This post is part of Fiction Friday, a series born out of my ongoing desire to be a novelist. These stories are meant to be read independently. They are fictional vignettes inspired by glimmers from my life.
The three of them are at La Casita, in one of the cushy booths in the back, and all Leon can feel is embarrassed about the neatly wrapped birthday gifts on the table. He's almost thirty, for chrissakes. It seems like something he should've grown out of by now, along with scraped knees and spitballs.
The waitress – her torso tulip-shaped, hair dyed the color of saffron – bends over the table to wipe the glass with a damp cloth. Both gifts are wrapped in confetti-patterned paper, finished with metallic ribbons and oversized bows. The boxy one is from his girlfriend, Noreen, and the flatter one is from his father. Leon’s cheeks burn a pink imperceptible under the low rose light. He regrets eating so quickly. At least then he had something to do with his hands. Behind their booth, a family of starry-eyed folk dolls and shriveled hot peppers hang over the emergency exit.
Noreen orders them coffee, mindlessly scratching at her jeans as she speaks. Their original waitress seems to have disappeared. The new waiter has a mole above his upper lip that moves when he speaks. It reminds Leon of those old singalong cartoons, the ones with the black bouncing ball.
Noreen's saying, “We’ll have sopapillas, too. Those are made to order, right? It’s his birthd–"
"Don’t." Leon says.
"Sí, sopapillas," answers the waiter. "And three coffees. Cream 'n sugar?"
"Both, I guess." Noreen turns to Leon's father: "Anything else?"
Leon slides his thumbs under the flaps and unfolds the wrapping off a CD. There is, though, no indication of what band or musician it is. The cover is a solid wash of blue. The back only lists tracks, words that could mean anything.
"You and Gina talked about it last time you came up," his father says. "Or so she says. One of your favorites, eh?"
He can’t ask now. "Tell her thanks," he says. "She has a good memory."
"Oh, sure." His father rubs at an eyebrow, mussing up the gray hairs. "She says she has a memory like an elephant, but I don't know. I can count the number of times she's forgotten that–" The sleeved arm of the waiter interrupts with mugs of coffee. The bitterness is intoxicating. A second waiter lowers plates of sugar-dusted fried dessert, replenishes their silverware, and slips the soft black bill folder onto the table.
With the distraction, Leon feels his stomach resettle. And then it clenches, again, when he looks over at the gift from Noreen. Attached to the bow is a square tag with his name written in her sloppy handwriting. Tape tears away the paper skin as he unwraps it.
Deluxe 20-piece Haircut Kit. Contoured shape. Compact battery. "Look at this, right here," Noreen says to him, high-pitched, jabbing a finger at bulleted text on the box. "This exact model is used by professional swimmers."
"Well…thank you," Leon says.
"What’s that? A nose hair trimmer?" His father fishes reading glasses out of his shirt pocket.
"The way I see it," says Noreen, licking powdered sugar off her fork, "We spend, what, twenty bucks a month on haircuts?"
"Not exactly," says Leon. "I go every three or four months."
"Well, in any case. It adds up."
"It’s a hair buzzer, Dad," Leon says in the other direction. He moves the box out of the way, pushing it against the acrylic cocktail card. "For disheveled guys like me." He rubs the meaty handle of his coffee cup. There’s a chip along the rim. He could’ve sworn it wasn’t there a second ago.
"Oh, shush," says Noreen. She winks at his father. "Doesn't Leon realize he inherited your good looks?"
"That’s not saying much," his father says.
"Come on, fess up. Gina has to fight them off left and right, no?"
His father tries to laugh, but chokes a little on a bite of dessert. He coughs loudly, violently. People at other tables turn around. He takes in a mouthful of coffee, waving his hand to say he's okay. He is not a man who needs help.
"Can I get out of the booth?" Leon asks.
"We’ll be gone in a second," says Noreen.
"Just let me out. Please."
When he comes back, his neck is glossy with water. Noreen wipes her thumb across a streak and moves her fingers backward through his hair, with difficulty, as if they keep getting stuck.
"See?" she says. "You’re growing a forest up here."
Her touch in the restaurant is gentler than when she braces his head steady for the buzzer. It’s the first sun-drenched day of the year, shadows flickering across the floor like wild animals, and Leon is hunched in a chair that has been moved into the bathroom. Noreen presses her thighs against his shoulder as she twists over him with the trimmer; so slowly, she draws it up and across his head. One of the metal buttons on her jeans depresses into his arm; when she rocks away an impression lingers.
She starts to hum. Off-key. Some of the notes blend into the trimmer’s steady buzz. He says her name, but the only response is her fingertips folding his ear over. The hair keeps scattering around his feet. With his left, he sweeps together the peppery brown discards.
He says her name again.
The buzzer isn't that loud; she has to be able to hear him. Maybe she's refusing to. He’s too tired to keep trying.
When the drone dies, she wipes the back of her hand across her chin. She sighs. In the mirror, when Leon looks up, someone else gazes back at him. It’s as if a wilted layer has been peeled away. Softened by the heat, Noreen slouches against the edge of the sink.
"Do you hate it?"
"No, it's fine. It’s good."
"You have a freckle behind your ear," she says.
She’s dressed in a pale peach shirt with the sleeves bunched up, bits of his hair stuck to her arms like hatch marks. She says something about getting the vacuum. Leon watches her walk out of the room, trying to imagine her with a cropped head of hair, but the image of her isn't willing to be remolded.
He realizes he hasn't been alone for a long time. He realizes he has not inspected his face in the mirror for a long time. He doesn't recognize this face, or these older eyes. Now – and for months after, until the locks curl back around his face – now he looks like someone else entirely.