Prompt: Something you have to take a second look at to really be able to see.
(Disclaimer: Weak ending! Perhaps a deux et machina, too!)
Mark breezed into the café, winked at the barista, who’d started his order before he even walked in. He sat in his usual spot, the table against the windows, halfway between the entrance and the doorway to the kitchen. He scanned the room.
The Women Entrepreneurs of Pine Woods had pushed two tables together and were alternating between recommending the best hair colorist and debating whether or not to take a stand on the City Council’s proposal to enact a new tax to save the library. Mark knew that both LaVonne Williams and Marcy Lewinson had attractive daughters, so he smiled at them a moment longer than the other ladies, gave a little wave. Women of that age were so often invisible, he knew, so any attention would warm them to you.
The barista brought over his triple soy latte. Kind of a girly drink, Mark admitted, but he liked the way the sweetness of the soy milk cut the bitterness of the coffee. He also liked that they knew what he wanted and so he didn’t have to ask for it out loud.
Pine Woods finest hovered around another table. They never sat, Mark had noticed, just shifted from one foot to another while sucking down lattes. A couple of what appeared to be community college kids sulked in front of their laptops, while two girls from the Young People for Jesus crew discussed, in most earnest terms, the best way to bring middle school children into the land of Christ. Mark wondered if the blonde one would talk to him if he sat down. Would she look at him as someone to save? How far would that get him? Those Christian girls refused to have sex due to the premarital prohibition, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d had a surprisingly skilled blow job from one of Jesus’ most devout followers.
Or maybe, he thought, maybe the mousy woman in the corner, the one with the book. She looked tired, and as if putting her hair in a ponytail and changing from sweats to jeans was all she could manage on any given day. Single mom, he thought. Just got the kid to day care, having a “me” moment. He’d just read a survey that claimed single moms were the most likely to indulge in casual sex. He could have told them that.
He rose from his table, pretended he was walking toward the condiment counter, glanced down at the book the woman was reading.
“Hey, that’s a great book,” he said.
Single Mom Mousy Chick looked up. “Really? You like it?”
“Sure,” he answered.
“Ethan Frome? You’ve read this? What, like in a class?” she asked.
He wondered what he’d gotten into.
“Um, yeah. Long time ago – I don’t remember the details.” He flashed what he considered a winning grin.
“Maybe you should sit down and help me out then,” she said. “I have to write a paper on this stupid book and I don’t get the appeal at all.”
“Sure,” Mark said, sitting.
“Were you getting something?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You were heading to the condiment counter, right? Didn’t you want to get something before you sat down?” she asked.
“Oh, right,” Mark said. “Nothing that can’t wait.” He took a sip of his latte and smiled.
“OK, so the symbolism – what do you think about that?” she looked at him, expectation embedded in her face. A rather nice face, Mark noticed, not as mousy as he’d thought.
“Hi, I’m Mark,” he said, and held out his hand. He hoped she’d notice how large it was.
“Mattie,” she said. They shook. She maintained eye contact. Mark grinned, but noticed his facial muscles twitching.
“That’s a nice name,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes. Took a sip of her latte. The sun slanted in through the window, lit up Mattie’s eyes. They were green, the color of the leaves that trellised up outside Mark’s bedroom. The leaves would be lit up by the sun, too, just like her eyes, he thought. Wow.
“Mattie is the name of a character in the book,” Mattie said. “You failed.”
Mark grimaced. “I didn’t know I was being tested. Shit. I’m sorry. I haven’t read the book. I just wanted to say hi to you.”
Mattie, or whatever her name was, smiled. “It’s a terrible book,” she said. “I hate it.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, this married guy has a horrible wife that he can’t leave because she’s sick and he falls in love with the cousin who’s shown up to take care of her, but since they can’t be together, they crash into a tree while sledding in a failed suicide attempt, which leaves them crippled, so the horrible wife has to take care of them, which she loves, because she’s horrible.”
Mark whistled. “Wow. Sounds depressing.”
“Seriously. So do you read at all?”
“Sure,” Mark said. “I just prefer non-fiction.”
“Favorite book?” she challenged.
“Endurance,” he said. “Do you know that one? Ernest Shackleton?”
“No,” she said. “Tell me.”
“He was an explorer who wanted to cross Antarctica. Short story is, the ship became trapped in ice, the crew had to eat their dogs and cross icy stormy seas in canoes, and, this is the amazing part, everyone survived.” Mark leaned back and took a sip of his latte.
“You like that,” she said. “That everyone survived.”
“I do,” he said. “My wife – I was married for 3 years – died. Cancer. She fought it, but you know. It’s not something that can always be beat. Whatever the inspirational magazine articles say.”
Not-Mattie studied him. He sat still, letting her gaze move around his face, his shoulders. “I’m not a fan of attachment,” he blurted out. “Not since.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to be.” She tore a page out of her book, pulled a pen from her purse, scribbled something. “Here, call me.” She thrust the page at him. “I have to run. Class.”
“So you’re going back to school?” he asked.
“Back? Sort of. I never have time to read and I thought if I took some lit classes, I’d have to.” She stood up.
“What about your kids?” he asked.
“Kids?” she laughed. “ I don’t have any kids.”
Mark looked at the page. Alison, she’d scrawled, along with her digits.
“Good to meet you, Alison,” he said.
“Good to meet you, too, Mark.”
“That is my real name,” he added, holding his hand out again.
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I knew before you said. I heard the barista addressing you.” Alison smiled. “You’re not the only one paying attention.”
Mark raised his eyebrows as Alison left. Go figure, he thought. Go figure.