I've Got Your Number
"Boy, what a rotten year! Thank God it’s the end of June. At least school is over until September. I can’t believe all these ‘life clumps’ are happening at the same time--job I hate, Dad dying, and Steve talking separation,” Tess said. She looked over the edge of her menu at Shirley and went on. “You’d think major disasters would come with some space between them, so you could at least have a chance to breathe before the next one clobbers you. Right?” She shook her head in frustration.
Shirley, still studying her menu, said, "I don't know if I should get the eggplant panini or the spinach pie."
"That's your answer to 'right?'"
Shirley put down her menu, looked up, and said "Right, what? I can't decide what I want to order. Should I get the pie or panini?"
"I was telling you what's been going on in my life, Shirley. How tough it's been trying to juggle school, Dad and Steve."
"Oh, you mean how things are? I know, I know. That's the way it is sometimes. You have to just get through it, one minute at a time. That’s what I had to do when Benny was in the hospital and I had my whole house to deal with. It took me three weeks just to—" She broke off to flag down the waitress. "Let’s get our orders in; I’m really hungry.”
Shirley went with the spinach pie and said she wanted her cole slaw without pickle on it. “I’m allergic to pickles,” she explained. "I could choke or turn bright red or even die."
The unimpressed waitress nodded and turned to Tess.
"Are you ready to order, miss?"
"Yes, please. I'll have the tuna melt and iced tea."
“I didn’t know you were allergic to pickles,” said Tess as the waitress left.
“I’m not, but I hate pickles, and if I say I’m allergic, they pay attention. So, what's new with you? Catch me up."
Tess considered grabbing the plastic ketchup bottle and squeezing its contents all over Shirley, followed by the mustard container. Pleased with the resultant red- and yellow-striped picture in her mind, she said, "Well, I'm happy that at least I’ve lost eight pounds just from running around that big old school building all year. When I went shopping for a new dress last week, would you believe I actually fit into a size--"
Shirley said, “Only eight? I’ve lost 15 pounds in four months on my hard-boiled egg and grapefruit diet already. And I’m going to the gym twice a week. Plus, I have to make special meals for Benny, because he still has to be so careful about what he eats.”
“It's wonderful that he's out of the hospital, and he’s going to be okay. I know he tries to help as much as he can. I wish Steve would--"
"Ben can't do much of anything. I have to do all the heavy stuff. It's all on me--the cooking, cleaning, laundry..."
Shirley spotted the waitress approaching with their food. "Oh, don't you dare put that down here, lady! Are you trying to kill me? You want a lawsuit? I told you, NO PICKLE! If I touched that, I could die! Take that thing away!"
The unfazed and unapologetic waitress removed the offending dish and left. Tess added a purple felt hat, with a pickle feather, to the portrait in her head.
"Can you imagine? The nerve of that woman! After I told her no pickle? If she thinks she's getting a tip, she can think again!"
Tess tried to pick up the conversational thread. "How lucky Ben is that you do all that for him. He must really appreciate it. Steve just expects too much of me after a day's work. And he thinks I should be dying to go out with his friends every weekend. But I'm so tired, all I want to do is sleep until Monday morning."
Shirley offered no comment, continuing to eat her pie. Tess soldiered on. “At least Ben does whatever he can around the house. It doesn’t even occur to Steve to do some laundry or a little food shopping. And he's home most of the day, except when he goes to his law classes. So he could help me out a little, don’t you think?”
“I have to keep the pool clean and do all the weeding out back, because Benny’s not supposed to do anything strenuous yet. You know how big our property is, and it’s all on me.”
Shirley sighed and ate another piece of spinach pie before going on. "I can see you don't get to your yard too often, but I guess you don't mind all the weeds. It would drive me crazy, but I just have a thing about being clean and weed-free."
The waitress returned with a pickle-less dish of cole slaw. Tess looked at the slaw, then at Shirley. She enriched her mental portrait by replacing the felt hat with a pile of cole slaw, the pickle set into it at a jaunty angle.
They finished their meal and sat over their beverages. Tess stirred her iced tea. She didn’t expect any meaningful response from Shirley, but plowed ahead anyway.
“Every day after work I spend a couple of hours working on lesson plans, and then it’s time to go to the hospital. I can’t quit my job, because I’m our sole support right now. And I need to go see Dad, because he won’t be here much longer.” Her lower lip quivered as she sipped her tea.
“Yeah, too bad your mother doesn’t go to the hospital any more. I went every day when my mother was sick. No matter what else I had to do, I was there for her. I guess some people just can't handle it, Tess. What about your husband?"
“No help there. When Steve comes with me, he wants to leave as soon as decently possible. He's constantly checking his watch and his phone, or pacing the hallway. It's easier for me when he stays home.”
Shirley waved to the waitress. "Since I lost 15 pounds, I'm rewarding myself with the chocolate pudding,” she told the woman.
"Do you want whipped cream on the pudding, or are you allergic?" the waitress asked with a straight face. Tess revised upward the amount she planned to leave as a tip.
"Do I want whipped cream? Of course! Who eats chocolate pudding without whipped cream?" Shirley laughed.
Tess ordered the same and continued.
“Last Christmas, when I finally had a week off, Steve brought up having a trial separation. Not even three years married, and he was talking about leaving. I told him it would have to wait, because I just couldn't handle it then."
The puddings arrived and Tess went on.
"So then, during my spring break, he says maybe we should have a baby, because it might improve our marriage. Might?! That's one of the worst reasons I ever heard to have a child! I didn't bother to argue, just stayed on my birth control pills."
Shirley finished her dessert. She eyed Tess's untouched pudding as she licked her own spoon clean. “I didn’t know you almost broke up," she said. "My niece, Angela, was married four years, has a little girl, and her husband just up and left. I’d kill Benny if he ever tried something like that!”
“You know, Shirley, I’m thinking…I survived my first school year, and I know Dad will be gone before the next one starts. I’m not having a baby, and I’m not getting any support from Steve. So maybe it’s time to think about that separation he suggested. What do you think?"
"Are you going to eat that pudding? No? Then do you mind if I finish it? I can afford to splurge a little now, with all that weight I lost."
Tess pushed her dessert across the table as she mentally added a nice pudding scarf to her cole-slaw-crowned picture. "I could just take my cat, my clothes and my stamp collection and go back to my mom’s. She's got an empty apartment upstairs at her house.” She sat up straighter and her words tumbled out. "Just me, no pressure on weekends, nobody else to take care of or support, no more negativity...Yes! I could do that! Mom, here I come!"
A look of concern flitted across Shirley’s face. “But she lives out in Suffolk someplace, doesn't she? What about me? Since Margie and Sam moved away, I never see them, and I don't have anyone else to talk to. You'll have to drive all the way back here so we can have lunch together. You have my number, right? "
The waitress came with their bills. Tess got her wallet out and held up a strip of pink paper, assuring Shirley, “Don't worry. I've got your number.” She headed off to pay her bill while Shirley was still putting her coat on. Tess was out of the diner and in her car before Shirley reached the cashier, never noticing the shredded pink bits of paper in the waste receptacle by the exit door.