The Wraith of the Corner Booth

“You’re pathetic,” Spat a figure in the glass.

 

“You’re as sad and as sorry as that luke-warm gravy you mindlessly sop up with those lumpy, doughy biscuits.”

 

At first she is taken aback.

 

“Who said that?” She thinks as she glances around the diner—stark fluorescent lighting, blinking, flashing, buzzing. Sticky vinyl seats, some with gashes, foam bursting at the seams, a metaphor for the disappointment and self-loathing of anyone who has every stepped foot on the black and white checkered tile. Chaos on the walls and the mouthwatering aroma of sizzling pig flesh fills the air—But it’s 3:23 am and she’s the only one there.

 

“What kind of dinner is this anyway? Not a single green thing on that plate. Why’d you come here?”

 

And then, out of the corner of her eye she notices it’s the figure in the window speaking to her.

 

“They’re probably this bad because Tammy isn’t here. Mmm, how you miss Tammy. Seeing her walk by in those button-fly jeans, with that Wham! shirt on and those white Reeboks, yellowing now from age and grease. Her wrinkles, especially those tight little ones around her mouth, from all those years of smoking, take your mind to dirty places, make you think she’s good at wrapping her lips around things. And taking her full breasts in your mouth…  Who cares if she spends too much time tanning and has had 4 kids? When she was younger she was so wild. You can only imagine the things she did. Those breasts have secrets and you want to know them.”

 

“Wait. Wha…? How do you…? I mean, no…. I…” she thinks, but is soon interrupted again.

 

“But lately you haven’t been able to pull yourself outta the house for the daytime crew. Instead you’ve been catching the little gay boys on the swing shift, or the recent runaways on the graveyard. Every once in a while you hope that Connie or Daniel, or Tausha will call in sick and it will be Tammy that has to cover the night shift. But such wishful thinking is useless. Tammy has been here for ages. She’s paid her dues. Unless you can pull your sorry ass out into the light of day, you’ll be sitting here, alone, washing away the taste of raw flour with day-old coffee. If only it were the 70s, or Indonesia, and you could top it off with a drag off a delicious clove.”

 

A faint whisper escapes her from her lips,

 

Cloves..”.

For a moment she is lost in thought. She closes her eyes and she can almost feel the cigarette gently resting between her fingers. She imagines taking a long drag, breathing deep the thick smoke, feeling it sting the back of her throat as it fills her lungs, rolling it around over her tongue and then exhaling, slowly, a steady stream of fragrant smoke passes through her lips. Head spinning, heart racing, the initial rush of euphoria—a truly sultry experience if there ever was one. The associations begin and she is reminded back to the roof of an old kos on a balmy April night in the tropics, surrounded by bottles of Bintang and Orang Tua, nothing left but dregs, and a melody of some pop song blithely plucked from the nylon strings of a cheap guitar. Despite heavy intoxication, or perhaps because of it, a dangerous mix of warm beer and sweet wine, tobacco, the delicate touches of a lover… the memory of that roof, of that night has become a sanctum in her mind.

 

After a moment relishing in the past she begins to get the feeling she is not alone. Expecting to see a waitress at her table she reluctantly flicks open her eyes and is instead surprised to see the figure from the window sitting across from her. Her mouth hangs slightly open and before she can muster some sort of inquiry her new dinning partner interjects,

 

“The diner used to be an escape. You’d come and stare shamelessly at Tammy. She’d smile and listen to all your problems while she tried to cheer you up. Saying things you know aren’t true, like:

 ‘Have you lost weight?’

“Been hitting the gym, Sexy?’ 

Wow, you’re really talented!’

 ‘Take me!’ ‘Here!’ ‘Now!’ ‘On top of this grimy, old linoleum counter top with all these sorry bastards watching!’

 

She grins and there’s a cheeky glint in her eye.

 

“Ok, so you made that last one up. Mmm, but had she ever said that…”

 

“You mean you made it up.”

 

Well, let’s not split hairs here.”  

 

The two watch as Krystal walks over and without a word to either grabs a mug from the table, flips it and fills it with a torrent of hot brown water.

 

“She isn’t someone you can talk to, though she’d be pretty if she’d take off some of that black make-up caked on her eyes.”

 

“Huh” she raises an eyebrow and nods in agreement.

 

“Krystal, is that her name? She looks like she’s got worse problems than you.”

 

“You think so?” As she looks over at the group of waiters huddled around the coffee machines.

 

“All these girls in here, boys too, they aren’t here because they’re working their way through school, or because they’re trying to make it as an actor, a model, network talk show host. This isn’t a stepping-stone. This is as close as they’ll ever get to home, and it’s a dead end. They’re here because they’ve been beaten, abused, raped, unloved. You can see it in their eyes. Hear it in their sad, desperate voices. They don’t joke and laugh. They don’t even have a car to sleep in.”

 

“Is that right? How do you know?”

 

“Don’t pretend like you don’t know. You’ve been coming here long enough by now. You know as well as I do. There are signs.”

 

“First, notice how thin they are. Look how their uniforms hang sloppily from their shapeless bodies. The trousers are too long and the cuffs are frayed. The skirts too are well worn. The stains—ketchup, syrup, grease—suggest they haven’t been washed in ages.”

 

“I wonder if they have to pay for all the grease they take home in their hair every night. The diner would probably save money if they found a way to harvest it.”

 

“Now there’s an idea. How many of them do you think are pulling tricks on the side?”

 

She looks into the eyes of this figure sitting across from her, now leaning over, elbows resting on the table, hands grasped as if in anticipation.

 

“There’s an easy way to find out.”

 

A smirk begins to spread across the face of the figure, however uninvited it may be, and the two of them direct their gaze back to the waiters.

 

Suddenly, an uneasy revelation comes to her mind. Sensing the vulnerability, the figure can’t help but exploit the situation.

 

“You’re a slob, and no one will have you. And why should they be forced to such an indecency. You don’t even love yourself. Most of the time you can’t even stand to be around yourself. You want to crawl outta your own skin, and a couple of times you’ve tried. Just can’t get it right though. That’s why you don’t go out in the day anymore. Can’t stand for people to see you, you know, with your ‘self-inflicted scars’.”

 

A murmur escapes her lips,

 

“Self-inflicted…”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t call them ‘scars’ though.”

 

“This again? With the minute details? I never took you for a squabbler. What else are you hiding from me?”

 

 

“Well, whatever you want to call it, it isn’t like you just imagined it, right?”

 

Her face is void of emotion, but the emerging glisten in her eye gives it all away and the figure realizes a nerve has been struck.

 

“What do they know? They don’t really understand what “self” means or they would realize how stupid it was to say that you meant to hurt your “self.” Had you been YOUR SELF, there wouldn’t have been any problem!”

 

She shifts around uncomfortably in her seat.

 

“And so really this is the only place you can go, right? The only place you can go and not feel judged is to this greasy spoon, full of broken hearts. Where you’re just one, one wave in a sea of unloved, sorry, broken people on their last leg. The one place you can go and leave that leech back at your dirty, dingy apartment. He can’t stand the fluorescent lighting, and he definitely can’t tolerate gluten. Oh, and best to mind the sugar and dairy too.”

 

“Oh, waitress, Blackberry cobbler, please,” defiantly she calls from her usual booth by the front window.

 

“Ice-cream?” Krystal grumbles from behind the counter.

 

“Don’t do it! He won’t be happy with you!”

 

“Yes, please. And, uh… Make it two scoops.  Will, ya?”

 

“That’ll be $2.00 extra,” Krystal yells.

 

Within minutes warm, sweet berries, flaky crust and cold vanilla ice cream fill her mouth.

 

“Divine…”

 

“Better enjoy it now. He’ll be so angry with you when you get home. You’ll never be able to hide that purple tongue. Go ahead. Try it. Spill your guts. Maybe it’ll help.”

 

She walks up to the counter. “Can I get the key?”

 

Krystal reaches across the counter and puts the key in her hand. Krystal grabs her hand for a moment though as she does, leans across the counter and says with a raw and piercing look in her eyes,

 

“Me too, Doll.” “Me too.”

 

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