Jeremy ran a hand through his dark brown hair. He drummed his fingers along the polished, wooden table and sighed. The diner was mostly empty this late at night. The light hanging above the table seemed extra bright, especially in contrast to the pitch black darkness outside the window. When he looked out, all he saw was his sleepy reflection staring back at him.
He tapped two fingers against the old fashioned Jukebox that rested in front of the window. The musical devices adorned every table, but they were rarely used. Each one had a selection of songs from a variety of musicians, including Elvis, Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. Most patrons at this fine establishment preferred to listen to their iPods, if they listened to music at all, and it was often a way that people, young and old, chose to kill time while they waited for their food. It was easier than trying to make conversation with friends and family. It was easier than trying to pretend one’s day was interesting.
At least, that’s what Jeremy assumed. He’d never owned an iPod, or any similar device. He’d barely owned a cell phone. He had a laptop, though. It was sitting beside him in the dark, orange booth. He always had a laptop.
Across the diner, there was an elderly man reading a newspaper, sipping coffee, with headphones over his ears, bobbing his head to a beat that Jeremy couldn’t hear. The man was listening to his iPod.
Someone cleared her throat. Jeremy looked up to see April. Her wavy, dark hair and her pea coat were wet from the rain. Her lipstick was the color of red rose petals, and her dark mascara was smeared, just a bit. Whether it was from the rain or from tears, he didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure if he should bother to care. She said nothing, but her eyes were pleading, her sincerity almost believable. He nodded his head, gesturing that it was okay for her to join him.
She sat across from him, folding her hands over the table. She looked at his hair, his neck, his wrists, anywhere but his eyes. Her lips parted as though she were about to speak, but was interrupted when a waitress placed a stack of hot pancakes on the table, along with a small container of maple syrup. Jeremy smiled and thanked the waitress, wondering, as he often did, if she’d been working here since this place opened in the 60s.
The waitress’s name was Jenny. She flipped open a notepad, turned to April and asked, “What can I get for you, Dear?”
“Uh, just coffee. Thanks,” she answered. Jenny walked away and Jeremy poured syrup all over his plate of pancakes. He cut a triangle with his knife and grabbed three layers of pancake, dripping syrup, with his fork.
April smirked and nodded toward the plate. “Breakfast for dinner. You’re certainly set in your ways.”
He took a bite of the sweet pancakes and chased it with some nice, cold milk. “Yes, well, one of us has to be.” A silence hung in the air after that. He had nothing to say to her. Nothing.
Jenny came back with a cup of coffee and a bowl of coffee creamers. When she walked away, April opened a sugar packet and poured it into the cup.
“I know you hate me,” she said. She tour open another packet and poured. When she didn’t get an answer, she tried again. “You haven’t answered my messages all week. I got worried.” Seconds ticked by and the silence was palpable. She opened another packet, her final packet, and added it to her coffee before mixing it with a wooden stirrer. It was always three packets. After more silence filled the space between them, she added cream and then took a sip.
He just stared at her, looked her dead in the eyes, trying to be emotionless when all he wanted to do was cry. Or break things. Or both. Instead, he took another sip of milk. He leaned forward, holding her gaze, and spoke his words with intention, careful to pronounce every syllable.
“We had a good thing going, you and I. Picnics at the park, holding hands under the stars, sneaking out to come to this godforsaken diner, pancakes for me, a burger for you. But you had to go and ruin it,” he said. The tears were pooling in his eyes now and his hands were shaking.
She sighed and looked at her hands. “It doesn’t have to be ruined. I mean, it was just one kiss,” she said. It came out wrong, and she knew it. She sounded defensive and she shook her head, as if that could shake away the line that had been drawn between them. “What I mean is, I made a mistake. Gosh, Jer, it’s just, if the roles were reversed, this wouldn’t bother me the way it bothers you. Because you’re your own person and we’re not each other’s property.” She put her hair in a pony tail and placed her fingers on her temples, furrowing her brows. In a whisper, she said, “Things were never supposed to get this bad between us.”
He placed his fork on the table and laughed a bitter laugh. He knew she was telling the truth. That somewhere in the deep recesses of her brain, she actually believed that this was no big deal. Maybe if she dated someone, and that someone kissed an old flame–maybe if he himself had kissed another person, she really would just brush it off like a spec of rubble from her coat sleeve. But he couldn’t do it. It hurt too much.
She pointed to the seat beside him. “I see you brought your laptop. Is that all I am now? A fictionalized story for The West Wing? Another person in your life who has betrayed you in the worst way possible?” The West Wing was their high school’s literary magazine, and Jeremy often wrote stories loosely based on his real life experiences. It was how he coped with the betrayals, with his traumas, but those were stories for another day.
She reached across the table and took his hand. Hers felt warm, soft. It felt like home and he hated that. Tears were streaming down his cheeks now, and he was no longer hungry. He wanted to leave, but he was weak, and he held her hand tighter as if it were the only thing tethering him to this world. Maybe, maybe it was.
“I know I messed up,” she continued, “but please tell me I’m not being put in the same category as all of those people who hurt you. Please tell me I’m not going to get the silent treatment from you for the rest of my life. I…I couldn’t bare that. I couldn’t live with myself if I lost you. We’ve been through too much.”
They were both crying then. He pushed his plate of pancakes aside and grabbed her other hand, holding them both, looking at her chipped, dark blue nail polish. She stroked the back of his hand, and as much as he wanted to be mad at her, he just wasn’t. At least, not in this moment.
“You were all I had, April. I trusted you, and you know how hard it is for me to do that,” he said.
Tears streamed down her face and she nodded. “I know.”
“So why did you lie about the kiss for even a second? Why did you kiss him at all?”
She squeezed his hands tighter. In his peripheral vision, Jeremy could see that the old man with the newspaper took off his headphones and was calling Jenny over. He met April’s eyes, the diner’s lights glistening against her teary pupils like stars. She looked down at the table and shook her head.
“We’re graduating soon. Going to different colleges. I was having self doubts. I worried that once we were apart, our relationship would be over,” she said.
He squinted and studied her. “So your magical solution to this dilemma was to kiss another guy? To make me lie awake at night, imagining you being happy with someone else? You could be with anyone April! You’re beautiful, smart, more normal and more sane than I’ll ever be. You’ll have no problem finding someone new. But me? No, no one is going to want me.
“You and I being together has been nothing more than a glitch in the Matrix. I’ve thought it was too good to be true, and now you’ve just confirmed it.” He was shouting now, loud enough for Jenny to look over in concern, so he lowered his voice. “I’m not another one of your charity projects. If you didn’t want to be with me after graduation, you should have just said so.”
She let her hair loose, got up, and went over to his side of the booth. With gentle hands, she lifted his laptop, placed it on the cleanest section of the table, and sat beside him. She smelled like lilac soap. He thought he’d want to leave the booth and never look back, but he stayed, wanting to stay frozen in this moment forever. Because beyond this moment, there was nothing but uncertainty.
“I kissed Luke,” she started, “because I have a long history of self sabotage. And I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to ruin the one good thing in my life. You. I know I haven’t acted like it, but…I love you, Jer.” It was the first time she’d said it. A civil war raged inside his mind because he’d never wanted to hear those three words from anyone else so badly. But she also cheated on him. She withheld the kiss, only for 24 hours, but still, keeping it a secret for any length of time was enough to make him panic. It was enough to make him think she could do it again.
There were so many things he could say in this moment, so many choices he could make, so many feelings he could express. So, he just chose to say what was on his heart.
“And I love you April,” he said. “And you don’t have to worry. I haven’t written any stories about you. I couldn’t, because you’re right. You’re not like those people who hurt me. You’re better than them.” He leaned forward and kissed her, soft, sweet, urgent, then sweet again.
She pulled away, took his hand, and sighed. “Then why do I feel like I’m worse?”
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