He looked up from his reading. “Sure. Yes, please. Your coffee is always so good. And the second cup’s always better than the first.” He smiled as he spoke, sliding the now-empty aging green-stripe mug closer.
Meg had watched generations come and go from Reggie’s Diner. It was the only job she’d ever held since high school; she loved the contact with people, enjoyed serving good food to appreciative patrons of the restaurant. Reggie and his family were accomplished chefs, offering anything from burger favorites to fine cuisine. Meg knew they saw her as family, and returned that love for them.
Edging toward 65, Meg was comfortable in her running shoes and scrubs she bought at a local outdoor and professional outlet. Today was Valentine’s Day so she was wearing her Minion top with Carl holding a huge, red heart upside-down that read, “I Love You” on it.
As she made the rounds, automatically registering whose coffee cups and water glasses needed filling, she thought of him. She’d noticed again those killer dimples and the way laugh lines suddenly appeared. He has a smiler’s face; it’s just at home there. Wonder why he doesn’t do more of it?
As she passed his table, she topped off his cup. “Thanks, Meg.” She smiled at him just to draw his own in return. As she turned to take a newcomer’s order, she noticed how quickly that great smile disappeared again. Having caught up with refills and orders, she stood leaning against the kitchen doorway, studying him. He’s some kind of professional. He’s always well-spoken, courteous and seems to appreciate company. Yet there’s a quiet assurance about him that makes solitude a friend. He’s comfortable with himself. Yeah. That’s it. He’s okay with who he is. He’s not a loner; he’s an individual among. . . what? Clones? Parrots?
Meg Brannon took care of herself. Aging was a fact, but she didn’t think ‘old’. She accepted the aches and wrinkles as the campaign ribbons of her life journey that they were. She just never let them dictate terms or use them as excuses. Few women half her age were able to keep up with her and fewer bothered trying. Meg was an icon at Reggie’s.
As she welcomed another couple and seated them, she thought back on the few times she’d engaged him in conversation. No, he is his own man. He’s no pushover. He’s sometimes here with his wife and one or the other of his adult son or daughters. But he’s just as often here alone, only he never seems lonely. Huh…
Anna had just clocked in and Meg stepped in the back, clocking out. Musing, instead of turning left toward the door leading to the parking lot, Meg turned back into the warmth and great smells of the restaurant’s interior. She was hoping he was—-
Still there. Head down, either studying or thinking about something. His face in repose seemed almost melancholy, a pensive sadness there as noticeable as it was odd. This guy’s working through some serious stuff, here. Maybe he doesn’t need—
His eyes were on her. “Meg?”
“I don’t mean to bother you, Joe. It is Joe, right?”
There. There’s that smile. “Meg, you’re no bother. Do you have time to sit down and share some of this great coffee?” He stood and held her chair, helping her scoot closer to the table before being seated again. Whoa. Who does that any more? An honest-to-John gentleman?
Suddenly self-conscious, Meg was only too aware of her tired feet, wrinkled face and unruly hair. She knew she smelled like the kitchen. At least I remembered the mint. I wouldn’t inflict buzzard breath on my worst—-
She felt his gaze again, this time quizzical. “You seem to have something on your mind. I don’t know you at all, but I’ve been coming into Reggie’s for over a year, now. And I’m a good listener.”
She sat for a few seconds. “Yes, I think you would be. Joe, I couldn’t help but notice that all the time you’ve been here today, you’ve been very serious, even sad about something. I mean, you’re normally quiet and usually reading or writing while you eat and– here she chuckled–drink gallons of our coffee. Today seems different. Not trying to pry, here, but I’ve been known to do a mean listen, myself.”
“Yeah, I’ve watched you, Meg. You’ve got a way with the folks who come in here. You really seem to care about them all.”
Embarrassed, Meg huffed through her nose. “Aw, g’wan. So–what’s up?”
Wordlessly, he slid a pale pink envelope across the table that had a card sticking out. She raised an eyebrow, looking at the card, then at him. “Why, Joe–you shouldn’t have.” They both knew she was trying to ease the sudden tension.
“Please. Read what’s inside.” His face had become utterly still, an unfathomable depth in his eyes signaling a private door was being ever-so-slightly opened. She’d never seen a man usually so self-assured so vulnerable.
Out of habit she flipped the envelope over. No return address. Just “To Joe” written in a feminine hand. Meg paused again… This is a big deal to him. Why me? He was so quiet, so still she unconsciously glanced up to be sure he hadn’t vaporized or been transported to Detroit.
Slowly turning the envelope back over, she slid the card out. It was a generic-seeming Valentine’s Day card. Opening it, she saw a folded piece of stationery. Unfolding it, she saw the same handwriting as she’d noticed on the envelope.
Joe, I should have written this a long time ago. I knew you were serious about me back when. Real serious. I was just so young and so—I don’t know. I didn’t know what I wanted out of life, but I did know I wanted out of that little town. I wanted to see the world, have fun, be my own person. And I did. I won’t bore you with messy facts.
I read something you wrote one time, “We are all the sum of our own choices.” That’s me. The sum of a few lousy choices that seem to have overshadowed the good ones. I didn’t know I cared so much about you until I saw where you’d written your first book. I read it and suddenly realized how close you’d come to leaving us.
The words were small but neatly legible as if written by a strong, take-no-prisoners personality. Meg read on:
It was a shock when I realized I didn’t want you to leave me. Not ‘us’, but me. Fast forward to Reality, huh? Like they say, Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. It sure happened to me. Anyway, Joe, just want you to know I think I messed up when I decided you were too boring, too nice, too–whatever. I’m sending this anonymously because I know you have a great life, a good wife and family. I’m not here to get in your way. I just wanted to let you know I’m out here, I admire who you’ve become, and I miss the you I never had.
As she slowly refolded the paper, Meg glanced at the right side of the card where people usually add last-minute remarks. There it was again, this time in all caps:
I MISS THE YOU I NEVER HAD.
Meg quietly slid the card back in its envelope. Tears were coursing down her lined cheeks and as she raised her brimming eyes she saw that Joe had quietly been crying as men do: gritting his teeth, looking down and doing his best to not show the keenness of emotion he surely felt.
Taking a sip of coffee, she made a face. Cold coffee does not go with old friends. . . She’d retrieved the coffee carafe, refilled it with hot coffee and brought it back to Joe’s table, refilling their cups before it caught up with her: Joe and I aren’t old friends. . . Her brow wrinkled as it hit her.
No. Joe and I aren’t. But he reminds me of Alan. . .
Blowing her nose rather undaintily into a napkin, she wadded it up and stuck it in the pocket of her scrubs. It looked like Carl was munching on it.
“Joe, you gonna be okay, here? I got somethin’ I gotta go do.”
Off her feet, shoes and socks tossed aside, Meg opened the Valentine’s Day card she’d bought from Walgreens on the way home. She’d even bought a stupid pink pen. WHAT is WRONG with me?
Concentrating and trying to remember what she’d read that so gripped her, she began to write.
Alan, I should have written this a long time ago. . .
As she wrote, trying to compress 40-some years of living into a few pink-tinged paragraphs, her tears flowed freely again. She recalled something she’d recently read: Remembering can be its own private hell. It had been in a lesson at church about that rich guy and Lazarus. . .
Meg was as honest as the phantom Diane had been. When she finished, she signed off with the same stunning words:
I’m out here, I admire who you’ve become, and I miss the you I never had.
As she folded the cut-down piece of stationery, she paused, looking at the right side of the card. Picking up the pink pen once more, she struggled with the capital letters:
I REALLY DO MISS THE YOU I NEVER HAD.
Our world is so fractured in its assessment of what is love. Far too often, good people go to their graves never knowing any resolution to a love spanning almost half a century.
“Well, I don’t know how they’ll take it.”
How would you receive such a compliment?
Take the chance to tell people who matter to you that you love them. It may or may not make any difference now. But it might just give them some closure to the sense of loss they felt at one time. It might sustain and encourage them as they face something now they’d never dreamed of then. It might even begin a cycle of forgiveness sought and granted and restore a friendship the likes of which far too many never know: a treasured old one.
2nd Cup friend – may your Valentine’s Day be memorable. Use it to reach out and bless somebody else. They’ll remember you for it.
© D. Dean Boone, February 2014