than some stupid feeling in your stomach
like everything else
Pete has no idea how he ended up working at a vegan diner. It's like he went in and suddenly he worked there. And now he can't remember a time in his life when he didn't know how to make a vegan Italian sub sandwich, run a credit card, and calculate 7% sales tax on anything in under two minutes flat. He's timed it.
That's almost a lie, though, because there's so much he does remember. Every night when he doesn't sleep, every morning when he doesn't have to wake up because he never fell asleep, he remembers all the girls who said they loved him but lied and the one guy who never said it at all. All the bands that never went anywhere. All the tattoos that never hurt enough and all the cigarettes he never smoked, just held, because all the people holding cigarettes looked so much more comfortable. He never felt more comfortable, never felt comfortable at all.
He remembers, really fucking vividly, the night he went to sleep in his car desperately hoping to never wake up again, only to fucking wake up in a hospital. He doesn't even remember who he called right before he fell asleep from all the pills.
But those memories are just bits and pieces, nothing that fits together to make a life. What makes a life is knowing off the top of his head that a bottle of water, plus tax, is $2.14.
A life is having ideas. That kid in the car would never have done out the math on a piece of paper before suggesting cutting down the price of a bottle of water to $1.87 so that kids could pay $2 even for a bottle of water and not have to worry about digging for change. The kid in the car? He never would have felt so fucking proud when his boss checked the receipts the week after they implemented the policy and saw that they sold 20 bottles more than the week before. Week two they sold 32 bottles on top of that.
Pete's not that kid in the car anymore. Maybe he's learning what a life is.
His mom thinks it's because they left Chicago, left all the "bad influences" behind. A few weeks of bad kid boot camp didn't change Pete, but leaving Chicago forever did. In the New Jersey hardcore scene, nobody gave a shit about a kid from a bunch of failed Chicago hardcore bands. There were more failed New Jersey hardcore bands than anywhere else Pete could think of. He was nothing special.
The best part was really that he didn't have to be anything special. It was fucking surprising, how nice it was to not feel like he had to be anybody but a kid in the mosh pit, sweating and flailing, screaming along to Wes Eisold and Jake Bannon and Rob Fusco. Fuck it, he never had to be anybody else.
It's really fucking hard to remember why he thought he did.
Now, he's someone, but he's not someone special. He's just the kid behind the counter at the vegan diner the next town over. His parents were so proud that he actually managed to get and keep a job that they bought him a fucking car. Okay, it's a '95 Ford Aerostar station wagon, but it's a car. That Pete can drive by himself. For getting a job at a diner. Pete sometimes wonders what they'd've done if he'd managed to finish college.
(Once he told Frank, the guy who owns the diner, that he was thinking—is maybe still thinking—about going back to school, maybe going to Rutgers like Frank had, getting that econ degree, doing something. He doesn't know what. Frank had shaken his head and said, "Don't be one of those hardcore edge Rutgers assholes, man," and that was the end of that. Frank's younger than Pete by, like, a year, but he seems so much fucking older. Man, the dude owns a diner.)
Okay, so maybe Pete does remember how he got the job at the diner. He ran into this guy he used to hang out with (for value of "hang out with," read "have a giant crush on, get heart broken by").
The dude was all like, "Hey, Pete, you should come work at this diner my friends just opened," and Pete was all, "Uh, I can't fucking work at a diner, are you kidding, do I look like a waitress?"
But the dude, Mikey, was all, "No way, man, just come meet Frank and Jamia, they'll hire you, I know what I'm fucking talking about."
So, as a joke, Pete showed up at the diner wearing roller skates and a pink beehive wig that he bought for a Halloween costume he never wore. It was supposed to be funny, but this tiny little guy with more tattoos than Pete has took it really seriously and offered Pete nine dollars an hour for when he wears the roller skates and eight dollars an hour when he doesn't.
Pete worked his first shift in roller skates—the 2 PM to 2 AM shift on a Saturday night—and makes $108 in cash, so he figured the guy, Frank, must have been serious.
"Is that why you always wear the roller skates when you work the counter?" Gerard asks. He blows the smoke from his cigarette away from Pete, not like it matters. Gerard is suffused in fucking cigarette smoke. Pete can tell he's coming from almost a block away sometimes. Gerard always smells like sweat, cigarette smoke, and paint.
Pete looks down at his scribbled-on Vans. Tonight he's working the kitchen—he promised Bob his part of the tips if Bob would call in sick so that Pete could work with Gerard. Not that anyone comes in on Sunday nights; Pete's 20% of the counter tips is gonna be about $5, maybe, not even that. Which means that Bob, like every fucking other person Pete knows, knows that Pete has a sick crush on Gerard and wants to be around him all the time. He probably just took pity on Pete's pathetic heart.
Bob's a good guy.
"Yeah," Pete finally replies. He squints at Gerard; the sun is setting behind Gerard's head, shining blue off Gerard's hair. "I mean, I'm sure he'd pay me whatever anyway, even if I didn't wear the skates, but now it's, you know." He waves a hand.
"Now you're the skate guy. It's your thing." Gerard nods. "Yeah, it's like how I'm the smelly weirdo who lives in his mom's basement."
"You're an artist," protests Pete. "You work in her basement."
Gerard looks at him for what feels like the longest moment of Pete's life, then takes a drag on his cigarette. "Mm-hmm," he hums.
He makes Pete feel totally transparent, which is only fair, because he also makes Pete feel totally invisible sometimes. And dudes who are transparent? They are invisible. That sounds like it could be almost profound, but instead it's just lame like a 12 year old with a crush.
Which is, more or less, Pete knows, what he is.
"Yeah," he says, and he has no idea what to say after that. Luckily, some girl is walking up, grinning at them.
"Hey, you guys, are you still open?" she asks, tossing her hair. She's got green streaks at her temples, like a fucked up superhero.
"Yup," says Pete, standing up. Gerard motions to put out his cigarette. "No, dude, stay. I'll take the order."
"Thank god," says the girl. "I feel like I'm going to die if I don't get one of those chicken sandwiches, like, right now."
Pete knows how she feels. He feels like he's going to die all the time, sometimes.
The girls in Chicago are just as tough as the girls in Jersey, but less forgiving. Or maybe Pete had been less forgiving of himself. Or maybe he just picked the bad ones, the crazy ones, the hateful ones because he was bad and crazy and hateful. That's shrink talk, but sometimes it almost makes sense. Well, forget all the girls in Chicago. All of them.
Pete fell in love for the first time with Mikey. He doesn't like to talk about it, because Mikey fucking broke his heart when he started dating Pete's first Jersey girlfriend, Alicia. Alicia was fucking awesome, played the bass a million times better than Pete ever did. She had long, strong, clever fingers, and whenever Pete would open his mouth to whisper something stupid in her ear, she kissed him instead of listening.
They didn't exactly break up, they just kind of faded away. She was only good for fucking anyway, because she always made Pete feel stupid, like total shit. She never laughed at his fucking jokes, always made a face when he tried to hold her hand. She was fucking harsh, and it works for her—still does. But it doesn't work for Pete. Didn't.
Mikey kind of did the same thing, anyway. It was worse than Alicia because, instead of knowing that they were just fooling around, Mikey pretended like he didn't even fucking have a clue. Not that they were fooling around—Pete kissed Mikey twice. Maybe three times. Mikey showed up in Pete's life somehow, and Pete doesn't even remember it. It was just a few weeks after Pete moved to Jersey, before any of the meds kicked in for real, before Pete could sleep sometimes.
Without the guys from Chicago to exhaust him, beat the shit out of him, run him around until he was exhausted and falling over, Pete just didn't sleep. And Mikey made him not want to sleep, like if Pete slept, he'd miss something. Pete just wanted to be around Mikey all the fucking time, and Mikey didn't care. He would come over and sleep on Pete's bed while Pete stayed awake all night and watched him dream and wrote stupid poetry on Mikey's sneakers, so that every time Mikey woke up, there was something new for him to look at. Tribute, maybe, like Mikey would like him more if Pete could prove his worth.
Mikey made Pete's palms sweat, and his stomach hurt. When Mikey smiled, Pete couldn't swallow. It was like being paralyzed all the time, so afraid he'd do or say the wrong thing and Mikey would just quit being his friend. Except Mikey acted totally normal, and never even told him about Alicia. Pete saw them together at a show that he wasn't supposed to have gone to. Holding hands.
Pete never said anything, just quit inviting Mikey over for sleepovers and movies. Fuck him, man. Fuck that.
It was the first time, the very first time, that Pete knew he was better than that shit. He is better than that. That's why every time someone asks if he and Mikey dated, he bites his tongue. Because they did, except Mikey never even fucking knew it, and Pete is better than that.
Pete is better than his broken fucking heart, even if he did have to put his fist through a wall to prove it.
Pete thought he was in love with Patrick, this kid he met at a Thursday show. Pete left early so that he wouldn't have to hear fucking "Signals Over the Air," which the stupid radio stations play constantly because Thursday is a hometown band, and bumped into him. Totally an accident. The kid was pudgy, with red hair, wearing a really fucking unfortunate argyle sweater, but he was humming along, and his voice was everything Pete had always wished his voice was.
That was it, Pete's stomach in his throat, butterflies all the way up and down his torso, even some tingling in his fingers. He could either fuck this up entirely, or make a friend for life—he knew it instantly.
He threw an arm around the kid's shoulder and said, "Hey, man, I'm Pete, we should start a band."
The kid laughed at him, a tiny little perfect on-key giggle, and Pete's stomach flipped. He remembers every single second, the way the kid's mouth was so red and his skin so white, the way he was sweating, hot under Pete's arm over his shoulder.
"Sure," the kid finally says, and it's in a Chicago accent, and Pete almost dies right there.
"You're from Chicago!" he yells.
"I'm Patrick," says the kid, and holds out his hand like Pete's gonna do anything but give him a hug.
Except two weeks later, at the diner's one month anniversary, Pete's standing with Patrick when Frank comes running up, grabs him away, and shoves him behind the counter.
And there's Gerard. And Pete doesn't feel anything. By the time he realizes that he's babbling, Frank is laughing at him, and telling him to flirt on his own time. His face flares red, but Gerard is smiling at him like the sun shines out of his ass.
"I'm on register, you're doing food," says Gerard, and the bell dings, order's up!, and Pete shuts his fucking mouth—for once, thank god—and turns, and pulls the food, and it's like he and Gerard have been working together for their whole lives.
"Mashed potatoes," he reads off the receipt, out to the crowd of kids standing around waiting. "Fish sticks, and..." he trails off, grabs a paper bag, and bags two chocolate chip cookies. "Two chocolate chip cookies!"
"That's mine," says a kid with total scene hair. He's rocking a tie around his neck, but it's under his button-down shirt. And totally opposite his scene hair is his mountain man beard scruff. It's super hot.
"Cool beard," says Pete, and the bell dings again. Next to him, Gerard is taking someone's order for, "A burger. Really well done on the outside. Like burnt."
"He means that," says the bored kid standing next to the kid ordering. Blonde hair, and the worst mustache Pete's ever seen in his life. "Burnt or nothing."
"And," continues the bored kid in a monotone flatter than Alicia and Mikey put together, "I want it with Nayonaise. But if you make your own, I want it with ketchup. And—do you have pickles? No pickles? Then I want it with onion, but not a lot of onion. Just enough to taste. And—"
Gerard is grinning at them, too, but not the way he grinned at Pete, so Pete will let them live.
It's a couple of hours before Pete and Gerard can take a break, but Pete doesn't care. Patrick's hung around, writing music. Literally. Like it's a secret language, or something.
Pete introduces Patrick and Gerard like this:
"This is my Patrick. 'Trick, this is my Gerard."
It's a slip of the tongue, and Pete's ready to laugh it off, but Gerard solemnly loops an arm around Pete's and grabs his hand. "Nice to meet you, Patrick," he says.
But then he acts like nothing happened, like Pete lays claim to people every day, like it was totally fucking meaningless. Pete knows something serious is going on, because normally it would drive him crazy, but he doesn't care. He just doesn't care. He just—he just wants to be there every time Gerard smiles. He wants it more than he wants to listen to Patrick sing old-school Motown hits. He wants it more than he wants his car.
He wants it more than he ever wanted to die.
That's how he knows it's serious. That's how he knows it's love.
Pete hadn't realized it at first, but Gerard is Gerard, Mikey's addict older brother who Pete had never even seen. And from the moment he realizes that he's been flirting with Gerard, he expects Mikey to show up at his house and threaten him with a broken beer bottle or, like, his eyelashes. He's waiting for the "Don't hurt my brother" speech, and also maybe one that goes, like, "How fucked up are you, fucker?"
Neither ever comes. In fact, Mikey ignores him.
That almost hurts, but fuck Mikey—Pete's got Gerard.
"How much do you hate yourself?" Gerard asks abruptly. They're sitting in the diner, on the counter. Pete is mouthing along with the Ashlee Simpson song Jamia put on—"Say you'll be my girls for life, girls for life, say it twice, say it twice"—and Gerard is chain smoking. They're both just waiting for Frank and Jamia to be finished cleaning the kitchen. Pete did dishwashing duty while Gerard was on the counter and Frank and Jamia cooked, and it was awesome. It was like—like—click-click-click, everything falling into place.
Pete has never belonged anywhere the way he belongs in this fucking diner.
"Huh?" he asks. He isn't sure he heard Gerard right. Sometimes the dude mumbles.
"How much do you hate yourself?" Gerard repeats. He's quit trying to blow smoke away from Pete, that is how long they have known each other. Like three months already. That is a fucking long-ass friendship, especially in New Jersey time.
Jersey time is not like anything else Pete's ever experienced. He's lived a whole lifetime since they moved here, and it has only been a few years.
"I don't know. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Why?" Pete rubs his right eye. It's been hurting all day, almost like he's getting pinkeye or something, but all that's on his finger when he pulls it away is eyeliner and an eyelash.
Gerard motions toward the ground with his cigarette, and Pete looks down at his sneakers. "I want to something something something as I hate myself."
"I want to hate you half as much as I hate myself." Pete rubs the eyeliner off onto the Sharpied words. "I just write things down, you know, to get them out of my head."
"Yeah, I get that. Man, I fucking get that," says Gerard. His voice is all husky and nasal and New Jersey. Like, if New Jersey existed as a person, it would be Gerard. Pete says that and Gerard giggles. "Sure, man, me and the mafia, that's New Jersey."
"And pizza," says Pete. "Although it's not, like, Chicago pizza. Nothing is like Chicago fucking pizza. God, it's like five slices of Jersey pizza all stacked up, and way better sauce."
"Don't tell my mom that. My grandpa owned a pizza place. She'd flip," says Gerard, but he giggles again. "Plus she has scary Jersey pride."
"Unlike everyone else's Jersey pride?" Pete grins, and bumps his shoulder into Gerard, who ashes all over Pete's jeans.
"Do you miss it?"
"Miss Chicago?" Pete thinks for a few minutes. Does he miss Chicago? Well, yeah. It's where he grew up. "It's like... Chicago is where my feet fit into the sidewalks, you know? I know everything about it, and it's... it's like... it's like that's where I belong. That's where I gotta be buried. That's probably where I'm gonna die, man. Chicago. But this is where I am now, and there's nothing like New Jersey."
"Good," says Gerard, which is weird, but Pete doesn't have any time to ask him what he means, because Frank is coming out of the kitchen.
"Motherfucker, did you just say there's nothing like New Jersey? Because there is no-fucking-thing like Jersey, bitch!" he hollers, and flicks Pete with a wet towel, and it's on.
But when Pete drives Gerard home to Belleville (seriously, a 1995 Ford Aerostar), he lets the engine idle in front of Gerard's mom's house.
"What did you mean?" Pete asks.
"When?" Gerard pulls out his cigarettes and lights one, ashes it into one of the empty pop cans Pete has lying around. There's not even anything to ash, but Pete's known Gerard for three months (a lifetime), and he knows that Gerard ashes more when he's nervous.
Which is weird, because Pete thinks of Gerard as this guy who is so together. Gerard's the guy who kicked his addictions all by himself, not the guy who went to sleep in the parking lot of a Best Buy—
But Pete's not that guy anymore either. Pete's a new fucking person.
"When you said good, back at Skeleton." Pete drums his fingers along with basslines when he's nervous, and fucking Thursday's on the goddamn radio, but at least it's a good bassline. Pete hates fucking "Dying in New Brunswick." He fucking loves New Brunswick.
"Oh." Gerard's quiet. Under the bass, Pete can hear the paper around the tobacco crackling as it burns. "I just meant..." Gerard stops, ashes, deep breath, ashes. Pete watches the cherry light up the darkness. "I just meant that it's good that you're here, and not in Chicago, so you can't die."
When Pete looks at his face, he's looking at Pete from under his eyelashes. And maybe it's stupid, because Pete's mother's always saying that there's no one moment, Peter, there are always second chances, but this feels like the moment, the moment, when time stretches out and anything could happen and the moment will never fucking end, not ever, so he leans over and presses his mouth against Gerard's.
Gerard's lips are chapped, and wet, and he tastes the way he smells, like cigarettes and paint and sweat and a little like the diner, and he makes a noise that sounds the way Pete feels, like this moment will never end, like he can't feel anything because Pete's around. Or maybe Pete just wants to believe that because that's how he feels, like he can't feel anything. He doesn't feel anything when Gerard is around; he's too wrapped up in how Gerard is there.
Gerard opens his mouth like he's going to talk, and Pete has the panicked feeling that Gerard's going to—ruin it. Say something that will hurt, or make Pete feel stupid, or—
"Don't say anything," whispers Pete against Gerard's mouth.
"I was only going to say that you should let me put my cigarette down," whispers Gerard back, and then he giggles, and it is there, all the feelings, they're there, they're just all over the place and not in Pete's stomach. There's no flip-flop, it's all—it's all kissing.
prologue: the skyline unfolds into explanation
In this dream Frank has sometimes, he's a total rockstar, and he has fucked up costumes and cool makeup and an action figure and everything—but he doesn't have Jamia. He always wakes up from this dream sweaty and feeling gross, and when he looks in the bathroom mirror, he's kind of shocked that he doesn't have makeup smeared all over his face. In his dreams, his trademark is a big X over each eye.
Frank shuffles back into the bedroom, looking at Jamia sitting up in their bed. It's one of the things they really splurged on when they moved into this apartment, finally—the bed and the fridge. "We'll have this bed for the rest of our lives," Jamia had said, and Frank was too busy feeling astonished once again that she planned to spend the rest of her life with him to combat that with any stunning and brilliant comebacks. He didn't have any comebacks anyway, so that worked out just fine.
"Another one?" Jamia looks worried.
"Yeah, did I wake you?" He slides in under the covers, and she puts her arms around him. They've talked about the dreams before, how strange it feels to be in front of a crowd again, even just in a dream. It's everything he gave up when Pencey Prep died—it should be fucking perfect, but it's all meaningless because he doesn't have her.
She calls him "stupid" but he's pretty sure that she means "I love you."
"No, just when you got out of bed." She sleeps in old Eyeball Records t-shirts, and nothing else. Sometimes socks. The t-shirt is rucked up around her waist, so when Frank slides his hand, it slides over her skin. Super soft, freckles, pale... he can't see it in the darkness of their bedroom, but he can see it in his mind. "Are you wishing you'd never given up Pencey?"
"No," replies Frank honestly. "That was a clusterfuck. And we sounded just like every other stupid band out there. Nothing different, nothing special. Hell, I couldn't even get the other guys to take it seriously, it's not like—"
"But you loved it." Not a question; a statement. A totally accurate statement.
"But it wasn't going anywhere. I mean—" He looks up at her. "Fuck being a rockstar. I mean musically."
"I know. It wasn't a fun hobby because it stopped being fun. I just wanted to check." She squeezes him a little tighter. They've had this conversation before, and they probably will again.
"I miss it, though. The shows. Guitar. Playing with my own band instead of whoever needs an extra guitar in the studio." Frank nudges his face under her t-shirt, under her arm, and licks the side of her breast, her nipple. "I want—I don't know. To do something."
"You're doing plenty right now," jokes Jamia, and Frank obligingly sucks, gnaws, bites just a little, and listens to her breathing hitch.
It took them years to get out of the habit of stifling moans, and sometimes Jamia still does it, like they're eighteen again, and living in their parents' houses, sneaking away, making out in Frank's bedroom while his mom makes dinner downstairs.
Frank goes down on her with two fingers inside, not thrusting them, just moving them around inside her the way he knows she likes. He runs his tongue over the top of her clit, moving it back and forth with little motions until she comes. It sounds like she's biting her hand. Maybe she's being courteous of the neighbors.
He looks at her for a while, splayed out on the bed, panting, her shirt pushed up to her neck. Her boobs are fucking magnificent. She's like a painting or something. He's totally into the way her calf muscles curve, the way her foot arches, the way her thighs round. "I love you," he says, and strokes himself a few times, then holds tight at the base of his cock, and leans up between her thighs. She's fucking tight, hot as hell, and her legs come up to twine with his. It's a bad angle for her to come again, but it's a good angle for him. He flips them over anyway, so that he's the one on his back. They almost roll off the bed, but she catches herself with her arms pressed against the wall, and he stops with a foot on the floor.
This way, on his back, he can watch her boobs, and her face, and make out with her, and squeeze her hips, and even run his hands over her feet. Fuck yeah.
They fall back asleep sweaty and stuck together, with Jamia half on top of him, her cold toes pushed against his leg.
But Frank has the dream again—fucking thrashing on the guitar, doing spins, jumping off amps, while the lead singer, who has super fucking bleached blond hair and more makeup than Frank on his blurry face, screams into the mic, "This band saves lives!"
Frank wants to save lives, even if he doesn't know how he would do that. He wants it more than he wants his stupid job at Eyeball Records, filling in on guitar in the studio sometimes, mostly pushing papers and answering phones and solving problems. At least it gets him into a bunch of shows for free, where he and Jamia can drink cheap beer and watch decent bands
who, like Pencey Prep, are just never going to go anywhere. Maybe one major label release, maybe, and for the guys in the bands, that would be enough, Frank guesses. Just one last hurrah before they become fucking adults.
He doesn't mind being an adult. He minds being fucking boring. He minds doing nothing with his life except sitting around, waiting to get older. Jamia has all these suggestions, He should start a band. He should volunteer somewhere. He should shut his fucking face and stop whining.
That one she says in a mild tone of voice, but he knows he's pissed her off. She's in an even worse situation, working across town for a bunch of lawyers. She drives to work in an old, creaky car, and has to pay for gas, and has to wear "business casual," which looks like mostly other people's regular clothes. And the fucked up thing is that she does it for Frank - she does it so that they have health insurance. She could do just about anything else to pay her half of the rent and the utilities and stuff, but she does this because Frank is always hurting himself somehow, and needing to go to the doctor or the emergency room, needing antibiotics or some shit, and without health insurance they'd be fucked.
And Frank knows it's really unfair of him to complain how unfulfilling his job is when he's got this amazing girlfriend whose job is even more unfulfilling, boring, stupid, pointless.
He makes it up to her with food: a vegan chocolate velvet cake, with perfect icing, and one, slightly messy, piped white rose.
"I just want to change people's lives," he tells her, because he's a fucking asshole and she's a glutton for punishment. His mouth is full of cake, which is fucking good, thank you very fucking much. "I want—"
"I know what you fucking want, and I am telling you to either go out and get it or shut the fuck up and let me be miserable in peace. Did I tell you that today that the frigid bitch actually yelled at me for not writing a letter she never told me to write? I want her fucking dead." Jamia glares at Frank, then down at her cake, sighs, and takes a bite.
"Sorry," he mutters, and feels like a fucking shit. He pulls out a cigarette and lights it, even though they totally made a deal that they wouldn't smoke while they ate anymore. He's fucking bad at holding up his end of any deal involving smoking.
He smokes while she eats her cake. "The lawyers are all assholes," he finally says. "Want me to kill them for you?"
She grins at him. "That would be awesome, but I need you to not be in jail."
"Hey, I'm Italian! Killing people and getting away with it is in my fucking blood." He grins back.
"This is really good cake, babe," she finally says.
"I know, right? It's fantastic!" And Frank is distracted for a moment, off and running with his adventures in apple cider vinegar and applesauce and whether to use hydrogenated or non-hydrogenated margarine.
Frank can't sleep. He keeps hearing the line in his head from his dream: This band saves lives.
Frank wants that. He wants to make a fucking difference. He wants to do something that no one else is doing. Maybe a record label, but what bands would he sign? He could find the bands. Make clever t-shirts, and one inch pins with skeletons on them, and have showcases, and—be kind of like Eyeball, but more indie.
Except if there's music involved, Frank wants to be the one playing the music. Having a guitar in an office does shit if it's not in Frank's fucking hands. Jesus. So what then? Another band? Fuck no. He doesn't want his dream to rely on three or four other people and getting along with them. He doesn't want to be another dirty smelly guy in a fucking van, away from Jamia for weeks at a time, miserable without her.
Jamia rolls out of bed, and pads to the bathroom. "I can hear you thinking!" she calls over her shoulder. Frank listens to the sounds of her peeing, wiping, flushing. He can picture every movement in his head. He doesn't get why he needs this something else so much more when he has Jamia. She should be enough for him, she should be his whole life—because she is. But it's not enough, not in the way Frank needs it to be.
When he says this to her, she laughs. "Fucking good. Bitch, I don't want to be your whole world."
He leans over and blows a farting noise on her stomach just to hear her laugh again.
"You know what I was thinking about with all of your saving lives shit? I was thinking about a vegan restaurant," she says, and he stills. "Veganism is about saving lives. Why don't we share that with people? Fuck, even if we can't get them to understand what happens to the environment when so many people eat meat, even if they don't care about their bodies, maybe we can save some goddamn fluffy bunnies."
Frank considers what she's talking about.
She keeps going before he can even say anything. "It's not just that it's important, either. I actually think it could work. There are no vegan places around here. We almost never go out, and when we do, we have to be so fucking careful when we order shit. Oh, does that have cheese in the sauce? Is that rice made with chicken broth? Can you make that without fish sauce? I mean, it's fucking ridiculous."
She rolls over so that they're face to face. "Make a difference in my life," she tells him.
He's totally still, more still than he's ever been before in his whole life. Like he couldn't fucking move even if he wanted to.
She keeps going: "Veganism is more than just a social statement. Assholes are always calling it a social statement. But it makes a real difference, we both know it does. It makes lives better—ours. Put it out there. We could open a diner."
Frank closes his eyes for a second, and when he opens them again, she's grinning. "I should videotape this for your mom. Frank Iero: speechless for the first time." She tweaks his nipple, the one with the nipple ring, and rolls over. She tucks herself into him so that she's the little spoon. "Goodnight, motherfucker, dream of a diner this time."
He doesn't. He doesn't dream of anything. He doesn't sleep.
Frank stays awake all night, planning. He plans the whole diner—'50s style, real waitress uniforms that button down the front. Maybe rollerskates! Punk rock on the PA system, and kids with tattoos and piercings everywhere. Not just a diner, but a place where they could teach people, even just by osmosis, that veganism isn't just about saving the fucking fluffy bunnies.
Maybe live music. Maybe all vegan food, not vegan and vegetarian. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
He finally falls asleep, sleeps through Jamia's alarm that goes off early, and his alarm that goes off later, and makes it into Eyeball an hour late. Nobody gives him the stinkeye, though, so he just spends the day drinking coffee and pretending to sort through demos while he has elaborate fantasies about industrial waffle irons.
"We couldn't afford it," he says a few days later. "I mean—I've been looking, and—"
"Looking at what?' Jamia's making pancakes in a tank top and a pair of Frank's old boxers that stretch tight across her ass. Her boobs jiggle everywhere; Frank likes that better than pancakes, for sure. "Don't tilt back on your fucking chair, bitch, you know you'll fall over. I'm not sitting in the goddamn emergency room on my day off."
Frank makes a snarly face, but lets the chair drop back to four legs. "Those websites where you order restaurant stuff. It's fucking expensive. There's no way we could ever do it. I mean—I couldn't. I don't have savings or anything, and."
"What?" Jamia turns around without putting down the ladle, and drips pancake batter all over the floor. "First of all, what's this I bullshit? Like you could do this without me?"
"I can't do anything without you," Frank says. It's not a line, it's his fucking life, it has been since he was eighteen. There's never been anyone who believed in him like Jamia, not even his fucking mom. Shit. He'd be drunk, in some gutter somewhere, with ugly-ass tattoos if she wasn't around. He says as much.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, bitch." She slaps him with the pancake ladle, right in the middle of his Nightmare Before Christmas t-shirt, right on Jack's face. "Fuck, I burnt it." She sighs really hard, which means it's Frank's fault she burned the pancakes. Then she says, "I was looking too. If I do it, then we get small business loans and shit, for female-owned businesses."
"What? No. It could fuck up your credit forever." Frank tilts back on two legs again. "I can't ask you to do it. You can't. I mean, what if it doesn't work?"
"Are you fucking kidding? It's not gonna fail. Look at Gianna's Grille in Philly; look at Food Fight in Portland. Look at that stupid diner in Chicago, whatever it's called. Even St. Louis has a fucking vegan diner, and there aren't half as many vegans there as there are in New Jersey."
"I don't even know where St. Louis is," says Frank. He can't stop grinning.
"It's in the middle." Jamia flicks his ear. "Four legs, asshole."
"I fucking love you," he says, grabbing her hand before she can whirl back to the pancakes. He kisses her ring finger, where she has his name tattooed around like a ring. "I fucking love you."
"Why, 'cause I'm gonna make a shitload of money off your dream?" She grins down at him, pats him on the cheek with her free hand. "Come on, baby, if I burn another pancake I'm gonna shove it up your nose."
"That's why I love you!" he yells, and thumps the chair back onto four legs, pulls her into his lap. The pancakes fucking burn, but who gives a shit? Enough maple syrup and they taste good anyway.
It takes three months to find the right building, and that's when the first of Frank's dreams are crushed. "This is totally a fucking portent." He kicks the wall. "The only buildings we can afford are too goddamn small." And, it goes unsaid, almost an hour away. Belleville is further north; this is practically New Brunswick, right off Route 18.
"So there's a counter instead of waitresses in short skirts." Jamia shrugs. She's wearing Frank's old Bane hoodie, and it's super tight on her; she looks fucking hot. Actually, she looks like she's about to kick someone's ass, and despite the disappointment of the building, Frank wants to push her against the wall and totally do her.
The real estate agent would probably be a little freaked out though.
It would, however, help get Frank's mind off the idea that he might have to drive, like, an hour to get to the diner and another hour to get home again.
"If you look back here," says the agent. What the fuck is her name again? It's something that sounds really agent-like, like Greta or Maia or something. Exotic, yet completely forgettable. She's got legs up to her chin, though. "There's a perfect space for a kitchen, with a gas pipe already installed, as well as an industrial sink. This space used to be rented by an artist who had quite a large... uh... oven..."
"Kiln," says Jamia. "Aren't those fire-fuelled?"
"I have no idea," says the real estate agent. They follow her through the space, which is just a few steps from where they're standing. Frank is mentally putting up a wall with one of those cute little food windows, and a bell, and a swinging door to get in and out of the kitchen, and—
"Frank," says Jamia, and she sounds patient, but if they were in bed, she'd've already pulled on his nipple ring, and be on her way to twist his pubic hair to get his attention. He can tell. It's the look on her face, and the way her hands are fists inside the pocket of the hoodie.
"Yeah?" He refocuses on Jamia's face, and she's gesturing.
"Look: sink. Booths and a couple tables up by the windows in front. Grill here. Deep fryer in the corner, where no one can get hurt. Maybe oven in the middle?'
"Don't they make the ovens that come under grills now?"
"Nah, we don't want that." Jamia's examining the industrial sink. It's fucking huge. "We want constant access to both, yeah?"
"Yeah," repeats Frank. She's fucking right, of course. She's spent the last three months researching kitchens and how restaurants work. It's pretty easy for her to surf the internet while she answers phones for tightass lawyers across town. Frank's got it a little harder, for a change; he's actually got tons of shit to do at Eyeball right now, and none of it involves figuring out the layout of his—their¬—vegan diner.
Jamia points. "Cold hold," she says, and grins. She looks so fucking pleased with herself; she's got all the terminology down. "Over on this wall? Milkshake machine."
"Oh, god," groans Frank, thinking of the vegan milkshakes Jamia makes sometimes, soy milk blending with peanut butter and soy ice cream, and sometimes those Newman-O cookies that are like Oreos but awesome.
"Fuck yeah," says Jamia, and turns to Greta-Maia. "How much?"
The price they get quoted is enough to make Frank blanch—just as much as their rent. Okay, the space is bigger—but they'd have to do so much work on it, buy so much stuff; they won't even be able to open for at least a month or two, because, fuck, there's so much work to be done.
But Jamia looks satisfied, and she's the one who's dealing with the loans and shit. Frank can't believe anyone would pay so much per month for a shithole like this, on what's almost the bad side of town, just a jump and a skip away from the good side of town, but still.
"Is the owner willing to install a grate over the windows, or are we gonna have to do that ourselves?" asks Frank. He is not having plate glass windows that don't have grates—if people want to steal shit and break the windows, he's gonna make it as hard for them as possible.
Good question, mouths Jamia over Greta-Maia's shoulder.
She raises a shoulder and lets it drop. "I'll ask him." She scribbles on her notepad, and keeps talking—the electricity and plumbing were redone a few years ago, everything's up to code, there's an unfinished basement they'd have access to. Frank mentally catalogues everything she says, and thinks of it in terms of where to plug in the fucking cold hold, whatever, storage, and Jamia's milkshake machine. He smiles and nods, but all he can see is skeletons painted on the walls, and local art features, and, okay, it's too small for a stage, but that doesn't mean that the kids won't come after shows, and maybe they'll put in a television and show old videotapes of punk shows, and—
Frank is in fucking love.
Jamia doesn't even have to look at him before she tells Greta-Maia that they'll take the space.
The day they pass the credit and references check and sign the lease, Frank takes her to the space, to their diner, and covers up the front windows with the giant canvas tarps he bought at the Home Depot. He fucks her until they're both sweaty and gross and can't breathe. They're on the Bane zip-up and his Eyeball jacket, and her name pounds in his head.
"I fucking love you," she whispers fiercely in his ear, and he comes before she does, but makes up for it by going down on her for, like, twenty minutes at least. When she comes, she squeezes his head with her thighs, and cries out super fucking loud.
And when they leave, she wrinkles her nose at her hoodie and says, "You're doing the laundry."
He doesn't even care. He'll do the laundry. He'll do all the laundry, ever. They have a diner. It's theirs.
"I don't like this." Mikey's examining his sandwich with his usual blank look, so Frank can't tell if he means it or if he's just being an asshole. "I already don't like this."
"Eat it, bitch, then tell me you don't like it," Frank directs.
"The cheese isn't melted."
"It's not cheese!"
"Okay, the tofu cheese, which, by the way, smells like Gee's feet, isn't melted." Mikey's face is scrunched the way only Mikey can scrunch his face, conveying disgust and apathy at the same time. Frank wants to punch him in his dumb ugly face, but settles for punching him in the arm.
"Eat the goddamn sandwich," says Frank. "It's rice cheese."
It's rice cheese because tofu cheese has casein in it, which fucking sucks, but that's what makes it melt, and that's why the rice cheese looks so weird. And smells weird. But it's actually vegan, casein-free and organic. And fucking expensive.
"Once you get past the smell, it tastes almost the same, anyway," says Jamia, coming up behind Frank and kissing him on the back of the neck. He feels it in his fingertips, and grins.
"You guys are gross," says Mikey. He puts the parmigiana sandwich aside, and bites into the next sandwich instead. Lettuce, tomato, the tofu mayo Jamia makes herself, a squishy organic bun Frank got at the farmer's market in the next town over, and TVP. Frank had to go all the way into fucking New York City to buy the TVP in Chinatown, but he's not going to crap out and use pressed tofu like some fucking gourmet restaurant. A diner's gotta have meat analogs; the only vegan Frank's ever met who didn't like meat analogs was this awesome drummer guy from Chicago. Plus it'll make the meat-eaters more comfortable when their vegan friends drag them along. The TVP tastes like motherfucking chicken.
Well, maybe it does. It tastes like what he thinks he remembers chicken tasting like. What the fuck ever, it's goddamn fantastic and Frank's made a motherfucking chicken sandwich. He breaded it with cornflakes that he crushed himself without even using the food processor and spiced it like his mom's eggplant breading, and it tastes just like chicken.
Jamia's watching Mikey take his first bite just as closely as Frank is.
"Okay," Mikey says slowly, his mouth full. "This is fucking vegan?"
"Seriously," says Frank. He's totally relieved. Mikey's blank look slipped for a moment there; Frank made Mikey's expression change with his food. Hah!
"Yeah, okay." Mikey swallows, takes a long drink of the organic soda pop Frank bought, also in the city, and then goes back to the parmigiana. "It was good, but this still looks fucked up."
"It's the same fucking stuff, Mikes, just with sauce and cheese." Frank makes his voice as patient as possible. Mikey's been his best friend for years, and sometimes Frank wants to kill him.
Jamia kisses the back of his neck again, and slides an arm around his stomach, under his t-shirts.
"Quit it with the PDA," grumbles Mikey. He picks up the parmigiana and takes a cautious bite. It's Frank's mom's marinara sauce on there, with both secret ingredients that she'd never shared with him before. He thought she was going to fucking cry when he told her that him and Jamia were opening a restaurant. Fucking cry. Then she wrote down her sauce recipe in her spidery Catholic school handwriting, and he almost cried.
"Well?" Jamia doesn't hide her impatience.
"It tastes okay, but the cheese still smells like Gee. Like Gee's feet," Mikey stresses.
"I will kill you," says Jamia. She squeezes Frank. She doesn't appreciate the food being compared to Mikey's smelly and antisocial older brother either.
"I am telling you," replies Mikey, and takes another drink of the soda. Then he looks dubiously at the last sandwich. "I don't know about this one either."
"It's a fucking BLT, Mikes." Frank is bouncing up and down on his toes now. "Fuck, just eat it." Triple decker, deep fried strips of vegan bacon, and gorgeous romaine lettuce, and the nicest fucking tomatoes Frank could find.
"Yeah, I don't know," says Mikey, but that's the one he goes back to for a second bite, and a third, and then he's done with the quarter of the sandwich that Frank had cut into motherfucking triangles.
Jamia squeezes him tighter.
"Yeah, I like these. This one best." Mikey waves his hand over the first one he tried, the one that Frank made to taste like a sandwich from Wendy's, or McDonald's, the one that's most analog to a fast food restaurant.
"Seriously," says Jamia, and Frank hears all the same relief that he feels.
"I will punch you in the head, Mikeyway," says Frank with as much feeling as he can muster.
"I'll take this one back to Gee." Mikey points to the parmigiana. "It tastes just like your mom's sauce."
"She totally gave us the recipe," says Jamia smugly. "Tell your mom that. We got the recipe."
"Shit," says Mikey, and tilts his chair back. "That's amazing."
"Yeah, fuck you," says Frank. "Put that chair on four legs, motherfucker."
The meat-analog sandwiches are a total win. Mikey reports back that his mom and his weird smelly brother both like them. That counts as a double win, because a million years ago, Mikey wanted to be in Pencey Prep and they turned him down. Frank and Mikey became friends—but, reportedly, Mikey's smelly brother hates Frank now. It's ridiculous for Frank to feel so vindicated that the smelly brother (whose name Frank can never remember, even though Mikey uses it all the damn time—it is not something normal like Frank or Michael, but something weird, and possibly French) likes his sandwiches, but he does.
So the sandwiches are the heart of the menu, along with a couple of different types of salad—one with veggie salmon on baby spinach and one that's a basic casesar salad analog. Frank also adds the fake sub sandwich that he always makes to the menu, the sub with the veggie pepperoni, veggie ham, all the different vegetables. The basic Italian sub, except vegan.
Shit, Frank's proud of himself. He also finds analog chicken on a stick, like a drumstick, and deep fries it in the same breading he uses for the chicken sandwiches. A masterpiece, if he does say so himself. And he does.
And, of course, chicken nuggets, also deep-fried.
Frank doesn't usually eat deep-fried shit, but it works, and people will like it, and, hey, fuck it, it's vegan. Vegans can have junk food too, Jamia points out reasonably, and instead of replying to that, Frank bites her nipple, and rolls her over.
The food isn't a problem, the ideas aren't a problem. But Frank runs into a problem when he finally sits down with the catalogues to put together their first big food order. A money problem.
"J," he calls out, and she pops her head up into the food serving window. A bunch of the Eyeball guys had come over one weekend, and helped him and Jamia put up a wall separating the two halves of the restaurant. This awesome guy named Bob came along with them. Bob had apparently done the sound at every show Frank had been to in the last three years. As a bonus, he brought a counter.
A counter. With a shadow box.
"For art," Bob had said, shrugging.
"Where the fuck did you get a counter?" Jamia had demanded.
"Around. I heard you needed one." Bob shrugged again and looked uncomfortable, but he didn't punch Frank when Frank took a flying leap from one of the booths onto Bob's back.
"It's like you read my fucking mind!" Frank had yelled, and kissed Bob's blond head, and stayed on Bob's back for, like, another five minutes after that. It was a very comfortable back, and it made Jamia laugh to see Frank, as she said, carried around like someone's pet monkey.
"What's going on?" Jamia's hair is pulled back in a kerchief, and if he wanted her to kick his ass, he'd count the freckles on her face with his tongue. Her eyes are wide, and when she licks her lips, his stomach jumps. Still. Even after almost ten years. It's fucking incredible—she's incredible.
"Uh," he says, blinking and forgetting what he was going to say. "I love you."
"I love you, too, bitch." She blows him a kiss, her hand grotesque in a yellow plastic glove.
"I don't—" He sighs, frustrated. "The fucking organic shit is too expensive. Margarine? Twenty-nine cents per pound. Soy Garden? Two dollars. But—"
"Frank." Her voice is a lot quieter now, because, damn it, they've had this discussion, but Frank was fucking adamant, and now he's gotta eat his words, because she was right, and there's just no way around it. "You knew it already."
"I don't fucking want to know it." He sweeps his hand across the counter and knocks the three wholesale food catalogues off, onto the still-dirty floor. "I want to sell fucking organic food. I want to sell local food."
"We're already not doing that. We live in goddamn Jersey and we get winter here and we can't buy shit that's only from around here. That's just the way it fucking is. What, you think this is, fucking Angelica Kitchen? We're not in Manhattan! We're not charging ten dollars for a fucking sandwich so you can use organic, local tomatoes!" Jamia's yelling now. They've had this argument every night for the past few days, with Frank sticking firmly to his principles, and Jamia telling him to fucking shut up and look at the goddamn food catalogues before he says stupid shit.
Fucking Christ, they aren't even going to be able to use organic soy milk or the really good soy ice cream. They're going to end up using the kosher stuff that the Hasidic Jews use. It's not bad, it's just—it's high fructose corn syrup! And it's not any kind of fair trade or anything. It's just shit anyone could get in a grocery store for super cheap.
This isn't how Frank imagined saving the world, running a fucking vegan McDonald's.
"Don't fucking look at me like that, Frank." Jamia disappears for a moment, and when she reappears, it's to come through the swinging door. She strips off her gloves and wraps her arms around Frank, pulls him to her. "You knew it. You knew I was right."
"Yeah, I knew it," he grumbles, and slouches a little bit to tuck his head against her neck. "I wanted this to be right, baby, you know? Everything perfect."
"Nothing's perfect," she says. Her voice comes through his ear, vibration and static through skin, and he takes a deep breath through his nose. She smells like cleaning, ammonia and dirt.
"You're perfect," he says into her pale pale skin, and she laughs a little, like, a chortle.
"Yeah, well, I'm unique." She lifts his head up and kisses him softly on the mouth. "It's gonna be okay. You gotta think in terms of the big picture. Okay, the shit's not organic. But it's still vegan, and every time someone eats here, it's one time they're not eating at McDonald's or Taco Bell. And the sodas can still be organic. We can get the expensive ones, charge a lot for them." She grins into his mouth, breathing his air; he closes his eyes and lets his forehead fall against hers. "For all the plastic we're gonna have to use," she continues, "it's still not styrofoam. And—"
"And your fair trade coffee one less person at Starbucks," says a strange voice. When Frank looks over, it's to see a weird-looking kid dressed in all black, holding a Starbucks cup as tall as the guy's head is long. He's got tousled black hair, and his fingernails are painted black.
"Uh. True enough," replies Frank, detangling himself from Jamia. "Who are you?"
"I'm Gerard." The kid looks around. "Yeah, this place has total potential."
"No, really, who the fuck are you?" says Jamia, hands on her hips.
The kid, Gerard, blinks at her owlishly. "I'm Gerard," he says, louder this time, and then Mikey's coming in, a gallon of paint in each hand, and—
"You're Mikey's weird brother who never leaves the basement," Frank realizes out loud.
"Yeah, something like that." Mikey puts the paint down. Behind him is the girl Bob had brought along when he brought the counter. She plays guitar and offered to work at the counter. Al-something. "You remember Alicia, right?"
"Right," says Frank. Jamia's still got her hands on her hips. "What's going on?"
"Brushes and rollers," says Alicia, grinning. "Gee's gonna paint the walls."
"I've got a plan for the walls!" protests Frank.
"Yeah, I drew it out," says Gerard, and pulls a tiny scrap of paper out of an invisible pocket in the front of his pants. "I'm an artist. I work in the basement." He stresses work really hard, glaring at Mikey the whole time. "I think what you're doing here rules. I'm gonna do this for free."
"Thanks?" says Frank. It's not like he's going to complain if Mikey's weird brother—if Gerard—wants to paint the walls. But—
"Okay," says Jamia, looking at the scrap of paper Gerard had passed to her. She nods her head and hands it to Frank, smiling. "I'm going back to cleaning. You've got this."
"Dude, it's fucking skeleton fairies," says Frank, looking at the drawing in awe. The tiny piece of paper is covered in fucking skeleton fairies and twisty vines and giant tree trunks.
"The problem is going to be." Gerard stops like that's the end of his sentence and takes a long draught of coffee. "It's gonna be really dark in here." He waves his hand at the ceiling. "Those lights probably won't be enough." He takes a smaller sip this time, waves his hand again. Alicia and Mikey exchange eye-rolls. Frank wants to laugh at this guy, but he's not gonna, because if Mikey's weird smelly basement-dwelling brother is going to paint skeleton fairies on the wall, Frank's planning on loving him forever.
"We can fix it."
"Well, I was thinking that instead of black in the background, it could be pink. Or orange. Or maybe some kind of—"
"Whatever you want," says Frank. "Anything."
"Hey, can I have a job?" Gerard looks super hopeful. "Mom says I have to start buying my own art supplies."
"Anything," vows Frank fervently.
"Awesome." Gerard smiles, and waves his hand again, rolling his wrist. "So—hm." Frank doesn't think Gerard is addressing him now.
"I'm just gonna go back to my—thing."
"Is that what you were doing when we got here?" asks Mikey solemnly. "Your thing?"
"I will fuck you up, Mikeyway!" yells Jamia from the kitchen.
Frank still makes two recipe books for them to keep in the kitchen—one with the organic recipes that states it is full of organic recipes emphatically on the front and one with the regular recipes that they're going to be using. In his recipe for his mom's sauce, though, he just marks down that two tablespoons of the "secret ingredients" should be used for each recipe. Fuck, Mexican oregano and cayenne pepper, who would have thought? Not Frank.
Frank picks out an old elaborate cash register made of brass, with a handle to pull down and everything. Jamia sighs, and buys a cash register that hooks up to a computer. Frank insists they can write everything down on old fashioned green order pads and keep the carbon copies. Jamia sighs, and sets up the computer to print out receipts: one for the customer and one that can be handed back to the cooks in the kitchen. Frank needs a little bell to sit on the shelf where the food and receipts get handed back and forth. Jamia sighs, then giggles when Frank pokes her.
"You know you want a bell, motherfucker!" he yells, and she shrieks with laughter.
They buy the bell.
They take the money from the loans and buy bright, shiny, brand new sheet pans for cookies—and, Frank insists, so that they can make their own croutons with day-old bread! They buy a grill pan to use to make grill marks on the TVP chicken and fake fish that won't be breaded and fried. They buy a deep-fryer, just like the ones in real diners, and a grill with a detachable backsplash for easy cleaning. They buy spatulas, ones made out of silicone to use for cooking and ones made out of metal to use for grilling. They buy knives for slicing bread rolls, a sushi knife for slicing tofu, and two big chopping knives for chopping vegetables. Frank insists on the biggest chopping knives they can find and promptly cuts himself on one. Jamia laughs so fucking hard at that and then drives him to the emergency room for three stitches, a butterfly bandage, and a Superman band-aid over all of it.
Frank bitches about how much Superman sucks until Jamia rolls her eyes and goes out for pizza. She brings back a giant Sicilian-style pizza—no cheese, but tons of vegetable toppings—from Frank's favorite place, and a box of Batman band-aids.
This is why Frank loves her more than he loves his new diner.
Jamia cements her place as the number-one love in Frank's life when she gathers up all the random superhero figures they have laying around their apartment and uses them to make an awesome scene in the shadow box. Gerard paints the back of the box: Gotham looming over the Jersey skyline.
They buy giant rolls of butcher's paper for wrapping sandwiches, plastic wrap, plastic bins for food storage, tin foil, disposable plasticware, paper napkins, reusable plastic plates for people who are staying to eat their food in the diner, and plastic trays. They debate over whether to offer free water, or make people buy bottles, and it's Alicia who convinces them to sell bottled water.
"Check it out," she tells them matter-of-factly, pointing to the page in the wholesale food catalogue. "It will cost, like, ten cents per bottle of water that you buy, but you can charge two dollars."
Frank and Jamia exchange a glance. Frank knows Jamia's as unconvinced as he is. Charge for water? Seriously?
"You guys," says Alicia, as Mikey comes up behind her and kisses her neck. "How are you really going to afford to buy things like forks and spoons and napkins and straws if you are not actually making a profit? How are you going to change the world if you can't make your rent?"
"Ugh," says Frank.
"She has a fucking point," says Jamia.
"I just wish they'd stop making out in front of us." Frank bumps shoulders with Jamia, who grins.
"Me too!" yells Gerard, from where he's lying on a board stretched between two ladders, painting the ceiling.
They having to take the food preparation certification classes and Frank almost fails the fucking test, but he does it. Jamia almost fails the test too. Most of it is about meat and dairy, which is disgusting and doesn't apply to them anyway, so fuck it. They pass, and that's the important thing.
They can officially cook in a diner. Or anywhere. That's the day Frank tenders his resignation to Eyeball, and he kind of feels shitty about it, until he remembers that he owns a fucking diner. Motherfuckers! He owns a diner!
What Frank does not understand is how he and Jamia have lived this long without meeting any bike messengers. Or messengers in general. Or just people with cars who know their way around New Brunswick and can tell Route 18 from Route 1.
Frank unwillingly lets go of his dream of delivery service. For now.
Jamia must think he's sleeping one night, a few days before opening, when she whispers, her voice breaking a little: "I want to quit my job, too." Frank holds still and doesn't say anything. He can't say anything because she can't quit her job. They need the steady income and the health insurance. They need something to fall back on. She knows it. He knows it. It fucking sucks. There's nothing he can do about it except be the big spoon more of the time; he turns "in his sleep" and yawns, and holds her.
She lets him.
Every time Frank goes into the diner, Gerard is a little more finished with the walls. A couple of times, instead of working from home, Frank brings his computer into the diner and hooks it up to the wireless internet there. He does things like make a MySpace page, send out grand opening announcements with Gerard-designed coupons to vegan mailing lists, and post to vegan LiveJournal communities.
On the day of the soft opening, they have 250 MySpace friends, and 29 LiveJournal friends. The place still smells like paint and varnish and ammonia, but it's got skeleton fairies hiding in trees and brick buildings all over the walls, and the ceiling is a sky with a setting sun, and there's a television in one corner where the walls meet the ceiling like in a hospital, and Frank has employees, and Jamia is wearing an apron, and they have an industrial waffle maker. Not to mention three awesome pink milkshake machines that only cost twenty bucks each.
Frank stands outside for a minute, with Jamia next to him, while Mikey and Gerard and Alicia go in to turn on the oven and the deep fryer, and set up for the first customers. Gerard painted the sign over the diner in letters that are bones: SKELETON DINER
Frank kisses Jamia, then runs inside, jumps up onto the counter, and yells, "We have a diner, motherfuckers!" and Jamia, Alicia, Gerard, and Mikey all cheer.
"Now get the fuck down," says Alicia. "I've gotta clean off where your sneakers were."
The first thing they sell is some fair trade coffee with soymilk in it to Gerard, who pays with a $50 bill. "I will kill you, bitch," says Alicia, but she's grinning. She hands the bill to Frank, who hands it to Jamia, who puts it in a frame on the wall.
"Where's my change?" says Gerard.
"Uh-uh," Mikey tells him. "You gotta sacrifice."
Gerard pouts until Frank gives him back $40. "You can sacrifice the other eight," says Frank, and Gerard shrugs.
"I'd've sacrificed all of it." He grins sunnily at Frank. "Whatever, man!"
Then a real customer comes in, a tall guy with giant hair, rolling a bicycle. He takes one of the laminated menus off the counter and peruses it. He's got piercings in his face, is covered in tattoos, and Frank fervently hopes that every single customer they get is exactly like this guy. Especially when he orders four different sandwiches and the most fucked up custom milkshake that Frank has ever heard. Jamia disappears into the kitchen with the receipt—and, yeah, okay, Frank can own up and totally admit that she was right, and the computer receipts are way easier to read than green order pads would be, even if it's not as awesome.
"Gotta try one of each, man. Gotta try 'em. This fucking rules, that you did this. It's so fucking hard to find vegan food around here, and who wants to go to New York for everything all the time, you know?" The guy wanders around, leaving his bike propped against the booths. "The walls are awesome."
"He did them," says Alicia, pointing to Gerard.
"You must have some kind of fucked up brain," says the guy, and it sounds like a super-sincere compliment. "Hey, who's the manager? You guys looking for a delivery dude? I do a couple of the restaurants in the area, you know? And I can add you guys to my route and stuff if you want."
"Uh, yes," says Frank immediately. "I'm Frank, one of the owners."
"Hey, man, awesome."
The guy's name is Travie, and he doesn't work weekends, but he knows "some cool dudes" who will, and Skeleton suddenly does delivery, and it is awesome.
That night, when they close, Frank's heart is beating triple time. They made almost six hundred dollars even though they weren't really open. He almost has a heart attack, because Alicia's register is off by $40.29—and then he remembers Gerard's fifty dollar bill hanging in the kitchen.
"Shit," he breathes out. "Alicia, you're under by twenty-nine cents."
She rolls her eyes and flips him a quarter. "I'll owe you," she says, and lights a new cigarette off the one in her hand.
Then they have the grand opening, the day that they actually do more to get the word out than just open the door. They are expecting actual people to come in, not just tattooed guys who wander in off the street.
Alicia is working the counter, Mikey is working as the dishwasher-slash-milkshake maker, and Frank and Jamia are cooking. People don't exactly pile in, but there's a steady stream, and Frank learns his first lesson: fuck, man, having a breakfast menu, a lunch/supper menu, and a snack menu? Is the wrong way to go about things. Because as much as Frank wants to be able to offer people vegan waffles all day, it is a pain in the fucking ass to have to time the waffles and get them out and onto the plates on time with everything else. The tofu scramble isn't that bad, but there's not enough room on their smallish grill to do tofu scramble at the same time that they're doing corned beef and burgers, especially if someone orders TVP chili on a burger.
Everybody from Eyeball comes and high-fives Frank and Jamia both—and Jamia's hated frigid bitch lawyer even shows up. She's the only person all day to order the grilled faux-salmon on a bed of mushrooms and baby spinach.
It's a Tuesday, so they open at 2 PM and close at midnight. The grill is a mess, because Frank forgot to keep scraping it down as the day wore on, and there's burned vegan cheese on the bottom of the oven from where Jamia let some hang over the side of the cheese fries. There's fryer oil on the floor, more than half the heathen customers threw the plastic bowls and plates into the garbage instead of into the bins as instructed by the signs on the walls. A bunch of people hadn't bussed their own tables before they left, just as drunk as when they came in for mozzarella sticks (Jamia's idea), French toast sticks (Gerard's idea), waffle sundaes (Mikey's idea, an opening day special), and the featured milkshake on the wipe off board behind the counter: the Travie, a mint chocolate chip milkshake with Hydrox cookies crumbled into it, and a scoop of peanut butter.
Travie comes back at 11:30 that night, saying, "Time to try the breakfast foods, oh yeah, baby, fuck yeah." He's delighted to learn that they named a milkshake after him.
"I knew you guys would be cool." He nods, leaning against the wall of his booth, his legs so long that even though he's sitting lengthwise, his feet are on the floor. "You mind if I...?" He pulls out a joint. "I'll smoke you all out!"
"That is really generous," says Frank. He glances around, then goes outside and pulls the metal grate down halfway, ducks back through the door, and locks it. Then he pulls out a cigarette—it's gonna be his first since they opened, and he fucking needs it. "Not me, I'm driving, but—"
Jamia comes out of the kitchen. "Nobody gets to light up anything until this place is clean. All we need is a surprise visit from a health inspector fucking tomorrow. What are we going to say? Sorry, we were too busy fucking smoking? No way, bitches. Hands and knees on the floor in that kitchen until I could eat off it."
"She's really bossy," mumbles Gerard.
"Yeah, it's fucking hot," says Frank, and follows her through the swinging door into the kitchen. Jamia ends up scrubbing the fry oil off the floor, while Mikey buses the tables and washes the dishes, and scrubs down the milkshake machines. Alicia counts out her drawer. When Frank comes out for a breath of air that isn't tainted by sweat, fryer oil, and grill cleaner, Gerard is doodling on the wipe-off board.
"I swept the floor," he tells Frank, and points to a pile of disgusting shit in the middle of the floor. "I don't know where the dustpan is."
Frank realizes, not for the first time in the last month, that he really likes Mikey's weirdo smelly older brother. He doesn't even actually smell. Frank finds him the dustpan.
When he finally checks the register, Frank takes a long breath and lights two cigarettes, hands one to Jamia, who's been standing next to him, counting along under her breath. "A thousand dollars, almost," he murmurs to her.
She squeezes his hand.
"Man, y'all are tight," says Travie. "If this is what you're like the first week, I can't wait to see a year from now."
"Me either," says Frank emphatically. "To a year from now!" He holds up his cigarette. Jamia and Mikey and Gerard all hold up theirs. Travie holds up his milkshake in one hand and his joint in the other.
They pass the joint around; Frank skips, and, surprisingly, so does Gerard.
"I'm clean for three years in a couple months," he says. "Pot was never my problem, but..." He shrugs.
Frank looks at him hard; he never would've guessed there was a junkie under there. Just a kid, an artist, a totally bizarre dude. Maybe an alcoholic? Maybe. But Gerard doesn't elaborate and Frank isn't going to ask. So he lets it drop, but raises an eyebrow at Jamia. She's too busy giggling at something Travie said to pay attention, and that's awesome, because Frank loves to listen to her laugh.
"You know what sucks?" says Alicia. She takes a long drag on the joint and holds her breath for what feels like for-fucking-ever. Frank swipes a bottle of water from the minifridge sitting by the counter, and drinks half of it before she lets her breath out. The sickly sweet smell of pot hangs in the air. "That there's no bathroom for the customers. I didn't think it would be such a big deal! But they fucking bring it up almost as much as the cookies."
"What about cookies?" Jamia wants to know.
Alicia shrugs. "They want cookies."
"And they're all like, oh, there's no bathroom? We thought this was a diner," Mikey mocks. "Stupid fucks."
"Shit," says Travie. "Just send them next door to Gabe's."
"What the fuck is Gabe's?" Frank asks. The door on the left side of Skeleton Diner is a just a black door. Frank's never seen it open, never seen anyone go inside or come out. The door on the right side of the Skeleton Diner is a gated driveway.
"Aw, man, what? Gabe's is a bar! It opens at, like, ten or something, really late, but the dude is always there. He'll let your customers in to use the bathroom for sure, man. I deliver to them all the time. Once you start delivering, they'll start ordering all the time." Travie takes the joint from Mikey, inhales, and somehow manages to keep talking. "Dude is fucked up, man, I am telling you. He's got something going on there, like mafia or something. But the dude is Jewish! It is fucked up. He makes the best drinks, though. Real expensive, but worth it."
"Jewish mafia?" repeats Jamia a little dubiously. She takes the joint when Travie hands it to her.
"Is that where Gabe's is?" Gerard looks thoughtful. "He modeled nude for an art class I took once. He took off everything except his Justin Timberlake necklace."
Jamia chokes on the smoke in her throat, and Frank falls over laughing, hits his head on the side of the counter, and bleeds all over the clean floor.
They made almost a thousand fucking dollars. That's more than Frank used to make in two weeks at Eyeball. A thousand dollars! Fuck yeah.
It's super slow the next day. Gerard is on the counter because Alicia has class, and Mikey is in the kitchen on dishwashing and milkshake duty again. Frank sends Mikey to the cheapass grocery store around the corner for semi-sweet chocolate chips, flour, sugar, and molasses so he can make cookies. He makes them as big around as his head, and decides to sell them for $4 each. He bets he can get at least that much for them, so just selling a couple will make back the money they spent on the supplies.
Mikey watches him, sipping one of the special Travie milkshakes, with extra peanut butter. It makes Frank want to barf, but Mikey fucking loves it. No accounting for taste; that's what Frank's mom always said, anyway.
"Eventually I'm going to have to get a real job again," he tells Frank. Frank slides another tray of cookies into the oven, and goes back to wrapping the cooled off cookies in plastic wrap.
"So bring me more people who will work for me," replies Frank, and that's the end of it.
They make just over five hundred dollars and Gerard's register is shockingly right on, down to the last penny. Jamia counts him out that night, and Frank isn't sure he's ever seen anything hotter than Jamia wearing an old Guns'N'Roses t-shirt, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, counting their money.
On day four, Mikey rolls in with a tiny little dude who is wearing a pink beehive wig, a shitload of tattoos including a sleeve that's all A Nightmare Before Christmas shit, and rollerskates. The dude is wearing rollerskates. He looks really fucking familiar, and when he smiles, Frank figures it out and hauls Mikey into the kitchen.
"Does Alicia know that's your ex-boyfriend in there?" says Frank, making sure to keep his voice low. Not that Alicia could hear anything over the eardrum-shattering Bad Religion playing in the front, but still.
"He's not my ex," says Mikey, totally deadpan.
"You guys were together an entire summer!" Frank's voice gets louder.
"No we weren't." Now Frank is sure that Mikey is fucking with him, because Frank knows he saw them making out at Warped that one year. The dude is in a bunch of Jersey bands that Frank and Jamia have gone to see, and his name is. Something. Fuck, why does Frank have to be bad with names?
"You were," Frank insists.
"Nope. We just hung out."
"Yeah, naked." He glares at Mikey. "Fine, whatever. What—"
"Pete wants to work here. He can do counter. And he knows some people who are looking for jobs, too."
"And then I said, Fuck you, you had my vote at 'open bar'!" crows Pete, and laughs this hardcore hyena laugh.
"You're hired," says Frank, walking back out to the front, and shakes his hand. Pete slips around on his rollerskates a little. "I'll pay you extra if you wear the rollerskates."
"Whatever you like, man," says Pete at the same time Alicia says, "Fuck you, I'd wear rollerskates if I knew that! Fuck, motherfucker!"
Frank and Jamia stay late baking more cookies, and Jamia bakes her special brownies, but without the special ingredient. Frank figured that when she saw how fast the chocolate chip cookies sold, she'd want to make brownies, so he'd already laid in the barley malt syrup and real maple syrup, not the corn syrup shit they serve with the waffles and French toast sticks. Pastry flour, Dutched cocoa. When she sees all the ingredients lined up, she kisses his cheek chastely, and then sticks her tongue down his throat.
"Chicks dig guys who run diners, huh?" he asks her, pushing her against the giant refrigerator. He pulls one of her legs up around his waist, and wishes that he smelled of anything but fryer oil. Jamia doesn't seem to notice or care. She fucks his brains out standing up, and they burn a batch of cookies, but it's fucking worth it.
They spend that night in the diner, on the floor, sleeping on some broken-down boxes, covered in clean aprons and sweatshirts. Frank's pretty sure Jamia planned it that way, because when he wakes up the next morning as she's on her way to work, she's wearing clean clothing; he's gotta go all the way home to shower and change.
Day five they make, like, fifteen hundred dollars, almost. Almost. It's three in the morning, so Frank counts again, and then makes Jamia count. Then he totals the register twice before finally slumping back and lighting a cigarette. "Fuck, you guys. Fourteen hundred ninety-six dollars and thirty cents! That's almost fifteen hundred!"
"Turn the grill back on and I'll order something, break fifteen hundred," says Gerard, leaning over the counter. "I didn't eat tonight anyway."
"Dude, shut up. You get a shift meal." Frank slides him the pack of Camels sitting on the counter and the lighter.
"You didn't fucking eat? Bitch, I asked three times if you wanted a break!" Jamia ashes into a neat pile on the clean countertop. Frank pinches her ass, and she giggles, wriggles away, does it again. "It's my diner, I'll ash on the counter if I want to!"
"And I didn't!" Gerard lights his cigarette, and slides the pack back.
Mikey meets Frank's eyes and rolls his, mouthing, "Fucking Gee." Frank giggles a little.
"Fuck you, motherfucker!" yells Gerard, and gives Mikey the finger.
"I'm gonna tell mom you're cussing," says Mikey, like they're five years old or something. It's really fucking cute.
The first Saturday they start delivery, and Travie brings in three of his friends, all bike messengers. Between them, even with Travie's hastily-instated ten percent employee discount, they order fifty bucks worth of food.
And that is when Frank realizes that if every Friday and Saturday night is going to be so fucking busy, he's going to have to hire another cook.
"Hire Bob," says Pete, sitting on the counter and swinging his legs. It's been quiet for about ten minutes—nobody's there, nobody's calling. Mikey's in the basement with Alicia, supposedly stocking more flour and sugar. Frank is so fucking sure. He's thinking about making a rule: no fucking in the diner. Except he and Jamia'll probably be breaking that rule at least once a week. So maybe not.
"Bob?" Frank asks distractedly. His fingers are twitching for a cigarette but he's not taking any smoke breaks. He bet Jamia a blowjob that he could last the whole shift without a smoke break and it is fucking hell, but he knows Pete and Mikey and Alicia would all fucking tell on him. No goddamn loyalty. Kids today. Et cetera.
"You know. Bob the sound guy. He's got shows at night, but he might do it during the day. He's fucking cool, dude."
"Oh. I know Bob. He cooks?"
"He does everything," swears Pete.
Frank gives up. "Come smoke with me."
"No way, man, I'm still edge." Pete flashes the Xs tattooed on his wrist, and Frank rolls his eyes. "Hey, don't fucking judge me! You're vegan, too."
"I'm not judging. Your life is totally your life," says Frank. He makes a mental note to talk to Bob and to thank him again for the awesome shadow box counter. He goes to sit on the stoop outside, Pete following. They leave the door open and Frank lights up. "I've just known a lot of jackasses who were edge."
"Yeah, well, I've known a lot of jackasses who weren't edge, too," Pete says reasonably.
"So you know what I want to know?" Frank says suddenly.
"How anybody ever knew which star was the second star to the right?" Pete comes and sits beside him.
"No, dude, what the fuck? I want to know what happened with you and Mikey."
Pete frowns. "Nothing."
"Yeah? Didn't you date for a whole fucking summer?"
"No," replies Pete immediately.
Frank rolls his eyes and says, "Ugh," but drops it, and just listens while Pete talks about Kanye West, and his new songwriting partner, a kid from Chicago who's into Motown.
Month two. It's like they have a rhythm. No, not like. They totally have a rhythm. Frank and Jamia don't really get to see each other enough, but when they cook together, it's like a fucking party all the time. Frank still can't believe this is his fucking life. He has a diner and he has Jamia (or Jamia has him, whatever) and ... this is his life.
Wednesdays are always slow and they never make more than five hundred bucks. It doesn't quite pay enough to justify the cost for them to stay open. Once, Jamia makes Frank send home Mikey and Alicia, and they just work the kitchen and the counter by themselves. Two people come in, and they each order a sandwich to go.
Frank washes the dishes and takes out the trash while Jamia scrubs down the kitchen and sweeps the front area. It kind of sucks, but it's awesome to have time alone, and even awesomer to pull down the grate and fuck her on the counter. It is like sex times a thousand, because it's sex in their very own vegan diner.
"What I want to know, dude, is how you scored Jamia," Pete says to him. "Because she is hot like burning, man, fucking burning."
"I fucking know," says Frank. He still can't make it through the shift without a cigarette, but he's down to four, and that's not bad considering he used to do a pack or two a day, easily. And he switched to lights. "I met her at a Converge show."
"No shit?" Pete takes a giant bite out of the sandwich Frank just made him. Chicken parm, without the cheese.
("Vegan cheese smells like feet, and is disgusting," Pete says.
"But without the cheese, it's not parm," protests Frank.
"So from now on I'll ask for chicken on a parm roll with the parm sauce! Ha!")
"Swear. We were in the pit, and this big dude shoved her, and she almost fell, but I caught her. And you know—I mean, it's what you do for anyone, but it's different when it's a girl."
Pete hums agreement, chewing.
"I was totally scared she'd fucking deck me or something, because ... well, you've seen her. But, seriously, she looked up and she was the fucking most gorgeous girl I'd ever seen in my life. That was all I wanted, from, like, that moment on, you know? All I wanted was her. And when she smiled at me, it was like my heart broke into a million pieces in my chest."
"That's fucking poetry, dude," says Pete around a giant mouthful of TVP chicken and Frank's mom's sauce.
"Yeah, she's fucking poetry," says Frank. He takes a long drag on his cigarette. He remembers that day like it was yesterday—no, better than yesterday. It is the clearest fucking day of his life. "And before Converge went on, we totally made out, and it was like fucking coming my brains out just from kissing, I swear to God."
"Seriously? I want that, man. I want a love story." Pete sighs. When Frank glances over at him, he looks totally sincere. "I want a romance novel."
"What the fuck do you know about romance novels?"
"My mom reads them. Leaves them in the bathroom. And I fucking want one, okay?"
"Dude, don't get defensive. I've got one. Anybody can have one. Fuck, I have a girl who is so awesome she's working nine-to-five to give my ass health insurance, and then coming here and cooking until midnight. Seriously. Fuck." Frank throws his cigarette into the street.
"I just want that. Girl. Dude. I don't care. I don't really dig dick, but shit. I don't care, for that I wouldn't fucking care." Pete puts the last half of his sandwich back down onto the plate. "You know, I told you Mikey and I..."
Frank nods, but doesn't say anything.
"Well, I totally fucking lied. He broke my heart, man. He broke my fucking heart for my ex-girlfriend."
"What, seriously?" Man, Mikey had hidden fucking depths. "Wait—you and Alicia?"
"Yeah, but the worst part? Is that I didn't even fucking care." Pete waves his hand expansively. "Mikey, Alicia—they're so fucking happy together. They're going to get married or some shit. They talk about fucking unicorns and rainbows shoot from their asses and I'm just happy they're happy, like someone's fucking grandma."
Frank raises his eyebrows. "Shit, this place is incestuous."
"You should fucking talk, you're the jackass who hired all of us." Pete grins, looks down at his sandwich. "You should hear about all the people whose hearts Bob has broken, man. He's a fucking Casanova."
"Bob?" Frank doesn't believe it. "I don't believe it. He's a quiet motherfucker."
"Yeah, it's always the quiet ones. He never says shit, but you would not believe the number of dudes I've seen him with. Dude, he's dating that guy who comes in here all the time—the one with the hair."
"The Torosaurus? No shit! I used to see him play when I was still with Eyeball. That dude fucking rips on guitar, man." Frank breaks off a piece of Pete's sandwich. After a month of eating fried shit, he's getting sick of it, but his mom's sauce will never stop being amazing.
"No shit," confirms Pete. "But you'd never fucking know they even knew each other. Bob's a sneaky motherfucker." He stretches out his feet. True to his word, he's wearing the fucking rollerskates. Sometimes he even wears the pink beehive wig.
"Shit," says Frank. He can't believe Bob is totally dating one of their favorite customers and never said anything, not even to give his guy-person-thing-whatever the employee discount like the rest of the crew does. "What a fucking asshole. I didn't even know he was gay."
"Yeah, right? Hey, don't eat my sandwich!"
For the one month anniversary, Frank wants two people at the counter, just in case someone who has the Skeleton Diner MySpace friended actually prints out a damn coupon and shows up. A few days before it, he hires a dude named Matt who's come in a bunch of times, because nobody else wants to do it—Gerard is a fucking princess about the register, the money, and the way customer service should be handled, so Frank doesn't blame them.
Matt's trial night goes okay. He works with Pete, and seems to be pretty easy-going. Bob almost punches the dude out for calling the mustard "honey mustard" when it's sweet mustard—"Are you a fucking idiot?" yells Bob. "It's a fucking vegan diner and honey isn't fucking vegan!" Frank drags Bob outside for a cigarette before punches can be thrown, and Matt just laughs it off.
But on the anniversary, Matt doesn't show up when everyone else does, a half hour before opening. Frank's been there all day, doing prep—slicing up carrots and celery, making buffalo sauce and sweet mustard, putting salad dressing into one ounce plastic cups. This is why he has employees, but he's a twitchy motherfucker who needs to be productive.
Matt doesn't show at two. Or three. Or four. By five, there's a line to the door, and Frank and Bob are whirling around each other in the kitchen. Jamia's supposed to show at six, after work, and they'll break into a line—Frank doing supper, Jamia doing snacks and appetizers, Bob on breakfast. But someone's gotta work the counter with Gerard, so that Gerard can take orders and handle the register while someone else deals with doling out the food and making sure everyone's got the right sauces and the right type of milk for their coffee so that no one with a soy allergy gets soy milk instead of rice or almond milk.
When Frank hears Pete's hyena laugh—someone must have said something either really fucking funny or really fucking stupid for Frank to be able to hear it in the kitchen, over the Cure on the PA system, over all the noise up front—he barrels out of the kitchen.
"Pete!" he yells. Pete's talking to a chubby kid with red hair, wearing the ugliest motherfucking trucker hat that Frank's ever seen. "I thought you were hanging out with your musical genius today."
"This is my musical genius," says Pete, like a proud mom or some fuck. "Patrick, this is—"
"Nice to meet you," says Frank. He turns fully to Pete. "I need you behind the counter. Look at this shit!"
"Hey!" says a kid in line behind Pete. "It's Mr. Skeleton!"
"Hey," says Frank, and grins at the kid. "Enjoy your food!" He grabs Pete's arm and hauls him through the cluster of kids, up to the counter. "Pete, this is Gerard. Gerard, this is Pete. Work."
Frank barrels back into the kitchen, and stops short when he hears Pete behind him, stuttering.
"Uh... Hi. I'm Pete. I, uh. I. I'm straight edge, but I take anti-depressants. I. Um. I play the bass. But, I mean, I'm bad at it. And I—"
Frank blinks a couple of times, trying to figure out what's going on. Pete keeps talking: "I still live with my mom. We moved here from Chicago a few years ago. But it's not because I'm fucked up! I mean, I am fucked up. But I—"
Frank took a deep breath. Of course Pete would fall in love with Gerard. The two most fucked up people Frank has ever met. They're perfect for each other.
"Pete!" yells Frank. "Flirt on your own fucking time!"
"That might not have been the best thing to say," says Bob mildly. He flips four burgers in a row, and slaps cheese down onto them.
"I, uh." Frank stops. "You're fucking right." He ducks back out, but Pete and Gerard are finished staring at each other, and Pete is finished babbling his personal history out where anyone can hear him, and they're actually working. In tandem. And Gerard isn't involved in a slap fight with Pete yet, so.
"Well. Uh." Frank scratches his head. "It seems to be going okay," he offers, and Bob nods.
Then Frank makes an entire sandwich before he remembers that he touched his hair and therefore has to wash his damn fucking hands before he touches food again.
The next time there's a lull, which is four hours later, Frank calls Matt's cell phone and leaves a message: "You're fired. Don't ever step foot in here again. Asshole."
It is at some point during the second month—Frank doesn't know when—that they run out of margarine during a rush, and Bob has the brilliant idea to put hot sauce into barbeque sauce and call it buffalo sauce. It's a hit, and it's way cheaper than the margarine-garlic-hot sauce combination that Frank's been making from scratch.
It is at some point during the third month that Jamia has a craving for biscuits and gravy, so Frank makes a metric fuckload of biscuits, and a gallon of rosemary gravy, and offers them as the day's special, for no reason other than that he feels like it. Every single kid who comes in shuns Frank's biscuits, and asks for the gravy on fries with cheese.
"I can't fucking believe we didn't have gravy fries before!" crows Pete, who makes Patrick figure out the math so that he can buy a quart of the gravy off Frank. Instead of telling him that he doesn't have to multiply a dollar (the amount Frank arbitrarily tacks on to their normal price for fries for anyone who wants gravy; two extra dollars for gravy and cheese) by an ounce (the amount of gravy Frank arbitrarily decides gets put on the fries, since it's the size of the ladle he's using) by 32 (the number of ounces in a quart, which Patrick scarily knows off the top of his head), Frank exchanges a glance with Patrick and lets Pete pay. The wrong amount of money, because Pete doesn't factor in his ten percent employee discount. Then Frank puts it back in his paycheck and calls it a bonus.
epilogue: this is our emergency
Frank is always on MySpace and Facebook. He's always texting the people who work at Skeleton, he's really fucking involved in their lives. He's standing up at Mikey's wedding to Alicia, and knows all the details of Pete's relationship with Gerard. Somehow he manages to never miss a beat, never get caught up in the drama, and always remember the name of Travie's latest girlfriend.
Jamia has none of that.
Frank gets to be at the fucking diner all the time, constantly. Jamia has to wear khakis and button down shirts, and can't wear funky eyeliner or blue lipstick. Frank wears her blue lipstick now, because Gerard likes to do everyone's makeup, and he draws an X over each of Frank's eyes, like that stupid Thursday song. She catches herself humming it sometimes—cross out the eyes, blur all the lines—and curses while she makes photocopies of divorce papers and final testaments.
She never gets to see him anymore, except at the diner for a few hours, and that's only when she can bring herself to drive the hour over there after work. She changes in their tiny bathroom, into jeans and t-shirts with ripped necklines, and works the grill while Frank makes sandwiches and jokes with the customers. He's Mr. Skeleton, and she's Mrs. Skeleton but nobody knows it, because nobody knows her, because she works her ass off in the fucking back, always behind the scenes, standing behind Frank in every photograph. Half the time nobody can even see her hair, because Frankie is jumping and shouting.
And she loves it. That's the biggest problem. She fucking loves the diner, and she hates that she's starting to resent it, because it's taking all of Frankie's time. When he's there, he's not with her. When he's not there, he's not with her, because he's texting, or he's on MySpace, or he's sleeping. She wakes up while he's asleep, and she goes to sleep while he's at the diner.
For the first few weeks she tried—she tried really hard. But she couldn't be at the diner every night until after midnight, then drive an hour home (in separate cars, even), and then wake up at six to get to work by eight. She was falling asleep at her desk, making stupid mistakes in her shorthand, and her typing went from ninety-six words per minute down to fifty-nine. Fifty-nine. Her mother types faster than fifty-nine words per minute.
So now, to take care of herself, to take care of Frankie, to make sure that if the diner has a bad night they can still pay the fucking bills, she's traded actually being at the diner, actually seeing Frank.
Jamia figures she could deal with one or the other, but not both. And really? Really she wants Frank. She'll always pick Frank over the diner—always. Except picking Frank means picking the diner.
She's back to smoking—she'd be up to a pack a day, except a pack of cigarettes is eight dollars, and she doesn't have that kind of money to spend on smoking when she has to sock it away for rent and emergency room visits.
Weirdly, on one of her smoke breaks, she finds herself telling this to Janice, of all fucking people. Janice, who has always seemed like a frigid bitch, but who apparently sneaks out for cigarettes.
"I'm supposed to be quitting," she says apologetically when Jamia catches her. "But I just don't want to."
"Who says you have to quit?" asks Jamia as she lights her own cigarette.
"Jacky." Janice glances over at Jamia. "My girlfriend. If—you know. We want to have kids."
Jamia chokes on the smoke of her cigarette. "Sorry, I just—I didn't think—"
"That I'm a big dyke?" Janice laughs.
"Actually, I didn't think you'd want kids. You seem... really focused." And that she was a big dyke, but Jamia is not going to admit her saturation in heteronoramtivity to Janice. But of all the people Jamia knows... Janice wears boxy suits, and pulls her hair back really tightly, and is never without baby blue eye shadow. It's true, Jamia would not have pegged her for digging chicks.
"Yeah, have you tried being a woman in a man's world lately?" Janice scoffs, that's the only word for it.
"No, but I'm the breadwinner in Frank's world, and that's hard enough." Jamia shrugs and taps her ash, and tells Janice all about it. Five cigarettes later, and Janice is leaning against brick wall, one shoe off while she rotates her ankle. Jamia lights another cigarette, and sighs, and finishes with, "I love him, but I'm starting to hate the mo—the diner." She and Janice just aren't close enough yet for Jamia to drop the f-bomb.
"Okay, I hate to sound like your mom, especially because we're practically the same age, but—have you talked to Frank about this?"
"Have you told Jacky that you don't want to quit smoking?" Jamia shoots back.
"No, but I'm eventually gonna quit smoking," says Janice in her trademark practical manner that always made Jamia think of her as bitchy. Now it just sounds... practical. "Because I want kids, and I'm gonna sacrifice to have them."
"Well, I want Frank, and I'm going to sacrifice to have him."
"But you don't have to." Janice pauses for a long drag on her cigarette before she throws it down to the ground. "Just tell him you want to quit your job and move closer to the diner."
"Leave Belleville?" Jamia is kind of shocked. In all the scenarios she's played out in her mind, that's one that she never thought of. Belleville, for all its flaws, is home, where their parents all are, where they spent their whole lives.
"Yeah. Join a union or something, get health insurance through them. When I met her, Jacky was in the Freelancer Union because she owns her own business." Janice shrugs. "It's kind of expensive, but it was worth it to her to not have to work for someone else. Now she's on my insurance, but—you could give it a shot."
"I just—never thought of it like this." Jamia throws her own cigarette to the ground. "I mean... it just seems so risky."
"You have to take the leap, J. If you want it badly enough..." There's that practical voice again, and it makes sense. "But you have to talk to Frank. You have to. And I have to go inside, because I'm already late for a meeting with a client. Yet another twenty-something who watches Suze Orman and decided it's time to write up a will." Janice rolls her eyes. "I should send Suze a thank you card, all the business we get from the kids who watch her show."
Jamia laughs a little, and follows Janice inside. She catches Janice's arm before they go into the office, though. "Thanks," she says in a low voice. "I mean it. I never—you gave me a lot to think about."
"No problem. Let me know if you want someone to invest your savings. My brother is pretty good with it." Janice smiles at her, and her whole face is transformed, and Jamia kind of wishes they'd had this talk long ago, because then she could have had a friend.
Jamia met Frank at a Converge show. She was seventeen, he was wearing eyeliner. Within, like, ten minutes, he had his hands down her pants, and she was crying and coming and kissing his stupid face. But her most vivid memory is the first moment they met, in the pit—he was this tiny kid with stupid hair, and she was the only girl, and he grinned at her as he pushed this big dude out of the way, just fucking beamed, and she was a goner.
Belleville isn't big, but it's not small either, and they could have lived their whole lives around the corner from each other, never meeting. Jamia went to the public high school, and Frank went to Catholic school; they were like two different species. And then she saw him smile, and that was it.
They slept together that night—like slept. Frank just... came home with her, and curled up on her bed. He ran really hot; sleeping with him was like sleeping in a steam room. They woke up sweating, stuck together, and he kissed her before she even brushed her teeth.
When she thinks of romance, she thinks of Frank climbing into her window every single night so they wouldn't have to sleep apart, and she thinks of when she crawled in through his windows on the nights he was sick, coughing up a lung almost literally, and the long-suffering sigh of Mrs. Iero when she found Jamia crawling out the window that morning.
"Use the door like everyone else, Jamia Nestor," she'd said sternly, and that was it—no appalled calls to her parents, no one was grounded, no one was yelled at. There was no Romeo & Juliet tragedy to play out: everyone just took it for granted that they were FrankandJamia, JamiaandFrank. If it were any other guy, Jamia think she might have been pissed off at how easily her parents accepted Frank as just another part of their lives—but she can't even imagine another guy in her life.
Every teenager thinks that about every boyfriend, Jamia knows. God knows she'd had her share of friends get their hearts broken. But Jamia figures that she knew what she was doing when she was seventeen, because she's still with the guy who took her to get her first tattoo. The tattoo artist had raised his eyebrows when she asked for Frank's name tattooed on her ring finger, but he did it, and she's never regretted it.
They haven't spent more than a night apart at a time since then, not until now. Until this goddamned fucking diner, and Frank spending the night there, or staggering in at five in the morning, totally drunk, his damn car still at the fucking diner, Gee waving at her from the driveway.
And Jamia is fucking appalled at herself, because instead of just going to Frank and telling him that she's unhappy the way that Janice suggested, Jamia's been fucking sulking, and expecting Frank to be able to figure out for himself that something is wrong. Just like all the idiot girls in high school used to do to their boyfriends, Jamia's waiting for Frank to read her fucking mind.
She resolves, on her drive home, to talk to him. She practices in her head what she's going to say—but she's got days, because she won't see him until Saturday morning when they wake up together and hit the diner early to do prep. She makes the sauces and fills one ounce plastic cups and makes the mashed potatoes while he chops. He loves to chop, and it's easier to let him than it is to fight with him about the numerous accidents with knives he's had over the years.
Which... since the diner, he's had fewer. Maybe because he uses knives more. He's proficient with them, and everything he chops is exactly the right size, and he doesn't need a mandolin to get exactly 1/4-inch slices of cucumber anymore.
Despite herself, Jamia is fucking proud. Because that's her guy doing that.
But when she gets home, starving to death for supper and half dead from the smoke that built up in her car before she opened the passenger side window too, Frank's car is there, parked on the street in front of their apartment, the Some Girls sticker bright pink on his bumper. She parks behind him and draws in a slow breath, pulling the smoky air through her bottom teeth.
"Jamiaaaaaaaa!" yells Frank as she walks through the door. He flies across the room and smacks into her, pushing her against the door, and she thinks, Mine, and grabs his ass—but he's already flying away, back into the kitchen. "You have to taste this!"
Of course—he's excited about something to do with the diner, not anything to do with fucking seeing her for the first fucking time in days.
God, she misses sex.
"I don't feel like it," she says mulishly, and drops her purse and keys onto the floor, sheds her jean jacket, drops that on the floor too, and heads into the bedroom. Fuck eating.
"Come on, it's chicken cacciatore!" yells Frank.
Jamia sheds clothes as she walks into their bedroom, and by the time she hits the bed, she's naked. She crawls under the covers, and buries her face in the pillow. It smells like smoke and her shampoo—time to do the laundry again. Maybe she'll just bring it with her to the diner over the weekend and send it to the same wash and fold place they send the diner's laundry. A ridiculous expense, but, god, she can't imagine spending three hours in a laundromat washing all their stupid laundry, while Frank gets to be in the diner, chopping and—
And Jamia is jealous. She's not just jealous of the diner because the diner gets Frank, but she's jealous of Frank because he gets the diner. He gets the diner while Jamia gets uncomfortable shoes and a headache from typing and stupid Janice with her practical, sense-making advice and bad hair.
Jamia wants the diner too.
When she reaches out to turn off the bedside lamp—she's hungry but damn if she's getting out of the fucking bed to eat Frank's stupid, delicious-smelling cacciatore—she sees Frank standing in the doorway.
"Do you want to hear about Gerard and Pete?" he asks. "I think they're finally going to do it."
"Do you want to know about this guy I met today? He's the guy from all the shows, the one with the hair? He's, you know..." Frank giggles. "Special friends with Bob. His name is Ray. He's makes, like, the most amazing vegan cakes you can imagine. So we can stop making the brownies all the time, if you want."
"I like making the brownies."
Frank is twisting his hands together like he does right before Jamia gets her period, right when she's the most bloated and ugly and cranky and in dire need of fucking dairy but refusing to give in to horrible and insane cravings for the fake cheese on movie theatre nachos.
"Go away," she says, and pulls the covers over her head.
She cries until she falls asleep—which doesn't take a very long time, since she's exhausted.
When she wakes up, the sun has completely set, and Frank is sitting on his side of the bed, watching her.
"So—I know that something's wrong, and I don't know what it is, but, fuck, Jamia, if you're leaving me, just tell me. Is it another girl? Because if it's another girl, you know I'll give you a chick exception, just—just—I mean, if it's another dude, maybe we could try to, like, I don't know, be in an open relationship? I just—don't fucking leave," he says all in a rush, and she blinks rapidly. Her eyelashes are stuck together with salt from her tears. She is a bad emo song.
"What? Jesus, no." she finally says. Her mouth is dry and disgusting, the way it always is when she wakes up. Frank snags a glass off the bedside table on his side: water, no ice, a piece of lemon floating in it. It's cloudy, which means he squeezed another piece of lemon into it before he brought it in. And it's room temperature, which is the best way to drink water ever.
She takes it and drinks almost the whole thing in one go, and when she's finished, taking a deep breath, Frank says, more calmly, "What's wrong? You always want to hear about Pete and Gee."
"I need to quit my job," she says, and that is not the way it's supposed to start at all. It's supposed to start with, Frank, I love you, and I love how much you love the diner, but I miss you. We have to see each other more often.
"Okay," he says immediately.
"What?" She puts the glass down on her bedside table.
He grins at her, that stupid blinding grin on his stupid face, the same one she fell in love with almost than ten years ago at a stupid Converge show.
"Okay," he repeats. "Why wouldn't it be okay? I quit my job. I quit everything. You should too. Anyway, I'm tired of never seeing you. I was gonna bring it up in a few weeks, you know, at the six month anniversary. I mean—six months! And we're—well, we're not showing a profit, but we're not losing money. Except on Wednesdays."
"Which is why you're home?"
"Yeah." He looks down, and bounces a little. "What—I mean—"
"I hate my job. I want to be at the diner. I—" She falters a little here. She sounds so selfish. "I looked up the stuff on the Freelancers Union, and I'm thinking maybe we can get health insurance through them? And—I want to see you more."
Frank lies down and puts his head in her lap. "I can see up your nose," he says, and she pushes him off the bed.
"Christ, Frankie, I want to have a grown-up conversation! Jesus!"
He sits up and leans on the bed, his mouth drawn. "Jamia, I don't—"
"Just shut up for a second." She takes a breath through her nose, then another, then another. "Okay, you can talk now."
"I didn't realize you were so unhappy." He looks down, then up at her. His eyes are fucking huge, and she wants to apologize for snapping, but she's not sorry she snapped, she's just sorry that it hurt his feelings. "I thought—I mean, I did realize. I knew it. I just didn't know it was..." He waves a hand. "This."
"Because it makes so much more sense that I am going to leave you?" She snorts. "You're a fucking jackass."
"Well... you've been really distant. And we never see each other, it feels like. And you never want to come to the diner..."
"It's an hour away," she says.
"Half hour," he replies immediately.
"Maybe for you at one in the afternoon, but when I have to drive there in rush hour? Wearing these clothes, Frankie, and the fucking—"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"
"I'm not leaving you, god, where would I go?" Jamia feels hysterical, like she's caught in some kind of farce.
"I don't know what to say!" replies Frank, just as hysterically as Jamia feels.
"I don't know! Say that we can—move. Say that we can move."
"Move to where?" Frank climbs back on the bed.
"Move to live closer to the diner. Let's get rid of the fucking cable tv that we don't watch, the fucking internet that I never use—we can just use the internet at the diner. Let's get someplace smaller, cheaper, I don't know—Janice—"
"The frigid bitch?"
"—says that her brother can invest our savings—"
"We don't have any savings—"
"—and we can, I don't know, I can get a job at Starbucks or something, work part time if we need extra cash, and I want—" Jamia takes a deep breath. "I want the diner closed at least one day every week."
"I already said—we'll close it Wednesdays, and I—" Frank stops. "Yeah. Yeah. Jesus, Jamia, why didn't you fucking say something?"
"Well, I'm saying something now." Her eyes still feel gummy, and she thinks she might cry again. "I'm saying it now. Is it too late?"
"Fuck no," replies Frank fervently, and Jamia grins.
"Can we start having sex again, too? I mean, a lot of sex? All the time?"
"Sex whenever you want!" Frank declares. "Like right now? Because I could fuck you through the bed right now."
She leans over and kisses him, sleep-breath and all, and he kisses her back, sloppy, and imperfect, and hers.