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“I’m going to dream of you for the rest of my life,” the stranger says, poised and dramatic. The words should have encompassed such heartbreak, such loss, but it sounds more as if he’s running lines, testing inflections. He probably understands the words individually but as a collective, he most likely cannot grasp their significance, an emotional sieve, unable to sustain that kind of intensity, something he wants to mean but can’t and never will.
Of course, that’s Cherise making assumptions from his appearance, something that has been done to her, time and again, but there’s a certain pleasure in judging a book by its cover. Let’s face it—if there’s a half-naked man on the front with his hand shoved down a woman’s blouse, then the reader knows what to expect.
He’s slim and blonde, a film star’s good looks, the sleek musculature of a man who swims and works out in ways that won’t bulk him up, won’t disrupt the tailored lines of a very good jacket. Deciding he’s the sort of man destined for the Gwyneth Paltrows and Uma Thurmans of the world, Cherise pours him another cup of coffee, but he doesn’t glance in her direction. So she moves to wipe down the already gleaming counter. She listens shamelessly, watching as if the couple’s conversation is part of a program devised purely for her amusement.
The woman sitting opposite him doesn’t match: short and thick, dark hair badly cut, thick black-framed glasses set atop an overlong nose. Through the coke-bottle lenses, her dark eyes seem intense. There is a faint shadow on her upper lip as well, menopause, unfortunate genetics, or possibly both. She tips some cream into her coffee from the small, white ceramic pitcher, seeming absorbed by the way the liquid swirls from dark brown to beige. When she finally looks up, her wide, mobile mouth holds a melancholy slant.
“You weren’t supposed to say that,” she tells him quietly. “Only true things, remember? This is a place where such things matter.”
“How do you know it isn’t?” It’s a prevarication, and even Cherise recognizes as much from her vantage seven feet away. She finds herself restraining a sniff.
“Because it’s the end of something that never should’ve had a beginning. You used me, and I let you because you’re a lovely accessory, and I liked other women looking at me, wondering what magic bound you to my side. I liked men looking at me, wondering just how good I must be in bed to hook a man like you. But the truth is, Kenneth, you’re empty, you dream plastic things. And there isn’t enough love in the world to make you real. You’re a doll, not a man. And I am tired of playing with you.”
“Malka, you can’t be serious.” Cherise can’t decide if he looks genuinely wounded or whether it’s merely wounded vanity.
“About you being empty? If you weren’t, you’d care that we stopped at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere to pick clean the corpse of our relationship, although that’s probably too strong a word for what we had. Relationship implies emotional attachment and all we ever had was sex.”
“But it was good,” he says in falling tones, trying to defend a position he hasn’t realized is indefensible and probably never will.
She sighs faintly, the sound of wind rushing through winter trees. “Yes. It was good. But I really wish you hadn’t said that. In the car, on highway 66, we agreed, only true things. And now that’s been said, it will become true, and that won’t go well for you.”
“You always talked like that,” he murmurs, perplexed—it reminds Cherise of a child’s insatiable curiosity mingled with the same utter inability to comprehend the answers he might receive. “Is it because of your grandmother?”
“Perhaps,” she replies. “Granny Navarro always told such stories. And unlike everyone else, I believed. There’s a power in that, no? I lit my candles, whispered the Word, and then burned your hair, and I kept you enslaved for a year and a day.” There’s magic in her voice, a dark vim that makes Cherish shiver. Suddenly the program has become less amusing, and she’s afraid of the ending.
An image burns itself into her mind, something that will haunt her—two forms twined on white sheets, one desperate, the other drinking his life like good red wine. And the more she feeds, the more he needs, dumb animal lust, driven and uncomprehending. He's a just thing she wanted, once, and doesn't anymore.
“I wasn’t,” he protests. “I could have left. I didn’t want to. I still don’t. I love you, Malka.”
With a witchy smile, she whispers, “You don’t. You can’t.”
Cherise thinks he may protest again, but right then, Fat Mac rings the bell that tells the waitress: ‘order up’. It seems to her a strange combination: a plate of scrambled eggs for the man and a House Special for the woman. But she serves the meal quickly and moves off again, not wanting to interrupt.
Malka cuts her meat with delicate, almost feline precision, slicing it into slivers, still bleeding, running in pink rivulets all around the plain white plate. The red steam splits and reconnects on the side of the dish nearest the man eating his scrambled eggs with a mechanical determination. Her food is now encircled in what looks like a cellular wall as viewed with a microscope, or perhaps, a summoning circle, something disturbing and arcane. It has not touched the potatoes.
They eat in silence, the only thing left to lovers who have bickered over small things and left the big things unsaid until there is nothing left but space and silence, the shadow in which everything dies. Cherise suddenly feels she is attending a wake, all unknowingly, and she changes the song on the jukebox. She presses A-12, intending to play something slow and sad, suitable for the mood in the nearly empty diner. But the machine sticks and hisses, and instead of what she selected, Love Me Tender slithers out of the wall-mounted speakers, a little distorted somehow, a piece of ill-meant mockery.
She returns to ask if they want dessert, and the woman orders Kenneth a slice of apple pie. All things considered, Cherise doesn’t think that wise, but she fills the order, her heart pounding with trepidation. She resumes her position at the counter, rag clutched in one hand. Watching his face as he takes the first bite.
The rest, well, the rest is too cruel for a simple girl to see. So she didn’t and she wouldn’t. She went away to the nothing place and gazed empty-broken in a slash of sunlight swirling with dust motes that might well be different worlds, microcosms better than ours.
But when she goes to collect the cash for the check, the woman sitting alone, who’s always been alone, hasn’t she? Says in soft, sibilant tones, “Tell my grandmother I’m sorry I couldn’t stay, but her pie is delightful, as always. Just…delightful.”
Cherise studies the strange thing that remains in the booth after Malka departs, a child’s toy, still in original packaging. Unlike so many other dolls, this one possesses an eerily lifelike expression. He is blonde and slim with a film star’s good looks. The button on the outside of the box has “Try me”, written in bold red letters above it, so she does.
I’m going to dream of you for the rest of my life, the doll says.
That’s sweet, and it makes her smile. With a shrug, she deposits the doll on the cluttered shelf with the rest of the curios and knickknacks near the register. Perhaps someday, someone will want it, and if not, there’s always Ebay.