The old waitress thought Lane and I were together. I didn’t even say anything when she brought us refills and said, “For you and your bride.” That word freaked me out because it reminded me of Halloween. My skin was adolescent, the color of a fish belly. I could have been dead.
Lane and I were regulars at the sandwich shop, and they always let us stay past closing. Inside that booth, we disappeared. I felt like the eyes inside someone’s head. No one would even think to ask why I was there.
We met up whenever what Lane called an “episode” occurred between my parents. We’d find our booth. We’d wait things out. This night was a result of more of the same: my father was a boulder that brittle things broke around. I came home from school and the glass end table was missing. My mother was rolling the vacuum away.
While I talked, Lane listened and worked at a crust of bread without making a sound. Noisy eating was a pet peeve of mine. “Old people,” said my mother when I asked her to chew with her mouth closed, “They lose their manners.”
“Who’s they,” I said.
I finished my story and Lane chewed. A competitive rock climber, she had the patience to search out a perfect moment for landing. She spoke often about the value of control over brute force. The language of rock climbing confused me: paths were called problems.
When Lane opened her mouth again, it was empty. “Everyone’s miserable,” she said. “Don’t forget.” Lane had a way of yanking me back down to a hard ground when I was floating away. People only liked talking about themselves.
I pulled my t-shirt up around my face so it looked like I had no neck. It felt safe. I’d begun to notice how violence was always hanging above us. A year ago, the TA of my geometry class was killed in a car jacking. He was leaving a gas station, waiting at the street, when four men appeared. He hadn’t locked his doors, and all of them got opened. His empty chair sat in the back of the room until the school year ended. We used to dare each other to sit in it.
More garlic bread came. We scraped the soft insides out.
“Not everyone is miserable,” I said, after a few bites and swallows. “There are happy people. We just don’t know them well.” I was thinking of the popular kids, the ones with drivers licenses and parents who let them drink. Like Josh Kwilecki, whose father was teaching him how to play the stock market. Other lives picked up speed.
“I think that’s your frame of reference.” Lane was intelligent, but sometimes I suspected that she feigned experience. Once, at a party, she put her mouth on the wrong end of a cigarette.
“I have to go.” I held up two fingers, sliding out of the booth, but mainly out of the conversation. My departure was clumsy, and I would’ve climbed if I could. Lane rolled her eyes and got on her phone.
In the men’s room, one of the two stalls was taken. Just as I closed the door to the vacant one, the other stall opened. Someone was either sweeping or sniffing. I heard all kinds of sounds.
While I washed my hands, I looked in the trash. I saw a white heap of fabric. Outside the bathroom, an elderly couple was standing in the hallway. The man was telling the woman, “They’re all wet. Just soaking wet.” They were facing each other, hands clasped like they needed a home.
I went back to the booth to tell Lane what happened. She’d zipped her jacket up while I was gone.
“See, those old people stay together,” she said. “Even when the guy wet his underpants. It’s cute.”
We watched the couple leave. The door was heavy, and they had a little trouble with it. Once they were outside, we watched the “Open” sign swing back and forth. Lane pointed at the bill on the table and said, “I paid already—you can get me next time. Are you okay?”
Lane and I parted ways in front of the elementary school, which we’d calculated was the exact midpoint between our houses.
“Don’t die,” Lane said. We both laughed. Tomorrow was a school day.
At home, I grabbed a bottle from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom: fish oil for the heart. A cardiologist told my father he could eat celery for the rest of his life and live a hundred years, or he could be happy. The child-proof cap came off easily. I closed one eye and looked down the opening.
“What are you doing with those?” My mother had appeared in the doorway, holding a mug.
I poured two pills into my hand and shrugged. “I don’t want old people problems.” After I said this, my mother looked tired and different.
“You’re a kid,” she said. “Go outside and run a mile.” She added some tap water to her mug and went back upstairs, and I wondered if my mother was ever there. When people left you at night, they left you forever.
The pills were impossibly gold, like cartoon treasure. I swallowed each one sideways.
Daniel Enjay Wong wants to be a doctor someday, but for now he works as a biochemical researcher, studying a mysterious protein complex called p97. His work has been published by Tin House, PANK, Monkeybicycle, JMWW, and Necessary Fiction. Say hello at www.dwong.net.