by Sirona Danu
The door was closed. It’d been closed for nearly twenty years. Delia had turned her back and slammed it herself for reasons that seemed important then, but she couldn’t recall now. Problem was, she had lots of time to think about them standing in the checkout line at Target and wondering if the guy two customers up was Nate, the guy she’d shut out when she closed that door.
Nate. A contradiction in pants. A man she’d once got an ulcer over. A man who’d sleep with her on Friday night and confess his sin on Saturday morning—week in and week out.
Talk about a relationship of extremes.
Incompatibility? Sure. Stubbornness? Clearly that was part of both the attraction and the demise, and Nate the Immovable contributed more than his share. Mostly with the damn annulment papers he used like a shield–the courts said he was divorced; he and the church had another view.
Disagreements over stupid trivialities? There were lots of those. For instance, his attitude about Del adopting a cat when he was more of a dog person. And of course, the irreconcilable whopper: diverse life goals that passion, worn thread-thin by the weight of compromise, couldn’t disguise anymore. When the end of Delia and Nate arrived, it was sealed with tough old spikes beaten into the door with sledgehammers.
So, why, after all these years of faithful marriage, children, pets, and a big fine house, did he come to mind at all? And why did she think that guy might be him? The very idea struck her stupid with absurdity. Was she simply wishing or did she see something familiar in the curve of ass she’d glimpsed as she shoved her cart into line?
Nate had quite the ass—which he hated for its pronounced curviness—rounder than the average male’s. If he was nothing else, Nate was self-effacing—even about the assets Del found most appealing. Like his ass, so grabbable and substantial.
The guy up ahead, he had that ass, the right square of his shoulders, and the right ratio of baldness to hair.
It’s not as if Del looked for Nate wherever she went—he lived thirty minutes away. They barely shopped in the same latitude, let alone the same stores, leaving little chance of recreating weepy Dan Fogelberg songs on snowy Saturday nights. In nearly twenty years she and Nate had bumped into each other only three or four times. And a bare one of those was at a shopping establishment. Albeit, this shopping establishment. So rarely did their meetings happen, she never, well almost never, thought to look for him. Except when she came to Target. Sometimes she shopped there—alone without her family trailing behind—as much for the hope of seeing him as picking up a good bargain.
Add foolishness to the relationship fallout. Those powerful life-altering relationships always made some part of you radioactive about something.
Del had the hubby and kids along the day she ran into Nate at Target. But she’d still rushed up to him, and he’d rushed up to her—not quite the long-lost-lovers-dashing-across-a-meadow kind of rushing up, but it had that flavor. A time-stopping interlude when people who’ve been absent from each other’s lives for fifteen or sixteen years meet as if they’d parted yesterday yet missed each other for a lifetime.
For Del, it was as if he’d come back from the dead or walked out of an old novel.
He’d smelled as he always smelled, like warm leather and faintly of olives. She used to love his refined earthiness, as if his olive-toned skin bore a matching scent. Did all olive skin have a particular scent? Or was his due to years of exposure to his Italian mother’s cooking? Whatever the cause, he smelled uniquely Nate. And you know what they say about smell and memory? Del would swear, right to your face standing in that line if you asked her, for those few stolen seconds that day, in front of the husband and a scattering of strangers, that scent brought up something from her past she thought no longer mattered. The door she nailed shut opened a crack that day, letting in a little Sicilian sun, and she remembered how it used to warm her. No, not warm—burn—in the best way possible.
Sweat beads rose on Del’s upper lip just from thinking about it.
She leaned to the right, hoping to peek around the customers between her and possible-Nate. She stretched a bit more; the people shuffled, blocking her view. It was the holidays; everyone had full carts, big coats, and impatient fidgets. She cocked a hip and leaned left. The in-betweeners, undoubtedly prickling at her anxious spying, moved like chess pieces blocking a checkmate. Del sighed, backed up a step, and squeezed around to inspect the gum rack. If she wedged in far enough, she could look past the in-betweeners and watch him: how he moved as the line inched forward, the tilt of his head, the faint rime of Saturday morning stubble along his jaw.
There was no pure black hair on this fellow. No, here was more salt than pepper. But wouldn’t that be right? Wouldn’t Nate, after nearly twenty years and at the mature age of fifty-nine, have gone quite gray? Of course. Made perfect sense.
The Trident Peppermint went back in the display. Del fingered a package of Extra. She glanced again. The man turned his head, the angle revealing a cheek and the tip of his nose. Her pulse hammered against her throat, beating the breath out of her. It had to be him.
Del went a bit light-headed and for a second her thoughts were all mixed-up and swimmy.
As often as she shopped at Target, the store was, more than anything, a holy shrine of meeting Nate. At times, she knew she came just for the chance to run into him again. In the depths of her mind, recreating that fleeting encounter would make a dull life worth living.
Please, Lord God Almighty, let it be him!
The gum and mint packets got a methodical inspection but Del’s thoughts were on the last encounter with Nate. She savored the sweet Chiclets of the interaction, the mixing of auras, and each uttered phrase.
Del had hugged Nate. Nate had hugged Del. Husband gave a grunt and shallow handshake. Children were introduced. “Oh, your girls are beautiful. I knew you’d have beautiful kids.” There was that gleam in Nate’s eye—the same one he’d had the day he said he’d be proud if she got pregnant, an unlikely possibility in consideration of the God-given blockage to his plumbing. (How many men would kill for a natural vasectomy?) Other pleasantries were offered as the moment rushed on, latent electricity humming around them. “What are you doing now? Retired from teaching? Oh, good for you. I’m blah-blah-blah.”
Whatever was said didn’t matter as long as they spoke, because the longer they spoke, the more time Del had to think of a way to slip him her number or a business card, maybe find an excuse to share an email address. A foolish whim on more levels than she could count without removing her shoes. She didn’t believe adultery or divorce was right—well, at least not for her personally—so what on earth would she do if he called her?
The breadth of two or three moments whisked by in a blink to the accompaniment of her uselessly longing heart. With the niceties done, further lingering would’ve been obvious. Del found herself saying good-bye yet searching for a practical, not-too-lame reason to not say farewell just yet. Decorum gripped them all, and without weeping (a few tender tears were allowed, perhaps) or swallowing his tongue (you can’t steal a for-old-times’-sake slobber in front of the sweet little family), old passions were slaughtered on the altar of better judgment. And then they were parting.
Just as quickly as the Mediterranean sun squeezed through, the door slammed again. The family remained whole. The ex-lover returned to his bachelorhood.
And years passed. Children grew. A marriage withered. Christmases waxed and waned, with the current one waxing and nearly full and yet so much shopping to be done.
Del arose like most Saturdays, but rather than scrubbing toilets and changing sheets, she decided to go shopping—something she never did on a weekend after mid-November. She needed a few more presents and a boatload of toiletries, but got a queer feeling about shopping the moment she left the house. Standing there in that checkout line, she smiled and gave the queerness its due allowing the sun to warm that long-sealed door as she looked at the balding pate of a probable stranger. A stranger who reminded her of hot days and bursts of passion she thought marriage had killed forever. Stupid, useless memories obviously made sweeter with time and distance.
Some wines were better left sealed in the bottle, never quite as good as one imagined. Del strained to remember that.
There was a ten-year disparity in their ages, although it seemed unimportant when they were dating. Somehow, the relationship had worked most of the time, despite Nate’s extra life experience, the religious gulf (he was painfully Catholic, she was painfully not Catholic), and the irreconcilable pursuits of happiness.
Because of knowing him she’d profess to the end of her days the incomparable skill of Italian lovers. Nate’s only concern was her pleasure, and in return, she gave him joys he’d never known. Of course, other than his ex-wife, he’d been with only one or two women before they met. Yet, he was an accomplished lover, and a giver—oh, what a giver. And, babycakes, did he have a lot to give. Women lie when they say size doesn’t matter.
Del’s gaze drifted from the gum display to a gap in the line, a parting as miraculous as the Lord’s for the Israelites. She glimpsed a shapely ass in lightly faded jeans and tried to remember how to breathe. The man turned his head more, and she snapped her gaze up to study the facial curves. Dark lashes stood over the peep of an outer eye; a Roman nose came into clear profile, and then a mouth with lips perfectly full.
“Find everything you need, sir?” the sweet, young clerk asked. She grabbed an item off the belt. Del read Amber on her nametag.
“Yes. It was a good time to shop,” Nate said. “No crowds. I hate crowds.”
Del drank in the voice, like the low rumble of a tuned engine. She studied the angle of his cheek, more lined than she remembered, but the change was subtle, attractive.
“Hey, lady, move up already.”
“What?” Del turned to the man behind her. He glared with bloodshot, morning-after-Friday-night eyes. She looked at the counter, a gap had formed at the end, and it was her turn to unpack. “Oh, sorry.” Del glanced at Nate as she moved forward, fearing the bully had ratted her out. Nate was digging in his wallet.
Del shoved the trolley forward and began unloading. Her ears retuned to Nate and Amber’s conversation, still straining to erase the last doubts.
“No Christmas presents for your sweetheart, sir?” Amber asked, a flirtatious lilt to her voice—she who was young enough to be Nate’s granddaughter. Her tone made Del feel odd and ridiculous and old.
“Nope. No sweetheart this year. Just the family.”
There. Was that a slight sibilant S? And did he just say he had no sweetheart? Blood howled in Del’s ears.
Amber smiled, still flirting. “We all go through relationship dry spells, eh?”
Nate laughed—an unmistakable timbre in the sound. Del dumped shampoo bottles and sock packages on the conveyor belt. Her hands seemed disconnected from the rest of her, moving by habit. Her ears were aflame, her heart a straining bellows in her chest, joyful and barely functional.
“Yeah,” Nate said, “and some dry spells are longer than others.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Amber was done scanning his deodorant and Ritz crackers. No further need to flirt. “Your total is twenty-nine, fifty-two.”
Del kept unpacking and watched Nate migrate to the credit card terminal on the end of the counter. If he looked up for even a nano-second, he would see her. She willed it to happen. Pleaded with every deity she could name, because if he looked up they would reconnect by chance. Chance was okay. Chance was outside of her control. Chance could be blamed for things. Chance wasn’t desperate like shouting his name in front of all those gods and strangers, and looking horrible, desperate, and anxious for it.
“I ran into him quite unexpectedly,” Del imagined herself telling the husband. “There we were at the checkout. I looked up and he looked up…” And she’d laugh and convince him it was just funny happenstance.
Nate signed his name. The register clucked and spun and pumped out a receipt. Del inched forward. Pushing her cart, tapping her foot. The man after Nate had only a few in his hand. The couple behind him had piled the midsection of the counter with a treasure hoard of Christmas gifts. Three people, two carts, and a lot of years stood between Nate and Del.
Might as well have been a concrete wall.
The clerk gathered the receipt and handed it to Nate. Anal to the last, he folded it in precise increments and tucked it in his wallet’s left side pocket. It’s nice, sometimes, when a man is set in his ways. Nate always was organized, neat to a near fault. Thorough. Yes, even in the bedroom, he was very thorough. Del’s mouth watered, and for a few seconds she tingled where Nate’s breath had more than once grazed her shoulder while his strong, wiry arms lifted her onto the bed.
Del smiled, nurturing the memory and watching without staring as Nate plucked his bag from the counter.
Seconds. In seconds, he would be too far away for fate or anything else to do its work. To hell with chance. She should shout his name. Chance is unreliable and overrated. She should say something before—before what?—before years passed again and they were too old to care about what they’d done years ago or longed to do again.
Still, if she got his attention, what would she do with it? She was unhappy in her marriage, but for the sake of the little girls and a genuinely sweet husband she’d never want to hurt, would she ever do anything with Nate? Anything beyond the pleasantries of a moment that would leave her feeling just as hungry as the last when it was done?
What did other people do when they met old lovers? She’d never asked, but supposed they were mostly good and happy people who simply said hello and kept moving. Unless you wanted to upset the applecart of your life, what else was there to do? Or did applecarts sometimes need upsetting? She wondered, what would be worse, breaking the status quo or sacrificing passion forever while you grew too old and complacent to care that you allowed it to flee like a snail? Just once she’d like to be the bad girl and live in the moment, crush the status quo under her practical, fur-lined snow boots. Moments were fleeting and so was life. She was forty-nine. How many potential moments did she have left?
Nate turned and took a step.
An automaton outside, a quivering gray matter of contradictions inside, Del pulled the last two items from her cart, one in each hand. The left hovered over the counter and plunked down an economy-sized jug of liquid hand soap. The right moved toward the black belt grinding slowly forward. Del glanced from the box she held to Nate. He’d moved a mere two steps. Odd that he didn’t rush away like everyone else. But he was retired, what did he have to rush off to? He took a third step. Still there—still near the checkout. Chance hadn’t abandoned her. Del reached out with her will. She imagined it touching him, tickling his ear, making him turn. Her right hand cleared the cart rail. Still watching Nate, she relaxed five icy fingers. The carton of sleigh bell ornaments banged into the counter’s edge, struck the cart, and toppled to the floor. Del’s body went as cold as her hand.
Silver bells scattered. People turned. Del held her breath. The store spun. She feared a glance, flinch, or blink would make her black out.
Several voices pierced the melee in her head, one as clear as the ring of a single bell.
“Delia? Hey, is that you?”
Somewhere a heavy door rebelled against its nails and sunlight bathed an applecart waiting to be overturned.