“20 Minutes”

I met my future wife in a grocery store. I know that’s not terribly exciting, but sometimes, that’s the way it goes. She was in the pharmacy area, just looking bewildered at the walls of supplements and probiotics when I walked by on my way to produce. Well, until the sight of her stopped me in my tracks.

She was standing perfectly still, but the sterile lighting reflected off her long, auburn hair and caught my eye. My feet turned towards her of their own accord and I thought of what excuse I could make to be in the aisle. I never thought of one, my mouth had another idea:

“Do you need any help, madam?” I asked her. She turned to me and I smiled warmly. (She would later tell me that a young woman does not want to be called “madam.”) She’s a head shorter than me, her face was flush and her eyes were red, but she shone with a natural beauty. I’m sure I was staring.

“You don’t work here,” she said, accusingly. She sighed and threw her hands up, “I can’t make any sense of this stuff at all!” She looked back to me, “Thanks, anyway. I think I’m going to try something else.”

“Uh, ok.” I said. Smooth to the end. She wasn’t very far away from me, but she was turning to leave. In that split second, my brain roared to life and presented me with image after image of the future with this woman: good times, smiles, her eyes, My brain also reminded me that there was no reason I couldn’t go get her.

“Wait!” I called loudly, which was stupid since she was still right there. “Ah, my name is Justin, um, this is going to sound crazy, but…” I fidgeted with my hands. “Did you want to get something to eat?” I could feel that the was face I was making was not very becoming, but it also wasn’t comfortable.

She looked right into my eyes. “That is a crazy thought,” she quipped. I could see how tired she must have been, she even slumped a little with the weight of the question. She looked at her feet for a moment, and so did I. She was wearing a super-baggy coat, but under it, I could see that her legs were shapely. She sighed again, “Yeah, all right. It’s been a day, that’s for sure. You’re buyin’.”

“Of course!”

So, that was the bravest I had ever been and probably the most “enthusiastic” acceptance I’d ever received. But, that didn’t stop me. I could tell she was upset about something, but I was buzzing with excitement as we entered a tiny French-like bistro. The woman requested a table outside and we were seated.

She picked up her menu right away and rifled through it, I just watched her. “You know, you didn’t tell me your name.”

“Oh, it’s Greta.” She didn’t look up from the menu so I studied her hands. She wasn’t wearing any rings and her nails were short, but in nice condition. She slammed the menu closed bringing me to attention. “Ok, I’m ready to order.”

And just like that, there was our server. “I’ll have a cup of the tomato bisque and a bottle of the house claret,” Greta ordered.

“Uh, just the special for me, please.” I said, handing the server our menus. I looked at Greta and tried to smile pleasantly, but I was secretly put-off by the bottle of wine. “Liquid lunch, huh?”

“Yeah, no, this day has just been brutal! I’m sorry, I know I’m not painting a very good first impression.” Greta laughed quietly, I could barely hear it.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I offered.

And she didn’t, but we did talk about a lot of things. It took Greta about two hours to finish the bottle of wine and then we walked for a while along the streets of the quaint downtown.

As open as we were that day, she never did tell me what was bothering her. We put each other’s numbers in our cellphones and then she hugged me. I wrapped her as tightly as I could and she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek as we parted company.

And that was our first date. We would go on a few others over the course of a month, but sadly, our schedules would only let us talk on the phone. Talking was all we did, really, it seemed like Greta had a lot to say, but she still wouldn’t talk about what was really bothering her. We never had a “true” relationship, this thing kept us apart. We did become close friends even as I watched her deteriorate in front of me.

And as much as I didn’t want to notice, I saw that she was an alcoholic. She drank pretty heavily, nearly every day, and I knew that what she wasn’t telling me was the reason. I tried to help, by this time I began to care deeply for her. We shared so much, but she wouldn’t share this.

At least, until the end of the month. We were talking on the phone and I knew she’d been drinking. Maybe more than usual as her composure quickly shattered into sobbing. I had never heard this before. “Greta!” I said gently into the phone, “What’s the matter? Are you all right?”

“N-no, Justin, I’m not.” She paused to catch her breath, I had the thought to make my way over to her house to comfort her. “I think I love you, Justin.”

I was halted at this, “Well, that’s the worst news, ever. No wonder you’re crying!” I guess she didn’t hear the joke since she didn’t laugh. “Do you want me to come over? What’s wrong?”

“No, no, …no. And I know what you’re thinking, too, don’t say it!” she said forcefully. “Not tonight…”

“I…” I started.

“I know you want us to be together, but I just won’t give myself to you while I’m drinking myself into oblivion every day. I can’t do that to you, I won’t. It’s not right.” There was a pause, but I could hear her sniffling.

“Can we get you some help? It’s not the end of the world. And I’ll be there with you, too, of course!” I tried to sound hopeful. Greta had come to mean so much to me, a close confidant, a dear friend… And indeed, I love her, too.

“That’s not all…,” she choked on her words. “I’m …dying, too.”

“From the alcohol?” I asked heatedly. “It should be easy to quit, then!”

“It’s not that simple. I was late-diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The alcohol isn’t helping, but this is what I’m doing. This is how I’m handling it.”

“But, c’mon, there’s treatments, right? You don’t have to give up!” It felt like I was begging.

“Someday… For now, I’m just trying to deal with this… But…

“But, you’re right. There’s still time, just wait a little more. A little longer.” Greta was quiet, she wasn’t crying anymore.

Then she hung up on me.


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