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, Tony?” 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 had been destined to be a wife. She wasn’t like the other girls in the 1970s 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, it would be his for life.
Great love very rarely happens at first sight. It’s planted like a seed, nurtured over time, and takes years to blossom. Such was the case with Antonio and Annette. The first time the two met, Antonio was just past twelve, and Annette, a year younger. Antonio watched intently as the new girl's family moved into the home next door. The whole event was the very definition of mixed emotions. The house the strangers were invading had, until recently, been the home of Antonio’s best friend, Paul. Antonio wanted to be upset at the interlopers but even at his tender age he couldn’t help but be transfixed by the petite blonde girl in the frilly dress. Antonio was in the gray area between hating girls and loving them and this new girl most certainly caught his fancy.
“My name is Antonio, what’s yours?” he asked as he walked up to his youngest newest neighbor.
“I’m Annette. Annette DeLeon, but my friends call me Nettie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Nettie,” Antonio responded, sticking his hand out just as his father had taught him.
“I said just my friends call me that,” the young girl answered, showing indignation beyond her years. “You can call me Annette."
“Fine, Annette it is,” Antionio responded, drawing out her name for emphasis. “Would you like to play?”
“Play what?” Annette responded, smiling inadvertently.
“Hide and go seek, I used to play with Paul all the time. You’re moving into his old house”
“How do you play?”
“How do you play hide and go seek?” Antonio said with a puzzled look on his face. “I hide, you count to ten, then you come find me.”
“Fine,” Annette said begrudgingly. “One, two, three….”
“Close your eyes,” Antonio said in a huff. “If you watch me hide it won’t be much of a game.”
Love didn’t blossom that day or at any time during the next few years but it wasn’t long before Antonio was permitted to call his new friend Nettie and she was the only person alive Antonio allowed to call him Tony.
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 it wouldn’t become 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 just so.
The first step was to melt the butter. As a boy, he would use a saucepan on the stove, but in later years, Antonio found that heating it in a microwave also did the trick. He then dipped a piece of Wonder Bread in the liquid gold, making sure it was saturated before moving it onto 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 the store-brand luncheon meat seemed ideal for the sandwich, but undeniably 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 discovered by years of trial and error.
All that was left to do was to wait until the bread had become crispy and brown and then he could 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 playing hide and go seek, 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 with melted cheese dripping on the 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 made a toast celebrating the perfect pre-prom meal.
“Close your eyes,” Antonio said as he put down his glass. Annette, now everything to him, did as he asked without question.
“Now, open them,” 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 diamond engagement ring sparkling in contrast to the small black box that housed the welcomed surprise.
“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, 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. “One of your famous grilled cheese sandwiches, and 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 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 and two glasses of sweet tea.
“Oh my God,” Annette exclaimed, smiling for the first time in weeks. “This is the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever tasted.”
“Told you,” Antonio replied, choking back tears.
Annette couldn’t eat more than one bite, but they both knew she would drink the whole glass of tea. In a show of her strength, she drank it 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 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 lay next to Annette and closed his eyes.