Woman by Mary Cassatt

The Woman | A Short Story

She looked at him, lovingly.

Her eyes were a cool gray. Her skin a translucent white. Her hair like silver spiderwebs hung about her like curtains gently swaying before an open window on an autumn afternoon. No one could see her. But she could see them.

She smiled, sadly.

He was a young man with a handsome face. His chin was lean and chiseled as if from marble. He had keen blue eyes that were full of intelligence, yet held a wary and tired gaze. His hair was honey brown and combed neatly back from his forehead, and tucked beneath a wool golf hat that was the color of the ocean before a storm. He wore a pressed beige dress shirt, a crooked blue tie, and slacks that rose nigh his rib cage, earning him a few sideways glances and smiles from the others.

He was exactly how she’d always remembered him.

But he didn’t notice her at all. He didn’t look her way, and didn’t seem at all distracted by her intent staring. He was busy trying to capture the attention of a young lady across the counter. She was a pretty girl with dark buoyant hair, nut brown eyes, and she looked on the man with a sort of condescending tolerance that he pretended not to notice.

“What will you have Mr. Gray?” she asked.

He laughed and looked at her with a twinkle in his eye.

“Just your company,” he replied. “You’re not too busy right now.”

“I have to clean the espresso machine,” she said a bit tensely.

“Oh, well,” he sighed, “perhaps another time then. When you’re done?”

She stared at him blankly.

“Right then,” he said, fumbling in his pocket for his wallet. “I’ll have a decaf coffee and one of those traigular muffin things with the cranberries in it.”

“What kind of coffee you want?” she asked.

“The brown kind,” he replied.

The girl could not tell if he was making a joke or was annoyed, so she just laughed.

“Here you go,” she said. “One decaf coffee and one cranberry scone.”

“Scone! That’s it,” he said, sorting through a handful of change.

The Woman in the corner watched him intently. His hands, she noted, were strong and smooth. His nails were manicured to perfection, and he had a little chain attached to his wallet, fixed somewhere in the recesses of his pants, apparently for fear of misplacing it.

He was a sensitive fellow. Nervous and lonely, anxious for companionship, and perhaps so anxious that his innocent attempts at friendship were sometimes mistaken as flirtatious or uncouth. She pitied him. She loved him more than life itself, but she could not reach out and tell him. At least, not yet.

Much to the girl’s annoyance, he handed her four dollars and eighty-nine cents in change. He then took his coffee and scone gingerly in his beautiful hands, and walked slowly to a dark table in the corner. It was odd, thought The Woman, that such a strong, handsome young man would feel so insecure and isolated.

He did not eat his scone.

Occasionally, a customer with a small child entered the cafe and smiled at the man. He smiled eagerly back at them, until their parent drew them closer and tucked them under their wing like a baby bird.

“It is a pity there is so much fear in the world,” thought The Woman, “And to think, he is one of the reasons the world is currently as safe as it is.”

After about an hour, Terrence came jaunting through the cafe door.

“Hey there Aimee!” he boomed in his joyous voice, as rich as a bassoon and as vibrant as a dance. “Coffee, coffee, coffee! You know the drill. Make it strong! Very strong. I’ve got two client meetings this afternoon and a report for the big man, and then my wife has invited her mother over for dinner so I need some serious energy.”

Aimee’s whole demeanor changed. She was no longer suspicious, annoyed, beleaguered Aimee. She was now eager, bubbly, hospitable Aimee.

“You want a shot of espresso?” she asked with a smile, “it’s on the house!”

“No, no! You trying to give me a heart attack?” he laughed, “Actually yeah, give me a shot. Make it two shots. It’s six in the morning somewhere, right?”

She guffawed as if he’d said the most clever and hilarious thing she’d heard all day.

The Woman was not distracted by these bright companions. Her eyes were still fixed on the amber-haired man in the corner, and his envious eyes were fixed on the newcomer.

The newcomer had skin as dark as dark chocolate, and his hair and clothes were neat, manicured, and fashionable. Worst of all (or so our protagonist thought) he smelled so strongly of cedarwood and new car that he left a trail of fragrance wherever he went and on everything he touched. The man suspected that this was why Aimee was so drawn to him and he wondered idly if he shouldn’t invest in some cologne.

The Woman saw this idea pass through the man’s head and chuckled silently to herself. He had always been the jealous type; not in a mean way, not even in a competitive way, but in a sad way. He saw the goodness and happiness in others, and saw it less and less in himself.

“Roger!” exclaimed Terrence suddenly, spotting the man in the corner. “How you doing my friend?”

He walked – no bounded – over to the man’s table and thumped him jovially on the shoulder.

“Oh! Same old, same old,” Roger Gray replied, guarding his coffee from the jostle. “How was the crawfish broil?”

“Oh we didn’t do it this year,” lamented the newcomer, hanging his head for effect. “My wife has never liked crawfish. Never liked them. She says they look like big nasty red bugs. And she has a good point, she has a point. Actually, my nephew got himself a fat white tailed deer over Christmas. Mind you, you can only hunt those things from, I don’t know, sometime early November until January first. It’s ridiculous. Totally restricted. Meanwhile those things are running all over the place eating all my landscaping. Anyways, he had this deer all skinned and diced up nice and all that, and packed into a freezer. So, instead of doing crawfish broil like we usually do, we decided to try barbecuing venison. You ever had venison?”

“Oh yes,” replied Roger, who had perked up visibly during Terrence’s speech. His demeanor seemed to come alive and expand like a dried sponge that had been reintroduced to water after a long dry spell. “We used to have it every Christmas as a matter of fact. I used to love hunting with my brother. We had a cabin out on a ranch way out north of Huntsville near Madisonville. You know where that is?”

“Oh yeah,” said Terrence. Although it was unclear whether he spoke truly, his knowledge of Madisonville had no effect whatsoever of the gist of the story, so Roger ventured on.

“But you know what’s really good up there is the boar shooting,” he said. “We once bagged six of them over one weekend. All huge fat bristly things. We processed them and filled two freezers. My wife was so annoyed because she was one of those who love to go to the bulk stores – CostCo or what have you – and she couldn’t buy beef or chicken because her freezer was full of free range ham!”

Both men laughed over this and shook their heads fondly at the thought of womanly quibbles.

“Tell you what Roger,” Terrence said, “you got plans for Mother’s Day?”

“Oh no,” said Roger, stiffening as if someone had just pressed salt into an open wound. “I haven’t done anything for years.”

Terrence looked at him thoughtfully. “How about you come to church with me and Liz,” he suggested. “I’m planning to grill some steaks after, I’m buying a big chocolate cake (because you know I don’t bake), and we’ll have some champagne and strawberries. I’ve told her all about your history stories and you know she’s a big history buff. You need to tell her that one about Makassar. Man, that was crazy!”

Roger lit up like a lightening bug.

“Oh sure!” he exclaimed. “But I don’t drink. I’ll bring some juice or something if you like.”

“No, no!” his companion replied. “No need to bring anything. It’s my pleasure. I’ll come by your house on Sunday and pick you up.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Roger, glowing. “That will be very nice.”

The two companions parted with a handshake, and another thump on Roger’s shoulder. But Roger watched Terrence go with a deflated expression, like a flower that closes up once the sun has left the sky.

Terrence went back to the register where his very strong coffee was waiting, and situated himself a few tables from Roger where he began to flip through emails and itineraries on his phone.

This, The Woman knew, was hard for Roger to watch. Seeing others be useful and busy made him feel useless and idle. He needed friends, she thought. He needed people his own speed who understood how he thought, and could interact with him within the limitations of his experience. How strange it was, that a man with so much experience and knowledge could find himself in a world so foreign and undiscoverable.

After finishing his coffee, Terrence stood up to go. Roger, who seemed reluctant to watch his friend leave, got up to stop him and perhaps share one last story or parting thought.

That was when it happened.

Just as he reached his full height, Roger doubled over and grasped his chest. He crumpled into a small cramped thing, like a feather licked by flame.

“Roger!” screamed Aimee, suddenly losing all her pride and rushing to the man.

Terrence too rushed to his friend, toppling a table and letting his phone crash to the floor. All around the cafe customers stood, watching, and gasped, unsure what to do.

All except The Woman. She had known this was coming, and she smiled softly, though tears stood in her eyes.

“Roger! Roger! Don’t die on me friend!” Terrence was shouting, and began applying CPR as a nearby mother with a little girl dialed 9-1-1. “You’ve got to tell Liz about Makassar! You’ve got to tell Liz about the Wildcats Roger! Roger? Don’t die on me Roger!”

Roger stretched out, and blinked his eyes open, but they felt heavy as if he were drugged. Everything around him was blurry and confusing.

“Roger?” he heard Aimee pleading. Aimee. Such a pretty girl. She had never called him Roger before. He rubbed his eyes and his vision slowly cleared. The room stopped spinning and he began to regain his bearings.

“You’re going to be OK Roger,” she said, swallowing back sobs. “You’re going to be OK. We’re going to have lunch together. I’ll get you the turkey sandwich you always ask for. You always get the same thing. Please, get up Roger! Roger, get up!”

The pain in his chest subsided to a bearable level. He massaged his muscular shoulder and chest, wincing a little as one final spasm released itself. Carefully, and cautiously, he rose to his feet.

For the first time he saw The Woman watching him. She was beautiful. Her brunette hair was coiled about her head in some intricate method he could not fathom. Her cheeks were rosey and her lips were the color of primroses in summer. She smiled at him, and he ran into her arms.

“Emily!” he cried, “Oh Emily how I have missed you!”

“My darling!” she said clasping her arms around him. “Oh how I have waited for this moment; waited for you to see me, to hold me again, to say my name so that I could answer you. Oh Roger, say my name again.”

“Emily, Emily, Emily,” he repeated rocking her back and forth in his strong embrace.

“Roger!” she whispered as they hugged and swayed, “Oh Roger!”

It was a dance so beautiful, yet basic and instinctual, that not even a prima ballerina from the heart of Imperial Russia could have replicated its intrinsic passion.

He broke down and sobbed on his wife’s neck, and she too smiled through tears. When he had recovered, he looked around them at the scene in the cafe.

There was a frail little old man sprawled on the floor in the corner. His skin was shriveled and pallid. His hair was scant and white, and his hands were gnarled and lined with broken veins. His eyes, now free of all spark or emotion, were a glassy faded gray.

Terrence had finally stopped giving CPR. Aimee leaned over the body. Brushing a wisp of thin gray hair from the dead man’s forehead, she burst into uncontrollable sobs that shook her young body like a seizure. A stranger with a scraggly beard and a mournful eye, removed his hat from his head and began to murmur a Hebrew prayer.

“Come, my love. Let us go now my darling,” said Emily, pulling Roger back to herself. “It is time – it is finally time – for you to be happy!”

No one in the cafe saw them go, but go they did, and they never parted ways again.

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