They saw her tottering from blocks away. She was wearing black. When she got closer, they waved, and she seemed to see them through the window. She flapped a hand in their direction and walked purposefully over to the door. They watched her wrestle with it, leaning back with her hands wrapped around the handle as if she would try to pull it off the building. A passing busboy yanked open the door for her, and Ella thought she might stagger and blow away.
She got to their table, pressing a hand on its corner to ease herself into her seat. Ella stood, fidgeting. She waited until everyone was still and then she swooped to peck the wrinkled cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Aunt Eleanor,” said Ella. The old woman smiled up at her with thin puckered lips. It was a familiar smile, one Ella remembered from her childhood summers. When Ella was younger, Aunt Eleanor had seemed like a comforting beacon in her small fragile life. She had been a bit plump, always smiling, and her hugs were warm and firm. When Ella’s father died, her mother stopped taking them anywhere in the summer. They stayed at home, under the angry sun, and Ella sent a few halfhearted letters. They visited for the first time two weeks ago, going to see Aunt Eleanor in her creaky house, ostensibly so that she could meet Ella’s fiancé.
The woman across the table from them seemed out of her element in the crowded restaurant. In the dim living room at her home, she was still familiar. Here she was a withered wraith of the woman Ella remembered.
Ella sat back beside Jared, leaning against him a bit in the booth. They both looked at Aunt Eleanor as her hands quivered through the air, plucking up the menu and opening it. The pages shook. Her eyes were brown but the edges of her irises were clouded a pale blue, and her lipstick was a shiny red. Her face was a shade lighter than her neck, a smooth clean foundation that didn’t hide the creases in her skin or the spots of brown and pink that stained her nose and the circles around her eyes. The rouge on her cheeks was spread under her cheekbones and back toward her jaw. Ella could still taste it, a bitter creamy film on her lips.
They sat a while at the table, picking at their plates. Ella and Jared both seemed to hold their breath as Aunt Eleanor cut into her chicken, the knife sawing against the plate with a screech and the fork trembling on the broken skin. They finished without incident, though. When their waiter brought over the bill, Aunt Eleanor paid it without comment, waving her fingers at Ella when she protested.
As they left the restaurant, Jared’s hand folded around Ella’s. She laced her fingers with his, and then slipped an arm through her aunt’s. They stood there at the crosswalk, staring across at the blinking red stick figure that warned them not to move. A car whizzed by. Aunt Eleanor bent forward, looking around the two of them at the empty street. “I think we’re okay,” she said. They both leaned forward too, as if waiting for the cars that weren’t coming, and then they stepped off the curb all at once.