His palms wrap around his jawline while he looks at her. She’s talking, trying not to show the effect his eyes have. She notices them move from her eyes to her lips and back. She looks away—she’s saying something about her children; her husband; about nearly dying, twice. She pauses, he takes the cue, says he’s sorry she went through that—nearly dying, fear, confusion.
He’s a resident at the hospital now, has experience with blood, near-death, salvation, medical hands, drugs. He understands her insides in ways she doesn’t.
Now she is trying not to cup her lower face with her palms. Now she can’t look away from his mouth. She catches herself looking at his hands as he’s using them to describe the anesthesia he administers to laboring women’s spinal cords. She worries there is longing in her face as she looks at the curves of his fingers. He’s twenty-six, she reminds herself. I’m forty. Married. Two children. His former teacher. His professor. All those years ago. She looks away, settles on a pair of women drinking coffee across the cafe. Her own coffee growing cold. She picks it up, takes a sip, looks at it in hopes of prolonging her gaze away from him and toward something reasonable, acceptable, good. She thinks the walls of the cup are unnecessarily thick. She steadies her eyes on its white but sees too her hands’ unsteadiness. She puts the cup down, rests her hands on the table. She’s aware her veins are woven too prominently across their tops. She wonders if it’s age or whether these dim blue ropes have always been there. Now, he’s talking about her liver. It’s regenerative, he says. But when it bleeds, it is difficult to stop. As he’s talking, she remembers her doctor telling her about excessive blood. Bleeding out, she called it. She required significant blood transfusions. Her husband forgot to give consent. The nurse went back to ask whether that was intentional. She remembers the pain before and after the baby; the rare syndrome, HELLP, rendering her and the baby useless; edging death; not being able to stand, sit, walk, lie down. Slipping in and out of consciousness while her daughter slept on her chest. Her own mother worried the baby would absorb the opioids quieting her pain when she put the baby to her breasts. But her breasts were only swollen from her organs shutting down; they were two round, hollow masses. Milkless.
She is wearing a white dress because she imagines her summer tan looks good against it. The stark contrast attracts certain men.
She says she has to leave, has a story ready-made about something she must do for her mother who is caring for her two daughters. She tells him she’s here until the end of the month. She says what a surprise he is a resident in the town where she grew up. She doesn’t say how it affects her that he’s in this town where her parents live, where she is only a daughter and not a professor. She doesn’t tell him that in this town her high school days re-emerge, leaving her unburdened by death, life, and the in-between. Time pauses here; it retains youth and innocence. Here, she still wanders outside her parents’ home after the girls are bathed and sleeping. She listens for cicadas. She lies down on the steep driveway the way she did when she was fourteen and in love with her neighbor’s friend. Above, the lightless dark sets stars ablaze. The cicadas’ ongoing chants rattle mesquites.
The eighth time they meet, he kisses her while she rests her hands at his waist. She runs her fingers along the lower end of his back. She wants her hands to move in other directions but shows restraint in a situation that no longer calls for it. He is muscular from over a decade of weight training. His beard ages him. She doesn’t know by how much. In her mind, he is, she tells him, her equal. She does not wholly trust her mind. He pulls off her jeans. She thinks she loves him. This much younger man. He tells her first. She laughs when he says it, asks him how he knows but kisses him silent. Then she tells him the same, pulls herself on top of him, rests her forehead against his, breathes in his air, and waits for something she can’t name.