I’m sitting in the corner booth at a chain-store diner.
A stern-looking middle-aged Chinese woman named Wanna seats me. She is efficient, impatient, yet the customers seem to love her all, greeting her and saying hello even if she not their waiter.
I browse through the menu as I try not to look at the booth to the left of me. A mom, daughter and son are having a heated conversation, but every time I look over, they have calm and cool expressions.
“I just feel like he’s my first boyfriend and I should be allowed to go see him!”
“Listen to me. There’s no such thing as real love at your age. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
The son has a pile of uneaten onion rings on his plate. Looks like he had a burger. “Can I say something?”
Only the lettuce and the honeydew are left over from the daughter’s plate. “Why should he get to say something? He’s not a part of this!”
“He’s a part of this family and is a part of this conversation right now.”
I glance up at them. No one is smiling, but no one is exactly frowning or crying either. Mom is casually seated, with her right arm bent upwards and resting on the backrest of the chair.
Wanna breaks my concentration by walking into my line of sight.
“What you want to drink?” Her voice is louder than necessary, and sounds more like a demand than a question.
“Just water is fine.” A sigh of regret and relief. I wanted that sugary drink, but managed to decide against it.
I order a country-fried steak. Usually, I don’t order because I’m with my family, so I just share off their plate. I was craving something savory; crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.
“You like pancakes or toast?”
“Can I upgrade to the French toast?”
She gives a wry smile and a quick exhale of a few breaths, which I take to be a small, endearing laugh, as she briskly writes down my order.
“Okay, I come back with your water.”
She side-steps over and takes the order of the family behind me. A 40 year old, overweight woman orders for her father, but her mother seems to be able to order just fine on her own. Wanna comes to each table in an orderly fashion and treats her job almost like assembly line: take one order, shift over, take the next. She visits the tables in our area in the same, counterclockwise order.
As soon as Wanna leaves, the 40 year old overweight woman quickly transitions into speaking Spanish to her family. Maybe that’s why she ordered for her father. She pronounces letter — especially every consonant — as she speaks, giving her tone a chirpy and rhythmic staccato. Her father speaks a slower, and lazier Spanish, dropping some letters at the end and words running into each other. He speaks more tentatively and the beats in his language match those of a slow heartbeat. I enjoy listening to them passing the rhythm back and forth, between precise and eloquent and laid back and unconcerned.
Eventually, the arguing family on the left of me leaves. I wonder if I was glancing too much to make them more self conscious about their public argument, but at times I couldn’t help myself. The differences between their body language and their conversation baffled me.
Wanna brings the food to the 40-year old woman with her parents. As Wanna sets her food down, the woman exclaims, “Wow… yummy!” The family digs in without waiting for Wanna to leave, which doesn’t seem to bother her much.
A Hispanic bus boy comes to clean the empty booth not a few minutes after they leave their seats. He can’t be much older than I am. With lightning efficiency he carefully throws their dishes and unfinished food into a large wash bin, and quickly wipes down the table, erasing the fact that a family sat together in this booth not too long ago.
An elderly couple sits down only a few minutes after the bus boy leaves. The husband is looking my way every once in a while. Maybe he’s wondering why a 24-year-old girl is eating French toast and country-fried steak alone in a diner on a Friday night. Why isn’t she out with friends? Why isn’t she home with family? Why is she at this cheap diner and not some nice ramen joint or bar down the street?
I ask myself the same questions.
Wanna comes by, asking the same set of questions that she asked me. “What you want to drink?”
After taking their order, they chat a bit, saying that they used to go to the diner that she also used to work at, but moved here after she moved. When they asked why she moved to this one, she answers quickly, “More flexibility.” Her conversation is precise; not a word said that isn’t needed. She speaks quickly and looks for opportunities to return back to her job, but this elderly couple speaks slowly and deliberately, and she is still working for their good tips. She ends the conversation and briskly leaves to retrieve their order and give them more time with the menu.
Perhaps people like her for her distinct personality. She seems to enjoy serving people without spending too much time on trivial matters, and is not a lady you will forget easily, if you’re paying enough attention.
After she returns with the water (for the wife) and the diet coke (for the husband), she asks them what they would like to eat.
Both customers are unsure of their choices. They know what they want, but they don’t want to commit. They are debating whether or not to get what they always order or to try something new.
They stick to the plan and order what they’re used to.
Each decision they make is precedented with a long “Uhhhhh…” I can tell that this makes Wanna impatient, as she starts tapping her pen and shifting her weight. The couple doesn’t seem to notice. The wife asks for advice from her husband when choosing between soup and salad. Ordering their dinner probably takes up to 3 minutes.
As Wanna speed-walks away, the husband again glances at me.
“I’m perfectly fine on my own,” I tell myself. “I wanted diner food on a Friday night by myself, not some fancy bar with my friends getting wasted. I need my time alone.” I try to convince myself. “This is what I want.”
Am I fine alone though? I came to this diner to enjoy my food and read my book, and instead spent the time watching people come and go, listening into what they thought were private conversations. What kind of human interaction was I craving in that moment to make me so attentive to my surroundings?
I don’t ponder what this means for too long. I return my attention to the present, and what I see, hear, and, smell around me.
It’s at this point that I notice that the diner is not playing any music overhead. Is this a typical characteristic of a diner? Why is this the first time I’m noticing this? All you can hear is the indistinct chitter-chatter of multiple conversations at varying volume levels happening. I try to focus on conversations further away from me, but can only hear murmurs and sparse laughter.
I finally get up to leave. The couple to my left watches as I collect my things. I smile and bow my head down, as if excusing myself. I am anxious that as soon as I leave, the husband will turn to the wife and ask, “What do you think the deal was with her? Sitting alone at this chain restaurant diner all by herself on a Friday night?”
I ate more than I should have, and my stomach feels bloated. I know looking in the mirror tomorrow morning will be hard. Everyday, I tell myself that I’ll just stop eating sugar again, but sometimes I can’t control myself, and one bite turns into a whole meal.
I take a few deep breaths in my car. I put on a new face as I drive to my next destination: a little house party with some close friends. I’ve been looking forward to seeing them, but the happiness and joy of hanging out with them is only temporary, and the fear of returning back to my stressful life worries me. An escape for only a few hours.