69. Inez Keyhoe, Diner Waitress

“You want toast with that?”

The guy with the freckles is one of her regulars. “He shows up two or three times a week. Always orders the same thing: two eggs over easy, sausages, toast, and coffee. Seems nice. Don’t know a thing about him. He’s gone by eight.” The older couple is another regular. And like the guy with freckles, they always order the same thing; they each get two short stacks of blueberry pancakes and coffee. They split an orange juice and use it to wash down their pills. Inez gives each of her regulars a big smile and always asks how they are. She always gets a perfunctory, “Fine.” And a “How are you?” No one really cares. Or pays much attention to Inez. Could any of them recognize her on the street? Probably not. And that’s just fine with Inez. She’s got a kid and an elderly mother to care for. Right after the diner stops serving breakfast, she’s off to her other job, a cashier at a pet store. By the time she’s home at the end of an eight-hour shift in the pet store, had something to eat, and spent time with her child and her mother, she’s had a long day. As Inez might tell you, if you were able to have a real conversation with her, it’s not a life filled with fun but she’s resigned to it. She is able to care for her little family, put food on the table, and pay the bills. She never really expected much more than that. Most of the girls she knew in school ended the same way. On weeknights. once the kid is in bed, the dishes and other chores are done, and her mother is dozing in a large easy chair with the TV flickering, Inez usually has a shower and then pretty much collapses in bed. But not tonight. A guy she served that morning showed a little more than the usual lack of interest in her. He ordered the Spanish omelet which almost no one ever does. And he said, “I’ve been watching you work. You are really good at your job. I have a business. You might be good at it. Give me a call if you’re interested.” His card had his name and a phone number. That was it. He ate his omelet, said thank you, and left a nice tip. Inez isn’t sure whether she will call but just that little exchange sent her mind reeling. All the things that she never let herself think about came swirling into her thoughts. Her mind went from one “what if” to another. Before she knew it, the alarm went off – time to get up and get over to the diner again to serve breakfast.

68. Nathan Lensky, Pharmacist

“Nope, not me.”

Nathan’s parents wanted him to be a doctor. It was not for him. To please them, after getting a degree in Philosophy, he went to pharmacy school. His Uncle Reuven had a pharmacy in a very nice part of town. Reuven had no sons, only daughters. And, back then, the Lensky family did not think a daughter should be in a business or in a profession, except to find a husband. So, the plan was that Nathan would eventually take over Uncle Reuven’s pharmacy and buy Reuven out. That plan went up in smoke when the big chain pharmacies began to move in. A year after Nathan graduated from pharmacy school, Reuven was out of business and he and Nathan were doing shifts in a chain drug store, filling prescriptions on a production line basis. Not what Nathan’s parents could have wished but, at least, they said, a decent profession.   So, the next thing was that Nathan was supposed to find a nice girl, get married, and start giving his parents grandchildren. But Nathan didn’t seem interested. Everyone was worried that he was gay. He wasn’t. He was deeply, clinically depressed. This was not the life Nathan wanted. He hated the store he worked in. He hated filling one prescription after another. He hated the customers. And one day, it all became too much for him. He did not show up for work. He did not answer his phone or respond to text messages. His mother heard about this from Reuven and got worried. She called Nathan and got no response. She went to Nathan’s apartment. She rang the doorbell. No answer. Then, she banged on the door. No answer. And then, genuinely scared, she called the police and told them to break down the door. They found Nathan. He was in bed, surrounded by stacks of books. Nathan had been reading. Nathan’s mother got a little crazy and started to scream: “Get up, Nathan. What do you think you are doing? Embarrassing your family. Lying in bed. Reading!” Nathan turned and said quietly, “Nope. Not me. No, I won’t get up. Get out of my house and leave me alone.” The cops apologized to Nathan about the door and escorted his now hysterical mother out while getting her an ambulance. Nathan went back to reading. He was polite to the psychiatrist they sent to talk to him but told him to go away. He did the same to the rabbi they sent. It was – as his father put it – “a fine how-do-you-do.” Some weeks later, they found a new tenant living in Nathan’s apartment. Nathan had gone. As if he never was. 

67. Louisa Tillbaugh, Food Technologist

Louisa’s fascination with food started when she was a child. She was a chubby six-year-old and very mindful of her physique. It didn’t help that her mother kept asking her how she could expect to attract a man if she was “such a fatso.” Now, Louisa understands just how hurtful and insensitive her mother was. And she also knows that while she was never nor will be as “attractive” as her mother thinks is so important to attracting a man, she has had no problem attracting men or finding a husband who thinks she is “hot” and who most of her colleagues think is “gorgeous.” That he admires her educational attainment or her senior position in a major food company’s technical team, that he helps out with the children and household chores, and that he is a respected orthodontist only adds to his luster in their eyes. Louisa loves all this and also takes some satisfaction in knowing that her mother is now on her third divorce. But deep down, her mother’s words still drives her nuts: do I look like a truck driver? Are my breasts too small? Why is my rear end so square? And then there is Louisa’s secret sex life. She needs to travel on business once or twice a month and when she does, she invariably picks up some guy, often in the hotel bar and has a few hours of what she calls her “mental health.” Usually, it’s just some flirting at the bar, maybe a late dinner. But sometimes it’s more than that. She takes all the right precautions. Makes it clear that this is a one-time thing. An escape from reality for a brief while. And the next morning, it is back to business: Dr. Tillbaugh shows up and does food science for her company and her family as if nothing happened. So why was the last time things ended up in her hotel room so different? She’s looking forward to seeing the guy again. And she is also thinking that maybe she needs some counseling before her old ghosts take her to places she does not want to go.