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The Starlight Diner Short Story Collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Starlight Diner Short Story Collection by Helen Cox

 

Copyright © Helen Cox.

Cover image by Dan Evans idrawforfood.co.uk

ISBN: 9781310643781

 

First published in 2016.

Published in the United Kingdom.

 

Enclosed stories:

Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner

Off-Stage at the Starlight Diner

Three’s a Crowd at the Starlight Diner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praise for Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner

 

[
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The full length novel:] [+ Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner+] is now available to order in all ebook formats.

[A FEW WORDS OF INTRODUCTION
**]

Thank you for downloading the free Starlight Diner short story box set. I’ve been overwhelmed by the support from my readership since releasing the first short story in April 2016. If you enjoy these stories, please consider supporting my writing by writing a review, sharing it with your friends on [* Facebook*] and Twitter or by ordering my first novel Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner.

 

More information about me, Helen Cox, and my upcoming novels is available on my author blog, through my author [* Facebook Page*] and through the Starlight Diner Twitter feed.

 

I sincerely hope you enjoy these short stories I’ve written which serve to introduce you to the world of the Starlight Diner.

 

 

Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner

 

[NOVEMBER
**]

I was at the 14th Street Restaurant when I heard. Gazing into Bernie Castillo’s brown eyes and weighing up whether or not I’d let him kiss me.

He’d combed his hair into a pompadour. Anything he did to imitate Elvis only boosted his

chances of making out with me on the walk home, and he knew it.

I didn’t mind him kissing me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it. Sometimes, perhaps four

seconds out of ten, kissing Bernie could make me forget myself. And back then, that was all I was interested in.

It’s incredible, the details you remember, about days like that day. A kid sitting in the

corner, feeding a fork-full of blueberry pie to a stray dog that’d wandered in; the occasional snap from a red-haired girl, sitting up at the counter, blowing pink bubbles with her gum, and the deep orange of Bernie’s cardigan, blazing against the backdrop of the rundown restaurant. It’d opened in the thirties and hadn’t had so much as a lick of paint since then. The dark green leather of the booths was torn in places, baring sickly, yellow-sponge innards. I’d watched Peggy, a girl from my school days who waitressed at the restaurant, mopping the black and white tiles more times than I could count. But to look at them, you wouldn’t think it. There was no sparkle there. No shine.

Still, it was the best place in Little Spain for milkshakes. And so, it’s where Bernie

always took me.

‘I tell ya, one day I’m gonna have a place just like this one. People always gotta

eat.’ The skin just above Bernie’s nose crinkled as it always did when he spoke from the heart.

‘Lose the gristle in the burgers and the broken ceiling fans, and you could really have

something.’ I teased. He was forever talking about going into business, every day promising himself he’d quit his job at the gas station on 8th Avenue. But his widowed mami was still washing oil out of his overalls, and right then I had no reason to suspect that would change.

‘You could waitress.’ He grinned, before taking a sip of his milkshake.

‘Oh, great. A waitress. That’s real neat for a straight A student. Thanks a lot.’

‘Beats selling over-priced clothes to snobs the rest of your life.’ said Bernie.

‘Does it?’ I smirked. But he knew I’d even take waitressing over my position in the

clothing department at Lord and Taylor. The other girls who worked there loved being around the luxurious fabrics and flirting with the men buying new dresses for their wives or mistresses – whoever was sore at them that week.

But I didn’t think like the other girls.

That, I’d known all my life.

Bernie, noticing my smirk sagging at the edges, reached his hand over and ran his

fingers through my hair. It was long and dark, swept into a side pony tail and tied with a ribbon of royal blue.

‘Rita…’ he started but never got to finish.

Because right then, a cry sounded out.

Bernie’s eyes darted towards the counter. I turned and saw Peggy, tears streaming

from her eyes. Her blonde curls bouncing as she shook her head, left to right and back again. She brought both hands to her mouth; squeezed her eyes shut.

There was nothing so unusual about Peggy crying. Once in the school hallway, I’d

seen her cry over a chip in her French pink nail polish. As though anyone gave a damn about manicures when the Russians were plotting to drop a bomb on us. Or so we were told.

But somehow, I knew Peggy’s tears were about more than nail polish or whichever

jock buffoon had broken her heart that week. Her sobs were like a child’s, one who has lost its Mami or Papi and believes itself alone.

I don’t know who said the words but when they were spoken every soul in the place heard,

as the restaurant had already hushed at Peggy’s hollering.

‘The President’s been shot.’

‘Kennedy’s dead, oh God.’

A wave of questions from all but me:

‘Who did it?’

‘Is he really dead? I can’t believe it.’

‘Why would somebody do a thing like that?’

‘Did it happen in Texas? Who’s the shooter?’

No answers.

Just desperate, desperate questions.

The Twist by Chubby Checker played on the juke box. I remember because the

song seemed to get louder. Impossible, of course. Why would anybody go to the trouble of turning up a juke box just then? But it seemed someone had. Even the vanilla in my milkshake tasted real strong all of a sudden. To this day, vanilla turns my stomach.

The questions dried up. Tears flowed. Even some of the guys started sobbing. But not

me. I hadn’t cried in as long as I could remember and not even a dead president could change that.

Staring over at Bernie, I noticed his eyes had glazed over.

‘We gotta get outta here,’ he said, his voice low, almost rusty, like it was a strain

to speak. ‘Gotta get to a TV lickety-split. See what the hell’s happened.’ He slapped three dollar bills down on the table, dropped his grey trilby down on his head, grabbed my hand and yanked me out of my seat. I had only a second to snatch up my crimson swing coat, which trailed behind me as we scurried out into the November chill.

In silence, we walked back towards my parent’s apartment. Outside, people who’d

heard wept in the streets, crying without even having to try for it.

Lucky bastards.

Others were quiet. They stood stock still, staring either at the ground or at the sky,

anywhere but at each other.

I don’t know why. I never knew why. But in the saddest version of my voice I’d ever

heard, I started to half-sing the chorus to The Twist. I sang, while everyone else was blubbering.

‘Rita.’ Bernie turned me to face him, square on. He took hold of both my shoulders.

Shook hard. ‘Don’t start with that right now, Goddamnit. You can’t do that right now. Not now…’ Glaring deep into my dry, green eyes, the tears in his finally broke their seal. He pulled my body close. Wrapped his arms around me. Cried. And for the first time in a long time, I wished for something.

Breathing in Bernie’s cologne, which had strong notes of cedarwood, I peered over

his shoulder into a nearby shop window. My eyes fixated on a mannequin.

Flawless, poised, and vacant.

What I’d have given to be that blank slate of a woman. To stand so still, so oblivious.

To never question this world I was born into. A matter nobody took the trouble to consult me on. Wouldn’t that be at least polite? For somebody to ask if you wanted to be born.

They could hold a short meeting about it, conducted by one of those men in dark suits I

see scuttling down Wall Street. They no doubt believe themselves important enough to deputise for God.

Just a few, simple questions:

‘Want to be born into a world where your role is already decided? There’s death and

war and oppression but we’ll throw in a nice dress or two. And a pair of shoes that’ll crush your toes and make the soles of your feet burn. A special perk for you women.’

They’d tell me my place. The home. The kitchen.

They’d tell me when people die, you cry. And if a boy looks your way, you smile.

And so long as you never think, you’ll do just fine.

‘Would you like a place in this world, Miss Rita?’

‘Thankyou. But no.’

 

DECEMBER

 

‘You’re looking very well, Rita.’ Dr Goldwyn peered at me over his gold rimmed glasses

as I breezed through the door of his consultation room. I smiled my red lipstick smile.

Idiota.

Really? That’s all it took? A smear of lipstick and a dash of mascara. You’d think a

shrink’d be smarter than that. But for all his qualifications, when it came to women, Dr Goldwyn saw what he wanted to see. That’s why I was wearing a yellow sun dress in December. Every other session I’d worn navy, but that day I had to wear something bright to blind him from the truth.

‘Take a seat. Are you feeling any better?’ He rubbed his bristly, brown beard before

reaching over to an octagonal coffee table for his notebook. There, week on week, he’d scribbled his diagnosis on who I was. His fountain pen scratched across the page, his head surrounded by framed certificates hanging on the back wall. Mementos glorifying his professional prowess, designed to remind his patients he was licensed to pass judgement on them.

‘Yes, much better.’ I lied, taking my place on his maroon leather couch. It was battered

and lumpy, but only an imbecile would be comfortable in the company of a shrink anyhow. ‘The burns still hurt, of course.’ I looked down at the red-brown blotches across my

hands and forearms, trying to find some meaning in them. A self-inflicted Rorschach test.

‘How’s your father?’ asked Goldwyn.

‘Papi’s good.’ I nodded.

Papi was despairing. He was a doctor. Doctors like to fix things but he couldn’t fix

his own daughter, and it was breaking his heart.

‘Well, we have to go though some questions, as usual. But you seem brighter. I’m

confident we’ll wrap this up before Christmas.’ He chuckled at his pun. I took the cue to be normal and twittered.

‘Oh, that’s pretty funny Dr Goldwyn.’ I switched my smile up to high beam.

Goldwyn adjusted the green tie he was wearing, the one token nod to colour in his

otherwise grey ensemble. He straightened his glasses. The faintest blush surfaced just behind his ears. If I’d figured out quicker he was that susceptible to flattery, I could’ve had my therapy ‘wrapped up’ by the end of session one.

‘OK, first up, the difficult one.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Have you given any more

thought as to why you did it, Rita?’ Goldwyn had heard three different answers to this question already.

‘I wanted to feel something, anything.’

‘I thought I could smoke out the tears.’

‘I was hurting and I wanted people to know that, even if they couldn’t see it.’

Not one of my darkest truths had satisfied Goldwyn.

Finally though, I’d figured out the correct answer to The $64,000 Question. The

question of why, the night Kennedy got shot, I’d gone home and pressed my hands down on a lit stove while Mami and Papi stood in the living room, serving sherry to the Castillos.

‘I was sad about the president,’ I looked deep into Goldwyn’s pale blue eyes as I

spoke. ‘Dr Goldwyn, what happened to the president was unbearable. I got so sad, I didn’t know what I was doing when I put my hands on the gas ring.’

Goldwyn nodded and scribbled faster than usual, perhaps inspired by the fact I was, at last,

speaking a language he understood.

‘Have you taken the pills I prescribed?’

‘Yes.’ No.

‘Do you think they’ve helped you feel less sad?’

‘Yes, very much.’ Ask the gutter outside my bedroom window if it’s feeling less sad.

That’s what’s been swallowing those repellent orange capsules.

‘Do you still think about dying?’

‘Not at all.’ Sometimes.

‘And what do you plan to do now? Your mother told me you’re… reluctant to marry.

You don’t want to work as a sales clerk all your life, do you Rita?’ At this, Goldwyn raised an eyebrow.

Ridículo.

Of all my behaviour, the most unsettling to anyone was a hesitation in becoming a

man’s life-long nursemaid.

‘Mami exaggerates.’ I smiled again. ‘Dr Goldwyn, you can understand why a twenty

one year-old woman might not want to discuss every last romantic detail with her mother, can’t you?’

‘Oh… well, yes.’ Dr Goldwyn lowered his eyebrow, relaxing the muscles that’d been

creasing his forehead. ‘So, you do want to marry?’

‘Yes.’

No, not really. Who would choose this anyway? Who would want me, forever?

Goldwyn leant over and scribbled something else in his notebook. He looked up at me

one last time, as though double-checking the figuring on some difficult math formula written across my face. Lowering his eyes, he stabbed the page with a full stop.

‘Well, seems to me you’re on the mend. If not, fully recovered.’

‘I am?’ ¡Santo Dios. Thank heaven Papi was getting the friends and family rate for

this crock.

‘Rita, the president’s death affected a lot of people. You were just one of them. The

burn marks, they may never completely go away but they will feel better. Over time. Keep taking the pills and I’m sure this will all feel like a distant memory, very soon.’

I nodded. Breathed deep, trying to loosen the clench in my chest.

Perhaps I should confess that this wasn’t over. That it could not be.

But no.

I looked again into those pale, steady eyes. Goldwyn wasn’t that stupid. He just

wanted me to fool him well enough that he could write me out a clean bill of health with a clear conscience. He didn’t want to know the truth. Not really.

‘Thank you for all your help Dr Goldwyn.’ I stood and looked down on him. He rose

from his seat. Slow, stiff, almost cautious. Did he know I’d figured him out?

‘I’ll tell your father we’re all good here.’

‘Yes.’ Smiling was harder this time, but I forced it. ‘Papi will be so pleased.’

Goldwyn issued one final, clinical nod. I pulled on my coat and stepped out into the waiting room, closing the door behind me.

Bernie sat, as I had left him not fifteen minutes earlier, engrossed in a copy of Woman

and Home magazine. I snatched it out of his hands, smirking when I saw he’d been examining an advertisement for women’s hosiery closer than was proper.

He frowned, but knew better than to question my swift reappearance in front of Janie,

Goldwyn’s secretary. She acted nice enough but she wore too much blush on her cheeks. I’d take any excuse not to trust someone. In Janie’s case her resemblance to a circus clown was the only justification I needed.

Out on Bleecker Street, Bernie dropped his trilby back on his head. He leaned into

me, dipping so I could link my arm through his. I snuggled close, trying to ignore the stink of raw meat drifting out of Ottomanelli’s butcher shop.

‘So, what the doc say?’ said Bernie, when I didn’t volunteer any information.

‘I’m cured,’ I said, raising both eyebrows.

‘Jeez, what a crock.’ Bernie shook his head. ‘Tell ’em you were sad about the

president?’

‘Yes.’ I stopped walking. Looked up at Bernie, into those eyes flecked with gold. ‘I

am sad about the president, Bernie. Honest I am. But it’s not the reason I -’

‘I know.’ There was a warmth to Bernie’s eyes. They glowed like embers.

‘There’s something else. Something darker inside and I don’t think it’s going to go

away. There’s oInly two things that’ve ever made it stop. Putting my hands on the gas ring, and kissing you.’

‘Well, if you’re going to get all romantic on me…’ Bernie tilted his head forward so it

pushed against mine, and he brushed a stray hair away from my face.

‘Sorry, but you’re the only one I can be honest with. The only one who hears me.’

‘Well that’s something, ain’t it?’ he said, his lips starting a slow migration towards

mine.

‘Bernie,’ I whispered, right before our mouths met.

And for six seconds out of the next ten, I forgot myself.

 

JANUARY

 

‘Where are we?’ I said, Bernie’s big hands shielded my eyes. We were somewhere

on East Houston. I knew that much. He’d covered my eyes when we hit the street corner and we hadn’t made any turns since. We’d stopped walking, clearly at our destination, but I’d no idea how far along the street we were or which building we were stood next to.

‘No peeking,’ Bernie’s voice was firm at first but it soon lapsed into a chuckle.

‘I’m not peeking.’ I said, wondering whether I could get away with it if I did. He

rattled some keys in a lock with one hand, blocked my vision with the other.

‘Alright. Take three strides forward.’ Intrigued, I for once did as I was told. The

chemical scent of fresh paint hit me as I stepped over the threshold. The flick of a light switch sounded out and my heels clicked on the hard floor of wherever Bernie had stolen me off to. He took his hand away. Somewhere behind me, a door closed. Footsteps. Shuffling.

‘Can I open my eyes yet?’

‘Inna minute,’ came a mock-agitated response, followed by the crackle of a

record about to begin; a familiar violin riff and the unmistakable croon of Nat King Cole.

‘Bernie…?’ I frowned. Eyes still shut. Nat King Cole’s voice meandered on to the

melody of Unforgettable.

‘Alright.’ Bernie said. ‘Now.’

I blinked. My eyes widened; my mouth hung open. We were in the smartest looking

restaurant I’d ever seen. It was brand new. Gleaming. To my right, stretched a long, silver counter, a shimmering pathway to a set of white swing doors, which I assumed led to the kitchen. To my left, stood neat rows of red leather booths that matched the polished red and white kitchen tiles, and the walls. Adverts for sodas and ice-cream floats were dotted all about and in the corner, next to where Bernie stood in his red sweater and a pair of navy chinos, was a Wurlitzer juke box, its orange lights illuminating the scene.

‘Bernie, what is this place?’

‘This is my place.’ Bernie smiled.

‘Your place? Since when?’

‘Since late December. Hoped to have her done for Christmas but, there was too

much work. Been fixing her up. Wanted to surprise you.’ He started walking back toward me but stopped a few paces away.

‘Well, you sure did that.’ I shook my head, my eyes still darting all around, taking in

the mustard stools lined up at the counter and the milkshake glasses upturned and sparkling on the shelf above the coffee machine. An empty refrigerator hummed, but, just by looking at it, a mirage formed inside of cheesecakes and pies stacked high. A till sat at the end of the counter and a menu was propped next to it. Stepping over in my jade court shoes, I picked it up and read: The Starlight Diner. Where the fifties are always in full swing.

Skimming down the listings for hotdogs, hamburgers, pancakes, waffles, omelettes

and grilled sandwiches, I smirked at a sentence printed at the bottom of the page.

‘We serve the tastiest milkshakes in the five boroughs?’ I read aloud. ‘Says who?’

‘Hey, if you can’t prove something you can’t disprove it neither.’ Bernie argued.

‘And I take it there’ll be no shrunken lettuce and soft tomatoes like in the sandwiches

they serve on 14th Street?’

‘Nope.’ He grinned.

‘But Bernie, where’d you get the money for a place like this?’

‘Been savin’. Finally scraped enough together for the bank to take me seriously and

loan me the rest.’

‘I can’t believe it.’ I turned back to face him. ‘You really did it. I thought it was all

just talk to impress me.’

‘I know you did. Maybe it was in the beginning.’ Bernie nodded. ‘But I’ve had long-

term plans for us, for a while now.’

‘What do you mean, long-term?’ I looked at him side-on.

‘First you gotta tell me, do you like this place?’ He took a step closer. His expression

solemn, even more serious than when the Dodgers had out-batted the Yankees in the World Series that year.

‘Sure, what’s not to like? It’s everything you said it’d be. More.’

Bernie looked at his loafers and then those golden eyes of his began a slow saunter

across the lino to my shoes, up my stockinged legs, following the lines of my black satin skirt and my green, cashmere sweater until they, at last, found my face.

‘I was hoping you’d say that,’ he said.

‘What do you…’ but I didn’t finish my sentence. Instead, my pupils dilated even

wider than before, as Bernie knelt on one knee.

I held my breath.

Pursed my lips.

Looking up at me, he pulled a small, black box out of his trouser pocket and opened

it, revealing a silver ring with a square cut sapphire set dead in the centre.

‘Bernie…’

‘Rita, I know you say you don’t wanna get married but I’ve thought about it a lot and

I’m asking you anyway. Because we know each other, don’t we? We don’t have to pretend. I’d never make you pretend like those other guys. You can be happy or sad, and I’ll still love you.’ There was the crinkle, just above his nose. I started to think about kissing him. Right there. In the place on his face where his heart showed. ‘You must know I love you, have done since I set eyes on you in Mr Kozik’s class. You tell me you think you’re crazy. Maybe you are, I ain’t a doctor. But from where I’m standing, the whole damn world’s crazy. The whole world, and that ain’t going to change tomorrow. Or next week. But by my reckoning, if we stick together, we can make it. Hey, are you crying?’

‘Yes,’ I smiled through my tears, remembering in an instant what it felt like to weep

and wondering why I’d ever missed it. ‘

Bernie got back on his feet. Stared down at me.

‘So, the thought of marrying me finally sets you off. Neat. I shoulda proposed a long

time ago. Saved your Papi all that money he spent on Goldwyn.’

‘Idiota, they’re happy tears.’ I half-laughed and put a hand to his right cheek. Traced

my fingertips along his jawline.

‘They are?’

‘Yes. Wouldn’t you be happy if someone wanted to marry you even though you were

cuckoo, and they knew it?’

‘Depends who was doing the askin’’ Bernie ventured a smirk.

I laughed through more tears. Grabbing several napkins from a nearby stack, I did

what I could to clean up my face.

‘Wait, does this mean you’re actually gonna marry me?’ Bernie asked.

Gazing up at him, his brow heavy once more with a frown, I reached up and wrapped

my arms around his neck. ‘You have to understand, I don’t know if I’ll ever be fixed.’

‘I know that.’ His frown deepened. ‘You’re a risky proposition, I get it.’

‘And you still want me for a wife?’

‘No, the ring’s just a joke. I pumped gas for three years and finally here’s the

punchline.’ I pressed my lips together, fighting a smile. Of everyone in Little Spain, nobody

knew me like Bernie. Not even Mami and Papi. I’d never lied to him. Not once since he’d first, at his mami’s insistence, carried my books to school in the 9th Grade. I’d never had to fake anything with him, and I loved him for that. He knew who I was, as far as anyone could, and still wanted me. What more could I ask of anyone?

I took a deep breath.

‘Well, that’s a shame you were only kidding. If you’d have been on the level, I was

going to say yes.’

‘Yes? Yes?’ Bernie’s voice got louder. He grabbed my shoulders.

‘Yes,’ I laughed.

Bernie pressed his hands in on either side of my waist, lifted, and swung me round.

My black skirt swirled as he did so. Holding me above his head for a moment, he lowered my body just enough to start kissing me. Slowly, I slipped until my feet were back on the ground. I pushed my lips hard against his, so he knew I really meant it. So there was no room for doubt.

And for eight seconds out of the next ten, I forgot myself.

 

 

 

Off Stage at the Starlight Diner

ON BROADWAY[
**]JUNE 1977

The moment that thick, velvet curtain dropped to the ground, so did I. Kneeling on the polished stage, I tried to settle the brawl in the pit of my stomach while a half-hearted applause thudded in my ears.

‘Mona, you alright?’ Scott, who’d had his hand in mine when the curtain fell after a rocky

performance of West Side Story, rubbed my back with the hand he had spare.

‘I’m fine,’ I lied. ‘Just feel a bit funny.’

‘Hey, we need water over here. Can somebody get some water and a chair? Hello?

Sometime this century would be just swell.’ He barked at one of the chorus actors, who’d watched me double over without even flinching.

Squeezing Scott’s hand tighter, I winced and looked into his eyes, which were the

deepest blue you’d ever see. He’d taken his role of Tony to my Maria way too serious ever since rehearsals began six weeks before at the Theatre Royale on Broadway. It was my first time working in a show where people actually paid for a ticket and he’d made it his business to watch out for me. One night, he’d even threatened one of the white cast members for saying things he oughtn’t about the young, black girl who ‘had curves in all the places you wanted her to.’

My husband Alan had been jealous of all this in the beginning, before he realised my

leading man was looking for a leading man of his own.

‘Alan – he was supposed to be waitin’ in the wings,’ I said.

‘Well, don’t just stand there, go get him, quick,’ Scott said to Nadia, who’d played

Anita, her on-stage best friend duties bleeding into real life as she dashed off into the blackness.

‘Just breathe,’ Scott said, helping me up into a wooden chair.

I did as he said, but still my stomach churned.

‘What’s goin’ on jelly bean?’ Alan’s voice filtered through the small bunch of actors – he

was the latest guest in the worst kind of after show party. ‘You had a little too much excitement this evenin’?’ I tried to smile but my muscles wouldn’t work that way so I gazed into his eyes instead. There was always a steadiness to be found in them, no matter what was going on. ‘What happened?’ Alan asked Scott.

‘Not sure. Knew something wasn’t right at the beginning of the show but I thought you

were just nervous.’ He looked at me and then stood up, frowning across at Alan.

‘What is it now? Why’s everybody stood here?’ I heard Anthony, the director, screeching

from off stage. He was always heard before he was seen and had the unique ability to put the whole cast on edge within the space of a sentence.

‘Oh Lord,’ I sighed.

Even in the state I was in, I could hear him huffing and shoving people out of the way, and

then he appeared pasty-faced as ever. His red-hair slicked back, with gel or natural grease I never could tell. Standing by his side was my understudy, Rosa. She was all long legs and luscious brown locks, and bitter as hell that I’d got the leading role and she hadn’t.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Anthony’s eyes tightened into suspicious slits.

‘Don’t know. Just feel real sick all of a sudden. Maybe it’s the heat off of the stage lights

gettin’ to me or somethin’.’

It wasn’t the stage lights. Something was up. I’d known that for weeks, but it was easier to

pretend I was coming down with something passed on from my baby brother, Clifford than it was to find out the truth. This was my shot on Broadway. Whatever the bother was, it’d have to be life-threatening before I let it slow me down.

‘If Mona can’t deal with the stage lights, maybe it’s best I take over,’ said Rosa, rubbing

Anthony’s shoulder, ruffling the satin on his yellow shirt patterned with daisies that he either had a dozen of or never washed.

‘We’re not there yet, Rosa,’ Anthony said, still staring down at me.

‘But, she’s not even Puerto Rican!’ Rosa threw her hand out at me in disgust.

‘You’re Italian,’ Scott glared at her.

‘Yeah, well. So? My colouring is a lot better for the part than hers.’

Alan squeezed my right shoulder. His reminder to keep things civil. He’d heard all about

Rosa over the dinner table at home and had, like my Daddy might, told me to turn the other cheek.

He needn’t have worried. Anger boiled inside me but all I really had the strength to do

right then was breathe a bit heavier in her general direction.

‘Do you need a doctor?’ Scott crouched again, looking me level in the eyes.

‘I don’t know.’ My words stuttered out. ‘Keeping myself going through the show just took

it out of me, I think. I feel real sick like I’ve been on a bus for too long, that kinda feeling.’

‘My cousin used to feel like this,’ said Nadia.

‘Oh yeah.’ Anthony looked between Nadia and me. ‘What was wrong with ’em?’

‘Well…’ Nadia’s eyes widened. She looked at me and started chewing on her bottom lip

which was painted traffic light red for her role in the play.

‘What, what, what? Spit it out.’ Anthony’s hands tugged at the roots of his hair.

‘She was pregnant,’ said Nadia.

Silence fell.

The small crowd of actors looked at me.

‘No. No. That ain’t right. I ain’t pregnant.’

‘How do you know?’ Rosa sneered. ‘Aren’t you keeping your husband happy?’

‘That’s not really somethin’ you should be commentin’ on, is it?’ Alan glared at her,

perhaps starting to realise why she got me worked up all the time.

Rosa opened her mouth to argue but Anthony cut her off, speaking in his quietest and most

deadly voice.

‘Are you telling me my lead actress might be pregnant three days into a sixteen week

run?’ He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers flat against the lids.

‘This can’t be morning sickness,’ I said, ‘It’s after ten in the evening.’

‘That’s not really how it works,’ said Nadia.

‘Oh. Then why’d they call it mornin’ sickness?’ I looked back at Scott. He shook his head

at me, smirked and used the sleeve of the ridiculous red, silk shirt he wore as part of his costume to dab at the beads of sweat along my hairline.

‘If you’re pregnant, you’ve really gone and done it.’ Anthony started to rant. I didn’t dare

look at him myself but I watched Scott’s profile as he turned and scowled up at the director. He’d been doing that a lot lately. Nothing was ever good enough for Anthony and that ain’t exactly what you call an appealing quality in a person.

‘Steady on now,’ said Alan. ‘We haven’t planned no baby.’

‘Looks as though you’re getting one anyway. All that publicity we did with your face

all over it and you’ve gone and done this,’ Anthony bleated on.

‘What’s the big deal? So she feels a little sick once in a while. Rosa can stand in those

nights,’ Scott said.

‘Good thinking, Scott. And what about a month down the line when she starts showing?’

Anthony waved his hands in a frantic ball around his stomach. ‘A pregnant Maria? Oh sure, perfect. You’ve ruined my show you stupid little bitch.’

I pushed my lips into a pout, must’ve looked stupid as hell but it was all I could do to

stop myself from crying right then. My chin wobbled under the strain of holding back the tears.

Scott looked at me, his whole face had darkened. He stood and walked up over to

Anthony, squaring up to him so their noses were almost touching.

‘Scott, just leave it. We’re just gonna get outta here,’ Alan said.

But Scott wasn’t listening.

‘You know, I’ve had about enough. You need to take that back Anthony.’

‘Why should I?’ Anthony dug his finger into Scott’s chest. The rest of us, who knew a bad

move when we saw one, cringed.

‘You don’t talk to a lady that way.’ Scott wasn’t a muscle man but he was broad, unlike

Anthony who was scrawny in every dimension.

‘Huh, she ain’t a lady.’

‘How would you know? You’re no gentleman.’

‘Gentleman? What universe are you living in? Lords and ladies. Lace collars and corsets.

You’ve read one too many of those prissy regency novels. Too many years locked away in your bedroom trying to hide what you are.’

‘And what am I?’ Scott growled.

‘A fag,’ Anthony spat, presuming Scott’s desire to hold on to his job would stop him

doing anything stupid.

He was wrong.

Without warning, Scott threw a right hook that sent the idiot staggering backwards.

‘Son of a bitch,’ Anthony cried out, pressing both hands to his face. His nose was

bleeding, probably broken.

For a second nobody dared speak. Scott stood, breathing heavy enough to shake his black

crop of hair forward into his face. Anthony glowered back at him and was, naturally, the first to break the silence.

‘Hey,’ he pointed at Alan. ‘You, aren’t you a cop? Aren’t you gonna arrest him for that?

For, for assault.’

Alan had just finished his training with the NYPD and boy did he ever take his work

seriously. It was a steady job so I’d encouraged him to qualify, but if I’d known he might arrest one of my friends, I’d have suggested he become a realtor instead or open a butcher shop like Momma had suggested on more than one occasion.

Scott turned to us, still panting, and awaited the verdict. My husband looked long at him

and then fixed his eyes on Anthony.

‘I’m off duty,’ Alan said.

Words that relaxed everyone, except the director.

‘Get out!’ Anthony screamed at the three of us. ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’

‘Not a problem, c’mon Mona. Let’s get you home,’ said Alan.

Scott took my left arm, Alan took my right and between them, they got me back on my

feet. I leant against Alan for more support, looking up into the calm of his eyes while the pair of them walked me off stage.

Looking anywhere, except back at all I was leaving behind.

 

 

OFF-BROADWAY

JULY 1977

 

‘Hi Mona.’

Though I was facing the coffee machine, I knew it was her right away. There was no

mistaking the nasal, fog-horn quality to her voice that made her sound older than her twenty-one years.

With a coffee jug in one hand, and the other propped up on my hip, I turned to face

Rosa. She was wearing a dress patterned with sunflowers that showed off her neat little waist, and stood at the other side of the counter.

I’d been waitressing at The Starlight Diner, a fifties-themed restaurant on East Houston

Street, for the past two weeks and was destined to continue working there until I was too bloated to earn a wage. Finding a job with a baby on the way hadn’t exactly been a cinch, but it was a cheery enough place to work. It’d been painted red from floor to ceiling and had a Wurlitzer juke box that played all the hits from Buddy Holly’s heyday.

‘Hi Rosa,’ I said. Trying to pretend I hadn’t noticed her staring at my tummy, which was

already poking out of my candy pink waitress uniform further than it should.

My boss Bernie, the only not-so-cheery element of The Starlight Diner environment, was

sitting at the end of the counter and cleared his throat. I’d never met anybody as dissatisfied with life as Bernie. He was only in his thirties but looked like the sorta fella who’d had the light in his eyes dashed out long ago. Veronica, the other waitress whose shifts dovetailed with mine, had told me he looked that way because his wife had left him five years since.

‘Ever get sick of your job?’ she’d said, ‘just you bring up the topic of his wife and

Bernie’ll have you out that door before you can spit.’

I was still in my probation period, and Bernie’s none-too-subtle throat clearing was his

way of reminding me I was being watched.

‘What can I get for you today? Somethin’ to drink? Somethin’ to eat?’ I asked in a sing

-song voice.

‘Eat?’ Rosa repeated the word as though she’d never heard it before. ‘Oh no, I mustn’t eat.

I’ve got a figure to keep.’ She ran her hands around her tiny waist and smirked.

I glanced down at my domed belly and then back up at her.

‘Then, how may I help you?’ I tried to keep the sting out of my tone, but failed.

‘Oh just a coffee for me, thanks.’ She sat up to the counter and placed her yellow purse on

the surface. ‘Do hurry if you can, I have to be back-stage to start make-up in half an hour.’

‘No problem at all.’ I bared my teeth but hitched up my lips so it looked like a smile to

the casual observer, and poured out her coffee.

‘Oh no, no, no,’ said Rosa. ‘I only drink coffee that’s been freshly brewed.’ Rosa’s smirk

stretched wider. She was wearing purple lipstick the colour of a bruise that made me wonder, just for a second, how she’d like to go on stage that night with a black eye.

‘Comin’ right up M’am. It’ll just take a minute to brew.’

‘No longer than that I hope.’

I turned to the coffee machine, filled the filter with grains and flipped the switch. With my

back to the customer I dared to let out a sigh. She probably saw my shoulders heave up and down but I was past caring. She was likely revelling in my annoyance anyhow. I looked to my right to see Bernie eyeing Rosa with obvious distaste, his top lip curled in a snarl. He was probably ticked off that I’d had to brew a fresh jug of coffee. Judging by my hourly rate he wasn’t the kind of guy who made a habit out of spending big.

‘Thank you,’ said Rosa, as I set her drink down on the counter. ‘You’re a darling to brew

a fresh jug just for me.’

‘Anything for a valued customer.’ I grinned so hard the corners of my mouth hurt but she

wasn’t even looking at me. She was sizing up the diner.

‘What a cute little place you’ve found to work in, Mona. Almost as theatrical as

Broadway itself.’

Not daring to breathe, I nodded, and again looked at Bernie out of the corner of my eye.

He was still watching the pair of us and had started to frown.

In my brief interview for the position I’d left out the part about me being a retired

Broadway actress at the age of twenty-three. I thought Bernie might have recognised me from some of the posters for the show but his world seemed to consist of the short walk between this place and his apartment on Fourteenth Street, so he wasn’t exactly up on his theatre. I had tried to tell him but when I did I got that over-heated feeling you get right before you cry and decided to choke back that little nugget. Instead, I told him about the restaurant in Long Island City where I’d fetched food for people every hour I had spare before Anthony picked me out of a group of unknowns in an audition last April.

‘Well, aren’t you going to ask how the show’s going?’ Rosa sipped her coffee, her eyes

sparkling with cruel amusement. I looked beyond her to see if the other customers needed my attention, but it was four thirty on a Tuesday, so there were only a couple of people digging into hunks of strawberry cheesecake and blueberry pie.

No, there was no escaping this and if I wanted to hold onto this job I’d have to play along.

‘Oh yes, I’m sorry, do tell me how it’s going. Bet you’re knockin’ ‘em dead.’ I

said this just for the opportunity to look straight at Rosa and say the word ‘dead’.

‘You’re not wrong,’ Rosa beamed. ‘In the space of five weeks I’ve signed on with an

agent and he just had a call about an audition for a TV pilot.’

‘You don’t say?’ The diner seemed hot all of a sudden, despite the air conditioning. I

pulled on the white collar of my uniform, trying to get some air to my skin. ‘That’s just swell.’

‘Sure is, huh? The show’s about a young widow who lives with the ghost of her dead

husband. He died in an auto wreck and loved her so much he decided to stick around.’

I waited for her to laugh. When she didn’t I said: ‘Sounds sorta morbid to me.’

‘No, it’s a comedy.’

‘Oh. Well, I’m sure that’s obvious when you watch it. Probably comes out in the subtlety

of the script. What’s it called? I’ll look out for it.’

I Love Ghoulie. It’s a play on I Love Lucy.’

I studied her face. Not even an ironic lift of the eyebrow over how dumb that sounded.

‘Yeah, I get it. You must be very excited.’

‘Oh yes. The only thing is, I feel just awful that if things were different you could be in my

position. It must be so darn difficult accepting that none of this is ever going to happen to you.’ Her purple smile hadn’t wavered.

Under ordinary circumstances I would’ve snapped at her and decided: to hell with this job.

But I just knew that if I opened my mouth I’d start sobbing like a fool right in front of her.

Damn pregnancy hormones.

Instead I scrunched my lips together and did a slow, stiff nod.

‘Oh my gosh is that the time?’ Rosa looked at the clock that hung above the counter.

‘I gotta dash if I’m going to get into make-up on time. It was cool catching up, Mona.’ She picked up her handbag, opened it and lay down fifty cents for her coffee. ‘Keep the change. I’m sure the tips will come in handy when the baby arrives.’ And with that she swished her hair and flounced out of the diner.

The door closed.

The next thing I knew tears were bursting out of me.

Without a thought to anything else, I dashed into the ladies room which was just to the

left of the swing doors leading through to the kitchen.

Scanning along the stalls, which were painted bubblegum pink, I made sure I had no

company and then turned to a mirror above one of the three porcelain sinks. Lord, I was in a state and then I heard Rosa’s words again: ‘It must be so darn difficult accepting that none of this is ever going to happen to you.’

And that was it, I was off a second time and my cries weren’t the quiet, feminine sobs you

see in old movies but shameful howls that echoed off the hard tiling all around me.

The door to the bathroom creaked.

Bernie had wandered in.

‘Aw, jeez,’ he said. ‘What is it with you waitresses and crying? Can’t any of you broads

just be happy?’

‘Wh– who’s looking after the counter?’ I asked.

‘I locked up for a coupla minutes,’ he waved a hand like it was no big deal though I was

sure this incident would put a permanent end to my shifts at The Starlight Diner.

‘Should you be in the ladies room?’ I whispered.

‘Who do you think mops the floor in here? My guardian angel?’ he said, pointing his

thumb up towards the ceiling. ‘Now, what’s all this about?’

I figured I might as well tell him. Probably wouldn’t see him again after all this anyway.

‘Thing is, before I knew I was pregnant, I had a lead part in West Side Story, on

Broadway,’ I explained, pulling a blue paper towel out the holder and dabbing my eyes. ‘That woman was my understudy, Rosa.’

‘I sure hope her singing voice is sweeter than her speaking voice,’ said Bernie. I

managed a weak smile.

‘Guess it don’t matter. She’s off living her dream,’ I sniffed and looked down at my

tummy. ‘My whole life, all I ever wanted to do was sing. Grew up singing in the gospel choir, and everyone agreed: singin’ was what God wanted me to do. But now, now that dream is gone.’ My mouth began to quiver again, I scrunched up my eyes, bracing myself for more tears.

‘Alright, easy. Easy. Don’t cry anymore. Look, kid. Things don’t always work out how

you think they’re gonna. But you still got somethin’ here,’ he nodded at my stomach. ‘Maybe it’s not what you asked for but… there’s a lotta people out there desperate for what you got.’

I don’t know what it was about his expression right then but I knew that he was one of

them.

Had he wanted a kid before his wife had up and left him? If so, he must’ve thought I was

about the most ungrateful person on the planet right then.

‘You’re right.’ I nodded. ‘I– I’m just being selfish. So I never sing again. So what?’

But I wasn’t fooling nobody. My voice was in pieces before I reached the end of the sentence.

‘Yeah, ‘bout that. I got an idea,’ Bernie said, narrowing his eyes while he made a

calculation.

‘What’s that?’

‘How ‘bout we talk about it somewhere other than the bathroom?’ He started walking

back towards the door.

‘Wait, does this mean I’m not fired?’ I called after him. He stopped and turned.

‘Fired? Naw, kid. You just passed your probation.’

 

 

BEYOND BROADWAY

AUGUST 1977

 

Bernie’s bright idea turned out to be holding a vintage dance event at the diner, during which the staff would sing a song or two for the entertainment of the guests. When he first told me about it, I thought he was the sweetest man alive for organising such a thing just so I didn’t feel bad about the sudden end to my career on Broadway. But it turned out it wasn’t a plan hatched completely out of the goodness of his heart.

One of Bernie’s friends owned a Mexican restaurant uptown, had thrown an authentic

fiesta and made more money in one night than he usually made in a week. The ‘hop’ was Bernie’s chance to get his slice of the pie.

Despite all that, I figured I should be grateful. Not only had he resisted the temptation of

firing me, he’d bought me, Veronica and our grill girl Eva a new dress for the occasion to ‘give the night some pizazz’. What did I care if Bernie was writing our outfits off as a business expense? I’d got to that magical phase in pregnancy where the mere thought of moving brought me out in a sweat; that night was the first time I’d felt beautiful for a good month and I had Bernie to thank for it.

The other two employees, Veronica and Eva had asked for wiggle dresses cut in the ‘50s

style but on account of my bump that wasn’t going to work for me so I’d picked out a silk maxi dress in midnight blue instead. It felt real soft under the fingertips in a way I just knew my husband would appreciate.

‘Hey jelly bean,’ Alan sidled up behind me, snaked his arms under mine and rubbed his

hands over my ballooning stomach.

I took hold of his hands and turned to face him.

‘Well, look at my husband all smart in his suit.’ It was dark grey which seemed a little

plain for the occasion but I was just happy to see him out of his police uniform. His working day had turned out to be a lot longer than I’d anticipated when he first suggested he might become a cop.

I patted my lips with my forefinger and, recognising the signal, Alan leaned forward and

kissed me, pushing his mouth harder against mine than he had for a good long while. He’d pretty much treated me like I was made of glass from the second the doctor confirmed I was havin’ a baby so you can bet I didn’t miss a chance to kiss him back with just as much enthusiasm. Alan’s tongue had just met with mine when it happened.

‘Oh!’ I jerked my head back and put a hand to my tummy.

‘What? You alright?’ Alan’s eyes were wide and had none of the stillness I’d come to

expect in them.

‘Yeah, no I’m fine I just… Oh!’ My eyes widened just as much as Alan’s.

‘What is it?’

‘The baby, it’s kicking.’ I grabbed his right hand and pressed it against my stomach. The

baby kicked a third time.

‘Oh my God.’ Alan’s words came out soft and slow and his eyes watered at the sensation

of his unborn child, moving.

‘Don’t you start cryin’,’ Bernie said to Alan. ‘We’ve had enough of the water works in

here for one summer.’ He looked first at me and then out at the crowd of young couples bopping on the dance space we’d created by clearing the tables and booth compartments to the edges of the room. Then he turned his attentions to the honesty box we’d set up at the bar so people could pay for their drinks. He dug his hand into it and rooted around, working out just how honest he thought people had been.

‘The baby just kicked for the first time,’ I smiled at Bernie. ‘That’s why Alan’s eyes is all

glassy.’

‘Congratulations,’ Bernie nodded at Alan but then looked straight back at me. ‘Now, I

figured since you’re a natural born singer and all that you could go first. Veronica and Eva can carry a tune just fine but they ain’t got the confidence you got.’

‘Sure, I can do that.’

‘Alright, I’m gonna go up and introduce ya. How’d I look?’ Bernie was also wearing a suit

but it was much paler than Alan’s. Cut in a mint green that brought out the natural tan to his skin.

‘You look very fine,’ I said. Bernie fastened the buttons on his jacket but didn’t smile.

‘Alright.’ He marched off towards the stage where he’d set up a microphone. I say ‘stage’

it was really just some upturned milk crates covered with an old, chequered table cloth Bernie had been on the brink of throwing out.

Alan put his hands back on my stomach. Our baby jostled inside.

‘I know this ain’t what we planned jelly bean,’ he said to me, ‘but I just know you’re

gonna be as good a momma as you are a singer.’

‘It’s just a different kinda dream,’ I smiled, put my hands over his and tried to stay dry

eyed.

‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen,’ Bernie said over the mic. ‘Welcome to the very first

1950s hop at The Starlight Diner.’ Cheers rose up from the crowd. We’d gone to the trouble of sorting out a liquor licence for the evening. One or two people had already drunk more then they ought and it wasn’t even nine o clock. ‘We’re very excited to have you here tonight and to make this a truly authentic occasion, the staff are going to sing a few songs from the fifties, live for you tonight.’ More cheers rose up.

Alan squeezed my hands.

I squeezed back.

‘First up to the stage is a woman with a voice like you never heard before, so give it up for

Mrs Mona Montgomery who’ll be singing Dinah Washington’s classic Mad About the Boy.’

The crowd began to applaud. Trying not to look too taken aback, I made my way to where

Bernie was standing. I’d never expected to hear applause directed at me again. Yet there I was, with a roomful of people, their ears waiting to be filled with the notes that came to me without me even asking.

I cleared my throat. The trumpet sounded out on the backing track that Bernie had set up.

Learning the lyrics hadn’t been a problem. I must’ve heard the song more than a hundred times over in the six weeks I’d worked in this joint so I knew them well enough already. I looked over to see Alan, leaning against the counter with a vague, far-off smile on his face, opened my mouth and the first note flew out, circling the room like a bird in rapturous flight.

Scanning across the horde below, I noticed Veronica grab hold of her latest boyfriend,

Johnny, her long, red hair swooping as he twirled her around. Eva, a meek girl from a Jewish family who flipped burgers because she’d rather that than work in her Daddy’s bakery, stood on the edge of the dance floor but couldn’t stop her hips from swaying side to side. Bernie stood at the foot of the stage, his arms crossed around his chest, nodding along to my rendition. I glanced back over to where Alan was standing. Beyond him a tall, dark figure, who seemed somehow familiar, stood in the entrance of the diner.

Taking care to hit my notes just right, I squinted across the room to see who it was. The

figure stepped into the light and revealed himself. It was Scott, followed closely by a bookish fella with glasses and shiny blonde hair. Scott put his arm around the guy’s shoulder and led him to where Alan was standing. Introductions were being made. Alan was shaking their hands, and then the three of them looked at me, watching me navigate the notes with ease all the way through to the last verse. I caught Scott’s eye as I prepared for the final high note and he blew me a kiss.

Smiling at the excitable kicks of my baby, I belted out the closing word. Unable to shake

the feeling that somehow, though it wasn’t quite what I imagined for myself, I was right where I was meant to be after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[[Three’s a Crowd at the Starlight Diner
]]

[NEW YORK
JULY 1990]

 

Electricity, that’s what sparked through me as Nathan brushed the back of his hand against the back of mine. He was lightning-quick about it so the work crowd, or what was left of them at this time of night, didn’t notice. It was a secret signal that he wanted me to himself. All I had to do was follow him down into the subway tunnel. There, we could blur into one another, and forget everybody else.

I chewed on my lower lip and stared at an elderly fella playing the banjo on the corner where Lafayette meets Bleecker Street. Whatever I did, I couldn’t look at Nathan. If I looked at him, everyone would know how desperate I was to kiss him, that much I was sure of.

‘You two taking the F back to Brooklyn?’ asked Marcie, who’d been my boss since I moved to the city two months ago. She smoked the end of her cigarette, stubbed it out on the sidewalk and gave me a wink that couldn’t have been less subtle if she tried. Maybe it was her false eyelashes that made such a small move seem so big. Or maybe the number of Mojitos I’d watched her guzzle during our Thursday night, after work get-together made her incapable of doing anything in any way understated. Whatever her reason was for being so shameless, she was making my cheeks burn.

I hadn’t outright told her about me and Nathan, but I hadn’t needed to. She’d worked in the PR department at Venus Athletics for seven years. If you worked anywhere in that building, she knew what was happening to you before you did.

‘Uh, yeah, if you want to see me anywhere near the ten o clock mark tomorrow, I gotta get home and get some sleep,’ I smiled.

‘Me too,’ Nathan said, ‘I’m beat.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Marcie swished her long, auburn hair over her left shoulder and crossed her arms over her chest. She wasn’t small up top and as she did this she pulled at the fabric of her beige, short wool jacket to the point where I could almost hear the brown buttons groaning under the strain.

‘Well, guess I’ll see you all tomorrow,’ I said just loud enough to give away how on edge I was. Marcie was a pal, as well as a boss, but she’d been drinking and could blurt out something suggestive in front of my other colleagues at any second.

It was particularly important that didn’t happen because we had Vivian, the office gossip, out with us. She had a pinched little face that resembled a pet gerbil I had as a kid and her hair was an unfortunate, mousy brown that she’d had permed tight so it bounced in little springs out of her head.

Somehow, Marcie aside, we’d kept what was going on a secret, and that wouldn’t last if Vivian found out. She was a woman so dissatisfied with her own life she made it her business to rain misery down on everybody else. She hadn’t raised a smile all night and, even as I was leaving, I could’ve sworn she was narrowing her eyes at me. That said, it was so hard to tell. Her face had a permanent scowl on it anyway.

Rather than putting up with her beady stare any longer, I waved at the small group of familiar faces and scurried down the steps, trying to ignore the smell of stale nicotine and thinking instead about how fine Nathan smelt when I got close to him. Sort of fruity, like a blend of apple and lime.

‘See y’all tomorrow,’ I heard Nathan’s voice say. I slowed my descent then, knowing he couldn’t be that far behind me. Knowing, from his vantage point, he’d be taking in how tight my black pencil skirt clung around my hips. A few seconds later, a strong arm, clothed in a smart, midnight blue jacket, wrapped itself around my shoulder and pulled me into his body.

I gazed up into his eyes, which like mine were a deep brown but, unlike mine, were framed by a pair of glasses. He was adorably self-conscious about them, and had opted for the thinnest frames the optician would sell him.

‘Fancy meeting you here,’ he said, with a playful note in his voice, just like he had the last couple of times we’d done this.

In our fantasy we were just two innocent strangers fate kept throwing together, late at night on the subway. In our fantasy nothing and nobody stood between us being together. In our fantasy nobody was getting hurt.

‘It is a coincidence that I should bump into you again,’ I batted my eyelashes, just once and Nathan gave me a grudging smile.

‘C’mon,’ he said, grabbing my hand, fishing a couple of tokens out of his pocket for the subway and pulling me through the turnstile, down to the platform.

Looking into the blackness of the tunnel, rather than at me, Nathan entangled his fingers with mine. Real casual-like. As though his hand was acting without his say so.

Meanwhile, I closed my eyes and focused every thought on how his skin felt against mine.

A familiar gust of musty air blew over me, fanning back my long brown hair which I’d taken the time to crimp, knowing we’d be going out after work that night. When I opened my eyes, Nathan was staring at me. His breathing deep. His dirty-blonde hair ruffling as the train stormed towards us. I sighed, and shook my head at him. How was anybody supposed to work with a guy who looked like this and not get ideas?

The train slowed and there looked to be only a couple of other passengers in the carriage that stopped in front of us. The second the subway doors opened Nathan jumped on board and pulled me on behind him. The next thing I knew, he had me pressed against the doors at the other side of the carriage. Heat surged through me as his mouth pushed against mine. His hands gripped at my hips while my fingernails clawed at the back of his shirt underneath his suit jacket, my desperation for him hidden.

Nathan pulled back to catch his breath but kept his face just a couple of inches from mine.

‘I lied to myself this morning,’ he said, planting a soft kiss on my left cheekbone before staring back into my eyes. His face had a sort of helpless look about it. ‘I told myself, I’d stay for one drink. Two at the most. That I’d take the subway home at eight thirty and that whatever happened, I wouldn’t kiss you.’

I lifted my hand up to his face and stroked along his jawline. ‘This is all my fault. I turned a good guy bad.’

‘Oh yeah, before you came along, I was a real boy scout,’ Nathan grinned and did a little salute with his right hand.

‘I bet you were,’ I teased. ‘And then I had to go and kiss you.’

‘Alright, so you kissed me first but I didn’t have to kiss you back. There are about a million other more noble things I could’ve done, but I didn’t. And you know that.’ He looked long into my eyes in a way that made me want to forget this conversation all together, but something nagged at me in the pit of my stomach. Guilt, I guess.

‘Yeah, but I shouldn’t have put you in that position,’ I said, while running a distracted hand through his soft, thick hair, an action I’d day-dreamed about all day at the office.

‘Angela, come on, I’m not doing any better at resisting you than you are me.’ Nathan kissed my right cheek this time and then nudged my nose with his.

‘I know,’ I nodded.

Physically, what Nathan was saying made sense. Physically, he was just as hopeless as I was when it came to keeping our hands off each other. But deep down, I was making a mistake he wasn’t.

I’d talked myself into the idea that kissing Nathan would relieve the pressure that’d been building in my gut since I first met him six weeks ago. That it’d satisfy the hunger I felt for him. But that was all wrong. Kissing Nathan had only made me want him more, and now I was falling for him.

A man who wasn’t mine to fall for.

Looking deep into Nathan’s eyes, I tried to keep the crack out of my voice as I spoke: ‘You love her, don’t you?’ I was talking about his girlfriend, Theresa, who he’d been seeing for more than a year now.

He pulled his head away from mine, looked down at the floor and then back at me.

‘Yeah,’ he swallowed. ‘You wouldn’t believe it from the way I’ve carried on here, I know, but I do. I admit, if I’d met you first things might’ve been different. But I didn’t.’ He looked into my eyes again. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s OK,’ I lied. ‘I’ve known all along this couldn’t keep happening.’

I’d known all along, but that hadn’t stopped me hoping.

‘I don’t want this to end, you know I don’t, but you’re right and maybe we should stop,’

he sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been so selfish.’

‘So have I.’ I tried to smile but it was probably coming across all crooked. ‘I understand, and it’s going to be OK,’ I shrugged in a way that wasn’t fooling either of us.

‘Come here,’ he said, pulling me into his arms.

Shielded by his body, I shoved my head into his chest and wrapped my arms tight around him. I breathed in the scent of him one last time, and held onto it for as long as I could.

 

 

THREE WEEKS LATER

 

‘Oh God,’ Marcie said, shaking her cigarette into a nearby ashtray, stretching her arm to make double sure not even a speck of ash blew onto her mauve cocktail dress. ‘Don’t look.’

‘He brought her?’ I looked down at my wine glass and then took a trembling gulp of my drink.

‘Yep,’ Marcie took another drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out off to her left.

I sucked in a deep breath. ‘What does she look like?’

‘Martha Stewart Junior.’

I couldn’t quite manage a giggle when I was about to set eyes on the woman Nathan had chosen over me, but I did smirk.

Turning, I stared across the hotel bar. It was a roof-top terrace in Chinatown decorated with imported exotic plants I probably couldn’t pronounce even if I did know what they were called. We were having a Friday night launch party for our latest line of running shoes: Max Out Sneakers, and the place was brimming with sports retailers, reporters, staff members and their dates. All of whom were enjoying the seventeenth-floor view across to the Empire State Building, and the East River beyond.

Just a few steps from a slender red-head, who wrote for the New York Chronicle and was interviewing the owner of the Step Up sports store on Broadway, stood Nathan. He was wearing the sand coloured suit I’d told him he looked dreamy in once and he’d gelled his hair in a way that gave it a sort of damp and sexy edge. Next to him stood a woman with strawberry blonde hair wearing a modest, mustard skirt suit. She’d rounded off her look with a set of small pearls and a pair of cream court shoes.

It was Theresa.

I looked at Marcie and she frowned back at me.

‘You’re right, she looks like she bakes, and sews and I bet her whites always come out pristine,’ I said, taking another huge gulp of wine and trying not to wonder if the pearls she was wearing were a gift from Nathan.

‘Oh let him marry a square like her,’ Marcie waved a dismissive hand in their direction ‘you’re more interesting even when you’re talking about life back in Connecticut.’

‘Thanks a lot,’ I shook my head, and then glanced over again to see Nathan kiss Theresa’s hand before heading off to the bar. Not a second later Vivian swooped, pushing her face so close to Theresa’s that she took a step backward in surprise.

‘Oooh unfortunate, Vivian’s got her claws into her,’ Marcie said, shaking her head.

‘What do you think she wants to talk to Theresa for?’

‘Oh she always pounces on any unattended spouses at these things. Wants to see what nasty little details she can squeeze out of ’em about the people she works with. Stay here long enough and you’ll know exactly what everyone at the party is up to, even with your back turned.’

‘God, did Vivian never learn about personal space?’ I asked, watching her link an arm through Theresa’s – a woman she met three seconds ago.

‘Yeah, we should probably go help the poor girl,’ said Marcie, picking up her purse.

‘We should?’ I said, my eyes widening as I looked from Marcie to Theresa and back again.

‘Yeah, well. That’d be the decent thing to do,’ Marcie said, stubbing out her cigarette, ‘But, I really need to go to the bathroom. Run a comb through my hair. Check my lipstick. Don’t you?’ she grinned and patted my shoulder.

‘You’re the best,’ I smiled, as we made our way back into the hotel lobby.

Once inside the ladies room, I watched Marcie unpack an unbelievable amount of make-up from the tiniest clutch purse you’d ever see onto the counter next to the sink. How she crammed it all into that space, I’d never know. She had a selection of lipsticks and even an eyelash curler in there.

‘Any idea what time we have to stay here till?’ I asked, while Marcie reapplied black liner to her left eye.

‘Till eight I think.’

‘Oh, what time is it now?’ I asked. ‘My watch doesn’t go with this outfit.’

‘Six-thirty,’ said Marcie, looking at hers.

‘Aw man.’

‘Just have a few more drinks, stay clear of Charles and Di and you’ll be back in your apartment eating a pizza slice before you know it.’ Marcie touched up the liner on her right eye.

‘Promise?’

‘I promise, it’ll all be over soon,’ she said, winking at me through the mirror.

Sighing, I looked at my reflection and flattened down a few stray hairs that had been blown about by the light breeze sweeping across the terrace. Next, I pulled up the strapless green dress I was wearing into a more decent position. I was never that worried about the neckline slipping down on a night out but there were different rules for a work function.

Green was my colour, it made the brown of my hair look somehow deeper and richer. Plus, it was the colour of jealousy, which I figured was the perfect fit for me just now. No matter how many nice clothes I bought, or manicures or facials I had, I would never be Theresa. I would always be Angela Harris. The girl who grew up in a trailer park in Milford, Connecticut.

‘You gonna stare at your pretty face all day, or are we gonna get a drink?’ Marcie snapped me out of my daydream.

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘c’mon.’

Taking a deep breath, I followed Marcie back out to the party. We’d barely taken five steps across to the bar when I felt a hand grab my arm.

‘Ow, what the – ’

It was Theresa.

Nathan gripped her other arm, trying to hold her back, and Vivian was standing just to the left of them with a thin smile across her gerbil lips. Oh God, what had she said? She couldn’t have known the truth, not exactly. We’d been so careful around the office. Course, just because she didn’t know the truth doesn’t mean she hadn’t made something even worse up, based on her suspicions.

‘I think you’ve got something to say to me,’ Theresa said.

All the blood drained from my body.

‘Theresa, I know you’re upset but please, calm down,’ Nathan said.

‘I am calm,’ she hissed at him and then glared back at me. ‘Well?’

I looked at Nathan and then at Marcie.

‘Come on now, sister,’ Marcie said. ‘You don’t need to get yourself all worked up.’

‘Sister?’ Theresa scoffed. ‘Sister? What’s sisterly about this tramp fooling around with my Nathan?’

‘Theresa, that’s uncalled for,’ Nathan said, cringing.

‘Uncalled for is it? What about this?’ In one swift jolt, Theresa threw her glass of white wine up into my face. ‘Is that uncalled for?’

I yelped in shock as the chilled liquid dripped from my hair and though the party was too big for this incident to get the attention of everyone, a few people nearby gasped or giggled as they saw fit. A small circle was gathering around the show and I could feel tears building behind my eyes.

‘How could you do that?’ Nathan asked Theresa, his mouth hanging open.

‘I could ask you the same question,’ she replied.

‘Look, let’s discuss this in private,’ he said.

‘Why should I? When you’ve publicly made a fool out of me.’

‘That’s not true and nobody deserves this,’ Nathan gestured over at me. Theresa looked at me then, dripping wet and starting to shiver.

‘Well, I guess people don’t always get what they deserve. I think I deserve a faithful boyfriend. I thought I had one,’ Theresa said. ‘And maybe I did until she came along.’

‘You did,’ I said. ‘It’s true that you did. So please, don’t stay mad at him. He loves you.’

Theresa folded her arms and looked harder at me.

‘I can’t undo what happened. All I can do is say that I’m really, really sorry. You have every right to be mad at me but you should know I didn’t do, well, what I did, out of spite or for fun. I – ’ I looked at Nathan and then back at Theresa’s scowling face. ‘I really liked Nathan a whole lot. More than I’ve ever liked anyone else and I got all mixed up about that. And I’m sorry. It was a mistake.’

A silence fell over the three of us. Theresa looked between me and Nathan, trying to decide what to say next. After a moment, I looked down at the stone floor. It was already littered with cocktail sticks and used napkins.

‘C’mon kid, you’ve said all you can here, we should get you home,’ Marcie put her hands on my shoulders and began guiding me towards the exit.

‘Wait, we’re not done here,’ Theresa said.

‘She’s had her heart broken and her hair ruined, isn’t that enough for one night?’ Marcie said.

‘No, it’s not enough, not after what she’s done.’ Theresa’s eyes bore into mine. Marcie leaned between us to break her stare and turned to Theresa. I couldn’t see either of their faces now, only the back of Marcie’s head.

‘The girl said she was sorry.’ I heard Marcie say. ‘She explained herself to you. There’s nothing else she can do about it now and you wouldn’t get that much from a lot of people.’ Marcie’s voice lowered at this point but I strained to hear her add: ‘You’re just making this harder than it needs to be on everyone, you included.’ There was a moment of pause and then Marcie moved again so that Theresa was back in my line of sight.

Though her eyes still flashed with anger she didn’t say anything else. Or move.

Marcie again turned me towards the direction of the door and nudged me forward. Somehow I remembered how to put one foot in front of the other.

‘Oh my God I’m going to die of shame,’ I said, feeling suddenly sick.

‘No you’re not,’ I heard Marcie say from just behind me, ‘you’re just going to wish you could die of shame. There’s an important difference.’

 

AUGUST 1990

 

‘Well look at this, someone call The Chronicle she’s not wearing pyjamas,’ Marcie said as I sat down at the table. She’d already ordered me an orange juice and a fruit salad – which is what I had when we went anywhere for breakfast. Starting the day with fruit made it less likely I’d dip into the boxes of doughnuts that seemed to always be floating around the office. Considering the amount of junk food I’d eaten since the party on Friday it was important to start Monday morning right if I still wanted to fit into my work clothes by the end of the week.

‘I’ve been out of pyjamas for twenty-four hours now, thank you,’ I managed to chuckle.

Marcie had swung around to my apartment on Saturday afternoon to see how I was coping after my showdown with Theresa. The broken hearted look isn’t a flattering one on anyone but still Marcie had been a little taken aback to find me dressed in my night clothes at three in the afternoon, crying and clutching the biggest tub of choc-chip ice-cream my corner store sold. The odds of me living this disgrace down anytime soon were slim.

‘Well, since you’re on the mend I guess you can handle me complaining at you for choosing this place for breakfast.’

‘What’s wrong with it? Don’t you think it’s kinda cute?’ I asked, swaying in my seat to Dream Lover, an old fifties tune pumping out of a juke box in the corner.

‘They haven’t got a smoking section,’ Marcie raised her arms to the heavens as though this was a slight against God. ‘I asked the waitress about it, and she said the owner didn’t allow smoking because the smoke turned the ceiling yellow and he’d had to repaint it back in 1969. Can you believe that? The guy’s so cheap he hasn’t painted his ceiling in twenty years.’

‘Aw, well I’m sorry you can’t poison yourself with cigarettes in here but c’mon, you have to admit there’s something pretty homely about it.’ At least that’s how The Starlight Diner, a fifties-themed restaurant on East Houston Street, had felt to me after things ended with Nathan. I couldn’t go out for Thursday night drinks with the work crowd after that so I’d sat in here instead, staring into my coffee whilst trying to convince myself I wasn’t in love with a man who belonged to someone else.

Marcie looked around at the red and white décor and the huge refrigerator stacked with slices of cake and pie. ‘Yeah alright,’ she said. ‘It is kinda cute, and it doesn’t look like there’s a dull moment.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, taking a sip of my orange juice.

‘Well, you were late meeting me – ’ Marcie shoved a fork-full of omelette into her mouth, which, on account of my lateness, she’d nearly finished.

‘Yeah, I know, sorry. I stood on my doorstep for about ten minutes hoping the ground might swallow me up, but it didn’t.’

Marcie rolled her eyes and finished chewing. ‘Well, you missed everything. See that waitress stood at the counter?’

‘The blonde?’

‘Yeah, well, she only walked into work this morning with blood all down her face.’

‘God, is she alright?’ I looked over at the woman, and could just make out a band-aid stuck across her forehead.

‘Seems to be,’ Marcie said with a shrug, ‘from what I overheard she was mugged.’

‘New York gets more dangerous by the minute, I swear it,’ I said, shaking my head.

‘That’s not all,’ Marcie said. ‘See that guy at the counter? The one with thick, dark hair.’

I looked over again, this time at the man Marcie was talking about. He was slouching on one of the counter seats but, despite his God awful posture, it was obvious he was pretty tall, and broad. He had his back to me so it was difficult to make out much else.

‘What about him?’ I asked.

‘He turned around earlier and I got a look at his face. He’s only an actor,’ Marcie raised both eyebrows at the same time.

‘Which actor?’

‘Jack Faber.’

‘Doesn’t ring a bell,’ I shook my head and then started chewing on piece of kiwi.

‘Well, you’d know him if you saw his face, and trust me lookin’ at him is not hard work, he’s got a billboard in Times Square for his next movie.’

‘Oh, he just turned around,’ I said, putting a hand on Marcie’s arm. ‘Yeah, I think I have seen his face in Times Square. He is cute, isn’t he?’

‘Yeah, bit older than you though, missy,’ Marcie winked at me.

‘Well, that don’t matter, I’m not exactly going to approach him, am I?’

‘Why not?

‘I’d like to get over the embarrassment of my last love affair before I start the next one.’

‘Give me a break. You think you’re the first girl to come rolling into New York from Connecticut and take up with a guy who was spoken for?’

‘It doesn’t make it right, Marcie.’

‘I ain’t saying it’s right. But what are you going to do? Become a nun over a few stolen kisses?’ She smirked and then sipped her coffee.

‘I guess not,’ I said, playing with a chunk of pineapple. ‘I guess I should just look at it as an experience, one that I don’t want to repeat.’

‘See that? Less than three months in the city and you’re growing as a person.’

‘I’m not sure I’m there yet,’ I smiled. ‘But I guess beating myself up over my feelings for Nathan isn’t going to change anything. I can’t help the way I feel. My big mistake was acting on that impulse.’

‘Difficult to not act on it when you feel that way about a guy.’

‘Yeah, difficult but not impossible. Maybe sometimes just feeling something for someone is enough. Just to love them, you know. Maybe I should just be grateful for that on its own.’

‘Whatever, you lost me three epiphanies ago. Are you going to ask that actor for his number or what?’

‘You think I should?’ I said, looking again at him. The blonde waitress had just given him his cheque so it was obvious he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. If I wanted to make a move, I had to do it now.

‘Yeah, I think a passionate affair with a handsome actor would be good for you. It’ll take your mind off the last mess you got yourself into.’

‘You’re mean without nicotine.’ I shook my head. ‘What if he says no?’

‘Please, have you looked in a mirror this morning? You’re good, now get,’ she pointed a thumb in the direction of the counter, ‘before I decide to keep him for myself.’

‘Alright,’ I fished a pen out of my purse and grabbed a red napkin out of the holder on the table. ‘Here I go.’

Taking a deep breath or two, I walked towards the counter. Even from a few feet away I could hear Jack Faber’s voice. He had a British accent that was beyond sexy and there was a real richness to it that was warm and inviting.

Taking just a second to rearrange my hair around my shoulders, I tapped him on the

arm. He turned and I was met with a set of piercing blue eyes. Gazing into them, I started to wonder whether acting on impulse could sometimes have its plus points.


The Starlight Diner Short Story Collection

Next time you’re in New York, take a turn off Broadway onto East Houston Street. There, you’ll see it: The Starlight Diner. A retro eatery curious enough to delight tourists and locals alike. Fifties tunes stream out of the jukebox long into the night, and it serves the tastiest milkshakes in the five boroughs. In this collection of short stories, written by Helen Cox, you'll meet Rita, Mona and Angela and learn how The Starlight Diner earns a special place in each of their hearts. The stories are set in 1963, 1977 and 1990 and serve as short prequels to the first Starlight Diner novel: Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner.

  • ISBN: 9781310643781
  • Author: Helen Cox
  • Published: 2016-06-27 14:35:10
  • Words: 13898
The Starlight Diner Short Story Collection The Starlight Diner Short Story Collection