It’s no bestseller, but enough people bought the book for thirteen east-coast bookstores to host me for an evening. It shouldn’t have been a three-month affair, but independent book publishers and piss-poor planning are synonyms. My agent told them yes of course I’d be okay spending five empty days in a Holiday Inn in West Virginia between readings.
Whatever, I’m lucky to get a book tour at all. It was thirty people in the audience on a good day, about thirteen most of the time. By the time I loop back home to Atlanta, there are sixteen middle-aged women blinking at me from wire-rimmed glasses. They sit in neat, crowded rows of wooden chairs arranged before my podium, their short and choppy haircuts blurring familiar. They always composed the majority of my listeners, those older, weird, kinda sad ladies with chunky jewelry and neon-colored shawls, English teachers who found it ever-harder to relate to teenagers or secretaries who dreamed of nothing but retirement. Their collective expelled breaths reek of loneliness, but I’m glad to have them with me -- we are alone together, squeezed between the tight aisles of Eagle Eye Book Shop, them clinging to my every word, me trying my best to not rush or stutter as I read aloud the same few passages of my book. The store owners and event organizers stand on the sidelines like bored parents at a childrens’ party, arms crossed, eyes gliding to the clock, hoping I’d go ahead and wrap it up early. They used to intimidate me, the employees, and I’d sped through the first readings up in New York, but by the time I made it back down to the South, I want to put on a show for my little women, to extend for as long as possible their sense of community. The second the event would be over, they’d just get in their beat-up cars and drive to either an empty home or one occupied by a husband who never understood them and never bothered to try. Under the yellow light of Eagle Eye, they are safe for a little while, surrounded by an oasis of fiction where everything ends either excellently or else in a way so upsetting that their own tragedies cease to matter. For the forty-five minutes that I read, they are immersed wholly in twenty-three-year-old me’s heartbreaks and the lesson twenty-seven-year-old me forcibly extracted from them.
“And then Peter moved to Japan, bought a camera and a clean bill of health. He thought it’d show him the world, and I suppose it did,” I read the concluding sentence for the last time. “Thank you.”
My ladies erupt in polite applause. I notice one even wiping a tear from her eye. I know that during the book signing portion she’s gonna make some comment about how much of herself she sees in my writing.
Good Q&A, nothing too challenging, variations on “What’s your writing process like?” or “What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?” I give well-polished answers, the same sentences slipping like butter out of my mouth.
The staff directs me to a desk stacked with even rows of my book, gives me one of those nice felt-tip pens. The ladies make a queue for me to sign their individual copies one-by-one. I gaze deep into the eyes of each one as they talk, try to smile as wide and kind as possible as they gush on and on. The depth of their analysis never ceases to surprise me -- they make profound symbols out of innocuous details. The inclusion of a tub of vaseline reads as commentary on female sexuality; the gummy worms my protagonist liked to eat are metaphor for repression. I nod with a mysterious grin, as if to say “That’s for me to know, and for you to never know,” followed by a wink -- “That’s a little literary secret just for you and me.” They go crazy for that.
The lady with tears in her eyes is last. She hands me her copy to sign and says, “That was beautiful. I see so much of myself in your writing.”
“Thank you! That means a lot.” I make sure to draw a smiley face next to my signature.
And just like that, it’s all over. The store owners thank me with tight smiles and sleepy eyes, then promptly begin packing up the leftover merchandise and dragging chairs away to storage. I offer to help and they say no, don’t be silly, you’re the author.
A car honk comes from outside. I grab my suitcase waiting like a patient dog beneath the desk and walk out.
There he is, sitting and waiting pretty for me in his little car. He looks up, and seeing me, bursts into the biggest, widest, brightest grin. He leaps from the driver’s seat, bounding over like an excited golden retriever. We hug, we kiss, he puts the suitcase in the trunk, I sit in the passenger’s seat.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
“Yeah. Waffle House, please. Those fuckers in the North don’t have a single one.”
He fiddles with the air conditioning, the radio, the mirror and seat settings, a habit since forever. I never understood that bit -- did his adjustments change in the last thirty seconds since he left the car?
The book store is in the same plaza I’d known since childhood, sandwiched between the dry cleaners and Wild Birds Unlimited. How a store specializing in bird seed managed to stay open so long, I still don’t know. Across the street is another plaza with a gas station and a changing arrangement of stores. The barbershop I went to as a little girl was still there, as was the bubble tea place. A friend of mine from high school used to work there and give us all free milk tea with the little tapioca balls at the bottom. He was working when I went inside with Corey that one time, and he gave us an entire cup of just tapioca balls. They looked like frog eggs swirling around inside their brown syrup. Corey and I took turns sucking on the thick straws and spitting the balls across the parking lot, seeing who could make them fly the farthest. When the whole cup was used up, we ran across the street to the grocery store, and I’d just turned eighteen and wanted to buy a lottery ticket simply because I now could. I didn’t win, of course.
It would have been a cute first date if Corey and I actually had feelings towards each other. We both had fun that night, but mutually decided that there was nothing there and we left it at that, just mutual followers on Instagram for nine years counting.
The sky is that bright pink reserved for summer sunsets in the South. It had been just like that when Corey and I were there. That pink is how I’d always imagined love would be like, bright, blinding, beautiful, boundless, enough to make you cry. It can’t even be wasted on the dull landscape of a parking lot or a strip mall; it instead elevates those most dull and homely Georgia locales to something heavenly, something magical and promising, even if it’s only a Jiffy Lube bathing in its glow.
The car is finally adjusted to perfection, and he rolls us slowly away from the plaza and onto the main road. He asks me a few general questions, how my trip in was, how the reading went. I don’t think I ever told him about Corey. I definitely wrote about Corey at some point, but he never reads my stories anyways. I don’t really expect him to.
I wouldn’t have even agreed to go on a date with Corey that summer had my last hook-up of the time, Nathaniel, not gone ghost on me. And I wouldn’t have hooked up with Nathaniel had Carl not gotten yet another girlfriend that wasn’t me.
Carl is the subject of more than a few stories, all under a different name, but all with the same theme of a great big unrequited teenage love. He knows about Carl, but only as an old high school friend of mine. He doesn’t know about the quiet trepidation I felt in Carl’s presence, the way a slight brush of just his elbow made me feel all tingly.
It’s not a long drive til we’re at the Waffle House -- in Georgia, you can’t go two miles without seeing one. It’s cold inside; they say they keep them so air-conditioned to keep out the roaches. We slide into a booth, and an exhausted young waitress comes up to us, bright pink nails tap-tap-tapping on her yellow notepad. I ask for a coffee, and as she’s writing it down, he raises an eyebrow from across the table:
“You sure you want coffee? It’s almost nine o’clock. You’re not gonna be able to sleep.”
The waitress stops writing, looks up at me with blank eyes, awaiting a decision.
“I’ll be alright,” I answer. “Coffee please. And the All-Star special.”
He always gets a chocolate chip waffle. He thinks it’s funny they just scatter the chocolate chips on top of the waffle so very unceremoniously, and he always slathers it in maple syrup and pats of that fake little butter. He regrets eating so much sugar every single time and spends the rest of the evening with a stomach ache.
Carl never ordered the waffles at Waffle House. He always got the All-Star special. He introduced me to it, really. I’d watch him eat every crumb of every item that came with it. I couldn’t really eat much in his presence, and I never dared order coffee for fear it would make my breath smell bad. You know, just in case something happened, although I knew even then that nothing ever would. In those years, I never did anything with the people I actually had feelings for. Sex was reserved for people I could easily leave the second the act ended. But all my cutesy romantic fantasies, that was for people who would never reciprocate, for people who came just close enough in my orbit, but who would never stay there forever.
The waitress brings me my coffee, and an orange juice for him. As he sips, he says:
“Your mother called. I told her you were coming back from your tour today.”
“I think it’s so funny she talks to you more than she talks to me.”
“She said she wants all three of us to get brunch sometime.”
“Why didn’t she call me? Her daughter?”
“I told her you probably wouldn't have reception on the road. Your network is terrible.”
“I think she’s fascinated by you, and the fact that you’re with me. That’s why she wants to get brunch. So she can observe. Watch us interact like a scientist with, like, really smart gorillas.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. She’s expecting you to up and leave at any moment, really, and she’s gonna be watching for any signs of discord.”
“I feel like you’re projecting.”
The waitress returns with our food, and he begins the sloppy process of marinating his waffle. I can’t even watch; the mere sight makes my arteries clog up.
“One time,” I say, “My friend in high school set me up on a blind date with this guy, Patrick, and we went to Waffle House. When we were about to eat, he’s all like ‘one second,’ and turns away from me to take out those disposable little rubber bands off his braces, all of his fingers all up in his mouth. It was the grossest thing! They’re always so slimy, and his were purple.”
“Yeah, you told me about him before, I think.”
“I definitely did not go on a second date. Ew.”
“Quite the little heartbreaker.”
“Oh please. I’m never the heartbreaker, always the heartbroken.”
“Really? ‘Cause I’ve never heard any story of yours where you were the one who got broken up with.”
“If you read my book, you’d know.”
“You told me not to read your book.”
“Yeah, you don’t really need to know about all that stuff. I think it’s more fun to read autobiographical stuff when you don’t actually know the person. When you do know them, you just realize how terrible and how much of a liar they really are.”
“Your book’s autobiographical?”
“Well, not officially. And not fully. There’s a lot of details that I change.”
“That makes me want to read it, actually.”
“Well, you shouldn’t. You already know me. There’s nothing new you’d find out. And if you did find something new, you would like me less.”
“I don’t think I would. I like you a lot.”
His chocolate chips have melted into a goopy mess atop the waffle, and he smears it around like a brown sludge. I spill a drop of grits onto the table, and he wordlessly passes me a napkin -- this man knows how much a messy eater I am.
I’m a slow eater too, and Carl was always so impatient. He’d always leave before I finished my meal, and it’d just be me there, eating my rapidly cooling grits, half of them dribbling off my spoon. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me how often he’d just up and leave all the time, in the middle of a party or just a gathering of friends. He wasn’t doing it to be rude, he just always had somewhere else to be. It was my fault for getting hurt over it, really.
He’s done with his waffle, and I’m nowhere near done with all my All-Star bounty. He wads up a napkin atop his plate.
“Sorry,” I say, stuffing too big a piece of toast in my mouth. “I’ll go a little faster.”
“No, no. Take your time.”
“I know you probably wanna get home. I’m sorry, I forgot how late it is and you’ve been at work all day --”
“I’m okay. Really. Just enjoy your food.”
The last story in my book is about Carl too. That’s the one that made the lady tear up. I wrote about the last time we ever saw each other, when we went walking along the railroad tracks and threw rocks against the passing train and ducked as the rocks ricocheted back in our direction. It was the summer right before college, and he gave me a really tight hug before we left and I thought the tightness of that hug meant something, like a “to be continued.”
Whenever I think too hard, my body freezes up, clenches itself like a stressed jaw. It’s like I forget where I am, what I’m doing, all my concentration pooling in my brain, away from my limbs. Right then, my hand just hovers in the air, the spoon suspended inches from my mouth before I snap back to present-time.
“Oh, Jesus Christ.” I shovel in spoonful after spoonful of grits. There’s a lot more of them splattered on the table now.
“Hey, hey, slow down. We can’t have the nation’s favorite author choking to death in some wayside Waffle House.”
“Nah, I don’t wanna keep you out here any longer. You’re probably getting annoyed.”
“Listen, I’m not going anywhere. Please slow down.”
I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. The phrase rolls around in my mind like a worry stone. Who’s ever said that to me before? Not mother with her hundreds of business trips poking gaps in my memories of childhood. Not any of my little hook-ups. Certainly not Nathaniel or Corey or Carl.
As he shuffles around the stray sugar granules on the table with his finger, I realize I’ve never written a single story about him. It wouldn’t make for a very exciting tale. Who wants to read about a man who doesn’t speak unless he has something to say, who shows up on time, who remembers birthdays and anniversaries and controls his emotions and tantrums? When my girlfriends start swapping stories about some new, exciting, and poisonous man in their lives, I have nothing to add. I used to. I used to win every conversation with the most outlandish examples of terrible men. Now I just sit and nod politely.
And that feels good. No longer is love simply fodder for gossip. It’s something beautiful and private.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he says. He’s tired, you can hear it in his voice, but he doesn’t get cranky, snappy, childish. I know his stomach has already started to hurt, the sugar seeping into his organs. He rubs his belly in small circles as he walks away.
The waitress returns. She slaps a yellow check on the table. I decide to pay for the meal really quick, while he’s gone, before he gets a chance to interject. I hand the cashier the last crumpled ten-dollar bill from my pocket, and just like that, I have no more cash left. Financially, I’m really right back to where I was before the book tour started. Aren’t these things supposed to make you money? And not just break even?
Whatever. It’s on to the next. I sit on a vinyl chair, which is part of a long row of vinyl chairs lined neatly along the wall. A woman sits four chairs down. She’s waiting impatiently on a to-go order, her skinny little chicken leg bouncing up and down. I watch, fascinated at how fast it’s going, like a seismograph’s needle before a massive earthquake. A sudden thought: I have no idea what my next story is going to be about. It’s kind of relieving, actually. Right now, I’m just sitting pretty, awaiting the most excellent man in the world to return from the bathroom. He’s gonna walk out shaking his hands, say something like Ready to rock’n’roll? and we’ll get in his car to go home and just sleep.