It hasn’t been that long since we moved to this town, this new country. You are from here, know things I do not, move about this uncharted space with its unfamiliar and unwritten rule-set, and I follow you, mimic you, create my map. I speak the language—people comment on my accent, where are you from, Denmark—but I don’t speak the rest of it. When we arrived, the sun screamed at me, louder than I knew possible. Then fall, winter, six months and now there’s work, phone numbers, checks, routine. A Sunday is almost just a Sunday again.
There’s an invisible list we need to be on. You talk to the list person, and make it so. The list person says, thirty minutes maybe more maybe less. Smiles. You tell me that’s how long we wait. Confused, infinitesimally annoyed but I swallow it and smile, this is where I live now, and that is how people do. This is what I will do, we will wait, thirty minutes, starting now.
How are other people spending their minutes. There are a few benches, made for children, but with adults on them. Big ones, too. Others linger outdoors. The sun doesn’t scream, sings. It must be minus five,wait, twenty-eight degrees—this is where I live now. Some people even sit in their cars, with their engines running, heater blowing, windows fogging up, how wasteful, is that even allowed. They’re unbothered, looking bored, a little annoyed maybe even. It’s hard to read faces, moods.
Most people counting down their minutes are holding mugs, probably coffee. I want one too, look for a coffee person, not seeing one. I ask you. You look around, not for a person, and point to a counter deeper into the restaurant. There’s a stack of mugs and a big hot-drink-dispenser, the kind you would see at a amateur sports event, but super-sized. So many things are large here, cars, stores, and now coffee dispensers. I look for a person to go with it all, but people are helping themselves without paying. I have questions, but decide to try and blend in, boldly walk up and mimic the person in front of me, grab mug, place mug, pull pull pull, grab full mug, walk away. Boom!
The coffee is weak and awful, nobody seems bothered by it. I ask you. You agree but shrug. Didn’t expect it to be good. Now I know. This is where I live now.
Twenty-three minutes. The street is quiet, Sundays are that way, you say, people in church. This restaurant, with its cloud of families and couples and friends counting down their minutes, a beehive in a dead tree. Across the way, a deserted parking lot and closed stores: yarn, massages, tax advice. Why here. People drive everywhere anyway, you say, it doesn’t really matter. From further afield, just sounds. The hum of a freeway, not far, never far. Horns from trains that never sleep. The sounds of people and things moving about, needing to be where they are not.
“Alice, party of two!” A young couple looks up from their phones, briefly at each other. As they go in a family (large, counting 9, three generations at least) emerges. Half carry Styrofoam boxes, taking care to hold them horizontal. Leftovers, I offer. Yes. Sixteen minutes.
Perusing the restaurant’s menu seems popular, useful too, the restaurant is in a hurry, the servers smiling but impatient, jogging between tables and kitchen. So you better know what you want when they come. Through the fogged up glass I watch, learn, prepare. A family is ordering, many children. Dad and boys wearing shorts and slippers, why, it’s winter, freezing. The youngest, six or seven, rattles off his order, confidently. I can’t hear. Server and boy engage in rapid-fire clarifying dialogue. Scary. Where are those menus.
You read my mind, or saw me looking at the machine gun boy-server dialog, bit of both, and there you are with menus. Sticky and smudged. So many options and sub-options and alternatives. Specials. Only after 11am. For kids. From the griddle, what is a griddle. What are home fries. I ask many questions, your patience is calming. Breakfast means many different things here, all unfamiliar. Bacon, sausage, eggs, over easy, medium, sunny side up, pancakes, full stack, half stack, wheat, sourdough, sides. What are you having. Pancakes. What is the most ‘murican breakfast imaginable.
“Jim, party of four!” A family (smaller) stirs, shuffles in the direction of the yelling. More people emerge, more Styrofoam boxes. Perhaps they were not so hungry after all. They pile into a big car parked where it shouldn’t be, next door.
I’ll be right back. Twelve minutes.
Trying to peel the layers of history off this corner, 2100, streets with numbers not names. It was once a gas station or a garage, then a coffee shop, shuttered now, a faded, broken sign, baked goods, milk shakes, drive thru. How hard is it to get out of your car for a cup of coffee. Beyond, ‘chinese cuisine’ once, now roof tiles peeling off, not a soul. Just one more place to park more cars, negative space.
This is where I live now.
I find my way back to warmth, you. Eight minutes.
From inside the restaurant, someone calls your name. You grab my arm. We go in. Early, unprepared, but ready.