simple directive of his conversation, mellifluous in its lack of sarcasm. Or the proximity of our bodies, here, in the diner, on a regular date like regular people who didn’t just meet to booze and strip. I could have said I cannot eat because kindness that can appear and vaporize again just as quickly is not to be trusted. I could have told him that this confusion had folded my stomach up tighter than a court summons. I could barely inhale let alone ferry a utensil toward my mouth.
I did not say these things. I can’t right now.
He seemed satisfied or uninterested in my answer, of course he was. But we were sitting here, together, mid-day, fully clothed and the satisfaction of that small desire fulfilled felt like a rope tightening around my neck.
He said he had something funny to show me on his phone, later. He asked me how things were going at the shop. He laughed at some limp comment that I forced up out of my throat. We were here, doing a regular thing that regular friends do, couples, even, and his foot was resting against my leg like a lap dog. The BLT stood, ready. The foot nudged into my leg mindlessly. James bobbed his eyebrows up and asked if I’d seen someone’s post on facebook.
A wave of cold pinpricks began to migrate up the field of my back and around my neck like a thunderstorm. Fighting fronts sparring and retreating over the surface of my skin. The sandwich began to glare at me. Don’t be obvious, it said. Eat me. One bite. But everything was out of place. Under the table I put my hand to my stomach, an animal half caught in a metal-toothed trap and half-caught is as good as done for. You cannot eat this/eat me/I cannot/afford this/one bite/and my stomach pulsed inside the metal incisors, mortally wounded; now I was being dramatic. Across the table James worked without pause, his fork skewering square pillows of waffle, one, then the next, then his other hand, offering his already full mouth a bite of meat, a fluid choreography: Ease. Satiety.
I excused myself. I mustered the effort to stand up straight and sweep my legs, one in front of the other, to the bathroom. My stomach flopped back and forth in panic, helpless. I put my hand to it and tried not to make it look obvious. I walked as fast as I could, like I did sometimes at the bar when we’d both had a handful of drinks and it was almost time to go, time to head home or to the arm of his couch or into his car, the parking lot, things like that, shameful erasures that got repeated, then swept.
We work best as friends, he’d whispered two nights ago, his arm opposite me slung over the young girl who tended the clothing boutique on the best-traveled corner in the city. Her eyes were winged in sharp wisps of black liner. She leaned over him and told me she was interested in seeing my writing some time, a thing he’d never once said.
I sat on the edge of the toilet in the bathroom of the diner and remembered how my dad would say, Breathe – like everyone’s parent says. Sometimes when you’re panicking it’s alright to talk to yourself like you would a small child, a recent therapist had said. Breathe, girl. I focused on the chipped tiles on the floor between my shoes, girl pink, too-pink, viscera pink, valentine pink, fuck-you pink. I wondered if he was finally about to ask me to be his girl. I wondered if this would become our place, if the waitstaff would see me come in and ask if he was joining me and would he be having his regular chicken and waffles? I wondered if I was good enough for him now. I wondered how I could handle keeping up with Good Enough, what if I tried and failed? What if he left me in my sleep? I thought of the shop girl’s velvet red lips separating to welcome and then light a cigarette she had slid from his pack.
In the bathroom of the diner I wondered, just like when I was a kid, how I could make it look like I’d eaten any of my food. Desperation tactics. An uneaten thing of beauty on a well-washed plate and a hidden wounded thing right there in the center of my gut. When we were kids we reveled in eating dinner at houses that had pets. We watched our cousins drop a single, casserole-stuffed utensil toward the linoleum and in seconds it was as clean as the back of your ear before Sunday Service. But there was no wandering dog-about-to-get-lucky in the diner, except for the one waiting at the booth for me with his legs up on my seat, not that I really minded, it’s not like I needed to take up the whole seat anyway. And it felt good there.
I sat on the edge of the toilet and reassured myself that I could stay in the stall for a long time, as long as I needed. Therapists give you these kinds of ideas. Pretend time’s not passing. Behave as you would if you knew you were safe. When we were kids the conversation in the car would die down as the weather got more intense: small talk, some talk, no talk. Then it was just the sound of the wipers on full blast, throbbing, whooshing back and forth as fast as they could go. The rain pushed to either side of the windshield like the slip of blood filling an aortic chamber between inhale/exhale. You should go back in there and try harder to make some conversation, I told myself. I let the air out of my chest as slowly as I could. Everything was pounding. The wounded thing throbbed there in my stomach.
I wanted to get to my knees and pray or spill it from my mouth into the toilet. I pressed my head into my hands to block out the blue light of the diner restroom so I didn’t have to wonder why he was being so kind. Or what unknowing misstep I’d make to cause the kindness to evaporate. I just wanted it all to go away and now I sounded like a child and all I could hear was the windshield deluge pulse in my ears. But my hands couldn’t cover my face and hold my stomach and buffer my ears all at the same time, I’m only one person, I’m only me, I’m not that good.
I wanted someone to carry me out and lay me down in my own bed. Not him; he was probably scraping the last of the gravy off the Corelle industrial plate, but not unkindly. He’d had a hard two weeks. He’d been bruised by some series of unfortunate circumstances, he’d thought to text me, he wanted my company. He’d not called me Milady before. Like he had when we’d entered the restaurant. He’d held the door open for me, even. The novelty of these two gestures, the pet name, the door, causing me to burp out some ridiculous half-laugh noise along with some half-word sound that I couldn’t explain.
James pretended to not hear either or maybe he was thinking about what he’d order but all the same he’d asked me where I wanted to sit, said any place was okay with him, put his feet up beside my leg, so that his foot and my leg were touching, in a playful way, tenderly. We were not usually playful or tender together. We were other things.
When we were kids the sonic pulse of the rain forced back and forth by the windshield wipers was the sign that something had thickened in the air. That we could hear it, that sound, suddenly amplified the tension in the car. The weather was menacing us into a focused silence. That we could hear only the wipers abusing the rain, or maybe the other way around, this was the sign that some trouble was afoot. We listened to the rain, watched my father release my mother’s hand and place it on the wheel. A storm could make the bald tires of our old beater skid off the road, spin above the asphalt surface on an unexpected sluice of water, hydroplane you into a tree, over an embankment. The rain could make you forget where you were going, send a deer shuttling out there into the road, end the plan of where you thought you were going, and when you thought you’d arrive.
But after a few moments this same sound, the whoosh, amniotic, almost, like hearing the mother’s pulse in utero, began to calm us. We were mesmerized into a complacent lull. The sound of trouble, arresting. The sound of trouble all the time is white noise, a nothing. Almost a balm. The rain was a kind of sleeping disaster we could cradle.
At first James’s mean gestures fell on me awkwardly, until they didn’t. We have that kind of Punch and Judy banter, he’d said. That’s one of the things I like about us. Don’t get close to that, a wiser part of me whispered, at the beginning. Therapists give you these kinds of ideas. James waxed poetic about Ta-Nehisi Coates and homeless advocacy. James posted feminist articles on his facebook page. James sent photos of kittens cuddling baby deer to my phone.
And James interrupted me and James told me to Shut Up. James pretended like he’d lost his phone when I texted that I needed some company or wondered if he could talk. James looked at the blank spot on his wrist after we’d fucked and said It’s time for you to go in a snappish way that made me laugh because of course he wasn’t serious. But he began to push me out of his bed with his hands, then his feet, both of us laughing until I realized I was about to fall on the floor. I put my leg out against the wall to prevent the inevitable. James pushed me off the edge of his bed, my feet catching my balance, my smile dropped. I stood up and reached rapidly for my shoes. I get it, I said, staring down at him atop his covers, looking somewhere else. It’s not my problem if you can’t see that I’m being sarcastic, he said. It was his birthday.
Things therapists don’t say: Bitch you can take a licking. James would text me at the usual time to meet for our preferred drinks at the usual place, he’d even bought me a few pints. But James did not meet me out for lunch. James did not take me to the movies. Dudes don’t do that kind of stuff with their friends, he’d said.
What do dudes do with their friends, I’d asked.
I don’t know, James said. I don’t know what we do.
Today he’d hugged me in the street, where we’d met before walking over to the diner. Even slung his arm around my shoulder. And why now? Why now/why now/that sandwich was out there getting cold and his plate was probably clean.
I scuffed my shoe across the beaten surface of the bathroom floor, back/forth. I was never a big fan of pink. But thank god for something to stare at. I unpeeled my face from my hands, then set it down there again. What if, what if we were about to become something, what if I couldn’t be that thing, what if this niceness suddenly switched off and why did it have to appear in the first place? Suddenly we were driving into clear skies with no rain, anywhere, no clouds, and surely that could only mean that we’d died in the storm and were sharing some Ambrose Bierce-like hallucination on our entry into the afterworld together. I was never a big fan of Heaven. His meanness was so lovely, and so regular. I didn’t recognize him without it. I ordered food I could not eat. And now I was hiding in the bathroom.
I decided to stand up and make it through the rest of the meal, which at this point couldn’t possibly mean anything other than opening my wallet and placing my money over the meal check. I took a long drag off the canned air in the bathroom and looked up at the ceiling, an old flytrap coiled off there in the corner, not one single fly on it. How was that possible in any diner? My father would think that would be funny, he’d make a joke about it now if he were here. If he were in the ladies’ bathroom, that wouldn’t be funny, I guess. And I’d been in the stall a long time, I didn’t know exactly how long. Long enough to spark curiosity or alarm from him and I did not want to have to explain any of this. The half-word/half-laugh sound I’d made when we’d walked in was plenty of awkwardness coupled with this epically long trip to the bathroom where I hadn’t even peed.
I ran the water in the faucet for a five or six Mississippis and did not bother looking into the mirror. I thought about how things like this tended to happen in diners. Then I wanted to cut right to where we were bent over the arm of his couch and some iron jaw clenched down over the hurt thing taking up all the space in my belly where a pristinely made BLT could be resting. I wondered if I could fuck on an empty stomach.
It could have gone this way, I thought, walking back into the diner, face dried with a one-ply brown tissue from the splash of Get Your Shit Together. I could throw the door open at sixty-five miles an hour and bail, take the bad over the worse. I could take a bite. I could sit down and say, I’m actually in love with you, feel free to get up and leave. I could cut out the back door and leave him there. Hey, free BLT for you. I could move into that space across from him and tell him there was a dying thing hidden in the middle of me and could he help loosen it? I could peel back the veneer of my grin and ask him why he was being so nice.
He would not digest any of this. There was already a mass of $14.99 slopping up acidic juices in his stomach. And these were the kinds of things other women did. These truths were the kinds of things I could do were I not the woman he thought me to be – see: couch, see: coverless bed, see: front seat of car he could not afford. Surely I had to have some other skill than holding on to various parts of my body for fear that they’d stage a coup. Or trying to. For fear.
Ultimately, we trusted our parents to navigate the storm. We did not know that they did not know either; they only lifted off the accelerator and prayed for the best. Even if we had some inkling that they were confused or anxious, it was their problem. There was no Best Way. There was only a long inhale and the communion of water assaulting the glass. A terse, muscled argument with the steering wheel.
I sat down across from James and exhaled. He was absorbed in his phone, his plate had already been removed by the waitstaff. I took a sip of my water and noticed that his feet had retreated back to his side. You ready to get out of here, he said, staring at the swipe of his thumb along the surface of his phone. I looked at the still life of my pretty BLT. A sandwich is only a fucking sandwich. The check came, the server asked if I wanted it boxed and was there something wrong with it? No, I said. I waited for James to take out his wallet because sometimes a storm clears, impossibly, in the middle of itself. James did not look up from his phone. I put my money on to the check tray. I’m ready, I said. Everyone gets a free meal. Once.
Grace Campbell was born, raised and educated in New York State. She lives and works in Olympia, Washington. Her work has appeared in No News Today and Wendigo, among others.