Sometime in high school—after I’d gotten my first period but before my wisdom teeth came—my mother started skipping church and taking us to breakfast at The Brickhouse: me, my brother, and my dad. The first time I wasn't sure why. The Brickhouse wasn't the best diner in town, it was dark inside, and in the summer, the tiles pulled at your sandals like they were covered in syrup.
My mother led us to the booth farthest to the right, next to the counter, and sat on the outside. She sat with her purse in her lap, phone in her purse, and stayed there, fixed on the screen.
“Come on,” my father said. “Family time.”
“Bones, we're together all the time.” That was his nickname. Bones. He was a track star in high school, and could eat fifty McDonald's cheeseburgers in one day the way a snake could eat a golden retriever, except back then, he didn't put on any weight.
My mother flipped her hair and sighed like she'd just been grounded for the weekend. She slipped her phone to her purse and her bag to the floor. The waiter with the quiet voice and the swiveling hips set mugs of coffee down in front of us, lay out the sweetener in soft pink packets, took our orders. My mother was the only one who ever switched hers up.
“Ma'am,” he said, “What'll it be this week?” She always ordered something she regretted later; eggs Benny with the powdered Hollandaise was a staple.
“He called me ma'am! Do I look like a 'ma'am' to you?” She pulled at her skin like the clay from art school—the past that no longer mattered.
As we ate our bacon-egg-n-cheese-on-a-hard-roll sandwiches, a man wearing Oakley's on the brim of his Red Sox cap picked a stool at the counter two seats down from us. My mother looked at him for a while. Fixed her hair. Removed her glasses. Licked her finger, rubbed it against a yellow spot on her shirt that could have been mustard or paint, gave up. Smudged her eye makeup. Adjusted the cuffs on her oversized flannel. She pulled at her ear, made careful movements with her mouth, nodded her head in his direction.
My father saw nothing. He kept focus on his side order of hash browns and conversation with my brother—sports. Or his mail delivery job. But I saw the way Oakley Man made suggestions with his eyes, how he dragged the tip of his tongue to each corner of his mouth. I felt my mother sitting tense beside me, struggling to contain childish excitement.
Just like the weeks after. Breakfast after breakfast. Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Sometimes I think my mother got off on bringing her husband and her lover to the Brickhouse at the same time. Somewhere between dorm room hookups and pacifiers she lost her edge; the man with the shades at the end of the breakfast bar gave her the thrill she missed. Maybe it sent her back to college, when a bachelor's in watercolors held a promising future, and frizzy bangs weren't specific to suburban mothers. Beneath the dim glow of incandescent light, she could relive the rush of Hartford Art School in 1988: the winding dormitories pumped full of kids with big hair and triangle earrings, the thrill of a '69 Mustang blasting down Rt. 84. The way the man across the room looked at her like a fine sculpture, ignoring the cracks in the surface with the wear of time.
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