The wooden blades of the fan chopped at the clunky summer air. Nealy and Alli sat in a booth. Alli could see the night outside the window: grocery flyers caught the breeze and got stuck on trash cans. She sat under the warm lamplight, in Nate’s Papaya Dogs.
They ate soft, flaky pancakes, dipped in syrup, the late-night breakfast special. “I love this place,” Nealy said, putting another bite in her mouth. She was wearing a fuchsia button-down shirt, with the collar open. A twine necklace, with a shark’s tooth on it, dangled from her neck. She wore a delicate, twisting silver ring on her right, index finger.
Nealy sipped her coffee, black. The rolls and waves of her orange hair lay on her forehead, damp with sweat. She took an Altoids tin out of the pocket of her chinos and rolled a cigarette with a sprinkle of tobacco. Alli watched her tap the first embers in the cerulean ashtray on the table.
“So, you didn’t go to Peary,” Alli asked and didn’t ask. It came out like a statement.
“No, I went surfing in California instead,” Nealy said. She took a drag on her cigarette, and puffed the smoke ceiling-ward, where the wisps were cut up by the fan. The waiter brought another plate of sausages and whisked Nealy’s half-eaten plate away.
“Why?” Alli wondered, “I thought you wanted to go.”
“I did,” Some ash fell from the butt of the cigarette, crumbling on the table, “But I realized that I wanted to stay with you more.”
Alli looked up from the checkered pattern, covered by some acrylic plastic, to protect against stains and spills.
“I realized I wanted to be with you,” Nealy folded her hand over Alli’s on the table. Her hand was fleshy and solid, wider than Alli’s, “We’re going to go to college together.”
Alli let the warmth of Nealy’s hand sink into hers, let it flow down, into her heart. The feeling buoyed her up. Her head felt like a helium balloon.
“I didn’t know you cared,” Alli whispered.
Nealy exhaled through her nose, the smoke billowing upward. “I always cared,” she exhorted, holding Alli’s hand.
They stared into one another’s eyes. Cars rolled down the street, speeding toward Downtown, past the two figures sitting in the café window.
Pat Benatar – “Love is a Battlefield”