This story is by Robert Burns and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I smile at Eliza across the table. She looks up from her menu and tilts her head.
“What, Jack?” she asks, batting her eyelashes.
“Nothing,” I say. “Just looking. I can’t believe my eyes.”
I speak the truth. Eliza is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Beautiful, smart, funny. The perfect woman and I am the lucky man who gets to be with her every day, the lucky guy who won her heart. I still can’t believe a goddess could fall in love with an ordinary guy like me. A princess should have her prince, not some slightly overweight, kind of funny, sort of quirky, average joe.
Ever since we’ve been together, we come to Gianni’s a few times each year. We always eat here on our anniversary, the anniversary of our first date.
I still remember that first date, the first time we found this place. We were locked out of my then-favorite restaurant without reservations. It was pouring, and we ran laughing through the sodden streets, stopping finally to catch our breaths under the canopy in front of Gianni’s. A taxi splashed by at the curb and showered us. Good thing I was quick on the umbrella, or we both would have been soaked to the bone!
That first time we tried the minestrone, advertised in the window as The Best Minestrone South of Houston Street! So, of course, we start with the minestrone every year now. It’s a tradition.
That night, we laughed and made small talk, and by the time we closed the place down in the wee hours, the rain had slowed to a manageable sputter. I walked Eliza back uptown to her apartment on East 25th Street, a fairly long walk that ended too quickly, at least as far as I was concerned. On the stoop outside her brownstone, I leaned in and kissed her irresistible lips for the first time.
I practically flew back to my apartment in Washington Square after that first date and laid awake for the better part of the night, drinking warm Chianti and smoking cigarettes in the dark, thinking about Eliza. I was the luckiest guy in the world. That was the beginning of everything, the first day of the rest of my life with the perfect woman.
Now, I look across the white linen tablecloth at my soulmate. “Can you believe it’s been ten years?”
“Only in my dreams, Jack.”
Raising our wine glasses, “Here’s to the next ten!” we say in unison.
Eliza takes a delicate sip and evaporates before my eyes.
In an instant, the reverie is shattered as my subconscious yanks me back into reality and jerks me bolt upright in bed. Cold sweat, heart racing. Another nightmare, I tell myself, gasping for breath. Just another bad dream.
My bare feet find the cold linoleum floor as I balance on the edge of the mattress.
“Jesus, you smoke too much, Jack,” I mimic, and reach for a Marlboro. I am tougher on myself now than she ever was. Maybe if she had been tougher on me, she would still be here. I scold myself for thinking that, for blaming her as if it were her fault. Maybe she would still be here, but maybe not.
I wait for my heart to calm, recalling my dream and thinking that it really has been ten years since that first date. Ten years. The Tin Anniversary.
It’s hard to believe that time has flown by so fast, even harder to believe that it has been over a year since Eliza’s been gone (I still can’t say the d-word). A full year. The Paper Anniversary. If time flies when you’re having fun, why does it still fly when you’re having the worst year of your life? I could never figure that one out as I floundered day after day. The individual days may drag by, so we can fully wallow in our grief, but then you turn around and a whole year is gone. How does that happen?
I have to admit that there were dark days these past months when I didn’t really want to go on, but I got through them, one at a time. Eliza would never have wanted me to give up. She was just upbeat like that. Life is harder without her.
So, now I have two anniversaries: our first date and that last day. The former, a wonderful memory of hope and the promise of a lifetime together, and the latter, a twisted reminder of the fragility of life and how that lifetime can be stolen away in an instant. One year and ten years. Paper and tin.
I perch on the edge of the bed in the gathering dawn and think back a year. The memory is vivid and clear. Too vivid. Too clear.
“Hey, babe.” I replay in my mind. “I’m out of smokes. I’m gonna run down to Pete’s to get a carton. I’ll be right back”.
“Do you have to? I thought you were quitting.”
“Next week,” I said, trying to be funny. It’s my standard answer to the I thought you were quitting discussion.
Eliza rolled her eyes and let me go. She always did. She hated that I smoked and always had something to say about it, but always let me go.
“I’ll be right back!” I bounced out onto the landing and down the stairs while she stood at the door watching me go. Thinking back now, I realize I never really noticed the shadow behind Eliza on the landing. If I had only paid attention to the shadow.
What really haunts me now, though, isn’t that I could have maybe saved her if I had been more aware. What haunts me now is that I forgot to kiss her good-bye.
Returning from the bodega, the blue lights flashing in the street were my first clue that something was very wrong. I sprinted to the front stoop. Policemen everywhere.
The rest of that night was a whirlwind. The crowded street. Cops traipsing in and out of the apartment. The endless questioning. Sitting in the open back door of the ambulance with a blanket around my shoulders, head in hands. Finally, spending the long night in the emergency room of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Bleary, I walked out of the hospital into the clear, bright light of morning.
So began my second first day of the rest of your life. They never tell you that the rest of your life is fluid and subject to change over time, subject to endless revisions and modifications. I’ve had at least two first days now. They set the tone, don’t they?
The alarm clock screams at me and I stub out my cigarette. Time to get dressed and go to work.
I climb aboard the D Train for the subway ride home from the office and find my usual spot in the crowded car by the far door. I still cannot get last year’s tragedy out of my brain and now I want a cigarette. If only I hadn’t left Eliza. If only I had quit smoking like she wanted me to. If only the latch on the street door hadn’t been broken. If, If, If.
I need to drag myself out of this funk. I’ll go to Gianni’s for dinner. That should help.
Surfacing at 4th Street, I walk up Sullivan and notice that Gianni’s is uncharacteristically dark. It’s closed! I can’t believe it.
I notice a woman at the glass door, peering inside through cupped hands. A bright tattoo of lotus blossoms cascades across her shoulders.
“Are they closed?”
She turns around. “I’m afraid so. The sign says: Closed for Renovations. When did that happen?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been here in a while.”
“Me either. Something just came into my head and told me to come over here for minestrone tonight. Have you ever been to Rubirosa over on Mulberry? Their minestrone is just so-so, but they have the best calamari.”
I consider the offer, torn. I haven’t thought about other women in a while. It’s only been a year, but yet it’s been a lifetime.
Shadows appear beneath the street elms, and the full moon reveals itself through the parting clouds. I feel Eliza tugging at my heart and see her smile in the bright lunar visage above. I am starting to feel a little better, a bit more hopeful.
“C’mon. You look like you could use some calamari. My name’s Hannah.”
“Let’s go, Jack.” She loops her arm through mine and starts to steer me down Sullivan toward Prince Street. “Seriously, you need some calamari.”
The moonlight sparkles off the fine glass aggregate in the ancient concrete sidewalk, competing with the lights from the boulevard beyond. The moon smiles down at me, and I feel closer to Eliza than ever before.
“You know, I think I could go for some calamari.”
The first day of the rest of my life.