When there's more to it all than just putting yourself back out there?
That's when it becomes more.
How do you weigh the past and who you are against who they expect and hope you to be?
Rene twists and untwists her necklace, looking toward the door for what had to be the hundredth time since she sat down. A young couple walks through the door, laughing and smiling. The girl leans into him. Twirling her hair as they wait for a table.
Rene turns back to the empty booth seat across from her. Beads of sweat slide down the glass of the water she ordered to signal she isn’t here alone. The ice cubes have morphed into slivers.
She lifts the glass from the paper napkin, pouring salt under it to keep it from becoming a permanent attachment—an old trick she learned from her serving days. She replaces the glass with the delicacy of a new mother placing a baby in the crib.
“Pull it together, Rene,” she whispers under her breath. Then wipes her sweaty hands on the cloth napkin she has already placed on her lap, ready and waiting.
The hands on her watch read 7:15, and she picks the worn skin on her fingers to combat the anxiety. Anxiety she has worked years to try to get under control. The fear of what if constantly working its way into the marrow of her bones.
She closes her eyes, working to count backwards in her head. Imagining herself on a beach, the waves lapping at her feet. The sounds of the seagulls in her ears. Just as her therapist has trained her to do.
She feels him enter the booth before she sees him. Relief fills her. Followed by shame. She berates herself for needing anything from someone. Yet, longing for it.
“Hey. Sorry I’m late. Traffic was insane!” he says. He settles into the seat, shrugging the coat from his body. Rene stifles a laugh as she reaches across to pull a small piece of bloodied toilet paper from his neck.
“Oh. Sorry. Guess I was in a hurry,” he says, blushing.
“So what’s good here?” he asks. They both thumb through the menu, working their way through the awkwardness that still seems to linger on a third date. Especially when neither are kids. And both have been searching. The needling question of “could this be the one?” constantly circling and threatening to crash the date. Followed by the deep fear of “if this is the one, what will it mean? What will people think of me?”
Rene looks through the menu, but can’t focus. The words and letters merge into one and float off the page. She puts her menu down and slides her palms down her napkin again.
“Hey. Keith. I need to talk to you about something,” she says. He pulls the menu down so that his eyes show just over the red edge of the laminated paper.
“Okay,” he says. The light in his eyes slides into apprehension. “Wow. You look serious. Should I be worried?” he asks, nervously.
“Well. I’ve been trying to find the right way to say this and I just can’t figure out how to do it. And I keep thinking that maybe there will be a way I could just slip it into conversation but I don’t really know how a person could do that without beings super weird and awkward,” she says. Then inhales sharply. Unsure if she has said anything at all. And yet, wanting to say nothing.
Why couldn’t this just never happen? Why does she need to tell him? She looks around at countless people laughing and enjoying their dates. Hands across the table. Feet intertwined. Why does this have to be so hard? Why couldn’t she be one of those other girls?
“Okay,” he says, urging her on. “Go ahead. I’m listening.”
She stares at her hands, hating the raw skin around her fingers. The trademark of her thoughts. She craves someone to hold them. Someone to see how much those hands have done. How much they have carried. What they have lost. To love the sweaty palms and all.
“I was married,” she says. She looks through her eyelashes, hoping for a veil to hide the moment. The silence thickens between them. Her anxiety creeps up her spine and into her scalp. Where it tingles and burns.
“And by was I mean there is a part of me that, well, still is. I am a widow. My husband died in Iraq ten years ago,” she says. Part of her wants to rattle off his MOS and all his amazing awards she has displayed in her home. His portrait keeping watch. The flag there to forever hold him.
She looks up, hoping not to see the look she has come to loathe. The one that meets her nearly every time his name is mentioned. Or she explains her tattoos. She wants him to be different. Hope rises in her chest, guarded carefully with iron bars.
Too many dates have ended before they began. Too many have made her defensive. A hardened heart hidden away. But something about him had seemed different. At least, enough for her to want to wait to tell him. Just for a couple of dates of pure bliss with no need to court reality.
He stares into her. Through her. And while she doesn’t see the same pity she normally sees when speaking her truth, she can smell it--fear. She exhales deeply and prepares herself for what she knows will follow.
“Look. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you--” she begins. A tall blonde appears with pen and pad in hand.
“Hello,” she says. “Would you like to hear our specials?” she asks in a deep southern drawl. Her pen hovers over the paper. Ever ready.
Keith looks down at the menu. Unable to make eye contact. Rene slides her palms down her napkin. The woman stares for just a moment, moving from foot to foot as she feels the unease moving into her bones.
“Could you give us just a second?” Rene asks, attempting a smile. The woman nods and puts her pen back into her apron. She moves to another table and restores her smile.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks. His shoulders slump. Rene’s chest tightens and she pulls her lip into her teeth. Somehow her reality always seems to become someone else’s pain.
“It’s a lot to put on a first date, you know?” she says. “Who wants to go on a date when it means there is a third person always there?” She reaches across the table and puts her hand over his.
He doesn’t move it.
He also doesn’t reciprocate.
“Too much to deal with?” she asks. The bars in her chest close. Suffocating out the hope. And adding the steel back into her spine. The hardness is comforting. It has never failed her. Or left her alone in a booth. Years of dating as a widow has a way of teaching painful lessons.
“It’s okay. I am used to it.” Her lips curl into a knowing smile. She leans back into the seat, ready. And resigned.
“That’s unfair,” he says. “You can’t just spring this on me and expect me to act like it is no big deal. It’s a lot to handle.”
She nods. It is a lot. It’s true. She would know.
A surge of anger heats her neck and she works to push it back down. It is hard for her to remember that there are people in the world who do not live the military life every day. They don’t know what it means to hear that bugle. They don’t know what it feels like to feel the weight of that flag.
She doesn’t expect them to. And she also can’t help but feel angry that she will never not know that feeling again. She will never be free to walk away from this like others can. And she wouldn’t want to. Carrying him around with her is all she has left.
He pulls his coat on slowly. Rene sits tall. She knows what to do from here.
“Just give me a little time to think?” he asks. Rene nods. He stands and makes his way to her side. Rene closes her eyes as his hand falls on her shoulder and he kisses the top of her head.
“I’ll call you,” he says. And then walks out the door.
She fights back tears. She pinches her eyes closed as tightly as she can. Forcing them back and refusing to give in.
The weight of him moves into the seat across from her, and a small smile curls her lips. A tear frees itself and slides down her cheek.
Now what’s a hot thing like you doing crying over some guy who doesn’t deserve to lick your shoe?
His melodic voice rolls over her body and into her chest. She opens her eyes to see him there. His dark hair. His wicked smile.
“The only thing hot about me these days are my hot flashes,” she says, laughing. He smiles and leans forward. Into her.
Don’t worry about it, okay? You will find the right one. I promise.
Rene stands and moves over to the other side of the booth, nestling herself next to him. Leaning into his smell. His breath.
“How about a drink?” she asks.
She raises her hand toward the server. The woman moves back across the room, uncertain but determined not to let it show.
“May I have a shot of whiskey?” Rene asks. “Best stuff you got.” The woman nods and winks at her. “You bet,” she says as she turns to walk away.
Rene pulls the napkin from under the water glass and searches her purse for a pen. She stares for several moments before writing on the napkin.
I love the way your hair shines in the light.
Rene smiles. Her heart pushes against her ribcage.
“No use wasting good whiskey on a guy who doesn’t deserve you,” she says as she places the shot on the table. Rene smiles and nods. She pays for the shot and waits for the woman to leave.
She curls her fingers around the glass. His fingers intertwine with hers and she exhales with relief.
She lifts it to her nose, taking in the pungent smell and losing herself in the memories. The laughter. The dress uniform on the beach. Her long veil flying away in the wind.
A rainy day in April as she cried into the last shirt he ever wore.
She pulls the napkin from her lap and wipes the tears from her face. She pulls her coat onto her shoulders and stands to leave. Never once looking back at him as she walks out into the cold night air.
The server returns to the table to find a full shot of whiskey next to a note on a napkin. She turns toward the door, but Rene is long gone. She moves over to the table to read the note.
Tears fill her eyes as she stares into the empty booth.
“For Jose. My love. Never forgotten. KIA April 15th, 2008”