She always comes around 12am.
The diner empties around this hour, with only truckers, depressed people and poets remaining. Come to think of it, the last two categories blend in together most of the time. The night shift is so peaceful; people are sitting, drinking coffee, eating pie, or reading. Stacy and Rachel hate it. Our boss was hyped when he found out I have no problem with it; he even pays me a little extra. Stacy and Rachel aren’t supposed to know this. At night, it’s always me and one of the cooks. Tonight, it’s Antoine. He moved here from a little town in France with a ‘bag full of dreams’, to quote him. He speaks better English than anyone I know, but because he has an accent people mock him and treat him like he’s stupid. Not me though—I like the company of outcasts. Maybe because I am one. Having any kind of relationships with people was the hardest thing I had to do in my entire existence. I am not a sociopath though—I got myself tested.
I fixed my apron and redone my ponytail 10 times in the past 10 minutes. It’s almost 12am. Antoine’s piercing eyes scan me from the round kitchen window, but he doesn’t say anything. He never does. The scratched front door creaks open. My heart sends throbbing waves from my chest all the way to my throat. There she is: thick eyeliner, dirty blonde hair, leather black jacket. She sits in her usual spot, by the window that overlooks the parking lot. It has rained; the asphalt sends lingering reflections from the street lights, like falling stars dragging themselves across the sky. My shoes screech on the floor as I go to take her order. I already know what she wants, but I never miss a chance to speak with her. She will order a coffee: black. Come to think of it, maybe she thinks I’m an idiot that I keep asking her again and again what she wants when she has never changed her order—not even once. I will answer with ‘Coming right up!’, trying not to sound too excited, but not too bored either. After that, she will stay there for one hour, sometimes two, staring out the window, sipping the coffee like a little birdie.
“What can I get ya’?” I ask, spreading a smile all over my face to show my teeth that took 5 years of wearing braces to be this straight.
“A coffee, please.” Her voice is deep, reminding me of a bass guitar.
“Coming right up!”
Just as I turned around, my legs froze in place:
“Pretty cold outside, huh?” she asks, her eyes fixated on the window that reflects the diner’s yellow lights.
“It’s beautiful.” I say without thinking.
For the first time, she turns her gaze to me. I always thought her eyes were a light brown, but now I realize they are green.
“I don’t find it beautiful at all. Quite the contrary.”
“Well, what do you find beautiful then?” I say while grinning like an idiot.
She stares out the window for a couple of seconds before answering.
“A hot summer day in the city. The sidewalk sending heat waves upwards, the buildings and cars smothering me, sweaty pedestrians who try their best not to bump into me.”
I chuckle as she continues:
“These types of days are for lonely people.”
I glance around the diner as if everything starts vibrating with sounds and colors—the static is so alive.
“Yet, here you are.” I answer, to which she stares back at me.
“Loneliness is not always a choice.”
Well, sometimes it is; people only reinforce my loneliness. The worst thing in the world is to feel lonely among others. But, how can one person experience the whole spectrum of negative human emotions as to come to this conclusion? Think of the dimensions: what worse sensation other than to be stuck in the one dimension with a functioning consciousness? That’s what I think loneliness is.
“Your name,” she continues looking at my name tag, “Annie. It’s the most boring name I have ever heard. But you give it life.”
I stare at her as if she grew an extra pair of eyes.
“I look at you every night I come here. You’re always smiling. I kept asking myself: how can a girl working in a shitty diner always be smiling? At first, I thought you were stupid. But now, I know you’re not.”
“Let me get you your coffee!”
I break her stare and turn around. Antoine is dipping a batch of fries in oil, his voice covering the hissing sound through the crack of the door:
“Huh?” I frown at him while filling the white cup with steaming coffee.
“I mean, not literally.” He adds.
When I turn towards her table, I realize she’s gone. The first time she has spoken to me and she’s gone. Ugh, whatever. I unconsciously take a sip of the coffee in my hand only to burn my tongue.
As I wash the mug in the sink behind the bar, the overflowing trash hits my nose with a sour smell. I cringe while stuffing it deeper inside and pulling the trash bag out. Behind the diner, the pine trees shine in the damp air. Their pointy crowns rise all the way to the sky—a dark stretch of nothingness.
“I’m sorry you stopped smiling because of me.”
Her voice makes me wince.
“I just have that effect on people… I should’ve never spoken to you.”
She’s standing in front of a motorcycle at the entrance in the forest.
“It’s not you… you were just wrong about me. The fact that I appear to be happy is only a compensation for the fact that I’m not.”
Her piercing eyes stare into mine, her heels sending echoes as she is approaching me. Her face is so close to mine that I can feel the energy waves of another breathing and living human.
“Annie.” She says my name slowly. “Who are you, Annie?”
“I’m just a waitress.” I’m intimidated by her but I’m not breaking the gaze.
“No one is ‘just’ anything.”
“But then, not everybody can be ‘somebody’. Some people need to be ‘just’ someone.”
“Would you like to come with me?” she asks, taking me by surprise.
“Where?” I chuckle.
“I can’t just leave.”
“Ah, there’s that ‘just’ again.”
We stare into each other’s eyes for what feels like a small eternity. She’s the first to break the gaze by turning around and going towards her motorbike.
“Remember that you have free will and you can do whatever you want. After all,” she straddles the vehicle before continuing, “your choices are what got you to this point.”
She didn’t return the next night, nor the night after that. Almost half a year has passed, and I began to think I imagined everything. I didn’t like the night shifts after that; it’s like someone has ripped the glasses off my face for me only to see the ugly reality: the loneliness, the darkness, the sleepless nights, the sad people. It was no longer a joy for me to work during the night shift. I began to not like the idea of being an isolated island anymore. It’s like a part of me felt betrayed when I didn’t go with her that night. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. That’s a worse feeling than loneliness; it was like I was living with an internal saboteur.
There was a summer night in June, when Stacy couldn’t do her night shift because her kid broke his arm. I dragged my feet to work, ready to quit the next day and just move on with my life. Antoine’s eyes were spying on me as usual, and I was cursing a bunch of truck drivers who left a huge mess behind them and no tip. Just as I was filling the tray with dirty plates and empty beer bottles, the door screeched open—slower than usual. I glanced at the clock above my head: 12am. I turned my head around only to see a familiar pair of green eyes looking straight at me.