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Nighthawks - (based on the painting by Edward Hopper) part 1
I like coming to the diner. Phillie’s, its called. A low-rent name. A low-rent place, I guess, but at this time of night it suits me just fine. Usually I stumble in here around the late hours, or sometimes at the first light of the day. I used to have to order my hot lemon tea from the barman but now he knows my preference and I don’t even have to ask. I just collapse onto one of the cracked leather stools and wait for the warm cup to land in front of me. The first few sips are always the best; the ones that scorch your tongue, the ones you can feel slide down your throat and fill your stomach. Its feels like resuscitation-not that I’ve ever actually felt that. But I can imagine it would feel that way. Like hot breath being blown through you. Giving you new life.
I’m Abigail Anderson, by the way. Abby. Or you may even know me as Shaena. Just Shaena, no surname is needed. If you lived around here, and were a high-flying businessman over the age of thirty, usually over the age of fifty, you would definitely know that name. If you were really rich, you may even have slept with that name. Or at least with the girl to whom that name is attached.
That girl is me. Abby by day, Shaena by night-time. Society woman, committee hostess, mother of two beautiful and intelligent boys, the type of sheltered suburban stereotype mom who knits sweaters for children in Africa and sends money in brown envelopes to schools who need a new gymnastics hall. That kind of woman. Superwoman. Before you start wondering what I’m doing sitting in a ten dollar, tacky diner at this time of night, let me explain the small bump in the fairytale road of my existence.
I’m wearing a string of pearls. Expensive, black pearls, huge and lustrous, an accessory for only the crème de la crème of this town. Of any town. I look up and catch the eye of the man across the bar looking at me with interest. His eyes flick down to stare in wonder at my necklace. All it takes is one angry look for his cheeks to go red and for his face to be buried once again in his journal. At least I think it’s a journal, he’s always writing in it. In here every night, he is, alone in the same seat he always sits in, writing in that dirty little book he carries with him.
I don’t look too kindly upon men anymore. I’ve had some experiences. Some bad, some very bad, and the good I don’t even remember. The bump in the road was man-related; it had a handsome, square face, nice eyes and the biggest shoulders I ever saw. My ex-husband, Jonathan, or how I now like to refer to him, the father of my boys. The man who gave me the greatest gift ever. Unfortunately, he gave me some other gifts too, and these weren’t so good. A bruise on my leg that has never quite faded. The scar across my cheekbone from when he hit me with a belt. I know it’s a wife’s job to keep her husband happy, but I guess I couldn’t do it too well because one day he came home from work with divorce papers. The serious kind, lines and lines of tiny black letters like ants, and a space for me to sign my name at the bottom. He had already signed his, quick and scrawled, as though he didn’t even have enough time for that, let alone enough time for me. I wrote my name alone at the kitchen table. Alex, my eldest son, was doing his first semester at university in the city, majoring in law. Luke, my baby, was out somewhere with his friends, his new family since he turned sixteen.
Soon after all that, Shaena was born. It was good to have her, since my own babies were long gone, Alex officially moved out and Luke only coming home for food and sleep. It was hard not to feel lonely. Not that I blame them. I tried to keep my happy face on, I only cried at night, and I started to rebuild my life from the pieces that Jonathan had left there on the floor. Maybe I’m being too harsh. He was good to me, left me with the house and a monthly allowance to keep myself going. The money was generous; the love that must have been left in his heart made him remember my preference for fine things, jewellery, clothes, the latest in technology for his sons and beautiful antique furniture for me. I bought so many lovely ornate candles after he left, and when I was alone, I would put them all over the house, on every shelf and table, and light them one by one. Then I would sit there, on the stairs, and watch as they burned in the darkness. Shared my pain. It made me feel less alone.
Shaena is a fun baby to take care of. She’s prettier than me, with her long blonde plastic hair and painted face. Red lipstick and mascara. Things I can never normally wear and get respected. Shaena allows me to live on the wild side for once, and that’s why I love her. She was born of boredom, desperation…I didn’t ever need the money. Like I said, Jonathan is good to me. No, I was in need of something else. Attention? Love? Just someone to hold? I’m never quite sure.
It started on street corners, downtown. I tried to do like I had seen other women do. Women I had once laughed at and been glad that I wasn’t like them. Those days were long gone, and I must have been doing something right because pretty soon I was well known in the ‘adult entertainment’ world. Shaena became a legend, popular, first with the overweight, greasy men who worked in the potato chip factory outside town, and then with the businessmen, some of whom I recognised all too well. It’s the most unpleasant when he’s a father I’ve seen before at Luke’s school. Seen him with his children, seen him talk to teachers about grades and put his arm around his wife, seen him look past me, unfamiliar with my long red hair, pale face and reserved clothing. Sometimes they’re people I know through Jonathan, friends of his, some of whom have come to our home for dinner with their families. Being Shaena has taught me its wrong to trust anyone; its stupid. People will just disappoint you, we’re all human. Men are especially human. Sometimes I think its sad how I have lost all faith in the male race. Even my sons; I love them, but its true that they do use you and abuse you. I raised them so carefully, no nannies or help or anything, gave them such great gifts, a roof over their head and then when they get old enough, they leave you. I understand that the chicks need to leave the nest at some point, but now there’s only one person left in the nest and that’s me. All the others have moved on to bigger and better things. I know its childish but I feel abandoned in the great race of life. I’m suddenly losing and Shaena is like an energy drink, the only thing that’s pushing me along.
That’s why I come to this diner. Phillie’s. Its always full of other lonely people. We never talk, but at least we can be alone together. All locked in our own private worlds inside our heads. I’m scared of being forgotten, like if I died right now my family wouldn’t even notice. I feel like I’m crying out for help but no one can hear me. They’re all deaf.
Even the man sitting next to me is deaf. Blind. I am almost certain that he is a regular client of mine, but he hasn’t even looked at me. He’s talking to the barman; a distinctive city accent, his face used to be handsome but has become doughy. His eyes are alight, though, his speech is animated, accompanied by frequent hand gesticulation. He seems truly interested in his conversation with this barman; I don’t even know his name. The man on the other side of the bar keeps his head down, his hands moving fast across the pages of his journal. I want to scream. I wish I had worn my Shaena clothes, wish I hadn’t taken off the wig and hidden it in my bag before coming through the doors.
Its 11:34 and fifteen seconds. I am feeling invisible. For a flash I catch the eye of the guy at the other end of the bar. I let him see me. I bare my soul for him, only for one second. Then I realise, remember where I am, who I am. I’m Abigail Anderson. Perfect mother and society woman. Shaena is my own dirty little secret. I look away and take a huge mouthful of tea. It scorches my tongue. Resuscitation.
I put the mask back on. I look down at the scratched wood table top. I rub my fingers over it, once. Then I remember to wipe them as I think about all the germs. My face looks back at me, reflected, blank and unremarkable. A knot in the wood looks like a pimple on my cheek. A surface scar. Nothing can hurt me no more.