Ever since Jacob was born, their dates haven’t been especially romantic. Tonight is a quick dinner at the diner down the street. Their hands press together over the table, only to hastily part when the waitress returns with two heaping plates of Belgian waffles. Richard imagines the sitter back at home trying to coax Austin into eating a vegetable. Richard’s exact words were “Any vegetable, please, just try.” And here Daddy is, eating waffles for dinner.
Ellis looks tired. More tired than Richard, and Richard comes home from work to a five year old and a three year old. Ellis hasn’t been around in a while, hasn’t seen the kids. They ask for him and Richard has to say, “Don’t know, honey.” Ellis doesn’t usually disappear for two weeks at a time. He usually answers his phone, too, but lately Richard has been getting his answering machine. Richard tries to focus on the present moment. He scoops up a forkful of waffle and watches Ellis. Here they are on a date, and despite the silence, that has to be something good.
“This is nice,” Richard says. It was just the diner down the street, not particularly nice at all, but Richard had to say something.
Ellis half-smiles, briefly, but then his face falls. His lips twist in a thin line, holding something back.
The waitress hovers over them, refilling their water glasses. The diner is pretty empty this late on a Tuesday night.
When she leaves, Ellis breathes out slowly, gathering himself. Richard’s heart flips over.
“I was gonna…” Ellis’s voice comes out dry and rasping, and he swallows. “I was gonna wait until after we ate, but uh, I can’t act normal like this.” He straightens and meets Richard’s eyes for a second. He can’t hold his gaze, and looks down into his water glass.
“I’m engaged to Margeaux Brodeur.” Ellis pauses. Richard frowns, trying to understand.
“The wedding’s soon. Really soon. March.” He glances up from the water glass for a second, then hastily looks away again. “You’re invited, if you want to go.” He laughs harshly, maybe without meaning to, but it feels like a slap in the face. Richard’s eyes water. He still has a mouthful of too sweet Belgian waffle, and he swallows, feeling sticky. Feeling a lot of things.
Richard’s lips form a thin line. It’s all he can do to stay silent. He wants to yell, to accuse, to sweep his arm across the table and knock their water glasses to the floor. But if he yells he’ll regret it. If he speaks at all, he knows he’ll beg.
Ellis is waiting for him to reply. He grips his water glass with white knuckles. Maybe Ellis isn’t sure. Maybe Richard could convince him to stay. Who the fuck is Margeaux Brodeur? This was Hart meddling. Ellis didn’t want this. Ellis would stay if Richard just—
“Don’t do this,” Richard manages, his voice thick. His vision blurs over with tears that he tries to hold back, but he can’t control it, and as soon as he lets out one horrible, ugly sob they overflow, down his cheeks and nose. Richard blindly yanks a napkin out of the dispenser and presses it against his face. He clutches it there for what seems like a full minute, while Ellis says nothing.
When Richard looks at him again, Ellis’ face is soft. He cracks a smile that Richard guesses is supposed to be comforting. But he doesn’t look happy. His brow is furrowed with worry. His eyes are red.
Anger surges up through Richard’s chest, and for a moment, he can’t even see Ellis. He’s standing. His hands are shaking. Ellis is saying his name over and over again, but everything outside himself is dulled, turned on low. It’s just him and his heartbeat now, driving him outside the diner and into the parking lot. Sweaty palms on the hood of someone else’s car.
He comes out of the panic attack feeling dizzy. He searches the windows of the diner for Ellis, and he sees him, he thinks, sitting at the booth still, head in his hands, just as miserable as Richard wants him to be. That’s not right though. They weren’t sitting in a booth by the window. He looks again, and it’s just empty booths, plus one elderly man sipping coffee and reading the paper. He can’t see Ellis from here.
And Richard doesn’t really want Ellis to be miserable. He stands upright and finds his way to his car, and thinks of ten ways he could have handled that better. Ten things he could have said in a calm, even voice, to change Ellis’ mind. I love you. You don’t have to do this just to please your family. Stay with me. Live with me. Marry me. I understand you’re under a lot of pressure, but you’re going to regret this. Aren’t you?
Richard turns the key in the ignition.
Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe Ellis was just fine with Margeaux Brodeur. Maybe she wasn’t the Hart’s choice for him, after all. Maybe they’d been seeing each other. Maybe she could do the fucking splits in bed.
They probably didn’t have dates at the local diner, anyway.
The sitter coyly asks Richard how the date went, to which he says something he doesn’t remember. She gives the report on Austin re: vegetables, and the prognosis is not good. There is creamed broccoli that she has really, honestly tried to scrape off the ceiling still stuck to the ceiling. Richard pays her and finds his kids.
Jacob is alseep in bed. Austin is in his crib, but still awake, banging on the bars and threatening to tip the whole thing over.
He screams “Daddy!” when Richard enters the room, and Richard picks him up.
He mumbles “Hi, Austin,” into his back, and carries him into the living room. He collapses onto the couch.
“What did you do today?” he asks.
Austin babbles incoherently, too tired to make much sense. Richard gleans that the sitter let them watch an extra half hour of T.V., which was good, but made them clean up their toys after dinner, which Austin did not think was fair.
“Uhuh. Sounds like fun.” Richard closes his eyes. He can feel Austin’s breathing slow down as both of them begin to fall asleep. Austin mumbles a few more sentences that Richard doesn’t understand. Soon, both of them are asleep, Austin a warm weight on Richard’s chest.
“Where’d you go, Richard?”
Richard is back in the diner. No, a different diner. A diner halfway across the country, on the side of I-70. A cup of coffee steams in front of him, and Austin grins at him from across the table.
He can still taste waffles. He feels a little sick.
“This place looks just like the diner that used to be right down the street from the house,” he says.
“Yeah. All diners look the same.”
Richard takes a shaky breath. “Right.”