I pull my rental car into the space. I don’t even notice the smell of cigarettes the car is caked in anymore. Wearily, I get out and walk towards the shopping complex. Somewhere in there is a burger joint, and all I want right now is a burger. And some friends to have dinner with. No, I push that thought out of my mind. I’m an adult. I should be able to handle a meal on my own. Just get my food, get out, go back to the hotel, sleep it off. Maybe tomorrow will be less lonely. I pass by a taco place on my way in. Lots of groups my own age, smiling and having fun. All I can see is groups. No lone wolves like me, leaving the safety of their dens to fill their bellies. I’m too hungry. I waited too long to eat, hoping someone would respond to my pleas for dinner. I don’t know what I expected though. They all have their own lives around here, I’m just an intruder. I can’t expect them to entertain me every time. Finally I reach the burger place I had picked out. A saloon. The crowd here is older, but somehow louder and more lively. A sign reads “Patio Seating - Seat Yourself”. It’s a nice night and the noise of the crowd inside feels like the gnashing of teeth. I retreat to the patio, slip into an unoccupied table. A man from the saloon comes over to me, asks if I plan on drinking anything. “Just a water,” I say, the first words I’ve said aloud in hours. “You’ll have to tell your waitress,” he says, “I’m just here to check IDs.” And then he leaves. I realize why this table was empty. It’s right under the saloon’s neon sign. A few of the tubes are only half-working and crackle loudly as they struggle and fail to light up. Consider moving, realize I just don’t care. Save the quiet tables for others. Nicer to them than I am to myself. I scan the menu and check out all the different kinds of burgers. Make my decision quickly. I’m bored and hungry. Take a book out of my pocket, The Short Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I know I’ve read all of these before, but can’t remember how any go. All I remember is the feelings he invoked. Such melancholy from the mundane. Picked this book for dinner because it feels relatable to my whole trip. And leaning into my melancholy has never gone wrong before, I think to myself sarcastically. The saloon is playing classic rock, just what you would expect based on the crowd. I barely hear it. All I hear is the sad folk music I’ve been listening to all trip. The sad Phoebe Bridgers and Breece D’J Pancake, they know how to capture my feelings. Breece killed himself at 27. That’s just a few years away for me. Will I make it past then?
The waitress finally arrives and asks what I want. I order a burger from the specials, mushrooms and BBQ sauce. “That’s my favorite one,” she says. “It looks really good,” I respond quietly. For a fleeting moment, I want the conversation to continue, try to figure out something else to say. But it passes. The conversation has reached its logical conclusion. It would take a force of personality to ressucitate. “I’ll get that right out for you,” she says as walking away, “My name is Carly if you need anything else.” I repeat the name to myself a few times, determined to use it in a later interaction to feel more of a connection. She goes over to another table, where a group of friends in their 50s are celebrating loudly. Actually they might not be celebrating. They could just loudly be having fun, enjoying each other’s company. They easily joke with the waitress, add her into their revelry. Such a difference from our conversation. Dejected, I look inside, at the TVs in there. They’re all tuned to a hockey game. My town’s team is playing this town’s team. “Better not let them know,” I think to myself. Going to have to hide my emotions. This looks like the kind of crowd that really ‘feels’ their sports. Not just the joy of winning, but actual discomfort from losing. I just want food and to remain unseen, better to just not say or do anything. I cycle between reading Trilobites, watching the game, and watching the group at the table next to me. All three activities contribute to a loneliness, an isolation from everyone around me. The only person who I could explain to isn’t here. He’s forever 27, far away in West Virginia. My team scores a goal. I can’t cheer, can’t give myself in to the temporary joy. Just stare at the screen, stone cold face. Look away, focus on a small gnat climbing on a ketchup bottle on my table. Way more bugs here than I’m used to. Repulsed, consider moving, realize I don’t really care. Where is my burger? Let me out of this place. Let me retreat back to my hotel. Fill my belly up with meat and then nest for the night. I can’t handle this isolation any longer. The laughs from the next table are grating. How are they so damn loud? Why is that sign still crackling? Amazing how it shrinks to nothing and then becomes deafening. Look for solace in my book, look for solace on the screen, check my phone, hoping a friend has something to say. Hell, I’ll even take a “Sorry I’m busy.” Anything to break this cacophony of voices I don’t know. Close your eyes; meditate; focus on your toes. There is nothing but my feet. A growling stomach protests my negligence, breaks the spell. Breathe in; breathe out. Breathe in… Breathe out… It’ll be alright. Just a few more minutes. Not even minutes - there’s your food now. Tell the waitress thank you. This food means more to you than she could possibly know. Now eat it, focus on the deliciousness. Enjoy it, feel your energy come back to you. I start to feel better, watch the game a bit more as I eat. Watch the table next to me, still jealous of thier easy levity, but not so hateful of them as before. I finish my burger, gulp my water down. The local team has tied the game. Doesn’t really matter to me. The waitress takes my plate away, asks if I have room for desert. “Not a fucking chance I’m sitting here any longer,” I think. “No thanks, just the check,” I say. I don’t have to wait long this time. She comes back and I’ve already got my card ready. She runs it quickly, brings me the receipt back, thanks me for coming in tonight, and goes away. As I’m trying to figure out the tip, I realize I never used her name. But that’s alright, I had forgotten it anyways. I feel guilty, leave her a big tip to assuage that guilt. Pat my book in my pocket and get up to leave. Hear a faint song in head as I walk back to the car. “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” it goes.