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Chapter I. Part II
She looked into my eyes and practically begged me to protect the organization from the very developers Ryan works with — builders hungry to throw up cheap apartment buildings, displacing the lifelines for hundreds of homeless people in the process.
True, Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood is a bit on the seedier side, and development could bring new life to its streets, but Ryan painted a grim picture of a place I loved so long ago and still do. Anyone with a heart for the down-and-out could see that the plan to overhaul the neighborhood would not only close the doors of the Hope Gospel Mission, it would entail demolishing thousands of low-income units and two shelters. As such, property developers, many of whose financial outlooks Ryan manages, remained in gridlock with the city of Seattle.
“I guess I just like it the way it is,” I say. “The neighborhood has an old Seattle feel. It’s gritty, I know. But it’s real. And it’s home to so many people.”
“Didn’t you used to live down there?”
His question is one I would rather not answer, so I busy myself refolding the napkin in my lap.
“No,” I finally say. “But I used to know someone who did.”
I don’t tell him that over the years my curiosity about that someone has gotten the better of me, eaten at me like a cancer at times. I squeezed the marrow out of Google. Cade, it seemed, had not only left me but had possibly left the face of the earth. But that is all in the past.
Ryan raises a suspicious eyebrow. “And who is this someone?”
“No one,” I say, eager to change the subject. I’m as uninterested in speaking about my past love life as I am in hearing about his, especially the woman he dated before me: Vanessa, the Southern belle whose father and Ryan’s were blue-blooded best friends and real-estate moguls with connections on the East and West Coasts. She was a shoo-in to be Mrs. Ryan Winston until I stumbled into his life and ruined their collective plans. Imagine the look on their faces: “Mom, Dad, this is Kailey. I love her. And she has a tattoo!”
When I tried to wrap my head around the situation early on in our relationship, Ryan was direct. “You know as well as I do that Vanessa and I were best suited as friends,” he said. “We grew up together.”
“And she’s still in love with you,” I replied without missing a beat.
Ryan shook his head. “No, she’s not.”
“Ryan,” I said. “I’m a woman. I saw the way she looked at you in West Virginia.” She had been with her family at the Greenbrier for the annual extravaganza Ryan and his family and friends have taken part in for generations. The men golf, and the women lunch. I survived the ordeal by conning a sympathetic waiter into spiking my sweet tea with bourbon.
Ghosts, as Tracy calls these youthful loves. We must not let them haunt.
I look over at my handsome fiancé as he straightens in his chair. Yes, we come from different places and see the world in different ways. He challenges me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But what informs our past stays there. Ryan is my present. I am grateful that our once-separate paths have converged, brought us here together. Tonight. Forever. Always.
“I love you so much,” I whisper, sliding my arm across the white tablecloth to hold his hand.
“I love you, too,” he says with an intensity that I swear I can feel in my soul.
As he speaks, rain splatters the window. A full moon shines behind a tiny patch of clearing in the sky, trying desperately to emerge from its cloudy cloak. A supermoon, Tracy said. A physician with a quirky penchant for the mystical, she has talked nonstop about some astrological eclipse that is apparently taking place tonight. And though I have no interest in astrology, I secretly love her daily reports. Somehow I can stomach the woo-woo when carefully curated and sifted by my best friend.
And now I wonder if Ryan’s edginess can be blamed on the metaphysical. The thought lingers as I take another sip of wine, silky and peppery at the same time. I hear the telltale crackle inside the glass and a memory surfaces. Like always, I tuck it away, far away, where it belongs. I’ve long since stopped feeling the ache in my heart that I lived with for so long.
I may not have had closure, but I have tasted wisdom. Anyone who has ever had their heart broken, or even just bruised, has learned that there’s finality in the facts. He left. And I’ve realized that when someone wants to leave, you let him go.
Ryan refills my wineglass and begins telling me about his day. He modestly recounts an incident when a coworker fell asleep during a meeting with the company president. Events could have turned dire, until Ryan surreptitiously set off his cellphone alarm, waking his sleeping colleague in the nick of time. My eyes crinkle with emotion at his kindness. My face melts into a smile.
“I’m happy,” I say unprompted. The words leap from my mouth, or maybe my heart. I can’t keep them in. “You make me so happy.”
“Me too, baby,” he says.
My cellphone buzzes, alerting me to a new voicemail, but rather than check it I tuck it into my purse.
Ryan winks and waves his hand to summon the waitress; she appears at our table a moment later. “Can I get a negroni?”
“Yes, sir,” she says, turning back to the bar.
We share the salmon and duck-fat potatoes and an order of the prawns. “They’re a little spicy,” Ryan says, taking a bite, “don’t you think?”
Ryan has an adventurous palate, a necessity for the fiancé of a food enthusiast, and yet unlike me he doesn’t tolerate the taste of heat. I swear I nearly gave him a third-degree burn on his tongue the first time I made him breakfast. The Tabasco I’d whisked in with the eggs for an added kick didn’t go over so well. Lesson learned.
“Want to order something else?” I suggest, but Ryan tells me he’s happy to watch me enjoy the food. We talk about the wedding. Our gazes drift off to separate corners of the restaurant during the occasional lull in conversation as each of us pauses in turn to consider a key detail that would never have occurred to the other. We’re a complementary pair. It’s comfortable and nice, the way life is with Ryan, the way it will be for a lifetime. I finish another glass of wine, drinking in the feeling of contentment.
Ryan pays the bill, and we collect our coats. “Why don’t you wait here while I get the car,” he asks as I button my black wool coat and take what’s left of pre-wedding cake, a gift from the chef that our waitress has carefully boxed up.
It’s stopped raining, but the temperature has plummeted. “You’re so thoughtful,” I say. “Thanks, honey.”
I watch him walk up the block in his perfectly tailored suit. I’m lucky, I know. This man, with these good looks. He’s successful and funny and has eyes only for me. Ryan has it all. I take a deep breath and nod to myself.
Outside the window, a bearded homeless man approaches a couple also waiting for their car. Visibly annoyed, they turn and walk in a different direction as he shrinks back and sits cross-legged on the sidewalk.
The host shakes his head. “Sorry about that,” he says. “Once they start loitering, it’s hard to get rid of them.”
“Maybe he’s just hungry,” I say. “Do you have any leftovers in the kitchen for him?”
The man shakes his head. “With all due respect, miss, we’re not a soup kitchen. Besides, they usually just want money, probably for drugs.”
I know from my reporting that this remark is a generalization. Homelessness cannot be singularly blamed on substance abuse. There are hundreds of other reasons why people find themselves on the streets. But I can do more by engaging this kind of thinking in print than in an impromptu confrontation.
I exit to the sidewalk, where I cast a cautious glance at the homeless man. His frame is thin, painfully thin, and his clothes hang from his limbs. I remember the bag of leftover food in my hand and I take a step closer. If only I had more than sugar to offer, but eggs are ingredients in cake.
“Excuse me?” I say. He doesn’t seem to hear me, so I repeat myself, a bit louder. “Excuse me, I have some food here. Would you…like it?”
He looks up as I approach, and when our eyes meet, I am overcome with a feeling of familiarity that I cannot place. I lose hold of the bag, and it drops from my grasp to the rain-kissed sidewalk at my feet. My brain’s circuits fire, and the contents of my memories flood out like an overturned file cabinet. If this man recognizes me, his eyes don’t show it. Headlights strobe ahead, and I hear the sound of tires rolling to a stop. I look behind me and see Ryan pulling his car up. Just then the man reaches his bony hand toward the bag and pulls out the box of food. He looks at it for a moment before tentatively opening the container. I can see the hunger in his eyes, and then his hands grab for the cake and he crams it into his mouth, crumbs sticking to his beard.
Ryan rolls down his window. “Kailey, is everything okay?”
I nod and take a step back, then numbly walk to the car, get in.
I don’t tell Ryan that I am not okay.
I don’t tell Ryan that I know this man.
I don’t tell him that his name is Cade and he used to be the love of my life.