I wonder how this looks, but I don’t wonder long enough to stop myself from walking in the door. I am faintly aware of the story that the tears in my black dress tells everyone around me, but I still open the door. It’s the first time I’ve been here, but the smells are universal to any diner: pancakes, eggs, bacon, fries, and freshly brewed coffee. He’s behind the front counter in a button-up shirt. I knew he would be because he could never quit a job. I watch him greet customers and help the hostess before he looks up. We lock eyes and his mouth opens slightly. I’m not sure what reaction I was expecting, but all I see is surprise and maybe… joy? Excitement? I never could read him, which I guess was always the problem.
“Hey,” he says. I just wave. His eyes wander over me. “Are you okay?”
“Can we talk?” I ask.
He looks around, like the answer might be stitched into the vinyl lining of one of the red booths. “Can you wait? I’m here til close.”
I look at the sign. Two hours. “Okay. Coffee?” He finds me a booth and brings me a full pot with a bowl of Splenda and I’m surprised that he remembers how I take my coffee. I stay in the booth the entire time, I’m watching the customers, watching him, watching the clock. My hands are fidgeting. I’m not sure why I’m here. There are questions I’ve wanted to ask for so long but so many of them seem irrelevant now. I think that maybe I should find a pen and a napkin just so I can sort out what it is that I do want to say.
Just as I’m thinking that maybe this is pointless, I hear him say, “Hey,” again. I look up and he’s looking at me. His expression is blank now and I realize there’s hardly anyone left in the restaurant. “I’m just cleaning up now, if you wanna sit up here.” He tilts his head towards the barstool. I follow his instructions as he picks up a rag and starts wiping the counter. “So,” he says, “it’s been a while.”
“Not four years.”
“I’m twenty-one now. I was seventeen then.”
He nods slowly. “Four years, then.” He’s not looking at me. “You look different.”
“I had a lot of time to change. You look the same though.” And he does. He may have lost a few pounds, but I swear the stubble on his face hasn’t grown or shifted at all.
“I’m not the same either. Even if I look like I am,” he says. Then we pause. We look at each other. Look out the window into the dark parking lot, empty of cars but slowly filling with an ominous fog. “Is everything okay? Did something happen?”
I shake my head. “Everything happened.”
“Is there something I can do to help?”
I feel his eyes on the side of my face. “Not now.”
I meet his gaze now. “For what?”
“Just the way everything happened–”
“I don’t blame you.” My fingers twist over the frayed strings of my dress. “I used to for a long time. But then I finally got it. I mean, it wasn’t just you and me. It was you and me and your sister. Our moms and our brothers and my sister. It all just kind of fell apart, and it wasn’t fair of me to expect you to keep us together. Whatever ‘we’ were.”
His mouth twitches in a pained smile. “I guess you’re right.”
“I never knew what we were. I mean, you were my best friend. I know I met you through Ellen but then it was you. I knew that. But…” I couldn’t look at him anymore and instead focused on my fingers. “I really loved you.”
The quiet, squeaky sound of him drying something stops, then starts again. “I know.”
“Did you ever feel that way about me?” I don’t want to ask him this but now that I’m here, I know that I have to. That I would never forgive myself if I didn’t. I know that much from experience.
His voice is quiet. “I don’t know.”
I’m not surprised. “It’s never been like that with other guys.” He locks eyes with me, and I continue. “I always thought that it was just a first big crush thrill. That when you touched me it only felt like that because it was new. But it really is different. I think it’s because you were always nice.”
“Just ‘nice’? Isn’t everybody nice, kind of?”
A laugh, low and guttural and bitter, falls out of me. “No.” The word hangs in the air, full of intention and implications that seep into the room like the fog outside that has begun to slowly creep in under the crack in the door.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s not your fault. But I do think about how things could’ve been different. With us. And what that would’ve meant. Like there’s an alternate universe and there’s an alternate version of us. Then there’s a domino effect and then…” I stop myself. “Sorry, I know you don’t think about this.”
“I think about you every day.” He reaches across the table and puts his hand over mine. I wish I could say I was wrong about the way that hand felt, but it has the same warm and comforting presence as I remember. The tingles. He stares at our hands, “You were my best friend too. Whatever you’re going through–”
“I didn’t mean to pin it on you.” My hand goes back to my lap. “And it’s not going to happen again.”
He must have heard some kind of finality in my voice because he asks, “What do you mean?”
I shrug. “It doesn’t matter. I just don’t think some people are cut out for the whole thing.”
I want him to tell me that I’m wrong. That I just need to find the right person to be with. To whisper in my ear that he’s missed me, to hold me closer than ever before and trace his mouth along my neck.
Even as I want this, I know it will never happen. That’s the only real difference from the present version of me and the past version of me; I just grew up.
“It doesn’t matter,” I repeat. “I think I just missed you. I didn’t mean to–”
“It’s fine.” He watches me stand and walk to the door. “Bye.” We both know this is over. That you can’t retrace your steps and bring the past into the present. And maybe we’re both too tired to try.
I look back at him for the last time. “Goodbye,” I say. I walk into the fog, and when I open the door, it rolls into the diner behind me.