I spin on the high leatherette counter stool, taking in the mirrored,overlit surfaces, the display case of cheesecakes and baklava, glossy fruit pies and multilayered cakes, the mostly empty booths and tables.“Overdone? Too much?”
“No,” Sylvie murmurs. “Just something… off? I don’t know. Kind of… fake?”
“Inauthentic? Insufficiently Greek? Too shiny?” My guesses are prayers. Please let her be complaining about the decor. Please let her be messing with me.
“No.” She lowers her head to the countertop, studying its speckled blue and gray glitter as if through a microscope. She straightens up, then tilts her head back to watch the twinkling glass chandeliers. “Unconvincing.”
“How so?” I keep my tone light. Panic won’t help either of us.
Sylvie finds my eyes and forces me to look. “It’s not real,” she tells me. “This diner is an illusion.”
She’s been fragile for months, depressed and anxious, sometimes suicidal. She perceives the darkest truths through the blackest lenses. This is worse.
“Right?” She gestures at the coffee machine, the waitresses, the cash register, the stack of plastic booster chairs in the corner, the coat rack. “Don’t you see?”
Things happen so fast with children. The baby stretching inside your body one moment is wailing in your arms the next. The infant you rock to sleep one night awakens a toddler at dawn. The child bursts and an adolescent emerges. You blink at the girl who always glimpsed fairies and added angels to the top of every kindergarten drawing, smiling down peacefully on the houses and horses and children below–because aren’t they always watching us, Mommy?–and a microscopic flashbulb misfires in her brain, and she’s suddenly terrified that the solid world is glinting and shifting and lying.
I practice the reflective listening her doctors have taught me. “So you’re thinking maybe this diner isn’t real?”
She nods, stares at her glass of water.
“Kick it,” I tell her. “Find out.” She obeys immediately, walloping the counter’s base with the toe of her Doc Martens. My teacup rattles in its saucer. The waitress glares at me.
Sylvie shakes her head.
I pay the check in cash, slapping a handful of coins down for a tip so she can hear the metal strike the formica. I lead her out to the grass that borders the parking lot, where six spindly maple saplings look undecided about the advantages of survival so close to the highway. I press her hand into the trunk of the closest one.
“Nature,” I say. “It’s real, isn’t it?”
She stares at the bark, then pets it with three fingers. I pull a pale green leaf, inadvertently bending the entire tree as I pluck it. I crumple it in my fist and open it under her nose. “Smell.” She breathes in the spring, rubs her lips back and forth across the bruised green flesh. “No one could fake that, could they?”
She shakes her head, squeezes the trunk goodbye, and follows me to the car, the crushed leaf clutched in her hand, the only evidence she believes.