Hot and cold at the star.., p.1
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       Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner, p.1

           Helen Cox
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Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner
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  Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner by Helen Cox

  Copyright © Helen Cox.

  ISBN: 9781310548642

  First published in 2016.

  Published in the United Kingdom.

  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 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

  used to see scuttling down Wall Street. They no doubt believed 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 b
urn. 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.’

 
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