I had planned to make the trip without any stops. Leave home by seven and be there by ten-thirty. Eleven, the latest.
I must have passed the café a hundred times and had never considered stopping there. Coffee for me was a reminder of my days of night shift at the VA hospital, constantly on my feet. Memories I could do without. Those shifts and the birth of the boys after all were the culprits behind my extensive collection of support hoses that I had now grown dependent on. My legs had become grotesque and there was no hiding it.
The café visit was only another entry in a growing list of events that I had never considered – my marriage lasting 10 years; four children; being pregnant and in med school at 30. The list went on.
I did not know whether the café was trying to imitate Starbucks or desperately trying to be different. All I knew was that if I got on the interstate I would regret having not stopped. All I wanted was a clean toilet with rolls and not those boxes of folded miniature sheets of baking paper.
I did not notice her when I first walked in. She sat there engrossed in a novel. The warm rays of a late autumn sun unable to extinguish her melancholy demeanour. I knew her parents lived only a few miles off the interstate. Perhaps she was visiting her parents too. Had it really been 12 years since our boarding school days? I had not seen her since the birth of boy number three. Even then, at the hospital with the gift and flowers in hand, she somehow managed to squeeze him into the conversation.
I could tell by the way she sat there that she had yet to release him. No one sits across from an empty seat, legs entangled and snarled and claim its comfort. All these years and still she held him so tight. Despite everything – Karen, his life overseas, his marriage and his beautiful children – she held on.
Heaven forbid she discovers the inevitable divorce that loomed on the horizon.
Looking back, the position she maintained was ironic. The cold slippery legs of the chairs were not the legs she found so much comfort in and yet they were ever entwined with hers. It looked uncomfortable – hazardous. It was her mark on him. We all knew what it meant. Evidence of a knot that had somehow developed leaving them unable or unwilling to free themselves from. An intimacy and fidelity the likes few married couples were likely to ever experience, my marriage included.
Breakfast, lunch, supper; it was during these times, when we would all be seated – when they were seated – replenishing reserves, that we saw the clearest pictures of her devotion. Only now did I realise that this was why a small part of me had always resented her. Long before any of us were even thinking of marriage, her insistence on reserving the seat at the table for him was a sight that we struggled to fully comprehend and accept.
It wasn’t that she competed with me to gain his attention; he had and would always be there for my sister and me.
Neither was it the fact that he was my brother and yet she was able to see so much in him. I resented the fact that she held it all so close, that she could be so consistent about it. That she continued to do it despite the obvious fact that he belonged somewhere else.
Boarding school was brutal. Only acceptance letters from Notre Dame, Northwestern, or Chicago would please our parents and teachers. We crowded together in our small group for support, for comfort, to survive. For her the crowds were probably more of a threat, something capable of disrupting her connection with him. It was within the naked cold stone walls of that dinning hall where she daily recited her oath to everyone on campus. The rush of the place, the size of the crowds; none of this had any effect on her resolve – the space would be maintained and only upon my brother’s arrival would she surrender the seat.
She would disentangle herself from the chair’s legs only to entwine herself further into the space he now occupied. Considering the circumstances, this was far more hazardous than the possibility of one of the guys coming along and carelessly attempting to rip the chair free.
I cannot remember why none of us ever challenged this unspoken practice.
We acted as if it was some special Sabbath day and we had all gathered in a synagogue. As if it was the chair of Elijah.
No one ever sat across from her and my brother never sat anywhere else.
This may have been considered norm for hormone-induced teenagers but they were never the norm. For starters they were not dating and would never be a couple. There were rules that were far more authoritative than the strict social rules of our co-ed boarding school. Unwritten rules. Rules that contained her. Rules that contained them.
We all observed them that school year. We all had a shared opinion of what it was: wrong and above all, unfair.
Wearing shorts in late autumn; she obviously still jogged and continued to take no notice of the weather. Her legs remained sleek, hard – a result due more to her athletic prowlness than her German heritage. I suspect she valued them more for their ability to hold on to him than their ability to help her become the team’s MVP our senior year and a national all-star four years later.
The only individual to be given access to that seat was her older sister, my brother’s girlfriend. The temporary surrender of the seat was likely to have been the only concession she ever made towards her sister regarding him. The occupation of her sister in that seat was not an acknowledgment of a better claim; it was simply an accepted claim. Perhaps it was because I had a sister that I was confused. It all seemed impossible to maintain. It would be pure speculation to suggest the full extent of their relationship ,though there was certainty about one thing – her older sister had never seen how tightly her legs held onto that seat in her absence.
Surprisingly my brother never bragged about his girlfriend being in college. She attended school in Michigan. A serious student, she would seldom visit. Like many things that maintain space, you do not realize the significance of their presence until they are displaced. The visits were somehow a disruption to us all. We all became strangely displaced, though it was nothing compared to the displacement that appeared to linger within her days after her sister had returned to Michigan.
Even if I had mustered up all the courage possible for a 17-year-old, she would have never listened to me. Her legs, as strong and as fast as they were, would not have permitted her to release him, let alone carry her away from him.
She saw me as I approached her small table for two. My schedule was already disrupted by this unscheduled pit stop beside; we had not spoken in nearly a year. Her forlorn posture was quickly replaced with a welcoming smile and her signature short burst of laughter.
I reached my hand out to take a seat and hesitated, hand still resting on the back of the pine-stained chair. I smiled nervously, embarrassed, her legs still engaged with those of the chair.
Suddenly pensive, she asked, “How is he?”
I pause. “He hasn’t changed,” I reply.
She turns her head as if noticing the tenderness of the autumn sun for the first time that morning. Feeling her tighten her hold on the chair I allowed my hand to fall away, squeezed between the adjacent table, and sat down next to her.
Our bodies, side-by-side, engulfed in the pleasure of morning light.
I had promised to call him later that night and tell him about Dad’s surgery. If it wasn’t too late I might tell him about the café, about the reserved seating and ask him what I had always wondered about and still, after so many years, continued to wonder – how does it feel?
(Photo is Cracked Legs by randii2015)