Modern Day; October 8th; Cleveland, Ohio; Melissa
It was no concern to me when Beth came into the diner after school and ordered only a glass of water. She’d done it many times before and I was always happy to oblige. I brought it to her table and then continued to wipe down other tables.
“Last weekend was fun,” she said with a smile that was tainted by a strange mark she had next to her right eye.
“Yeah, it was,” I said distractedly.
Sometimes Beth annoyed me, but I knew it was just because she was a year younger and seemed to have a weird obsession with me. It was like she looked up to me, or something.
“We should hang out more.”
“Yeah.” I wrung out my rag in to a bucket and looked over at her. “Hey, what happened to your face?”
“Oh…” She reached up to brush a finger over the scratch and her face darkened. “I just had a little clumsy moment the other day. Nothing to worry about.”
“You should be more careful. It looks like it hurts.”
“Nah, it’s fine. You know that guy who was at the play with you guys?”
“Felix?” I cracked a smile at the memory of the two of them talking. There was clearly something between them even if neither of them had noticed it yet. “What about him?”
“He sure is an interesting person.”
“I’ll say! You seemed to be getting pretty friendly with him.”
“What? No I wasn’t! We were just making small talk and stuff. He probably didn’t even give a shit.”
“You’re right. He definitely hated you.” I rolled my eyes. “Why deny it, Beth?”
“If you’re insinuating what I think you are, it’s because he’s twenty-three. I’m about to turn seventeen, so that makes us about six years apart. That’s a big age gap.”
“Like that really matters, though.”
“It does to me.”
From the kitchen, I heard Chris say, “Yes!”
Following his exclamation was a loud crackling of static and then we could hear “Burnin’ for You” by Blue Öyster Cult clearly. Chris liked to play the radio in the kitchen and “Burnin’ for You” was one of his favorite songs, except he liked to change the lyrics.
“I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ your food!” he sang loudly.
Beth and I looked at each other and then she burst out laughing. I smiled and shook my head, used to Chris’s shenanigans.
“You should talk to Felix. I think you two would be really cute together.”
I walked away as she said, “Stop it! He’s too old!”
I rolled my eyes and carried the bucket into the kitchen before returning to washing the dishes like I had been doing earlier. I found myself uncharacteristically teasing Beth. I had talked to her more in the past week than I had the whole time we had lived next door to each other. She appeared amusing to me not only because she was younger than me and therefore inexperienced in some circumstances, but also because she had a strange way of approaching situations. For instance, it was undoubtable that she was attracted to Felix and that he was attracted to her. One would’ve had been blind to not see how much Felix liked her. Even though this was the case, Beth acted like there was some chance that she and Felix wouldn’t or couldn’t be together just because of their age difference. I saw right through that. I saw how afraid she was. That was because I knew exactly how she felt. Willow was my first relationship and in the first couple weeks of us hanging out and being flirtatious, I had been just as nervous and unsure about all the signs I was seeing. Now I saw it as my project to convince Beth that she wasn’t imagining things; there was definitely chemistry between her and Felix.
“I love that song,” Chris said as the guitar sounds grew distant and the song faded into slight static from the radio station.
“Aaaaand that was a bit of Blue Öyster Cult for you with ‘Burnin’ for You,’” said the smooth voice of the radio host. “Next we have one from the Doors.”
Chris crossed the kitchen to turn down the volume and I laughed.
Every time I came into the diner run by my next-door neighbor, I resisted the urge to get a piece of pie. The fresh pies that were made every morning always looked so delicious in the glass case, but I didn’t have even a spare quarter of change to spare. Anything that I did have was soon discovered by my father and added to his ever-growing fund for alcohol. I had no choice in the matter.
Despite this fact, I was studying the menu jealously when the bell above the door went off. I looked up and my heart started beating faster when I saw Felix standing in the doorway. It only took a few seconds in his presence for me to feel sick. My first instinct was to try and hide myself from his view, but I didn’t even have a chance to look away before he found me and glued me in place with his eyes. In two strides, he was standing above me.
“Hey there, stranger,” he said in his European accent that I found so disarming.
“Hi.” I sounded like an idiot already. “The funny thing about that is that we are basically strangers.”
“Nonsense! I know your name and you know mine. We’ve even had ice cream together and ridden in the same car. Strangers haven’t done that.”
“I mean, I guess so.” I was incredibly nervous and part of me even wanted him to go away, but I still found myself saying, “Sit with me.”
“But if I sit with you, that requires that we have some sort of conversation and I can tell that you have a problem with talking to strangers.”
I sighed and laughed as he gave me a sly little grin and pulled back the chair across from me with a flourish before sitting.
“Alright. You win. We’re not strangers. It’s nice to see you again, Felix.”
“It’s very nice to see you again too, Beth.”
His eyes smiled and he looked down at the menu, which gave me a chance to breathe and hyperventilate a little bit without him seeing. I prayed silently that everything would go well and that I would make it through the next thirty or so minutes without making a fool of myself. It was pretty much guaranteed that I did something stupid in every social encounter, so my hopes weren’t very high.
Megan, one of the waitresses, came over and took his order – meatloaf and a glass of Dr. Pepper.
“Oh, great. Meatloaf,” I said once she had walked away. “Chris will love that.”
Felix frowned at me, confused, and ran a hand through his hair.
“The cook. He loves making meatloaf. Hardly anyone orders it because it stinks up the whole place. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out here and kissed you for ordering it.”
“Sounds lovely. I haven’t been kissed in a long time.”
“Really?” I sat forward in my chair and leaned my elbows against the table. “How long? This sounds like it could have potential for a juicy story.”
He laughed nervously and said, “I’m afraid I’m all out of juice for you. The truth is I’ve never been kissed. It’s rather embarrassing, seeing as I’m twenty-three.”
“It’s not that embarrassing.” I tried hard not to let my eyes get too wide because I didn’t want him to see my excitement. “I mean, I’ve never been kissed, either. It’s probably not as rare a dilemma as you think. If you ask me, I think that kissing is probably overrated.”
His eyebrows lifted.
“You think so? Why?”
“I just don’t see how it could be anything extraordinary. It’s just two people mashing their lips up together. Sounds pretty uncomfortable and awkward to me.”
“It does when you put it that way.” He laughed and I rejoiced inwardly. “But what if you put it this way…” He leaned forward for dramatic effect. “What if a kiss between two people who like each other is extraordinary not because of what one feels physically, but what one feels emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The way I see it is that the kiss is a symbol of great affection between two people. So much can be conveyed through kissing. The lips touching each other is just a physical representation of what two people are feeling for each other. When they come together to kiss, it’s a situation in which they are so close to each other that it’s frighteningly intimate. It’s… A beautiful thing.”
I stared at him. With each passing minute, I was realizing something about him. Felix wasn’t like any other guy. He was special. I couldn’t let him get away because no one had ever made me think or feel the way he had.
“Wow. Are you sure you’ve never been kissed? It sounds like you know a lot about it.”
He looked down and appeared to be focusing on the salt and pepper shakers between us. He grabbed the salt and turned it between his index finger and thumb absentmindedly.
“No, I just happen to think about it a lot. There’s a term for people like me. We’re hopeless romantics. It’s a gift and a curse.”
“Not me. I’m a cynic and a pessimist and I don’t really believe in romance.”
I had never been so honest with someone before. Not even Liza and she was my best friend. I wasn’t really sure what she was now, actually.
“You don’t believe in romance? How can you not believe in romance?”
“I just don’t. From what I’ve seen of the world, I don’t think people are really capable of love. Everything people do is for their own personal benefit and never because of that selfless, fictional thing called love.”
Felix looked utterly dumbfounded by my words, which I found amusing and sad, in a way. I felt bad for people like him who hadn’t realized what I had.
“That’s so sad.”
“No, I mean I think it’s sad that you feel that way. I’m not surprised, though. After the thing with your parents, it’s hardly surprising that you would feel that way. Forgive me for saying so.”
“Oh, it’s all right.” I put my hands up to show that I wasn’t offended. “If that’s why you think I am the way I am, that’s your observation.”
“If a person has only seen negative things happen when it comes to love, it’s natural that the person would associate love with unfortunate things –”
“– and maybe not even believe in love.”
“You… You don’t believe in love? At all?”
I shook my head with a smile. My sympathy for him was increasing. He was so innocent even though he was so much older than me.
“Not at all.”
“… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be! It’s what I believe.”
Megan brought his Dr. Pepper over to the table and said to me, “Are you sure you don’t want anything besides that water, Beth?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Felix held up a hand to signal to the waitress to stay at our table.
“Beth, I’ll buy you whatever you want. I know money is a bit of a problem for you and I’m happy to help.”
“No! I couldn’t! You already paid for my ice cream last week. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of you again.”
“You wouldn’t be taking advantage of me. I want to do this for you.”
“Oh, alright…” I looked down at the menu and hunted for the cheapest item. “I’ll have the tiramisu, please.”
“Coming right up,” Megan said without question before walking away.
“Tiramisu?” He stared at me with his blue eyes. “Beth…”
“I’m just used to being frugal, okay?!”
I threw my hands up in the air in frustration. He reached across the table and caught one of my hands.
“I know! And I’m not mocking you. I just think you’re cute.”
My throat tightened and I suddenly found myself unable to say anything. Thankfully, I had some water left in my glass and I busied myself with downing the rest of it. I pulled my hand out of his grip. His hand was warm and felt wonderful, but I didn’t like how wonderful it felt. I didn’t trust it.
“Thank you. I think.”
“So you’re a junior, right? At James Garfield?”
“Sadly, yes. I can’t wait until I graduate.”
“Yeah, secondary school wasn’t the best for me, either. I went to school in Iceland, so it was pretty different from here, but… Secondary school is secondary school.”
“Or high school, as we call it.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “Do you know what you want to do when you graduate yet?”
“I have no idea.” I got that sick feeling in my stomach that I got whenever someone asked me about my future. Mine was more uncertain than most people’s. “Our money situation is really not good, so I probably won’t get to go to college.”
“Financial aid is always an option, you know.”
“I know. I don’t think college is right for me, though. It’s too… Refined. I’m kind of a free person. At least, that’s how I’d like to be. At the moment, I actually feel really trapped.”
He leaned back in his chair with wide eyes.
“It’s not because of you. It’s because of my father. I can’t do anything with him around. It sounds horrible, but sometimes I wish he had been the one who left instead of my mother.”
“I understand your thought process. I really do. Maybe if you talked with him it would help clear some things up. It seems like you’re just not on the same page.”
“It’s not just that!” I suddenly found myself raising my voice. “It’s not just that we’ve had some little misunderstanding! For the past sixteen years, I’ve been a prisoner in my own house. Whenever I do anything that displeases my father, I have to pay for it.” I looked down at the tiles in the table and whispered, “He hurts me.”
I was afraid to look at his face, but after five minutes had passed without him breaking the silence, I had to look. His arms were crossed, his fists clenched, and his face was hard and stern. He looked like he wanted to hit something.
“Are you serious?”
“How… How often?”
“As often as I deserve it.”
“And how… How badly?”
“Sometimes it’s just verbal, sometimes just a scratch, and sometimes I almost pass out.”
“This is really serious. Have you ever told anyone before?”
“No. No one. I have no idea why I’m telling you. I’ve barely known you a week.”
“We have to do something about this. You can’t just live like this, allowing him to manipulate you and harm you. It’s no way to live.”
“We aren’t going to do anything about this. It’s my problem, so if anyone is going to do anything it will be me.”
“You’re absolutely right. But you have to, Beth.”
“Promise me that you’ll do something about it.”
I sighed and said, “I promise.”
Chris came out of the kitchen then carrying a plate of something that smelled very strong. I knew right away that it was Felix’s meatloaf. Felix looked up as Chris put the plate down in front of him, beaming.
“I haven’t made this in a while. I do hope you like it, sir. It’s one of my favorites. Enjoy!”
Chris retreated back into his kitchen sanctuary and Felix took his first bite. He closed his eyes and smiled as he chewed slowly. I watched him in amusement.
“It looks like you’re enjoying yourself.”
He opened his eyes and saw me watching him.
“You must think me really strange.”
“That’s not the word I would use. I think you’re a very interesting person. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
He laughed and said, “That’s what a lot of people say about me. I’m either the weird one or the ‘interesting’ one.”
“From everything I’ve seen so far, that makes sense.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely true.” He closed his eyes again as he took another bite. “I’ve never had meatloaf this good before. It’s been a while since I had meatloaf at all.”
I watched him as he ate and the wheels in my head began to turn. Two minutes later, Megan brought me my tiramisu. It was shocking how good it was, all drizzled with chocolate sauce.
“Where do you live? I mean, you just moved here, right? Because Willow and Cierra did and you know each other. Do you live with them?”
I expected him to laugh and say, “So many questions!”
Instead, he said, “Er – no. I don’t live with them.”
He looked slightly uncomfortable, so I said, “I’m sorry to ask so much. I was just curious.”
“No, it’s okay! Don’t apologize for being curious. I live alone. I just hang out with Willow and Cierra a lot. We’re really good friends.”
“Why did you all move at the same time?” I took another generous bite of the tiramisu and my taste buds exploded in delight and satisfaction. “As far as I know, there isn’t any religious persecution in Iceland or any unruly dictators. So why the diaspora?”
“They just wanted something different. We all wanted something different. After living in Iceland all our lives, we needed a change.”
“But why would they decide this just before their last year of high school? Or secondary school. Whatever.”
“I don’t know! You would have to ask them that. I just followed because I’ve always wanted… I’ve always wanted to travel.”
“Okay. I guess I can understand that. But I have another question.” He looked up at me expectantly from his meatloaf. “Why did everyone freak out so much when Melissa’s ice cream started melting the other day? That’s something I just don’t understand. I mean, I know Iceland is a bit farther north so it’s a bit colder, but I expect that ice cream melts the same there.”
“Yes, of course it does. We were all just concerned that it would make a mess, I think. That’s all.”
He shrugged and returned to his meatloaf. I could tell there was more to the story, but I could also tell that I had reached the limit of how much he was going to tell me. We still didn’t quite trust each other.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Felix was amazing at dancing around answers and I was going to have to shake his hand for it later. He made it sound like the ice cream melting was not something strange when, in reality, it was very strange indeed.
It was always a worry of mine now that I would have an episode while out in public and it had happened then, with the ice cream. I had begun to feel warm, just like I always did right before I set things on fire. That time was no different, except there were no flames – only warmth. I hated to think what would have happened if I had set the picnic table on fire in front of Beth and all those other people. I would’ve been called a freak for sure. I would’ve had to pay a fine or do community service or something for arson. I didn’t know all of the rules about what resulted in jail time, but I feared that was a possibility as well.
It was scary to think about how many times I had almost committed a felony in the past few weeks. And it was never my fault – at least, not directly. I still had very little control and this frightened me.
I had finished the current load of dishes and was now waiting tables again. The good thing about this was that I could eavesdrop on Beth and Felix. Even though I knew he would never spill any beans, I felt the need to make sure.