Inside, it’s just like any other chain sandwich shop that you can visit to get your fix of a sandwich made “your way”.
I usually don’t go to this particular location, but tonight is the dress rehearsal for our spring concerts, and they’re held in a different town from our weekly practices. There’s a certain comfort to breaking routine, but still being able to eat dinner at the same place.
As I walk in the front door, I notice a trio at one of the booths that looks vaguely familiar to me. I’m surprise to feel some discomfort buzzing in the back of my brain. It’s been months since I’ve eaten here, but I immediately recognize them.
Two women, and a man.
One of the women is elderly. Without staring, I can sense a vague confusion about her. She’s there, but not entirely.
The man sits on the same side of the booth as her. At first glance, I think he is her husband, he radiates a protective nature toward her. I realize that his white hair makes him look older than he is, he’s got shocking dark eyebrows perched above his glasses. Perhaps he is her son, then.
Across the booth, the other woman sits. She has frizzy hair, and a hard face with too much eyeliner. She’s the same age as the man. His wife perhaps? A caretaker to the older woman? Her attitude colors the air around her, ticking with impatience like the timer on a bomb.
I realize that I have seen them here before, and dread pools in my stomach. I take a seat at a booth from across the restaurant, take my book from my purse and attempt to get absorbed in my reading.
Occasionally the Man catches my eye. He raises the Older Woman’s sandwich gently to her mouth, to aid her in eating. She doesn’t use her hands at all. He uses a napkin to tenderly remove crumbs, and offers her beverage which she slowly accepts.
“Ok,” I assure myself internally. “This visit will be different.”
I return to my page.
A commotion across the restaurant snaps me out of the forest of printed words on the page.
The Tired Woman has slammed her hands on the table.
“Dammit, Mabel*,” she snaps. “I am so tired of your bullshit. You can’t just eat a meal, it’s always gotta be a game with you.”
The man’s shoulders tighten, as if deflecting the sting of her words.
“Are we done?” she continues, savagely, starting to gather food wrappers off the table. “I don’t know why we bother going out every week.”
I feel a lump in my throat and frantically try to focus on my book again. This is the exact scene that I’ve witnessed here before, months ago, with the same three people.
Mabel wouldn’t eat. The Tired Woman snapped, flinging angry hateful accusations before they departed.
The tone of her voice sends shards of ice into my heart. It’s physically painful.
The Man gently slides Mabel across the booth, and assists her in standing. He makes sure that her clothes are free of crumbs. As he’s doing this, the Tired Woman is circling, barking instructions. Her fuse has snapped and she’s not able to get herself back under control. The Man is unaffected, still softly guiding Mabel to a standing position, and waiting until she has regained her equilibrium before they slowly shuffle out.
My book is forgotten at this point, I make no effort to hide my observation. They don’t even notice, so absorbed in their daily struggle. I don’t know their relationship to each other. I don’t know the trials they face together on a daily basis, and if Mabel is an unbelievable challenge. I don’t understand what it feels like to get older, as your joints no longer respond to commands and your mind watches everything through frosted glass. I find it hard to believe that this is a random occurrence- I’ve seen the trio now multiple times and every visit ends the same.
It’s like a repeating nightmare, one that haunts you for years in your sleep, sneaking into your unconscious mind until you realize that you’re trapped in the same dream again. Mine was always about a pool of water. I’d dive in, only to find the bottom lined with skeletons, and the top covered with wood or metal bars. I was trapped underwater, and was going to drown.
I could always wake up.
Seeing them again, I hoped that the nightmare would change this time, that I would wake up at the exact moment when things went bad.
I wonder if Mabel waits to wake up, too.
*- name changed