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I carefully placed the frosted glass of beer back in front of his plate before wiping the cold condensation from by hand onto the front of my jeans. “It tastes like pee.” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“How would you know? You tasted pee? Gross.”
I kicked him in the shin under the table,
“Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his heel over the sore spot. I glanced around the restaurant as he took another sip. It was three o’clock, not the right hours for the place to be packed, but there were a few other late lunchers huddled over bowls of tomato soup or turkey clubs.
“So what’s it like over there?” I said, turning back to face him. I immediately regretted my words when I saw the stony look on his face. “I mean, what’s it like to be home and all?” It was a stupid cover-up but it was all I had. I looked down at my coffee. “Mom’s pretty happy.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. Remind me if I ever need to be rid of her for a while to tell her that I’m moving back home. She’d probably faint from sheer joy and I’d get a few hours to myself.” He grinned, then took another swig of his beer. He looked down at his hands. “At least she seems to notice I’m around.”
“Dad’ll come around. He doesn’t mean it. You know how he is: not real big on change.” I bit my lip wondering how much explanation was too much. “He’s had such a hard time getting used to living without you that he’s afraid he’ll undo all his progress if he lets you in now.”
“Did he say that?”
“Of course not, have you met the guy? But I can tell. Don’t have a panic attack or anything.”
I let the silence go for a few moments as a swirled my coffee to mix in the last few grains of sugar that had sunken to the bottom. I drained the last few drops as he polished off the end of his beer. I turned to look out the window that our booth was pressed up against. The same stores that I’d seen every day since I was born stared me in the face with their unchanging window displays. I could just make out the QS + BC carved into the telephone pole on the corner that Jess had dared me to cut in with her father’s pocket knife when we were twelve. I turned my attention back into the restaurant and picked out the empty booth in the corner where I’d had my first kiss just a few years later. The silence was becoming noticeable now.
“I should probably get back to work,” I said finally, picking up my plastic apron and tying it around my waist, I stood. “You want anything else?”
“Nah, I think I’m gonna head home. Will you need a ride home later?”
“No thanks, my car’s out front.”
“Oh, right.” He stared back down at his hands for a minute, then stood up and grabbed his jacked off the back of his chair. “Well I guess I’ll see you soon.”
“Don’t leave me home alone with mom and dad for too long.” It was a joke, but he sounded like he meant it.
“I get off at six and I’ll come straight home; I promise.” I tried a laugh.
“Thanks,” he said and walked out the front door. For the rest of my shift, and the rest of my life, I tried not to think about how easy conversation used to be. I pushed from my mind the stony silences and avoided at all costs the temptation to overanalyze every conversation. I forced myself not to think of my family in terms of Before and After and instead poured all the energy I had left into turkey clubs, chicken noodle soup and day-old coleslaw.