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For the Woman Sitting Alone in the Red Dress at the Restaurant

by Talia Nicole 5 days ago in Love
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urbanization and isolation and a blend of art and reality

For the Woman Sitting Alone in the Red Dress at the Restaurant
Photo by Dana Cristea on Unsplash

She wore a red dress coated in flowers, pully like it had been through the washing machine a few times. Tan sandals. She looked beautiful on the patio in the sun, with dark skin and hair braided down her back. I was working the Sunday shift at the Italian restaurant on the corner, my face and the soles of my shoes tired. The hostess came and told me I had her table. She sat alone. Whenever people sat to eat alone it made me emotional—like they were waiting for someone who never showed up or didn’t have someone to ask.

I looked at her from behind the server station and something horrible in my chest rose as I poured her a glass of water. I approached her nervously and greeted her so sweetly I almost had a southern lilt to my voice. I hoped it didn’t sound drenched in pity. She was pleasant and spoke softly as I dragged a ragged, unpainted index finger over the menu and told her to take her time choosing. My left arm stayed behind my back. She didn’t ask for a drink. I’ll start with the soup she said, after I rattled off the specials.

I walked away slowly, staring at my non-slip shoes. I maneuvered through the swinging kitchen doors and out the back, grabbing the pack of cigarettes and lighter out of my apron. Leaning up against the brick, I was sweating and felt like hell. Balancing a cigarette between my lips, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I tried calling Flint—one, twice, a third time. He didn’t pick up so I prematurely stepped on the cigarette and went back in. My mouth was dry and my tongue felt like ash.

I had grown up pretty disillusioned with the idea of most things, but especially the sanctity in relationships and marriage. Maybe it was because when my parents got together they were both cheating on a significant other. Maybe it was because I was baptized into the Catholic church by a child molester, and sacraments didn’t matter to me. Part of me thought I was afraid of the idea because when I was a kid the next-door neighbor was a mortician. In October, he consistently put a bride of Frankenstein doll in the back window of the deep cherry red Cadillac hearse he parked along the curb. I used to have nightmares about blood dripping under the tulle veil, marriage synonymous with a gory death. When I met Flint, though, the idea of a traditional life rose up, took shape and, for the first time—I wanted it.

I had met him in college, at a Red Robin. I was a junior and one of my friends was turning 21. I had shown up drunk with a flushed face. We went to college in a small town, but some of her friends from New York city had been there to visit.

Flint was tall and quiet, drunk and laughing. He was a mess of curly tan hair and wire rimmed glasses framing clean, pale eyes. My ex-boyfriend sat on a sticky booth down to my right, and I had felt an impulse to make myself seem attractive to other men. So, Flint it was. I had eaten an onion ring and drank several beers until I found myself asking him why he was named after a water crisis in Michigan.

He laughed and told me that his mother was raised on a Hippie commune in the eighties in Vermont. She had met his father, an investment banker, in New York City. They never married but his father had gained custody of him when he was 15. Flint spoke with a mumbling cadence, his words tumbling out of his mouth—succinct but under his breath. His mom had picked the name, his dad had asked for a paternity test.

Flint had been studying economics and political science at a university in the city. I loved him instantly for his long comparison between media attention on the Tea Party and lack of media attention on Occupy Wallstreet, and how those two movements set the tone for radical media echo chambers in contemporary politics.

We had sex in the Red Robin’s men bathroom, L O N E L Y etched into the metal of the stall over his left shoulder. In the rideshare back to my apartment, he gently ran his thumb over my knuckles and spoke into my ear. I felt it all between my legs.

He had stayed for a week after we met, which was strange to my friends. I could tell he wasn’t a very confident person because he spoke more when we were alone. Whenever my roommate had tried to speak with him he interjected his points with force, then retreated back into himself. We had sex multiple times a day, afterwards he would collapse into me slowly and ask me to run my hands through his hair. He was the first time I ever found pleasure in sex, and the first person between my sheets worth talking to. By the end of his visit his face was stubbly and scruffy and had made my chin red and hot when we kissed. He would visit me several times throughout the rest of that semester and we were dating by the summer before my senior year.

I avoided going back to the woman in the red dress’s table while I waited for her soup to be up. I hated working in the Italian restaurant. I had quit bartending a few streets over, even though I normally had the stomach for it. The day I quit I had to burn all of the ice in the middle of a rush because I shattered a glass over it, so they were pretty mad at me anyway. I didn’t want to go back to serving but I was always a hard worker and I liked lifting the heavy trays, clearing patrons’ heads, and looking at my pinched face in the metal lids of banquet platters. When men hit on me I let them for tips. I felt like I could be alone and distracted by stress as the restaurant swelled.

I went back into the metallic rumble of the kitchen, the sound of sharp clanging and boiling water musical. The expo asked me what was wrong, I told him about the woman sitting alone. I fingered the stack of to go boxes resting on the shelf.

Pretty bent up about that? He let out a laugh. Y’know last week bartender came back here and asked for a half plate of the veal because the old guy at the bar—the one who always comes in Monday evening? His wife died. They used to split it.

My eyes welled up. Thanks, really helpful. I walked back out into the server station.

The first June Flint and I had been dating, he surprised me for my birthday. I historically hated surprises because when I was nine my mom had surprised me with a kitten I named Steph that got hit by a car later that week. Flint changed my mind. He had shown up at my door with a handle of vodka and toy car he had wrapped up in newspaper. It was green like my beater, but the model was an Audi coupe (my dream car).

The house I grew up in was nestled in the top right corner of Pennsylvania, my father a fishing and wildlife manager. Dad liked to hunt and would come back smelling sweet and damp and use tweezers to pry ticks off our Vizsla, Polly. Flint would stay for a week, winning my mom over by carrying in the groceries and my dad by helping him paint a sealant coat on our splintering back porch. My little sister appreciated that he was tall. I think they were just happy to see me with someone, after my lengthy diatribe against marriage I carried with me to college.

On his last night there, Flint and I sat on the flat part of my roof, looking down at the mountain towns stitched together with telephone lines. Lights had gone out in the valley, only forest trees and fireflies piercing the humidity in the dark. We kissed and drank and played with the car, rolling it back and forth, until it scraped past me off the edge into the gravel below us. He had laughed, cupped my face, and told me he loved me for the first time. I had nudged him and refused to say it back. But I did love him. It was the kind of knowing that rests in the base of your stomach, behind your eyes, and on every part of my body that he had touched.

Before the soup was ready to be brought to the woman’s table, the hostess sat me a two-top adjacent to my red dress lady. It was a middle-aged couple, and as I approached them they were quiet. I asked them how their day was and the man grunted. The woman, wearing a dark colored dress with dark colored lipstick, quickly asked for a glass of merlot. He said Manhattan as he pulled out his phone. I told them the specials and suggested they look over the menu. The woman leveled with a half-smile and placed her napkin in her lap.

The last semester of our senior year at college, Flint had decided he wanted to drop out when he went to visit his mom over spring break. He hadn’t seen her since he was fifteen. He didn’t really tell me what happened until years later. When he came to visit me that spring, he had leaned backwards against my sink, and I tried to wrap myself around him. He started crying when I had asked him how it was, and we sank to the floor where I caught his tears with the pads of my fingers and kissed his eyelashes. He told me he had enrolled in online classes to get a teaching license instead. I applied to every school with an art department in New York to be with him, and his dad put us up in a small apartment in the city after I had graduated.

We didn’t have a lot of money so I pretty much only smoked and ate English muffins and scraps off of customers’ plates. I got mono once from that. When I had been stuck on the couch in the apartment, feeling shitty in the way your skin feels like it’s coming loose off of your face, I realized Flint had never enrolled in classes like he said. He then told me he wanted to write. I think part of the reason he loved me was because I threw myself into believing in him.

In those first years living together, Flint would stay up with me, reading books about the stock market and others about war and humanitarian crises. His favorites were American literature, though. He would put his head in my lap and hold his book at a distance, so I could scrape my fingers across his scalp while I listened to the city murmur out the window. If I had a shift at the bar he would wait up for me to get home and we would have sex in the shower, then in the bed, then on the couch, where Flint would fall asleep on my bare chest. I was never tired then.

When I started to get stressed, when I came back feeling badly about working long, he would kiss my shoulders and each of my fingertips and have me sit on the couch and watch reality tv. Sometimes, I would work on my master’s thesis about Edward Hopper. I chose him because Nighthawks hung in my unfinished basement as a child, and because I preferred realism and was terrified of being lonely. While I worked, Flint would sit across from me at our yellow ceramic kitchen table that was chipped on my side. He would type and type and type. He didn’t like me to read his work, but I would wait for him to go to bed and read it anyway. He wrote stories about his mother and addiction, a childhood dog I couldn’t decide if I thought was real, and a cold office high in New York clouds that I imagined was his father’s.

I found out Flint’s middle name was Walt when I met his father for the first time. That was his dad’s name as well, and he only referred to Flint as Junior. It was a Wednesday, and I was through most of my master’s program at that point. After dinner, we had gone to a jazz bar in Manhattan. The only article of clothing I had on was a black cocktail dress, as if I was planning to sleep with someone and leave in a hurry. I wore my best pair of heels, and the pearls my grandma gave me when I made my First Communion. Gin made everyone angry, so we all drank it. His father had the same clear eyes as his son, but his hair was dark and his frame large and disinviting. I tried my best to use a big vocabulary and my stomach was pulled into my bellybutton the whole time. Saxophone blared over the crowd but I don’t think any of us really heard it, except for Flint, who had sat there quietly. His father was the type of man who looked directly into your eyes as you spoke, and otherwise didn’t look at you much at all. When he was telling Flint he had to get a job, I found myself painting a scenario in my mind--Flint’s mother was a broken waitress who happened upon employment at one of those restaurants where men smoked cigars inside and spoke about stocks, bonds, futures, currency and options markets. I had never seen a picture of her, I imagined delicacy and Flint’s curls. I saw Walt Sr. draining too many old fashioneds and making love to her in Central park on a night too warm to see the stars. It was very kitsch, a little sentimental, and an enormous testimony to my confusion and the empty glass in my hand.

When we got outside it was cold and my nipples were hard. Flint didn’t even notice them even though we were finally alone. Instead, a tear had split on the bridge of his nose because he was looking down so I hugged him and told him I believed he would figure it out. He had thanked me as we caught a cab. He didn’t touch me that night.

When I brought the soup to the woman, she exclaimed happily that it looked delicious, and my shoulders eased. We played soft Sinatra at the Italian restaurant, and the sun settled as the city blew by the patio to Strangers in the Night. I asked her if she would like to put in her entrée, and she ordered the veal. My throat caught, thinking of what the expo said, and my hand shook as I raised the pitcher over her glass to refill her water. The sound of Sinatra’s symphony built. I expressed pleasantries, and walked away during the scat doo-bee-dos. I went to the bathroom where I sat on the toilet seat and stared at the ground, breathing. The floor was marbled and shiny. When I walked out of the stall, I wondered why her red dress made me sad and looked into my eyes. I figured she seemed happier than I was and she was alone. I made myself smile, and decided a closed lip one was better. I had to check on my food for a larger party and made my way to the kitchen wishing for fresh air.

The day I finished my Masters in art history, I had come home to Flint holding the first piece of art I ever made that I was proud of. He had it framed, and propped it up against the yellow kitchen table. I had laughed and kissed him hard. I told him I loved him and that it was the first time I had ever seen a penis.

I was 14 when I drew it. I had gotten this scholarship from my high school to wake up and catch the Saturday 6:20 Amtrak from Scranton to Philadelphia to take art classes at the University of the Arts. During the first class, the instructor told us we would be sketching a model. I sat wide eyed and stupid as a man walked in wearing a robe. He was middle aged and there was a mole on the left side of his chin. Later I would set down my graphite pencil and use charcoal to make sure it was there in detail. He walked to the center, past our easels and bags, morning light illuminating dust in the air. He dropped the robe and there it was. Flaccid and absolutely terrifying. I hardly remember what it looked like now, I couldn’t even say if it was circumcised. I Ken-dolled him in the moment. My teacher came by and let out a laugh. I was by far the youngest person in the room and I was mortified. When a female model came in the next weekend, I made sure to capture her nipples and sag and shade it to the best of my ability.

Flint told me he had called my mom and she told him the story and sent it to him. I smiled as I pressed my finger on the mole I had sketched in all of those years ago. I sat and watched him hang it over our cluttered mantle. The drawing was around ten years old at the time and I then had a masters in art history under my belt. I had known I would be working in galleries with a side hustle in the service industry but I when I drank too much wine, or went on jogs, I would sometimes still dream of making a career as an artist. Flint used to insist I could.

The couple next to the woman in the red dress didn’t speak to each other as I filled glasses and took orders around them. When they ordered, him lobster bucatini and her an antipasto salad, I looked at her wedding ring. It was large and square cut. She ordered her third glass of wine with a remorseful look. The man dropped his napkin and I crouched in front of him to pick it up. His wife eyed him as and he gazed at my breasts through the top three buttons I had undone. I was too seasoned to be red in the face but I felt his eyes as I walked away.

One Sunday I had gone to the bustle of the meatpacking district to go to visit one of my most familiar places in the city—the Whitney Museum. I was wearing a green dress and had pressed lipstick across my mouth before leaving.

I had been sitting on the fifth floor, Edward Hopper’s sketches and paintings like barges hung on plain white walls. I had thought about him throughout my research so much, but I hadn’t been back to his exhibit since. His work was timeless and strange, making up the composition that resounded as one of the pioneering examples of 20th century realism. His paintings depicted urbanization and isolation and a blend of art and reality. I never wanted to live in New York, but there I sat in the city admiring images depicting the experience.

I was in the exhibit alone, looking quietly and feeling bound to the paintings on the walls. Some scholars refer to his work as voyeuristic. I raked my eyes over Woman in the Sun, a naked woman standing alone looking out the window. He is acclaimed for the use of light he pours over her body and breasts and tired eyes. I had written in my master’s thesis that he chooses to paint women alone in large cities not because they were lonely but because they were living singular experiences. I wasn’t sure.

I had been deep in thought when my phone buzzed in my purse. It echoed in the acoustics of the empty room. I hadn’t picked up, and it went off again. I answered the phone to Flint. His mother had died.

When I brought the woman in the red dress her entrée, she was reading a book. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. I wondered if the woman herself was a writer, and thought the idea was romantic. She smiled brilliantly at me when I set down the plate and placed her book back into her purse. The sun was basically down, and the patio was getting too dark for reading anyway. I figured this was a pretty expensive spot for someone living on a writer’s salary and instead of being rational I projected in my head that she was successful. I wanted to ask her so many questions like why she was alone and what she did and her name and if she was happy. Instead I nodded and headed back into the restaurant avoiding eye contact with the couple at my other table.

Bowls of cereal and glasses with thick rims were piled in the sink. I had been gripping the counter top and let silent sobs pulse through me, not even mad Flint hadn’t done the dishes like I asked him to before I left for work. Two years post grad, 26, with an art gallery salary that left something to be desired and landed me behind the bar all weekend. I had left the gallery early that day, told my boss I was feeling sick. She was a tight faced woman who wore lipstick so dark it looked sour and purple. I wasn’t sick, really my mother had just called me because our dog, Polly, the Viszla, had to be put down. Nasal Cancer. My sister had come home from college and everything. I had said goodbye to Polly the last time I was at home, but I cried because my mom said she crawled under the house to die alone. She was the kind of dog that liked to lean on your legs and sleep on the foot of the bed. It sounded so awful, but I didn’t want to wake up Flint who was asleep on the couch, so I bit my lip and started silently making dinner. When he sat across from me to eat, he didn’t even notice my face was puffy. It didn’t bother me, I was happy he was there so I had someone else to think about. I shuffled through the mail on the corner of the table, opening up a wedding initiation from my childhood friend Melanie. It was for January. I asked Flint if he would want to go with me to Pennsylvania for it. He nodded and didn’t look up from his phone.

Flint’s mother had died two months before Polly. She overdosed and wasn’t found until her neighbor’s cat got in an open window a few days later. Flint had started buying weed from a man down the hall, and lost the job his father had gotten him writing a finance column. I had stopped talking to Flint about art and politics and my dreams. I didn’t know if it was because we had stopped watching the news, I had given up on my dreams, or something else. I had quit my weekend job the week before Flint lost his position, and my manager only let me back because I had started going out with the regulars after I got off. It brought in business. Working there made me feel like I was drawn with a thin and feeble line that could easily be rubbed with an eraser and reshaped.

The bar was by a big bank building, where lots of stocky suits would come and close it down. I was commonly distracted by how fat their fingers were, how it made their wedding rings look like they could pop off at any moment. My favorite customer had been a man named Gary, he and his wife were swingers. He was my favorite because after we closed one Saturday night, I had gone with them down the street to a bar that was open an hour later. He bought me several drinks and, because I had flashed my tits to him and his wife, he started tipping me in hundreds. Flint didn’t even realize the increase in funds.

Gary must have told the other regulars about my little stunt. One night when I had walked around to the customer side and leaned over to wipe the counter, a man slid his hand swiftly up my dress and tucked a fifty into the side of my underwear. I was so startled I had knocked a wine glass over and it slid into the ice bin on the other side and shattered. I decided I had to quit again.

At home when Flint and I had sex, I had started just flipping over and arching my back because it made him finish faster and we didn’t have to look each other in the eye.

I watched the woman in the red dress eat the veal as I wordlessly handed dishes to the rest of my section. She simply watched people on the street go by. She cut her food with real etiquette, she didn’t keep her fork in her left hand after cutting like me, and her elbows stayed off the tablecloth. Manners that would make my grandfather smile. I was staring at her, but she must have thought I was going to approach her because she waved, offered a smile. She asked for a box and piece of chocolate cake.

When January had rolled around Flint and I went to Melanie’s wedding. She was beautiful and smiled a lot and married a man from Philadelphia who worked in banking. I hadn’t seen her in a long time and realized I looked tired and thin and was dressed in black like I was mourning. Flint and I had been placed on the outskirts of the seating arrangement, at a table with other people who had gone to my high school. The woman next to me was one I had always disliked, and her husband was arrogant but he was a doctor. She had turned to Flint, after doting on my unconvincing explanation of the gallery job, and asked him what he did. We both knew the answer was nothing, but I started talking about the finance column. He excused himself to go to the bathroom and when he didn’t come back and I decided to get drunk. The wedding had been at the Ritz in Philly and when I caught a rideshare back to the very non-ritz hotel we were staying at, Flint was asleep.

I brought the woman in the red dress her cake and closed out the table with the couple. They weren’t very endearing and tipped me ten percent. I tried calling Flint again in the bathroom until I decided it was probably a waste of my time.

In June of that year, Flint and I hit the six-year mark. On our anniversary, we would always go to Red Robin. Just like that very first time, he would order the Black & Bleu burger (I would crinkle my nose because I hated bleu cheese) and he would try and kiss me as I hit him away. I would get a greasy basket of onion rings, even though I didn’t even like onion rings anymore. The morning of our anniversary I mentioned going, and he said we shouldn’t bother. He hadn’t held a job in almost a year, he had ignored my birthday the week before, and his father had stopped calling.

I felt badly about it all day at the gallery, so on the way home I had stopped into Red Robin for pick up anyway. I swallowed nausea the whole ride back to the apartment, the warmth of the takeout bag nuclear in my lap.

I had unlocked the door and he was in bed, asleep. I set the bag down, sat at the yellow table and stared at my framed drawing of the dick-less nude model from across the room. I wept. Flint woke up, came to get a glass of water, and didn’t say anything. Before he could walk away, I told him he needed to go to therapy. He told me to go fuck myself. I took out his burger and threw it at him, knowing I would have to scrape bleu cheese off the tiled kitchen floor later.

It was almost July, so the patio was still warm without the sun as I brought the woman in the red dress her bill. She left me a nice tip and told me to have a nice night. I cried and smoked the whole way home and when I got there I started packing a box. Flint just sat on the couch and watched me.

I can’t do it anymore, you are killing me. Fucking killing me.

I was losing it, I kicked the couch. He took a bowl. I told him he was a 27-year-old man. He said softly that I used to believe in him. I steeled.

I took the box, went to our room, started filling it. I dragged a wooden chair in front of the dresser, stood on it, carefully removing the print of Hopper’s Morning Sun off the wall. My research mentor had given it to me when I graduated. She said like I looked like his only model, Hopper’s wife Jo, who gave up her career to manage his. She called his paintings their children. I stopped for a moment, overcome with how crowded I felt by Flint and his problems. Then pulled my drawers out of the dresser, letting them crash on the ground, splintering wood. I pushed the chair over, manic, agonized, dizzy. I threw half my underwear into the box, and paused at the toy car sitting on the nightstand. Flint had given it to me the first time he told me he loved me. Six years ago. I got in the bed, turned off the light and stared at the ceiling fan.

I walked along the streets of New York City, and thought about how I never imagined ceaselessly contributing to the noise and clatter of urbanity. In that moment I understood the city in full color was painful, terribly overwhelming, and liberating. It was my birthday and a little over a year since I left him. I found a nice French restaurant, lidded with green awnings and gold script. I asked the host for a table for one.

I was, after all, alone.

I sat, opened the menu. Smiled. I was wearing a red dress and ordered the veal. I ate the whole goddamned thing.

Love

About the author

Talia Nicole

Freelance writer and JD candidate in early twenties.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (7)

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  • Kat Thorne4 days ago

    That was fantastic. I think a lot of people can relate to the emotions relayed. Beautifully written!

  • Kendall Defoe4 days ago

    You scrambled my head with this one. I love the switch between the then and the now and that amazing conclusion.

  • Terrye Turpin5 days ago

    Very nice, wonderful sensory details that drew me into the story.

  • Alex Elmy5 days ago

    Wow. That was a wild ride and I loved every word of it.

  • The title had me hooked, and I had to read it. Now I want to buy a red dress :)

  • Amanda Nicole5 days ago

    This was the most beautiful thing I've ever read.

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