She says she’ll meet him in Rye, a halfway point, although she doesn’t owe him that. There’s an old-timey diner she’s found in The New York Times, something she used to do for them—find an obscure restaurant in the city or just on the outskirts. Several of those tucked-away places had included a postcard with the check, and she’d collected them, framed a few and hung them on the wall of her studio. She has considered setting them out with the trash, but she leaves them framed for now, not able to stomach all those memories literally thrown away.
He drives down, she takes the train up. The station is directly across the street from On the Way Café, and she walks in first, to the jingle of a bell. Not even a handful of people are eating, the Northeastern purgatory between breakfast and brunch. A rain storm has moved through and chilled the July heat. She’s dressed casually—jeans, flats, a three-quarter length navy top, and a flower-print cardigan—not wanting him to assume anything more than two friends who were once lovers and could’ve been much more, at least in her mind. That is over now. But she did spend a few minutes on her hair, curling it slightly at the ends to make sure it fell just so across her breasts. He rarely said what he liked about her appearance, but she could tell about her hair, the way he’d run his fingers through when they kissed, how he’d tug in bed.
The host approaches and gives her the choice of any seat with a motion of his hand. The diner floor is tile, black and white, covered with rows of quaint, white-clothed tables, a matching marble-counter bar running the length of the room. She chooses the bar, less direct eye contact, chummier. She orders a coffee and pulls her cardigan tight. She looks up at the menu written on white boards above the bar. She smiles. The relaxed ambiance warms her, as does the fact that she has a new man in her life. He will be there on the corner by her studio when she’s done with this, waiting for their life to begin. “I have to put some things to rest,” is how she’d said it, not yet ready to bring him into the messiness, but not wanting this fresh start to crumble over another foundation built on half-truths and blatant lies.
She turns to the sound of the bell hung on the door and sees him walk through, a slight breeze behind him. He looks good—fuller in the cheeks and the rib cage. She thinks about all the nights he picked work and more than a couple of beers over a home-cooked meal and her. He finds her, and they connect eyes. His are so blue behind his glasses, brought out by his matching Oxford and navy shorts, a pair she recognizes, a pair she bought for him last Christmas, or maybe his birthday. He smiles, that grin, but she doesn’t feel the tingle like before.
He reaches her and she hugs him, to relieve any awkwardness, but also because she has missed him. She believes at least one thing her mother told her: A woman loves to love because her heart is full of it; a man loves to be loved because his heart needs to be filled with it. He holds on longer, and she understands that the other she is gone, for now, that no one is waiting for him after breakfast. They sit and he orders coffee.
“You look good,” she says.
“You too,” he says, without looking up from the menu.
“Did you ever think we’d be in Rye, New York?” she asks.
He squints at her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, two kids from the South,” she says. “Who would’ve dreamed we’d make it up here? All the odds against us. I didn’t even know Rye was a city, did you?”
The waitress brings his coffee and winks at him, and she watches him as he soaks up the attention before taking a sip.
“Why wouldn’t you just let me come to your place?” he asks. “Been a lot easier for you.”
The waitress, who is young and blonde and petite, asks if they’re ready. She orders blueberry pancakes with extra maple syrup and a side of sausage, even though she’d told the new guy she’d save room for dinner. But she will have room for dinner. This is how people order, she thinks, how they want. She catches him in the middle of his order: “…egg whites and wheat toast, and please no butter in the grits. I can add it myself. And no sugar, either, like you Yankees like.” He winks at the waitress and hands both menus across the counter.
“How’s your mother?” she asks.
“Divorced one day, not the next. She says she’s thinking about coming to visit, maybe stay a while. I think she’s low on funds.”
“That’s what family’s for, I guess.”
She’s watching him, waiting for him to look at her, but he stares into his coffee.
“Work?” she asks.
“Same grind, same corporate bullshit. I’m leaving. I’ve got to leave before it kills me.”
“Couldn’t you ask for a month to figure things out? They at least owe you that.”
“I don’t want to be a charity case—I always said I wouldn’t get paid for doing nothing. They have enough people getting paid for that.”
“What about the condo?”
“I’ll sell it. There ain’t nothing left now that you’re gone.”
Her chest tightens at the thought of the storage unit—the dresser, half yellow, half stripped to wood; the shag carpets, blue and white; the antique lamps his mother bought them and that she’d spray painted black to match their bedroom suite; all that she’d put into making that house a home. It was the only one she’d ever felt was her own. Her girlfriends had asked why she hadn’t just sold everything, told her that surely it wasn’t worth as much as the monthly fee to keep it locked in a metal box. And besides, it was in another state, a state that she’d told them she’d never go back to, a state “where her life got wrecked and her car is still registered.” She could laugh at her own joke now. But even now she couldn’t wrap her mind around selling six years of her life to strangers, just like she couldn’t bring herself to toss the postcards in the trash, as if it’d all been for practice, mostly at her expense.
“Is that what you really want, to go back home and give it all up?” she asks.
“I ain’t giving up.” She winces and smiles as he raises his voice and the twang thickens. He finally looks at her. She can see the shadows under his eyes, the slight shade of purple in the folds. She tightens her lips and turns sideways in the bar stool and puts her hand on his. “I have the money saved,” he says, his eyes watering at the edges. “I won. I got to go where they need me, and I can leave on my terms.”
“You did,” she says. “I’m proud of you.”
“Come with me,” he says.
“Don’t do this.” She pulls her hand back and turns around in her seat. “This wasn’t going to be about us. You promised that.”
“What else is there?”
“You haven’t even asked how I am.”
“OK, guys, here we go,” the waitress chirps and sets down the plates.
“He had the egg whites,” she says.
“Oh, sorry.” The waitress quickly makes the swap. “And I guess you had the sausage too.” The waitress sets it on her side. “And here’s all the maple syrup you could want.” The waitress puts each of the three miniature glass bottles on the counter, one by one, and then a dish of butter. “Are we all set?” The waitress claps her bony hands together. “You sure you don’t want anything else, sir?”
“No, ma’am, I’m fine.”
“Oh, I love that accent. I didn’t hear it before. Where are you from?”
“Tennessee,” he says.
“Oh my gosh! I want to go to Dollywood so bad. I hear it’s beautiful, the mountains and everything.”
“It is,” he says and glances over at her.
She rolls her eyes, not caring if the waitress notices. She unscrews the lid off one of the miniature bottles and slowly drizzles the maple syrup over the pancakes until the bottle is empty. She forks a dab of butter and spreads it under each layer, and then she cuts a large square out of the three pancakes and stuffs it into her mouth.
“I think we’re good,” she says through the mouthful.
“Were you always this rude?” he whispers under his breath.
“You just never noticed,” she says, still chewing.
“So that’s it. Your feelings are gone. Like that.” He snaps his fingers.
“No, they’re not gone. Like that.” She snaps her fingers. “You said you needed time, space. I gave you both. I spent two of my Saturdays driving from New York and back—a four-hour round trip—moving out so you could ‘breathe.’ I went to bed in my studio with our cat laid across my stomach, thinking I might not wake up from a broken heart. But I did wake up. And so I figured why not go to work. I did that for three months, all alone, while you ‘figured it out.’”
“Can you please not tell the whole damn place?” he asks, forking in a small bite of egg whites and grits. He tears off a hunk of his wheat toast and shoves it in too. “Can you do that for me, please?”
She realizes that the few people in the place—an elderly couple and what appears to be a mother and daughter sitting at tables for two—have picked up on the rising anger and resentment in her voice. “What do these people mean to you? That waitress, for Christ’s sake. Why do you care how you treat everyone but me?”
He huffs and shakes his head. He shoots her a glance that she’s only seen him give to people he doesn’t think are worth an explanation, like they don’t have the mental capacity to comprehend the depths of him.
“I’m being silly, aren’t I? Childish. That’s what you say next, isn’t it?” She returns to her pancakes, shoveling in larger squares, picking up her sausage links with her fingers and dipping them into the maple syrup.
“You came with her to the city,” she says, not looking at him. “The weekend you emailed and asked if I would be out of town for the holiday, the weekend you were supposed to be ‘holed up’ finishing that Goddamn book.” She lets her fork drop and wipes the syrup and sausage grease off her hands with the white cloth napkin in her lap. She breathes in deep and lets it out in a rush. “When you found out I’d be gone, you came because there wouldn’t be that one-in-a-million chance you’d run into me with her.”
She breathes in deep and lets it out slow, in a ten count, like the therapist told her. She removes her cardigan and hangs it on the back of the stool. She waits for a response. He moves his fork through the grits before letting it drop. He wipes his hands. He flags down the waitress who smiles at his behest.
“Ma’am, more coffee when you get a second.”
He drinks, and she watches him empty what’s left down his throat. “I only went for a couple of the days, not the whole weekend.”
“I looked at her page,” she fires back. “It’s public. You know that, right? You’re so smart, and I kept wondering how you could be so stupid. She took a picture every day and every day she was somewhere only you and I knew.”
“New York is a big fucking city, ya know,” he says. “And, God, how childish can you be, Internet stalking someone.”
Her lips tremble and her hands shake. “No. No. This is not how you’re going to talk to me. I’m in control of this. I’m over this. I have a boyfriend.” She grabs her purse off the stool and rifles through it. She slaps her credit card on the counter. She flags the waitress. “Excuse me, sweetie. I’m paying for mine. Now. Now, please.”
The waitress doesn’t smile or come toward her. “Cash only, sweetie.”
She shuts her eyes and scrunches up her face. She breathes. Remember you’re always in control. “I can’t. I can’t. You deal with it.” She slides off the stool and ties the cardigan around her waist and throws the strap of the purse over her shoulder. She makes eye contact with him. She notices the shock, his eyes darting, perhaps trying to figure out if he can get the other girl back, or maybe he’s genuinely surprised that she would ever call his bluff, that her world would keep spinning without him in it.
“I’ll be outside, but not long.” She checks her watch, gold-faced with a leather band, a gift to herself. She’d gotten promoted recently to manager of her graphic design team on Fifth Avenue, a reward for all those mornings of not pulling the covers over her head. “I can still catch the one o’clock.”
She doesn’t scan the room, doesn’t care what anyone in the whole place thinks, doesn’t imagine she’ll ever run across them again. This is the last time she’ll step foot inside On the Way Café, she’s sure of it. She admires the quality and design of the black-and-white tiles as she walks to the door, pushing through and jingling the bell, drowning out whatever boiler-plate farewell the host gives her.
The gravel in the parking lot crunches beneath her feet, a welcome sound, removing her from the life behind her inside the diner car. Water is dripping from the tall birch and maple trees that block the café from the main road, but the sun has risen above them, bright and full, the way a July sun should be. She breathes in hints of salt off the Sound. She closes her eyes and lets the rays warm her eyelids. She’d wanted to walk to Rye Playland, less than a mile away, where Tom Hanks asked the Zoltar to make him a kid again and Mariah Carey rode the Dragon Coaster. She and him used to put on Daydream and dance in the kitchen of his condo, across the Spanish tiles, like they didn’t have a care. They were together.
She feels his fingers run through her hair. She lets it happen longer than she should, and if moments could stretch into a lifetime, this is one she might pick. She opens her eyes and turns around. He smiles and hands her a postcard, a field of golden rye swaying in an invisible breeze.
“Did you know … it’s the kind of wheat that can tolerate poor soil and cold weather,” he says. It’s something he has, useless facts in his brain, a thing she’d always found cute, even endearing, a man interested in why things are the way they are. She misses that man. He leans in and kisses her gently on the mouth. This is another moment, and she understands, as her saliva mixes with his, how a moment can unravel a lifetime. She jerks away and wipes her lips.
“I have a boyfriend,” she says.
“Did you not feel that?” he asks.
“That doesn’t go away,” she says.
He steps toward her. She steps back.
“Did you take her to our place?” she asks. “I didn’t see a picture.”
“I didn’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“That was ours.”
“Don’t leave,” he says, leaning in for another.
She avoids his lips and hugs him, tight. “I have to.” She unwraps herself from him and hurries to the crosswalk, letting her “Bye, good luck” trail her. She refuses to look back when she hears a muffled sob. She checks her watch instead. She nearly breaks into a skip across the white stripes to the entrance of the station.
The train doesn’t leave for another ten minutes, so she stops and breathes in Rye one final time. She wonders about the life they might’ve had in a town like this, a town of privilege, more of a town to settle in than a town on the way to anywhere. She lets her mind wander to her kids playing on the beaches of the Sound, she and her husband eating breakfast at On the Way Café every Saturday morning. It’s what they could’ve had, had he wanted it, had he wanted her. She wishes he would’ve held dear at least one memory, but she’s certain he took her there, to their place. She knows that he lied about that, because one lie bleeds into the next, until the truth is soaked. The postcards are worth only that now, nothing more than the paper they’re printed on.
She studies this postcard, the golden rye blowing in the breeze, and then she tosses it in the trash can next to the entrance of the station.
# # #
LaRue Cook was a researcher, writer, and editor at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com for seven years before returning home to Tennessee, where his new title is Existential Mess. During his limited free time, he drives for Uber/Lyft and is putting an MFA from Fairfield University to use on a collection of short stories. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Minetta Review, Star 82 Review, and Noctua Review, among others. http://www.my2ndfirststep.com/
Photo credit: Dirk Dreyer www.dreyerpictures.com