The diner is called Pig & a Jelly Jar but Ethan insists on calling it “The Pig in a Belly Bar.” Ethan is four.
Matt, my boyfriend, is driving. “Are you sure you are okay with this place?” he asks. “We kinda just… decided. But I was thinking there’s bound to be something you can eat… like, oatmeal or something?”
“I’m not worried,” I respond. “If nothing else I’ll get a scrambled egg.”
“Why can’t you eat… things?” Ethan’s voice is reedy and small, but slightly deeper than other four-year-olds I know. Like a darker shade of honey. I turn around to look at him in his car seat. It’s a winter morning but it is sun is reaching through the trees of the park we are passing, making Ethan’s eyes light up in pulses. They go from dark to the color of a glass of root beer at a picnic and then dark again. I have an impulse to take off my sunglasses and put them on his too small head. I don’t do it. I resist urges to mother this child daily, it seems. “He’s got a mom,” I remind myself yet again. “Don’t overstep.”
“Rachel just had surgery on her jaw, bud.” Matt looks at Ethan in the rear view mirror as he drives. “Remember? She can only eat really soft things.”
I look in the mirror on the passenger’s side. My face is badly swollen and my chin has a patch of color that could be mistaken for a blueberry juice stain. I try to decide if I feel self-conscious about heading out to a restaurant – in public – with Matt’s parents and a super-sized face. I decide that I don’t and I look back at the trees in the park.
We arrive just ahead of Matt’s folks and we all cross the street together. Ethan, already holding his father’s hand, slips his other hand into mine as we step off the curb. A muted smile trips across my swollen lips and lands warming my throat.
We chat easily over coffee. Matt’s parents are relaxed and open and they make me feel like we have known each other for years. Both ask questions about my surgery but don’t ask me if it hurts as bad as it looks. They strike the perfect balance between awkwardly drawing attention to, and awkwardly ignoring the elephant at the breakfast table.
Once the food arrives I have to tune out of the conversation. The lower half of my head is still numb and I need all of my concentration to will my fork to deliver the bits of egg directly into my mouth and nowhere else. I feel like a Jedi knight, trying to retrieve my light saber from the next room with my mind (Jedi’s are a prevalent theme in my life since meeting Ethan). I don’t bother to look around to see if anyone else is watching me. I’m too busy with my task.
Ethan says something but no one quite catches it. “What, Buddy?” Matt asks. Ethan looks up but gives the shy eyes kids get when you ask them to repeat something they weren’t confident about saying in the first place.
“My waffle. It’s really soft.”
“Um, okay. That’s good, I guess.”
Matt doesn’t see where that came from, but I think I do. I lean in and lower my head a bit.
“Do you think it is soft enough for me to eat?” I ask Ethan. He gives me a nod. He stops short of offering me his waffle, but I tell him that I’m fine anyway. “Don’t worry about me; just enjoy your breakfast.” The warmth in my throat returns and swells to fill my chest.
Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote an essay about accepting that I was likely going to be single for the rest of my life. I wrote about the fact that ten years out from my divorce, I didn’t see it happening for me. I talked about turning my attention to building my other lifelong relationships with my family and friends. I hadn’t found what I was looking for and I was letting go. Not in a defeated way, but I was resigned.
This occurs to me now as I sit in the Belly Bar with four people who treat me like family and I have two thoughts simultaneously. One is warm like Ethan’s little hand in mine and it says, “What a difference a year makes, huh?” The other is cold like a bad memory bursting to mind unbidden and it says, “Please don’t fuck this up.”
Matt is looking at me, smiling. He gives me a wink. I smile back to the best of my ability and return to the task of feeding myself.
What a difference a year makes, indeed! Happy Valentine’s Day!
You are still my Valentine, G! Love yer face!