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I want to be just like her. I possess the long, luscious black hair, the ideal body figure with a bit of a curve right above the hipbone, the artist’s closet, containing a collection of tennis shoes, jeans, and old, ripped T-shirts that have been splattered with blue and green and purple memories. I took her paintbrush necklace, made out of white gold with bedded in diamonds, and I wear it wherever I seem to be, so Alexis and I will never lose our memories with her. New York Academy of the Arts is where she went, and that is exactly where I want to go as well. My dream future is there, but my real-life present is at Doug’s Diner.
Ding ding. “Pipin’ hot and ready to go!” As usual, Hank interrupts my thought process. He is the only person I know that keeps me going on with life, other than my little sister Alexis, a junior in high school, with short brown hair that goes Boooing! every time you give it a tug. An aspiring artist, just like I am. Just like our mother was.
“Come on Andrea, let’s kick it into high gear! Get out of your head and serve the man at the booth his food! Look, I know you’re worried, but we can talk about this later. Over dinner. My treat.”
For years that boy has tried to take me out o a date. Sure he is strong and great looking and perfect for every girl imaginable, but I like to keep my distance, just in case something does go wrong. I think of my future and see nothing going down my yellow brick road to happiness, and adding something else into the picture would wind up with me ending up in the witch’s clutches.
“Sorry Hank. Keep dreaming,” I reply flawlessly, like I have rehearsed it thousands of times.
Avoiding another piece to my right arms collection of burn scars, I embrace the hot plate with care, overflowing with three pancakes a slab of hash brown casserole, two sausage patties, crispy bacon, and a biscuit, and I ease it down gently in front of a deep suited, slick haired man. He lifts his arm to check his shiny, silver Rolex, while I observe his briefcase, which is approximately the size of my overstuffed, community college backpack. He practically has green pouring out of his pockets. Why would he want to eat at this grimy old diner? Sure the food is great, but it is for people, like myself, who just do not undergo the luxuries that he experiences, everyday.
For years I have been thinking of selling that old painting, the last one my mother painted before her diagnosis, and her best one yet. When I look at the painting, I feel as though I am standing at the top of the Chrysler building, looking down at New York City, and that is the feeling my mother was hoping that everyone would endure. No one could paint as proficient as her, but once the disease took control, she was back to being five years old and drawing stick people and clumsy rainbows up until the day she died.
“Excuse me miss, but I would care for my food, please,” said the man in the deep suit as he interrupted my thought process. What is it with men these days and interrupting me? Hank giggles, knowing that I was thinking about that old painting, and I walk away from booth eighteen, holding my mothers necklace in my fingers and dreaming of a brighter, more reliable future.
I watch the man from behind the counter and I believe that he is the luckiest man in the world. He could order every item on the menu. Heck, he could but the whole diner, if he wanted to. I watch him engulf his food, stabbing the hash brown casserole and shoving his fork into his mouth, thinking it will run away if he doesn’t devour it quick enough. He lightly dabs his lips with his napkin when finished to dispose of any evidence that he even ate here. He quickly waves me over, as if telling me to hurry up so no one sees him. I look deep into his eyes and he is staring back at me, but more with a concentrating glare than an impatient one.
Before I can even return with his change, the man in the deep suit disappears. Well, I hope he comes back sometime soon. He left a good tip.
And that is exactly what happened. The next morning, precisely at seven, I strap on my grease-stained apron, pin back my hair, and enter the diner’s atmosphere, only to see him again, at the same booth. He orders the same exact meal: three pancakes, a slab of hash brown casserole, two sausage patties, crispy bacon, and a biscuit, but with a pot of steaming hot coffee to slosh it all down with. And once again, he evaporates into thin air right before I return with the change, which makes my sister, my stomach, and my wallet quite happy.
Wednesday’s are my days off, but I still had to go in to talk to Hank about his blueberry pancakes. As soon as I walk into the diner, Hank sprints up to me and says, “Andrea, that man in the suit has been sitting in booth eighteen for the past three hours waiting for you. He won’t let anyone else take his order. Not even Rachael!”
I quickly strap on my apron as the smile on the man’s sullen face grows. Ordering his usual, as I now like to refer to it as, I run out his food, rapidly talk to Hank, then make a beeline towards the door.
As the next few weeks drag on, the man starts to become my main focus of annoyance. Not only has he located me at work, but he has also found me at school, at the local grocery store, even at the city park nearest to my own home. I told Hank not to give the man any sort of information, but I still do not feel safe. I feel trapped inside a bubble that even with all the strength I possess, I just cannot pop it. I want to scream, “Leave me alone!” but I also don’t want to be rude. He has one week. Any longer than that, and I’m going to have to pull out the big guns.
One week late, I am determined that this is it. I am going to end this once and for all, no matter what happens. On the Saturday morning when I made my compromise a week earlier, I march into work with my game face on. Hank already has the man’s order ready to go, sitting on the counter, with flies swarming around it. I am ready to fight. But he never comes. Eight in the morning: no show. Nine in the morning: his food is cold and the flies have eaten half of the goods already. Ten in the morning: I surrender. This was the first morning in three weeks that booth number eighteen has been unoccupied.
I always left that booth open, just incase one day the man in the deep suit up and decided he wanted to come back. I always had Hank make up his usual, and everyday he didn’t come, Hank would complain.
“Once again, Andrea, he didn’t show up. Here ya go garbage can. Eat up!”
“Sorry Hank,” I replied to his snappy remark. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“You say that every time, and it’s the same result the next day. Me feeding the garbage can.”
But eventually that day came true two months after the first no-show. I arrived into work exactly at seven in the morning, but on my apron, and went to the counter to put in the “usual”. The bell to the front door rang and I stepped into the main restaurant. There he was, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, frantically gazing his eyes all around until our eyes locked together.
“May I help you?” I ask the man gently.
“Yes you may. Andrea Walters, it is my pleasure to finally tell you this. I have been searching through all the best art schools in the northeast, trying to find you as an honor arts student, but instead, I find you working in this diner. Each school has your record from your applications, but none have you as an enrolled student. For about the past three months, I have been observing you, trying to figure out how your life works and what you are doing with it, and it seems as if you need my help.”
“Who are you?” I ask as politely as I possibly can without exploding.
“My name is Mr. Arbick. You mother many years ago was a student at the Academy of the Arts, and because of her, I am here to reward you and your sister Alexis a four-year scholarship into my school. I went back to your old high school art teacher and she kindly showed my some of your best work, but I can make you even better. This is an opportunity you do not want to turn away, I can assure you that. How does that sound?
I am a plank. My vocal chords suddenly died. I freeze and tremble to make complete sentences. Hank runs out from behind the counter and cannot hold back his emotions.
“Andrea you have got to go to this school. A full scholarship? For four years? Mr. Arbick, I’m Hank, Andrea’s best friend. She will go to your school, I can guarantee that. Oh Andrea, I’m so excited!”
This cannot be happening. My boring old life, randomly making a turn for the better? For a while, I thought this man was creepy with him constantly following me and watching my every move, my every decision. If he had just told me from the start what he was all about, I would have thought of this man differently. But that does not matter any more. I am going to start my life over.
“Yes, Mr. Arbick,” I choke out. “Thank you so much. You have truly changed my life.”
As he leaves the diner, with an ear-to-ear grin, I turn around the return to work. From then on, Mr. Arbick decided to visit me every morning and order his usual at seven sharp. And now, I’m a junior at the college of my dreams. I decided that one more change couldn’t hurt anyone. Clutching my mother’s necklace between my fingers, I turn to Hank with a smile forming on my face and say, “So, still want to go on that date sometime?”