A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Two

Read Part One here.people-2557423_1280

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.”

Gil nodded.

“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.

“Last question.”

His brow furrowed and his features took on the solemn expression of a quiz show host setting up the final round.

“Ready?”

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.”

“Do tell.”

“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.

“Yes.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Maybe.”

“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.”

“How so?”

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.

“Yes? 6:30?”

She replied immediately, with the first answer that came forth before she could think too hard on it, “Yes.”

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story, Writing

A Stranger’s Hands – Part One

A Stranger’s Hands

people-2557423_1280

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.

“Happy Anniversary.”

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.

“Know what?”

“That it’s my anniversary?”

Gil only looked more perplexed. “It’s two years since we opened. You were our first customer.”

“Oh!” 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 every 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 mothers 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?”

“I did.”

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.