I was having a bad day at work, so I decided to treat myself to lunch at a diner. The waitress came over to take my order.
“Can I get you a drink?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Can I have a Coke?”
“Pepsi OK?” she asked, chewing on gum.
I sighed. “Yeah. Pepsi’s fine.”
“Perfect. I’ll be right back with your drink, and then I’ll take your order.” The waitress turned and started to walk away, snapping her gum.
“Hey, wait!” I called.
The waitress turned.
“Can you come back for a second?” I asked.
She sauntered back to my table. “Yeah?”
“I don’t want to be rude,” I said, “but if you want to know the truth, Pepsi’s not OK.”
The waitress’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
“See, I’m tired of people pushing me around,” I said. “I feel like the world controls me. No matter how insignificant it is, I can never get what I really want out of life.”
“Um.” The waitress smacked her lips. “I guess I didn’t mean to come across as controlling?”
“It’s not just you,” I said. “It’s everything. It’s my life. I don’t have the job that I want. I can’t get into the relationship that I want. I can’t find the peace and happiness that I want. It’s like I’m nothing more than a worthless doormat for the world to trudge upon. For once, I just want to have something that I want. The right job, the right girl, the right car — something. I’m tired of making do. I’m tired of getting by. I’m tired of simply settling. For once, I just want to get something that I want. That’s what I want out of life: to get what I want!”
The waitress bit her lip. “We have Dr Pepper, if that’s more your thing?”
“It’s not the Pepsi,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Pepsi. I’m not saying it’s second best. I didn’t walk into your diner today to engage in an epic Coke-versus-Pepsi debate. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both formidable giants in the soft-drink industry. I would never dream of criticizing Pepsi, nor the people who prefer it.”
“That’s nice, because I prefer Pepsi,” the waitress said.
“But I prefer Coke,” I said. “And again, I’m not impugning Pepsi’s well-earned reputation as a delicious, refreshing beverage with a thirst-quenching flavor and a carbonated crispness. But what I really want is a Coke. It’s a warm summer day, there’s no air conditioning in my car, I’m hot and tired, and a sweet, bubbling Coke sounds delicious right now.”
“The Pepsi comes with ice in the glass,” the waitress suggested.
“That’s not the point. I want a Coke. Coke makes me think of Christmastime and Santa Claus and ice-covered slopes with children on sleds. It’s the ideal refreshment for a day like this. I drank Coke growing up. It brings me back to a simpler time, when life wasn’t this constant mad dash of never-ending stress.”
“I don’t know what to say, sir,” the waitress said. “I … I’m sorry your car doesn’t have air conditioning.”
“I am, too,” I said. “It went early this spring, but I didn’t have the money to fix it. I still don’t. I’d love to have a car with air conditioning. In a climate as hot as this, air conditioning isn’t a want — it’s a necessity.”
“I agree,” the waitress said. “I don’t know what I’d do if the air went out in my apartment.”
“But I just can’t seem to get what I want out of life,” I said. “Whether it’s an air-conditioned car or a Coke with my lunch, the ideal life seems to elude me.”
“Excuse me!” someone said, calling to the waitress.
“Be right with you,” she called back, turning her head. She looked back at me, grimacing. “I … is there anything else I can do? All we have is Pepsi and Pepsi products. We have an exclusive contract with them. If we could carry both options, I imagine we would.”
“You know what I wanted to be when I was a kid?” I asked. “A circus performer. I imagine it sounds stupid, but it’s the truth. The idea of making people laugh, of traveling the country and seeing different places … I don’t know. I wanted so badly to dress up as a clown, to make people laugh. I wanted to be in the business of making people happy. You know what I mean? I wanted to see smiles on people’s faces. I felt like if I could make people smile, then I could change the world. I was never happy in school, so I daydreamed of wandering the countryside with my caravan of freaks, pitching tents in small towns, with the smell of hay and hotdogs and warm peanuts wafting through the summer-evening air. My wife would be the Bearded Lady — only she’d shave for intimate occasions — because really, who wants to kiss a woman with a goatee thicker than mine?”
“Um.” The waitress turned. “I really need to attend to this other table. Can I bring you that Pepsi?”
“But my parents didn’t think too much of my plan,” I said. “They thought it was too far-fetched — too unrealistic. They preferred I join the Army, or go to college — something with a future. They wanted me to get a job where I could wear a suit and a tie, and where I could make a decent-enough living to buy a house and get married.”
The waitress nodded, taking a slight step away. “Uh-huh.”
“And so I did. I went to community college, got a degree in Accounting. I never minded numbers. But every time I looked at a spreadsheet or turned on a calculator, I could almost smell the hay and the hotdogs and the warm peanuts. I could almost hear the gasp of the crowd as the trapeze artist turned somersaults in midair. I could almost see the faint outline of the Bearded Woman snug in my embrace, her face dissolving as my dreams pulled away, and reality came back. And when I looked in my arms and found them empty, with no one to love me and nothing to live for except the standardized requirements of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles … well, what could I do but cry? I cried not only for the life I’d never lived, but also for the love I’d never known — and never would know. Not in this lifetime, anyway. Because how many bearded woman can you meet in an accounting firm?”
The waitress wiped a tear from her eye. “I’m so sorry.”
I sighed. “Yeah, well, who’s to say that chasing your dreams is all it’s cracked up to be? I should be happy, right? I have a nice job, I get to wear a suit and tie to work. I have a house with a white picket fence on a nice street.”
“But it’s not what you want?”
I looked at her, running my tongue along my lower teeth.
“No,” I said, after a couple of moments. “It’s not what I want.”
The waitress came closer to my table. A second later, she was sliding into the seat across from me.
“Hey!” the customer across the diner yelled. “I’ve been waiting over here!”
The waitress set down her notebook. Then she reached across the table and took my hand.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “Seriously. Take me with you. We can go to the Applebee’s down the street. They serve Coke there — in ice-filled glasses, no less.”
“You can’t just walk away during lunch hour,” I said. “You’d lose your job.”
“I don’t care,” the waitress said. “I’ve got nothing to live for here. Just the same greasy dinners and the same rowdy customers, day after never-ending day. I want something different. I want a new life.”
“You just want what you want,” I said. “Like me.”
The waitress nodded. “Like you.”
And before I knew it, we were leaning across the table and kissing. She nuzzled her cheek against mine, and as we smooched I could feel the sandpapery rash on the bottom of her chin — that sore, stubble-speckled spot where she’d cut herself shaving.