The day was going badly, and it was not yet eight in the morning. Sindi had kept them awake all night, causing David and Grace to oversleep. Both were late for work, scrambling to get it together while the baby dolefully declared her need to stay home. Grace’s heart broke, then hardened, finding a convenient target in David. She was angry – but with what? With David for not helping more, for not waking on time, with the frigid day for crashing into the intimacy of a night not ready to be over. She was angry at everything. Their goodbyes were terse, rushed. Grace left the house shortly after David sped away in his little car, taking Sindi to the day mother.
On her way to catch a taxi on Main Road, she stopped at the corner shop for cigarettes. It had been two weeks since she’d last smoked, since the day she’d made all those promises to herself. That part of her promise, the not smoking, that at least she’d kept. She hadn’t yet found the right time to tell David about her father, about her mother, everything, as she had promised herself she would.
Work was demanding. Sindi was teething. It could wait until they had some time to breathe. She had quit the cigarettes cold turkey for two weeks, but today she needed something, just one or two, to get her through this morning. At the counter she counted out her coins and settled for three loose cigarettes, not a whole pack, and a box of matches. Her head throbbed. She slid the coins across the counter and snatched the three cigarettes in return before darting out of the café and around the corner, where she could smoke in peace.
Huddled against a wall, Grace struck a match, cupping her hand as she brought the flame up to the cigarette dangling from her lips. She closed her eyes and inhaled, welcoming the first hit of fragrant smoke as it journeyed to the depths of her body. Her limbs loosened, her hunched shoulders fell back a bit and her headache dulled. A pleasant numbness crept over her body, and her brain mellowed to a calmer frequency.
She exhaled, watching the plume of smoke stream from her lips. Relief. The smoke looked so pretty. Some smokers found their habit disgusting and clung to it out of need. The problem with Grace was that, if she was honest, she truly loved smoking. She loved the striking of the match, the first little drag that ignited the tip of the cigarette, the charge from the hit of the first inhalation, the soothing relaxation that followed. It was a small sensuous pleasure, a cigarette, a private universe she could draw unto herself which was entirely hers. Grace opened her eyes, feeling a bit more prepared to face the day.
Johnny was sitting on a low wall directly opposite her. Her heart quickened. He had shaved his stubbly beard. He looked good. She didn’t need this.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I work nearby. And by the way, it’s a free country.
People can go where they want.”
“So you just happen to pop up in my street?”
“I wanted to see you again.” He spoke softly, solemnly, making it seem like an entirely reasonable desire. “There’s a lot we must still talk about.”
“What? Anything you have to say to me you can tell me right here and now.”
He looked down at his feet and remained silent.
“It was nice to catch up with you, but we’re grown ups now. We really don’t have that much in common. Life has to go on.”
Grace wasn’t going to waste any more time here if Johnny didn’t have anything to say. She turned to go. He stood up swiftly and blocked her path with his body.
“Nothing in common, huh?’ An edge crept into his voice. “I see you, up and coming, office job. You forget where you came from?”
The accusation stung Grace. Of course, yes, she wanted nothing else but to forget where she had come from, but not in the way he was insinuating. She wasn’t like that. Tears pricked at her eyes.
“Wait, wait. Grace! I didn’t mean it. I just want to talk. Can you hear me out?”
Somewhere in her body, that body made up not of platelets and cells but of memory and forgetting, of love and the places that shape, a nerve jangled. She stroked the cross around her neck.
“I love you. I love you, Grace. That is what I have to say. You were the first person I loved, really loved, and I’ve always loved you. Not a day has gone by…. And then seeing you again. Those feelings, right there, right here…” Johnny struck the place on his chest where his heart would be. More words fell from his mouth like unripe fruit reluctant to leave the tree.
Grace looked at him, really looked at him. His eyes were moist, his face red.
He loved her still. What did that mean after all these years? Sympathy softened her. To say it like that, to someone you didn’t really know, must have been hard for him. And stupid. Another part of Grace delighted in his words. Had she not loved him too, every day, longed for him? Wondering and wishing, even after she’d given up waiting for him? Was that love? Or was it the remnant of that other love lost, so enmeshed with his disappearance: the longing for both of them blending into each other as day into night; just one gaping yearning for her mother and Johnny’s return. Was this love?
“I loved you too, for a long time, Johnny.” She sounded soft, defeated.
He lifted his head and gazed directly at her, the hypnotic eyes drinking and pulling at the same time. Much had changed about his face, but the long brown lashes, the inky stare, were as beautiful as she remembered.
“I wish we could just go somewhere and talk for a while, take our time.”
“My house is up the road.”
With those words, Grace knew that she had crossed every single boundary securing her place in the world. She was tugging away at the scaffolding of her life, and she knew it.
They walked wordlessly to the gate she’d left just a few minutes earlier. The street was quiet – all the neighbourhood children were at school. If there were people at home they gave no sign of it. Not a single car passed them, and if any lace curtains twitched as they entered the gate and walked up the steps to the front door, they remained oblivious to it.
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