Tuna Melt with a Side of Grief
by L.D. Zane
“Twenty-three-ninety-five for the buffet! Are they kidding?” I asked Grace.
“That’s what the sign says, Lewis. And that’s the senior price!” she responded with despair.
“For a Christmas Day buffet at the West End Family Restaurant?” I turned toward Grace and asked, “Did they say anything about the price online?”
“Nope,” responded Grace. “Just said they would be open Christmas Day and would have a special buffet. I figured that was good enough for us.”
“Well, they’d better be serving caviar for this price.”
“I suppose they’re just catering to their normal clientele, Lewis. They obviously can afford these prices.”
So could we, but it was the principle of the matter. We both stood in the cold staring at that sign as others walked around us to enter.
Finally, I capitulated. “Well… We’re here, and there’s no other place open.”
“There’s always Antonio’s,” Grace offered up.
Despondent, I replied, “Yeah, but that’s on the other side of town and you needed reservations—which we don’t have.” With a resigned sigh and slumped shoulders, I said, “Not the way I wanted us to spend our first Christmas together, Grace.” Grace reached out and held my hand. Then I said, “Let’s just do this.”
The waitress showed us to our booth. After she took our beverage order, we perused the menu.
“What the hell!” I spouted off, and not quietly. There was a couple in the booth across from us who appeared to be about our age. They looked up from their meals. “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.
I lowered my voice and said to Grace, “The only thing different on the buffet is they added chopped steak. And for this they more than doubled the usual buffet price? Well, that’s absurd. I’m not getting the buffet. For the price of the buffet, we could have had a great dinner at Antonio’s. I’m just going to order off the menu.”
“I don’t want to add insult to injury,” Grace said nonchalantly, “but it looks as if they raised the prices on all the menu items by about fifty percent. They know when they have a captive audience of helpless saps with no other place to go on Christmas—other than Antonio’s or some Chinese restaurant.”
The waitress came back with our coffee and water. “Have you decided on your order?”
“I can tell you it’s not going to be the buffet,” I said with righteous indignation.
The waitress whispered, “That’s what most of the other customers decided as well. You’re better off ordering from the menu.”
“And that’s still a rip-off!” Grace chimed in.
The waitress ignored that sling and again asked, “Ma’am. What are you having?”
Without looking up from the menu, Grace said, with sarcasm dripping from the corners of her mouth, “I’ll have the tuna melt with a side of grief.”
The waitress responded with equal pithiness, “I’m sorry, but that side is not on the menu. You can either have mashed rustic potatoes, french fries, baked potato, cole slaw or mixed veggies.” And then she asked with a wry smile, “Which one would you like to replace the grief?”
Grace looked up, mirrored her smile and answered, “Just give me the fries, and please make sure they’re crispy.”
There was no response from our waitress other than, “And for you, sir?”
“I’ll have the open-faced, hot roast beef sandwich with a baked potato as my side. I’m in a better mood.”
“Absolutely.” She collected the menus and said, “Your orders will be out shortly.” My only thought was, with certain smugness, I wonder whose food they’ll spit on? Shouldn’t be mine. I was nice to her.
Grace was now staring into her coffee. So I sucked it up and asked, “What’s wrong, Grace? Is it Joel’s decision to disinvite you for Christmas?”
About a week and a half before Christmas, Grace received a text from her daughter-in-law, Bernadette, Joel’s wife. Without saying a word, Grace showed it to me when I came home from work and after I had settled into my favorite chair. It read like a telegram: “No need to come here for Christmas. We’re just hanging out. Going to my parents Christmas Eve. That’s all. See you at Alicia’s next week.” No “Merry Christmas.” No real explanation. But we both knew it was in retaliation for a text spat Grace had had with Joel the week before Thanksgiving about not being invited to any of Joel’s son’s football games.
For the eight years between Grace’s husband’s death and our recent marriage, she had spent every Christmas at Joel’s. It was her last tradition. And now it was gone. That text broke Grace’s heart, and mine. It also lit her fuse.
Then I read Grace’s reply text to Bernadette: “I understand. But I have to be honest, I’m very disappointed. For the first time I won’t be with any of my family on Christmas. I’ll hold yours and the boys’ gifts until we see you at Alicia’s. Enjoy the visit with your parents. Merry Christmas.”
Grace’s text was akin to a declaration of war. It might as well have said, “I hope you choke on the food at your parents’, and that you and Joel get paper cuts from opening up your gifts! My misery is on your hands.”
Foolish me. I thought only Jewish mothers knew how to dish out guilt. They may have invented it, but Catholic mothers have obviously learned well from their mentors over the millennia.
The night after Grace sent her reply, she received a call from Joel. Mercifully, I was at work. I learned that Joel started off by saying to Grace that Bernadette told him, after she showed him Grace’s response, “You had better call your mother.” And that he did.
He proceeded to rip into Grace about everything that had been gnawing at him about his mother. She returned fire. There didn’t appear to be any winners. In fact, I’m surprised there were any survivors. Grace didn’t convey to me the gory details, and I thought it best not to press her for any.
Grace narrowed her gaze at me and raised her voice. “Disinvite us, Lewis! And he didn’t have the balls to call or text me first. Instead he had Bernadette do his dirty work.” A melancholy shadowed her eyes. “And did you notice they didn’t even send us a card or call us today? Alicia, Albert, and their boys did.”
I did notice, but didn’t feel the need to concur with the obvious.
She paused momentarily, then said, “But that’s not what’s really bothering me.”
“Then what’s really bothering you, Grace?”
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Joel said, during that nasty call I had with him, that since he was seeing me at Alicia’s the weekend after Christmas, there was no need to see me twice in a week.” She grabbed her napkin, dabbed her eyes, and then grabbed mine and blew her nose. I made a mental note to have the waitress bring us more napkins.
“What did you say back to him?”
“Nothing. That’s when I hung up.”
Now I was pissed. I like Joel. He’s an affable guy with a good sense of humor. And from what I’ve personally seen, he appears to be a good father, husband, and provider. I pondered how I would have reacted had one of my children laid that at my feet.
I reached over, held Grace’s hands, and said, “You know it’s not my style to interfere on matters with your kids, sweetheart. But do you want to know how I would have responded?”
“I would have calmly said, ‘I’m sorry, Joel, but I didn’t know there was a FUCKING QUOTA!’”
That got the attention, again, of the couple across from us, along with some of the other customers within earshot. This time, however, I didn’t apologize.
Grace burst out laughing. “That was good, Lewis. I wish I had thought of that.” But quickly, she once again turned gloomy.
I made an attempt at being jolly and asked, “Hey, what about all that Christmas spirit you’ve been lecturing me about?”
Grace snapped back, “Shut up! This is the most depressing time of the year.”
Hanukkah was never like this. My only retort was, “Here comes our delicious, overpriced meal.”
The next morning at eight I took my usual mile-plus walk. I returned around eight-thirty. Grace was already up, sitting on the couch, and nursing her first cup of coffee and a cigarette. I grabbed a cup of coffee, plunked myself into my favorite chair, and slipped off my sneakers.
Something seemed different as I scanned the room. And then in a flash of brilliance, I figured out what it was. Grace had taken down all of the Christmas cards and put away our fake, ornament-laden, assembly-required Christmas tree. I cautiously asked, “Grace, where are all the Christmas cards and the tree?”
“Christmas is over, Lewis. Christmas is over.”