He was so far away. She stared at him across the vast canyon of cream colored linen that stretched for miles and miles between them. It seemed to grow wider with each passing minute.
She tried to make lighthearted conversation to mask the uneasiness she felt. It did not help so she stopped pretending and grew silent, folding her hands over the matching cream colored linen napkin resting in her lap.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
He filled the quiet by recounting his day, glossing over the children who had died on the hospital service. At least it is no longer drowning season, she thought.
He had seen so much of death. As had she. They all knew each other intimately by now. It drew them together and yet kept them apart.
A ménage a trois of sorts, sans the kink.
There were wrinkles around his eyes. She wanted to reach out and smooth them away, to bring his soul back to her. His face had aged ten years in the past two. She wished she could be some comfort to him again but it had been so long since he had wanted that from her.
Not since they had lost their own child.
There was no printed menu. She tried to focus her mind on what the waiter was saying but her thoughts raced off anyway as she watched those wrinkles deepen further.
He was lonely.
They lived their life with each other in brief snippets of time. They could count the nights they had spent together over the years on their combined hands. So few. Too few. Loneliness lived in the empty spaces and made them seem even longer. But those nights. You could fill up a lifetime with those nights.
She had something else to live for now.
He had only the hospital. Over the months and years he sensed he was losing himself to it and his urgency and pleading had intensified.
She glanced furtively around the restaurant to see if anyone recognized them but they were all engrossed in their own personal dramas.
He poured a dozen packets of sugar into his iced tea and swirled it around quickly with a table knife. His manners made her cringe.
She loved him anyway. She had always loved him.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she whispered, smiling.
He looked up at her, holding her eye in defiance as he licked the syrupy tea from his knife then signaled the waiter. Anger flashed there momentarily.
He wanted her to know that she could not control him.
She wished he understood that she didn’t want to. Not really.
The waiter was there almost instantly, waiting expectantly.
“Could I get some more sugar?” he asked. But his tone…. it wasn’t a question. It was a command. He was used to giving orders now, and expected them to be followed.
She had known him before…. Before his confidence. Training had changed him. Death had changed him. It had changed her.
The waiter opened his mouth in surprise, seeing the pile of empty packets that littered the table cloth, but then caught himself, simply nodding instead. He swept up the bits of white paper silently, efficiently, then left.
You think he’s crazy, don’t you? Everyone does when they first meet him. Brilliant people are hard to understand.
She stared at his face again.
They were two unbending, unrelenting forces that danced around each other, sometimes coming together for a brief moment before shooting off like the opposing ends of a magnet. Drawn together by unseen forces that both compelled and yet repelled.
What he wanted from her was something she could not give… her only child, the only child she would ever have, sacrificed on the altar to love.
An offering. As he had once been.
How could she explain in words that it was impossible? That what was done to him as a child was not fair and not right?
That it should not be repeated.
He could not understand, no matter what she said, blind to his own hurt. So she stopped explaining.
She let his anger wash over her again.
“Coffee with dessert?” the waiter asked.
She nodded yes silently, hoping to make this last supper last as long as possible. She sat watching closely this strange man who now sat across from her as he ate, trying to memorize every detail of his features. She wished he would smile again so she could save that memory, but he did not.
They both stepped out into the cold December after sipping their French press. The cold air took her breath away for a second. He took her by the hand protectively and led her to her car, illuminated dimly by the lone streetlight on the corner a block away.
She felt safer in the darkness than she had in the light.
“We loved each other once,” she said quietly.
“We still do, don’t we?” he responded. “I will be here when you figure things out. But don’t wait too long. I won’t be here forever.”
He leaned over and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead, lingering there. She closed her eyes, savoring the moment.
Peace would never belong to them. Not ever.
He squeezed her hand, then was gone. She watched his shadow walk away shoulders squared, head held high. He faded into the night, a gray ghost that would forever haunt her.
She resisted the powerful urge to run after him, instead screaming silently into herself, into the pain he left behind, the empty that would never be filled…. the empty he could not see, the empty that would bring her to her knees even years later.
It echoed there.
He would find someone else. She knew this. Her presence had kept him from it for so long. He would have something more to live for soon enough. The tables would turn. She would be the lonely one. She would be the one begging and pleading to someone who would not listen.
Her life as her own had long ago ended.