The image of Jacob pops frequently and unbidden into my mind. As I test a program run at work on Monday and I watch the numbers tumbling over the screen I have his back in front of my eyes. I can see his shoulders, moving under his shirt as he pulls the lever with his right hand, sweat forming at his neck, the tips of his hair wet with it. I shake my head to get rid of the thoughts.
I cancel the current process on the machine and uncomment a few lines. I restart.
As if inevitably drawn to the subject, my mind latches onto Jacob again. How bad is his condition really, if he is not even allowed to have much contact with clients? How much does he work, in fact? Is it deteriorating? What if he is in need of care in a few years, what if his suffering increases until finally… I stop with my fingers clawed into the keys. The terminal is full of nonsense I typed in while my thoughts spiraled into the abyss. I need a break; my guts are suddenly filled with ice.
I shiver even in the mild spring sun while I sit outside and have a non-smoking break. I turn my phone over and over in my hands, trying to convince myself that this is ridiculous, that Jacob will most probably not die in a few years, certainly not in a few days. But somehow I feel the urgent need to text him and before I can stop and think about the consequences my fingers tap away.
---- Hi Jacob, this is Cait, with the machine from hell. What’s your shift this week? Grab a coffee after work? ----
The next hours I am fidgety, checking my phone every other minute and I do not manage another single line of code. When the phone beeps, just when I shut down the computer because I decided I will not be able to do anything productive today, I jump. My co-worker at the desk across from me lifts her eyebrows and I mouth ‘sorry’ to her before I vanish, the phone clutched in my hand.
I do not dare to have a look before I have left the building but as soon as the heavy door to the nondescript office building falls shut behind me I cannot stand it any longer.
--- That’d be great. Six okay? ---
I check my watch. It is half past five.
--- Yes. Any preferences? ---
I do not have to wait long and he texts me the address of a cafe close to a subway station.
Jacob's Jeep is parked in front of the modern looking cafe, in the disabled parking spot right in front of the black sign-board presenting today's specials. I had not noticed the blue placate on his rearview mirror before and frown. Has it been there before at all?
It takes me a few seconds standing in the entrance to the cafe, feeling increasingly out of place, until I find Jacob. He is sitting in a booth at the far side of the crowded room, in a quiet corner a little set apart from the rest of the room. My smile returns at once and I do not take my eyes off him while I wind my way around small low tables and cozy plush armchairs in different sizes and colors. Well, isn’t this place fancy… The booth Jacob has chosen does not fall short from that, albeit with benches and a table at normal height but painted a screaming red.
"Hi Cait," he greets me, his voice alone warming me from the inside.
I slip on the bench across from him. Our friendship has left hand shaking behind but I am not sure we have arrived at hugging yet. Jacob does not seem to mind, he smiles when he reaches for his mug.
"I already ordered coffee for myself. I did not know what you prefer... They have all kinds. And the carrot cake is pretty good, I heard."
I nod. I am awfully hungry indeed. No waiter seems around at the moment, though, or maybe we are just easy to overlook in our hideout at the back of the room. I wonder if Jacob chose these seats on purpose. His relief at not having to sit in the middle of the crowded Indian restaurant had not slipped my attention last time. My eyes wander through the room, taking in the oil paintings on the walls, the people milling in their expensive-but-not-expensive-looking clothes. I definitely feel a little out of place. I return my gaze to the table top, fixing my eyes on the slender hand wrapped around the ceramic in front of me.
"Do you uh... come here often?"
A finger trails along the side of the mug.
"No... not really. Vito recommended it to me."
I sigh a breath of relief.
"What can I get you?"
A waiter has appeared out of thin air at our table, pen poised. I order chai tea and after a little hesitation carrot cake. I see Jacob's lips tuck into a smile when I do.
"Sweet," he states.
I hesitate, blush slightly and even more when I get his meaning. "Oh... yeah, yes, I have a sweet tooth."
He gives me that odd look that I cannot withstand long. My eyes turn down again. I notice his cane lying on the vacant seat next to him. He has a nice model, brown wood, so unlike those grey clinical ones they have at hospitals.
My confused frown is question enough.
"I mean... the day before yesterday, at the hill? When… it happened?" Jacob grips his left arm with his right hand, massaging the limb out of its tight position against his torso. It seems to be a nervous habit. "Thank you for staying, for not freaking out on me."
"Oh… no problem." I try to turn my eyes away but I do not manage. Suddenly I blurt out: "To be frank, I actually did freak out. A little... I... I just did not know what was going on, you know? I was scared."
Fortunately, the waiter arrives at that moment, with my tea and the cake and I do not have to look at Jacob because, damn, I did not intend to tell him that. Why did I do that?
"I'm sorry." His voice is low.
I wince and take my time stirring the tea. "It's just... I felt helpless, okay? And... I don't like that."
I jump and nearly slosh tea all over the table when he reaches out with his hand and closes it around my trembling one. My head flies up and his eyes widen before he let's go of me. The touch leaves a tingling on my skin that makes me wish he had left his hand there.
"I'm sorry," he repeats.
I shake my head weakly, transfixed by his eyes.
"You were helping just fine. I think I should thank you for that, too. And I think you have been really brave, not leaving despite being freaked out."
He makes me sound like a hero and it is ridiculous because I did basically nothing. I wiggle my nose and watch the milky whirl in my cup. Jacob hesitates shortly before going on.
"I can see why this must have been scary for you but I assure you it was nothing out of the ordinary. From time to time I have spasms, which are really hurtful but not harmful. I should have warned you... I did not expect it to happen up there, though. I guess I should have taken it slower."
He sounds hollow towards the end and I do not know what to say. His sudden change from cheerful to gloomy takes me by surprise.
"Anyway... I was really glad you texted me today because I enjoyed our hike despite all that."
I smile relieved at that. "I did, too. Thanks for taking me with you."
We do not talk for some time. I taste the chai, which is really sweet, even more than I like personally. The cake is indeed delicious. Jacob sips his coffee. I know I just missed my chance to ask more about his condition.
"So... how was work?"
We talk a bit about work, which is a much easier and safer topic.
“Jenna agrees that we should both try and get something better. A younger, smaller company than Recom... with better working conditions.”
Jacob nods enthusiastically. “That’s an awesome idea!”
“Hm… it’s just… I want to stay here, you know.” I avert my eyes. Great, talking about the boyfriend again.
Jacob busies himself with his coffee. “I understand that,” he finally says. “You definitely won’t find something close by if you don’t try, though.”
He has a point. I sigh. “You are right.” I watch his kind face that makes me all fuzzy inside and I decide that I actually will try changing workplace. I feel very good after that.
The evening wears on and the bar gets even more crowded. I did not realize when they dimmed the lights and turned up the volume of the music but we have to lean over the table to understand each other. I wonder if his eyes changed color because of the lighting. The blue is darker today, deeper.
Despite generally liking it, the combined sweetness of tea and cake is too much and I do not manage to finish the whole cake. When I catch Jacob eying it I offer the rest to him and he pulls the plate towards himself with a rare grin.
"Should have gotten a whole piece for myself," he says around the last bite and I chuckle. It would have certainly done him good, his shoulders are way too bony under the blue shirt he is wearing.
We order a second round of drinks and because of the progressed evening I decide for a cocktail. He sticks to non-alcoholics. Of course. I have seen his car outside. I want to bang my head against the table but Jacob does not blink an eye.
"I refined my plans for the garden. Do you want to see?"
I nod and he pulls his backpack on his lap, fiddles with the zipper until it opens and retrieves a pen. He takes a clean napkin from the table and places his coke on the left top edge to prevent it from sliding over the surface as he draws the outline of his garden on it.
"I thought of potatoes here and I read that savory is good to keep bugs away so maybe some of them at these lines..."
I lean over the table even more to get a closer look and realize the cocktail has taken effect already when I nearly tip over. It feels good today, though, Jacob is great talking to and he looks adorable when he is excited about something, his grin wide and his eyes vivid. On an impulse I take the pen from him, my fingers brushing against his. After talking to him about gardening I have done a bit of research myself, on the same day. I was surprised to find a lot of websites referring to urban gardening and I think I got engrossed with the topic.
"You could think of beans here," I draw a circle around a free space in his garden. "Did you know that leguminosis are the only living species capable of retrieving nitrogen from air? Except for cyano bacteria, of course."
When I lift my head to look at him his face is right there, so close I can taste his breath on my lips. I fight against the urge to pull back because this is so wrong, because it feels also wonderful and I end up frozen, staring at his eyes. He shifts and at the minute break of eye contact I lean back again, into the safe space behind the table, my heart hammering in my chest.
Something passes over his face and the hand he has braced against the table – to what? stand up? - reaches for his glass.
"Good idea." His voice gives away no emotion.
I blink and curse the alcohol. I realize it is time to go before I do something that I will regret later.
"I... I think I should go home now. I have an early meeting tomorrow and-" I grab my bag and search for my purse.
"Oh yeah... it is indeed late." Jacob does not miss a beat. "I pay for your stuff, don't bother." He has already raised a hand to wave at the waiter.
I blush. "No, no, please, you don't have to." I frantically increase my effort to locate my purse. Why is it that it always vanishes inside my bag when I need it?
His fingertips on my arm stop me at once. He pulls his hand away again. "Cait, please? I had a wonderful evening and I ate half of your cake anyway. You can pay next time."
I freeze from the shock his touch sent through my body and avert my eyes. I think he blushes but that could be the lighting.
“If… if there is a next time,” he says lowly.
I swallow and nod.
I let him pay because yeah, it does not hurt me and wait for him to get his backpack and cane before standing up. He scoots to the end of the bench to have space to place his cane before he gets up, swaying a little. Pain crosses his face when he attempts to straighten his left leg slowly and put some weight on it.
"I think it went to sleep without waiting for me," he jokes but does not manage to hold a smile long enough to be convincing. I watch him take two tiny steps, leaning heavily on the cane. "Sorry, this might take a while."
"Can... can I do anything for you?"
I take a step back at the snap.
Jacob closes his eyes and sighs. When he opens them again they flicker over me in apology and guilt. "Yes,” he murmurs, “can you walk to my left?"
I do as he asked and he hooks his left hand over my right shoulder. He is so much taller than me, it fits perfectly as if I had been made to be his makeshift walking assistance. My throat is dry and tight as I feel the muscles of his arm spasm against my shoulder through the fabric of my blouse.
I nod and we proceed slowly towards the exit. It is a good thing that my mind is busy locating the shortest way to the door, keeping me distracted from his body close to mine. I inwardly curse the tables and armchairs we have to maneuver around instead of cutting directly through to the door. It is however not the worst thing, by far. Also not the handbags and fallen jackets that litter the floor, every single one an insurmountable obstacle for Jacob. Not even the confinement of space when it is barely possible for one waiter to squeeze through, least two people and a cane. The worst thing as we slowly, one excruciating step after the other, get closer to the exit are the heads turning, the eyes widening and staring at Jacob. It is as if we are a car crash that happens in slow-motion over and over again.
Jacob never lets his gaze divert from the stretch of floor directly in front of him, his hand on my shoulder squeezing, his cane ramming into the floor before he takes two small steps, his lips tight, pausing for a second before repeating the process. I have a hand ghosting over the small of his back, unsure about how much assistance he needs, how much he will accept.
The staring won't stop, people try to cover it up but barely wait until we have passed, even when I am convinced everybody in this room must have seen enough by now and I feel anger boiling up in me. Jacob seems to sense it, although I don't know how he knows he is being stared at because he never looks up. "Don't bother," he mutters between clenched teeth as he pauses between two steps to catch his breath.
My hand at his back twitches because I am seething, I am so close to yelling the place down, telling everyone to fucking mind their own business. Instead I try to stare them down as we pass. I meet each of those eyes turned up at us, hoping that for one time gazes might actually kill.
I barely realize that we have made it outside when I dimly register his voice. "Cait? Cait, look at me."
I take in the cold night air and shake my head, surfacing from deep waters, releasing the dead grip on the back of his shirt. "Sorry... I..." I am lost for words as the rage comes back, my fists shaking.
I am slightly shocked when I realize Jacob is laughing.
"You... you are…" He barely manages to squeeze out the words, he is laughing so hard it drives tears to his eyes. He staggers against me and I reflexively shoot my arm out to steady him, gaping at him angrily. What the fuck is so funny?
He calms down, hiccupping while he absentmindedly rubs my arm with the back of the hand that is still gripping the cane, softly leaning against me for a short moment before he stumbles back again.
"I would not have been surprised if one or the other just fell dead in there. Who knows, maybe they still might, after all."
"What are you talking about?" I stuff my fists into the pockets of my jacket, glowering at a still grinning Jacob.
"Well, I hope I will never be on the receiving end of that look, my lady. That was awesome."
I am still angry but I feel better when he says that, a smile tucking at the corners of my lips. "What are we, a television show?"
Jacob shrugs and painstakingly slowly moves towards his car without me. He leans against the car hood to retrieve the keys from his pocket, cane dangling from his right underarm. I am still standing where he left me, feeling the warmth of his hug on my skin.
Jacob inches around the front of the Jeep to the other side, wrestles open the car door and climbs on the seat. The window to my side slides down and he leans over to look down at me standing at the curb. "Can I drive you home? You look like you should not meet the wrong person at the moment. I might wake up tomorrow and hear about a mass murdering in the city."
I shake my head no. I need to have some time on my own, to clear my head. I know the walk to the subway station in the cool night air will do me good.
"Okay... but no more attempts at murder, you hear me?" He jokes but his voice has grown serious.
I force a smile. "I'll be fine."
I ignore him muttering that that was not what he was worried about. "See you, Jacob. Have a good night."
"You too. We... stay in contact?"
As the Jeep speeds down the road, lights flash in a last greeting. I tuck my hands deeper into the pockets of my jacket and turn to walk towards the station. The icy wind biting at my cheeks is very much welcome.
--> Chapter 8
--> Chapter 8