The aroma of freshly brewed coffee, mingled with warm cinnamon and baked brown sugar met me at the cafe entrance with a welcoming peck on the cheek.
I patiently scanned the open seating plane for any onlooking eyes. Finding none, I closed mine and drew in the comfort of uninterrupted familiarity on a deep breath. As I opened my eyes, I directed my gaze to the corner table where Friend and me traditionally sat. My involuntary smile of contentment was suddenly driven off by stiff disappointment.
Within the seconds that I had closed my eyes to celebrate knowing, an unknown presence had come to displace the light securing my favorite seat.
I’m unable to speculate how, but he became aware of my gaze and looked up. He smiled with a warmth reminiscent of the aroma that greeted me at the door. I did not reciprocate. I marched toward him, the tension instigated by my disappointment manifesting physically through my fingers; they impatiently clutched the purse hanging at my side. He arose, his smile brightening as he did.
Extending a hand, he spoke. “Hi I’m-”
“You’re in my seat.”
“I’m sorry. I would really like that chair.”
“Whoa, that’s bold!” He laughed a little.
“What I mean is that I’m meeting someone and–”
“You’re meeting with Friend right? She and I work together. I’m meeting her too. I’m Suitor.” He kept his hand expectantly extended.
In a moment of hesitation I sought to see his soul through his eager eyes. Although engaged in a struggle to subdue the noise of unsettled emotion within me, I was able to discern kindness in him. I released my hand to touch his.
“Gracie.” He confidently interrupted.
“Mary,” I quickly corrected him.
His smile persisted as he held my gaze and my hand. “That’s right.”
As I continued to look through his eyes, I perceived something beside kindness, but could not…would not identify it. I sharply withdrew my hand.
“And you know that because?”
He laughed nervously then spoke. “Did you want to sit down?”
“No, I want you to answer the question.”
He laughed the more; now in amazement. “Wow! You’re…” Responding to what I imagine was my fatally austere expression, his laughter died. “Friend has a picture of the two of you on her desk. . . I may have asked her about you.”
There was silence and then, “Is that okay?”
My wit was suddenly stymied by nervousness. In the silence, the temperate air grew into an intolerable swelter.
“Gracie!” Friend came bursting into the cafe, her welcomed vivacity splintering the stiff silence as she stepped between us. “Sorry I’m late.” She turned to him. “Suitor, you made it!”
I threw my arms about her in a gratuitous embrace; anything to conceal myself from Suitor’s sight. I glanced at my watch as we separated. “What happened? You’re never late.”
Her acute sense of empathy momentarily plugged her hearing. She negated my question and posed one of her own. “Honey, are you okay? You’re really warm and you’re sweating.” She cradled one of my cheeks in her palm.
“I’m fine.” I relieved my cheek of her palm. Looking up, I found Suitor’s amiable eyes awaiting mine. I diverted my gaze to Friend. “You didn’t mention you were inviting a colleague to coffee.”
Friend parted her lips to speak only to be intercepted by Suitor. “She didn’t. I’m just delivering something from work.”
He took a step past Friend, lifting from the small round table behind her, a manila envelope that had been quietly observing our interaction. He placed in it in her hand.
“Thank you,” Friend said as she received the envelope.
A sudden maddening influx of adrenaline came coursing through my bloodstream, instigating my immediate flight from the scene. I fastened my skittish fingers unto the handle of my purse, and mentally bid my knees take courage as I slowly began to pivot toward the door.
“It was a pleasure to meet you Mary.” His voice danced melodiously through my ears sinking down into my chest, where with unassuming prowess it reignited the fatal words inscribed into the walls surrounding my heart.
I was arrested.
“Yeah . . . good . . . great.”
“See you again sometime?” I longed for the question to be nothing more than a superficial formality, but alas it was not. He patiently awaited my response.
“. . . Yeah, I’m pretty busy . . .”
My words pervaded the air like sudden rain clouds rushing in to block the sun; his brilliant disposition became overcast. As he took his leave of us, his salutation was grounded in kindness, but hastened by disappointment.
“Okay. Well I’m glad I got to meet your in person.” Turning to Friend he said, “See you on Monday.”
Friend followed him with her eyes though the transparent cafe facade till he disappeared from view. Once he had, she slapped the folder he’d presented her back unto the table top.
“Gracie, what was that?!”
“I could ask you the same thing! I thought we agreed you were gonna stop trying to set me up.”
She fell into my chair. “When did we agree to that?”
“The last time you tried to set me up.”
She paused a moment before, “Right…” She sighed, reclining in the chair for a second before being quickened by a spark of persistence. “But wasn’t he so nice?”
Dumbfounded, I simply stared back.
“But wasn’t he?”
She grinned charmingly. “Well …?”
I succumbed to her charm. Sighing, I confessed my observation. “Yes. He seemed very nice.”
“And he’s good looking….”
“Oh no, no, no, no don’t try to sucker me in with all that!”
“But isn’t he?”
“Yes, he’s attractive! Now will you please drop it?” I gestured that she should get out of my usual seat.
“And he’s financially stable,” She insisted as she crossed passed me to get to the other chair.
“That’s great for him.”
“It can also be great for you if you just–”
“Nothing’s wrong with-”
Silence fell between us a moment. I located my wallet in my purse, then started to my feet.
“What would you like?” I asked.
In the moments it had taken to find my wallet, she had found one of her less exuberant traits .
“I’m worried about you Gracie.”
“What?” I sat back down.
“What are you worried about?”
She looked back at me silently, her eyes filled with . . . pity. “Are you happy Gracie?”
“Are you happy? Do you like the way your life is going?”
“Where are you going with this Friend?”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just asking a serious question…Are you happy?”
“Yes, I am.” I was earnestly calm at first, then I felt the tempo of my steady breath increase and I could not restrain what I had let spring to surface; a fiercely unpleasant, instinctively leery version of myself; a girl with ice in her eyes and incinerating words on her breath. “ Are you?”
“You don’t have to be defensive Mary, I’m not attacking you here. I’m just ask–”
“Well I feel attacked. Just because I’m not engaged or dating anyone, doesn’t mean I’m not happy or that something is wrong with the way my life is going.”
“I didn’t say that. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
The young woman who’d come to sit in the table closest to ours had been drawn into the conflict by our elevated volume.
Friend glanced at her apologetically then back at me sternly. “Let’s just drop it okay? Let’s just forget it.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment. Then she said. “I’m sorry.”
Although sincere, she was more repentant of my reaction than those of her actions which had incited it.
I withheld any direct response, instead reverted to placing our order. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything, thanks.”
“Oh great, are you gonna do that now?”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“Am I?” She looked directly in through my eyes; hers own unaffected by winter, remained warm. The steadfast affection in her eyes however, was masked by stern disapproval.
She said nothing; simply stared back at me.
I resumed my seat yet again. “Look, I’m sorry I was defensive….I don’t wanna talk about me right now….I wanna sit here and talk about…You! How are you?”
Her silent scolding continued.
I broke free, looking out the window instead. “Or not…It’s pretty warm for a winter’s day huh?”
Although amiable, Friend was also maddeningly obstinate. “You know Mary, it’s–”
“You’re still calling me Mary.” She reserved the right to call Mary as a means of capturing my full attention.
“It’s not okay to just spectate other people’s lives from the sidelines. You gotta get in there.”
“I’m in there.” Even I was was unconvinced.
She was as incredulous of my words as I. “But how many people are in here?”
I observed her hand as it floated brazenly past the boundary of my personal space, several of her fingertips resting gently against my chest. She lifted her hand and then, “My mom said something interesting when you left the house after Christmas dinner.”
The fear that had always conspicuously stalked my every thought, thrust itself to the forefront, forbidding me to inquire about life beyond the boundaries of the stronghold around my heart. However, something had happened in reading my mother’s letter and later engaging the stranger. The wall had weakened.
My meager courage proved more than adequate to break through the restraint of fear’s foreboding in order to ask, “what did she say?”
“She said that you seemed stuck.”
“Did she say I needed a man?” I groped for humor as a proactive measure against incoming tears.
Friend arose from her seat and came to me, squeezing herself into the small sofa with me. She smiled as she covered me in a comforting embrace. “No, that was all me. Sorry. . . She said you needed a mother.”