I’m waiting to tell something to a girl. She is a waitress here: the Ocean Café, a low ceilinged den with as much floor space as a double-wide and the decorating sense of my grandmother’s hutch of chachkis. The heavy brown tables are covered by thin red-and-white-checkered cloths. Floorboards the color of fear creak under the weight of passing feet. A framed photograph of Richard Nixon hangs at the far end of the dining room, his smile so meager it makes me wonder if he’s nervous about getting run out of this town too.

If I were less nervous, I’d consider sitting down and ordering something to eat. Or at least to drink. A drink I could use. Not just because of the Ocean Café’s humid atmosphere. Nor for the character of the food smells peregrinating like a moist cloud from the kitchen to the cash register: the perspiring mass of odors only slightly more appetizing than the charred scents that come from my grandmother’s kitchen in southern Maryland.

I see a number of women who could be my grandmother: chicken-necked septuagenarians in pant suits and heelless shoes or in white blouses and navy blue skirts, their legs trapped by peach-colored panty hose. They are smiling, small faced, jowly ladies with huge, square glasses and discordant, overdyed hairdos or earsplitting wigs. Colors they’ve long since outgrown—barn red, pitch black, stallion brunette—but still try to sport.

In just under nine years, my grandmother will be dead and I, on the other side of this minute, having already done what I am about to do, will have forgotten the details of the Ocean Café in the face of the travesty that followed. I will be brought to a standstill by the news of her heart failure. I will feel terribly old, I will feel—as acutely as I have ever felt anything—that it’s time for me to stop fucking around, because isn’t that essentially, really, only what I’d been doing for nine years, ever since I lost my head and my direction in a miserable east coast beach town?

But in this minute, my grandmother is still alive, burning a can of soup or a whole chicken two hundred miles away, and I am waiting by the cash register for the attention of a certain tall and supremely tanned girl who emerges from the kitchen with a tray full of plates: hamburger and fries, drumsticks and canned corn, slabs of brown meat silenced by dark gravy. She winces at me, the kind of glare that says I know you’re here, and I know I should say something to you, but you’ll need to wait. She’s wearing the same blue-gray uniform and white sneakers as the other waitresses, but she wears them differently: not the cliché of a diner girl but a real person in disguise.

She stops at the nearest table and unloads. The waitress—this muscled girl whose bronze hair has turned blonde from weeks in the ocean sun—does not move any faster because I am waiting for her. She does her job as she has been trained to do it. Before she deposits each plate, she makes sure each customer is getting what he or she wants; she wonders aloud if anyone needs a refill on water or soda; she brings a bottle of ketchup out of her apron pocket and places it in front of a boy. His grin almost breaks the ceiling. He grabs the bottle, and the whole table laughs. She laughs with them. No, actually, she just smiles: primly, hardly at all, and only for a second. Because she’s done and she’s off, stalking past me once more on her way to the kitchen and her next shipment. Just as she has been trained.

She winces another smile as she passes, this one less apologetic and more bothered, as if I’m acting as a brake, keeping her from losing herself in the rhythm of the work, moping here with studied aimlessness like a homeless man expecting a handout. Yes, I am waiting, my look tells her. I am waiting. She disappears. Another waitress, cat thin and black-haired, appears out of the kitchen and apologizes. She grabs a menu from the stack on the counter and asks if I will be eating alone. I tell her I’m not here to eat at all. I’m just waiting to speak to Cheryl. Oh, she responds, her narrow cheeks stretching; I’ll go tell her. Thanks, I say. But I think she already knows.
I’ll just wait.

I’ve been waiting for her for months. Longer. I’ve waited my whole life for her. I waited for what felt like my entire first year in college, although it was only four weeks: spring break to final exams. I waited until we were almost back at school, Friday of vacation week—the chill of March breaking apart—a five minute phone call—to ask her on a date. I waited three hours for her to return from class. I waited far too long to negotiate her into my dorm room, where, after watching an endless performance of Edward II and then making the trek back from the theatre building and then spending another six minutes finding the right Jackson Browne LP—the one with “My Opening Farewell”—we finally necked. I waited a half hour for her to thank me for the flower delivery. I waited a ghastly twenty seconds for her to answer a question. I waited even after she told me—walking back to our building, hand in hand, on a calm, warm, Central Virginia evening—that she had decided we shouldn’t date anymore. I waited after she kissed me with dreadful expertise, in the hallway outside my room, abruptly pulling back when I tried to push the kiss even deeper—something to do with tongues—pulling back, a coy smirk: That’s enough. Then: Goodnight. Then, still smiling, something like, Don’t take it so hard. To which I shrugged and dodged and obfuscated, because even then I knew that I would absorb the body blow and keep standing, keep lingering around. Waiting for her.

I waited almost the entire summer for the summons to New Jersey. Not alone, of course; that was never the plan. It was always implied I should bring Dale, our mutual friend and my future roommate, a trip the three of us had discussed in February, before spring break, before Edward II. Being the only Marylanders in a dorm of serially aristocratic Virginians, we formed a loose triumvirate, and from that association the plan came naturally: I, the southernmost member, would drive to Baltimore, where I would pick up Dale and from there, in the green exoskeleton of my 1971 Volkswagen, we would sputter eastward to Ocean City, New Jersey.
Her family spread out along these very sands and ate at this very restaurant every summer, a habit formed long before her parents divorced, formed long before they were even parents, long before they met as chatty, overgrown schoolchildren at a dance in 1956 at Villanova: he a junior and an engineering major, she an undeclared freshman at Rosemont.
I waited for her even before we were born.

I waited all summer for the plan to unfold. I waited while I worked at a condominium pool where no one ever came except on weekends. I waited while I turned a baked brown color cleaning the deck with hydrochloric acid and reading Conrad and Steinbeck and Hemingway and West, all the books I was supposed to have read the previous spring while I waited—too distracted to read—for her to decide. I waited while I listened to album sides on DC-101, or, for a change, the news on WMAL, where the economic promises of Ronald Reagan became more science-fictional with each passing week. I got drunk on the National Mall on Independence Day; I started a short story; I followed the Orioles at night. I waited, turning browner, for a letter with an Ocean City, New Jersey postmark, a letter that said now. I wondered about her boyfriend—her summer boyfriend—a “Greg” she saw only in Ocean City and only for a month, and never again the rest of the year.

Sometime in July I stopped waiting, because the letter came—less a now than if you and Dale still want to—and so we did, a hastily tossed-together excursion. Thursday morning to Saturday evening. It was what we had money for and what time she could take away from waitressing. The substitute I found for my pool job couldn’t hang around into the next week. Besides, Cheryl hinted in print, Greg was arriving the Saturday night of the Saturday afternoon that Dale and I would head back to Baltimore.

It worked for two days. It worked as a triumvirate. It worked as the Gang of Marylanders reunited: a Thursday night dinner with her family, a Friday afternoon on the beach, a Friday night romp to Atlantic City where amazingly, after three hours inside the cigarette-fogged casino, we all came out ahead. It worked as long as expectations were low, as long as I let myself care about the beach and the dinners and the low-stakes gambling, as long as I stopped waiting for what happened next, for the moment when she and I, thrown together by circumstance—with Dale in bed or on the boardwalk or off to buy beer—would become a “thing” once more. But for that I was kept waiting, riddled by my own useless expectations, and unable finally to care about anything else. When Saturday afternoon came, our trip all but done—Dale scooting clothes into his bag, she dressing for the dinner shift, her mother trolling the sidewalk for neighbors to talk to, Greg’s arrival four hours away—my mind moved too fast for its own good.

Thus I wait now for her to come back out from the kitchen: before she’s ready, before the tray is loaded, because her co-worker would have told her to. There’s a guy who says he’s waiting to talk to you. I don’t know that twenty seconds later she will show an awkward, uncertain, close-mouthed rim of apology and say, I just thought you were coming in to eat before you go. I don’t know that thirty-three years later I will still look back, incredulous at what the boy says next, yelling at him to stop, to shut up, to think, to reconsider. To show, just once, some common sense. Change history, I tell the boy. If not for me, then for your own self-respect, for your own dignity; for the sake of the next three years of college, and the two after that, and the four after that; for where you choose to live and to work; for what you are forced to think about. And think about. And think about. And think.

Change history.

If only to stop the embarrassment, the naked degradation of it all. Go back. Get Dale. Tell him not to take the car. Tell him you will stick to the original plan. Tell him you will drive back with him, after all. Forget about the fact that a bus can get you to Atlantic City in a half-hour and then another to Baltimore. Forget that your pool doesn’t need you on Monday, because it isn’t even open on Mondays. Forget that you never even specified to your parents exactly when you would return. Forget all that. Don’t think for a second that she might, with any little piece of vanity, find it pleasing to entertain a summer boyfriend and school year-ex at the same time. That that will not help your cause.

Get Dale.

Change history.

Do you know, I tell the boy, that thirty-three years later, you won’t be able speak to anyone from that time? That you won’t seek them out, and they won’t try to find you? That thirty-three years later you won’t even know where Cheryl lives, and that the very last thing she would ever want—what would actually be a form of nightmare for her—is for you to discover that information? Stop. Reconsider.

Change history.

But the boy doesn’t listen. The boy can’t. The boy doesn’t know yet how her expression will change when he tells her what he has come to tell her. The boy doesn’t know, and, strangely, incomprehensibly, if he knew he probably wouldn’t care. The boy has lost his head. He has been waiting too long.

 

 

 

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© John Vanderslice