The story below is for the Soaring Twenties Social Club’s upcoming Symposium issue. The theme for the issue is “Fiction”.
So, yeah, I wrote a fictional short story, something I haven’t ever really properly done before.
I hope you enjoy it.
Joel was the type of guy you hardly notice. Back in high school, which was, gosh, almost twenty years ago now, he wasn’t the kid sitting in the front of the class raising his hand, eager to answer all the teacher’s questions. And he wasn’t the kid in the back cracking jokes and shooting spitballs either. No, he was somewhere in the middle. Blending in. He was so unremarkable, so unnoticeable, that he wasn’t even bullied.
Not much had changed in the intervening years. Sure, he had tried to open up a bit in college. He dabbled in partying and trying to meet girls. And he was only marginally better at partying. Which is to say, he was mediocre at both.
There was Steph, the one girl who miraculously remembered his first name the second time they crossed paths. That was a first. It was at Steve’s party. She was technically dating Steve at the time, which was hard to forget because of their similar names, and how their friends would call Steve “Steph” or Steph “Steve” sometimes to give them a hard time about it. Joel eventually made out with Steph later that night. In Steve’s room no less.
He thought about her constantly for the next week, recalling odd small details like the one mole (a somehow cute mole) she had on her left cheek and how warm she felt. He kicked himself for not getting her phone number. A week later, at another party at someone else’s house, he saw her sitting on the couch, laughing with a few friends and looking exactly as he remembered, with the same cute mole placed perfectly on her cheek. When he walked over to her, he remembered her warmth and he felt a different kind of warmth build up inside of himself—an intoxicating feeling that narrowed his vision and made it seem as if it were only her and him alone in that living room.
And then she glanced up at him and asked, “What’s your name again?”
Joel was reflecting on this memory as he walked down Sycamore Avenue. He was on his usual morning route to the office, in the direction of the aptly named Piner Diner at the corner of Sycamore and Pine. Like usual, his eyes were cast down, staring at the sidewalk, and he was lost in his own thoughts.
He knew he ruminated on the memory of Steph too often. It had become a habit, a loop playing over and over in his head. Those two college parties felt like defining moments in his life, moments that set him on a particular path. A path he hated. One minute he’d be on the verge of tears and the next he’d be cursing himself—except he didn’t like to actually curse so in his head it sounded like, Oh, eff off, Joel. Get over it, you piece of you know what. You’re a real gosh darn dipstick sometimes.
He practically had all the nooks and crannies of the sidewalk memorized since he’d walked it so many times over the years. It takes something out of the ordinary to get him to snap out of it and look up. Maybe a loud truck startles him. Maybe a kid on a bicycle cuts him off. But on this day, he looked up because he saw something on the sidewalk itself that he had never seen before.
Joel notices a word spray painted on a square section of the sidewalk.
Then the next section says:
And then each subsequent section says:
Followed by an arrow pointing left:
He turns and looks up in the direction of the arrow and sees himself reflected in the mirror-like windows of the Piner Diner.
That’s clever, he thinks, and he gives himself a brief smirk.
But then his eyes refocus and now he can see through the window. There’s a woman standing there, her eyes looking down at the coffee she’s pouring for an older couple sitting at the table by the window. She shifts her gaze to look out the window and gives him a warm smile.
Do I wave? No, c’mon you dipstick. Don’t be weird.
He’s not used to anyone noticing him, especially a woman. Yet somehow he manages to smile back.
In a flash, he feels a tinge of that same warmth he felt all those years ago.
Maybe this is a sign. Maybe I should go in and try to sit in her section. No, that’s crazy. Only a moron would do that. She’s just being nice. She smiles at everyone who walks by, you idiot.
But he feels a sort of invisible pull and he could use a coffee anyway. Plus, he’s always the first one into the office since he gets there early and Pam always shows up at least 15 minutes late, so really he does have some time to spare.
Who’s the moron now, dipstick?
He asks for the open booth next to the older couple, hoping that it’s in her section. As he’s waiting for her to (hopefully) come take his order, he fidgets and debates getting up and leaving and continuing on with his boring, solitary life. There’s a pile of work waiting for him at the office anyway.
A few minutes later, he’s relieved (and instantly more nervous) when she walks up and says, “Good morning! What can I get you today?”
Her name tag reads “Lisa” and her face shows the same welcoming smile he saw through the window.
He clears his throat and with a bit of a tremble in his voice, he says, “Umm… uhh… coffee, please. Black.”
“You’re making my job too easy!”
She flips over his mug and starts pouring from the pot in her right hand. He watches her deftly navigate the pour like she’s done it a million times.
Maybe she has done it a million times. Well, maybe not a million times but almost certainly tens of thousands. She must carry that same pot around for hours on end each morning.
He looks to see if her right arm is noticeably stronger-looking than her left. It’s hard to tell since she has long sleeves on.
But it must be, though, right? A full coffee pot isn’t light when it’s full. And this place always looks busy in the—
He loses his train of thought since Lisa’s suddenly sitting down in the booth across from him. She flips over the mug on her side and pours herself a cup.
“Don’t you have to, uhh… umm… work?” he asks.
“I can take a break for a while,” she says. “You’re very perceptive, aren’t you? I can tell there’s a lot going on in that head of yours.”
“Oh… umm… yeah, I guess that’s true.”
Whoa, holy crapola.
He’d never felt so immediately seen before.
He was late for work.
It didn’t matter since Pam was later than he was. Of course. He also didn’t care at all, which was out of character for him since his propensity for being on time (or even early) was one of the few things he liked about himself. On this day, he was too giddy from his chance encounter with Lisa to care.
It wasn’t that he was necessarily attracted to her. There was a warmth to her, but it felt different than the physical warmth he felt with Steph. Lisa’s warmth was almost motherly, although he hesitated to go there since his relationship with his mother was complicated.
Joel’s mom, like just about everyone else, didn’t seem to notice him all that much. Instead, she would praise his older sister or scold his younger brother, and Joel was left feeling unloved, but also unscathed. For most of his childhood, and especially in his teens, he thought he possessed a superpower that got him out of doing chores or getting harped on for his middling grades. Yet as he grew older, he yearned to be loved by her—even though he didn’t consciously realize it.
The day at the office couldn’t go by fast enough. He kept thinking about how Lisa seemed to get him so quickly. And how he barely touched his coffee because the conversation flowed so effortlessly.
On his walk back home, he could see through the Piner Diner windows more clearly—the lights inside no longer competing with the sun outside. He scanned the interior, but didn’t see Lisa.
Of course she isn’t there anymore, you loser. It’s not like she works all gosh darn day long.
He walked home and had trouble getting to sleep that night. He kept replaying their conversation over and over in his mind.
The next morning, Joel is walking down Sycamore again. He left his house earlier, in the hopes that Lisa is working and he will have more time to talk to her without showing up late for work this time—assuming she can take a break and sit with him again. He can’t believe how many years he has walked by the Piner Diner and somehow didn’t notice her.
I guess it took some graffiti to get me to pull my head out of my you know what.
He sees the graffiti on the sidewalk, but this time he doesn’t turn to look at his reflection and he speeds past it toward the entrance of the diner instead.
“Fancy seeing you here!” Lisa quips as she sits down on the same side of the same booth. “I’m glad you showed up this morning, Joel.”
He’d never thought much of his name. He neither liked it nor disliked it. Indifferent is probably the best word to describe it. But he liked it when Lisa said it.
“I’m glad you’re working today, too,” Joel says—his words flowing more smoothly than when he first met her yesterday.
“I’ll always be here for my new favorite customer!”
There’s her warm smile again.
The conversation picks up where it left off again too. It already feels as if they’re old friends who’ve sat across from each other in this same booth for years, although he realizes he doesn’t know too much about her yet, so he starts asking her some questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m from here and there,” she deflects.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Too long!” she jokes.
“Sorry, those are dumb questions. Gosh! I’m such an idiot sometimes.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” she says. “Why do you think you’re so self-critical?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. It probably has something to do with my upbringing. My dad could be pretty harsh if I messed up.”
“I’m sure that was hard on you,” she says. “But do you think it’s fair to place all the blame on someone else?”
“No, you’re right. It’s not fair. Ultimately, it’s up to me to be less hard on myself. But I really struggle with it.”
Lisa nodded, but didn’t offer up any advice. And Joel didn’t ask for any either. In the back of his mind, he knew if he talked to her long enough, the truth would emerge.
And so it became routine. Every weekday before work, Joel would make his way to the Piner Diner and they would chat for roughly 30 minutes.
Talking with Lisa was better than any therapy he’d ever been to. There was the one therapist who called him Joe every single appointment, despite being corrected at least five times. And another therapist fell asleep while Joel was mid-sentence—he was recalling the Steph situation at the time, no less. Most of the therapists he saw over the years would never ask him questions like the ones Lisa did.
“What’s holding you back from going after what you want?”
“What would it feel like if you went for it?”
“Who needs to give you permission to go for it?”
That one made him cry when he realized he only needed permission from himself.
Several months passed, and he felt like he was getting to know himself better, although he still didn’t know much about Lisa. He might’ve been annoyed if he wasn’t relishing in her attention so much. It felt great to have someone in his life that was so interested in him.
But then one day, she asked how he felt about his past romantic relationships. It seemed like an innocuous line of questioning at first, natural even, given they’re an integral part of life for basically every adult human on the planet. That wasn’t the issue. It was when Lisa mentioned Steph by name that threw him off. At that moment, he realized that he hadn’t thought about Steph at all since he’d met Lisa. But also, more importantly, he hadn’t mentioned Steph’s name to Lisa either.
Joel is pacing around his house. He hasn’t been back to the Piner Diner, to see Lisa, for three days.
How the heck does she know about Steph? It’s impossible. Maybe I told her and I don’t remember? No, no, no, there’s no way. I definitely didn’t.
Part of him wants to ignore his doubts and go back to the routine. Back to those conversations that have meant so much to him. The conversations that have helped him understand and love himself more, and have helped him be more open to receiving love from others.
Just the other night, he talked with his mom on the phone and she told him how proud she was of him. Even his dad chimed in and said, “Love you, bud,” from across the room as they were saying goodbye. After Joel hung up the phone, he felt the release of decades of bottled-up emotions and he let the tears flow.
He decides to walk to the diner and talk to Lisa.
It doesn’t have to be such a big deal. I can just ask her how she knew Steph’s name and see what she says. I’m sure there’s a valid explanation.
He once again passes the graffiti on the sidewalk and walks straight up to the diner entrance.
“Good morning,” says the host. “Is it just you today?”
“Actually, I’m looking for Lisa,” Joel says.
“Hmm, I don’t remember someone named Lisa checking in yet. Will she be joining you this morning?”
“Oh, no. I mean the Lisa who works here.”
“Sorry, there’s nobody named Lisa who works here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. She’s a server here.”
“Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. I’ve been working here for a long, long time now, and we’ve never had a server named Lisa.”
“Wait, I don’t understand. I’ve been talking with her every morning before work. We sit together right over there!” Joel frantically points to the booth where he has sat across from Lisa all those mornings for all those months. “Haven’t you seen us?!”
“Honey,” she says with a scoff, “we don’t get paid to sit and have coffee with the customers.”
He turns toward the entrance, flings the door open, and rushes back outside. Back to the graffiti on the sidewalk where this whole thing had started.
Something’s wrong. He doesn’t know whether to be upset or angry. His heart is beating out of his chest as he looks down at the spray-painted words. The memory of the first time he saw them flashes through his mind—seeing his reflection, and then Lisa, through the window, for the first time.
His mind is racing and he has to find out if it was all real. He wipes his brow and takes a deep breath to calm himself. He reads the words to himself as he slowly steps.
Another quick inhale and exhale. He turns to his left. And he sees himself reflected in the window, just like he did all those months ago. Except this time he sees Lisa in the reflection too, standing right next to him. He smiles and she smiles in unison. And he feels warm again.
I hope you liked this piece as much as I liked writing it.
If you did like it, could you please let me know by tapping the heart button below?
I really enjoyed this. Great writing. Gut punch: And then she glanced up at him and asked, “What’s your name again?” It rang some bells for me, and I daresay for others.
Your first time writing fiction? Wow. Just wow.