This story is by Shonda Walker and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Since Charle’s death, I haven’t left the house to go anywhere unless it was to sustain my own existence. This consists only of the office where I work, the grocery store to get food, and the gas station in order to get back and forth between the four places. I just can’t bear it. Everywhere I go reminds me of him. In the beginning I could hardly get out of bed due to the heaviness in my heart and the overwhelming feeling of part of me missing. Kate at work told me about this new cafe and I decided weeks ago to try it by myself. It’s taken me this long to work up the motivation to come. Charles would have liked this place with its natural lighting, comfortable seats, and friendly wait staff.
I remember people watching as being one of my favorite things to do when we went out. We would select an inconspicuous spot at one of our favorite destinations. One of the sidewalk cafes downtown, the local zoo, a park bench, whatever we felt in the mood to visit that day. Charlie would read the paper and I would pull out whatever book I was reading at the time. However, I would focus part of my attention on the book and part on the observing the happenings around me. Not for lack of a good book, but because people are curious creatures, are they not?
If you pay attention to a conversation at a nearby table or watch people as singles, couples, and families while they go about their day you get a glimpse into their world.
“Ma’am, your iced tea.” So lost in my own thoughts, it takes me a moment to register the words. I look at the waitress who just spoke to me. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Your food will be out shortly.” I smile my acknowledgement and go back to people watching through the large window at the store front, facing out onto the busy street. I catch a woman looking disdainfully at a mother who seems to be in a hurry, walking quickly and half pulling her small child behind her. The boy is oblivious and doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.
I don’t understand why people are so hard on each other. So quick to judge when you don’t know another person’s situation, you have never been on their journey and their journey is theirs alone to create. Yet, we judge. As humans, it’s what we do. The disdainful woman continues on her way without missing a beat and the hurried mother quickly turns to say something to her young son. Just then, both take off running and the mother is yelling and waving her arms as she approaches the impatient bus that just closed its doors a few seconds before. Just as she reaches it, the doors open again like a gate allowing passage to those who seek its assistance.
I take a deep breath, feeling pleased that they will not miss their bus this day and I reach for my book. “Here we go. Club sandwich and fries. Anything else I can get for you?”
“No, thank you.” Smiles all around and she’s fluttering off to the next table. I eat absent-mindedly, watching out the window with the backward cafe sign “Old Time Cafe” etched across the top in black and gold. People passing by are dressed in warm weather clothes and it hasn’t rained in weeks. The spring weather reminds me of gardening with Charles for the last time nearly two years ago before his death.
The food is good too I think as I finish my sandwich and catch sight of a rather short and round man with wire-rimmed glasses walking past . He’s tethered to a rather large poodle.
Interesting choice. I would have picked him for a Pug or an English Bulldog type of man. Just then, the poodle raises its hind leg to urinate on the only tree planted near the street and instead “waters” an expensive-looking pair of high heel shoes that are now supporting an angry woman.
“Wow! I have now seen everything.” I turn around and look at where the statement comes from and discover a rather attractive male, probably close to my age of 39, sitting behind me at the next table. He is holding his chest and has tears rolling from his eyes due to laughing so hard. I raise an eyebrow of amusement and he points at the window laughing even harder as the woman takes her purse and whacks the oblivious round man in the head. His laugh is infectious and soon I am giggling along with him.
I don’t remember the last time I laughed like this. It feels like I am standing in the sun and I realize I have missed it. The laughing and conversing and people watching… It feels normal to me. The slightly-wrinkled blue eyes of the man are being dabbed with a napkin to rid them of tears. “I’m Luke.” he says, holding out his hand. I take it. “I come in here often and I don’t recall ever seeing you around before. New to the area?”
“Uhm, no. This is my first time in this cafe though.” He smiles. I feel a twinge of guilt at my attraction to him.
“Lovely” he says as he crooks his head slightly to the side and clears his throat. “Uh, this place has a lovely ambience and typically a good view.” We both chuckle at that.
He looks confused.I smile. “I’m Noreen and I agree. The atmosphere is pleasant and the view as well. I haven’t laughed like that since before my husband passed almost 2 years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry for your loss, Noreen.”
“I don’t meet many young women named Noreen.”
“I was named after my grandmother and I think it fits me as I tend to believe I have an old soul.”
Luke and I sat and chatted for a little while. It felt good to have a casual conversation with someone outside of work who wasn’t looking at me with piti-filled eyes. Two years of mourning Charles. The time has just passed by without my noticing, as if I have slept through the whole period. He was the love of my life and I was completely ruined after the car accident. My employer allowed me to take some time off from work, but it wasn’t enough and it was so hard to go back. No amount of time in the world would have been enough.
I struggled with normal tasks for months after I returned. My boss was patient and understanding and I did not take that for granted. I finally decided to speak with a therapist when my boss spoke with me about her concerns for me. She assured me there was not an issue with my work, but felt like I needed to speak with someone about my grief. I agreed to reach out and found someone I could trust. It took a long time to climb out of the hole I had fallen into. In fact, I’m not quite sure I am out yet but I am much closer to the top now than I was a year ago.
I had completely shut out all of my friends and family. Over the phone, I pretended I was fine and I just kept playing the part but in reality I was depressed and felt so alone. I was angry with Charles for leaving me and not being more careful or safer or whatever I came up with to blame him for skidding off the road that night.
“Noreen, you ok?” I realize I had drifted a bit too far and was no longer paying attention to the present. My therapist tells me to try to focus on the now. “Yes, of course. I was just thinking of the past.” Luke smiles warmly.
“Noreen, it was a pleasure meeting you. However, I do need to run. But I am here every Saturday for lunch and if you feel like having a conspirator in your people watching, you are free to join me at my table.”
“Well, that is a nice offer. I may take you up on it.” He held the door for me as we both left the cafe and turned to go in opposite directions.
It has been so long since I have been out of the house I don’t feel like going back home just yet. Instead, I find myself driving to the cemetery and sitting in front of Charlie’s marker, where I have had many silent conversations in the past. I knew that I needed to move on with my life and heal from my pain. As I turned to leave, I saw a butterfly land on Charle’s marker and spread its wings in the warm sun.