True love is a puzzle - it takes time to put it together, and a moment to tear it apart, but sometimes the mental image left behind can be stronger than the picture itself.
Today would have been their 25th anniversary, and Paul stood in front of the restaurant where they had met wondering what the hell to do. He looked down at his closed fist, and uncurled his fingers. There, resting in his palm, laid the coin upon which he had wished; the coin was proof, stuck in 1989 – the year they were married.
This was the second anniversary Paul had spent without his wife, the first coming only two weeks after her death - the cancer eating her to the bone within six months of diagnosis. Paul still remembered the day Tina died with absolute clarity, but the memories of her wasted body- her pallid, sunken eyes gazing at him through the morphine-induced haze that said, when is it going to end? - were beginning to elude him. What his mind saw instead was the beautiful, vibrant, loving woman he had fallen in love with and married, before the alien mutation came. Tina would have been disappointed to know how much Paul blamed himself for her death, but Paul couldn’t help it. If he had been more adamant about her yearly exams, or had checked more often himself for lumps in her breasts, she might still be alive today.
The year following the funeral had been an emotional merry-go-round, each emotion coming and going like a burnt out thunderstorm. The grief was the worst for Paul, sinking its talons in and out, but never delivering the fatal push to end his misery. The only thing that kept him from falling into the black pit of total despair was his children.
They needed him, and the first month following the death of their mother was a living nightmare for all three children, adding pressure to Paul as he dealt with his own inner demons.
David was sixteen, the oldest and only boy; secretly becoming the hero of his Dad’s heart in the way he dealt with his younger sisters’ grief.
Mandy, the middle child at fourteen, had a way of shutting off her emotional spicket when things became to stressful - mood swings and anger handled with a cold stare and dead silence. Six days after losing her roll model, Mandy excused herself from the dinner table, went to her room, and closed both doors – the door to her bedroom, and the door inside her head.
Paul, having a hard enough time dealing with his own distress, only made things worse by losing patience with his daughter. “This isn’t helping matters, and it’s also not the way your mother would’ve wanted you to act,” he said to Mandy during her second day of reclusion and after thirty minutes of a one-way conversation. The moment the words were out, Paul regretted ever saying them, and the cold, hateful stare he received in return only deepened his own self-pity as he walked out of the room mumbling he was sorry. Mandy never responded to the apology.
That same evening, Dave slipped into Mandy’s room and stayed with her until dawn.
The next morning, a small knock on Paul’s bedroom door woke him from a dazed and troubled sleep. When he slid the pocket door open, no one was there, but a small, hand made card was lying on the tiled floor.
It was from Mandy. Dad, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Just give me some time…love - Mandy.
Paul scanned living room for his daughter, but instead found Dave sitting on the couch and tending to the youngest, Lizzy, who was weeping in his lap. Dave looked up, saw his father holding the card, and gave him a mature wink that said, she’s okay.
Paul gave his son a thin smile and a quick nod before retreating to his room of remorse, feeling two emotions at once – pride for his son, and shame for himself – and began to sob.
The eleven-year-old Lizzy was at the other end of the spectrum from her sister, suffering a total nuclear meltdown at the loss of her mother that never seemed to end. Dave had stepped up again by letting Lizzy sleep in his room, playing Mommy the best that he could. He even managed to get short-lived laughter out of his sister by telling her old knock-knock jokes. And after the first month passed (the first month is always the worst) all three of Paul’s children began to heal - starting school as planned and leaving Dad home alone to ponder his grief. Now, as Paul stood in front of the restaurant and looked at the proof coin in his hand, the memories of his children coping with the death of their mother was hazy, but the feeling of their loss was still there.
Paul had retrieved his small coin collection from the bedroom closet after seeing the kids off to school. He then opened the velvet-lined box and removed the various mint condition coins one by one until finding the particular half dollar he wanted – the one he was now holding.
Double struck and sealed in clear cellophane, human hands had never touched the flawless coin. The front bore the brilliant profile of President John F. Kennedy, and dominating the back was a sprawling American eagle frozen in chromed detail.
Tina had given the coin to Paul for their 10th anniversary; the date struck on the front representing the year of their marriage - 1989. A hand written note had accompanied the gift, which Paul carefully unfolded and read.
This special coin from the year we were married contains one wish from me. Before using the wish, remove the cellophane wrapper (haha, like that’s going to ever happen) and place the coin in your left hand. Make a fist, and say, 'I’m ready for the wish from my wife,' and I will do whatever I can to make it happen. (I have to be there, of course, and wishes of a sexual nature will be carefully considered, within reason.)
Happy anniversary, my love, I hope you like it!
Paul traced the words written by his wife with his finger - Bunny then Puddin, their pet names for each other - and began to cry, sorrow and regret flooding over his heart like a raging monsoon.
“I wish we could have caught the cancer sooner,” Paul said as he gripped the flawless coin in his hand, crunching the cellophane and turning his knuckles white.
“I want my wife back!” he screamed in soul killing agony. “I’m wishing her back, dammit...and I want my wish!"
Nothing happened, as he knew it wouldn’t. The only sound was the crackle of cellophane as Paul relaxed his grip and put his anger back in check. He set the coin on the table, stretched his arm out, and laid his head down while looking at the smooth, mirrored surface of his wife’s gift. Tracing the bust of J.F.K., Paul admired the fine detail of the proof struck coin. His finger arched around the raised letters of the word Liberty, and then found the smaller inlay of In God We Trust.
“Yea, right,” Paul snorted sarcastically as he began to rub his finger over the date - 1-9-8-9…9-8-9-1, the year of their marriage - back and forth, back and forth.
He thought of Tina…remembered her looking like a goddess under her crowned veil as she walked down the isle to met him at the altar…remembered lighting the candle of unity together as their favorite love song played in the background…and remembered the five star hotel where they shared their souls for the first time as man and wife.
Then, as Paul’s mind drifted further back, the memory of seeing Tina for the first time came flooding in, and Paul made a sub-conscious decision to perform the ultimate sacrilege of any coin collector. He reached in the velvet box storing his hobby, withdrew a small penknife, and sliced open the cellophane package containing the virgin coin. Then, using the tip of the small knife, Paul slid the coin from its prison and picked it up.
He ran his finger over the date again, violating the pure surface and relishing in the thrill, and then gripped the now worthless silver disc in his hand as if he were hugging it.
“1989 was a good year, wasn’t it baby?” Paul said, and closed his eyes as a tear ran down his cheek. “I wish I could warn you."
The ground didn’t shake, the universe didn’t stop, and the angels didn’t sing - it just simply happened, and Paul’s eyes flung open at the sound of passing traffic.
All at once, Paul found himself over a thousand miles away from home, standing in front of the restaurant in Nashville Tennessee where he had first met his wife. He spun around in confusion, trying to take everything in at once.
This isn’t possible!, his mind screamed, threatening him with insanity.
A horn blared, and Paul jerked his head into the oncoming headlights; the passing motorist mouthing “dumbass” through the closed window of his newer looking Chrysler K car. Paul stepped onto the curb and eyed the other ancient cars sitting on their boxy frames as they parked in the restaurants parking lot: A beast of a Jeep Wagoner swung in an empty spot and killed its lights – a Ford Festiva zipped by, displaying a new paper license plate in the back window – a GMC Pacer, in need of repair, came chugging down Murfreesboro Road pumping out great gasps of blue smoke that any employee of the EPA would have had a coronary over.
It's a dream! It's got to be a dream, Paul thought as he looked back at the brightly lit restaurant in search of an answer. Then an odd thought shot through his mind and he dropped his head, preying he wasn’t naked (as sometimes happened in dreams). He wasn't, wearing the same clothes he had put on that morning before taking the girls to school – A pair of grey sweats, a Coors Light tee shirt, Reebok tennis shoes, and - just to top off the ensemble - the black baseball cap Tina had given him for his 45th birthday. He commended himself for not wearing his - I survived Hurricane Charley 2004 - tee shirt. He was sure that would have gained some strange looks.
“Hey, buddy! You lost?”
Paul snapped out of his thoughts and looked up, panic gripping his throat. “Huh?”
The man staring back was obese and on the short side. His round face bloomed with color, and his eyes looked like red road maps hazed over with frost. “I asked…burp…if you were lost,” the man said, waving a pointed finger at Paul.
After regaining his composure, Paul noticed his new friend was well dressed, and also realized thst he had probably swallowed more than a few drinks with his dinner. “No, just waiting for someone...and thought I had forgotten my wallet.” Paul reached down and patted his sweats pockets to emphasize his point, and was quite relieved when his hand struck the familiar square object inside.
“Well…okay then,” the man said, the words coming out, “ell…ohey din”, and slapped his hands together in an all’s well gesture as he wondered off to find his car.
Paul let out a long sigh. “Now what,” he asked himself in a low voice, and a whisper spoke up in the middle of his head. Do what you came to do. Time is short.
Not comprehending what he had just heard, Paul worked his jaw back and forth, and pondered. Then his eyes widened, threatening to spill out of his skull as he realized the opportunity he was being given. “I wished I could warn her,” he said in dumbstruck wonder.
Yes, the voice whispered.
“But why here, why now,” Paul asked in a louder voice than he intended, shaking his head in frustration.
There was no answer from the whispering voice, but there didn’t need to be. The truth hit like two cymbals in a parade. I said, “1989 was a good year, wasn’t it, baby. I wish I could warn you.” That’s it, isn’t it? I’m here to warn Tina - not my wife, but Tina - about the cancer.
The whisper didn’t respond.
Paul gazed at the half dollar in his fist. But she doesn’t even know me yet. What am I suppose to do? Oh, I got it! I’ll sit down and say, “I’ll have the beef fajitas and a beer...and, by the way, don’t forget to get your boobs checked out every once in a while for cancer.” Yea, that’ll go over real big.
Still no response from the whispering voice.
A couple walked by and eyed Paul with suspicion. He was starting to attract attention, but as crazy as the whole thing seemed, he had to try. But how?
If this was a dream, he wanted it to last as long as possible; and if it wasn’t, then he needed to get moving, and worry about the how once he was seated.
What else was there?
He looked up at the restaurant door, and grinned. For the first time in more than a year, Paul had something to hold on to, possibly redemption.
“All right, baby...here I come,” Paul said with pride, and walked to the door.
Déjà vu flooded Paul’s senses as soon as he walked in, and he thought, What if I run into my younger self? Would it cause some kind of weird paradox and send the sun spinning backwards? He shot his eyes around the restaurants interior trying to glimpse his wife to be. Man, this is weird.
The couple that had eyed him outside now waited at the hostess station to be seated, so keeping his head lowered and using the brim of his hat to conceal his face, Paul moved forward and waited his turn.
The restaurant was busy, but not overly full, as three more patrons came through the door. Paul caught movement from below the brim of his cap, and looked up, amazed by what he saw.
A waitress with strawberry hair and a small prim nose stepped up to the hostess station, grabbed two menus, and said, “Two?” This was Tina’s high school friend, Joy. They were in theater and drama together, and were the best of friends. Joy later married an abusive husband, moved away without even a goodbye, and Tina had never heard from her again.
More people entered the restaurant as Paul stepped up to the hostess station. He dared another glace around...and saw her.
Tina was standing at the bar, waiting for a drink order and looking perturbed. Paul’s heart began pounding in his chest. It was Tina, and she was alive - a hell of a lot younger - but alive. Paul could live with that. It took every fiber of his being not to run over, sweep her off her feet and into his arms, and say, “To hell with the younger me! He’s a punk and I deserve you! Then he witnessed something that invoked such deep rage and jealousy inside him he actually took an advancing step towards the bar.
A dark skinned man of middle-eastern descent grabbed Tina by the wrists, and was in the process of smacking the backs of her hands together in a playful manner. Paul could see that Tina wasn’t enjoying the horseplay, actually saw her grimacing in pain, and he almost screamed, “Let her go right now, or I swear to God you’ll regret ever being born”, when a voice spoke up beside him.
“Sir, would you like to sit at the bar?"
Joy was back, looking at Paul with her eyebrows raised and lips pinched shut. Paul controlled his rage and forced his gaze away from the bar. He looked at Joy, who still had her eyebrows raised as she waited for an answer, and said, “No, no, I’m sorry. I thought I saw someone I knew. I’ll take a table please.”
Joy moved the menus through the air with dramatics. “This way, please.”
Paul took a hesitant step, and then stopped. “Excuse me, Miss?"
Joy turned back, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, and cocked her head. Paul pointed to an empty booth along the east wall. “Is there any way I could sit there? I met my wife in this restaurant and that booth kinda holds some sentimental value.”
Joy made several quick clicking noises with her tongue, sashayed back to the hostess station, and made a correction to the seating chart. “Will your wife be joining us?”
Paul gave her sharp gaze; Joy’s act was getting irritating. “No, she passed away.”
Joy expression changed into a dramatic - oops. “Oh,” she said curtly while seating him in the booth he had requested, and then hurried away.
Now Paul was alone again, viewing the lower half of the restaurant from under the brim of his cap. He was sitting three booths down from the booth where he had met his wife twenty-five ago. The booth was empty, which meant his younger self had not shown up yet with Marvin in tow.
Marvin had been Paul’s work associate at the small rental car company they both worked for at the time, and was the only close friend Paul had made during his four months in Nashville, besides his wife, which was the most important one.
Paul grunted a laugh as he thought back on some of the conversations that were held in the locked up rental car office as he and Marvin shared an after hours six-pack.
Then, his concentration on the subject was abruptly shattered when the sweetest voice he ever heard said in a slight southern draw, “Hi, my name is Tina, and I’ll be your server. Can I get ya something to drink?"
Paul let the brim of his hat come up for the briefest moment, making quick eye contact, and what he saw was breathtaking. Tina shot him a smile that lit his heart like a roaring fire, and then fished in her apron for an order pad. Paul lowered his head, concealing his face under the brim of his cap again, and slapped himself mentally.
Even though the gaze only lasted a moment, he couldn’t risk another. If he looked at her again, Paul would lose the battle of self-control and start babbling off about her being his wife of 23 years and about what it was that needed doing. Then, not being able to help himself, Paul would jump up, embrace the young Tina, and kiss every inch of skin on her face his lip could grab. Tina had been his wife, best friend, and lover for over 7000 days, and then she had died. Seeing her again at twenty years old, in the picture of health, and in the beauty of her youth, was more than Paul’s mind could bear. He wanted his wife - he wanted to make love to his wife right now, and he wanted her head on his chest so he could listen to her sleep.
Paul squeezed his trembling knees to the point of pain. “Coors Light in a bottle,” he managed to say in a low, husky voice, and began flipping though the menu. He could see her legs from the corner of his eye, the jeans she wore clinging to her thighs, and Paul’s self-control was beginning to waver once more.
“Would you like your beer first, or are you ready to order?” Tina asked, and hearing her voice again for the second time finally broke him - She’s my wife, for Christ sakes! I need her back, and I can make her listen! - And just as Paul was beginning to reach for her hand, a figure brushed past Tina and diverted her attention. The contact was incidental, not much more than a passing breeze, but it was enough. Marvin and Paul’s younger self walked past them in a blur, stopping at the third booth down as the hostess placed the menus on the table. Tina turned her head to follow the new patrons, her eyes wondering down the younger Paul’s thin frame. The two young men, not much more than teenagers, took their seats and began browsing the menu.
Paul lowered the brim of his cap and studied his own menu again. He could feel flushness flowering in his cheeks. She was checking me out, he mused to himself, and smiled under his cap. You naughty young lady.
He spoke while he had the chance, recalibrating his emotions after the strange series of events. “I’ll order. I’ll take the beef fajitas.”
Tina’s attention came back. “Oh, okey dokey - beef fajitas and a Coors Light, coming right up.” She jotted it down on the order pad while heading towards her destiny, and gave a sly smile to the waitress who had seated the newcomers. Paul watched in silent wonder as his younger self look at is wife-to-be for the first time.
Smiling, Tina became radiant and full of life. He knew where the story went from here; the smiles, the looks, and the exchange of words, remembering it all like it was only yesterday.
His beer and fajitas came, and Tina asked Paul if he needed anything else. He could tell she wanted to get back her table of interest, so shook his head and grunted a, “No”.
The decisive moment was coming for Paul’s younger self - Tina asking them if they wanted dessert, and the younger Paul saying, “No, but how ‘bout if we go out to dinner and eat dessert together?” – And that would be all she wrote. Four months later they would marry and be together for the next twenty-three years until…
Paul’s eyes widened as the reason he was here slammed back into his head.
How can I warn her? How can I make her believe me?
Then it happened. Marvin got up from the table and headed up the isle. Paul turned his head and looked out the window. It was all he could think of to do besides jump under the table. Marvin passed by, but still did a double take of Paul’s profile. Paul saw his gaze, dropped his napkin on the floor, and bent to pick it up, denying Marvin a second good look. Paul wondered what Marvin was thinking – Father, older brother, uncle?
But it really didn’t matter because his time here was up. If Paul was going to do something, he had to do it now, before Marvin came back curious enough to start asking questions.
Paul asked a passing waitress if he could borrow a pen, and did the only thing he could think of. He began writing at a feverish pace, but when he got the end didn’t know what to sign.
What could I write to grab her attention and make her think?
Paul shook his head in frustration, signing the only thing that made sense to him, and just as he finished, Marvin returned to his table.
Now Paul could feel Marvin’s eyes asking for a peek at his face. Tina had left the bill on the table with her last pass, and Paul folded the napkin upon which he had written the note, and brought out his wallet. He pulled a twenty from the fold, and froze.
The twenty-dollar bill was of the newer series - the much larger image of Andrew Jackson and the multi-colored markings - and that wasn’t going to work. Paul rifled through the remaining bills in his wallet and found what he needed, only a lower denomination. He extracted the ten-dollar bill with the smaller Hamilton on it - Great… wonderful - then took out the only single he had, and folded the napkin with the note on it between the cash and the check for $9.02.
“Sorry baby, elevens bucks is the best I can do,” he mumbled as he was getting up, and dared a glance across the room.
Marvin’s eyes were on him like a hawk as he leaned forward for a better look.
Time to go, Paul thought, and headed for the exit. The evening crowd had thickened, and Paul had to weave his way though people waiting to be seated, but finally hit the door and went outside. He half walked, half jogged down the narrow sidewalk, and began to wonder, now what?
As if answering the question, Paul’s brain flashed a clear, brief memory before his eyes, causing him stop so suddenly that he almost fell flat on his face.
“She cuts her finger later!” Paul said aloud in a horrified voice.
Tina would be preoccupied in her head about the young man who had asked her out, and (Paul remembered the whole story with absolute clarity) would accidentally run her hand across the sharp end of a serrated knife held by another waitress. She would use napkins to stop the bleeding, napkins from her apron, and would never read the note.
Paul spun on his heals and headed back, pushing his way through the crowd cluttered around the door, and thought wildly, I’ll just have to risk talking to Tina face to face, it’s what I should have done to begin…
He hit the door, and ran square into Marvin. Marvin looked him up and down, his face lighting with curiosity, and asked, “Hey, do you know a guy named…,"
Paul shoved Marvin aside, and in his haste, shoved too hard. Marvin’s head connected with the jam of the open door, splinting his forehead open, and he fell to the floor in a moaning heap, landing front of Paul and blocking his path. Paul began to step over Marvin when an arm locked around his neck.
“What in the hells your problem, buddy?” the owner of the arm hissed into Paul’s ear. Paul struggled, trying to break free, and was forced to the ground.
“Let me go, I have to see Tina,” he tried to scream, but the pressure around his throat increased as black dots began to explode in front of his eyes. Paul felt more hands grab hold of his arms and legs as other patrons found their courage and help in the process of restraining him. Paul struggled again in a final effort to break free, but mustered only feeble strength as the black dots before his eyes turned into a black ocean.
“I have to see…”, but that all he could manage before a black tidal wave emerged from the ocean of darkness, and swallowed all conscious thought.
Paul bolted upright in the predawn hours of darkness, and screamed, “Tina!”
His body was trembling, the sheets soaked with sweat, as his throat contracted and made any further speech temporarily impossible.
A hand fell on his back and began to pat with concern as Paul’s eyes widened in shock. Leave me alone, he wanted to shout, getting out nothing more than muffled croak. Then a voice filled the room, a voice he was sure could only be coming from inside his own head. Where else could it come from?
“It was just a dream, baby. You were having a bad dream, it’s all right now.”
Paul turned, and a shell-shocked expression pulled his face in every direction as he stared into Tina’s almond shaped eyes. Two things happened at once inside Paul’s head – reality was beginning to settle in, and the memories of the worst nightmare he had ever had were starting to slide through the cracks of his conscious mind. “Puddin?”
“It’s okay, I’m right here,” Tina said as real concern came into her eyes. “You’re awake now.”
He embraces his wife in a solid bear hug, pulling her close as he willed the remaining images of sleep back into his sub-conscious mind. Tina felt her husband shudder, and began caressing the back of his head.
“Wow, must have been bad. What happened?”
Paul let loose a deep sigh, and fought back the tears he felt stinging the corners of his eyes. “You died.”
Tina stroked his head faster and squeezed tighter. “Aw, I hate dreams like that. That’s usually in my bag of nightmares, not yours.”
Paul began shaking his head. “But, then it got really freaky. I was back in Nashville, and trying to warn you about something. I went to the restaurant where we first met, and watched it happen all over again through someone else’s eyes. But I don’t remember much of anything else, except having a forbidding feeling that you weren’t going to get my message."
“Do you remember how I died?” Tina asked in a soothing tone.
Paul closed his eyes, flashed a quick, guilty smile, and said, “Cancer.”
Then Tina smiled and nodded in understanding. “I know that’s still weighing heavy on your mind - but I went through all the tests, and I’m fine. Even the small lump we found turned out to be nothing more than a cyst. Too much coffee, remember?”
Paul did remember, and nodded. He knew she was right, but… “I just felt like I had a chance to save you, and didn’t – in my dream, I mean."
Tina pushed him back and made Paul look at her. She smiled again, and Paul knew it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen on a human being. “Maybe you did.”
“Did what,” Paul asked.
“Maybe you did save me. You’ve always badgered me to no end about my yearly exams and made sure I kept my appointments. You’ve also made me self conscious to the point of paranoia about doing self examinations, and I’m still here. See, you were victorious after all.”
Paul laughed at that, and started to feel a little better. Tina picked up the remote and waved it at the TV. “Wanna watch some tube for a while? Take your mind off of things?”
He plucked the remote out of her hand, set it back on the headboard, and grinned slyly. “There was something else I wanted to do in my dream, but didn’t get the chance.”
Tina’s eyebrows went up. “Ooo…this sounds promising. Do I get to be twenty years old again, too?”
Paul leaned in, and kissed the lobe of his wife’s ear. “You will always be the beautiful young woman I married.”
And with that said, he proceeded to kiss every inch of skin on Tina’s face his lips could find.
The sun was up, and Tina arose quietly as not to disturb her sleeping husband. She soft shoed it to her closet, slid open the door, and retrieved a small, black purse stashed behind the heavy clothing she alone stored away for the summer months.
Retracing her steps through the bedroom, Tina glanced at the still sleeping Paul, and smiled. Then she exited the bedroom, walked through the living room, unlocked the front door, and stepped out.
Dew sparkled in the morning sunlight as Tina sat in the rocking chair on the screened in porch. She gazed in awe at the small, black purse in her lap as she unbuttoned the clasp, and reached inside. The black, satin lining of the purse hung loose, making the small side pocket invisible except to the owner’s eye, and Tina withdrew the only secret she had ever kept from her husband of twenty-five years.
She unfolded the small, paper square – frail, but still intact – and a one-dollar bill fell into her lap. Leaving the dollar bill where it was for the time being, Tina read the barely legible note written upon the napkin.
A wish brought us together, if only for a short while…don’t let death tear us apart again. Your life is in danger, so grant me my wish – for it’s a simple request. See your doctor yearly and examine yourself often. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s the best I could do.
The Magic Bunny.
Tina folded the napkin, shaking her head while reflecting back on the night she had first read it, and picked up the dollar bill. “I thought it was all a cvuel joke…,” she said quietly as she unfolded the bill, “Until this.”
The bill looked like any other one-dollar bill, %xcept for the date – 2001.
In his hast, Paul nåver thought to check the dates - the design, yes, but not the dates.
“So, today was the day,” Tina said, running a thumb under the crease of her breast as a tear rolled down her face. “Thank you, my Bunny…thank you for making me your silver wish”