“Thank you, Mr. Callahan.” He gives me a disapproving glance. “George,” I correct myself. “thank you, George.”
“No thanks needed. It’s what I see. and you will be okay, you know that? I know you probably don’t think it now, but I’m telling you, one day you’ll look back on this time and think, thank God it’s over, but I got through it. I’m telling you.”
I look doubtful. I know I do because I can feel the doubt on my face. I can feel the way it turns down the corners of my mouth.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he asks, picking up his sandwich for the first time.
I smile. “no, I’m not sure I do, George. I’m not even sure I want that.”
“You’re so young, elsie! I’m eighty-six years old. I was born before the depression. Can you even imagine that? Because I’ll tell you, during the depression nobody could imagine me still living now. But look at me! I’m still kicking! I’m sitting here with a gorgeous young lady, having a sandwich. things happen in your life that you can’t possibly imagine. But time goes on and time changes you and the times change and the next thing you know, you’re smack in the middle of a life you never saw coming.”
“No, not maybe.” His voice gets stern. He’s not angry, just firm. “I’m going to tell you something no one who is still alive knows. Well, except my wife, but she knows everything.”
“Okay,” I say. I am done with my sandwich and he has barely started his. I am usually the one done last, but I now realize that’s because I am rarely the one listening.
“I fought in World War two. suited up right in the beginning of 1945. toughest time of my life. Honest to God. It just wreaked havoc with my faith in God, my faith in humanity. everything. I’m not a man fit for war. It doesn’t sit well with me. and the only thing that got me through was esther Morris. I loved her the minute I saw her. We were eighteen years old, I saw her sitting with her friends on the sidewalk across the street, and I just knew. I knew she would be the mother of my children. I walked across the street, I introduced myself, I asked her out, and six months later we were engaged. By the time I found myself in europe, I thought for sure I wasn’t going to stay long. and I was right, because I was only there for about eight months before I was shot.”
“Wow,” I say.
“I was shot three times.twice in the shoulder. one grazed my side. I remember being in that medical tent, the nurse hovering over me, the doctor rushing to my side. I was the happiest man on earth. Because I knew they’d have to send me home and I’d see esther. I couldn’t believe my luck that I could go home to her. so I recovered as fast as I could and I came back. But when I got home, esther was gone. no sign of her.”
He sighs, but it seems more a sigh of old age than one of heartbreak.
“I still don’t know where she went. she just up and left me. never told me why. I heard rumors from time to time that she’d taken up with a salesman, but I don’t know if that’s true. I never saw her again.”
“Oh God,” I say, now grabbing George’s hand. “that’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said. “I waited around for years for her to come back. I wouldn’t leave the town we lived in, just in case she came lookin’ for me. I was devastated.”
“Well, sure,” I say.
“But you know what?”
“I took each day as it came, and it led me to lorraine. and lorraine is the love of my life. esther is a story I tell young women in libraries, but lorraine makes me feel like I could conquer the world. like the universe was made for me to live in it. the minute I met her, she just set my world on fire. I forgot about esther just as fast as she forgot about me, once I met lorraine.”
“I don’t want Ben to be a story I tell young women in libraries though. He was more than that. that’s what I’m afraid of! I’m afraid that’s what he’ll end up,” I say.
George nods. “I know. I know.you don’t have to do it exactly like I did. I’m just trying to tell you that your life will be very long with zigzags you can’t imagine.you won’t realize just how young you are until you aren’t that young anymore. But I’m here to tell you, elsie. your life has just begun. When I lost esther, I thought my life was over. I was twenty. I had no idea what was in store for me. neither do you.”
George is done talking, and so he finishes his sandwich and we sit in silence. I contemplate his words, remaining convinced that living any part of the years I have before me would be a betrayal to the years behind me.
“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it. even if I can’t recover from loss like he did, it’s nice to know that someone did.
“I should thank you!” he says. “I am certainly not bored.”
That afternoon, I further compile research on Cleopatra. It occurs to me that Cleopatra had two great loves and look how they vilified her. at least she had a son and a dynasty to commemorate Caesar. at least she could put him on coins and cups. she could erect statues in his honor. she could deify him. she had a way to make his memory live on. all I have are Ben’s dirty socks.
When I leave work on Friday afternoon and head home for the empty weekend in front of me, it occurs to me that I could call susan. I could see how she is. I think better of it.
I walk in my front door and put my things down. I go into the bathroom and start running the shower. as I’m disrobing, I hear the cell phone in the back pocket of my pants vibrating against the floor. I fumble to get it, and as I answer, I see that it is my mother.
“Hi,” she says.
“Oh. Hello,” I answer.
“Your father and I just wanted to see how you were doing.
See how you were . . . uh . . . dealing with things?” she says. Her euphemism irritates me.
“Things?” I challenge.
“You know, just . . . we know you are having a hard time and we were sitting here thinking of you . . . I just mean . . . how are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” I am hoping this conversation will be over shortly, so I don’t bother turning off the shower.
“Oh good! Good!” Her voice brightens. “We weren’t sure. Well, we are just glad to hear you are feeling better. It must have been a strange feeling to be caught up in the grief of his family, to be in the middle of all of that.”
I turn the shower off and lose my energy. “right,” I say. What’s the point of explaining that I was his family? that this is my grief? that when I said I was fine I just said that because it’s something people say?
“Good,” she says. I can hear my father in the background. I can’t make out any of what he is saying, but my mother starts to get off the phone. “Well, if you need anything at all,” she says. she always says this. I don’t even know what she means by it.
“Thanks.” I shut off the phone, turn the faucet back on, and get under the water. I need to see Ben. I need just a minute with him. I need him to show up in this bathroom and hug me. I just need him for a minute. one minute. I step out of the shower, grab my towel and my phone.
I call susan. I ask her if she’d like to have lunch tomorrow and she says she’s free. We agree on a place halfway between us, and then I put on a robe, get in bed, smell Ben’s side, and fall asleep. the smell is fading. I have to inhale deeper and deeper to get to it.
Susan has suggested a place in redondo Beach for lunch. apparently, she and Ben came here often over the years. sometimes, before steven died, they would all meet up here for dinner. she warns me not to expect much. “I hope you’re okay with chain Mexican restaurants,” she says.
The restaurant is decorated with bulls, hacienda-style tiles, and bright colors. It’s aggressively cheesy, wearing tacky like a badge of honor. Before I even reach susan’s table, pictures of margaritas have accosted me about nine times.
She’s sitting in front of a glass of water when I find the table. she gets up immediately and hugs me. she smells the same and looks the same as always: composed and together. she doesn’t make grief look glamorous, but she does make it look bearable.