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May 26, 2023

Fast Casual

Jillian Luft

Fast Casual photo

4:44 am, the timestamp reads. Must’ve been shitfaced when he pressed send. I imagine him smoking and pacing, pacing and smoking before typing with one hand what he stuffs down sober with his cereal. Before saying he’s watching a low-budget action flick on Tubi. He wonders if I’ve seen it. He thinks I’d like it. No, he knows I would. He misses talking to me about everything and nothing. He misses me. Do I want to meet up at our place? Not for old time’s sake but as a fresh start. He wants me to know that some of my “last words” to him got through his dumbass skull. He heard me and he wants to respond. IRL, ha.

It’s been three months since we’ve corresponded. Or rather since I ended our correspondence, drew a boundary that felt like slicing a butter knife through my carotid. Four since we fucked just that once after our only dinner date at our place. A Florida Applebee’s.

Once upon a time, not for a long time, but for a good time—at least to me—Applebee’s had been our place. It was code for our elusive but magnetic bond, an attraction that felt destined and magical and frighteningly beyond our control. A refuge from childhood upheaval, a celebration of the uniquely American hybrid of the tragically banal and the endearingly kitsch. We used to flirt, intimate, declare, confess: “We’ll always have Applebee’s.” “Applebee’s is our Alamo.” “Applebee’s, when we’re here, we’re home.” 

I take a full 24 hours to reply even though my body reverberates DUH. DUH. DUH. like a headboard in a sleazy motel. I type back: Like a farewell tour? Okay, sure. Should I bring a tambourine? He responds two minutes later that I’m more than the girl with the tambourine. I’m the star of the show. He’s just the groupie. I react to this message with a traditional heart emoji but say nothing else. He responds 10 minutes later that he’s ordered Domino’s to celebrate and can’t wait for our reunion tour (italics his). I reply that I’ll order Domino’s, too. But I’m lying. That’s the type of corny crap I did in the past. A way to live parallel lives long-distance. To keep us close and connected. To separate ourselves as special, our own wild, neon-lit attraction. To forget he had a girlfriend.

We met through social media. We scrolled through each other’s pain played for laughs. We replied to each other’s love for the stupid and the esoteric with “ME TOO!” and “Same” and “I think you’re my online soulmate, hehe.” Random gifs communicated how thrilled we were to find our twin lover of all things trash. I don’t remember when we ventured into the inbox. But the chats there were marathon dates. They were easy and droll and intense and vulnerable and revealing and heightened and, eventually, supremely horny. We talked about our tragic childhoods, our comfort films, our kinks. We talked about our hardcore love of chain restaurants: Taco Bell, Chili’s, Applebee’s. We recognized our fondness for the unreal as the realest thing about ourselves.

We could not stop this even if we tried. And we did not try because we did not want to.  We set up a date to meet halfway. A random Applebee’s off the interstate. We ordered our favorite entrees from when we used to frequent this franchise as restless teens. We ordered high-calorie appetizers because we weren’t about to deprive ourselves. We ordered the dessert that sizzles on a skillet. We downed cocktails and beers and tolerable tequila shots. We smoked cigarettes because we were restless adults. We chatted just as easily and as hornily as we did online. We would not stop this even if implored by God or Applebee’s management. It was beyond the scope of anyone’s control.

After we put the to-go boxes in the front seat, we climbed in the back to fuck. A pop song we’d discussed the day before played on the Top 40. Our eyes got wide and knowing while we continued fumbling with zippers, buttons, hooks released from eyes. It’s a song I confessed I liked even though I didn’t get the hype about this particular pop princess. She was so sexless but he said she was a great songwriter. I admitted I appreciated the sartorial metaphor in this particular song, that she referred to herself as a “good girl” in a “tight skirt,” that the lovers cruised toward inevitable danger, as fast as we were going at it now in my Sentra’s backseat. We ended up fully unclothed, seatbelt imprints on our asses like illicit fossils, before we decided to find a roadside motel.

I remember nothing about the room except the way his body filled it. Until he was laid out before me, I didn’t know there were no words for the opposite of the void. I didn’t realize it was just a feeling. Fingers climbing down throats and tongues angling for anywhere that felt soft and receptive. My moans so strange and feral, he stopped to ask if he was hurting me. Funny that he asked when I was on the brink of unknown rapture. Funny-sad.

For our farewell tour, I wear apple-musk perfume, crotchless fishnet tights, shoes that stiffen his cock. I try to temper my expectations. Try to remember how mercurial he can be, how he’s said, This is how I am. I don’t even know myself. But I can only recall how I can sit with him in silence and feel more like myself than I’ve ever been, someone I can love completely for the first time. A self that could love all parts of him completely. The sullen child subsisting on late night cable and his own weird thoughts; the depressed man so steeped in unfun life garbage he can’t imagine the clean and the pure and the warm awaiting him beyond the refuse cluttering up his own mind; the graveyard comedian who wants to stop burying himself with ancient doubts and musty jokes. Who wants to be resurrected. I was ready to revive.

The thing about false hope is it gets you through the day even when it ruins your year.


Spring Break 4-Ever Margaritas, the table tent reads. Spraaang breeeaaak, he does his best James Franco impression while scanning the list of ingredients (bubblegum liqueur, sugar-free Red Bull, a Fireball floater). Flavors So Bright They’re Blacklight-Ready, he reads aloud from the placard, releasing his signature sick-sad-world-weary guffaw. Yeah, imagine what they’d find under that blacklight. Disease and desperation. Harmony Korine’s wrath. He shoots me a sidelong glance. Yes, the joke was funny, I ache to say. I get you. I’ll always get you, you fucking fool.

He puts down his High Life. His pale hand drifts across the table toward mine, disturbing our dirty forks and spotted water glasses. The pad of his thumb strokes my gel-manicured fingers like they’re queer pets. I imagine the cherub smoothness of his palms roving the parts of me currently clenching and quaking underneath this booth. His pillowy fingers used to fill me with softness and reach deep into places I’d never felt until he’d felt them.

His undercover tenderness felt hallowed and potent then, saved up and set aside just for me. A welcome juxtaposition to the pleather-cloaked curmudgeon rolling his eyes at the dreams crumbling all around him, oblivious to the ones he could build with his very capable and gentle hands if he’d take action—any action at all. He tells me I’m still his mistress but I know he’s trying to convince himself. And I let him even though it hurts so fucking much. Does he know how much?

Applebee’s had been a cute metaphor, a pure promise, a waking dream. The tortured spirit of our ineffable connection dissolved in the well drinks; lingered on the gooey laminate of the bartop and the generic Americana hanging on the wood-paneled walls; emanated from the silent screens showcasing global tragedies and AEW matches; pounded in syncopation with the internet radio playing yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s greatest hits. We wanted to haunt this place and for it to haunt us. Forever.

Now it was a sorry reminder of what never was and was never gonna be. Never.

It was just a middling chain restaurant with dented wood and microwaved entrees and a goon busboy seconds away from sloshing his leaky hippocampus into our laps.

Soooo, how’s liiiife?, he asks, yanking his black hoodie over his never-not-sad eyes. Eyes that spread rumors of a lonely and morbid fate he yearns to escape. Sometimes they plead, sometimes they evade but they’re always seeking spaces outside himself that can steady his focus long enough for him to believe in something good and true, to allay his mortal fears. My eyes can’t disguise their open want, begging him to notice, the “Vacancy” sign buzzing lurid-red within their sweet, light green, ready and waiting for him to slip on in and find comfort for as long as he needs. 

How’s life? An innocuous question but hella obnoxious. I know he’s scared shitless that I’ll answer honestly. There’s no more to gain through tact and diplomacy. There’s no place for him in my life no matter what. He’s made sure of that by remaining perpetually unsure of everything.

The last time we spoke through DMs, he talked about his overwhelming ambivalence. He’s guilt-ridden and torn. He’s a better person than me. Even though he doesn’t say it, it’s implied.  He can’t make a choice. At least not right now. And by not choosing, he still chooses her. He still rejects me.

He wants to hear about all the art I’ve consumed in his absence. Every B-movie, every bad true crime doc, every D-list celebrity tell-all, every new pop banger. He wants me to dole out hot goss, pop culture ephemera, inside jokes that feel safe and not too intimate.

I can’t share how I feel about him. Nothing’s changed. I edit out details about my erratic sleeping patterns, my daytime sobbing fits, my Tarot-based revelations. I avoid mentioning my prophetic dreams in which he sometimes features as himself and sometimes as an animal I can’t quite place, one reminiscent of a baby fawn crouching in lavender snow, shyly hobbling toward me, some invisible part of it in need of healing. I refrain from expounding on the obvious dream symbolism and shrug, Life’s fine. You know, it’s…life. I drown my stale tortilla chip in marinara sauce and crunch down hard. He cocks an eyebrow. I keep my eyes on the Classic Combo platter, pretend my dipping was intentional.

Fiine? Nah, I don’t believe that. He’s using his sing-song voice, the one used when he’s hiding from some lurking trauma goblin in his overactive mind or on edge but still clinging to cordiality, one bon mot away from a cigarette break. I’m well-versed in the musicality of his psyche. I excel at identifying his exact emotional tenor and responding accordingly. My heart doesn’t know in which direction it should break, toward him caring too much or not enough. Either way, I’m still his not really. Not now. Maybe later. We’ll see.

I don’t know what you want me to say. My cleavage flames pink in my Red Delicious lycra dress. I try not to think about how this ruins the alluring effect I intended. I aim to entice, to seduce. But dejection cockblocks me. He’s acting as if this is a casual meeting. As if this is some casual restaurant that isn’t loaded with romantic innuendo. As if we’ve ever been a casual pair. Just friends. What a joke.

Oh, c’mon. Give me the tea, he pats my forehead with his menu. I want to maul, to murder, to make subhuman sounds. My eyes reach for hell. I’m already there.

You know how things are. I inhale my watered-down margarita, clasp my mouth tighter around my straw. The salt stings my lipstick. It doesn’t make sense to tell you. Not anymore.

Awww, don’t be like that. He buries my hand in his. I try to curl it into a fist, into something he cannot hold. He begins to crack my knuckles like he did when we first met. My will goes limp, my wrist slackens, my tiny hand swoons at the first instance of pressure. I succumb to his sentimental charade.

With each joint separation, each relieving discharge of pain, he says he’s sorry for the silence, for my messages sent but unseen. He’s sorry that all words fail him apart from dad jokes and mordant quips. It’s complicated and confusing. But we’re here now. We should try and make the most of it.

Make the most of what? What is this even? Can you answer that?

He holds my hand like an injured bird. I wish I could. For you and for me. I don’t want it to be like this.

He could say something about how he feels. Actual words that refer to emotions. He could say something about this supposed fresh start he’d proposed in the mecca of our own making. He could use the potent vocabulary of yearning and desire from all his fave synth-driven bops.

Instead, he groans-pouts. This is not how I wanted this to go, you know? I came here to do it over.  I don’t wanna miss out on this. But at the same time, I’m just so afraid of everything. I’m a mess. You know that.

You can’t keep using that line of defense. My hand squirms in his grip. I knew you were a mess from the beginning. As much as anyone is. And I don’t mind the mess… Remember that dream we shared? Our idea of heaven?

Duh, he winks.

What was it then?

You knoooow, he uses his sitcom voice.

I know I know, I use my sitcom voice. And I know you know. So, say it.

Oh boyyyy, he clears his throat and leans in closer. Okay, here goes. His hair’s slicked forward with the heat of his nerves.

I smile to encourage him, to urge him to continue, to threaten him that he must or else.

Okay, okay, picture this if you will: you, me, in bed, tangled up, our beloved 90s sitcom of choice bathing us with its nostalgic glow, to-go containers strewn about like bedtime confetti. A few empty beer cans by the bedside. But not too many! We talk and laugh and fuck and plan and create and support and sleep. For eternity. Or until you get sick of me. Heaven.

Yep, heaven. And you know what they say?

Oh, I know what they say. To quote Warrant’s Jani Lane, ‘Heaven isn’t too far away.’


But I can see him thinking about what it would take for us to ascend to this scenario, to live it out imperfectly. I watch his mind go black like an idle screen.    

Our waitress returns. How are we doing over here? Her harmless inquiry met with stupefied silence. Kenny Loggins’ falsetto jerks at my heartstrings.

Do you need a box for that Fiesta Lime Chicken?

No, thanks. I withdraw my hand from his and let it claw at my fishnets instead. I try to look normal for the waitress, smile and show off my good posture. I don't live here. It’ll just go bad on my drive home.

Aw, take it with ya! he cajoles and begins singing, Life is a hiiiighway and I’ll eat my party-lime-chicken allll niiiight long.

I want to laugh but won’t give him the satisfaction. Nope. I don’t want any souvenirs from this trip.

Oh dear, he deflects.

Our waitress reaches over my now wilting shape. She clears my plate, retreats and does not look back.

You’re making me sad. I can barely see his eyes. He’s all hood. A skittish goth druid. 

You should be. This is all beyond sad. My throat’s clogged up with miseries, past and present. Some taste like the memory of him in my mouth. Some taste like Patron. Any moment I will taste my tears instead, so I rummage around in my purse. My hands scramble deep inside but touch nothing.

I gotta pee.

Okay, I’ll go smoke then.

Our asses squeak against the vinyl in unison. We scoot our way toward safety.

When we’re both standing, he squeezes my shoulder and says, See you in a bit like it’s some sweet something. I bolt past him and the bar and the TVs and my self-respect straight into the ladies’ room.

I pee and cry. Cry and pee. Wipe and cry. Cry and wipe. The mesh leopard underwear dangling around my knees mock me for thinking we’d fuck in this bathroom one last time. I consider rubbing myself raw just to feel something besides humiliation. Or maybe to feel completely debased. My fingers hover over my clit while I conjure him naked and waiting for me to lower myself onto his unshaven face so he can taste my anticipation. But the image is too tender to waste on a mid orgasm. I can only think of what I want to be for him. What I want us to be for each other. We could be the best versions of ourselves. At least better than we are now.

He’ll waste all his best material on someone else, someone who won’t detect his clever wordplay, who won’t catch the obscure references, someone who will giggle but only from their diaphragm. Not from their soul. I think about how we’ll never make it to that mammoth South Florida mall, the one that loomed so large in our imaginations when we were young. We’ll never hold hands there while feigning a search for obsolete gems like Spec’s Music or Waldenbooks. We’ll never kiss like dorks among the jungle sounds of the Rainforest Cafe. We’ll never grab a drink or more in some charming hole and play songs for each other on the jukebox till last call.

I’ll never explore those parts of his body that intrigued me, but because I was too dazed with passion, I was remiss in giving them my full attention. I wish I’d fondled his kneecaps or nuzzled into his armpit and sprinkled soft kisses there. I wish I’d smelled his chest hair just once. I’ll never trace his bad tattoos with my tongue and make up hysterical origin stories for each. I’ll never find out his favorite Gremlin or his least favorite way to die. I’ll never learn the character he most identified with in Clueless or the books that inspired his short-lived bouts of optimism.

I scald my hands, scrub away the what-ifs. I avoid my face in the mirror, afraid to confront the wan and tired woman dolled up like a chic slut.

When I push open the bathroom door, a hard rock song with possibly the greatest guitar riff of all time pierces the early bird quiet. It’s a song we added to a collaborative Spotify playlist weeks after we first met. One we’d discovered we’d both sung the same few lyrics incorrectly the same exact way for years and years. One of those coincidences that we began to take for granted.

He’s waiting in the booth. His hood is off. He’s picking at a cold quesadilla wedge. He is drumming his fingers on the tabletop. When he spots me, he smiles. Timid but genuine.

I smile back, offer a deeply felt Hey and squeak my way back into the booth, looking into his never-not-sad eyes. But they look less sad now. I want to look away before they change back but I don’t. I hold on and try to reignite my belief in the power and enchantment of Applebee’s.

We let the song speak for us. The lead singer warns, or maybe rejoices, about change and how nothing stays the same. We still say nothing but we’re hearing each other clearly for the first time that day.

The song continues to play to its propulsive end. Using his empty High Life as a microphone, he bellows those wrong words we believed were right for so long. He knows how this will move me. How it will wear me down. When he thrusts the bottle in my direction, I grab hold and nail the frontman’s comical spoken interlude. He’s laughing with those hidden but vital parts of him. The ones ready to dream deep and put their faith in his conception of heaven. The ones that earnestly cherish places like this where some people know your name and some don’t depending on what it is you’re longing for. I wonder what he’s longing for as he shouts along with the singer, “One break, coming up!”

Sorry to interrupt but I wanted to let you know it’s still happy hour. 2-for-1 if you guys want another.

Our waitress is back and giving us one last shot.

We’re lost now to everything but this moment, this song, this place, each other. We’re lost but we aren’t ready to lose. Not just yet. We know the waitress is waiting for what we’ll decide. We’re hoping one of us will eventually say what we’ve both been thinking.