You frown at the syrupy stickiness of the menu. Hours of trying to unravel the mystery behind serpentine streets led to dead ends, graffiti covered walls, and a diner with initials etched into the vinyl booths. The glass of water given to us by an equally exhausted server sloshes onto the table, and you use your sleeve to wipe the plastic. Mine has a lipstick stain on it. I ignore it.
We’ve spent hours not speaking to each other. First, we declared war on the GPS, which couldn’t get a signal and then you thrust an old city map into my hands.
“It’s upside down.” You tried a smile. The landmarks were unfamiliar. When we had gotten decidedly more lost, you flung it onto the backseat with a growl. Radio static interrupted any chances of a conversation.
I folded my arms across my chest and stared out the window.
“There.” Another exit missed. “There, that one.”
The brakes squealed. You threw the car into reverse, an arm slung across my seat, and raised a middle finger in salutation to the driver who dared lay on their horn. My heart hammered in my chest, certain this moment would never end. We were going to die. They whizzed past us. Silence.
“Can’t we just stop at a gas station and ask for directions?”
You rolled your eyes and huffed out a sigh.
“Jay, we can’t keep doing this. Let me out here and I’ll call a cab.”
We jerked into the gas station parking lot. The teller joked we weren’t far from our destination and wished us a safe trip. You returned with a pair of sunglasses and a pack of gum, trying to disguise the fact that once more you hadn’t gotten it right. They’re still hiding your face from mine as the server returns to take our orders.
“I’ll have pancakes with a side of sausage and potatoes.” You smile politely. The glasses return to your pocket.
“And your friend?” Boyfriend, neither of us corrects.
“Actually, could you give me a few more minutes? Maybe a cup of coffee?”
“Sure. Do you need anything else?”
You reach for a sugar packet.
“Coffee sounds good.” It explodes in your trembling hands. You swear. I see a hint of the man from earlier.
The dispenser shreds the napkin I give you. Neither of us can admit this trip has been a disaster.
“You really don’t know what you want?” The apology you haven’t given is heavy in your voice.
“No.” My head hurts. My heart is still pounding. There are too many miles between here and there. Between us. You nudge my leg with yours.
“They have waffles.” You offer. In your mind, it’s never too late to be thinking about breakfast. You probably forgot to eat. Sugar free gum dissolving in your mouth as you squinted at road signs that were as out of place as we were.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“What about ...an omlette with everything on it?”
“It’s dinnertime.” I remind you.
“It’s only 5.”
We thank the server for our coffees.
“A few more minutes and we’ll be ready.” You promise.
“I’m going out back to smoke. Just give me a holler if you need anything.” She winks, but you’ve returned to scanning the menu.
You read each description with your best radio announcer voice. I don’t want to smile. You sneak a third sugar into your coffee. The powdered creamer clumps to your spoon, but you pretend not to notice as you lay it on top of the shredded napkin. I have to think about something else, to stop my heart from being broken all over again.
“We missed check in.”
“Swiss cheese, sautéed onions and mushrooms, and a side of home fries.”
“Did you hear me?”
“So we stay at a motel. It isn’t the first time.”
“I think I’ll have a cigarette too.”
You start to protest, then think better of it. Fidget with the sunglasses. Take another swig of coffee. Mine is turning to sludge, but the wind is less biting than this.
We’re never on the same wavelength. You’re three minutes of understanding before the windows shutter. No encore.
I listen to traffic. Other people are headed nowhere with maps strewn across their back seats. There are tears in the folds and their eyes blur from staring at the squiggly lines too long. I don’t want to be here. I thrust my hands in my pockets and imagine walking, but then you’re turning to the door and waving me back inside. I can’t see your face from here, but you don’t know how to stay mad at anybody but yourself.
The server returns with her yellow notepad. You laugh too loudly, which is one of the first things I learned to love about you. That and you were spontaneous, which I didn’t realize was a polite way of saying a damn mess. Blood pounds in my ears. I should’ve run when I had the chance.
“Can we get two of those?”
“You ordered without me?”
“I wasn’t trying to upset you.” Your eyes don’t meet mine. “About earlier? I’m sorry. It was stupid, it won’t happen again.”
“That’s what you think I’m upset about?” The words are out before I can stop myself. Three minutes of the greatest love song there is. You and me. Nothing can stand between us, but it ends as abruptly as it began and I’m always the one picking up the pieces.
I don’t want to hate you. I want to pretend this is our thing, pancakes in a hole in the wall diner. Not lack of planning. Not how quickly things escalate from bad to worse and you pretend not to notice. Your hand reaches for mine across the table. I stare at it too long. My fingers are starting to curl as yours are pulling away. You turn your face.
“Who do you think they are?”
Not what, who. You only ever half pay attention.
“F+H. Do you think they’re happy?”
Their initials are uneven, done by a shaky hand.
“Maybe.” You muse. You would never ask why it matters. That’s one of my favorite things about you too. My heart can never make up its mind when it comes to you.
“Yes or no, Jay.”
“Why?” It comes out sharper than I intended. You shrug, your smile slipping.
“Why not? I want to believe it.”
“It’s stupid, carving your names into things. What if they broke up already?”
“What if they’re here now?” You aim for light, playful, but I can see the thoughts spinning in your mind. Wouldn’t it be worth the risk? The sting of old memories is better than regret.
Those three minutes can carry you a lifetime. I don’t want to see the panic tugging at the corners of your mouth. The blame, resignation. Maybe you were never enough. I don’t want to be trapped on winding roads that end in dead ends and silence, but my hand covers yours because there’s nobody else I’d rather be lost with. I know that much anyway.
“Pancakes, huh? You remember that one time...”
Your eyelids crinkle. As if you could forget. If we’re a song, then you always pick up right where we left off. Without missing a beat. Those three minutes never hit you any differently. I think I love you for it.