The café was always very busy during Sunday afternoons. Today was no different.
As he stood in line to place his order, he scanned the place for an empty table. There was none. Then his eyes started searching for any movement among the people seated to give him an indication that they were leaving. It almost felt like an episode out of a Discovery channel wildlife special showcasing the hunter and the hunted.
Then there it was. A middle aged man closed his laptop and started packing his things. As soon as the man stood up to leave, he stepped out of the line went up to the table. Both of them acknowledged each other’s presence with a smile. And he walked away.
He triumphantly put down his newspaper on the table. Reminded him of the way certain animals mark their territory.
As he walked back to the line he could sense a few unspoken “Damn you!”s being hurled his way. He stepped back in to the line with a smug look on his face.
Finally his turn to order came. The girl at the counter was a cute redhead. Probably around 18 years old. She bore the bane of all redheads – freckles, quite a few of them.
“What would you like?”
“Just a medium sized brew of the day, please”
She stepped back to get it. The regular coffee is pre-brewed while the more fancy brews like cappuccinos or mochas were made to order. She came back empty handed though.
“We are out of it. We are brewing a fresh pot. Would you mind waiting for a couple of minutes?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Great. That will be $1.50”
He handed her couple of Washingtons.
She handed back a couple of quarters and said “Here’s your change. I will let you know once the coffee is ready.’
He dropped the change in the tip jar and said a “Thank you”
As he stood back and waited for his coffee, he tried to push back the turmoil brewing within him.
“What was I thinking? Was I even thinking at all?”
“The one thing I thought, that I will never do. So much for self belief.”
The thoughts rushing about by were brought a screeching halt by somebody calling his name.
He turned his gaze and it was the redhead. “Here is your coffee. Have a nice day” She said with a lovely smile on her face. He managed to pull together a smile and blurt out a “Thanks. You have a nice day too”.
When he poured the milk into the coffee, it seemed to whip up a storm in the rich dark liquid.
As he sat down at his seat, the song changed. It was Frank Sinatra crooning “My funny Valentine”. It brought a smile to his face.
It brought back the memories of how he had serenaded her with that song.
They had had a silly fight a few days after their marriage. He couldn’t even remember the reason. He pulled a suit jacket over his pjs and used her hair brush like a mic. By the end of the song they were laughing in each other’s arms.
Jazz was the essential soundtrack to their relationship and marriage.
He remembered the first time he met her. It was at this very same café.
It was the summer of 2003. He was doing his usual Sunday afternoon ‘coffee and people watching’ thing. His eyes were scanning for an empty table when he saw her. He was never one to try and hit on women at a café
Just like anyone who has ever been in love would tell you, “There was something about her”.
She was sitting at a window seat across from the entrance of the café. Her beautiful dark hair was untied. A few curly locks of hair framed her beautiful face.
The breeze which crept in whenever the door was opened caressed those locks and moved them onto her face. And each time she brushed them away with a graceful motion of her left hand. She wore a beautiful bohemian skirt full of beautiful colors coupled with a crisp white shirt. Simple flat sandals completed her outfit.
She was gazing through the window when he approached her and said “Hi”
She looked up and said “Hello”. Her beautiful blue eyes and enchanting smile almost made his heart stop beating. He recovered well enough to ask “Do you mind if I join you at your table?”
She looked around the café and there was an empty table at the far corner. “Well, there is another table over there. Didn’t you see it?”
“I did. But then I would have to shout to be able to talk to you. I don’t think the rest of the folks in the café would appreciate it very much.”
She did a half laugh and half smirk and asked “Why do you think I would be interested in having a conversation with you?”
A woman who can match him word for word, he was already starting to like her.
“Isn’t this already a conversation? As far as I can see you haven’t backed away, so I don’t see why it can’t continue”
“Well, you do have a point. I guess you could sit at my table for a few minutes”. She winked and smiled at him. He almost died twice in the space of five minutes.
After getting the introductions out of the way, he found out that she had just moved here to start her new job. The conversation was seamless. It was like two friends catching up after a while.
That’s when the café started playing Sam Cooke’s “What a wonderful world”.
“That is one of my favorite songs!”
“Really? Mine too!” and then he proceeded to sing along with it. After a few moments of embarrassment she too joined in.
The next time they heard the song again, was when he played it to her over phone a day after their first date. A little over a year later they got married.
His trip down memory lane was stopped short by someone wanting to borrow a chair from his table. That brought him back to the chaos churning inside him.
“Well, it was harmless. I did manage to avoid anything further”
“Or did I? Didn’t I want more?
* * *
It was this last Friday evening. The office was emptying out. He looked at his watch
It read 4:15.
“Maybe I should stay back and finish off this work. Well, then again Lisa is not going to be in town this weekend. I could take this up on Sunday”
His decision making process was interrupted by a sultry voice saying
It was Claire. She was the “it” girl of the office. Gorgeous blond hair, icy blue eyes and a smile which turned men into babbling babies.
There was no question about how people around her felt. Women hated her and men stole glances when their significant others were not around. He liked observing the reaction of the people around her more than her.
She somehow had a thing for him. Maybe his unavailable status had something to do with it. Apart from some harmless flirting, they were just good friends.
“Hey, you guys heading out?”
“Yeah, a bunch of us are going down to that swanky new lounge. Dave’s friend owns it. So we are the V.I.P room. YES!!!”
“As if you couldn’t get into any V.I.P lounge you wanted” He chuckled.
She gave him the raised eyebrow and said “Smartass!”
“Hey Lisa is out of town, right? Why don’t you join us? Come on, it will be fun.”
“I don’t know. I don’t drink much these days.”
“Good. Then you can drive me home because I plan to get drunk today”
* * *
Nearly four hours later, he was driving up to her house. Claire was fast asleep. She kept her word. That girl could really pull her alcohol. Thankfully he knew her house since she pulled the same act at the company Christmas party. He and Lisa had to drive her back home that time too.
He pulled up to her house and cut the engine. Miles Davis was finishing up the last notes of “So What”. He waited for it to end before he turned it off. “Kind of Blue” was Lisa’s album of choice for dinner time.
He got out and walked around to her side and opened the door. She was still sleeping. She looked so serene. Very unlike the Claire who was the life of every party.
He tapped on her shoulder. No response. He tapped a little more firmly. She woke up this time. She took a minute to comprehend where she was. Then she saw him kneeling beside her and smiling.
“Oh, I am so sorry. I had way too much to drink. I feel like an ass”
“Don’t worry about it. You are a party of one, when you are drunk. It was fun”
She smirked and took her purse and stepped out of the car and asked.
“When is Lisa getting back?”
“She is a very lucky woman”.
As she said those words the look in her eyes changed into a blend of longing and sadness. She held that look for a moment. And then she slipped her fingers through his hair and kissed him firmly on the lips. It lasted a few moments and then she walked away quickly and went inside her house.
* * *
He didn’t make much of the kiss. He didn’t even think about it all of Saturday. That was until he got the call from Lisa today morning. He was awake but still lying around in bed when his phone rang. He almost didn’t answer it. Then he saw it was Lisa. So he scrambled to pick it up.
“Hey, you still sleeping?”
“Nope, I woke up a while back. How are things there? How is work?”
“Things are good. I just had a great breakfast. But….” Her voice trailed off.
“But? What happened? Are you ok?”
“I have been thinking”
“About my job. It keeps us apart so much…”
“I have made a decision. I am quitting this job. I am going to try and find something closer to home”
“Wow! Really? ”
“Yeah. What do you think? Are you happy with my decision?”
“Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be happier. With your skills, you will find a job in no time”
“Am glad you agree. I was worried about you not liking my decision”
“Of course I agree. Now you get your sweet ass down here”
She giggled and said “Three more days and I will be there. I got to go now. Have a meeting to head to. I will call you later. Love you”
“Love you”. And then the phone went dead.
* * *
Since that moment his insides were tearing up. His mind raced back to Friday night and the kiss with Claire. This trip to his favorite café was his futile attempt at seeking refuge from the guilt ravaging him from inside.
He knew how much that job meant to Lisa. She was willing to give it all up just to be with him.
“She is willing to give up her prized job to be with me. And what do I do? I kiss another woman. I didn’t try to stop it. I didn’t even say a word.”
He halted his thoughts for a few moments as his ears caught Ol’ Blue Eyes singing
“Let me try again - let me try again
Think of all we had before - let me try once more
We can have it all - you and I again
Please forgive me or I'll die - let me try again”
A loud sigh escaped him as he heard those words. He quickly looked around to see if anyone else noticed it. Luckily people were engrossed in their own thing.
* * *
She lied. She didn’t have a meeting to go to.
Tears were starting to well up in her eyes as she spoke to Brian. She was struggling to hold back the sobs and maintain a cheerful tone. The moment the call ended, she buried her face in the pillow. She cried harder than she ever had.
She didn’t know how long she cried. But after it she definitely felt lighter.
“How did this happen to me? How could I do this to him?”
* * *
Chris was the business analyst for the project she was handling. And like most women around him, Lisa too found him to be extremely attractive. Dirty blonde hair, hazel eyes and very sharp facial features combined with his tall, athletic frame to paint a very handsome picture. His smart and suave personality just added to his appeal.
As she was leaving the building, he called her name. He walked briskly up to her and said
“Do you know any good Thai restaurants around here?”
“Yes, there is one very close to our hotel. It is really good. I went there last week.”
“Good. Make a reservation for two, say around 7pm?”
“Huh? Why don’t you or your friend make the reservation? I can give you the number”
“Well, that is why I am asking you. We are having dinner together. So I’ll see you at 7 then”
Before she had time to respond, he was already walking back into the building. When he got to the door, he turned around, smiled and waved to her. And almost as a reflex action she did the same.
* * *
Nearly five hours later, they had finished dinner at the Thai restaurant, eaten dessert at the next door gelato joint. And now they had been at the bar in their hotel for over an hour. She was on her second dirty martini.
She noticed how incessantly he was flirting with her. Much beyond the normal realm of ‘colleagues’.
“Hasn’t he noticed the ring on my finger?” she thought.
She stole a moment to look at her ring. That is when she realized she was not wearing it off. She had taken it off in the evening to scrub her hands thoroughly and forgotten too put it back on.
An hour and one more dirty martini later, he was walking her back to her room. She remembered up to the point where she was about to give him a goodnight hug. The rest was a blur.
The next clear memory she had was of the next morning. She was woken up by a cell phone ringing. She turned around and saw Chris walking away tucking his shirt with one hand and the cell phone in the other.
For a while she was in a state of shock. Then the guilt started to kick in. She paced around the room like a caged animal.
“What should I do? Should I tell him? Will he forgive me?”
“But what is the point? It was just a drunken mistake. He doesn’t need to know’
“Redemption is the best among human qualities. I will redeem myself. He doesn’t need to know”
She thought about it long and hard. And that is when she made the phone call.
* * *
She walked to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She thought about ordering food. But she didn’t feel hungry. She poured herself a drink from the mini-bar.
She pulled the chair close to the window where she had a beautiful view of the city. She put on her headphones and switched on her iPod. The song playing was “Fallen” by Sarah Mclachlan. The words seemed to speak to her.
I have sunk so low
I have messed up
Better I should know
So don't come around here
And tell me I told you so..."