The leaves crowning the trees
that line the street
have set themselves ablaze
burning out what life they have left
in shades of orange and red,
stem from branch
and gliding softly to the ground.
Those that have gone before
crunch under careful steps
as he walks her home
through the crisp, clear autumnal night.
He wraps his jacket around her shoulders
to guard her from the night’s cool breeze
that rattles the leaves in the trees.
He thinks to reach out
and take her hand in his,
but she has made it clear.
She doesn’t want
to lose him as a friend.
What he does not know
is how to make her see that he
does not want to lose her as an ideal.
The branches will soon be bare, until
the magnolias blossom again in spring .
As he turns from her door
to find his own way home,
he looks up
and thinks to himself:
Trees are like men,
their beauty comes
in dying and being reborn.
Our feet touched under the table and all the awkwardness that I’d been able to keep under control until then hit me like a baseball bat in the back of the head. I spread the water on the tabletop that had condensed off my glass with my fingertips. That gradually turned into tapping completely devoid of rhythm. My eyes wandered around the restaurant that I must have been in a hundred times before this. There were a few elderly couples like there always were around five o’clock, ready to order the early bird specials. The waitresses probably knew them by name; they’d probably come in the same night every week for the last 20 years.
“Will you stop that? Why do you keep doing that?” She sounded the same as she did for the two years I dated her, always calling me on my annoying little habits.
“Sorry,” I replied and grabbed my cup of coffee to take a sip. “So, do you know what you’re getting?”
She closed here menu and laid it on the table in front of her. “Grilled Cheese,” she answered.
“Sounds good.” I wondered whether she still thought about ordering it with bacon like she used to before she became a vegetarian.
“What are you getting?”
I hesitated to answer because I knew she’d give me shit if I told her I was getting a patty melt. For some reason she thought that I always ordered a patty melt, even though I swear I’d only ordered that sandwich twice in all the times we’d been to that restaurant together.
“I’m getting a patty melt.”
“You are so predictable,” she remarked.
The waitress, a women who’d probably been waiting tables there for the last 15 years, came to our table and took our order. When she had written down the grilled cheese and patty melt both with fries and cheddar cheese soup, she tucked the menus under her arm and walked away, leaving us in silence. I sat there in my black hooded sweatshirt, half wishing I could crawl inside it and hide. I’d thought about trying to dress to impress her, but I realized it was pointless. The idea that she’d see me again and suddenly fall in love all over again was ridiculous. You don’t even want her back, I had to remind myself, not completely believing it.
“So how’s school?” I asked, searching for something comfortable to talk about. My eyes continued to focus on my hand, which had returned to spreading around the water on the table.
“It sucks. I fucking hate it. I’m so sick of it; I just want to be done.”
“Yeah, I felt the same way this time last year,” I replied trying to sympathize with her ever so pleasant way of displaying the feelings everyone has at the end of their senior year of high school.
“No, you don’t even understand. I only like like three people at that school. I hate all my classes, even the ones I used to like. I don’t even like going to band anymore.”
“How’s Econ?” I asked, trying to get her to talk about something other than how much she hated school.
“It sucks this semester. Micro was cool, but macro blows.”
It was as if being positive about anything was impossible for her. I was beginning to understand why I felt like I had a much more negative outlook on life after being with her for two years. The waitress brought over a basket of rolls and crackers and two bread plates. Anna grabbed a croissant as soon as she set it down.
“This one’s mine,” she said. I really liked the croissants, but I figured it wasn’t worth fighting over. I grabbed another roll out of the basket and ripped it into two halves. I set one half on my plate, buttered the other, and began to eat it.
“So have you been hanging out with Laura and all them a lot lately?” I asked, trying to seem friendly toward the people to who I mostly blamed for the demise of our relationship. It was when I was out of town at Christmastime and she started hanging out with them that things between us began deteriorating. I was out in Arizona seeing the Grand Canyon and visiting my grandparents. She started spending all her time with people she worked with at the record store.
“Yeah, but not as much as before. She’s been busy and I’ve been down at U of I and in Springfield and stuff,” she said. She was making excuses because she knew that I thought now that she’d found a new boyfriend down at U of I, she’d lost interest in those friends.
The waitress came to the table with two steaming bowls of soup. She set them down in front of us. “The sandwiches will be up in a minute. Can I get you two anything else?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” I said, glancing up from the table only briefly, to make cordial eye contact. She walked away to check on the mother and her three children sitting at a table a few from our booth. I sat staring down at the bowl of cheddar cheese soup and croutons sitting in front of me waiting for it to cool off. Anna began eating right away, carefully removing the little bits of bacon.
We used to come to Hi View almost every week for this soup. When we got bored with playing Scrabble on my living room floor or lounging around in her bedroom watching TV, we would go there and talk about our families or her parents’ divorce or our future. I don’t know why we chose to go there that day or even whose idea it was. Maybe it was just force of habit.
“How’s school going for you?” she asked.
“All right, I guess. I hate my biology class. I haven’t gone to the lecture in like a month. But I really like the Celtic myth class that Tom and I are taking. The teacher’s kind of dry, but it’s cool. And I like my fiction workshop. It’s nice to actually be taking a class in my major.”
I’m pretty sure she stopped listening to me after the second or third sentence. Finishing my bowl of soup, I slid down the bench so I could lean against the wall and I watched a girl that was in my sociology class in high who was a waitress. I couldn’t remember her name. She was taking the orders of an older couple across the room. I was pretty sure they went to my church, and I couldn’t remember their names either.
Our waitress came to our table with a plate in each hand. She placed the grilled cheese in front of me and the patty melt in front of Anna. Glancing back at her notepad, she realized the mistake switch the sandwiches to their proper owners.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked.
I tipped my coffee cup toward me to make sure it was empty. “I could use another cup of coffee, please,” I said.
“Regular, right? I’ll be right back with it.” She picked up our empty soup bowl and bread plates. Noticing Anna’s empty glass, she asked, “Do you need another diet?”
“No, I’m fine,” She replied.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, ignoring each other and concentrating on our food. After a few minutes, Anna broke the silence.
“So, Alex is coming up here to visit me in two weeks. I’m happy because when things started between us, my brother didn’t think he was really interested in me. He though Alex just messed around with me because I was there and that he wouldn’t actually put any effort into a real relationship.”
“Maybe Rob was just looking out for your best interest. He knows this guy a lot better than you do,” I replied. Alex was a member of her brother’s fraternity and he hooked up with Anna a few days after we broke up.
I suppose technically – if you can think about to think about these situations technically – we weren’t even really broken up. We were “on a break.” I don’t know if I knew it then, but now I know that “on a break” is a good as “broken up.” I think my parents are the only people in the recorded history of the universe to go on a break from their relationship and then actually come back from it and go on to get married. They’re also the only people I know of that started dating in high school and ended up staying together long enough to get married. I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes I think their example gave me unrealistic expectations of how long a relationship that starts when you’re sixteen can last.
“So, how are things going for you? Any prospects on the horizon?” I had to contain a bitter chuckle at the sheer insensitivity of the question. I shook my head just enough for her to notice the movement.
“None at all,” I answered. “I still don’t really know anyone outside of the people from high school. I spent too much time back and forth between here and there last semester to really get to know anybody.”
I hope she felt the slightest twinge of guilt that instead of making friends my first semester at school, I spent every other weekend riding the bus back home to see her. The weekends I did stay at school she usually drove down there and we spend most of the time in my dorm room by ourselves watching TV. I spent the days in between those weekends counting down till the next time I’d see her, sitting in my room doing homework or talking to her on the phone. I was preparing myself for the next year when we’d be at school together, not being single in a few months.
It might sound like I’m trying to blame all of this on her but as easy or convenient as that would be, I know it’s not really fair. I could have told her that I needed to stay at school some of those weekends so I could build a life there on my own. She would have gotten mad, but I should have learned to deal with that after two years.
“How are we doing here?” asked the waitress who’d just come back to check up on us.
“Fine, thanks,” I replied, glancing up at her from the plate I’d been staring down at since the food came. Anna said nothing. I picked up the ketchup bottle from the end of the table near the wall. It was a glass one, the kind you have to hit on the “57” just right to get it to come out. It plopped on my plate right next to the pile of fries. I grabbed the pepper shaker and shook some out on top of the ketchup until the red glob turned black. I stirred it in with a fry. I did this every time I ate french fries and I’m pretty sure it grossed Anna out every time.
I noticed one of the owners over by the cash register. Anna told me a story once about one of the them, one of the brothers who owned the place. I thought I might be able to get the conversation going again if I asked her about it.
“Is that the one who asked your aunt to marry him when she worked here?” I motioned toward the well dressed, obviously Greek man who was ringing up an elderly couple. Her aunt had been a waitress there years ago, back when she was in high school.
She turned to look over her shoulder. “No, that’s his brother,” she answered and took the last bite of her grilled cheese sandwich.
“Wouldn’t it be weird if she’d actually married him?”
“Yeah.” This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. I still had half my sandwich there but I wanted to get up and run out the door. It was a mistake to come.
We were supposed to try to stay friends but how was that going to work if we couldn’t even manage to maintain conversation sitting here in this restaurant together? I took bites of my sandwich, trying to finish as quickly as my nervous stomach would allow me to. I noticed a waitress that she was friends with heading out of the smoking section and over toward our table. She was a year older than me and all the Anna talked about her all the time, I barely knew here.
“Hey, how are you kids?” she asked kneeling down to be on our level.
“Good,” answered Anna.
“Fine,” I grunted.
I wondered if she even knew we weren’t together anymore. There was a very strong possibility that she didn’t because really the only time Anna saw her since she graduated was when she was working here. If she did know somehow, I don’t know how much Anna actually told her. I wasn’t really sure how much Anna told anyone about our break up to be honest. All my friends from high school that I hung out with at college knew that she cheated on me. I doubt she went around telling people that though.
“So how’s school?” she asked Anna. Even though I was left out of the conversation, I was glad some of the pressure was off me, at least for a minute or two.
“It sucks. I’m just ready to be done,” Anna answered.
“Yeah, well you will be soon,” she said.
“What days do you work here?”
“Usually Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at night.”
After finishing as much of my food as I was going to, I sat listening to their conversation and playing with one of the little plastic cream containers left over from my coffee. I glanced down at the watch she’d given me for my eighteenth birthday and noticed we’d been sitting here for a little more than 45 minutes. I could have sworn it had been at least an hour.
Her friend the waitress stood up and walked away after a couple more minutes. Our much older waitress came back one more time to see if we needed our drinks refilled. Normally, I would get another drink after I finished my food so we could sit and talk while I drank it. This time I sent the waitress away with the not quite empty plates and asked for the check.
“So, this was nice,” I lied.
“Yeah, it was.”
“I have to admit, I was a little nervous about coming at first.” I scanned the restaurant to see if our waitress was on her way back. I didn’t see her.
“Maybe this being friends thing will actually work out,” I added, trying to be hopeful.
“Yeah, I think it might,” she said.
Waiting for the waitress to return so we could leave, I sat and sipped that small glass of water that had been sitting there untouched, creating a puddle since it came. When the water was gone, I chewed a few ice cubes. Finally, the waitress came and laid the handwritten check face down between us. We both hesitated to reach for it. I picked it up, looked, and handed it to her.
She set her red felt purse that was covered in patches and buttons on the table and looked through it for her wallet. She counted out her money.
“Ready to go?” she asked.
“Yeah, ready if you are.”
We slid out of our sides of the booth simultaneously and walked toward the register. I pulled out my wallet and realized I didn’t have any cash on me.
“Hey, I don’t have any cash,” I explained. “You give me your money and I’ll have to put it on my debit card.”
“Ok,” she said handing me the money.
At the register I handed our check to the owner who hadn’t asked her aunt to marry him. I barely looked up to ask if everything was all right today. I told him it was. He told me the total and I handed him my card. While I waited to him to scan it in and enter the price, I picked up a toothpick from the dispenser on the counter and stuck it in my mouth. I looked at the pies and cakes in the display case that I looked at every time I went there but never order. Anna sat on one of the padded benches on either side of the door.
“I’m sorry,” said the owner. “I’m sorry, but it appears your card has been declined.”
“Oh,” I said, probably turning as red as I did the day my junior year of high school I finally worked up the courage to ask Anna to be my girlfriend. The deposit I made earlier that day must not have gone through yet. Luckily, I remembered that I’d given Anna a ticket to a concert that I planned to come home for before we broke up. I didn’t end up coming home for it so she gave the ticket to a friend and said she’d give me the money. She never did.
“My debit card got declined,” I explained, walking over to the bench where she was sitting. “So, I was wondering if you could pay and we’ll call it even for that concert ticket you never paid me back for.” I handed her back her money.
“Fine,” she said, obviously annoyed despite the fact that she’d actually becoming out ahead in this situation because the meal was far less expensive then the ticket.
She walked up to the register and paid the check. I took a few dollars that she handed me back to the table to leave a tip. We walked out of the restaurant and I held both doors for her on the way out. We got in my parents’ car and I drove her home. It was the last time I ever pulled into her driveway. I don’t remember where I went when I left, but I do remember being relieved when I backed out.