It’s a little busier than usual in here, but I still managed to find my nook at the back of Mark’s Cafe. It’s close to the maplewood bookshelf, where I find a gem full of Audre Lorde essays. I engage with each turned page, my coffee is hot but I take small sips. Awaken. Breathe. Relax.
The shuffling of patrons have become so soothing. It’s a tiny reminder that I’m not alone, even in isolation. The shop smells like a medley of coffee flavors, but ironically, I manage to identify French vanilla, my favorite, and hazelnut, yours. I order both and set yours opposite where I sat waiting. This spot is a landmark. It’s where we had our first official date. I was so nervous to ask you, but when I finally did, you told me I beat you to it. You spilled a bit of iced coffee on yourself and was so embarrassed. Luckily, I grabbed a warm rag and some soap from the barista and fixed it for you. You spent all day thanking me. I told you it was nothing. You called me a hero.
My phone buzzes. It’s a text saying “be there soon.” I gaze out onto the busy streets to search for you, hoping to catch a glimpse of your long fall trench that you love to wear, or your head of messy, full curls somewhere in the crowd. You always walked briskly through the city, like the man on a mission you always were. No luck spotting you, though. Still, I smile to myself, sip my coffee and resume my time with Ms. Lorde.
Sun rays blind me through the diamond on my ring finger. I could taste the strawberries and cold steel all over again from biting into that slice of cheesecake. I’ll never forget your nervous disposition when I realized what was happening, and how much you shuffled in your seat until you finally nudged me to answer.
“Well? What do you say?”
I had never been so sure of anything in my life. But somehow the thought of a lifetime with you was as assuring as it was uncertain. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. I remember the trip we took to Trinidad & Tobago one summer. You were stunned by the Gasparee caves; it was like watching a child experience the world for the first time. We were both spooked by the bats but ventured deeper until we got to the pool. The clearest, bluest jewel we’d both ever laid our eyes on. I lost you for a few minutes until I heard a splash. You thought it’d be cool to dive in from one of the highest rocks, then you motioned for me to come in. I followed. When our tour guide took a phone call and climbed back up for more reception, we wasted no time taking our swimsuits off.
Then you pulled me into the shadows for a quick session. I was so nervous, but I’m glad I can say we had amazing sex in the most breathtaking setting in the world. You were always more brave.
It’s only 11:33am, but I’m growing a little impatient. It’s been a few months since your trip to Nova Scotia. Your wildlife excursions really gave you a soft edge that I found alluring. You made fun of me for taking polaroids of the penguins on our trip to South Africa, but I didn’t care. There was nothing more important than experiencing the world with you, and your two full bags of expensive camera equipment.
“Let me show you how to snap real photos,” you said playfully before kissing me on the cheek. “This bad boy is a sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C lens. Do you know what that means?”
“Of course I do,” I responded while simultaneously shaking my head no. You gave me a tutorial, but there was nothing quite like seeing the penguins with my own eyes, as wide open as your aperture.
Photography was your way of saying the things you couldn’t verbalize. Writing fiction was mine. I remember the several photo essays we did together. You called me your “muse”. I’d never been called a muse before. You had a specific look in your eyes whenever you thought of a photo idea, like the night I had just gotten out of the shower and realized I was one college sweatshirt and a pair of Hanes away from being forced to do laundry. You found it “sexy” the way I held the basket full of unwashed clothes.
“Don’t move.” A command I’d heard often from you. I rolled my eyes.
“Really, babe? Now?”
“Yes. Now. Just hold the basket a little higher.”
I did as I was told. I impatiently snarled at the camera.
“That’s it. You look gorgeous, baby. Now give me a little smile.”
I gave you a small one.
“A little more, come on,” you nudged. You lowered the camera slightly and stared at my legs, licked your lips a little bit and then winked at me. “Just like that.”
You knew that was all it took. A genuine smile, just like you’d ask for, appeared so easily. Even in the moments when you frustrated me, I’d never felt more treasured.
It’s 11:48 now. Waiting for noon to come. The text says he’ll be here by noon. I glance down back into the book. My eyes fall onto the quote “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” Just like our tattoos. That weekend in Corpus Christi was a wild one, wasn’t it?
We both decided on this saying–etched into the epidermis of our rib cages. You were my rib, and I was yours. This was supposed to be a symbol of our declaration of freedom. It was in the New Years resolution verbal contracts we thought up in the hotel room. To seal the deal, we’d get tattoos that cemented living our lives with purpose. We decided on this Audre Lorde quote. We love Audre Lorde. That night we ordered takeout to pair with Jack Daniels and joints and kept the tradition of having the TV volume high enough to drown out our moans–mine were especially loud. That year, we made each other cum just three seconds shy of the ball drop. A record we have yet to break.
It’s 11:53. I try reading a bit more, but I’m anxious at this point. I check my phone and see the text: “Walking in.” The bell over the shop door chimes and I look up. There he is. The love of my life.
He looks around for a few seconds before he sees me. He lights up. Above the murmurs of the cafe, he shouts, “Dad!”
His tiny feet scurry over to me, the small starter camera hung from his neck on a lanyard. That was his favorite birthday present you’ve ever given him. I pick him up into a giant bear hug. His arms are small, but there is nothing in this world that matches his embrace. I would stay here forever if I could.
“Uncle Benji took me rock climbing!” he exclaims.
“Rock climbing?” I asked, staring at your brother as he walks over with a slight grin.
“At a secure facility. He was completely safe, don’t worry. He loved it! Besides, it’s tradition.” You and your brothers grew up outdoors. I remember the camping stories you shared with me. How you fell in love with animals and photographing them when you saw deer for the first time. Your brothers wanted to shoot them, but so did you, except in a slightly different way. So you grabbed your camera from the tent and poured the entire roll out. Couldn’t wait to get back home and have them developed at your neighborhood pharmacy.
“How are you?” Benji asked. It was one of those concerns that didn’t warrant much depth, so I kept my response light.
“Hanging in there, you know, just making sure I don’t miss a Sunday here. It’s tradition.”
He gazed at me. We had to break it before any tears showed. Staying strong for Junior.
“Say, boss, why don’t you show your dad what we picked up on the way here?” He pointed to Junior’s coat pocket, where he held a small military figurine. The golden soldier stood proudly. Saluting.
“It’s just like Papa, right?” he asked.
I paused for a minute. It had been such a time warp since you’ve been gone. I resented you so much for going away. Fought against the whole idea. I tried understanding but I couldn’t. You said you were doing this for us, for our son. We went to war over you going to war. For a minute, I thought I’d won. I thought I’d convinced you that we’d be able to support our family and our passions and our livelihood. Seeing you still pack those bags broke me. Seeing you drive off was the hardest. I didn’t want to say it out loud then, but I knew that was the last time I’d ever see you.
“Yes. Papa was definitely the golden soldier.”
I was wrong. War didn’t take you from me. When you came back, I couldn’t have been more relieved. You had stories of what it was like: Iraq, Japan, the Gaza strip. Parts of the world I had never been, you gave me a glimpse into that world. I was so happy when you decided not to go back. We got engaged to seal that deal. Junior came right after that. We were as prepared as we could be to take on a six-month old baby, but parenting was an adventure in itself. One that I’m so grateful to have shared with both of you. Now he’s six years old. We really did a good job.
The morning you left for Nova Scotia was calmer than any morning. We had sex as quietly as possible to not wake Junior, then we had breakfast and, just like that, you were off. It was only supposed to be a weekend trip. We talked on the phone for an hour and a half your first night there; three hours on your second. You got snapshots of porcupines, muskrats, and even the eastern coyote.
“Tomorrow morning, Fisher John is taking me out on his boat with the guys. I gotta get that shot, babe.” You were determined to capture a humpback whale. It was the missing piece to your nearly-finished portfolio. You planned to submit it to National Geographic.
“Yeah, well, just be careful out there. Junior’s excited about those photos. Sorry we couldn’t make it with you. My mom could only visit this weekend.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. Plenty more trips to come. Is he awake?”
I looked down at Junior as he slept peacefully. “Nope. Our little man is out cold.”
“Yeah? Well…. whatchu got on?”
“Uh uh. Not right next to our son,” I laughed. You played entirely too much.
You chuckled into the phone and said in your sleepy voice, “I love you so much. You know that right?”
“I love you more. Hurry back home to me. Tomorrow’s Sunday, we can hit up Mark’s in the afternoon. A round on me to celebrate my fiancé being commissioned by National Geographic?”
“Oooh. Hazelnut? My favorite?”
“6:30am we head out to sail. Flight’s at 11:30. I’ll be seeing your beautiful face tomorrow afternoon.”
“I can’t wait. Get some sleep, champ. I love you.”
“I love you.”
I got a call at 8:27 the next morning. It was Fisher John. Somehow, in the midst of my sleepiness and usual AM confusion, I knew. You all got too close and the boat flipped over, and you were knocked unconscious. As brave a warrior as you were, you also weren’t the strongest swimmer. They tried to revive you, warm you up and take you to the hospital, but it was too late. I couldn’t stomach the details. Making funeral arrangements with your parents was hard. Explaining to our son in the best way I could what happened to Papa was hard. Living without you is hard.
It doesn’t get any easier, my love. You’ve turned my life inside out. I come to this cafe every Sunday and order your favorite–hazelnut with two espresso shots and whipped cream, then I go home and spend the day in our bed watching movies with our son. I promise to keep this up as long as I can. It’s tradition.
“Jasmine’s cooking tonight. One of her mom’s recipes. Southern. We’d love to have you over.” Benji extended the invitation. He misses you so much. I can tell. The only time I’ve ever seen your little brother cry was at the funeral. It’s something he doesn’t ever have to say, but he’s in so much pain. We both feel it and we both know it.
“Junior and I actually have a few movies to catch up on so–”
“Dad…” he tugs on my coat and gives me the eyes. You know the eyes. We can hardly refuse them.
“So what we’ll do is maybe catch one, then head over for dinner?” I wink at Junior and he smiles. Crook.
We say our goodbyes to Benji and sit.
“So what’ll it be tonight? I was thinking Home Alone. We love that one.
“Dad we saw Home Alone like a million bajillion times.”
“A million bajillion and one won’t hurt. That’s a classic! But since you’re not feeling it, what are you in the mood for?”
“Alright my little Optimus Prime. Transformers it is!”
Junior gets excited, takes a dab of the whipped cream from your coffee onto his finger and licks it off, then gets quiet. He stares down at your coffee and then up at me.
“What’s wrong, son?” I ask.
“I miss Papa.”
“Me too, kiddo,” the tears I worked hard to hold back finally found their way out. “Me too.”