He Always Ate Alone

Farha Hasan

It was not going as well as she had imagined—college in this crisp white town, Aysha thought as she cleared the tables and scraped off dishes while impatiently looking at her watch. Three hours left. For the first time in her life, it was dawning on her what it was like to be different: her name, the color of her skin, her faith—most of all her faith. She was not like them. She knew it and they knew it.

Until now she had taken for granted the diversity that had insulated her in her gritty hometown, but it was different here. Here people believed what they heard on the news. The quaint old world campus that had seemed so ideal in the brochures was coming up short—literally. In fact, it was only by bussing tables at Oliver’s that she was able to make up the difference between her scholarships and her student loans.

The clientele at this upscale bistro was not unique considering its location. Oliver’s was situated in between campus and the financial district, attracting both academics and investment bankers, and in a couple short weeks Aysha had learned to identify just about everyone—everyone, that is, except him. He was not like the others, too young to be a professor and too casual (rough-looking jeans with a nice shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbow) to be an investment banker. Yet something about him reeked of money. There was a planned carelessness about him that could only be spelled designer and she had been watching him intently: his easy strides, his dark features, his warm smile. Every time he walked into the restaurant she could feel her palms sweat and her pulse quicken. Today he was seated at a corner booth away from the activity of the restaurant. He always ate alone, that’s why it never occurred to her that he might be waiting for someone—and then she walked in.

After all this time Aysha finally noticed the glint of his wedding band as he stood up to greet her, this well-coiffed young woman not too much older than Aysha herself. The woman, Aysha noticed, was a tigress with a luxurious mane of honey blonde and a self-satisfied smile that reminded her of a well-fed cat—albeit one that came with very sharp teeth. She carried herself with a poise and experience that went beyond her years and when the man greeted her coolly, she seemed not to notice. For a moment all Aysha could do was stare—that is, until her supervisor noticed her vacant expression.

“Aysha, table three needs clean-up,” he said, his gruff voice breaking her trance.

She turned and nodded in his direction.

He gave her a look that meant “right away.”

She wiped the sweat off her brow and headed to table three, suddenly feeling self-conscious about herself, her clunky shoes, her dark complexion, her wild hair that always seemed to be spilling out of her ponytail. Of course she would deserve him, thought Aysha, as she brushed back a stray lock. They made a handsome couple, Ken and Barbie, perfect for this plastic town.

Clearing table three, she looked up again at the power couple; the two were now immersed in a heated discussion. At first, the woman spoke calmly, stroking his hair and kissing him lightly like old lovers do, but the man rejected her advances.

“Cut it out, Angie. You had an affair. I’m not just going to forget that…”

A cold look crept into the woman’s eyes and Aysha could see that her mouth had turned into a snarl as she hissed her response. The man remained calm, although the pleasantness had drained from his face and he looked at the woman intensely. Although Aysha tried not to listen, she couldn’t stop the sound of muffled words being spit into the air like bullets, ugly words like pre-nupsettlementscandal. Even as she made her way to the kitchen she could feel the tension in the booth rising and seeping out like acid and although the tigress still wore that hungry smile, her words made the man’s eyes darken and jaw tighten.

Aysha was relieved that her next table was all the way across the room where the air was still light and the conversation still pleasant. A party of ten had just finished a lunch for a colleague. Humming softly to herself she began to clear the table—the unfinished drinks, the half-eaten chocolate cake. Chocolate cake had always been her favorite while Zeba, her best friend, had always preferred cheesecake. Now Zeba was married and living in another country and Aysha was on her own, friendless, loveless, with only this mysterious man to occupy her interest. She watched him, thought about him all the time.

Absorbed in her own little world, she started thinking about the man who had unknowingly become such a large part of her life. She started to wonder what it would be like to be sitting in the booth next to him, to smell his cologne, to feel his breath. She let these thoughts warm her soul and became lost in the depths of her own imagination. When she suddenly looked up, he caught her gaze. Her heart stopped and a slow blush crept across her face. The man noticed her embarrassment and bestowed upon her an amused smile, until his wife’s cold words wiped it off and turned his face to stone. The tigress slammed her hands down on the table and was about to leave, when he grabbed her wrists and forced her to sit back down.

Aysha hurried into the back, glad that it was time for her cigarette break. Downstairs in the dark parking lot she could close her eyes and take a deep drag of her cigarette, letting the tension leave her body. When she returned to the cool air-conditioned restaurant, Aysha could see that the couple’s discussion had gotten worse and before she could understand what was happening, the woman flung her wedding ring at the man and began to storm out.

The diamond-encrusted wedding band bounced off the booth and landed in the aisle where it spun round and round until a two-year-old from a neighboring table grabbed it and promptly stuck it up his nose. Unruffled, the man straightened his shirt before sitting down, ordering a scotch, and finally finishing his meal. The restaurant was now quiet and would remain so until the dinner crowd trickled in.

What a friggin’ crappy day, thought Aysha as she packed up and got ready to head out, looking forward to finally getting off her feet, going home, and sinking into a bath and the half-finished novel she had left by her bedside. But before she could exit, her manager caught up with her.

“Hold up a minute,” he said, giving her a little wave that seemed unusually delicate for such a large man.

Aysha panicked, afraid he was going to reprimand her for eavesdropping or worse, but before she could explain, he said, “Good job, next time we’ll let you waitress a couple tables and, by the way, can you change your shift to Friday instead of tomorrow?”

“Sure,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“And,” he continued, “I was wondering if you could train—” But he was interrupted by the blaring of his cell phone. He handed her a small envelope. “Before you leave, this belongs to the gentleman in the corner booth.”

Paralyzed, Aysha stood there for what seemed like an eternity, holding the tiny envelope in her hands. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Finally, after much deliberation, she gathered her nerve and cautiously approached the alluring stranger whom she had only watched from afar.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, holding out the envelope. “This belongs to you.”

He looked up at her, making Aysha catch her breath and feel a little lightheaded—as if she was floating.

“Why don’t you keep it,” he said, and walked out the door.


Farha Hasan is a librarian living and working in Boston. She has come back to writing fiction after a brief stint in advertising where she was involved in copywriting, casting and strategic planning. Her short stories have been published in various ezines and small circulation presses such as Samizdada, Down in the Dirt and Toasted Cheese. E-mail: fzhasan[at]gmail.com

Things Difficult to Say

Alan Averill

He saw her moving up the shore while she was still a tiny sunset silhouette. He assumed she came from the pack of teenagers further up the beach—the ones he could hear yelling and laughing and throwing crap into the ocean surf—but only because she looked small, and not like the kind of person who would be here alone at dusk. But he could be wrong. He’d made mistakes like that before.

She was holding something round and long in her hand as she meandered slowly toward him, stopping occasionally to stare at the last few wisps of sunlight that streaked across the water. He was curious about the object and wanted to look closer, but he didn’t want her to think he was staring at her. Nothing worse than a guy in his late thirties with a bad haircut staring at some teenager on a beach. But more than that, he didn’t want to stare. She had her business; he had his. He was content to leave it be.

He turned his eyes from her and back to the wide gray ocean. Water was hardly ever blue this far north. Only on the clearest of summer days did it sparkle like everyone imaged the ocean always sparkled. Usually it looked like little more than a churning slab of dull concrete. The waves made a low and steady sound, a kind of distant rumble that was felt long before it was heard. They were comforting in a way. Constant. Predictable. He could understand why everything had ended here.

His thoughts were interrupted by the girl again. She was close now, and staring up at him. He searched through his brain for the correct response—a wave, a shrug, a casual salute off the forehead—and ended up just staring back with his mouth slightly open and a tiny bead of saliva hanging off his lower lip. Well, this is awkward.

Apparently she found it less awkward than he, because she continued her shoreline slog toward him. The curious object in her hand was a hot dog. He could see small wisps of steam rising from the bun, and it made his stomach rumble. He hadn’t eaten much lately. Either hadn’t felt the need or hadn’t remembered. Not that it made a difference.

The girl took a few more sandy steps to the pile of rocks on which he sat and looked up at him. “Hey,” she said. “You look hungry.”

“I… Yeah. I am, actually.”

“Want a dog?”

“Uh… Sure. Thanks.”

The girl clambered up the rocks with surprising grace, considering she was holding a frank in one hand. Now that she was close, he noticed she was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a faded skull on the front. Her hair was black with bright red stripes running down the middle, and there were various small bits of metal sticking out of her ears and nose. The entire effect felt cool, but in a totally unplanned kind of way. Like she didn’t even need to try. He looked down at his creased khaki pants and skinny black tie and felt a brief cringe knot his gut.

“Here.” She handed him the dog and sat on a nearby rock.

He took the proffered dinner and bit into it without hesitation. The meat had cooled a little during the walk, and there was sand in the mustard that grit against his teeth. It was the best meal he’d eaten in weeks. “Oh, wow. That’s… That’s really good.”

“Thanks. I made it myself.”


She smiled. “Well, I didn’t, like, you know. Kill the cow or anything. But I grilled it and put the mustard on. You like mustard?”

“Love it.”

“Awesome. I’ve haven’t grilled a hot dog in forever, so I was kinda worried.”


“Yeah. Actually, there wasn’t a grill, so I guess I didn’t grill anything. More like held it on a stick. But you know what I mean.”

Murrrfl.” He realized he was talking and chomping at the same time, and the knot of disgust turned his stomach anew. He held up one hand in the international sign of Hold On A Second I’m Chewing and wolfed down the rest of the meal. At the very last bite, a squirt of mustard wiggled out from between his front teeth and made a suicidal death leap right onto his tie. He fought the urge to clean it off.

Once the chewing subsided, he leaned back on the rock and stared out at the sea, occasionally glancing at the girl out of the corner of his eye. She seemed happy to sit in silence, so he did the same, enjoying the way his stomach was now warm and gurgling. She smelled nice, like baby powder, and he liked the way her scent blended with the tang of the ocean. He hoped that didn’t make him a weirdo.

“So, uh… Thanks. For the hot dog. Thank you.”

“Oh. Sure.”

“I’m Julian.”



“Hey.” She finally glanced away from the ocean and looked at him, a ghost of a smile crossing her face. “You got mustard on your tie.”

“Yeah, I know. I mean… I didn’t… I didn’t notice. I don’t care. It’s a stupid tie anyway.”


She turned her gaze back to the ocean, missing the pained look of horror that crossed Julian’s face. Goddammit, why can’t you ever talk to people? You sound like an idiot. Ask her a question. Say something witty. Come on. But nothing would come, and the longer he struggled, the more awkward the silence became, at least in his mind. Sara didn’t seem bothered in the slightest—she had turned her attention to a small cut on her hand and was picking at it with something approaching boredom. His mind raced for a conversation. They could talk about music or movies or sports or all the great unanswered questions of the world. But everything he came up with sounded leaden and dumb to his inner ear, and in the end she was forced to break the silence.

“I see you here a lot,” she said, slowly rubbing the cut as a drop of blood oozed out. “I mean, I’m not, like, stalking you or anything. I just noticed.”

“Are you here often?”

“I guess. Recently. My friends like to come here and smoke weed and throw stuff in the fire, so I just kinda tag along.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It’s not.”


“So what do you do?”

“Me? Oh, nothing. I just… I work in IT. I write code for medical software. It’s really boring.”

“Sounds okay.”

“Yeah, it’s not. I hate my job.”

“Is that why you come here every night?”

He thought for a bit before answering. “No,” he said, finally. “No, I… I’m kind of waiting for someone.”

She glanced at him and raised one pierced eyebrow. “What, here? Like, you’re having a secret rendezvous on the beach?”

“No, it’s not like that. It’s… It’s weird.”

“Okay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“I had a fiancée,” he said suddenly, cutting her off. “I had a fiancée, and she… A few months ago she came here one night and, uh… She took her clothes off and put them in a little pile on this rock and then ate a bunch of pills and walked into the ocean.”

Sara looked up from the cut, eyes wide. “Seriously?”


“Oh, shit. I’m really sorry.”

“Me too.”

The moon was starting to rise over the horizon of the sea, and the two of them stared at it in silence. Down the beach, they could hear the sounds of laughter and a crackling fire. One of Sara’s friends was apparently having a little too much fun, because every now and then a huge stoned laugh would roll up and around and crash against the rocks like its very own wave. Her cut had sprung wide, and she wiped the blood on the sleeve of her hoodie in an absentminded fashion. Julian stared at it intently, mostly because he didn’t want to take the risk of meeting her gaze.

“Hey, look. Sara. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you that. It just kind of came out.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind if you want to talk about it.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Yeah, well, maybe that’s better.”

“I don’t know. I just… I keep coming here, you know? Every night I come here and I sit on this rock and I think she’s going to just pop out of the ocean with a bunch of seaweed hanging off her and we’ll hug and then I’ll take her home. It’s like if I wait here long enough, she’s going to… I don’t know. It’s stupid. Sorry.”

His eyes were starting to wet, and he brushed at them with the sleeve of his cheap white shirt. She put one hand on his back and rubbed it in a circle for a few seconds, leaving a tiny streak of blood on the collar. Down the beach, one of the stoners yelled Sara’s name, then laughed. She glanced that way for a moment and rolled her eyes.

“My friends are idiots.”

“You’re young. It’s your chance to be an idiot.”

“I’m not that young.”

“What are you? Sixteen?”


“Oh. Yeah, that’s young.”

“Everyone thinks I’m twelve or something because I’m so small. It sucks. But look, I’m really sorry about your fiancée.”


“My dad used to hit me.”


“When I was a kid. He’d get drunk and hit me. My mom, too.”


She shrugged, a tiny motion in the moonlight. “It’s okay. I’m not scarred for life or anything. I just thought… you know. I figured I should tell you something, since you told me. And that’s kinda the biggest secret I have.”

“He doesn’t still do that, does he?”

“No. He’s dead. He got drunk and ran his car into a tree. I didn’t even go to the funeral.”

The stoner yelled her name again, loud and long like a wolf’s howl. She glanced down the shore, looked back at Julian, and shrugged again. “Look, I should… I should go. They’re probably wondering where I am.”

He nodded. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for the hot dog.”

She stood and stretched, causing her back to pop. For a brief, fleeting moment he considered asking her to stay, but he saw the foolishness in such a request and so tucked it away. Instead, he allowed himself to look at her with the fullness of his eyes for the first time since he saw her wandering up the sand. She was beautiful, he decided. And here, on this sad and rocky shoreline where everything in his life had come to a crashing halt, she was perhaps the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“Are you…” she began, haltingly. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?”

His response was long in coming. “I don’t know. Maybe. I wake up every morning and tell myself I’m not going to come, but then every night I just kind of end up here. So… yeah. I don’t know. One day I won’t have to come here anymore. I hope it’s tomorrow. I don’t know.”

“Well, listen. If you’re here tomorrow, I’ll come say hi. Okay?”

“I’d like that.”

“Me, too.”

“Bye, Sara.”


She scrambled down the rocks and to the sand, walking with speed back to the warm orange glow of the bonfire. He wanted her to turn back and look, just a glance to let him know she understood the meaning in things difficult to say, but it never happened. His last image was of her walking, head down, wiping her wounded hand on the sleeve of her grungy hooded sweatshirt. Then she was around a curve and out of the moonlight and lost to him. The waves kept coming. He sat on his rock, listening to their rhythm, and wondered if he would be back tomorrow.


Alan has lived his entire life in the Pacific Northwest, owns a dog named Miso, and is somewhat afraid of the sun. As a former video game writer who left the world of Mario and mushrooms to pursue a more traditional writing career, his professional experience consists mostly of magazine articles about shooting the boss in his glowing red eye—although he has written text for over twenty published video games. E-mail: frodomojo[at]gmail.com

Mor Mor

Tai Dong Huai

My adoptive mother’s mother, my Mor Mor, lies in a hospital bed in Baltimore. My adoptive father refuses to make the five hour trip from Connecticut. He says he can’t stand being in traffic on the Garden State Parkway, but I think it’s really the smell of the place, worse than the girls’ room at school on a hot Friday afternoon, that keeps him home.

Mor Mor smiles when we walk in, but I suspect she’d smile at anyone. She doesn’t talk anymore, and since the nursing home lost her false teeth, she mostly eats only plain yoghurt.

I kind of remember when she was active. It was maybe five years ago, when I was five. She used a cane, but she moved out on it. Get in her way, and you’d feel the sting on your ankles, the backs of your legs. Now she can’t even sit in a chair, and the staff at the nursing home has given up trying to make her move.

I say, “Hi, Mor Mor,” but she doesn’t respond. Her mouth opens and stays that way, a black circle on a melting face. My adoptive mother says,”Look who’s here to visit,” and takes out the small container of vanilla ice cream she bought at the deli across the street. When my mom feeds her, her lips close around the plastic spoon until it can be pulled free. “Leah can play Trepak,” my adoptive mother tells Mor Mor. “Maybe next time she’ll bring her violin.”

After we’ve been there for what seems like much longer than we’ve been there, my adoptive mother takes a wrapped Almond Joy miniature from her purse and puts it into Mor Mor’s hand. A year ago she tried to mask the gesture, as if Mor Mor herself had gotten up, walked across the street, and bought the candy herself. Now she knows I know better, but she still says, “Mor Mor’s got something for you.” And when I approach, “Kiss Mor Mor goodbye.”

I’ll throw the candy away as soon as we head back to the car. I make no secret, and my mother is wise to it. But it’s a ritual and rituals, like some old women, don’t die easily.

“Mor Mor went to college when few women did,” my adoptive mother tells me on the ride home. “She was a mathematician. She worked with Chuck Yeager who was the first man to break the sound barrier.”

I think of my own mother, my birth mother, somewhere in Taizhou. I like to believe that sometime before she abandoned me, she took a photograph with a neighbor’s camera. I picture myself tiny and wrapped in many layers. Propped up in a chair against a white wall. This would have been a time before I knew how to smile, before I knew how to do anything.

I imagine that some nights, when she’s alone, my birth mother takes my picture from some hidden place and talks to it in a language I am powerless to understand.

I see myself staring out at her, unable to answer.


Tai Dong Huai’s fiction has appeared, or is scheduled, in elimae, Hobart, Word Riot, Wigleaf, 971 Menu, and other terrific places. “Mor Mor” is from I Come From Where I’ve Never Been, a collection in progress. E-mail: taidonghuai[at]gmail.com

little you

Jai Britton

cummings, little e, little e, he said (said he)
that you can t have love
without a gimmick,
trick or rhyme, sonnet unsonnetlike
keeping the time.

he changed the world, little e, little e,
and now we
burgeoning poets
can all blame him
for our spelling errors and etceteras
and unquotes.

little e, little e knew much more than we
(or at least i, little i)
about what he was doing

in the end (the little e end)
it made sense
if you,
little you,
were looking for some unstructured love, too.


Jai Britton is a woman of many hats: copywriter, poet, editor, transcriptionist, mother, receptionist. Only the receptionist job pays any money. Jai was recently shortlisted for Wigleaf Magazine’s Top 50 Short Fiction Writers of 2007 in such company as Robert Bly, Steve Katz, and ZZ Packer. You can see a full list of her work on her blog, Scrivner. E-mail: sourtaste7[at]gmail.com