"He looks so old."
James turned from watching a little girl chase the wind through a shower of russet and amber leaves and took her hand, cupping it between his. A few years ago he might have only patted her fingers to show that he understood, a few years before that he would have kept his hands flat against the tops of his legs and made polite comment. When they first met he would have pretended, as strangers always do, not to have heard her at all.
But they'd been together almost eight years now and there was no telling what the next year, or the year following, might bring.
James pushed the thought away. There was time enough to think of that later, she needed his attention now.
"He looks the same to me," he said.
"Do you think so? Really?"
He nodded as he watched the man and woman coming along the path toward them. It wasn't a lie, really, the man did look the same more or less. His shoulders were a bit more stooped, perhaps, and the fringe of hair beneath the woolen cap whiter and his walk might have been a bit slower, but overall James would have known him at a glance.
The woman had changed too, but not for the worse. She'd finally put on some weight and it rounded out her, filling in the deep hollows that had formed beneath her eyes. There was something else-A new hairstyle? Dress? Maybe it was only the way the setting sun danced across her face, but she looked almost happy.
James closed his eyes, but only for a moment, and when he opened his eyes he squeezed the hand he held very gently.
"It's been a few months," he reminded her. "People change."
"I know, but " She sighed and for a moment the sound hung suspended in the air between them. "He used to come more often. Every few days."
"They both did."
She nodded, her face still turned away from him, still watching the couple slowly walk up the hill from the rose garden; and, silly though it was, he almost begrudged them that one tiny thing. The path from the rose garden had always been one their favorite walks-not Diane, not the woman whose hand he held, but the other one-and James remembered how she loved the heavy, cloying scent of roses that filled the air each summer.
So many summers.
But now the summer was over and the roses were fading. Winter would come and the park would empty out except for the most stalwart, or loneliest, of visitors.
Diane made a tiny sound deep in her throat and James knew that, this time, he could pretend not to hear it. Leaving her to her thoughts, he took a deep breath and looked in the opposite direction. The little girl he'd been watching rode in her father's arms, her hands filled with the trophies of her leaf hunt, while her mother made sure she was warm. Their shadows stretched out behind them, touching, blending into one shape, holding on to one another.
"They're here," she whispered and James felt her hand slip away. He understood and probably would have done the same if she hadn't.
Straightening his back, he smiled as he turned. The woman stood on the path while the man walked toward them.
"Hello, Lee." Diane was sitting equally straight, very prime, very proper as if her hands had always been in her lap. "It's good to see you again."
The man's eyes stayed low. "Hello, Diane. It's been a long time "
" almost six months. I'm sorry, but well, you know how it is. Retirement isn't for sissies." He laughed and James, being polite, did the same. "It took me a while to get used to not having a reason to get up. And then I got sick and That scared me."
James saw Diane suddenly stiffen.
"Oh, God, James, do you think he's-"
"I'm all right," the man said, answering the question Diane had almost asked. "It was just a little reminder, I guess you'd call it, of my mortality." He cleared his throat and a faint blush touched his cheeks. "But it was also a wake-up call. It's not that I don't love you anymore, Diane-"
James felt her hand on his arm.
"-but I I guess I just don't want to be alone anymore. And I do I care for her. It's not the same way I felt about you, Diane, but It's good."
He paused a moment, then shrugged as if there wasn't anything else he needed to say then stepped back onto the path to give the woman her turn. When she took the man's hand, James felt something he hadn't expected: envy.
They'd met after Lee retired.
Up until that time, Lee had only been able to visit the park on his way home from work or before the numerous weekend sporting events he cherished-something James had thought a bit selfish-and stayed just long enough to say hello and goodbye. Marion visited each afternoon on her way to pick up the grandkids from school, never on weekends.
Then, one day, three years ago, he arrived late and she arrived early and they met. Here, at the graves of their spouses:
And from that point on they
visited the memorial park together.
He and Diane had joked about the possibility that her widower husband and his widowed wife might get together. But that was all it was supposed to be-a joke just something to talk about, something to pass the endless moments of eternity.
They never expected to actually happen.
"James." Diane tugged at his hand. "What do you think it means?"
This time James threw caution to the side and pulled Diane close, holding her against him.
"It's okay, it'll be okay." But then Marion smiled and took something from the pocket of her coat and he wasn't sure anything would ever be okay again.
Her wedding ring rattled against the insides of the small baby food jar as she held it up to the last rays of sunlight. Out of round and thin, wore down from thirty-five years of constant wear, it looked so small off her hand, so insignificant.
Diane's husband held Marion's arm, helping her, steadying her as she knelt and James felt the memory of something deepen than envy. Sorrow? Perhaps that was it. The living never realize that the dead mourn, too.
He held Diane tighter as his widow placed the small jar among the other tokens she and the children and grandchildren had left over the years. Small toys, key chains, Dollar Store trinkets notes and pictures and now this to commemorate the life he'd shared with them.
Marion brushed a stray bit of windblown grass from the front of the stone and smiled. "I loved you so much, Jim, I still do. Rest in peace."
James wondered, as he watched the man help the woman to her feet, if either of them knew that this was a good-bye, an ending more indisputable than any funeral. They, Diane's husband and his wife, had found a new beginning and James was happy for them.
If you loved someone, regardless of the time or distance or circumstances that separated you, you wanted them to be happy. Always and forever.
Diane shifted in his arms and he turned to look at her. There were tears in her gray-green eyes but she was smiling.
"They look good together," she said, "don't you think?"
He nodded, not trusting his voice quite yet.
"James, when they "
She looked down at the empty plot to the left of her grave, then glanced toward the patch of undisturbed grass at Jim's right. When he followed her gaze, remembering how he'd tried to make a joke when he bought the side-by-side burial plots-"For our future. Hah, hah."-he noticed his neighbor, a young man who'd been killed in the Korean War, look away as if suddenly finding something of interest in the twilight sky.
The dead were much better at recognizing the need for privacy than the living. Especially in such a crowded cemetery.
"When it's time for them to " Diane shrugged against him, but he knew what she meant. "Do you think they'll want to be here, with us, I mean?"
"I don't know. They might want to be together. Does that bother you?"
She leaned closer and rested her head against his shoulder. "No. No, it doesn't. You?"
James kissed her forehead as an answer. If it bothered him at all it would pass-as all good things must.
Sighing, he held her and waited for the night to come.