The Man

A diner is not the place to have a Serious Discussion. Stanley knows, okay? He knows. He wonders if the waitress can feel the tension radiating from the table he and June are sitting at, but she just sets down two cheeseburgers, and June thanks her with a glossy smile.

For a second, Stanley is taken aback by how unburdened and lovely June looks, smiling at the waitress. He remembers her smiling like that the first time they met, almost a year ago now, but he can’t really recall the last time she turned that particular smile on him. For the last few weeks, her lips have seemed only capable of sarcastic grins or a sour pinch. Still, he mentally pats himself on the back, thinks, damn, she’s the prettiest girl he’s dated yet.

She goes a bit heavy on the eyeliner and lipstick, could do with less powder on her face and more demure clothing on her body. Although, to be fair, he’s actually a little conflicted on the latter—it’s hard for him to decide if he likes showing her off more than he hates the guys who end up leering at her. He’d mentioned this to her a few months into their relationship, but lately, it’d become a Thing: he’d look at her and purse his lips, and she’d snap, “Oh my god, just get over it already!”

If she knows how he feels about the way she dresses, doesn’t she also know what he likes about the rest of her? Her skin looks a bit yellow under the diner’s lights, but he catalogues her features while she’s speaking with their waitress: nice, straight nose and dimples, high cheekbones, her breasts a nice handful. Soft skin, soft hair, soft voice. Wears the same perfume his mom does, reminds him a little of his mom in the way that she’s far too stubborn and sometimes lashes out when he least expects it, but he tends not to dwell on that too much. (Mostly because after he was struck with the notion that June could be The One, he had a dream in which he said “I do” at the altar. The pastor said, “You may kiss the bride,” and so he lifted June’s veil, except it wasn’t June under the veil at all. It was his mother. He doesn’t have an Oedipus complex though, okay? Just to be clear. He doesn’t. He exclusively directs all of his romantic love to non-blood-related, straight women.)

Besides, he reasons, his mom did a great job with him, so June’s similarity to his mother can only be a positive thing—except that June doesn’t want kids. Or get married. Which. Just. What? Stanley can’t wrap his head around it. Don’t women love babies? Does she not want to pass on her genetics? And if not her own, what about his? He’s hot. She’s hot. They’d make a hot baby. One plus one equals two. Simple logic. Darwinism and shit. Yeah, he knows all about that science fluff. Hey, their baby would probably be smart, too. It’s a win-win.

It’s not even that he wants to get married immediately or anything. He just doesn’t understand why June has such an anti-marriage, anti-kids stance.

Stanley can’t help himself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn more about your significant other, right? He’s just testing the waters. She’ll probably feel flattered that he can see her as the carrier of his children, that he holds her in such high regards.

He opens his mouth the second their waitress leaves. “I know, I know,” he says, continuing their conversation from before their waitress came by with the food. “You’re over the discussion, but c’mon. You seriously don’t see yourself getting married and having children? Ever?” He nods at the baby in the high-chair a few booths down from them.

June slurps at her Coke, stirring the straw in agitated circles and rattling the ice at the bottom of the cup. “Why do you keep pushing with this?” she asks, half-chewing on the red, plastic straw. “It’s weird. We’ve barely been together a year. Way too early to be thinking about ‘starting a family.’” She makes air-quotes with her hands and puts on a pretentious, nasally voice,

Stanley raises one dark eyebrow. “We’re both twenty-two. Don’t girls start planning their weddings when they’re like five?”

June stops chewing on the straw, and it slips out of her open mouth. A thin, shiny string of saliva hangs between her full bottom lip and the edge of the straw’s top.

Stanley hands her a napkin and smiles, fond. “I’m just curious. I don’t mean drop everything now and start popping those suckers out. Just eventually, you know?” He leans forward slightly, ducks his head a bit, making just the slightest bit of eye-contact—a half-second of piercing eye-contact. It’s important that it’s short and piercing. It’s a sequence he’s perfected over the years—a fine, skillful balance of flirtatious and charmingly self-conscious.

When he’s really in the zone, he can get his cheeks to pink up in order to properly sell it. He’s struggling to do it tonight, skills rusty because he’s been practicing monogamy for the better part of a year, but no matter. This is the diner where they had their first date. He’s a textbook gentleman. Nothing can go wrong. She’s probably just testing him, just wants to see that he’s committed to go all the way with her. He can do that. This is his moment, his home run, his royal flush.  He goes in for the kill. He bites his lip and then says, “Like maybe if you found someone special?”

June slowly sets down the napkin. It’s stained with lipstick, a smear of red on white. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Her voice sounds devoid of emotion; her face a blank canvas.

Stanley startles upright, hitting the tan, tufted back of his seat with a thump. Something’s gone wrong. She’s not supposed to react like this. Where’s the giggling? The blushing? A shy, girlish, little grin at the very least?

He bounces his leg under the table, the orange-brown leather cushion of the seat squeaking rhythmically, as his mind forms and discards potential responses in quick succession. He must proceed with caution. He settles on: “What do you think I’m saying?” Answering a question with another question. Way to go. That was good. Safe.

“What do you think I think you’re saying?”

Crap. Not safe. “I asked first.”

“Technically, I asked first.”

“June.” Stanley reaches for her hand, putting on what he hopes is a disarming smile. When she pulls away before he even makes contact, he allows the corners of his mouth to twitch only the slightest bit. His fingers curl in on themselves, and he leaves his hand limp next to his plate.

There was supposed to be a progression, dammit. He’s a suave and persuasive guy. She can’t ruin this for him. He won’t let her. “June,” he tries again, forcing his smile even wider, his jaw clenching, cheeks straining with the effort. “Sweetheart.”

“Don’t call me that,” she says.

He’d forgotten how she hated pet names. Fine. It’s fine! He’s Stanley Smith! He knows how to read people, how to get them to come around; it’s his thing! He can still salvage this!

“All I’m saying,” he says. June’s eyes narrow. He doubles back hastily. Maybe he needs to be less outrightly assertive? “Asking! All I’m asking is for you to consider saying yes to the right guy.”

“The right guy being you?”

Stanley’s face feels frozen. He resists the urge to pound his head against the tabletop. She wasn’t supposed to say those words in that tone. There was supposed to be hair-twirling involved, footsie under the table, maybe some eye-fucking that would eventually lead into real fucking later in the evening, after they’d playfully fought over the check and he’d ended up generously paying for all of it—dinner, dessert, the cab back to his place. Or hers. He’s not picky.

He can feel a headache coming on, a slight pulse in his right temple. What was once a low hum of chatter in the diner is suddenly a wash of blaring noise—forks and knives scraping and squeaking over ceramic plates; heels click, click, clicking and wooden chairs scuffing over the cream-and-red diamond-patterned linoleum floor. The overhanging lights seem far too harsh, garish, and yellow, causing the strip of mirror across the blue tiled wall directly to his left to gleam uncomfortably bright.

He wishes they’d sat next to the window instead, so he could pretend to look outside and have a minute to compose himself. The bar might’ve been nice, too, because sitting side-by-side would’ve covered for the obvious avoidance of eye-contact.

Instead, he looks down at the table and wonders how he never noticed that it was just plastic made to look like wood. It’d looked decent enough on their first date, but it was still plastic then, just as it was now—cheap but shiny. He thinks the pale gray, speckled granite countertop of the bar must also be plastic, too, and feels almost compelled to get up right this instant just to rap his knuckles against it and check, see if it will sound hollow like he knows it will.

“Stanley?” June says.

Stanley blinks rapidly, smile still locked in place. He thinks this would probably be what rigor mortis feels like if the dead could feel. June looks mostly disinterested and unaware of his mental crisis, but there’s a slight furrow in her brow that makes her seem almost a little concerned. That’s all he needs. A little is enough. Relationships are push and pull. She’s putting in thirty percent today, and that’s fine. He can provide the other seventy.

Stanley calms. There’s no need to freak out. He can still fix this. He’s cool, laidback. He’s an understanding guy. She’s just surprised, afraid of her feelings. That’s why she’s being like this.

He closes his hand into a tight fist and takes in a deep breath through his nose, his lips still stretched tight in a strained, megawatt smile. “Right,” he says. “The right guy being me? Well, maybe. If you’d quit being so stubborn and give me a chance.” He opens his hand and leaves it, palm up in the middle of the table as a peace offering, a request, an anything-for-you-to-do-as-you-please. “Could you see that? Maybe? I’m not saying we’re there yet. Just. Let me get you there. You’ve gotta let me try. Don’t I got the right to at least try?”

If he believed in eyes being the window into people’s souls and all that shite, then he’d have to admit that June’s had definitely just closed on him. His smile finally dims.

“Let you?” she says quietly, though it rises as she continues to speak. “Let you? I don’t have to let you do anything!”

Stanley’s smile drops completely. “Why are you so opposed to this?” He cringes internally, ashamed that it comes out almost like a whine. He’s not a kicked puppy or a petulant child. He won’t be demeaned and embarrassed by this. Confused as he is by her reaction, he knows he can still turn this around. Attitude! It’s all about attitude and action!

He lifts his hand again, this time reaching to cup her face, real romantic, the way it’s done in movies, but she seems to sink back into the cushions of the booth, leaving his arm outstretched, hand dangling awkwardly mid-air.

His insides wither and shrivel up when she tips her chin up at him, her gaze dripping with disdain. “I’ll change my mind when I change it,” she says, pushing her plate away, the metal utensils sitting atop it clattering from the jolt of movement. “Not when you ‘let’ me.”

Stanley watches in dismay as June gathers her purse and coat and slides out of the booth. “Aw, June,” he says. “C’mon. Let’s talk about this.”

She slams down a couple bills, pinning them down with a salt-shaker. “That should cover dinner for both of us.”

“Just wait a fucking minute.”

She’s killing him and doesn’t even know it. Jesus, he hadn’t even gotten the chance to insist on paying.

The look on her face is pitying. “Don’t call,” she says, and sweeps out the door.

“Fucking shit,” Stanley growls under his breath, yanking his wallet out. He pulls out forty dollars with a frustrated huff, leaves it on the table, grabs the money June had put down, and goes to run out the door. She’d have to talk to him if she wants to get her money back.

The waitress stops him at the entrance. “Uh, sir? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “the money is—”

He wants to tell the waitress that everything’s fine. Everything’s just dandy. Because firstly, it’s just a fight, okay? All couples have them. And alright, yes, if Stanley were to be honest with himself, he and June’s relationship had definitely hit a bit of a rough patch in the last couple months. But! The last time Stanley had stayed over at June’s (which was a little over a month ago, now that he thinks about it . . . had it really been that long? When was the last time they even had sex? Also a month ago? A month and a half?), there had been a copy of Cosmopolitan in the bathroom that said fighting wasn’t necessarily a sign of a relationship gone sour. In fact, it reported, all healthy relationships involve disagreements.

Secondly, this isn’t a Fight. It’s not A Big Deal. Not in the way that June’s making it out to be. And besides, he was on time picking her up today and brought chocolate instead of flowers because he knows she doesn’t care for flowers. He even refrained from starting a fight today. He hadn’t commented on how her shirt was cut too low. He didn’t complain about how some guy who’d walked by earlier had clearly been peeking at her cleavage. He’s doing everything right!

He doesn’t say any of this though. Reins it in because he is not going to stoop so low as to go blabbing about the woes of his personal life to a waitress in a diner, which ironically enough is named the Remedy Diner, and that in itself is just too much for him to handle at this moment, not to mention that he still needs to catch up to June, who is out somewhere on the street with her too-revealing shirt and shapely thighs, probably getting all sorts of the wrong attention from men less attractive than he, and fucking Christ, Mother Nature would weep if June had really just dumped him because what a tragedy if June one day changes her mind and has a kid after all with some plain-faced Joe, and that Joe-and-June kid isn’t as hot as a Stanley-and-June kid would have been.

Stanley waves a distracted hand in the direction of their booth. “Table. Money. On the table,” he says, tripping over the words, and then runs out.

He spots June further up East Houston, just stepping off the curb to hail a cab. He jogs toward her and calls out, raising his voice above the rush of traffic and honking of horns. “June! Baby—”

Stanley watches her turn around, hope rising in his chest until he hears her make a sound like a suppressed scream. “How many. God. Damn. Times,” she spits out, hair getting caught in her mouth from a gust of chilly wind, “do I have to tell you not to call me those stupid names!”

God, he’s an idiot. He knows that. He just doesn’t understand where everything went so wrong. Probably when they started practicing celibacy, which, huh. He’d been jerking off way more than usual because she was always “tired” or “busy.” Fuck. Signs! These were all signs! Monogamy has a much steeper learning curve than one-night stands, he decides.

“Will you just give me a minute?” he yells. And, oh, fantastic. People are turning to stare at them. He cringes, a muscle by his eye jumping. He’s making a fool out of himself, and she doesn’t even care. She doesn’t even appreciate it. She doesn’t even realize that he’d never have done this kind of thing—cause a scene in public in the name of love—before he met her.

“June,” he says, finally reaching her. He grabs her wrist, holding on tight when she tries to unclamp him. He flashes reassuring smiles at passing strangers and says as quietly as possible, “I’m sorry, okay? I don’t know what I said or did, but I’m sorry. Now, you need to calm down.”

“What I need is for you to leave me alone.” Her other arm continues flapping for a taxi.

“Tell me how to fix this.”

June snorts unattractively, and Stanley feels a surge of irritation with himself for still finding it endearing. A taxi pulls up next to them. June gets in with Stanley’s fingers still wrapped around her wrist.

“He comin’ or what?” the taxi driver asks, peering at them in the rearview mirror. Stanley gets the distinct feeling that the driver’s judging him, probably sees him as an aggressive, douchebag predator of some sort—which he’s not, thank you very much—hunting down June, the pretty victim of his unwanted advances.

“No,” says June, staring straight ahead. “He’s not.”

She gingerly peels his fingers off of her, as if she’s removing leeches, and he lets her. He could’ve held onto her still if he really wanted, but he’s an understanding guy. A good guy. He gets it now. It’s his fault. He asked about marriage and kids too early. He fucked up the timing. He knew he should’ve waited.

But it’s fine. He’s Stanley Smith. He’s The Man. He knows how to play. He’ll chase her because he knows that’s what she really wants deep down, no matter how adamantly uncooperative she’s been this evening. She just needs space and time. Two days at least. A week tops.

“Here.” Stanley shoves her money at her. “I paid.”

June stares at the bills in his hand. “Looks like you need it more than I do.” She pushes him away, slamming the car door shut.

He raps on the window. “June?” he says, speaking to her unresponsive profile. “June, c’mon. You’re being ridiculous. Just take the damn money.”

The driver honks his horn. A warning. Stanley sighs and decides to let it go for now. He pats the top of the car twice, and it pulls into the stream of red taillights. Behind him, the diner’s name flashes in the dark. Bright, neon red cursive against pale blue brick, a beacon in the muggy night.