Typical Sunday morning around here; the doors are open, coffee brewed, music floats through the air and I’m hunched over my keyboard. I look up at the sound of a boot scrape and there he is at my door; unexpected and uninvited but as always, welcome. Pearl beats me to the door. She’s making her happy sound winding around his legs like a cat. He’s become one of her favorite humans.
We laugh and joke as he puts a couple of grocery bags on the counter. “What is that?” I ask. He waves it off “You need to eat before you go see the French guys.” I have an interview with a correspondent from Radio France to talk about gun violence.
He called me early this morning and we’ve already had a long conversation that involved a lecture when I confessed I’d been so busy lately that I have forgotten to eat a couple of times.
He changes the subject by encouraging Pearl to jump up. She places a paw on each shoulder and they spent a minute with their heads bowed together. “You taking care of our girl, Miss Pearl? Yeah, she’s a lot of work for you isn’t she?” He commiserates with Pearl all the while scratching and hugging her. She adores him.
“I wish you wouldn’t encourage that” I scold “She’ll think it’s ok and knock someone over some day.”
He only has eyes for Pearl “You wouldn’t do that. Would you Pearly-Pie? Ok, your mom says you have to get down. Go blame her.” He laughs as Pearl stares deeply in his eyes and then snorts and lets go of his shoulders and settles back on the ground. I scowl and mutter “you’re spoiling her.” He climbs over her to get to me “Baby, that ship has sailed. She’s a diva dog alright.”
He comes to my good side, bends down and wraps his arms around me and kisses my forehead. “Hello gorgeous!” He starts to let go but grabs me tighter. “mmmm you smell good.” He buries his nose into my neck and breathes deep and then places a soft kiss there. He scoops me out of my chair and I gasp in surprise and tighten my arms around his neck as he dances around to the music. “Don’t worry baby, I’ve got you.” He smiles into my eyes “I’d never hurt you. You know that, right?” He rearranges me gently in my chair and makes sure I’m secure before completely letting go then brushes a rebel curl of still-damp hair away from my cheek letting it coil around his finger for just a second before letting go. My shaky hands fumble to gather up the errant strands and force them all back into a pony tail.
“Oh my god, I knew you’d be drinking crappy coffee.” He picks up my cup, sniffs it suspiciously and dumps it in the sink over my protest, reaches for the French press and starts water to boil for ‘real’ coffee. As he helps himself to my kitchen, he asks if I have finished the press release I need to get written this morning. I tell him I’m still on it but almost finished. He turns off the burner under the water. “Come on Pearly let’s go run.” He grabs her ball from the drawer and she prances excitedly. As he straightens he leans in close and murmurs against my ear “twenty minutes angel – finish up. We’ll be back.” And they’re gone.
I smile and hum a little as I hurry to finish the press release. Having a deadline is always helpful. I carefully proof it one more time before I send it off. I turn the burner back on and head out the door to go retrieve them from the park but they’re coming up the sidewalk right on cue.
A very satisfied Pearl heads straight for her water and laps it up greedily, then she plops on the cool stone with a happy sigh. We laugh at her antics.
He moves around my kitchen – throws a couple of potatoes in the microwave, turns on the oven to heat, grinds coffee beans for the French press, all the while speaking with a comically exaggerated French accent in honor of my upcoming interview. I cannot help but to be charmed by the goofiness.
He mocks my nearly-empty refrigerator; I’ve been too busy to shop lately. He fusses about my workload and while he dices onions and peppers starts another conversation about how I need to slow down. He pushes the tomatoes and a knife toward me and we turn on the Sunday morning political shows offering our own color commentary as we prepare breakfast together. We speculate on the next few weeks in Arizona from bathroom bills to gun legislation. The kitchen smells of bacon and fresh chopped veggies. He pours a drizzle of olive oil in a pan and starts his frittata.
Our conversation flows from wisecracks to thoughtful commentary to double entrendre and back. He’s boldly flirtatious today. We’ve never been here before and I am nervous. I haven’t had a romantic relationship since my injury. Frankly, I’ve never been able to imagine a man finding me attractive, so I always assume all interest is platonic.
We talk about the transit study, yesterday’s workshop and the concert that followed. He tells me more about his weekend. By tacit agreement, we’ve been very discrete about our growing friendship. We’re both single but our roles in the community will cause some chatter if we were to start a relationship.
We’ve been friends for a very long time. A few weeks ago, there was a shift. He started calling me. First on a matter that we both touched on, then just to talk. I’ve welcomed the attention. I mention a name in relation to some work I’m doing. “Good gawd woman! You and your ‘little brother’ collection. Can you even name two men you’re not mothering?” I’m not sure how to reply so I just shrug and reach for my coffee. He gets up to check the frittata in the oven. As he passes behind me, he lightly brushes my neck with his fingers. I shiver and he laughs “You’re beautiful.” The intimacy intimidates me. I just don’t know what comes next.
My phone rings, it’s the reporter. We work out the details for our interview. We’ll meet at the Japanese Friendship Garden. The interview will take about an hour. He suggests he’ll tag along and when the interview is over, we can enjoy the park and then go find a patio for a glass of wine. I make him promise to stay out of my line of sight during the interview; he unsettles me and makes me nervous.
The frittata cools on the counter while I gather dishes together. He produces flowers out of the frig and a chew treat for Pearl. I’m delighted by the bouquet. He pulls a vase out of the cabinet. I arrange the flowers and put them in the middle of the table. It feels like he’s always been here.
I lean over to hug him, he catches me and holds me there for a moment and stares into my eyes. He traces my cheek with the back of his hand and gently kisses me. My head explodes and I am engulfed by his presence – the warmth of his skin, his scent, the slight taste of coffee still on his lips, the strength in his arms. I open my eyes with a sigh.
“I wish you weren’t paralyzed” he blurts out. I raise my eyebrows questioningly, that’s some timing there. “I’m right there with you” I respond with a sad smile.
He reaches for his coffee and traces the rim of his cup before he takes a big gulp. “You ready for more?” He points to my cup. I nod. What just happened here? The mood shifted. He fusses with coffee for a minute and then announces that the frittata is probably cool enough to eat. I cut it and serve it onto plates and he starts talking about people we both know. I’m feeling off balance and a little ashamed, I’ve done something wrong but I don’t know what it is. I follow him into the conversation as we eat.
“Woman, you look tired” he declares. I admit that my schedule has been over extended lately and volunteer that I would enjoy a down day if I could make one happen. He studies me for a minute. I look down and push my food around.
“Asking you to try to keep up with an able bodied man would be unfair to you” he says out of nowhere.
My head snaps like I’ve been slapped “Excuse me?”
Surely, I’ve misheard.
He stammers “well, it’s just that… I think it would hurt to… umm. Hurt to watch someone live an active life from the sidelines, like sports and hiking and stuff.”
My mouth has gone dry and tastes bitter. I wonder if I’m going to throw up. “What happened to ‘it would take two people to keep up with you’ from a few minutes ago?” Anger is rising and I am working to remain calm. I need to hear him out.
“I’m sorry Jen. Now I know why you don’t date. It is very complicated with the wheelchair and all.” He puts his napkin on the table. I can only stare at him. Tears are stinging my eyes. My mouth tries to work but my brain seems frozen. Sentences will not form. We stare at each other – searching.
He gestures at the clock “ You’ve got to get ready.” I’m numb. I nod robotically. “I’ll clean up” he says.
“No.” My voice gets stronger. I wonder what I’m going to say. “No. You won’t. … I think you should probably get going. I’ll clean up.” He braces his hands on the counter for a second. I think he’s about to say something but he shakes it off.
“OK” He says quietly and in the silence, my heart shatters.
“You should take those flowers too.”
He flinches and starts to speak, to justify his position. I get it but I don’t want to hear it. I put my hand up and turn my head. The first fat tear falls out of my eye and down my cheek. I don’t want to cry in front of him. “Please. Leave.”
He stands up and walks toward the door. As he passes my back he hesitates a second. “I love you Jen. I’m sorry. I just can’t.” He kisses the top of my head, inhales deeply and walks straight out the door. I can’t move until long after I’ve heard his car drive away.
“It just wouldn’t be fair to you Jen” ricochets through my brain, bouncing off every synapse. I clean up the dishes through a haze of tears; bringing order to my thoughts while I bring order to the kitchen. I somehow manage to show up on time for my interview.
“It just wouldn’t be fair to you Jen”
I stay busy all afternoon and into the evening but still, it tramples it’s dirty feet through my brain unbidden. The look on his face. The taste of his kiss. “It just wouldn’t be fair to you Jen” It draws me out of my sleep. It sits with me at breakfast. It flirts with a corner of my brain during my conference call.
We’ll encounter each other as we move through our circles. I’ll smile and quip and try not to remember the burn of his kiss on my neck. In time, he too will develop ‘brother status’ and my heart will remember its place in this world. I won’t venture out of it again.
“It just wouldn’t be fair to you Jen.” How very noble of him.