By Claire Peraldi-Decitre
Trembling, I lift the chipped mug to grace my chin, vapors dancing in their climb. My feeble arms ache at the exercise, and my gaze lingers upon the empty spot on my fourth finger. No band, nor tan line. Just empty. My chest begins to contract, a fist wrapped around my heart. But then the aroma tickles my nose, sweetness in bitter coffee. I raise the cool ceramic to my lips. The richness and brown sugar ground me. Breathe in, breathe out. My shoulders dare to drop down, unsuspecting; my wrist rests on the table, blue veins dancing upon my pale forearms. As I clasp the handle again, I feel the whisper of a faint variation. An earthiness, something woody, like cedar or spruce. I don’t recall the previous blend having such notes; my sister must have changed the coffee after her trip to British Columbia. As the clock approaches 10 AM, the whispers of the black brew tantalize my recollection with cinnamon, perhaps… or nutmeg. And that strong woodiness. The aroma begs me to remember.
And here I am once again; twenty-two in Vancouver. Sheltered in a warm coffee house, early Sunday morning. I catch my reflection in the glass window, sitting at a small round table. Perfect red, almond-shaped nails holding a glossy menu. A cream silk camisole with a line of delicate buttons down the center. Long brown curls flow down my back and rosy cheeks frame my face. I look up to the waitress and order two dark coffees. She nods, her dimples showing, before treading back to the kitchen. The wooden floor is worn in that familiar feeling, the trace of countless ins and outs. Around me the walls are ornate with layers of books, inviting visitors to foreign times and cultures. Nils will be delighted when he arrives, his coffee waiting for him. My eyes wander around the room, crossing two handsome men who smile at me. Nils isn’t here yet. My eyes continue scouting and land on an ancient mahogany clock, 9:56 AM. Nils should be here any minute. I ease into my chair, absorbing the balmy scene around me; the clings, stirs and chatter blending with the soft guitar. The song hums the lyrics “campfires we won’t remember,” and my lips tug on both sides.
✶ ✶ ✶
We had spent a week in Yosemite. He had managed to get the time off work, missing an important gala to be with me on my spring break. It was my last year of college; fingers crossed for my chemistry diploma. When we reached the misty pine forest, the hardest task was yet to come: building our tent. Remarkably, we succeeded immediately (without counting the first six attempts). As the sun sunk between the mountains, we dug a small hole in the ground, dirt cool and soft on our fingertips. I gathered twigs nearby and passed them to Nils who stacked them in a teepee and worked his magic, as always. As soon as the first flames appeared, Nils lost interest in the pulsing energy and came chasing after me like a child. We ran twice around the heat before crashing on a navy woven blanket, exhausted. As we caught our breath, Nils caressed my cheek and angled my face towards his. Those eyes. Coffee and cinnamon. His curls tumbled down his forehead, tickling mine. He was irresistible. I relaxed into his chest, warm in his embrace. “S’more?” I nodded and Nils unclasped me, arranging a twig over the blood orange flames, a fluffy marshmallow at his mercy. With his other hand he grabbed his Minolta and snapped a picture. I contemplated him as the campfire pulsated heat on my legs and torso, replacing his touch. He delivered my gooey treat and angled his camera upwards. Thousands of tiny stars twinkling in a charcoal sky. Snap, another picture. The marshmallow melted under my tongue with notes of vanilla and burnt copper caramel. Nils turned his gaze from the night sky and smiled at me. Oh, that smile—I melted before it every time. “I’m sorry Inane, you know how photography is to me. I can’t help myself from taking pictures of what I love.” My eyes beamed at him, you can’t change a photographer. That love always came first.
✶ ✶ ✶
“Careful, the coffees are hot,” indicates the waitress as she sets the drinks on the table, the chair facing me still empty. “I’m terribly sorry for the wait, the kitchen is packed up.” I shift my head to the clock: 10:39 AM. Bizarre. My fingers clasp around a smooth mug, its twin waiting to be held. Two pools of mahogany. Clings, stirs and chatter repeat around me. The batwing doors of the kitchen swishing and swooshing. Pancakes flipping, bacon sizzling. Steps on the wood, laughs, hugs. Cling, stirs, chat. No Nils. He had never been the kind to arrive on time, but he knows I have a plane to catch by 2 PM to get back to Boston. He could have made the effort. I peek out the window and gaze at Stanley Park, beautiful in the spring. In the morning, the fog dances above the water, shifting from pink to lavender in the matter of seconds. Light pink and lavender. I must admit it is a gorgeous area to take pictures in—he must have gotten distracted with his art. Cling, stirs, chat. Nils’ voice reverbs through the thick fog, “I take pictures of everything I love.” He had told me this while capturing his little sister ice skating in Tahoe, her breath morphing into the cold air. Their laughs reverberate in my mind.
Minutes pass and I angle my chin to the ticking creature: 11:07 AM. A crease settles between my brows. I dig out my phone to check the date. We told each other Sunday, April 8th. Cling, stirs, chat. The date stares back at me. I lay my phone on the table, my palms clammy from the heat. I notice my nails have become chipped; I’ve been picking at them for the past thirty minutes; Nils has always hated this habit of mine. Cracked red. I tuck my fingers into my palms instinctively, the sharp almond colliding with my flesh. Around me people laugh and converse, unbothered by the growing heat. Swiftly, I lift the brown brew to my unkissed lips. Earth tones clasp around me. The tik of the clock, the cling, stirs, and chat. I place the cup down. A woman from the table next to me swings around, staring at the dark splash on the wood and back at me. My eyes glare at her before shifting to the beast, dread spreading in my core: 11:32 AM. The muscles around my brows twist, my eyeliner stinging. Clings, stirs, chats. A crack shatters the brass. They do not notice. I sink my chipped nails deeper into my flesh, the pain anchoring me. It stops me from making a fool of myself. A second crack pierces through my lungs. My pulse thumbs against my temples and my skin threatens to tear. Nils promised he would be here. He promised.
A sharp ring resonates in the coffee shop. I leap to my feet, fully splattering the bitter liquor as I twist to face the entry. My face scarlet, eyes raven, hopelessly searching for him. I need the air. I need his presence. The door is shut. Nils isn’t here.
The ringing has not stopped; I jolt my head and instantly regret it, the thumps assaulting my weakened brain. My soul thrashes against a concrete wall, my heart compressed, suffocating. On and on the ring echoes. I shift blindly around and identify the source: my alarm clock yelling at me to ingest my lunchtime medicine. I struggle to open the sturdy kitchen drawer and pull out a gray plastic tube with the letters DONEPEZIL stamped on it. Mechanically, I swallow the familiar pill. The grip releases. My mind short circuits. Silence falls.
I ease into the cool wooden chair, my wrists set on the kitchen table. My gaze falls on the feathery petals of the lavender and pink orchid resting atop the wood. Such a lovely flower, such lovely colors. Lavender and pink. I raise a ceramic mug and sip the dark liquid resting within. It does not taste like yesterday’s liquid, there is a certain whisper to it, a woodiness perhaps.
And here I am once again; twenty-two in Vancouver. Sheltered in a warm coffee house, early Sunday morning. But a void torments my thoughts; my breath. I stare blankly through lost time and whisper: “Nils,” my eyes drop as dying doves to the ground, “if you took photos of everything you love… why did you never photograph me?”