I used to go there all the time with my Mom. We'd go every Sunday at noon for lunch. And after, we'd leave and go to Central Park for the day. She used to say that Sunday was a day for worship, but being inside a stuffy old church wasn't the way to do it. She worshipped God in the outdoors, always reminded me to thank the Heavenly Father for nature and for the time I had with her. Well, what little time I had left.
The place was called Joe's and it was a few blocks away from the park. I got to walk with Mom and she refused to talk to anyone else but me. Even the girl behind the counter. She always said this was time for her to spend with her son. Besides, she'd say, I was smart enough to talk for the both of us.
So I ordered every Sunday. Every Sunday from when I was six years old and could barely reach the counter, to age ten, when I had to grow up faster than any child should. I was at that age. That age where Cancer was the big bad word. None of the kids knew exactly what it was, that my Mom's own body was sucking the life out of her. We just knew that if you got it, you died. And nobody ever talked about it. Especially not around me.
So after my Mom passed, I was old enough to go to Joe's alone. And I would sit there at the table, drinking my hot cocoa with my Mom's plain black coffee sitting in front of me. And I would imagine her pale hands wrapping around the mug.
I could almost hear her speak. "Dylan," I imagined she would say, "I'm so sorry I can't be there. My baby, I love you so much. But Daddy loves you too and it won't hurt forever. I promise."
So I'd sit there at that little coffee table, staring at the empty space in front of me and hating God for taking away my Mom. Until one day, I didn't.
I was probably about fifteen years old when I saw her. It was her first time at Joe's. At least, at noon on a Sunday. I knew because I'd gone there every week for an hour before walking to the park and praising God for everything I saw. Even if I was angry, it's what Mom would've wanted me to do. But then She walked in.
Her eyes were the color of oceans and her hair was a bright sunset red. Like God was painting the sunset and had some paint left over and used it for her hair. She ordered the same thing my Mom always did. Plain black coffee.
Every Sunday I went back to that coffee shop. Every week I saw her there. She and a Nikon strung about her neck. I would watch her get her plain black coffee and then go outside, turning on her camera and snapping a photo of the first thing she found. If I was lucky, I would catch a glimpse of what she had captured. She had a good eye. A real talent for making something ordinary look nothing less than extraordinary.
One day, everything changed. It was cold outside, the bitter wind whipping at my cheeks and tearing at my coat as I walked into Joe's and ordered my usual and sat down at my usual table. Not much late, she arrived, snowflakes caught in her hair and melting on her coat, her boots caked in grass and slush. And she stopped and looked at me before slowly approaching.
"Hi." I looked up and saw her mouth closed, not moving. Like she hadn't said anything at all.
"Hi." I said back, over analyzing that one word.
"Can I ask you something?" Her ocean blue eyes shone with curiosity and adventure, as if I was about to give her the meaning of life.
"Sure," I said.
"I see you in here every week. Every week you have two drinks, one across the table from you. It's like you're waiting for someone or something. But they never seem to come. Why is that?"
Her head is tilted slightly to the side, her beautiful hair draped over her shoulder, falling to her elbow.
"I'm not waiting for anyone." Her face crumples a bit after I say this and I can tell she doesn't understand.
"I'm Amy," She says hesitantly.
"Dylan." Short, abrupt, unceremonious. Exactly like me.
"May I sit?" She gestures to the seat across from me and my heart stops. That's Mom's chair.
I think the panic shows on my face because she backs away slowly, her hand moving up to feel the camera, fingering the strap.
"I'm sorry if I intruded."
"No no," I say hastily, "Sit. Please." She smiles cautiously but I can tell she's relieved. She leaves Mom's coffee sitting in front of her, placing her own drink to the side.
We talk for hours, refilling our cups and talking about our lives. She tells me everything. About photography, life at school, the dance lessons she was forced to take when she was six. I tell her as little as possible. Telling her only my age and basic hobbies.
But she's so easy to talk to. And after we said goodbye we met at Joe's every Sunday. Her chattering on and on about photography and art, pausing only to ask if she talks too much. But I like the sound of her voice. The way she isn't afraid to laugh at her own jokes or talk with a stranger she met in a coffee shop. Even though I rarely divulged anything about myself.
Then one day I told her. She was so easy to talk to, eventually wrestling little details out of me. I didn't tell her so much as she put the pieces together, and I filled in the blanks afterwards. I told her about my Mom, how she felt about God. And I know Amy's place in religion. She believed in God, very similarly to how my Mom believed. And eventually, my anger for the Big Guy Upstairs faded as I felt a different kind of love.
Seasons passed and I think she loved me too. I knew she did the summer she kissed me, the bitter taste of coffee on her lips as she pressed them against mine. We were seventeen. We were together from then on until we both got degrees at NYU. Hers for photography, mine for writing.
I can still remember our wedding day. The way her simple white dress contrasted her sunset hair. The lack of veil at my insistence. We were married in central park with only a few friends and family. The flowers were blooming and blossoming and on her way down the aisle, she picked one and stuck it in her hair.
As we grew older, we discovered we weren't able to have children. And we didn't want any. We were perfectly content to live together alone, in our perfect solitude. Me writing about her sunset hair and she snapping pictures of my solemn face. Of course we both had to work, but Amy was a commissioned photographer and I wrote freelance articles for various newspapers and magazines. It was a simple life, but a content one. As long as she had her newest camera lens and I had my computer, the only other thing we really needed was each other. We rejoiced in that, still going ot Joe's every Sunday and then to Central Park.
And then, the eve of our 40th wedding anniversary, she collapsed. The next day, Amy was diagnosed with leukemia. The very same disease that had taken my Mother from me. The Doctors estimated she had seven years to live at the most. Ten years later, today on our 50th wedding anniversary, I sit next to my seventy-five year old wife in her hospital bed as she fights to hold on.
I am looking at my sweet, sweet Amy, her beautiful sunset hair is gone and her ocean blue eyes are now the color of dishwater. She has tubes snaking from her nose, seemingly draining the life out of her instead of giving her oxygen. The beeping of the heart monitor makes my head want to explode and I want to rip these wires from my beautiful Amy, the woman I met so long ago at Joe's.
There's a such thing as a last good day. The last day where she will be coherent. Happy. I can sense that the last day is today. Speaking exhausts her, but her still full, beautiful lips try to smile up at me. My little finger is twined with hers. She is so fragile even holding hands causes her pain. But we stare she looks into my eyes and I look into hers.
"I love you," she croaks out.
I hush her. "Don't speak," I whisper, stroking her cheek so gently I can only just feel her papery skin against my fingers.
"No," she whispers, breathing hard, "I need to." Her cheeks turn up into a small smile.
"Dylan," She speaks my name. She stays silent for a few more moments, catching her breath. She can't say much, she can't babble on about nothingness the way she used to. But she's making these words count.
"Life with you has been the best I've ever known." I have to lean into her to hear her speak and I don't dare say anything. She won't be able to talk over me but knowing her, she'd exhaust herself trying to do so.
"I would rather be in this bed with you, than in Central Park without you." She pauses again.
"I love you more than life itself." Her mouth closes and there's a finality to her words. As if we both know those are the last words she will ever speak. I know exactly when she said them. December 21st at 2:30 pm. She passed away in her sleep that night, her pinkie still wrapped around mine.
Every Sunday I still go to Joe's and then to Central Park, looking for the last traces of my Mother and my Wife. I don't order her coffee, just my cocoa. I don't need to imagine her presence, because the girl in the coffee shop is still with me. And she will stay with me forevermore, even after the day I die.