It is a wintry day where the steam from a dark roast coffee fogs the window. Wisps of smoke and frost condense on the glass, and the pane begins to cry. Tom wipes his finger across the beads of liquid, staring out of the smudge while balling up the condensation and dead skin between his thumb and forefinger. He spots the man and the red jacket he had so often rested his head on, years ago. He believes the twinkling lights are tricking his eyes, so he blinks again and again...and again, and the picture does not dissipate.
A lifetime ago of loose tobacco and sweat and the sugary powder residue of doughnuts stashed in the right hand pocket; the scratching comfort of blended material sliding across the cheek like felt paper.
“You’ve eaten all the good ones again,” Tom had said with a frown, taking a cream-filled long john from the box.
“Can’t help myself. You know once I find something I like, I have to have it,” the man had replied, wiggling his eyebrows at Tom.
That had been one of the many stolen nights. An evening of pastries and wine, of banter and sex. Tom awoke the next morning to an empty apartment and a hastily scribbled note full of flimsy excuses and white lies. He had tried not to be hurt, to feel content in the night they had spent together. The man always came back, be it a couple days or several months later. Tom had only to wait patiently, to not push.
Brushing the moisture with his sweater sleeve, Tom breaks the line of clarity into a large peephole, hurriedly wiping his forearm against the cold surface to encapsulate the man’s entire body. He holds his breath so as not to replace the veil over his view. The man in the bright jacket smiles on the side of the street, wistfully looking at a cardinal bobbing on the electric wire. Its claws hang on the metal. Its feathers are bent with frost. After moments of unsuccessful steadying, the bird breaks off and falls.
This is the look the man used to give Tom in the early morning hours after a night of warmth, a millennium of talking, living, being. This was the smile he did not allow to creep into his eyes; the look that said “I love you” and “goodbye” simultaneously.
“You know we can’t go out together,” the man had told Tom crossly.
The wine bottle was empty and the autumn air was sweet and calm.
“Come on, as friends. We could grab a drink. Enjoy the breeze. It’s been so goddamn humid lately.”
Tom’s words, tinged with an inability to conceal his pleas, made the man look at Tom with pity and frustration.
“We can’t do that, you know,” the man said, in his tone of finality he often used when he felt Tom was expecting too much.
“No one’ll say anything. Just a quick drink and a smoke?” Tom had detested himself for continuing to beg.
“You know who lives around here, and you sure as hell remember the last time we were out there together.”
Tom remembered that he had grown sick to his stomach with the thought of the one troubling night. The episode in question had involved a stolen kiss, caressing of hands, a night Tom had thought was, in a word, perfection. They had walked down the unlit alley, shoulder to shoulder, so entirely absorbed in one another as not to notice Tom’s brother following them. Tom still had the small, white scar under his left eye from the encounter.
“Why would you bring that up?” Tom asked the man in a small voice.
“You forget, sometimes, that we can’t just be like that.”
“I know we can’t. But I love y—”
“I have to go,” the man had said coldly.
“Come on. Stay. We’ll stay in, alright? It was stupid to bring it up. I’m sorry, okay?”
The man shook his head and flicked the crumbs from the crimson coat. He slid the jacket over his lithe body and made for the door without doing up the buttons.
“Don’t go. I’m...I’m sorry. You know I can be stupid,” Tom yelled at the man’s back.
The man merely turned away from the door for a moment, gave Tom one last look, and left. The man’s eyes had been full of emotion that Tom had not been able to interpret. He had not known that would be the last time he would hear from him.
Tom watches as the cardinal’s layers spill onto the pavement: red, crimson, blue, purple. The man’s head turns away from the fallen bird, and looks into the cafe window. The men lock eyes on one another.
“Darling, what is it? You’ve been in your own little world for the past five minutes. What do you think we should bring to the Sunday social?” Tom’s wife Leah chirps, touching his hand with a small tap. It is a tone she has used often, a sort of false twittering laced with annoyance and a hint of suspicion. That was her voice, as if she were trying to mask from herself what she knew somewhere in her subconscious mind.
Tom recoils at the soft, light touch.
Leah pulls her hand away with only a momentary glimpse of frustration peeking through her expression.
He wants the rough, callused fingertips; he longs for the strong, forceful grip.
Hardness of wood floors.
Impregnated air of smoke.
Sweetness of masculine sweat.
“Darling?” She asks once more, this time the impatience with his distraction permeating her tone. She had stopped pretending just long enough to jar Tom from his thoughts.
“Nothing, dear. Sorry,” he says, remembering himself, and sitting back down in his seat.
With a well-practiced grin and a kiss on Leah’s forehead; her hands, miniscule; her lips, bowed and feminine.
I love you. Goodbye.
Leah offers Tom more sugar for his coffee. He watches her spoon the small lumps into his mug and he blinks back tears as the granules disappear and break into the dark brownish-black.
Tom turns his face to the window. The man is gone, and the red smudge of the cardinal has saturated the snow underneath. He breathes out, obscuring the window pane in feathery puffs of steam against ice.
—A previous version of this story was selected for the Wicked Young Writers Award, 2014, partnered with the National Literacy Trust.
grew up in the small town of Altamont, Kansas. She studied English literature and French at the University of Kansas, where she received the Edgar Wolfe Award in fiction. She also studied art and literature at the Sorbonne, Paris IV. She then obtained her MA in contemporary literature and creative writing from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. Currently, she is finishing her PhD in contemporary short fiction and empathetic writing devices from Loughborough University. She is an English language and literature lecturer at the University of Lorraine and Sciences Po in Nancy, France. She has been published both academically and creatively, including articles in peer-reviewed journals, has received the Wicked Young Writers Award in 2014 (partnered by the United Kingdom National Library Trust), and published her first novel The Takers in 2015. She lives in Metz, France, with her partner.