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Slipping into the green, leather seat, I drop the nickel I grabbed from my car into the old, silver jukebox. I push the colored buttons without thought to the choice of song. A waitress of twenty-odd-years steps towards me with her frilly, blonde hair pulled back and an ever ready pad in her right hand.
“Early drive?” She asks; her voice is bouncy and young. I spot that her name, Janie, is inscribed in a fake, gold tag on her chest. She pulls out a pencil from the pocket of her green uniform.
“Couldn’t sleep,” I respond quietly as my song request begins to play in the background. My eyes focus on the tin can full of milk instead of the young girl. “Coffee,” I whisper, “Black.” She doesn’t bother to write my order; she just leaves to get it.
Past the wide window next to my booth, the moon hangs just above a white, cardboard sign taped to the glass. I know that morning will soon well come.
But it will not come soon enough.
Morey’s is a small diner that rests near a highway exit. It’s the kind of place where truck drivers, college late nighters, families or friends, came together at any hour of any day. I, myself, had gotten used to the sticky tables, the fried food smell, and the nostalgic fifties decorations.
I was also used to having to wait for Sara to arrive.
I am sitting alone with my regular, black coffee. I can hear the chatter of the other college students hanging out in the corner of the undersized room. The waitress walks by and gives me a polite smile. I respond with one of my own.
In one quick moment, my friend sits down across from me. Instantly, her hand reaches out to the jukebox and slips a nickel in. She jabs in the numbers for a song without hesitation. “You’re late,” I accuse, but my weak voice gives away the need I had for her to always be around.
Sara flashes her perfect smile while she pushes her radiant, black curls away from her face. “Relax Rose, I’m here, aren’t I?” The waitress comes and Sara gives her usual order—a decaf coffee. “I was caught up in the inspiration. This new piece is going to make me famous.”
I roll my eyes as Sara laughs lightly. “You and your art, you’re always ‘caught up in the inspiration.’” I give her a smile though, so she knows she is forgiven. The waitress hands Sara her coffee and then disappears. While Sara grabs the silver cup of milk for her coffee, I casually ask, “How’s Jon?”
Although we are seniors in college, our ritual of meeting up at Morey’s had started three years ago during our freshman year. We always had an order to the conversation; boys, school, and the future.
“Wonderful,” Sara answers with a wink. “Four weeks though,” she sighs, “Everything’s wonderful at four weeks. Then, it gets too serious. Last thing I want is to be married and lose track of my art.” I wish to agree with her, to gain her approval, but I was different. “And what of your Ken?”
“Well, he’s searching for an apartment after graduation for us.” Sara’s eyes wrinkle in disdain but she puts on a smile for me. I move my gaze to my coffee cup. “I’m hoping he’ll propose soon too,” I barely say to her, even if it is the truth.
“That’s great Rose,” she tries to sound excited but it doesn’t work out. “Really, I am happy for you.” She is about to reach over and assure me, but I pull my hands off the table and into my lap.
“So, classes are harder this year, aren’t they?” Sara notes my attempt at changing the conversation. She goes along with it.
“Of course they’re harder. We’re almost out there,” Sara point outside the window, “We’re almost out there in the real world. They have to make it harder.” She takes a sip of her coffee as she collects her thoughts. “Life is hard.” I nod my head in agreement. Sara's lips pull back in a grin, "But it's nothing we can't handle."
Looking at Sara—twenty-two, gorgeous, artistic, and independent—I can easily see her making it out there in reality. She has what it takes to do anything. “You’ll be a famous artist soon. And then what am I supposed to do without you?” I watch as Sara gives me a confident grin and leans back in the booth. She suddenly shakes her head. “What?” I ask.
“You’re just going off into your doubtful place,” she easily states. I raise an eyebrow as I take a sip of my drink. Sara’s song has ended so she slips another nickel into the jukebox. “When you think your life is going to be so horrible.” She gives me a disappointed look with the frown of her red lips.
I push my blonde hair out of the way and turn my eyes onto the white snowfall outside. “So what if that’s what I’m thinking? I’m allowed to have my own thoughts,” I challenge. On the inside, I secretly wish I could steal her confidence.
“You’re wrong,” Sara states. She is leaning forward when I focus my eyes on her. She looks as if she’s about to share the secret on what it took to be just like her. “You’re wrong when you think you’re life isn’t going to be great.” I snort and Sara holds up her hand, which is decorated in simple, silver rings. “I’m serious, Rose; no one is meant to lead a purposeless life.”
I shake it off as impossible.
Twenty years went by faster than I expected. Sitting at Morey’s, I didn’t know that I would graduate, grow-up, and lose contact with my best friend all within two years after that moment. But a phone call was all it took, just one loud ring in the middle of the night and a calm, familiar voice asking…
“Hey, can we catch up?”
Four placemats are set up at the old booth, just like always, and the table feels empty with just one spot taken. Next to me is a cardboard sign facing outwards so that I could read the words, 4 months, 4 days until closing when entering. I honestly felt nothing over the end to the old place. It was home to a part of me that had been left behind a long time ago.
The front door opens with the ring of a bell, and a winter breeze brushes through. I shiver, but I keep my eyes forward on the three other placemats. Just then, in the quick moment that I blink, one of them is filled.
Instead of watching her put the nickel into the jukebox, my eyes fixate on the thin, yellow scarf that cradles around her face. “You’re late,” I say but it doesn't break my gaze from her shawl. To hide my distress, I wring my hands into a tight hold. In twenty years, you grow up and you change but I wasn’t prepared to see Sara like this.
Her pale hands rest in front of her on the green placemat. They stick out like when the silver moon lights up the night. Her dark eyes wrinkle as her red lips bend into a weak smile. The yellow fabric, decorated in glitters and sequins, is translucent enough to reveal that her dark locks are gone and is used to protect the form of her bumpy, naked scalp. Sara wasn’t the confident college girl anymore. She is a forty-two-year-old woman as frail as the paper mats on the table.
“Sorry,” she says, “I took a nap before I drove here. I get tired easily.” A waitress stops over. She is younger than we are and therefore, doesn’t recognize us as old customers. We give our typical orders of coffee and wait for the server to leave. Sara starts, “So, are you and Jon still married? Any kids?”
“Middle of getting divorced actually. He's paying for my lawyer because he wants to leave so badly,” I reply as a deep blush of shame covers my cheeks. I laugh to shake the feeling off. Sara nods apologetically. “Three wonderful kids. My oldest, Dave, is sixteen. Katy is twelve, and Kyle just turned eight. They're smart and handling everything real well. I love them so much, they're helping me through all of this.” Sara exhales before she gives a wide grin that brightens up her face. For a moment, I almost don’t see the bright shawl—almost. “ And what about you?” I could picture her life now—single, selling high priced work, and having everything she ever dreamed about. Sara would have that life she wanted, unlike me with a life of unplanned disappointments.
“Twelfth anniversary last month,” she takes a deep breath. My mouth drops open in shock. Her laugh is frail, “I also have a son, Matt, who’s ten. He's a little trouble maker like me, but he does well in school when he tries.” Sara’s laugh is bright but quiet, unlike my loud, pathetic attempt only moments before. Our coffees are brought over as I mull over the information. I thought I knew Sara. I thought she’d stick to her plans. But as it turns out, I wasn't the only one with changing dreams. “Are you working?” She continues while pouring milk into her coffee.
“No, but I will need to get one after the divorce is final. He's giving me custody of the children, so I have to find a way to support them. ” I answer. I take a sip of coffee too soon and burn my tongue. I wince and Sara chuckles, “What about you?”
“Sold a piece or two of my artwork, but now, I’m too tired to keep working and be a mom. Of course, I choose being a mother over everything.” Sara sighs and leans forward to rest her chin on her propped up hand. “So I guess you’re wondering,” she says simply. I nod my head.
Moments pass, and I can see the struggle on Sara’s face on whether or not she should tell me. I reach out to touch her hand but she pulls away just like I had those many years ago. “You can tell me Sara,” I reassure.
A tear escapes and traces down the curve of her cheek. “Leukemia,” she whispers as two more tears make their way down either sides of her face. “I found out a few years ago, tried all the treatments that didn’t work. Chemotherapy just failed, which is why,” she motions her hand to her covered scalp. She swallows and holds back the tears. Sara was so strong and I was the one who needed her when we were young. But now, she is more a stranger who needs me than the Sara I once knew. “I’m dying Rose, and you were one of the few I felt like I needed to find again.”
My heart swells and I can feel tears starting to glaze over my eyes. Only one tear, however, manages to escape. “How long?” I ask carefully. Sara wipes her tears and smiles, but her lips quiver.
“Let’s not talk about death,” she says with a wave of her hand. Her eyes drift towards the window, the mid-afternoon sun is shining in past the hazy winter clouds. The traffic is light, and the snowfall from a few nights ago is melting away. “Funny how they don’t tell us, right?” Sara finally asks.
“Tell us what?” I inquire while taking a drink from my coffee.
“That life isn’t what you expect it to be.” I raise an eyebrow, and Sara sits up straight and places her hands on the table. As she talks, she moves her arms about slowly, “I mean we know it deep down, but no one says it out loud, and then bam, you’re getting a life changing moment that you never planned, right?”
“Right,” I agree, remembering the cold, sinking rock in my stomach when my husband announced he wanted a divorce.
Sara sees I understand and continues, “Life isn’t what you expect Rose, but I guess it might be too late to tell you.”
“Thank you, all the same,” I reply. Sara finishes her coffee, and I do too. I reach into my pocket and say, “Let me pay.” But Sara refuses to listen and drops her money down just as soon as I do. I smile, “I’m glad to see your determination hasn’t changed.” She chuckles in response, and the two of us get up together. I have to wait for her to completely stand. “I’m glad you called,” I tell her. She nods her head, and I see the bags underneath her eyes from need of sleep.
We reach in for a hug, it’s the kind of embrace that starts off as awkward and strange, but then melts into the perfect hold of emotions and friendship. I hear her breathing in my ear and feel her arms tighten as best as they can around me. “Four months,” she whispers as we break apart. Our eyes connect as I process the information she has said.
“Will I see you again?” I ask. I can’t think of knowing this is the last goodbye. I couldn’t bear to lose Sara again. She reads my face as I read hers. I can see she feels the same.
“Of course, I have lots of time,” she rests her hand on my shoulder for a quick second. Then, her arm is back at her side and she is walking towards the door. She stops just before she heads outside. “Don’t let it bother you Rose, this is my own moment to make peace with—not yours.” I smile, but the stone in my stomach doesn’t go away. A reoccurring thought is stuck in my mind.
How can she consider four months until death “lots of time?”
Four months was long enough for my divorce to finalize, my job application to be turned down on eight separate occasions, and to visit my oldest, best friend three more times until she died. In fact, those months were longer then the four years of my college days, if only because I did my best to memorize each lasting moment with her. On the day of her funeral, I met Sara's husband and child for the first time next to her casket, and after returning home, I couldn’t fall asleep out of fear of forgetting her.
At four in the morning, I drove to Morey’s.
A cup clatters in front of me and brings me out of the memories. The waitress smiles apologetically before leaving. Outside, the dark sky is fading away, and the black roads are lit up by the few cars driving by. I take the warm handle of the coffee and take a quick drink. I’m reminded of how empty the table looks with its four placemats waiting to be used. I stare at the one that used to be filled across from me. I can hear her voice in my head, “Life isn’t what you expect Rose, but I guess it’s too late to tell you.” The song I had started fades away. I slowly let myself revel in the last moment I will be here. It is my way of saying goodbye and thank you to Sara.
Eventually, I stand up and leave for the last time. The sun has completely risen as I head towards my car. Morey’s stays the same with its fifties décor and bright lights. A sign hangs from the window of our booth. Written in red, I see the words in block lettering, Four days until closing. Looking past the glass, I can picture the college-aged Sara and I stuck drinking coffee and talking about the lives we dreamed about. Walking away, my path lit up by the fluorescent light of the diner’s sign, a smile that makes me feel young and new again spreads across my face.
For me, it isn’t too late.
I still have lots of time.