‘‘At least the table looks good.” It did – everything was shiny and perfect. The other preparations were coming along, too, though there was much still to do. With luck, they would have it all ready in time.
And then: “Grrrrrr -GRRRRR!,” loud and louder!
What on earth was upsetting the dog?
“Here’s a biscuit ... What’s the matter? You don’t want it?”
The growling continued. The hair on the dog’s back stood on end as she glared at, but did not approach, the door.
Seeing the dog, a flash of deja vu travels through her mind. Concern quickly followed, Sara wondering if what was bothering the dog was Champ sensing Jack coming home early. If Jack found Mrs. Garner here, the ruse that Sara had prepared their second wedding anniversary meal would be revealed.
She chuckled, knowing that as soon as Jack took his first bite, the ruse was over. Of all the reasons Jack loved her, “culinary skills” wasn’t on that list.
“You’re all set, Sara. I’ve got the oven timer on. About another 15 minutes,” Mrs. Garner announced. Sara’s partner in crime was married 32 years, so romance in her life came vicariously through Sara. As they hugged and said goodbye, Sara once more said thanks, feeling another surge of deja vu as she pushed the door closed.
Jack was home at 6. As Sara stood near the shiny, perfect table, he never took his eyes from her, looking at her as if a long time passed since he’d seen her, not just since this morning. He walked to her and kissed her in a way that told her how much he loved her. “Wow!” she gasped.
Smugly, Jack replied, “I’ve been practicing at work with the secretaries.”
She reached and pinched his earlobe.
“Ow,” he chuckled, adding, “I’ve been waiting all day to use that joke. I don’t remember pain being involved.” She mischievously looked deeply into his eyes. “About that kiss, Jack ... again, please.” Jack happily obliged.
Dinner was fantastic. Jack remarked how delicious it was several times – without sarcasm. The conversation they had for an hour was amazing. They laughed, they flirted and they were contentedly serious at times. They talked of a limitless future and however many kids they’d have along with Mandy, their almost 1-year-old.
When she brought up their shared wish of going to Italy for their fifth wedding anniversary, Jack assured her a trip to Italy would one day be made. He never made that promise before to avoid getting her hopes too high, but he did tonight. Oh, how she loved this man.
Reaching across the table, he took her hand. “You get more beautiful every day. How did I ever get so lucky?” he softly said.
Her eyes glistened as she held tightly to his hand. Not easily complimented, she remarked, “You only love me for my cooking.” Each laughed, the truth of the meal remaining unspoken.
They were lost in each other’s contemplation in a timeless world. The sense of deja vu came again, but she would happily live this night over and over. Realizing she had never felt happier, she was suddenly distracted by the dog once more growling. A strange sensation filled her, but looking at Jack steadied her and brought her back.
She watched him glance at the clock. It was 7:10. Jack knew what she’d say next. Sara suddenly exclaimed, “Oh no! I forgot the champagne.” But the lack of champagne immediately fell to the background. It wasn’t deja vu she had been experiencing. She looked at Jack. He was different, different because she realized he wasn’t real. None of it was real.
“This is all a dream,” she whispered, quite frightened.
Jack tried calming her. “This is a dream, Sara, but it’s much more than that. It’s a dream, but it’s as real as you make it.”
Slowly, she reached across the table to take his hand again, but she caught only air. “You’re not real! I want to wake up!” she shouted. Wanting to wake up came from her remembering this night as it truly happened.
With her voice laced with accusation, she glared at Jack.
“You went out for champagne and never came back. You left me. You left our daughter to grow up without a father. Why didn’t you come back?” The anguish she felt was unbearable for both of them, but time was short. He had to leave at 7:15.
“Sara, I promise our daughter won’t grow up without a father. I know I didn’t come back that night, but please believe I wanted to. I couldn’t come back, but know that one night, I will. Whatever this is, my love for you and our daughter is real. The love your feeling right now is real. You can feel it, can’t you?”
A serenity flowed into Sara. It was a wondrous feeling, pure, transcendent love. “I can ... I do feel it!” she said, ecstatic through her happy tears. Blissfully, she matched gazes with Jack as he stood, as real as he had ever been. Whatever this was, she could now accept it. Checking the clock, she saw it was 7:15.
“I know you have to leave. It’s OK. I’ll always wait for you to come back. Does my dream end when you leave?” He smiled. “Yes, but you’ll have this dream again.”
“Somehow, I know that,” she said, with the smile that put a never-ending light in his heart.
“I love you, Sara,” he said.
Reaching the door, he knew what she’d say and he wanted to hear it. “I love you, too, forever and ever,” adding with a treasured giggle. “There better not be any practice kissing without me.” Each laughing lightly, they shared a final look, then he was through the door.
Closing the door behind him, Sara’s dream ended. It was 7:15 and it needed to end. It wasn’t simply a matter of being Sara’s dream – in its unexplainable way, it was a part of Jack’s reality.
With the door closed, Sara was gone until Jack was allowed to open the door again in a year.
Jack was the one who was real, despite his reality disregarding the laws of physics one day a year, this day, every year.
With each step down the hallway, Jack’s reality slowly fell back into place. The man emerging from the building wasn’t the 28-year-old who entered a little more than an hour ago, but a 57-year-old man. Lingering on the last step, he checked his watch and saw the minute hand slipping to 7:19. He took the final step to the sidewalk.
The building disappeared. In its place was the playground that was usually there, outside of one day a year for an hour and 20 minutes. Jack walked along the playground fence for the final part of his yearly ritual to the plaque that explained the playground was dedicated to the 26 people who died in an explosion and fire that consumed the building 29 years ago to the day. Sara was one of the 26.
On the first anniversary of the tragedy, their third wedding anniversary, Jack came by and found the building there. Entering the building and then their old apartment, Sara was waiting for him, as she was the year before. Jack tried to take her from the apartment, but Sara and the building disappeared when she entered the hallway. Jack found himself lying in what was then an empty lot.
Returning the next year, he stayed right until 7:20, the time of the explosion. The horror of the event and then again lying in the middle of the field taught him the rules. The next year, he realized the conversation could be different each time if he never spoke of anything beyond that night. It made each year new. The constant was that around 7:10 p.m., Sara sensed it was a dream she was having. It made the last five minutes acceptably difficult. For now, it would be another year before they’d be together again. As he got in his car, his phone rang. It was his daughter. He was always grateful Mandy was with her grandparents that night. Jack kept the promise he made to Sara every year that Mandy would not grow up without a father, thanking God he never needed to tell her that Mandy grew up without a mother.
“Hi honey,” he said brightly. “Hey Dad,” she cheerfully answered, sounding more like her mother every day. Softly, Jack asked, “What’s up?”
Her reply was happily unexpected. “I’m in serious need of some quality father-daughter time tonight. I kicked Brandon out of the house for a couple hours and thought I’d make you dinner.”
His pause implied she’d been found out. She didn’t want him alone tonight, but couldn’t say that. When he finally replied, “What time?,” she let her breath escape. “About 8:30. I just started cooking.”
“8:30 is perfect. How about I bring some champagne?,” he said. “I bet we can find a few things to toast to.”
“That, young man, is an excellent idea. I haven’t had champagne since my wedding. Do you believe it’s been three months already?”
Her wedding had been an astonishingly wonderful day. “Time flies, Sweetie. Time flies.”
Hearing the sadness in his voice, she’d have none of it.
“We got our pictures back from the wedding and honeymoon. Be ready to laugh. And if I haven’t said it a thousand times, thank you so much for the trip to Venice. We’ll never forget it.”
“It’s what your mom would have wanted, Mandy. See you soon.”
Mandy cherished hearing the love in his voice every time he mentioned Mom, and said, “Say, Dad, I know today is ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ sort of day for you, you know, best of times, worst of times. I wasn’t sure if you’d get a chance to see Mom today.”
Jack loved how Mandy spoke in book titles and quotations, just like her mother. He also loved the truth of his replay.
“I did get a chance, Sweetie. I did see your mom today.”