02 Jun Powder Blue by Harrison Stuart
Around twelve he slipped into the boardwalk diner; a cheap little place that reeked of nineties sensibilities. He’d had too many beers to pass for sober, but too few to really be drunk. His belly was warm. His vision spun softly when he looked in one spot for too long. Sinking into the booth was relaxing, the pleather cracked but soft enough, a comfortable spot to bask in his faint boozy glow. The greasy smell of burgers cooking reminded him that he was hungry. He decided he’d order a meal as soon as he could convince himself to stand up.
She was sitting at a booth in the other corner of the diner, looking at her phone, eating french fries one by one. Absent-mindedly, he stared at her dark hair and her collarbones. He watched her dip a fry into yellow mustard and put it in her mouth. Red lips. She was alone. He was alone too.
Before his eyes could drift further, she stood up a little stiffer, and stared back at him. She was still holding a french fry. He didn’t expect to talk to her. It happened before he paused to think.
—French fries and mustard? Is that a thing?
She paused for a second and looked at the fry in her hand. He held his breath, until he heard a laugh.
—I don’t like ketchup!
He smiled back at her, paused for a moment. His legs didn’t move. Then they did, and he sat across from her. She was still smiling, but less so. He wanted her to smile.
—How has your night been?
He hated the question as soon as he asked it. It seemed so lazy and typical. She answered it anyway.
—My friend got too drunk too early, so I had to take her home before she did something dumb. Didn’t really want to go back to the club, so I figured I would eat something and head home. What about your night?
She ate another french fry, and he tried not to watch too closely.
—I didn’t feel like dancing anymore, and I got kind of sick of my friends, so I pulled an Irish exit. I’m hungry. I came here. Sometimes, you just need a burger, you know?
It felt stupid when he said it. She tilted her head and bent her lips into a soft, sympathetic frown.
—Friends giving you a hard time? That sucks.
He laughed but didn’t mean it.
—It’s nothing. It’s just kind of like that sometimes.
She glanced back to her phone for a second, then they made eye contact again. Her eyes were powder blue. He knew he would remember that.
—Hey, I’m gonna order some food. Don’t run off on me?
Again, the words didn’t feel right. Too possessive. He worried possessive meant threatening, and imagined himself as a creepy, predatory character he didn’t want to be. But she still smiled as he hauled himself to his feet and walked to the counter. Ordering his food, the decision not to look back at her was tangible. He told himself that he wasn’t going to do it and he didn’t.
She glanced up from her phone and watched him sit back down across from her, clutching a paper cup full of cola.
—What’s your name, anyway?
His heart jumped a little. He sipped the drink to buy himself a moment.
—Benjy? Not just Ben?
—It’s what my family used to call me. My friends caught on. I guess it never went away.
He closed his eyes for a second and shrugged, then continued.
—It’s grown on me. I don’t like it when people call me Benjamin, or Ben. That’s not me. I’m Benjy.
She laughed a little.
—You never gave me your name, you know.
This time, he smiled. He pinched the straw in his drink with his index and middle finger and took a sip.
—That’s a really pretty name.
She ate two more fries, and he sipped his cola.
—Did your friend get home safe?
She frowned a little.
—You say that like it’s a bad thing.
—It’s not—I mean, of course it’s not a bad thing—but it happens a lot, you know? It’s exhausting.
He paused for a moment, nervously.
—Her getting too drunk?
She nodded and he continued.
—It’s good you’re around then.
—It burns me out.
—You’re a good friend for doing it, though.
She paused for a second, then spoke tentatively.
—Why’d you ditch your friends tonight?
—I guess, well, I didn’t really ditch them, we got separated, y’know. They went one direction, I went the other, figured it was probably time to head home.
— Does that happen a lot?
He reclined and looked away from her.
While neither of them was looking at one another, he wondered what to say next. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing. But when he looked up again, she was on her phone. A flash of panic surprised him. He spoke without thinking.
—You think technology is tearing us apart?
Her brow furrowed.
He looked away and drummed his fingers on the table restlessly.
—Y’know, like, ruining human interaction. It’s not good. We don’t really see one another anymore. Just through screens. Facebook. Tinder, TikTok, Twitter. It’s superficial. Feels kind of wrong.
He leaned back and nervously laughed to himself. She looked away, out of the booth, then back at him.
—I guess? I don’t know.
She ate her last french fry and stood up. He paused and swallowed.
—Hey, can I get your number?
It immediately hit him how odd that must sound, right after a tirade against technology.
—Weren’t you just saying technology is dumb?
—I mean, it is convenient.
She smirked at him and held out her hand. He passed her his phone. Watching her input her number, the air seemed very stiff. He didn’t think he was doing this right. Something was missing, something genuine, and he tried to reach out for it.
—Hey, it was nice to meet you. Thanks for giving me a chance.
She tilted her head and bantered back.
—Any reason I shouldn’t have?
As soon as she said it, he wanted to be clever. He imagined himself spouting a slick one-liner, leaning back a little, taking his phone and closing the interaction with a warm smile.
—I mean, I am a wanted killer in like, four states. Don’t ask me where the bodies are!
She grimaced and his gut sank.
—That’s pretty tasteless.
He felt a little dizzy but made his best attempt at a reassuring smile.
—Don’t worry, I mean, I wouldn’t hurt you.
She put his phone back on the table facedown and stammered something he didn’t quite catch. All he picked up on was his name—a hushed, unmistakable ‘Benjy’—and then she was walking out the door, gone. He didn’t try to say anything because he didn’t think there was anything to say. Her number was only half-typed out and he erased it immediately.
The back of his neck crawled.
Somebody brought him his food. He stared at it. Was he still hungry? He felt nauseous. The greasy burger didn’t smell too good anymore. He dipped a french fry in a dollop of ketchup and didn’t bother to eat it.
Over the better part of twenty minutes, he dragged himself through half of his burger and a few fries, dumping the rest in the trash. After that, he moved to another booth and laid down on his back, staring at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. When he flicked his eyes away from them, the purple impressions on his vision slid across the white popcorn ceiling. He kept doing this, staring at the lights, watching the impressions slide, actively thinking about not thinking about every moment of his talk with Laura. He wondered how long it would be before he forgot that name. Two weeks? Two years?
Leaving the diner was automatic. He found himself outside on the boardwalk by the water. People walked by but he kept his eyes to himself. Staring past the railing, he looked at the beach. A moment passed and he hauled himself up onto the railing, feet dangling off the edge, safely, only a meter or so above the ground. He wouldn’t risk hurting himself. It was too dark to see the ocean beyond the sand, but he could hear the water, smell the sea air. A few minutes passed.
The smell of tobacco smoke drifted by. It occurred to him that this would be a great moment to smoke a cigarette. It would look very cool. Rejected, listening to the water, out in the dark, back to all the passersby. A man on the edge. But he didn’t smoke cigarettes. If he did smoke one now, chances are he would have a coughing fit, and that wouldn’t be very cool at all.
For some reason, that thought cheered him up just a little. It was a funny idea, trying to look cool and hacking up a lung. He swung his feet around back onto the boardwalk and spotted the smokers across the street. There were five or six of them, chatting outside of a dingy bar. He wondered what they were talking about. He was surprised by how much he cared.
Sitting down on a bench, he watched the smokers file back inside, and stared through the windows into the bar. There were people in there, he mused. Most of them were drunk. Embarrassing themselves. Students stumbled in and out of the front doors, walking, talking, laughing. A tall boy ordered two beers, passing one to a girl who fixed her hair and smiled before taking it.