Originally written: March 2nd, 2020
A piece from last term, working with time between scenes. The questions my professor asked of us were:
How can you have a large space of time past but maintain the story?
What can you write that gives the readers enough information to figure out what happened in the skipped time without stating it outright?
It shouldn’t take 30 minutes to get a cheeseburger, yet here I am, standing in the middle of Johnny’s Burger Emporium, still waiting for them to call my number. Thinking of melted cheese make my already knotted stomach twist further. What am I doing here? Drowning anxiety in annoyance before work—letting a “really?” slip out when another number’s called. I can’t help it. My nerves burn like bile.
I’ve worked food service before; I know half of these machines are obsolete and the employees are underpaid, but my patience wears thin today. Somewhere between waiting for meals and messages from soon-to-be-exes, it’s snapped.
That’s always the problem, isn’t it? Snapping. Snap decisions that blow back in your face like an oil fire. I never felt like an arsonist until my phone stopped vibrating.
. . .
I catch my phone as it jumps off the counter. Vivian flashes across the screen, but I let the adrenaline fade first before answering. “Hey hon’.”
“Hey yourself,” she laughs. “I’m outta the shower. Should I head over?”
“Yeah,” I say, glancing at the spread of food in front of me, freshly freed from Teriyummy take-out containers. Over the sound of Vivian’s movement I can hear the meat frying behind me. Not satisfied with being just lactose intolerant, Vivian decided that she needed to be a huge-ass carnivore too, and the place down the street ‘just don’t give enough meat anymore.’ Not since they unionized. “Don’t forget the disc this time. You check your player?”
“Pft—wow, happy six months to you too. ‘Swear, you forget one time…”
We hang up once she gets on the bus. It takes 20 minutes on a good day to get from downtown to the east side. When my phone vibrates again a few minutes later I figure she’s just bored and stuck in traffic.
‘Sasha‘ sits on the screen, ‘two new messages,’ beneath it, and all the warmth and hunger I felt moments before disappears in one agonizing twist.
I never knew a stomach could twist pleasantly until I heard Vivian go on one of her rambling rants. Before that I’d only known the twist of guilt; before that, I’d only known Sasha and her hurt silence.
My phone vibrates again. I watch it fall to the floor with a crack. It’s been hard, not thinking about Sasha over the past year. I lost pounds because of the pain I caused her. I don’t understand—why message me now? Did she know what today was? Who I’m celebrating it with? It should be impossible, Vivian said she’d been blocked on all accounts, and yet—
I can’t eat tonight. The stress is a ball of lead in my stomach, turning my insides as black as the meat burning on the stove.
. . .
The Teriyummy fad lasted only a few months before it burned down. A Johnny’s Burger Emporium’s replaced it, moving in the moment Teriyummy’s owner looked at the cost to repair and rebuild and said “I can’t do this.”
I don’t know what’s more amazing: how quickly things can go up in flames, or how, if carefully rebuilt, they can show no signs of being burned in the first place.
Sasha never sends me emojis anymore. She sends links to posts and articles I might like, and I send my own in return. Between that we exchange barely-assed commentaries on how much the internet makes us laugh. I wonder if this is what she envisioned when she decided to keep me around in her life, despite everything.
I tuck my phone away and walk to the cashier. The orange of her uniform reminds me of flames, and if I focus hard enough, I can smell the overcooked potatoes.
I flash her my receipt, taking the greasy brown bag. A spot, just behind the counter and close to the floor’s corner drain catches my eye. “That’s where it started isn’t it?”
“The fire.” I point to the spot by the drain. I don’t bother checking to see if she looks too. “News said it was some freak accident due to cleaners or something.”
“Oh, I see.” The cashier’s voice is overwhelmingly polite. It’s no surprise when she mentions she’s new. “I don’t know anything about that, I’m sorry.”
Of course she wouldn’t. Only the people there that night would know—everything else would just be a disseminated they-said/they-said. It’s fine. I thank her and leave, Vivian’s lunch secured. I’ll buy mine on the way to her place. I can’t eat any Johnny Burgers, especially not when Sasha’s messaging me. Different building or not, the smoke and guilt all smells the same.