Sixty-two years. To Mabel, it seemed like just yesterday that she had walked down the church aisle, a bouquet of tulips in her hands. Jack had looked so handsome waiting at the altar in his dress blues, his smile as wide as the Golden Gate.
Now on their anniversary, Mabel pulled on her violet dress. It was Jack’s favorite, although it hung looser on her than when she first bought it, her curves lost over the years. She fluffed up her short silver curls, and swiped on her signature shade of cotton-candy pink lipstick. After all these years, she still felt giddy.
On their first date, Mabel was so nervous that she had hardly said more than “thank you” the entire night. She thanked him when he picked her up. Thanked him when he paid for dinner. Thanked him when he reached over the shifter for her hand on the drive home.
A knock on her bedroom door roused her from her memories. “Are you ready?” called a deep voice.
“Yes, coming dear.” Mabel shuffled over to the door and pulled it open. The years had been kind to him, but to her eyes he was always the young man in their wedding photo. Shiny black hair, kind eyes, dimpled cheeks.
“You look nice,” he said, a smile lighting up his face.
Mabel looped her arm through his as he led her outside.
Ten minutes later they pulled up to the same place Mabel and Jack celebrated every anniversary since the very beginning.
Originally the restaurant sat by itself off of 1st Street, but by their thirty-third anniversary they were staring out the window at a strip mall instead of a grove of pine trees.
They walked over the cracks in the parking lot, Mabel pausing at a light pole to catch her breath. It occurred to her that this could possibly be her last anniversary with Jack, and the thought left her clutching her chest.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, grabbing her shoulder and peering down at her.
She swallowed, trying to moisten her dry throat. “Oh it’s nothing, dear. Let’s go.”
Once inside, they were greeted by a young woman with magenta-streaked hair and holes in her ears the size of dimes.
The sleek interior, mood lighting, and potted bamboo plants were a far cry from the checkered floors and vinyl booths that had previously occupied the space.
Back on their first anniversary, Mabel and Jack took what little extra money they had and cuddled in a booth, eating burgers and sharing a malt milkshake at the diner. The next year, with the addition of their first son, they figured the chatter of patrons and the music coming from the jukebox would drown out any newborn cries. After that, it became their yearly tradition, even when they moved a few towns over.
When the diner was sold in the seventies, the cherry-red decor was replaced with soft linen tablecloths, shiny mirrors, and clouds of cigarette smoke. Then for a brief period in the early nineties, the building was unoccupied. Rather than celebrating their anniversary elsewhere, Jack packed a picnic basket of deli sandwiches, coleslaw, and raspberry seltzer. They sat on the steps in front of the For Sale sign, eating on paper plates, and watching the sun disappear behind a pharmacy chain store. “Evergreens for Walgreens,” Jack had joked.
Now after a few more changes in ownership and cuisine, they sat at a glossy table and were handed menus with a drawing of koi fish on the front.
Mabel’s hands shook slightly as she opened the menu, a by-product of her 81 years on Earth. She longed for the days those same hands had the control to french braid her daughter’s hair or master “Clair de Lune” on the piano. For the days when her skin wasn’t thin and transparent, showing pools of purple that formed from every slight bump. Mabel sighed and scanned the offerings. Tempura and gyoza. Dragon rolls and hamachi sashimi.
“How am I supposed to choose?” she asked. “I don’t know what any of this is.”
“Try the California roll. It’s cooked. And their dumpling soup is really good. You’ll like it,” he said.
Mabel put her menu down, her sparse eyebrows wrinkling together. “When have you had the soup? We haven’t been here before. This was a steakhouse last year, Jack.” She noticed him wince, his lips pursed together.
“Nan, you okay?” He reached across the table and gently placed his hand on top of hers. “It’s me. Dom.”
Her world shifted then, like a filter being lifted in front of her. Jack was gone. Not just from in front of her, but gone for good. Her head dropped and she pulled her hand away, placing it delicately in her lap. “I’m… I’m sorry. Of course, Dominic. I missed my nap today, that’s all.”
A waitress appeared and Dominic asked her for a few minutes, then turned his attention back to his grandmother. “Maybe it’s time to think about selling the house,” he said quietly. “We can find you a nice little place where there are people to play gin and knit with.”
“I don’t need a nursing home. I need your grandfather back.” Mabel looked up, tears welling in her eyes. “Now don’t you look at me like that. I know he’s gone. I haven’t lost all my marbles yet.”
Dominic shook his head. “Nan, I would never say that.” He tapped the edge of his menu against the table, contemplating his words. “But, it’s been almost a year since Pa passed. And this isn’t the first time you have mistaken me for him. I think I should make you an appointment with Dr. Garber.”
Pulling her shoulders back, Mabel straightened her brittle spine as much as she could. “I am not a child. I don’t need you to call the doctor and I don’t need anyone to take care of me.” A memory flashed through her mind of Jack saying the same thing when he had a horrible cough that wouldn’t go away for weeks. By the time Mabel was finally able to drag him into the ER, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and had a week stay in an uncomfortable hospital bed. It took all she had not to say I told you so.
But this was different. She didn’t have an illness. At least not one that modern medicine could fix. Her ailment was one of the spirit. After six decades together, who could blame her for seeing Jack in the place of Dominic, who was his spitting image? Or in the butcher or mail carrier? Jack’s face was permanently etched into her retinas. His scent lingered in her nose, his touch on her skin, his voice in her ears.
Mabel felt as if she was going to dissolve right there. Just melt right into the teak wood floors. And if she was being honest, she would have welcomed it. But the concern her grandson wore so plainly in his features gave her pause. “Honey, I’m sorry. I know you are worried.” She gave him her best attempt at a smile. “But, I’m okay. I… I’ll be okay. I promise.”
Dominic nodded, letting out a small sigh. “Maybe it was a bad idea to bring you here.”
She looked at her grandson, part of the legacy left from her and Jack’s lifetime of love together. One of the many bright spots she still had on the dim days. She just had to keep her eyes open to see them, to focus on them.
“No.” Mabel spoke this confidently. “This is what your grandfather would have wanted. He wouldn’t want me home alone on this day.”
She watched the hostess seat a family with two young children. The kids were arguing over who sat where while the dad gritted his teeth and the mother closed her eyes, as if trying to imagine herself elsewhere. If only Mabel could make them understand how much they would one day miss the chaos. How for most of your life, time passes too quickly, but at the end you seem to have too much of it and most days no one to help you fill it.