Christine

Christine

Today I caught the 7:02 Q train, which meant I would be at the diner on time, a rare occurrence for me. I slid in through the closing doors and squeezed in at the edge of the dull blue bench, next to a potbellied man holding a pencil to a Sudoku in The Daily News (his expression and the puzzle blank). I put my iPod on shuffle and rested my head against the cool metal bars, ready for a nap. But I sat on the wrong side of the train, so the sunlight streamed in and penetrated my sleep, used my lashes as stepping stones and crawled under my eyelids until the glowing orange intrusion resembled the sun too much.

The first thing I saw was the hair. The bright red hair – short, almost pixie-like. It was out of place, like ink spilled across an otherwise monotonous blankness. I couldn’t not stare.

She had a small silver earring pierced through the cartilage on her right ear. Her button-up blue shirt was undone at the top and pooled around her like she was melting into the plastic seat. White lace socks peeked out beneath black water-stained combat boots. Her jeans were torn on the left knee, and I knew she didn’t buy them distressed because a scar was still healing beneath it.

She was pretty in an unconventional sort of way, and it was clear to me that she didn’t try. Try to be pretty, that is, because she was definitely trying to be something – something other.

Her eyes darted back and forth on the pages of 1984, while mine traced the features on her face with a startling newfound conviction of familiarity…

————–

It’d been almost two years since I’d seen Christine. She had still been a brunette. I know it was during the summer, because the air conditioner was stuck at a near intolerable temperature. And it must’ve been a Tuesday morning, because Noah doesn’t come in on Tuesdays (the only day his shit lawyer managed to get him custody) and mornings are always busy, so I couldn’t take off.

When I got to the Tick Tock Diner, MANAGER waved me over to the back, and I thought he was going to scold me for my consistent tardiness. Instead he handed me an old cord phone, attached to the wall under the picture verifying that Adam Sandler had eaten there. (“Turkey on wheat with pickles on the side and make sure the pickle juice doesn’t leak onto my fries.”) She said she needed to talk to me and would be by in twenty minutes. I went into the kitchen and started frying bacon.

An upholstered spinning stool at the counter freed up just as she entered. I shooed Carmen away when she tried to take the platter of two eggs (sunny side up) with three strips of bacon (extra crispy) on the side. Christine and Maura were talking, leaning close like schoolgirls exchanging secrets, and then throwing their heads back in attention-grabbing laughter. God, her laugh.

Maura skittered away when she saw me, waving politely back at Christine and disappearing between the swinging double-doors. I put her food down in front of her and leaned over the counter for a good morning kiss, but she was staring intently at her plate. She speared a piece of bacon with her fork, but the near-burntness made it brittle, so it broke in half. She moved the charred bits around and the prongs of her fork scraped the plate, which I hate.

The next few moments aren’t as clear to me. Her nervous hands wrung around a crumpled napkin. Insisting that she eat, her food getting cold. Dead-end questions, elusive answers. Cop-out excuses and being surprised because she’s the creative type. The diner never seemed as quiet to me as it did on that day.

I know it’s cliché, but it’d been raining. I only remember this because when she walked away, her rain boots made that squelching sound against the checkered linoleum.

————–

I wanted to get off the train, let the doors chime shut behind me and run down the platform and keep running. And at the same time I wanted to pull the emergency lever and spend the next hour catching up, somewhere under Brooklyn.

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“Josh?”
“Yeah, hey.”
“Hey!”
“How’ve you been?”
“Oh, you know, pretty much the same.”
“You sure look different.”
“Oh, the hair?”
“The hair, the earring.”
“You like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.”
“I mean, I’m not sure it’s you.”
“Oh. Well you would know, wouldn’t you?”

or

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“Josh?”
“Yeah, hey.”
“Hey!”
“How’ve you been?”
“Oh, you know, pretty much the same.”
“You sure look different.”
“Oh, the hair?”
“The hair, the earring.”
“You like?”
“Yeah. But I liked the way you looked before, too.”
“Thanks.”
“Why’d you change it?”
“It’s kind of a long story.”
“Well, we’ve got time.”

or

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“Josh?”
“Yeah, hey.”
“Hey!”
“How’ve you been?”
“Miserable.”
“Oh? How come?”
“I miss you.”

But then as she turned the page, I caught the unmistakable glimmer of an engagement ring.

————–

We’d talked about getting married, having kids. Casually, but it still counts. Counted. I counted on it.

A summer wedding in Central Park, over one of those little footbridges because it’d make a better picture. She’d wear white (off-white, not that blinding toothpaste-commercial white) and if Noah was going to be my best man, he’d have to wear flat shoes and I’d wear lifts because he’s two inches taller.

We – Christine and I – would’ve gotten a place in the city, down by Union Square because it’s not far from the diner and all the trains go there and it’s not a weird neighborhood like the Village and not pricy like the Upper West Side. And the kids would love the chocolate syringes at Max Brenner’s.

The kids. A boy and a girl. James and Mary-Beth. Three years apart. On Sunday nights, we’d have tacos and play board games until they got too old for such things. We wouldn’t impose our lost hopes for ourselves on them.

We’d talked about it. Or maybe I talked, she listened.

————–

I wondered if she liked 1984, wondered if she knew it was one of my favorites, tried to remember if I’d ever told her. I thought about starting a conversation just to make sure she knew.

I was at the edge of my seat the whole ride, and at each stop I jumped a little, afraid it would be hers. At DeKalb Avenue, she folded down the top corner of the page, but didn’t get up. Passengers rose (the Sudoku man included) and people floated in. The space next to Christine had been vacated and seemed to have a gravitational pull of its own.

Not just to me, apparently. A bony blonde sat down. She was wearing a floor-length black lace skirt and boots with heels that clicked and clacked when she walked. She had a faded hummingbird tattoo on her shoulder and Christine’s good morning kiss on her lips.

————–

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“Josh?”
“Yeah, hey.”
“Hey!”
“How’ve you been?”
“Good.”
“I see you’re engaged.”
“I am. Oh sorry –”
“Sorry?”
“For not introducing you.”
“Oh.”

or

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“Josh?”
“Yeah, hey.”
“Hey! This is Eliza…my fiancée.”
“I figured. Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Quieter, to Christine: “Hey, how do you two know each other?”
They’d lean in, like schoolgirls exchanging a secret. “We, uh, used to date.”
And then they’d throw their heads back. God, her laugh.

or

“Um, excuse me, Christine?”
“No.”
“Oh, sorry.”
————–
Katherine Yee, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key

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