He said that if he hadn't come here, he would have gone to San Francisco. "Really? They're such different kinds of places." I was sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee, blowing on it before taking small sips and trying not to burn my tongue.
"They're not so different to a kid in Iowa who only wants three things: a city, an ocean, a way out." He counted these three things on his fingers, long and slender, capable. Piano hands, my mother would've called them.
"I can understand that," I said, flipping over the menu and trying to decide if I wanted breakfast or lunch. "I'm not from here myself. Most people aren't, not in this part of the city, anyway. We're all transplants, we come expecting to leave after our graduation or promotion or whatever, but most of us wind up staying. We get sucked in. Heck, I've been here eight years already, but I only intended for it to be three." I skimmed through the specials. Nothing sounded good but my stomach was hallow and the coffee was making me shake. The boy from Iowa was folding a paper napkin into triangles with his shoulders hunched and his body resting heavily on the bar top. "So do you think you'll stay?"
"Too early to tell, I guess. I got a kid sister back home. She's not a kid anymore, not really anyway, but I'm all she has and I feel responsible for her, you know? Like I should go back and take care of her or something."
"But you don't want to do that."
"No." He looked away, scratched his chin with the back of his hand. "I can't go back. It just- I can't."
"How old is she, your sister?"
"That's not too young."
"No. She's going to be alright. I mean, she's studying to become a nurse and is living in some old house with a couple other girls. They seem nice, a kind of makeshift family, I guess, but I'm trying to get her to move away, if not here than somewhere else. Somewhere with opportunities, you know? Chicago isn't far for her and she's bright. She could get a job I think, she could be happy." He trailed off, his eyes staring at something only he could see. The waitress brought out a club sandwich and put it in front of him. Without moving his gaze he raised a french fry to his mouth and took his time chewing it.
"I'll have one those those," I said, making up my mind and gesturing to his plate. "A side of extra ketchup too, please."
"You got it," the waitress said, feeling her apron pocket for her pencil and looking at the boy. "You okay?' she asked, calling him back from the place his mind had journeyed. "Everything alright?"
"Yeah," he said absently. "Everything's fine." He picked up half of the sandwich and began to eat, still taking time with his chewing, still vacantly staring at the back of the bar.
"It will be," I said. "You know that, don't you?"
He glanced over at me, skeptical, tired. "I guess." He wiped his hands on a napkin and reached for his wallet. He put twelve fifty on the counter and began to eat again, faster now. When he'd finished the sandwich he flashed me a weak smile and gave his shoulders a little shrug. "I mean, of course everything's gonna be fine. It has to be. You know?"
Photo taken last year, somewhere in America.