This story is by Brittney Peters and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The lack of cream and sugar doesn’t phase me as I look into the black coffee. The thick, white mug rests on a red formica table with sparkling booths designed to make you feel as if you’re back in time. I accept the invitation of distraction even though if I’m honest the effect just makes me feel lonely and cheated. It’s like a kid who idolizes Superman only to learn that Superman was really only in it for the publicity — not for the good of mankind. I settle in the booth, imagining a large bubble surrounding me taking me far, far away. At home, I never have a moment of peace. My life is one giant run-on sentence but with nothing really important to say. I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself without a tiny human yelling after me, peeing on me, or crying for one more piece of flesh. I swear one day, I’ll freeze to death because I’ll be nothing but holes. If pieces of you are never refilled, yet your children continue to take them like stale cookies from a jar, what’s left at the end of the day?
It’s raining outside Ella’s Pancake House on route 9. I sip my bad coffee and close my eyes embracing the bubble and wishing that I was both invisible yet irresistible to someone; anyone. I imagine I’m back in Paris at a cafe near the Eiffel tower with my husband. We’re laughing and talking about what we’re reading, the museum we just visited, or what we may want for dinner. Intelligent, adult conversation that doesn’t involve someone else’s bowel movements, or homework or I’m sorry honey I’m just too tired to talk tonight. The trees are blooming, promising another hopeful spring full of possibility and rebirth. I’m thin again, and my hair is consistently clean. I try to stay there. In the moment. I can almost smell the french pastries from a bakery nearby, see the lights on the tower and feel the breeze coming off the Thames. I’m warmed by the memory of intimacy and independence.
When I open my eyes and see my too-big flannel layered over my old Nirvana t-shirt that’s covered in breast milk and marker stains; it’s almost more than I can bear. I allow a tear to escape and it sloshes into my cup, shattering the illusion. I’m not sure which is worse — the desperation of a dream or the guilt of shedding reality.
Sometimes, I lock myself in the pantry during hide and seek and cry. I don’t cry for the silence. I cry because sometimes, I hope they don’t find me.
The face of Eowyn from the Lord of the Rings film haunts me. She tells Aragorn, a protagonist of the film, that she doesn’t fear death nor pain; but a cage. A cage where she feels cold and insignificant; watching helplessly as her family suffers knowing she could do something but isn’t allowed to because she’s a woman in a role that is designed for her to be a princess, not a warrior. I am not an actress, I’m not that brave, and I do not pretend that I don’t already live in a cage. One that is worse than death. Salt stains my eyes and my breath is stolen as I attempt to push the panic down. That scene runs on loop through my mind. I know my cage so well that a mailbox and rocking chair sit out front welcoming others inside. Instead of metal bars, my cage is made of legos and Cherrio’s. Instead of solitude and silence, screams and tantrums never give me a moment of peace. Instead of watching the ones I love perish and feeling helpless, I am watching myself slowly disappear.
I sip again. It’s bitter, but hot so it’s already better than the cold slurps I choke down at home. I look around at the old cafe and wonder what it would be like to work here; to live the life of a diner waitress. Songs and books make it sound so romantic. I definitely have the stressed mom archetype going for me, but nowhere near the strength. My eyes land on the waitress behind the counter making another pot of coffee and I stare. Her uniform t-shirt has a different branding than the other waitresses indicating she’s been here awhile. The tennis shoes aren’t new, but well worn in, no doubt walking in lots of different shoes as she talks to her customers day after day. Turquoise earrings hang from her ears and I’ll bet they were a gift from someone. She seems like the type who can wear pretty earrings with a t-shirt; a confidence that says it’s her world and we’re all just living in it.
I wonder how long I could stare at her before she’d throw me out? She’s been doing this a long time. I can tell by how she pours the grounds, smells the basket to make sure it smells right, before adding more.
For the briefest of moments we lock eyes each of us seeing a reflection we both need and repel. I know it’s probably because I haven’t slept in days, but it’s almost like she sees her future as she looks at me, and I see my past. What could have been and just what may be. The jolt of fear rocks us both so violently that I shake the sensation literally from my shoulders like the salt shaker in front of me, and she leaves the coffee where it sits. When the kids are with me, people aren’t afraid. They address the kids, look at me longingly and it’s usually either pity, respect or fear I see in their eyes. Some people are reminded of good times they’ll never get back, others a traumatic experience that they’re grateful not to have to relive and then a small group looks on in pain because they’ll never have the option of feeling trapped. It’s always her reflection she sees; the stranger’s. It’s never mine. Maybe it’s because I’m a ghost of the woman I once was, and so my bones have become one giant mirror for people to assess themselves through.
Does the waitress with the turquoise earrings feel needed here? Do the same customers come in day after day and rely on her to bring them sustenance? The difference is that the people who need her go home afterwards, and even leave money at the end.
I begin to adjust my long braid, re-working the strands so they don’t stick out, but then I give up. It’s not like my appearance will suddenly get better. I wrap my flannel around me, like a blanket and rest my elbows on the table still cradling the mug. I don’t have the strength to go back to the Paris fantasy. I pull out the book I brought with me — Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. An entire work that takes place over the course of one single day. I wish I had a reason my hand grabbed this particular book from my pile on my nightstand. In the frantic, liberating moments before I left, miles and hours ago, I didn’t think to grab a suitcase. The babysitter came, the kids were asleep, and I just walked out. I saw the book on the side table, and grabbed it thinking that would be the thread to my old life and maybe a roadmap to my new one. What a strange thought.
I wish that I was living in these stories, or that I was the waitress at the counter, or anyone else. I spot a pink Sweet & Low packet on the floor and. I pick it up, straighten it on the table, then put it in my pocket. Not to use but to savor. A souvenir from my time in another life. I’ll sit it on my dresser and remember the day I almost ran away. The day that I almost left my babies and my husband. I’ll look at the pink label and think about the waitress and the black coffee and hope that one day I’ll be able to drink the sweetness of this life instead of drowning in its bitterness.