Margaret sat in the cafeteria, sipping a cup of mediocre coffee and people watching. Ever since she was a child, she loved just sitting quietly and observing the interplay between strangers, guessing at the relationships between them and making up little stories about their lives. Today, though, she was just too nervous to get into it like she normally did. Adjusting the scarf wrapped turban style around her head she looked at her watch for the umpteenth time. 10:05... exactly two minutes since she had last checked. She had always loved this scarf, and the bright colors lifted her spirits during this difficult time. It made her think of happier times spent with the person who had given it to her.
The oncologist had told her that the test results would be ready by eleven, and they would call her then to arrange for further testing and other appointments to follow up on their findings if necessary. She had nodded, numb, and left the office. She couldn't believe that the treatments had failed. Not after all these grueling months of chemo, tests and more tests. The constant nausea. Her finger and toenails falling out. Swallowing tears, she walked down the hall. The next thing she knew, she was standing in line, paying for her coffee.
A trio of young women in scrubs huddled at the table near a cluster of fake trees. They were looking at one girl's cellphone and laughing at whatever was on there. It reminded Margaret of her daughter Lana and her best friends hanging out at the food court at the mall, giggling about boys. She used to give them a ride, then go do errands and meet up with them at a prearranged time near the south entrance. It gave the teenagers a sense of independence and gave Margaret a chance to observe them in their natural habitat. Sometimes she felt like Margaret Meade...or Jane Goodall.
Her coffee was cold, but she sipped at it anyway to moisten her dry mouth. She could smell the savory scent of a spinach quiche the young man in a white lab coat was bolting down while he read the sports section of the local paper. She knew she should eat something, but her stomach was too uneasy. She might get a small bowl of cheddar broccoli soup...after. Maybe. The lab technician, (or was he a doctor? He seemed too young!) sipped from a soft drink, shaking his head at something on the printed page. He reminded Margaret of the man who had given her the scarf...very much. Another man passed by him with an empty tray, spoke. The lab tech shook his head, jabbing his finger at the offending article. A brief but animated exchange in Jamaican patois made Margaret smile wistfully.
Five years ago was when she had split with her husband, Kevin . The kids were grown, and Margaret and her husband were alone with each other for the first time in twenty five years. They hadn't liked it as much as they thought they were going to....they had grown too far apart over the years. The mostly amicable divorce was finalized one year and five days later. Neither had any regrets. Kevin had moved to the West Coast to head up a new branch office with his firm. Margaret had decided to take a solo vacation to the Caribbean, where she met a handsome real estate agent named Jean-Claude DuMonde. The original week extended to a month, and Margaret had seriously considered moving to the lovely island permanently. It ended suddenly when she had gotten a telephone call that her eldest son, Bobby, and his wife, Samantha, had been in a car accident. She had flown home at once, riddled with guilt, which she knew was silly. Still, she felt like she had somehow failed her family by not being right there when trouble reared up its head... never mind that in Kingstown she was actually closer to Bobby and Sammie's home in Clearwater than she would have been if she was back home in New Hampshire. She just hadn't been ready to make the leap of faith...or to put her own wants ahead of her kids'. After all, the house in New Hampshire was their legacy. She was just looking after it for them.
Jean-Claude had been incredibly understanding, which made her feel even worse about leaving him. They kept in touch for a while, but it finally had just fizzled out. He had wanted her to make a commitment that she just wasn't ready for, was what it boiled down to. She often wondered what her life would have been like if she had taken the risk then. But, too late now, right?
She looked at her cell phone, hand clenched around it in a death grip. The screen saver was a group photo of the grandkids. Sarah 3, Julie 2, and little Matt, 10 months; Bobby and Sammie's babies. Lana and Tony's little one, five month old Nathan, rounded out the shot. He was scrunching up his face and yawning in the most adorable way. Her middle child, Patrick...no children from him yet. He had bought a condo in Taos with his current boyfriend Alexi back in October...well, fiance, actually. They weren't ready to talk children yet, but Alexi had made a formal proposal of marriage just last week and they had Skyped Margaret to tell her the news. Pat had noticed that she looked thin and tired, but she had blown off his concerns. She hadn't wanted to steal away any of the boys' joy by revealing her fear that the cancer was not responding to treatment. She was glad, though, that she had decided to sell the house and move to Miami last year. She hadn't been feeling well for a while, and she and the kids had not been able to get together for the holidays because of the horrible weather. That was the final straw. She had sat down to a twenty pound turkey by herself...and then the lights went out. As she wandered around her darkened house chewing on a drumstick and searching for candles and flashlights, she had finally realized that she wasn't keeping the property to protect the investment. She had been using it as an excuse not to take the risk on something new, to wallow in the safety of the past. Well, she was sick of isolating herself and shutting down emotionally. She thought of Jean-Claude... his warm smile, his infectious laugh and unfailingly positive outlook. She had blown it with him, but she could still re-engage with the rest of her life. Her online art business was doing well, the house was in a prime location, and once she made the decision to move, it was absurdly easy. Ironically, the kids hadn't cared about the old house or the proceeds from the sale...they had invested in their own property over the years. They all asked her why she hadn't done it years before, and she had to laugh. She appreciated being able to spend time with Nathan and Lana, especially with Tony putting in so many hours at their new restaurant. It gave her the support she desperately needed after her diagnosis. The cancer treatment center was an excellent facility, easily the equal of any she would have had to travel to in the Northeast to get the necessary treatment. Her move came at the right time, for sure.
The phone rang. Margaret jumped hard enough to rattle the table. Fumbling, she answered it.
Negative. The tests came back negative...she was finally cancer free. Thank God!
She listened, nodding, answered a few questions, and hung up.
A slow, tentative smile crept over her face, and her eyes blurred with tears of relief. A second chance...she should use it wisely.
She looked at her phone, and made a decision, dialing a number from memory.
The familiar baritone voice with the lilt of the islands answered. Margaret spoke.
"Jean-Claude, it's Maggie...Helmsford?"
There was a pause, and her heart sank a little.
"Maggie? But how wonderful to hear from you! I've been thinking about you all week... Are you all right? I know that it's silly, but I've had this feeling that...all was not well with you, but I didn't know if I should call..."
Margaret smiled. "Well, it wasn't, but now it is... I'd love to tell you about it, but it's going to take a while. Today's Thursday...are you...free... for dinner tomorrow night?"
She waited. Perhaps he was involved with someone else. Perhaps he was just not interested. Perhaps...
"Yes, I am free...and I would love to have dinner with you, Maggie. But I live in Miami now. My eldest son is an intern at the cancer treatment center in Miami...I am staying with him until I find a place. Why is that funny?..."
She was borderline hysterical, tears streaming down her face and laughing. The good looking young man with the quiche looked over, concerned. Margaret pulled it together with some difficulty.
"Actually, Miami is even better. There's a great restaurant in South Beach that I think you're going to love. My son in law owns it. I'll text you the address. We have a lot of catching up to do, and I would love to introduce you to my family."
They said their goodbyes and she hung up. Giddily, she waved at the young man. "Hello Dr. DuMonde!" He tentatively waved back, clearly trying to place her face. She almost lost it again, but the rumbling if her stomach distracted her. She was ravenously hungry. Moments later, she found herself in the cashier's line again, this time with a bowl of soup, a piece of turtle cheesecake and a turkey club.
Sitting down, she picked up her sandwich, looking around at the other people in the cafeteria. Two middle aged women were going over some paperwork and picking at salads. Maggie smiled and set the sandwich aside. Switching to the pie, she ate a big spoonful of the creamy, rich dessert. Life's too short not to eat dessert first, she thought. And not to take a risk when it's worth it.