He was careful that morning to obscure the newspaper clipping with a tactfully spilt drop of coffee. Besides, no one ever read the advertisements. He left the office at a quarter past noon into the light to buy her roses. His shoes, well worn but clean, purposefully skipped every crack in the pavement as if they understood the importance of the occasion, though he had never been superstitious. Tarrying beneath the plastic awning, he paused and considered an expensive bouquet from the rickety corner shop, when suddenly as he fidgeted his sweaty limbs, pink seemed too informal and a dozen seemed too ostentatious for an hour. He settled on one thin red rose, a bud gentle enough to yield to his prying fingers, yet still a stranger to the depth of human touch. Perhaps he deemed it symbolic, as he asked the greasy boy at the shop to tie a white satin ribbon around its thorny stem. He longed to see her unravel its lacy trimmings end by end. She could put the rose in a green vase that he would buy her from Chinatown, and watch day by day its petals unfold against her window in his company. Keep the change. He nodded to himself as he walked with an even greater awareness of his senses toward St. Gustav’s.
He wrung his hands and smoked a little with his head down so low that the wide brim of his felt hat hung parallel with his feet, partially obscuring his shaven face. Maybe if she saw him first, she would despise him and persuade him to stop with a violent show of emotion, or worse, threaten to leave him. He stubbed the cigarette and ground it beneath the sole of his shoe into a heap of dust, then seated himself at the third rattan table on the left. Sitting right by the doorway would have been too presumptuous, he thought, as he checked his watch.
His foot began to tap, a quick, uncertain animal rhythm that flowed to its own erratic pulse against the steady beat of the jazz floating from within. Suddenly, the old leather wallet that Jeanette had given him fell from his trouser pocket, landing with a thud against his quivering thigh, open to the cutout picture of the children playing at the beach.
He snatched the wallet in a bloodless fist and shoved it into his breast pocket. Turning a crimson face to the sun, he checked the watch again and resumed tapping with his eyes on the street. Every time a woman crossed, an old woman, an ugly woman, his pulse quickened and he could feel the long-dried blood in his arms swelling for the first time since boyhood as it surged upward into the back of his brain. Finally he grew sick with guilt at waiting so pitifully and ordered himself a glass of champagne.
He looked up from his empty glass. There she was. Tall, but not so tall that he would feel emasculated with her sinewy waist in his arms. In her saffron crepe dress clinging to her translucent skin, she appeared, crowned by a halo of allure. She was the sort of creature who desired to be admired and understood deeply in a glance without expecting to repay any emotional burden. There was to be no exchange of greeting from her red lips, or even a nod of her golden curls as acknowledgment. Her carefully penciled eyebrows gave a half delighted, half bemused expression that sufficed for hello. She floated away, a pigeon in the guise of a swan.
In his original scheme he had truly believed that by some karmic property governing human love he would know her and she would know him and with a look they would fall into a wordless embrace, but now, beneath the sun, he began to think that perhaps he was not a man worthy of being noticed or embraced by anyone at all.
He became acutely aware of the thousands of eyes searing into his back as another man, a real carnivore, broad shouldered and handsome with his confident smile, slipped past the dismal table with a drink in hand. Quietly, he wiped his shame on the napkin, and stood up, almost decisively, with his hands clenched into sweaty fists in his pockets, to smoke. On the sidewalk, he paced, no longer caring about the cracks or dirt lining his shoes. He had left the rose to wither at the table.
He was about to return, make a final plea with God, when he felt horror lodge somewhere beneath his conscience like a bullet. There was Jeanette. Big, busty, homely Jeanette, crossing the street, her entire mass obliterating everything in supernovic shadow that dilated in his pupils. He watched her as she waddled in her heels, one fat hip at a time encased in her polyester funeral suit, her shopping bag slapping the backs of her nylon thighs, as if she too, a housewife who baked apple pie and attended Bible study, belonged to this beautiful world of golden birdlike women who wore diamonds and drank champagne.
He was too inebriated with fear to think, but he could feel his heart draining its innards until it shriveled into an empty hollow cavity that made his left breast pocket sag with the weight of her wallet. He pulled his hat down low. Low enough that she would not see him and leave him, but with enough of a view to watch her movements. Jeanette sat down at his table, waiting. Then he began to shuffle, slowly, his mind running a ticker tape of possible excuses while his hands readjusted his hat, bracing for the worst. At least he had seen her first. His lips snaked around the single word. Sorry, I’m so sorry.
He had arrived. I’m sorry was pushed between the gap in his front teeth into a bottleneck of stale air.
Her hands fumbled a little, not awkwardly, fixing his jacket. Dear, dear. I love you. I knew it was you. He kissed her cheek and in that moment she was beautiful. Across the mesh of their hands and legs and the table and her polyester suit and the wallet that fell from his pocket into his lap, she reached into her shopping bag. She extracted a green vase.
“I bought it in Chinatown. I thought you would like it.” He slipped the rose into the vase. Then he watched her delicate fingers unravel the white satin ribbon, with all the elegance of a duchess, one lacy end at a time.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.