“What’ll you have handsome?"
The waitress asking me smiles. She appears to be in her late sixties, blue eye shadow solidified into deep crevices making her eyelids look like a slightly schizophrenic map for some uncharted backcountry.
I stare at her for a moment, wondering if I might recognize her before responding, “Something different. I’m in a rut, a holding pattern if you will, and I need to try new things. Typically, I would order the meatloaf so surprise me,” I say before adding, “oh, and a coke too please.”
“Well, we don’t get too fancy around here at this diner, but I’m sure we can come up with something,” her indigo fissures bobble as she looks at her pad and makes a note. She looks at me again and grins, “Okay, got you all set. Something different, other than meatloaf, coming up.”
She walks away, heading toward the soda fountain, and returns momentarily with my coke.
“What brings you to Flagstaff?” she asks.
“Nostalgia I suppose. Grew up close by and graduated from college here forty-plus years ago. I wanted to see how it might feel to revisit my old haunts—including this place—hoping to see if I can regain some of what I call youthful enthusiasm of possibilities in the process.”
“Forty years ago, that’d be 1981. Lots has changed,” she says. “You haven’t been back since then?”
“Nope. My parents moved and I left and went to Denver and it’s been family and work ever since. Not sure where those forty-odd years have gone.”
She gives me a look and starts to say something but then stops. I take it as profundity. Everyone’s got a story, I consider. And just where has the time gone? I’m ruminating on the question as she excuses herself.
I suck on the straw, bringing the coke up into my mouth, the liquid permeating the parched thirst I’m bearing—the soda a metaphor for my life, one that suddenly feels deeply drought-stricken and needs to be revived. My days have become wilted, sunbaked routines of my own making—coming up on me stealth and sleepy but in broad daylight. I should have been vigilant and noticed and thwacked the passivity down.
In 1980, I couldn’t wait to graduate from the university, tuck my engineering degree under my arm, and start a life by marrying Jamie, my high school sweetheart. We’d leave northern Arizona and go further north, to Denver. We’d get a house, have kids, and I’d get a career making money and something of myself. So, I guess I should be proud of myself, because all those things happened. But so did inertia and stagnancy and my own blindness.
Jamie couldn’t understand why I needed to take this solo road trip. “Nate,” she’d said, “you’re sixty years old. Why would you possibly need to go back and visit Flagstaff? You have no connections there and you already did that town. We both did. Our life is here.”
But I’ve learned that my life is and isn’t in Denver. My routines, and family, successes and wealth may be there, but a part of me is still here, in Flagstaff, or so I believe and am trying to find it, to find me. At some point I stopped being curious and ceased believing in options and possibilities, but for the life of me I don’t know where I left my curiosity. I love my family and my life, don’t get me wrong, but something has stopped me from growing and I’ve become a series of motions with only hollowness driving it.
I lean over and take a blue ballpoint out of my backpack, the sack I’d had in college and brought back with me for this trip. I’d forgotten I’d even had the thing until I found it in our garage a few months back in Jamie’s get-rid-of-it pile. It was this gesture, this throwing away of a past that now seems idyllic, that set me out on this journey.
Extracting a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table, I unfold it and flatten the thing, smoothing it with my palms. In engineering-trained fashion, I draw a vertical line down the center and ponder at what headings to write on either side of the line: Old vs Now; Then vs Present; Was vs Is; Young vs Old; Dreams vs Reality. I decide on the last one and start my list of youthful dreams on the left sided column:
· Marry Jamie
· Make money
· Buy a house
· Have kids
· Stay in touch with friends
· Explore the outdoors
· Get good at the guitar
· Learn Spanish
· Get adventurous with cooking and food
· Stay in shape
· See the world
I include the first four items in the reality column and include a few more:
· No true friends, only acquaintances and coworkers
· Desk bound, I don’t even own a tent anymore, let alone a backpack
· Not sure where my old guitar is
· No time to learn another language
· Fast food junkie
· I haven’t exercised in ages
· Went to Hawaii for our anniversary with the in-laws (followed by an emoji doing an eyeroll)
I set my pen down thinking of what else to add to my lists. But there it is. Spelled out and exposed. Such a simple exercise and already I can see the damage—I feel clearer and heartbroken at the same instant. Time, something untouchable and unseen has etched away at my youth, aspirations, and promises I’d made to myself.
I move to put my arm over it, to shield it from the waitress as she delivers a steaming bowl of meat, potato and carrot stew and warm rolls to my table.
“Oxtail stew,” she says. “Something different. I hope you like it.”
I start to regret changing it up, not sure this is something I’m going to enjoy based on its name alone, but I manage to say, “Okay, here goes nothin’.” I ladle a spoonful into my mouth and it’s delicious. “Good choice,” I tell her.
She nods and then says, “I remember you. Believe it or not, I never forget a customer. You used to come in here sometimes with a young lady with blond hair, other times with a group of male students. You always sat in this booth, and you always had a guitar with you. Your hair was longer and you didn’t wear glasses, and you always ordered burgers, or meatloaf.”
“I did.” I’m looking at her more closely now but I just can’t place her. I notice her glancing at my list.
“Life list?” she asks.
I feel my face flush, like I’m a tween caught with my diary exposed. “More like perspective,” I tell her.
“Time will do that to you. One instant your twenty and invincible, full of possibilities and then like a dark curtain you never saw falling, you’re peeking through the window, wondering where it all went. One of life’s big surprises and mysteries. I was probably close to thirty when you were here, moved here for possibilities too. Life hasn’t always been easy.”
“How so if you don’t mind sharing?” I ask as I continue to shovel mouthfuls of oxtail stew into my mouth, savoring this newfound flavor.
“Thought I’d move here, attend university and become some kind of great artist. Ended up marrying, having kids, and battling some health issues. Now I’m just grateful to still be able to get up in the morning. Lately though, I’ve got to thinking, maybe it isn’t too late. Been thinking about taking some continuing education paint courses. There’s a vibrant art scene here,” she says and winks.
“I’m glad to hear it and I hope that works out for you,” I say before she saunters away.
I look at my list again, it’s now dotted with reddish spots of oxtail stew. I start to wipe at the napkin and then laugh, cleaning a napkin, that’s crazy, the spots a sure sign that I am on the right track to new culinary adventures at least.
Out of curiosity, I pull out my phone and type in oxtail stew origins. I get a plethora of hits. Some sites say London, some Jamaica, others France and still others South Africa. I jot this list down and with a renewed vigor decide I’ll be phoning Jamie once I get back to my hotel. We’ve got some things to catch up on and I’ve got just the right places picked out to do that.