2005 – Natalie Pepa – For Those Who Wait

Fiction selection from the 2005 issue

For Those Who Wait
by Natalie Pepa

Renata learned how to wait when she was a child. All the brothers came first, that was the rule in the house. So she learned to wait for her turn at the table, her turn for gifts at Christmas, her permission to leave the house after the chores. She even learned to wait for that which never came. It was a good lesson—this eternal postponement of gratification—it taught her not to expect the fulfillment of promises.

With time, the waiting transformed into yearning, of which the first was simply to turn ten so she could walk to her friend’s house by herself. Later, to grow up and fill out like the rest of her girlfriends, who had matured before her. Then to fall in love and then to recover. After that it was some mysterious longing she felt as acutely as the pounding of her heart. She welcomed the restlessness and sadness for it became a substitute for what she did not have. It made her feel superior, this profound melancholy of poets.

When she married, all her wishes seemed fulfilled and the waiting was simply for the children to be born, for dinner to cook, for the house to be built. It was all so mundane she no longer called it yearning. There was no excuse for melancholy. For the next twenty years she behaved like a proper suburban wife—chauffeuring the children, entertaining her husband’s business associates, shopping with her friends.

Inside, the sadness continued to churn. She would awaken in the middle of the night, move away from David, and cry softly not understanding her own tears. When David asked for a divorce, Renata was relieved—there was reason now to feel sad. She was left with the large house and a generous alimony. She could have sold the house and moved anywhere, but chose to remain in San Francisco close to two of her children. One daughter, unmarried, had moved to the east coast and she visited her frequently.

She was here now, in the middle of summer, spending the day in Kensington.

It was a quaint town with narrow streets lined with antique shops. Renata stopped at a little café for lunch and crossed the outdoor patio, keenly aware of a man sitting by himself at a table in the corner. Quickly she took him in, felt the chemistry, so sudden and indiscriminating. She stopped to look at the menu on the wall, then fumbled through her purse.

“Here, take mine,” the man said, offering his glasses.

She looked at him and smiled, then retrieved her glasses and waved them in the air.

“Thanks, I’ve got them.”

He had a rough face, like one exposed and at ease with the elements and a gentleness perhaps because of the white beard, the rimless glasses. When he turned his head she saw his white hair pulled back in a pony tail. So much of him reminded her of David—the good of David. Though how could she know whether his blue eyes could also turn to stone. But this afternoon, the eyes were soft and deeply questioning.

It had been some time since she’d seen that look in any man. Perhaps, she had to acknowledge, she had simply shut her eyes to it. After David left she had gone through several failed love affairs that took her ever deeper into the old sadness. As if David’s departure had left an open wound that grew larger with each disappointment. Even the slightest rejection—a broken date by a new man, another’s failure to call after a concert, a friend’s promise of a blind date that never materialized—all these seemingly innocuous incidents were magnified in her mind, enlarged the wound, made it fester like gangrene. Finally after the last hurtful breakup, more than two years before, she had decided to stop looking.

Renata took a table next to the man and ordered a salad and an iced tea. Even before the waitress came, he engaged her in conversation. It happened so innocently she could hardly be upset with what could be construed as a pass.

“You must be a dancer,” he said, “you have legs like Betty Grable.”

“Sure, from the old movies,” she said. “And I do like dancing.”

He, Hank something (later she could not recall his last name), told her he lived here in Kensington, that he had three grown children and four grandchildren. They spoke through the whole meal about life in general, the current political problems, the attractions in the area. His voice was soft and he knew so much about everything, like David who would read at least five books a week. His attentiveness was irresistible.

“I love antiques,” she told him.

“Great, I’m an antique,” he said, and they both laughed.

If you give me a half a chance, Renata thought, I could grow to love you.

“The place is full of them. If you start over there,” he pointed to the right, “two blocks full of shops.”

She was so sure he would ask for her phone number or to meet him later, that when he got up from his meal and went inside to pay, she expected him to return with a piece of paper. Instead, he returned with two singles which he placed under his cup, then turned to Renata again with that look of extreme interest.

“If you were living here,” he said, “I’d build a wooden dance floor just for you.”

She wanted to tell him that she had no attachment to her home in San Francisco, that one coast was as good as another, that she was simply waiting for the right reason to move. But she only smiled, acknowledging the indirect complement, and told him she had enjoyed their conversation. He expressed the same, shook her hand, and then was gone.

Renata sat for a long time stunned by what felt like a betrayal, trying to understand the rejection. But was it? Was he a shy man who did not know how to take the next step? Perhaps he was turned off by the fact that she was not local. What if he had read her signals wrong and believed she was not interested? Had she not done that so many times before—put up a protective wall that turned men away. She became angry at herself for staying in her passive role. What would have been wrong in asking him for his number?

She returned the next day at noon, sat in the same spot, ordered the same meal. If he lived in the neighborhood she could meet him again. A level voice inside reasoned that if she could not find him, destiny did not mean for it to be. But—God helps those who help themselves—another voice said. Though she did not believe in God per se, she did believe in a concept of a greater power in charge of human lives. If I put myself in the proper place it’s a clue that I am taking positive steps and that “it” ought to help me, she reasoned. She wanted to ask the waitress if she knew him, but it was a different girl and she had no idea who the man was.

“Ask the owner of the card shop on the corner,” the girl said. “She knows everyone.”

But the shop owner did not know him either.

Renata remained in the shop for some time and ended up buying a vintage card, taking long to decide on one. She wanted something with meaning, but not too much meaning. There was one of two lovers sitting on a park bench in the glow of moonlight, another of a flapper dancing, many with animals and children. She settled on one of a woman in profile, a long dress from the late nineteenth century, gazing over a harbor where in the distance two galleons were either coming at or away from each other. The woman on shore was obviously waiting.

I returned to Kensington to pick up an antique I’d seen yesterday.

She did not want him to believe, though it was true, that she had returned only to find him. She wanted to make the note brief, neither too revealing nor too cold.

I enjoyed our conversation yesterday and felt sad we did not exchange numbers. Here is my version of the letter in a bottle cast into the sea. If it reaches you, here is my number.

She drew a picture of him on the envelope. A caricature of a gentle man with glasses, a beard, and a pony tail. She wrote “Hank” in large letters and sealed the envelope.

“If you see this man, please give it to him,” she told the waitress as she handed it to her with a generous tip. “Please don’t throw it away,” she added, before walking away.

She felt strange about pleading with this young woman, a stranger, who suddenly held her future in her hands. Would the girl simply laugh and throw the note away? Or did the girl, like Renata herself, also believe in waiting. Neither of them understood yet that only the waiting endures.

Years later when the incident was only a sad and poignant memory for Renata, and her yearning for love had dwindled, the card remained—picture and name easily visible—pinned to the wall behind the cashier. Eventually, it would turn yellow with age, growing old like the picture inside, like the text itself, adrift on the vast whiteness of the wall, waiting for someone to find it.

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