Just a couple of words, but they pour into and over me, shocking every one of my senses and all of my sense. And yet, there's that calm too, the one that seems to be hardwired into me whenever he's around. I look up to make sure it's him, though I know it is. Sure enough, he's standing over me with his hickory eyes on my face, searching . . . reminiscing? I wish he wouldn't look at me like that. The small room is actually pretty packed, but it doesn't feel that way. I had this meeting all scripted, but he's disrupted everything and now I'm unnerved.
"How do you do that?" I ask him. "I didn't see you come in."
I worry that my voice sounds like I'm accusing him of something or that I'm nervous, and that's the last thing I want. But still I wonder—how does he do that? He was always so good at silence, about moving around undetected. Another skill honed in the Army, I guess.
I gesture for him to sit down. He slides into the chair and that's when I realize he has a full beard. Sharp precise lines graze his cheekbones and his jawline is covered in dark hair. This is new. Of course it is: he always had to keep up with regulations. Hair must be short and well groomed. Mustaches are allowed, but only if they're neatly trimmed and don't grow over the upper lip. He told me once that he was thinking of growing a mustache, but I talked him out of it. Even with a face like his, a mustache would look creepy.
He grabs the coffee menu from the table. Cappuccino. Macchiato. Latte. Flat white. Long black. When did everything get so complicated?
"You like coffee now?" I don't try to hide my surprise.
He shakes his head. "No."
A half smile crosses his stoic face, reminding me of the very reason I fell in love with him. A moment ago it was easy to look away. Now it's impossible.
"Not coffee," he assures me. "Tea."
He isn't wearing a jacket, of course, and the sleeves of his denim shirt are rolled up above his elbows. The tattoo on his forearm peeks through and I know if I touch his skin right now, it will be burning up. I'm sure as hell not going to do that, so I look up and over his shoulder. Away from the tattoo. Away from the thought. It's safer that way. For both of us. I try to focus on the noises in the coffee shop so I can settle into his silence. I forgot how unnerving his presence can be.
That's a lie. I didn't forget. I wanted to, but can't.
I can hear the server approaching, her sneakers squeaking on the concrete floor. She has a mousy little voice and when she tells him that he should "so totally" try the new peppermint mocha I laugh, knowing that he hates all minty things, even toothpaste. I thought about the way he'd leave those red globs of cinnamon gunk in the sink at my house and how many times we bickered over it. If only I had ignored those petty grievances. If only I had paid more attention to what was really happening, everything would have been different.
Maybe. Maybe not. I'm the kind of person who would take the blame for anything—except this. I can't be sure.
I don't want to know.
Kale tells the girl he would like a plain black tea and I try not to laugh. He's so predictable.
"What's so funny?" he asks when the waitress leaves.
"Nothing." I change the subject. "So, how are you?"
I don't know what bullshit we're going to fill this coffee date with. What I do know is that we're going to see each other tomorrow, but since I had to be in the city today anyway, well, it seemed like a good idea to get the first awkward encounter out of the way without an audience. A funeral is no place for that.
"Good. Given the circumstances." He clears his throat.
"Yeah," I sigh, trying not to think too much about tomorrow. I've always been good at pretending the world isn't burning around me. Okay, I've been slipping these past few months, but for years it was second nature, something I started doing sometime between my parent's divorce and my high school graduation. Sometimes I feel like my family is disappearing. We keep getting smaller and smaller.
"Are you all right?" he asks, his voice even lower than before.
I could hear it the same way I did those damp nights when we fell asleep with the window open and the whole room would be dewy the next morning, our bodies wet and sticky. I used to love the way his hot skin felt when my fingertips danced across the smooth contours of his jaw. Even his lips were warm, feverish at times. The southern Georgia air was so thick you could taste it and Kale's temperature ran so hot always.
"Hmph," he clears his throat and I snap out of it.
I know what he's thinking, I can read his face as clear as the neon But First, Coffee sign hanging on the wall behind him. I hate that those memories are the ones my brain associates with him. It doesn't make this any easier.
"Kare." His voice is soft as he reaches across the table to touch my hand. I jerk it away so fast you'd think it was on fire. It's strange to think about the way we were, the way I never knew where he ended and I began. We were so in tune. So . . . just so different than the way things are now. There was a time when he'd say my name, just like that, and I'd give him anything he wanted. I consider this for a moment. How I'd give that man anything he wanted.
I thought I was further in my recovery of us, that whole getting over him thing. At least far enough along that I wouldn't be thinking about the way his voice sounded when I had to wake him up early for physical training, or the way he used to scream in the night. My head is starting to spin and if I don't shut my mind off now the memories will split me apart right on this chair, in this little shop, right in front of him.
I force myself to nod and pick up my latte to bide some time, just a moment to find my voice. "Yeah. I mean, funerals are kind of my thing."
I don't dare to look at his face. "There's nothing you could have done, regardless. Don't tell me you're thinking you could—" He pauses and I stare harder at the small chip in my mug. I run my finger over the cracked ceramic.
"Karina. Look at me."
I shake my head, not even close to jumping down this rabbit hole with him. I don't have it in me. "I'm fine. Seriously." I pause and take in the expression on his face. "Don't look at me like that. I'm okay."
"You're always fine." He runs his hand over the hair on his face and sighs, his shoulders leaning back into the back of the plastic chair.
It isn't so much a question or a statement, just the way it is. He's right. I will always be fine. That whole, fake it till you make it thing? I own it.
What other choice do I have?