A Stranger’s Hands
By Carrie Sue Barnes
Part One – Unknown
She could not look away from the man’s hands. Wide palms. Long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn’t thought of a man in years.
Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn’t keep track every day. That stopped shortly after a year. Every few months though, she added it back up.
Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since Theo’s death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger’s hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband’s hands.
This was not her husband. This was not Theo, but a stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?
Less than yesterday.
That’s what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on, that it was time. Cora thought Tessa didn’t know what she was talking about.
She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa’s next question would be, was he attractive?
Cora realized she couldn’t have answered. She’d noticed nothing except his hands.
It’s a start, Cora heard her sister say in her mind.
“It’s an ending,” she whispered as she began to run.
Cora pushed herself hard. She ran until her calves burned and sweat coated her neck. She ran until her head cleared. Afterward, she showered in the locker room even though her townhouse was only a half mile away. If something could be done elsewhere, instead of at home, that was what she preferred.
From the gym, she walked to Second Street Coffee. She set up her laptop and files in her usual spot: a booth beside the large front window, three tables away from the door. It had the finest morning light.
Cora’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands went cold.
“I thought it was safe to assume your order today.”
Gil, the café’s owner stood beside the table, a mug and two bowls balanced in his hands.
“Black coffee, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and fresh fruit.”
She watched him place the dishes on the table, but still could not speak.
Gil’s warm smile became a frown. He cocked his head, looking down at her from his considerable height.
“Are you well, Cora?”
“How? How did you know?” she asked in a barely audible voice.
“That it’s my anniversary?”
Gil only looked more perplexed.
“It’s two years since we opened. You were our first customer.”
Her cheeks went hot. She tucked her hair behind her ears, giving herself a self-collecting moment.
“Two years, wow. Happy Anniversary.”
She smiled finally and Gil’s brown eyes brightened. Two years. For two years, she’d sat at this table nearly every single weekday.
Gil sat down across from her, something he’d never done before.
“It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to remember that fact. I’m sure that day was a bigger deal to me than to you.”
“I doubt it,” Cora mumbled.
“What do you mean?”
“Um, nothing, nothing at all.”
She unzipped her bag to retrieve her wallet.
“Thank you for bringing over my breakfast. That was thoughtful of you.”
When she held out the cash, he shook his head.
“Today’s breakfast is on the house. No argument. You were our first customer.”
“Thank you, Gil. I appreciate it.”
The bell over the door dinged as another customer entered and Gil left her table. Cora sat wondering over the same question that filled her mind at the gym. What was wrong with her?
One and a half coffees later, Cora visited the restroom. She stared into the mirror over the sink. Her dark blonde hair had dried into the natural waves she used to straighten with a flat iron every morning. She wore no makeup – no blush, no mascara, no lipstick – another unpredicted change. Her body, always slim, was now toned with tight muscles from the almost daily visits to the gym. She wore bootcut jeans, a long sleeved black t-shirt, and gray canvas sneakers. A Saturday outfit, as she used to call it, instead of her former workday uniform of a pencil skirt and blouse.
No one but she knew it was all different.
“I miss being known,” she whispered at her reflection.
The intensity of the feeling caught her by surprise.
Cora’s steps were slow across the hardwood floor from the restroom back to her booth. She watched Gil sweeping crumbs from under the tables. The initial rush was long over. The line of early-morning commuters had hustled out one by one with their steaming to-go cups and bagged muffins. The last of the breakfast regulars, mostly retirees lingering over their conversations and egg sandwiches, were migrating toward the door. Goodbyes were called out to Gil and his employees.
She knew all of the regulars’ faces, and several of their names from overheard conversations, but they did not know her.
On Wednesdays, a group of cyclists came in after their early morning ride, arriving around the same time as Cora at 6:45. They were jovial, young men, younger than Cora, who never failed to greet her with a “good morning” or a comment on the weather. It brightened her day each time she saw them with their smiles and their carefree conversations, but they did not know her.
Twice a month, a dozen women in a moms’ group gathered in the coffee shop for Bible study sessions. There were new moms still fresh-faced and eager, and wizened, older mothers who listened quietly and offered careful advice, and middle-aged, over-scheduled moms bolstered by the ninety minutes of adult conversation and camaraderie. They discussed verses and chapters, children and husbands. They laughed and cried together.
Cora savored hearing the stories they told each other, witnessing the way they united around one another’s struggles and victories.
A handful of times the women invited Cora to join them, despite her explaining the first time that she was not a mother. Twice she had splurged and paid for their beverages. She couldn’t explain why. Perhaps because she wished she belonged with them. She didn’t though, and they didn’t know her.
Not even her clients knew her. That was the nature of online financial planning. Everything was accomplished via emails and shared files. If a client needed any communication beyond that, Cora made phone calls, or a video conference call on rare occasions. No, they certainly didn’t know her.
The anonymity was not intentional. It arose from a gradual, subconscious retreat from everything that reminded her too poignantly of Theo and their six years together. Six and a half years if she included their whip-speed six months of dating and engagement.
No, the anonymity was not intentional, but it was too complete for Cora to see any cracks to climb through the walls she’d built. She initially welcomed those walls, curled up inside them and functioned only when she remained there. Lately though, she began to wonder how long she could keep them up.
She began to wonder if she wanted to keep them up.
Her unhurried thoughts were interrupted by the swish of broom bristles sliding beneath her table where she was seated once again. Out of habit, she wordlessly raised her legs and Gil swept the spot beneath her feet.
“All finished?” he asked, gesturing at the empty fruit bowl on the table.
Cora had eaten the oatmeal first while it was still hot, and one of the servers collected that bowl earlier. The fresh fruit she’d saved until she grew hungry again, then savored each juicy piece. She handed the bowl to Gil.
“Thank you again for breakfast.”
“You’re very welcome, Cora. Thank you for being the only person who is here almost as frequently as I am.”
“You put extra pieces of baked apple in the oatmeal, didn’t you? There was more than usual.”
Gil looked pleased.
“You always leave the bits of apple until the end when you order that one. I figured that was because they’re your favorite part.”
Surprise tingled in her nerves.
“You noticed that?”
The insight into her habits produced a concoction of feelings in Cora. It was tiny. A simple observation. It did not feel tiny though. It felt warm and comforting and kind and strengthening.
What else do you know, she wondered as Gil walked to the front counter to deposit her bowl and fork. When he returned for the broom he’d propped against her booth, Cora was suddenly desperate to speak.
Read Part Two here.