Birthday Bitch

I picked up a bottle of Bitch Wine from the endcap at Trader Joe’s, hoping it would give me an expressive, expansive, and inexpensive Cabernet.

An earthy and elegant woman stood on the other side of the display studying the chalkboard description. Her fingers twirled a supple lock of hair as she read about the voluptuous succulence and creamy mouthfeel of this sassy, full-bodied red.

Her daughter approached, looking adorable in pink leggings which matched the collar of her dress, and clutching a box of Joe-Joes. She stared up at her mother with the cloying sweetness of pleading eyes.

“Put those back, please. We have plenty of junk food at home,” said the mother, not taking her eyes off the wine display.

“But, Mo-om…”

“I said, ‘No!’”

“Buut, Mo-o-o-om…”

The mother looked down at her daughter, exchanging an unspoken communication. Her body sagged and her face crushed into a yearning-to-flee expression. She grabbed two bottles of wine, holding them to her breasts. “Okay. You can have them. But today is the last day of your birthday month!”

Today is the last day of my birthday month and my 50th birthday.

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Young Love in Old People

They were so easy to serve, I almost made the mistake of giving them very little attention and dismissing them as uninteresting in lieu of the more needy tables around them. They were lumpy in their comfortableness. Her shoulder-length gray hair sat limply on her head. She wore a simple dress with sensible shoes. His hair was thinning and neat and his sports coat looked worn and clean. Soft and smiling, they brought a quiet dignity to The Pie Shoppe, where many of the young customers sat crumpled into casually torn jeans or sweats. They blended into the bland decor of the restaurant, where the bright colors and brash brassiness of their younger counter parts screamed their being.

Their food was finished and he asked for the check. “We have to go home so she can have her way with me.”

Did I just hear this bland old man make an indirect sexual reference? That was the last thing I expected from a smiling great-grandparent. I felt uncharacteristic warmth on my cheeks and giggled self-consciously. “Well, don’t get too crazy now.”

The woman burst out laughing. “Oh! You have no idea!”

I laughed too. “Well, I guess not!”

He said, “She’s insatiable. I didn’t know I could keep up with her. At first I thought she’d break me. But this old soul’s got some dance in his step.”

“It’s good to know it doesn’t go away!” I said.

“Oh no. It just gets better,” said the woman.

After their check was paid, they gathered themselves slowly together as I said good-bye and thank you. She handed him his cane, then walked ahead as he paused to talk to me, touching my arm as he spoke. “You know, we met again after 60 years. We knew each other in school and didn’t even date. We went our separate ways for 60 years. Now, we’re like kids again! I didn’t know it could be like this.”

My spirit soared as I watched him walk away, stepping lightly despite his need for a cane. Young love in old people. I didn’t know it could be like that either.

Passages

I stood at the hostess stand and one of my regulars, The Wife, walked in with a man who resembled her husband– same handlebar mustache, same slightly wild, side-combed hair, only they were sandy-colored instead of gray.

“Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever,” I greeted with a big smile.

She smiled too. “Have you met my son?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.” He and I shook hands then we walked towards a booth in my section. “Where’s your husband? Parking the car?” The words tumbled chirpily out of my mouth, even as I suddenly sensed what was next.

“He passed away a couple months ago.” She sounded calm.

My chest collapsed. My eyes stung. Death’s hooded presence was looking over my shoulder again, his scythe hollowing out my heart. I was still reeling from the recent loss of my cat. The Wife’s loss of a lifetime love, whose union was represented in their middle-aged son, and his loss of his father seemed incomprehensibly painful. All I could manage was, “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, recognizing compassion in my moistened eyes.

As they settled into booth, I asked, “Would you like your extra-hot decaf?”

“No,” she said with a tiny shake of her head, “I’ll just have water.” She’d never just had water before.

I looked at The Son. “I’ll have water too,” he said.

“He looks just like him,” I said to The Wife.

She puffed up proudly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes. I almost thought it was him when you walked in.” I was happy to make her happy. But, as I walked away, I looked back to see her sparkle had dulled like lead, and her ash-colored hair hooded her crestfallen face.

When they were finished, he approached me at the server stand with the bill book open, exact change for the bill on one side and a $5 bill–a generous tip–on the other. His father paid with the same style. I thanked him.

He stared at the front of the restaurant, a wall of windows and a door leading into the patio. The parking lot blacktop glistened darkly under the midafternoon sun. “He passed suddenly. A bleeding ulcer. I had lunch with him the day before. The next day he was gone. We argued at lunch. I didn’t get to say I’m sorry. I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The words were stated blankly, numbly, as if they were said before and often, but the repetition hadn’t eased their poignancy. Then he looked at me. “Life changes. It always changes. We can’t fight the changes.”

My mind floated to my cat. She was put to sleep in my lap by a home pet doctor’s needle. I had to fight the rising force in me to jump up and rip the needle out of the gentle hand, whose owner was invited into my home to do exactly what he was doing, to scream out, “Stop! Stop! You can’t murder my cat! I won’t let you! Please stop!” Instead, my scream stuck in my throat in a bilious lump. My hands caressed my kitty as they had for all her 18 years, while tears dripped off my chin in steady rhythm. She was ill and had suffered enough. Any alternative was more suffering and little hope for much else.

Her surviving litter sister took it better. We all spent the morning huddled in bed, their purrs a continuous hum. As her sister ceased breathing, she moved restlessly about. The body was laid to rest in a cat bed to be picked up later by the crematorium. She sniffed her sister softly, then licked her gently, like goodbye kisses. She laid down to share the bed, as if she was still alive to snuggle, until the body became cold and stiff. She got to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye. I got to say I’m sorry.

No, we can’t fight the changes.

I said, “He will always be with you. He is with everything now.” I hugged him spontaneously, though I’d only just met him, then hugged his mother, who joined us at that moment. We said no more and they turned to walk slowly out of the restaurant.

Me and My Sweet Survivor