The billboard for chicken and waffles makes Anna flick on her blinker and pull off the highway and onto the nearest exit. According to her GPS, she has 103 miles until she reaches her hotel—or maybe it says 108. The kaleidoscope of shattered glass in the corner of her phone screen makes it difficult to decipher. Maybe once her next paycheck hits her bank account she’ll fix it, but she’s been telling herself that for weeks and hasn’t followed through yet.
Off the highway, the road switches from smooth pavement to bumps and a few errant potholes that Anna swerves to avoid, sometimes unsuccessfully.
A piece of wood shaped like a hard-boiled egg with the name Darla’s Dinner painted in cobalt blue. The font is so swoopy, it looks like it was done in a flourish—and at least 50 years ago based on how much of it is peeling.
The exterior of the restaurant, on the other hand, looks more updated, more cared for. There’s no glimpse of brown beneath the white coat of paint on the siding, or on the red-framed windows. Flower boxes are exploding with violets and petunias. In a sign of fresh watering, droplets of water sit on the leaves, pooling in their folds.
She’s snacked a bit on her trip up the coast—a handfuls of pretzels and crackers here, a couple of Chips Ahoy cookies there—nothing substantial or nutritious to make her stomach think she’s consumed an actual meal. It wants something real, and so does her watering mouth.
An elderly woman sits hunched in the back booth, a plate of fried chicken in front of her, but not touched. Her fingers are too busy sliding and shifting knitting needles and yarn. At the counter, a man mostly hidden behind a newspaper picks tater tots from his plate. As for employees, there’s only a teen girl wiping down the counter with a rag, and a cook Anna can only identify by the white t-shirt she sees through the porthole window into the kitchen.
Despite a room full of seating options, Anna chooses one of the chairs closest to her, crosses the terracotta tile to a stool at the counter, and pulls a plastic-encased menu from a napkin holder. The teen, who with a glimpse of a name tag, Anna can now see is named Meryl, greets her and pours her a glass of water, the ice clinking as it plunks into the shallow depths of the cup.
“Do you have any ideas of what you’d like?” the teen says to Anna after she’s perused the options for a few minutes—not that she needed to. She came here for one thing and one thing only, the dish that has been her favorite since she was a little girl, before she realized that not everyone combined breakfast and dinner into one dish on the reg.
“Your chicken and waffles please,” Anna says, returning the menu to its home and taking out her phone so she can check over her itinerary as she waits.
“Great choice. It’s the best I’ve ever had,” Meryl nods, and writes the order down on her notepad, although Anna questions if doing so is really necessary when there’s so few customers.
Anna swivels to look down the counter from where the voice emerged. The man who had been absorbed in his newspaper has laid it down onto the butcher’s block top, and is looking at her, too with a knowing she doesn’t first understand. Until.
“Oh my God,” she whispers to herself. Her phone hits the terracotta tile, and she can hear the glass of her phone shatter further. Shit.
There’s no mistaking their seaweed green color, which she had once described as a vestige of the tide he’d spent so many years submerged in as a child. Then, though, there was no beard, and no separation between them.
Here on land 3 years later, she finds herself remembering the first time they watched The Notebook together, not because it was her favorite movie, but his. At the end of it, Anna had looked at him and said, “Imagine what it’s like to have love for someone so strong that after years of hell and heartache, you still want to run back to the person.” She didn’t realize she was foreshadowing her own future, or that because of it, she would now be torn on whether she should charge at him with a hug or a slap.
“Spencer,” she says. Her mouth, so used to leaving his name at the first syllable, wants to stop there, but she manually overrides it. He does not need to know the battle her heart and mind fight in his name.
“Hey, Anna.” He stands from his stool, and rounds the edge of the counter, but remains there, as if she has constructed an electric fence around her and he can feel the charge. “You.” His eyes travel up and down her in the same way that could make her feel seen when she seemed invisible to everyone else. The look that turns her internal temperature up 100 degrees when all she wanted was to keep cool. Right now, she carries as much heat as a flame. “You look beautiful.”
It’s the kindest way someone has driven a knife into her stomach, but it’s a knife nonetheless. How dare you, she thinks. “Don’t,” she says.
His expression shifts instantly into remorse and disappointment, even if she can tell he’s trying to mask the latter. “Anna, I’m sorry, so sor—”
She jabs her finger in the air at him. “Don’t.” Reaching onto the floor, she grabs her phone and her purse, and slings the latter over her shoulder on the way out the door. Her exit gives way to fresh air, but despite having the entire atmosphere at her disposal, it doesn’t feel like enough for the suffocation to ease.
Footsteps follow behind her, and before she can step onto the pebble gravel, a hand loops around her elbow.
She whips around and raises her finger again, but with the inches between them shrunk from 300 to three, she’s just shy of poking him straight in the eye. “You don’t get to ask that of me. Do you understand the irony of it? Please tell me you do.”
Slowly but surely, he nods. “I do.” In the same fashion, he backs away from her, props himself against one of the wooden posts supporting the covered porch, and rakes his hand through his sandy brown hair. “You have every right to leave, okay? But I’d like to explain if you’d let me.”
His sudden return to her, his confession of what caused him to leave it: mobsters, a secret identity, another love. If it was a possibility, she had considered it. Instead of telling him, though, she looks at the ground and feels sweat dampening her temples. “Why is it a million damn degrees?” she grunts, kicking her foot into the pebbles.
“We have tropical humidity without the benefit of being tropical,” he responds. “Or maybe because we both feel like we’re tap dancing on a stove.”
“Dancing or flailing?”
“Flailing.” Anna’s eyes resettle to find Spencer’s have never left her. “I did a shitty thing, a really shitty thing, 4 years ago. In multiple ways. A domino effect of them really,” he says. “Remember how Alex and I were trying to start that app? With the tech tips?”
“Of course.” They spent hours of their free time working in the basement, typing code into computers in the hopes of creating a one-stop shop for people struggling with their technology; but she didn’t see where anything bad would come out of that.
“Well, Alex was handling a lot of the financials, the investors, and I didn’t have any reason not to trust him, so I didn’t question it, but then he kept asking me to make changes to the app—to add paywalls, and gear it towards certain users instead of others, and not make it the every-person tech encyclopedia we had dream of.”
“Yeah, I didn’t,” he says. “What I didn’t tell you was that I finally asked him, he told me that we were hemorrhaging money, and he had sold off a majority stake in the company—basically our souls—to some corporate assholes, and we had nothing. And that was it, I just—I deflated.” His voice loses its power, just as she imagines he did when he learned what Alex was up to. Part of her heart breaks for him, because she knows that was his dream.
In her search for answers, Anna has sifted through her memories of their last few months over and over, searching for any sign of what was to come. She always landed on the bags under his eyes, the nights she woke up to him staring at the ceiling, the questions she asked, the words that she couldn’t draw from him, thinking that if she could’ve gotten him to talk, she’d have her answer.
“Why didn’t you tell me? We were together for 5 years. We were engaged. This is the kind of thing you tell the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
“I know. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. I could barely admit it to myself. I had a job that I hated, and no money. It was all gone. I felt like I had nothing to offer you, anyone. I was so goddamn depressed, so I decided the best thing to do would be to run. Leave you a note, don’t tell you too much because you’d try to help me, and then we’d both be in a hole and I didn’t want to do that to you,” he says.
“I’d have preferred to have a choice in my life, not have it made for me. Not to be wondering what I did wrong or if you were dead. It was so stupid,” she says, and she can’t keep the words from cracking or the pools of the tears that have collected from leaking out. The day he left, she found a piece of paper folded on the dining room table, her name written across the front in the ink of his favorite gel pen.
Anna — I love you, but I can’t do this anymore. It’s nothing you did, nothing about who you are, nothing you could’ve changed. I just can’t do it. I’m so sorry. Please don’t come looking for me. I’m safe. It’s better this way. You’ll be better this way. Love always, Spence
Despite what was on the page, she did try to call him. She did think it was her. She did question if he was actually safe, or if it was suicide note. He had no family other than her, no one for her to call to figure out what was true and what wasn’t.
Spencer’s finger follows the grain of the wood up, down, and back again, as he nods. “It was. I’m sorry. I should’ve given it to you. You’re more than capable of doing your own thing, I know that. I just couldn’t see past the mountain of issues in front of me to do anything else. I was myopic at best, and once I realized that, seeking you out to throw myself back in your life seemed even more selfish.”
He shuffles towards her with a look on his face she recognizes from the end of their fights when he wanted to touch her, but he wasn’t sure if it would help or hurt the situation. Sometimes she would shrug it off. Most times, she’d melt into it.
She doesn’t reach out to touch him, but she does step forward onto the porch with him, because both those things are still true, at least to an extent. Her heart is winning the battle, but her mind is putting up a good fight.
“So, how’d you get here, then? Just drove until you found somewhere you liked?”
“Basically. I saw the sign for chicken and waffles and it seemed like a figurative sign, too. They were pretty important in my life. Still are,” he says, his lips perking up into a wisp of a smile. Hers do the same.
“And you’re able to give out free meals?”
“I got a job here,” he says, and waves to the door. “I’m the manager now, and I can give out free meals to people I’d like to give them to.” He nudges her foot with his own, sneaker to sneaker. “If they want them.”
And she had done it. Rebuilt her life, advanced in her career, went on dates, had boyfriends. She had written her own map without him. A pretty damn good one. She could follow it right onto her conference and leave with closure—nothing more—and that would be okay. Or, she could stay at this detour a little longer, and remember what the map had once been.
“Does it come with a conversation?” she asks.
He grins. “It can.” Walking over to the door, he holds it open for her. “Want to try it?”
She takes a breath and chooses her path. “Sure.”