Old Long Since

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The black and white television mounted high in the corner of the diner broadcast the celebration in Times Square, where the great glittering ball, an hour ahead of them, had already dropped. On the last day of December 1966, Aileen picked up the laminated menu and flipped it to the back cover although she knew what she would order. She had the same thing every time she visited the Three Sisters Diner.

“Why this place?” her guide asked her every year when she booked her pilgrimage. “Most people want to visit someplace historic — Gettysburg or the Ed Sullivan Theater.”

How could she explain to this young man, born into a generation of miracles, the draw of an ordinary restaurant, a place filled with both regret and anticipation?

The waitress wandered over to her table and set down a glass of ice water.

“You ready to order, sugar?” she asked. Aileen glanced at her name tag, it would either be Sue or Sharon and this time it was Sue. Both women had peroxide blonde bouffant hair and all the waitresses wore the same pink candy-striped uniforms. Still, as many times as she’d been here Aileen thought she should be able to sort them out.

“I’ll have the cheeseburger with a side of fries,” Aileen answered.

“Anything to drink?” Sue licked the pencil stub and scribbled Aileen’s order on her pad.

“A Coke.”

Aileen settled back into the booth. The cold window beside her flashed with lights from the cars speeding down the highway toward Dallas. As she did every year, she checked her pocketbook for dimes and considered whether she ought to play something on the jukebox. A rare treat, that, to hear again the songs from those years–the Rolling Stones, Elvis, The Supremes. From her booth she watched as the mechanical arm picked up the next 45 and dropped it onto the turntable. Aileen checked the timer on her wrist, counting back from the last song that had played.

“Last Train to Clarksville,” she whispered as the rattle of Davy Jones’ tambourine filled the diner.

“Here you go.” Sue dropped a paper coaster on the table and centered the glass with Aileen’s cola on it, then produced a small bowl from the tray she held. “And here, have black-eyed peas for good luck, compliments of our chef.” Sue winked as she set down a spoon next to the bowl.

“Thank you,” Aileen said.

“You make your New Year’s resolution yet?” Sue asked. “Mine is I’m gonna lose weight.”

“I have a resolution, yes, but are you supposed to tell?” Aileen asked.

“I think that’s for wishes, honey. Suit yourself whether you spill it.” Sue reached over and brushed Aileen on the shoulder before she moved on to the next booth where a young couple with matching blond hair huddled together sharing a slice of apple pie. The woman held up her fork and fed a bite dripping with fruit to the man. When they leaned together to share a kiss Aileen gazed down at the Formica tabletop.

Fragrant steam rose from the bowl and she blew on the spoon to cool the first bite of peas. She savored the smoky taste, remembering past New Years. No doubt the peas were served up from a can, but somehow, they were always better than the stuff she had at home. As she set down the spoon her hand trembled, and she rubbed her swollen knuckles. The blue veins and crepe-like skin seemed unfamiliar to her, and when she looked at her reflection in the plate glass she didn’t recognize, at first, the white-haired woman staring back at her. Was it the diner, the easy familiarity of the place that made her feel so unfit? She wondered how many more New Year’s Eve’s she would spend here.

Sue brought out the cheeseburger and fries right on time, fifteen minutes before midnight.

“You need ketchup?” The waitress held out a glass bottle and Aileen nodded, her attention distracted by the jingle of the bell over the diner door. She sighed and relaxed as she recognized the man who entered. The truck driver, she’d named him. She spied the tractor trailer parked at the end of the lot and she picked up her napkin and wiped her mouth, still chewing the last bite of burger. It wouldn’t be much longer.

“Happy New Year! You got a kiss for me?” the truck driver, a burly man in red plaid flannel and khaki pants slung low on his hips, reached out and petted Sue’s teased hair.

“Shush, I’ve no time for silliness!” Laughing, the waitress pushed him aside, and he eased onto a stool at the counter. He glanced over at Aileen and nodded.

As she finished her dinner more customers arrived, some of them regulars the waitresses greeted by name. There were calls of “Happy New Year!” and Sue and Sharon buzzed through the room, handing out paper hats and noisemakers to any who would take them.

“You save room for something sweet?” Sue asked as she cleared Aileen’s plate.

“No thank you,” Aileen replied. “I’ll take the check when you’ve time.” The device on her arm buzzed a warning. So soon. She drew in a deep breath, already the edges of her vision blurred. She stared around the room, taking in all the details, trying to fix it all in her mind so she would remember later. Every year more difficult to recall than the last, she didn’t know if it was her mind losing track of things or the process that brought on the haze. There by the register stood the young couple, arm in arm before the television, now tuned to a local channel broadcasting the count down to the New Year.

There should be balloons and confetti. But no, that was a different year, another celebration. Aileen clutched the edge of the table, barely noticing when Sue dropped off the check. She fumbled with her purse, counting out enough to cover the bill and a little extra, but not too much. That would draw attention.

“The first person to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day brings good luck. They should be tall, with dark hair.” Aileen paused, it seemed there should be more than this, but the count began, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…. She mouthed the words along with the others, and at the end, amid shouts and horns, the chime of the bell above the door announced a visitor and Aileen looked up.

A young woman with sleek dark hair, chestnut brown with bangs that hid her brow, stood in the doorway. The woman scanned the dining room, searching each face. She carried a canvas duffle bag that weighted down her arm and wore a tan buckskin jacket with fringe. Aileen had teased her and called it “the hippie coat” back then.

“Maura,” Aileen whispered the name.

Maura set her bag down below a stool at the counter. The waitress, Sharon this time, approached and brought her a glass of water. Maura would sit there, nursing a cup of coffee, for thirty minutes before she tried the pay phone tucked in the back of the diner. She’d place a call to a number that wouldn’t answer.

Tears stung Aileen’s eyes, and she held a crumpled napkin before her face. She didn’t fear that Maura would recognize her. That feeling had lasted through the first few times but now she knew her face, her body, everything had changed so much there was no danger. If only the process had been invented sooner. How cruel that she had so often longed to go back and change this night. Now she could go back, had done so many times, but she was forbidden to change anything, to say anything that would alter the course of things.

Aileen stood up and walked to the door, passing Maura at the counter.

“It will be different in San Francisco,” Maura had said back then, “We can be together there.”

How Aileen wished she could stop and wind the chestnut hair through her fingers as she kissed her. She would go with her this time to California.

But she must walk by because her courage failed her in the past, and she stayed home that night so long ago. Maura traveled alone to California. Aileen went on to a different life and now lived in a time where Maura did not exist.

The customers were singing Auld Lang Syne as Aileen pushed open the door. A cold rain blew in and soaked her coat. She’d take sick. She wondered if her health would see her through another year until she could visit again. The surrounding air vibrated, the travel about to begin as Sue came up behind to hold the door for her. The waitress leaned over to speak close to her ear.

“Did you make a resolution after all?”

“Yes, I did.” Aileen paused, looking back at the chestnut-haired girl. Thinking of promises made too late she said, “I’ll tell her I love her every day.”

© 2019 Terrye Turpin

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