“You are so handsome,” she said.
“You are so pretty,” he whispered.
He held up his Manhattan, she her champagne. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.
She tapped his glass with hers. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
As they sipped their drinks, his eyes filled with tears. He looked out from their little table on the patio of Asheville’s Grove Park Inn at the full view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so impossibly smooth and smokily layered.
He put his hand on the table between them. Taking hold of it, she said, “In all of our time together, you hardly ever cried.”
“I know,” he said, using his napkin to quickly dry his eyes. “And look at me now.”
“Looking at you is all I ever wanted to do.”
“Those are some seriously humble ambitions.” After a long silence, he said, “I miss you. It’s such a constant ache, this void where you used to be.”
“I miss you, too.”
“How long were we married?”
“Well, we got married in 1957. So . . .” She rolled her eyes, making the funny face she sometimes did when she was pretending to struggle with numbers.
He smiled. “Oh no. Math.”
“Well, we were married over sixty years. I know that much.”
“Sounds about right. Doesn’t seem like that long ago, does it?”
“God, no. It feels like a week ago.”
“And now we’re a world apart. How can that even be?”
“Things change,” she said.
“Some do,” he said. “Some don’t.”
Her beauty so dazzled him that he had to turn away from it. He looked back out at the mountains.
“Tell me about the garden,” she said, stroking his hand. “Are you growing anything?”
“No. I did, for a long time. When you first left, I pretty wholly obsessed on the garden. Had two or three big years. Kept half our neighborhood in vegetables. But then, after a while, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was too depressing.”
“How long’s it been since you grew anything?”
“I have no idea. Two years.”
“Take it up again, honey-bear. You should. No one loves gardening as much as you do.”
“That’s not true. You do. You are a maniac gardener.”
She smiled. “I think gardening with you might have been my all-time favorite thing we did together.”
“Mine too. Well, it’s a definite second.”
“Stop it,” she said. A breeze sent wisps of her hair dancing across her face.
“Are you cold?” he said.
“Here, take my coat.”
“No, no. I’m fine.” She zipped her red parka all the way up, and then from its large pockets produced a scarf, her red knit cap, and her winter gloves. Having donned them all, she wiggled happily in her seat. “See? Nice and cozy!”
“That’s how I like you to be.”
For what could have been anywhere from a minute to a week, the couple held hands while silently gazing out at the mountains.
At some point, she said, “It’s starting to get dark, baby.”
“I see that. Stupid rotating of the planet.”
After a pause, she said, “So, you should go.”
“No,” he said.
“Yes. You don’t want to drive in the dark.”
“I do too. I love driving in the dark.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You must be confusing me with someone old. Sure, I know I look a hundred. But I am, in fact, a reasonably functional eighty-five-year-old. And I can drive perfectly well in the dark.”
She smiled. “Don’t be a goof. It’s time to go. And thank you so much for doing something so wonderful for Valentine’s Day. You know how much I love it when you do stuff like this.”
“I never did enough of it. I know I didn’t. It’s one of the great regrets of my life.”
“No. Don’t say that. You were great.”
“I wasn’t. I know I wasn’t.”
She fixed him with that look of hers that always stopped his world cold. “You listen to me now. You were an awesome husband. I couldn’t have wanted anything more. Every single day with you was pure joy. And it really, really hurts me if you ever, even for a moment, think or say anything different. Okay?”
“Okay. And I feel the same about you. Before I met you, I was sure nobody like you existed. And in all the time since I met you, I’ve never known anyone anywhere near as kind, loving, or smart as you. Knowing you — much less getting to be your husband for sixty-odd years — made my life more perfect than I ever dreamed it could be.”
Now her eyes were gleaming with tears. She rose from her chair, came to stand beside him, and then bent to kiss him goodbye. He put his hand around her waist, leaned back his head, and felt her soft, warm lips upon his.
“Go now,” she said, moving from outside of his reach. “Don’t drive in the dark. I love you.”
“Stay,” he said. But she didn’t, and he watched her walking away, watched her gradually disappearing amongst the guests and the staff and all of the day visitors and tourists, catching his final glimpse of her as she passed into the vast and shining hotel lobby.
He turned his face back toward the darkened mountains.
He was then aware of how cold he’d grown. These days it seemed like he was always so cold.
He sighed, then started to get up from his chair.
And then right beside him was the waitress who’d brought out their drinks. “Need any help, sir?”
It took him a moment to realize the girl was talking to him. Looking into her face, he saw someone with big, clear eyes, who was fairly radiating good-natured compassion. And, of course, she was so impossibly young, so impossibly healthy.
“You’re very kind,” he said, almost amazed, still, at how cracked and gravelly his voice had become. “Thank you. But I’m okay. Takes me a moment or ten to achieve full verticalness — but once I do, all is well again. I so appreciate your offer to help, though.”
“It’s my pleasure,” she said. “I’ve been watching you all night, actually. A couple of times I almost came and sat down with you. Especially when I saw that, you know, your date, or whoever it was, probably just wasn’t going to show up tonight. Which is definitely her loss. At the very least, she missed out on a glass of excellent champagne, that’s for sure.”
Having to so abruptly transition from the world he’d been in to the one he was in was almost like a physical blow to him. To buy himself some time with that change, he bent his head down, as if searching for something in his coat pockets.
Once he was fully situated in the present, he looked back at the waitress, smiled, and said, “Do you mean to say that you never saw my wife sitting there at the table with me?”
Unsure if he was joking, senile, or what, the waitress said hesitantly, “Well, no, I guess I didn’t see her. Was she there?”
“She was to me. We used to come here all the time, to have a drink and look at the mountains. We did that for, I don’t know, forty years.” He looked at her sadly. “But you didn’t see her, huh?”
The waitress took his hand. “I must have just missed her,” she said softly.
“I guess you did,” he said. “I’ve missed her for about five years now.”
The waitress made a plaintive little sound, and moved closer to him. This almost imperceptible act of empathy came so close to breaking him that all he could do was freeze in place, and hope that it didn’t.
Finally, locking his gaze onto hers, he said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” she whispered.