A flash fiction
They looked like an average Mom and kids out for lunch at the diner. Haggard Mom, exhausted from the rigors of parenting a young teen and a toddler; toddler boy, in constant motion, hands a blur grabbing and dropping — squirming just out of the Mom’s reach when she tried to rescue a glass or silverware before it could find its way to the floor. But the young teen girl, who sat so very still, yet catching items before they could fall from the table and placing them out of her brother’s reach — there was strange calm about her, like she was the eye of the storm. And if their dining experience was an example of “normal” for them, she probably was the calm center around which chaos revolved.
I felt drawn to the girl. As if in her youthful calm, she held the answers to questions I could only imagine, questions that I had not even asked myself. She felt me watching her, and her elfin features took on an older, wiser look as she regarded me openly — our eyes meeting. Only at that moment did I notice that she looked a lot like me at that age. Slim of build, clear and unblemished olive skin, large dark almond eyes quizzically looking back into my own older now rheumy eyes. Her Mom was chattering at her and her brother, unaware that I sat communing with her daughter from 20 feet away at my own small booth.
Something about her reminded me of a road trip I had made with my own Mother and two small sisters, when I was about the same age as she seemed to be — which would have been half a century ago. We had stopped to eat at a diner not unlike this one, and my Mother, who had checked her wallet before we ordered, realized with dismay that she had less than she thought because one of the bills had been folded — and she somehow had counted it twice. When the bill arrived, we didn’t have enough to cover it, and I dug through my own little change purse and pulled out every last penny I had — and we were still short and none left for a tip.
A woman, probably around the age I am now, who had been watching us, like I had been watching this little family, stepped in to help us out. After paying the difference and leaving a good tip, she said with a thick European accent that when she was a child travelling with her Father to America — some strangers had helped them. She felt so calm and reassuring, that my Mother, who normally would not have accepted help, seemed to relax and simply said “thank you”.
And, in thinking about this, I couldn’t remember if I had said “thank you” to the woman, too. It is an odd thing when memory doesn’t pull the curtain all the way back, but only gives you a glimpse. As I sat there, I fervently hoped I had thanked her, and hoped that if she were still alive somewhere, that she would feel my gratitude even now these many years later.
I started, then, as if waking from a dream, as I saw that the Mom and her kids were getting ready to leave. As they walked past my booth, I could have sworn I heard the girl whisper “you’re welcome” as she passed. I turned to watch them leave, and as they headed out the door, the girl looked back at me, smiled and waved.