Dear Hunter: From, Normalcy
It’s not until we’re outside that I realize I have no idea where to go. Despite having lived in this city for two months, I’ve never been to this part of town. Which is my fault, I know, because it’s not like I haven’t had the time; I just enjoy having familiar surroundings, which means that once I find somewhere I like, I tend to go there a lot. But now’s a good a time as any to begin new explorations.
“Confession,” I smile sheepishly, sticking my hands into the front pockets of my jeans as we begin our stroll down the sidewalk, enjoying the fresh air and smell of oak trees. “I don’t actually know any food places around here.”
She’s completely unperturbed, as though she expected me to say that, and shrugs casually. “That’s okay. I know a place.”
She doesn’t say anything else and after we’ve walked in silence for a good minute, I decide that since I was the one who barged in and interrupted her morning, I should be the one responsible for making sure the conversation flows. “So…have you lived here long?”
It’s a lame question, but at least it gets her talking. “In that apartment? About five years. I moved in when I was still in college and it just sort of made sense to stay once I got the job at the magazine, since it’s close enough to where I work.”
She doesn’t maintain eye contact with me for more than three seconds at a time, averting her gaze to the sidewalk or passersby or a window or really anything but me when she feels like we’ve been looking at each other for too long, her cheeks turning bright red. I don’t remember her being so shy last night, but maybe those were just extreme circumstances, or maybe the alcohol made her brave. And maybe she’d thought we’d never see each other again, so she’d changed the way she’d acted around me. I guess I can’t blame her. I change who I am all the time. I’m working on it, though.
“Do you drive out to the suburbs a lot?” I ask, remembering her saying something about her parents living there.
She shakes her head, looking a bit more flustered than she has been the past couple minutes, as though what she’s going to say next is extremely embarrassing. “I don’t have a license.”
“Really?” I raise an eyebrow in surprise, because I assume most people in their twenties can drive. Which I now realize is a stupid assumption, seeing as there’s plenty of reasons not to.
“I just never really needed one,” she shrugs, and with each word she speaks, I can see her relaxing a little more. She’s getting used to my presence and she’s holding eye contact for longer and longer and the smile playing at her lips is widening slowly but surely. It’s kind of beautiful to watch; like a flower blooming in the spring. “I lived within walking distance of the high school I went to and I lived on or near the campus during college, so if I ever needed to go somewhere far enough that driving was necessary, I’d just ask a friend to take me.”
“I understand,” I reply, wanting her to feel comfortable around me, “I didn’t get mine until I was nineteen.”
It’s her turn to look surprised and she holds eye contact with me for four seconds this time. “How come?”
“Well, I don’t really need one, I guess,” I admit, though it’s weird to say out loud, “because we pretty much get driven everywhere, plus it’s hard to find the time to do the lessons, but for me, it was kind of a rite of passage. Getting my license was something that teenagers do and standing in line for hours to get it was kind of an amazing experience because it made me feel normal.”
I haven’t felt normal for more than ten minutes since our third album went platinum, so I tend to revel in it when it happens.
I can still remember getting my license like it was yesterday: the DMV where the air conditioning wasn’t working and the old television that only played the weather channel and the digital display showing the number being served which moved at an achingly slow pace and how I’d been so afraid that my eyes would be closed in my picture that I’d kept them as wide as possible and ended up looking like a deer in headlights. It was simultaneously one of the best and worst days of my life.
“Can I ask you a question?” she says quietly and I know what’s coming next. She has the look; the one people always get after I mention that my life hasn’t been exactly normal. It’s a mixture of fascination and pity, though hers has a tinge of admiration as well.
I sigh, lifting one hand to tug my fingers through my hair. “If it’s about the fame, I’d rather you didn’t.”
To her credit, she doesn’t look disappointed about not getting any hot gossip, and instead asks, “Don’t open up easily?”
“It’s not that actually,” I reply, “It’s just…when you’re ‘famous’,” I went through the motions of using air quotes, “people always expect you to dominate the conversation because they think you’ll have the best stories. And yeah, I’m not saying we haven’t done amazing things and met amazing people, but sometimes it’s just nice to not be the center of attention, you know?”
“Okay,” she nods, not pushing the issue further, but instead gesturing to her right to show me a hole in the wall diner called Gina’s. “We’re here.”
I let out a sigh of relief as I hold the door open and follow her inside, becoming startled when a booming voice calls out from the other side of the counter which stretches along one wall, complete with shiny red vinyl barstools. “Mia! How are you, darling?”
“Hi, Ruthie!” Mia greets the plump older lady, “I’m doing great. How are you?”
“Fantastic,” Ruthie replies, nodding towards a booth in the corner. “Looks like your usual booth is open. Take a seat and I’ll be right over.”
Mia becomes noticeably redder as she gestures for me to follow and we slide into opposite sides of a booth with the same red vinyl coverings.
“You come here often, I take it?” I say as I shrug off my jacket and set it to the side, the corners of my lips lifting upwards.
She shrugs, busying herself with taking off her coat and speaking hurriedly. “Yeah, kinda. I found this place when I was in college. I used to come here to study, plus it’s open 24/7, so it was great for all night cram sessions. And now I feel like I actually appreciate it. I like to come once a week and just sip my coffee and read a book and people watch.”
“Sounds nice,” I reply softly, being completely genuine. I hadn’t gone to college and I’m never in one place long enough to develop that kind of routine and there’s not a day that goes by that I think about what it would be like to have roots, to know my neighbors, to be a regular in a twenty-four-hour diner.
Ruthie approaches the table, holding a small notepad in one hand and an uncapped pen in the other.
“Hello, dearies,” she greets with a warm smile, addressing Mia, but keeping her gaze on me. “Mia, who’s your friend?”
If possible, Mia becomes redder. “Ruthie, this is Hunter.”
“Hello, Ruthie,” I return her wide smile.
“Hello, lovely,” she nods, “Glad you’re here. Mia never brings guests.”
Mia’s eyes widen in horror and she clears her throat uncomfortably before speaking. “Can we have a minute to look over the menu, please?” Ruthie sends her a knowing look, but turns away and once we’re alone again, Mia speaks softly, so softly that I have to lean forward a bit just to hear her. “I feel like I should clarify: I do have friends. But being alone is so underrated.”
“I agree,” I say earnestly. Being surrounded by people for such a large part of my day means that I value the time I get to spend alone. Although she’s adorable when she’s flustered, I figure I should give her a break and change the subject. “So what’s good here?”
“Everything,” she sighs contently as I pick up one of the sticky laminated menus which was already lying on the table, “I pretty much always get the French toast, but if you want pancakes, the double chocolate chip is amazing.”
I take her advice and order the double chocolate chip pancakes when Ruthie comes back with two mugs and a pot full of coffee to take our order. As she stated she always does, Mia orders cinnamon apple French toast and once we’re alone again, I lace my fingers together atop the table and wiggle in the booth, feeling knots in the pit of my stomach, like this is a first date. And I suppose that in a way, it kind of is. Except that she has no idea. Because the entire point of this outing is to get her to like me enough to want to see me again.
“So did you always want to go into journalism?” I ask. She’d told me about herself at the party, but the crowded ballroom of a hotel wasn’t exactly the ideal location to get to know someone.
“No,” she admits with a shrug, pulling one of the straws which had been given to us along with the water that came with our coffees out of its wrapper and smoothing the strip of paper with her thumb and forefinger. “I mean, I always loved writing. When I was little, I’d spend hours making up stories in my head about girls just like me who would go on all these grand adventures.” She begins to fold the two sides of the wrapper in opposite directions, flicking her gaze up to meet mine for only about two seconds every few moments, her voice still soft and sweet. “But when it came time to choose what to study, I guess I figured journalists have more stable careers than novelists.”
“That makes sense,” I assure her, not sure if she actually needs assurance.
It turns out she doesn’t, because she lifts her eyes to stare at me directly when she speaks again. “I don’t regret it at all. I love my job.”
I can’t help but smile at the sparks of fire in her eyes, keeping my lips stretched when Ruthie arrives with our plates of food.
“I feel like you mentioned that you want to branch out from the advice column, though,” I speak up again once Mia and I are digging in to our breakfasts, recalling something she’d mentioned to me at the party. “Is that right?”
“Yeah, eventually,” she replies, cutting her toast into small square pieces, “The ultimate dream is to be an investigative reporter. But honestly, I don’t know if I have what it takes.”
The last part takes me by surprise, because although she’s quiet and maybe a bit shy, she seems like the kind of person who can do anything she sets her mind to. “Why do you say that?”
She sticks a piece of toast into her mouth and chews and swallows before responding, her tone even, as though this is something she’d had to explain many times before. “Field reporters put themselves in the middle of the action and write about what they see and feel and hear and maybe that’s just too far out of my comfort zone.” She pauses, looking up at me from beneath her eyelashes, the volume of her voice dropping to just barely above a whisper. “Living vicariously through other people’s experiences scares me a lot less than making my own. Is that pathetic?”
“It’s insightful,” I respond as I take a bite of my pancakes, thinking she’s lucky that she knows her limitations, because maybe that’ll make them easier to overcome. “Maybe you just don’t know how wide your comfort zone is. Graham said that to me once. Though he was just trying to get me to try a new brand of shampoo.”
Contrary to public perception, I don’t consider myself wild. I enjoy having a good time, sure, but I’m not really adventurous. I find what works for me and I stick to it.
“Graham?” she blinks, running the name through her mind, but before I can explain, her eyes light with an epiphany. “Oh, the drummer in your band.”
“You’re a fan?” I won’t be surprised if she is, after all, her magazine writes pieces on us all the time.
“Of Graham?” she breathes out, “Or the band?”
I shrug nonchalantly, though I hope she’s talking about the band in general. Graham already has a girlfriend anyway, so it’s not like things between them would work out. “Either. Both.”
She gulps, hesitating as though she’s not sure she should be completely honest before scrunching up her nose adorably and letting out a soft laugh, averting her gaze from mine and chewing on her lower lips as she spoke. “I have all your albums.”
“Good to know,” I grin, feeling a bit relieved. “I could never date someone who didn’t like the band.”
That last part slips out before I even realize what I’ve said and her eyes go wide and her jaw becomes tense and the color drains from her face. “Date?”
I part my lips to explain but realize I don’t actually have an explanation and press them together again, quickly looking anywhere but her and hoping for divine intervention. And I get it. Sort of. I glance out the window to see two people with cameras standing on the other side of the street, snapping away. “Shit.”
“What’s wrong?” Mia furrows her brow in confusion, thankfully forgetting my earlier slip of the tongue.
“Paparazzi,” I sigh. I know this is supposed to be a good thing, that this is probably all part of the master plan. Bennett was probably the one who tipped them off to our location, seeing as he had Mia’s address and it wouldn’t be too hard to find us within walking distance of her apartment. Paparazzi getting pictures of me having brunch with the same girl I’d been seen kissing the night before is bound to get the rumor mill churning.
And I feel sick about it. Mia doesn’t deserve this. The day before yesterday she had this amazing, simple life, and now that’s going to be ruined because of me. If it had just been the kissing picture, everything might have been alright for her, because people wouldn’t necessarily be able to recognize her profile, but by this evening, her face will be plastered below a headline on every tabloid website out there and I’m the asshole who put her in this situation. All because I didn’t have the guts to tell Bennett that a fake relationship is a horrible idea.
“Here?” she blinks, turning her head to look out the window and lifting her eyebrows in surprise. “Wow, they really do know where you are at all times, don’t they?”
“So it seems,” I whisper in awe. She’s tense and fidgety, which is understandable, but I find it amazing that her first instinct is to think about my feelings. She has no idea that I know why they’re here and I want to keep it that way.
“Excuse me, dearie,” Ruthie appears at the side of our table, gesturing to the window, “are you the reason for the scoundrels outside with the oversized cameras.”
I scrunch my nose up apologetically. “I’m afraid so.”
Nodding once, she begins to think of an escape plan. “Let’s get you out of here, then. I can sneak you out the back.”
Grateful that she’s on my side, I dig my wallet out of the back pocket of my jeans and drop a few bills on the table to pay for the meal before sliding out of the booth and bringing my jacket with me, only to notice that Mia hadn’t moved. “Are you not coming?”
“Do you want me to come?” she asked, looking completely bewildered, “I just figured…well, if they catch you, it’s probably better if you’re not seen with a random girl, right?”
In this case, it might not be such a bad thing because she’s not exactly a random girl. Plus, the chances that there’s paparazzi by the back entrance is much lower. But I find myself agreeing anyways. “Oh. Yeah, you’re right. Then I guess this is where we say goodbye.”
I don’t want this to be it. I want us to sneak out the back together, only to find that we’ve outsmarted everyone and end up laughing about the cleverness of our plan.
But she looks terrified as she glances at the slowly growing number of people with cameras outside and I can’t say I blame her, so I resign myself to the fact that this is as far as this sort of date is going.
She tilts her chin upwards and looks me directly in the eyes as she speaks softly. “Goodbye, Hunter.”
I still don’t want to leave. And I know Bennett’s gonna kill me if I make no effort to ensure we see each other again, so after I stuff my wallet back into my jeans, I hold out my hand. “Let me see your phone.”
“What for?” she asks, though she still removes it from her purse and places it in the palm of my hand.
“Just trust me,” I say, saving my contact information in her phone and handing it back to her. “There. Now you have my number. Use it.”
Now the ball is in her court. I want her to have some control as to what happened between us from here on out. Plus, being the one to text first after I was the one who tracked her down at her apartment just seemed a little stalkery.
Her smile widens into a grin. “Ok.”
Lifting my hand in a wave, I turn to follow Ruthie towards the back door, whispering softly to myself, unable to hold back a smile. “Hope to see you soon, Mia.”