“Well, fuck,” Sam says, staring at her from across the booth. He shrugs his shoulders up and down, looks out the window at the cab-clogged street beside them. The shimmer of the strip paints the window and glares off of his glasses. He takes a moment, pulls a cigarette out from the pack he has on the table.
“Let’s get married,” he says, lighting it.
“ What ?” Ruth says, napkins still balled in her hands. She’s been crushing them in her fist to ease her anxiety, but it hasn’t exactly been helping. She hasn’t cried yet, which was already a win, and the words now hanging in all cap block letters over Sam’s head like a Doonesbury speech bubble have dried her out to the point of feeling mummified.
Sam doesn’t say anything more for a moment, taking a deep suck off of the cigarette. He shoots the smoke back out of his mouth with a soft hiss and clears his throat, finally meeting her eyes again.
“I mean, I don’t have shit. I wouldn’t even bother to tell you how much money I’m making, and I’ve seen your fuckin’ suicide note of a paycheck but,” he frowns at her, his mouth a frank, flat line. “I’ve got a house and this will be over eventually. Fuck it, right? Let’s get married.”
“Sam what the fuck are you talking about?” When she says it she expects it to be loud and encompassing, a very Nora Ephron type punch to it, but what eeks out is something like the crackle of a teenage boy, or a pre-recorded whale whistle. She catches herself halfway through the words, dropping the volume even further and ducking her head like she can’t afford being overheard by the half drunks slumped around them in booths and the winsome young waitresses changing their shoes as they get off shift. She does move her arm in a weird sudden way that gets pancake syrup all over her sleeve and rattles her silverware awkwardly. “I just told you that Russel and I are over -”
“Let me rephrase,” Sam says, waving the smoke in front of him, taking another quick drag. He clears his throat once more. “Will you please marry me, Ruth Wilder. Happy?” Each word is over-enunciated and punctuated by him shaking his head slightly, elbows sliding on either side of the table top till he’s lowered himself more to eye level since she’s now hunched over the remains of her short stack.
“No!” Ruth says, mouth falling open, her body slamming back against the vinyl of the booth with an audible thump away from him. She can feel the flimsy wooden slats behind her and under her knees - the backs of her thighs are sweating a lot . The diner, which was never dazzling, has lost all of its local patois - the smell of wet dish towels is overwhelming and there is a fly caught in the lampshade to her left.
“Do you hear yourself ?” she manages, looking over her shoulder to again make sure that nobody she could possibly know is overhearing this conversation. She looks again to where Sam is considering her, slouching now with his chin tilted back, one arm crossed over his stomach and his elbow resting on it. “Are you having a - a-,” she stutters, blinking and brow furrowing, hands fluttering.
“A stroke?” he says sarcastically.
“ No I was thinking uh, uh, nervous breakdown ?” She puts her hands flat on the table.
“Ruth my en-tire fuckin’ life is drag racing a nervous breakdown, don’t patronize me.” He grinds the already spent cigarette into the ashtray in front of the ketchup and cholula and takes a long drink of coffee. “This is battery acid,” he muses, staring into it and going back for more.
“You know what? You’re disgusting, Sam,” she says. She should be gone already. Grab her bag - throw cash on the table between them - and leave -
“Look!” Sam says, and she snaps back to him. “Look,” he says, and he’s shrugging again, staring at her with his face still slack and unaffected. He touches his chest with his hand, leaning towards her. “I know who the fuck I am, alright? I’m an addict - and I can’t stop myself sometimes, no matter what I wanna really be doing.” He shakes his head at her. “I have no impulse control for this shit.”
“What shit,” she says, frowning.
“You and me,” he says plainly. “You,” he points. “Specifically, being with me. And I don’t wanna date you,” he whines the word wanna, mouth spreading it like cream cheese on a bagel. “I don’t wanna fuckin’ do that. Not because you don’t deserve it, but because I just wanna skip right to the good part, ok? Because I am also impatient and I have no will power.”
“You’re really selling yourself right now,” she chokes out, shredding the napkin into a snowpile between her hands, moppish brown hair shaking over her forehead. “I really don’t know what to say. You’ve knocked me off my feet.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry,” he says, and suddenly his face falls, the arrogance holding it together wavering when she peeks to see it. “I’m sorry, Ruth, but I love you. I love you so - your fuckin’ dumb face. And your non-existent ass. Your hair. Your dumb fuckin’ haircut seriously , that’s what you’ve been going with?”
She finds herself reaching up and touching her curls distractedly, and he must see something sincere on her face because he pinches the bridge of his nose, eyes closing, head shaking.
“I love you , alright? I love you. I love you so fucking much it’s essentially ruined my life. So, I hope you’re happy about that,” he takes a pause and she takes a breath but he’s already barrelling through it. “I can’t sleep or eat or do any of that shit and I’ve been reading all these fuckin’ self help books because I can’t fuck anyone because even in my dumb fucking head I’m with you - and I love you - and it just ends up feeling completely disgusting. And I want you to move back to California with me and live with me, in my house, and we can drive each other into I don’t know - ,” he has been lighting another cigarette during all of this, and finally manages to get it. “- mutually assured destruction.”
Ruth works her jaw back and forth, thinking about the cold food on her plate. She wants another pancake - but just one, really. Appetite is a response that feels more agreeable to what Sam’s been saying.
Let’s get married .
Sure, just let me get another pancake -
“I think it’s a little ridiculous to refer to that as the good part ,” she says, giving in and scraping the syrup-logged, calcifying, bread onto her sticky fork. She eats it - a little slimy, but ok - and swallows, scowling. "And maybe you don't even know the first thing about me - maybe I don't - maybe I don't want anything to do with you -"
“What?” Sam says. "Oh, please Ruth. We're the two biggest assholes we know. The least you can do is admit you feel the same way about me as I do you -,"
She rolls her eyes, nearly dropping her fork against her plate again in a hopeless gesture.
“The good part, Sam! You said you didn’t want to date me because you want to get to the good part - which you just said is mutually assured destruc-,”
“ That’s what you’re hearing?” he boggles, seeming honestly confused. “I just confess, in public , in broad daylight -”
“It’s past one in the morning, Sam!”
“What is your fucking hang up on details! Can’t you just - just see this as a - a,” his hands fan in circles in front of him, his watch sliding slightly on his wrist. “A more conceptual thing? You know, you’re the one who is always proselytizing to me about The Bigger Fucking Picture,” he continues, air-quoting where appropriate.
“What do you want me to say?” Ruth cries. Her stomach sours around the leftover pancake and she feels the jostle of a car going over a speed bump too fast - specifically his piece of shit because he’s such a terrible driver. The only time he isn’t is when he’s backing his yacht of a rental into tight spots, one hand on the steering wheel, the other across the bench seat behind her shoulders, his neck and head craned as he rolls backwards without breaking a sweat.
Sam, performing the hardest feats with relative, unimaginable, ease: parallel parking, fatherhood, impromptu marriage proposals. And starring role idiot Ruth, finding those things irrevocably impressive and attractive, though he can’t find his keys half the time....
“What are you so worried about,” Sam says, breaking her thoughts, and it’s softer this time, foreignly reassuring. “Ruthie…”
“You don’t - there are consequences, Sam, and you haven’t thought about this, clearly -,” she moves her hand away from where his is trying to hold it, pointing her finger like she’s schooling a ten year old, voice hiccupping.
“I have, a lot,” he deadpans. “It’s pretty much been my waking nightmare every second I’m with you for the past year.”
“Jesus, Sam, how romantic,” she accuses, wiping her eyes.
“Fucking tell me about it, Ruth,” he replies, and when she dares herself to see his face it’s open, and sad, and weak. His head shakes side to side and then he stubs another cigarette out, watching it turn and grind down on the cheap ceramic. He paws at his hair, and sighs.
“You’re killing me, baby,” he mutters, and she wonders if it’s something he’s been saying silently out of habit and for how long. “God, you know?” He meets her eyes again, wincing at the sheen of tears that haven’t quite made it out yet.
“I don’t even know what the fuck to say. I know. I’m sorry. I just…I don’t want to waste any time, you know, because I’ve been around the block before with that and in the end I don’t think you’d even remember if I bought you dinner, or how many times we tiptoed around like we weren’t gonna fuck, or I don’t know. I just thought, well? Maybe? We can just get married. We can live together and be together, as opposed to not being together...”
“Sam, we’d kill each other,” Ruth says, half laughing, heart aching because he’s too much of an idiot to know how badly it would end: the linoleum floor of his kitchen covered in broken dishes and potting soil. “It would be so miserable…”
She glances out the window, realizing what she’s saying without even saying it. That she’s thought about this a little more than she’d admitted. That’s half the problem.
“So?” he gives her a genuinely serious look, not that she didn't believe him already. “Big deal? I can be miserable. I’m extremely used to being miserable. I have a profound talent for it. And you’re pretty much the most pathetic person I’ve ever met in my life, so what difference does it make? I’ll be fucking miserable with you maybe , and I’ll definitely be miserable without you. And I still love you.”
“You’re just saying that,” she whispers, because it’s what she’s been thinking the entire time. “You feel sorry for me.”
“No,” he says, clearly. “I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for people who get problems by accident. You, conveniently, make all your problems yourself...”
“You just want to drag me down with you,” she tries, folding her arms experimentally over her chest again, not ready to give in because it isn’t fair. Not to Russel, or to the girls, or to herself: she’s allowed to be ok, or sort of happy. A species of happy. But she isn’t allowed something like this. She thinks about telling Debbie, and feels the start of an aneurysm forming in her brain. Maybe she’s the one having the stroke, or the mental breakdown. Blood clots run in her family.
“I am pathologically selfish,” Sam relents, throwing her a smile that’s deep enough to touch his eyes. Ruth stares him down and then reaches forward, slamming her hand on his pack of cigarettes. She drags it towards her, through the debris of her meal and he smiles at her the whole time, eyebrows raised.
She holds her hand palm up for the lighter and he starts to give it to her, but before he does, he kisses the middle of her hand, mustache tickling her fingers. When he finally gives her the bic she closes her hand around it in a fist and hurriedly lights the cigarette - one of three left rattling around.
She sucks in the smoke hard and coughs it out, shaking her head, eyes watering.
“It’s better if you don’t think too much about it,” he says mildly, and she can’t tell if he’s talking about smoking or the fact that he’s still sitting there, asking her to marry him, admitting his vast love for her, in a basically empty diner at 1:30 in the morning.
“This is never going to work. It will fuck up the show,” she says.
He shrugs, mouth pressing in a flat line.
“Probably, so we'll just wait till it's done.”
She takes a few more puffs, watching him, thinking, rolling the smoke around in her mouth.
She swallows a hard ball in her throat, restlessly fucking with the cigarette between her fingers.
“Why aren’t you worried I’ll say no?” she demands, wishing her face wasn’t the perpetual doll-eyed stare of a fifteen year old, wishing she could be all planes and angles like Debbie, or that she had more than the sweated off Zoya contour and eyeliner dragging on her lashes. Literally anything.
“Because people who say no don’t argue this much,” he says. “They just say no.”
She feels the cigarette dropping down towards the table and catches herself before it rests on the formica completely. She flicks spent ash into the ashtray, leaning across the table.
“You shouldn’t say that about yourself,” she says finally, leaning back in the booth again. “That you don’t have anything - I don’t. That’s not important to me.” She looks shyly at him, under her lashes. “And I like your house, for the record.”
Sam’s face sags, tired, old, completely dilapidated in a sweet way - like a first apartment or a grandmother's sewing job.
“Well,” he says. “What a relief.”
“What if I make you quit smoking.”
“I’m not going to,” Sam tells her, and Ruth purses her lips. “Sorry,” he continues. “You’re getting the raw end of the deal here.”
“What’s your vision for this,” she says, and it comes out a weird, husky whisper at first before she clears her throat. “You know, as an artist.” She takes another pull, looking at him over the cherry.
“Well, this shit show is going to get canceled,” he muses, and Ruth feels a pang in her side that throbs all over. “That’s inevitable. But, we can go back to California. I’ll introduce you to some people I think you’ll like because if you’re not busy you’ll probably kill yourself. We can eat some food. See some movies. Argue about furniture. Maybe go on a vacation. It won’t be so bad. I think you’ll like it.”
“Hmm,” she hums, feigning disinterest badly. “Are you open to criticism?”
He doesn’t say anything to her, just stares at her because he’s in love. Really, really in love.
“You know, we’re talking about forever, Sam,” she comments, fidgeting, worry creeping back in.
“Pretty fucked up,” Sam replies. “I mean, who the fuck wants to spend forever with you, right? That’s a fucking death sentence.”
She knows she should be offended, that the wave of uncertainty should wash over her again like a typhoon, but it doesn’t.
“You’re a bad actress, Ruth,” Sam says. “Just fuckin’ say yes. You can still miss me if we’re married and all that melodramatic bullshit.”
Ruth half laughs, dropping her cigarette on top of the empty plate of soggy pancakes and covers her face with her hands at how transparent she is with him.
“Yes?” he says. She shakes her head up and down.
“See,” he continues. “It’s just like that - you get a place. You stay for a while...”
She loses his voice in the weird feeling surging through her, which thrills her like hearing an orchestra tuning, or when she rolls down the window and can smell the ocean - or when she’s about to walk to the ring. She’s ravenous. She could eat a whole other stack of pancakes.
”You’re going to have to meet my parents,” she says, relishing the expression on his face.
Sam raises his eyebrows behind his glasses. He’s halfway holding his cup of cold coffee to his mouth and starts to put it back down before changing his mind.
“Yeah, Ruth,” he replies slowly. “I figured they owe me a couple goats or something...”
Ruth’s mouth twists, trying to keep from saying what she’s about to say. She just can't help herself.
Sam’s already laughing at the accent.