I Thought IHOP Had More Syrup Flavors
by Pia Ehrhardt
At our lunch this week I talk to my father about teaching to keep him at arm's length. He's a music professor. I'm in graduate school. The college is across the street from IHOP. I say I'm worried my knowledge is a mile wide and an inch thick. How will I answer their questions. He's staying on track, paternal, encouraging, says I won't begin learning until I get in front of a class.
I don't have my husband to hold in front as my shield, because Clay left ten days ago. When I told my father at last week's lunch, his hug goodbye in the parking lot was too long. "Welcome back," he'd said. He's so easy to encourage. When I was young, I would break up with boyfriends, sometimes, just for him. It was my gift. He dropped what he was doing to give me help. He'd tell me love was easy to get over, and there was more of it, even better, around the bend. He was happy like that, swooping in like some falcon, to sit on my leather-aproned arm. He'd take me out for Baskin-Robbins, or we'd sit in the kitchen and play gin rummy until late.
I thought IHOP had a peaked roof, like a Bavarian cottage. I'm sure it used to. Seventeen years ago, when Clay and I were in college, we'd come here to study. You could drink coffee all night, fool yourself into thinking you'd slept by eating Belgian waffles. There were menu items from the countries we dreamed we'd visit. Booth travel. I loved that. The seats were turquoise vinyl. Now they're upholstered. The ceiling's flat, floated low with water-stained tiles.
My father looks at me over the shiny menu, says, "The best question I ever got was from a woman in my counterpoint class - Didn't I think music written by men imitated male coitus?"
The waitress has walked up and wants us to order. He gets grilled chicken on a bun and I just want coffee.
"The next day I told her, well, yes --." He's making orgasm spikes with his hands, diagramming Brahms, Prokofiev, rising action, climax, falling action, talking loud. For the life of me I can't decide if this okay.
I thought IHOP played music from around the world. Polkas and yodel songs, pretty Irish tunes. Now it's just the radio through fuzzy speakers. My father asks our waitress to turn the volume down, but she points at the other diners, says, "Can't."
There's a guy in the next booth wearing a flannel shirt over a faded T-shirt, staring. He thinks this older guy is with his girlfriend. I wish I could tell him different, but I'm not so sure.
Orgasms aren't some abstraction any more, like when my father brought me in his study twenty years ago to explain this inexplicable thing between men and women. Now, I know. I could argue Satie and Debussy, show him how their music moves like a woman's orgasms, like mine, but there's not enough room in the booth for me to spread wide my arms. I'd like a gust of wind to lift me out of here into the apartment where Clay's living. I miss him. I wish we could meet for sex, tonight, so everything doesn't have to stop at once.
I'm wearing dark lipstick I put on at the red light. As soon as the food comes I'm wiping it off.
The tabletops in here used to be sticky. The waitresses wore orange dirndl skirts.
This summer Clay and I traveled to Austria, France, and Belgium. We ate our weight in blintzes, crepes, waffles, drank coffee eight times a day. We should have gone to fewer cities and taken trains. There were vicious fights that felt like someone else's, in rental cars, over wrong turns, near collisions, going too slow on the Autobahn. The elegant navy sedans that blew by us made things worse. In France, Clay went down a too narrow street and the rear view mirror on my side hit a big green recycling dumpster. I screamed, covered my face. He got out of the car and checked. He pushed the mirror back into place, said no damage done. He got back in and drove and let me cry without once touching my arm.
The people in the corner by the cash register are talking about something comfortable. After my father's gone, I want to come back into IHOP, sit at their table and order silver dollar pancakes.
I tell my father I've screwed things up with Clay good; I want to work this out. He looks down at his plate and picks out broken ends of French fries. I feel bad for him so I give him a job. I talk about quiet music. I've been listening to Arvo Part's choral pieces. The surface is so still. He leans in, employed, and says, "Try Palestrina! Lovely!" His eyes are light blue. I believe him like I hope some kid will believe me. Medieval music. Wandering modality. Sacred texts.
My cell phone is on silent ring and it buzzes in my lap. Be Clay. I left a message for him this morning, some fake concern so we will talk.
Lunch has to be over in fifteen minutes because he has class and he's checking his watch often because he's never late.
I thought this place had strawberry syrup. And boysenberry. I remember half a dozen syrups on a lazy Susan, and you could buy miniatures of them for the pancakes you meant to make at home.
He walks me out and puts his arm around my shoulder. I grab one finger on his hand. I realize what I've done. I've confused him with just a father, but it feels nice, and embarrassing, this mistake, to touch this man by accident.
About the author:
Pia Ehrhardt lives in New Orleans. The food is good there. Still, she is most comfortable sitting in a booth, drinking a bottomless cup of coffee, ordering off a menu with pictures.