“At least you have closure,” Kak said, arranging the bandages, gauze pads, alcohol wipes and antiseptic gel from the shop’s first aid kit onto the table between them. “I never knew my father.”
“Neither did I.”
“You just scattered the ashes of a man you never met?”
“Didn’t say I never met him. Said I never knew him. And technically, you scattered them.”
“I said I was sorry.”
She had a chance now, with his foot on her lap, to take inventory of him at her leisure. The precise, expensive haircut hinted at a meticulous nature. Perfect nails on strong, lean hands. Handsome and he knew it. A salesperson? No. He looked more useful than that.
She took her time cleaning the area. Dried it. Affixed the bandage over the puncture, pausing to look at her hands for the first time since leaving Spatini. The pale band of skin around her third finger where her engagement ring typically rested was gone. Vanished. As if her identity had been spray tanned away.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. What do you do, Rudy? For a living.”
“I’m an escape artist.”
He’d meant it as a joke. In her experience every joke was 50% tragedy. That was good. If you believed as she did that the gods, who specialized in tragic jokes, had literally delivered this man to her feet, how else could you explain it? Here he sat. In grief. The urn had been a dead giveaway. She pardoned herself for the pun.
It meant something, the way she’d stumbled onto him. There she went again. She’d been sure of nothing since the day at Langone. But she knew now. This man was put in her path for a reason. The perfect plot device had fallen into her lap. But how to make use of it? How did it fit into her story?
She sipped her Sumatra Mandheling and immediately found herself wishing she’d taken the Papua New Guinea Peaberry for herself, geography be damned. She glanced over at the rich tan blend in his cup. Could it really be better? Or did she simply want the opposite of whatever she had? It was a distinct possibility. Stammer reminded her of it often.
“Now your hand,” he said, pulling the first aid supplies toward him.
“First the coffee. Before it cools. Can I try the Peaberry?”
“If you wanted the Peaberry, why didn’t you order it?”
She didn’t want to think through her rationale again or hear anything that sounded like Stammer or Philip admonishing her.
“Can I just try the Peaberry?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, inspecting the patch job she’d done on his puncture wound while pushing his coffee across the table toward her.
“You try mine,” she said, pushing her cup toward him. “Maybe we’ll switch.”
Each cup advanced toward the center of the table, soon to pass each other on the way to the other side. It came then, like a bolt from heaven, just as the cups reached the middle.
“Stop!” she shouted, gripping her cup so tightly she slopped a mouthful of coffee over the lip and onto her fingers. She felt the prickle of the hot liquid bathing her skin like realization sinking in.
“Change your mind?” he asked.
“Shut up. Don’t move.” How it had taken her this long to understand? “Take mine,” she said. “Give me yours.”
“Isn’t that what we were doing?”
Slower now, they scooted their coffees the rest of the way to the other. She wrapped her hands around the hot ceramic of the cup she received and waited for him to do the same.
“Okay,” she said. “Now we drink.”
He was clearly puzzled. It didn’t matter. She raised the cup to her lips, waiting for him to match her. Once he had his cup poised at his bottom lip she tipped hers and watched as he tipped his.
She held the sip of cream-infused New Guinea Peaberry coffee in her mouth just long enough to cool it and then let it trickle down her throat. He drank, too.
Kak lowered her cup to the table. She marveled at the contrariness of it. She’d been going about it all wrong. She’d felt it that day in Langone when she woke up after defibrillating herself. Felt herself going backward then but had not understood. Since then she’d been doing everything possible to correct her direction and get from depression back into acceptance. Nothing worked. Now she knew why. She’d started the wrong way through grief, from acceptance to depression. There was no U-turn. Once she started she had to keep going. The wrong way. Forget about getting back to acceptance from depression. She had to go the other direction. To bargaining. It would lead her to anger. That would carry her to denial and, once and for all, out of the trap she’d set for herself. Her mistake since Langone had been in resisting the direction she’d already taken.
She could almost feel the puzzle pieces falling into place. Now that she understood, how hard could it be?
“This father you never knew?” she asked. “What was your relationship with him?”
“My father was a first rate prick.”
Anger. As expected. She saw it in her head:
Denial / Anger / Bargaining / Depression / Acceptance
He occupied the stage to the left of bargaining. She languished one stage to the right of it. She and this man the gods cast at her feet were like binary stars, pulling each other away from themselves and toward the other. She pulled him toward acceptance. He pulled her toward denial. With any luck they could use their mutual gravity to slingshot past each other and on to their logical destinations. He’d end up in acceptance and she’d land safely in denial, where she should have begun. That’s why they’d met. That’s why he’d been on the beach.
“You come toward me and I come toward you,” she blurted.
He half rose from his chair. “Right now?”
“No. Well. Yes. That is, figuratively speaking.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t feel anything?”
“Is there something in the coffee I don’t know about?”
The revelation was only for her then.
“Magic,” she said. “You didn’t taste it?”
He checked his cup. “No. I got an herbal aroma and chocolate notes in the finish. But no magic.”
“Stop kidding around. Haven’t you ever been in a situation where you’re stuck. And you don’t know what to do? And then you see a way out. And it’s like a miracle?”
“Worse than stuck. Mired. Tormented. Almost like you’re—“
She bounced out of her seat. “See? You know it but you’re not letting yourself feel it. Don’t worry, I understand. I was there myself until just now.”
“Lost. Going the wrong way through grief. Or the right way. Anyway, I see it now. I see the way out.”
“You sure there’s nothing in your coffee? Sit down.”
“What’s the rest of your day like?”
“I have to work.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Pretty sure I can.”
“What I mean is, we’re supposed to enter into a bargain.”
“Listen, I’m flattered. And it would be fun but the timing is bad. I have a big work problem.”
“Omigod, you think I’m hitting on you?”
“It’s hard to miss a person right in front of you on the beach. Even if you’re running. I’d have been an obvious impediment.”
She let her rear hit the seat. “Is that why you came with me?
He shrugged. “That and I needed a ride.” He took a clean antiseptic wipe and began wiping out the wound on her hand.
“Ow,” she said, trying to pull away, but his grip held her fast. “You think I engineered this whole thing?”
“Don’t be a baby,” he said. “And yes, I think you did.”
“We don’t have much time,” he said, cleaning the puncture in her palm. He dried it and squeezed on a drop of antiseptic gel before applying a bandage.
She watched him, unsure of her next move. Had she engineered it all? If so, she should know the next move. If not, how did one properly respond to a gift from the gods? The bliss of revelation faded when confronted with the need for detailed action. A direct approach would make her seem crazy. For the sake of argument she imagined her honest delivery: So I’m grieving my own life, but I started with acceptance, the wrong end. What’s that? No. I’m not dying. It’s much worse than that. I’m getting married.
Kak couldn’t imagine getting farther than that. She hadn’t expected the gods to be this benevolent. Now that the answer was provided she found she didn’t know how to ask the question.
“We’re even,” he said, closing the first aid kit.
“I don’t think you understand how important this is.”
“Listen, I don’t know what kind of tragedy you’re getting over the wrong way,” he said, getting up. “And I’m sorry. But I have my own problems and the clock is running.”
“That’s my point. There’s no time. The gods lay baubles at your feet and if you hesitate they sweep them away with the next wave.” She winced at the thought of stealing Evelyn’s line.
“You always speak in riddles?”
“We’re supposed to be binary stars. I mean, temporarily. Just until we’re past each other. Then we can let go.”
A white van with the Island Taxi logo emblazoned down the side in sky blue lettering pulled up to the curb.
“I’m going to have to let go now,” he said.
“You ordered a taxi?”
“I used your phone. Hope you don’t mind.”
“You were leaving the whole time,” she said, feeling the panic rise in her chest.
“Duty calls.” He descended the steps from the deck to the lot. “I have to get this suit cleaned before tomorrow morning.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“You can make it up to me by giving me your number. We can get together.”
“I won’t be here.”
“Neither will I. We can meet somewhere.”
“What I mean to say is, I won’t be anywhere.” If she didn’t get to bargaining, anger and denial, the bottle of doxepin pressing into her thigh would ensure that.
“So this is it,” he said.
“It’s now or never.”
He took a step toward the taxi. “Huh. You’d think there’d be something between now and never. Good luck, I guess.”
There had to be something she could say.
“I was running with my eyes closed,” she blurted.
He stopped and pivoted to her, amused by the admission. It gave her hope.
“Why would you do a silly thing like that?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She’d meant to say I’ve never known, but it came out in present tense so she left it.
He hesitated, and for an instant she thought she could be saved. But he opened the passenger door of the Island Taxi van, dipped his head, got inside, and closed the door behind him.
She grabbed the keys to the Jetta. She wasn’t above following him to the airport. His hotel. Wherever.
The voice from behind her came as she rose from her seat. A familiar voice, a friendly one she knew without looking.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
George Temple circled the table, slipping into the vacated seat, his silver hair perfect in the late day sun. He beamed, displaying his completely intact set of ivory teeth, clearly pleased with his own detective work. Few people guessed him old enough to be Philip’s grandfather.
“You’re AWOL, my dear,” he said pleasantly. “Evelyn sent me out to find you.”
“George, this isn’t the best time.”
“Tell me about it. But you know my daughter and her timetables.” He paused, surveying the table and twin cups with a frown. “Who are you having coffee with?”
She couldn’t insert the name of a family member. He’d check. The Island Taxi van was just beginning to pull away. Blood rushed to her cheeks.
“You, silly,” she said, trying to steady her words. “Think I didn’t know you’d find me?”
If George disbelieved her, he didn’t let on. The remnants of first aid were still scattered on the tabletop.
“Did you hurt yourself?” George asked.
“Just a scratch.” She raised her palm, showing him her wound like an obedient child. “I took a spill on the beach.”
“Running,” he said, flashing his radiant teeth again. He picked up Rudy’s coffee.
“You know me,” she said.
“If you knew me, you’d know I stopped having cream in my coffee in France after the war. I ever tell you?”
About a thousand times, she thought, watching the Island Taxi van pull to the exit of the Sanibel Bean parking lot.
“We went out on a real bender,” George continued. “Me and a few guys from my division. So much champagne we lost track of the bottles. In the morning I couldn’t stomach the thought of food. So I just got a cup of coffee and put a little sugar in it. God, it tasted good. Been drinking it that way ever since.”
Kak nodded knowingly, pressing a palm to her chest, feeling the nothing that began there at Langone 364 days earlier. She’d allowed herself to believe the gods of Sanibel might be superior to the gods of grief. She’d been wrong.
“I remember,” she said, watching the Island Taxi van pull out onto Periwinkle Way, feeling her last chance being swept away by the next wave.
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