Soup for Two
SOUP FOR TWO
A Short Story
“Well, we’re gonna miss you so much,” said Mrs. Johnson, her veined and spotted hand shaking as she took her change from Diane, behind the register. “You were always so nice and had such a pretty smile.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Diane. “You folks made it really easy.”
“Good luck to you in California,” said Mr. Johnson, zipping up his pale blue windbreaker. “You stop in and see us when you’re home for Christmas.”
“Count on it.”
The bell hanging in the doorframe jingled as the Johnsons exited. Diane walked over to the counter towards the back of the diner and sat on one of the round, cushioned stools. She was the only waitress on duty.
From the kitchen, she could hear water blasting against metal as Mel the cook cleaned the pots and pans dirtied from lunch.
Ron, another one of the cooks, walked out of the kitchen. On the other side of the counter from Diane, he slowly ran a dingy rag over the cutting board, and as he did he ripped at a BBQ chicken sandwich he held in his other hand. Ron had the bad habit of chewing with his mouth open, and the smacking of his lips joined the ticking of the wall clock.
Ron was twenty-three years old. Black hair hung unevenly around his ears. Six months ago, he graduated from Syracuse. Returning to his home and the diner he worked at in high school was only temporary. Any day now he would move out of his Mom’s basement. Any day.
Diane was eighteen, her milk chocolate hair tied up into a ponytail. Her build was small; she could count on getting carded at least until she turned thirty-one. All through her shift, she fidgeted. After tonight, she was finally finished with the diner. The future held nothing but possibility and Diane couldn’t wait to get moving. She wore a navy blue tee-shirt, shaped by her tiny breasts.
“A guy your age should know how to chew with his mouth shut,” said Diane, her chin propped up by the palm of her left hand.
Ron tossed the last of the sandwich into his mouth and licked the dark red sauce off of his lips.
“You are so disgusting.”
Ron smirked and tossed the washcloth into a plastic bucket of water, sitting next to the griddle. “Must be exciting to finally be getting out of this town. A whole new city, a whole new life, really going out there and making something of yourself. I’m jealous.”
Diane grinned. “Can’t a philosophy degree get you something more than a fry cook job and a room in your mom’s basement?”
“You’re a bitch,” said Ron, his eyes narrowing. “You’re a bitch, and you’re gonna get crabs from the first guy you sleep with out there.”
Diane laughed and threw a straw at Ron, which bounced off his chest.
The bell above the door rang out, and Ron and Diane reflexively looked to the front door. Right on time, it was the Darlingtons.
They had at least fifteen years on the Johnsons. Mrs. Darlington was a stout woman. Wrinkled flesh hung down from every part of her body, especially her face. Her eyes were covered by wide glasses in pink plastic frames. She was smiling as she walked in, which was to be expected since she was always smiling. Her arm was locked tightly through her husband’s.
Mr. Darlington was a man of small stature. Whereas his wife became heavier in her old age, Mr. Darlington shrank, as if he had suffered a slow leak over the years. Contributing to his steadily diminishing size was his worsening posture, his shoulders hanging forward as if they were not attached to his spine. His olive colored shirt was stuffed tightly into the waistband of his pants, which rested just above his navel. Mr. Darlington more shuffled than walked, letting Mrs. Darlington guide him along.
The Darlingtons waived hello to Ron and Diane and then sat in their regular booth.
Diane grabbed two fistfuls of table-settings and placed the silverware in front of the diner’s sole patrons. “Hey Mr. and Mrs. Darlington,” she said, her eyes shining. “How’re we doing tonight?”
“Oh fine, Diane,” said Mrs. Darlington. Mr. Darlington nodded, the sides of his mouth turned slightly upward. The husband never spoke, relying instead on Mrs. Darlington’s ability to read his thoughts. She always ordered his dinner, and every time it was exactly what her husband wanted. Diane figured Mr. Darlington had suffered a stroke at some point.
“Do you need a second or do you know what you want?” asked Diane, already knowing the answer. A tattered pad of tickets was held in her left palm, and the stub of a Ticonderoga pencil hovered above it.
“Oh, we know,” said Mrs. Darlington. “He’ll have tuna salad on white, and I’ll have chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast.
“And, of course, soup for two.”
“Soup for two. Extra hot, right?”
“Boiling,” said Mrs. Darlington, her eyes sparkling behind the pink plastic spectacles.
“Can do.” Diane walked back to the counter, scrawling the order on the sky blue paper. She tore the sheet free and handed it to Ron.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Two sandwiches and extra, extra hot soup.”
“On the money,” said Diane.
“Mel, could you boil up a couple bowls of soup?” called Ron to the kitchen.
In the back, Mel already had the big misshapen cast iron pot on the burner. Mel boiled gallons of soup for the Darlingtons over the years; the pot was on the stove the moment they walked through the door. Steam rose off the clam chowder as it simmered.
“Hey,” said Ron to Diane as she filled two glasses of water. The faucet overfilled the second plastic cup, and water splashed against Diane’s fingers. “You should ask them what’s with the soup.”
“No way,” said Diane.
Rob dropped two pieces of wheat bread into the toaster. “Totally, it’s your last day. These people have been coming for how long with their extra hot soup? This is our chance to finally find out why.”
Diane set the water on the counter. “I don’t want to bother them…”
“I’ll give you twenty bucks,” said Ron. “Twenty bucks, all you’ve got to do is ask.”
Diane raised her eyebrow. “Twenty bucks for asking?”
Ron smiled, took a twenty out of his pocket and tossed it on the counter. Diane snatched it, put it in the pocket of her black half apron, and walked the two glasses of water over to Mr. and Mrs. Darlington.
“Soup’s on its way,” said Diane, and the two elderly folks smiled. Diane smiled back.
“So it’s my last night here,” she said. “Going to college next week.”
“Oh my!” Mrs. Darlington squeezed her hands into two excited little fists. “Diane, that’s wonderful! Where are you going?”
“Berkeley,” said Diane.
“Berekley, how prestigious! Your parents must be so proud of you.” Across from Mrs. Darlington, Mr. Darlington’s mouth tried to raise-up once more in happiness.
Diane nodded, then looked straight into Mrs. Darlington’s eyes, behind the pink glasses. “And well, seeing how I’ve brought you guys so many meals, and this is the last one I’ll be bringing you, I wondered if I could ask you a question.”
Mrs. Darlington beamed, her heavy face suspended in expectation. “Of course, dear.”
“What’s with the hot soup?” she asked. “Why do you want it to be boiling?”
The smile disappeared, and Mrs. Darlington’s eyes went wide. Mr. Darlington’s brow jumped for an instant, his expression of shock less apparent but still evident.
“Oh Diane, that’s not…” Mrs. Darlington fiddled with her fork, the metal tapping against the tabletop. “That’s more of a story for… for adults.”
“What do you mean?” asked Diane. “I’m going to college. I can vote.”
“I’m sure your parents wouldn’t be happy if strangers were telling you this sort of thing.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” said Diane, her interest shifting from monetarymotivation to genuine intrigue. She could feel Ron’s eyes in the back of her neck.
Mrs. Darlington looked again at Mr. Darlington, who gave his little head a nod. Mrs. Darlington took a deep breath.
“Ted and I have been married for fifty years. Fifty years, Diane! That’s nearly three of your lifetimes. When you’re with someone that long, you need to work at, really put energy into keeping things, well, uh, interesting. You stoke your loved one’s passions, his heart needs to beat madly every time he looks at you.”
“That’s sweet,” said Diane.
“Yes… sweet.” Mrs. Darlington took a long drink from her water.
“Ted and I became involved in hardcore S and M.”
Diane gave an awkward half smile. “W… what?”
“Hardcore S and M, dear. Bondage, humiliation…”
Diane nearly lost her balance.
“Are you okay?” Mrs. Darlington asked, a concerned frown on her wide face.
“Uh yes, please, go on.”
Mrs. Darlington smoothed the fabric of her yellow blouse with the palm of her hand. “It was all the rage at the time. The pain, the control, there truly was nothing quite like it. It opened our hearts, Diane. I don’t believe there was ever a time that Ted loved me more than when I was in that leather harness with a bright red ball gag in my mouth.”
The sweet old lady reached over and squeezed her husband’s bird-like hand. He gave her his usual attempt at a smile.
“But… but I mean…” Diane was having a difficult time speaking. “I mean, what did… what kind of… what type of, uh, activities…”
“Oh, the usual,” laughed Mrs. Darlington. “Handcuffs, hot wax, water sports, clothes pins, Tabasco on very sensitive areas. Spanking, too.”
Mrs. Darlington pantomimed smacking an invisible buttock floating over the table. “Kapow, kapow, kapow! Ted could spank like nobody’s business.”
Diane looked back at Ron, who was watching with a bewildered look on his face. He could not hear what was being said, but the phantom spanking did not escape his notice.
“Wow,” said Diane, turning back to the booth. “Just… wow.”
“But of course you get to the age where those sorts of things are impossible. You’ve got to tone it down, when you have kids. Can’t have Kyle and Bonnie walking in on you rodgering Daddy with a strap-on because of a bad dream.”
“No, certainly not.” Diane was suddenly light headed, as if she hadn’t eaten all day.
“So you invent special nights out to motels, or you encourage the kids to go on sleepovers so you can indulge in your secret leather trunk.”
Mr. Darlington looked at his wife serenely, transmitting some mental message. Mrs. Darlington’s eyes welled for a moment, and she squeezed her husband’s fingers tightly.
“Yeah,” she said. “I remember, darling. We bought that trunk in Paris, can you believe that, Diane? From our one trip to Europe. My, there was some freaky business over there.”
“I’m sure,” said Diane.
“The kids went off to college, and all those empty nest feelings hit us really hard. The secret is finding new interests, things you can do that are new and exciting. In our case, we simply returned to an old love with full force. We spent some money on constructing a poor man’s dungeon in the basement. With some rearranging, the dungeon could become a storage room, in case family or company came over.”
Mrs. Darlington sipped from her water. “And incidentally, it worked. Hanging there from the ceiling, having God-knows-what stuck inside my body, I barely even noticed menopause.”
Mrs. Darlington sighed and released her husband’s hand. The cheer left her face, and those green eyes protected by the pink glasses dropped to the tabletop. “But eventually… Ted here had a stroke. We were getting ready to go to the antique fair. I just finished dressing when I heard him hit the bathroom floor. Afterwards, he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t drive. It took great effort for him to re-learn a lot of things, like holding a fork and knife, so our… other activities were never going to be possible. I was convinced that those days were finally over. We had nothing left to do but wait for the end.”
The smile returned quickly, Mrs. Darlington’s heavy wrinkled face once more animated. The corners of Mr. Darlington’s mouth twitched.
“Then one day, I was making soup. Tomato soup, nothing special, just right out of the can. It was lunchtime. Ted was in the living room, watching the Perry Mason show.
“The phone rang, and it was my daughter-in-law, Lauren. She was planning this elaborate birthday thing for Kyle, and we needed to discuss scheduling. They live in Rochester, you see, and we were going to be heading up there to surprise my son at this little Italian restaurant.
“Well, I lost track of things, and before I knew it the soup was boiling over. I hung up the phone and took the pot off the stovetop. I should’ve given it time to cool down, but I knew Ted was really hungry. He doesn’t say anything, but I know what he’s feeling. I served the soup up hot, knowing that each spoonful was probably going to take a significant amount of blowing to cool it down.
“So I brought him in the soup. And we both started sipping it. Our lips, our tongue… It burned, Diane. It burned so wonderfully.”
Mr. Darlington’s eyes might not have been as expressive as they were a decade ago, but Diane could still see the concentrated love radiating from the old man’s gaze.
“The soup brought back all those feelings I thought we’d said goodbye to.”
Mel hit the bell in the kitchen, signaling that the soup was ready. Diane brought the Darlingtons their dinners, and then she went back to the counter, sitting once again on the cushioned stool. She looked traumatized.
“Well jeez you were over there forever,” said Ron as he filled a red plastic cup with soda. “What the hell is with the soup, anyway?”
Diane rubbed her face. “I don’t know quite how to break it down. It’s kind of… graphic.”
“Let’s just say that it reminds them of when they were young, and it makes them remember why they love each other.”
“Damn,” said Ron, staring over at the Darlingtons as they sipped at their steaming soup. Ron took a long pull of cola from the straw that protruded from his drink. “All that in a bowl of soup.”
“I guess… live life to the fullest now, so at least you have those memories.”
“You’re right!” Ron punched his fist into the palm of his hand. “Let’s live it up, Diane. Come see a movie with me tomorrow night.”
“No. You’re disgusting.”