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The road stretched on like a ball of string, unfurling slowly towards the horizon. I wanted to make an incision where it became thin, to cut the journey in pieces or indefinitely, but we never reached the slender end. So, the wheels kept turning and we kept moving monotonously forward. I pulled out a Sudoku puzzle to pass the time.



My husband, Henry, barely held the wheel as he kept the car steering steadily in one direction towards his parent’s house. The scenery was nothing but a blanket of dust and sand, swirling around the car tires as we disturbed its slumber. Henry’s eyes began to droop as the surroundings became all too familiar again.



“Dina’s Diner?” I asked half-heartedly.



He nodded and veered off of the highway down exit 44 towards the restaurant. His eyes never left the road ahead of him, and never stopped drooping. I continued to fill in numbers: 2, 3, 6. 6, 3, 2. 3, 6, 2.



We pulled in to the nearly empty parking lot of the diner and parked near the front door. I opened the car door for myself and stepped out into the hot sun, stretching. He slid out of the car quickly and headed for the diner door without casting so much as a glance in my direction. He let the screen door close after him as I stood, watching him hurry in towards the bacon, eggs, and coffee that he always ordered. I followed slowly, already able to taste the dry blueberry cakes with sticky maple syrup that would coat my tongue for hours after we would leave the place.



The waitress recognized us at once and smiled warmly.



“Table for two? Booth against the back wall?”



I nodded, but Henry just looked down at his feet. The waitress walked us to the worn out table in the back and smiled again.



“If there’s anything I can get y’all, don’t hesitate to ask.”



She touched his shoulder and lingered for a moment before turning and heading back to the front of the diner. I looked away and pretended not to notice. She smelled of smoke mixed with lavender.[1]



We sat in silence and stared at our empty glasses. Another couple came in and sat by the window. They opened their menus to decide what they wanted to eat and laughed together as they surveyed the options. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d opened a menu, or laughed.



“Did you buy more oatmeal for Tommy before we left?” I asked, already knowing the answer.



“Yup,” he replied, twirling his spoon on the tabletop and appearing engrossed by it.



“And you left his vitamins on the counter so the babysitter can find them easily?”



“Yup,” he replied again.



I paused before questioning again.



“You will be at his parent-teacher conference on Wednesday night, won’t you?”



He answered without even looking up at me.



“No, I have a late-night business meeting. You know how work keeps me busy.”



I nodded and looked around the restaurant, desperate for a topic to change the conversation. Finding none, I stood up.



“I’m going to go use the ladies room,” I offered up. He didn’t answer. He just stared at his glass, like it would break if he broke eye contact. I turned my back on the table and walked slowly to the bathroom door, willing myself to take smaller steps as I got closer. The waitress stared at me with a plastered smile.



“Is everything okay, darling?” she questioned. She brushed her blonde bangs across her baby blue eyes and tucked the hair delicately behind her ear. Her rose pink lips pursed in concern and her freckled skin glistened flawlessly under the fluorescent lights of the diner. Beauty crowded me in discomfort.



“Oh I’m fine. I’m actually just going to wash my hands, thank you,” I replied, shaking a bit and feeling insulted by her complementary beauty.



I rested my hands on the counter and stared at myself in the mirror. Pale skin marked by pale lips, wrinkled forehead, bags under dull gray eyes that quivered under the weight of regret. I pulled out a tube of coral red lipstick and colored myself young again. The contrast made me look like clownish rather than kissable and my dull eyes paled in comparison.



I poked my head out of the bathroom door and saw the waitress setting our food down on the table. I looked at Henry. He wasn’t bad looking, but plain perhaps? His eyes were certainly his best feature: deep brown with flecks of gold scattered throughout. He hadn’t shaved for some time, and his face was covered in course, unkempt hair. He wasn’t bad looking; he just didn’t seem to care.

I hurried over and heard the two laughing warmly with each other. My husband and I made eye contact and his smile immediately faded. The waitress turned around to meet my stare.



“Enjoy your meal,” she said with a quick smile and hurried away, smoothing her apron down as she scurried. I slid into my seat and looked my husband in the eye.



“What’s that you’ve got on your mouth?” he asked.



“It’s lipstick; you’ve seen me wear it before,” I countered.



“Mmm…” he answered, looking back down and shoveling a forkful of eggs into his mouth.



I sighed and looked down at my blueberry pancakes. They were drenched in syrup and soggy. I cut a bite without even trying and swallowed without chewing. It slid down my throat and got caught halfway down. I choked on the blueberry mess, feeling my airway closing up with stickiness. Henry simply gave me a blank stare as I choked and sputtered. I reached for my glass and managed to douse the overbearing bite down with a swig of orange juice. Breathing hard, I looked at him in disbelief and he bit off a piece of bacon, looking me in the eye. For a moment, we had a connection of cruelty and then it quickly passed and he went back to shoveling his eggs. I left my ring of red lipstick on the cup of orange juice that saved me.



We finished the meal in absolute silence and I went outside to smoke a cigarette while he paid the bill at the front of the restaurant. I watched him from a side window while the warm smoke curled around my face. The pretty waitress looked around cautiously before kissing his cheek and tearing the bill in half. She wrote something down on one of the halves and slipped it into his breast pocket. With that, he turned and headed for the front door. I turned my back to the restaurant and focused on the smoke wrapping around my head. It traced patterns in the faithfully gray sky; flourishes of hate and remorse fluttering in the air and disappearing before they could affect me. I thought about my child’s face and closed my eyes. He needed me to stay strong.



Back in the car, we rode in silence. I stared solemnly out of the window at the ever-constant wasteland of dust and dirt. He stared at the long road ahead of us and clenched his jaw. The piece of paper stuck out of his breast pocket and I could see “xo” written on it. How could he be so obvious? I turned on the radio to drown out my thoughts with those of others, and we listened to NPR talk about the ongoing oil shortage. We were trapped in limbo; knowing it made it worse.



After several hours, we finally arrived. His parents lived in a small house, but it was bursting with character. Ivy wrapped its way up the white walls and the door was bright blue. They had planted red flowers all around the front yard and the whole set-up was reminiscent of a rainbow postcard setting. Henry slammed the car door as he got out and walked a few paces ahead of me towards the door. He knocked once on the door and, almost instantaneously, an old man popped his head out.



“Hey son! How the heck are ya?”



He wrapped him in a bear hug as an old woman emerged into the doorway as well.



“Hi sweetheart! I’m so glad to see you.”



She took a turn hugging him and then both parents turned their attention to me.



“How are you Jane? You’re looking well,” his mother asked politely.



“Yeah Jane, how’s my son treatin’ ya? Well I hope?”



The father punched Henry in the arm. Henry coiled away from the punch and rubbed his arm. He didn’t answer.



We entered the house and the mother flashed us both a sweet smile.



“I hope you are both in the mood for spaghetti, because Herbert here is ALWAYS in the mood for pasta, aren’t you honey?” She looked fondly at him while wiping her hands on her apron.



“Sure am, Cynthia.” He kissed her cheek and she beamed. We looked away in embarrassment.



“Please, have a seat at the dinner table,” Cynthia insisted. “I’ll bring out the salad and some breadsticks.”



Herbert sat down first and pointed to the two seats across the table from him.



“Sit there, so that you two can be next to each other.”



We awkwardly sat down in our assigned seats. I focused on the snowy white wisps atop Herbert’s head and the smile lines that made his wrinkles all seem friendly. I could see Henry doing the same out of the corner of my eye; anything to avoid looking at each other.



“Dinner is served!”



Cynthia brought out a steaming platter of spaghetti covered in marinara sauce. She was beaming proudly.



“I’ll be damned if I’ve seen a finer plate of spaghetti in all my days,” Herbert exclaimed.



Cynthia set it down on the table and Herbert kissed her cheek again.



“Dig in; I’m sure you all must be starving from the trip up here,” Cynthia said happily.



I ate my spaghetti slowly, taking in my surroundings more so than my food.



“So, how long have you two been married now?” Cynthia asked, serving herself some salad.



We looked at each other in embarrassment before I finally answered.

“Three years, m’am. You and Mr. Smith?”

They looked at each other with huge grins. He reached over and held her hand.

“Forty-five years next week,” Herbert replied. “Isn’t that something?”

“It sure is sweetheart,” Cynthia replied, squeezing his hand, “and still happy. We were high school sweethearts, you know.”



I looked over at Henry to see if I could gauge a reaction. He was busy twirling his spaghetti and piling it into his mouth as quickly as possible. It was disgusting to watch and I looked away, embarrassed.



“That’s wonderful; congratulations,” I said quietly, before looking down at my plate.



Henry’s phone rang then, a cheery and seductive song blared out through the speakers. He looked at the phone and then held it close to his chest.



“It’s work; it’s important. Excuse me; please continue eating,” he said, scooting his chair back and hurrying out of the dining room. He left me with his parents and I felt instantly awkward being alone with such intimacy. I looked around the room for comfort.



In the corner I saw a dull birdcage, door swinging open and the insides emptied out.



“Did your family own a bird?” I inquired, mostly just hoping to keep them from thinking about Henry and I.



“Yes, we did, but eventually we decided to let it go in the backyard. He was gorgeous when we first got him, but the plumage began to fade and his spirits began to break. He became vicious and was eventually just something to look at instead of someone to care about. So, we let him go. We keep the birdcage though, just as a reminder of the past,” Cynthia said.



Henry came in then, flustered and red.



“We need to go; I have a late-night business meeting tonight that I absolutely have to get back for. Sorry mom, dad.”



Cynthia looked crest-fallen for a moment, but cheered up as soon as she stood up from the table.



“Of course we understand; work comes first, you have to provide for your family. Why don’t I send some brownies back with you in a Tupperware container, hm?”



She hurried back to the kitchen and I stood up too, following her back.



“Mrs. Smith? I was wondering if I could ask you a question,” I began.



“Of course dear, go right ahead,” she replied, cutting the brownie cake into strips.



“How have you stayed happy with Mr. Smith for such a long time? You two seem so in love; so satisfied with the way your lives have turned out,” I blurted.



She paused for a moment, then smiled and continued cutting the brownies.



“It’s been easy for us, sweetheart. We just have a spark, and no matter what trouble we get into we are always able to turn that into a fire that burns away all of our troubles.”



She began scooping the brownies up and putting them in the container.



“Are you and Henry having trouble at home? Is something wrong?”



She turned to me with a concerned look on her face, forehead wrinkling with distress.



“No, of course not. I was just wondering, for the future,” I replied. Her smile returned.



“I’m glad to hear it.”



She handed me the tub of brownies and we walked out of the kitchen. Henry was already standing by the door, coat on and phone in hand.



“You take care now,” Herbert said, wrapping me in a bear hug. “Take good care of our son!”



Cynthia smiled warmly at me and squeezed me in a gentle hug.



“You take care too, sweetie!”



We walked down the driveway and got into the car. Without saying a word, Henry started the car and pushed it quickly into reverse. I watched the beautiful, quirky house fade into the distance as we drove away, back towards our plain house and his late night business meetings.



I pulled out my Sudoku puzzle again and he fell into his slump against the wheel once more. I could hear our breaths, out of sync and rapid against the still of the moment.



I didn’t know how to make a fire. So, our little car drove on, balancing precariously on the tightrope of the highway.





[1] Lavender symbolically stands for distrust.



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