Stefanie’s newest story, “A Lifetime to Go,” has been published in the Winter 2015 issue of Limestone, a literary journal at the University of Kentucky.
You can also read the story on the Limestone website.
“What would you like, Jack, decaf or regular?” Kira hears the edge of impatience in her own voice, and it saddens her. She hopes Jack doesn’t perceive it. With a deep breath, she closes her eyes for longer than a blink and opens them, shifting her gaze from the coffee house barista, who is picking at her cuticle while waiting for their order, to the tall, lanky man standing at her side. Watching his hesitation brings out her tender side and modulates her usual hastiness. Feelings of regret and sadness wash over her. There is nothing to do but give him time.
“Hmm. I forget. What’s that stuff I like?” Jack’s eyebrows arch high with hope, but his eyes are flat. Kira tries to ignore the grumbles from patrons in line behind them. She looks up at the wooden beams across the ceiling, and then across the counter at the cakes and pastries that line the back wall. She breathes in deeply, remembering other coffee shops and other days, wondering if the enticing aroma of the sweets and freshly ground coffee beans can reach Jack.
“Pink!” he calls out. “I like pink.” Momentarily pleased, he flashes his dimples at Kira.
“Yes, Jackie, I know, Sweet ’N Low. But do you want regular coffee, with caffeine—you know, makes you have energy”—Kira waves her hands in small circles—“or decaf, no energy?” Kira drops her hands.
Jack sighs and looks up at the ceiling. Kira takes half a step back and looks down. She should know better, she thinks. She has made this too hard for him. She should have just ordered the coffee.
Like an unexpected breeze, a wide smile crosses Jack’s face and his eyes brighten. He straightens his six-foot frame and, for a brief moment, resembles the man he used to be.
“Regular. I prefer regular.”
Kira hadn’t been completely surprised when Jack called to cancel their dinner plans that January evening eight months earlier. It happened often, occasionally with a logical explanation. Work got in the way, or else a visit from his nineteen-year-old daughter, Corinne, who lived in Boston with her mother, but came into New York to see Jack now and then. A part of Kira believed that Jack did want to be with her, but a bigger part feared she had given up her claim to him long ago. Somewhere over the last two decades, the balance of power had shifted, and now Kira tried not to count on seeing him until after each meeting had actually occurred. This time, when the phone rang, Kira was unpacking apples and trail mix in her tiny kitchen.
“Bad news about dinner,” Jack said. “I’m sick.”
Kira sighed silently. “Stomach bug? It’s going around.”
At first, Jack didn’t answer. Then he gave a soft chuckle. Kira wondered if he was distracted. Couldn’t he even focus on her long enough to cancel? Kira was annoyed, not only at Jack, but at herself for caring so much about whether she saw him that night. Cradling the phone under her chin, she moved to the fridge to see if she had something she could pull together for dinner for one.
Later, as she played the scene over in her mind throughout a sleepless night, she would realize the quiver in her gut had begun with that quiet little laugh. It was familiar to her, light and self-deprecating. Part of his humble charm. It felt, like everything else with Jack, inevitable.
“No, not a stomach bug. It’s actually pretty bad.”
“Are you sitting?” he asked.
“I’m sitting,” she lied.
“It’s a brain tumor.”
Kira stood motionless, her hand still poised on the refrigerator door handle. She felt her chest constrict, sucking her into a tunnel. Her life, not his, passed through her mind. The twenty-eight years since they met in that poetry seminar at the university, spending their days studying together, sleeping together, and finishing each other’s sentences. The smell of the clove cigarettes they chain-smoked, listening to Neil Young records and arguing about politics. His passion for architectural studies, hers for women’s lit, their shared love of old artsy movies. She could see their graduation photo in her mind’s eye, black-and-white, Jack bending down to kiss her cheek, his curly mop of hair blending with hers, his arm wrapped tightly around her waist, the laughter visible in her smile. The laughter was short-lived. Over his objections, she had taken a job at a start-up feminist magazine in Greenwich Village. He was going to grad school in Boston.
“Please, won’t you look for a job near me?” he’d pleaded.
“I can’t.” She shook her head, sad but firm. “This is too good an opportunity to pass up.”
“If you’re so sure about New York,” he pressed, “we’ll commute. I’ll come to you, you’ll come to me. Whatever it takes.”
She thought they each needed time to discover themselves. To discover what? he asked, his voice sounding angry. We can make this work. Please, Kira, don’t throw this away. I love you.
It had been her choice.
Jack’s voice on the phone pulled her back, reminding her where she was and what she’d just heard. Finally, she closed the refrigerator door gently, pulled the kitchen stool toward her, and sat.
“I know, it’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” He tried to fill the silence.
“Where are you?” Kira heard her voice echoing outside her head, as though someone else was speaking.
“In the office, for now. Tomorrow I’m checking into the hospital. More tests, and then…I don’t know. If I’m lucky, surgery.”
“Crazy, I know, but it’s better if they can operate.”
“Jack, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. Can I come with you?”
“My brother is coming, I think. He’ll probably be the best person. He’s good with medical stuff.”
Jack. Sick. How? We’re supposed to get another chance.
“Can I…” She hesitated. “Can I do anything?”
“No, thanks. Not yet. There really isn’t anything to do.”
Don’t hang up, Kira begged silently. I know you’re about to hang up.
“Sorry, Kira, I have to go. Believe it or not, it’s hard for me to even have a conversation. It hurts to concentrate.”
“Oh, Jack, of course, go. I’m sorry. I’ll call you. Good luck tomorrow.”
The phone clicked quickly in Kira’s ear.
“Jack, can I just come see you?” Kira knew it was too late.
* * *
Kira pretended to manage a bowl of soup and a few crackers before climbing into bed with a glass of chardonnay. It just didn’t seem possible. She asked herself again the same questions she’d been asking for fifteen years. Why had she left? What had she been afraid of missing? Kira thought about calling someone, but so few people even knew about Jack. None of her work colleagues—she kept those relationships professional and distant. None of her New York friends. He was almost a secret.
Kira considered calling her sister. Lauren had loved Jack like a brother back in those college years, and thought Kira was crazy to break things off. And even crazier not to come back. And then crazier still for not having tried again, years later, when Jack’s architecture firm moved him to New York shortly after his divorce. What was stopping her, Lauren had asked? Was it still fear of missing something? Was there still some great truth, some great adventure to uncover? What was she waiting for?
But even though Kira wondered the same thing, she just couldn’t accept Lauren’s questions. Calling him felt too risky. Lauren was a throwback to an earlier generation, seeking stability and domestic comfort when most of her peers were buzzing with their own career ambitions. She was married with two kids and a dog by age 30, president of her kids’ elementary school PTA, no career to speak of, no money of her own. She’d be saddened to hear that Jack was sick, but she would never really understand what it meant to Kira, who had lived her life in constant motion, imagining the best was still ahead of her. Kira knew Lauren had tried to be supportive of her choices, as Kira had been of Lauren’s, but neither of them truly understood the other. When Jack showed up in NY, Lauren had been gleeful. “This is it, Kira! Now’s your chance!” But Kira had still been entangled in a series of messy relationships with unavailable and unsuitable men. By the time she finally realized she’d made a mistake, a colossal mistake, the same mistake over and over again, the time for discovering themselves had flown by. She was too scared to come clean to Jack. She could barely be honest with herself. And besides, surely he’d outgrown her by now. Perhaps he was still angry. He had been right. She had been wrong. There had been no reason to wait.
Kira sipped her wine, though it had grown too warm. Three years ago, she and Jack had finally reconnected, thanks to a mutual friend from school who invited them to a party in her Upper East Side apartment without telling either of them the other would be there. Kira remembered that first glimpse of Jack. He was nodding and listening to a couple of men she’d never met. At first she thought she was imagining that it was him, as she had so many times over the years, but this time he was really there, looking enough as she remembered for her to be certain. His physique had changed a little—it was twenty-five years, after all. He was still trim, not quite as lean as he had been. But his particular stance, his feet planted just a bit farther apart than looked comfortable, his arms crossed loosely across his chest, as though he were grounding himself—that was completely familiar, though she hadn’t remembered it in so many years. She hated the cliché of it, but she really did forget to breathe for a moment. Now, recalling it as she sat up in bed, sipping her wine and thinking back, she forgot to breathe again. He had aged well. Probably better than she had. From what she could see, his profile was still firm around the jawline. He had most of his hair, though it was gray now. Not that any of it would have mattered, she knew. The impact was still the same. She swallowed hard against the dryness in her mouth and approached him.
“Hi.” She rested a hand gently on his shoulder but removed it quickly. Jack turned around.
“How are you?” Kira’s voice was smaller than she had planned.
“It’s been a long time,” Jack said.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Kira studied the soft lines at the corner of Jack’s eyes and felt her own well up with tenderness and loss. She hadn’t been there to see those lines develop, and now they were part of him, and she wasn’t.
They agreed to meet for dinner, and they did, about a week later. Piece by piece, carefully, they caught up on each other’s lives, particularly the trajectories of their careers. They politely avoided talk of girlfriends and boyfriends, and Jack skated through the description of his marriage in a few brief sentences. It had ended poorly, his wife leaving him for a younger and more dashing version. He sounded resigned but not unhappy, and Kira couldn’t tell if he missed his wife or just missed being settled. Their conversations were filled with silence—not the companionable silence of their youth, but cautious, self-protective silence. So much was unspoken. They were in their late 40s, both officially single, yet neither suggested anything more intimate than an occasional dinner or drinks once in a while. Very slowly, they resumed their friendship, eating at a hot new place in town or a local pizza joint, but never just comfortably at home. They saw each other every month or two, but not on a regular schedule. Twice, Kira even accompanied Jack to his office galas when dates were expected. She wore sleek black gowns and stunning heels, and he treated her in his characteristic gentlemanly manner. He placed his hand firmly on the small of her back to guide her, held her at a respectful distance when they danced, but released her as soon as the music ended. At the end of each evening, Jack would take Kira home in a taxi. She wanted to invite him in, but his posture, his formality, held her back. Kira allowed herself the luxury of playing various scenarios through in her mind, but they never materialized. The invisible wall that had been established years earlier never came down. Kira was sure the magic was still there, buried. She could see it in Jack’s face occasionally when he looked at her, yearning and fear combined in his chocolate eyes, but only for a moment before the wall became opaque again. She wanted to reach up and wipe the pain away, tell him she was sorry for all her mistakes, but she didn’t feel she could. She hadn’t been invited in, and she couldn’t just barge through that protected exterior. The time wasn’t right. When Jack told Kira about the tumor, they hadn’t seen each other in about a month.
* * *
“Hi, Jackie, I’m here,” Kira called as she pushed open the unlocked door to his apartment. “I brought you lunch.” The cheerful note in her voice was unforced. It had been eleven months since his surgery, and everything had changed. Initially he wasn’t allowed visitors other than immediate family, but as the weeks passed, those restrictions were lifted. Kira visited twice in the hospital, and when he returned to work, she began meeting him every Wednesday at his office. “Hi, Kira!” The receptionist, Dina, would give Kira a grateful smile as she dialed Jack’s extension. “Jack, your lunch appointment is here.” Sometimes they would go out to a neighborhood bistro, or run an errand or two, or stop for coffee. For a while, they would go to the park and sit in the sunshine. When walking became more difficult, they changed their routine to eat at the office cafeteria, sitting at the same table each time, Jack against the wall so nobody could see the scar behind his right ear where his hair wouldn’t grow anymore. They would share a grilled cheese sandwich, French fries, and a strawberry milkshake, drinking the shake out of one glass with two straws, giggling like the teenagers they had been a long time ago. Eventually, when work became impossible, Kira would come to his apartment and the doorman would buzz her up.
“Mr. Silver, you have a guest. A lovely lady is here for you.”
Before long, Kira started to bring lunch and groceries to his apartment. It was easier to eat in, to sit on the sofa and chat or just watch TV. Sometimes she would hold his hand, and sometimes she would rub his shoulders, which she noticed felt increasingly bony as the weeks passed. At each visit, Kira gauged his status by the condition of his apartment. Despite his dwindling capabilities, for longer than Kira thought was wise, Jack insisted on cleaning and keeping up with his home himself. He had always been particular, even finicky, about his belongings. It took him hours to dust the endless knick-knacks and antique furniture he loved, hours that wiped him out for the day, but Kira knew he had always been proud that nobody could do as good a job as he could.
“It’s mindless enough,” he joked to Kira when he could still laugh at himself. She couldn’t bring herself to laugh along with him.
Over time, Kira noticed that several rows of books on the bookshelves had dominoed over and lay on their sides. A glass perched at the edge of the wooden coffee table without a coaster. Blinking lights on the CD player indicated that the power was on, but no music filled the room. In most homes, in Kira’s home, these details would have been nothing. In Jack’s home, they were signs he was slipping away.
“How are you feeling?” Kira settled into the desk chair across from Jack’s recliner and tucked her legs up under her.
Peachy, Kira knew, meant Jack wasn’t in the mood to talk.
“It’s gorgeous outside. Strangely warm for December. Do you want to get some air? Go outside for a few minutes?”
Jack wrinkled his nose. “Cold? Someone said cold today. It might…” Jack’s hands fluttered gracefully.
“It won’t snow, Jack. It’s very sunny.”
Jack smiled into Kira’s eyes. His dimples appeared. “Sunny.”
Kira smiled back.
The years had etched themselves pleasantly into their faces. Jack’s face looked like home to Kira. She basked in it, warm and happy.
The phone rang and he picked up the mobile by his side. It took an extra ring for him to locate the right button to push.
“Hello?” He gripped the arm of the recliner tightly to stop his hand from shaking.
“Hey. Fine, you? I want to talk but…. I have…visitor….Will you? Call back? Great, an hour. Perfect. Okay. Bye.”
“Who was it?” Kira asked.
“Do you know who called?”
Jack looked down.
“It’s okay, honey, you said they’ll call back.”
“Jack? It’s okay.”
“No it’s not.” He shook his head and repeated, “Not okay, not okay.” His lips pressed together, and his forehead wrinkled. Lines appeared where the dimples had vanished.
“What is it, Jack? Does something hurt?” She leaned closer to pick up his hand.
“I can’t remember your name.”
* * *
When the call comes three months later, it is nothing like any of the scenarios Kira has imagined. It is just after 9:00 on a Saturday morning, and Kira is packing up some old things. She has decided to sell her little apartment on Bleecker Street and buy something more Establishment in the East 60s. When Jack’s daughter Corinne calls, Kira is expecting the realtor for their morning appointment. She doesn’t recognize Corrine’s voice.
“It’s over, Kira. It happened during the night. Suddenly. The tumor invaded too much tissue and he hemorrhaged.”
The word “no” reverberates through Kira’s body like an echo in a cavern. She doesn’t move at all—perhaps stillness will stop time. Stop. Time. Finally, the loud thumping of her heart against her ribcage brings Kira back.
“Oh, Corinne. I’m so sorry.” She barely hears her own appropriate response.
“I know how much he appreciated your visits, Kira. Thanks for sticking with him until the end.”
Corinne’s words jolt her. Thanks? As though she has been performing some sort of community service that is no longer needed?
“It wasn’t just for him, you know. I always loved…I mean, our time together was really special. Always, not just lately.”
Corinne clears her throat. “We’re going to keep the funeral private, just immediate family.”
There is no more stillness. Anger surges through Kira. “I am family,” she blurts.
“No, you’re not.” Corinne’s voice is firm.
“Don’t you think Jack would have wanted me at his funeral?” Kira asks.
Even in her anger, as the words leave her lips, Kira realizes her question is unfair. Although she and Corinne have met a few times during the last year, they aren’t friends. Kira has never really wanted to know Jack’s daughter.
When Corinne finally speaks, her words are quiet and her voice slightly cracked.
“I don’t really know what he would have wanted, Kira. Do you?”
Kira’s throat swells, raw and aching. Has she ever known what Jack wanted? She knows what she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want Corinne’s sympathy. Kira clears her throat silently, forcing the pain from her voice.
“I’m sorry, Corinne, really. Whatever will be easier for your family, of course.” Tears begin to fall down the side of Kira’s nose. “You must have a lot of calls to make. Thanks for letting me know, Corinne. I…we all miss him.”
Kira replaces the receiver. She looks around the apartment. There aren’t any physical signs of Jack. She has no plans to change to accommodate his death. The space he took in her life was vast but invisible. She feels utterly empty. There is nothing to be done.
After a few moments, Kira stands, walks to the tiny kitchen, and lifts up a vase filled with flowers she had purchased from a street vendor five days earlier. They are slightly wilted, but she thinks she can save them. At the sink, she turns on the faucet, pours out the old, tepid water, feels the cool water run through her fingers and then into the vase. She finds a pair of kitchen shears and begins to trim each flower stem, first cutting a tiny sliver off each one, and then cutting further and further up, watching the stems get shorter and shorter, until she realizes she has cut some of them all the way up to the petals. What has she done? She drops the vase hard into the sink. She hopes it will break, but the sturdy glass just clanks against the metal basin and tips over. The remaining water spills out and the flowers lay strewn across the bottom of the sink, torn apart. Through her tears, it looks to Kira like the flowers are bleeding.
After a few moments, Kira walks to the bathroom to find some tissues. She blows her nose hard, splashes cold water on her face, and returns to the sink to clean up the mess she has made. It doesn’t take very long to scoop up the torn flowers and throw them away, then dry off the vase and replace it on a shelf in the living room. She looks around for something else to do. She finishes taping up the box she was packing when the phone rang, picks up some stray lint, straightens the sofa cushions, clears away a coffee mug. She wants to be ready for her appointment with the realtor. No sense in keeping her waiting. No sense in waiting at all.