“Is it always this crowded in here?” Stella asked, looking around the bustling room.
“At lunch it is,” Calvin said, picking up two trays and handing one to Stella. “I usually eat in my office. Too many students in here to pepper me with questions.”
“I bet they love you here,” she said, remembering Calvin’s warmth and humor from high school. She selected a prepared cobb salad from the refrigerated section and set it on her tray. “Remember the time you set some sort of stink bomb off in Mrs. Wilbur’s world history class? I swear that I never saw anyone go unglued like that before. To this day, the thought of her beady black eyes popping out of her head still makes me laugh!”
Calvin staggered around in a mock-frenzied manner, tugging at his hair with his hands while screeching in a high-pitched voice, “The Commies are coming! The Commies are coming! They found me at last!”
Several of the surrounding students looked at Calvin curiously, but then shrugged and moved on. Stella and Calvin were in a fit of laughter.
“Good old Mrs. Wilbur. I wonder whatever happened to her,” Stella said at last, trying to gain a bit of composure.
“I think she retired a few years after we graduated,” Calvin replied. He selected a chicken salad sandwich and grabbed a bag of chips.
“I bet you put her over the edge. She probably never recovered,” Stella teased.
“I bet you’re right,” he said, smiling. “Now I get to be the old fart at the front of the class that no one wants to listen to.”
“I highly doubt that,” Stella replied, shaking her head. She grabbed a bottle of water, then added a peanut butter cookie on her tray at the last second. Why not? She deserved a little treat her first day of school.
After paying for their food, Calvin led the way back down the hall and out into an open green space with benches spread along the perimeter of the concrete walkways. The benches were already occupied by students who were busy eating, chatting, or studying. Stella and Calvin found a spot on the thick grass that was conveniently covered in the dappled shade of a silver maple tree and made themselves comfortable.
They ate their lunches in the pleasant shade, enjoying the subtle breeze which lazily played with the leaves above their heads and ruffled Stella’s hair.
She talked of her life since high school. Her disappointment and heartbreak over Phil’s betrayal, her worries and fears over Gemma’s choice of lifestyle. Stella felt so comfortable talking with Calvin. It was almost like they had never been apart. Like they had placed a bookmark in a favorite book, put it aside in a forgotten location, then discovered and reopened it later, delighted to continue with the story.
Finally Stella began to feel self-conscious. Up until now she had dominated the conversation, but Calvin’s easy manner had put her right at ease.
“Tell me about you, Calvin,” she said. “I remember that you had gotten married not long after I did.”
Calvin’s face turned soft, and he looked away. “Yes,” he said simply. “Christine.”
The pause became long enough that Stella began to feel uncomfortable. Calvin was looking off toward a couple who were sitting on the grass under a large tree. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, touching each other companionably as they talked together. Stella could hear the girl’s tinkly laugh from across the grass.
Finally Stella broke the silence. “What happened?” she asked softly.
“We were together for twenty years. We had a wonderful life together. We had two boys and a girl and the house was always full of their friends.”
He paused, evidently looking for the words to continue.
“When the boys were in high school, and Shelly was in middle school, Christine went back to work. She was a librarian. At first, we thought that her fatigue was due to a change in her schedule, the added burden of going back to work. But she just got more and more tired. It got to the point that she could hardly stand on her feet for more than a few minutes. And she was losing weight. Fast.”
Stella’s stomach clenched in a knot. She was afraid of what was coming next.
“Finally I convinced her that she needed to see a doctor. Christine was always so healthy. She never needed doctors before. We discovered that she had stage four breast cancer. It was aggressive, and already in her lungs and bones. The doctors said that we could be aggressive with chemotherapy drugs, but they would not be able to cure her. The drugs would only prolong her life for a few months, tops.”
Stella touched Calvin’s arm lightly. “I’m so sorry, Calvin,” she said, blinking away the tears which were starting to spill from her eyes.
Calvin smiled and nodded, still watching the couple on the lawn.
“We had a great life together,” he said. “Christine was a wonderful mother. The children missed her terribly. It was very hard on them.”
“And very hard on you, I would imagine,” Stella interjected. “You had to raise them by yourself, then?”
“Yes. They are good kids, though. Christine had started them off on the right foot. All I had to do was continue with the pattern that she had started.”
“Where are they now?” Stella asked, curious.
“Randy is an airline pilot in Miami. He has three boys, all wild and full of energy. I can hardly keep up with them when they come to visit, and neither can the house. Charlie is in the Navy, stationed in South Carolina right now. He’s still single, but I haven’t given up hope on him yet. Then Shelly lives in Idaho with her two little ones. Her husband is an IT guy at Hewlett Packard. They are doing well there, but I don’t get to see them nearly enough.”
“It sounds like you have a wonderful family,” Stella said warmly,.
“Yes, I have been blessed,” Calvin said, then smiling broadly he turned toward Stella. “Now here I am reunited with a good friend. Life can give you such sweet surprises every now and then.”