Every day when I walk up to her with my pencil and a pad she orders the same thing: chef salad with Russian dressing and coffee. That’s all we’ve said to each other. I nod, go get the stuff and bring it back to her. She smiles and our eyes meet. Her eyes are grey speckled: smooth stones lying next to the sea. Her skin is pale and her hair curls where it is not held back with barrettes. It reminds me of grass and wooden fences.
So far, she has never once brought a friend, like most people, just a book for writing in. I’ve noticed too that she comes in at the same time. I begin to look forward to it. In this work I have time to notice these things. My job is monotonous and her visits are a relief.
As soon as she sits down, the air around her table forms a breathable shell shaped by her thoughts. She orders the salad, and when I bring it to her she eats quickly: bite after bite. But she’s not rushed. She always stays for an hour. When I pour her first cup of coffee she slows down. She asks for a refill after carelessly lipping the cold ceramic rim; and sometimes she asks for a third and fourth cup while she writes.
And I’m certain she watches me. If I look over to see how she’s doing, she’s there looking back. So I smile. She appreciates this and returns to her book. I resume placing orders, cleaning tables, wiping the counter top with a damp rag.
It’s summer now. Most of the women who come into the restaurant wear open V-neck blouses. The women who wear tight blazers are the executive types. They bring their briefcases to work. Then there are the men with the yellow pants, loafers and pink roll-up shirts – not my taste particularly.
My friend wears dungaree jumpsuits without sleeves – not my taste either – but her manners are. I like the way she sits at the table unconcerned that she is eating alone. I like the surefootedness of her voice. She speaks directly. Her eyes focus on me as if she knows who I am. Few people do.
Most people just comment on my hair. It’s saffron gold and twists along the small of my back below my waist. I braid it for work. Even so, it gets in my way when I try to yank overstuffed bags of trash out of the barrels that contain them.
She is about the same height, same weight as me; but my arms are softer and her walk has more purpose. Anyway, I have this urge when she walks out the door each day and starts down the street, to follow her. I consider it when I am scraping dirty plates of counting dimes and cents at the register.
Today she nods her head at me in the middle of her salad.
“Why are you working here?” she asks.
“You’re miserable,” she says. “I’ve seen you biting your lip. Your left hand is trembling.”
“I’m recovering from suicidal tendencies,” I answer, testing her response.
She smiles back in a way that is very pleased and approving; so I leave again and get on with my chores. I remain cryptic. I have never opened easily to people.
At the end of her lunch hour I return with her check and again she smiles. I don’t even look up to watch her walk out because I know she’ll be back.
The following day I’m ready with her meal when she comes through the door.
“Why don’t you meet me tomorrow after work?” she says. “We’ll talk.”
I peer inside her, pull back and scan the rest of her face.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll wait for you here.”
I go over to a booth and take orders from three good-looking men. They all have dark eyes, plump mouths.
“Who keeps you busy after work?” one of them asks.
“Three men,” I joke. “More than I can keep track of.”
Their eyes widen and their Adam’s apples bounce up and down as they all laugh.
At four-thirty I go into the bathroom, unbutton my uniform and slip on my dress. It’s red. My skin is tanned. I brush out my hair with long, exacting strokes. Outside the women are looking at me. The men are honking. They should: I feel my eyes opening to the world. Now everybody wants to jump in.
I turn onto Commonwealth Ave, and walk towards the sun burning through leaf shadows. But in no time my perspiration feels like an irritation. I stop at an ice cream store and take a cooling break. Ice cream cones are soothing. Still, two miles later my dress is wrinkled and wet. The long strands of my hair have separated into gold streaks down my arm. Even the hallway of my building which, for a moment, is cool and dark, grows hot. Nothing lasts. My apartment is roasting away. My cat is too tired to greet me.
I might have known she wouldn’t show. I waited forty minutes at work, drank two cups of coffee and left.
“I wasn’t feeling well, don’t be hurt,” she says the next day.
I nod. I’m furious.
“I promise I’ll come by tonight. You have a lovely face.”
Only when I pick up her empty wooden bowl do I glance out the window and see her: an image through glass moving away. She disappears where the picture window ends. So I stare back into the bowl. There is one flat piece of onion skin at the bottom. It is what I know of her.
Late that afternoon, I bend over the ice cream cooler, taking care not to bump my elbow against the sticky metal sides.
“You through?” she says behind the counter.
“In twenty minutes.”
“Good. I’ll take a scoop, then.”
She sits at the table in the corner next to the wall.
“Do you have a lover?” she asks when I come out of the bathroom.
I think of him before answering.
We walk out into the hot air. There’s no wind along Massachusetts Avenue until we reach the bridge over the Charles where, grateful for the breeze, we stop midway to watch the sailboats. I smell her perfume of roses. The grainy stone of the bridge wall feels like a man’s cheek. The sun and sky and air, boats with their white cloths flickering, flatten against the background of which we are the focus. I have a feeling of wanting her inside me; close. Instead I stare down at the water.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks.
“Things,” I say, turning to her.
“Like what? What’s deadened you? Look at your face. You’ve got the eyes of a ninety-year old.”
I look back at the sailboats. The cars speeding behind us are waves bursting against rocks. Far out on the water, a boat moves as if sliding in mud, then slowly falls on its side. Its sails disappear beneath the surface. I watch the rescue boat leave from shore.
“I’m not dead,” I say.
“Talk to me, then,” she whispers.
I feel the tips of my fingers scraping against the rock.
“You’re asleep, under the surface,” she continues.
A car honks at us. The smell of the water is again lost in the traffic’s exhaust.
“Let’s move,” I say. She seems to photograph my mind. I don’t know if I like it.
“Listen,” she persists. “Where have you been the last few years?”
“Places I can’t rattle off standing on a bridge.”
“Don’t waste your time. You’ve wasted too much of it.”
That’s when she pivots and walks in a straight line towards Marlborough Street. I stand without moving, stunned; watching her walk away. Several yards off, she stops.
“Tomorrow!” she shouts.
I don’t answer. I don’t chase after her. There are still some daylight hours left and there’s a man I like to watch in the Square. He juggles eggs and bowling pins, plates and hats.
The following day I don’t predict what will occur between us, not even her salad.
“What can I get for you?”
“Come for dinner tonight.”
“What about the bridge?”
“Tonight, we’ll talk,” she says. “No games.”
I don’t say anything.
“You’re angry,” she murmurs. “I can’t help myself. I test people.”
“I must have passed.”
“Don’t hold it against me,” she says, touching my wrist. “You’ll come?”
She writes her name and address on a napkin, the “A” rising like a fir tree shadowing the smaller letters. The “Y” at the end of her name swirls like a smooth black whip.