from Tyler Stern
Feb. 10, 2014, 6:16 p.m.
“Oh my god, those crab cakes were divine.” Caroline wiped her mouth with a napkin and tossed it onto the table. She leaned back in her chair and let out a big breath as if that would help relieve some of the pressure in her stomach.
Sean laughed. “This place definitely knows what they’re doing. You should’ve tried my steak,” he added.
“Oh stop teasing me. You know I’m a vegetarian.”
He smirked. “I’m telling you, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Whatever,” Caroline responded playfully as she rolled her eyes. “I gotta say though, as good as those crab cakes were, they could never beat the ones we had at Cape Cod.”
“The ones we ate at that restaurant on the shore? What was it called again….something Ocean?”
“Blue Ocean.” Caroline raised her left eyebrow mockingly and shook her head. “You still can’t remember the names of anything, can you? Is there anything you do remember?”
A confused look broke out across his face. “Sorry….who are you again?”
Caroline rubbed her tongue on the inside of her cheek and inspected her freshly painted nails. “Me? Oh, I’m nobody. Just some random prostitute you picked up off the streets, bought beautiful dresses and jewelry for, and eventually fell in love with.”
Sean laughed. He loved how she always played along with his dumb jokes. “Alright, settle down, Julia Roberts,” he said coolly as he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “Of course I remember Cape Cod. I remember the little cottage by the lighthouse that we rented out for a week. I remember how we had to spend the entire first day trying to find some flip-flops for us to wear after the tide washed our old ones away.” Sean looked down at the stark white tablecloth and tried to stifle another laugh. “And unless I’m mistaken, I also recall someone on the boardwalk getting attacked by seagulls.”
“Don’t even joke. Those vile creatures are vicious and you know it. They made me drop my ice cream cone into the sand! And it was damn good ice cream, too! Those bastards owe me a dollar seventy-five!”
Sean was grinning ear to ear and chuckled even harder as the memory replayed in his mind. “Your face though! You should’ve seen your face! Oh my God, you were scared shitless!”
Caroline joined in with Sean’s giggling. “Well you would’ve been scared too if one second you were innocently eating an ice cream cone and the next a swarm of seagulls was like, ‘Surprise, motherfucker!’”
Sean nearly spit out the water he just sipped from his cup, but he didn’t have enough self-control to stop it from dribbling out of his mouth. Unfortunately, this just made both of them laugh even harder. They were trying their best not to create a ruckus in the fancy restaurant, but the piano softly playing in the middle of the room barely hid their muffled snickers. People dining at nearby tables shot them judging looks, but they didn’t care. They reveled in their joviality. They had experienced too much pain and sadness to stop themselves from enjoying every moment. Besides, they both agreed this five-star restaurant needed to lighten up anyway.
Eventually their laughter was replaced by deep breaths and gasps for air. Sean wiped the tears from his eyes and rubbed his cheeks, which were in pain after smiling so much. Caroline gazed at him in the same way she always did since they met.
“Tell me,” she said affectionately, “do you remember our last night in Cape Cod?”
Sean cocked his head a little to the right and furrowed his eyebrows. “Was that the night where we watched the sunset on the beach?”
Caroline smiled. “Yep.”
He nodded. “The night with the sunset that looked like a watercolor painting? When the sky literally turned pink?”
“The night where we….” He rubbed his fingers across his chin as a coy smile surfaced on his face.
“On top of the-“
“And then we did the-“
“And then the two-“
Sean let out another chuckle. “How could I forget?”
“Well you better not forget; we did get a daughter out of it.”
He made an embarrassed smile as he rubbed the back of his neck and loosened his tie a bit. “Man. 18 years ago. It feels like we just got back from that trip, doesn’t it?”
Caroline looked down at the white plate smothered with crumbs and streaks of sauce — remnants of the crab cakes she just devoured. “Yeah. Kind of.” She started playing with her fork. “But it’s still pretty weird to think about how much has happened since then.”
Sean noticed their waiter walking past the table and called for his attention. “Excuse me? Can I get the champagne I ordered now, please?”
The waiter nodded. “Right away, sir,” he replied as he ran off towards the kitchen.
Sean and Caroline sat in silence for a bit. To anyone observing, this moment would’ve seemed like a lull in the conversation, but it wasn’t. They had never experienced anything even remotely resembling a lull in all the time they spent together. They were happy just being with one another. As long as they were in each other’s company, they were content.
Caroline broke the silence.
“Oh, I got a call from Rich today. He said he’s glad to hear that I’m healthy again and that he wants me to come back to work starting next week.”
Sean gave her a disapproving look. “Next week? But that’s only a month after your treatments ended.” He sighed. “I know you’re looking great, but I thought we agreed you wouldn’t go back to work until you were 100% again?”
“But I do feel 100%, Sean. You saw the scans. The tumors are gone, the chemo’s over. I’m back!” Her eyes sparkled with a vivacious youth that she always seemed to possess. A burning spirit thrived within Caroline that could be extinguished by few things, but Sean had seen it dim before. He had seen Caroline at her worst, when the fire that lit up her eyes had nearly burned out. He had seen her sick and shriveled — a shadow of what she once was.
“I know…I just…I just want to be careful, okay? I almost lost you once and I don’t want that to happen again.”
“You know, you worry too much!” She leaned forward and brushed a lock of brown hair out of his eyes. “I’ll be fine. Besides, I really miss my kids. You saw what they made for me, right?” Sean raised his two eyebrows simultaneous, which Caroline knew that meant he had no idea what she was talking about. “No? I didn’t show you yet?”
She reached into her purse and pulled out her smartphone. Her nails clicked as she navigated through the device. She tapped the screen a few times and swiped a couple more before turning the phone around and handing it to Sean. A colorful canvas with an assortment of scribbles and pictures hung on the wall above a crowd of tiny children. “The woman subbing for me had my homeroom kids make a huge ‘Welcome Back’ sign. They all signed their names and drew little pictures and stuff. Look!” She pointed her finger at an indiscernible red glob on the screen. “Someone drew a sunbathing penguin! Is that not the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen?”
Sean let a smile creep out of his previously concerned face. “That kid seems like quite the artist.” A light bulb went off in his head. Perfect segue, he thought. “Speaking of which, I wanted to talk to you about something.” He reached under the table and slid a briefcase beside his chair.
“Sean, I told you. I didn’t want you to get me anything this year!”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t get you anything.”
She giggled flirtatiously but then noticed the straight look on his face. Her whimsical attitude quickly morphed into sassy incredulity. “You didn’t?”
She has no idea. Sean began reciting the little speech he prepared. “I know we’ve been limited because of Olivia and Zoe being in school and I know our plans got put on the back burner for a while when you got diagnosed. But I always had hope, so I kept on planning.” Sean leaned to the side and pulled a small, manila envelope from out of his briefcase. He moved his plate to the side and placed the envelope in front of him.
Caroline looked puzzled. “…What did you get me? My 5th grade report card?”
Sean ignored her comment. “I was thinking…Olivia just graduated…and Zoe only has a couple more years left in high school…and I know how much you’ve wanted to paint…” He lifted the fold on the envelope and pulled out several documents, revealing pamphlets and online purchase confirmations for AirFrance. “This whole cancer thing made me realize that our lives are so fragile. You almost died, Caroline. I’m lucky to have gotten you back, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not wasting anymore time by simply talking about our dreams.” Caroline sat completely still, both eyebrows raised, staring at the tickets sitting before her. “So, I want to bring you to the south of France for a month this summer. I have a friend at work whose uncle is a painter that lives there and he agreed to give you lessons and all the supplies you’ll need. I already talked it over with Olivia and Zoe. They really wanted to come, but I convinced them that we’ll go as a family in the winter. I just wanted it to be you and me for a little.” He paused and waited for her reaction. Nothing. “Well…what do you think?”
Caroline looked up at Sean with her mouth open, searching for words. She blinked and single tear rolled down her cheek.
Gotcha, he thought with a smirk. After all these years of her always figuring out what he was going to do for her birthday or what he got her for Christmas, he finally surprised her once. That’s all he ever wanted.
“I…I don’t know what to say.” Caroline started to blush as she cleaned the wet streak left by the tear off her face.
“Well, well, well. It looks like Mrs. Rivers is at a loss for words. I never thought I would see the day.”
Caroline let out an emotional laugh — the kind of embarrassed laugh that someone makes after realizing how ridiculous he or she must seem for reacting so emotionally. “Oh shut up,” Caroline said as she flung a napkin in Sean’s face. He smiled smugly as he snatched the napkin out of the air and set it back down on the table. Even when they had heartfelt moments, they couldn’t suppress their playful selves.
“Sean, this is…amazing.” The flickering candle that sat on the table glistened in her damp eyes as the tenderness of the conversation returned. “How long have you been planning this?”
“After the doctor found that your tumors weren't responding to any of the treatments, I didn’t really know what to do. I felt so lost, so…helpless. I just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that you might not be here in a few months. So, I just refused to believe that you would die. I made a commitment to myself that when you got better, I wouldn’t watch life ride alongside us. I wanted to make sure that you and I would never let time get the best of us again and that we would do the things we always said we would do. So I started searching airline websites that night and came up with some ideas. I was looking around for a while when my co-worker mentioned his uncle painting in France. I knew it was too perfect to pass up, so I bought the tickets right away.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It just felt like the right thing to do.”
They sat in a brief silence, this time staring longingly at each other.
“Sean, can I ask you something?”
“What would you have done if the treatments didn’t work. What would you have done if I had…” Caroline’s voice trailed away as she saw Sean take a deep breath and look down at the table. He was obviously bothered by the question.
The silence returned. Sean let his thoughts stew inside his head before answering her. “I would’ve kept the tickets,” he responded confidently. “I would’ve kept the tickets. I would’ve planned the same dinner. I would’ve come to this same restaurant and ate the same meal.” He reached across the table and held her hand in his. “And I would’ve been alright.” He cracked a half smile to show to Caroline that he was fine. She returned the same smile, but she wasn’t sure if she believed him. In the end, it didn’t matter. They had each other now. Everything was okay.
She squeezed his hand. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Their gaze remained fixed on one another, their hands tightly bound. Sean grabbed onto her as if he would never let her go. He grabbed onto her so as not to let this moment go.
But it had never even come.
The waiter returned holding a tall bottle in one hand and a single glass in the other. “Your champagne, sir.”