The diner was small, cozy, and retro. It was not in any way modern or hip, not like the places that Sansa's friends and co-workers liked to eat. Maybe that's why she enjoyed it so much. The whole point of getting out of the office at lunch was to have an hour away from the people she spent her entire day with.
Sliding across the seat of the red vinyl booth seat, Sansa pushed up and over the jagged crack that had been duct-taped - repeatedly by the looks of it. The table was Formica edged with chrome and there was a miniature jukebox on the table that probably hadn't operated in decades. The floor tiles were white and black checkered. The rest of the decor hinted at an era of simpler times, good music, and good feelings. Even the menu made Sansa feel nostalgic - apple pie, cherry phosphate, patty melts, steak and eggs, and corned beef hash were some of her favorite choices.
She really wanted the messy biscuits with sausage gravy, but a meal like that was a heart attack waiting to happen and Sansa was trying to eat a little healthier, so she ordered the Monte Cristo instead. For her drink, she ordered sweet tea. Instead of fries on the side, Sansa opted for the healthier carrot sticks and celery.
With her hands clasped neatly in front of her, Sansa watched out the widow as the world passed by. Most often, Sansa ate alone, so this was her quiet time to reflect, observe and contemplate her life's choices. Once a week, whenever Catelyn had a free lunch break, she would join Sansa and they would catch up. Sansa never knew which day of the week that would be. It always depended on her mother's schedule. Catelyn was always working at some volunteer function or charity, but she always set aside one lunch per week to spend with her oldest daughter.
Today, however, Sansa was alone and her thoughts turned toward her not-so-romantic-past. She'd had several bad experiences in a row and felt it was time to be on her own for awhile. Perhaps it was fate's way of telling Sansa that she needed to develop more of a sense of herself, without a man for a change.
One thing Sansa conceded, was that she needed to be happier. She needed some adventure and spontaneity. Sansa was aware that there was rarely a genuine smile on her face and she wanted to change that, too. The only smiles she ever encountered seemed to be phony - the whole world was phony - and Sansa was getting tired of it.
When her meal came, Sansa chewed slowly, still staring out the window as she ate. She wished something interesting would happen. It didn't necessarily have to happen to her, maybe just near her so that she could at least be a witness to some excitement for a change.
Sansa dabbed at the corners of her mouth and leaned into her straw to sip her tea. At that moment, a very large man approached the end of her table making his way to the front to the cash register. He paused beside her table as he pulled his wallet out of his jacket pocket and leafed through it for the paper money he would use to pay his bill.
The man was massive - more than six feet tall - dressed in navy blue work pants, light blue oxford shirt, and black leather shoes with hard thick soles. When she scanned upwards and noticed his matching navy blue work jacket with shoulder flashes, Sansa realized he was a fireman. He didn't wear a hat, but had long hair that hung down beside his face as he searched through his wallet.
The man finally located a ten dollar bill and pulled it free. As he did, another piece of paper was also pulled free from the leather folder. The light square of newsprint flittered to the ground beside Sansa's table. The man hadn't noticed because as soon as he pulled out the cash, his head was up and he was striding toward the cash register.
Sansa scooted across the worn bench seat and leaned down to retrieve the abandoned piece of paper. It was a coupon for a percentage off of a flat of perennials at Anna's Flowers 'N' Things. Sansa sat back on her booth seat and waited until the fireman was finished his transaction. When he turned around, Sansa waved the coupon in the air to get his attention.
"Excuse me! This fell out of your wallet."
The fireman looked up suddenly. This was a fireman, Sansa realized, that knew the true dangers of fire. She hadn't been able to see it before because of his hair, but the right side of his face was covered in a web of scar tissue. The thick gnarled skin covered the side of his neck and the entire right side of his face. He had a full, neatly trimmed beard that was interrupted by ridged scar tissue. The scarring extended to almost the top of his head. He had combed some of his hair over from the left side to cover the barren part of his scalp. An eyebrow was missing where the tissue drooped over his right eye causing him to appear either perpetually sad or constantly annoyed. Under his limply hanging hair, Sansa could see that most of his right ear had deformed into a twisted floret.
The fireman's mouth hung slack as he gazed at Sansa. A quick look in his wallet confirmed that the coupon was indeed his. Sansa noted the flush in his cheeks as he looked up again. Was he embarrassed to admit that such a manly man as himself had a coupon for flowers? Was he embarrassed by his scars? Or was there some other reason?
The man looked hesitant, perhaps uncertain about how to proceed. He glanced quickly at his watch. After a long moment and a deep breath, he forced the corners of his mouth into a reluctant smile, nodded subtly and left.
Sansa looked closer at the coupon. The blooms in the photo were colorful and delicate. She knew that Anna's Flowers was a bit on the pricey side, but that's because Anna's plants were of superior quality. The coupon was only good for a few more days.
Maybe I need a little more color in my life, Sansa thought. After all, she had been wanting to make more use of her apartment balcony. Perhaps a couple of window boxes with some vibrant blooms would help her ease out of this deep funk she'd found herself in lately. And besides, Sansa reminded herself that she'd promised to be more spontaneous.
She couldn't go today - it was Thursday, but Sansa had the weekend off. Sansa tucked the coupon into her wallet and planned a Sunday visit to Anna's Flowers.
The next time Sansa saw the fireman again was the following Thursday. When she arrived for lunch, she noticed the man sitting alone in the far corner booth with his back to the rest of the diner. Sansa took her usual seat in her regular booth. She smiled to herself as she thought of the beautiful abundance of flowers that now graced her balcony. The tiny outdoor space had been so drab and dreary before, but now she had a very good reason to sit out there and enjoy it. If she'd known that the fireman would have been here again today, she might have brought along a fresh cut bloom as a way of thanking him for making that tiny difference in her life.
Sansa laughed at herself and shook her head. If she did that, he'd probably think she was one of those crazy cat lady types. She dismissed her little fantasy and ordered a healthy Cobb salad for lunch.
When the waitress came and asked how everything was, Sansa looked up and nodded. It was then that she noticed the fireman at the cash register paying for his meal. As he turned, stuffing his change back into his wallet, he caught Sansa's gaze. He smiled slightly, a little more genuine than last time, nodded to her and timidly hurried away. This time, when he glanced at his watch, Sansa noticed his left hand. He wasn't wearing a wedding ring so maybe ...
Holding her breath and praying she wasn't about to look like an idiot, Sansa opened the door to the cafe and stepped inside. She scanned the heads of the other patrons and noticed the fireman sitting in the same spot as before, back turned to the crowd, seated in the farthest booth in the corner. As soon as she saw him, she lost her nerve.
Sansa slipped into her regular booth and placed the tiny bouquet of flowers on the table across from her. She fretted over what to do with them. Now that she was actually sitting here, it seemed such a silly idea that she would give a bouquet of flowers to a man - especially to a man who'd seemed embarrassed about having the coupon in the first place.
Sansa ignored the flowers as she ate her corned beef on rye and sipped her iced tea. When it came time for the fireman to leave, Sansa restrained herself from pushing the bouquet off the edge of the table and onto the seat across from her. If he saw them, so be it. She might be embarrassed, but she'd experienced much worse than that in her life.
From the corner of her eye, Sansa watched as he turned from the cashier, slid his change into his wallet and glanced up in her direction. Sansa could feel the burn in her cheeks as his eyes flicked toward the clutch of flowers. His eyes met hers again and his mouth scrunched to the side in a suppressed grin. It wasn't a cruel grin though, not as though he were laughing at her. Instead, it was a grin between two very shy people who shared a secret. Sansa could feel her own smile attempting to burst wide across her face, but she reined it in. The fireman nodded to her, more noticeably this time, and hurried on his way after checking the time.
From Monday through Wednesday of the following week, Sansa found herself counting down the days until Thursday. She anticipated seeing the fireman but was at a loss as to how to continue their distant interaction. The flower coupon had given her a reason to acknowledge him, and for him to acknowledge her. She didn't want to make use of the flowers again - that would get old and stale quickly. All she could hope for was that some opportunity would present itself as the wayward flower coupon had.
Thursday finally came and Sansa nervously stepped into the cafe. She scanned the crowd, but the fireman wasn't visible in his usual place at the far corner booth. Surprised at her own disappointment, Sansa quickly stepped toward her booth and took a seat. Sticking to her healthy meal plan, Sansa ordered an egg-white omelet with a side of fresh fruit and a cup of green tea. She didn't particularly like the taste of green tea, but it was supposed to cleanse and detoxify the system.
Halfway through her meal, Sansa speared a chunk of cantaloupe on her fork. The piece of fruit almost made it to her mouth when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced up at the tall divider wall between her booth and the ones on the other side. Thick fingertips snaked over the top rail of the divider. Between those fingers was a small piece of paper. Sansa watched as ... whoever ... dropped it onto her table.
Setting her fork down, Sansa picked up the piece of paper. It was a coupon for $2.00 off one of those frozen chocolate desserts you could buy at the grocery store. Sansa bit her lip and grinned as though she'd finally gotten that Malibu Barbie she'd begged Santa Claus for all those years ago. She quickly turned her attention to the cash register.
And there he was, hastily snatching his receipt from the cashier as he bolted out the door, head down and cheeks aflame.
Screw it! Sansa thought.
The chocolate cake she'd bought with the coupon had been delicious. Life was too short to always eat healthy. Thursday, she decided, would be her day to treat herself to whatever she wanted, calories and diet be damned. She could eat sensibly the rest of the week, but on Thursdays she would allow herself to indulge a little.
So today when the waitress approached her, Sansa ordered the biscuits with sausage gravy and a Boston cooler. Before the waitress departed, she added one more thing to her order.
"Could you please bring a piece of chocolate cake to the fireman?" she asked. The waitress smiled brightly, winked and went to put in the order.
Sansa waited with baited breath when it came time for the fireman to leave. Since the weather was warmer today, the man wore only a navy blue t-shirt emblazoned with the fire shield logo but no jacket with his uniform pants. The t-shirt was form-fitting but not too tight, accentuating his muscular physique and large frame. Sansa sighed deeply. He was something very nice to look at.
The fireman kept his back to her as he payed his bill. Before pushing the door open to leave, he hesitated. Quickly, he turned around to face Sansa. The man crossed his eyes and puffed out his cheeks as he patted his belly in a comical display indicating that he'd eaten too much. Sansa shyly turned her head down as she giggled. When she looked up again, he was gone.
The fireman only ever came to the cafe on Thursdays, so Sansa anxiously looked forward to that day. Every week it was something different, and the coupons always came to her in a different way.
One week, Sansa arrived at her booth to find a coupon waiting for her on her placemat. Another was folded into a paper airplane and caught in her hair as it sailed across the cafe. Another time, her coupon was delivered by the waitress with her meal.
There was even a day when she'd been disappointed as the fireman paid for his meal and left without leaving her a coupon. But when Sansa paid for her own meal before heading back to work, the coupon was delivered with her receipt and change.
The coupons took her to places she might never have gone on her own, never thought of, or thought she'd had no reason to go to. At the Toy Box, she used her coupon to buy a mini bobblehead figure of a Dalmatian dressed up as a fireman. Sansa made sure it was prominently displayed on her table in the cafe.
Sansa had always wanted to go to the Natural History Museum. So when she received a coupon for a "Free Friday," she stopped by the gift shop and bought two dinosaur skeleton fridge magnets. She made sure one of them was given to the fireman with the change from his meal.
The Thursday after she'd used her coupon to attend the premiere showing of Toy Story 4, Sansa wore her exclusive movie memorabilia t-shirt to lunch.
And every Thursday, the fireman was there, smiling shyly at her before he left.
"So ... tell me, what's his name?" Catelyn asked.
Sansa shrugged. "I don't know. He's a fireman and he's been burned but he's still very handsome." Sansa picked at her Caesar salad.
"And he buys you gifts?" her mother inquired.
"No, Mom," Sansa said with a toss of her head. "He gives me coupons and I use them."
"Coupons?" Catelyn sneered as her eyebrow cranked halfway up her forehead. "For what - like a free hug or something?" she asked suspiciously.
Sansa laughed. "No, Mom." Sansa thought for a moment on how to explain it, but decided to just tell her mother the whole story from the beginning.
"... And because of those coupons, I've gone out to places I never would have considered before. I'm trying new things and having new experiences, and I'm doing it on my own. It's making me comfortable with myself again." Sansa looked up at her mother imploringly. "It's like he knows somehow."
"Like he knows what?" Catelyn asked.
"It's like he knows what I needed in my life. Like he knows that it's making me feel better about myself."
"And he's never talked to you?"
Sansa shook her head.
"Have you tried talking to him?" her mother asked.
Again, Sansa shook her head. "I'm not sure what to do. I kinda like him. He's cute, he's sweet." Sansa suddenly remembered his antics after the chocolate cake. "He's funny," Sansa added mimicking the face he'd made. "But I don't know anything about him. For all I know he's married. Maybe that's why he hasn't spoken to me. Short of paying a visit to every fire station in the tri-county area, my best bet is to just wait until he comes in here on Thursday."
Catelyn tapped a manicured nail on the tabletop. "You know ... the women's auxiliary helps put together that sexy fireman's calendar every year. I know someone on the committee. If I ask around I'm sure someone would know who he is. There can't be anyone else who looks like him."
Sansa sighed. This could be tricky business. She didn't want to pry into this man's personal life and then be disappointed. Or worse yet, he might find out that she was asking about him and get frightened off. But she had to say or do something.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that Sansa was starting to develop feelings for him. Before it went any further, Sansa had to know one way or the other. She didn't want to get too wrapped up in him only to find out that he was married or otherwise off the market and end up being hurt.
When Thursday came Sansa vowed to initiate direct contact.
Thursday finally came, but when she saw him, Sansa lost her nerve. She'd had big plans to walk right over to his table and say hello, but big plans mean nothing when you don't have a backbone. Sansa felt spineless. Worse, she felt like she was sixteen again, in high school, awkward and silly. She slipped into her regular booth, pulled the menu out of the salt and pepper holder and opened it. Inside the menu was an envelope.
Sansa couldn't have wiped the grin off her face with a jackhammer. Ignoring the menu, she carefully ripped open the envelope and removed a tri-fold piece of paper. it was a flyer announcing a festival of sorts.
Saturday, June 21st - Come out to the Roscoe Village Safety Fair!
Cheer on Chicago's finest Emergency Service Workers as they compete in games of strength, speed, and skill.
Firefighters vs EMTs vs Police
Fun and games for kids of all ages!
** Present this flyer at the Smoke Shack and receive a FREE detection device (smoke, radon, or carbon monoxide detectors available)
As she sat reading the details on the flyer, Sansa glanced up to see the fireman watching her. She smiled brightly at him and he smiled back. He sucked in a breath and held it as he checked his watch. He nodded, his smile even wider, and turned to leave.
It's now or never, Sansa thought. She slid out of the booth and went after him. As she came out the door, Sansa caught a glimpse of him as he disappeared around the corner of the small brick building. She walked quickly to catch up. As she rounded the corner, the fireman was already dodging traffic to cross the street. On the other side, a woman and two small children were waiting for him. A boy and girl - Sansa guessed they were six and eight - jumped excitedly and ran into his arms when he reached the opposite sidewalk. He lifted them one in each arm and swung them around. As he turned to set them back on the ground, the fireman looked up and noticed Sansa watching. He immediately stood straight, a pleasant expression on his face. He began to lift his hand in a wave, but Sansa turned and fled back into the cafe.
She was so embarrassed. He was married with children, and he'd been playing with her. Why did men always do this? And why did they do this to her?? A painful lump blocked Sansa's throat as tears filled her eyelids and spilled over. When she noticed the waitress approaching to take her order, Sansa hastily dabbed at her eyes and stiffened her posture. Knowing she wouldn't be able to eat, Sansa ordered only an iced tea. She sipped on it, biding her time until she needed to head back to work.
"I couldn't find out anything," Catelyn declared. "If he's a fireman, he's not from this end of town." Sansa's mother waved her hand in the air dramatically. "And you know me. I asked everyone."
Sansa shook her head dejectedly. "It doesn't matter." She poked a quickly wilting salad leaf on her plate then looked up with a shrug. "He's married with kids."
"Are you sure?"
Sansa nodded. "Pretty sure." She explained the details of her encounter the previous week.
Catelyn sagged. "Aww, Honey. That doesn't mean he's married. For all you know that could have been his sister and those kids were his niece and nephew." Catelyn patted Sansa on the arm. "Just wait and see what happens next week. If he's guilty of being a player, you'll know as soon as you see him." Catelyn shook her salad fork at Sansa. "But if he's not ..." She sashayed her shoulders from side to side and arched her eyebrows high.
No matter what happened today, Sansa was determined not to be frightened away from her cafe. She wasn't going to scuttle off too some other cafe just because he was a jerk. If anyone was going to scuttle, it should be him.
Squaring her shoulders and lifting her head high, Sansa opened the door to the cafe. He was there, sitting in his usual place near the rear corner, back to the rest of the cafe. Sansa slipped into her booth and opened the menu. For the second week in a row, there was an envelope inside it. Sansa bit her lip and debated whether to open it.
She couldn't help herself. Based on the pounding in her chest, curiosity was about to give her a full on heart attack if she didn't find out what was inside it and quickly. Sansa carefully sliced it open. Inside was a folded piece of paper. Sansa opened it and two large tickets fell out. They were tickets to the Fireman's Ball taking place two weeks from now. On the folded paper was a handwritten note. The penmanship was neat and artistic.
I hope I didn't frighten you off. It would break my heart if I have.
Every Friday, I drive in from Kenwood Village to pick up my children. They are Jackson, who's 5 and Claudia who is 8. They live here in Roscoe with their mother during the week. I meet them here and take them home for the weekend. The first time I saw you, Friday was a holiday. I picked up the kids on Thursday so that their mother could have a long weekend away with her new boyfriend. Now, I make two trips a week so that I can see you every Thursday - except last week when Friday was a holiday again.
The reason I still come on Thursdays is because my job, as I'm sure you know, is often a difficult one. I don't like to come from work and see my kids when there is tragedy on my mind. When I see you, all that seems to go away, I feel at peace again, and I am more relaxed with my children.
So does that explain the coupons? Claudia wanted to plant flowers in my yard and the chocolate ice cream cake was for Jack's birthday. I'm sure you understand the rest - toy stores, movies, and museums - I always like to do something special with my children. I'd like to do something special with you, too.
I would be honored if you would accompany me to the Fireman's Ball. I still don't know your name, but now you know mine.
P.S. Please bring both tickets or you'll be attending alone (Not kidding. Even I can't get in without a ticket!)
Sansa felt a painful pinch inside her chest. She had been foolish and quick to jump to conclusions. But even Sandor had been able to presume what she'd been thinking when she'd seen him with his kids and ex-wife. Ex-wife, she admonished herself. Sandor had been level-headed and reasonable knowing how it must have looked to her. That was exactly the kind of man she'd always wanted in her life.
Sansa re-read the letter and chuckled at the thought of him being concerned that she'd show up with only one ticket.
Suddenly aware that she was being watched, Sansa looked up to see Sandor Clegane of the Chicago FD, watching her intently. She could feel her face glowing neon red with embarrassment, shyness, excitement, and an entire range of emotions she couldn't identify. When she saw the shy, hopeful smile on his face, Sansa couldn't hold back the corners of her mouth from spreading wide.
Today he was wearing his Oxford shirt and uniform jacket. In his hands he nervously edged the brim of his uniform cap. It was the first time Sansa had seen him with it. He looked confident and handsome as he waited for her to acknowledge him.
Is that a yes? his expression asked. He nodded hesitantly raising his one good eyebrow. Sansa's heart gave a massive thump. She nodded assertively, smiling grandly. Sandor let out a puff of air and stepped toward her.
"Hello," he said. His voice was deep and soft.
"Hi, I'm Sansa."
"It's nice to finally meet you, Sansa." He set his cap on the table and slipped into the booth across from her to join her for lunch.