BY PHYLLIS HUMBY
Phyllis Humby lives in rural Ontario. Copyright rests with the author.
A CHANCE MEETING later that morning would leave her feeling nauseous and flushed with shame, but for now her mood remained buoyant.
Carolyn inhaled the ripe musky smell of a cantaloupe before adding it to her cart. Widowed and newly retired, she gleaned satisfaction from simple pleasures. She clutched the sweet-smelling bouquet of white, orange, and fuchsia flowers, anxious to add this touch of spring to her apartment.
With her grey hair tucked inside a hand knit beret and a paisley scarf wound around the fleshy skin of her neck, she ambled through the open market savouring the sight, sounds, and smell of the long awaited change of season. Robins lighted on the crusts of snow that stubbornly hugged the curbs, while their feathered friends fluttered to branches ripe with buds.
The aroma of brewing coffee coaxed her to the food counter where shoppers gorged on cinnamon buns with sticky icing. Unmindful that her heart would soon race with immoral memories, she leisurely interrupted her shopping to sip a cup of the Columbian blend.
Having lived in a large city most of her life, Carolyn embraced the quaintness of this community suburb. All winter, through the mullioned windows of her apartment, she eyed the seasonal market and the deserted Italian sidewalk café. Today, neighbouring houses refurbished as giftware establishments, sprouted welcome signs and colourful flags.
Two men wheeled carts of tables and chairs within the iron railing surrounding the café. The balding man in the white apron gestured and shouted orders. The other worker avoided eye contact with the feisty Italian.
The chattering of birds and faint nectar of crocus compelled Carolyn to take the scenic route through the park. Deferring to her arthritic knee joints, she moved slowly and deliberately, as she wheeled her portable cart off the curb. A teen, prematurely dressed in long shorts and an oversized t-shirt, rolled past on his skateboard.
Carolyn continued at a slow saunter. Squirrels sat up on their hind legs sniffing like rabbits before springing for cover under low hanging branches. She eyed their activities as they climbed the rough bark and leaped from tree to tree, following the leader in a celebratory race through the park.
On impulse, she positioned her cart near a bench and settled in the spotlight of the spring sun. For most of her life, her occupation had consisted of rushing to meet deadlines and scrambling to organize the lives of others. She had seldom taken a moment to enjoy nature, and the only acknowledgement to the change of seasons in the past was a different wardrobe. Now, particularly attuned to the time of year, she relished her surroundings, her new mantra being: time and awareness?the ultimate luxury of retirement.
She was rummaging through a shopping bag for a snack when she heard voices. A man and woman approached the park bench opposite hers.
Carolyn offered a comment about the weather and the tall man turned to face her. Her breath caught in her throat. Her cheeks flamed as she recognized someone from her past.
He settled on the bench and smiled in her direction. Carolyn ignored the younger woman and brazenly addressed the familiar man.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Jack?”
“Do I know you? I’m forgetful. Did we work together?”
Even though Carolyn had aged considerably, she assumed he would recognize her.
“Yes, we did.”
He smiled, nodding his head.
The woman interrupted Carolyn’s thoughts. “I’m Janice Wells, Mr. Palmer’s health care companion.”
She immediately understood.
“At one time, Jack, I was your secretary.” Carolyn stammered.
“Oh, yes. Well, I don’t remember.”
Ms. Wells timidly asked, “Ma’am, are you going to be here for a few minutes? I’d like to go to the market. He would be all right here if he were not alone. I won’t be long.”
Carolyn felt uncomfortable staying, but more uncomfortable telling the caregiver she would not stay. She assumed that Ms. Wells was excusing herself to allow them a private conversation.
Jack’s roguish smile slid into place the moment Janice Wells crossed the street.
“We should play a trick on her. Will you hide with me?”
Oh, Jack, if only you knew.
Their love affair, one of passion and urgency, had been over for forty years. Carolyn had never stopped fantasizing about Jack Palmer. He was handsome as ever, though his hair had turned silver and his tall frame bent slightly forward. The mesmerizing blue of his eyes still quickened her pulse.
Pulling away from his gaze, she fumbled with the buttons on her sweater. Her cheeks burned recalling the lunch hours that they spent at The Hilton; recalling what they did during those lunch hours.
“You seem like a nice lady. Do I know you?”
Carolyn, her hands clenched together in her lap, looked over to her former lover. “Yes, Jack. We knew each other very well.”
Every nerve ending in her body tingled. She closed her eyes remembering his touch and the heat of his breath on her neck. Carolyn fidgeted. She strained for a look across the street, wishing for the return of his attendant.
Jack, watching her, suddenly smiled.
Hopeful, and yet having qualms, the elderly woman asked, “Do you remember, now?”
Frowning, Jack responded, “Remember what?”
Carolyn wet her lips and swallowed past the ache in her throat. She rubbed at the spotted, veined skin on the back of her hand. She chastised the foolish notion that she bore any resemblance to the curvaceous secretary that Jack could never resist fondling. Of course, he would not know her. Women grew old, while men grew distinguished. How cruel.
Uncomfortable in Jack’s presence, she felt relief at the sight of his companion returning from the market.
“Do you live near here, Jack?”
“I think I do. We come here for our walk.”
The young woman rushed to the bench. “Thanks for staying with Mr. Palmer.”
Nodding to the attendant, Carolyn addressed Jack, “You were married to Samantha when I knew you.”
He continued smiling. Carolyn then looked to Ms. Wells.
“Mr. Palmer is not married now but his wife’s name was Karen.
“Uh huh,” Carolyn mused.
His cheating would not have ended when she left the company. His charisma, movie-star good looks, and powerful persona, had every woman in the office panting.
How would Janice Wells react if she knew of the unbridled ardour that had once existed between the genial Mr. Palmer and the cataract riddled woman seated across from her? Could she possibly imagine their clammy bodies entangled in rented sheets?
Carolyn’s husband had never found out, or at least she did not think he suspected. The guilt of what she had done almost destroyed her.
The memories surged back. At the time, she was convinced of her love for Jack Palmer and agonized over their future. He promised to leave Samantha and marry her. Eventually, Jack broke off the affair. He contended that Carolyn was becoming demanding and clingy.
Memories of their lustful fervour continued to bombard her. The humiliation and shame of her affair had not dimmed in her mind, nor had his crass dismissal. She left the company and never saw Jack again, not outside the dreams that haunted her now and then.
Before leaving, Carolyn honoured Ms. Wells with a warm smile. Tugging a flower loose from the bouquet, she handed it to the intuitive caregiver.
Jack bid Carolyn good-bye with a flirtatious wink, adding, “Maybe we will see each other again.”