by Jackie Bayless
It was Christmas Eve, so Jane was going to wear her red jersey dress with the jewel collar, long sleeves and slim skirt that skimmed her hips and flared at the bottom. The restaurant was decorated with tiny white lights, holly, evergreen and red bows. Candles scented the air with warm holiday aromas of cinnamon and cider. It was a chilly, blustery night, just right for a cozy dinner in front of the fireplace, the Pacific Ocean glimmering under the moon.
“Welcome,” she caroled to her first customers of the evening, a couple that appeared ready to enjoy their evening. He was a large man in a blue blazer, overly tan, with thick white hair, probably in his sixties; she was a tiny blond wearing black and diamonds everywhere—on both wrists, around her neck, in her ears, even in her hair. It was hard to tell how old she was. She’s had work done, Jane thought. Jane took their drink orders, dirty martinis, and handed them over to their wait person.
She didn’t need to work, but with her children grown and living fulfilling lives, and Bob having gone on with his life without her, she decided she needed to get out and dress in something other than yoga pants and Adidas. Her smile faded. She was lonely and, if she admitted it, resentful of how her life had changed. She enjoyed greeting people as hostess at this tony, beachfront restaurant in Laguna Beach. The job was perfect, only requiring superficial conversation, which suited her just fine. She didn’t want to need or care about anyone right now. With one exception.
“Did the Johnsons book tonight, Marco?”
Marco looked up the bookings and said they had. Their usual table had a reserved sign on it. The Johnsons were a lovely couple, both stooped a bit, and Mrs. Johnson was now relying on a walker. They often held hands across the table while they talked. Jane wondered what they talked about—they were certainly not one of those couples who stared across the room, never making eye contact, on their phones.
That’s what Bob and I became in the end.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were old school, restrained and elegant. They had lived here for many years, coming from England to teach at the university. No children. Jane enjoyed the brief but real conversations she shared with them. They were people who really looked you in the eye.
The door opened, bringing in a gust of cold air. Jane was busy with another customer, so Marco seated Mr. Johnson.
What’s this? Jane thought when she saw him. He’s with another woman at least 30 years younger than Mrs. Johnson. He’s patting her hand! Where’s Mrs. Johnson?
Jane took a deep breath before she approached their table.
“Jane,” Mr. Johnson began. She stared at him.
“Jane,” Mr. Johnson began again. “This is our niece Sarah from England come to help her aunt recover from knee replacement surgery. I’m too creaky to be much help. Ellen insisted I bring her to our favorite restaurant tonight and meet you, our favorite hostess.”
Jane turned as red as her dress. “Sarah, how lovely to meet you. Are you enjoying Laguna?” Backing away, she wished them a happy holiday and Mrs. Johnson a quick recovery.
Was she, Jane, becoming so judgmental? Not caring had a large cost. She looked across the room at her first customers, the florid man in the blue blazer and his diamond-studded wife. They were holding hands across the table. Jane looked directly at the woman. She looked up at Jane and smiled. Jane smiled back.
Jackie Bayless lives in Laguna Niguel; her short stories have been published in The Wall, Strands Lit Sphere, CafeLit and Down in the Dirt.