Fiction

Breaking Fast

She hasn’t eaten like this in years. She’s ordered the quiche, two pancakes with local maple syrup, and then, a few minutes ago, she went back up to the counter and ordered a bag of day-old lemon cream scones. Now she’s sitting with them, breaking the hard, stale corners off and popping them into her mouth, the little lines of white icing flaking onto her black shirt with the thin bands of beaded trim at the neck and the sleeve ends. She doesn’t look up because she’s lost in the newspaper, absently brushing icing off her chest. Today’s paper reports the worst traffic accident in the state’s history: fourteen people lost in the fog, the heat from the car fires so intense that their bodies will never be identified. Even teeth have come to ash. She’s never been to this state before, so being present for the worst traffic accident in its history feels to her like she’s surprised a friend who’s getting dressed for a funeral.

The scone is delicious. She weighs 120 pounds. There’s a man sitting at the table beside her—he can hardly believe she’s been able to finish one of those lemon cream scones and he’s stunned she’s now starting her second, and this after the quiche and pancakes. He’s thinking she looks like a whippet and pictures her as one of those athletes who do startling things with their bodies, such as running twenty-six miles three times a week. She looks like she could slip herself under her own door.

He switches his head one way and then back down to his meal, awkward and self-conscious. He’d like to start a conversation with her, but he only ever fantasizes about these kinds of things. He’s certain he’d say something unforgivably stupid anyway, like Hungry, huh? That would win him a pained smile and maybe a wave of a half-eaten scone. He’s eating the quiche. Quivering and custard-pale, glinting like a Lucite tabletop. Delicious, he’s thinking. Wonderful quiche, huh? Could work, but it doesn’t exactly open a deep shaft into anyone’s inner life, now does it? He remains silent. He’s reading the paper, too, his mind filling with the imagery of his own body in a car at the centre of the disaster. How long is a person aware that they are dying in a moment like that? He’s been lonely lately, this man, but the thought of what it must be like, that moment, makes him feel that he is blessedly among the living. He senses he is together with her in this time of being alive. That will have to be enough, this unspoken thing they have in common.

She’s not from here. Right now, she is homeless, stateless. She left her house before the sun came up and crossed the border; she got here too tired to drive any farther, long after sundown. She took a hotel room and slept until the next sunrise—today—and one of the women at the front desk suggested this place, the sort of bright and friendly spot where people come on weekend mornings with their children or grandparents and sit at the burnished wooden tables and have their coffees. She feels at home here, with the newspaper and this giant breakfast; this is like when she was younger, and she didn’t need to think months or years into the future and act accordingly, things weren’t keyed to such timelines. Then the worst, most banal troubles started to afflict her. She became mired in the dailyness of it all, her life kept moving forward ceaselessly and all the things she thought she was going to take time to figure out were drifting out of reach. Her life has gone out of true.

She’s aware of the man beside her. She looks up sideways once in a while. She thinks it would be interesting to step into a stranger’s life for a day. She doesn’t know where he’s from (Pennsylvania) or what he does (imports leather goods from Italy) or even what he is doing here. (He has left his shop in the capable hands of his partner and taken a few weeks off to see some of the country but he is actually a little bored driving everywhere by himself. And instead of paying attention to local histories or changing topographies, or indulging himself in his hobby of collecting old militaria—any of which could be of interest to her, given that she comes from a place that really has only recent history and looks much the same all over and has no indigenous wars to speak of—he’s mainly trying to be places where other people are, so he can drink up the atmosphere of their presence.) He even seems to be noticing her, but she’s not the kind of person to start small-talking with a stranger. And she’s aware of how gluttonous she looks, how unusual it is to see a woman eating quite so much food.

After a while, he makes a somewhat too-expressive gesture of asking for the bill, and when the waitress comes over he thanks her for everything using too many words. The waitress smiles at him, and then glances at the woman’s plate with half a pancake still on it and asks if she’s done. And the woman stammers a little because the pancake is cold, or at least it was when she last took a forkful of it fifteen minutes ago, and it ought to go away, but she says she’s still picking at it, and the waitress, who could not be that thin if she stopped eating altogether, tries to give the kind of smile the proprietor of this establishment likes to see his serving staff give his customers. But really the smile says fuck you, thin bitch and the woman at the table knows full well that’s what it says, but she’s been getting that poisonous smile for her whole life. She’s beautiful, and very pleasant once people get to know her, but she doesn’t have a chance with most women. If she could fatten herself up maybe she’d fit in better. Maybe she’d be like other people and know how other people handled the kinds of things she can’t seem to take in stride. She’s been freaking out lately. She’s been hard to live with. Her husband told her he could handle everything for a few days and she got in the car. Go drive and think, he said. Don’t call, we don’t need to hear from you. Don’t even think about us for a few days, just try to straighten yourself out. The morning after leaving, stuffing herself with sweets, all she’s come up with is that she’s afraid. But she has no idea what she’s afraid of.

The man beside her pays, and she looks up when he squeezes out between her table and the one he was sitting at, and he apologizes and smiles at her, gesturing at nothing with his hands. He’s got so much pent-up conversation in him now that he wouldn’t be able to give someone the time without making a production out of it oh the time, well let’s see here, according to my watch it’s, anyway, it may not be right, there’s a tower on the state capitol building back there I think they probably have to set that every day, well you too have a nice day, yep and now he’s on the verge of unspooling the whole clamped-up, stymied monologue he’s been having in his mind that involves her and her breakfast and her dancer’s body—you a ballerina?—but he gains control over himself.

She finishes reading the last section of the paper and turns it over, lifts her eyes to the room. The brunch crowd is thinning out. She sits back against the wall, the big ornate pillow against her back. This is the kind of place it is: long benches lining the walls with generous cushions tied down all along the length and big cushy pillows against the wall. This is why all the people who come in here by themselves end up lined against the wall, facing the centre of the room. It’s easy to watch them, eating alone, lost in their thoughts, their whole lives drawn on their faces, at least it seems that way if you have long enough to watch a person. She’ll pay and get up soon and go back to her hotel room. She’ll want to call her husband, but she won’t, and she might get back into the car and start for home slowly, or maybe she’ll continue west or south, until she can’t take it anymore. She is probably going to realize that thinking about her life is not going to give her a new idea about how to live it. This seeming simplicity, this time for herself, it’s not real. She will have to go back and submit herself to what’s real and apply the same failed strategies to get through it. This is what her husband is counting on. It is what I am counting on. I want her to go back and try again. I am going to go back and try again. I am going to get up at the same moment she does and go out with her, out into the little town square here that has no idea it’s been the site of such troubles, and she’ll go back toward her hotel and I also will not speak a word to her, she who has helped me so much this morning, in her hunger, in her loneliness.