Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner by Helen Cox

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.
Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner
Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner by Helen Cox
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 burn. 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.’ DECEMBER ‘You’re looking very well, Rita.’ Dr Goldwyn peered at me over his gold-rimmed glasses as I breezed through the door of his consultation room. I smiled my red lipstick smile. Idiota. Really? That’s all it took? A smear of lipstick and a dash of mascara. You’d think a shrink’d be smarter than that. But for all his qualifications, when it came to women, Dr Goldwyn saw what he wanted to see. That’s why I was wearing a yellow sun dress in December. Every other session I’d worn navy, but that day I had to wear something bright to blind him from the truth. ‘Take a seat. Are you feeling any better?’ He rubbed his bristly, brown beard before reaching over to an octagonal coffee table for his notebook. There, week on week, he’d scribbled his diagnosis on who I was. His fountain pen scratched across the page, his head surrounded by framed certificates hanging on the back wall. Mementos glorifying his professional prowess, designed to remind his patients he was licensed to pass judgement on them. ‘Yes, much better.’ I lied, taking my place on his brown leather couch. It was battered and lumpy, but only an imbecile would be comfortable in the company of a shrink anyhow. ‘The burns still hurt, of course.’ I looked down at the red-brown blotches across my hands and forearms, trying to find some meaning in them. A self-inflicted Rorschach test. ‘How’s your father?’ asked Goldwyn. ‘Papi’s good.’ I nodded. Papi was despairing. He was a doctor. Doctors like to fix things but he couldn’t fix his own daughter, and it was breaking his heart. ‘Well, we have to go though some questions, as usual. But you seem brighter. I’m confident we’ll wrap this up before Christmas.’ He chuckled at his pun. I took the cue to be normal and twittered. ‘Oh, that’s pretty funny Dr Goldwyn.’ I switched my smile up to high beam. Goldwyn adjusted the green tie he was wearing, the one token nod to colour in his otherwise grey ensemble. He straightened his glasses. The faintest blush surfaced just behind his ears. If I’d figured out quicker he was that susceptible to flattery, I could’ve had my therapy ‘wrapped up’ by the end of session one. ‘OK, first up, the difficult one.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Have you given any more thought as to why you did it, Rita?’ Goldwyn had heard three different answers to this question already. ‘I wanted to feel something, anything.’ ‘I thought I could smoke out the tears.’ ‘I was hurting and I wanted people to know that, even if they couldn’t see it.’ Not one of my darkest truths had satisfied Goldwyn. Finally though, I’d figured out the correct answer to The $64,000 Question. The question of why, the night Kennedy got shot, I’d gone home and pressed my hands down on a lit stove while Mami and Papi stood in the living room, serving sherry to the Castillos. ‘I was sad about the president,’ I looked deep into Goldwyn’s pale blue eyes as I spoke. ‘Dr Goldwyn, what happened to the president was unbearable. I got so sad, I didn’t know what I was doing when I put my hands on the gas ring.’ Goldwyn nodded and scribbled faster than usual, perhaps inspired by the fact I was, at last, speaking a language he understood. ‘Have you taken the pills I prescribed?’ ‘Yes.’ No. ‘Do you think they’ve helped you feel less sad?’ ‘Yes, very much.’ Ask the gutter outside my bedroom window if it’s feeling less sad. That’s what’s been swallowing those repellent orange capsules. ‘Do you still think about dying?’ ‘Not at all.’ Sometimes. ‘And what do you plan to do now? Your mother told me you’re… reluctant to marry. You don’t want to work as a sales clerk all your life, do you Rita?’ At this, Goldwyn raised an eyebrow. Ridículo. Of all my behaviour, the most unsettling to anyone was a hesitation in becoming a man’s life-long nursemaid. ‘Mami exaggerates.’ I smiled again. ‘Dr Goldwyn, you can understand why a twenty one year-old woman might not want to discuss every last romantic detail with her mother, can’t you?’ ‘Oh… well, yes.’ Dr Goldwyn lowered his eyebrow, relaxing the muscles that’d been creasing his forehead. ‘So, you do want to marry?’ ‘Yes.’ No, not really. Who would choose this anyway? Who would want me, forever? Goldwyn leant over and scribbled something else in his notebook. He looked up at me one last time, as though double-checking the figuring on some difficult math formula written across my face. Lowering his eyes, he stabbed the page with a full stop. ‘Well, seems to me you’re on the mend. If not, fully recovered.’ ‘I am?’ ¡Santo Dios. Thank heaven Papi was getting the friends and family rate for this crock. ‘Rita, the president’s death affected a lot of people. You were just one of them. The burn marks, they may never completely go away but they will feel better. Over time. Keep taking the pills and I’m sure this will all feel like a distant memory, very soon.’ I nodded. Breathed deep, trying to loosen the clench in my chest. Perhaps I should confess that this wasn’t over. That it could not be. But no. I looked again into those pale, steady eyes. Goldwyn wasn’t that stupid. He just wanted me to fool him well enough that he could write me out a clean bill of health with a clear conscience. He didn’t want to know the truth. Not really. ‘Thank you for all your help Dr Goldwyn.’ I stood and looked down on him. He rose from his seat. Slow, stiff, almost cautious. Did he know I’d figured him out? ‘I’ll tell your father we’re all good here.’ ‘Yes.’ Smiling was harder this time, but I forced it. ‘Papi will be so pleased.’ Goldwyn issued one final, clinical nod. I pulled on my coat and stepped out into the waiting room, closing the door behind me. Bernie sat, as I had left him not fifteen minutes earlier, engrossed in a copy of Woman and Home magazine. I snatched it out of his hands, smirking when I saw he’d been examining an advertisement for women’s hosiery closer than was proper. He frowned, but knew better than to question my swift reappearance in front of Janie, Goldwyn’s secretary. She acted nice enough but she wore too much blush on her cheeks. I’d take any excuse not to trust someone. In Janie’s case her resemblance to a circus clown was the only justification I needed. Out on Bleecker Street, Bernie dropped his trilby back on his head. He leaned into me, dipping so I could link my arm through his. I snuggled close, trying to ignore the stink of raw meat drifting out of Ottomanelli’s butcher shop. ‘So, what the doc say?’ said Bernie, when I didn’t volunteer any information. ‘I’m cured,’ I said, raising both eyebrows. ‘Jeez, what a crock.’ Bernie shook his head. ‘Tell ‘em you were sad about the president?’ ‘Yes.’ I stopped walking. Looked up at Bernie, into those eyes flecked with gold. ‘I am sad about the president, Bernie. Honest I am. But it’s not the reason I -’ ‘I know.’ There was a warmth to Bernie’s eyes. They glowed like embers. ‘There’s something else. Something darker inside and I don’t think it’s going to go away. There’s only two things that’ve ever made it stop. Putting my hands on the gas ring, and kissing you.’ ‘Well, if you’re going to get all romantic on me…’ Bernie tilted his head forward so it pushed against mine, and he brushed a stray hair away from my face. ‘Sorry, but you’re the only one I can be honest with. The only one who hears me.’ ‘Well that’s something, ain’t it?’ he said, his lips starting a slow migration towards mine. ‘Bernie,’ I whispered, right before our mouths met. And for six seconds out of the next ten, I forgot myself. JANUARY ‘Where are we?’ I said, Bernie’s big hands shielded my eyes. We were somewhere on East Houston. I knew that much. He’d covered my eyes when we hit the street corner and we hadn’t made any turns since. We’d stopped walking, clearly at our destination, but I’d no idea how far along the street we were or which building we were stood next to. ‘No peeking,’ Bernie’s voice was firm at first but it soon lapsed into a chuckle. ‘I’m not peeking.’ I said, wondering whether I could get away with it if I did. He rattled some keys in a lock with one hand, blocked my vision with the other. ‘Alright. Take three strides forward.’ Intrigued, I for once did as I was told. The chemical scent of fresh paint hit me as I stepped over the threshold. The flick of a light switch sounded out and my heels clicked on the hard floor of wherever Bernie had stolen me off to. He took his hand away. Somewhere behind me, a door closed. Footsteps. Shuffling. ‘Can I open my eyes yet?’ ‘Inna minute,’ came a mock-agitated response, followed by the crackle of a record about to begin; a familiar violin riff and the unmistakable croon of Nat King Cole. ‘Bernie…?’ I frowned. Eyes still shut. Nat King Cole’s voice meandered on to the melody of Unforgettable. ‘Alright.’ Bernie said. ‘Now.’ I blinked. My eyes widened; my mouth hung open. We were in the smartest looking restaurant I’d ever seen. It was brand new. Gleaming. To my right, stretched a long, silver counter, a shimmering pathway to a set of white swing doors, which I assumed led to the kitchen. To my left, stood neat rows of red leather booths that matched the polished red and white kitchen tiles, and the walls. Adverts for sodas and ice-cream floats were dotted all about and in the corner, next to where Bernie stood in his red sweater and a pair of navy chinos, was a Wurlitzer juke box, its orange lights illuminating the scene. ‘Bernie, what is this place?’ ‘This is my place.’ Bernie smiled. ‘Your place? Since when?’ ‘Since late December. Hoped to have her done for Christmas but, there was too much work. Been fixing her up. Wanted to surprise you.’ He started walking back toward me but stopped a few paces away. ‘Well, you sure did that.’ I shook my head, my eyes still darting all around, taking in the mustard stools lined up at the counter and the milkshake glasses upturned and sparkling on the shelf above the coffee machine. An empty refrigerator hummed, but, just by looking at it, a mirage formed inside of cheesecakes and pies stacked high. A till sat at the end of the counter and a menu was propped next to it. Stepping over in my jade court shoes, I picked it up and read: The Starlight Diner. Where the fifties are always in full swing. Skimming down the listings for hotdogs, hamburgers, pancakes, waffles, omelettes and grilled sandwiches, I smirked at a sentence printed at the bottom of the page. ‘We serve the tastiest milkshakes in the five boroughs?’ I read aloud. ‘Says who?’ ‘Hey, if you can’t prove something you can’t disprove it neither.’ Bernie argued. ‘And I take it there’ll be no shrunken lettuce and soft tomatoes like in the sandwiches they serve on 14th Street?’ ‘Nope.’ He grinned. ‘But Bernie, where’d you get the money for a place like this?’ ‘Been savin. Finally scraped enough together for the bank to take me seriously and loan me the rest.’ ‘I can’t believe it.’ I turned back to face him. ‘You really did it. I thought it was all just talk to impress me.’ ‘I know you did. Maybe it was in the beginning.’ Bernie nodded. ‘But I’ve had long- term plans for us, for a while now.’ ‘What do you mean, long-term?’ I looked at him side-on. ‘First you gotta tell me, do you like this place?’ He took a step closer. His expression solemn, even more serious than when the Dodgers had out-batted the Yankees in the World Series that year. ‘Sure, what’s not to like? It’s everything you said it’d be. More.’ Bernie looked at his loafers and then those golden eyes of his began a slow saunter across the lino to my shoes, up my stockinged legs, following the lines of my black satin skirt and my green, cashmere sweater until they, at last, found my face. ‘I was hoping you’d say that,’ he said. ‘What do you…’ but I didn’t finish my sentence. Instead, my pupils dilated even wider than before, as Bernie knelt on one knee. I held my breath. Pursed my lips. Looking up at me, he pulled a small, black box out of his trouser pocket and opened it, revealing a silver ring with a square cut sapphire set dead in the centre. ‘Bernie…’ ‘Rita, I know you say you don’t wanna get married but I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m asking you anyway. Because we know each other, don’t we? We don’t have to pretend. I’d never make you pretend like those other guys. You can be happy or sad, and I’ll still love you.’ There was the crinkle, just above his nose. I started to think about kissing him. Right there. In the place on his face where his heart showed. ‘You must know I love you, have done since I set eyes on you in Mr Kozik’s class. You tell me you think you’re crazy. Maybe you are, I ain’t a doctor. But from where I’m standing, the whole damn world’s crazy. The whole world, and that ain’t going to change tomorrow. Or next week. But by my reckoning, if we stick together, we can make it. Hey, are you crying?’ ‘Yes,’ I smiled through my tears, remembering in an instant what it felt like to weep and wondering why I’d ever missed it. Bernie got back on his feet. Stared down at me. ‘So, the thought of marrying me finally sets you off. Neat. I shoulda proposed a long time ago. Saved your Papi all that money he spent on Goldwyn.’ ‘Idiota, they’re happy tears.’ I half-laughed and put a hand to his right cheek. Traced my fingertips along his jawline. ‘They are?’ ‘Yes. Wouldn’t you be happy if someone wanted to marry you even though you were cuckoo, and they knew it?’ ‘Depends who was doing the askin’’ Bernie ventured a smirk. I laughed through more tears. Grabbing several napkins from a nearby stack, I did what I could to clean up my face. ‘Wait, does this mean you’re actually gonna marry me?’ Bernie asked. Gazing up at him, his brow heavy once more with a frown, I reached up and wrapped my arms around his neck. ‘You have to understand, I don’t know if I’ll ever be fixed.’ ‘I know that.’ His frown deepened. ‘You’re a risky proposition, I get it.’ ‘And you still want me for a wife?’ ‘No, the ring’s just a joke. I pumped gas for three years and finally here’s the punchline.’ I pressed my lips together, fighting a smile. Of everyone in Little Spain, nobody knew me like Bernie. Not even Mami and Papi. I’d never lied to him. Not once since he’d first, at his mami’s insistence, carried my books to school in the 9th Grade. I’d never had to fake anything with him, and I loved him for that. He knew who I was, as far as anyone could, and still wanted me. What more could I ask of anyone? I took a deep breath. ‘Well, that’s a shame you were only kidding. If you’d have been on the level, I was going to say yes.’ ‘Yes? Yes?’ Bernie’s voice got louder. He grabbed my shoulders. ‘Yes,’ I laughed. Bernie pressed his hands in on either side of my waist, lifted, and swung me round. My black skirt swirled as he did so. Holding me above his head for a moment, he lowered my body just enough to start kissing me. Slowly, I slipped until my feet were back on the ground. I pushed my lips hard against his, so he knew I really meant it. So there was no room for doubt. And for eight seconds out of the next ten, I forgot myself.


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