Baker, Florida—the Gator Cafe has a full parking lot. There are horse trailers, utility vehicles, trucks with red clay on the tires.
Inside is your all-American eatery. The kind of place where you can get a decent burger, or fried catfish.
My wife sits across from me in a booth. We’re having a conversation. It’s probably a good one. But the truth is I have no idea what we’re talking about. I am too caught up in the past right now.
Long ago, we sat in this same booth. I wore this same jacket. Same shoes. Same everything. I was younger.
That day, we were on our way home from Birmingham. We were tired.
Only the night before, we’d fallen asleep in a hotel bed, holding each other. Bouts of anxiety were mixed with moments of sleep. Every few minutes, we’d wake, press our foreheads together, cry, sleep, repeat.
They put her in one of those gowns. Before they wheeled her back, she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m scared.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I lied.
The waiting room was Purgatory. There was an old woman in the chair beside me. She was knitting. I asked what she was making.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m only doing this to keep from worrying myself sick.”
And since I didn’t have any yarn, I spent the waiting hours watching a hospital television.
I wasn’t in my body. I was ten miles behind my own eyeballs, thinking about the woman I married.
A woman who loved pink until one day she decided she didn’t want to like pink anymore.
“You can’t CHANGE your favorite color at your age,” I explained to her.
“I can do whatever I want,” she pointed out. “It’s my life.”
And she did. She hates pink now.
This woman wasn’t like other women. She had a loud voice, strong opinions. She stopped her car for turtles that were crossing the highway.
She was a girl who wouldn’t kill spiders, but caught them in paper towels and placed them outside.
She was the one who stood beside me when I told my crooked boss I was quitting. He screamed at us. Before we left his doorstep, she looked at him and called him a very bad name.
Her temper is legendary. So is her charity.
They rolled her out of the double-doors, I helped her into the car. I asked how she felt.
“I love you so much,” she answered.
We left the ugly hospital. We put the big city behind us. I was sick to my stomach, and strongly considering signing up for knitting classes.
She fell asleep with her head against the window, I cried as quietly as I could. I cried because this world does what it wants. It takes who it wants, when it wants.
Her phone rang. It woke her. I pulled into the Gator Cafe parking lot to answer it. It was the doctor.
She pressed the phone against her ear. She nodded. She covered her mouth. The dam broke. She dropped the phone.
When her face contorted into a full-fledged cry, she looked like a toddler.
“It’s NOT cancer,” she said.
We held each other for an hour. No theatrics. No Hollywood kisses. Just two people in a truck, holding each other.
“I’m starving,” she finally said.
“I love you,” I said.
This cafe isn’t much to look at. But the food here was the best I ever had.