“You have a messiah complex, got to save the world.” — Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas
I’ve never been much for crowds. People huddled en masse tended to embrace a hive mind of boorishness, which was why I tended to do my shopping early on Tuesday mornings. Less people, less hassle as I collected my weekly provisions, zipped through the express lane and out of the market. But something was wrong today. Tuesday? Yes. Early morning? Yes. Empty supermarket? Not by a long shot.
The aisles crawled with miscreants of every variety. Attention deficit disordered shopping cart pusher that crashed into other carts and people with reckless abandon. Forsaken carts left in the middle of aisles blocking throughways. And cretins on checkout lines that were never properly prepared to simply pay for their items and go.
I contemplated turning around and leaving the shopping for another morning or possibly next Tuesday—surely I could have survived a week on basic rations. But had I left, I wouldn’t have run into Tatum.
Seventeen years since I laid eyes on her last. She was still attractive, more so now, a slender Honduran with mocha skin, shoulder length dreads and a disarming smile. Unlike previous times when I randomly encountered someone from my past on the street and immediately began flipping through the card catalog in my mind for any excuse to walk away, I was actually pleased to see her. In that moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history hadn’t existed. Just heart-warming nostalgia.
Her smiled never wavered as she told me her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she studied to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, nine and thirteen years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.
I had no idea how long we stood there, blocking the aisle much to the ire of the other shoppers, nor did I care. For the first time in quite a while I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t trapped within the confines of a television set. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we’d call and went our separate ways.
And on my way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life took. And on the tail of the guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.
I promptly crumpled up her number and kicked it down a storm drain. Neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.
Less than a week later, once I had time to regret trashing her phone number, she called with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t keen on the latter, but I wanted to see her again.
We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast food chain done up in dime store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly, but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company again. I experienced a level of comfort in her presence that oddly felt like home.
That was, until her daughter, Tracie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have S-E-X?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.
Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. I had no idea what the proper protocol was, so I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have S-E-X, Mommy?
Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes. We had sex.”
Was that how it was done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”
The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speed bag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deep level. The rest of the conversation was down hill after that, in terms of my personal discomfort, I meant. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected, and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children, in her family there was no place setting for me. It only lasted an instant but long enough for it to have registered.
I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place, it wasn’t a build up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people simply grew apart. If I was honest, it was the Santeria. I told her I didn’t believe in things like that and it was the truth, but the other truth was that it scared a pert of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
It wasn’t Tatum practicing rituals so much as her mother. That woman hated me the moment she clamped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding the fact. She came over to our apartment constantly and after she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Santeria objects everywhere.
One day when I had come home early, I walked in on a Santeria ritual. Everyone clad in white, drummers, talking to the gods, played their specific beat, eyes closed in a trance while robed dancers chanted in the ancient Yoruba as they spun and shook off the evil eye.
And there, in the center of the room, was Tatum’s mother, who looked at me like I was a burglar. She walked in ever expanding circles while smoking a cigar and blew smoke in my face as she spoke in tongues.
I moved out of the apartment that night and never looked back. Depending on how you looked at it, her mother’s spell actually worked. I was out of her daughter’s life.
I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation, mind you, but I kept the incident with her mother firmly in mind. It had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.
Tatum greeted me at the door, apron on, dusted with flour and seasonings, a happy homemaking in full effect. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces looked different. They still possessed features that were reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow different, incomplete, faces in transition. I chalked it up to being over-tired and thought no more of it.
Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes and listened with rapt attention as he talked about the time I met their mother.
When dinner was over we sat in the living room. The apartment was too small for two growing kids but Tatum had arranged everything in a way that made it feel roomy, as though it was a real house.
To Be Continued…
©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys