By Tess Mazzucchelli
Jack and Mary started bringing their grandchildren, Nora and Aaron, to Mike’s Diner when they were infants. Jack had picked them up, one in each arm, and brought them over to the jukebox, their chubby palms pressed against the glass as he chose a song. Frank Sinatra had streamed out of the speakers singing “Strangers in the Night.” The grandchildren had blinked at their Grandfather as he walked them over to Mary, mouthing, “Strangers in the night exchanging glances…”
“That’s not how you do the maze!” Nora said as she grabbed the crayon from her brother’s hand. “You’re not supposed to cross the lines.”
Aaron ignored his big sister as he picked up another crayon and colored in the maze on his menu.
The grandchildren were almost eight and ten now, each beginning to defy their parents, but young enough to still want to hang out with their grandparents. Jack and Mary were aware that it wouldn’t be long before their grandkids would start to skip out on their visits to the diner.
“That’s enough, Nora,” Jack said as he unfolded Aaron’s napkin and placed it on his lap.
The grandkids quietly colored their menus while Mary tried to think of something to break the silence. “Why don’t you tell the story of how we met, Jack? It’s a great story!” she said with extra enthusiasm to get the kids’ attention.
“Well,” Jack began, leaning back in the red vinyl booth,“I suppose it all started when we were around your age…”
Jack had known Mary since they were in preschool. Their mothers had politely chatted during the many childhood birthday parties while their fathers briefly debated about the latest local baseball scores. They went through most of their schooling without ever speaking to each other.
During the awkward years of junior high there were scattered rumors of couples holding hands in the hallway. Jack never cared about these rumors or so called “couples.” He cared about what game the neighborhood kids would be playing that afternoon, or if mom would make that meatloaf that he loved so much.
By the time he attended Forman Highschool, holding hands was no longer considered risque. Like his peers, Jack’s mindset had changed quite a bit since junior high. The neighborhood kids had split up a long time ago and he began to notice more couples walking through the hallways.
Jack was thinking about all this while walking to his first class of the day: English. He hated English. He sat in the back of the classroom while Mrs. Bridge, the oldest and strictest teacher in Forman High, wrote the agenda on the blackboard. He was preparing himself for boredom when a disheveled girl slumped into the seat next to him just before the last bell rang.
“Open your books to page 4,” Mrs. Bridge said with no emotion. “We will be starting the year off with Shakespeare.” The class groaned, having studied Shakespeare’s plays every year since the sixth grade. The book opened to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Please read Act One with the person next to you.”
Jack began with a sigh, “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace-”
“Please, stop,” Mary said. “I’ve read this play a million times.”
Surprised by her bluntness, but pleased with her honesty, he replied, “Uh, okay. What should we do then?”
“I don’t know, just talk?”
For the next forty-five minutes Jack and Mary bonded over their mutual hatred of Mrs. Bridge, stopping periodically to read a section of the play as Mrs. Bridge walked past their desks.
The bell rang, students shuffled, lockers slammed. Jack walked towards his next class, replaying the conversations he’d had with Mary. He tried to hide his smile as he remembered what she had said about Mrs. Bridge’s saddle shoes. Jack couldn’t wait for the next time he got to sit in that creaky, old, gum-covered back desk next to Mary.
“Can I take your order?” the waitress said with a fake smile.
“Um, I’ll have the breakfast special with rye toast, please,” Jack said.
Mary sat back in her seat, staring blankly at Jack while the waitress went around the table. The kids ordered their meals, two pancakes and a side of bacon each.
“Ma’am?” the waitress asked.
“I’m not very hungry, thank you,” Mary said flatly.
“Are you alright, honey?” Jack asked, leaning into the table.
“I’m fine. Please, continue with your story.”
“Alright then. So after we talked a while in English class…”
It was November now, and Jack and Mary had spent dozens of English classes stifling laughs and creating inside jokes. One evening, after school, Jack decided that he would very much like to take Mary to see a movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing at their local theatre. Jack had carefully selected this movie because it was not too scary, but not too childish either. He was going to write a note Sunday night and hand it to her as they walked out of class on Monday.
The late bell rang as the students filed into Mrs. Bridge’s room. Mary ran in, late as usual, smiling at Jack as she sat down.
“Good weekend?” Mary asked as she unpacked her bag.
“Uh, yes. Swell. You?” Jack was trying to hide his nerves.
Mary laughed with confusion, “It was alright, thanks.”
Mrs. Bridge went through the daily monotoned announcements as Jack thought of all the outcomes that may happen after he handed Mary the note.
She could stop talking to me forever! Or she could say yes, but then split in the middle of the movie. I’m not going to do it. No, yes I will. Gee, I just don’t know.
His plan was to smoothly hand the note to her at the end of class, maybe he’d say something funny, but in a cool type of way. Unfortunately, there was nothing smooth about the transaction.
Jack’s hands shook as the dismissal bell rang. Mary was squatting next to her desk while she packed her satchel when she reached across the desk for her books. Jack quickly and awkwardly stuffed the crumpled note into her hand and fled the scene. Mary immediately stood up with surprise, unfolding her hand to reveal the balled up note.
“Jack! Wait!” she yelled through the classroom.
Jack had already left. He felt like he would be sick, but just kept walking. He sat through his next four classes uncomfortably.
Why didn’t I just wait for her to respond. Why did I even do it at all?
He couldn’t get to sleep that night. He could barely get himself to walk to school the next morning. The conversations his friends were having before first period sounded like the static Jack would sometimes hear on the radio. His stomach flipped when the first bell rang.
You’re being so overdramatic. You probably won’t even remember this a year from now. Just calm down.
He took a deep breath and walked into English class. He sat down at his desk in the back, Mary was late as usual. After five minutes the late bell rang. Another ten minutes went by leaving Jack sitting next to an empty chair.
Good going. You scared her off. Why do you have to be so annoy-
“Sorry I’m late!”
“Enough!” Mary yelled, slamming her palms on the table, spilling water and scrambling utensils, “I can’t believe you, Jack!”
“What? What is it?” Jack was scared, Mary almost never raised her voice, especially in front of the grandkids.
“That story wasn’t about me you idiot. That was about Mary Crammer, my maiden name is Betson, or don’t you remember?” She was blind with anger as she shuffled out of the booth, “I’ll be in the car, we will be having a serious talk about this tonight.”
Mary Betson stormed out of the diner. The door closed behind her with the pleasant sound of the diner chimes.
“Is Grandma okay?” Nora asked.
Jack was too stunned to speak. How could he tell the wrong story. And in such detail?
“Grandpa, are you okay?”
He was not okay. Jack had been having these episodes of memory loss in the last few months. He had to tell Mary, this was getting out of hand. He had a tough conversation ahead of him, but right now he had to deal with the panicked children sitting across from him.
“She’s fine. I’m fine. Everything will be fine.”
Aaron looked at his Grandpa with wide eyes, just like he used to when he was a toddler, “Well then, could you tell us what happened next in your story?”