I sat with unexpected ease in the unfamiliar seat I had chosen. From that vantage point the world was new within the familiar frame of the cafe’s charm. Naturally, I looked in the direction of the table that Friend and I had claimed as our own. Two young women sat comfortably at the table trembling with laughter, the brilliance of which defied the gloom of winter just beyond the cafe walls.
I reached into my pocket for my cell phone with the intention of texting Friend. Attached to the back of it however, was the card that Gardner had given to me. The shock of finding it just then interrupted my next breath. I stared down at it, holding it loosely between my fingertips. At first, it inexpressibly reciprocated my gaze. Then it insistently drew my attention to a particular part of the text. Although resting on the same plane as the others, this text appeared more brightly illuminated than the rest:
“There is a time for everything…
A time to tear and a time to mend
A time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 & 7).”
I recited the words again mentally…I mouthed them twice over quietly….but found no greater clarity. As I lifted my head, I made another jolting discovery; Suitor’s presence was upon me. Once again, my next breath was interrupted. As he continued from the entrance toward me, I took in a deep breath and quickly returned the card to my pocket. In my haste to hide it — hence evading any potential questions about it — the razor thin edge, sliced through the skin on my thumb. Wincing in pain, I completed the action before his lips produced it’s greeting.
“Hi,” he said smiling warmly.
The eagerness that I might have experienced in his presence was mitigated by the throbbing in my thumb. I covered it with the other four fingers and squeezed. “Hey.”
He started to reach for me, but stopped. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay…How are you?” I glanced past him at the seat across the table from me. I expected him to take it, but he didn’t. Instead, I found myself clothed in the musk of his cologne.
He made himself at home next to me, his body attentively turned toward me with an arm extended across the back of my chair. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I was certain that I didn’t want to go into detail about the card, yet I could not successfully mask the physical discomfort I was experiencing. “No actually.” I released my thumb and shook my hand. “I just got a paper cut.”
“Ouch! Let me see.” He took my hand and began a careful examination.
“It’s on my thumb.”
“Ouch.” He reiterated, having seen it. “Would you like a band-aid? I’m sure they have a first aid kit.”
“No, I’m okay It just stings a little–” While I was speaking I looked again at my thumb. What had run its practiced course beneath the skin was now rising to the surface. “Oh, it’s bleeding.” I stood. “A band-aid might be good.”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.”
“I’m gonna go wash my hands.”
“Okay.” He moved quickly toward the service counter, while I went off in the opposite direction.
In the restroom, the stinging intensified as the warm soapy water ran through the breach in my skin. I looked up once the bleeding abated to find the paper towels. I wrapped my thumb and turned to leave, but was arrested by my reflection. I stopped. I turned fully to the single mirror above the sink and studied the face looking back. While it shared my features identically, there was something about the woman I beheld in the mirror that was very much unlike me. She appeared more openly vulnerable and broken. Yet, in those very qualities I beheld glimpses of emerging strength and bravery that I had never known. I gave her an affirming smile before leaving.
Suitor was on his feet next to our table awaiting my return. “I got it.” He lifted the band-aid into view.
When I came within reach of him, he took my hand once more. I watched with infinite joy as his clearly unpracticed hands dressed my wound with the utmost care. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” His desire to say something else screamed in the silence that followed.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You look like you wanna say something.”
“It’s not important.” He gestured that we should sit.
I took an immovable stance before him. “What is it?”
“Well…I would offer a kiss to help speed up the healing process, but I don’t think that’s medically proven to work.” He punctuated this statement with a burst of laughter.
“What?!” I exclaimed, also laughing.
“You know, like when you were a child, if you bumped your knee or something your mom would kiss it to make it feel better?”
My laughter was blunted by a childhood memory of my mother doing just that. I fixed my eyes on Suitor’s, a means of shaking off the grief of what was lost and regaining my grip on the joy of the present moment. “Yeah, I remember that…You’re right though, I don’t think that’s medically proven to work.”
“Oh well, I tried.”
“Tried ‘what’ exactly?”I asked while getting back into my seat.
“It doesn’t matter. Did you think of what you want to order?” He asked, still on his feet next to the table.
“Maybe later. I don’t want anything right now.”
He glanced at his watch, then sat.
“Do you have to leave?”
“Not right this second, but sooner than we discussed.”
“Oh. Okay.” His announcement was blindsiding.
“I’m sorry, something came up at work.”
“…It’s disappointing, I know. I–”
“I’m not disappointed. Something came up at work. I get it.”
“Why doesn’t it sound like you get it?”
“Look, if you have to work it’s fine. You could go.”
He seemed dejected. “Wait, are you telling me to go?”
“I’m not saying you should go, but I’m saying that if you feel the need to go then…I get it.”
“What just happened?” His arm left the back of my chair. “What did I just miss?”
“Nothing. You wanted to have dinner or coffee or whatever. We just had ‘whatever’ and now you have to go–”
“What are you saying?”
What was I saying? I could hear the words rolling out of my head like rocks racing down a steep hill, yet I hadn’t a clue what I was saying. What was I actually yearning to say? I stopped speaking long enough to hear in my heart what I could not hear in my head.
The presence that I was coming to know by nature –rather than name — had broken through the tension between us to mediate sense in our conversation.
“Breathe.” The instruction came as an articulate whisper in my heart, carried by the sound of my own voice, yet possessing uncommon gravity.
“What are you saying?” Suitor asked again.
“I was just……” My heart thumped nervously.
“Be honest.” The instruction came once more.
“…I was really looking forward to today. So yes, I’m disappointed that our time is being cut short…and I’m nervous that maybe this…” I drew an invisible line of connection between us. “Won’t last. Maybe you’ll decide to–”
“Mary, I don’t know who you’re talking about, but it isn’t me. If I was playing some game with you or was insincere about my interest in you, I would have given up a long time ago…You haven’t exactly made it easy for me–”
“I’m not mad about that. I don’t have a problem working hard to get what I want….” His arm returned to the back of my chair as he smiled with the positive shift in my countenance. “I have a few minutes before I need to go, but I would really like to schedule an appointment to spend some more time with you.”
“Schedule an appointment? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re a busy woman,” He responded with a grin.
I bit back a smile. “Fine.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
“Yes! We can set an appointment for another meeting.”
“Great.” Nervousness suddenly flashed across his face. “I did wanna ask you about something specific though.”
“What is it?”
“My parents are having their anniversary party in a couple of weeks, I was wondering if you’d go with me.”
My mind was suddenly flooded with a million thoughts, each vying for my attention. I couldn’t respond.
“Hello? Are you there?” He asked, waving a hand out in front of me.
I managed to escape my frenzied thoughts. “I’m here.”
“So, what do you think?….Would you be my date?”
“You want me to meet your parents?”
“I want you to come to the party with me…”
“And meet your parents?”
“Well, I guess so. It is their party and they will be there. It would be rude of me not to introduce you.”
“That’s really quick, don’t you think? We’re just getting to know each other.”
“The party’s a whole two weeks out.”
“Two weeks is not a long time.”
He remained unmoved.
“You really don’t think it would be odd for you to show up at your family gathering with a perfect stranger?”
“Who says you’d be a perfect stranger?”
“I wouldn’t be?”
He glanced at his wrist.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
He separated his arm from the back of my chair and started to his feet. “I’m really sorry, but I need to leave.”
“How convenient.” I arose to meet him. “You wanna try answering one of my questions before you go?”
“Would you like to order anything before I leave?” He turned from me to the menu hanging behind the service counter.
“I can get my own drink, thanks. Why wouldn’t I be a stranger to your parents?” I crossed behind him and started toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m walking you out so we could finish this conversation.”
He walked closely beside me toward the exit. “I’m part of a close-knit family…so if something…or someone is important to one of us, we share with the rest of the family.”
“The family?! You talked to your whole family about me? What did you even say?!”
He stepped in front of me when we got the door to open it. “Are you stepping out?”
“Yes.” I walked past him through the open door. “That’s a lot of pressure.”
He joined me where I stood some feet away from the door. “What, meeting my family?”
“Yes.” I responded frankly.
“It won’t be too bad. I think you’ll like everyone. I mean, things can get a bit interesting when we get together but–”
“It’s not me liking them that I’m worried about.”
He looked at me intently, his gaze illuminated in a way I had noticed on the day we met and again during Friend’s reception.
“You have no idea…” he whispered.
“I have no idea what?”
“I did not mean to say that out loud.” He seemed flustered.
“Well you did, so what do you mean?”
He took another quick glance at his watch. “I hate to leave now, but I have to–”
“You’re not gonna answer me, are you?”
“I will tell you anything you want to know…the next time we meet.”
“Are you gonna hang out here for a while?”
I had no contingency plan in the event that our meeting was cut short, however the moment he asked the question, I knew what I needed to do. I knew where I needed to go. “No, I think I’m gonna go for a walk in the park.”
“Okay. Have a great walk.”
“Thanks. Have a great time at work.”
“I’ll try.” He smiled.
His smile lingered, till it was overwhelmed by the awkward silence that fell between us. He seemed to be wrestling with uncertainty. Meanwhile, I strained to mask my desire for him to kiss me again. I knew that I had failed in my efforts as the uncertainty in his eyes gave way to confidence and he drew closer to me.
Although frequented by a few faithful who continued to beat the running trails, the park remained at rest, cloaked in silent anticipation of spring. I paused at the garden entrance and looked around. Varying shades of brown covered everything. Looking up, the overhanging branches — unadorned by their beautiful emerald leaves — formed a number of open windows through which I could see the gray sky; It was as still as the park below. I turned my gaze downward, took a deep breath, and continued toward the bench.
With every step, my heart hoped that through some gesture of extravagant mercy, I would see Gardner. And so it was.
I turned around quickly to find him standing at the garden entrance.
He steadily approached the bench. “It’s good to see you,” he said with a smile.
I reciprocated his smile, but didn’t dare speak. My heart thumped wildly as I mentally rehearsed what I should say, as not to drive him off. I longed for an interpreter, someone who could articulate the purest longings of my heart, without the added nuances of self preservation that often infected my speech.
“How are you?” he asked.
Alas, there were no such interpreters. There was only me, with my own words, standing in the courage of the woman I was and the hope of the woman I could become. Part of the highlighted text from the card came clearly to mind.
“There is a time for everything…
A time to be silent and a time to speak.”
“I’m okay. How are you?”
He sat on the bench. “I’m well, thank God.”
I wanted to ask why he hadn’t been to the garden sooner than that moment. “That’s good.” I remained at a distance, slightly off the opposite end of the bench. “How’s your family?”
“They’re doing well. Thank you for asking.”
“Yeah… And your daughter’s doing okay? The one you went to visit earlier this year?”
“And the baby? How’s the baby?”
“Growing up very quickly.” he chuckled. “Everyone’s okay.”
I came to the end of the questions I thought I should ask and the things I thought I should say. All that remained was what I earnestly wanted to say. “I’m sorry.”
The joy in his eyes was eclipsed by confusion. “What for?”
“You know.” Surely he had not forgotten.
“What do I know?”
I felt certain that he was very clear on what I meant. Was he drawing out beyond the point of evasion? “Why haven’t you been back here in months? Were you mad at me?”
“No. I wasn’t.”
“So…why did it take you so long to come back here?” I was growing perturbed.
He turned his body fully toward me. “Mary, I’m not holding anything against you. I’ve always forgiven you. I didn’t come back till now because I didn’t think it would help you.”
My immediate reaction was to contest the latter part of his response, but I didn’t know where to begin. I wasn’t clear on what he meant. I stepped closer to the bench and looked into his eyes. I said nothing. Looking away, I sat next to him, releasing a sigh as I did. “You’ve always helped me Gardner. If you had really forgiven me, you wouldn’t have stayed away.”
“Whether you think so or not Kiddo, there was nothing more I could say to help you with what you were going through.”
I turned to look at him. “You could have listened.”
“I could have.”
I searched his gaze for some indication that I had persuaded him to adopt my perspective. He remained unconvinced. I looked away.
“So, how are things?”
I wanted to say, ‘You should know, since you know everything.’ I chuckled over the thought. “It’s fine I guess. I’m not really sure.”
He waited silently for me to elaborate.
“Friend got married last month.”
“How was the wedding?”
“It was beautiful.” I turned to him. “She looked amazing! I think I cried through the whole ceremony.”
“That’s wonderful, I’m happy for her.”
“The reception was great.”
An irrepressible smile hijacked my face. I turned away.
“Is there something in particular that made it so great?” He always knew the right question to ask.
“I met someone–” I turned quickly back to him, simultaneously closing the gap between us on the bench. “I mean, not actually, we didn’t meet then. Friend introduced us earlier this year but–”
“Let me guess, Suitor, the one who ‘doesn’t know how to take a hint.”
I was amazed. “You remember that?”
“I remember.” he smiled proudly. “So what changed? I thought you weren’t interested?”
“I don’t know that disinterest was ever the issue…”
“When we met, he seemed like a nice guy…I noticed and it bothered me…”
“Bothered you?” He seemed perplexed.
“It scared me…I didn’t know what to do with feelings for anyone. And then there was the way that he looked at me…like he was looking at some great thing that I couldn’t even begin to understand. I really didn’t know what to do then. I wanted to run, hide, or disappear so he couldn’t see me.”
“So what changed between the time you met and the wedding?”
“Nothing changed. He kept showing up and talking and smiling and looking at me and refusing to take any hints to go away. The only thing more frustrating than dealing with him was dealing with my mother!”
“If nothing changed, how did we get to that smile you had a moment ago?”
“Every time I saw him, it got a little harder for me to run…” I thought about the interaction I shared with Suitor at the reception before we began to dance. “I stopped running and tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t budge…”
“In other words, the only change has been in you?”
I recalled the woman I beheld in the mirror at the cafe earlier. “Maybe.”
He looked at me with admiration. “I’m proud of you Kiddo.”
“Thanks.” For a moment, my heart was filled with joy, satisfied by his approval.
“So, how is the new Mary getting along with her mother?”
The moment fled, taking with it the joy I had experienced.. “We’re not getting along. She
stopped talking to me.”
“She stopped talking to you?”
“That’s what I said. She stopped talking to me.”
“How is that?”
“You think I know? I’m not her. I don’t know why she does the things she does….unless you’re insinuating it’s my fault that she cut me off.”
“I’m not insinuating Mary. I’m just asking.”
“Really? Since when?”
“Wait a minute. Don’t do this–”
“Don’t do what?”
“Stop deflecting and be honest with yourself!”
His tone was alarmingly aggressive. It pinned me into a temporary state of stillness.
“So, do you wanna try that again?”
“I wasn’t deflecting I was–”
“Mary.” He said sternly.
“Fine.” I retorted. “I feel disappointed and stupid,” I uttered through gritted teeth. “I mean who does that?!”
“Does what exactly?”
“Fights so hard to break into someone’s life then turns around and walks away just like that.”
“Just like that?”
I glared at him. “This is you not insinuating anything?”
“Could you ever just…” Teeth gritted, fists balled, I strained to find the appropriate words to articulate my feelings. “…be on my side!”
“Telling you what you wanna hear, isn’t being on your side Kiddo. I will always tell you the truth because I am on your side.”
We were quiet for a while. He had clearly said all he had to say and I could not argue with him, after all I believed what he said about being on my side.
Finally I spoke. “So what now? What do I do now?”
“That depends on what you want.”
“…I don’t think I can go back to the way things were before.”
“Before she showed up on my doorstep.”
“What will you do?”
The remainder of the highlighted text came to mind.
“There is a time for everything….
A time to tear and a time to mend.”