Tom went to sit, as was his custom, by the booth next to the window. It was a cold day outside; despite the rays of sunlight burning their way into the little diner, he felt chilled and huddled deeper into his fleece-lined jacket. It was a while before the waitress came to take his order. He requested coffee. Three sugars, no milk, and for food – the full breakfast special. He liked to joke with the waitresses, sometimes, during his order. This girl barely looked at him, her eyes focused on the chalk-white notepad in her hands. It was a disappointing way to start the day.
“Tom!” A familiar voice called to him from across the diner, though he felt no special spark of recognition at its tone. A tallish, broad woman, with tight, square features, was approaching him with a rapid two-step. Her dusky blonde hair was knotted up in big dreads around her shoulders, and her shoulders looked monstrously large with the coiled knots heightening their size and breadth. He imagined her toppling over before she reached him; he huddled further back into his jacket.
“Tom, I knew it was you!” She was next to his elbow, now. “Do you remember me – we worked in that call centre together, must have been, oh, five or so years ago? I was always kidding around with you. You were hilarious! How’s your brother Jack?”
“Jack’s fine.” He squinted at her, stalling for time. He didn’t remember working with her. “Sure, yeah I remember the call centre. Coworkers were the only reason I showed up in the morning.” He gave a weak half-smile, hoping that this didn’t invite further questioning. He had so longed for a peaceful morning, with non-committal social interaction with strangers. Instead, he had Rhonda the Wonder Woman muscling her way up to his table.
“You should come sit at my table. I’ve got a few friends in town from British Columbia, they’re really interested in hearing about all that computer programming and gaming stuff. That’s your hobby, right?” Tom nodded dumbly. Her big brash smile had a hint of the mercenary about it.
Tom wondered how she knew so precisely his habits and family connections. It was reasonable to expect that he and she were interconnected on some social media network. He tilted his long, angular body down against the back of the shiny orange booth. The plastic table top had garish colours. He studied them to show his unwanted visitor his disinterest.
“Thanks for the invite, but I’ve got a friend coming by the diner,” he pointedly checked his glossy smart phone, an iPhone 4, for the time, “very soon”.
“Oh, well come on over if you want to catch up. I’d love to hear more about your work.” She shot one more look at him over her shoulder as she left. He tried to catch the flavor of that final look – was it apathy, anger, assessment? He thought back to his long days of meditating, reflecting on the world from inside his own mind. He divested himself from concern over what she thought of him.
His food arrived – perhaps the waitress had been cowering behind the counter, afraid to emerge while the conversation was happening with the shoulder-strong Wonder Woman? – and his coffee immediately caught his attention. The food languished somewhat before he devoured it, with gusto and significant delight. Some mornings he was incredibly hungry, and others he survived on a few cigarettes and a small double double from Tim Hortons. Today it was the former option. He sat back at the booth with a satisfied smile as the last piece of bacon disappeared, and looked out the window.
Normally he wasn’t much of an observer of the world. His gaze was turned inward; his thoughts were a mental labyrinth of code, piecing together the world with exactness and the forethought required of a computer programmer. Today a flash of color caught his attention. A strongly muscled dog, perhaps some kind of German Sheppard (though its coat appeared vaguely curled, Poodle-like, from this distance), was pushing up against a young girl as she ate a snack on the front steps of her home.
He tried to estimate the age of the girl from afar. She could have been quite old – her hair was shockingly white, and her sunglasses covered most of her face. Her clothes belied this initial assessment; they were tight, all manner of bright colours and trendy lines, adhering to a long-limbed body that moved sinuously to push the dog away while simultaneously prepping her outdoor meal. She was crouched low on the ground in a strange position, feet splayed out and butt placed on the edge of her cement front porch steps. He fancied that she had wanted an instant picnic lunch, but hadn’t taken the time to corral her large pet in the backyard.
The waitress had refilled his coffee mug without asking his permission first. His hand burned with the renewed heat as he drew the fragrant beverage up for another sip. His eyes narrowed, watching the girl. He imagined her standing at the head of an ancient crusading army; careening through the wilds of Africa in the back of a Jeep; dancing wildly with revelers in a medieval fairground. In short, he drew her up to be a character of great strength and titillating experience.
She stood, finished with her snack, and the mystery vanished. He could see the holes in her jeans and a little sneer of derision playing on her lips as she pushed the dog away from its place of supplication at her feet. Each of these small factors wilted his idle creation of her character, as in the turning on of a glaring spotlight. Her character was poor; she was mean and brutish. It diminished so much of her physical attractiveness.
Wary of another undesired social encounter, Tom slipped a twenty out of his faded wallet and tucked it under his empty coffee cup. His heart was beating fast enough now that it didn’t seem so cold in the diner anymore – he pulled a knit cap over his ears, anyways. He ducked a nod of thanks at the waitress on his way out, and she inclined her head formally but without warmth.
It had been, overall, a rather disappointing outing. He reflected on the white-haired girl and how he would put her into one of his game plots; he’d make her up to be a perfect angel, and then she’d lose the empire through some sneaky back-handed double-crossings. He smiled a half-smile, and hunched his shoulders against the brisk morning air as the diner door opened to the push of his hand.