There really aren’t that many countries represented on the glass windows between the booths at IHOP. I’ve eaten at IHOPs dozens of times before, and each time I gazed into the decorated glass. But now, at 20 years old, I finally realize this unsettling fact. I breathe in the sweet intermingling scents of decades of steaming pancakes and ancient syrup spills that are etched into the wood and plastic covering of my booth seat, and I carefully count the national flags designed on the partition: the U.S., Japan, Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, Brazil, Israel and one last flag that looks familiar but I can’t quite name. I’ll have to look it up later when I get to my dorm. Preferably after my roommate’s asleep. He always asks why I go to the websites I go to. I hate the whole random roommate thing; every moment we’re in the room together is awkward. One time when I refused to go to a party with him, he got mad at me and told me, “I pity you, Tristan. You’re a sad, lonely human being.”
I’m looking all around the restaurant expecting some variety, but it’s always the same pattern of eight countries. How international is that? There are almost 200 nations in the world, and a business claiming in its very name to have worldwide appeal celebrates the existence of only eight of them. Although, I guess eight is pretty international in comparison to the number of countries in which International Houses of Pancakes restaurants are actually located. Is it supposed to be the food that’s international and not the locations? I’m not convinced, because I never see falafels, tamales, or chicken fried rice on the menu. Pancakes, steaks, eggs, biscuits and sausage gravy. Seems pretty American to me.
“Your Momma Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock ’n Roll” plays in the background when a waitress catches my attention. She approaches me humming the song and looks right at me. She smiles, and it looks genuine. Most waitresses’ smiles just fade away after a moment, and the women go back to their blank stares at nothing. As for this girl, though, I can even see all of her teeth. I couldn’t even smile like that if I found out I won the lottery.
“Heyy! How are you doing today?”
And when she reaches the end of her sentence, widening her mouth and shifting her cheeks up to pronounce the “ay” in “today,” I realize that she’s got those cheeks. The kind of perky cheeks that usually only babies have and that old ladies like to squeeze. They look soft, with just a tiny bit of light fuzz that I can only see because the light above us is cast down directly on her. I mean, she’s not growing a beard or anything— all women have a little hair on their faces, unless they shave, in which case that’s weird. Under her face’s light tan complexion, there’s a hint of a rosy tinge rising to the surface of her cheeks. I’ve decided her cheeks look like peach halves. When old ladies gather around a baby and squawk, “Oh, he’s so cute, you could just eat him up!” and then they manhandle his face with their arthritic old liver-spotted claws, what they mean is that the baby’s cheeks look like peaches, hence the edibility.
“I’m umm. I’m alright,” I say.
“Just alright?” she asks, and she cocks her head to the side. For a moment she pouts, and then her sunny smile reappears. She must actually be happy to see me.
“Well, ookayyy! Hopefully after I can get you some food your day will be a little better.” She winks at me.
“Hah. Okay,” I reply with a chuckle.
Is she flirting with me? She just winked at me. How awesome is that!
“Our special of today is a sixteen-ounce Texas ribeye steak marinated with our special bacon-and-sautéed-mushroom sauce, served with two eggs made any way you’d like,” she says.
Wow. Did she just say that? All in one sentence, and all in the span of three seconds? How many times has she said that already today? And she still managed to look bright and cheery throughout the whole description. Here’s a girl with some talent! She didn’t even take a big breath beforehand or huff and puff afterwards.
“Can I start you off with a drink?”
“Yeah, umm. I’ll have, uh. Just a coffee and some water.”
Now she’s grinning so hard that she’s scrunching up her pretty cheeks and making her eyes disappear. It must hurt to be that happy.
“OK, I’ll be right back with that, and then I’ll take your food order.”
“Sounds. . . good,” I say, and I notice that she has long, muscular legs as she turns and marches off, her brown-with-blonde-highlights hair done up in a looped ponytail swinging and her shapely butt bobbing from side to side. Woo! She’s fit and athletic-looking. Not in the same sense as one of those hard-bodied soccer or softball girls. A lot of those girls aren’t made of anything but bone and muscle. It makes a guy a little wary holding a girl like that for fear of snapping her like a twig. This waitress, though, she’s got some muscle, but she’s still soft and feminine, about like volleyball player. I can imagine her ponytail waving and calves flexing as she squats to make a bump just before the volleyball could hit the gym floor.
As she stops in the kitchen to fill a coffee pitcher, I look at her lint-speckled black work pants. Even those unflattering clothes can’t hide her toned thighs. They fill up her pants just right— her pant legs aren’t quite skintight, but they are nowhere near baggy, either. I can imagine her walking alone late at night and being attacked by a rapist. She’d tackle him and then tease him by crushing his neck with the same thighs he’d coveted only moments before. She’d have that same unending smile with her perfect white enamel pearls glittering in the moonlight as she’d squeeze tighter, and the snaking purple veins would rise on the bad guy’s forehead as he’d struggle to breathe. That really wouldn’t be that bad of a way to die.
I’m about ready to give up on the national flags. The one I can’t recognize has three geometric shapes in it. The first one’s an equilateral triangle pointing halfway inward from the left side. On the right side are two trapezoidal shapes that are the up-and-down mirror image of each other. My guess is that the flag is either Eastern European or sub-Saharan African, but that’s just a hunch.
Directly to my left is an old man sitting alone at a booth and paging through the sports section of a newspaper. Two couples sitting diagonally in front and to the left of me just received their lunch at their window booth. The men sit in the aisle seats and compete in a football-related shouting match. The women blush and look out the restaurant window in attempts to disassociate themselves with their loud boyfriends. The two men both wear Chicago Bears caps. The tall, beefy one sports a brown buzz cut and some rugged stubble. He wears a blue-and-orange University of Illinois hoodie to match his hat. His wiry friend, who faces me and sits next to his girlfriend, has dirty blonde hair and a prominent eyebrow ridge that puts his eyes in a complete shadow. He has a protruding tangled chin tuft that, in my opinion, needs to be shaven the hell off.
“How ’bout my boy Brian Urlacher?!” asks the brown-haired beefy one in his husky voice. “You see that sack he got last week?”
“You shittin’ me? Of course I did,” says his buddy. He leans forward in his seat. “He was like— ” he moves his arms back and forth like he’s running, then thrusts his head and torso forward to indicate a tackle—“ahhhhhhh, BOOM!” He looks down, pretending his salt shaker is the downed quarterback. He points and yells at it, pretending to be the pro linebacker. “‘How you like that, Brett Favre!? Ready for retirement, yet!?’”
“Yeah, man. My grandma could have penetrated that Packers offensive line and tackled that washed-up old sonofabitch, and she uses a walker!”
They laugh at each other for a good ten seconds. Then for a moment they become silent and glance in my direction. I dart my eyes down at my menu to avoid eye contact. Just in time, my waitress returns, still smiling, with my full pitcher of coffee and glass of ice water, which has beads of condensation already dripping down the side of the glass. As she leans over to set my drinks down on the empty space across from me where no one is sitting, I look at her name tag. Her name is Tammy. My eyes wander up to hers, and we immediately make eye contact. Does she think I just checked out her boobs?
“There’s your coffee and water!”
“Tha-thank you,” I say.
“It was my pleasure, honey.” Again, her cheeks puff out as she voices the long E sound in the word “honey.” Her shiny blue eyes fix on me.
Gulp. I raise my eyebrows and my heart beats a little faster. Honey? I’m used to getting that from women old enough to be my mother. Ladies with no prospects in their life besides working in the food industry or maybe taking up a new job at a hair salon. Ladies who have names like Barb or Debbie that don’t mind smelling like smoke all day or getting hit on by dirty old men. The “honey” women are the kind who wear slacks up to their bellybuttons and use hairspray to make their hair as puffy and motionless as possible. I’m not, however, used to receiving the H-word from a gorgeous girl the same age as me.
“Are you ready to order? Or do you still need a little bit of time?”
“Hmm. Well, I uh. I think I need just a little more time. Can you come back in like. . . two minutes?” I think that sounds like the right amount of time. Any more and she might think I’m a nutjob for taking too long to make up my mind, any less and she will think I’m some type of crazy guy that speed-reads menus.
“Sure thing. Take your time.”
I need to start speaking to her more eloquently. I’m not going to impress anyone by stuttering and talking in choppy sentences.
She walks toward the Bears fans. Her eyes linger on me for a couple steps. Then she turns her head and assists the couples. Apparently I’m not alone in my interest for Tammy, because the blonde guy’s eyes light up when she approaches. I can’t see her face, but by the way he’s grinning wide-eyed at her, my guess is she’s using the same smile for him that she used for me. Why should that jackass get special treatment, too? He’s already got a girlfriend.
“Are you all doing alright today? Can I take any of your plates for you?”
The blonde guy nods and nudges his plate toward her.
“Aww. Was something wrong with your omelet? You’ve barely touched it.”
She sounds so forlorn. I can picture her eyes reddening around the edges, almost to the point of shedding tears. That bastard better have a good reason.
“Naww, it was delicious.” He wipes his mouth. “I just didn’t come here too hungry. Shouldn’t have eaten a big breakfast, I guess.” He squeezes his girlfriend’s leg, and she squeaks and pushes him away with a .
“Ohh, I seeee.” Tammy releases a bubbly giggle that lasts into the first half of her next sentence: “You’ve got to have an appetite when you walk into IHOP.”
And just like that, she’s all better. Happy customers, happy Tammy. I think I feel better now, too. I’m starting to realize that Tammy’s emotions are contagious. Tammy leans to pick up Blonde Guy’s plate of a half-eaten omelet and a whole regiment of stately home fries, and this time I’m on the other side of her as she leans toward the plate she’s about to pick up. I feel kind of guilty, but I can’t help but watch her butt widen to full-size as she bends over. While she’s still bent over, I see her peek over her shoulder at me. Instantly, I jerk my head directly to my left, where I spot a saggy-skinned elderly man wearing burgundy suspenders opening his mouth to eat a cheese blintz. That looks pretty good.
Tammy returns to my table after dropping off the Bears fans’ plates in the dishroom, and I’m finally ready to order. I’ve already thought out what I’m going to say and do. In the exact order, the exact words I’m going to use with the exact inflection.
“All ready?” she asks, pen in one hand and a pad of paper in the other.
Oh, hell yes, I am. I tilt my head up and try my best to sound like the outgoing go-getter type guy Tammy’s always dreamed of. “Sure am, Tammy. I’ll have a plate of those delectable cheese blintzes this fine establishment is known so well for.” I watch her write it down. I pause for a moment, and before she can ask if I want anything else, I add, “And— why not?— two eggs, overr eeasyy.” A sly grin spreads across my face after I smooth-talk the word “easy” like I’m a suave secret agent type guy. I raise one of my eyebrows for an instant while I maintain the grin— a real subtle eyebrow raise, the kind that serves as more of a suggestion than a demand. She giggles for a second. She thinks I’m funny! I knew planning my order would pay off!
The old man, who was sipping coffee and reading a newspaper, now looks over at Tammy and me and clears his throat.
“You won’t regret that order, son,” he says in his gravelly voice. “I get it every time I come in.”
“And that’s pretty often, huh Mister P?” says Tammy.
I was about ready for Mister P to get on with it and have a fatal stroke already. Here I am making honest-to-God progress with a girl, and he has to open his wrinkly-ass jiggly-jowled piehole and shatter my moment of glory. Does he really have nothing better to do than to come in here and spoil my chances with a waitress one-fourth his age? People like that are supposed to be playing Bingo and imparting wisdom to their grandchildren.
“Yeahh, uhh. I bet you do, sir,” I say. Dammit. I’m slipping back into my regular non-clever way of speaking.
“So, blintzes and eggs, right?” she asks. “I’ll have those for you in a jiffy!”
In a jiffy, even. I’m starting to believe this girl really, sincerely takes an interest in me. How often does a waitress use the word “jiffy?” Not as often as she says something far more generic, like “I’ll bring that out for you in juuust a minute.” Yeah right. What kind of person believes he’ll have his meal in front of him, ready to eat, in a mere 60 seconds? That’s not sincerity when a waitress says that. That’s her just spouting whatever phrase is at the top of her head at the moment. She could have even just gravely nodded at me and headed toward the kitchen to place the order. I’ve gotten that a few times, especially when I eat at Steak ’n Shake after midnight. It’s always the same waitress with her dried-out straw hair, crow’s feet wrinkles, and varicose veins who looks like she used to be dead, but the owner of Steak ’n Shake reanimated her because he couldn’t find anybody else to work overnight.
But “in a jiffy.” Now that took a little bit of thought. And I’m about 95 percent sure I didn’t hear her say that to the Bears fans or Mister P. I look over at the flags of those eight nations and nod my head confidently. I bet no waitress in any those eight sovereign lands used the word “jiffy” in the exact same minute as Tammy said it to me. And that means for the next 40 seconds, I’m a one-of-a-kind.
Tammy walks toward the Bears fans and whispers to them, making big hand gestures. I hear her say the word “easy.” She looks at me over her shoulder for a second. The Bears fans peek over at me, and all four of them and Tammy start laughing. Is she telling them that I’m funny? Hah. I must be making quite an impression.
While I’m still basking in my one-of-a-kindness, Mister P sets down his cup of coffee and folds up his newspaper. He grabs the table with both hands and begins a wobbly attempt to stand up. He shuts his eyes and grunts while stretching his legs and arms to try to stand. A whistling sound escapes his nose when he inhales, and his arms shake from strain. Mouth agape, Blonde Guy’s girlfriend points at the old man. She grabs her boyfriend’s shoulder and starts whispering to him. Blonde Guy scowls at her. He makes some brief reply, but she keeps leaning in toward him to whisper. This time it’s Blonde Guy rolling his eyes instead of his girlfriend. He holds his chin tuft and shakes his head. She grabs his chin and forcefully turns his face toward hers. Blonde Guy’s face turns red.
“Jamie, I told you: he’s fine!” Blonde Guy yells in a crescendo, each word louder than the one preceding it.
“Keith! Shhh!” She puts her index finger to her mouth and glares furiously at Blonde Guy, after which she recommences rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
Meanwhile, Mister P is finally on his feet, supported by his mahogany derby cane. He’s shuffling in my direction, inching forward at a turtle’s pace. Why is he walking toward me? Suddenly, he’s right next to me, and he play-jabs me in my shoulder and chortles.
“I’m an old man, but I still got my eyes, son.” I try to figure out what he’s thinking, approaching a complete stranger who he will never meet again, when he starts beaming at me. “I see you’ve got a thing for cute, young waitresses. Hell,” he says and winks at me. “I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t, too.”
What?! I look around to see if anybody else is listening to Mister P. Blonde Guy and his girlfriend have apparently begun a heated argument while Beefy Guy and his girlfriend try not to notice. All the people at tables surrounding me appear to be minding their business.
“Hush, my boy. You don’t have to say a word. I already know what you’re thinking.”
“What? You, uh. . .You do?”
Mister P invites himself to sit across from me. As the old man turns to sit, Beefy glances over his shoulder at me. He furrows his eyebrows in puzzlement. We make eye contact, and I raise my eyebrows and shrug. Like I know what the hell’s going on. Beefy starts laughing and taps his girlfriend on her shoulder. She averts her stare out the window and cranes her neck back to peek at the crazy old fogey sitting with me. She turns back to Beefy and laughs.
“You know,” Mister P says, and then becomes silent. He stares off into the distance and taps his gnarled fingers on the table. I wonder if Mister P is ever going to finish his sentence, or if he’ll just doze off, right in front of me. I consider calling someone over to help me, but he finally speaks again.
“I was young once, many years ago,” he says. He sounds pained, like he just got hit in the gut. Is he about to start crying on me? I don’t know what I’ll do if he does that. What if Tammy watches as this old man she somehow knows just collapses on me and bawls himself to death? I don’t know what action I’d take to appear confident and in control.
Mister P snaps me back into the real world by reaching his hand out and placing it atop mine. His palm is cool and moist. The wrinkled and leathery back of his hand reminds of dinosaur skin.
“You know, I was a looker in my day. Can you believe that? Me. Yes, an old man now, but a regular Sean Connery in my day.”
I look closer at the man, and it’s true. He looks more like 1960’s James Bond-era Sean Connery than the real Sean Connery does now. Mister P’s got the part in his hair, the long straight brows he can move in any direction he wishes, the deep-set intercrossing forehead wrinkles, the big sleepy eyes. Albeit he’s lacking the Scottish accent, and he’s not wearing the classic Bond black tuxedo with bowtie. I can’t be sure, but I’m also guessing he didn’t drive to IHOP in a silver Aston Martin. But still, there’s a resemblance. And looking at him, it’s hard to believe that Mister P used to be young and debonair enough to woo women with his aura of masculinity. But he must have. He must have made women swoon, made their hearts flutter with a simple glance. A glance was all it took.
“Don’t let these years pass you by, my boy,” he says, now grasping my hand. “You’ll never have ’em back once they’re gone.” He lifts his hand from mine and balls his fingers into a fist. “I’ll tell you what. When they say that youth is wasted on the young, they weren’t kidding. Why, if I were you, I’d have already gotten Tammy’s number.”
Mister P winks at me. I’m about to respond, but he stops me again by placing his palm on my shoulder.
“Don’t say a word, son. You think about what I’ve said, and we’ll leave it at that. Enjoy your cheese blintz.”
Without another word, Mister P puts pressure on his cane and rises to his feet. He shows no sign of struggle this time. He edges away without looking at me one last time. He doesn’t even look at me when his left shoulder passes inches from my face, and I smell his woodsy old man cologne. It’s as if his monologue never happened.
Tammy runs over to him to hand him his check, asking forgiveness for her forgetfulness. He just hands her a twenty-dollar bill, tells her to keep the change, and receives an emphatic hug and a juicy kiss on the cheek. Note to self: leave a good tip. That lucky old codger has Tammy’s breasts pressed into his chest for what must be ten seconds. Boy, what I would do to trade away that minute when I was the only one in the eight IHOP nations to hear the word “jiffy” from a waitress for those ten seconds Mister P’s experiencing right now. Who knows what else he’d do on his way out if he were still daring young man in his prime. He might have smacked her behind and pointed at her, pretending that his hand is a pistol, and winked.
And now, only a minute later as I’m still collecting my thoughts, Tammy carries my meal to my table. I look at the food in her arms and realize that this stop to IHOP is not about eating lunch anymore. Fueled by Mister P’s words of inspiration and infinite wisdom, I am determined to leave this restaurant with Tammy as my own.
“Here are your cheese blintzes,” she says as she places the plate on the table. She pauses between each word and keeps her eyes on the blintzes. She then looks up at me and smiles. “So I saw you chatting with Mister Pierce. He’s such a sweet man, isn’t he?” Tammy asks. “He comes in to visit me every Saturday at lunch time. He was my next-door-neighbor growing up, you know.”
“Yeah. Real. . . Nice guy.”
Wow. I just learned two things. One: Tammy’s a townie. Two: Mister P is a lucky sonofagun. Oh yeah, he acts like he’s the kindly old man from next door who tends to his flower garden in the summer and sprinkles bird seed on his picnic table in the winter. If only she could know what I know. The real Mister P used to be a womanizer back in the day.
“Yeah. I think he thinks of me as the granddaughter he never had,” Tammy says. “He never had any kids of his own. Poor old guy mostly just keeps to himself. I think he’s lonely.”
Lonely? Mister P can’t be lonely. Clearly, she’s wrong. Lonely people are sad, and sad people generally don’t share much in common with celebrities that starred in British spy movies. One cannot be both suave and sad. In my book, that’s enough evidence to acquit Mister P from any allegations of loneliness.
“So what did you and him talk about, anyway?” she asks.
“Oh, uh. . . Nothing.” No, that sounds too stupid, like I’m trying to hide something from her. Which, I guess I kind of am. My eyes pan the room for inspiration. Blonde Guy’s Bears hat is the first object that catches my eye. “We just talked about. . . um.” Tammy cuts the eye contact with me in the middle of my sentence, so I hesitate. “Football.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Tammy says. She tilts her head up and to the side. Something must be wrong, because Tammy has stopped smiling. She flattens her cheeks, and I see for the first time what she must look like when she stares up at the ceiling in her bedroom while trying to fall asleep. To anyone observing her casually, it probably looks like she’s thinking about adjusting the speed setting of the ceiling fan. Seconds pass in silence. My abdominal muscles tighten, and my shoulders tense. Why does someone so happy look so solemn?
“Sometimes I worry about Mister Pierce,” Tammy says. “Me and my boyfriend visited him last week— you know, just to give the guy some company— and he had months of newspapers stacked everywhere, and there was cat hair on everything. And I don’t know. . . He just used to be real tidy and neat.”
What. The. Hell. Did she just say—
“I felt embarrassed for Pete. That’s my boyfriend.”
She said it again! Boyfriend. Boy-friend. Boyfriend. Such an inadequate word for what it really means. A boyfriend is so much more than a friend that is a boy. My insides churn while I try to maintain my composure. I force a thin smile while I contemplate the flaws of the term “boyfriend.” First of all, he’s probably technically a man, assuming that Tammy isn’t dating a minor. Secondly, I’m guessing they get a lot friendlier than typical friends. Ugh. I restrain myself from gagging.
“Well, just let me know if you ever need anything else.”
“S-sure, um. Sure thing,” I say, but with a flick of her ponytail, she’s already gone. One minute she’s there, smiling at me, batting her eyelashes, staring into my eyes, giggling. The next moment— in a jiffy— she mentions that she already has someone, like it’s nothing. And then she’s gone. Just gone.
An eerie sensation creeps over me. With the flat side of my butter knife, I tap notes in rhythmic bursts on the back of my hand. A boyfriend. Pete. What does she do with him? More than going on dates to movie theaters and bowling alleys, I can tell. I saw the table’s edge with the jagged blade end. I can tell by her smile. It’s so free. So easy. I can tell she’s had—my stomach tightens like a vice grip. People don’t just have smiles like that. She must have had— it hurts me to think the word. And all the time, everywhere. In her bedroom. In his bedroom. In the back of his car. In a playground, under the stars, in the sand pit. In a four-star hotel room, so hard that they’re shaking the bottle of champagne in its ice bucket. Chills dance up and down my spine. What does a “Pete” look like? I’m picturing— no, I’m dreading, as my hands tremble, now too shaky to hold a knife—a tall guy with short, dark hair and broad shoulders. He’s got white, evenly spaced teeth. I begin to shiver all over. I bet he used to play football. He was the Quarterback. My teeth chatter. He’s got tan skin and an easy smile. He’s got a six-pack. Hot blood rises to my skin’s surface, and my face reddens.
In my current state, I watch Tammy refill the Bears fans’ glasses with ice water, and I picture her serving them in outfits Pete must see her in all the time: in white lacy underwear; in a red teddy; in black stockings and a g-string; in her fuzzy pink socks and nothing else; wearing nothing besides the smile on her face. Her smile. My feet patter on the tile floor.
And Mister P? His words echo in my head: Why, if I were you, I’d have already gotten Tammy’s number. The hell he would have. What is he thinking, egging me on, knowing all the while about Pete? Is he sadistic or just senile? Fucking packrat bastard.
Having filled Beefy Guy’s glass, Tammy turns and looks at me like chicks are hatching in my mouth.
“Are you OK?”
My response is not spoken in words. Instead, it’s spewed as rancid vomit the consistency of chicken noodle soup on my half-eaten plate of cheese blintzes. My vision dims, and my limbs leaden. My neck becomes rubber, and my face smacks into a pile of my own puke. My last thought before losing consciousness is that I still can’t figure out what country the eighth flag is from.