I flicked the ashes off my cigarette as I listened to her dissecting the hurt, slumped over in a brown hoodie worn from long nights of love not too much unlike this one. The air was sticky in a pleasant way that only cheap Waffle House maple syrup can make it, and the warm toasty smell of hash browns, menthols and sugary syrup tickled and burned a bit as they danced up my nostrils.
“Isn’t it supposed to work the other way, though? I mean, where’s the good in all this work if it just results in me playing the role of some cosmic dustpan, sitting under the dirt waiting for God to make his peace with the world and clean up the disaster I’m buried in? Seriously…I don’t get it.”
She fades into quiet again and runs her finger along the edge of the ashtray, her face crinkling in the usual spots.
“Good?” I asked her, incredulously. “Nobody ever promised you any good, you know?” I leaned forward towards her face so she’d realize the full weight of what I was saying. “You’re payin’ for troubles that aren’t your own, by your own good graces and whatever blessed part of you that is so insane that it’s convinced God called you to the janitorial closet of the universe.”
The corners of her lips moved slowly down and her eyes lit up, giving her the strangest contradictory frown of a smile. It’s her usual attempt at avoiding the complete meltdown into maniacal laughter that inevitably creeps up during the tragedy. In normal situations, laughing and crying are the only options, but paralyzed fear seems to sit with us a lot these days and we have to work it out slowly with angry conversation.
As with most nightmares, the worst times always seem to be at night. Beds transform into caskets so much easier in the darkness and smother all the optimism of the sunlight. So, as a result, our outings to Waffle House have become especially regular especially as the seismic boom approaches closer every day. The dyke has sprung a leak and we wait to swim through the deluge in our plastic-seated booth, swimming in smoke and bacon. We both have yet to figure out where the magic enters into the cheap, muddy-smelling coffee we drink that transforms it into such an effective aromatherapy for a breaking heart.
“I’m so impatient for some kind of resolve, though, you know? Not just for me, but for the whole disaster. I can’t just stand by and let everyone keep believing in this stuff…it’s so ugly and glaring.”
I chortled and pulled my shoulders back, stretching my neck out as I moved. My fingers were cupped gently around my coffee cup and I debated lighting another cigarette.
“Of course you’re impatient! Nobody is going to be sweetly begging to be thrown under a bus and have their integrity questioned. Especially not like this.” She tilted her head and looked at me, slightly confused.
“Well, you know, having good intentions is only worth something if people can see your intent as well as the content of things, which, as we both sure know is not the trend among people these days.”
Almost simultaneously, we leaned back against the plastic backs of the booth and let our shoulders drop. I peered over my shoulder to another booth further down the wall where a couple was leaning close, sharing private laughter that accentuated the crows feet dancing near their temples.
She’s going to miss that. What a waste of five years…
I realized how hard I’d been gritting my teeth thinking about it all. The amount of energy put into cover ups and lies that had just recently been seeping out, showing us all just how right she was to be having nightmares for the last seven months.
Damn him! I cursed in my head.
She turned towards me and I realized I had whispered under my breath.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn’t realize I said it out loud. I know you’re trying so hard not to be angry.”
Her eyes looked so sad. No, not sad. Just weary. Some nights it was just better to hold out as long as possible. Maybe her dreams wouldn’t visit then. I fought for her in my prayers, but nothing seemed to let up.
A picture of the morning before slid into my head: I had been sitting on the porch with a cup of tea relishing in the overcast sky and the cool autumn breezes when I noticed a praying mantis, half crushed from where it had been caught under the recycling bin. The irony of fighting to preserve the earth and crushing something so rare in it – her struggle feels like that to me so much of the time; nobody sees her struggling to keep from being crushed, so they pile on more repairs and patches intended to save the bigger picture.
“You girls doin’ a’right oveh here?” the waitress holds a pot of the sloppy coffee in her right hand and looks down at us with motherly pity in her eyes.
“Can we get some more coffee?” I say a few seconds too late as she’s already refilling our grimey ceramic mugs.
Across the table, my best friend flickered in and out of being ok, like a star twinkling, debating its purpose in shining. She’s always been the person who hauls the sunshine around on her shoulders, aching and burning and laughing for the rest of the world that hasn’t the strength or desire to do it themselves. Now, it’s a wonder she can even flicker so much and hang in there as hard as she has been. The blows have been coming at a constant rate, like a meteor shower, startling her and burning her in so many places.
“Aren’t I usually decent at reading people? I mean…more than decent?” She sighs and shakes her head slowly. “Why don’t my freakishly accurate gut feelings work for me– just every other freaking person on the planet?!” Her voice escalated the more she considered it. “I know when everyone else is being played like a fool, and here I am, letting a thief into my house!!” She quieted to a pained whisper, “…into my everything…”
But there we were, she and I, and we loved too much to just out the whole mess and put his head on a chopping block. Wanting to hate people, and actually having the resolve and ability to do it aren’t the same thing, I’d realized…especially recently.
I touched her arm across the table. “I know babe. I know it’s not easy, but it will all come unraveled the way it’s supposed to. We’ve got to give it time.” Even I winced as I said this, feeling the pains of heavy patience weighing down and pressing against the urge to explode and let loose a mushroom cloud of revenge.
She groaned and sets her forehead on top of my hand, mumbling “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Resting a few minutes, she turned her face so her cheek is on my hand, and then she sat up and looks at me, her eyes damp with tears, but solid and serious. “Hell is moving into me and making itself too comfortable. I’m really scared……I don’t know if I can go through with this.”
Attempting to lighten things up a bit, I smiled and said, “Aww, but don’t you remember? We can stay here as long as you need. Waffle House is our refuge. They don’t welcome hell into this place…nobody from there was ever a good paying customer.”
Involuntarily, she snorted and wiped away a stray tear that managed to slip away from the reservoir with the back of her sleeve.
“I’m so glad I have you.” She covered her face with both sleeves and wiped away the smudges of mascara and the sleepies settling in fast on her eyelashes. “You make the impossible just the slightest bit bearable…and you’re probably the only person who could ever convince me that coffee this crappy might actually make me feel better.”
You know this was just another night. To her, it’s invaluable that I do this, but to me, it existed as expectation. It defined the way I cared for her. It’s a piece of that section of me that learned to appreciate the messes I had to clean up after other people, because I loved them– just realizing that without the people I love those messes would never exist. Relishing in the ugly moments under stale bright lights with hell lurking outside in the rainy night helped to feed the brighter moments; they provided foundation and perspective.
“I do what I can, you know,” I said gently and smiled.
“You do a lot.”
I reached over the table and grabbed a couple packs of sugar for my coffee and ripped the tops off. As I stirred them in, I glanced from the coffee to her, and moved my lips from one side of my mouth to the other, thinking.
“You know, for you to be okay again and this all get sorted out, it’s going to take more time than you want? But that’s the beauty of the thing. Truth is slow because it sets itself, like bones forming. You’re growing your emotional knee caps.” She smiled at this and started playing with her straw wrapper, leaning back to listen as I went on. “On your end, it won’t be about winning or proving anyone right or wrong, because you’re just growing, naturally…honestly.”
“You would pick knee caps, you twit!” She laughed and threw one of the empty sugar packets at me. “You know how much they freak me out.”
Seeing her laugh was precisely why I chose that analogy. Well, of course, that, and the fact that it just fits. But seeing her laugh would have been worth forcing a poorer picture, because she laughs more over waffles and cheap coffee than anywhere else in her life right now. One day I’ll catch that laugh and drag it out the door to the wide open world without her realizing it happened.
“Of course I would,” I said, grinning. The progression from the time since we walked in the door has been beautiful. I dread the end of the night that I know must come because night closes in too tight and those extra responsibilities like jobs and suffering through other interpersonal things call so loudly they demand silencing.
“I would, and you know that it works, Miss Cosmic Dustpan. Nobody is going to clean up the shards from anyone’s mess standing up tall staring them down. You’ve got to get down on your knees like you were actually made for this work and just do it. And you know as well as I do that God wouldn’t have chosen you for this if you couldn’t hold all the pieces and put them where they belonged. Those broken things are worth too much to hire a cleanup crew of B-teams.”
She opened her mouth to start to argue with me, but I would have none of it.
“No– stop trying to deny it. You know how important it is. You know how hard it is, but you know how much it matters, too. The bad may come flailing in like a banshee, trying to knock through the windows, and make a pretty shatter of some valuable things, but we don’t hide out here so many nights for nothing. It hurts like hell, because it is. Nobody is arguing that point with you. But no matter how much deception you’re wading through, it can’t last when you’re willing to get on your knees in the sharp things and go through piece by piece.”
She whispered to me, “Yeah, cause they won’t bend. If you take your eyes off the lies they might just fall apart…and then I’d have to clean those up, too.” Her sigh was heavy and clean. It was the kind that lets go of just enough weight to let you breathe again.
I have awful timing sometimes. I sat forward in my seat and raised my eyebrows in an apologetic look.
“I’m sorry, I know this is horrible timing, but I have to go to the bathroom. You’ll be okay without me?” But it was less of a question than a request. A “please be okay without me.”
I could have rushed, but there wasn’t much point. She wasn’t helpless by any means. Neither of us had any real answers to the problems, but we came close enough to certain things to be sure that we could see it through.
They’re out of paper towel. Figures. I shrug to myself in the mirror and concede that it is, after all, Waffle House, and well after 3 am, so I wasn’t so sure what I would have expected.
I push open the door and start walking back to the seat and my eyes locked with hers and we both just grinned from ear to ear, and I couldn’t help but start to laugh. Our waitress had come back to refill our coffee cups for the umpteenth time and somehow, her hip balancing act hadn’t worked, so there she was mopping up the coffee from several feet away, while my best friend was doing what she does best, crouched on her knees holding the dustpan, collecting the shards, so they could be put right where they belong.