Today I am bringing back a story from my early days as a columnist. It’s a bit of a fantasy inspired by people-watching at my favorite ice cream parlor (it has a jukebox and framed Norman Rockwell posters on the wall). Join me as an invisible observer…
Two couples occupy tables at opposite ends of the room. They can see but they cannot hear each other.
Both are dawdling over coffee and dessert. The pair at the front of the restaurant is young. The boy nineteen. The girl a smidge younger. His name is Jason. Hers is Aileen. They are attractive kids. He is long and lanky with the look of a varsity basketball player. She is petite and elfin with a smattering of freckles. They are gazing into each other’s eyes over the debris of crockery and utensils.
And that is how we temporarily leave them: Aileen unconsciously stirring the already well-stirred coffee in her mug. Jason nervously cracking his knuckles between his knees.
At a table near the kitchen sit Gregory and Harriet.
Gregory is sixty-three years old. He has a nice head of silver gray hair, a ruddy face, and intelligent eyes. His chair is tilted back casually against the wall. Harriet, opposite, has a pretty face surrounded by curly brown hair. She is fifty-six years old, slim, and does not try to hide the laugh lines at the edges of her mouth, which is mobile and expressive. When she talks, her eyes keep returning to Gregory’s, as though her thoughts were birds and his face a familiar and friendly place to roost.
“It’s a different career entirely,” she says. Then she shakes her head. “But not really. The discipline is the same. It’s just that now I’ll be teaching instead of practicing. What do you think?”
Gregory drops his chair to the floor. The legs land with a loud thump. He grins. “I think it’s great. I think you’re great. And I think it’s about time that you married me.”
Harriet flutters her eye-lashes and, mimicking the ingénue in a British drawing room comedy, simpers, “Oh, Reginald. This is so sudden.”
Gregory laughs. They have been married for thirty years. He adds. “Nothing to be nervous about. Change is good. And it will be fun to work together in the same college. If I don’t crash and burn as department head.”
She pats his hand. “You’ll do fine.” Then realizing that her coffee cup is empty, she signals to the waitress. As she waits for her refill, Harriet glances around the restaurant. She notices the young couple sitting at the table near the window. She taps her husband’s hand again and motions him to look.
The teenagers, of course, are unaware of anyone except themselves.
Jason has stopped cracking his knuckles.
“Aileen,” he whispers huskily. “This is the best day of my life. I should be scared to death, but I’m not. All I can think is that the world is out there waiting for me, and there’s nothing I can’t do.”
“That’s a double negative. Good thing Mrs. Rude isn’t listening, or she’d revoke your scholarship.”
Neither says anything for a long moment. Then Aileen turns away from Jason and dispassionately studies the view through the window of the street. “Do you think that we’ll miss it?” She asks.
“Our families. Our friends. The town.”
Jason nods. “For a few weeks. Then you’ll be going to auditions to become a great actress, I’ll be fiddling with equations that will get me a full professorship at MIT, and we’ll both be too busy to miss anything.”
Aileen sighs deeply. “It’s all just too, too exciting.” Her eyes are misty with a wistfulness that could be misinterpreted as tears. “I think I am going to die of happiness right here. Right now. And the waitress will have to sweep me out with the crumbs from the chocolate chip cookies.”
Again, they gaze into each other’s eyes. Their excitement dissolves into silence and they do not notice when Gregory and Harriet pay their bill, grab their things, and get up. As the older couple moves toward the door, Gregory’s coat sleeve inadvertently brushes against Aileen’s shoulder.
“Oh,” Aileen says, staring after them. “Those poor, dears. It must be terrible to be so old and to have nothing left to live for. Nothing left to do.”
Gregory and Harriet descend the restaurant steps. When they reach the sidewalk, they stop, look up at the sky, and see a crescent moon. They inhale deeply. There are the sweet scents of summer in the air. Gregory reaches for his wife’s hand and says, “Let’s walk.”
She hesitates and glances back toward the restaurant. “There were tears in that girl’s eyes, Gregory,” Harriet says, her voice soft with concern. “And she’s so young. They both are. Babies. Foolish, inexperienced babies. How awful it must be to have everything in the world to live for, but to be scared to death of life.”
Gregory tugs on Harriet’s hand. They begin walking. “I remember being nineteen,” he says and shakes his head. “I wouldn’t do it again for all of the money in the world.”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com