I was halfway through my stack of blueberry pancakes and had just begun to lament to my boyfriend about the woes of a broken dryer when my husband pushed opened the diner door, walked in, and seated himself a few booths down. Being on a date while your husband sits a couple feet away might be uncomfortable enough in and of itself, but the fact that my husband had been dead for three years made the situation even stranger.
I must have looked startled, because Ryan immediately noticed something was up. “Is everything okay?” he asked concerned, reaching forward and squeezing my hand. I knew he must think that this was the beginning of a panic attack. Although I had been having them much less often as of late, they were not altogether gone. True, I was feeling a little short of breath and my heart had taken off, but these symptoms had more to do with me being now convinced I was certifiably crazy.
I simply nodded and stuffed more pancake into my mouth. I knew Ryan hated it when I didn’t tell him what was bothering me, but if I don’t have anything logical-and-not-about-my-dead-husband-being-in-the-room to say, I don’t say anything at all. Not that this situation was a common one.
If I’m being honest, though, this was not the first time I had seen Jason since his death. I was constantly thinking the man at the bus stop or the one around the corner would turn and stare back at me with those smoke-grey eyes I had fallen in love with. But when I chased them down, these men were never Jason.
Hence me being somewhat more alarmed when the eyes that glanced at me over the top of the diner menu were just a few shades too colorless to be considered blue.
Ryan shifted his head into my line of sight, and my focus was pulled from my dead husband and to my living, breathing boyfriend. “How was work today?” he asked me.
“Good. I—I met all my deadlines,” I said, scrambling to recenter on reality. My brain was already betraying me, though, and I could feel it stumble haltingly over the word “dead-lines," as though it had suddenly lost all power to move forward.
“That’s awesome, babe. Did you manage to get the mayor to make a statement on the story you were writing about the architect for that new building that burnt down? There’s been rumors all over town that he torched the thing himself.”
“No, he wouldn’t say anything,” I answered.
Ryan reached for the salt, sprinkling it over his eggs and replacing it against the wall. He was still blocking my line of sight. Unable to see the man that had just come in, I took a moment to review the facts-- all of which pointed to the conclusion that he was not my husband.
Jason had been a soldier in the Middle East where he had been killed by an IED, just outside a small village with a name I had never bothered to learn. I had watched two men in full uniform climb the front steps of the home we had purchased together, knowing with a terrible numbness what their presence indicated. They had told me that my husband had died instantly, probably before he even realized what was happening.
At six months pregnant, this knowledge offered me very little comfort.
But now I recalled the image of the two-grim faced men in my overly cheery living room, determined to prove to myself that my husband was gone. Men don't just return from the dead to get pancakes. I hated the hope that shivered through my arms. While my mind was convinced of the facts, my heart never missed the chance to ignore logic and tumble happily into disappointment.
Ryan leaned forward a bit. I stared down at my late night breakfast, determined not to tempt myself with a glance at the other table. Ryan talked on, but I couldn't seem to pull myself out of my own head long enough to catch the subject. It's not Jason. Jason is gone. It's not Jason. Jason is gone. Perhaps the repetition would convince me. After a few minutes had passed, I calmed myself down enough to realize that the man probably just looked similar to my husband. There was no point in getting so worked up over it, I was bound to run in to a person with the same eye color and short dark hair eventually. I mean, statistically speaking, it was going to happen some time.
Assured by the mathematical logic of it all, I looked back up.
The man's menu was gone and he sat instead with one hand wrapped around a coffee mug, staring absently passed me. After a moment he noticed me watching him and smiled, nodding his head slightly. With un-welcomed familiarity, my mind traced the small details I had forgotten in his face-- the front tooth that stuck slightly forward from the others, the way the smile spread gently to his eyes, the faded trace of a scar just beside the right eyebrow.
I knew with hollow certainty that there was no way this man simply looked like my husband. There was only one logical conclusion.
Why on Earth have you chosen this moment to begin haunting me, Jason?
I racked my brain for possible reasons. Maybe it was how serious things had become with Ryan. Maybe it was because pancakes had always been one of Jason's favorites. Maybe it was just something I'd eaten early in the day or an odd side effect of the new brand of vitamins I had switched to.
"Rachael, where are you right now?"
I stared back at Ryan for a moment before the question registered.
"I... I'm suddenly not feeling well. Do you mind if we cut this a little short? I'm sorry, I just..." I trailed off, unsure of how to finish the sentence. I couldn't exactly end it with "realized my dead husband is haunting me."
Ryan slid his foot next to mine under the table as he signaled for our server. He pressed his knee against mine and I took a steadying breath as I watched him pull his wallet from his back pocket.
"I'm right here, if you need to not be okay," he had whispered in my ear once when I'd felt the anxiety creeping in. He had seen enough of my panic attacks to recognize the signs, so it was only logical that he interpreted my fear as one now. The pressure of his leg against mine was meant to reassure me that I was not facing anything alone.
In this particular instance, it was simply comforting to know that at least one of the two men I knew in the place was a real flesh-and-blood person.
I sat unmoving until our waiter returned with the check for Ryan to sign. As he picked up the pen, I grabbed my sweatshirt and started for the door. I heard Ryan follow a few seconds later. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead, determined not to make eye contact with my husband's ghost. I had seen enough scary movies to know that the curious don't fare well.
"Excuse me," the voice nearly stopped me in my tracks. So "dead ghost husband" could talk.
Without any conscious permission from me, my head turned. I was surprised to realized that "dead ghost husband" wasn't actually looking at me. It took a moment to realize that he had been speaking to Ryan. To my astonishment, Ryan had turned around as well.
"You forgot your wallet," the man nodded towards the booth we had just left.
Ryan blinked and his lips twitched slightly. For a moment I thought maybe he recognized the person in front of him from the picture I kept on the dresser in my room. But Ryan's face smoothed into a smile that lacked any hint of familiarity as he retraced a few steps back. "Thanks, man," he nodded, holding up the wallet as though to show he now had it.
He shoved it into his back pocket, reached for my hand, and guided me to the door. I numbly followed, unable to spare any thought to what I was doing.
As Ryan backed away from the diner, I glanced one last time at the man sitting three seats from the door, unable to resist the horrified curiosity that had wrapped itself around me. The man was leaning back slightly as a waitress sat a plate of pancakes in front of him. He looked completely at ease, as though no one should think it at all strange to see him there.
With a certainty I had rarely experienced in the past three years, I felt the two impossible facts settle against me, nearly as surely as I had felt the pressure of Ryan's knee on mine...
First, the man was without a doubt my husband. And second, he was most certainly not dead.