I can't say I noticed her right
away. I don't come to Dusty's Café to observe or connect. I come
to eat and to write. Rice, chicken, savory sauce. Blue-lined
paper and pen. Dusty's is a newly single writer's Friday night
heaven, with fifteen kinds of homemade pie.
I was hot on a short story, consumed by the fiction of emotional
rescue, and I'd just filled the last page of my notebook. I was
fumbling in my knapsack when she first caught my eye. Sitting by
the window with an old man I assumed was her father. Two sweeps
through my bag and I wilted. Out of paper. I went back to my
chicken, cursing, trying to hold onto my story.
Then she looked over.
The old man had finished a rant I barely realized I'd heard, and
the two of them settled into that dead-marriage silence. Once I
looked I knew the old man wasn't her father. By the way her jaw
clenched, by the way she folded herself in, even as she
straightened her spine in thwarted defiance. By the way he
angled his bony old shoulders, determined still, to possess and
protect her. It was instinct. I could read it.
A decade ago my partner and I made a game of spotting married
couples in trouble at restaurants. Those who ate without
speaking were the saddest to watch, the farthest from hope.
Two-participant fighters we gave a 50/50 chance; they were
normal. I wasn't proud to remember how my partner and I gloated
over the game we created, smug in our love, until we became the
pieces with nothing to say. And now I'm reminded how the angry
ranters paired with quiet dreamers always depressed me. Made me
fantasize myself a hero, sensitive and gentle. In life, doomed
to failed rescue. In fiction, sometimes the lost girls turned
into my lovers.
The old man shakes his fist at the newspaper as his wife has my
eyes locked in her lonely dull gaze.
I could save you, I'm thinking, as the man yells "Are you
deaf?" at the woman. I don't hear the rest of his scolding, his
trivial anger. I just see her face retreat and release me. I
grip my pen with no paper to write on, imagine the woman's face
bright, her head thrown back in laughter. Imagine her smile, her
long neck responding to pleasure, her hands open, reaching.
The man squeaks his chair over to block her straight gaze from
passing beyond him, but she's no longer trying to see me.
I finish my dinner, pack up my bag, leave a large tip on the
table. As I pass by their window, I look at the woman and she
looks back at me, briefly, and I wish that she knew a failed
hero had seen her. In my story, the new one I am already
composing, she will.