Every time the eatery’s door swung open, groups of chattering students spilled out along with the sound of televisions turned to a sports channel. The loud, boisterous voices indicated more than a few had too much to drink. Mitch pointed to a table farther away from the door in the shadow of a large tree. Without discussion, they both moved to the table.
Mitch picked up a menu and flourished it. “Our location makes it impossible to read anything. I’ll go in and order since I doubt as busy as they are they’ll check to see if anyone is outside. Anything you don’t want on your pizza?”
“None of those little fish things.” She grimaced, thinking of a tiny eyes staring at her while she bit into the slice. Yuk, it was enough to make her a vegetarian, but not quite.
Mitch laughed. “Got it. I don’t like them, either.”
His tall silhouette weaved around the other tables. How did anyone get service if the staff failed to look outside? A casual glance at the other tables revealed the whispering couples had no plates or pizza box on their tables. One couple had oversized sodas, but that could have come from the convenience store nearby.
The light from the open door illuminated Mitch’s profile briefly before he disappeared inside. Nice strong lines despite the glasses. Her father used to say a man’s profile was his résumé. For some reason he believed those who had no inner purpose or character would be chinless individuals. Of course, his reason probably resulted from his own chiseled profile. In retrospect, considering how her father kicked her and her mom to the curb, a man’s profile didn’t mean squat.
A simmering spark of resentment flared. Just about the time, she thought she was over her father’s desertion something happened, and the pain flared up again. Many middle-aged men abandoned their family when a younger woman beckoned. Often the younger woman ended up dumping the cheater, but it hadn’t happened yet with her father.
Her lips pulled down as she crossed her arms and slumped into her chair. Mitch’s shadow blocked out the surrounding light, as he leaned forward to look at her.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” He slid into his seat, pulling it closer to hers. “I went inside and you were happy, but now you look like someone ran over your puppy.”
Exhaling deeply, she pushed up in her chair and tried for a smile. Wasn’t the whole purpose of the outing to cheer up Mitch who only got a lousy letter from his mother on his birthday? “I’m sorry. I’m not sure how it happened, but I started thinking about my father. I know I should be glad to have a father and all, but the way he left wasn’t that easy to deal with.”
She reached for the votive candle, turning it in her hand, watching the flame flicker, almost die as the wax washed across it.
Mitch’s larger hand pried the candle away from her. He positioned the candle closer to him before resting his hand on top of hers. “I know he left your mother for a younger woman. That’s lame. How did this affect you?”
Her lips tightened, not wanting to tell the real story. “Of course, there were the endless arguments. I was the bone between the two of them. My mother pointed out how his selfishness would ruin my life. He’d scream back that she was the one who wanted children and he never did.”
His hand tightened over hers. “Wow! That was rough. Did they know you overheard?”
Stella shrugged her shoulders, not sure, if Mitch could see the action in the dark. “I don’t know. I doubt my father cared. He told me to my face that he’d never wanted children and I was the only reason he stayed in the miserable marriage as long as he did. In some convoluted way, I ruined his life, not my mother or him.”
“Damn, that’s hard.”
Stella sighed heavily. “You’re the only person I ever told, besides Leah, I mean. I would never tell my mother because that would set her off even more than she already was.” The thought of her mother flying into a rage and threatening to drag her father back into a court was a result she’d like to avoid. No good would come of it, especially if they wanted her to testify or something.
Even though it was dark, she knew Mitch was staring at her. His voice was soft when he asked. “You never mentioned it to Cam?”
An inelegant snort escaped her lips that she turned into a cough. It caused her to remove her hand from underneath Mitch’s to cover it. To think I almost said why would I tell Cam. Of course, you’re supposed to tell your boyfriend all your personal issues. She’d discovered a while ago that Cam didn’t really listen. It wasn’t too surprising. Her half dozen high school dates weren’t great listeners either, too busy trying to decide how they could get her into bed. Obviously, her father epitomized the disinterest men had for female problems.
“Um, no. I never told him. It never seemed like the right time.”
It would have been the perfect time for Mitch to point out what a jerk Cam was, but he didn’t. His silence made her wonder if it was due to pity, she’d date such a self-absorbed jerk or if he was bored with the whole conversation. Time to lighten things up. “Did you ask if you could get some birthday candles on the pizza?”
His silhouette reminded her of those black paper pictures her first art teacher enjoyed creating. At the time, Stella thought they all looked pretty much the same with the girls having ponytails and the boys with a few hairs sticking up awkwardly. Staring at Mitch, she realized she’d be able to pick him out in lowlight. Odd, that she’d be able to do that. She hadn’t really spent that much time observing him, despite work and their classes together, or had she?
His glasses slipped as he shook his head as if shaking off his silent stupor. A brush of his right hand pushed the glasses back in place. “I doubt this place has birthday candles. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want the fuss.”
Didn’t want the fuss. The words sounded artificial. It was something he probably thought he should say. Most people did want the fuss and attention even if it wasn’t authentic. It made them feel special. Having a bunch of minimum wage employees interrupt their busy night to crowd around some stranger and force themselves to sing an off-key version of Happy Birthday was what he didn’t want. Mitch wouldn’t enjoy the curious looks of other diners wondering what was going on. Yep, she could do without that too.