“Hey, Denise Richards, how ya doin’ today?”
I turned, flashing a grin, followed by an eye roll. This is Gabe, who insists that I look exactly like Denise Richards. I, in truth, look nothing like Denise Richards, and I happen to find her trashy. But since Gabe cannot manage to remember my real name, no matter the fact that we work together at least six days a week, he continues to refer to me as Denise Richards, and I continue to act as if it is some great joke. One thing about being a waitress—I’m getting really good at hiding my true feelings. Actually, I’ve probably always been good at that….but I’m definitely honing the skill to an even finer point.
“Denise Richards?” Evan shoots his eyebrows up questioningly at this.
“Yeah, doesn’t she look just like Denise Richards?” Gabe explains enthusiastically.
“Ummmm, sure dude.” Evan’s reply does not nearly match Gabe’s enthusiasm. Evan, unlike me, is not a professional true-feelings-hider. He hasn’t had as much practice as I have. But then again, he’s probably never needed to.
“You know who you really do look like, though, is Bird. Doesn’t she look just like Bird?” This comes from Blake and is directed at Ben. Blake and Ben have both been here for a while, longer than I have, and are part of the secret club of survivors.
“Yeah, you do!” Ben responds, as if he has discovered the answer to some long-quested riddle. “You actually look exactly like Bird.”
“Look at her,” Blake continues, “she has the same smile, same big dimples, same blue eyes. The only thing really different is the hair color. Bird was really blond.”
“Who is Bird?” I deliver the question with a perfect combination of wide-eyed confusion and flippant innocence, as if I’ve never heard the name before and am only mildly interested in the resemblance I bear to this mystery person. The truth is I know exactly who Bird is. Her name and her “amazing dimples” are blazoned across my brain in a way that still smarts and stings. And for the record, we do not have the same blue eyes. My eyes are actually not blue-blue. They are a strange combination of blue and green and they shift often from one to the other, which makes their color almost impossible to name or nail down. I happen to really love this quality about my eyes. But no one else ever really looks closely enough to notice. And he certainly never did.
He had come in town that night to take me to dinner and I was full of expectancy. There wasn’t a specific outcome I was expecting. Things had definitely been shaky enough lately for me to know that they could go either way. But he had called, after two weeks of silence, and asked if he could take me to dinner. So that had to mean something. We both knew that we needed to “talk.” So this would be it. We would “talk” and I would finally know where we stood. I was tingly with the anticipation of my relief.
He picked me up and we began the standard debate over where to eat. Not even where to eat, actually, but who would have to choose. Neither of us ever wanted to choose, and we would toss the responsibility back and forth between us. Finally, he caved.
“Let’s go to Ninfa’s,” he said, and my heart gave a tiny flip-flop which I immediately tried to quell. Sometimes I am such a stupid woman. Maybe not so much stupid as typical, and typically, I want to read into everything. We had eaten at Ninfa’s on our first date, so for him to suggest Ninfa’s must be a good sign. It would be the perfect book-end. It could mark our starting over, this time on a better footing.
We drove to Ninfa’s in an awkward silence, punctuated here and there by his forced humor and my forced laughter. All the while I was wondering when and how he would bring it up. He would have to initiate the conversation, I knew that. I could not, and would not try to force him.
We arrived at the restaurant and were greeted by our waitress.
“Hi there, how are y’all tonight?” she asked. “My name is Bird and I’ll be taking care of you. What can I get you to drink?”
He immediately began to banter with her, which was typical. He always gives the waitresses a hard time, even if they’re not pretty blonds with big dimples and even bigger breasts. I tried not to be jealous as Bird brought our drinks and took our orders. I tried not to notice that so far, he had said more to her than to me. Give him time, I told myself, and he’ll get there. He has to get there, because why else would he be here?
As Bird left our table after delivering our food, he finally turned his attention fully on me. Try as I might, I could not resist leaning forward slightly. I could feel the tension mounting. In my head, I was preparing my varied responses to whatever he might have to say. His smile couldn’t have been bigger or his eyes twinklier as he began.
“Isn’t that amazing? Have you ever heard of a name like Bird? I mean, that’s pretty cool isn’t it? Bird!”
I choked down a swallow of water and nodded my head. Clearly, this was not what I had been expecting.
“And those dimples. Those are some amazing dimples. Have you ever seen such big dimples?” He continued in this line for several minutes as I continued to nod stupidly and agree that Bird was indeed an unusual name and that she certainly had large, full, perky dimples.
Every woman will swear to you that she is not the jealous type; in fact, she cannot imagine what jealousy feels like. She will tell you this honestly, and when she says it, she really believes it. This is only because she has learned to lock it tightly and tidily away. But a raging beast of jealousy is still present in some repressed, unfelt part of her, and at that moment mine was snapping and snarling at the bars of its cage. I slammed another iron gate down between my consciousness and that other, wilder, truer part of my heart, then forced a smile and steered the conversation to a more neutral subject.
Over our plates of enchiladas, we made stunted attempts at small talk. The thing is, I have never been any good at small talk. In fact, I hate it. I hate small talk and mind-numbing, soul-killing chit-chat. I would rather go deep, talk about things that matter. Break the surface and dive right in. Anything else seems, to me, a waste of time. Many people find me too intense because of this, but I don’t know any other way to be. This is me.
My patience with the small talk was growing thin, and I was becoming antsy—and angry. This happened frequently when I talked to him. The source of my anger was a mystery to me. I knew that the reaction was not proportional to the situation. It was irrational, this anger that welled when he seemed to be withholding himself from me. I needed to take things to the next level, to at least dip below the surface we had been skimming, and he seemed stubborn in his refusal to wade in. Perhaps if I just opened the way for him, he would take the lead from there.
“So tell me something. Something that makes me go, ‘Wow!’” This is his standard fall-back line, something about him that I both love and hate. I love it, when I feel that he asking this question because he is sincerely interested in what has been going on in my head. And I hate it, when I feel that he is merely requesting me to be more entertaining than I currently am. I’m not sure which I thought he meant this time, but at least it gave me the opening I had been waiting for.
I launched into a story of an encounter I’d had earlier in the week, which I had found inspiring. I told my story with great detail and enthusiasm, but I could feel that he was not engaged. So I tried to delve even further into the meaning I’d found in this random conversation with a man who reminded me of my grandfather, and who shared his faith freely, it seemed, with everyone he chanced to meet.
“It just really inspired me,” I concluded, “to examine my life, the way I’m living it, you know? To try to be really intentional about the way that I live, so that I don’t miss any opportunity or experience.” It had been an important revelation to me, something I’d been thinking on all week, and I expected him to be mildly interested at least. I raised my eyes to his and met silence, a blank gaze.
“Does that make sense?” I persisted. I was starting to feel panicky, the way you might if you jumped off a rope-swing and then realized you had not swung out quite far enough. Like you’d jumped out over the rocks instead of the water and it was all your own fault, because you hadn’t gauged the distance or the depth properly.
He glanced at me, mumbled something both incoherent and noncommittal, and then looked around for Bird to fill his empty glass of tea. It was his eighth glass since we’d sat down.
I fixed my eyes on my plate, forked up a large bite of enchilada and, managing to completely miss my mouth, ended up with gobs of gooey cheese and green sauce dripping and sliding down my chin. There was no way he has missed it, so I immediately tried to laugh it off with a joke about my incredible grace and table manners. I expected him to laugh along with me and let it go. Instead, he looked me straight in the eyes, his first direct contact all evening.
“You know what that is, don’t you? That’s God humbling you for always trying to make everything so much more serious than it really is.”
His words hung in the air for a few crystalline seconds, their echo bouncing through and through the tunnel, the fine, fragile tunnel that was almost completed. The tunnel that I had scratched and scooped and hollowed out beneath the walls, high and thick, that had for so long imprisoned my heart. Then with a rumble and a roar and a final scatter of rubble the tunnel collapsed and my heart was sealed in completely once more.
My mouth snapped shut and I stared, then looked away. It seemed that my words, too, had sealed themselves off completely. I had absolutely nothing to say. I could not utter a single word. As I sat in silence I realized that another beast, darker and more ferocious by far was now leaping against its prison-bars and trying to break free. I could feel my anger, my hurt, my hate simmering and seething below the surface, like a fever in my skin.
I can’t recall that I spoke again through the rest of the meal. As we drove back to my apartment I recoiled as far away from him as possible, cowering against the passenger door with my eyes fixed firmly out the window, fighting off tears. I remember that he asked me once what was wrong, and that I forced the answer up past the rage that rose like bile in my throat.
“Nothing,” I said, and he did not pursue the matter further.
When we reached my apartment he pulled up to the curb and left the motor running, a cue I easily recognized. I pushed the passenger door open and slid down from the high seat. He walked slowly around the front of the truck, his reluctance to face me evident in every move, every gesture, as he drug himself toward me. When he reached me he wrapped one arm awkwardly around my shoulders while I stiffened and stood. He released me quickly and I found that I could not look up into his face. I hated him, not only for his cowardice, but also for mine.
“Well,” he began, “I’ll give you a call. I mean, not tonight. And probably not tomorrow, it’s going to be really busy, but…”
“You know what?” I interrupted, “Don’t. Just….call me whenever, okay?”
He nodded at this, and at the bitter edge to my voice. We both knew that he never could manage to call when he said he would. And we both knew how much I hated that.
He turned to get back in his truck and I turned up the walkway to go inside. The whole way to my door I cursed myself for my impotence; my inability to make him talk to me, to make myself talk to him. I called myself a fool for ever allowing myself to believe in him, and a coward for allowing him to walk away without facing his failure or my wrath. But I did not turn around. I kept my shoulders squared firmly, rigidly from him. As my key turned in the door I could hear his motor as he drove away. It was a haunting, lonely, aching sound, but it was quickly muffled by the thick stone walls that greeted me with such familiar comfort. Not the walls of my home but the other walls, much more fearsome and strong. The walls that had once again swallowed me whole.