In the three years that Dee Dee (Danielle, really, but her friends have called her Dee Dee since preschool and no matter how juvenile it is, she just can't think of herself any other way) has worked at this diner, she's gotten to know a lot of regulars. Some of them like to chat, and she turns into the unintentional chronicler of Mary's daughter's boyfriend drama and Frank's mystifying fascination with types of paper (he works for a stationary company, and is happier with his job than anyone else she's ever met) and Mr. Zhou's pursuit of the perfect hat to go with every suit he owns.
But the ones who don't chat are her favorites, though she'd never tell Mary or Frank or Mr. Zhou that. For the ones who don't talk, she gets to make up stories in her head as she works. There's an older Sikh man who comes in every morning at six a.m. and reads the paper while he eats his breakfast; in all her three years working here, he's never missed a day. Dee Dee pictures a wife and half a dozen children at home. He loves them, but treasures this quite moment in his day. There's a blond woman who always wears her hair pulled back into a tight bun and hurries through the door every day at a different time, never earlier than one p.m., and orders lunch to go. Dee Dee imagines her stealing away on her lunch hour to meet her boyfriend; she always gets carried away and has to bring food back to the office to eat.
And there's the quiet guy with the limp and the dusty books who always takes a booth, even though he's always alone.
At least, he used to always be alone. Dee Dee's stories for him are tragic, and she has a hard time settling on just one. Sometimes she imagines he's a widower, that he lost his wife in the same accident that gave him his limp. Sometimes she makes him a professor of literature, painfully shy and a little at sea without a book in his hand.
When the tall man with the salt and pepper hair comes in and joins the quiet guy, Dee Dee's story changes. Quiet Guy is almost finished his breakfast and seems irritated with Salt and Pepper. He pushes a menu at him dismissively and leaves. The story comes to Dee Dee right away: it's a first date. They've been set up by friends, and Quiet Guy wasn't particularly interested in dating, but his friends were persistent and he gave in just to shut them up. Salt and Pepper was late, very late, and Quiet Guy is brusque with him because being stood up hurts (Dee Dee knows this from personal experience), and having the man show up eventually hadn't done much to ease the sting of that hour of abandonment.
A couple of days later, Quiet Guy is once again finishing up his breakfast when Salt and Pepper comes back. Dee Dee hadn't expected to see him again. She wants to sidle over, to listen in under the guise of refilling coffee, but she does have a job to do, so she settles for as many little glances as she can manage.
Quiet Guy doesn't even look up from his book, at first. Salt and Pepper, Dee Dee decides, is here to apologize, and Quiet Guy is having none of it. But something Salt and Pepper says must make an impact, because Quiet's Guy's body language goes a little uncertain, and he says something before he leaves that makes Salt and Pepper smile. He's covering his mouth, but Dee Dee can see the crinkles around his eyes.
It's a while before she sees them together again. Quiet Guy continues to come in regularly, but he's on his phone as often as he's reading, these days. Salt and Pepper ducks in a couple times, but doesn't stay to eat, though he gets a coffee to go once. This time, they come in together, bickering about cell phone protocol and when it's okay to hang up on someone. Dee Dee has to turn away to hide her smile, because her little sister has that argument with her boyfriend all the time. Maybe it's not just a story. Maybe there was a much better second date in there somewhere, and probably a third one as well.
That's the new normal for a while, Quiet Guy mostly in alone, but occasionally not. They're more relaxed around each other. And then Salt and Pepper shows up on crutches one day. He hasn't got a cast on, so Dee Dee isn't sure what's wrong; she's more interested in the way Quiet Guy hovers a bit, shooting glances at Salt and Pepper like he can't believe the man is really sitting there.
However Salt and Pepper got hurt, Dee Dee decides, Quiet Guy offered to stay over to help him out. It's the first time one of them has stayed over at the other's place, and they're both still a little surprised that it worked out okay. Dee Dee knows all too well how hard it is to fit someone into your life when you've been alone for a long time.
They're different together, after that. They come in together more often, and Salt and Pepper doesn't duck in for coffee as much. He was, Dee Dee realizes, just checking for Quiet Guy, before. He doesn't need to do that anymore; he knows where his guy is, now. They've gotten to the point where they know each other's habits and schedules and they let each other know if something is going to be different.
And okay, maybe it's just a story, but it still makes Dee Dee smile when she sees them leaning close to each other, speaking in confidential murmurs, and pushing menus back and forth across their table. It's Dee Dee's favorite part of a romance, even if it's the bit that all the books skip over--the part when the relationship is slowly deepening, growing solid, when the lovers are starting to realize that this could last.
Maybe their story would have settled into that shape for Dee Dee--once a couple gets to the comfortable place, it can be a long time before anything changes--except that a couple of months later when they come in together Quiet Guy looks really tense, and Salt and Pepper has his arm around him. Something's wrong; they just aren't the PDA type, not even something that small.
Dee Dee doesn't usually eavesdrop--her stories are good enough for her--but she's gotten a little invested in these two, okay? So she heads over to the booth next to theirs and starts clearing the table. Slowly.
"I'm sorry I panicked," Quiet Guy says, looking down at his hands.
Salt and Pepper doesn't seemed worried. His voice is calm, maybe even reassuring. "There's nothing wrong with being scared. You called me, and we figured it out."
"You shouldn't have had to figure it out. I should have been a better partner. Stronger."
Dee Dee's heart aches, because it sounds like Quiet Guy has told himself that a lot. Tell him he's wrong, she silently urges Salt and Pepper.
"I had a couple of days without you. Long enough for me to know that you're the only partner I want."
Dee Dee risks a glance, and Quiet Guy is smiling, a sweet, unpracticed smile. He glances down at the silverware, nervously straightening them out, before he looks back up at his companion. "I'm...very glad you're the one I picked for a second chance."
Salt and Pepper smiles back, and Dee Dee has taken about three times longer than normal to clear this table, so she stacks up the last dishes and hustles away. There's a spring in her step, though, because it really sounds like her story is more than a story, and that...well, that was pretty close to a declaration of love.
The next time she sees them, Dee Dee is running late and they're standing just outside the diner. Well, Quiet Guy is standing; Salt and Pepper is crouching by the bike rack.
"You should have left him at the library," Quiet Guy is saying as Dee Dee comes within earshot.
"He was cooped up all night, he needed a walk," Salt and Pepper replies. Dee Dee glances over and realizes that he's tying a leash to the bike rack. She doesn't recognize the breed of dog, but he's a good size and he watches Salt and Pepper attentively.
Quiet Guy frowns. "I don't like leaving him outside."
"Bear can take care of himself." Salt and Pepper scratches the dog behind the ears and straightens up. "Come on, he'll be fine while we have breakfast." Salt and Pepper steps up to the diner door and opens it, nodding for Quiet Guy to go in.
Quiet Guy tosses the dog--Bear--one last concerned glance before stepping into the diner. Salt and Pepper ends up holding the door for Dee Dee, too, and she can't help herself, she just can't. "You and your partner are really sweet together," she says. He looks a bit taken aback and Dee Dee curses herself. "Sorry." She hurries to put her things behind the counter. Stupid. They aren't the chatty type, she should have known that they wouldn't welcome personal comments from strangers.
They don't seem to hold it against her that day. They're just as absently polite when she brings their coffee as they ever are, and the tip is the same as usual. But it's weeks before she sees them again, and Dee Dee has herself convinced that they've found another diner where their waitress isn't so nosy when they finally come back. Salt and Pepper looks tired, like he hasn't slept the whole time he's been gone. They slide into a booth and Quiet Guy pulls something out of his pocket and sets it on the table. It's a cell phone. Dee Dee knows she's pushing her luck, but she slides down the counter until she's across from them and strains her ears.
Quiet Guy pushes the phone toward his companion. "To replace the one you destroyed."
"You know why I did that," Salt and Pepper says.
"Yes." Quiet Guy lets out a long, melancholy breath. "But I do wish you'd stop saying goodbye to me, Mr. Reese."
Dee Dee has just enough time to think Mr. Reese? before Salt and Pepper--Reese, apparently--reaches past the cell phone and curls his fingers around Quiet Guy's hand. "I'll stop saying goodbye," he says, "if you'll stop putting distance between us. Harold."
Harold looks down at their hands for a long time while Reese waits. Eventually, he tangles their fingers together. Reese smiles and squeezes his hand once before sitting back. "I think I'll have the eggs benedict," he says, and for some reason this makes Harold laugh.
After they leave, Dee Dee swings by the table to pick up her tip and clear the dishes away. Instead of the usual amount, there's a $100 bill and a note pinned under Reese's coffee cup. The note says, Thanks for seeing possibilities I wasn't looking for.
Dee Dee grins. The best stories are true stories. Eventually.