BY MARY SCHULZ
Copyright is held by the author.
ACCORDION MUSIC edged through the open door of Le Parisien bistro as I wilted on the sweltering sidewalk. Sweat trickled down my back. Hanging baskets of dying flowers drooped in the breathless air. Whisking past me with an impatient glance, a waiter in a long white apron set down a tray of perspiring glasses of white wine.
Laughter burst through the tilted windows like gunshots.
I tightened my grip on the party bag with “Happy Birthday!” emblazoned on it. It was time to get moving, to steer around the chatting couples perched at the patio’s metal tables under the red and white striped awning. Closing my eyes, I conjured up every strategy I could remember from my Mindfulness class, concentrating on taking deep, steadying breaths.
I finally entered the crowded restaurant, adjusting to the muted light. The once intoxicating smell of garlic and onions assaulted me, making my stomach lurch. I quickly raised my hand to my mouth, swallowing hard. As if of their own volition, my eyes were drawn to our table by the window. Thank God it was empty. I wondered briefly if that was the same wedge of card board we had put under the wooden leg that always wobbled, more than six months ago. When the waiter came in and gestured with a flourish that the couple behind me should please sit there, I had an immediate urge to turn around and leave. So unlike me. But before I could do anything more than note the quickening of my heartbeat and jagged intake of breath, I caught sight of Henry who was fast approaching.
I arranged a smile on my face and anticipated his hug. I thought, not for the first time, how little he had changed over the 30 years we had all been friends.
“Kate! I’m so glad you’re here!”
I continued smiling as he crushed me into his shoulder.
“Happy 60th, Henry. Here’s a little something for you.”
I pulled back and handed him the bag of carefully wrapped goodies I had baked for him the day before. “A few treats,” I offered quietly, not meeting his eyes. “I figured everyone would bring you a bottle, so . . .”
“How sweet,” he grinned, taking my hand and leading me towards the back party room. “Thank you! Now. Come. Clara’s just over here. And then there are some friends I’d like you to meet.”
Weaving behind him, I tried to ignore the clatter of cutlery and shrieks of laughter. Through the overhead speakers, Edith Piaf sang to us about how she didn’t regret anything. Ha. Lucky her. As we skirted clusters of guests in a kaleidoscope of reds, greens and yellows, some in flirty polka dot dresses and crisp madras shirts, I made a conscious effort to ensure my smile did not slip.
Clara was talking with an attractive young woman whose long, auburn hair swayed languidly. She exuded a kind of glow, lit from somewhere deep inside, somewhere safe. She was laughing with a casual fluttering of her hands, as though conjuring a magic trick. I was startled by how happy she looked.
Clara and I hugged warmly and she introduced me to this young woman as their daughter’s friend, Sybille. After a few moments, I was left to talk with her while Clara and Henry went to greet another arrival. I moved closer to Sybille and caught a whiff of her perfume. I had a sudden flash of my bottle of Givenchy, abandoned at the back of our bathroom cupboard.
“So, what part of town do you live in, Sybille?” I asked brightly, accepting a flute of sparkling wine.
“West end. And you?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple at our table. They were now deep in conversation, no space between them, their menus abandoned on the red and white checked cloth.
I focused back on her. “Sorry. Where did you say you lived?”
“West end. Parkview,” she repeated. “How about you?”
“East end. But my husband taught for a long time in Parkview.”
“Really? What school?”
“Parkview Collegiate.” I took a sip of my drink as I watched her face.
“You’re kidding? I was a student there! Who’s your husband?”
“Mr. Thompson is your husband? Wow!” Sybille leaned in. “He taught me Grade 12 French!”
Her smile was easy and friendly. I studied it. I almost wanted to reach over and trace her smile with my fingers, to figure out how she did it. Instead, I practiced smiling back at her. Monkey see, monkey do.
“Yes. Ted taught there ‘til he retired. Five years ago.”
There was a pause, both of us smiling. Mine already felt dried and cracked.
“You remind me of someone,” I offered at last. “I wonder if we’ve met before.”
She tilted her head a little, as though seriously considering all the possible ways we might have met.
We proceeded to go through some points of contact where our lives theoretically might have coincided. Sybille’s opening bid was to ask me — doubtfully, if I attended her kickboxing class. When I suppose my blank stare told her the answer, she proceeded to name what I assumed were popular bars in the west end. The Cat’s Meow. Lunatics. Bobo’s. Trying to participate in this exercise that I had rashly instigated, I mused aloud if perhaps we had met at a school function or if she went to my dog park. Finally, almost simultaneously, we both shrugged, laughed a little and took sips from our drinks.
“Oh, well,” Sybille said, casually scanning the room behind me.
Ah ha. I’m starting to bore her, I thought. Time to move on.
But Sybille turned back to me, perhaps not finding a more attractive option.
“How is Mr. Thompson?”
I held my breath and stared at her. Suddenly, a man in a too-tight purple shirt bumped in to me as he jostled by with a glistening beer stein in each hand.
“Whoops! Sorry!” he bellowed, as I crooked myself out of his way.
I looked up at Sybille and said in a brittle, leaf-dry voice, “He died.”
Sybille gasped and reached out to touch my arm. Some idiot blew a party horn, making my hand jolt. I watched impassively as three droplets of wine seeped into the front of my sweater.
“I’m so sorry! I had no idea.”
I lifted my face to hers and gave her the reply I had practiced for just these moments, “Thank you. It’s OK.”
And then, as if it were the most important thing I would ever do, I studiously placed my glass on the bar beside me and rubbed my hands down the front of my skirt. My shoulders tightened. Seeing that Sybille was watching me with a frown, I reset my smile, looking around frantically for anywhere else to be. I was holding my breath and let it out in a rush.
Don’t ask me what words went back and forth between us before I released her to the chatter of two young women whose skirts swirled when they moved.
Somehow, I found Clara and Henry at the back of the crowded room, thanked them and made an excuse about needing to get home, acutely aware of their concerned gaze following me as I stumbled out the door.
The broken bars of an out of tune “Happy Birthday” pursued me down the street as my sandals slapped on the pavement.
Entering the subway, my legs suddenly felt as though their bones had melted. I needed to look down as I placed each foot carefully for fear of a misstep. My thoughts tumbled like blind kittens. Where did I know Sybille? Glowing. Sunny. Shiny and new. Unafraid.
As the train screamed through a tunnel, I studied an insurance ad of a laughing white-haired couple piggy backing on a beach.
I closed my eyes as the realization suddenly snapped into focus.
For a few brief, cruel seconds, I had caught a fleeting glimpse of her again. How I missed her — the person I used to be.