LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WAITRESS IN THAT SOUTH DAKOTA DINER
BY CANDACE OPPER
By the time we got to your little town, most of the restaurants were closed. I miscalculated and thought we’d make it to the market to buy frozen dinners or yogurts, but we’d lost an hour crossing into Central Time. The store was dark. I shaded my eyes and pressed my face against its glass door. A rack of Funyuns stared back from the darkness.
We cruised the dusty streets with our windows down, airing out the car’s noxious interior. Earlier we’d hit a skunk and spent the afternoon wondering whether the stench would permeate our belongings, so meticulously crammed into the car’s back half. I joked about starting life in a new city, our wardrobes tainted with skunk death, but I truly feared this possibility.
Yelp looked bleak. We passed a gas station, a post office, a steakhouse whose parking lot was packed with Ford pickup trucks and the men who drove them.
“What do you think,” my husband Patrick teased. I laughed and we kept driving, a couple city-folk switching coasts, looking for stories to bring home but unwilling to really work for them.
Your diner’s vintage pole sign gleamed in the sun like an inland lighthouse. “Ooh, it’s AAA rated,” I said as I opened the door. I can be the worst kind of snob, the kind that hides it behind an easygoing exterior. The opposite of someone like you, who stood at the front counter humming and punching something into a tiny calculator. You couldn’t have been more than seventeen. Your mousy hair was pulled back in a utilitarian ponytail and a Guest Check pad stuck out of your back pocket, the tiny back pocket of a young woman who has yet to realize she’s outgrown the Juniors section.
We followed you through a maze of Formica tables, past an old couple eating pie in silence, past a kid crayoning a paper placemat while his parents looked on unenthusiastically. The diner had a kitschy feel, like something out of a 1950s sitcom: shiny red vinyl seats, Heinz ketchup as far as the eye can see. Its ambiance evoked a kind of America that forms the backdrop of my earliest childhood memories, a kind I thought had disappeared long ago.
“Do you guys want a window seat?” you asked earnestly, as though there was a view. We accepted and slid into a booth. My summer thighs stuck to the vinyl. You scurried off to get waters and we perused the laminated one-page menu of standard diner fair: meatloaf, pie, chicken fingers. I’m outrageously picky and digestively challenged, two of the worst qualities to embody on a road trip across the United States. Patrick gestured optimistically to a salad bar behind me. I went to investigate, mostly to humor him; I knew I’d find only the pale, sad vegetables of the deep Midwest.
You came back to take our order and spoke with the sheepish lilt of an inexperienced waitress trying to get comfortable with the poetics of table service. I noticed a curve in your shoulders and a grayness in your teeth and looked away abruptly, as though I had infringed on your privacy.
“What do you recommend?” asked Patrick.
“Um…” You shifted your weight to one leg and looked up at the fluorescent lights, as though they held the answer. “I like the mozzarella sticks.”
“I’ll take the mozzarella sticks,” he said: a champion at making people feel special.
“Great choice,” you laughed. “And for you?”
“Just water, thanks.”
Patrick and I had a perfunctory argument about the state of my perpetual culinary dissatisfaction but were too exhausted to get into it. Outside the sun hovered on the horizon, reflecting off the parked cars. The road seemed to extend forever into a flat landscape that sprawled endlessly around us. It gave me the sensation of being in one of those tiny clusters of lights you see from a plane.
I felt someone staring and looked up to see a line cook peering out of the kitchen at me through a long horizontal window. He mouthed a kiss and smiled. I shook my head and looked away, peripherally taking in the low cut of my tank top, the shortness of my shorts, the seemingly endless spread of exposed skin. I’m no great beauty but considering the other women who patronized the diner that night—the pie-eating senior, the mom in khaki shorts—I wondered if perhaps I was a novelty among their clientele: a svelte, big-city woman, under-dressed and over-confident. A woman he might describe, under different circumstances, as begging for it.
The mozzarella sticks arrived stacked in a pyramid and garnished by a little plastic cup of marinara sauce. You placed them on our table along with an environmentally detrimental stack of additional napkins. Patrick scarfed two or three then leaned back in his seat. “These might even be too much for me,” he said. I nibbled at the crispy edge of one; it tasted like the food tent at a carnival.
After a few courtesy minutes, I asked to get the sticks to go.
“Are they okay?” You seemed concerned about your recommendation.
“They’re fine,” I said, “we’re just tired from driving all day.”
“Where are youall driving from?”
“We’re moving from Oregon to Pittsburgh.”
“Wow,” you responded, dragging the one syllable out. “That sure is a big move.”
We all nodded, waiting for more conversation to happen, but it never came.
You tore our bill off your pad. “Whenever you’re ready,” you said, and retreated to the kitchen. I watched you pin a ticket up onto the queue, tighten your mousy ponytail, grab a box from a high shelf. The cook said something to you, and you responded, laughing. When you turned your back to him, he tugged at that ponytail and you laughed again. I couldn’t tell if this was friendly flirting or the subtler, ongoing kind of harassment women learn to deal with just to keep things uncomplicated.
“Look at our waitress,” I said to Patrick. “Do you think she’ll ever get out of here?”
He shrugged. We both thought we knew the inevitable answer, but it was an unfair thing to project onto you: the hunger to leave a small town that I’d had at seventeen. Maybe you liked it there. Maybe your parents and grandparents had lived there, and you had pride in the prospect of carrying the torch. Or maybe you did hate it but had no point of reference for getting out. Maybe all the tourists who came through your diner seemed like creatures of a migratory species, like the Swifts that roost at a Portland elementary school every September on their way to South America, observed in awe by a rotating audience of Portlanders, themselves an overwhelmingly transient sort.
Maybe I wanted you to look at me the way I thought the cook had, like an exotic harbinger of another kind of America, when in fact, this is merely how I had looked at you: another projection.
On the way out, we paid our bill with another waitress, who chewed on a piece of gum and didn’t make eye contact. Behind her, you sat at a table on your break, scrolling a smartphone by a frosted plastic cup of cola. I waited for you to look up so I could wave a little farewell, but you remained in another world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Candace Jane Opper is a writer, a mother, and an occasional visual artist. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Literary Hub, and Vestoj, among others. Her first book, “Certain and Impossible Events,” was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the winner of the second annual Kore Press Memoir Contest, and will be published in 2020. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, writer Patrick McGinty, and their son.
Header image by Benjamin Parker.