He sat there, still, as he had sat there every day for years, the coffee cup limp in his hand, elbow pressed against the Formica table, leaning forward on the chrome and vinyl chair and staring out the window. He didn't really like looking out the window, at the apple tree branch with its tacky birdfeeder, the thermometer that only ever seemed to remind him that he could be in Florida now, catching rays or, conversely, up at the lake, fishing pole and pipe in hand. He looked out the window because there was nothing else to look at, because she didn't like it when he read the paper during breakfast. "It makes me think you aren't listening to me," she said. But he didn't anyway. Perhaps he never had. Perhaps, even on that one spring day when he'd said "I do," he hadn't really heard when she'd said it, had only felt his life ending. He sighed, and set down the coffee cup, stained with years of Folgers, on its saucer. She looked up at him, not meeting his eyes. He smiled, stood, brushed his hands down his pants, looked around.
"Well," he said, and it seemed to be all there was to say. "Well. I guess I'd better get going." But there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, as they both knew full well. Maybe it had been the wrong thing to do, to finally retire. He'd not been able, ever, to quite get the hang of it. Still found himself itching to cover his hands with grease, pop a hood, rebuild an engine. She'd agreed, and he suspected that she didn't really want him around the house--it was her domain. But his doctor'd said, well, basically that he was getting old. And his kids had agreed. "Dad, why bother anymore? You've got a pension. And we'll take care of you." But that wasn't-- "Dad, you've worked there, in that stinky garage, for forty-five years. Your whole adult life, Dad. Go do something new." But-- "You've always hated that job, Dad." Yes, he had. Or no, actually, he hadn't. He'd loved that job. He'd adored it. He'd never wanted to be more than a mechanic. It was his kids who'd hated it. Hated how he'd come home smelling of car oil, hated that he wasn't a lawyer or a doctor or a commercial pilot like other kids' dads. Just a mechanic. Not even a bus driver--that, at least, would've provided interesting stories.
He left the house, walked out and down the steps, pulling acorns out of the cheap artificial turf. The dew was gone from the sidewalk but lingered on the grass. He put one hand to the wrought iron handrail with its chipping white paint, wanted to vault it. But he didn't. "Your back." his doctor had said. His back. As if the fact that he had one was the problem.
He entered the garage, dark and oily, his own domain, opened the garage door, got in his car. He drove out, down the cracking alley, past the park where the little Hmong kids were playing on slides. Hmong kids. He couldn't remember any when his kids had been growing up, wondered where they'd come from. He wondered the same thing every day. It was custom.
He turned right past the old graveyard, where he'd climbed between the plum trees that had surrounded it when he was a kid. There was a chain link fence there now. He drove past all the bars he'd frequented with his cronies. He hated bars, now. So pointless. Like everything else. Drinking never seemed to help anymore, anyway.
The streets were sunny and warm, bits of metal glinting off the asphalt. He opened a window and let the hot wind come floating in, laden with the smells of tar and mown grass. The radio was off. He drove through neighborhoods of houses and ones of storefronts, keeping away from the main streets with their modern monstrosities and their unhappy inhabitants. He hated buildings made all of that reflective glass, towering over everything, and he detested those bulky, garish squares of brick and plastic or painted metal, all ruddy brown and primary colors, and built as dentists' offices and gas stations. He didn't see how anyone could stand to live or work in them.
It was the same drive he took every day, watching children play and men and women work in yards on the weekends in summer, watching kids trudge to school or play hookey in piles of leaves in fall, watching people battling wind and snow in the never-ending winter, watching the mud in spring. Remembering when he had done that and she had done that, and their children had climbed the oaks on their lawn with a surety only the young and foolhardy have, and that his children took to new heights, or depths.
He remembered summer nights, when he would be faint from the engine-smells at the garage, and would come home to hotdish or pork roast and the kids'd climb all over him.
"Dad," they'd say, "we wanna go fly a kite."
"Then go fly it already." he'd say.
"But Dad--" They'd wanted him, of course. He hadn't really wanted them. Not--oh, never--that he was sorry they'd been born, and he supposed it was every man's duty: get married, have kids. That was why he'd done it. He'd been surprised to find that they made so many demands. Vaguely, he'd thought children like dogs: train them, feed them, walk them. Except with kids the dependance on one, thankfully, ended after eighteen years. Bewildered, he'd tell her to "Get 'em outta here," or ask, in pained tones, what kind of things she was teaching them while he was gone.
"C'mon, kids." she'd say, and pull them away by their collars so as to leave him to his beer. Then she'd serve up supper without a word, only a look in her eyes he could never understand, as if the person sitting at his place at the table were a stranger to her. A stranger? Oh, he thought, he knew her far too well.
He drove past the lake, and the park, where there was a wedding party, getting their pictures taken by the Gates Ajar. The bride wore a big dress of pure white meringue-y material, the groom smiled goofily, typically. He snorted. What would that idiot have done if she'd said "No." when asked those fateful words "Do you...?" He frowned. What if she'd said "No."? Why, on that badly-remembered day so many years ago, had she ever said "I do."? Why? He'd said it out of habit, because it was expected of him. He'd almost hoped, then, that she'd say "No." He'd daydreamed, through the years, about what would've happened if she had. Never had he wondered why she hadn't.
He stopped the car in the middle of the street, staring at the wedding party. The bride held orchids. She'd had baby's breath and pink roses. He remembered. Soft layers of chiffon floating behind her, spiraling and piling at her feet. And buds in her hair. There were roses on display at the Conservatory that day, they'd brought some minutes before the ceremony.
The Conservatory. She'd always loved going there; he'd hated the humidity, the damp swells of vegetation, the thud of birds flying against the roof. The roses in her hair. The look, as if to a stranger, that she gave him at the dinner table. The shy smile at him across their linked hands with the new gold bands. The wondering touch on his back at night, long ago, as if she didn't know who it was who shared her bed, who it was she'd married. The roses in her hair.
He made a U-turn, drove home fast, like he had in his little convertible so long ago. He jumped out, leaving the engine idling, and ran up the steps, vaulted the old iron rail as if he did it every day.
She was sitting at the table, the breakfast dishes cleared away, and she looked up at him when he came in. As if he were a stranger. He never came back until evening, and she never knew where he went. He smiled at her, smelling the cinnamon and Lysol scent of the kitchen. He took her hand, and she started. He hadn't touched her, voluntarily, since they'd had their fourth kid and decided that was enough. He grinned foolishly. He said her name, and it felt like the first time he'd ever said it before.
"Come on," he said, "There's something I want to show you." Roses in her hair. She blinked up at him. "Come on," he insisted, giddy, "Come on. There's somewhere I want to take you." She met his smile, shy. He started to lead her out of the house, and she hesitated.
"You don't need your purse. Come on!" She went. They got in the car, with the summer breeze blowing back her hair. Roses. They ended up walking.
Walking under the glass and birds and palms in the Conservatory. He smiled at her, she smiled back. He put rose buds in her hair. He leapt up into the air to brush a palm leaf with his fingers. When a man falls in love after so long, it's hard to keep his feet on the ground.