It's not that hard. I can do this.
That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.
But it's true, isn't it? After all, millions of people do it every day. Am I so different from any of them?
Well, yes—and no. I don't know, actually.
I recognize that I'm being irrational right now, what with all my anxiety. But that's a good thing, in my opinion. Not that I'm being irrational, I mean; rather, that I'm able to recognize it. I think that's a great first step.
The question now is: Can I take the step that comes after, the really hard one?
Can I triumph over my irrationality, and thereby reassume my place in the family of Man, after all these years?
We'll find out shortly, I guess.
There are two people in front of me: an older lady, blue-haired, with horn-rimmed glasses, followed by a bald, T-shirt-clad man whom I guess to be in his late thirties; neither one looks to be anything special, in a social sense. I don't mean that disparagingly. In the state I'm in—the state I've been in for the last twenty years—I really can't criticize anyone on social matters. They're just regular folks, seems to me.
But there's nothing wrong with that.
"Regular folks" is the group I hope to join, you see.
"I'd like the fish fillet," I hear the little old lady saying to the cashier. "That's a sandwich, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," replies the young woman behind the register.
"Can y'all cut it in half for me?" she asks.
"Sure." The young woman strikes me as if she doesn't want to be here. That makes two of us. But neither she nor I have a choice in the matter. She has to work, and I have to—be. That's pretty much what it boils down to. I have to be.
I've accomplished a lot already, you know. My home is four blocks away. I've walked that entire distance just now. Can you believe it? I haven't made that walk in twenty years. I'm so proud of myself I can barely stand it.
The little old lady is staring up at the menu. Maybe she's considering additional items. A pause has ensued. I wonder what's going on.
The young woman appears to be wondering the same thing. So she asks, "Anything to drink, ma'am?"
The little old lady looks back down at her. She appears to have been caught off-guard. "I beg your pardon?"
"Anything to drink with your order?" The young woman's voice sounds rather short, and it brings a chill to my heart. I almost turn around and leave. I don't want to deal with someone like her, not now. But my feet remain rooted in place. I cannot be afraid. There's no reason for me to be afraid. I can do this.
"Oh. A small water, please."
"Will that complete your order?" The young woman seems slightly irritated. I hope she's not still irritated when I get there.
The total is given. The old lady fumbles around in her purse, trying to find exact change, I imagine.
Me, I'm not quite ready to do anything that complicated—not yet, anyway. I've already calculated the cost of a regular cheeseburger combo, with tax. But as nervous as I am, I worry I won't be able to think clearly enough to do anything other than hand the lady a twenty-dollar bill. Maybe, in future such transactions, I'll be confident enough to reach into my pocket and pull out a suitable combination of coins. However, I'm not ready at this point. And I think that's fine. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.
The little old lady has now stood to the side. She's waiting for them to put the two items she's ordered on her tray. The man has moved up to the cash register now. I take a deep breath and move forward as well.
I hope he's got a really long order. I hope he's getting lunch for the whole crew he works with—a crew of ten, or of twenty.
"Can I help you?" the cashier asks.
"Yes, I'd like to get a…"
His voice trails off.
That's the spirit, I think. Take awhile to figure out what you want. Take all the time in the world. Believe me, I won't be upset.
"Okay, I'd like to get a number four—with a Sprite to drink."
The young woman mashes some keys on her register.
"And I'd like to get a barbeque sandwich also."
"No, just the sandwich by itself."
I bite my lower lip. She's ringing it up, way too fast for my comfort. Please, let there be a glitch in the system. I look over at the exit. I suddenly don't want to do this anymore—some other time, but not today.
She gives him his total, and I feel my cheeks flush. Is my hair combed, is my fly closed? I watch him hand her his money, and immediately I fish the twenty-dollar bill out of my pocket, so that I will be ready for her.
She gives him his change and he moves aside. Now, suddenly, it's me. It's my turn. I'm the one. Here we go.
"Can I help you?" she asks.
I take a half step forward.
"Yes…I'd like a…"
What did I come here to order? Was it a combo of some sort? I look up at the menu. I can't remember. I hope twenty dollars will cover whatever I order—assuming I can get the words out.
"I'd like a…"
The young woman cranes her head forward; she squints her eyes. "I'm sorry, sir. I can't hear you."
"I'd like a…"
My throat is seizing up on me. I'm having difficulty breathing. Where's Madeline? I wonder. But my longtime housekeeper and caretaker has gone to a place where she can't help me now. Oh, how I miss that woman; how I wish she were here to encourage me. All my life she took care of me, especially after my parents were gone; took care of me after I got really nervous all the time and couldn't leave the house. She paid the bills. She retained the services of a second housekeeper, and a nurse, and landscapers, and whatever else it took to maintain the estate I inherited. So much of my life, all spent inside our great big house, never having to leave except to go to school—and then, when school was done, the money in my trust fund made it unnecessary for me to go to college, or to work. Television became my window on the world. It was as much of a window as I wanted. It's as much of a window as I want right now.
"A number four," I gasp.
"What to drink?"
"What to drink, sir? What kind of drink do you want with your order?"
Oh, no. I did it. She's mad at me. I can tell by the sound of her voice.
But wait a minute! Why should I care? She has no good reason to be mad at me. There's no sign posted by the door that says I have to know what beverage I want prior to getting to the cash register.
"A Coke," I say, with a little volume, actually.
"Will that be—"
I know what she's about to ask and cut her off. "Yes."
The total comes now. I don't listen. I just give her the twenty that I've been clutching and take solace in the fact that I owe her less than twenty dollars.
As I hand her the bill I notice that it is limp with sweat. She notices this too and I think I detect a slight curl of revulsion at the right corner of her mouth. I'm embarrassed but there's nothing I can do about it now.
"Thank you," she says.
"Thank you," I reply.
I stand there, breathing hard.
"You get your order over there, sir," she says, gesturing down the counter, to where the old lady and the T-shirt clad man are waiting.
"Oh, right," I say. How stupid of me. I'd forgotten what to do next. I turn and take up a position beside the man.
But you know something?
Already I'm feeling better. I can't believe this. I did it. I actually did it. Well, we're not quite out of the woods yet. I still have to pick up my tray and take it to a booth. But I don't have to endure any more human contact today—not unless I want to.
I'm feeling emboldened. I'm feeling good. What might I do tomorrow? Perhaps I'll obtain a driver's license, and then go to a self-service filling station. I'll actually get out and pump the gas myself, and then I'll go inside the store, where there will be other people, and I'll pay. What else might I do? Gosh, maybe I could go to the grocery store. And then maybe I'll go to a men's clothing store, and buy some nice shirts, and a new pair of pants—and maybe a suit.
It's wonderful to be a part of the fellowship of people who eat at fast-food restaurants, but now that I've joined it, I need to broaden my horizons. I know I can't stop here.
Luckily, new possibilities are already emerging. Maybe I'll go to Las Vegas and get a hooker so that I don't have to live with the shame of being a forty-five-year-old virgin anymore.
The little old lady's order is complete. She takes her tray and carries it to a nearby booth. The man's items should be coming his way pretty soon. Then it will be my turn.
I wonder what's in a number four combo. It's not a cheeseburger combo. That's a number one—what I was planning to order all along. I just got scared and ordered the first thing that came to mind: a number four, surely because I'd just heard this other guy ask for it. No big deal, though. Believe me, I'm going to do this again—lots more times, in fact.
All of the man's food arrives quickly. He picks up his tray and walks off so fast that I don't get a chance to see what he got—what I'll be getting.
No problem—mine should be ready next; I'll find out then.
I realize my hands are shaking slightly from this whole effort, which means I'll have to be very careful as I carry my tray.
Nonetheless, I think the worst is over now.
There's my Coke.
I'm starting to get shaky again.
Here come my French fries.
I breathe in deeply. Don't be frightened, I tell myself. You don't have to take your tray far. In fact, just take it to the closest booth. That'll be fine.
And now a little box containing a sandwich has been placed on my tray. It's a bacon double cheeseburger according to the top of the box. My receipt is then laid beside it.
The order is complete. It's time to move.
Firmly I take the sides of the tray, lift it off the counter. I turn around and face the dining area.
One step. Two steps. I've got it. Three steps. Four steps. So far, so good, I think. I can do this. Five steps. Six steps. But now my wrists are starting to feel a bit weak. Seven steps. Eight steps. And suddenly my vision is becoming blurred at its periphery. Nine steps. Ten steps. The tray—I'm not holding it level anymore, I realize. I look down. The tray is tipping to the right. The carton with the sandwich is sliding in that direction. Eleven steps. Twelve steps. I know I've got to correct the imbalance, got to make it level again. Otherwise everything is going to fall.
Thirteen steps. Fourteen steps.
"Correct it!" shouts a voice inside my head. "Correct it! Hurry!"
And I do indeed correct it—but too much to the left, unfortunately, and everything just flies right off. It's as if the whole debacle occurs in slow motion. There they go into space—my Coke, my French fries, my poor little bacon double cheeseburger.
They hit the tile simultaneously, and at the moment of their impact I freeze, my eyes riveted on the wreckage of the meal I will never eat.
The cap comes off my cup and Coca-Cola washes over the floor.
For a brief moment the entire world is nothing but my ruined number four, along with the little space of tile it now inhabits. Then that world expands to include the people in line beside me, whose trousers and stockings have no doubt caught at least a few drops of Coca-Cola. And afterwards it goes on to encompass the many diners seated throughout the restaurant, some of whom clap briefly, mockingly.
At that moment I want nothing more than to go back my big house, my big wonderfully empty house, in which things like this cannot happen, to crawl into some dark corner and convince myself this was all a bad dream.
Or better yet I'd like to just vanish now, as if I never existed, hopefully taking with me all memories that others might have of the pitiful, stunted being that I am.
My chest hurts. Maybe I'm having a heart attack. That might be the best-case scenario, come to think of it. Live or die, at least I could blame my clumsiness on an internal malfunction, which I'm sure everyone present would understand, and sympathize with.
A pimply teenager is coming with a mop, a bucket, a brush, and a small trash bag. I look at him, and perhaps he sees that my gaze is mournful, for he only smiles gently and says, "I'll get this, sir."
I nod. His kindness touches me. No doubt the youth's employer requires him to take care of things like this. But I get the impression he doesn't want me to feel bad. That's nice. I appreciate that.
I'd tell him that I'm sorry, but the ability to form words has been denied me for the moment.
I see now that I was wrong to come here, that I'm simply not meant for the real world. Lesson learned. From here on out I will just stay in my house, where I belong.
But then I think: I'm a coward. What else can you call someone, who will give up so easily, who with hardly any fight at all will allow himself to be forced back down into the cold dark hole in which he's long resided, foregoing always the light of the sun? I have spent nearly my whole life hiding. Isn't that enough time? Is it not, at last, the occasion for change?
"Sir, I need to get where you're standing," the teenager tells me.
I look down and see that there are some outlying French fries at my feet. I comply with the boy's request and he sweeps my fries into the trash bag.
I know what I must do now. It's clear.
My instincts disagree. They tell me to retreat, to find a place of safety and stay there, forever. They tell me to embrace a life of sleep, so that the eternal sleep coming afterwards will be but a continuation of the only world I have ever known.
At last my voice returns; I am able to whisper to the boy, "I'm very sorry."
"No problem," he says, mopping up the Coke.
I see the exit. My great big house patiently awaits the return of its master. I hear it calling for me: "Come on home, little fellow. Come on home."
And go home I will—but not yet, not yet. There's something I have to do first, something terribly painful, but also terribly necessary. I cannot give myself the choice.
I get back in line.