Fiction: Comfort Food

coloreditedWeekender_LaurenGlasby
Lauren Glasby/Staff

Flora sat at a window booth in a 24-hour diner and sipped her coffee, inhaling the rich aroma and trying not to let the liquid burn her tongue. She perused the menu in front of her. It made a lot of promises. Hashbrowns, best in town. Belgian waffles, big as your face. She supposed that as far as promises go, those were the easiest ones to keep. It was, despite how large it sounded, not that hard to make a Belgian waffle as big as one’s face. She supposed that the hard part was the “your.”

“Hey.” Her thoughts were interrupted by a male voice and a pair of familiar beat up slip-on sneakers appearing in her peripheral vision. She hadn’t noticed them yesterday. It wasn’t possible that they were the exact same shoes, she thought. From what she remembered, it was more of a habit than anything. His shoes get old, too old, he gets bothered about it, he buys the exact same shoes. It made sense to him, probably. It probably never occurred to him to get different shoes.

“Hi,” she said, still looking at her menu. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him shift his weight from one foot to another, the rubber soles of his shoes squishing down with the pressure. Then she heard the slow release of air from the cheap pleather booth as he sat down.

They sat silently. At some point a waitress came by and dropped off a menu for him.

“You know what intrigues me?” he said after a couple of seconds. She said nothing. She didn’t want to know, really, what intrigued him. He continued anyway. “They’re promising me a waffle as big as my face. Not just any face, my face.”

She smirked and looked up at him. He smiled, a shaky upwards turn of the corners of his mouth as he fiddled with the menu some more. “That’s the kind of person-to-person customer service you really expect out of a 24-hour-diner, don’t you think?”

“I’m not a fan of Belgian waffles.” She closed her menu, sat back and crossed her arms. “The squares are too big, everything gets soggy.” She darted her eyes around the room, eyes coming to rest on the sugar packets near the window.

It didn’t really matter that she had just been contemplating something very similar. Ben was trying to talk to her, to get back into their easy banter. She didn’t want that. They’d said too much to each other four years ago to earn a fresh start, and even if that were possible before, they’d fucked it up by sleeping together. She didn’t really know what they could do. Her plan had been to leave so that he could leave, they could call it a crazy coincidence, and go back to happily ignoring each other in their separate lives as two best friends who had insulted each other into estrangement. She didn’t know how to handle this situation, which is why she came to this diner in the first place. Him showing up at the diner forced her to revert to a plan B that she didn’t really have.

The waitress came back and asked for their order. “Hashbrowns, please. And an orange juice. And a refill on this coffee, please, when you get the chance.”

Ben turned to the waitress. “Tell me, if I order this waffle that claims to be as big as my face, do I need to provide anything else? Measurements? Do you need the diameter lengthwise or widthwise? And I have kind of a weirdly shaped face. Like my head is normal shaped mostly, but I feel like my face isn’t exactly round so–”

“The Belgian waffle it is,” the waitress said. She scribbled on her notepad as she rolled her eyes. “Bacon or sausage?”

“Bacon. And a Diet Coke.”

The waitress left. Flora shifted in her seat. “Ben.”

“Flora.” His brows furrowed and he laced his fingers together in front of him. It wasn’t until she looked down at her own hands, laced together and tense, that she realized he was making fun of her.

“You didn’t have to torture that waitress. It’s like six in the morning.”

“Well I’m not usually awake at six in the morning. Have to take advantage of how chipper I am. It’s pretty rare.”

“Why are you here?”

“You texted me. After you left me in your bed. Look.” He pushed his phone towards her, open to their texts. The most recent one was dated 5:45 AM. I’m at that diner by the wal-mart. Feel free to shower, I left a towel and toothbrush for you.

The second most recent one was from him, marked April 19th, 2013. That one morgan freeman movie was horrible, i hope that’s not the movie you picked this year.

She pushed the phone back towards him. “I didn’t think you’d actually show. I was giving you an out. Like, ‘I’m gone, so you can leave without this being too awkward and we can never speak of it again.’”

“Oh. Well those kinds of texts don’t usually include exact locations.”

“Usually?”

“Not–there isn’t a usually. Not really. But if there were a usually, I don’t think that usually would involve stealing my undershirt to wear to breakfast either.”

She didn’t have an answer to that. She looked at the table, at her hands, which had returned to their laced position, and at his hands, which couldn’t stay still. They tapped on the table, smoothed down some invisible fabric, played an invisible piano. She waited until they came to rest, in the same position as hers.

“You’re really calm and it’s both calming me and freaking me out.”

She looked up at him, and allowed herself to really look. He wasn’t lying, he looked terrified. He obviously hadn’t taken her up on the shower offer. His hair was disheveled and slightly greasy. She wanted to smooth it down. He looked back at her, eyes wide with concern.

“Do you want me to leave?” His voice was soft. She thought of the different times she’d heard that voice. It enveloped her in safety and comfort. Everything’s going to be okay, he had said, touching her back as she cried on the first April 19th after the initial one. You’re not a failure, with a hug, after she bombed the LSAT. You mean so much to me, he had said, with an arm draped casually around her shoulders, in the midst of laughter after they’d finished watching a truly horrible movie. Flora, he had said, just her name, soft and broken, after they’d gotten so angry at each other for the last time. He had grabbed her wrist, a last attempt at closeness, and she had yanked it away, telling him, with a voice that was shakier than she’d hoped, to figure out his own life before dictating hers. Impulsively, she reached for his interlaced fingers, placing one open hand over both of his.

Are you sure this is what you want?

He had said that last night, in that voice, after they had woken up in the middle of the night on top of her bedcovers, fully clothed. Instead of waking up, saying awkward goodbyes, and parting ways, they had looked at each other. It had been a look of understanding, of familiarity and comfort, but it had also been a look that contained a sense of anticipation for a moment that they both knew was going to happen. And he had said that.

And she had kissed him. When he said it in that voice, there wasn’t even a question. Of course it was what she wanted. Maybe.

She took her hand away, replaced her hands so they matched his. His hands seemed like a safe place to look. His fingers fanned and came back together.

“I don’t want you to leave. Right now. Not yet.”

“Okay.”

She moved her hands to her lap and looked up at him.

“Flora, I just think that we should–”

The waitress dropped a plate of waffles in front of Ben. “Waffle.” She placed a smaller plate next to it. “Bacon.” She repeated the same announcement process with Flora’s hashbrowns and orange juice. “Thanks,” Flora said, looking up at the waitress. The waitress smiled back without really smiling.

“I think we should probably talk–”

“Coffee.” The waitress came back and filled up Flora’s cup.

“Flora, seriously, I think–”

“Shh,” she said, reaching for the cream and sugar. “This is a ritual.” She carefully poured in one second’s worth of cream, and then ruthlessly poured in four sugars, one after the other. She stirred and took a sip.

“That can’t be good,” Ben said. “Why even put in the cream? There isn’t even any in there, it doesn’t even color it. It’s just sugared coffee. I didn’t know you even drank coffee.”

“Shut up and eat your face waffle.” He startled, and they both giggled.

“I have to hand it to them, it’s pretty big. But I don’t know,” He picked up the waffle and held it in front of his face.

“It is at least as big as your face.” Flora dissolved into giggles as Ben tried to use his knife to catch the butter that had started to slide off of his waffle, and her shoulders relaxed for the first time since she woke up. She looked out the window and saw the sun peeking up over the Wal-Mart across the street. She took a deep sigh and then looked back at him. He was back to fidgeting, picking up his knife and putting it back down, sipping nervously at his Diet Coke. She smiled, despite herself. In the back of her mind, she remembered that she was supposed to be mad at him, that she didn’t spend four years being mad at him just to forgive him for making stupid waffle jokes.

“Look,” she said. Try as she might, her defensive hostility had been replaced with nervous energy and a feeling she couldn’t quite place. “Let’s just eat breakfast. We can have this difficult conversation at Target or something.”

“Wal-Mart’s right there.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Oh right, your Wal-Mart thing.”

“You were there!”

“Oh yeah, that drunk guy that fell on you.”

“And the guy who looked at my ass, looked back at me and said ‘I approve’? To my face?”

“Or that lady who was cleaning her ears with her fingers and then wiping her earwax on every single shelf?”

“After that experience, how do you not have a Wal-Mart thing?”

“That was like five years ago,” he began, but Flora glared at him as fiercely as she could until he broke. “Target it is.”

They ate slowly and talked about everything. They’d covered a lot the night before, but most of it was lost in the blur that the liquor had cast over the night. He had told her how hurt he was when he received a save the date for her wedding, one that had never happened anyway, because he realized she hadn’t even thought about talking to him about it beforehand. She had told him how confused she was when he texted her on April 19th, 2013, the only and last acknowledgement of how significant it was that they weren’t spending her annual day of mourning together, and in turn how she felt when she went to lunch with a mutual college friend, who had talked all about the launch party for Ben’s app. She had been the only member of their college friend group who hadn’t been there, and Flora had to tell the friend that it was because she hadn’t been invited. They had, in their drunkenness, managed to avoid talking about that day four years ago. They didn’t talk about any of that at breakfast.

Instead they talked like two friends that were actually playing catch-up on the last few years. Flora talked about her brief engagement. She had loved Mike, but they were totally different people who just thought that this was the next thing that people did, and it fell apart the minute they realized that. Ben talked about his startup’s unexpected success, and how he never expected to get along with Jordan, let alone found a company with him. April 19th was getting easier for her. After she and Mike broke up, she had spent the following three April 19ths with an old family friend who took her to her father’s grave and then promptly to the movies, just as she’d always done. The only problem, she complained, was that Uncle Jeff, who wasn’t really her uncle, talked a bit too much for her taste, both at the cemetery and the theater. Ben told her about his last relationship, a short tryst with a woman twelve years older than him. After she’d made fun of him, his only comment was “been there, done that.”

She ate her hashbrowns, letting the familiar taste of starch and butter mix with the sickly sweet smell of Ben’s waffle. He had put an absurd amount of syrup on it. She watched him poke at the remnants of the waffle with his fork and realized he’d finished eating before her. He seemed reluctant to look up, and she thought about the grudge she’d been holding for so long. It had been so nice to let go of it last night. The more they talked, the more her anger towards him felt like a burden, something that she was doing because she’d always done it, like buying the same pair of shoes over and over. The difference was, of course, that buying the same pair of shoes wasn’t hurting anyone. Her grudge was not as harmless.

She poked her fork at her hashbrowns and considered saying something. She wanted to forgive him. She could admit that much, but that wasn’t enough. She was pretty sure she knew what he wanted, but she wasn’t sure enough about that to make a definitive statement. Instead, she poked her fork at her hashbrowns and made some remark about Ben eating too fast for her to catch up.

He picked up the bill before she even noticed, and they left the restaurant, though Flora pretended she had left something at the table and left a much larger tip than the already 18% that Ben had given. After a small argument, Flora agreed to drive to Target, just because “your hippie car probably needs to stay on the charger a little longer.”

They walked aimlessly through Target, and kept chatting, spelling obscene words with childrens’ blocks and grabbing giant bags of sour candy. Their conversation slowed somewhere in the feminine hygiene aisle. They stopped and looked at each other. Standing still was suddenly a struggle for Flora. Ben was actually better at it right now than she was. They still hadn’t touched since she’d impulsively grabbed his hand back at the restaurant.

“What are we doing?” Ben looked down as he said it, arms crossed and face suddenly very serious. She glanced at his hands. His fingers, always moving, tapped on his forearms.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Flora scuffed the toe of her boot on the linoleum, tracing previous scuff marks. “I missed you, though. And I’m sorry. For everything.”

“That’s good to hear. I missed you, too. I’m sorry too. I feel like you don’t really have that much to apologize for, actually.”

“Do we need to talk about it more?”

“No. I don’t really want to. It was so long ago. Do you need to talk about it?”

“No.” She was surprised at her own answer, but she meant it.

They fell silent again. Eventually she made eye contact with him. He still looked terrified. She took a deep breath and continued.

“What do you want? I mean, from this.”

“I mean, I’ll put it out there. The sex was pretty good. I would like that to happen again. More than one more time.” Flora watched his Adam’s apple bob as he talked, and looked at his forearms. Nothing special, but she quite liked them. One of his sleeves wasn’t as rolled up as the other and she was itching to fix it. Touching his arm would be a secondary benefit.

“So, friends with sex privileges? Is that what you want?” That nervous energy, she realized, was want. But she wasn’t sure what for.

“No, Flora, not really, no. Also that’s not an expression.”

“So like, a ‘relationship’?” She air-quoted. She immediately cringed at herself.

“I mean, you don’t have to say it in the most unpleasant possible way. But yes. I care about you, and you care about me, and yes. Yes, that is what I want. I want to try it, at least.”

“Right.” She felt her skin buzz with energy. She wasn’t sure what she had just agreed to. “Sure, let’s see what happens.” Apparently her mouth knew what she wanted today more than her brain did, because it felt like the right decision as soon as she said it.

“Okay.” Now it appeared that Ben couldn’t stay still. He turned, continuing past a shelf full of sanitary napkins. Flora walked with him. Somewhere around the cookwares aisle, their fingers interlaced. And in the frozen breakfast aisle, right in front of the waffles, she tugged their connected hands and pulled him into a kiss.

 

 

Veronica Ramirez studies English at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]