I am driving the rental car, a little grey BMW with the top down, even though we're on the highway and the wind is practically drowning out my stereo, turned up all the way. Local radio is pretty good, I'm just outside the city. The city. I can't capitalize the C like one might in a city she really loves, the only City with a capital C for me is Manhattan. New York City. The City. This city, (lowercase c), is Washington DC. A stop over. But only briefly.
I'm supposed to find Hermes. I feel like I'm on a scavenger hunt quite suddenly. Atleast the prize will be well worth it. The high way is packed and I can see what mapquest detailed as a just under three hour trip is going to become four. Express lanes. What the fuck is an express lane? I learned to drive on the roads around our houses in the Hamptons. Small city roads, not this. The little BMW shakes in traffic, and I think if I stall I'm dead. Literally. The little sleek Ferrari next to me looks ready to drive right over me if it means getting somewhere. I'm in the outside lane, and there is an exit coming up. An exit with a diner. It's probably really a glorified Denny's but I'm not in a position, with my idling death trap shaking every time I hit the break. It takes fifteen minutes to move the quarter mile in the gridlock and the whole time I'm biting the skin off my lips and trying to keep my leg from shaking on the break pedal.
The sign at the end of the exit ramp tells me to turn left for the Silver Diner Inc. but it ends up being easy to find anyway. Stranded in the middle of the parking lot of a Sheraton Inn, it shines like a silver dollar fish in the Gulf of Mexico, like the tiffany tea sets I used to polish for my mother as a child, make-believing tea parties, like my first tiffany necklace, still draped around my neck. It's shaped like a tea kettle, if tea kettles had tall plate glass windows and red vinyl interior.
Inside there are barely any clients. A family of tourists, still looking tired, jetlagged maybe, at a few hours before noon, sit quietly picking apart buttery French toast and thick Belgian waffles. A man sits at the counter, or is he a boy? He has one of those ageless faces, bent over a spiral bound notebook, scribbling away words. A sign instructs me to seat myself, so I position myself next to table-top juke box at the counter. The chefs (or are they cooks at a place like this?) wear blue pinstriped pants and white short sleeved button downs under white aprons, their short hair topped off in white cooks hats, the waitresses dresses are the same blue pinstripe, their aprons only slightly more feminine.
The waitress behind the counter, smooth brown hair pulled into what we called a 'ballet bun' in dance class hands me a menu and welcomes me. What do I want to drink? Coffee. Espresso. God, I'd drink a red bull at this point. I order a chocolate coke. This is a diner after all, why not drink something unique. The man at the counter, two seats down, looks up and smiles at my order, before going back to his writing. I think of you. Of the little notebook I brought to write you letters, during this. I take it out to start one but before I can the waitress is back, what would I like to eat now? So many choices. What's good? The man (boy?) two seats down looks up and laughs
"Everything's good here, while Jenna's serving it." The waitress smiles at him, if begrudgingly, "But if you want the best?"
"Of course." I smile back now,
"Then it has to be a stack of chocolate chip pancakes."
"Alright." I agree, "I'll have a shortstack of chocolate chip pancakes." I tell the waitress, whose nametag I've now noticed does indeed read Jenna. Once she's back in the kitchen I open my notebook and date the first page. I feel like the whole time I drove I bottled up words for you, wrote you letter after letter in my mind, but now I can't find any of those so-beautiful soliloquies to jot down, and I cross out line after line.
"You a writer?" It's the man two seats down, I see now that he has very bright blue eyes, I still can't decide on his age. But it's a kind age, whatever it is, the kind ages are the ones when you most understand the world. Twenty-two, Thirty-eight, four. Those are all kind ages.
"No," I say, "Just writing a letter. Tourist."
"You're not a tourist." He tells me
"Why, no. Look at those eyes, not huge and round with the shock of a new place, you look shaken, but not awed. You're not a tourist. You're just new." At that we both kind of chuckle, if a girl my size is able to really chuckle that is.
"What's his name?" He asks,
"What's hers?" I point to his notebook,
"Observant." He laughs, "How old are you?"
"Twenty." The number seems so small, "And you?"
"Twenty-three. Just turned."
"Happy Birthday," he laughs, my pancakes arrive, and I see a look between he and Jenna. Affection, thinly veiled.
"Writing a letter to someone in the room?" I ask, before my first bite. Delicious. Empty calories have never tasted so good, and no food has ever numbed me edged nerves so well.
"Writing our goodbye letter."
"Oh?" I ask, Jenna's bringing me another chocolate coke. I watch her pour the syrup in slowly, stirring it, gooey thick, before bringing it to my seat,
"Allen here's been excepted to Brown, their English department."
"Congratulations." I have friends at Brown. Hard school.
"We leave tomorrow morning." Jenna explains,
"Running away." Allen laughs, "Don't need these lives anymore, go find ourselves better skins, better homes." I nod, "Hey." He says, "You look like you're looking for a new life. Care to trade? How does waitressing sound to you? Or working at a gas station?" His smile isn't incriminating, he's being genuine. I laugh,
"My life's not close enough to Brown for you." I tell him. Jenna goes back to work,
"I started writing when I was eight." He tells me, "My father got me an old typewriter for my birthday, even though they were defunct by then. But I couldn't get enough of it. The sound of the keys clacking was music, the clishhhh-release of moving down a line, the X's through the wrong letters, mistyped, it seemed like a foreign language to me, but one I understood, you know?" I don't.
"Then I met Jenna," He tells me, "Working here like she's not better than this. That's when I knew I had to get out of Fairfax, away from DC. Better life, and all those clichés. I started my book." He leaned in close to me, the seat between us below him, "I won't let her read it. Not until it's published. If she knew it was about her, she'd leave me."
"Bad things?" I ask
"On the contrary," he laughs, "Only the best. She'd say my dream her was too good for her. She wouldn't see that this is just how I see her. So perfectly." His smile is open. This is a man inlove, I think. And all those other clichés.
I eat my pancakes slowly, then lean over my notebook awhile, pretending to write you beautiful ruminations on how hard this is, but really all I can do is watch them. Everything they do, everything they say, whether its to one another, the other works, clients, or me (I've begun to think of myself as separate from the tourists), seems to be coded, directed, in a way our human minds, observing them can't quite understand, towards each other. They rarely speak right to each other beyond "Thank you darlin'" for coffee or "a slice of pie, maybe?" every so often. It's like watching dancers, or reading someone's love letters when they don't know you are, a vicarious rush.
"What do you want to hear, miss-new?" Allen asks, leaning in again, interrupting my observation of him,
"Hmm?" I asked, He shows me a nickel,
"That juke box still plays songs for a nickel my dear." He says, "Pick one out for me; I've heard them all a thousand times." I pushed the next button, him watching over my shoulder, aware my choice would determine what he thought of me. Elvis, no, no, I've always disliked the 'King,' such a pompous title. Ah, perfect. Perfect.
"G6." I tell him, and he reaches over me and drops the quarter in. I punch the letter and the number into the little machine. The diner seems abandoned, our first tourists our long gone, and now several other shifts have come and gone and it's the deadest part of the afternoon. The music fills the room jovially,
Some day, when I'm awfully low, Yes you're lovely, with your smile so warm
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you...
And the way you look tonight.
And your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you,
And the way you look tonight.
Yes you're lovely, with your smile so warm
Allen reaches around me and sets something down before turning to Jenna, wiping down a table and holding out his hand, "Dance with me?" He asks her. I pick up the silver dollar he dropped on the counter, left my money, and walked out. It was time to set off down the coast.