We stumbled into our third diner a few months into the partnership, back when building a life together meant signing up for the same classes and standing plans on Friday night. Duke’s Coffee Pot is on the far east side of Tucson, away from campus and all-night coffee shops and hungover sorority girls taking over the seats at the cute university cafes. It had all of six tables and three employees and a long bar. Duke himself wore baggy cotton flag-print pants, the line cook suffered from a massive, visible hernia, and the waitress was always on the ready with extra cream or syrup or hot sauce. It was next door to a barber shop called Hair by Top Banana (no joke). Husband and I would cram into a booth in the corner and do Sudoku puzzles until our not-perfect but just-right home-fries and omelets and toast were ready. We chatted up the waitress and wondered if she was Duke’s wife. We eavesdropped on the regulars, a deaf man and another young couple and a handful of aging Arizonans. We were desperate to be regulars. It was weeks, though, maybe even months before we were brave enough to walk in through the door in the back of the diner, wood with a rickety screen and hung with a sign that said, “Friends Use the Back Door.”
I can’t remember when we stopped going to the diner, whether it was when I got a new job or left Tucson for another summer or if we just stopped wanting to drive across town that early. We went back one last time right before graduation and mourned the lack of recognition on the waitress’s face and wondered what happened for the Hernia to replace Duke, who was nowhere to be seen. Back then, building a life together meant knowing a corner of Tucson well enough that it knew us back. It meant not even having to order, because the waitress knew what we wanted. I was disappointed that we couldn’t do that after two years. It’s like I thought that was our only chance; we couldn’t fathom life past college or outside of Tucson or eating breakfast together on the other side of the country. Duke’s Coffee Pot is closed now and we’re still not regulars anywhere. It’s okay, though, because building a life together means knowing the corners of each other well enough that we can order for the other person. It means taking the time to linger over breakfast no matter where we are, or how quickly we’ll be gone.