Connie’s day starts like any other. She’s up at six to make breakfast for Jack Jr. (Little Jack) her fourteen year old son. Coffee to her husband Jack Sr. (Big Jack) while he sits in the bathroom reading the paper, when he gets up there will be a red ring around his ass, that’s how long he sits there. He showers, dresses, and before he leaves, turns to her, “Hey, do you know why my khakis are so wrinkled? Maybe it’s the new dryer. Can you look into that today? Maybe you are cramming too much in there.” Connie makes a mental note to try smaller laundry loads. Off Big Jack goes. After Little Jack goes to school, always the same decision, should she go back to sleep or pad through the halls all morning in her no-skid footies seeing what needs to be cleaned. Today, much time has been spent staring into space. The house is clean and quiet and she is suddenly overcome with the realization that this is what it will always be, a comfortable life. Connie is grateful for a wonderful child. He is no trouble at all. Thankful that she is married, knowing that somewhere deep inside, he still loves her, although he hasn’t touched her in months. Today, for whatever reason, her emptiness is taking hold. She doesn’t like to whine. Anyone would be happy with all that she has. She would just like to wake up feeling that something remarkable is just around the corner.
Connie jumps on the treadmill and chuckles to herself when she imagines that she is in a giant hamster cage, running on the wheel for exercise. After she is finished, off to the showers. As she gets ready for the rest of her day Connie takes some extra time with herself. Those who know her envy her small frame and delicate face. She has held up well, although her eyes look tired and empty as she expertly applies liner to them. She cracks herself up again thinking that she really hopes the pharmacist and the grocery store clerk appreciate how pretty she looks today. A few more minutes are spent staring into space before she heads out the door.
As Connie sits at the bar she wonders how she got there. She enjoys a glass of wine with dinner occasionally, but being in a small, stale, local bar before noon is certainly out of character. One minute she was driving to the post office and the next she was pulling into the tiny parking lot, checking herself in the mirror on the visor, applying lip gloss, now here. She gets the bartender’s attention and he comes over. He smiles when she orders straight vodka, asking if she wants a little cranberry juice or at least a lemon or lime. “No,” she says “I want it straight.” She laughs inside again for the third time today, thinking that so much of her life is spent on garnish. The clear liquid is appealing to her. It’s perfect just the way it is, no need to add anything. She raises the glass to her lips and takes a long slow drink. She thinks that maybe she has finally found something she is good at.
Sol’s day starts as they all do. His ailing prostate, better than any alarm, sends him to the bathroom promptly at 6 a.m. He is never able to go back to sleep, so he heads to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast. When Sol’s wife was too sick to cook for him any longer, she explained to him how to make his favorite eggs, scrambled with a piece of cheese melted over the top when they are done and still hot. The eggs are good, but they’re not the same. Nothing in the house is the same now that she is gone. It has been six months, and he still reaches for her in the middle of the night. He is amazed at the emptiness of the house he’s lived in for thirty five years. There was a time when the house was loud and messy. The children were small. There was never enough time or enough money. Now he has plenty of both and longs for what was. Sol looks at his watch. Only 7 a.m. and he sees the day stretch before him like an unpleasant chore.
Connie sees the small old man at the end of the bar. He is drinking coffee and reading the paper. She notices how crisp his plaid shirt is and smiles when she thinks that he must have spent extra time on himself today too. He looks up from the paper and catches her eye. A warm smile spreads across his face. Connie starts to panic a little when she sees him fold up the paper and head her way. Once he is close to her, her fear subsides. She turns as he extends his hand out to her.
“Hi, name’s Solomon Brodsky.”
“I’m Connie Swa…just Connie.”
“Nice to meet ya just Connie. Mind if I join you?”
“I would be delighted, bartender, another vodka please. Mr. Brodsky, do you need more coffee?
“No, No honey. Let me get your drink though. Here ya go Sam.”
“That’s really not necessary Mr. Brodsky.”
“I insist. I also insist that you call me Sol. For the record, a pretty girl like you should not be buying her own drinks.”
Connie blushes at the compliment as she allows her trembling lips to form a smile. It has been a while since anyone has told her that she is pretty. On some level she knows she is pretty but as she grows older she has less of a hold on it. When she was younger Connie was the kind of girl that people looked at. When she entered a room everything kind of stood still for a moment as people took note of her. Her husband used to say that she was shiny. It was his word for her and she loved it. Sitting at the bar today with Sol, she is feeling a little shiny. Perhaps it’s the vodka. Whatever it is she likes it. She notices Sol taking a good long look at her.
“You know who you look like?”
“Thank you, I love her. I went as Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s one year for Halloween. I just love Halloween. You can be whoever you want, even if it’s just for one night.
Maybe it’s the father in Sol, but he sees something in this girl that worries him. She seems so small and vulnerable. He wonders why she is here at Nichol’s. What is she looking for? You don’t drink vodka before noon if your life is fulfilling. For a moment he is grateful to be old. The struggle to figure things out has ended for him. He accepts that there is no answer and that most of us will leave here without making much of an impact on anything. You do your best. So far he can tell by looking at Connie that she is still trying to hold her life tightly. Coming to a bar before noon is probably the most imperfect thing that this perfect girl has done in quite sometime. Sol looks at Connie’s left hand and notices a sparkling, round, solitaire diamond set in platinum, of course. A girl like this always has a nice ring.
“How long have you been married?”
“I lost my wife Ruth six months ago, cancer.”
“Oh, I am so sorry Sol.”
“It’s okay. I know I will see here again. She was pretty sick there at the end. I hated seeing her in that kind of pain. I was always the one who fixed things. I couldn’t fix that. I felt very helpless.”
“How long were you married?”
“Forty two years. Forty two very long years for her, for me, they flew by. I traveled a lot. I was a salesman. I sold office supplies, pens, paper, that kind of stuff. Now, all you have to do is log-in or log-on, whatever you call it. You can get whatever you need from the computer. Back in my day, you did business face to face. I was the highest producer in my company. I wish I would have spent the time ya know? More time on the marriage. I barely noticed the kids. When they were little Ruth was on her own a lot. I think she resented me. When she got sick, she really needed me. It was my chance to take care of her for once. It’s strange we were closer before she died than we ever were.”
Connie pauses and wonders if Big Jack would take care of her if she became ill. She is certain a private nurse would be on their doorstep the next day. Big Jack just doesn’t have it in him. Even now if Connie comes down with something, things move along just the way they do every day. She cooks meals, packs lunches, and keeps the laundry going waiting patiently until everyone is out of the house before she collapses. Big Jack will call and ask her how she feels while in the next breath he requests that she pick up the dry cleaning.
Connie pictures Sol preparing a tray of food for his dying wife. He is carefully making her toast and gently placing a daisy in a vase, hoping it will cheer her up. He delivers the tray to her and sits on the side of the bed while she tries to eat. He is gently dabbing the crumbs from the side of her mouth with a cloth napkin. Connie can’t begin to picture Big Jack at her side while she is dying. She can only see him delivering instructions to a sterile looking visiting nurse before he runs out the door. Connie feels tears burn at the back of her eyes, realizing that she thinks more of this small elderly stranger than she does of her own husband.
At this moment Connie realizes her marriage, or the marriage she thought she had is over. Oh, she won’t go anywhere, where would she go? She doesn’t have a job, or a skill. She doesn’t even like to drive. When they go out Jack always drives. When had this happened? When did she become a prop in her own life? Something that Big Jack and Little Jack and everyone she knows for that matter, takes off the shelf when they want something pretty to play with. As a wave of powerlessness hits Connie, she looks to her right and assesses Sol again. He is so calm sitting there in his little tartan shirt. He is content where he is. He is of an age where he is just happy to be anywhere, even here in this bar with her today.
Oh how Connie wishes to be old. Holding on is just too difficult. It is too difficult to fight for your beauty, your mind, your very soul everyday. When every menial task, every vacant stare from the man you love, every unappreciative grunt from your child cuts you deeply and leaves a scar. It would be better to be soft and wrinkly with the hard edges of youth completely smoothed away by time, loss, and acceptance. For now it seems the only thing that can soften the edge is the vodka in her glass. Connie is grateful for it. It is the first indulgence she has allowed herself in quite some time and plans to enjoy it as long as she can. There is still time. Little Jack has soccer, and big Jack never comes home in the evening anymore. He claims he is working on a big deal but when Connie sniffs the collar of his shirt each night as she picks it up off the bathroom floor, it smells sweet and perfumed. Connie smells like soap and water, Big Jack always says he likes that about her. As she pushes the shirts into the hamper as deep as they will go, she pushes the scent and the thoughts down with them.
Sol can see that Connie is tipsy. She has gotten quiet and sad. Her thin shoulders are slumped over and a large curl from her otherwise perfect bob has fallen across her forehead. The sadness he sees pulls at his heart. He notices that Connie’s tiny silk cardigan has fallen to the floor and he picks it up and puts it over her shoulders with a little squeeze and a pat. Connie looks at him and asks in a tiny voice,
“When will it stop hurting?”
Sol allows his thin lips to curl into a smile. Not a silly smile but the kind of smile someone gives you when they have the answer to a question before you do.
“Connie. It never stops hurting. Eventually the hurt becomes part of you like your ankle or your elbow. You simply stop trying to make it feel better, and then somehow it does. I promise you honey, it does.”
Sol asks the bartender if perhaps the kitchen can make Connie a grilled cheese sandwich. He takes his handkerchief and wipes one perfect tear from Connie’s cheek. When the sandwich arrives he cuts the crust off for her and moves a tiny vase with fake daisies in front of her.
“You relax and eat your sandwich. Later on I’ll call you a cab. Just tell your husband you had engine trouble. They won’t care if you leave your car here tonight, happens all the time.”
As Connie eats her sandwich she realizes that she feels loved.