After Tommy died, I halted our Sunday routine and stayed away from Dapper's, our usual breakfast place, believing it would be too painful for me to enter without him. But this Sunday, I had to shop at Target in the same mall as the restaurant, so I figured it'd be a good opportunity to test a revisit.
Somehow, I could feel my husband agreeing, celestially pushing for our regular weekend routine. First, though, I had to finish preparing the newspaper that had always accompanied us.
I replicated Tommy's system: Out went the advertising flyers to the recycle bin. Sports and Comics -- his first choice sections - on top of the pile, followed by News (local and international), Business, Arts, Travel, Real Estate, and Magazine. I took a plastic bag, packed in the specially-arranged paper, and drove to Dapper’s.
“Can I do this?” I said, as I stood at the entrance’s revolving door. Tommy, evidently believing the question was addressed to him, gave me a mystic push and sent me twirling inside.
I stepped to our usual booth. But, since we hadn’t been customers for two months because of my hip surgery, and my husband’s hospitalization and hospice, it wasn’t set up with our place settings. There were no tiny pots of jam, flavored coffee sweeteners, and other items our waitress, Linda, typically arranged before our arrival.
“Okay, don’t sit there,” Linda said rushing towards me. She grabbed my shoulders and steered me away. I was frozen in the spot, tears staining my eyeglasses. A few of the regulars swiveled to peek, but quickly returned to their newspapers and food. Our duo was minus one. My tears and my partner's absence told the story.
As Linda offered alternative booths, I said, “The counter. I want to sit at the counter.”
“Perfect,” she said.
Linda may have seconded my choice because it could keep her closer to me, perhaps to forestall a second breakdown. But, I had another reason: when I first met Tommy in 1996, he was a regular counter occupant at the Lakeview Diner. Once we became a couple, we moved to a booth.
Now, single, a widow, I decided to honor my husband; I’d become a counter person, too. At this early hour, I was able to spread out. My backpack went to the stool to my right. I unfolded the newspaper atop the bare counter on my left. I was easing in.
In between customers, Linda stood on her side of the counter, elbows up, hands holding her concerned face. I could bawl directly to her without rousing anyone else. “It’s so hard being here without him,” I said.
“He’s here, sweetheart, he’s here,” she said. “His spirit is here.”
“I really felt like he wanted me to be here, and he wanted to come, too.”
“Of course,” she said.
So, I did what I always did, but this time from my new counter seat instead of our old booth: I removed Comics and Sport from the stack I had brought with. Without worrying about anyone thinking me dotty, I said to my right, “Okay, Honey, here’s your sections,” then placed them on the empty space. As I finished my own parts of the newspaper, I’d add them to Tommy’s pile.
Although his stack never moved, never diminished, I was okay with the arrangement. I drank my coffee and ate my egg-white Spartan omelet with mozzarella instead of feta, Greek toast, bacon, and fruit. My eyes never left the newspaper.
When I finished my breakfast, Linda brought only one white foam box for leftovers. No need for Tommy's half of waffle, pancake, or cheese omelet.
I placed all of the newspaper sections back in the plastic bag I had brought from home including Tommy’s stack. I knew I’d never read Comics or Sports, but somehow, I couldn’t leave them behind.
After I paid the bill, and as I headed for the exit, with a lightweight bag of leftovers in one hand, and a full bag of newspaper sections in the other, Linda called after me, “See you next week?” Her voice and face hopeful.
“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll try.”
Then, with Tommy’s gentle push, I slowly revolved out the door into my new life.