When we worked together at his father’s diner, Tom drove an old minivan; green body with red doors. He would crank the window down and idle outside my front door. He wore a blue bandana rolled up and across his forehead to keep his hair from his eyes, and I remember so many times my own pale face reflected in his sunglasses as he leant across the center console to push open the passenger door. He would tug at my seatbelt once I had clicked it into place, just to make sure. I would tuck my long hair under the seatbelt strap at my shoulder to keep it contained against the highway breeze. We would do this on repeat, working the same morning shifts, taking the same morning drives chasing the sunrise, trying to beat its arrival, the pale blue and orange-tinge of morning creeping up and blossoming just as he turned the key to the diner to let us in.
In the kitchen, we had our routines. While I pinned my hair back in the standard chignon, he took inventory in the walk-in freezer. I turned on the toasters—big revolving belts of metal that took in four, six, eight slices of bread at a time and spat them out from the conveyor and into the sheet pan we placed at its feet on the countertop—and I pried open the halves of the English muffins. Tom fired up the flat-top and whipped pancake batter while I dipped my hand into the chocolate chips.
When the first batch of coffee had brewed, I would walk through the dining room and collect the stacks of menus from the ends of tables and return them to the host station where I would spray their sticky, laminated pages with a chemical that was supposed to be antibacterial or disinfectant but we just called “pink spray.” I wiped the gunk from each page with a wet cloth. I checked each table had salt and pepper shakers, filled ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers, and stuffed my apron pockets with extra straws.
I poured a cup of coffee for Tom and took it outside to where he sat with his one cigarette of the day. He was trying to quit and had narrowed his habit down to just this one sole smoke-session before the doors opened for breakfast. He wore a grey, cotton muscle tank and baggy jeans. On his feet, non-slip Crocs in a midnight grey.
When the diner was busy, I saw Tom the most, his blue bandana flashing in all directions—behind the grill, prepping salads, plating food on the line, running from kitchen to table and back again when us servers simply had no time to deliver our orders. When business was slow, Tom slid into a booth in the back and punched numbers into a calculator and made piles of receipts. Busy or slow, our days felt long and endless, infinite.
It had started how these things always begin. My car broke down one morning. Battery dead. Key churning stubborn in the ignition. I called out of work. The next day, Tom called me and said he was picking me up. He lived close by, and I was on his route. On the drive home that first night, cruising along on the highway, he played The Smiths at full volume, windows cranked. I felt my face flush with blood as he sang, too loud, too animated, too much alive. The corners of my mouth curled against my will. A layer of me began to peel away. I got my car fixed, but he still swung by day after day. We fell into the routine as easily as if we had always been doing things this way. As if we always would.
When we reached my building each night, Tom pulled over, steering one-handed into an empty spot in the parking lot. We let the engine run. His hands gripped the steering wheel, ten-to-two, and would not cross the space to where I sat on the other side of the gear stick. I turned to him. Tom leaned back, his hair pressing up against the headrest behind him. He glanced at me in his periphery. I wondered if he could read my mind. I wanted to reach out and touch a fingertip to his pale cheek. I wanted to press my hands into the soft space behind his ears. I wanted to feel his hair, chicken-fluff against my neck. I wanted to invite him into my home. But his hands strummed the wheel as he talked, and I let him. He told me stories about his father.
His dad, technically the boss of us both, owned the diner, but rarely came by. A small man, always dressed in matching linen pants and shirts in beige. His eyes were Tom’s but sunken deeper into the wrinkling flesh and folds of his face. He didn’t pause to learn names, just nodded at the waitresses and stalked through the dining room into the kitchen in the back. He sat in the back office with the door closed for hours, the light from the little window staying on until just before the dinner shift ended.
I had never worked in a restaurant before. I think that’s what made me learn so fast. I had nothing to compare it to, and I needed to earn money to pay back my student loans. I had just graduated, and it was something to do to pass the time until I got a “real” job. Until the world really wanted me. I hadn’t had time to learn bad habits like some of the other servers. And Tom liked the way I worked. I learned to roll silverware the fastest: resting the knives in between the prongs of each fork to hold the two tighter together before twisting them up in a napkin, rolling and wrapping and tabbing them closed with standard green adhesive bands. I stacked them in rows in giant plastic bins, eight by eight. I rolled while I waited for the office light to turn out. For the door to open and for Tom’s father to emerge with his son.
I got really good at my job. I obsessed over the diner. I picked up shifts anytime another waitress dropped hers. I opened and closed. Tom’s dad came back every month and when I saw him, I said hello quietly, avoiding his eyes in case he saw through me, saw me pine for his son.
It was usually after one of his father’s check-ins that we would sit in the dark and talk about his dad, how he grew up without a mother. She had passed away a few months after Tom’s fourth birthday. When he thought of her, he said, she was a sheen of dark hair and a bright white light. She was faceless and voiceless in his memory, but still she glowed. His father had grieved in silence. His father never cried, was never angry. He was only serious and practical. He cracked once and only once. Tom’s greasy toddler-fingers pressed themselves to the glass of a picture frame in their living room, a family photograph inside, covering his mother’s face like he was begging for her to materialize, pressing her out of the frame and into existence. Tom’s father had snatched the frame from his grasp and held it to his chest. His eyes—miniscule and black—stunned his child, clutching him in the terror that perhaps his father may never forgive him. His father cried loud, retching sobs. His tears didn’t stop until the following morning and Tom woke up to silence. Tom lived in the shadow of that memory. If he could not have his mother back, his goal in life became achieving his father’s approval. He wanted his father to love him with the same fierceness he had loved Tom’s mother. He didn’t have to say it for me to know he would do anything to be a man of whom his father would approve.
I had never been in love before. What I knew about love wasn’t much, but it was enough. My parents had met on vacation in the Mediterranean when they were in their twenties. There was a photograph of my mother on a balcony, backlit by a rising sun. She wore a yellow sundress, spaghetti straps and skin of burnt umber after two weeks drenched in constant sunlight. Her eyes were crinkled, and her head tipped back in laughter. Freckles across the bridge of her nose, across the tops of her shoulders. I used to ask her about the photograph when I was little, and every time she would tell me about my father instead—the way he looked at her from behind the lens of the camera that morning, the last morning of their vacations, just hours before they were to step onto separate planes and return to separate countries and separate lives and probably never see each other again.
“But what about you, Mom?” I always asked, wanting her to describe the way she felt so that I could one day compare myself to her to measure my own ability to fall in love. I thought it was something I could calculate if I knew the ingredients. But she never answered. All I knew was they were married a year later and had moved to the states.
* * *
I had been at the diner for around seven months and Tom’s father had visited maybe five or six times. I waited on the curbside, sitting on the edge of the concrete by the back door, for the men to wrap up and for Tom to take me home. The door squeaked as it opened behind me and I stood up. As I turned, his father cleared his throat.
“Sorry, I must be in your way,” I stumbled to brush off my apron and smooth out my blouse.
“No, no, you’re okay,” his voice like gravel.
He smiled with closed lips. His head tilted. His hand reached my shoulder and squeezed. Quick, strong, gentle.
“He’ll be out shortly, honey.”
Tom sighed deeply as he stepped outside a few moments later. My stomach rumbled. It was too empty, but suddenly I felt sick. His father’s headlights swung across our bodies as he pulled out of the lot. I wondered what he saw when he looked at us together. I thought about his palm on my shoulders. Tom was silent.
On the drive home, I pressed my hands into the sides of the seat on the passenger side, under my thighs. I wanted to ask him what was on his mind, what his father had told him or said or done this time to make him upset. But when I opened my mouth, there was nothing to say. There was no music. There were no stops. We drew a single continuous line from the diner to my building and when we arrived, he got out of the car.
It was weird for Tom to be in my kitchen. It was weird to see him there, for him to have parked, turned off the engine, and left the green and red minivan in the parking lot downstairs. It was weird for him to come inside my apartment where I lived alone; the same apartment in which I had spent countless hours imagining what it would be like for him to be here, to move in, to share another part of our lives with each other. But there he was.
We held beer bottles in place of each other’s hands. He pulled the bandana from his head and pushed it into the pocket of his jeans. He cleared his throat.
“So, I guess you heard the news from my dad,” he began.
“Actually…” I started, but he reached into his back pocket for his cell phone. He swiped, the screen illuminating his face, the shadows swelling under his eyes. I felt a pulse in my chest and realized that my heart was just a muscle. And, like all organs, cushioning each other in the dark, we don’t always feel them until they need to be felt.
He turned the screen to show me a picture. I saw a child with his cheekbones, his jet-black hair, the fullness of his lips. I saw a miniature version of Tom. I saw a woman’s arms around the child—three, maybe four years old. I saw his life merged with someone else’s. I saw the end of time.
“I have to be there for them; I have to leave.”
My lips moved into a slow, sad smile to mask everything else. His moved to my forehead and placed one single kiss on my prickling, burning skin.
“I can’t believe this,” I murmured into his chest.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he placed a hand on each of my shoulders and stepped back to meet my eyes. He winked at me and I felt the blood inside my body, churning.
I removed my arms from our parting embrace. Removed the smile from my face. Pulled the bottle from his hand and placed it in the sink. I locked the door of my apartment behind him and switched the ringer of my phone to silent. I drew the blinds. I switched off the lights.
* * *
In the morning, my blankets were twisted, draped and spilling lazily onto the carpet of my bedroom. I peeled the bedsheets from each other—blanket from comforter from flat sheet—and dropped them on the floor beside my feet. I hesitated and then pulled off the pillowcases and fitted sheet, carrying them all to the washing machine and pushing everything inside. Then, I threw in all of the towels that I owned—bath towels, dishtowels, terrycloth flannels, even the fabric placemats from the dining room table. All of it. I peeled my shirt from my body, too, followed by gym shorts and underwear and socks. I grew obsessed. I needed to start over. I needed to erase it all. The feeling of abandonment, of being discarded. Like a film, it clung to my skin. I took a shower; I scrubbed and rinsed it all away.
I thought about the Fates. Three lines; past, present, future. Me, Tom, the child he had yet to meet. I thought about the woman the most. The other one, the one he had loved, and maybe he still loved. I wondered how this all happened. When?
In my imagination, the woman was tall like me, and slender. Her skin was a creamy caramel color from hours and hours spent swaying and swimming in the Pacific surf. I imagine the years she spent apart from him. The months she spent alone immediately after they had parted. Did she wait for him like I had? Did she think about him in everything she did? When did she realize she was carrying his child? Did she love him? Did she move on? I thought of the seed in her stomach as an improbability, one among thousands that so easily could have missed its target. There was no way the child was not his. I had seen the proof in his features. I tingled with anger as I thought of her in bloom.
His departure wasn’t immediate, but it was much faster than I had expected. In two days since the news, he had interviewed and hired his replacement. In one week, he had stopped coming in to work his shifts altogether. The new kitchen manager was shorter, slimmer, and he bounced around the kitchen like he was allergic to standing still. I caught rides from the other servers, friends who didn’t have to tell me for me to know that they pitied me. My heartbreak was tangible.
On the last day, Tom was supposed to work a dinner shift with me. He had agreed to work one last night before his departure the following day. I watched the clock in the kitchen, glancing at it every time I carried a plate from the dining room to the dishwasher and back. The minutes dragged. I dropped a tray of drinks—thankfully in plastic mugs and not glass. I spilled ketchup on my apron as I refilled the containers. I wrote down orders and walked away without putting them in to be made. I checked the parking lot as I wiped down tables. No minivan. No red and green. No blue bandana.
Tom’s father strolled in on the following morning and sat at one of the booths, waiting to be served. Checking in, he told us. Living the guest experience. I’d never heard him speak so many words to us. He looked nothing like his son, and yet I crumbled under his stare. I wanted to drive to the airport after my shift. I wanted to stop him at the gate. I wanted so much. I watched the time on my phone. I let the minutes slip past his departure time. I stayed at home.
I took a job as a copywriter for a social media marketing company. I wanted to fill my time with other people’s words so that I didn’t have to think about my own, or Tom’s. I wanted to be endlessly busy with other people’s ideas to quell my own crazy ones that kept sneaking up on me and telling me to buy plane tickets and hotel rooms that I couldn’t afford. These things wouldn’t bring me closer to Tom anyway. Physically, maybe, but we were never destined to cross paths in that way. I turned my phone off when I worked so that I wouldn’t read my messages over and over again, and my new boss hovered over my shoulder and asked why I didn’t connect outside of office hours on any of the platforms we worked on all day promoting the business. Why didn’t I accept their friend requests?
I didn’t want to be tempted to check for photos from Tom’s new life. I missed the busyness of the diner—the constant moving, cleaning, carrying, hauling stacks of plates from the dishwasher to the line, the filling and refilling of coffee cups. I missed the burn in the backs of my calves from standing on tile all day with no breaks. I missed the flatness of my stomach and the tightness in my arms. I spent days sat still in front of a screen, stationary, immobile aside from the strumming of fingertips to keys, my eyes scanning line over line over line of text.
* * *
I heard about the child from mutual friends. They started to talk about him. I thought about them in fleeting moments as my life went on. I worked, I cooked, I ate, I slept. I ran and I ran and I ran. After two years, I had seen her photograph on the internet more than I wanted, but I built up a tolerance. I had inadvertently memorized her smile. She was not like me. Blonde, bubbly—a word I have always hated. Without my approval or conscious acceptance, my brain began to work a feat of magic. Somehow, I stopped remembering to avoid them. Sometimes I scrolled past their posts without registering I had done so. After another year, their faces began to lose their shape in my memory and I accepted that the Tom I had loved was gone—a man living only in a world imaginary to me, another parallel universe, a man whose fingertips I would never touch in this life. Our past had buried itself in sepia; a previous life that only played in my mind on broken reels of film—spotty, distant, crackling.
And then, I slowly brought myself back to life.
* * *
Once, I saw his father at the grocery store. I stood in line, waiting for the cashier to swipe my items through, and when I looked up and pushed my cart past her to collect my bags and push my credit card into the machine, there he was—just three aisles away.
I knew him immediately. His tan shirt under a linen pantsuit; a straw hat perched on his head. A golden bracelet swinging from his wrist. The arch of his shoulders. He walked to the exit. I paused… and then I shuffled my purchases into the cart as quickly as I could. I looked for his straw hat in the parking lot. I called out to him.
“Excuse me! Hi!” I stopped, breathless. I caught us both off guard. My heart rebelled against my ribcage. I wondered, for a brief moment, if he would know me after so long.
The folds of skin around his eyes stretched as his eyebrows raised in welcome surprise. He smiled and kissed my cheek. He pulled his wallet from his back pocket—a movement just like Tom, I thought, remembering him in my kitchen years ago—and he whipped out a photograph I had already seen online. I held his forearm, steadying his shaky hand to take a closer look. This man was old. Much older than I had expected him to be. Much older than he had been when I worked for him. He touched the photograph, stroking his grandson’s face, swelling with pride as he told me about their lives. I let my frozen pizza thaw in the cart as he spoke and I watched him.
“Beautiful,” I said. “They are beautiful.”