The DinerBy Kendra Ayers It was dusk. The sun had already kissed the sky as she set and now the clouds were circling as if they wanted to shower the ground with rain at any moment. The clouds looked gray and heavy. I stepped out of my car and looked directly up to the sky, silently praying that what I was about to hear would be something beneficial for me for a change; Lord knows I deserved it. I parked my car across from the tiny diner because there was never enough parking in the lot and even when there was an empty spot it frightened me. I couldn’t imagine how people had to back out of the spots in hopes of not hitting another vehicle they were sandwiched between. I kicked a rock and watched my feet slowly take one step at a time away from my comfort zone and into the unknown. The walk from my car to the diner door felt like an eternity. The sign flickered as if a bulb was trying hard not to burn out. I didn’t allow myself to search for his car before entering because I feared my confidence would sink before my feet ever crossed the threshold of the entrance. If anything, he would be early and appear distracted when I walked in. He always had a way of making me feel slightly unwelcome even if it was his idea to see me. And there he was, sitting in the usual booth, looking at the menu as if studying it for the first time. He never ordered anything other than the hot ham and Swiss and a vanilla coke. Even if our last encounter at the diner was nearly two year’s prior, I still remembered what he liked. I am certain he would not be able to recite my grilled cheese and cherry coke. My presence walking toward the table almost startled him and he dropped the menu as he looked up. I could sense a smile forming but he bit his lip to prevent it from spreading. I took this as a bad sign. If my news was meant to appease me, then the smile would have been the first thing I saw after the twinkle in his eyes. I panicked for a moment before proceeding to the table. “Hey you, I was wondering if you were going to stand me up.” He said coolly as he slowly stood to give me an awkward hug. His voice was a bit shaky, almost as if he was nervous and it made me nervous just thinking about why he called for our meeting. “I didn’t forget or anything, I was just running late. How are you? What’s it been like, two years? In the flesh at least…..” My voice trailed and I looked around the room as if I expected to see someone I knew in this cramped little hole in the wall. “Well, come on now, that isn’t fair. We’ve talked. We’ve emailed.” “No, Finn, we’ve Facebooked; and does that really count?” I laughed as I said this so he didn’t think I was being too serious or sensitive about our distance over the past few years. He knew as well as I did that any distance formed was never going to be my choice. “So how long have you been in town? Are you staying at your mom’s?” I asked him, trying not to sound desperate for information. “I came in to town yesterday and plan on leaving tomorrow. Short trip but I have to get back to work on this huge project and we aren’t allowed any time off. You know the drill.” We both stopped talking and looked down at our menus. Something was strange between us but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He looked anxious, almost as if he was regretting out meeting and wanted to bolt as fast as possible. I waited another minute or so before closing my menu and asking him what was going on. “Is there something wrong? I feel like you have something to tell me or maybe you don’t want to tell me?” Before he could answer, the waitress came up to our table to take our order. He ordered his usual, just as I predicted and I ordered mine; a grilled cheese and added a cup of tomato soup just to change it up a bit. He appeared not to notice. He took a long drink of his water before allowing his eyes to meet mine. “There really isn’t an easy way of doing this so I am just going to come right out and say it,” he said, trying not to choke on the water as he took a deep breath. I felt my heart swelling in my chest. Could this be the moment I have been waiting for? My feelings for him had never changed, no matter who I dated or what I was doing. I smiled and tried to study his face but it was completely blank. “Drew and I are getting married. I’ve asked her to marry me.” My brain had a delayed response and his words jumbled in my head. “Wait, what?” I said, in a loud voice not realizing just how loud I was speaking. The waitress at the counter looked up from her newspaper at me, as if I had done something wrong. I felt like my head was getting a brain freeze; the kind one gets after sucking down a slushie or eating ice cream. His eyes narrowed a little, probably embarrassed by my reaction. “I thought you guys weren’t doing so well? I am confused. You acted like it wasn’t anything serious and now you’ve ask her to marry you? Didn’t think you’d ever be the marrying type.” My voice was still loud and now it was shaky too. “I knew this would happen. I wanted to just tell you over the phone or in an email but I thought it would mean more if I talked to you myself. Now you are acting like this and I don’t know what you want me to say.” “I guess I am supposed to congratulate you. Well congrats on the upcoming nuptials. When’s the big day?” I said in a very sarcastic voice, almost too sarcastic for even my style. “We haven’t crossed that bridge yet. Talking it one day at a time. Don’t be like this. I wanted to do the right thing and tell you myself to avoid any confusion.” “Any confusion? What like you think I might get misled like I have been for the past twelve years of my life? No, I think this message is loud and clear.” I paused as our dinner was placed in front of us and like usual, the waitress screwed up the order and placed the wrong plates in front of us. As we switched my tomato soup and grilled cheese with his ham and Swiss, our hands touched as we exchanged plates. We both looked up at each other as if we had been stung by a bee or worse yet, enjoyed the touch. “Listen, we don’t have to ‘go there’ and you know it. We should be past all of this stuff and remember that we agreed the friendship far outweighed the alternative.” “Oh I know, Finn. I am supposed to be grateful that we are still friends after all that we’ve been through.” He glared at me as he took a bite of his sandwich and then, as he chewed, he began to smile. This happened every time we saw each other. All it took was his smile and I would forget the bad, the hurt, the pain. I dipped a corner of my grilled cheese into the soup and took a bite myself. My eyes drifted to the window overlooking the tiny parking lot just outside of the diner and saw his car. I knew this would happen someday. I would have to give up the fantasy of ever having him all to myself and officially call myself his friend and his friend alone. Something was different this time. I felt like my heart was cracking inside. I searched his eyes for solace and got nothing. He looked hollow. He must have been practicing his speech and now his demeanor went cold and a little heartless. I wanted so badly to start crying but I told myself to suck it up, enjoy the moment with him, and cry later. He changed the subject quickly and began talking about his latest project at work but my heart ached. I didn’t want to finish the lunch but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him either. He kept drawing me in with his eyes and there was a softness that replaced the stern look he had not five minutes prior. I tried to send messages of last minute pleas to his eyes as he spoke to me but I knew he had no idea what I was thinking. “Jen, are you even listening to me?” I laughed, nervously, as if getting caught doing something wrong. “Yes, I heard you. Don’t worry, I am so in awe and amazement of your latest endeavor while I stay back in the homeland and teach English to middle school kids. Life is good.” He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. We finished the rest of our meal in small talk and he walked me out to my car. Something inside was telling me he wasn’t quite ready to end our conversation so I invited him back to my apartment for coffee. I was sadly rejected. “Actually, Drew is waiting for me back at Mom’s.” “Wait, she’s in town with you?” I paused for a minute and then it all clicked. “Oh, I get it. You are hear to celebrate your engagement with your family. This is real. This is happening isn’t it?” “Yes, I think it is.” “Well, does she know you are here with me?” “She knows we are catching up on old times, just like we always do when I’m in town.” “Not always, Finn. Not always.” “Okay, okay, I know. I’ve not been the greatest friend to you and I am sorry. When I proposed to her though, you were the first person I thought of to share the news with.” “Why? Because it meant whatever this is or was is no longer? Because you wouldn’t be able to just call me whenever you felt like it?” “Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought. I figured our dynamic would change but I never let my mind process how or when.” “Well I guess we both know it’s officially in the friend zone now. I have to accept it and I am going to call it what it is.” “You are making this difficult for me, Jen.” “For you? Seriously, we are gonna go there?” “No, I am going to hug you and you are going to get in your car and drive home. You are probably going to send me a nasty private message on Facebook and I am going to either smooth it over or ignore it.” “Great. Just great. Well give me my hug then.” He leaned into me, pushing my body back against the car and hugged me. He rubbed his face against mine and hugged me like he meant it. Our cheeks felt flushed and were feeding off of the warmth the other cheek gave but neither of us moved away. I wanted to lean back and look at him, beckon him to kiss me, but I knew he wouldn’t. So, I did what I knew best to do and stayed in the moment for as long as he would allow. A few seconds later, he pulled back, grabbed my face in his hands, and looked at me. His eyes were smiling at me as if planting a memory in his mind of what I looked like in that moment. I felt my eyes sting with tears and years of love and pain swirled together like paints on a canvas. My mind was saying “don’t go, oh please don’t go” but my heart was saying “you’re already gone.” His hands dropped almost instantly from my face and he snapped back into the reality of where he was and what he was doing. He gave me one last smile and turned to walk away. “Finn!” I yelled almost breathlessly as he was on the edge of ear shot. I felt like Baby from Dirty Dancing when she called out to Johnny to have one last look and a smile. He stopped walking, hesitated as if he wasn’t sure if he should turn around for another look at me, and then he shifted his feet and looked into my eyes one last time. No smile but he lifted his right hand to wave and then he walked away. I stood there for several minutes, not allowing myself to see if he had pulled away yet. The street was damp so it must have rained a little. We desperately needed the rain and at that moment, I wanted it to pour on me. I needed something to jump start my agony so that I could get it over with already. I sat in my car and could not force myself to put the key into the ignition. I wanted to cry but my eyes wouldn’t release the tears just sitting inside my eyelids. My mind flooded with memories of us. I pictured all of the times he would call me or see me only to move on with another. And yet, I could never let him go or fully move on. Here he was, showing me just how much he had moved on by getting engaged and here I was trying to figure out a way to never make it happen. One last plea perhaps? Why didn’t I say something while we were eating? Why didn’t I just tell him I loved him and that he couldn’t marry her? I knew why and he knew why; he would always choose another. I looked back up at the diner sign and the light bulb struggling to remain lit had finally burned out; no more flickering. I searched the lot for his car but he had already left. The sky was completely dark now and the street light I had been parked under felt like a spot light on my car, leaving the rest of the lot dark and empty. I reached for my phone and then sat it back down. He was probably already home now, kissing her hello. I grabbed the phone again, checking my texts, but there was nothing. I figured now was as good a time as any to call Laney and give her the latest. Suddenly, my hand started to vibrate and my eyes struggled to see the caller I D. It was Finn. What do I do now? Do I answer it? Do I let it go to voice mail? My eyes searched the couple walking passed my car as if they could answer my plea. If I hesitated another second, I wouldn’t have to make the choice. My heart ached as I placed my finger over the “Answer” button. Click.
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