So, Carmen, my speech therapist, said if I didn’t come back with my receipt from Sandy’s Subs then I wouldn’t meet my last goal for the semester, which was to order my own food at a restaurant. That didn’t necessarily mean I’d fail the class—which was speech therapy, as a class, yes—but she did say if I didn’t supply proof of my purchase at the counter then I wouldn’t get the credits. So it wouldn’t be an F, but I wouldn’t get any hours, and this was supposed to be my easy class. I stopped going to math after the professor called on me to give the function of G, which was 14 and I knew that but I got caught before I started, I felt it way down somewhere between my heart and my lungs, and stayed silent as I strained and buckled. Even the professor laughed, though he tried not to.
Carmen, she said to forget about that idiot professor so I did. I forgot about him and now I’d missed two tests and I kept forgetting that I forgot. It was there, somewhere, in a different part of my brain that I don’t know how to reach anymore. Maybe talking out loud is there, too.
I stutter, but not really. Stuttering involves sounds and repeating them but I have no sound at all. My voice is dammed as sound ceases its flow along the river of my throat somewhere by the larynx. It does not repeat. It stops and my lips never even form the words to repeat and my chest only shrinks.
Class, speech therapy, whatever, was tomorrow at nine in the morning. Coffee was out of the question—I had initially considered going to Starbucks in the morning but the barista always asked for my name, which was the hardest word of all—so it had to be tonight. Sandy’s Subs, they stayed open late. And I had a “the usual” there, I guess. Nine inch, whole wheat, ham, salami, provolone, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, onion, brown mustard, mayo. Salt and pepper to bring it all together. I always ordered online—I had the order saved on my phone; I’d punch in my card then pick that shit up fifteen minutes later, just sign here, no questions asked. I ate there a lot; they all knew me well enough to know what the usual was.
But I needed the receipt. One that didn’t have “online order” printed all over it.
I took an Uber there. It was a mile away; I wasn’t much of a walker, especially at midnight down dim city sidewalks. My driver of choice was Tima. I didn’t know who she was because we never spoke, but her eyes were so deep and so dark that the yellow streetlights we would pass shone off them like a mirror. Her lips were always sealed. We nodded and smiled whenever I left the car, sometimes grunted an indication of a thank you or a good bye. That was the full extent of our interaction.
Tima was on tonight. She always lurked at the Walmart parking lot across the street—from my third story apartment, rising barely over the line of trees between the road and the Walmart, I saw her Kia humming in a dark corner by some sleeping tractor trailers. I set up the ride on my phone and she flipped on the headlights.
Be there in about two minutes, she texted me. She always texted me to let me know when she was coming.
Okay. I slipped on a shirt, shoved my wallet in my back pocket, and pounded down the stairs outside. Here, it was dead, not even the brush of a breeze sweeping through trees. Silent as I, I shared my nothingness with the night until Tima’s headlights pierced the darkness a minute later. She pulled to the curb and I hopped in.
One thing I liked about riding in Tima’s car was that she had the ‘new car smell’ freshener dangling around her rearview. It reminded me of my grandma’s cars back home—she got a new car every year—and, if we put the windows down and blasted The Rolling Stones, it would be so loud I could almost speak without hearing myself stutter. It was a good smell.
She rode with no music. She had a nice car, roomy, especially for a sedan. I cracked the window. The first time, I had done it on accident, just set my elbow down right on the button, and she never said anything. So I ran with it, cracked the window every time I rode with her, and the air was cool and damp, wet my lips and my lungs. I just needed the usual. Four syllables, though I knew the second would be the hardest. ‘The’ was a piece of cake. Listen. “The,” I whispered under my breath, and over the low hiss of the passing wind, Tima never heard. “The, the, the, the.”
But it would be the long u in ‘usual’ that I knew would kill me. The long u always killed me. I didn’t dare utter that dreaded phoneme—the very thought made my throat twist and contract, like when the rabid consider drinking water.
A mile later and Tima pulled up to Sandy’s Subs, the only place still open in an otherwise desolate shopping center. It was packed—of course, it was the last Thirsty Thursday of the semester. Cars gathered up on the curb by the door and fanned out to cover a quarter of the parking lot. In the dimness, a cop was staked out by an inconspicuous dumpster, waiting for the first idiot who busted out a bottle.
Tima didn’t stop by the curb. She rolled up to the first parking spot she could find, between the front door and the cop, and we shared that nod and a grunt of appreciation and I left. I should’ve told her to wait but I was focused on those four syllables. The u-su-al. Now she’d have to come back.
I crossed the parking lot and walked inside. The smell of baking bread was thick as smoke. The line stretched from the counter, past the makeline, to the near wall, then shot back ten deep, halfway to the front door. Every table was occupied, and I listened to them drunkenly blabber on about who fucked whom or how Cindy convinced a cop she was 21. I slipped into line. When I did, the gravity of the situation hit me—I bowed my head as the first bit of sweat came. The sweating was almost as bad as the stuttering itself. The thought of speech made me sweat and now I was here, in line, with so many people who would hear me when I had to order and see me sweat all over the sneeze guards.
This should be so easy. I could even drop the ‘the’ if I wanted to. Usual. That’s it. It was only three syllables now—25% less. But my chest was tightening. That u would end me. It would end this before it began and I wouldn’t be getting any credit hours or even the psychological gratification of doing something good for myself.
I was about to explode. The line had shrunk considerably—I was still looking at the ground, shuffling my feet, eavesdropping, repeating the four syllables in my head. Cindy was being loud, but her boyfriend was being louder. She had moved on to accusing him of stealing a bottle of vodka from her purse.
“You already DRANK THAT.”
Screeching of moving chairs. “FUCK YOU. AND I KNOW YOU SLEPT WITH… TAMMY!”
I finally turned my head—faces flushed, they were both livid, locked in a standoff across their table like two drunken rangers at the saloon. From behind the counter, the manager, who had been slicing meat in the kitchen, stomped out in a hairnet. She shouted at them from the register. “I’m gonna need y’all to STEP OUTSIDE if you want to use that kind of language in this establishment!”
They didn’t hear her. “I didn’t sleep with Tammy; she has chlamydia!”
“Then I guess I’m getting tested tomorrow because you definitely slept with that bitch!”
Cindy’s boyfriend, his hair wild and sweaty, raised his hand and slapped the surface of the table, hard. So hard his cup of cola shook and tipped over and spilled all on the floor. Cindy gasped, the whole store went quiet for a few moments, and she held her manicured hands up to her mouth.
The manager emitted a guttural noise and stepped out from behind the register. “Okay, now y’all really need to get the hell out of my restaurant!” But Cindy had started crying, and the front door opened—I spun around. It was the cop, a white man with a shaved head and one meaty hand on his service pistol. The manager let out a sigh of relief, a I’m-glad-this-cop-is-here-because-I-didn’t-want-to-have-to-deal-with-this-shit-tonight kind of sigh. The boyfriend turned around too. They both knew he was there for them.
“Y’all two do me a favor and come on outside with me,” he commanded.
The couple were drunk but not drunk enough to fight a cop. Sobbing, Cindy came first, and the boyfriend followed, his head down like mine usually was, nearly slipping on his puddle of soda. I watched them walk out the door. Cindy took a seat on the curb and cupped her face with her hands while the boyfriend leaned against a brick pillar a few feet away as the cop tried to talk to him.
“Sir.” I didn’t hear them calling me from behind the counter—I was too busy looking. The cop said something they didn’t like; the boyfriend threw up his hands and the cop produced a pen and a citation pad. “Sir.”
I looked back to the counter and my stomach dropped. Amid all the commotion, I had lost track of my spot in line. I was now next up, and I didn’t recognize the sandwich maker behind the counter. A new guy. Who didn’t know what ‘the usual’ meant.
Shit, okay. Change of plans; I had prepared for this. Instead of ordering what I always got, I would simply get the easiest sub on the menu to say. Tuna sub. The t sounds weren’t that bad. I could say tuna—I was confident in my ability to say that word. I hated tuna, especially on a sub and in salad form, and I would throw it out once I get back home, but that was fine with me. I just needed the receipt.
I stepped up to the counter, knees quivering. I stuck my hands into my pockets so he couldn’t see them shake. I was thinking about the words and now my throat was closing. “That was wild, sorry,” he told me with a toothy sneer. “What do you want?”
“T—” Oh, no. It was stuck. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead. I couldn’t breathe. But I tried again. I had to; I couldn’t come home to my parents with an ‘incomplete’ for freaking speech therapy. Two syllables, that’s it. Tu. Na.
“Tuna,” I finally said, almost gagging as the sound somehow slipped through. I half-gasped to myself. I didn’t think I’d get through that long u.
I didn’t want a footlong in the slightest but I nodded so I wouldn’t have to speak.
“And what kind of bread for that sub?”
Now I had to speak—I saw the loaves crowded in the bread warmer—and I normally wanted whole wheat but that required twice as many syllables as ‘white’ did so I said, “Wh—” And I got stuck again and this time it was worse. I had a vein along the left side of my neck that popped up only when a block was give-up-and-never-speak-again bad. It popped; it was that bad. “Wh—”
Yeah, fuck this. Without another sound, I looked back down at the ground and walked out the door as the employee laughed at me. I couldn’t recall another moment in my life in which I’d felt more shame.
When I got outside, I couldn’t help myself and dry-sobbed once, but those sobs got stuck in my chest, too. Cindy and the boyfriend were talking with the cop by his car—they looked marginally calmer, but she was still crying. Some other car blared music with a bass so powerful it rattled the pebbles of chipped asphalt beneath my feet. My eyes grew misty but no tears fell; I always held them in.
Once I had gotten away from the cars and the cop, I propped myself up against a street light, alone, and fiddled through my pockets for my phone. Opened up Uber. I failed; I was going to fail speech therapy and Mom might laugh, Dad may yell, but both would agree I need to pay for my own fucking education if I couldn’t pass speech therapy class.
Tima was a long ways away—miles away, probably taking someone else home. So some other guy in a Honda was closest to me—he was actually in the shopping center; I saw the black Civic by the curb next to a closed grocery store—and I drafted a new text to Tima as fast as I could.
Can you drive me home right now? I’ll pay double.
I was about to bounce back to the Uber app so I could cancel the ride with the Honda but she opened the text immediately. Waiting on two other costumers. Will be hours before I can get you.
I couldn’t do that; I just wanted to go home, sleep in and miss speech therapy in the morning. Sleeping was so perfect because I could always speak, even in my nightmares. Okay, forget about it.
The Uber driver in the Honda—his name was Corey—pulled up just as I put away my phone. He rolled down the window. “Headed to The Lofts?”
So I did. I got in the back—crumbs all over the floor mats—and prayed he wasn’t a talker. I had a terrible feeling he was, though.
“How you doing tonight?” he said as he puttered off. I caught my last glimpse of Cindy and her boyfriend—the cop handing the boyfriend his underage drinking ticket, Cindy already holding hers.
“Yeah, me too,” Corey said as he pulled onto the street. “Making good money tonight, though. Sandy’s Subs is always crazy this time of the night.”
Definitely a talker, he would be getting a one-star review in the morning. But he wasn’t wrong, so I grunted again in agreement. I was hardly paying attention to him, though. I could still hear the echoing of that employee laughing, though it didn’t get any quieter each time the echoes came back.
“You get anything to eat there?”
“What did you get?”
Then I locked eyes with him the rearview mirror. It was the first time I’d looked at him. He had acne scars so bad my first thought was he’d been burned. But he kept glancing at me with wide eyes and a half-smile, like he really wanted to know what I had to eat.
So I told him.
“The u—” It came like I knew it would. The constriction was snakelike—it was suffocation, gurgling, gasping, so I stopped, took a deep breath, tried again, dropped the ‘the’. “Usual.”
“What’s the usual?”
“Nine in—” I saw him still glancing at me in the mirror. He just wanted to know what I had to eat. Okay, let’s try again. “Nine inch… whole… whole wheat… ham, salami, p—” Shit. I was sweating so much. “—provolone, pe…pper jack, lettuce, tomato, on…ion, brown… mustard—mayo.”
“That sounds amazing.”
“And s—” It’s okay. Take a breath. “And salt and pepper.”
Andrew is the sports editor at The Carolinian but loves creative writing even more.