The warmth of the early spring sun rested weightlessly across my back through the cafe window. I sat stiffly in my favorite chair, eyes fixed on the entrance, as I waited. Nervousness ran through my mind, dishevelled my thoughts, and trickled downward to my feet, dribbling them against the wooden floor. I deliberately drew in deep breaths, holding each one for ten seconds then releasing. I did this repetitiously, glancing at my watch at the end of every third release. As time inched forward mercilessly, regret of having agreed to our meeting began to bear down on me. I came to the end of another rep of deep breathing, it was time to look down at my watch again. The moment I did, the chime above the entrance sounded. I quickly lifted my eyes. As suddenly as I had lifted them, I lowered my eyes.
“Oh God!” Nervousness gave way to panic while I sought a way of evading contact. Perhaps I could flee the scene altogether and deliver myself from an encounter with Suitor and a confrontation with my mother. Moving blindly through the air, my fingers found my purse and took hold of it. Next I was up on my feet flying at the speed of sound toward the door, eyes aimed at the wooden floor below.
Having committed the exit route from the the cafe to memory, my hand knew instinctively when the door was within reach. Consistent with the changes that had accompanied the shift in seasons however, another hand intercepted mine, reaching the door knob before mine could. Irked and awestruck, I abandoned my mission of remaining conspicuous; I looked up to find myself caught in the sight of familiar eyes.
“Mary, hi!” The interest that I refused to acknowledge upon our first inopportune encounter appeared to have waxed deeper.
Still inescapably annoyed, I managed only a monosyllabic response as I furthered an inward effort to recompose myself. “Hi.”
“Wow, this is a great surprise.” He smiled brightly.
“Is it?” I retorted wryly.
“Yeah…it is.” He regarded me in silence for a moment, a tender smile lingering across his lips. In the wordless exchange between us, I aborted my inward efforts to mask my defenses. He beheld them — the spears of sarcasm, the wall of defense, the inclination to flee produced by fear — yet remained –unlike at our first encounter– emboldened. His smile grew.
“I’m sorry about the misunderstanding when we first met.”
“And you coming back to this particular cafe, is that also a misunderstanding?”
“No, I’m here on purpose.” Responding to my appalled expression, he explained. “Friend is always raving about this place. I wanted to come on my own to get something.”
“Running into you after the last time is just…a really great surprise.”
“Well, I’m glad I could surprise you.” I stepped closer to the threshold.
Inexplicably, I halted and turned toward him.
He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and fished out a business card. “I’d like to ask for your number, but convincing you might take time…which I’m guessing you don’t have right now.”
Glancing from the card then back into his eyes, I responded. “I’m not going to call you.”
He stood still, arm extended toward me, the card loosely clipped between two fingers. “Then maybe you can refer my work to a friend.”
Gradually my sentiments betrayed me, producing a smile followed by a burst of laughter. “I’m really not going to call you!…Furthermore I don’t know your work and have no basis for referring a friend!”.
He withdrew his outstretched arm to his side, standing once more in amazed silence.
“I knew you’d have a great laugh.”
“You know, you’re a very odd man. I highly recommend that you change your approach to women.”
“…Any pointers on how I should approach one woman in particular?”
My jaw dropped and was followed by the treacherous laughter. “Absolutely not! This conversation is over. Goodbye.”
He pulled the door open for me.
I started out, but came to another roadblock. She’d arrived; thus my plan to escape was thwarted on both ends.
“Hi Mary.” Credulous excitement danced with abandon in her eyes. In that moment, I wasn’t looking at her, but at myself in a mirror prior to pain taking up residence in my heart.
I turned to Suitor. Still unmasked, he had access to witness the shift in my countenance. My mind now set on the impending confrontation with my mother, I lost sight of the intent to keep him, in every sense, at a distance. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah?” He beamed hopefully.
He came closer and placed his business card in my hand. “See you soon.” As he passed my mom, they exchanged a non-verbal greeting.
He vanished from view and she stepped closer.
“Who was that?”
“No one. I don’t really know him that well.”
I led her quietly back to my usual table, resuming the repetition of calming breaths while we walked.
“This is a nice place. I’ve never been here before.” I could not see her face, but surmised that she was smiling as she spoke, a recognizance I believed was sparked more from memory than present observation.
“Yeah, I really like it.” We arrived at the table. “This is our table.”
“Great choice, sitting by the window.”
I stood still, said nothing. I waited instead for her to sit in my chair, or commit any other offense that might help me justify terminating any actual conversation.
“Now if my memory serves me, you must have a favorite chair, which is it?” She awaited my response with a smile.
I was stunned silent. Where perhaps I might have been delighted, pride instigated agitation instead.
“I know you have one, which is it?” She reiterated.
“It’s this one actually.” I sat sullenly, keeping my back parallel to that of the chair and my arms crossed in my lap.
“I’m really glad you invited me here.”
She started to her feet. “Would you like me to get you anything?”
Although weakened by a series of prior events and once again ignited by the fatal words of her letter, the wall bluffed it’s best as I gave voice and expression to its stance of resistance. “I don’t need anything.” I looked at her to find that my words had painfully struck her.
She took in a calming breath herself, then spoke upon exhaling. “Okay…I’m gonna get something. Would you mind watching my purse?”
My minute point of compliance seemed to reinforce her waning enthusiasm. “Do you have any recommendations?”
“Not really, pretty much everything is good so you can get whatever.”
She drew in another intentional breath before walking away. “I’ll be right back.”
In the brief moments of her absence, I revisited my escape plan. ‘What am I doing here?!’ I asked myself within the privacy of my thoughts. ‘This is pointless and it’s not going to go well.’ Her return interrupted my thoughts.
She placed her order number on the table, then resumed sitting. “Thank you again.”
“For agreeing to meet with me. I realize you could have said no…. I want you to know that this means a lot to me.”
She leaned forward in her seat, her smile lingering. I waited for her to speak, but she didn’t. Instead, her gaze swept carefully through the details of my physical being. “You’re such a beautiful girl.” Her smile suddenly disintegrated into a sentiment I could not pinpoint; one accompanied by tears. “I’m so sorry…I’m so sorry…” She reached for me.
Eyes remaining locked with hers, I withdrew my hand. Her words pounded against my eardrums and echoed loudly in my mind, before transporting me into the recesses of my memory to a moment underscored by similar words.
The amber glow of the early spring sun was overtaken by a haunting twilight. We were no longer in the cafe, but back in my childhood bedroom on the night I last saw her. Tears of guilt filled soaked her face, then mine as she covered it with kisses. “I’m so sorry….I’m so sorry…” She whispered in the dark, her attention dashing between me and my bedroom door behind her.
“What’s wrong mommy?” I asked her.
Her lips — often painted red, but once again swelled, split, and stained in blood — uttered the same confounding words, “I’m so sorry….” She embraced me tightly, groaning in pain as my frame made contact with the the places he’d struck. “I love you so much.” She kissed me again, smearing tears, and blood on my face.
“Did daddy beat you again?”
She released me. “I love you. I have to go.” She propped herself upright with great difficulty and turned toward the door.
Intuitively, I surmised I needed to follow her. “Where are you going mommy?”
Her steps hastened.
I followed, my fear growing with her pace. “Mommy where are you going?”
She crossed the threshold ahead of me and closed the door quickly behind her.
“Mommy, what are you doing?” I tried opening the door, but the knob wouldn’t turn.
She spoke to me from the other side. “Sweetie…” Her thought was broken up by tears. “I need you to do mommy a really big favor.”
“Are you going to open the door?”
“I can’t…I can’t open the door….but I need you to go back to bed okay?”
“But where are you going?”
She began to sob more audibly. “…Everything’s going to be alright…okay?”
I took my hand away from the knob and stepped back.
“I love you….I’ll see you very soon.” Her voice faded. I heard her sobbing and hastened footsteps moving down the stairwell. I heard the sound of a car speeding off. Then nothing.
I sank back into the present moment to discover that tears had been quietly running down my face.
She reached again. “It’s okay.”
I got quickly to my feet, inadvertently dismissing her hand. “I have to go.”
She stood too. “But we–”
“I can’t be here right now.” I took up my purse and turned to leave.
“Mary!” She called after me.
My chest undulated wildly with the building tension within, my breath grew short, and the torrent of tears I had managed to deter in her presence broke forth.