by Kateri Ransom
Buddy’s Diner and To-Go! was the kind of place you felt the exclamation point had been left somewhere outside in the parking lot. My mom and I decided to boycott the place three years ago because they took twenty minutes to make a sandwich and we’d once found ants in her salad. Imagine a place with its walls covered in Elvis photos and dusty fishing gear. Maroon pleather seats, cracked open like the torn belly of my childhood stuffed walrus after the neighbor’s pit bull got to it, blue carpet stained like a giant black eye, and menus that were sticky even after you complained and they deigned to wipe them down.
There was one problem to our stand against “Buddy’s,” however: the roast beef sandwich. Naturally, there had been a reason we’d come to this shit hole in the first place and that was their roast beef sandwich on homemade sourdough bread with “special sauce.” If I had to bet, it was the only thing keeping them in business.
After another long rehearsal at the theater, I decided there was nothing to be done for my unexpected craving but give-in. I heaved the front door of “Buddy’s” open, bee-beep, and all six pairs of meaty eyes in the room snapped up to me as I strode in and got whacked in the backside by the door’s heavy swing. Damn: my shame at returning to this place made double with a potential bruise on my butt. I tried not to rub it. The bovine bodies of the restaurant goers made me feel miniscule, like the ballerina I was, a gazelle on the lions’ turf. As the eyes shifted back to their plates, I pushed my sunglasses over my forehead and strode towards the guy waiting behind the cash register.
Eyes on the prize, I told myself. Just get your sandwich and get out.
The Cashier Guy had an unwashed kind of look that had nothing to do with dirt. An ill-fitting potbelly, ready to slide right off his otherwise lanky frame. Pale, freckled skin as if he had the flu or a dying pet goldfish. Bright, grabbing eyes that unsettled me in a small but undeniable way, like a bad childhood memory staring you in the face, only now it’s checking you out. (This probably had more to do with him being high than an excitement to fix me a sandwich).
His name tag read Arnold.
Before he could get a word out, I said, “Hi, how are you? I’ll have the roast beef sandwich: extra sauce, no onions, with a side of curly fries, and, uh, a small vanilla shake.”
“Okay, and will that be for-here or to-go?”
“Great. Your total will be…”
“Actually, can we make that just a lemonade?”
“Certainly, miss. Anything else?”
“No, just that.”
“Alright….that’ll be $8.35. Here’s your order number. And I’ll have that lemonade right out for you.”
There was a moment, as he was handing me my receipt, where his smile loosened into a grin that stretched across half his face. The particular angle of his lips, like a coy and childish wink, stirred in me a memory from a time before Pointe shoes and opening nights, a time of playgrounds and who’s-kissing-who? But most surprisingly, the way those lips fell across his face left me revolted, left me feeling as chapped and swollen as they were. Forcing myself to ignore this feeling, I dropped my eyes, took my receipt, and turned and made my way over to the nearest clean table. My choices weren’t overwhelming.
Within a couple minutes, Cashier Guy had my drink ready. “Here’s your lemonade.” He stretched his bony arm over the counter towards me with the charisma of an Olympian handing over the torch. To avert his gaze, I kept my eyes on my phone like I was in the middle of an important text, even though it was dead.
After I’d grabbed my drink, I turned and made to walk back but the front door went bee-beep again and in barged an old couple. I dodged them and sat back in my chair.
“Hello, welcome to Buddy’s Diner and To-Go!” chimed Cashier Guy behind me. “Can I interest you in our seasonal Apple Turnover special? Just $2.99 for a slice.”
“No, thanks,” said the man, “I’ll have…”
What the hell? I said to myself. How come he didn’t offer me the apple turnover special? I would’ve wanted one. $2.99? That’s not bad. Does this guy think I wouldn’t want it or something? Shit! He must’ve seriously just looked at my ballet bun and ‘DAVELUY BALLET’ sweatshirt and thought, well, this skinny ballerina wouldn’t want one, would she? Course not! Let’s just skip that little detail. I mean, like, she must be pushing it enough ordering anything other than a salad, right? God, what an asshole!
I spied Mr. Ballerina’s-Don’t-Deserve-Apple-Turnover-Specials putting the finishing touches on my roast beef sandwich, and skittered back up to the counter. He turned and those eyes made my stomach quaver. Their stare now felt knowing, like he’d expected this all along, waiting for me to return in shame because of course I couldn’t keep away from a buttery pastry, filled with warm cinnamon apple filling. The thought slid down my tongue like a French kiss. And there I was again: roast beef sandwich with special sauce.
I realized that during my inner-turmoil he’d said something to me: Here’s your sandwich. Have a nice day. Come again soon.
And then it hit me. Not have a nice day, but…
Have a nice life.
Have a nice life.
Arnold Phillips-Bakowski. The boy who ate paper and stuffed the dead worms that had washed up on the playground after a rainstorm in his pockets. The boy who’d asked me to marry him every lunch recess during the month of May. Now I remembered—he’d told me on the last day of fifth grade that he was going to a different school the next year, and I’d sneered, “That’s great! Have a nice life.” He’d yelled for the whole playground to hear that my boobs were ugly and made me look like a fat-ass, and I’d cried because they’d already gotten so big I’d chosen to wear a bra underneath my leotard during class, its lacy straps showing despite the most conservative of cuts because of their inherently sheer nature. Not to mention the boys who hooted and hollered whenever I played jump rope.
That knowing spark in his eyes made perfect sense now. He must’ve recognized me from the get-go. I was still taller than him. Still walked with hips swaying and feet turned out. Still had boobs I wished were smaller because, even though I’d technically grown into them, they were large enough the performance tutus I shared with the other girls had to be altered regularly to fit me.
I deflated. My carefully hewn posture dismantled itself, and I felt naked. I was suddenly aware of how much Arnold Phillips-Bakowski disgusted me, despite the passing of time. How much he’d become the exact piece of flimsy, greasy nothing I would have expected him to become.
And me. Here I was getting a roast beef sandwich that, at age 26, I hoped my mom would never find out about. How much did I surprise him? I suppose that was why he hadn’t offered me the apple turnover special.
I didn’t take the sandwich. Instead, I leaned forward on the counter, my arms spread and supporting me like my mom used to do when she confronted my teachers about my poor casting in recitals. “So uh, you seem to be doing pretty well,” I snarled more than anything else.
Arnold still had his hand on my to-go bag, “Buddy’s” exclamation point painted on his face like a neon “open” sign.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“This.” I motioned around the empty, sagging restaurant. “Lots of great things going on here. You’ve done well, Arnold. Really made something of yourself.”
“Do we…know each other?”
“Oh please, stop playing stupid, okay?”
“Just so you know, I’m a soloist dancer with Daveluy Ballet. I’m engaged. And.” I had to take a breath. I needed one more thing. God damnit! There were a million things I could say but I was too worked up to think of something. “And. I recently went on vacation. To Bali.”
Arnold’s face had decomposed into a state of confused alarm. We stood there—the bully and the kid whose head was about to get reacquainted with the toilet—until Arnold stepped back first.
“Have a nice day, ma’am.” He turned and busied himself making the next couple’s sandwich, back towards me.
Apple turnover forgotten, I grabbed my sandwich and left.
It wasn’t until I got to my car that I finally accepted the fact that Arnold Phillips-Bakowski didn’t remember who I was at all: just a ballerina who wanted to eat her favorite roast beef sandwich in the Buddy’s Diner and To-Go! parking lot amidst the quiet, lonely twilight.
Two weeks later I came back for the apple turnover special after another long rehearsal. Arnold wasn’t there. When I asked the girl if he’d quit or been fired, she looked at me like I was out of line.
About The Author
Kateri Ransom has studied English at both Santa Barbara City College and Modesto Junior College in California. She was a corps de ballet and soloist dancer with Central West Ballet in Modesto, CA. Currently, she lives in the Santa Barbara area and reads too many books.