Category: Literary Fiction

WEDNESDAY: Familiar Faces

BY DEBORAH GRACE

Copyright is held by the author.

BETH CLOSES her eyes when she hears her father’s voice. Here we go, she thinks. Yesterday he’d just been Ron, the guy from the coffee shop. He joins her in line for coffee like they’ve been doing for the past six months. An exposed brick wall behind them, acoustic music plays from speakers above them and the taste of bile fills her mouth. Beth’s father walked out on her and her mom when she was four. Beth has imagined more than once how she’d react the first time she met her father. She rehearsed what she’d say if she ever had the chance. Yesterday, she hadn’t known that it had already happened. She vibrates with questions like a lap dog trying not to bark. Be cool, she tells herself before opening her eyes to face him.

Ron has leaned in towards her and raised his eyebrows in mock drama. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he says with a smirk. Beth attempts at a smile but isn’t sure her face has cooperated. “You okay,” he asks, his eyebrows now pinched with concern.

Beth tries again for a smile and carefully arranges her words in her mind. She reminds herself that she likes Ron and she settles on, “always with the bad jokes.” He shrugs without remorse and they shuffle forward with the line. The smells of freshly brewed coffee, pumpkin spice and buttery croissants saturate the air.

Beth had imagined her father would be a man who spoke too loudly in public spaces and demanded too much from hired help. But if you weren’t looking for Ron you might not notice him at all. His voice is soft and low. His face is leathery and creased. He isn’t a handsome man by any definition. Beth would have missed him completely if he hadn’t spilt that coffee on her six months ago.

Ron notices her watching him and asks “what are you reading these days?” He nods towards the book clutched in her hands. The door to the coffee shop jingles as more morning regulars join them in line. “Well?” he asks prompting her to respond.

“It’s for book club.” The words tumble from her mouth. He nods encouragingly like you would a child and gestures for her to give him the book.

“How many other books did you read before you got around to this one?” He squints at the back cover. She holds up three fingers and wrinkles her nose. It’s a bad habit, she’s always putting off the book and then scrambling to finish it on time.

“Do you read?” she asks. Beth worries he’ll find her uninteresting – all she does is talk about books – this hadn’t mattered before. She wills him to be a reader too.

“I can read . . .” He smiles still squinting at the book now in his hands.

“Where are your glasses?” she asks, trying to decipher his tone. Her fingers momentarily touch his while turning the book right side up in his hands. The warmth of his skin against hers lingers and she wipes her hand against her pants to erase it. Not noticing he pats his chest pocket in search of his glasses but turns up empty.

“You do this every month,” he says holding the book at varying distances from his face.

How would you know? She wants to ask but she opts for, “And you never have your glasses,” instead. Like a deer spotted in the forest Beth does not want to frighten him away.

As he reads the book jacket through narrowed eyes Beth wonders if he knows who she is. If he has known all along. It’s not like he went out of his way to meet her. It was an accident – this kept her up last night and in this moment keeps all her questions on her lips.

***

Beth first met Ron at this coffee shop. She started coming here about a year ago after returning home from university where she studied fine art. Ron says that he started coming right after the shop had its grand opening — a year and a half ago but Beth doesn’t remember ever seeing him until that one winter morning six months ago and she has a memory for detail. She can remember the names of every student in her grade two class photo. She can also tell you whether or not she was invited to their birthday party that year. But Ron? She had no memory of him until that winter morning, she was running late because she hadn’t been able to find her boots. Snow had freshly fallen and she arrived at the coffee shop at 7:50 AM instead of her usual 7:40 AM. After picking up her latte she was rushing to make the bus when Ron bumped into her spilling the majority of her drink. She can still smell the odour of coffee and damp wool. Presumably in an apologetic gesture, Ron offered Beth his drink as a replacement. Beth had turned down the possibly pre-sampled beverage from a stranger but he had insisted.

“I’m not in a rush. I can wait for them to make another,” he’d said thrusting the drink at her. “Medium soy latte, no sugar — you just need to sprinkle on your own cinnamon.”

“How do you know my drink order?” she had asked, the small hairs on the back of her neck alert.

Ron held up two hands sensing the mistrust. “I’ve been standing behind you in line for like . . . three months,” he said, never breaking eye contact. “You get the same thing every day.”

“Right,” she said not wanting to belabour the moment any longer. Her eyes narrowed as she accepted the drink. She pitched it the first chance she got and suffered through break room coffee at work.

The next day had Ron arrived barely a minute after her and she bought his drink. She didn’t want some sense of a looming debt to flavour any future interactions. Now they were even. Working at a gallery Beth was use to making small talk, and since they often found themselves standing next to each other in line, over the next few weeks she found herself lobbing easy questions at him. For the most part their conversations came easily and were mostly enjoyable. They fell into a morning routine of exchanging pleasantries and bad jokes made mostly by Ron. But yesterday that changed when Beth went to pay for her drink Ron had again insisted he pay.

“Just make that two.” Ron said while he reached over her shoulder with a 20. “You can’t buy your own drink on your birthday.”

She paused. “How do you know it was my birthday?”

“Oh . . .” Now it was his turn to pause. “You must have mentioned it at some point.” He was dismissive of the question like it was no big deal but Beth doubted she’d ever mentioned it. Her birthday wasn’t something she ever drew attention to — she hated her birthday — but Ron had clearly moved past it and was inspecting a tray of broken cookie samples.
Taking one in each hand he turned and said, “A treat, for my sweet?” She hadn’t been able to speak. She felt dizzy and something familiar was forming her mind.

“You okay?” he asked popping both cookies in his mouth when she didn’t respond.

“Yeah,” she said. The memory, though never fully formed, was gone.

***

After leaving the coffee shop yesterday this hint of a memory continued to gnaw at her but if she tried to remember it — like a star when you look directly at — it vanished. At work she had been distracted and found herself ruminating over the few details she knew about Ron. She knew he liked to butter his croissants. He hated the texture of tofu and people who fold book pages to mark their spot. He liked romantic comedies and had always wanted to be a stand-up comic. She knew pleasantries. She knew small talk tidbits.

What was his last name?

Where did he work?

Was he married?

Did he have kids?

None of these details had ever mattered to her before.

Without answers she found herself getting off the bus three stops early yesterday after work and walking up the familiar tree lined street toward the two and half story home she’d grown up in. Her mother, now retired, was sitting on the front steps inspecting a plant clipping with one hand and consulting her phone with the other.

“There she is!” she said standing up arms extended. “The birthday girl.”

“Hi mom,” she said stepping into her mother’s hug grateful for her familiar scent and soft arms.
“Tough day, sweetie?” her mother asked before kissing the side of her face.

“Do you have a picture of dad?” Beth whispered into her mother’s shoulder.

As expected the question took her mother by surprise. “Oh.” Beth hadn’t asked about her father in years, maybe since she was in high school. Her mother exhaled letting her lips vibrate with her breath. “I’m sure I do, somewhere, sweet heart. Did you want me to look?” Beth nodded. “Don’t hold your breath. I’m not sure how much of his stuff survived after the fire.” Beth’s mother smiled at the memory.

When Beth was 14 years old her mother had lit a bonfire in their back yard and fuelled by wine had dumped most of the evidence of her father’s life into it. She called it a necessary cleansing. Beth called her drunk. Neither one of them had seen or heard from him in more than ten years.

The last time Beth saw her father was through the fence of her elementary school. He’d shown up unexpectedly on her fourth birthday. He should have been at work which delighted Beth especially because she’d been disappointed when he hadn’t been home for breakfast that morning.

“A treat, for my sweet,” he’d said passing a small brown bag though the chain link fence into her eager hands. He blew her a kiss as her teacher called her away from the fence. She hadn’t known then that in his own way he had come to say goodbye.

In the house, Beth had lay on the couch listening as her mother rummaged through drawers and boxes on the floor above. Did she want Ron to be her father? Would she feel foolish for having entertained the idea based off of one silly saying? But what if he was?

“This is the only one I could find,” her mother said lifting Beth’s legs and settling on the couch under them. “I can keep looking if you’d like.”

“No, that’s okay.” Beth didn’t reach out for the Polaroid so her mother tossed it gently onto her belly. It lay there face up for a few breaths.

“You okay, love?”

Beth nodded. She slowly inched her hand towards the Polaroid. She turned it over and let her eyes focus on the three faces looking back at her. There in the middle was a younger and bearded Ron — you couldn’t mistake those eyes and even then the leathery skin. Her mother had closed her eyes and was taking a small cat nap, not realizing the magnitude of what was unfolding beside her. The tick of the Grandfather clock marked the passing time as Beth let the truth sink in.

“Did he have any brothers?” Beth asked just to be sure. Her mother startled awake, wiped at her face.

“No, just a crusty sister out west.” Her mother stretched her neck from side to side.

“His name was Aaron?” Beth kept looking at those familiar eyes looking back at her. “And he just up and left?”

“Yeah, you know all this sweetheart.” Her mother yawned.

Beth nodded again. She has been getting coffee, almost daily, with her father for the past six months.

Her eyes scanned the walls of her childhood home and saw frames filled of photos of her and her mom. She’d had a good childhood but it was always just the two of them. Was there room in her life for a father? Beth quickly decided her mother wouldn’t think there was space. She couldn’t imagine sharing holidays that were once reserved solely for her mom.

“Do you think he’ll ever come back?” Beth’s eyes had returned to the photo.

“Now?” her mother asked. Beth nodded. “No, if he was going to come back he would have done it a long time ago. There’s nothing to come back to now.”
But he had come back. Or maybe he’d never left at all.
“What would you say to him if you saw him again?” Beth couldn’t look at her mother out of fear that her face would betray her.

“Nothing.” Her mother was inspecting her cuticles.

“Wouldn’t you want to know why he left?” Beth pressed on.

“I used to but it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Her mother always told her that they’d just fallen out of love as if that perfectly explained it all. Did she know something more?

Beth used to think her father left because she didn’t say thank you for the birthday treat.

“I’m going to start dinner,” her mother said. Her hands resting on Beth’s shins.

“Do you ever miss him?”

She laughs. “No.” Full stop.

A car door closes outside on the street.

Beth never wanted her mother to feel like she wasn’t enough as a single parent.

“Do you think he’d recognize me if he saw me now?” Beth asked.

It was possible he hadn’t recognized her at first, she’d grown up. But he knew her name and she’d told him stories about her life — details that he would have recognized from their life together as brief as it was. She told him about how devastated she’d been when the family dog died — her parents had bought that dog before she was born. He had to know — didn’t he?

“What’s with all the questions?” Her mother was standing now.

Beth shrugged. “Can I keep it?” she asked nodding towards the photo in her hands. “Feeling sentimental I guess.”

“Sure. I’ve got no use for it.”

There were too many questions and her mind was spinning Beth could think of nothing else that evening. She had walked circles around the same thoughts, the same questions all night. She thought she’d feel mad but she wasn’t sure what she felt. Maybe it was easier to be her father with no expectations, no responsibility. Maybe he was biding his time before making a grand gesture. Maybe it was too hard to ask for forgiveness.

***

“Beth, you okay?” Ron, her father, is holding two drinks in front of her.

She nods. “Sorry, was thinking about something,” she says taking a drink from his hand.

“Cheers,” he says gently lifting his drink towards her.

“Cheers,” she says with a smile.

Walking to the doors she knows she won’t confront him. She won’t ask him where he’s been or why he left. Not today. She wants to stay in this in-between just a little longer, in this space where they exist as friends. In a space where there are no fresh wounds, no expectations and no answers to be given. She knows they can’t stay here forever but she just wants a little more time. The door’s familiar jingle marks their departure but Beth hesitates before turning right.

He notices. “You forget something?” he asks while glancing at his watch. She wonders where he goes from here. Another question for her list.

“No, just . . . this has been nice,” she says. His brow furrows. “This . . . getting to know you.”

He smiles.

Does he know?

“Yeah,” he says, “it has.” A truck thunders by. “Same time tomorrow?”

She nods, with a smile, before she walks away.