by Kate Brandes
saw her in the beveled mirror as he slid into the leather booth, his left leg
aching from the long walk. He cursed the seven-year pain and the car crash that
had caused it.
his camera on the worn marble table, he shrugged off his backpack and pulled
the small English-Spanish dictionary from the front pocket before taking a look
world café,” the guidebook had said, “Like stepping back in time.” And it was.
pillars with burgundy marble bases stood on a floor tiled with granite. Tables
of people sat close, their companionship magnified by mirrors that ran from the
high ceiling to the tops of the booths that rimmed the cafe.
in one of those mirrors, sitting alone, framed by the front windows, she sat
with dark wavy hair and lipstick the same shade as her red high-heeled shoes.
Caroline had had shoes like those.
put his hand over the dictionary, sliding it beneath the table.
waiter appeared, pen and pad in hand, eyebrows raised, blocking his view of
her. The waiter’s eyes started at James’s forehead, ran past his left eye, and
down to his lower cheek, tracing the scar that branded him. He looked down to
free himself from the waiter’s stare.
con leche,” James said.
más?” the waiter asked.
unsure of the question, responded with an automatic, “No.”
like this, he’d found. Traveling in Spain without speaking the language was
like traveling through life with a ruined face: The less said the better. His
boss, the head of the computer-programming department, had told him they would
no longer pay for the vacation days he never took. If he was going to be forced
to go on vacation from a job he’d grown to hate, he didn’t want to have to talk
to anyone while doing it.
carried around the dictionary, not to learn from, but instead as a sign to
others that he could not be expected to converse. The language barrier provided
a comforting deafness.
waiter moved on to get his coffee and there she was again, lit by the sun
streaming through the windows.
those windows it was all action and urgency. People hustled in and out of the
metro stop as six lanes of traffic rushed by, past fast food, billboards, and
inside this place from an earlier time, a better time, her legs were crossed
and she wore a navy sailor dress with white piping along the hemline and white
strips along the waist. There was a tie in front of her breasts.
looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes, he could see now, were large and brown,
with long lashes, and they did not fixate on the left side of his face.
wrote on white stationery with an expensive looking green pen. The sun glinted
off her ring, probably a wedding band.
looked up at him again, demurely. Her eyes lingered. She uncrossed her legs and
crossed them again.
flirting with him? He thought that perhaps she was.
his dictionary back on the table and opened it for the first time to the
introductory section on basic conversation.
glanced up, she was looking at him again. There was definitely a connection
guessed they were the same age. He looked around the room. No one seemed to
have noticed this woman and what was unfolding between them.
waiter came with his coffee, obscuring his view of her for the second time.
this was it, he thought, as the waiter set his coffee down. This was how it
the smile she’d given him, he sensed unhappiness. Her shoulders slumped a
little and faint circles cupped her eyes. Was she tired of her marriage? The
sadness in her only attracted him more.
they could share things. Things he didn’t talk about, like the accident and all
those months in the hospital, alone. He‘d tell her what had been taken from him
– his fiancé, Caroline. They’d been on their way to vacation, their yellow
suitcases in the back. But they’d never made it and then there’d been no way
back. Into life.
on the street a small, white stray dog stood at the entrance to the metro
station, as if to remind him again of Caroline. She’d had a dog that size, one
that he’d also come to love. Only he and the dog had survived the accident, but
afterwards he’d had nothing left to offer their beloved pet. He swallowed hard
thinking about how he’d finally given the dog to a friend of Caroline’s.
his finger along the lines in the phrase book. He practiced in his mind,
“Buenas tardes. Cómo estás?” He looked at
the woman again. Her head was bent. She was writing, while she tapped the table
silently with her left index finger.
imagined that she was looking for someone too. She glanced at him and then
began writing again.
like he needed to do something. He stood up from his chair, never taking his
eyes from her as he approached. He heard the step-scuffle of his feet across
slowed almost to a stop when he was beside her. She looked up. He held his
barely nodded to him, no smile, wariness in her look and went back to her pen
and paper. He moved past her and on to the bathroom.
in, closed the door and looked at himself, his eyes taking in the left side of
his face. The marker in his life of who’d he’d been and what he’d become. The
accident replayed in his head. He closed his eyes against it, but it came
Caroline had said, pulling a map from the glove box. “Let’s use this.” Over
cautious and old-fashioned, James remembered thinking of her at the time as he
pushed buttons on the GPS while trying to watch the road.
found out later that the driver in the oncoming lane had swerved to avoid a
piece of plywood. If he hadn’t been caught up in the newest navigation
technology, he might have been able to save Caroline. And he might not have
could have gone on, as they were, back then, when he’d still felt like a normal
good person. Instead, it was their yellow suitcases cracked open and the
contents strewn over a quarter mile of road that troubled his dreams. That and
the guilt that yawned before him like a cliff he should have jumped from a long
washed his hands, splashed water on his face, and went back out in the café
intending to put the woman there out of his mind.
no longer sat at the table. At her place was a white envelope, which he picked
eyes went to the door, searching. Nothing. He looked out the window. There. She
stood in the sun near the entrance to the metro, petting the white dog. With
the envelope in his hand, he took three steps toward the café door before she
disappeared into the crowd.
to his seat and took the first sip of his coffee, now cold.
opened the envelope, cutting a finger in the process, and unfolded a single
sheet of white paper. It was a letter written in English. Had she intended for
him to read it?
writing this to you as an offering, a prayer.
been paralyzed for weeks by my secret, while death’s breath chills my cheek.
write this, I feel drawn to a man across the room from me. He is a kindred
spirit who knows pain and loss. Watching him, for the first time I understand
that only these moments remain.
ask you for strength, for my little girls whose eyes so big and dark will look
to me for answers I don’t have and for my husband whose big hands will tremble
with the news I have kept to myself. If I choose to tell them at all. What is
the kindest thing?
I decide, let them find happiness when I’m gone. That is my prayer.
folded the letter in a neat square and placed it in his shirt pocket. He
pressed it with his hand against his chest for a long moment. Good God, he
the bill and went outside where he stood watching the cars speed past.
noticed the white dog still standing by the metro station. It was looking at
him. He crouched down a short distance away. The animal walked over to him. He
touched the wiry fur, just as the dark-haired woman had done, and the dog
wagged its tail.
stood with the dog, tucking it under his arm, before walking on.