CIGARETTE AT 9 A.M. is a sure sign of desperation. Doesn’t happen to her often, except on mornings like this, November, rain, overcrowded McDonald’s in the South Bronx off the 6 train. Like a block party, this place, with those dopey eight-year-olds who should be in school, and their single mothers sick of shouting, and the bored men at each table still not at work. Morning is full here. Everyone’s in it together, a communal experience, this day, this life. It is not her life, though. She does not know this. She does not want this. She looks up, instead, at a huge sign for the breakfast special across the window. Not much mystery there, food is plenty. Ninety-nine cents for hash browns, an English muffin with microwaved egg yolks, and a miniature Tropicana. Too good to be true, such abundance for barely a dollar. This is a generous neighborhood.
She is twenty-nine, and it is November. She is overdressed, as usual. The black cashmere coat that costs double her rent, and the pin-striped pants are sleek enough for any Hollywood starlet. Across her shoulder is a navy tote bag that matches the steel shine of her leather boots. Her face bears no trace of makeup. She is morose in black and blue. These are power colors.
November, and she stands facing the entrance of McDonald’s on Burnside Avenue. In her left hand is a black vinyl umbrella, and in her right, a half-smoked cigarette she barely sucks on. Five minutes past nine. She is too early. The subway was unexpectedly fast. Only when she is running ahead of schedule should this happen, should the local suddenly reroute to express and drop her off at the Bronx stop within minutes. Fifty-five minutes to hang outside McDonald’s in this part of town, a world away from her apartment back in downtown Manhattan. Fifty-four minutes and counting; she is stuck in this wilderness and peeks at her watch again.
But a rescue is handy, a cup of fresh coffee, a slab of butter on a toasted muffin. All she has to do is walk through that door and wave a dollar. A long drag on a cigarette, longer than necessary. She is stalling. She has not yet bought into this place.
Rain keeps on, halfhearted, barely soaking. She is Cinderella-at-midnight, and her chic ensemble a pumpkin dream ready to pop. There is no glass slipper in this part of town, no Prince Charming in search of a princess. The crossover is final. Beyond that door is the wrong track, whose morning begins with a dollar and a jaded appetite.
Looking in is easy, to stand out in rain and take note of what unfurls from a distance.
Instead, she is inside now. There are several lines, which all reach several faces taking orders. The line in which she stands moves fast enough, but she has time, enough time to stand and wait. Oh, but time is plenty here. People sit around in all corners. No one dashes out to a merger meeting at the head office. No one screams double espresso with a touch of skim milk. No one fumbles with a tray balancing a Motorola on their right ear. None of that happens here. This is a place of leisure. She’s in no rush.
“What do you want, miss?”
She did not hear the man the first time. Such mishaps keep happening to her lately. She keeps missing the cue. She sets an alarm for eight and bolts out of bed at seven, or she presses “3” in the elevator and finds herself on the second floor, or she runs to answer the phone only to realize it is not ringing. Here she is dumbstruck before a man in a brown uniform who is shaking his head now, repeating for the third time, “What do you want, miss?”
“Coffee, a medium-sized cup of coffee, please.” She thought she had said it. She thought he knew what she wanted. The big-haired teenager behind her is popping her pink gum, visibly annoyed. The man in the brown uniform snatches the dollar from her, shaking his head once more. The coffee costs seventy-nine cents. Twenty more cents, she could have a complete breakfast; what’s she thinking? She can sense the man’s disapproval. Bitch, he must think. A cup of coffee for seventy-nine cents when a whole tray comes for a dollar, Miss Too-Good-for-a-Discounted-Meal, Miss Stuck-Up-Coat, Miss Can’t-Hear-for-Shit!
Bitch it is, this 9 a.m. Marlboro high. She needs to sit down, but the place is jam-packed, and no one is leaving anytime soon. But a miracle, it must be. There is someone waving at her, pointing at the empty seat across from him. Once she plops herself down and takes a hot sip of coffee, she notices that the man is in fact the only other Asian present.
He is reading the paper.
He is not interested in conversation, and she is glad. He does not harangue her with “Were you born in the States?,” “What do your parents do?,” or “Why is a good Korean girl like you not yet married?”—the prying questions that fellow immigrants often feel entitled to ask. Buried behind his newspaper now, he is no longer visible to her. It’s almost noble of him, she thinks, to offer her a seat and leave her alone.
Rain this morning is an accomplice. Even at the edge of the city through a cloudy window across which hangs a ninety-nine-cent-breakfast banner. The coffee is cooling. The waiting is not so bad after all. This might be her break. No one will find her here. A perfect hideout.
Then the man across from her shuts his newspaper. He picks up his tray without meeting her eyes. She watches him walk away. It is the shrunken walk of one who had once been a young man but is no longer, who has not spoken his language for longer than he can bear, who no longer believes that he will ever see his homeland. She can feel the weight of each step. She wants to look away. Yet she is relieved when he stops outside and lights a cigarette under the orange awning.
He is not gone. He is not yet gone from her. He stands with his back turned to the window, which she is facing now. The back of his hair is thinning. He is older than his actual age, perhaps. She notes the wrinkled seams of his gabardine pants and the shiny leather of his dress shoes, which are long out of style. He is awkward in his clothes, she thinks. Those are not his everyday shoes. When was the last time he put those shoes on, what was he like then, what was the rest of his life? But this is a terrible habit, to wonder upon a past, to dig into a history of anything, anyone, even a passing stranger at a fast-food joint in a neighborhood that is not hers. A lack of reserve, or boundary. Yet she still cannot look away. She knows men like him. She imagines how he might have fumbled through the back of his closet to pull out those black leather shoes, which might have sat in the dirt of his buried past for as long as a decade, or even longer, depending on when he had moved to this country, and how he might have shined them all morning with a bit of paper towel and wax, thinking to himself, “Ah they are fine still, they fit still, I am not such an old man after all, this mute delivery guy from Queens whom no one ever looks at, including my own wife, who hasn’t had a day of smiles since she made that bad slip of following me so far, as far as this McDonald’s land in the middle of nowhere, to this bad-food, bad-mannered country where I am nothing but a frail old man, smoking the last butt of a Marlboro in the November rain, as if my life depended on it, as if this life were a thing I could have known when I last wore these shoes.”
She knows men like him. She knows what his days are like, the home he might return to at night, the daughters to wh ...