Read Part One here.
A Stranger’s Hands
By Carrie Sue Barnes
Part Two – Breathing Again
“Today is my anniversary too,” Cora shoved the words out before Gil could move away.
Gil sat down, as if he knew this was not a minor remark on a coincidence of the date. He waited.
Cora met his eyes and waited too. She waited to sort out the jumble of words tying her tongue and filling her mouth. She examined him, distracting herself momentarily.
His eyes were the color of dark chocolate. His hair was only a shade lighter. Seated this way, with the table in between, it was slightly less obvious that Gil stood a full eight inches taller than Cora’s five-foot-six-inch height.
Before she’d untied her tongue, she saw him glance at her bare left hand and his brows drop into a low V.
“I didn’t think you were…”
“Married?” Cora finished for him.
She lifted her left hand off the table, turning it palm up, then back again. She then slid from her right hand’s ring finger the slim, diamond encrusted band she’d worn there for exactly two years. Her wedding band. The gems glinted in the sunlight when Cora set the ring on the table.
“I’m a widow.” Over two years, and her voice still trembled when she said it. “Today would have been our eighth anniversary.”
“What was his name?”
Cora smiled. Gil hadn’t said, “I’m sorry,” or “oh, how awful,” like every person before him. Questions about her husband, especially questions other than about his death, didn’t typically come up until much later in the conversation, if at all.
“Theo. His name was Theo.”
“Did he like coffee as much as you do?”
With a laugh, Cora shook her head, “He drank one cup every morning but no more than that. He was always trying to convince me to drink more water and less coffee.”
“How did the two of you meet?”
“My uncle’s retirement party. Theo worked at the same company as my uncle.”
“What line of work?”
“He was an engineer. He designed motors on robotic medical equipment.”
“Can I ask one more question?”
The conversation felt like an instructional in breathing freely. Cora needed it to continue until her lungs were full.
“You can even ask two.”
Gil raised an eyebrow. “Two. Well, I’ll need to choose another good one.”
She took a sip of her drink. Glanced out the window at a passing dogwalker. Returned her eyes to Gil’s pensive gaze.
“What were your favorite things to do together?”
“We both loved movies. Our dates usually included a movie. We volunteered at our church for service projects whenever we could. He loved fishing. I loved the peace and quiet of sitting at the lake with a book, so I usually went with him.”
Cora felt a calm smile stretch across her face. Simple, ordinary memories came in slideshow flashes.
“We had a tradition for Saturday mornings. It started almost immediately after we were married. We both worked hard through the week. Sometimes one or both of us worked into the evening. Saturdays became sacred for us, especially Saturday mornings.
“Neither of us slept late. We were too programmed to be up early during the week. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“We had a routine for Saturday mornings. One of us picked a movie to watch. The other was in charge of cooking breakfast. We’d alternate each week. Well, we were supposed to alternate. Theo often volunteered to cook so I could stay in bed longer. He could always tell when I was especially worn out or stressed after the work week.
“Anyway, it was the same each Saturday. Eggs, over-hard for me and scrambled for him, English muffins, whatever fruit we had on hand, and coffee. We’d stay in our pajamas all morning, sitting on the old love seat in our bedroom, eating our breakfast and watching favorite movies we’d seen a hundred times before. It was perfect.”
And there it was. The first time Cora had spoken of Theo without tears, or discomfort, or the words being entirely focused on the end of his life. Something had unlocked inside of her that she hadn’t realized was locked. She fell into a stunned silence.
She could feel Gil’s eyes on her. Even without looking back at him, Cora recognized the same sensation she’d felt earlier. She liked his eyes on her and his attentiveness to her, the same way she liked the idea of the stranger’s hands at the gym.
But do I like that I like this? Cora’s pink lips settled into a frown. It seemed a silly, adolescent point of analysis, and at the same time, it seemed the most pivotal point.
“Ok, last question,” Gil said, his fingertips drumming the tabletop.
His brow furrowed and his features took on the solemn expression of a quiz show host setting up the final round.
Cora fought back laughter, trying to match his demeanor. “I’m ready.”
“When’s the last time you went out and enjoyed yourself?”
The words came easily.
“Two years and thirty-three days ago.”
“Theo and I attended an ethnic food festival downtown. We walked and sat and ate for the entire afternoon. The weather was flawless. The food was delicious. The musicians set up throughout the festival were superb. We’d made no plans ahead of time to go to the festival. That morning, Theo spotted a flyer for it on the community bulletin board at the grocery store. He came home and asked if I would be his date for the day. It was something we did frequently while we were dating, spontaneously picking a nearby festival or fair or outdoor concert to attend. It’d been a while though. A long while. And it was a perfect day together.”
“It does sound perfect,” Gil said.
Cora smiled at him. A grateful smile, filled as she was with gladness at having recollected that day.
“Two years and thirty-three days,” Gil repeated.
“That’s a long time.”
“How long was it before…,” Gil’s voice trailed off but he held her gaze.
“Theo died one week later.”
Still he didn’t ask about the how of Theo’s death. She wanted to tell him though. Her eyes dropped to her hands folded on the table.
“He was driving home from work. We used to carpool, but a few weeks earlier I’d launched my independent consultant business and began working from home. The driver in front of Theo crossed the center line and almost struck an oncoming vehicle. Instead of only correcting his direction, that driver panicked and slammed on his brakes. Theo had no time to slow down, nor did the drivers behind him. It was a domino effect and Theo’s car was pinned, crushed really, between the first vehicle and the one behind him. The firemen and paramedics were able to extract him and get him to the ambulance but he died on the way to the hospital. Blunt force trauma and internal hemorrhaging. That was the official cause of death.”
Cora had spoken quickly. Her chest rose and fell with the need for air. A multiple-vehicle accident, that was her usual answer when someone asked how her husband died. But Gil hadn’t asked. Cora had told him because she wanted to tell him. She wanted him to know what she’d been through, not for the sake of pity but for the sake of being known. The shock, the pain, the snail’s-pace recovery. They shaped who she’d become in the last couple years.
As she caught her breath now, she chanced a look at Gil.
“I wish you never experienced that, Cora.”
The compassionate words came quietly and brought tears to Cora’s eyes for the first time in the conversation.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Gil cleared his throat. “It’s understandable, perhaps, that the festival over two years ago was the last time you went out.”
His return to the original question scattered the tension hanging in the air between them.
“No,” Cora said with half a smile, “you asked how long it’d been since I went out and enjoyed myself. I’ve been out several times in the last two years. My sister has made sure of that when she comes to visit me every few months. It’s the enjoying myself part that continues to elude me.”
“Ah, I see.” Gil tapped his chin, contemplating her remark. “That is helpful information.”
He hadn’t yet suggested that they go somewhere together. Would he? The entire exchange had already been so unexpected that she didn’t dare assume to know where it might lead. Cora scrambled to know her own mind. If he did make such a suggestion, did she want to say yes? She tried to imagine doing so but was stopped short by Gil’s reply.
“It’s helpful because now I know what we should do tonight. Meet me back here at 6:30 this evening. Dress, um, smart casual?” He cocked his head in an increasingly familiar way. “Is that a thing?”
“Sure,” Cora nodded to put him at ease.
She replied immediately, with the first answer that came forth before she could think too hard on it, “Yes.”