Grace and I met six months ago. Mutual friends who had been conspiring to get us together finally succeeded.
We decided to meet at a popular local diner for coffee. I arrived early and sat on a fake leather bench in the cramped lobby with others who were waiting to be seated. I nervously tapped my feet on the floor.
The anxiety of this first date must have also shown on my face. A middle-aged lady sitting next to me to my left asked, “Blind date?”
I turned toward her, sheepishly grinned, and answered, “Yes.”
“That’s how we met, almost ten years ago,” she said, and motioned with her head to the man sitting to her left. The hostess called their name. As they stood, she looked back at me, smiled, and said, “Good luck.”
I gave a half-hearted smile in return and mouthed the word, “Thanks.”
Although Grace and I had no idea what each other looked like, other than vague descriptions our friends gave us, we instinctively recognized each other when she walked through the door. She had a smile like Annette Bening, and that was all I could see.
It was six p.m., the height of the diner’s dinner trade, but we managed to corral a window booth. Grace and I bonded and trusted each other immediately. We talked over coffee for five hours. I left the waitress a generous tip for allowing us to rent her table. Now in our sixties, Grace and I decided we didn’t want to go through life alone anymore. Two months later, she moved into my apartment.
One night, as we lay in bed, Grace asked, “How would you describe our relationship, Lewis?”
She has a knack for asking these weighty questions at the most inopportune times. It’s always when I’m ready to fall asleep. Somehow, she knows that’s when I’m most vulnerable.
“What?” I asked incredulously as I rolled onto my right side to face her. She had already turned off her lamp. My eyes squinted as I tried to focus on her, aided only by the broken bands of light from the street lamp sifting through the blinds behind her.
“How would you describe our relationship? It’s a simple question.” The muffled sounds of midnight traffic rose from the street two floors below our apartment.
Perhaps for her the answer was simple, but not for me. I was no more prepared to answer that question in my sixties than when I had to answer it forty years ago in my twenties.
“Not at this hour, when I’m exhausted and want to sleep. And why would you ask that particular question now?”
“Because this is the perfect time to talk—when we’re together and have no distractions.”
She’s right, partly. With our schedules, it’s probably one of the few times we get to talk to each other. I still work a full-time, modified, second-shift job. I rarely get home before ten p.m. and, by then, I just want to vegetate. Grace is retired, but teaches both a day and evening English as a Second Language class on a volunteer basis.
“You mean other than attempting to get some sleep before I have to wake up in six-and-a-half hours?” I asked.
“Well, that’s an hour longer than me. I’m up at five-thirty.”
“That’s out of habit and your choice, Grace, not mine. Good night,” I said as I rolled back facing away from the window.
“And where are you going?”
“Hopefully to sleep, please?”
“You’re not answering my question, Lewis.”
“I thought I just did,” I mumbled into my pillow.
“I heard that, and it’s not the answer I was looking for.”
Lord, help me. Exasperated, I turned on my nightstand lamp, rolled over once again to face her—like a dog learning a new trick, propped my pillow up against the headboard, and sat upright. “Christ. You really want to know?”
Grace is a pebble compared to my boulder-like build. She inched closer to me, reclined, placed her left hand under her head as a prop, and said, “Yes. I really want to know. And don’t bring Him into it. I asked you, and He’s not going to help you answer the question.” I’m Jewish. Grace is Catholic, and she doesn’t take kindly to me using her Lord’s name cavalierly.
“Why He’s not going to help you?”
“You know what I mean, Grace. Why do you want to know?”
“Because by knowing what you think and feel, I believe we can make our relationship better, stronger.”
“Okay. That’s a valid point, I guess.” I was doing my best to appease her.
That may have been her goal, but from what I know about Grace’s past, I believe the question stems from insecurities about where she stands in a relationship. I struggle with those same doubts, as perhaps most people do when embarking on a new association, whether it’s personal or business.
She’s had two marriages. Her son and a daughter were from her first—which lasted only six years, and was fraught with her ex-husband’s infidelities. The second was almost four times longer and ended when she became a widow. That was seven years ago.
I had only one marriage that endured longer than both of hers combined before I called it quits. With my ex, what I did was never enough. Never enough money, affection, attention. My worth, to her, was ultimately reduced to what I could give her. Our three children have the same mindset. My relationship with them is strained, at best.
Grace and I have shared morsels about our past relationships, her more than me. I’ve lived my life on a need-to-know basis; the truth comes out in dribs and drabs at my convenience. Perhaps—no, not perhaps—I know that was one of the many reasons my marriage ended in a heap of hot, smoking ash. I reluctantly shared that with Grace. She asked me to promise her that I would do better in our relationship. I said I would, and I always do my best to keep promises.
I’ve managed most of my insecurities: not being a good enough provider or father and husband, which stem from my previous marriage. There are probably also a few that I’m not conscious of, or willing to admit, but I still feel their effects. Those are buried so deep that some shrink attempting to excavate them, like an archaeologist digging for the bones or artifacts of an ancient civilization, would likely first find Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
Most of Grace’s questions are innocuous and odd, but somewhat humorous. She can be so endearing, but it’s when she asks questions about us that those entombed skeletons uncover themselves and rise to the surface. I don’t know why I’m unable to keep them interred.
I tried to deflect. “So, let me ask you the same question. How would you describe our relationship?”
“I asked you first, Lewis. I’m calling your hand.”
I took a long pause and slowly shook my head. I don’t see any way out of this. “It’s like when I was in ’Nam, on the river boats.”
“It was hours, sometimes days, of boredom split up by moments of sheer terror. You just never knew when the next attack was coming, or from where. Like now.”
She responded matter-of-factly, “So you’re equating my question to an attack?”
“Kind of. Not a frontal attack, mind you. Just coming out of nowhere.” I wasn’t smiling, and my tone was dark and anxious.
“Interesting,” she said, staring at me.
Every time she says that and gives me that stare, I know she’s thinking of another question, and each succeeding question gets more intense, more focused.
“Then does my question scare you—terrify you?” she asked.
“No. Not exactly.”
“It’s damn annoying. It frustrates the hell out of me.”
“I believe what frustrates you is that you know the answer and are afraid to face it.” Her tone softened, and she smiled. “You’ve gotten so much better at opening up, Lewis. I truly mean that. Just answer the question, please, and we can both go to sleep.”
Her smile was convincing, and I bought it. I wanted to buy it. It was the same smile that beguiled me the first time we met.
I’ve learned that Grace was a damn good prosecuting attorney in her life before retirement. It showed at times like this. She used her charm before asking those final piercing questions, which felt like the last thrusts of a dagger into some woefully unprepared witness.
“No. That’s not the way it works with you, Grace, and you know it,” I said, even more agitated. “You’ll have twenty more questions. You always treat me like a hostile witness in these bouts, and I know I won’t be excused from the witness chair until you’re finished with me. But truth be told, I mostly feel that you’re prosecuting some ghosts—not me—and it’s not fair.”
She didn’t directly address my anxiety. Instead, she said, “I promise this time I won’t. Answer the question and we can both get some much-needed rest.”
Once again, I was sold like some buyer on a used car lot being told that the car I was about to purchase was only driven to church by a little old lady.
“Fine.” Here it goes. “Living with you is like residing in a fireworks factory where they allow smoking. It’s not if there will be an explosion, it’s when.” The explosion was coming from within me. This is my previous marriage all over again, I thought, always having to prove myself.
That retort apparently got her attention, because she now sat upright, no longer assuming the pose of a Roman emperor eating grapes and sipping wine. Her dark, brown eyes narrowed and focused directly on me. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying we’re combustible, Grace. Your questions are like an open flame around gunpowder.”
“Bullshit, Lewis! We’re not combustible. You’re combustible.” She pointed her finger at me, and said as emphatically as she could, “This isn’t about me. This is about your ex. Isn’t it? Just admit it.”
“I’m not admitting to shit, Grace, because that’s not true,” I groused. “This has absolutely nothing to do with her.” But it did. More so, it had everything to do with me believing I wasn’t good enough for Grace.
“The hell it doesn’t. It’s always about her when it comes to us. Talk about living with ghosts!” She rolled her eyes, smirked, and shook her head.
I was losing ground and Grace knew it. She was about to unsheathe that dagger.
“Well, here’s what I really mean, Grace,” my voice elevating to match her finger pointing. “You ask these off-the-wall questions…”
“Oh. So, questions about our relationship are now off the wall?” she cut in.
“No. You’re twisting my words. I mean I just never know when those questions about us are coming, and that’s what terrifies me!” What really terrified me was that Grace might believe I’m not worthy of her, and I didn’t have the courage to say so. What if I wasn’t?
“There you go, Lewis. It’s only when I ask those questions about us. Thank you for finally admitting it. And it really doesn’t matter when I ask them, does it?” She paused. “DOES IT?”
Grace folded her arms across her chest and looked away. She wasn’t fishing for a response. Like any good prosecutor, Grace never asked a question to which she didn’t already have the answer.
I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and added sullenly, “I’ve fought one war in my life. I’m not going to fight another one. This relationship, like my marriage, is beginning to resemble Vietnam. Except in ’Nam we used bullets, not words. But the effects are the same: the walking wounded.” I sighed deeply, and I said, “There’re only so many conflicts a person can fight, and I want to be done with all of them.”
Grace turned her head toward me, her arms still folded. I couldn’t decide if the look in her eyes was hurt, anger, or confusion. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if I cared. I just wanted the discussion to end.
“What do you mean, Lewis?” Gone was the confidence in her voice.
In hindsight, I did care because I tried my best to limit the damage of that combustible moment. I gently slid my hand to touch her arm. “Grace, I’ve learned over the years which battles to fight, and fighting to keep us together is one endeavor I’m more than willing to undertake. I’m not a conscript in this battle. I’m a volunteer. But please, stop treating me like a combatant. Start treating me more as a medic.” I just wanted to be someone who stopped the bleeding and saved the patient, but I wasn’t sure if the patient was me, her, or us.
I asked Grace to look at the sign that I made which hangs by our bedroom doorway. It reads: “I would rather be crazy with you, than sane without you.” Then I leaned into Grace and said, “Why can’t you just accept that I love you—that I’m in love with you—and that I want us to work?”
I could see the corners of her mouth turn upward ever so slightly. Then she spoke. “I suppose I like fireworks, Lewis.” She kissed me and then said, “Now go to sleep, sweetheart. I know I will. It’s late.” Grace rolled away from me.
I turned off my light, realizing that our conversation ended the same way it began—with me in the dark.
L.D. served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 67, his life is quieter now. He lives in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania and is a member of The Bold Writers group.
His short stories have been published in, among others: Red Fez, Indiana Voice Journal, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Slippery Elm, Cobalt Review (Print), and Evening Street Review (Print). He has had several public readings at Albright College in Reading, PA.
L.D.’s website is: ldzaneauthor.com.