“Hey, Leah, you wanna come get a drink with us after work?” Beatrice asked from the other side of the kitchen.
“Um.” Leah focused on her task of wrapping the silverware for next shift and tried to think of a reason to say no. One that was different from what she usually told them. “I don’t think I can. I have to -”
“Ask Mitch?” Samantha rolled her eyes. “That guy does not own you, Leah. You are allowed to have fun once in a while.”
“That’s not what -”
“She’s right. You don’t owe him anything.”
Leah remained silent. Mitch paid the bills she couldn’t afford on her waitress salary and he gave her a nice place to live. She did owe him. She owed him so much. And if that meant not going out because he didn’t like her to… well, then that’s what she’d do.
Beatrice sighed. “Leah, you’re better than this. You deserve someone that will build you up, not hold you down.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Leah whispered.
“Sure you do.” She grabbed her jacket and purse from the hook by the door. “Come on, Sam. We’ll have an extra shot for her.”
Her coworkers left and Leah finished up her cleaning. She waved goodbye to the manager and went out to Mitch’s waiting car. He revved the engine at her before unlocking the door to let her in.
“How was your shift?” He asked.
“Good tips tonight?”
“They weren’t bad.”
Mitch held out his hand without looking over at her and she set the folded stack of bills onto his palm. $87 tonight. Not bad for a Wednesday. She’d wanted to keep some and give him only what he would have expected, but she knew he’d find out somehow. And then she’d have to pay for her deception.
“Very nice.” Mitch shoved the cash into his pocket.
The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Leah stared out the window at passing cars and wondered what each of the drivers’ lives were like. Did they feel trapped?
At the house, Leah went to shower. Mitch didn’t like going to sleep with the smell of a diner in his bed. His words. She’d never really noticed a lingering odor on her clothes or hair except for the night the grill had caught fire. But she did as he asked anyway, never wanting to argue.
Once they’d crawled under the covers, Mitch reached around her and cupped her breasts. She wasn’t in the mood, but she didn’t refuse. He’d only get mad and make her sleep on the couch.
Afterwards, she stared at the ceiling while he snored beside her. She watched the fan blades rotate around and around and she wondered if maybe Beatrice was right. Could it be possible that she deserved better than this?
Monday night at work, Leah slipped into a corner booth to take her break. Her feet ached and her legs were sore from all the standing. She sipped a cup of coffee and doodled on a napkin. Lines spun out from the point and a bird came to life under her hand. Next to it she drew a flower, and then a mountain range. And before she noticed what she was doing, a face blossomed and it looked remarkably like her own, aside from the beautiful smile she didn’t recognize.
“Wow, you’re really talented,” a male voice said from above her and she jumped.
A man in a very expensive looking suit stood over her table, a cup in his hand.
“May I join you?” He asked.
“Um… I don’t think – I need to get back to work actually.”
“Don’t bother, Henry, her man’s locked her up pretty tight. All of her. Even her mind,” Samantha said as she passed by them.
Leah flushed and looked away from Henry.
“Well, then, can I at least keep your drawings?” Henry asked and scooted the napkin out from under her hand.
“Sure.” Leah jumped to her feet and dashed back into the kitchen. She fought the tears that had pricked her eyes. Beatrice followed her.
“I. Um. Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Leah. You can talk to me, I’m here for you.”
Leah considered. She wanted to say she hated her life. That she couldn’t stand Mitch. She couldn’t stand the way he made her feel. But at the same time, she’d be homeless without him. She’d be less than nothing. She saw no way out. But she couldn’t say any of that. Beatrice would give her a pep talk for an hour about how she was amazing and she shouldn’t be with a man who didn’t see that and on and on until Leah felt like she could do anything. But it would all crumble to pieces the moment she walked outside and saw Mitch waiting in his car like he did every night. He’d suck the words right out of her and she’d be his lifeless puppet until he was passed out again in bed.
“I’m fine,” Leah said again. “But that guy. Henry? Why did he want my doodles?”
Beatrice shrugged. “He’s a gallery owner downtown. Sam dated his brother last year. Maybe he wants to sign you for a show.”
“An art show. Like, he’d want you to draw things, then he’ll set them up in his gallery and then – “
“I know what an art show is. But I was just doodling on a napkin.”
“Yes, and from what I’ve seen, your doodles are masterpieces waiting to happen.”
Beatrice walked away before Leah could respond, but even if she hadn’t, Leah was speechless.
Henry was back the next night. And the next. He didn’t approach Leah again, but he sat at the bar and worked on a laptop. She watched him from her section and wondered what he was working on. Did he always frequent the diner and she just hadn’t noticed before now? Or was he coming back for a reason?
And then, two weeks after he’d taken her napkin, he stood in her path as she came out of the kitchen.
“Hi, I’m Henry,” he offered her his card.
“I know.” Leah flushed. “I’m Leah.”
“I know. Samantha told me a little bit about you. And I’ve decided I want to help.”
“What do you mean?” She continued walking, shuffling through the pages on her order pad.
“Well, I noticed you had talent. Then I talked to Sam and she’s been sneaking me pictures of your other sketches. And I’ve decided I need you to come to work in my gallery.”
Leah’s jaw dropped. “Work in your gallery?”
“Yes. And study art for a bit, and then work on an exhibit.”
“I… I… I can’t.”
“Because of Mitch.”
It wasn’t a question. “What has Samantha told you?”
Leah chewed her lip. “I can’t.” She pushed passed him and tried to focus on her work for the rest of the night, but it was hard. She’d only ever thought of her drawings as a meaningless pastime, nothing more. But could they be?
Henry was back the next night, and the next, and the next. He brought portfolios and spreadsheets and worked. But he didn’t bother Leah. He was just being very obvious about what kind of work she’d be doing if she said yes.
On the fourth night after she’d turned him down, a very old man accompanied him into the diner. They sat in her section and she tried to act as though Henry was just any other customer. She took their orders and served them, and was as polite as she could be. Until she overheard part of their conversation.
“I’m in between teaching jobs right now and I would love to be the artist in house for your gallery this season,” the old man said.
“That would be terrific. I’ve been looking for someone as brilliant as you to come on board. I have a few employees that would be great students.” Henry glanced up at Leah to check if she’d react to his words. He smiled at the look on her face.
Leah shook it off, handed them their check and went back into the kitchen. She needed to take her break now. She recognized that old man, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. But she did know that she felt more compelled than ever to take Henry up on his offer.
That night, she brought up the subject with Mitch for the first time.
“A new job? What’s wrong with the job you have now?” He barely even looked away from the TV.
“It’s at an art gallery. I love art. I think I’d like it better than being a server.”
“But you don’t get tips at an art gallery.”
“No, I’ll get paid a decent wage and won’t have to depend on tips.”
Mitch didn’t reply.
“I also really like art. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love to draw…” Leah’s voice went quiet. She wasn’t used to expressing herself to Mitch. He didn’t care much for her opinion if it wasn’t in line with his own.
“That’s nice. But I think you should stick with your current career. You have job security. This art gallery would be unknown territory and the diner might not take you back if it doesn’t work out.”
“The diner isn’t a career…” Leah stopped. She didn’t know how to argue with Mitch. He wouldn’t see it her way no matter what she said. “But okay. I’m going to get ready for bed now.”
Hours later, Mitch snored in the bed next to her. Leah stared at the ceiling and waited a little bit longer. Once Mitch flipped over and his face smooshed into the pillow, she knew he was really out for the night. Then she slipped out of bed and packed a bag with her clothes.
She really didn’t have any possessions, she realized as she walked through the house to clear all traces of herself. Anything she owned before getting with Mitch seemed to get replaced with his things until you couldn’t even tell she lived in the house with him. But that was fine. Because now she wouldn’t be living there.
Leah let herself out, locked the door, and set her key into the garden where she was sure Mitch would find it in the morning. Then she began the walk into town. The diner was 24-hours and that would give her somewhere to stay until it was a decent hour to call Beatrice. Her coworker would be so thrilled she finally left Mitch, she’d let her stay with her until she was on her feet.
Once she was settled in with Bea, she’d call Henry and accept the job. It was time to take her life into her own hands.