Canada |

Big Lunch

by Julie Mannell

Minutes after the cathedral tour, I was with this boy at Hesburger on Vilnius Street. Just two casual acquaintances on vacation, as they say. We each ordered the number four: double-stacked burgers with fries and pop. I chose orange Fanta and the boy, who seemed eager to please me, got the same. 

He sat adjacent to me; I was on a stupid bench and he got to sit on a chair. But it wasn't like we were at the Blu Astorija Hotel, so we unwrapped the plastic from our big number fours and began to nibble. 

We're both relatively young, at least compared to the bored divorcees and ancient history professors with their goggles for glasses, so I guess I knew this was a date of some kind. However, he did not play with my feet or reach across to hold my hand. During the tour, he looked at me through an oversized camera and lingered a little too close. He whispered jokes in my ear about our guide ("he looks like a human dachshund"), which felt intimate, but I wasn't upset by the idea of him wanting to sleep with me.  

“Do you want to see the pictures I took of you?” he asked, pulling a camera from his backpack.

“No,” I said, “please don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I hate my own likeness.”

“You hate your own likeness?”

He tilted his head to the left as if the word "likeness" was a strange word I had picked up in Europe.  “I don’t like to see myself in photos.” I explained.

“I think that you have an interesting face.” 

Interesting.  Jesus. That’s a fancy way of saying ugly.”

I wrapped my lips around my straw and looked away. Maybe I was overreacting. I didn't like the thought of chasing him away from Hesberger.  Maybe I wanted him to say I was beautiful by insisting I was ugly.  

He did not respond but looked into me directly, affecting me like a spotlight. I felt obligated to speak.

“Look, I just don’t like myself. I think it has something to do with my parents and my screwed up childhood. It’s not a great story, not right now, maybe another time—it’s a bummer, ya know?”

“No. I don’t. Why does your childhood make you not like yourself in pictures?”

I'm not sure why his questions made me uncomfortable but, put on the spot, I kept on talking: “Just my father, he was an alcoholic and could be cruel - called me Stinky Face Fart until I was in the third grade—and kids were mean to me at school and my family doesn’t really like me and I guess I don’t like myself very much either.”

I chewed a fry, then hid my chin behind my knees like a kid. He didn't seem to care. I appreciated the way the thick of his glasses obscured his face.

“I’ve always been told I was ugly too,” he said unexpectedly, “except—when I was younger my mom would make me compete in baby beauty pageants so she could support her coke habit. Whatever. At least I got to be Comart County's Little Mister of 2002.”

He bit into his last bites of burger. His confession delighted me, maybe telling each other we felt we were ugly was our kind of dating, a strange way of seducing each other?

“Tell me more about your father?” He asked, wiping a bit of Hesberger sauce from his mouth.

“He died while sleeping on a hammock. Truthfully, I felt really fucked up about it because I always wished he would die. You know? He was an asshole and my mom just let him be an asshole and then I just kind of hated everyone for a while and hated myself too because I felt even worse. You know? I felt even worse for making such an awful wish and I thought the whole thing was my fault, and I guess when you’re twelve you don’t really know what death is or forever means.”

He didn't have much pop left. 

He said, “Why do you still talk to your mother then?”

"Well, I don't know, I don't know if I even want to talk about this. I mean she wasn’t the best but she also watched movies with me and took me to the zoo and stuff. I do love her, and I think it would feel worse if she was suddenly gone. I even have panic attacks about her dying too. I don’t know.”

I hardly ate a bite. I took a baby sip, then tried to pull my burger up and catch up. A tomato fell out of my burger. Everything was sad and gross.   

“When I was younger, maybe eighteen, nineteen,” he started, “I decided to forgive my mother. When we were little, myself and my two younger brothers, she wouldn’t feed us and I would steal away as much food as I could but it was never enough. Then I was adopted but my brothers stayed. Then they were found in a van on the outskirts of the city. I confronted her about it a few years later but she didn’t really get it.”

I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and became very conscious of the my almost-completely intact Hesburger next to his empty wrapper.

I didn’t say “I’m so sorry,” because I hate when other people say that and, since his problems were three times as bad, I imagined he had heard it three times as often. I did not want to be one of those people. Instead, with chest wobbling, I began to try to eat at his pace, which was not abnormally fast but felt abnormal then and to me. 

“What kind of cancer did your father have?” he asked, still looking,

“He had mouth cancer that spread to his lungs and his brain. It was a slow death, it sort of fucked me up.”

“I have cancer,” he stated matter-of-fact, as if he was observing a street sign.

“What? "

“I have cancer.”

"Are you going to be okay?”

He told me that he had skin cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and his doctors kept removing each node but there wasn’t much left to do, it was stuck there, and they thought he had maybe three years tops.

 “What a terrible thing to go through alone!” I said.

“I'm not alone," he said. "I have my girlfriend—well wife. We have a common law marriage. She helps me.” 

“Wife? You never said you had a wife.”

There was one tooth-marked moon crest in my burger. I stared at it while he told a romantic story about how his girlfriend would take him to the hospital and clean up his puke. How she was his friend from college, how they were always close but it took his diagnosis to make them see each other as man and woman. 

“I thought when you were taking my picture that you wanted to fuck me! I thought that you were going to fuck me.”

“No,” he said, “I said You have an interesting face.”  He crumpled up his wrappers and we both put our trays above the garbage. It was a huge waste to throw out a perfectly good burger but I didn't want to stay, was eager to get the inevitable, awkward mistaking “push” for “pull” at the front door over with.

"It's not like I wouldn't sleep with you," he said.

"Oh, it's okay," I said, "You're not my type."

Then we both continued the tour. I never saw the photos and he never tried to take one again.