"I recommend the chocolate-chip pancakes," Rolly told me after Deann had brought coffee and left us to examine the menu. "With lots of butter and syrup. And bacon."
"Ugh," Owen said. "I keep it basic: eggs, bacon, biscuit. Done."
Pork seemed to be required, so when Deann returned I ordered a waffle and, yes, bacon. Although I wasn't sure I needed it; I felt like I'd already eaten an entire side just by breathing.
"So you guys do this every week," I said, taking a sip of my water.
"Yeah." Owen nodded. "Since the first show. It's a tradition. And Rolly always pays."
"That's not tradition," Rolly said. "It's because I lost a bet."
"How long do you have to pay?"
"Forever," Rolly told me. "I had my chance, and I blew it. And now I pay. Literally."
"It's not really forever," Owen said now, tapping his spoon against his water glass. "Just until you talk to her."
"And when is that going to happen?" Rolly asked.
"The next time you see her."
"Yeah," he said glumly. "The next time."
I looked at Owen. "The girl with the hook," he explained. "In July, we saw her out at a club. First time we ever saw her anywhere. And Rolly'd been talking about her nonstop since she clocked him—"
Rolly flushed. "Not nonstop.'"
"—and here's his chance," Owen finished. "But he can't act."
"The thing is," Rolly said, "I'm a big believer in the perfect moment. They don't come around that often."
This deep thought was punctuated—or interrupted, depending on how you looked at it—by Deann arriving with our food. I had never seen so much bacon in my life; it was crammed around the edge of the waffle, literally falling off my plate.
"So there I am," Rolly said, beginning to butter his pancakes, "trying to figure out an in, and her sweater falls off the back of her chair. It's like it's meant to be, you know? But I freeze up. I can't do it."
Beside me, Owen had already popped a piece of bacon in his mouth and was chewing it while peppering his eggs.
"The thing is," Rolly said, "it's a big deal when you finally get the chance to do the one thing you want to do—need to do—more than anything. It can kind of scare the crap out of you."
He pushed the syrup over to me, and I picked it up, putting some on my waffle. "I bet," I said.
"Which is why," Owen said, "I said that if he picked up the sweater and talked to her, I'd pay for breakfast forever. And if he didn't do it, he had to foot the bill."
Rolly took another bite of his pancakes. "I actually got up and started over there. But then she turned around, and I—"
"Choked," Owen said.
"Panicked. She saw me, and I got all flustered, and I kept walking. Now I have to pay for breakfast for eternity. Or, until I actually make good on the bet, which is unlikely because I haven't seen her since."
"Wow," I said. "That's quite a story."
He nodded somberly, just as he had earlier in the car. "Yeah," he said. "I know."
By the time we left an hour later, all the bacon was gone and I was so full I thought I would bust. Back in the car I reached for my seat belt, pulling it across me, then stopped just short of the buckle as Owen slid it in for me, then grabbed the hammer again. His hands were right at my waist as he tapped its center, his head ducked down by my shoulder. I looked at his dark hair, the sprinkle of freckles by his ear, those long lashes, but then he was already done, pulling away.
All the way into town, I watched Rolly in the side mirror as he put on his padding for work: first the big chest piece, then the tubes on his arms and legs, gradually growing more substantial and less recognizable in front of my eyes. He put on the helmet just as we pulled up to the strip mall where EmPOWerment! was located.
"Thanks for the ride," he said, opening the door and easing himself down to the ground. The padding on his legs was so thick he had to take short, halting steps, his arms held out to his sides. "I'll call you later."
"Sounds good," Owen told him.
As we drove home, the scenery blurring past, I thought back to that first day, and how strange it had been to find myself with him. Now it was almost normal. Outside, the neighborhood was quiet, a few sprinklers going, a man in his robe padding out down the driveway to pick up his paper, and I found myself remembering what Rolly had said earlier about the perfect moment. This seemed like one, suddenly, the right time to say something to Owen. To thank him, maybe, or just to let him know how much his friendship had meant to me in the last couple of weeks. But just as I was getting up the nerve to say something, he beat me to it.
"So. Have you listened to any of the CDs I burned for you?"
"Yeah," I said as we turned onto my street. "I actually started the protest song one yesterday."
"Fell asleep," I told him. He winced. "But I was really tired. I'll try it again and let you know."
"No rush," he said, pulling up in front of my house. "These things take time."
"No kidding. You gave me a lot to listen to."
"Ten CDs," he replied, "is not a lot. It's barely a smattering."
"Owen. It's, like, a hundred and forty songs. Minimum."
"If you want a real education," he continued, ignoring this, "you can't just sit and wait for the music to come to you. You have to go to the music."
"Are you suggesting some sort of pilgrimage?" I was joking. Judging by the serious look on his face, however, he was not. "You could call it that," he said.
"Uh-oh," I said, sitting back in my seat. "What would you call it?"
"Going to a club to see a band," he replied. "A good band. Live. Next weekend."
The first thing that popped into my mind was a question: Are you asking me out? The second, following rapidly behind, was that if I actually asked it, he'd answer in full truth, and I was not sure I wanted that. If he said yes, it would be… what? Great. And terrifying. If he said no, I'd feel like an idiot.
"A good band," I repeated instead. "Good according to who?"
"To me, of course."
He raised an eyebrow. "And to others, too," he said. "It's Rolly's cousin's band."
"No. Not techno," he answered flatly. "They're more kind of a loose rock, original songs, somewhat jokey but solidly alternative."