This story is by Bob Stinner and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Andy walked into Tina’s. It was his favorite diner. He enjoyed the familiar jingle of the bells above the door, signaling to Tina that someone was there. Just a moment later, she appeared in an apron and a smile.
“Hello! How many?”
“Just me”, Andy said.
“Right this way.”
Andy followed Tina to a booth at the front of the diner, right up against a big window facing the street. He liked sitting there and Tina knew it. He enjoyed seeing all the people walk up and down the square. His mind always wondered where they could all be going. Meetings? Dates? Weren’t they technically the same thing? There was just something about the urgency of it all that fascinated him. Andy didn’t hate people, but he was happy to observe them from the safety of the booth, protected by the transparent shield. When it came to people, fascination morphed into angst quickly.
Andy watched the people for a few minutes until his dinner came. When it arrived, he picked away at his salad, making sure each bite had an acceptable amount of dressing and a proper mix of contents. This was Thursday. Same as always. The same simple, solemn Thursday. Until the bell jingled again. This time Andy looked up. In walked a pretty face he’d never seen before.
Andy’s eyes didn’t immediately drop back to his plate. They lingered for a moment. No one had captured his attention like this since Ramona left him. Outside of the apartment his eyes had barely seen above the sidewalk. Something inside him decided it was better to remain alone than trudge through the macabre dating gauntlet. Besides, being with Ramona was like a surprise birthday present, not a prize he had to embarrass himself for. He’d thought she was cute but never considered telling a soul. Their relationship was neatly selected and curated just for him. Andy didn’t have the requisite game to woo a girl like Ramona. She made it clear she wanted him. Andy was so surprised by her reciprocation he didn’t know what to do. By the time his emotions readjusted to the light they were already living together.
So, as the pretty girl with wavy brown hair stood at the counter, now placing her order, Andy’s nervous anguish started the timer. The internal argument began. One half of Andy tried to coax him into action, while the other gracefully dismissed each wave of sudden confidence with brutal efficiency and pushed him back into his chair.
He’d been down this road so many times before, he found a comfortable seat just outside his psyche where he could watch these two factions war for him in silence. To him, it is always loud and powerful. To everyone else in the diner, there was just a guy in the corner eating a salad with unnecessarily meticulous care. Through the bickering he picked up a faint “to go, please”. She was one step closer to the exit now, which gave this predicament a natural stopping point. The dismissive in Andy smiled.
Andy looked up. The girl’s wavy brown hair poured out from under a grey beanie and stretched down to the middle of her back. She wore a black coat, blue jeans, and big black boots. When she finally turned around from the counter, Andy caught another glimpse of her face. Two unassuming brown eyes framed a button nose peppered with freckles that were only a little more noticeable because of the cold. The second look made Andy let out an audible gasp. It was almost enough to get Andy out of his seat.
“Why shouldn’t I?”, he asked himself.
He watched the battle rage on. It was like an army of Lilliputians invaded the restaurant and strapped his thighs and ankles to the chair. He pushed his legs underneath him to try and raise himself up. But something caught him. Something faint, but powerful.
It wasn’t physical. He could easily get up and get an extra napkin, or another fork. Hell, he could get back in line to order another salad if he were still hungry. But if for one second his mind decided to stand himself up, walk over to the girl and say hello, this force; this invisible hand of doubt would sweep over him, like an angry wave and pin him right back down in his chair.
All the while, the other half of him screamed “Go, you idiot!”. It would beg him not to succumb to this paralysis again. He realized that he had stopped eating. He was now just sitting there, gripping his fork and staring at a tomato. He wondered where that tomato had come from. Somewhere near here?
“How far did that tomato travel before it landed on my plate?”
The questions. They were a trick one side would play on the other to distract Andy and keep him in place. His teeth and hand were both clenched and his breathing became nervous – the anxiety filtering through to the outside.
“Order for Reggie! Whole salad with a baguette.”
The girl answered, “That’s me. Thank you.”
Andy released his grip and was rubbing his eyes when he heard this. He looked up and then back down at his own whole salad and baguette in just enough time to see the girl grab her order. Reggie her name was, probably short for something he thought. Maybe Regina? Yeah, Regina. His brain raced. Pulling his thoughts all over except the place he wanted them to go.
The girl turned and started walking toward the door. He gave it one last attempt. He put his fork down, stood with confidence, and walked with his head up towards the girl. He was taken flummoxed by how quickly he got to her, being in motion instead of sitting.
“Physics is the study of matter and energy, forces and motion.”
“Ahh” he said to himself. He rubbed his eyes and tried to push out the distracting thoughts his nerves dizzied him with. He did so in time to look at the girl. They were passing each other now. He looked at her and smiled and she reciprocated. He liked the smile.
This was it. Andy mustered everything he could to force himself through the wall of angst.
But for all that fight, the only thing Andy would muster was a soft, defeated hello, as he walked by. Reggie’s smile got bigger when she responded in kind. And there may have been a hint of sadness in her eyes that Andy continued walking. But he’d never know. At the counter, he reached for a fork that he didn’t need.
He heard the bells above the door jingle. When he turned around, the girl with the wavy brown hair was gone.