Surrounded by family, yet still lonely, Shantell Bledsoe sat wedged into the corner spot of a booth at Fatz Cafe. She sipped her iced tea, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Her mother and grandmother and more were there. Her two Army war veteran brothers were there. Still, she sat alone with her iced tea. Alone, because her boyfriend, Spc. Angelo Medrano, was at war in Afghanistan, gone nine months now.
“If only Angelo was here with all of us together,” Shantell said out loud. “It would be like the whole family was together.”
Everybody at the two tables looked down, sipped through straws and said nothing. They waited a minute, two, five, 10.
Medrano, 23, had been deployed since May 18 with the S.C. Army National Guard communications unit based in Hodges. There, he weathered 115-degree days and frigid nights in the rocks and desert and dust of Kandahar, Afghanistan. He left his father and stepmother, his brother and Bledsoe – his girlfriend of about six months at the time.
She cried when he left and promised to wait for him.
There were weekly text messages and Face Time and Skype, but still Medrano was on the other side of the world, as Bledsoe worked at a restaurant and went to college studying nursing. Days felt like years.
Finally, Medrano’s unit touched down in Texas a few days ago, but he told Bledsoe it would be at least March 8 – maybe later – before he was released and could fly home. She cried and told him that she would be there at the airport, waiting to hug him and kiss him and love him.
But Medrano, with help from Shantell’s mother, pulled a fast one. In fact, the whole family did. Even brothers Matt Bledsoe, a soldier, and Tommy Dale Bledsoe, himself just back from Afghanistan in May after serving with the 178th Combat Engineers out of Rock Hill.
They sipped those sweet teas and stole glances at each other and waited some more.
From the rear of the restaurant toward the table came the waiter, carrying a basket of rolls. But this “waiter” was tall, with a deep ruddy complexion from months in that 115-degree sun. His white teeth shone as the waitresses put their hands over their mouths in surprise.
He wore a uniform, desert fatigues, camouflage. He wore desert boots. He had been waiting outside the back door for a half hour, nervous as a grunt in a foxhole with mortars raining down.
Finally it was time.
This “waiter” strode like Gen. Patton across the dining room as diners stopped in mid-bite, jaws dropped onto plates of hot ribs.
“Here are your rolls,” the “waiter” said, walking up to the Bledsoe family’s table.
“Where did you come from?” came the only words Shantell Bledsoe could find in her heart, suddenly healed after nine months of pain.
Then she leaped from her seat and grabbed that waiter with the nameplate “Medrano” over his heart. She hugged him and she squeezed him until it looked like she might break him in half.
Medrano loved it all.
The waitresses were crying. A few customers used napkins soiled with sauce and ketchup to wipe away tears. The family was crying – even one of the soldier brothers wiped away a tear with one hand as he popped a roll into his mouth with the other.
“I ought to have a job in the Pentagon, I kept a secret so good,” said Christine Bledsoe, Shantell’s mother.
In fact, the whole family kept the secret for days as Medrano and the family and friends planned this caper to surprise Shantell. Her hug showed that the ruse worked perfectly.
“I don’t want to let you go!” Shantell said, and she sure did not let him go.
Medrano’s strong arms wrapped around her showed without words that she didn’t have to let him go – and that he wouldn’t let go, either.
Finally, once the shock had passed, the tears came down. Shantell buried her head in her man’s burly chest.
“But you lied!” Bledsoe reminded Medrano, about when he was coming home.
Medrano, promising it would be the last lie he would ever tell, asked, “Am I forgiven?”
She smiled and planted a big, fat kiss on him that said, without words, that this one little lie was worth it.