Short story about a relationship.
Ginny wake up! And now I’m twelve
And now we’re lost and we ran through hell
And thinkin’ that we may still survive
Burning our eyes on neon signs and moving in the night across borderlines
-“Life’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be”, Forty-ninth
The neon sign glows violently against the dark St. Louis streets. I snap my eyes shut to block the harsh light out while Eli parks, but UNCLE BILL’S PANCAKES STEAKS SANDWICHES AND CHICKEN hangs its sign on the backs of my eyelids so I give up. Eli pulls into a parking space on the far right of the tiny lot so that his beat up Subaru is nearly in the dead grass.
“Leave your purse in the car,” he says.
I raise an eyebrow, but he ignores me and gets out of the car. I wedge my black shoulder bag under the passenger seat and force my door open to the accompaniment of a horrendous screeching noise that I’m sure has alerted all five patrons in the diner of our arrival.
“You really need to fix that.”
He shrugs and gives me his usual off-center smile. He looks away and shoves one hand into his shirt pocket to dig out a pack of cigarettes and sticks the other out behind him. I fish a lighter out of my own pocket and slap it into his open hand as I pass him and enter the diner. A few minutes later he slides into the booth across from me in the back corner. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, the worn spots in his flannel shirt stand out like bleach stains. The faint smell of tobacco lingers in the air around him, and I watch his face half expecting to see the smoke float out of his mouth and curl around his head, weaving into his messy black hair.
“What’d ya get me?”
“Pancakes,” I say, “and sausage.”
“Uncle Bill’s: cure-all for hangovers, munchies, and anything else that ails ya.”
“It’s two A.M. I doubt anyone here has reached the hangover stage yet.”
Eli smirks and reaches across the table for the condiment basket. He pulls everything out and sets it out on the table forming an inconsistent barrier between us.
“You should have changed clothes before we left,” he says.
I pick up the grey sweatshirt he threw at me as we left earlier, but decide not to pull it on over my button-up.
“Does it really matter that much?”
“Just saying. You’re killing the ambiance.”
I shoot him a scathing look. “Forgive me.”
He continues to rearrange bottles of hot sauce, ketchup and various other seasonings on the plastic table. Occasionally, he bumps one glass bottle into another and the bright sound makes me flinch.
“Could you sit still for two seconds? The food will be out soon.”
Eli extends his right arm out over the table and starts to slide it across in order to bulldoze all the bottles back towards the wall. I slam my hand down on top of his before he can accomplish this. The waitress and a few other patrons snap their heads in our direction at the noise. I try to stay calm and keep my face from colouring.
“Eli,” I say, as I place the condiments back in the basket with my free hand, “do you want me to bitch you out?”
He gives me the same half-smile from earlier and flips his captured hand around so that he’s pinning my wrist to the table, hard, but I don’t pull away.
“No, Ginny,” he says, “it’s just so easy to piss you off. You need to relax.”
“I am relaxed.”
“Really? Then you must be relaxed every time I see you.”
He releases my hand and pulls away from the table, slouching down in the booth. I ignore him and look towards the counter to see if our order is up yet. The waitress is pulling loaded plates out of the cook’s window but I can’t see what’s on them.
“Why did you bring me here?” I’m still not looking at him.
“We were bored, remember.”
“Not here. I meant St. Louis.”
“You need a place to stay don’t you?”
I sigh and lean back from the table as the waitress approaches with the plates, one full of pancakes the other with French toast.
“I had waffles,” I say.
“Oh. Sorry Hun, this must go to the other table.”
The waitress swings away from us and heads for a man sitting by himself at a table near the door, and slides the plate in front of him. He doesn’t complain.
I roll my eyes at Eli, who’s smiling at me, and watch as he unrolls his thin, steel flatware from a paper napkin and begins slicing up his pancakes. This time he reaches for the condiment basket legitimately and pulls out the little pitcher of maple syrup and pours half of it on top of his handiwork. The waitress is headed back towards our table.
“You said waffles right, Hun?”
“Never mind,” I say, “I’m not really that hungry. We’ll just share.”
She shrugs and goes back behind the counter. Eli pushes his plate more towards the center of the table but keeps eating.
“Don’t worry about it.”
He looks up at me and swallows. After a few seconds he sets his knife and fork down on the plate and spins it so it’s facing me.
“You can’t do this every time.”
“Relax. I’m really just not hungry.”
“And I don’t care.”
He’s staring directly into my eyes. I want to look away, but I can’t. It feels as if he’s slapped me. Without taking my eyes away, I snatch the fork off the plate, stab a piece of pancake, and shove it in my mouth. He, finally, looks away from me and starts eating again. When he finishes, he leans back in the booth with a sigh and looks me over.
“You never can take anything from me can you?”
“I’m already overdrawn,” I say, “Besides, I left my purse in the car.”