Margo went to Florida with Ted soon after she met him. The beach, Ted promised, and they left the frozen northeast in a minivan owned by the Tupperware company. It was a job: they could earn something during their winter break by traveling from one place to another. The van would reward the best hostess, a top seller whose parties were legendary, according to the eager woman at headquarters who gave them the keys.
Up above the increasingly snowless highways, Margo believed she could fall in love with Ted, a sensation seeded at the New Years party where they’d met. At night, though, Ted folded the van’s seats and slept chastely beside her in the back. She waited for his compliments and gestures; she became bolder, kissed his face and once, his arm. Neither move prompted a response.
In Georgia, they stopped where Ted had grown up, a spacious house on top of a hill where his parents listened to opera piped to a jacuzzi in the yard. The house had plenty of room, but Margo wasn’t allowed to stay there. Not a conservative dictum, not a quashing of potential intimacy. Protection instead—when Ted was younger, he’d made friends with bad habits. He was often inebriated, too. He was sent away, and when his new friends, also troubled, visited the house with him, they put valuable things in their backpacks and pants. Now the parents had a no-guest policy, to assert themselves to their son, a thin young man who had his own ways of making his wishes clear.
At the beginning of the trip, Margo worried that she and Ted wouldn’t have enough to talk about. Now, as she exited the salt-stained van in the curved driveway of Ted’s childhood, the evening soft and mild, she realized how much distance they’d covered.
“I can stay with you,” he said. “In the hotel.”
His mother had reserved a room for Margo just a few miles away. Margo did like the idea of greeting Ted’s parents as a couple the next morning, arriving together to eat breakfast in the warmth of that lie. But her desire to punish him was stronger. A patch job for her pride. She had the next days to get through, as she and Ted made their way to the beach and then brought the van to the office in Clearwater. They never did meet the woman who’d earned it, the one who found success selling plastic boxes to her friends.
Margo woke up alone the next morning. She drove back to the house and went in for coffee, for grapefruit sectioned in a glass bowl.
Years later, over a plate of eggs in a luncheonette, on another bright morning, cold and still, a true winter this time, Margo tells the man she is with about her trip to Florida. A story she’s never told: that long-ago January, she returned to college and let Ted’s sudden friendship fall away.
She tells it now and leaves out the rejection. The parents become bible thumpers, their rules a result of their deep virtue. She doesn’t talk about what happened next—the beach was wet, and crowded with cars parked right on the sand. She and Ted went north together after giving up the prize. Margo hugged him in the bus station in Boston, and with bitter satisfaction, never wrote any letters. She lets the smudged details do the work now: an impulsive trip, southern manners, arias beside warm water. Her companion creases his face and she savors his jealousy, even for something that never really happened.
The people who own the luncheonette seem to always be at work. A married couple—Margo has passed by close to midnight to find them still serving omelets, only to start again, she knows, just after dawn.
Today a door is open. One she’s never noticed, back behind the booths. She can see another kitchen, a small room separate from the restaurant’s charred range. It must be where the owners live, with its stained potholders and photos on the fridge. And a table, too, piled with bags of hamburger buns—dozens of packages, probably all for the customers. Even in their home, the owners keep things for everyone out here. Neatly contained and ready, waiting to be of use.