(First 5 Pages)
“Tell me the life you’d envision for yourself.”
He sat across from her at the “Titus Café,” a little snack bar in what passed for a student center at Brandsma. A small table tucked away from the others, near the door opening onto the fire escape/delivery stair. A stop always kept in the jamb for the counter help on cigarette break. A small, constant draft. Their seat.
She always looked straight at him when she was uncertain. He’d noticed that over the years. And everywhere else when she was sure of herself, sure of what she wanted. Just the opposite of most people. It had taken him longer than he’d expected to understand this, longer than perception like his should have needed. Too long. By the time he’d realized her as the constant contrary, it was too late. He’d already told her he was in love with her.
Thursday was their regular lunch. He only taught one class on Thursdays, and it was a slow day in Admissions. People liked to come for the tour on Fridays, especially if they had a drive. Or a flight. Make a weekend of it. See New England.
Her eyes fluttered and her focus blew across the room and back again like yellow leaves trying to cross the fall road outside. Sweep and back and sweep again, against the backdraft of an old car or a pickup. A dance, more than a serious attempt to get anywhere.
So then, she was sure what she wanted and just as sure she’d never arrive there. The only time (he’d noted back when she was still writing journal assignments for him) when she’d allow herself to be certain of anything.
“Time,” she said. “I want time. Time for these master’s courses I keep dropping. More time with Shirah.”
Her eyes really were yellow, or rather a light gold. As they danced across the table tops, the counter, the shoulders of students and faculty in line (everywhere but his face), he thought of an ornament fallen from a tree. And being played with by a kitten. Beautiful. God.
Her daughter was two. He’d suggested her name, an Israeli one meaning “song.” Her mother watched her during the day, her husband during evening classes.
“And there’s always family,” she said. She lived in her mother-in-law’s house, who stayed in Florida most of the time. But because it was the family homestead, everyone felt quite free to come by, stay over, move in if need be (carpenters, divorce, fumigator, you name it). At school, everyone knew she really ran the Admissions Office, that she did far too good a job, made the administrator she assisted look far too good. But without an MA . . . Her (second) husband did what he could muster, building inspector work, mostly. Paid by the job. His late dad (real estate) had been council chair in town and a castrator at home. She provided all the benefits.
“And spiritual time,” she sighed and looked at him. “Me time. I haven’t meditated since the baby, I don’t think. Remember the retreat?” He taught Humanities — some Philosophy, some Interfaith Studies, some Literature. He’d taken his senior seminar on a Zen-Christian retreat at a Catholic monastery, co-led by a Trappist who’d known Merton. “I think that was the last time I felt peace.”
“So,” he said, trying not to settle too deeply into those eyes, not to run headlong into the leaves and send them flying. Again. “This is what I hear; tell me if I’m accurate.” He settled himself into the table, leaned just enough toward her, held his hands in thoughtful, gasho pose just at the tip of his nose. Balance.
“You wish you didn’t need to work so much. Perhaps not at all? You wish you had more time for your studies, but without working here, there’d be no free master’s. You miss your daughter. You love your extended family, but wish you had a bit more distance. And a place that was yours, not all of theirs. And you wish your life could find the spiritual center it once had?”
She nodded. Now it was late October in her eyes, wet leaves and trickles of rain.
He nodded once. And again. Should he say it to her? Could he say, “Do you know, you’re describing the life we would have had,” and still keep her at all?