A September Afternoon
It was a small café. Actually, it was one of my favorites. Their twice breaded, tenderly baked chicken with its creamy lemon caper sauce was amazing. I especially loved the flavors of the zesty orange peel asparagus that Michelangelo’s Bistro paired with it. And the hot caramel brownie was to die for. This is what I ordered every time.
I was sitting outside in the large fenced patio at the table I always preferred. It was in a corner, as far away from the busy street and dedicated shoppers as possible, in front of a tall lattice wall hidden by overgrown jasmine vines. The strong, sensual smell of its few remaining blooms reminded me of the scorching summers I spent running through abandoned plantation fields with my older sister. The ancient plantation home in southern Georgia was a gift to my grandmother on my grandfather’s retirement. It was where they lived out their last days, quiet and blissful.
I took a sip of my coffee, suddenly thankful that I was sitting at one of the patio tables with a big, sheltering umbrella. It was cool and windy, and even though it was just past noon, the sky was quickly becoming dark. A storm was moving in, but like the rest of Philadelphia, it didn’t keep me away from my regular weekend plans.
Like every Saturday, I had spent the morning at the big historic downtown library, just a block away from the quaint café. I had brought my library bag, eager to fill it up with endless books of silly romances. I was beginning my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania studying Geriatrics, something I became fascinated with after all four of my grandparents passed away at a wonderfully old age with a clean bill of health. But it was Saturday, and I could not resist my favorite pastime — diving into the fanciful stories of oddly matched lovers. I had a paper due on Tuesday that I still needed to write for my Geriatric Technologies class, but for now I was entranced in one of my books.
“More coffee, Miss?”
I looked up at the young waiter, probably a high school student working weekends to pay for movie dates with his girlfriend. “Yes, thank you.”
He set down a new carafe, steaming with piping hot coffee, my current drink addiction. He gathered my empty lunch dishes, leaving me to bicker with my half-eaten brownie about how many calories it was tempting me with. As I watched him walk away, balancing several plates above his head, I noticed a man at the table next to me.
He was very handsome, and as I continued to stare, he looked up at me. I quickly looked away, back into my book that was open a little more than halfway. Although I was thoroughly engaged in my book’s adventurous pirate and the busty woman he was voyaging after, I found myself even more mesmerized by this man.
This man was by far the best looking man I had ever seen. The description that came to my mind was more overwhelming than any description of a dashing man that I had ever read about. He sat tall in his chair, his perfectly broad shoulders held high and back. His brooding, dark brown eyes looked like shallow murky pools softly lit by whatever they were fixed upon. His black hair, the color of a shiny grand piano, caught the sun’s dazzling light even though its rays were blocked by a thick, gray cloud cover. Yes, he was extremely handsome, but what was I thinking! Not only did he look several years older than me, but this man was a busy professional! He was reading Business Week magazine, wearing a sleek ebony suit, and I noted a black leather briefcase near his feet.
I looked down at my tatty, gray sweatshirt, the words "University of Pennsylvania" plastered across the entire front. I sighed, quietly thanking myself that I put on my dark blue jeans today, helping me to look somewhat civilized as opposed to their nemesis, the matching sweatpants.
As a gust of wind blew through the moss-green painted cement patio, I held the ends of my shoulder-length brown hair tightly above my shoulders. I watched as several napkins abandoned their tables to the tumultuous current of the looming storm.
As I flipped through my novel’s pages trying to find my place, my mind briefly shuffled through the folders of the few men I had dated. They were young, immature, and avoided working through all the problems life offered by leaving my side. Why did I think this man could be any different? I silently scoffed at myself, forcing my lonely heart to agree with my rational mind. I was a mere college student with more issues that most. He was surely a lawyer or financial advisor, far beyond my league—and dreams.
Suddenly, a deep voice startled me out of my world of thought.
I looked up in the direction the voice had come from and saw the man who had spoken to me.
“Hi.” I replied politely, studying his expression to see if all he meant by it was a pleasant greeting.
“I saw you had the lemon caper chicken,” he continued. “Was it any good? This is my first time eating here.”
I smiled, thinking that it wasn’t just me that was noticing him, but he had noticed me too—or at least what I had eaten. “Yes, it’s very good. I get it every time I eat here.”
“Great, then that’s what I’ll get too.”
I nodded, slowly looking away, my eyes at odds for leaving his smooth olive skin and returning to the rough recycled pages of my book. It wasn’t that I was too shy to continue talking to him, but I thought that he had more important things to do. He was, in fact, reading Business Week.
“Do you go to UP?” His beautiful voice rumbled like the thunder above, and I was both intrigued and delighted in his curiosity of me.
“Yes, I do." For a split second I wondered how he could’ve known such information, but then I caught a glimpse of the bright tomato lettering on my shirt and realized the whole world could know with one glance. I thought I should say more, considering he was still staring at me with such interest. "I’m studying geriatrics. It’s my last year, finally."
"Wow, geriatrics! That sounds way more interesting than my major. I’m in business at UP. I’m in my last year too."
"Whoa, really?" I was completely shocked that this man was in college, moreover, my college! The surprise in my voice leaked through any tactful filter I was trying to use.
"Yeah, I know, I’m older than your traditional college student. I got off to a late start. There were some… complications and I couldn’t start until recently."
At first his smile was dim and slightly sad, but then the wrinkles under his eyes and around his mouth from years of smiling manifested with his growing enthusiasm. “I’m interning this semester with Douglas Imports. It’s a big trading company here in Philly. It’s been really exciting so far.”
As soon as his sentence had ended, the waiter came to a stop at his table to take his order. I heard him ask for the lemon caper chicken in a box to take with him, joking that he didn’t want the rainwater to ruin his highly recommended lunch choice. His table sat exposed to the impending thunderstorm, void of an umbrella for the reason that all the covered tables had already been taken.
I felt sad that he would soon leave, walking away with only a microscopic chance that we would ever meet again. I wanted to talk to him. His presence was peaceful and soft. “Are you from around here? Philly?”
“No, actually I grew up in a small town in South Carolina—population two-thousand. My parents owned a small dairy farm, so living in a big city is really different to me. It would be nice to return to the simple life one day and retire on a farm.” He smiled at me, and in that moment I was completely captivated by his Southern charm, a politeness I yearned for from home. He made me feel completely natural and comfortable; the once troubling sweatshirt felt all the more tasteful.
“Actually, I’m not a city girl either. My parents owned a small veterinary clinic outside of Cornelia, Georgia. The Northern accent here definitely threw me for a loop!”
He laughed. “Yes! I can’t keep up with the fast-paced conversations.”
All of a sudden, the rain poured down and loudly began beating against the navy blue umbrella I was sitting under. The man was quickly stuffing his magazine into his briefcase as the rain began dispersing throughout his thick black waves. The metal table he was sitting at began flooding with water.
“Quick!” I exclaimed, fighting to keep the sound of my voice above the rolling sound of the rain. “Come sit under the umbrella!”
As I pulled the heavy chair beside me out from under the table, he quickly grabbed his briefcase and took shelter next to me. Under the umbrella’s vast refuge I could only feel a light mist from the hard downpour, but the wind swirled underneath it mixing the smell of jasmine with the sweet, musky scent of his cologne.
“Thank you,” he said, and in a moment of silence, as his unwavering eyes stared into mine, the murkiness became clear and I could see that his golden-brown eyes possessed every emotion I had ever felt.
The wind blew furiously, and I shivered in my sweatshirt.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched his hand move slowly upwards and softly touch my hair, pulling out a jasmine flower that had hidden itself in my tangled locks.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Before Carl could say anything else, the wind blew so hard that the flaps on the umbrella loudly slapped against the tightly pulled canvas. In the continuous flurry, Carl’s wig flew off his head, taking flight across the now abandoned restaurant patio.
Carl looked down and I saw the few sporadic hairs growing back in. “I have cancer.”
I quickly, but softly, took my finger to his chin and lifted up his face to mine, wanting him to see the reassurance I held in my eyes. With my other hand, I pulled off my wig, exposing the short, patchy brunette hair.
“My name’s Jeannette, and I have cancer too.”