He isn’t coming, Erin thought.
She had been there for an hour now, sipping at her drink, hope rising with every jangle of the bell above the door, hope falling at each entrant, some townsperson or other rushing in to get coffee or pastries, their breath preceding them like a man with a red flag warning of the approach of the phrase “man, that’s a cold one”.
Some had nodded to her in recognition but others, she thought, avoided her gaze, as if her situation was some sort of medusa virus that could be passed on by eye contact.
Erin tapped at the side of her cup with her blunt fingernail, then hid her hand quickly inside her coat. She had started biting her nails again, and was embarrassed by them.
She’d finish her drink, she decided, and go. There was no point in–
The bell tolled again, and this time it tolled for she.
He stood huge in the doorway, snowflakes speckled among the curls of his hair. He looked around, saw her, and beamed. She felt a burst of love for him, then one of rage.
He sat down opposite her. “Hello, Honey,” he said.
“You’re late,” she said angrily.
He shrugged. “It’s snowing,” he smiled, “and I didn’t come on a one-horse open sleigh. I came in a nine-year-old car that handles in snow like a drunk supermarket trolley.”
She was determined not to be charmed. “I thought you weren’t coming,” she burst out.
His smiled faded. “I’m sorry you thought that,” he said quietly. He waved to Anna, the owner. “I’m going to get a coffee,” he said to Erin. “Will you have another – what is that?”
Erin blushed. “Peanut butter hot chocolate,” she muttered.
His eyes widened. “Really?”
“It’s warming, and delicious,” she said, annoyed at how defensive she sounded. “But it does smell a tiny bit like socks, so I’ll stick.”
Anna arrived at the table, notepad open, as though two people might order too many things to be expected to remember. “Why, Greg,” she said. “Haven’t seen you in here in a while.”
“No,” said Greg. “I’ve been … away.”
He ordered coffee. Anna looked at Erin, who shook her head. The notepad flipped closed, and Anna walked away, smiling faintly.
“So,” said Greg, “she knows about the break-up.”
“Everyone knows about the break-up,” snapped Erin.
“I see,” said Greg. He sat in silence until his coffee arrived. Erin found that she was tapping at her cup again. She put her hand on the table, and noticed Greg looking at her nails.
“Is it really hard?” he asked, putting his big hand over hers. She was shocked at his stupidity, and wondered how she could possibly have loved this man. She pulled her hand free.
“What do you think?” she snarled. “I thought we had a great life. I thought I had a great life, then it all fell apart. Now I cry a lot” – she was furious with herself, but couldn’t stop – “and just keep wanting things to be the way they were before.”
“Oh Erin,” said Greg. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
Erin snorted, then panicked that she might have produced a burble of snot. She wiped quickly at her face. “Well, you did,” she said. “And don’t say that I’ll feel better after a while, like you did when you left, because this is after a while, and I don’t.”
She felt a flash of malicious satisfaction as she watched his face work out this sentence. Then she looked at him, really looked at him for the first time since he had come in. She saw that he was pale, not just mid-winter pale, but tired, unhappy pale. He looked old, for the first time ever. She felt a wave of sympathy, and was awed at the spectrum of emotions, between love and fury, between the light and the dark, that one human could simultaneously feel for another.
“It’s not easy for you either, is it?” she said softly.
He looked bleakly at her, and for a second she was terrified that he was going to cry. Then he fought his emotion, as he always did, and she was filled with illogical love and pride when the big, strong man – her big, strong man – managed a weak smile.
He reached out and put his hand on hers again. This time she let him.
She noticed him looking at the front of her coat. “Did you get my card?” he asked, hesitantly.
She smiled now, amused as always by his kryptonite, which was that he had never had sisters and so had no idea at what age girls are into what things. He had no idea, for example, that someone her age would rather die than be seen by anybody she knew wearing a big round badge that said ‘I’m 12 today’.
And she would never tell him that. She held her coat open, so that he could see the badge garishly red against her grey sweatshirt.
He smiled and squeezed her hand. “Happy birthday, Honey,” he said.
“Thanks, Dad,” she replied.