They had decided to meet in a new restaurant where their old diner used to be. Mike, as always, was waiting for her. It was good to see that even after all these years, she could count on him to be punctual. Before entering the door, she folded the letter he sent her back into her purse and let her gaze travel from his smart black shoes up to his speckled white and gray hair. He looked good. She could still see hints of the younger man before her.
“Rose,” he called to her, standing up as she stopped behind the empty seat at his table. Mike immediately shifted to her side, reaching to grasp her hand. Rose let her hand stay still on her purse. Mike let his hand fall. “Let me get your chair.”
She silently stood next to her chair as he pulled it out. “Always the gentleman,” she said with a smile. Rose placed her purse string across the back of the red oak wood chair and sat down. Covering the table was a white tablecloth, something Calvin’s Diner would have never dealt with. There was a glass of water and an upside-down coffee cup placed on either side. Mike sat down across from her.
“I ordered us some coffee,” he said, taking a sip of water. Rose studied his face, taking in the new and the old together. His eyebrows were still bushy, though their color had changed from a dark brown to light gray. The dark blue eyes were heavyset, as if they had been over molded like a statue, but still retained some of his younger self. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Of course… it is the least I can do.” The conversation stilted, with both parties taking a sip of water. Rose broke the silence.
“I heard that your son is living abroad somewhere. My daughter, Mary, told me in passing a few months ago. How is he liking it?” Rose took another sip of water. It felt cool, slipping down the back of her throat.
Mike smiled a bit, his heavy eyes lighting up. “Oh, Joe loves it. Him and his wife found a nice place right outside the city. While he isn’t fond of the commute, European cities have a much better public transportation system.”
As he was talking, Rose found herself sinking into her hard chair, relief spreading over her. For all the awkwardness of the first few minutes, they were finding their rhythm as if no time had passed. “And what city is that again?”
“London. Joe has a job working for the same company he’s been with, but just in England now.” The center of his forehead creased, though it was hard to tell with his gray bushy eyebrows. “I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the company right now. But it’s something to do with insurance.” Mike reached for his glass of water to take a sip.
“Oh. Frank and I absolutely loved our time in London when we visited.” Rose didn’t let her eyes widen, unwilling to show that kind of emotion so early on. She took a sip of water instead.
At the mention of Frank’s name, Mike paused. His hand that had been reaching for the napkin froze in midair. He slowly brought it back to his lap. “Yes… Nancy and I heard about his passing. Joe, I think, mentioned it. How long ago did he pass?”
Rose let a small, sad smile appear on her lips. “It will be four years this September. I miss him every day.” She looked down at her lap, as if looking away would lessen her pain.
“As you should,” Mike said, nodding his head, not perturbed by her glancing away. “The two of you had a beautiful life together. Please, accept my condolences. I know I wrote it in the letter I sent, but…”
“It is much better to hear in person, I know,” Rose continued his thought. “And allow me to do the same for Nancy. It’s only been a few months, and I personally know how hard it was for me in the beginning.”
Mike looked like he was going to respond but was interrupted by the waitress bringing their coffee. “Is just one pot fine?” she asked timidly, looking between the two of them. The waitress was young and working here was more than likely her first job. She reminded Rose of a simpler time, back when she was younger.
“Yes, and can we get two plates of toast? And some marmalade on the side?”
Rose could hardly hide her astonishment over Mike’s order. She sat there, her feet pressing firmly into the ground, as the waitress left, and Mike began to pour her coffee into the blue and white cup. “Just one sugar, right? And no creamer?” he asked.
Rose wordlessly nodded, staring as Mike busied himself with the preparation of her coffee. Mike took a sip of his coffee with two lumps of sugar in it.
“I still can’t understand why you put so much sugar in one cup. It’s too sweet then.” Rose couldn’t stop herself from commenting on something that had baffled her even to this day. Beneath his eyebrows, Mike shot her a surprised glance.
“Does that still bother you?” He let out a light chuckle. “It used to bother Nancy as well. In all the years we were married, Nancy never once made me coffee the way I liked it. I would always have to make my own.”
“Well I guess Nancy and I can agree on that,” Rose said, sipping her hot coffee.
“I should have known that the two women I would fall in love with wouldn’t accept my coffee choices,” Mike lamented. Both of them were more comfortable now, if Mike was making jokes like that.
They sat in silence for a time, both drinking from their coffee cups. The restaurant had gotten a bit busier, given that it was past nine in the morning. Her and Mike were by far the oldest customers, though there had been more of their generation here earlier. Still, it was a weekday in January, so there wasn’t a huge rush. Or a demand for their table.
“Thank you,” Mike started, “for what you said about Nancy and missing her. It had been some time since we lived together, given her dementia. But I still visited her everyday at the nursing home. And now that she is gone, forever, it all seems a lot more final.”
Rose offered a sad smile. “I know. Just remember that you have people here that you can ask for help. Without my son and daughter, I don’t know how long I would have been in my haze for. They took excellent care of me. Of course, with Joe being in London, he won’t come knocking at your door at six in the morning to make sure you got out of bed that day. But you have relatives here for you. A large extended family.”
“They mean well. My nieces and nephews, that is,” Mike explained. His voice was gruffer than before. “Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m intruding in their lives. Inviting myself to things or forcing myself to leave the house for them.”
He’d never had a problem with that before, but Rose wasn’t about to say that out loud. Her oldest friend was hurting. Whatever she was feeling, she wouldn’t cheapen the moment like she was a flighty 23-year-old again. Instead, she reached out and took his hand in hers. It felt dry and crinkly, like a piece of paper that had been crumpled and smoothed out repeatedly. Odd, touching a man after so many years of smiling politely whenever they happened across each other.
There was never a time in her life where Rose regretted the choices she made in her youth. Her life with Frank was a blessed one, full of adventure and happiness. She wouldn’t give up their two children for anything in the world. But looking back, she regretted how things had ended with Mike. The breakup, in this same diner. The fight, a few weeks later in the parking lot. The missed church date. But this wasn’t the time to bring this up.
“Even when my kids were the ones dragging me to do things, I still sometimes felt like I was intruding,” Rose admitted. And that was the truth.
The conversation lulled again, with both parties drinking the rest of their coffee. Their toast arrived with their young waitress, who placed it on the table with a loud bang. She had let out a tiny squeak, a quick apology, and stalked off quickly. Mike and Rose shared a smile as they each took a piece of toast. Rose used a knife to scoop the marmalade out from the dish.
Eventually, Mike looked at her with determined eyes. “I’m glad you decided to come,” his voice a mix between the well-spoken gentleman that he was with her and the hard-lined lawyer he had spent years being. “I wasn’t sure if you would. And I know I said a lot in that letter, but I felt like I had to.”
Rose interrupted him. “I should have predicted that me sending you a Christmas card would give you leave to send me back a seven-page letter.”
Mike had the sense to look embarrassed. “Yes, well, I admit that I was a little heavy-handed.”
“A little?” Rose asked dryly, her eyes peering over her raised coffee cup. “I wrote my condolences about Nancy, and you replied by telling me you missed me. Your wife of over 40 years has only been dead a few months. You should have been missing her.”
“That’s taking my words completely out of context,” Mike explained, looking flustered. “You know that. And I do miss Nancy. Every day. Just like you still miss Frank after all these years.”
“Always the lawyer,” mused Rose, a little peeved at his response. “Always have to have the last word.”
“Let’s not argue,” Mike said, his hand going up to brush his hair. “Besides, you hardly knew me as a lawyer.”
Rose let the argumentative side of her die down a little. “I guess not. But I do know you became a good one. Your cases were always making the news.”
“I’m not here to talk about me being a lawyer. I’m here to talk about…” he trailed off, suddenly looking unsure at where the conversation was heading. “I’m here to talk about us. And what happened to us.”
Mike looked tired. There was no longer any fight in his shoulders. They sagged and appeared old, just like the two of them. Rose didn’t want to fight with him. Not after all these years. “Okay, then.” Her voice was quiet, hardly a whisper. “Let’s talk about us.”
Rose sat back in her chair, unwilling to make the first move. It was Mike, after all, who more or less summoned her to this restaurant. He could talk first. After how things ended, he could give her that courtesy.
“I guess let’s start at the beginning,” Mike said, his hands twisting his napkin. “Or I guess, the end.”
“And what end do you mean by that?” Rose asked. She didn’t mean to let her emotions get the better of her, but as Mike sat there across the table, she couldn’t help but think back to the last time they were here. And how much it hurt when he walked out the front door. “The time when you left me crying in this exact restaurant after my mother had just died, or after you got into a fist fight with Frank over the fact that we were close friends at the time? Which end are you referring to?”
In his defense, Mike didn’t look at all surprised to see her anger. His eyebrows, however, did move in confusion. “Left you crying in Calvin’s Diner? I’m sorry, but you were the one who had just broken off our engagement. Forgive me for not comforting you while I was fighting off my own heartbreak.”
“Oh, get off your high horse, Mike.” Rose waved her hands as if dismissing a fly. “I did not break off the engagement. I just said that I needed time. You broke it off when you stormed away.”
“What was I supposed to think, Rose?” Mike asked. “You were my fiancé. The wedding invites had already gone out, and then you told me that you needed to think?” His voice carried through the restaurant. A few people sitting at the back tables turned around to look.
Rose felt her cheeks turn red. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered. “I know you don’t want our dirty laundry spreading.”
Mike shook his head and leaned back in his chair, not saying anything. Leave it to him not to say a word. It was just like back when they were together. He would never really say what he wanted.
“Look at us,” Rose said, quieter than before. “You would think we were in our 20s again. Fighting like a couple of teenagers who won’t admit who is right.”
“I don’t think anyone would think we are in our 20s anymore, Rose.” Mike gestured towards his head. “Not with my gray hair.”
“It does give you a distinguished look, I would admit,” Rose said dryly. “And you did always want to look older.”
Mike gave a small smile. “I was stupid about a lot of things back then.” He looked up at the ceiling. Rose had to agree with that statement. Him stalking off after the last date in Calvin’s Diner was a stupid thing for him to do. But she was also stupid for not going after him. But discussing the past was useless. They couldn’t change what happened.
“I was stupid too,” Rose admitted, her voice quiet and small. “And it doesn’t do us any good to bring up the past. I think, by now, we can agree to let it be.”
Mike watched her face for a moment before nodding his head. “The past can stay in the past. But I can still be stupid nowadays as well. That letter, well, it might not have been the best time to have sent it.”
The overarching feeling of guilt bubbled up inside of Rose’s chest. His letter wasn’t the problem here. It was what was said and unsaid in it. In their relationship in general. Just because they were now older and wiser didn’t mean the unresolved issues couldn’t cause them problems now. But while she couldn’t turn back time to their last real conversion, she could ensure this one didn’t end with both their hearts breaking all over again.
She reached over her side of the table and grabbed his hand. “No. Don’t apologize for that.” His hand felt dry and fragile. “I know that Nancy had been in hospice for a while before she passed. And you were a good husband to her. For years.”
Mike squeezed her hand, his eyes looking directly at her. “I know. It’s just… these last few months have been harder than I expected. And when you sent me that Christmas card, I no longer felt as sad. And I know you might think it too soon, but neither of us are getting any younger. I refuse to let this chance pass us by again.”
Rose’s chest began to thud. She hadn’t felt this way since Frank died. And she had lived long enough to understand what this feeling meant. She let go of Mike’s hand and picked up her glass of water instead. The water felt cold rushing down her throat, clearing the taste of marmalade toast. “I felt like it was the right thing to do, sending you a card,” she finally said. “I wasn’t able to go to the funeral and needed you to know that you were in my prayers.”
Mike pulled his hand back from where it had been resting on the table. “I don’t think I ever doubted that.” He paused, taking a quick glance around the room. “And I didn’t come here to drag up the past. Not really.”
“So why did you come here, really? Because you said it was to talk about us, but the only time there was an us was many years ago.” Rose didn’t want to dwell on his words of not letting this chance pass them up. Besides exchanging pleasantries, she couldn’t really know Mike now. No matter how similar and unchanged he seemed.
Mike looked at her as if for the first time. “But we were such a good us.”
Rose blushed for the second time during this conversation. She couldn’t help but think back to the early days, back when she was little more than a schoolgirl pretending to be an adult. Quietly, she folded her hands together on the table, pushing away her plate of toast. “What do you want?” she asked, point blank. They were old enough that these half-truths wouldn’t do them any good.
Mike copied her pose. “I want us to have a chance. We’re both older, and maybe a little bit wiser now. Maybe,” he paused, “maybe there’d be a chance for me to put another ring on your finger.”
The air left her lungs. Her eyes must have gone wide in shock, but she wasn’t surprised. Not really. Even after years apart, she still understood Mike. She understood why he fought Frank after their break-up. She understood why they had broken up in the first place. And deep down, she understood why, when her old boyfriend wrote her a seven-page letter after 30 years asking to meet, she had to come and see him. Rose, her left hand trembling slightly, reached out to grab his hand. Squeezing it, she smiled across the table. “I think I can at least hear your proposal out.”