Right now, those familiar tears are finding their way to the outer corners of my eyes. They’re just kind of resting there, hovering on my lower rims, I feel a combination of sting and wetness made cold by stale, interior air of my car. I’m not really sure if they’ve made up their minds yet to fall down my dry checks or retreat back to gloss over my view of the road as I prepare to drive to my next stop. I’ve just dropped off my soon-to-be, 16-year-old daughter for her last driving school instruction class, and now after ending a phone call just made, here I sit, in silence, in thought.
Just before driving her here, at home my 14-year-old son and I agreed that I would pick up and bring back a pizza for dinner together while his sister had her 2-hour class. Normally, we order a certain pizza with garlic crust and pepperoni from a particular place close by for pick up. The reason goes beyond the fact that it’s tasty. Every time I need that meal I can rely on to be ready and correct in 15 minutes, I know it will be waiting for me within the time it takes to drive there. They are there for me, my little helper, to make things just a little easier. I’ve never mentioned about my husband passing to the pizza people, but I’m always saying how great it is that their pizza is always ready when I arrive to pick it up, and I really do appreciate them. We might share commentary on the weather, either too cold or too hot, and I always walk out the door smiling. That kind of customer service matters to me, especially now being a single parent and having little room for error in schedule planning.
This evening, however, is a different story. The driving school is within view of another pizza shop I am very familiar with, but because they are not as close to my house as the other reliable place, nor close to the usual kids-chauffeur and local-errands routes, I haven’t had their pizza in what feels like years. As I sit alone in my running car, just noticing the red-lit sign across the road, I spontaneously make the decision to go with what’s closest now. After a basic, quick text to my son of “hey, how about pizza from this other place?” He answers with what is a resounding “hell yes” type response. To myself thinking the what’s next, “I’ll call in the order and pick it up on my way home.” Great. Easy. It’s right here, it’s what’s most convenient now.
Calling from my car while still in the driving school parking lot, my Bluetooth connection carries the call in stereo around my ears. The pizza guy who picked up the phone seems to be having trouble hearing my answers, as I had to repeat my phone number several times. Maybe he was new at the ordering or maybe we had a bad cell phone connection. Once I confirmed “yes, that’s correct” there is a notable pause, then I hear “under Jon?” My heart bursts and empties with a rush of blood to all of my farthest extremities. The exhale of my breath brings clarity to my brain as I feel myself dropping my head and smiling at hearing his name while closing my eyes and saying “yes” in reply with the last push of air from my lungs. Nodding now to no one in the car but my aching heart and memories that have swelled to fill empty space, pizza guy happily asks what I would like, so I’m snapped out of the before, back to the present of IS: which is ordering a pizza in the shape of a square and trying to remember what they call it.
So in continuing my ordering, I find myself automatically envisioning what my memory of their pizza looks like in my mind, out-loud thinking with pizza guy “I’m not sure if it’s called a 4-corner or an 8-corner, what do you call it? The deep dish type?” To which he explains simply, “a 4-corner is one, an 8-corner is side by side.” I see it perfectly in my my mind now, two square pizzas with crispy cheese straight edges, each one cut into four square slices nestled in a rectangular box, side-by-side: the pizza always brought home by Jon on his way home from work. He would always look forward to this dinner treat, even though there was no pizza here in Michigan that quite measured up to the famous Roberto’s pizza from his childhood hometown in Illinois. But he made do, and liked this pizza here from this place.
Order for pick up completed, the call is ended, and all I feel now are these tears that still linger on the edge of a grief wave ready to curl and go beyond a swell formation. I have about a fifteen to twenty-minute wait, and these thoughts need to be written down immediately, so in to my phone I am typing it out. All the while, putting to the back of my mind envisioning what it may feel like going back to a place I know he stood in, at the counter, maybe Jon even talked to the same pizza guy as I did. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of my every breath, my eyes pop up to the time at the top of my phone, confirmed by a glance to my car dashboard, it’s time to pick up my pizza.
There is no usual music being played in my car as I drive less than two minutes across the road. This ordinary act of picking up a pizza will be accompanied by silence, in respect for the going back to a place once not out of the way, a different time playing in my mind, and thinking full-on about my partner and pizza-loving husband, when he could eat and enjoy it, before he was too sick and could not.
As I park in front of the narrow glass-enclosed space, I see nothing has changed here, and the door still sticks and scrapes as I pull it open to go inside the shop and step into the shiny, red-tiled, green and white-walled somewhat-uninviting space. It’s just a bit too bright in here, the fluorescence from the lights overhead cause my pupils to constrict, but that’s okay because it seems to help in holding those tears in place. My eyes become fixed on pizza guy, and I answer his question of, “Picking up?” with a soft, but firm “Yes, for Jon” as I plop my oversized, black-leather purse on the pizza-grease-smudged, slightly-too-high red counter to dig out my wallet. The next thing I know, I have paid, and my hands are feeling the slightly damp, hot pizza box held in my left hand, made heavier with my too-big purse hung over my forearm. My right hand finds the glass door handle and after a quick “have a good night” blurted out to whomever would hear, the door is pushed and scrapes open and suddenly cold air meets my face, and I lean into the night to press forward to my car. Once inside, a brief silence is now replaced with my car ignition and the smell of my pizza squarely positioned on the passenger seat. That smell, this particular pizza smell, is so distinctive. It’s a pungent sauce-smell, slightly sweet with a hint of bread crust and oregano. My drive home was all about taking in that smell, I can feel it adhering to the wet in my eyes, soaking in, finding its way to my memories of who I’d like to see when I get home, bringing what he would love to eat. The oven would be pre-heating now with our pizza stone inside waiting to make-hot what is now surely cooling in the box next to me.
Arriving back at home, I hesitate to go inside. Even though my son immediately greets me and is happy to have pizza for dinner, I feel the emptiness now in my kitchen as I place the box on the center island. Jon’s absence is felt without the pre-heated oven, and without his presence and smile to greet me here. There is nothing here that tells me I’m truly home. He was my home, my place, my food that filled me. I look at this pizza now, the smell of it wafting through my kitchen, carefully picking up a piece so my fingers don’t get too greasy, and it’s just not enough. Every bite swallowed does not bring me closer to him, only further into my reality that he will not be here where and when he is expected to be and that hearing his name by someone like pizza guy saying “under Jon” has to be a something for me to savor, to eat, to be a version of home. Sadly though, I feel I will always be hungry.
Time leaps ahead, and suddenly I need to pick up my daughter. I am happy to leave the kitchen behind, sad and feeling guilty though to leave my son alone in it, but he seems to be enjoying the pizza. Music is now played for the return trip: a U2 song “Raised by Wolves” fills my car, and somehow I find solace with these lyrics describing a horrific car bombing. As the song builds in its intensity, I am staring at the road ahead. Maybe it’s the lingering pizza-smell, or that I’ve begun to sing along at the top of my lungs, but the tears have finally broke like a wave on to my cheeks. The view of the road ahead is distorted, and water-filled. ~Paula