The kitchen was awash with mid-afternoon light.
The cup clinked as he set it down in front of me, nearly sloshed over the rim. It was a woodsy, deep black-brown in its cheerful yellow mug, on the cheerful pale blue table.
He took it out of the fridge. It was stored in a mason jar, and so thick it left tracks on the side of the glass. It streamed into my cup, and then I picked up the spoon he’d proffered earlier and stuck it in the mug and stirred, stirred, stirred.
“It’s straight cream,” he said, as he pulled out a chair—the one adjacent to mine—and plopped down. He’d left his black, I saw, and he brought it to his mouth, took a drink. “If you need me to cut it with some milk, let me know.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I said, finally lifting the spoon from the whirlpool. I watched the droplets snake off and into the cup, rippling out.
“How do you know?”
Gently, he reached forward and slipped the spoon from my grasp. "You haven’t tried it.”
I shook the sting out of my hand.
“Carpal tunnel.” All my years of jotting down notes.
“Oh.” He took my hand, pressed his fingers into it. “Does it always hurt?”
I flexed my fingers. “Not always. Mostly it's right under my knuckles.”
Pressure. “Does this help?”
“Sorry.” Instead of just dropping my hand, relinquishing it to me, he lowered it to the table and gently laid it down. “Any update on that coffee?”
I picked it up and took a tentative sip. It was still steaming. “Delicious.”
“Always better with straight cream, if you take it.”
“Sometimes. It’s my dessert if I do.”
“I like coffee, though. Keeps me going.” He punctuated this sentence with another gulp from his cup, like it didn’t bother him that it was practically boiling. “Well, I’m glad you and Delilah could join Jacquie and me. She’s been talking about it nonstop.”
“Oh yeah. Dee too.”
“It’s cute, right?”
“I think they’ll make good friends.”
“And I hope we will, too.”
“I’m—sure.” I uncrossed my legs. My chair scraped against the floor as I scooted it back, and unwound the scarf from my neck.
“So.” He said, settling into his chair. I was his study, I saw, as I slipped off the coat and positioned it on the back of the chair. “What do you do?”
“For—um, a living. For fun. For holidays.”
A grin. I could feel it on my face. “Not much.”
“Any of them. Um.” I scratched the base of my neck. “Living—I dabble in advertising. I’m—”
“Dabble. That’s a good word.” He was earnest, but he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I interrupted. It’s just—I can tell. That you are.”
“You have the look for it.” He dropped a hand through the air before me. “You dress for it.”
“Most definitely. Total businesswoman.”
“It’s true.” He folded his hands on the table, and I busied mine with my coffee.
“It’s not all the time,” I said at last. “Kind of a...contracted basis. People hire me, I come up with a strategy, draft the ads, contact the places to list or sell them—”
“A one-woman show.”
“My husband helps.”
“Right. What’s his name?”
“Tom. Tom. What’s he do?”
“He’s a florist. Was. I mean, well, he kind of is now.”
“Really. He own a shop?”
“He works for a company. A chain.”
“He manages three shops.”
“Yep.” I took another drink, but I could barely force myself to swallow. It was so thick, too rich suddenly. “That’s a fundamental difference between us, I guess.”
“You know.” I warbled on the edge of a precipice. Speaking these words to someone else besides who mattered. “I’m a boss. And he’s an employee.” I blinked, feeling blinded, suddenly. Feeling like I couldn’t see. My eyes stinging. “But it’s okay, he’s—”
Passive. That’s what I'd said to him, on the phone, three weeks earlier. He was driving one state over to check on the second store. “You should just tell them you’re not interested in being so spread out.”
“It’s not that easy, though, you know?”
“Why not?” I was doing a dish, scrubbing it vigorously. Soap whipped across the cabinet, translucent blue suds. I lifted the phone higher with my shoulder, pressed it harder to my ear. “All you have to say is, you know, I’ve got a family. A daughter. And I can’t be out-of-state half the week. Because that’s what it is. Half the week.”
He heard the edge, sharpening my tongue. “I know. I know. I’m—”
A screech of tires. I lost my grip on the dish with a clatter. Water everywhere.
Nothing. Heart racing. I was sweating. I opened my mouth to say his name again, but there went Delilah, streaking by with her shirt half-unbuttoned, blonde curls a flag behind her.
“Tom?” Barely above a whisper. “Tom, Tom, Tom?”
Sometime in those thirty seconds, his name had lost meaning. Now it was just: Are you there. Are you okay. Please be okay. Oh, God, please be okay. I love you. Us. Us. Our baby. I love.
A scramble of sound, a scuff. “—agh.”
I sagged against the sink, dropped to my elbows to the lip of the porcelain, almost dropped the phone. “Tom?”
“Some idiot just side-swiped me. I’m calling the dealership.”
“I hate Florida.”
“Tom. You love Florida.”
“I hate it here. So do you.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“But Tom. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. It was two lanes—he hit my right side. And took off. A pickup truck? I think it was a pickup truck.”
“Good. Okay. Good.” My hands were shaking. “I mean, not that you were hit. That you know who it was. And you didn’t hit your head? No concussion?”
“Of course not. I’m fine.” I heard the seatbelt alarm, dinging incessantly as it tended to do. “I’m pulling over. I need to call.”
“Okay. Will you call me back?”
“I won’t, but I need to call first.”
“Okay. You should get a bigger car, you know. And stop driving out of town so much. It’s bound to happen eventually, Tom, you know. The statistics are just that—”
A click. He’d hung up on me.
I set the phone down as Delilah came back through, but made a stop at the kitchen. “Mommy. I’m hungry.”
“Let’s make a sandwich then, okay?” I straightened. Soap stretched all the way up my forearms. I snagged a towel to wipe them off, and then leaned over to grimace at the dish. It was cracked.
“My sandwich.” She’d opened the fridge, although the handles were a reach, and was standing in its glow. “Where is it?”
I grabbed a stick from the highest shelf. “You want a butter sandwich?”
“Peanut butter, Mommy.”
“Oh, okay.” I swapped the stick for a half-empty jar. “Go find one of your special plates, and you can spread it yourself. Oh—and the special knife.”
His eyes were leveling with me.
“I don’t mean that like a bad thing,” I said quickly, scrambling to draw the soil back over this root I’d just exposed. A scary thing. “I just mean—”
“I get it. It’s okay.” He stood up and poured herself another cup. Somehow he’d finished it while I was lost in trying to explain. With his back turned to me, his shoulders raised, and then fell. They were broad. Somebody you could lean on, if you needed to.
“It was like that with Jacquie’s mom. Just two different ideals, you know?” His voice scraped the floor, but when he turned around, he was smiling. “It happens.”
“Does she see her often?”
I nodded. He rebounded with a shake of his head, as he resumed his place beside me.
“No. She’s kind of got her own thing going, really.”
“Mm.” I propped my cheek up on my hand, letting my eyes wander past Maurice, past the curling edge of his hair—almost to his chin—and through the archway into their dining room. Delilah passed, trailed closely by Jacquie—dark and dimpled, she was my daughter’s opposite in every way. They both paused a moment to wave at me, little hands taking flight in the air, and I grinned and raised my hand.
“Jacquie likes you,” he noted, as they continued on their journey.
“I like her.”
“You know—we were going to make pizzas. Saturday. Homemade. We play oldies and shred cheese and all that good stuff. You and Delilah should come.”
I shifted my eyes to him. His brown eyes were warm. I wondered what his ex-wife looked like.
“Sure,” I said at last, lifting my head, dropping my hand to the tabletop, where I knit it around the handle of my mug. I raised the cup to my lips, pursing them around it to take a drink. “If we’re not busy.” I landed the cup with scarcely a sound. “This really is delicious.”