As I handed him the menu, Alan whispered, “Check that.”
I had already seen the woman at the table across from us, but looked away. I couldn’t bear to watch the naked emotion, the tears running down her face. The man opposite her stared at the waves breaking on the beach outside.
“What do you suppose the problem is?” Alan has an active imagination. He lives alone and talks constantly when he’s with friends. “Maybe it’s . . . “
“What are you having?” I asked.
We had come down late for breakfast, leaving my wife Dee asleep upstairs. There were few people in the Lodge dining room: two couples besides Alan and me and a large group near the windows, a family gathering with both adults and children. It was evidently a special occasion for they’d brought their own flowers for the table.
“They’re married,” Alan informed me, his attention reverting to the couple across from us.
“Stop staring, friend.”
“I’m not staring.”
“Enjoy the Pacific. You were the one raving about the view here.”
Looking back at the happy family gathering as we waited to order, I tried to pair the couples and link them with their children. In the midst of the group sat a girl smiling to herself, half following the conversation, half watching the Pacific. She radiated contentment. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“She’s older than she looks.”
“Who cares? That smile . . . It’s joyous.”
Alan laughed. “All these years and you’re still a romantic.”
I looked about the room for a waiter, but late-morning indolence had set in. There was no one around.
“Want to hear my theory on those tears?” Alan was more interested in the drama at the table for two.
“No.” I knew – as Alan, a bachelor might not – that the tears represented a crisis, a marriage disintegrating perhaps. I did not want to watch it, and I did not want to hear about it.
Dee and I had been away from America for two years. We had returned only the week before. Much had changed since we left. The surface appearance of American life had altered. I had expected that, of course. But social organizations seemed changed as well. Couples were now living together unmarried; women had never agreed to that before we left for overseas. The institution of marriage seemed threatened. I had even met a young woman whose bona fide husband insisted that they tell his business friends they were living together. I wondered what in the world was going on.
With a woman weeping across the aisle, I wanted very much to have someone say something in favor of marriage. I would have liked to see a parade of protesting young people marching across the sand carrying banners that read: “We vote for marriage.”
Finally a waiter came and took our order.
A few days before, my own marriage had received a quickening impulse. After our arrival in Los Angeles, Dee had gone to visit her parents in Santa Barbara. I had encouraged her to go, wanting her to have time alone with them. And I wanted her to rest.
We had been in and out of short-let housing in Nairobi for eighteen months. She had had no real home in that time, no new clothes and few friends. Our tour overseas had been harder on her than on me. I had the job, after all.
We had arranged to meet three days later at my family’s church. Dee and her parents were late. When the service started, I went inside. They arrived during the first hymn.
Dee spotted me and slid into the pew beside me. She was wearing a navy blue pantsuit. She looked beautiful and stunning and refreshed. She smiled an especially flirtatious hello. It quickened me with awareness and pleasure and exhilaration.
This wasn’t merely my wife in a new outfit. This was the girl I had pursued for two years until she finally, unconsciously signaled her willingness to accept a proposal of marriage. Now, for our vacation, I had them both, that girl and my wife. It was a romantic notion, as Alan would have pointed out had he known, and it lighted me up inside.
The waiter brought our breakfasts. I ate, looking about the room again, searching out the girl who quietly smiled her contentment. After a few moments I saw her stand up. She took the centerpiece, a bouquet of carnations, and held out her hand to the man beside her. He stood and they went to a corner table. They spoke to the elderly couple there. The girl gave them a carnation.
Next they approached the dining room hostess who was talking to a waiter. They regarded the couple hesitantly, but listened and smiled and took a carnation.
Alan nudged me when they came to the booth across from us. The man stood up, tall and husky, his eyes hostile, ready to protect the woman’s right to privacy in public. She did not look up.
The girl leaned toward her. She spoke softly and offered her a flower. The woman raised her eyes then. She looked as if she might weep again. Instead she took the carnation, managed a smile, and pressed the girl’s hand.
We stood when they came to us. “Hi,” Alan said. “Do we get one, too?”
“Sure,” the young man said, handing him a flower.
“Thank you,” I said. My eyes met the girl’s. She smiled and took her companion’s arm.
“So what’s the occasion?” Alan asked.
“We’re getting married today,” the girl said quietly. “We want everyone to know how happy we are.”
“Hey, that’s great!” Alan grinned.
“We want everyone to be happy today,” the young man said.
“That was unexpected,” Alan said after the couple left. “Rather nice, though. Generous. We ought to share ourselves more with people. Especially when we’re happy.”
He buttered a roll. “You know something?” he went on. “I had that group figured wrong. I had that girl paired with . . .”
I didn’t listen. I thought of Dee and decided to tell her, as I had not yet, how I felt seeing her in the church. And I noticed that the couple across from us were holding hands across the table, the carnation stuck in a glass of water between them.