It was Denny’s. Dirty tile, empty booths, and a full claw machine in the corner. We always came here, though our reasons for finding it an acceptable brunch spot were probably different. He found $4.99 to be the ideal amount of money to spend on a meal (and you’d better believe we’d be splitting the bill), and I was raised to eat literally anything once resembling food, at any temperature, and be grateful for it. This did not, however, mean I had any illusions of it being a quality spot, so when our waitresses were unenthusiastic, or my food gave me stomach aches or came out wrong, or I never got a single refill on my coffee, it seemed a bit par for the course. It also helps that I’m a server at a restaurant, and that comes with a large, steaming side of “I get it.” I’d always prefer to be fucking around in the kitchen, playing on my phone, trying to get an ice cube to stick up in the vent on the ceiling, or begging for a slice of cheese from the guy on salads. Someone probably forgot to put a fresh pot of coffee on, anyway. I GET IT.
So, when B’s skillet came out, half smoldering and half frozen, I saw his teeth clench quietly and the muscles in his jaw did “the thing.” He shoved his plate toward the middle of the cafeteria-style table with annoyance that it probably didn’t deserve, I noted somewhere in the back of my mind, but I was already in damage control mode. I suggested we alert the server. He insisted on saying nothing. He would rather eat nothing, he said. He was the type to prefer to sit there and fume, then explode into some sort of rage at the end, and make a huge ordeal, when he could have fixed it in the very beginning. I, on the other hand, have always fancied myself some sort of mediating sourceress, impervious to conflict and raised hackles. I believe I have this secret language that transcends irrational anger, and I would diffuse the bomb that had begun to count down.
I sat back with confidence that bordered on smugness, and waited for our server to become visible. I made eye contact, but just in case, I did the little upward head nod with a hint of a smile. It was Secret Language for “something’s wrong but I am not a douche bag.” She sped over, I spent three seconds explaining that it had come out half frozen, and she pulled it from the table and was back with a new, sizzling hot one in less than five minutes.
But it was too late. Before it arrived, I was sinking down into the corner of my booth like a child scorned, tears slipping down my cheeks despite my best efforts while I stared out the window, embarrassed. I pressed my lips together hard. I’ve always been very conscious of the face I make when I cry; my mother would make what I always felt was a very exaggerated pout face: downward turned lips, like a cartoon. Like an actual, upside down smile. Now, when I begin to cry and my lips tug downward, I focus all of my energy on remaining neutral. And usually keeping my makeup intact.
He had wasted no time burning me into a pile of ashes with his eyes, as she pulled his plate and left with it. Despite me trying to act on his behalf, with love, so that he could enjoy a meal and not ruin his own morning, he used words like disgusting, stupid, selfish, dramatic, embarrassing. His favorite word for me was “condescending” because it was a double-hit; it was not only a way to insult me; it was a clever way to strip all of the good intentions away from a thing and accuse it of superiority and snobbery, instead. I had treated him like I was his mother. I was so hurt by this mischaracterization of my intentions that it was all I could do to maintain a quiet cry, rather than an open sob. He pushed harder and harder, as I pushed my back into the booth in an attempt to become physically smaller and smaller.
This was familiar. I’d been here before. My mother had always had a need to find something wrong with anything I tried to impress her with, to such a degree that I’d often be rocked back on my heels, reeling from the blow. I would spend a day cleaning for her, or plan a surprise for her, and it always seemed to backfire in a way I could never understand. Not only a lack of appreciation, but I was usually completely diminished, chopped down, insulted, and then all of my tiny pieces were left to blow away in the wind. I would spend the rest of the evening either crying, feeling completely unable to love my own mother effectively, or staring off, disillusioned. Confused. I had done one thing, and been reacted to in a completely irrational, oppositional way. If I were a cartoon, I’d be seeing stars and swaying.
This was one of those moments. The world was moving slowly, and everything sounded very far away. I watched his red, chubby hands — one, spread out on the place mat, fingers spread widely. The other gripped his fork in a fist. I hated the way he held his fork; it reminded me of a toddler just learning to eat, or the way Beast held his spoon, in Beauty & the Beast, before Beauty taught him the proper way. It was primitive, and it was appropriate. This is what bothered me most. Another familiar feeling was the mental checklist a my periphery went through: my feet are firmly planted and in the right direction. My hands are cool and steady; they will not knock anything over when I stand. My cell phone and keys are in my purse, and my purse is hooked on my arm so that it will automatically come with me. Nothing is between myself and the edge of the booth, and I am closer to the door than he is. The door is a cool fifteen steps away. The host stand is closer, and there are people at it. There is a phone. There are bathrooms.
Except there was nowhere to go.
North Canton is a whole lot of nowhere to go, in fact, and I was surrounded by it. There’s no public transportation. Barely a main road. I found myself on the sidewalk with a parking lot in front of me, and chain link fences to either side. I was off of a somewhat busy street with no sidewalks, surrounded by ma-and-pa tire shops, radiator repair shops, thrift stores, check cashing buildings, and fast food places. A few vacant spots with boarded windows and “FOR LEASE” signs. My options were very limited, and I immediately realized my mistake as B came charging through the double doors behind me. I moved out of the way and began backpedaling. Families took wide berths around us to get in through the doors, never making direct eye contact with me; I tried. His chest was puffed out and his shoulders were back. He was moving fast, demanding to know why I had come outside. He would ask what was wrong with a deliberately light, almost melodic tone, but I had learned that this especially meant trouble. It was the voice of the dog-catcher with the net behind his back. His lips curled into a smile but his ears were back, which I knew as a stress signal. His eyes were empty, blank. I was in danger. The more I reacted, though, the more melodic or innocently he spoke. “I don’t understand why you’re acting this way,” he’d say, but then something would slip. He’d call me a bitch. He’d brace his body for a split second, purse his lips together, and slam into me, causing my whole weight to tumble and spill against the sidewalk. I started running from him. It felt absurd; he wasn’t running, and yet the fact that I was basically caged by the street, the fences, and the building caused me to scramble away like a prey animal. I had one option left. I went inside.
I spoke calmly, hands shaking, eyes wide and wet, and asked where the restrooms were. I knew on any other day, but I could not locate the information in my brain. The hostess pointed, but seemed indifferent, considering she had been watching our ordeal through the giant glass doors. I sprinted, knocked through the bathroom doors, into the nearest stall, and slid the lock. I stepped up onto the toilet so that no part of me was visible or accessible. A moment passed, and then another moment passed. And then the door swung open hard. “C’mon. Let’s go.” Neutral tone. I said nothing. He lowered his voice and managed what was supposed to sound defeated or tired, and asked again if we could leave. I said nothing. He stood there, visible through the crack in the stall door, and called my cell phone. It rang in my purse. When the call ended, he let the bathroom door close and stepped outside, and I scrambled to remove my phone and started texting anyone I could think to help me. All of my most recent numbers. I sent out a dozen or so, and got nothing back. While I stared at my blank phone screen, he came crashing through the door again, but this time he dropped immediately to the floor and slid a third of the way under the stall door. I jumped to my feet, on the toilet lid, and looked down at his flustered face looking up at me. I still said nothing. After all, logistically, he couldn’t do much. He could probably pull me down off of the toilet and injure me, but he couldn’t pull me out of the stall. He pleaded with me from that spot, but for some reason that only pleased me. He was laying on a dirty bathroom floor with his head next to a public toilet, begging because he couldn’t force his way. This was insanely gratifying. I just took it in.