“You ready?” Raymond grasped the hand of the gentle woman beside him. She tucked a piece of caramel-colored hair behind her ear, looked him in the eyes, and nodded. He breathed in a full chest of the sleepy air surrounding their bare storefront as he led her through the glass door. Let’s do this.
“Oh no,” Raymond whispered. They both stopped after entering the restaurant and stared, assessing the damage. “It looks like the storm hit pretty hard in here.” He pointed his slender finger to the mess of tables and chairs scattered over the floor. “At least the flooding isn’t too bad?” He lifted his shoe to measure the amount of standing water on the hardwood flooring. Half an inch at least, he thought.
“What are we going to do? We promised…” She squeezed his hand tighter and looked into his eyes. They were blue like the patch behind the stars on the American flag. “We can’t break our word to her! How can we still open this week?”
“It’s all right, Jules.” He took her other hand into his so that they faced each other. The gold band on his finger brushed past the delicate ring on hers. “We’ll get through this. We always do.”
“But we’ve been through so much already.” She looked past the hem of her faded jeans to the standing water at her feet that was threatening to soak her tennis shoes. Tenderly, she brought his right hand to rest on her stomach for a moment and then intertwined her fingers into his.
“I know, darling.” The blue veins in his hand pulsed with each crying heartbeat. If he knew his arms ached this much, he couldn’t begin to imagine how badly hers hurt to be empty. He closed her in a reassuring embrace, catching a glimmer of her misty eyes in the process. She was stronger than anyone he’d ever known. She needed this restaurant to work out almost more than he did.
Raymond had promised her his all, and they, in turn, had promised Nana this tiny café on the outskirts of the growing downtown. Nana. He closed his eyes and pictured the sprightly Cuban woman in her orange sneakers. The woman who’d believed in them when no one else did and fought just as hard as they had to safeguard their marriage through the rough first years.
“Now, Raymond,” she’d always say. Her arms were usually crossed, and she wore an impenetrable face of sparkling eyes and a cautious joy. Maybe it was fierceness; maybe it was love. Sometimes, in the moment, Raymond couldn’t tell which. “You and Jules need each other to make your marriage work. It’s not fifty-fifty but one hundred-one hundred percent. You hear me?” She had filled the role of counsellor and second mother through countless nights of tears and frustrations. “Missing her” was an understatement.
Jules nudged Raymond’s arm, and he opened his eyes to her faint smile. They faced each other again. “For better, for worse?”
“For better, for worse.” Raymond caressed her knuckles and kissed her forehead, remembering the picture of beauty that had stood before him on his wedding day, clothed in white. She had taken the breath clean out of his lungs without so much as a blink of her eye. The flower-laced veil and train had only complemented her radiant eyes and pointed to the elegance of his bride. He would never tire of the smile that spread sunshine in his heart. “Let’s get a closer look at this, okay? We’ll do it together.”
“For Nana?” Jules said. She surveyed the mess, calculating how many blue and white chairs would need to be reordered.
“For Nana.” Raymond nodded. Letting Nana down isn’t an option. She was the reason they’d decided to open this place anyway. Her dream had become theirs. A café might be just the thing to bring this fractured town together, he thought. People pulled away from each other as the city invaded the peaceful county, scattered like glass marbles. Even the buildings were too widely spaced apart to foster community. Something had to change. He let go of Jules’s hands and rolled up his sleeves. Time to get to work, he thought.
Several hours later, Raymond stood in the center of the empty dining room floor. “Jules, you said we need fifteen new chairs and three new tables?” His shoes squished as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Yes, fifteen and three.” She hesitated. “But maybe we should order twenty and five, just to be on the safe side?” She took a step closer to him and wrapped herself in his cinnamon-and-orange aroma.
Raymond noted the thin tinge of anxiety in her voice and drew her shoulder into his. She was right, even if they couldn’t exactly afford excess purchases now. I need to tell her about the situation soon, he thought. Not to freak her out or anything, but she needs to know eventually. “Yeah, better to be safe than sorry.” He walked to the front counter and scribbled the figures down. “Oh. And we can’t forget about the new flooring. You have to admit that it isn’t quite the dumpster fire it was when we first arrived.”
“You’re not wrong.” Jules put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the situation again. “Maybe we can go for a nice mahogany instead of the red oak?” She winked at him and shyly ducked her head.
“Jules, you know that’s expensive.” Raymond crumpled up a piece of the notepad paper and lofted it over at her. She deftly avoided his weak throw. “I wish as much as you do that we had enough money for that mahogany, but we’re barely getting by as it is.” He scratched his curly brown hair with the pink eraser in thought.
“I mean, you know the red oak doesn’t match the orange blotches on the walls, though, right?” Jules spoke this truth with a teaspoon of jest and a pinch of seriousness.
“I know,” Raymond sighed. “Nana loved anything orange—her favorite shoes, actual oranges…Do you remember the time she made us try her orange peel potato salad?” He fake gagged and pulled at the collar of his shirt.
“We told her it wasn’t that bad,” Jules laughed. She mimicked a half grimace, half forced smile. “I don’t think she believed us.”
“And she had every right not to with that face,” Raymond said. He stuck out his tongue at her.
“You’re not one to brag either.” Jules picked up the wet crumpled wad and threw it back at him. “She would’ve caught you red handed if I hadn’t asked for some more lemonade to wash it down.”
“Okay, okay, you got me,” Raymond surrendered. He sighed and scanned the room. This place could bring people together like Nana did, he thought. We must continue her legacy—this is what she did best. And that’s what we’re going to do, storm or no storm.
But almost a year had passed since her parting. It felt like some people were just gone too soon.
“Are you ready to call it quits for now, Sir Stoic?” Jules broke into his thoughts. She licked her lips. “I’m getting hungry.”
“Yeah, all this talk of orange peel potato salad is really getting me into the eating mood.”
“Oh, stop.” Jules gave his arm a light punch and began gathering her things from off the wide window ledge. “But she really had a thing for making tasty new sandwiches, that’s for sure.”
“Okay, yes, I’m ready, slowpoke. I think I need new shoes, though.” Raymond lifted his feet to walk as water dripped out the soles. “Here, let me just check the mailbox on the way out.”
“I’ll get there first!” Jules bounded out the door before Raymond could process what had happened. He chuckled as he followed her. He didn’t understand her random bursts of energy. After all, they were approaching their thirties, and he already felt like an old man.
“Uh, Jules?” Raymond came to a halt. She stood staring at the envelope in her hand, not seeming to hear the sweet tenor of his voice. “What’s that?”
“Raymond?” Her face assumed a sad kind of unsteady. “It’s the bank.”
Raymond quickly pried the letter out of her trembling hand and opened it. No. No, this can’t be happening. Things keep on going so wrong.
“Foreclosure?” The syllables barely escaped her lips, taking the confidence out of her strong shoulders and warping her posture.
“No. Thank goodness, no.” Raymond looked up and focused on the gold locket around her neck. “It’s a notice that we’re in debt. Here, come sit down.” He beckoned her to the table and chairs outside the café and helped her ease into the seat. He kissed her head and sat down in the other chair.
“What are we going to do now?” He felt the wave of emotion in her voice and swallowed carefully before answering to stem the tide in his own throat.
“First, we’re going to order lunch.” Raymond ran a hand through his curls and down the back of his neck. “You can get whatever you’d like,” he said with a smile.
“But Ray, we’re in debt.”
Raymond pulled out a twenty-dollar bill from his back pocket. “We’re not too poor to eat lunch, okay? I’m serious.”
After a few seconds, his wife reached out and took the money. “I do like Tino’s Pizza,” she said, with some hesitation. “The one a few blocks that way.” She pointed north, into the heart of downtown.
“There you go. Why don’t you order us a pizza while I look over this letter?” He unfolded the creamy piece of paper with deathly black ink. “They can deliver it to us, okay?”
Jules nodded and dialed the number. “Olives on half?” she asked. Her dimples brightened her smooth face.
“Olives on half.” He grinned at their inside joke. On a more serious note, though, I need to figure this out, he thought. He masked his concern by holding the letter close to his face. Hm. And we still need to order the replacement chairs and fix the floors. It’s an unfortunate time to have storm damage, especially since we don’t have property insurance on the place yet.
“How much?” she asked when she got off the phone.
Those two words threatened to reveal Raymond’s disguise. “Seven thousand.” He raised his eyebrows. “But with the repairs and replacement flooring, we’re looking at about ten thousand.”
“I thought we had extra money in our account to cover stuff like this, though?” she said. “What’s going on?”
Raymond ran a hand through his hair. He might as well be plain with her. “Basically, our investments in the stock market took a downturn a while back.” She eyed him with uncertainty. “We’ve been catching back up, but we haven’t quite made it all back.”
Jules looked like she was going to be sick.
“We’re okay.” He grabbed his wife’s hands. “Trust me. We didn’t lose everything, and we don’t have to pay this all up front. We can negotiate a plan and make small payments, just like we did with the house.”
Jules tried to wring her hands, but Raymond held them tight.
“I was trying to figure out how to tell you. I’m sorry, Jules.” He felt her pulse gradually slow as they sat in front of their dream together.
“You’re sure about this?” She relaxed her hands and bumped his knee under the table. “I trust you.”
“I wouldn’t give up on it for the world. A promise is a promise.” Raymond watched as Jules gently touched the locket around her neck. In it rested a picture of Nana, their closest ally, proud and strong in her later years. Her piercing black eyes dared all who approached to watch out. Yet they held a certain kindness, a certain love for surmounting the impossible and proving people wrong.
“Come here, Jules.” Raymond pulled her out of the chair and stood with his arm around her side in front of the café. “Close your eyes. What do you see in this place?”
Jules closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. “I see people enjoying each other’s company, building friendships, bonding over their love for a certain kind of sandwich. I hear laughter and footsteps on the floors, the occasional confusion over the orange splashes of paint.” She wrapped her arm around his side and laid her head on his shoulder.
“Good, there you go.” Raymond closed his eyes too. “I see children with their grandparents, smiling as they munch on homestyle creations. I see us fulfilling our dream.” He opened his eyes and nudged his wife, so she opened hers too. “Hey, we’ll do whatever it takes. We can borrow money; we can sell some of the stuff we don’t use. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said it would be. After all, our biggest asset is this right here.” He motioned to the building in front of them.
“No,” she said. “Our biggest asset is this.” She pulled her arm closer around him, and he instinctively did the same.
She’s right, he thought.
“I’m scared of all of this, Ray.” She shivered slightly in his embrace.
A minute passed before he responded. “Me too.” He paused before continuing. “But I’m one-hundred percent.”
“I’m one-hundred percent, too.” He felt the quiet confidence begin to flow through her.
“I have an idea,” he said. “How do you like the name ‘More than Sandwiches’?”
Jules looked up to him and smiled. “I think it has a nice ring to it.”
Raymond smiled back and kissed the crown of her head. It’s perfect.