The first diner Husband and I frequented was the Waffle House just off the interstate in Tucson, Arizona. It was greasy and grimy and to this day the only food we’ll eat there are the hash browns (scattered, covered, smothered, and chunked) and the pie. It was our second date. Actually, I don’t think it counts as a date. When I was in high school, my mom told me it wasn’t a date if it started after 10 pm. She was trying to dissuade me from wasting my time on boys for whom I was an afterthought. Also, she didn’t want me out with boys after midnight. When I was in college, everything shifted back a few hours, and I learned that boys who called after midnight usually had bad intentions. That didn’t stop me from going out with them, or from making a few after-midnight, ill-intentioned calls myself. Husband and I went out four times before we saw each other by the light of day. Four times before we kissed, before we even accidentally-on-purpose bumped elbows or hands or knees. My roommates at the time didn’t quite believe he existed, even though he’d spent hours in our little house, after everyone was asleep. Even though I’d disappeared in my boxy two-decades-old Chevrolet with the disappearing paint job for whole nights, to drive up lonely desert roads to his apartment or that grungy Waffle House. I probably should have questioned his intentions at the time. I was an insomniac, but as far as I know, he slept fine. I was a typical college student accustomed to missing morning classes, but he worked full-time with shifts that started at eight. I didn’t question that time he chose to spend with me because when we sat in the dark, way out in the desert, the four feet he carefully kept between us disappeared and we were the same. Lost, or at least looking for something that seemed easier to find in the harsh neon glare of the Waffle House sign.
A month or so later, we found ourselves at the Waffle House again, in the morning, like people who really like each other. And we really did, although we didn’t know much more about it than that. We’d been a couple for all of a week, maybe two. Most people don’t know this, but 2005 was the 50th anniversary of the Waffle House. The year-long celebration included a chili cook-off, a National Waffle Week contest, and free coffee mugs for top customers. The Waffle House in Tucson didn’t participate in any of these events, but it did hang a sign in the window near the jukebox, with a photo of the founders and the slogan “Here’s to the next 50 years!” That morning, Husband said something about the diner not looking so hot in the morning light and I raised my mug, like the founders in the poster, and said “well, here’s to the next 50 years.” He looked back at me, bewildered, if not stricken. He hadn’t seen the poster. I pointed at it, red-faced and laughing. I’m not sure if he ever fully believed that I wasn’t talking about him and me, and I guess I’m not really sure, either. We don’t eat at the Waffle House anymore, but every so often, I lift my glass and give a quiet toast to the fact that we found each other, after dark in a dirty, tired college town.