She is overwhelmed (which she expected) when they put his small, heavy head on her chest. His breathing is loud, but she focuses on the feeling in her belly, the empty space where he used to reside, all six pounds and twenty inches of him. He sighs, and his arm moves, or maybe she imagines it.
Someone takes a photograph, posts it to social media.
Her first child would be 18 now. Her second closer to 12. The third she bled out at 2 months. She ignores the usual guilt that comes when thinking on them, focuses on the fourth. Here he is, breathing, living and she could not love him more.
Yes, this will trap her, make her stay somewhere longer than a year or two, but she wants that consistency, craves the responsibility. Her mother is near, which matters more than she thought. Her sister stands in the corner, smiling, and at last, they finally understand each other. The tears come easily and neither are ashamed.
Out in the night the photo makes the rounds, each friend, each family member sharing in her joy. Almost a perfect moment.
As she sat next to him on the airplane, the old man spoke.
“When I concentrate I can still hear the clicking on of the basement walk-in cooler. A singular sound, familiar and startling at the same time. I was young, ready for adventure. It was a summer job, nothing more. A chance to work away from the relative safety of my home in a city I’d never been to in a restaurant at which I’d not eaten. I never thought to encounter such strangeness, but there I was, confronted by something I believed could not exist.
There are no ghosts. I repeated the phrase in my head four times. Even said it aloud once more for effect. Everyone had gone home but me. I was tired, the last five hours spent washing pan after greasy pan. My ears had played tricks on me before, and maybe the radio had been on all evening, was always playing that sad song and I had finally noticed. It was conceivable that the candle had also been left lit by a careless waitress, accidentally overlooked in my earlier dining room cleaning routine. Regardless,when I finally heard the music, I walked towards its source. The radio was on, the candle on table sixteen was lit and I felt the presence of someone unseen. ‘Is anyone here?’ I asked into the dinning hall. Silence was the only response.
I felt my heart stop. A crash filled the air as somewhere just outside the large panel window, gravity or a small animal capsized a garbage container, sending refuse spilling loudly into the street. Terror griped me and I sprinted for the back entrance.”
She closed her eyes.
“In times past, back before there were so many electronic devices, you grandfather and I would sit at night around candles or oil lamps to talk about everything and nothing. He wasn’t my husband yet, and certainly the furthest thing from his mind was ever being called grandfather, but he had a warm heart and soft eyes. I can remember the way they looked when he leaned across the flame to give me a first kiss. We had been dating for almost a year by then. Not everyone took their relationships as slowly as us, but we wanted to be sure of ourselves, savor each moment together. Holding hands was bliss, and I was a content woman, but that first kiss changed me. The sky was suddenly a darker blue. When I looked at the mountains, I felt I understood them. Even the smell of baking cookies had a different aroma, sweet and penetrating. Nothing that potent can hold its flavor, and I have tried for decades to recapture that sensation. Maybe it was all in my head. I’ve made up many interesting things during my life. Maybe I just want to my past to be infinitely important. Something to validate my missing it so very much.”
Attractive blonde female, 35, seeks attention from attractive male, 30-45. Looking for companionship, late night conversations, walks in the city, someone to rub my shoulders after a long night of love making. Please call 555-0909, ask for Juliet. He read the rest of the paper with less interest, pondering what attractive meant to her, whether she was tall, or if her eyes were blue or gray. He wrote the number down in red ink on a paper napkin. He made all sorts of promises to call.
In her dark room, developing pictures from the Bermuda trip, she sat facing a tray of prints, waiting in the red light for them to slowly emerge. It had been three days since she had placed the ad in the personals. It ran in the Missed Moments column of the local paper, where young adults often wrote in, hoping to reconnect with someone they had met at the club Friday night, whose name they’d forgotten to ask, but days later could not get out of their heads. Some had forgotten phone numbers, or had been too afraid to say an initial hello, and in a final desperate plea reached out, hoping that their lost connection would be searching for them, read, know, and act.
She was not sure if it was love she was after, or what she would do if someone did respond. She was not an intrepid soul, and she wondered if she would dare to go out at all. Even a meeting at a crowded cafe’ or coffee shop held danger. Still, It was lonely for her in this new city. Moving from the east coast had accomplished the goal and separated her from her former life. She was not longer constantly bothered by overzealous family or friends, yet she found herself despising the silence, annoyed at the hum of the furnace in the hallway closet. Even looking at the pictures of her trip did not bring relief. She had gone alone, flown from San Diego to New Orleans, then to Bermuda. The man on the plane told her about his experience in the restaurant, she dreamed of her grandmother, she walked the beaches alone and carried her shoes on her shoulders like in the movies. Looking at the photos she realized that she was not in a single one.
He never responded to the ad. Something always was more pressing, required more of his attention. The distractions always won out. After a month the paper stopped running the personal.
She waited while the water lapped up against broken stone and sand, until the night turned red with the morning sun. The new year had come. Nothing blew up, or broke apart. God did not come, though she almost wished he had. “If he’d decided to show his face for the first time in a millennium, it should have been last night. It would have served them all right,” she thought.
Then, while she counted the passing seconds of the first day of a new year, she thought again of how nice it had been to be downtown, watching all the people walking about, hugging, holding hands, laughing and loving. The man with the Irish accent, fake though it was, had kissed her hand as he passed, wished her a happy new year, a fruitful life. She smiled and asked his name, but he was moving on, sharing spirits with other revelers. Things could certainly be worse. She felt lucky for the first time in months. In this new state of mind, she might eventually forgive them all for not seeing her, making her seem invisible, especially to herself. She stood to go home.
The concert ended and the bright lights came on, temporarily blinding him. He waited for his vision to clear, listening to the strangely muted sounds of walking and talking all around him.
So much for enjoying those sound frequencies ever again.
“I’ll find you after they switch on the house lights,” she had told him. “Be patient. Stay. No matter how long it takes.”
She was so dramatic. Insisting not only that they meet here, among all these sweaty and aggressive people, but that he witness the entire show.
“I’ll be watching. You won’t see me, but I’ll be there. If you’re late, if you leave, I’ll know, and then we’ll have no deal.”
No deal? She talked like there was something clandestine, subversive and illegal about what they were doing.
“You called me, remember?”
“I remember, but you need to focus. This is information you want to have. Life altering stuff. Without it, good luck.”
“Fine, I’ll be there.”
“Try and listen to the music, hear the words. There are important things you can learn in what will be sung.”
He had tried, but the sound had been muddied. All he had heard was heavy bass, and the occasional screamed lyric. Whatever he was supposed to hear had been lost in poor acoustics and distortion.
I learned that whoever was assigned to sound engineering tonight should be fired.
He closed his eyes, which made the whine in his ears more noticeable. He experimented by putting a hand over his right ear, then left, and repeating the process five times. In the end, he determined the left ear more damaged.
“Did you enjoy the show?”
It wasn’t her. Instead, a woman with several facial piercings, wearing a dark gray canvass jacket, black jeans, stood in front of him. She looked at him with heavily made up blue eyes, and though he knew talking to this woman would delay more important conversations, he answered.
“No, not really”
“Same here. What bothered you most?”
She laughed, showing a set of teeth that had obviously cost a few thousand dollars. Straight, white, even. He imagined her at 15, braces she hated and hid at any cost.
“What were you waiting for?”
“The usual things. The guy in front of me to stop stepping on my feet. A moment of enlightenment, maybe for my telephone to ring. A song I could understand. That special someone to arrive.”
“Interesting. I’ve found that action is preferable to waiting. Passivity never seemed to sit well with me.”
He changed his mind. She would never have hidden her braces, choosing instead to dare anyone to say anything about them.
“Sometimes, acting requires waiting. Moving for the sake of motion can be counter productive.”
Someone knocked into him. He turned around, but whoever it was had already moved on. The crowd was thinning out, but there were enough people remaining to occasionally bump into him.
“Did the waiting pay off?”
“That remains to be seen. It did bring me to this moment, and I’m starting to like this moment.”
She laughed again.
“I’m hungry. Are you hungry? Rumor has it there is a really good cafe’ just around the corner. We could get some sandwiches, maybe a bowl of soup, talk more about how waiting is actually an active thing.”
“That sounds really great, but sadly, my active waiting isn’t over yet. I have to stay here until it is.”
“Hmm, that is too bad. Anything I can say to change your mind?”
“Several things, but I’m going to do the smart thing and not tell you what they are. Why don’t you share with me the name of this cafe’ and when my waiting is done, which will hopefully be very soon, I can meet up with you.”
She stuffed her hands into the front pockets of her jeans.
“It’s called Whisper Creek Cafe’. They make really good egg salad.”
She winked, then before he could say another word, turned and left, dodging in and out of people as if she was suddenly in a hurry to be elsewhere.
Strange, he thought.
Still he waited. Soon, there were only two other people left. Both were some sort of venue security, and they stared at him like he was a criminal. It would only be a matter of minutes before they would come over and tell him to move along. He scanned the room again, but there was no sign of her or anyone else. Frustrated, he reached into his back pocket for his phone. Instead, he found a folded piece of paper.
Three sentences were scrawled in blue pen across the page.
Patience has it’s reward. I think you and I can work something out, though I have taken your car just for fun. I’ll be in touch, soon.
Quickly, he reached into his front pocket. His keys were missing. How anyone had removed them was beyond him. He rushed out of the venue.
In the parking lot, cars crisscrossed dangerously in and out of exit lines, while the young occupants shouted heart felt obscenities at each other like they were terms of endearment. The spot where he had parked his car was vacant. He couldn’t help but smile.
He was done waiting. Now, he wanted some of that egg salad and maybe a drink.