I watched the downpour pound away at the old gas pumps through the window. They were already rusted from however many years they’ve stood there, barely covered by the awning hanging overhead. Must have been about seventy years by now. My chin resting on my palm, I sighed into the silence of Little Casanova Town Diner, just outside the town.
“Nice weather out there,” called a voice a few rotating stools away. I turned around to look at the young man with pretty, silver hair and a kind smile. A dark silver, almost like he was going gray despite looking twenty-four or five at most.
“I guess,” I said quietly. He raised a silver eyebrow at me like he was confused.
“I was being sarcastic,” he said.
“Oh.” I nodded quietly. I turned back to my little mug of tea that had gotten cold by then. How long had I been looking out the window for that to happen?
“I’m Nathan. What’s your name?”
“Heejin,” I responded.
“Heejin? That’s a weird name. Does it mean something?” I looked over at him again and noticed he had golden eyes.
“I don’t know. It’s just a name. It’s Korean.”
“Oh, I see.” He turned his gaze to the swinging door that led to the kitchen in the back of the diner as the only server and cook for that night came out with a light blue plate. He walked toward me gently set the plate down in front of me.
“Here’s your usual, Heejin.”
“Thank you, Jay.”
He picked up my mug of cold tea as he asked in his Louisianan accent, “want me to get you a fresh cup, darlin’?” I nodded. Jay turned and walked the few steps to swing door and passed through it. I noticed Nathan watching the exchange with curiosity.
“You know him?” I nodded in response to his question. “So are you like a regular here?”
“I come here every night after work.”
“Ah, I see,” Nathan said with a smile. Jay came back with a different mug with steam rolling into the air above it.
“Her you are,” He said jovially as he set the drink down in front of me. “Anythin’ else you need before I go back to slackin’ off,” he joked.
“Nope.” He returned to the kitchen with his friendly smile. I looked down at my grilled cheese sandwich and little bowl of tomato soup sitting on the plate. My stomach growled a little, barely audible over the rain.
“‘Feed me, Heejin,’” Nathan said in a high-pitched voice. I glanced his way. “Your stomach is yelling at you. You should probably listen to it.”
He turned back to his own plate of half-eaten food and cup of some type of pop. I picked up the first triangle of my sandwich and dipped it carefully into the red-filled bowl. My usual order always comforted me. After having come here night after night for a few months, Jay picked up on the routine I had and had gotten to know me a little in the few years that followed. We had very different backgrounds. He came from Louisiana up to this little midwestern Wisconsin town with his dad when he was young after his mom was killed in a hate crime. I was born in Korea and brought to the United States to this little midwestern Wisconsin town before I turned three. He grew up going to prestigious private schools that you have to take tests to get into. I went to run-down public schools. Now he works part-time in the Little Casanova Town's Diner just outside Casanova, Wisconsin to pay his online college tuitions that his dad agreed to help pay for half of, and I come in to see him every night after my shift at the factory, ordering the same thing and meeting different people that come in from time to time.
I polished off my sandwich and began to eat (drink?) the rest of my soup, adding the occasional bland saltine cracker to spice it up. I remembered the pretty man with the silver hair and turned my head to find those golden eyes again. Nathan had moved to the seat next to me in the time I was focused on eating my meal. He didn’t look at me when I turned, just casually kept eating his burger. Having no conversation to bring up, I went back to quietly finishing my soup and tea. Nathan had a strangely comforting presence, so I didn’t mind the sudden closeness. And I liked the silence. People always have this annoying need to fill quiet moments with conversation like they’re anxious from them. Sitting with someone in silence is an underappreciated experience. After another ten minutes passed, the silence was broken.
“You enjoy the quiet too?” We turned to look at each other, almost in unison.
“Yeah, I do,” Nathan responded. “I like it when it’s quiet. Especially on days like this when you can hear every drop of rain.” He pointed at the window I was focused on earlier. “It’s nice, you know?” I nodded.
“Underappreciated,” I said.
“Exactly! Nobody recognizes the value of a good silence these days.”
“You say that like you’re a cranky old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn every day.” Nathan hunched his back made an angry face.
“Well, these damn hooligans these days, always being all loud,” he said in a mock-elderly voice, “no appreciation for the days when we sat around playing with sticks in the yard.” We laughed at his old-timer jokes for a little while. Eventually, he returned to his normal voice and raised his hand toward my head. He gently patted the top of my head.
“What’s that for?”
“You just seemed like you needed a good pat on the head.” I blinked at him for a moment.
“You’re odd, Nathan.” He nodded at me with a big grin.
“Life’s no fun when you aren’t.”
Suddenly, the swing door opened, and Jay walked out, heading towards me. He reached out and took my empty plate and mug. He turned around to set them on the back counter and opened a glass cloche on a cake stand. He placed a slice of Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie on a small black plate and passed it to me along with a small metal fork. He placed his hands on the counter and looked at me with his usual kind smile.
“Finishin’ touch of the night,” he said. I picked up the fork and sliced into the tip of the pie.
“Is he real, Jay?” Jay looked down the counter through the small, empty diner before turning back to me.
“Not this one, Heejin.” I nodded sadly and took a small bite. “What was this one’s name?”
“Nathan,” I said.
“An’ only one this time?”
“Yeah. No other voices, either. Just him.”
“Was he a nice one, at least?” I nodded and continued to chip away at my little slice. Jay patted my head gently like he always did by this time. “They’ll stop soon, darlin’. Them voices gotta go away sometime.” We smiled at the optimistic statement, and I spent the rest of my night like I always did: sitting in the old gas station-turned Little Casanova Town Diner just outside of a little midwestern town in Wisconsin, talking to my best friend who always gave me comfort when my schizophrenia was at its worst.