Today’s piece for Fiction Friday is a fairly short one, which appears in America’s Emerging Literary Fiction Writers: Pacific Region. I wrote it in my post-college years, when I was working as a reporter for the Frontiersman, and was in the habit of observing people. Please enjoy…
“Where’s my cannoli?” a little voice behind me says.
I turn to see a young boy of maybe six, dirty blonde hair falling about his eyes as his head swivels, searching for his missing treat. His sister stands smirking beside him, sticky fingers gripping the Italian sweet behind her back.
Their mother scolds them for being noisy as she tries to talk to the woman seated next to her.
“Some days they’re little monsters, aren’t they,” says the woman, sipping a frothy latte. I wonder if she has children of her own.
The mother smiles tiredly, returning to her adult conversation. I watch the children, racing around the table next to me.
“Give it back, Nina!” the boy yells, having discovered his cannoli’s captor.
The girl, a brighter blonde, maybe a year older, sticks her tongue out at the boy. She makes to take a bite out of her stolen goody, when a larger hand snatches it away.
“You already had one, Nina,” the mother says. “Let Jesse have his.”
I smile, then slip out of the way as another patron walks past me. I instinctively offer my excuses, though he doesn’t hear me.
The women are talking again, the mother’s back to her children. Jesse quietly munches on his prize, deserved, kicking his legs back and forth as he sits. Nina has resorted to making art, rubbing her nubs of crayon on the page of a coloring book.
I take a seat closer to them, observing the somewhat jerky movements of childhood, creative and energetic efforts expended in their separate, haphazard ways.
I feel eyes on me, turn around to see a man looking through me, to the mother of these children, then at the faces of the boy and girl. I don’t know who should feel more embarrassed, me or him, when the woman turns around to check on her offspring. She is not concerned by what she sees, and I am glad. It has been so long since I have enjoyed the presence of youth, all too absent in my life; years, I think, since I have dared to be so near to it, this young vivacity, in a public place.
“I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” I hear the mother say, and for a moment I think she is talking to me, can read my thoughts, even. It is only when I look up and see the other woman’s face, daring to crumple with the weight of loss from long ago — distant, yet permanently painful — that I realize my mistake.
Miraculously, she manages a smile, gazes at Nina and Jesse.
“I thought it broke me,” she says, “but it only cracked my shell. Expanded my capacity for love, Richard says, as I filled in the gaps.”
“How?” the mother of Nina and Jesse asks, uncomprehending. “How did you fill them?”
The lonely woman, tall and dark, looks at the children again, now filling in a jungle scene, together. I feel strangely protective of them, wanting to tell her they do not belong to her. But they do not belong to me either, and I am sad for the both of us.
Another customer comes by and nearly sits on me before I am able to move away. As I stand, I better see Jesse and Nina’s mother as she smiles on her children.
“Jesse and Nina?” she asks her friend, surprise — and maybe fear, I imagine — coloring her voice.
The wistful smile of the tall dark woman disappears in shame, I think, as the distracted mother faces her again.
“Through all children, I suppose,” she answers in a low voice. “They give me life.”
Her eyes are full of tears as they rise to meet the other mother’s.
“Oh Leah,” is the consolation, with the squeeze of a hand. “I’m so glad.”
The implication, I note, which Leah accepts, is that her friend is glad her children bring Leah joy, but that is not what I hear. I have been Leah, and I have met this other woman — the woman who thinks, “I’m so glad I’m not in your shoes.”
I boil uncouthly with anger, wanting to scoop Jesse and Nina up for myself, to follow Leah home and drop them at her doorstep, say, “Take them. They’re yours. You deserve them.”
Of course, I cannot do any of this. Maybe I might have, had I known what I know now; had I met Leah in another life, and colluded with her to abduct love for the both of us.
But as the café fills, as this small party I have spied on gathers their things, more people pass by me and through me, reminding me of my place. I am a vapor. I have lived and died, no longer capable of touch.
I drift out the door, steal one more unseen glance at these two children who have brought Leah so much joy, and whose mother cannot yet fathom the gift she has been given.
The women say their goodbyes, and Nina hoists herself into her mother’s vehicle, Jesse stops, and stares, at me. I look behind me and around me, but there is no one on the sidewalk, save us.
I stare back. I smile, and he smiles, then climbs into the car next to his sister. I wave as they drive past, but Jesse is already occupied by another facet of his reality, and I wonder if he actually saw me at all.
My eyes fall on Leah now, sitting in her car, weeping with memory. I slip into the seat next to her, whisper in her ear, “You are loved. You are special. You are known.”
Her chin rises, and she blinks away the tears. As her head turns about, searching for my voice, I am pulled from the scene, into the black… the white… the end.
Copyright © Cait Buxbaum, 2019