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I met my wife for dinner to celebrate our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary at a new place in downtown San Diego that we’d heard good things about. I’d retired from my museum archivist job several years earlier, but Alice still did a ten-hour shift three days a week as a social worker at a hospital for medically fragile children, and since our anniversary fell on a work day for her, we decided to meet at the restaurant afterwards. She also needed to stop at the Target that anchored a mall near her disabled brother’s apartment and get a few things to drop off for him on the way; Ed was able to live independently but relied on her assistance a couple of times a week. Because of those delays, I’d made our reservation for six-thirty, late for the two of us.
The restaurant was at the end of the Gaslamp Quarter, a neighborhood catering to nightlife and tourists amidst hotels, the convention center, and the bayfront. It was low-lit and small, quaint in an unpretentious sort of way, its dozen or so tables all full at that hour. I was already seated at ours against the far wall nursing a glass of Chardonnay when Alice arrived. As soon as she came through the doorway, her troubled expression told me all was not right with her. I stood when she reached me, we kissed briefly, and then settled into our seats across from each other.
I poured her some wine, lifted my glass, and said, “To us.”
“Yes.” She forced a smile and touched her glass to mine.
I waited until we’d both drank before asking, “Okay, what’s wrong? Something with Ed?”
She stiffened a little. “He’s fine.”
“It’s nothing.” She shook her head and looked around. “This place is nice. Cozy.”
I studied her eyes; they were what I’d fallen in love with about her first: tender, thoughtful, caring. I reached over and placed my hand over hers. She used her fingertips to curl ours together but didn’t look back my way. A waiter came by, set down menus, and told us about the specials.
Alice thanked him, let go of my hand, and lifted her menu. “So,” she said, “what sounds good?”
“Heard him tell another couple that the salmon special was his favorite. Apparently, only tonight’s chef makes that creamy dill sauce.”
I watched Alice slide the menu to the side of the table and take another longer sip of wine. The flickering candlelight from the jar between us looked lovely on her finely-drawn features. When I moved my head to interrupt her gaze, she managed another smile, then blew out a breath. I took her hand again.
“Come on,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Better out than in…isn’t that what you social workers say?” I rubbed my thumb over hers. “Talk about it so we can enjoy our anniversary dinner.”
She raised her eyebrows, blew out another breath, then said, “Well, there was an incident at Target. It was all over in a matter of seconds, really. Done before I could even think.” She shook her head.
I watched her lower her eyes, then raise them again to me. “A man and I were waiting for the elevator on the second floor, just the two of us. He was maybe thirty, a little disheveled in one of those hooded sweatshirts with a pouch. In retrospect, he did seem flighty while we waited…kept pushing the button like that would make it come more quickly. He was holding a package of underwear.”
She took another sip of wine, it seemed to me, in reluctant recollection. I said, “Okay…”
“So, the elevator finally came, and we got on, just the two of us. I stood on one side, he was on the other, and as soon as the doors closed, he began tearing the underwear package apart. I looked straight ahead but could see him clearly enough from the corner of my eye as he stuffed three pairs of men’s briefs into the pouch of his sweatshirt. Then he just dropped the packaging on the floor. I froze; I couldn’t believe it. Maybe two seconds later, the elevator reached the first floor, the doors opened, and he was gone. I stepped out with my stupid basket of socks, laxatives, and printer paper for Ed, and everything seemed unreal, like I was floating or something.” She made a gesture as if shooing away a fly. “The man had disappeared, no sight of him. One employee passed by me in a store vest, then another, and I did nothing, said nothing. Finally, I got my bearings, found my way to the check-out, paid, and left. But I felt horrible. Awful. I mean, what had just happened?”
“You saw a guy steal some underwear.” I gave a small shrug. “Probably couldn’t afford them, knew he could stash them secretly that way in the elevator.”
We looked at each other while she grimaced. “And I did nothing about it. Nothing.”
“What could you have done?”
“I could have said something to him. Offered to pay for those things. Told someone when I got off the elevator.”
“You were in shock. You reacted like almost any of us would have.” I gave her hand a squeeze. “Honey, it was a ten-dollar package of underwear.”
She looked away and shook her head. In a quieter voice, she said, “I give training to new staff at the hospital about how important it is for them to report if they see colleagues stealing – gloves, medications, syringes, anything. And, yet, I didn’t do a thing myself in that same situation. I brought my items to the cashier, paid for them, took them out to my car…had at least ten minutes to consider otherwise…and then drove away.” She looked back at me and shook her head again.
“Forget about it,” I told her. “In the grand scheme of things, you didn’t do anything wrong. You hear me?”
I made the sort of nods I hoped looked assured, but she didn’t respond. I looked at her with those eyes and tried to fill my own with all the love I felt for her at that moment. I gave her hand a last pat, then refilled our wine glasses. A moment later, the waiter returned, and we both ordered the salmon special.
As dinner went on, Alice allowed me to steer our conversation to more pleasant things and seemed to recover herself. I got her to join me in trying to remember what we’d done on our previous anniversaries, but neither of us could recall even the most recent third; we both laughed at that. She brightened like she always did when we talked about our two sons, their families, our grandkids, when they might come to visit again. She told me that a doctor on her unit had gone on one of those river cruises on the Rhine we’d long dreamed of taking and had loved it. I kept my smile tempered; I had the tickets I’d bought as an anniversary gift for us to do that in the spring waiting for her to open in a wrapped box at home. Only during an occasional lull in our eating or conversation did I see her eyes hint at their previous troubled state.
We splurged on a piece of mud pie to split for dessert. When we’d finished and I’d given the waiter my credit card, Alice excused herself to use the restroom, and I let my eyes travel slowly around the restaurant. They paused at an older woman sitting with a man at a table near the door, and through the clutter of bodies in that crowded space, she seemed to be staring directly at me. It took a long moment for me to recognize her after all the years that had passed. Like mine, her hair was much shorter and had gone gray, but there was no mistaking the face and that hard, even glare I’d grown accustomed to at the end.
We’d met at the start of our second year of college in northern California and had quickly become one another’s first loves; we were both virgins at the time. One winter night, the condom I was wearing broke. Nine weeks later, once she’d made the decision, I went with her to a clinic she’d located in San Francisco that would give her an abortion. It was then that I’d first encountered the look on her face that I now saw. I saw it again often afterwards when I broke things off with her, haltingly and badly, leaving her heartbroken, crestfallen, aggrieved. Several months later and out of the blue, she called one evening and asked for my help with a broken front door lock at the cottage she was sub-letting from a professor on sabbatical. When I finished fixing the lock, I turned around and found her standing naked a few feet away. She extended a hand, I took it, and followed her into the bedroom. I had no protection with me that night, but thought I’d pulled out in time. I was all but sure I had.
I felt myself blinking in the restaurant’s dim light as her glare diverted from me and softened as she turned to the man she was with when he spoke to her. He wore a tweed sport coat with a convention center identification-badge lanyard dangling from his neck. Even from the side, I also recognized his worn, gentle face; I admit I’d googled her a few times over the years and had lingered a bit over photos of the two of them. I knew he was her husband and had distinguished himself during a career in the Pacific Northwest with environmental non-profits; she’d spent time during one of their early stops running a health food store, but then had become a research librarian, the sort of job I smiled over when I came upon its revelation because it seemed to suit my memories of her so well. The man touched his lips with his cloth napkin, folded it neatly on his plate, pushed himself up from their table, and moved towards the door. Before she joined him there, she gave me a tiny nod along with a final taut, measured glance, and then they were gone, the door yawning closed behind them. A kind of flush had spread over me. I swallowed once hard, then again.
I was startled when the waiter appeared at my side with our check in a leather folder. He set it in front of me, then handed me a customer receipt that was folded in half.
“A woman asked me to give you this note.” He pointed. “Another diner at that table by the door. She just left.”
He moved away as my wife replaced him, and I slid the note into my pants pocket. Alice lifted her sweater off the back of her chair, and I became vaguely aware that she’d applied a bit of lipstick and gathered her hair at the nape of her neck in a manner she knew I liked. She smiled and said, “Ready?”
I nodded, hurried with the bill, then took her hand when she reached it towards me. Somehow, getting to my feet was an unexpected struggle. We weaved our way through the tables and outside, then around the corner to the parking lot. I walked her to her car, which was just a few spaces from my own. We stopped at her driver-side door in a yellow pool of light from a streetlamp on the sidewalk next to us. Alice wrapped her arms around my waist, and I did the same.
She looked up at me and said, “That was very nice.”
“It was,” I heard myself say. “See you at home?”
She kissed my cheek and opened her door. “In a little bit. Have a quick errand first.”
I felt myself frown. Alice got into the driver’s seat, started the car, but left the door open. She said, “I’m going to run back to Target. Still enough time before they close. Tell someone what I saw.”
I knew by the quiet resolve in her eyes, as familiar as my own reflection, that there was no point in trying to change her mind. Her lips had closed into a thin, tight line. She raised the hand closest to me in a short wave, closed her door, then backed out, and drove away. She didn’t look back, but I waited until her taillights had disappeared thirty or so yards away as she passed by the front of the high-rise hotel across from the convention center. An elegant glass elevator, its interior brightly lit, bisected the hotel’s center and had just begun making a slow ascent. I could see the two passengers in it clearly, the woman whose note I held in my pocket and her husband. He was fiddling with his cell phone, but she was looking down at me. She was too far away to read her expression, but I didn’t need to; her countenance was as erect and impassive as the streetlamp by my side. I tilted my head up watching until the elevator engulfed itself in other buildings’ shadows as it approached the middle of its rise.
In its abrupt absence, I found myself thinking back to that evening of her door repair and how I’d crept out of her cottage after she’d fallen asleep. I ignored her phone messages asking to see or talk to me again when they began a month or so afterwards, telling myself it was time to end things for good. At first, the messages came frequently, but they eventually waned, then stopped altogether. Not much later, I heard she’d moved away and transferred to a different school. I knew nothing about her second abortion until I happened upon her older brother, also a student at our college, at the campus bookstore where he slapped my face before snarling the news. After he stormed away, I just stood alone in the aisle in horrified shock and disbelief… first, ashamedly, at the preposterous odds, and then at the numbing realization of the immense hurt she’d had to endure again. Even worse this time, and with me nowhere to be found. But I never tried to contact her afterwards. Not once, not ever. And until a few short minutes ago, I’d never seen or heard from her again.
When the elevator finally re-emerged out of the shadows empty of any passengers, I took the note out of my pocket. It held a single sentence in handwriting that sent a jolt of intimate familiarity through me even after all those years. It said: “I’ve forgiven you.”
Something inside of me broke off and fell. A siren wound off in the distance towards the bridge, and the ferry belched its horn to signal its next bay crossing from downtown. I stood still in the streetlamp’s milky glow and thought about Alice heading back to a place to try to undo a questionable wrong she somehow felt responsible for while an older couple, a good-hearted conventioneer and his wife, found their way to their mid-span hotel room across the street. Each of our lives was largely behind us now. Whatever window for redemption we might have left remained unknown, but one thing was for certain: it was closing fast. Our last octave approaching, if not already arrived. And like the glass elevator I watched heading up into the night sky, there was no denying that it was growing smaller and smaller, diminishing with each passing day.
|© 2023, William Cass||Go to top