I kind of had to take him out for a meal after I read that Buzzfeed article. It said I had to establish my own relationship with him so he wouldn’t think I was just trying to steal his dad. I don’t know if that’s how Jess sees me – I can’t remember what it’s like to be 10 anymore – but the article said I can’t go by appearances, that kids are tricky about hiding their emotions. It also said I had to be the one initiating the meal so it didn’t seem like a chore assigned by dad. So that’s what I did, even made a minor show about us keeping our plan a secret from his dad. He agreed – a pact that lasted roughly one minute before he spilled the beans to David. I wasn’t sure from his tone if he was excited for our meal or just glad to expose how I was keeping secrets from his father.
It’s probably too early to think David is the one, but he’s scoring high on all of the big things. He’s not without flaws – he makes these odd little noises when he eats, and he definitely needs to get over his relationship with The Gap – but he’s smart, fit, not really balding yet, and pretty funny, if you don’t count the corny dad-jokes. I feel like he could be a keeper, and that’s why I want to get friendlier with Jess, which is a girl’s name, so I’m guessing David didn’t have the balls to stand up to his first wife, but that might work in my favor in the long run. It would be worse if Jess had feminine features, but he’s an off-the-rack “boy” with a mop of brown hair and a face that refuses to let go of its baby fat.
I opted for brunch because I expected I’d want a drink with our meal, and I was right. I was already worn a bit thin from the car ride over, enough so that I ordered my first drink from the hostess in the same sentence as telling her Cathy for two. “You can just order from your server,” the woman said brightly, her passive-aggressive way of telling me that wasn’t her job. I quietly whispered that ordering from her was also an option. I was ready to give her some context – how on the drive over I never got more than a one-word answer from the kid as he stared out the window like he was doing research on vinyl siding, and how the article said I had to talk to him about things that mattered to him but all I could figure out was that liked brevity and didn’t like my jokes – but she agreed to place the order without further explanation.
I chose Hoof & Wire because it’s close to home and I heard they have strong drinks, but the place isn’t my style. All these This & That places feel the same to me, the ampersand serving as some kind of hipster dog whistle that calls beards and knit-hats from all over the city. No surprise it’s the kind of place that makes ostentatious bloody marys with a plume of skewered snacks threatening the balance of the glass – pickled beans, olives, a block of cheese, baby corn, even a rolled up slice of salami. The drink arrived as we were seated, so I shook the booze off the loaded stick and put it on Jess’ empty bread plate. “Bon appetite,” I said with a gesture that made me feel like a game show vixen highlighting the Jet Ski behind door number two. The kid narrowed his eyes to assess the ingredients, then barely, almost imperceptibly, shook his head.
“Nothing? Not even the salami?” I know I shouldn’t judge him for it, but this earned a mental demerit. It wasn’t about the specific items on the plate, it was about refusing a momentary portal into adulthood, missing a chance to savor the forbidden flavors of life. When my dad used to offer me the garnish from his cocktails, I snatched them up, even choked down the weird things. I’m sure my father chuckled as I grimaced through a vodka-soaked pepperoncini, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was a privilege to be included in his ritual, and the boy’s decision was an affront to a long tradition of rites of passage. “Fine then,” I said, swapping his plate with mine. I pushed all the parts off the skewer, popped the cheese into my mouth, and quickly washed it down with a big gulp of the drink.
David was the one who kept the kid engaged at restaurants, and I wished I had paid more attention to how he did it. I didn’t know where to start, so I sat there watching the kid diligently fail to stack his silverware. After a full minute of quiet, interrupted only by clinks of ice in the glass as I raised my drink, I said, too enthusiastically, “So this is a cool place, huh?” It was, though it had the same curated cool you see in all the brunch spots growing like moss around Portland. The theme is some sort of homage to a slaughterhouse, with cow skulls and bovine murals and weird metal implements hanging from the wall, all of which seems like gloating considering they serve burgers. Maybe it’s meant to be ironic, I can’t tell anymore. Either way, the kid looks around and nods, saying nothing. “Check out that cow skull over the kitchen door,” I said, trying again.
“That’s a bull,” he deadpans without looking at me or the skull. I want to point out that his correction was a bit pedantic – I’m pretty sure a bull is a type of cow – but instead I take a long pull off my drink, trying to wash down my desire to argue. I drain the rest of it when I see a guy with an apron approaching our table. He’s one of those young bearded men who have sprouted up like an invasive species, so generic that he could probably kill a patron and walk out slowly and no one would be able to give the police any useful description details. Personally, I don’t think waiters should have beards – it’s more hair to fall into my food – but I was willing to let that slide if he didn’t dally on the next drink. When he got to the table, I pointed at my glass of ice and nodded silently, trying to avoid looking too eager in front of the kid.
“Yeah?” The waiter looked like he was trying to recall the few bits of sign language he’d learned when he wanted to knock boots with the deaf girl in high school. “So you liked it?”
I laughed, not because it was funny, and told him I was sure the second one would be better.
“So it wasn’t good?”
Jess was watching the whole exchange. The opportunity for subtlety had passed. “It was great, and I’m anxious for another.” I probably sounded like a bitch when I said it, enunciating it a bit too clearly, but every minute he was at the table was a minute my drink wasn’t.
“I think you mean eager,” he said with a smile. “But sure, I’ll…”
“No, I meant anxious.” I wasn’t smiling. “I mean it even more now.”
He saw that I didn’t enjoy the vocabulary lesson. “Sorry, I was an English major,” he said as if that excused him, which it didn’t, though it did explain his food service skills. “So anyway, what can I get you guys for breakfast?”
I was no longer concerned about sounding like a bitch. “How about you bring the drink and we’ll order then.” I hoped mister English grad noticed that I didn’t punctuate it like a question, and I was pleased when he nodded and walked off in the direction of the bar.
Wading back into the silence of my table, I asked Jess how school was going. Fine. What’s your favorite class? Lunch. Do you have a girlfriend? No response, just a grimace. Do you follow the Blazers? Nope. Timbers? He shook his head.
I took a deep breath. “Well okay, let’s talk about the matter at hand. How do you like your eggs?”
“I don’t like eggs.”
I wanted to pull up the Buzzfeed article on my phone and see if it covered what to do if the kid was a crappy conversationalist, but I remember it said I had to keep my phone off and focus on the kid. “Well, what do you want, then?”
He reached across the table to point at something on my menu, but he couldn’t find it reading upside down. “French toast,” he said, then turned to stare out the window.
When college boy brought my drink, I let him stand there while I acted like a wine snob, pulling out the antipasto stick, breathing in the heavy aroma of booze. When he started to talk, I cut him off. “French toast for him, I’ll have the special.” I handed him the menu to let him know we were done, then took a proper swig of the fresh drink. It tasted as strong as it smelled and I made a mental note to tip the bartender separately on the way out, maybe even grab her head in my hands and kiss her. I was pleased to feel the vodka starting to work its magic, and if my morning was going to be salvaged, she’d get credit as the savior.
“I used to like lunch, too,” I said to Jess as if we were kindred spirits. He didn’t say anything. Not that there was much he could say. That’s interesting, I imagined he saying thoughtfully. In light of that, what are your thoughts on olive loaf? Then I remembered the article said I was supposed to ask open-ended questions. “Are Fridays still pizza day?”
“It’s a monthly calendar, not weekly. But my dad makes my lunch.”
While I’d been barely able to hear him on the drive over, it sounded like someone cranked the volume when he said my dad. Wouldn’t just “dad” suffice? Did he think I wouldn’t be able to figure out which dad? The emphasis made it seem like he was trying to establish that David was his, not ours – not exactly a gracious welcome to the family unit. I looked at him while I took a long sip of my drink, imagining him at our wedding. We’d have to involve him somehow, ring bearer or something, and I pictured him standing next to David on the altar, quietly whispering last-ditch efforts to put a stop to the nonsense. She drinks in the morning, did you know that? After a short pause, I bet she looks different without her make-up.
“Can I play with my dinosaurs?”
The vodka refused to allow me to understand the question. I furrowed my brow, hoping the kid was more clever than the waiter about reading my expressions. He reached into his pocket and pulled out four plastic toys, each one about the size of a lipstick. “Can I play?”
“Sure.” I watched him stand them in a row – a red one with horns, a green one with a long neck, a blue one with a big tail, and a gray one that looked like it had a full-body mohawk. They were simple toys, the injection-molded junk you see in three-buck plastic pouches at Walgreens. I figured he’d have at least something with life-like paint, though I don’t know how anyone would know the actual colors of dinosaurs. Maybe they were red and blue. “I thought you’d outgrown dinosaurs,” I said, despite having no evidence to support my claim. He usually played in his room when I was at David’s place.
“Some people make dinosaurs their career,” he said without looking up.
“I know. Archeologists.” It sounded wrong the moment I said it, but he jumped on it before I could correct myself.
“Paleontologists.” While he didn’t actually add duh, it was implicit in his tone. I silently cursed myself for screwing it up. I imagined him standing at the altar whispering to David, you’ve noticed she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, right? Then muttering, archeologists as he shook his head with disdain.
I was eager to change the subject so I leaned forward and pointed at the toys. “So who’s who?”
I wouldn’t say the boy looked excited, but a certain amount of drabness fell away as he pointed at each color and recited their names – triceratops, stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus, and brontosaurus. He said them as if he thought I really wanted to master the Jurassic period, so earnest that I was momentarily charmed by the kid. I picked up the red one and said, “I’d want to be this guy. I love the name – stegosaurus!” I tried to say it like the guy who does those monster truck show ads on the radio, but it came out less fierce and more just loud. The reactions from people at adjacent tables confirmed this, but I didn’t bother making my “whoops” face. They were drinking coffee. They wouldn’t understand.
“That’s the triceratops,” he said without looking up.
“Oh. Forgive me. They were a little before my time.” He didn’t laugh.
I watched him continually rearrange the toys, noticing how every configuration seemed to be some sort of conversation. I’m no paleontologist, but I’m pretty sure a stegosaurus and a triceratops wouldn’t stand around gabbing like the slackers in the break room at work. What’s the point of having horns if all you’re going to do is stand around talking? No plastic creature hiding behind the water glass to ambush another, no fight to the death on the folded napkin – if dinosaurs were superheroes, this kid was keeping them all in Clark Kent mode. I was thinking of how to suggest a plot escalation when I realized the waiter was trying to slither past me without checking in. I snatched his wrist, which made him flinch, which made me laugh.
“Another?” he asked, all that higher education finally kicking in. I knew he was just kissing my ass to try to get back to a proper tip, and I was fine letting him think it was working. I did the charades gesture, touching my nose and pointing at him, and that made me wonder how many parlor games have a motion that has permeated popular culture. Not many, though if someone up-ends a table full of anything, I immediately think of the board game Risk – though that might be exclusive to my family. None of my siblings handled broken board game treaties well.
I noticed the dinosaurs were all standing by the flatware, probably talking about their 401k or something. “Why don’t they fight?” I asked, accidentally using my stegosaurus voice.
“Fighting is bad.”
“Well, yeah, but…” I had to think about this one. Mom and dad have been programming the kid for 10 years, and I didn’t want to give him the ammo to stand at the altar whispering, she encourages violence. C’mon dad, face it, she’s no mom. “But they were warriors, not accountants. It’s like making a toy dog bark, Jess. You’re just imbuing it with its natural characteristics. Just think of it as the dinosaurs fighting, not you.” As soon as that phrase came out of my mouth I knew where his half-cooked brain would take that – I’m not hitting you, the Hulk is hitting you, I’m just being the Hulk – so I waved my hand as if erasing the space between us. “Forget what I said. Go ahead and gather your boys around the water cooler again.” I could see the waiter approaching with my drink and the food and I was done playing with dinosaurs.
“They’re not all boys.”
As the waiter served our food, I accidentally made a slurping sound as I hurried to finish the old drink. Some geezer who could easily go as Bob Barker for Halloween gave me the stink eye from the next table, so I switched to the new glass and raised it like I was toasting him and his TJ Maxx-chic wife. “That’s how stegosauruses drink.” It felt good to put the old man in his place, even if I did poke myself in the eye with a skewered green bean as I took my victory sip.
I leaned forward and whispered to Jess, “Wait, is it stegosauruses, or stegasaurii?” He didn’t respond, and seemed to have that maybe if I ignore her, she’ll shut up vibe some guys get before a break-up. Not that I cared how it was conjugated. “Anyway, so this all looks good, huh?” I stared at my plate for a minute, trying to remember exactly what the special was. As I scanned the gallery of cow parts and torture devices to find the chalkboard boasting the special, I heard a voice behind me.
What I hate about hearing my name as a question is I’m always curious to see who asked it, and that makes it hard to pretend I’m not me. I fell for it again and turned to see Eric. We’d dated a bit a few years ago. “Hey Eric. Yeah, it’s me.”
“Derrick,” he said, which was right, I remembered that now. I tried to think of why I stopped seeing him – it wasn’t those blue eyes or that body, that’s for sure. He was wearing the hell out of a snug dress shirt and for a moment I wondered if there was a valid excuse for touching his chest. “Gosh, Cat, you look…great.” He motioned toward Jess. “Though I don’t remember you mentioning…”
I suddenly realized Jess was watching us like we were a Telemundo show and he didn’t know Spanish. “No, it’s not like that, I’m just…” I took a deep breath, hoping to suck in the right answer so I could spit it back out. “This is Jess. He’s my friend David’s son. Jess, this is my friend Derrick.”
Derrick nodded. “Cool. Nice to meet you, Jess.” He held up his fist for a fist-bump with the kid, but Jess awkwardly grabbed the fist like he was trying to salvage a bad handshake. I was glad he was talking to the kid – I was struggling to steady the boat on the waves of vodka. After an awkward pause as Derrick waited for a reply that never came, he turned back to me. “It’s so funny running into you.”
Men always say shit like that, dangling some big, vague statement that a woman can twist into whatever shape she wants it to be, then later he can say he only offered a sheet of paper and I was the one who made origami with it. Screw that. “Why is it funny?” I sipped my drink.
“I don’t mean funny ha-ha funny. I mean, it’s funny timing.”
“Yeah, I got that. But what’s funny about it?”
He looked around like he didn’t want anyone to hear him. “I’ve just, sort of, been thinking about you lately.”
I could tell what he meant – he’d been jerking off to me. I probably should’ve been disgusted, but my first thought was that he was remembering me ten pounds lighter, back when I was committed to the gym. Probably fills a Kleenex on that memory. I look over and see Jess isn’t playing with his dinosaurs. You know she tells other men you’re her “friend,” right dad?
“I’m dating Jess’ dad.” Derrick probably thought I was declaring my unavailability, but it was really for Jess, expecting he’d report this conversation verbatim to his father the moment we returned. But then I realized the kid might not think of me as dating his dad and I had inadvertently stoked the competition for David’s affections.
“Cool,” Derrick said with a cool-guy nod, then just stood there like a dolt. I wondered if he was flexing under that shirt, which he probably was because he was horny. The pause was long enough to be awkward – maybe that was why I dumped him – and since he wouldn’t walk away, I resigned myself to small talk.
“So, what’ve you been up to?”
“My friend Angie and I are just coming from church.”
Oh, Jesus, that’s why we broke up. Jesus this and Jesus that. The miracle man had a cameo in every conversation, no matter what the hell we were talking about. The last straw was when he apologized to Jesus after I gave him head. Thank you Jesus would’ve been the more appropriate prayer, yet he blabs to god like I was some kind of sin. After he popped his top, of course. Classic catholic – sinning is bad, and I’m going repent thoroughly when I’m done.
The anger I felt when he kissed god’s ass instead of mine felt fresh again. I took a drink so I’d keep my mouth shut, looking past him to see his date studying the menu. I knew at a glance Angie From Church wasn’t the blow job type – no way she was going to risk getting anything on that brocade doily she had buttoned up around her neck – and that’s probably why he’d been thinking of me. “I bet your friend’s wondering what’s keeping you over here.”
“Yeah, I should go.” He stared at me like he was trying to send a message telepathically, which come to think of it is pretty much like praying, except I doubt Jesus would approve of Derrick’s message. “It was great to see you.” I waved goodbye, already trying to figure out how much damage control I was going to need to do with Jess.
“Sorry about that,” I said cheerfully. I took a swig from my drink to wash away the residue of Derrick.
“Sorry about what?”
I didn’t feel like getting into it. “Sorry for not sending him away so we could chow on this awesome food!”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
He’d heard me say it, so I wondered if the kid was exploring the meaning of friend. What was he trying to piece together? Was he gathering evidence for his wedding altar pep talk? She has a lot of friends, dad – if you understand my meaning. I imagined him making air quotes around friends.
“We were friends, but I haven’t seen him in a long time.” Jess nodded like he’d heard what he needed to hear and went back to eating his breakfast. I replayed the sentence in my mind, wondering what obscure interpretation he could twist into something incriminating. Maybe what he heard was friends don’t always stay friends, and maybe it was only a matter of time before I’d be out of the picture and he’d have his dad to himself again, so I wanted to reassure him. “We weren’t friends like your dad and I are friends, Jess.” He nodded, but didn’t look up from his meal. “Your dad and I are more than just friends. He’s special.” Jess nodded again. “It’s more complicated as adults. We…”
I didn’t finish the sentence because I don’t have to explain myself to ten-year-olds. Screw it, either the kid sees me as Cruella DeVille or he sees me as…are there any cinematic stepmoms who aren’t awful? How shitty is that? I imagined a little army of Jesses, all grown up, writing scathing scripts about the interloper who ruined their family, never bothering to include redeeming scenes such as when she gives the kid a skewer of vodka-tinged snacks. Though come to think of it, Cruella wasn’t a stepmom. And what the hell, was that movie the first PETA propaganda? Let’s make the woman who loves fur a crazy bitch obsessed with killing cute animals. How many jackets does a person need anyway? That snatch was nuts, puppy fetish or not.
“Are you talking to me?” Jess was staring at me like he’d arrived an hour late into a movie and was trying to figure out the plot.
“I didn’t say anything.” I was reasonably confident this was a true statement.
“You looked like you were talking to someone.”
What’d he mean by that? I suddenly became very conscious of my body. I deliberately froze, which made it feel like I was overcompensating, like when you tell a puppy to shut up and he sits there making that awkward silence and you feel like you’ve bruised his spirit. Not that I’m the puppy in that metaphor. Or is that an analogy? I can never remember which is which. I could ask the waiter, but I know better than to ask an English major about grammar. What if I looked that up on my phone? Did Buzzfeed mean I couldn’t even look up facts, or did they just don’t tweet or text? I’m not a puppy. I’m a lion. I’m a goddam stegosaurus! I wanted to yell it at Bob Barker and his precious coffee at the next table.
“You’re doing it again.”
I froze again, even though I thought I already had. Shit, how buzzed am I? Was this silent animation some kind of poker tell that no one had ever mentioned to drunk-me? I wanted to see for myself. “I’ll be right back,” I said, gently pushing the icy remains of my drink away from me as if it was snake I was respectfully removing from striking distance.
I stood and walked away cool, trying to keep the vodka from making me clumsy. Then I saw Derrick and the prude sitting at the end of the aisle. Was Jess going to think I had more to say to him? I quickly returned to our table and clarified. “Restroom. Not Derrick.” Then I realized he had his back to Derrick and I probably didn’t need to clarify. I walked away again, giving a little wave to Derrick, then turning the gesture into a finger pointing at the restroom.
When the bathroom door closed behind me, I stood still in front of the mirror, waiting to see if my face moved involuntarily. It didn’t. Maybe Jess was gaslighting me, trying to make me feel crazy, which seemed to be working since I was staring into the mirror waiting for my reflection to move. This suddenly seemed very funny, so I laughed, just as the stall door opened and the hostess emerged. I reeled it in as she stood next to me, and watched her in the mirror as she tucked a few strands of hair away from her face. I wondered if I should apologize for making her order my drink. It’s not like it was a huge imposition on her, but if I’d known what a chump the waiter was I would have appreciated her more. I’d decided, yes, I should apologize, but before I could say anything, she turned to me and said, “If you need me to call you a cab, Cathy, just let me know.” I was shocked she knew my name, then remembered I told her. I wanted to snap back with something witty, but nothing came to me as she smiled and left.
Shit, a cab? Was I doing the weird face stuff to her, too? I wanted to ask, but she’d locked the bathroom door behind her. I panicked a bit, knowing Jess would never come looking for me in the women’s room, and pushed pretty hard before I realized it opened to the inside. Maybe she was right about the cab, but what the hell was I going to do? What’s the kid going to think when I can’t even drive him home? Then the solution came to me – I’d suggest we should walk home! Easy as…something easy.
That plan fell apart as I walked back to the table, specifically when I teetered slightly and, trying to catch my balance, put my hand down on someone’s buttered toast. It wasn’t entirely because I was drunk, but I suspected I’d seem drunk if I tried to explain it, so I just wiped my hand on the woman’s napkin. She gave me a glare like using her napkin was some great offense, so I made a point of folding it up before I put it back on her table. Her expression didn’t change, so I guess that wasn’t the apology she was looking for.
By the time I plopped back into my chair, I was definitely drunk, and I had a suspicion I was going to look like Amy Winehouse stumbling home. I hated Plan B, but I had to call David. I just couldn’t let Jess know why. “We should call your David and have us join him.” Jess didn’t say anything, just stared at me like I’d asked him to do long division. That’s when I saw his plate was empty. Too late for that diversion. “Shit, I forgot to pee.”
The kid’s eyes widened as I stood up, a distinct change from deadpan stare I got after everything else I’d said all day. I imagined him whispering at the altar again. Most people don’t swear around kids. That’s one thing that sets Cathy apart. “Don’t tell your dad,” I said.
“That you forgot to pee?”
“No, that I…nothing.” When I started back for the bathroom I saw Toast Lady bitching to our waiter, but I suspected all he was going to do about it was point out the dangling participles. Once I got to the bathroom, I locked myself in a stall and poked David’s face on my phone.
“Hey, how’s breakfast going?” David is always calm, which I like, but it has its drawbacks. It’s like throwing a rock into a pond – if the surface is choppy, you barely see it land, but if it’s still as glass, even a pebble looks like an event.
“It was good. The waiter’s a pussy and I got toast on my hands, but Jess is with his dinosaurs.” I was peeing now and wondered if David could hear it. I tried to pee quieter.
David laughed. “What?!”
“There’s a woman with a napkin who’s mad at me.”
He laughed again. “Are you…drunk?”
I waited until the splashing stopped. “It’s not like it’s her napkin anyway.” I stood up and steadied myself against the faux-marble stall. Like anyone would fall for this flimsy crap being marble. “And yes. Was that your question? Sorry. This bartender’s a goddam ninja. I might kiss her for it.” I thought of Derrick. “But just her.”
He was still laughing. “Do you want me to come pick you up?”
“The hostess says I should say yes.” Someone else came into the bathroom and I peeked through the slit in the stall door to make sure Toast Lady hadn’t called the cops. It was Angie From Church washing her hands at the sink. I whispered into the phone. “Shhhhhh.”
“I’m on my way. Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I hung up, opened the door, and walked carefully to the sink. I watched her in the mirror for a second before saying, “So god-wise, do you think blow jobs are a sin?”
Angie From Church raised her eyebrows at me in the mirror. We were standing right next to each other but it felt like we were talking on Facetime. “I don’t know, ma’am.”
“Did you just ma’am me?” I turned to look straight at her. She was the ma’am if either of us was – shit, she was a cheap tube of mascara away from being Amish. The way she reacted made me think I might have accidentally used my stegosaurus voice, quickly grabbing a paper towel and stepping around me like I was a bag lady ranting on the sidewalk. I pictured her standing at the altar next to Jess as he whispered, Don’t take my word for it, dad. This is Angie From Church, my character reference.
Walking back to the table, I was careful not to look at Derrick and Angie From Church, or Toast Lady, or the waiter. When I got to Jess, I grabbed my purse from the back of my chair and without stopping said, “Let’s go.” I kept walking right out the front door.
I felt out of sorts stepping into the midday sun with a midnight buzz. I tried to remember how long ago I had called David, hoping he was about to pull up to whisk me away. I heard the door creek behind me and expected Jess to appear at my side, but instead I heard a woman say, “Cathy?”
For god’s sake, wasn’t I leaving already? Somebody still wanted to get into it? The snatch with the napkin hadn’t even taken a bite of her toast, and besides, I had just washed my hands, so her argument was invalid. As for miss goody two-shoes, I was still pissed she called me ma’am. I was ready to go stegosaurus on whoever it was, except it was the hostess. I cut her off before she could start. “Look, I’m sorry for earlier. I was a bitch. You weren’t. I’m sorry. Can I go?”
“We just need to settle up.” There was a pause. “On your check,” she said, which was right, I remembered that now.
“Shit, sorry. How much is it?”
“Forty four bucks for two breakfasts?”
She looked down at the slip of paper in her hand. “It looks like about 16 for breakfast. Plus the drinks.”
I tried to do the math in my head but decided to take her word for it. I reached into my purse and pulled out the cash. “I am sorry for earlier though. You’ve been very nice.” I heard one of us burp. Probably me.
“It was no problem at all,” she said as she sorted the bills, stock-photo smiling the whole time. “But this is only 27.”
That’s when I noticed Jess was watching us, and probably listening, so I blurted, “it was delicious” as I took back the cash and rooted through my purse for my card. When she disappeared with the card, I turned to Jess. “Well that was fun!”
Jess moved his head slightly, just enough to prove he hadn’t slipped into a catatonic state. Was he like this with David? Or is David better at it, serving up verbal volleys the kid could actually hit back. I mean, I told the kid I like lunch. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I talk to these little humans? When the hostess returned with a tiny clipboard, I scribbled my name and whispered, “Can you add 20%? I’m not good at math in the morning.” College boy’s service didn’t deserve it, but whatever Toast Lady was wagging her tongue about, it never got to back to me. That was worth something.
When she was gone, I plopped onto the sidewalk bench in front of an ugly teal minivan. Imagine paying thirty thousand dollars for a car and choosing that color. Teal cars are the fashion equivalent of sweat pants. I guessed Angie From Church was the driver. Probably hadn’t moved the radio off the Christian rock since she got it. Either way, if Henry Ford time-traveled to now, he’d see this turd and go back and convert his assembly line to make desk lamps.
“Are we going to the car?”
I thought about how to answer, then took the lazy way out. “No, your dad’s coming to go pick us up.”
His silence made me suspect he was flipping the pieces of the day in his head, trying to figure out how they fit together, or if they were even from the same puzzle. Or maybe he wasn’t – maybe like on the ride over, he just had nothing to say. It dawned on me that I might have made a disaster of things with him. I should have paced myself on the drinks, that was stupid. I hadn’t even thanked the bartender. Shit, am I a bitch? Maybe the little army of script-writing Jesses had been getting the step-mother story right all along. Maybe every family is a private club, and no matter how welcome you are as a guest, you can never join.
“Hi dad!” I turned to see David coming up the sidewalk, Jess bolting toward him. David was in his slippers. So fuckin’ David. I’d have taken the time to put my shoes on, maybe even changed them once or twice. God, I’d make a shitty hero.
“Hey, how was breakfast, little man?”
I cringed as I wobbled to my feet, wondering what the kid would say. “I had French toast!”
“Goodness, they fly toast in from France? That must be some good toast.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. Do they give out dad-joke books in the maternity ward?
David rubbed Jess’ head as the two fell into a hug. It was Norman Rockwell sweet, and I wondered how long it took him to get that level of comfort with his kid. A lifetime, I suppose. More than a brunch. David smiled at me. “And I’m guessing they flew yours in from…Russia?” He winked as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder and kissed my forehead. I leaned into him, letting him hold me steady, so much so that when he let go, I fell against the minivan. As I tried to make it look like I was just relaxing there, a stern voice stated, “Could you step away from the vehicle, please?”
By the sound of it, I expected a cop, but it was Bob Barker. His expression looked like he was holding a grudge, which made no sense. I didn’t put my hand in his toast. I laughed, thinking I’d just discovered a new pick-up line. Mind if I put my hand in your toast? Of course, he didn’t know what I was laughing about and I saw him raise an eyebrow to his clip-on earring wife, acting like he was a saint and his path was beset with sinners.
“Miss, will you let me get to my vehicle, please?”
While the first bark had me on the defensive, I was delighted to hear him call me miss. I lurched forward, teetering toward him. “Thank you! I’m not a ma’am.” I stepped back when I realized I was suddenly close. “I’m a goddam Stegosaurus!”
David slid his arm around my waist and pulled me toward him so the couple could slip by and climb into their shitmobile. David raised his eyebrows to me as their doors closed. “I assume someone will explain that to me later?”
“One of us will. But don’t believe everything you read in a movie script.”
David nodded. “Okay. I usually don’t read them, but I appreciate the tip.”
“I’m just saying, there’s two coins to every story. To every side. Whatever.” I waved my hand to brush the thought away, probably looking like I’d walked through a spider web. “But you’ll have to get it from the people inside, because this is Jess’ and my secret.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want David to know. I just felt bad that Jess and I weren’t any closer than when we started. Probably further apart. I wanted something that was just ours.
“She had three tomato juice drinks,” Jess reported.
I shrugged and made the rawk sign with my fingers, which is also the hook ‘em horns sign in Texas, too, which was always weird to me. You might love Judas Priest or you might love Texas U, but how’s anyone supposed to tell the difference? It was quiet for a moment when I realized I’d walked out on most of my meal. “I’m kinda hungry. Are you guys hungry?” They didn’t answer, so I said to Jess, “I should’ve eaten that salami.” I glanced in the window to see if they’d cleared our table yet. I could see Toast lady glaring. Probably at me, though I hoped she was pissed that the only help the waiter offered was to say she meant “my companion and I”, not “my companion and myself.”
David spun me in the other direction and spoke over his shoulder to Jess. “Let’s get the stegosaurus home. I’ll make something there.”
“Stegosaurus is right!” I declared and made the rock sign again, holding it to my forehead like horns.
“I think that’s a triceratops,” David whispered as if he was trying to save me from looking foolish in front of Jess. Like there was still time for that.