by Cody T Luff
The coffee shop’s front window was boarded over with a fresh square of pressboard. Two of the tables had already been removed, leaving only the sticky black one that Lyle hated and the one filled with sleepy college students, phones illuminating their half-lidded eyes.
Cara was at Sticky, her old laptop open, her fingers a staccato blur on the keyboard. Lyle stood in the doorway, his umbrella dripping on the dirty linoleum, fighting a smile as his ex-wife adjusted her glasses and scowled into her laptop screen.
“Sleepytime with a ginger kick?” The barista had both elbows on the counter, the small tattoo of a squid slowly scintillated through a spectrum of colors as she quirked a shaved eyebrow at Lyle.
“Predictability is my middle name.” Lyle collapsed his umbrella and slipped it into his bag.
“I thought it was Clarance,” the barista smirked.
“That too. Is that new?” Lyle gestured to her tattoo and she shook her head.
“Added fifteen colors this weekend. Took forever.” She held up her wrist and waggled it. “Hey, tea’s on me if you get my name right this week.”
Lyle frowned and caught a chuckle from Cara’s direction.
She’d closed her laptop and let her glasses dangle by the jewelry chain around her neck. “Don’t look at me, I’d put money going the other way.”
Lyle stood for a long moment before slipping his pocket notebook from his jacket.
“That’s cheating,” the barista laughed as she dropped a tea bag into a paper cup.
“Oh, he knows a little about that, don’t you darling?” Cara wiggled her eyebrows at him.
“Your name is Cynthia Robbins. Sorry, Cynthia P. Robbins. Psych major with a minor in…” Lyle squinted at his notebook, “…literature.”
Cara mimed a slow clap. “He can read, folks!”
Cynthia P. set Lyle’s tea on the counter, her smile little more than a pencil stroke. “On me, Doc.”
“I like the colors,” Lyle offered as he scooped his tea up and headed for Sticky.
Cara watched him settle, he watched her watch. They’d been together for twenty-three years, long enough for Cara to go gray and for Lyle’s hairline to dissolve into a clearcut. Their chemistry never failed but his honesty certainly had.
“Which class was she in?” Cara gestured at Cynthia P. with her chin.
“Synthetic Neural Architecture.” Lyle smoothed his jacket and waved another thank you to Cynthia P.
“The brain one?”
“Peripheries and channels one,” Cara nodded.
“Yup,” Lyle cupped his tea with both palms, the old bubble of shame rising in his chest. He could feel all the places Cara had been in his life and now wasn’t. Her absence so much like the boarded coffee shop window.
“Did you fuck her too?” Cara smiled.
“I’m not going to do this today.” Lyle closed his eyes.
“No, you’re right. You would have remembered her name without your paper brain.”
The divorce had been bad. The kind that devolved into legal martial arts. Assets divided in jigsaw lines, the house in Montgomery liquidated, and his retirement plundered. Lyle deserved it. Even then he knew he deserved what Cara had done to him in court. “I thought we’d found a place we could be now,” he said, his eyes still closed. He imagined her staring at him, her smile a fresh wound on her face.
“You’re right,” Cara said.
It surprised him enough to open his eyes and her imagined smile was nowhere to be seen. “It’s been a bad day, Lyle. Everything hurts, even all the old scars.”
It had been a bad day. The news feeds were all in capital letters, his phone hummed with notifications. Between the water rights hearings in Congress and the closure of the children’s hospital, there were hundreds of little cinders burning at his sanity.
“How’s it looking?” Lyle watched Cara slip her glasses back on.
“At the hospital? Terrible. Completely terrible.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“We’re down to the last few kids. There isn’t a place for them to be. We’re looking as far as Canada right now.” Cara leaned away from the table, her eyes skipping through the coffee shop.
“Even with the…”
“Yes, even with the fires. They still have beds in Ottawa and I have twenty-three kids that need them. Canada might be burning down but I’d bet we ash over before they do.”
Lyle grimaced, a knot coiled in his belly.
“How do you know her, Lyle? Really.” Cara’s gaze settled on Cynthia P. behind the counter. The young woman was chatting with the clutch of sleepy college kids.
“She was really in my class, Cara.”
Lyle sighed. “Yes. She did well. I had just a handful of As and she was one of them.”
Cara watched the barista laugh, her face relaxing. “You know, she’s young enough to be your kid.”
“Our kid, sorry. Ours. We could have had children,” Cara nodded.
This was an old wound, older than the divorce. One that they’d struggled together with in therapy and then individually as their years ran dry. “I still don’t think we would have qualified for a license. I’ve got the genetic thing and your mom and dad wouldn’t have co-signed the Providence documents anyway. They hated me.” Lyle stared at his untouched tea.
“I know. I know, we’ve had this conversation before.” Cara turned to him, her eyes finding his own. “I think you would have made a good dad.”
“Just not a good husband,” Lyle said.
“True. At least mostly. You were a good husband from the waist up.” Cara put her finger tips on her closed laptop. “Did you read the news this afternoon?”