When Anna called to say she wanted to meet me at McDonalds for dinner I was confused. On our road trip to California she convinced us to go to a Burger King drive-through instead of McDonalds because they sell a veggie burger.
When I got there, I stood in front of the counter and giant lighted board displaying all the foods in glorious pictures for small amounts of money with my arms crossed. When she came in she was smiling and I couldn't help to smile back, but only at first, and only for a short period of time.
She ordered an Angus Burger saying, "I thought the BigMac was the quintessential meaty meal here, but Todd told me it's the Angus Burger so I've got to try it."
"You've been a vegetarian since college," I said.
"Well . . ." She said, still smiling. "You know what happened."
"You know, the whole story of how I met Todd."
"I'm sorry. I didn't hear it. I couldn't listen then. I felt all antsy for some reason."
She looked at me for a second, but I was able to keep my face plain, showing nothing, and I'm proud about that. "Well . . . do you want to hear it now?"
By this time we were seated at a small sleek table by a large window and I took a giant bite from a Double Cheeseburger. "Sure."
Her face became animated all the more. "Well, it all started when I rode my bike to the park next to Panera's and spent some time there reading this book, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. You know it?"
"Yeah. I know it."
"Well, I got to the part where Tod Clifton dies and the narrator makes that speech at his funeral and I got super depressed, angry, and all kinds of worked-up. I just couldn't beat, in that moment, thinking about how meaningless it is to even try to do anything, to make a stand, to try and change something. I couldn't read on, as I was so flustered. So I stood up and asked the nearest man where the nearest McDonalds was. He pointed me west, across the river, and the neighborhood it was in was in real bad shape. This McDonalds was next to the bus station so there were a ton of poor people milling about the place. In front of it, I was stopped by some bums. One was curled up asleep on the floor and the one with the mustache asked me for a dollar to buy a beer and I felt like I had to give it to him. Who am I to stop this man from dealing with his stuff however he wants? So I gave it to him, went inside and quickly ordered a BigMac, large fries, and a chocolate milkshake. I wanted to just go for it all the way. Anyway, when I was in that McDonalds this short stocky bearded man with tattoos and a bald head walked out the bathroom and grinned at me weirdly as he walked by. Then he quickly rounded back to me and asked, 'Do I know you?' I answered warily, 'I don't think so.' 'What's your name?' 'Anna McElhenney.' 'Anna. Anna. Did you go to Jefferson High?' 'No, I didn't.' 'Oh, never mind then. I thought you was someone you wasn't.' I smiled at him as he walked away and finished my food as I started to feel sick. That's when I decided to start going to help out at an after school program and to help at that writing lab and tutoring center. Todd was the one who signed me up and when he told me his name I just laughed. Of course, I had to explain myself so I told him about Tod Clifton and the entire story and I kinda just let loose a lot of stuff on him. After a couple weeks of working there he asked me out." Her smile had spread and begun to sparkle like in a dream.
I couldn't believe she was telling me all of this. As much as I didn't want to hear all of this, I did. So I just listened, but didn't look at her much, pretending to concentrate on my french fries.
"Do you have a problem with me?" she asked suddenly.
I adjusted myself in the chair, shoulders hunched forward and looked her straight in the eye. "No. I'm super-fine."
"How come Lester can treat me like normal, but you can't?"
I shrugged. "I really just don't know. I wish I could treat you the same." I paused and then said slowly, "Some days I can like you and can be fine with you, but some days I just can't."
"Well, that's sad," she said, no longer smiling. "I've felt like I've lost a friend."
I wanted to tell her that was all her fault or that it was all my fault. I wanted to tell her that I never wanted to speak to her again or that I still wanted to have long conversations with her. Instead, I said nothing.
"I don't know what to do about you," she said. "I don't even know if you-"
"How can you do that?" I said, my voice betraying the calmness I was trying to portray.
"Be all smiling and telling me a story like you're a good buddy to saying you feel like I'm not your friend anymore?"
"Ray, I don't even know if you like to see me anymore. Every time you do, you look stiff, not yourself."
"When you came in I smiled at you."
"Yeah, I know you did." We stared at each other, me blankly, her concerned. "I don't know if we should hang out anymore if all I do is make you feel bad."
Instead of responding I thought about about an Incubus song.
To deal with how I felt I wrote this poem about Anna:
"The Importance of High Ideas and How They Affect Geography"
hours of abstract high-talk
they talk at me about
expensive modest layering
and I decide to be a vegetarian
for those who are not here
Outside the McDonalds
next to the Greyhound bus station
with three wizened bums
the one in the middle huddled on the concrete
like a baby without a mother
they talk with me about
Harleys and life
and I give them $1 for a beer
Inside the McDonalds
with girls in small tight shirts
a short stocky man
with a bearded tattoo grin
mistakenly recognizes me
but at least we see each other
Two and a half years
after the big decision
I order fries chocolate milkshake
and a Big Mac
Before I even finished I feel sick