We sit at a table under the breeze of a ceiling fan. Covering the checkered tablecloth is parchment paper. My daughters find the tin of crayons. Melisandra draws a flower. Corrigan scribbles lines. “Look, Mommy,” she says, “snakes.” Coloring is fun, but it gets better. Our waitress brings balls of pizza dough to shape and kneed onto eight-inch pizza pans.
Melisandra earned a certificate for a free pizza from her school’s reading program—in March. It is now June. We waited not just months to use it. We waited until the afternoon on the date of expiration to enjoy lunch at this local pizzeria.
The music is loud. It’s music from the 80s on a satellite radio station and doesn’t align with dark wood, a tin ceiling, and pasta. Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” plays: “I got my first real six-string. Bought it the five and dime. Played it ‘til my fingers bled. Was the summer of sixty-nine.” I see flashes of our town baseball diamond, friends drinking Miller Lite, the pool where I was a lifeguard. I see flashes of the evening concert under an open sky in Istanbul; I am twenty-one—and amused to be singing along with Bryan Adams so far away from home.
I feed Reece her baby food. Melisandra rolls her dough into a flat circle. “What would you like on your pizza, ma’am?” Both girls take my pretend orders for their pretend restaurants. They flatten the dough and cover it with toppings I request. I pretend to eat each order. “Yum,” I say. “That was delicious.”
Two kids walk in carrying the same certificate. They walk out with little boxes of pizza. Where are their parents?
Our food arrives. It is fresh out of the wood-fired oven and hot. Corrigan opts not to eat any pizza. She just wants her orange juice. Melisandra picks up a piece, but tosses it back to the plate when she realizes how hot it is.
The theme from the movie St. Elmo’s Fire plays. “I can see a new horizon. Underneath the blazin’ sky. I’ll be where the eagles flying, higher and higher. ” I am in junior high. I admire Demi Moore, play Ms. Pac Man, wear high-topped sneakers and a jean jacket, even when it is 30 below. I perm my hair. I love Mountain Dew and Doritos. I am cast in my first school play.
Melisandra changes the prices of her pizza to compete with her sister’s flat rate of five dollars. She says, “You have a choice. You can either pay or have it on the house.” Yep. The economics of this pricing structure make perfect sense to her.
A girl, also a super reader, and her mom walk through the door carrying the same certificate. The girl wears a visor and shorts and looks like she walked from the tennis court to claim her pizza.
Melisandra eats only one piece. After I finish my own eight-inch, I eat some of hers. Someone has to finish all this food. Her free pizza has turned into an $18 lunch.
I hear a piano. I listen to the lyrics: “Call on me. And I’ll be there for you. I’m a friend who always will be true.” I know this one wasn’t as overplayed in its day but it sounds so familiar. Ah! I remember. I am alone with my high school boyfriend. He puts a tape of this band I hadn’t heard about—Stryper—in his Boombox and pushes play. We wrap our arms around each other and rock side-to-side in our version of a slow dance.
Something cold and clammy sticks to my neck. Melisandra stands next to me, giggling the same way she did when she brought a toad into the house. “It’s a slug. A slug!” I remove the pizza dough and resist showing her any of the repulsion she’s wants from me. How does she know about slugs?
Stryper still sings. “And I love you, can’t you see? That I love you, honestly. And I’ll never, betray your trust in me.” My high school self peeks over Boyfriend’s shoulder to see this mom holding a baby, eating pizza, and wonders, why on earth would anyone want to do that? She is ready for college, for travel, for leaving home.
I sing a few lines, swaying to the melody. I want to stay in this place music makes for us—young and hopeful about what is ahead.
Across the aisle, a mom and a son sit in a booth with their eight-inch pizzas. More customers arrive, certificates in hand, for an early supper. We are all here to meet a deadline.
Melisandra reshapes the dough. She puts it on my knee. “Slug. Slug. Slug.” She laughs her big, oh-stop-tickling-me laugh. She’s getting silly. Disruptive. Corrigan runs to hide behind a potted plant and peeks out to see if her sister will find her. Yep. It’s time to move on.
I pack my bag. I buckle Reece into her carrier. We start for the door. “Put that dough back on the table,” I say to Melisandra. But when we get to the van, I notice she kept her “slug” for herself.