I didn’t know why she phoned me -just that she needed to talk. I’ve known Mara for years from work, but casually -like someone with whom to share a joke over coffee, or maybe discuss politics during a break. Nothing more. Nothing deeper. I had no idea where she lived, but assumed she lived alone because she’d never mentioned a partner, nor did any social activities surface in any of our conversations.
A not unattractive woman, she was in her early 50ies when I first met her, I suppose. Maybe it was the proximity of our ages, or the fact that neither of us probed any further that qualified us as friends. I really don’t think there was any other appeal than that comfortable feeling which Time spreads over an acquaintanceship and doesn’t require any validating reassurances or engender any expectations -just ears, and a pair of watchful, silent eyes that don’t dig too deeply.
I imagine it’s not too hard to find my number, but we had never felt the need to share something like that before. In fact, since I’d retired, the only time I’d seen her was once, accidentally, in the mall downtown. We’d crashed into each other on our ways somewhere -strangers that bump in a corridor- and after brief how-are-you’s, gone our separate ways. She didn’t look particularly troubled then, and yet I suppose it’s not something you wear in a mall, is it? But she sounded anxious on the phone, so we agreed to meet at a coffee shop in that same mall the next day.
She got there first; I could see her hunched over a cup of coffee in the darkest corner. She must have been there for a while, because as I got closer, I saw that her cup was almost empty. There were shadows everywhere, but maybe that was the idea; as I sat down, I could tell her eyes were red and her cheeks puffy, as if she’d been crying.
I pretended I hadn’t noticed and greeted her with a smile. “Mara,” I said, cheerily, “It’s so nice to see you again!” I may have exaggerated it a little, but she seemed comforted by my reassurance, anyway.
She attempted a little smile, but it was weak and unconvincing on a face that didn’t really want to host it. “Hi, G…” She took a deep and rather stertorous breath and tried the smile again with more success. “It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
I offered to refill her cup and get one for myself and by the time I returned, she was the regular talkative Mara that I was used to. We might as well have been at work for the rambling conversation we were having. But, I was caught off guard when she suddenly put her cup down and leaned across the table. At first, her eyes seemed intent on the placement of the cup, but gradually they slid across the table and struggled slowly up my shirt to my face.
“I’ve made such a fool of myself, G,” she said softly, and hurried the approach of her eyes into mine. “Such a fool!” Then she blinked and shook her head. “I needed to talk to somebody who would understand…” A little smile surfaced briefly, then flickered and died. “And we’ve always been able to discuss things…”
I stayed silent and watched the nervous flicking of her eyelids -this was clearly difficult for her.
“It seemed so…” -she searched for the correct word- ‘… so real, you know…” She recalled her eyes to her cup and left them sitting there for a moment or two. “Sometimes you just know -you can feel it…” She launched her eyes at my cheeks again, hoping for corroboration, I suppose, but when they noticed my confusion, they fled once more. “I mean, he seemed so sincere! So honest and understanding…”
I opened my mouth to ask her to explain, but before I could even frame a question, she sat back and sighed. It was another moment before she had the courage to liberate her eyes again. “Don’t you ever feel the need to be…” She hesitated, uncertain how much to reveal. “… the need to be appreciated? Understood…?”
I nodded, uncertain where this was going.
On a sudden impulse she reached out and touched my sleeve. “All these years, I’ve convinced myself I didn’t need anything more than friends…” She glanced down at the table again, hoping she hadn’t put her thought awkwardly. Hoping she hadn’t devalued our friendship by stating it so clumsily.
She squeezed my arm tenderly and then withdrew her hand. “But then…” She reached for her coffee and took a quick sip before she put it down again as if realizing she was confusing me even more. “Well, I decided to join one of those online dating sites -one that advertised itself for matures, as it put it.” She stared at the ceiling as if there were a document she had written there to which she could refer if she got nervous. And I could see her becoming increasingly anxious as she attempted to explain herself.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I met a chap about my age who seemed to have similar interests according to his profile. We corresponded almost daily for a month or two, before deciding to date…” She sighed before continuing. “But a few days before we were scheduled to meet, Aylan called it off -his son, who had been travelling overseas, had been in an accident he said, and apologized profusely.” She didn’t seem to know where to put her eyes after that, and they wandered around the room, stopping randomly at other tables until she called them back.
“I don’t know,” she continued, and then shrugged. “It seemed that every time we agreed to meet, he had to postpone it. He sounded so disappointed each time, though, so I began to take on his concerns. He finally confessed that his son was Canadian, but stuck in one of those war-torn countries in the Middle East… He’d apparently run out of money.”
She looked at me for a moment. “And no, he hadn’t gone over there to fight for Isis, or anything…”
“But I don’t understand, Mara. Why would having a son over there interfere with Aylan dating you?” I studied her face for a minute. “And why couldn’t the kid have notified the Canadian consulate for help?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “Apparently there’s no consulate in the country, or something. Anyway, Aylan wanted me to help with crowd-funding for him…”
“Because he couldn’t afford to bring him back.”
It was my turn to take a deep breath. “Mara…”
She reached for my hands and gripped them tightly. “I know, G. I know…!” She stared at the table again. “I… I almost offered to lend him the money.” She closed her eyes tightly. “I did offer actually…”
“And I’m talking to you.” She opened her eyes and loosed them on my face again. “I was too embarrassed to tell my girlfriends. Tell anybody, for that matter.”
I shook my head slowly, and squeezed her hands. “You know what’s going on, don’t you?” I said gently, trying to encourage her eyes to stay with mine.
She nodded, and her whole body seemed to relax as she stared at me. “I just wanted to be sure,” she said after a minute or two.
“Do you want to go out for lunch?” I asked.
Her face curled into a big smile and her eyes danced. “I can pay…”