“Water,” they all say, one after the other around the table.
The waitress turns to me with a smile, pen and pad in hand. I look around at my kids with a quizzical gesture of my hands that indicates my mild astonishment. Really? Water?
I turn to the waitress. “Top shelf margarita on the rocks. With salt. Sure you don’t want one, Trina? Oh, and let’s have some chili con queso especial.”
The kids are grateful for the appetizer and under his breath, my youngest says, “Sweet!” Trina looks at me sideways with tired eyes and a blank face except for the little twist at the side of her mouth.
I quickly recount how long it’s been since we ate out and, realizing we’ve been good for almost three weeks, I decide to reward myself with one of the Favorites de La Casa. When the waitress comes out with the food, my plate of combo fajitas is the star of the evening, steaming and sizzling and casting up delicious white plumes fresh from the grill.
Trina’s plate contains the only thing she ever orders in Mexican restaurants, which also happens to be one of the cheapest on the menu, chicken enchiladas. The kids order things like a quesadilla, cheese pizza, or three crunchy tacos.
We have a great time quoting movies, the boys reciting bits of science knowledge, my daughter singing little snips of songs or recounting a funny family story. Trina quietly takes care of messy faces in between bites. When the waitress returns inquiring about dessert, I look grandly around the table at each with my eyebrows raised.
No one has any room left. I order coffee. She brings it with the check and heartfelt thanks. We leave stretching and belching, feeling that the evening has been special.
The next day Trina tells me that our youngest needs another pair of soccer cleats because he has outgrown his current pair. I feel my ears getting hot. Mentally I deduct $120 from checking and wonder whether we can make it to Thursday. I know the utilities do not charge a late fee until five days past the due date, and, as I have done more than once, I log on to the bank account and adjust the payment date to a few days later. I find her in the kitchen. “Why does he need such fancy shoes anyway?”
“He’s a growing boy.” She’s not telling me anything I don’t know. He also has to have special inserts because of his oddly shaped feet.
“Seems like he just got new shoes at the beginning of the season.”
“Jeffrey,” she says with a dull edge, cutting off pieces of potato and dropping them in the boiling water, “that was in July.”
“Right! I know. Can’t he just get by until the end of the season?”
“He says they hurt his feet.”
I shake my head in resignation. “Can the orthotics be reused at least?”
“Probably. But Daisy chewed up his shin guards last night and he’ll need a new pair of those.”
I knew the absurdity of what I wanted to say. The kid has no money of his own.
The first few times the kids left shoes or toys or electronics out for the dog to destroy, I was indignant, submitting them gleefully to the destiny that their own sloth had afforded them, sarcastic, gloating.
“I guess you’ll learn not to leave her good loafers laying around the living room anymore, won’t you! NO, I’m not buying another pair. That will have to come out of your own money.”
Meanwhile I am increasingly aware that the cars are 10 and 12 years old respectively, and we have no savings with which to think about replacing them.
I am getting dressed for the day. I am remotely aware that the fabric of my boxers is growing thin and a hole has worn through in the crotch, that my undershirt is a grayish hue, that I am putting on a short-sleeve button down that I got four cities ago. Fortunately I still like it, along with most of my wardrobe, although not all of it fits anymore.
A few years back, following my wife’s lead, I swallowed hard and went to the Goodwill. She has no embarrassment shopping there, or at the factory reject outlet. I bought a couple of shirts and a framed painting of a hummingbird with a red flower and a four-slot toaster. It was $15 all in. The two shirts are nice, and we sure needed the toaster. But I sneaked the merchandise out to the car behind cheap sunglasses like a thief.
The next week at the Christmas orchestra performance of my middle son, which meets in the sanctuary of a local Lutheran church, my mind begins to drift during the clunky too-slow rendition of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” I notice the man in front of me. His cotton threads are crisp and perfectly white. The tips of his collar are stiff and straight and show no sign of wear. He probably gets his hair cut monthly. The performance is over and during the standing ovation I see the red, white, and blue designer logo patch on his chinos, and the cell phone on his leather belt that I would never dream of buying, because really, who would pay $700 for a cell phone?
Across the aisle there are the Powells. Our kids used to play together. My son would always come home happy, but with a strange disappointment showing in his eyes. I would ask him how his time with Cayden was, and he told about jumping on their trampoline, playing in their tree house, watching a show on their huge TV with the multi-speaker sound system, swimming in their pool. The boys never came over to our house to play.
I see that Tom Powell decided to go casual tonight and I’m irrationally thankful. I catch him in the aisle after the music is over.
“Jeffrey!” he says with an immaculate smile.
“Hey, Tom. Carolyn.”
I am suddenly overcome with mortification and a desire to get out of the building and into the darkness of the night. I realize how wrinkled my shirt is and soiled with the little red dots of spaghetti sauce from dinner, thankfully mostly hidden amid the faded plaid stripes. Tom is dapper and clean shaven. Carolyn is stunningly beautiful. I know she doesn’t work. I’ve seen her on many occasions in black tights with a yoga mat under her arm. She always has some fancy coffee drink and drives a big car. Now that I stand there beholding the two of them, I become a little short of breath. I tell Trina I need some air. I sit in the car weeping, waiting for her to come out.
It’s the Friday after our anniversary and I really want to take Trina somewhere nice.
“It’s always so crowded…”
“It’ll be fine.”
“I’m not really that hungry. I had a late lunch.”
“No? I’m starving. Come on. We have to celebrate. Almost 20 years, can you believe that? 20 years.”
“I know. Wow.”
“So. You feel like sushi maybe?”
“I’m not up for sushi tonight.”
“How about The Carlisle?”
“Are you nuts?! No way.”
“Well, what then. Italian? Indian?”
“I just want something simple.”
We wind up at the Flatiron Grill: steaks, seafood, Tex Mex, ambiance. She orders a Cobb salad and I get a 12 oz. prime rib. I don’t ask her, I just order two glasses of cabernet and the crab cakes, which I know she likes.
She can’t relax, I can tell. She fusses with her blouse and talks about how the humidity is making her hair not stay. She asks the waiter for a glass of ice water.
I’m searching for something to talk about, in a good mood and ready to enjoy ourselves. She’s on her second glass of water and has taken only a sip of wine when dinner comes out.
“I just want you to be happy.” I take my wine glass. “Happy anniversary, my love.”
She gives me a sincere smile full of love and lifts her glass. We touch glasses and they ring faintly. We each sip. Her shoulders are tense and she picks at the salad. I know what’s going through her head. She’s not hungry. If it were sloppy joe’s made from hamburger meat she found on sale, she would be hungry. Finally she puts some lettuce in her mouth while I’m dunking prime rib into horseradish sauce and swigging the last of my wine. Our eyes meet once or twice across the table as we chew. Then she leans forward uncomfortably and rests her wrist on the edge of the table.
“Are you sure we can afford this?”