With a tug of his hood over his ears, Jim stepped out into the chill. Snow fell in May, gentle giant flakes melting upon impact, unexpected and unwelcome, stealing the promise of sun and blue sky in the silence of night.
What happened to spring?
Behind him, warm and safe, nestled in her cocoon of grey flannel pajamas and down comforter, she waited. Red hair and fair skin that never left his thoughts. Cassandra needed coffee, decaf of course, fresh and hot from Vic’s. Only a short walk, three blocks.
Who could deny an expectant mother?
His breath preceded him in gentle wafts as he trudged in silence. Layers of puddles and slush dulled the morning hum of the street, discouraged thoughts of adventure from any eyes that peaked around drawn curtains or shuttered blinds. Today was a day to remain indoors, hot coffee or tea in hand. Read a book or watch a movie. Cuddle with the one you love.
Jim welcomed the escape.
As he stood just outside of Vic’s, steaming cups in hand, he watched the slow, Sunday-morning traffic on Broadway, the ebb and flow of cars passing by. Perhaps there was time to sit at the lonely outside table, relax a moment. He pulled the collar of his jacket tight, wiped the moisture off the chair with a few napkins and lowered himself with a sigh into his pocket of solitude. Behind him, the door swung outward and the golden glow of warmth, chatter, soft jazz and laughter intruded, emphasizing the cold and isolation. The world was a warm, happy place, a mellow gathering of man, but he wasn’t invited.
“Who are you avoiding?” A voice from Jim’s right. The crazy man. He’d appeared as if from nowhere, long and dark, a shadow in the gloom of early- morning grey.
No one ever spoke to the crazy man. Most people barely acknowledged his presence, treated him as a fixture, furniture, part of the coffee shop décor- the derelict, bearded man who paced in front, muttering to himself, who wore a black wool cap and long wool jacket year round ,even in the hottest of days. No one spoke to the crazy man and the crazy man spoke to no one.
“Who are you avoiding?” The man looked down as if expecting an answer. As if he and Jim had had many a conversation before, were acquaintances if not friends. He moved closer. Too close. He reeked of stale cigarette smoke and body odor.
“You’ve got two coffees. One’s obviously for somebody else. But you’re sitting here alone, letting it get cold.” He crossed to the table’s only other chair, sat down and stared into the clouds as if he saw something others did not.
Who was this guy? “Um…okay … It’s for my girlfriend. And I’ll just micro-wave it when I get back.”
“Wow. Mr. Chivalrous. She’s lucky to have such an attentive boyfriend. Micro-waved coffee. Yummy.” The man rolled his eyes. Crossed long legs and took a long, slow draw from his cigarette. Smoke curled in leisurely tendrils from his nose.
Why had the crazy man chosen this moment to interact with the world around him? And why had he chosen Jim? “I…I guess I’m just enjoying some peace and quiet.”
“So are you saying there’s no peace and quiet with her?” His baritone rolled across the table, smooth and flawless. Not at all what Jim would have expected from one so derelict in appearance. The stains on his jeans spoke of nights spent under bridges, in bus stops. “Or just no enjoyment of it?”
“What are you, my therapist or something? It’s none of your business.” Jim’s voice rose, chased the hopeful sparrows from his feet. “And why are you even talking to me? I’ve never seen you talk to anyone!”
The bearded face turned, met Jim with a brief stare, full of something (anger?) that disappeared as the his gaze returned to the clouds through wisps of cigarette smoke. “I have my reasons.”
Jim had had enough. He shook his head, rose, grabbed the coffees.
“You still haven’t answered the question.”
“What the..? Okay. Since you seem to have some burning desire to know, we’re painting the nursery today. We’re about to have a baby. I was just taking a few minutes to gear myself up.”
“For painting the nursery or having the baby?”
“I…uh…” Jim swirled the curdled milk in his coffee, summed up his life in a few words. “Look. Not everyone is cut out to be a father.”
“Why not? It doesn’t sound bad, starting a family. Surrounding yourself with people who love you. Comfort and companionship. Watching your child grow, become somebody. I mean…“ He looked down at the cigarette smoldering in his hand, voice falling almost to a whisper, “…let’s just say the opportunities for that kind of fulfillment don’t often repeat themselves.”
Jim stood in the silence of the moment as a faint sun peaked over the eastern horizon, barely visible in thickening grey clouds.
The man’s eyes found Jim’s. “It’s normal to be afraid, you know.”
Normal. What was normal? Waking every night from a terrifying nightmare that faded faster than he could remember it? A nightmare that started the moment he found out Cassandra was pregnant. “Normal? What the hell do you know about normal?”
The man’s eyes narrowed to slits. He jumped to his feet and crossed to Jim in two long strides. He bent forward, face inches from Jim’s, eyes seemingly unable to contain their own energy, unable to focus on one point, dancing around Jim in frantic swirls. “Listen to me, punk!” He poked Jim in the chest, hard, with a long, frantic finger. ”You don’t know what you’re doing. You are going to destroy the universe if you aren’t careful!”
“What the hell?” Jim retreated two steps, wished he were taller. Stronger. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” Long arms spread wide in emphasis. “I’m not the one who’s going to ruin his life. I’m not the one who’s going to ruin everyone’s life! Have some courage. For once in your life!”
Perhaps now would be a good time to leave. Jim shook his head, turned, headed across the parking lot.
“This is my world we’re talking about!” The angry voice chased Jim, echoed off the dumpster in front of him.
Jim quickened his pace, not quite scared but not quite calm.
“Run! Just like before, you chicken-shit!”
Seamless grey stretched from horizon to horizon. No breaks, no hints of the new sun, no shadowed silhouette of the Rockiesbroke the monotony of the sky. Yesterday’s aureate embrace, the implicit promise of summer, of warmth and blue skies, had disappeared into grey. He trudged to the park, sat on the metal picnic table and stared at his wet sneakers. What had the crazy man said? About surrounding yourself with comfort and companionship? Watching your child grow? Shouldn’t Jim be happy? What the hell was his problem? Life beckoned. A future of merit, a wholesome happy picture of warmth and contentment lay within reach. Why couldn’t he embrace it, accept it? Live it? He wanted to, wanted desperately to be that man. But wasn’t.
If he wasn’t that man, who was he?
The answer scared him. The cold of the table had seeped through his jeans, expanded outward, an increasing numbness from fingertips to the depths of his chest. He really should go. Time to return to a nursery that needed painting. To stenciled elephants and hippos in a line below the ceiling. Time to return to Cassandra, to her swollen stomach and waddling gait.
The physical changes didn’t scare him. The curve of her breast and belly and grown softer, fuller, in a way more beautiful. But the books on the nightstand? All about motherhood. Parenting. She immersed herself in them, preparing to become the best mother she could be. Cassandra, warm and welcoming, the easer of pain and malaise. She personified responsibility, stability, love and nurturing. She would be a fantastic mother. It was her destiny.
What was his?
He left soggy footprints in the grass as he crossed the park to 9th street. He paused, just for a moment, stared up at the expanse of grey clouds above. One more block. One more block and he was home. He pulled his hood tight, shoved cold hands in his pants pockets, and stepped out into the street. Only saw the rumbling delivery truck at the last second.
Time slowed, a split second now infinite. He relaxed and closed his eyes.
And opened them to white. Not the white of a distant light. Not the effervescent white of non-existence or the afterlife. Only the off-white of his bedroom ceiling, imperfect, stained by past leaks of pipes or roof.
What the hell had happened? He sat up, rubbing his temples. His head ached like someone had smacked him with a two by four, a pain so bad he almost wanted to puke. A whisper of breath rose beside him. Cassandra? He turned to her silhouette, watched her breathe, took in the lines of her body, her long hair across her face, the neck, the breasts, the smooth stomach, the gentle curve of hips…
He bolted upright and stared at her flat stomach.