I waited for signs that Ruth was kidding. A playful punch on the arm. A deep laugh and a “Gotcha!” But she just sat there, her feral green eyes darting back and forth between Sol and me.
I couldn’t take the silence, so I leaned in, and said, “What do you mean you’re not paying?”
“What? You think I’m gonna blow all my hard-earned cash on you two?”
And that’s when I started to panic.
“Ruth! You told us you were taking us out to lunch. I don’t have any money with me!”
Sol had about a dollar in change, which wouldn’t even cover his fries. But he was familiar with Ruth’s antics, so he tried to play it cool as he said, “Stop screwing around, Ruth. I know you have the money. We’ll pay you back if you want.”
“Sol, I told you. I’m not paying. And unless you want to get busted, you’ll follow me out the door right now.”
And that’s when my heart began to race.
“Ruth! We can’t just walk out. They’ll see us! They’ll catch us!”
“Not if we walk out like we just paid. I’ll go first, and you guys follow.”
And that’s when I felt like throwing up.
Sol and I just sat there, silent, except for the mechanical sound of my hyperventilation. But as soon as we realized that Ruth was dead serious, we clicked into survival mode. Fight or flight.
“I’m going after Ruth,” I whispered.
“Hell if I’m going last! We’ll leave at the same time.”
We agreed to all leave together, but our escape had to be perfectly timed, like a Russian ballet, or an aircraft carrier landing. From her vantage point, Ruth was able to follow our waitress as she moved throughout the restaurant. As soon as she cleared away the dishes from the booth behind us, and walked back toward the kitchen, Ruth went into action.
She nodded at Sol and me, so we knew we had no choice but to follow. There was no turning back. Though my immediate instinct was to run, that would have been a dead giveaway. I couldn’t look at anyone or anything except the door on my way out. It seemed so much closer when we first came in.
As soon as we stepped outside the door, Ruth and Sol did what the Fosters did best – they ran. They ran really fast. I tried to keep up, but my belly full of cheeseburger and malt had other plans for the afternoon.
About a block outside the restaurant, a man walking his dog came toward me on the sidewalk, blocking my path. Instead of just waiting for him to pass, in my crime spree panic I decided to jump the fence next to him, landing me directly in someone’s front yard. I cut through the yard and came out on the other side of the block. Fearing The Medallion had released the hounds in our pursuit, I zigzagged my way home in the most inefficient of manners, cutting through alleys and sloshing across creeks.
When I finally made it back, Sol and Ruth were sitting on their front steps, laughing hysterically.
Ruth shouted, “Where the hell did you go, Jenny?”
“Yeah, what took you so long?” Sol added.
“You’re both so stupid! We could’ve been arrested!”
Sol, suddenly filled with the false bravado of adrenaline, said, “Aw, you’re such a goody-goody. That was too much fun!”
I kicked the half-deflated basketball sitting on their lawn at him, and walked down the block back to my house, the sound of their laughter still burning in my ears. For the rest of the summer, I wouldn’t even walk past The Medallion, assuming they had posted police artist renderings of my face by the cash register. Several times, my parents planned on bringing my brother and me there for dinner, but I always complained, or feigned a stomach ache.
“Ughh, I hate The Medallion. Why can’t we go somewhere else? I want pizza. That’s the only thing that sounds good to me.”
“Jenny. We just had pizza last week. You always used to like The Medallion.”
“Mom, I hate The Medallion. Why can’t I stay home? Matt and I just want to play Coleco.”
After several months of my whining, my parents decided that my brother and I were old enough to stay home alone on Friday nights. My brother will never know that my petty theft is the reason he was never again invited out to dinner on Fridays with our parents.
Decades passed, hairstyles changed, The Medallion was bought and sold several times, yet still I refused to return to the scene of the crime. That is, of course, until Christmas two years ago. My mother and I were doing some last minute holiday shopping in town when I started to feel a bit peckish. I suggested we take a break from the crowds and grab some lunch.
My mother gushed, “Oh, we should go to Athena’s! It’s the cutest little Greek family restaurant. They have a million things on the menu, and really good food. They make a tuna melt you’ll just go nuts for!”
“Mmm! A tuna melt sounds great! Where’s Athena’s?”
“You know – that’s the old Medallion on 52nd.”
The Medallion. My old nemesis.
That was a name I hadn’t thought of in years, yet just hearing the word felt like a kick in the stomach. I couldn’t go back there! What if that waitress still works there? Granted, she’d be about 70, but it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
“Ughh. I don’t know. The more I think about it, I just had a tuna melt yesterday. Let’s go somewhere else. How about pizza? ”
“Jen, we’re right in the neighborhood. They have everything there – sandwiches, salads, burgers – I’m sure there’s something you’d like. C’mon, everywhere else is so crowded. Let’s just go there.”
I tried a few more times to get out of going to Athena’s, but I could see I wasn’t going to win that battle. My heart started to beat faster as we turned the corner and pulled into a parking spot across the street. The sign may have changed, but this was clearly still The Medallion. I took a deep breath as we walked through the glass door.
So much history.
One whiff of that hamburger grease and it all came flooding back to me. I remembered sitting by the window, a carefree ten year old one minute, a hardened fugitive the next. I had evaded the authorities for over twenty years, and now here I was. Back where it all started. It almost felt like I was flaunting my crime to walk in there so boldly. It’s like I wanted to get caught.
The waitress asked us where we’d like to sit, and my mother started to answer, “Oh, could we get a boo-“
“TABLE! We’ll take that table over there.”
As we sat down and started looking over the menus, I kept scanning the crowd for familiar faces. Why was the busboy eyeing me up like that? Did the cook tell him something? Had I been fingered? I tried to stay calm, and decided to order the Greek chicken salad. Suddenly I wished I had worn a hat.
I don’t remember much of my conversation with my mother during lunch. I think she told me something about my grandmother’s cat, and what my nephews said on the phone the other day, but I kept flashing back to 1981. It was so strange – my chicken salad tasted like burger, my iced tea like a malt. Someone at the table next to us knocked over the ketchup bottle and I almost hit the floor.
I told my mother that I was anxious to finish up my Christmas shopping, so we paid the bill and started to leave. We were almost to the door, when I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Jenny – what’s wrong?”
I stared blankly, and then said, “Uh, nothing. I… I think I left my gloves. You go warm up the car. I’ll be right out.”
The waitress was just about to grab the check off our table, when I put my hand over it. I slipped a $20 bill under the money my mother had left, handed it to back to her, and sighed, “Forgot the tip.”
A blast of cold wind hit me as I walked out to the car, and for the first time in almost a quarter century, I felt the rush of freedom.