All the ingredients were there in front of Antonio. There was deli-sliced Land-O-Lakes white American cheese, Food Lion Virginia baked ham, organic salted butter, and Wonder Bread. Yes, Antonio wasn’t much of a gourmet chef, but he could make one mean grilled cheese sandwich. Today, there was one last ingredient: undying love.
“How much longer?” came a feeble voice from the back bedroom.
“Not long, my love. Your wait is almost over,” Antonio answered cheerfully, trying hard to disguise his sadness.
Annette, “Nettie” to her friends, had been destined to be a wife. She wasn’t like the other girls in the 1970’s who wanted to burn their bras and keep their maiden names. She wanted to find the love of her life, bear his children, and fatten him up so the other girls would leave him alone. She wasn’t one to give her heart easily, but when the right man won it, she would give it to him for life.
The first time she met Antonio, the encounter almost doomed the relationship from the start. The DeLeon's moved into the home once occupied by Antonio's best friend, Paul. It was unimaginable that a girl would live in Paul's old room and Antonio was more than ready to defend his far away friend's turf. He, however, had no idea what was in store for him as he approached the new girl on the block.
“Close your eyes,” the young boy insisted.
“I will not,” Annette replied, taken aback by the request. “I don’t even know you.”
“I’m Antonio,” he replied, introducing himself. “Now that you know me, close your eyes.”
To this day neither Antonio or Annette could explain why she did as he asked, but close her eyes she did.
With Annette’s eyes tightly shut, Antonio pulled a frog from his back pocket and placed it on the unsuspecting girl’s head. To his great surprise, Annette didn’t scream or run or do anything he might have expected. No, Annette calmly pulled the frog from off her head with her left hand, while in a single motion punched Antonio flush in his eye with her right fist.
Love didn’t blossom that day or at any time during the next few years. It might have been the punch that kept them apart or maybe their ages as Antonio was just twelve on the day of the incident, Annette only eleven. It also might have been Annette’s fondness for baseball caps, baggie jeans and flannel shirts that kept destiny from knocking on Antonio or Annette’s door, but destined to be together they were.
Antonio had a very specific way of making grilled cheese, taught to him by his grandmother. Each step had to be followed exactly as he had been shown or he wouldn’t enjoy the cheesy perfection for which he was famous. On this day, it was critically important the sandwich be just right for Annette. Everything had to be perfect.
The first step was to melt the butter. As a boy, he would use a saucepan on the stove, but for many years, heating it in a microwave did the trick. He then dipped each piece of Wonder Bread in the liquid gold, making sure it was saturated before moving on to the griddle. He would lay one piece down for each sandwich he intended to make, followed by putting two thickly sliced pieces of the aforementioned Land O’ Lakes white American cheese on the bread, ensuring each piece of cheese was centered. Next, he would add one slice of Food Lion’s ham. He wasn’t sure why their store brand luncheon meat was perfect for the sandwich, but it was undeniable that it was. He placed another piece of butter-soaked bread on top. Then—and only then—would he turn the griddle on, set exactly at 300 degrees, a temperature arrived at by years of trial and error.
All that was left to do was to wait to flip the sandwich over.
The first time Antonio made grilled cheese for Annette was the night of their senior prom. The two, long since past the frog incident, found themselves inseparable for most of high school. Each of the young lover’s friends planned dinners at expensive restaurants, but Annette insisted on having dinner at Antonio’s house, partaking in the cuisine that made her beau famous. Annette knew Antonio had spent every last cent he had on a tuxedo for himself and a corsage for her, so her secret gift to him was the intimate homemade meal request.
“Oh my God,” Annette exclaimed as she took her first bite, her hands greasy with butter and melted cheese dripping on her plate. “This is the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever tasted.” Annette had been prepared to offer effusive praise, but her reaction was instantaneous and sincere.
“Told you,” Antonio replied, feigning smugness as he took a large bite of his own sandwich. The two raised their glasses, full of Annette’s favorite beverage, southern sweet tea, and making a toast celebrating the perfect pre-prom meal.
“Close your eyes,” Antonio said as he put down his glass. Annette, now everything to him but a stranger, did as he asked without question.
“Now, open your eyes,” came the next request, just a few seconds after the first. To Annette’s surprise, she found her eighteen-year-old boyfriend on one knee, holding a plush stuffed frog with a diamond engagement ring hanging from a gold chain around its green neck.
“Annette DeLeon, you are the love of my life, and I don’t want to wait a day longer to make it official. Will you be my wife and make me the happiest man in the world?”
“That proposal is more cheesy than your sandwich,” Annette responded as Antonio’s heart dropped. “But, I would love to be your wife.” When she finished accepting his marriage proposal, Antonio sprung to his feet and embraced his new fiancée, giving her a respectful kiss on her forehead.
It would be almost three years before Antonio and Annette tied the knot, but both felt bonded to one another during the night of the prom and from the first bite of grilled cheese.
Sixty-seven years is longer than some lifetimes, but short when it is spent with the love of your life. There was, however, time to have three children. Antonio Jr., who now lived with his wife in Texas, was the oldest and had his mom’s spunk. Lisa, the middle child, taught art in San Francisco where she lived with her girlfriend, Monica. And there was Paul, the baby, named after a childhood friend, who never made it to his prom, buried in the town cemetery.
For over forty years, Antonio and Annette brought fresh flowers to Paul’s grave every Sunday. The heartbroken parents spent an hour or so sharing all that had happened in the last week, leaving with the same promise to their baby.
“We’ll see you next week,” they would say in unison, each kissing their hands and touching the gray headstone with Paul’s name etched in it.
On her last Sunday, Annette couldn’t get out of bed and into her wheelchair. The doctor, a family friend who was gracious enough to make a house call, was so kind and gentle when he used the word Antonio had been dreading to hear: hospice.
“Thank you, doc,” Antonio said, trying to sound stronger than he was. “If it’s all right with you, we’ll talk it over and get back to you.”
“Of course,” came the compassionate reply, as the doctor shook Antonio’s hand and walked down the path to his car.
Heartbroken and fighting back tears, Antonio made his way back to the bedroom where his beloved wife lay in the bed they had shared for so long.
“Is there anything I can get you?” he asked, taking her hand, ring ever present, in his.
“I just want two things,” came her fragile reply. “I want one of your famous grilled cheese sandwiches, and I want to go see Paul.”
“As you wish,” Antonio replied, kissing her forehead before leaving for the kitchen.
One of the best parts of Antonio’s grilled cheese sandwiches was how quickly they appeared after a request; however this time, they cooked more quickly than Antonio could bear. While he waited for the second side to brown to perfection, he fixed two glasses of Annette’s favorite sweet tea. In her glass, he added the powder he had ground from more than thirty capsules of her pain medication.
Almost in unison, the sandwich finished cooking just as the powder was fully dissolved into her tea. Antonio then took the longest walk of his life back to the bedroom where he would fulfill his love’s final wish. In his hands was a tray with the requested sandwich, a glass of sweet tea, and the same stuffed frog from a long ago proposal.
“Oh my God, this is the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever tasted,” Annette said, smiling for the first time in weeks.
“Told you,” Antonio replied, choking back tears.
Annette couldn’t eat more than one bite of the sandwich, but they both knew she would drink the whole glass of tea. In a show of her strength, she drank the entire glass in a few gulps. It wasn‘t long before the drugs started to take effect.
At first she felt a pleasant relief from her perpetual pain, but shortly thereafter came the extreme drowsiness they both expected. Annette fought for every last moment, stoically staring into Antonio’s eyes, saying I love you without any words.
“Close your eyes,” Antonio said, tears flowing freely, as he gave his wife permission to take leave of the pain and see her son once again. Just as she had in the past, she obeyed her husband and drifted off to a sleep that would never end.
After she was gone, Antonio was left to do the one thing he hadn’t had the heart to share with Annette. He slowly mixed the same powder he had given his wife into his own tea, drinking it down as vigorously as she had done.
With a final kiss on her forehead, he laid next to Annette, and closed his eyes.