Fleets of buses and trucks jockeyed for position along Northern Boulevard, but Gayl stared ahead looking at nothing in particular. Shoulder pressed against the vertical box of sealed-off space, her cupped hands cradled the phone like she was whispering in someone’s ear. Red panels enclosed the base of the phone booth, providing coverage from her knees down. I flashed to my childhood confusion, when Clark Kent with his introverted personality busted into a crystal-clear booth to change into tights. His cautious street-side glance never made sense.
Arriving on time, I tapped lightly on the oblong window. A purple and black graffiti tag arched, back-bending over Gayl’s head. She turned, smiling, gave a reassuring nod and lifted her index finger in the air. A light sparkle polished her eyes and an intricate pattern of small braids merged into a twisted knot at the back of her head. I pointed to the diner a few yards behind her. She nodded, mouthing, “See you inside.”
Built on inexpensive lots, diners along Long Island City’s main arteries remained welcomed beacons for factory workers, cabbies, and truckers looking for good blue-plate specials. Wrapped in bands of aluminum, the Skyline Diner was a railcar-style eatery, narrow with a long sit-down counter for direct service, and comfortable booths for slower-paced meals. Passing through the door, strong coffee and hash browns flavored the air, and overhead two propeller fans on the barrel ceiling stood idle, their greasy pull-cords dangling lifelessly.
Josephine, a good-humored waitress in a crisp yellow uniform, filled salt shakers at the prep station against the far wall. Hunched over their coffee cups, two men in blue maintenance uniforms sat at the counter chuckling between themselves.
I headed for a booth tucked in the corner and draped my jacket on the metal finger of a silver pole. Tossing my bag on the padded vinyl seat, I slid onto the bench. In this establishment, it was safe to rest your arms on the table, without having to worry about peeling them off.
Browsing the table-top jukebox, I rotated the carousel of flip-panels filled with columns of song labels. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” “Sign Sealed Delivered,” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” all popular tunes from recent billboard charts.
Gayl swept through the door. A synched coat-belt around her waist outlined her slender fame. “Luce, it’s good to see you.”
She sat down and let her coat slide off her shoulders, onto the bench.
“It’s really good to see you, too. Was everything okay with Billy?”
Gayl smiled innocently. “How’d you know it was him?”
“At one point you were swaying and smiling, but mostly because you cradled the phone like his head was resting on your shoulder.”
Gayl set free a spark of laughter. “That obvious?”
“Yup, but that’s a good thing.”
Josephine came over carrying two steaming hot chocolates and two generous slices of blueberry pie. “So girls, how’s this for service?”
She lowered a mug in front of me.
“You’re a mind reader.”
Gayl reached for the napkin dispenser. “Maybe one day we’ll shake things up, and order coconut cake.”
Homing in on a coffee cup waving three booths away, Josephine winked at us.
“Well, enjoy girls.”
“Thanks, Josephine.” Our voices overlapped.
A forkful of pie entered Gayl’s mouth and when withdrawing the prongs she slumped backward appearing satisfied.
“So did you go to New York University and speak to someone?” I asked.
Gayl swallowed. “Yeah, it took a couple of years to figure it out, but I think programming’s for me. There aren’t many women in the computer field now, but they say that’s gonna change.”
“It’s a science fiction story, the whole machine understands language thing.”
“Well, believe it girl. There are big brains out there turning words into numbers. They use formulas only Einstein could understand.”
Gayl’s body straightened. Over her coffee cup, she shot me her high alert glance.
Scanning, it took me a moment to register whom or what I was supposed to be searching for. Gayl provided a helpful twitch, and then I recognized the target. Leaning on the counter stood the woman Ronald dated when I first met him.
I set my fork down. “Do you know her?”
“Not as a friend. Just as people who pass each other enough on the street to nod or say hi. Gayl’s brows narrowed. “Does she know who you are?”
“We saw each other a few times from a distance when she was seeing Ronald, but I don’t know if anything registered. I was just getting to know him back then, so when I saw them, I stayed wherever I was.”
“Yeah, right. If your white behind was anywhere near Ronald back then or now, she knows who you are.”
“Could be but can’t say for sure.”
“I think she gave the counter guy a to-go order, so she won’t be here long. I wonder if she saw us?”
“Tell me.” The words sprang from my mouth. “What does a programmer do?”
“Stop, Luce. I know what you’re doing.”
“No, really Gayl. I want to know.”
“Alright. I’ll let you slide, for now. I’ll be learning a language and entering lines of code using a strange looking typewriter.”
“It’s a command. There could be two-hundred to thousands of lines of it. You end up with these cards that have cut-outs in them, and they get fed to the computer. It reads and stores the information.”
“That’s wild. A memory inside a machine.”
“Okay, enough.” She gave the table a couple of quick taps. Lowering her chin, Gayl stared at me through her lashes. “So, how are you really doing, Luce, and don’t play it off?”
“Then narrow it down a little.”
“I’m talking about you and Ronald, being a mixed couple. There aren’t many out there.”
“Actually, it’s a measly zero-point-one percent of the country. At least as of last year.”
“Wow. That’s close to nothing.”
“Close to nothing shrinks some more. Black and white marriages are about a quarter of it.”
“Did you two talk about marriage? Luce, would you marry Ronald?”
“We never talked marriage, but neither of us wants out yet. It’s hard to imagine where things will end up one day.”
Gayl flashed a red alert face, and I didn’t need to look over my shoulder.
“Headed this way?”
“Em hum.” Gayl slipped into casual conversation. “I filled out an application. It’s not a computer degree. It’s a certificate program.”
My softened eyes said thanks, and I jumped right in. “You’re coming in at the beginning of something new. You’ll be an expert.”
A subtle shift in Gayl’s eyelids expressed contact was seconds away.
“When do your classes…?”
A shadow appeared in my outlying vision and I raised my head.
“Luce, I think you know who I am.”
Gayl leaned back at full attention.
“Yeah. You’re a friend of Ronald’s. What’s your name?”
“Bernadette.” She scanned me with thoroughness and nodded at Gayl, who nodded back and went stiff again. “You’re still with Ronald, aren’t you?” Her brows formed checkmarks.
“Yeah.” Outwardly calm, I crammed all uncertainty deep into the muscles of my body.
“You mind talking for a minute?”
Minus the clinking of dishes and handful of voices, the place was empty, lowering the privacy factor.
“Alright.” I stood, wondering if Gayl had blinked.
We walked toward the counter and I followed behind studying her beige leather boots and purple fringes flapping on her pioneer jacket. In comparison, I was a farmer dressed in a flannel shirt, work boots, and a long braid between my shoulder-blades.
We ended up face-to-face at the far end of the counter, a place unobstructed by stools. My hand gripped the metal bar underneath, an anchor of stability in the face of the unknown, I remained silent, following Bernadette’s lead. Her weight shifted and she folded her arms in front of her. She seemed positioned to speak.
“I just wondered if you’re one of those white girls who go with a brother, and then thinks she’s down. You know. The type who starts pretending she’s black.” She went straight for it, her controlled voice sharpened to a point. “Some white girls are curious to check out a brother in bed. It’s the how big he is thing.”
A second of silence hung like a curtain. A response went straightaway to my head, but I needed to go slow. My hand dropped from the bar, and I squared my shoulders.
“There’s no curiosity thing here and I’m not trying to borrow a race that I have no right to.” I held her eyes, wondering if she deciphered my honesty.
“Then how can you go with Ronald?” The words sprang forward. “What do you know about being black? Oh yeah, you live in the projects and have some black friends, but that doesn’t mean you know shit.” Her weight settled into her heels. “At the end of the day, you’re a white girl.”
“You’re right. I can’t know what it is to be black and being white I operate under a different set of rules.” My eyes remained fixed on Bernadette’s face, but with no air of high and mighty. “I recognized that growing up.” Where was this whole thing going?
Her hand flew up, demanding I stop speaking.
“Recognizing it, doesn’t mean shit, because the system’s always there for you. It doesn’t matter what I realize, because shit’s staying the same at my end.”
“Hey, I have no color-blind story to tell you and there’s not much about me that’s hip. That’s all I’ve got for you, plus confronting my own white thinking. Like everyone else, I’m trying to figure shit out.”
“Yeah, but while you figure your shit out, you don’t get busted up. You just move along and get where you wanna go in life. That doesn’t look anything like me figuring my shit out.” Her eyes narrowed, brows nearly touching. “And then you decide you want Ronald. All I see is another greedy white girl helping herself to whatever she wants.”
I had invaded a place where she felt I didn’t belong. It made no sense to go another round with her. Locked down sadness jabbed me from inside.
“Look. I’ve to get back to my friend.”
The tightness in Bernadette’s mouth shifted sideways. She shook her head, her eyes homing in on mine. She smirked, and a puff of wind shot through her lips. The seriousness in my face remained unmoving, my eyes focused intently on hers. I watched her until she reached the center of the counter. She grabbed hold of a small paper bag and headed for the exit. I stood for a moment, waiting for a couple of granite muscles in my body to ease up.
Drawing close to the booth, Gayl searched the hazy mystery of my eyes.
“What happened?” Her face was a mixture of concern and curiosity.
“I wish I could say she’s a crazy bitch, but some of what she said was true, or maybe more than I can see right now. That is except for me being curious about Ronald’s dick.”
“Wait. She said that?” Gayl’s body reared back.
“Yeah, but in decent words. She also said a white woman doesn’t belong with a black man, because I can never know what it is to be black. And I can’t.”
Gayl squinted like she was searching for the right words. She pushed her mug aside and leaned forward on her forearms. “With very few exceptions, white people don’t bother to think about being black. That’s because they have the choice to ignore it and go on their way. Yeah, there are things I experience that you couldn’t fully understand. Stuff that you’ll never experience or be burdened with, but we’re friends because you don’t have all kinds of crazy bullshit coming out of your mouth.”
“Hmm.” I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to untangle my brain. “It’s crazy. I met Ronald on a bus one day when I was fifteen. We were a random collection of high school kids taking the bus because it was raining, no political statements involved.”
“Yeah, but they pushed their way in, and you knew that from the beginning.” She gave my hand a pat. “You’ve got a lot to think about, Luce. Just don’t short-circuit your brain.”
Susan Dashiell is a middle school teacher living in Bloomfield, NJ. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, Uncomfortable Revolution, and The Seventh Wave, among others.