That girl at the corner table never orders anything but coffee. I've been watching her for weeks now - every time I come into the diner she's sitting there, on the same chair at the same table, her wristwatch on the sunmica before her, dial facing upward, strap folded neatly below it. Staring out of the window, sipping at her rapidly cooling coffee as the trucks go roaring by on the highway and the diner fills and empties with noise. Never, in what must be a month of staring at her, have I seen her order anything to eat, or indeed make the slightest variation in her routine. Even the way she arranges her hair - tied up at the back with a few strands hanging loose over her nape - never changes. True, she had a magazine with her once, but you could tell by the way she flipped through it that she wasn't really paying attention. And once I heard her speak to the waitress, (how I pricked up my ears then) but it was only because she'd run out of sugar.
There's plenty of speculation about who she is, where she comes from, why she's here. Beth at the counter thinks she's probably had her heart broken and has come here to recover, though I can't see why anyone would pick a town like ours to get over a failed romance, unless it's that the very idea of romance feels faintly ridiculous in a place like this. Jack the delivery boy thinks she's a fugitive from the law, claims he saw her start once when a highway police car pulled into the parking lot. Only I pointed out to him that if that were the case she'd hardly be sitting in a diner where anyone passing could see her, and acting in a way that was calculated to arouse attention - that shut him up. Somebody else said he heard she had cancer and didn't have any family to go to. Only she doesn't look like there's anything wrong with her - she looks perfectly healthy to me. In fact, she looks downright beautiful. Still, you never can tell.
The thing is, all this waiting she's doing is beginning to take its toll on us all. I've been doing the delivery round for three years now, and last month is the first time I've ever been late on a job. And the diner's been deteriorating too - orders are forgotten or misplaced, eggs take longer to boil, coffee longer to brew, the clocks themselves lose a few minutes every day and have to be set right every morning. Plus out on the highway you can hear the cars slowing down to under the speed limit as they cross the diner, then speeding up again. It's as though all the waiting in the world was being drawn magnetically to this place, all the lost time of the world, every misplaced day or dropped second is slowly making its way to our tiny little town and collecting here and making us all a little slower.
Today I decided I'd had enough of the mystery. So after I was done with my pancakes (chocolate chip with tons of whipped cream on top - the way I like them) I marched right over to her table. I'd planned to ease into the conversation gently, but the minute I got to her table and was standing in front of her, I could feel her panic, and I found myself blurting out: "Who or what are you waiting for anyway?"
She looked up at me then. It was the first time I'd really seen her eyes. I'd never realised they were this sad, this frightened.
"I'm waiting to cross the border.", she said, her voice low, modulated. A college voice. No, a scared college voice.
"What border? The one with Mexico?"
She looked away. Then nodded.
"But that's 200 miles from this place. Why stop here if that's where you're headed?"
She looked up at me again, resigned to having this conversation. "Yes, I know it's 200 miles away. That's why I'm waiting for it to come to me."
"You're what? Waiting for it to come to you? Lady, borders don't travel. You have to go to them."
She smiled a little, as though about to deliver the punchline of a familiar joke. "Really? Are you sure? Think about it. Was the border with Mexico always where it is now? Was there always a border there? In fact, if you think about continental drift, was there even a Mexico there to have a border with? Places move, mister, boundaries change. It just takes a little longer than with people, so you need to be patient."
"Let me get this straight. You're planning to wait here until something - some war, some earthquake or something - shifts the border with Mexico 200 miles to the north so you can finally cross it?"
She shrugged. "When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous. But it isn't really. The truth is I'm not that fixated on Mexico anyway. I figure there are plenty of borders out there - sooner or later one of them will come along."
"Plenty of borders? Like what exactly? You're not going to tell me you think Canada is going to extend this far south, are you?"
That half smile again. "No, of course not. But all borders aren't between nations, you know. There are all sorts of borders in the world. Borders between people. Borders between life and death, pain and ecstasy, youth and middle age. There are a dozen of lines you cross every day without even realising it."
By now I'd slipped into the chair across from her and was listening intently, my mouth a little open. "I'm afraid I don't follow."
"Take you, for instance. You've been meaning to talk to me for weeks, haven't you? I've noticed you watching, wondering if you had the nerve. That's a border right there - the border of speaking to me. And in coming over here you brought the border right to me and the minute I answered your first question I crossed over into your world and became a tourist there. By coming over and speaking to me you gave me permission to explore who you are, you granted me a visa, you let me over your border."
All this was very flattering, and also a little disturbing. I mean, no one had ever compared me to a tourist destination before. I was fascinated. There was an air about her of always being on the brink of something, always about to arrive. Plus this close up you could see just how delicate her skin was. I tried to stay focussed on what she was saying.
"Okay, I think I understand now. But tell me, why are you trying to get to these borders of yours anyway? What's the point?"
"To see if they'll let me across, of course."
"And if they don't?"
"Then I'll just stay where I am, on the other side, waiting for the next border to come along."
"And what if none of them will let you cross?"
"I think that's unlikely. Plus, there's always Death. No one ever gets turned away from Death. Not for long, anyway. Sometimes there's a little extra paperwork to do, but eventually they let everyone through."
This alarmed me. "So if nothing else shows up you're planning to kill yourself?" I said this too loud. I could hear people turning to look at us.
"No. Look, it's very unlikely that the other borders won't let me cross. The thing is, if they come to me and then don't let me cross then they can't move ahead either you see - it's a mutual thing. That's why you need to wait for them to come to you. Otherwise you end up getting rejected all the time."
"Fair enough. So what after you've crossed this border of yours. What then?"
"Then you just sit down wherever you find yourself and wait for the next border to show up."
"Just like that? Don't you explore this new place you've got to?" What about all that stuff she just said about exploring my world? Was she just lying about that?
A wan little smile. "Ah, but you don't cross borders to get to. Everyone knows that. You cross borders to get away from."
"And what is it you're trying to get away from?"
"You know. The usual. Everything. Nothing. The past. The future. You escape because you can, not because you have to."
"So you're never planning to go back to where you came from?" Was she planning to stay on here?
"I can't. My home is too far away now. And besides, time is the one border you can't cross back over."
"So you're basically just trying to distract yourself and avoid your life entirely? Is that it? Is that why you've been sitting her talking to me?" This conversation was getting out of hand, I felt. It was time I exerted some control.
"And why have you been sitting here talking to me?" Behind me I heard someone titter. It was slow day at the diner and some of the waitresses had gathered around the table, blatantly listening in on our conversation. I can't say I blamed them - we've all been so curious about this - but still I could feel my irritation rising. I was about to respond when she went on:
"The thing is, I figure there has to be a balance. I mean the world is round, isn't it? So it must be true that every boundary you cross away from yourself must be bringing you closer to home as well. Logically then, if you could cross all the borders in the world you'd end up exactly where you started from."
"And what if you can't cross all the borders? What if there are just too many of them?"
"Then you just go on travelling and it doesn't matter where you end up because everywhere is somewhere else anyway."
This was too much for me. "Look, this is insane", I shouted, shaking my head. "You've got to snap out of this. You need help."
She smiled. "And what do you think sanity is but another boundary? Another border, with cliches waiting along every inch of the line to keep anything that threatens them from getting through."
I realised I wasn't going to win a shouting match with this girl. She was too good with words. I decided to change tack. "Okay, look, fair enough. So you want to get to a border so you can cross it. Fine. I'll take you. I know you said that you mustn't travel to borders otherwise they reject you, but this won't be like that. I'm TAKING you there, you're not going on your own. Think of it as crossing over the border into me, then into my car, then into Mexico." Okay, that sounded obscene. And also kind of exciting.
She shook her head. "It's very kind of you, but I can't."
"Because I cannot leave this diner."
"What do you mean you can't leave this diner. You go home at night, don't you?"
"Actually, no, I don't. I sleep right here on the floor in my sleeping bag. I use the ladies room at the back as a bathroom. In the last four weeks that I've been here I've never been outside this building. Not once."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I turned around to Beth who was standing right behind me, listening in, and she nodded. So it was true! No one had told me. "But why?"
"It's the threshold, you see."
"The line under the door dividing the inside from the outside."
"Yes, I know what a threshold is. But what about it?"
She looked at me sheepishly. "I'm afraid to cross it", she said.