BY KATHI NIDD
Copyright is held by the author.
BARBRA HESITATED at the door to Gatherings coffee shop, a last momentary battle between her feet and her heart. Her heart won as she took a deep breath and entered. The blend of coffee beans, cinnamon, and vanilla scent rushed in causing both relaxation and pleasure. The shop was bustling on this early summer’s evening. Tables were packed with customers and very few of the cozy armchairs remained vacant. Scanning the shop from left to right then back again, Barbra looked for someone matching the description she had memorized from the photos and emails — “Late fifties, silver hair, grey coat, and dark rimmed glasses.”
She paused a moment to observe the prim redhead in a short skirt and business jacket locked into every word spoken by the man in jeans at the counter. She stroked her own skirt, ensuring it was not too wrinkled or showing off too much. A group of young girls in baseball jerseys and ponytails surrounded a low coffee table in clumps of intense gossip. Finding a quiet spot near the window, she sat down and took a deep breath. The barista passed by with a basket of cranberry scones, still emanating warmth from the oven. Tempted, she declined and returned her eyes to the street. Rolling her watch back and forth on her arm, she chuckled inside, “Of course he’s not here yet, I’m 20 minutes early!” Yet she continued watching out the window for a first glimpse of a Mr. Ian Garrett.
The courage to come here was found after much prodding from Kate and Margaret. Kate, her eldest daughter has been begging Barbra to “get out there and meet people” for as long as she can remember. Even in her teen years she urged her mom to date but Barbra always refused. With three children and two jobs on the go just to make ends meet, there just wasn’t time for men. Besides, why bring someone new into the mix, when she, Kate and the twins were doing just fine? Margaret, her best friend, well she should just know better than to push Barbra into a date! She’d stood at her side through both of the tragedies. First, Barbra lost Luke, her fiancé and the love of her life, just one month before their wedding. Then she rebounded into the disaster that was Joe. Barbra spent the next four years enduring crushing words and vicious hands. Her self-esteem evaporated and her education halted. Then Kate arrived and shortly thereafter the unplanned, but much loved twins. Margaret was the one who watched it all unfold and helped with Barbra’s final escape.
Yet despite seeing all of Barbra’s pain she kept pushing and convincing her that now was the time. “The kids are grown up now and you are financially sound for the first time,” Margaret said. Barbra finally signed up for an online dating website and, after going through the evaluation, she sat at her computer and muttered to herself that “being single was just fine” as she reluctantly hit the “join” button. Besides, how could she ever find another Luke?
She reached into her handbag and felt the comfort of the ruffled photo that lives in the back pocket. Taking another quick glance out the window for Ian, she flattened the photo on the table and smoothed it by the white border. Luke is 23, seated on the puffy, floral sofa in her parent’s basement wearing a loose, faded Rolling Stones T shirt and blue jeans. He is strumming an acoustic guitar and mouthing the words to a song that she can still hear in her mind. She is sitting next to him with her head on his shoulder gazing down at his talented fingers. She smiles at her youthful body and the fashion of 1978, the blouson, lace top and gypsy skirt. Closing her eyes she feels his warmth and smells the unmistakable freshness of Luke, the lingering scent of his breath that she knew so well.
Over the years, Barbra has often looked back at their story book love and questioned whether her memories had distorted with time. Had he not been taken from her would they have been as happy today as they had always planned? Or was she being a romantic and believing in a fairy tale? But those who knew them as children reassured her that their love was the most special they had seen. And when she did allow herself to speak of it, those she told were mesmerized.
They had met at a summer camp when he was nine and she was eight. Their immediate connection over a love of swimming led to an inseparable friendship. They shared everything and discovered the uncharted world of childhood together. At age 11, Luke announced to everyone that they would marry and no one, especially Barbra ever questioned it as anything but fact. For everything that she despised about herself, being too tall, too lanky, too shy disappeared when she was with him. He believed in her like no one else and every day she spent with the outgoing, confident boy she grew into her true self.
She closed her eyes and descended into her most visited memory — Luke leaning back on the hull of the catamaran, the sails pointed at the exact same angle as his lean but in the opposite direction like a perfect “V.” She is seated on the opposite hull staring at his impish smile as he jokingly pretends to try to toss her. The water is the sapphire blue of his eyes as though he and the sea are inseparable. It seemed that anything was possible as they took this last sail together just weeks before the wedding. They would marry, he would finish med school, and then Luke would set up his practice while she delved into her dream of being a journalist. And once they had enough security behind them, they would spend each summer sailing around the world.
Four hours later he was gone. The storm came in quickly and unexpectedly from the north. Luke got her safely to shore, but, after docking, he could not resist the temptation to go with the others and rescue the little boat that had flipped over. The family of four was saved, but Luke was not.
Now, decades later, after all the coaxing from Kate and Margaret, she sat awaiting the man she has been emailing and speaking to by phone for the past three months. He has been kind and friendly and put her at ease. Some conversations are light and playful about their favourite drinks or movies, while others have gotten deeper and touched on the pain of the past. Ian too is a sailor, which both intrigues and frightens her. Lingering evening phone calls discussing their children, her work at the paper, his law firm and countless other topics have led to this next step of meeting in person.
The young barista in her navy apron swerved among the patrons and set a steaming mug down in front of Barbra. Her attention broken, she did not notice the man had walked towards her, waving as he approached. He settled in to the armchair across the table.
“Earl Grey. Black.” He says and smiled assuredly at his correct assumption. “I remembered.”
Barbra smiled at him and felt her anxiety wane knowing it was right that they should meet today. The conversation flowed easily about her children and her life. He spoke of his past and the stories conjured up memories that have been buried in her for years. He asked if she was warm enough and she savoured the lost feeling of being taken care of. His confidence radiated and she was drawn in, a feeling long forgotten since the struggles of her life took their toll.
Finally, he spoke of the love of his life and their separation at a young age. Then he told her that she cannot keep living in fear and it is time for her to love again. Knowing that he was right and feeling the potential for her future, Barbra reached for his hand to thank him. He paused and then with one flash of an impish smile, vanished.
“I can do this,” she thought to herself with a deep breath. She returned the photo to her handbag and looked up just as Ian Garret entered the shop.