I don't even know that he's there until I hear his voice behind me, ordering a cup of tea (lemon, no sugar) as I pay for my coffee (black). After all these years, his voice, even when he is not speaking to me, changes everything in my body. First, I tingle, as if a charge of light has gone through me, and then every muscle relaxes, as if I have just come home and have nothing to do but eat soft food and sleep. And finally, something deep inside me smiles. I turn my head and catch his eye, and I know that something deep inside of him is smiling too.
I choose a table for two, over in a corner, where we can be unnoticed. Before he sits down, he notches his big square hand into my shoulder and squeezes, sending heat and warmth, the great tactile comfort of him, all down inside me. I want jump up and hold him tight, to bury my head forever in the softness of that old faded blue wool sweater, to get eternally lost in the smell of his cologne, to never ever ever let go. Instead, I just turn my head and look up into his eyes; I reach up and hold his hand tight.
The shop is a generic one...one of those huge tea and coffee franchises that are mostly known for their frozen fraps...just as our drinks are among the most boring and ordinary they serve. But we have chosen all this ordinariness on purpose, so that all we will notice, all that we will remember, all that our senses will connect with, is each other.
Once we are both sitting with our drinks, you would think there would be a rush of words: a rapid torrent of news, an urgent recounting of experiences, a pressing need to talk and talk. Instead, we just look into each other's eyes, drinking in the gift of being in each other's presence. I devour the familiarity of his face, his smile, each movement of his hands on his tea cup. I drink in every bit of him.
When we speak, we don't have to say much. Mostly, we say, slowly and with long lingering silences in-between, what we both already know. So we say:
"I love you."
"I will always be with you, no matter where I am."
"You can do anything."
"I never lose faith in you."
"You are so special to me."
"I think of you so often."
Hearing the message matters. I know I will carry his words like good music in my memory, playing them over and over, sucking on them and chewing them and rolling them around in my mind like food for my heart. Using those soundbites as sustenance until we meet again.
We have a mutual agreement to refrain from saying "I miss you," because it won't help, because it won't make things better when we are alone again later, because it won't change anything. And we do not say "goodbye," because we hold onto the hope, the memory, and the promise of these interludes.
The worst goodbye, the last goodbye, was years ago. An ordinary phone call.
"I've got to go. See you soon. I love you."
"Yes, see you...Love you too."
And then, like a sudden bolt from out of nowhere, everything changed. So we never really said goodbye. We just hung up the phone and it became this terrible, wholly unintended, goodbye. And after the oceans of tears and great chasms of separation that come with death, we never really want anything like that to happen again.
So, instead of saying goodbye, we say "I love you," in a way that puts our whole beings behind it. Instead of saying "I miss you," we say "I will always be with you" in a way that promises to hold onto each other. The miracle is that the strength of our loving and our holding allows us to occasionally traverse the sticky filaments of spacetime and eternity and come together, even if our reunion is unusual, even if it is only long enough for a cup of tea or coffee, even if it is, by its very nature, always bittersweet. The miracle is that somehow, in the endless spiderweb of connections that is the universe, over all these years, our connection works.
At length, the sun is setting and our cups are empty but we are filled, again, with each other. So it is time. We hold hands again for a long moment, and then he walks away. When he is gone, I go into the women's restroom. I don’t know what he does after he leaves me, but after I leave him, I always cry. It feels good to cry hot tears that I can feel on my cheeks, salty tears that I can taste on my lips and can wipe away with the roughness of a paper towel. Maybe it feels good because they are not the same as the tears of those past oceans, the tears of not knowing if we were separated forever, the tears of death. When the tears ebb a little, I close my eyes and hold his voice, the dear bottomless tones of his "I love you," in my mind and in my heart, cementing it there with the smell of his cologne and the touch of his hand and the laughlines around his eyes. I take a deep breath and center my whole being in what matters the most. And, in that moment, like any ghost or spirit, I simply disappear.
I startle awake. My pillow and my cheeks are wet with drying tears, and my heart is pounding with the knowledge that I have done it again. I have dreamt myself dead so that I could see him and touch him and hear him alive. I have ghosted myself because the pain of being alive without him is too familiar and real. I wipe my eyes on the corner of the sheet and sit still for a moment. And in the stillness of my drying tears and warm bed, I notice the difference. The tones of his "I will always be with you” are like a backbeat against the pounding of my heart, and I could swear that the sheet I am holding to my eyes smells of his cologne. And my breath tastes of black coffee. He is still with me. We are still connected. I take a deep breath and center my whole being in what matters most. And something deep inside me smiles.