Herbert and Marilyn walked into the newest diner in town, The Brown Bag. A yellow GRAND OPENING banner hung the length of the wall behind the hostess stand and a greasy smell of overdone French fries lingered in the air. Herbert trudged to the front and put his name on the list. The hostess said it would be a few minutes. He headed back to the door and plopped down on a bench next to Marilyn.
“Few minutes,” he said. “It’s always a few minutes. Do you have that coupon?”
Marilyn unzipped her purse and spotted the torn piece of newspaper. On it was an illustration of a Dagwood sandwich piled high. The sandwich had cartoon eyes and thin arms and legs; it even sported basketball sneakers. None of it made Marilyn particularly hungry. What did L.A. people know about delis? Why were people always trying to be something they weren’t? And why was Herbert so cheap? He’d made all this money as a C.P.A., and here they were only going out to eat because of a coupon. “Yes,” she said. “It’s here.”
Whenever they went out, she realized just how estranged they were. At home, there were so many distractions: she knitted and read her romance novels, and he gardened and worked on an old Moto Guzzi in the garage. They bumped into one another in the hallway and, like co-workers, were always polite.
A waiter dropped a tray of dishes. White plates and tall glasses exploded on the black-and-white tiles. The waiter’s face flushed, but as soon as the clientele applauded, his redness evaporated.
The door swung open and a young man and woman entered. They were holding hands and couldn’t have been more than twenty. Marilyn thought the man looked so much like Major, her first boyfriend, and the girl didn’t look like anyone Marilyn knew, but Marilyn found her cute with her sundress and strappy shoes. It wasn’t sundress or strappy-shoes weather, but sometimes a woman had to make it the kind of day she wanted.
The young man really did look like Major, though, with a few 21st century adjustments: his hair was longer and lighter, and his clothes were too big for his frame. His wallet had a chrome chain that connected from one of his belt loops to his back pocket, and he hadn’t shaved in a few days. She never saw Major unshaven. The man had the same dark eyes and subtle freckles on his cheeks. He caught Marilyn staring at him. She smiled. He did the same. Soon after, the young woman went over and put her name down on the list. When she returned to the man’s side, they shared a secret and then a kiss. A peck on the cheek transformed into a soft-lip kiss, and before Marilyn knew it, the young man and woman’s lips had opened and were pulling on each other’s. They shut their eyes and the man moved one of his hands to the woman’s neck. Herbert looked away. The couple stopped. The woman giggled and wiped her lips with the palm of her hand.
“Didn’t know this was a goddamn brothel,” Herbert said under his breath.
“Herbert! For two!” the hostess called.
Herbert and Marilyn followed the hostess and navigated their way from table to table, even one where some of the waitstaff had assembled and were belting out “Happy Birthday” to a little girl with pigtails. Marilyn blew the girl a kiss.
The hostess showed them to a red vinyl booth.
“Do you have a table?” Herbert asked. “I just can’t stand booths. Always too far from the table.”
The hostess scanned the restaurant and tucked a pencil into her bun. “No, none available right now, but I can put you back on the list and let you know when something opens up.”
“That’s all right,” Herbert said. “I’m hungry.” He slid into the booth.
“My grandpa hates booths, too,” the hostess said. “Enjoy.” She headed away from the table and back to her station.
“Always someone’s grandpa these days,” Herbert said.
“What do you expect? We’re old,” Marilyn said.
“Kids are too honest. That’s all. Back in my day, we said what was polite, not what was true.”
“Where are the menus?”
“Doesn’t matter. We’re just getting what’s offered on the coupon.”
“I wonder if they have sweet-potato fries. I read that they’re actually kind of good for you.”
“Where the hell’s the waitress?”
The affectionate couple was shown to the booth opposite Herbert and Marilyn. They plopped onto the same side of the booth, slid to the far end, and pressed right up against each other. They overlooked the busy street. The woman tucked some hair behind her ear and kissed the man’s cheek. Marilyn noticed some lipstick on the man’s neck, a perfect circle of red. They had menus in front of them, but didn’t seem interested. They studied the traffic and passersby, and Marilyn thought she heard the young woman mutter something about a crow—something about how it was the only bird without a song.
What if Herbert had gone to architecture school like he’d wanted when they’d first met? Marilyn wondered. Would he have been happier, and thus made her happier? What if she hadn’t gotten pregnant right away with the twins, forcing him to marry and stick it out at his father’s accounting firm? Did he blame her for all of that?
She shifted her gaze towards the young man. How she missed Major. He was her first love. They had both grown up on the same street in Montpelier, Vermont. They had gone to the same grammar school, middle school, and high school. Always close and friendly, they became closer one night. It happened a week or so into their tenth-grade summer vacation. Major’s family had thrown a party for his older brother who’d recently graduated college. Marilyn had been happy as she danced in a dress that, she thought, looked similar to the young woman’s. She had been a bit tipsy with champagne and had spotted Major outside in a field of tall grass. It had been late, but still light out. Major had walked towards her and asked if she wanted to go for a stroll, head down to the Winooski River for a bit.
“Unreal,” Herbert said. “No water. No waitress. Tell you one thing—they keep this up, they won’t be busy for long.”
“They just haven’t got the kinks worked out yet.”
“Sometimes things never get the kinks worked out.”
Marilyn nodded, pulled a napkin from the dispenser, and spread it across her lap. Again, she glanced towards the couple. Her mind turned to Major. Down at the river, the two of them had dipped their feet into the Winooski, skipped stones, found stray branches, tossed them into the current and wondered where they’d end up. He’d kissed her—her first kiss and she’d let herself go. She hadn’t been sure how to kiss and had practiced on her bathroom mirror, but the real thing was different. She had left her lips parted and had let him do the work. Soft sounds had escaped her mouth and she had remembered the warmth of his touch.
“Where’s the waitress?” Herbert asked the hostess as she rushed by.
“No one came by yet?” she said.
“Oh, wow. Opening weekend, you know?” She hurried off.
“What’s with the ‘opening weekend’ stuff?” Herbert said. “It’s a good thing these people don’t make cars. Can you imagine? Oh, yes, the brakes didn’t work. Sorry, sir. Brand new car—you know how it is?”
A laugh fluttered from the young couple’s table. They kissed again. Marilyn watched the man put his hand on the nape of the woman’s neck. She studied the way the woman’s chandelier earrings swayed.
The waitress showed up and apologized. She was short with long bangs and puffy cheeks. “Everyone’s got tons of coupons, and I didn’t think this was my section. Crazy, right?”
“I’ve heard crazier,” Herbert said.
Marilyn pulled out the coupon and slid it across the table.
“To drink?” the waitress asked.
“A water for me,” Herbert said.
“And I’ll take a vanilla shake.”
“You got it. Thank you,” the waitress said. She spun around and took the young couple’s order. They no longer kissed. They ordered something called “The King and Queen Platter.” The man looked exactly like Major when he laughed—the way he snapped his head back and then covered his mouth with his right hand, as if he never wanted to chuckle in the first place. After that night, she and Major had gone steady. Two years later, he was drafted for Vietnam. The night before he deployed, she’d met up with him at the Winooski, only a stone’s throw from where they’d first kissed. “I’ll be back soon. We’ll meet here again. I promise,” he’d said. Marilyn had cried, then said, “I wish your parents hadn’t named you Major. You can’t expect not to be drafted with a name like that.”
“They’re back at it,” Herbert said. “Will you look at these two kids… just kissing and kissing.”
“It’s… isn’t it just—”
“Exactly. It’s just gross.”
Marilyn took a deep breath. On October 12, 1972, Marilyn had driven with her family and Major’s family to pick him up from the Burlington Airport. He’d strutted across the tarmac in a dark-green suit with gold buttons. He’d lost some weight and his skin was tanned. He’d hugged her hard, till her back was sore. After a few hours together, Marilyn had headed off to work. “Tonight?” he’d asked. “Ten o’clock at the Winooski?”
Marilyn and Herbert’s best day together had to be their wedding: big-band music, tiered cake, and a tossed bouquet. Since that time, it was like someone had taken a quarter from their savings account each day. It was hard to notice the loss at first, but now, only a few wrinkled bills remained. She was glad her children had moved away, hadn’t settled, and had searched for more.
“Miss!” Herbert called. “Miss!” The hostess scurried over. Herbert leaned her way. “Would you tell that couple to quit kissing. It’s just not appropriate.”
“Herbert,” Marilyn said in a whisper.
The hostess craned her neck. The couple’s bodies were intertwined: her hands in his hair, his fingers on her collar bone, their lips wrapped around one another’s. Marilyn took in the other guests of the restaurant. None of them seem to notice or care. Some ate; others laughed and wiped their ketchup-covered mouths.
“I’ll get the manager,” the hostess said.
“You can’t tell ‘em?” Herbert asked.
She headed off.
“Can you believe this?” Herbert said.
“Why?” Marilyn said. “What happened—”
“What happened is right. What happened to people, to manners, to all of it?”
A short time later, the manager, a tall bald man with dark circles under his eyes, delivered Marilyn’s vanilla shake and Herbert’s water. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Not seems,” Herbert said. “What is the problem?” He pointed the way of the young couple.
“Oh. Okay, sure.” The manager turned and took a few steps in their direction. He knocked on the far end of the table. The affectionate couple looked up. Their faces were rosy and their eyes large. “Please,” he said. “It’s makin’ people uncomfortable.”
Marilyn plucked a straw from the dispenser and dropped it into her shake.
“Uncomfortable?” the young woman said. “How? Why?”
“Are you kidding?” the young man said. “Just pathetic.”
The manager’s heavy footsteps softened as he headed away from the table. Herbert popped a baby aspirin in his mouth and downed it with a slug of water. Marilyn positioned her lips around the straw and drew in some vanilla milkshake. The cold was soothing.
For the sake of her children, and not wanting to be like her mother, Marilyn was demure, sweet, and always let Herbert get his way. She blamed herself, thinking that it could have been different if she’d just confronted him from time to time.
Laughter from the young couple wafted her way, and she thought of Major. Just as promised, he’d showed that night at ten at their usual spot on the Winooski, not far from the bridge. Even though it was October, the weather had still been tinged with summer. They’d kissed and talked, but mostly held one another. “I’m going for a swim,” Major had said. “Haven’t been in this sweet river in too long. When I get out, I need to ask you something.” He’d darted over to the bridge and stripped down to his boxers, then had brought his hands together above his head, bent his knees, and sprung forward.
Out of her periphery, Marilyn glanced the couple’s way. They were playing a sort of game. She listened closely, straining her ears. “The sixth man to walk through the door,” the young woman said. “That’s what you’re going to look like in fifty years. Wait for it, wait for it. Three and there’s four. And there’s… there’s! That’s five. Come on six! Lucky six!” They laughed. “The door stopped… what the… no, wait… here it comes!”
She giggled and the young man slapped the table.
“That’s not even a man!” he said, laughing. “She’s like twelve.”
“Can’t fight the game,” she said.
Marilyn drank some more shake, then blotted her mouth with her napkin. She wondered about the young couple: where they’d met, how they’d met, if it was love at first sight, or if one of them really had to work for it. She always loved a good love story: Romeo and Juliet, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere, even Paris and Helena.
Smoky meat permeated the room. The din of the diner was now deafening with the clamor of plates and flatware, laughter and conversation. A car in the parking lot revved its engine.
“Christ Almighty,” Herbert said, throwing a glower the couple’s way.
As Marilyn scanned the couple, the young man pulled his head back, opened his eyes, and drew in his partner. He smiled. Marilyn saw Major. She had witnessed him leap from the bridge, arc towards the water, and splash into the river. She’d clapped and smiled, her cheeks warm, and waited for him to pop back up. She’d wondered what his question would be. He hadn’t yet come to the surface and she’d called out and then yelled, screaming his name over and over, crying “Major” so much and so hard that her throat burned. She’d sprinted into the water, her dress floating up around her. She’d waded out. She’d tried to find footing: “Major! Major! Major!”
The waitress swung by with a tray perched on her shoulder. She set it down on the edge of the table and placed a Reuben in front of both Marilyn and Herbert. “Can I get you guys anything else?”
“Tell those two to get a room,” Herbert said.
The waitress took a glance. “Yikes! You bet.” As she passed the young couple, she leaned forward. “Sorry, guys. Can’t do that here. This is a family place, all right?” She pressed on, weaving her way to the kitchen doors.
Herbert took a bite and ran his tongue over his lips. Marilyn added a squirt of ketchup to her sandwich. She heard the young couple: “A family place?” the young man said. “How the hell do they think families are made?”
The young woman laughed. “Who the hell keeps snitching?” she asked. “No one in here seems to care, except the damn waiters.”
The young man cleared his throat. “It’s him,” Marilyn thought she heard the young man say. “The old man. I think it’s him.”
Major diving from the bridge burned brightly in her mind. They’d found his body the next day at dawn, a few miles down the river. She’d never loved a man like she’d loved Major. He was Paris and everyone else was Cleveland. After him, she’d not wanted to be alone. A few months later, after she’d started at the barber college in upstate New York, she’d met Herbert. He was already frugal then, but he was tall and professional and he liked her. She knew that she’d be taken care of. She knew she’d no longer be alone. She knew they’d learn to live with one another, but never, like she and Major, for one another.
In fifty years, Marilyn thought, would the young woman look back and wonder about this guy, or would she be with him? Would they take trips from L.A.? Would they visit the Grand Canyon or see a show or two in Vegas? Would they still sit on the same side of the booth?
The diner’s volume increased—a child at a nearby table began to cry, the restaurant’s phone rang, a patron dropped some change onto the tile floor, and a car alarm blasted from the parking lot.
Marilyn swung her eyes to the right. The young couple was kissing. Their food had arrived, too, but it was just sitting there: a large platter piled with hamburgers, fries, onion rings, and two tall chocolate shakes with the leftovers in frosty metal tins, and strangely, two plastic crowns. One was fit for a king, the other a tiara. And then she remembered: the “King and Queen Platter.”
She took another bite of her sandwich. The salty beef paired well with the creaminess of the shake, and she let the juices of both coat her mouth. The young couple took a break from kissing, placed the crowns on their heads, and resumed making out. This time, their kisses were wet and hard, and when the diner’s noise softened, Marilyn heard their lips smack.
“For the love of God!” Herbert yelled in the direction of the young couple. He pounded his fists on the table, and the forks and knives jumped. “It’s enough. We’ve been polite. But it’s enough! It’s like we’re at some goddamn peep show.”
The couple stopped kissing.
“Peep show?” the young woman said, then laughed.
Marilyn felt her hands grow warm and her lips quiver. She clenched her jaw and took her milkshake in her hands. Her stomach turned. She took a breath and felt Major’s hands dig into her shoulder blades on the tarmac. She pictured the two of them on the riverbank, laughing, the flash of lightening bugs all around them.
The young man stared at Herbert. Marilyn swallowed. Her gulp felt so large that she believed everyone in the restaurant had seen it.
“What’s your problem?” the young man asked. His voice was sharp. He wasn’t afraid of Herbert. “We’re two people in love. We’re kissing. I haven’t seen her in a while, and now I’m back and I want to kiss my girlfriend.”
“This is not the place. This is a restaurant.” Herbert took a sip of water.
Little by little, a hush took hold of the place, and the attention of the diner turned the way of Herbert and the young couple. The crying baby didn’t stop and neither did the phone or the commotion in the kitchen, but casual conversations were muted, laughter paused, and bodies tense. Even though Marilyn couldn’t see all the people around her, she felt their eyes, their stares, and their focused burn.
“Haven’t you ever been in love?” the young man asked.
“Of course,” Herbert said. “That’s not the point.”
“That is the point,” the man said. “You’re a tired old man. There’s nothing weird about two people who love each other kissing. It’s about as interesting as a thirsty man drinking.”
“It’s not something that’s done in public,” Herbert said.
“Or, in your case, in private,” the young woman added. “Look at her.” Marilyn noticed the young woman point a finger her way. “Does she look happy? When was the last time you kissed her?”
The manager hurried over. He stood between the two tables. He extended his arms in both directions. “Please, please. I need to ask you all to lower your voices. Either finish your meals quietly or leave.”
The young man adjusted his crown, pulled a kosher dill from his plate, and gnawed off a hunk. “We’re not going anywhere,” the young man said.
“No service until it’s too late! How many times did I ask you all to handle this situation? And what did you do?” Herbert’s voice quivered and he bit the inside of his cheek.
“Situation?” the young woman said.
“I’m leaving. Let’s go, Marilyn,” Herbert said. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He slid to the edge of the booth and used the table to yank himself up.
Marilyn reached for her purse and began to scoot towards the aisle way. Then she stopped. Her legs were weak and her body hot. She could feel the patrons inspecting her every move. She couldn’t budge. She didn’t think she could even make it to the front door. “No,” she said.
“Marilyn, come on,” Herbert said. He walked her way as if to help her from the booth.
She pivoted her head and took in the clientele. They were fixated on her. Some chewed; others held fries and onion rings but were too captivated to put them in their mouths. “No,” she said again. “I want to finish my sandwich. I want to stay here.”
Again, Herbert reached for her arm, but she scooted back into the booth and picked up her Reuben. Herbert stormed away from the table and towards the front door, and she watched it swing open and fall back flush with the wall. She stared at him for as long as she could through one of the diner’s windows, until his body was just a blotch in the parking lot.
With each bite, the racket grew, and when Marilyn was done with most of her sandwich, she peered the couple’s way. They weren’t kissing as before, but the woman had nestled her head alongside her man’s.
Marilyn took a slurp of her shake. The young man noticed her and smiled Marilyn’s way, and she felt a grin form on her face. She loved the way his plastic crown sparkled in the afternoon sun. She kept stealing glances while taking bites, and every so often, she would close her eyes and hear the rush of the Winooski.
*Party of Two was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post
Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the recipient of a Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards. His poetry collection, May I Have This Dance? (Black Magic Media), is slated for publication in December of 2017.