As she glided through the coffee shop, not one person looked up to mark her passage. She sliced through the crowd like a knife through warm butter, the atmosphere around her yielding and pliable. Men and women sat across from each other engaged in animated conversations, eyes bright and coffee steaming in generous porcelain cups. Not one glanced at her movement. This was one of those artsy coffee shops, packed with threadbare armchairs and lumpy sofas, scarred tables worn by decades of abuse, vibrant paintings of bridges and traffic lights coating the walls like splashes of graffiti. Edith Piaf hummed softly over the speakers, and Elise noticed because it reminded her of Paris. Better times. Times when dreams still held their own weight, could be examined carefully like keepsakes polished through adoration.
On an ordinary day, her invisibility would not have bothered her; in fact, she probably wouldn’t notice it. But today a hyperawareness kept her step light, her limbs twanging. When she weighed no more than a dry leaf, her body caving in on itself from what she now knew was starvation, heads turned. The smaller her body, the more visible she was to strangers. Discomfort raged through her with every step as she breezed through the doors and began walking back to her house.
– – –
It had started with the flowers this afternoon. She opened the door slack-jawed at the deliveryman cradling the crystal vase that burst with red blooms. There had to be at least two-dozen stems, effusive with the kind of luxury she had forgotten over the years.
“Elise Kavanaugh?” the deliveryman asked, confirming that it wasn’t a mistake.
She nodded and signed the clipboard, woodenly taking the roses from him when he extended the vase. She couldn’t help feeling delighted. Flowers were a rarity she didn’t expect, especially since things between her and Kurt had disintegrated. Though that was months ago, they still spoke regularly out of habit, the conversation heavy with unspoken words, almost as if no one had explained to them the rules of a break up.
She plucked the tiny envelope from the center of the bunch, setting the vase on the table as she did so. It simply read “Elise” on the front. She didn’t recognize the handwriting.
To the most beautiful women in the world. Meet me at Ripley’s tonight. 7:00.
That was all. Unsigned, in an unrecognizable hand. Her stomach twisted in on itself; this felt like a joke. The misspelled “woman,” the surprise flowers from a stranger on Valentine’s Day, the fact that she well knew she was the kind of woman lauded for her intelligence, not her beauty. Especially in the last year, now that her pants would not button, laying unworn in her closet like relics from a past life.
Still, they were beautifully luscious, and flowers were flowers, so she filled the vase with tap water and set them on the center of her dining table. She pulled out her phone and sat on the sofa, the roses still in view from the corner of her eye.
“Jill, it’s me.”
For about an hour, she and Jill speculated about who would have sent them.
“It’s totally Kurt,” Jill insisted. “Who else would send them? It’s not like you have any admirers.”
Elise scoffed laughter. “Thanks a lot!”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jill said, her tone all business, as if conducting an investigation. “Really, have you even had any contact with any men recently?”
Elise shook her head unconsciously. “It’s not Kurt. We are over. And it wasn’t his handwriting. And he would never misspell ‘woman.’ Never. And he would never write something so generic.”
They went back and forth in male behavior analysis mode, Jill convinced it was Kurt, Elise convinced it was Brett, a friend of theirs with whom she’d had an on standing flirtation for the past eight years.
“Brett would never do it,” Jill said, closing her case with, “If he had wanted to start dating you, he’d have made a move years ago.”
“But he never had the chance! I was always ‘working on things’ with Kurt.”
Jill sharply changed tactics. “So are you going to meet him?”
Elise hesitated. “Do you think I should? I should, right? How else am I going to find out who it was?”
After they hung up, Elise let the confusion war within her. What-ifs and maybes nipped at each other’s heels as she examined the note for the umpteenth time. She wasn’t sure from whom she wanted the flowers to be. She wished they hadn’t been sent at all. She most certainly did not deserve them; she was not in love with anyone. Love was the only reason anyone would send her flowers.
Unless it was a joke. She hardly let herself believe that, though. She was simply fat, not worthy of cruelty.
She dressed herself carefully, choosing the slimming black skirt and the blue blouse that made her eyes look electric, the ballet slippers that made her feel delicate and French. France was the last place she remembered feeling happy. No, maybe not happy, but at least like her life was going in a positive direction. When she had felt weightless inside.
Would her life be better had she not come back for Kurt?
– – –
She scanned the coffee shop, dismissing unfamiliar faces. Not seeing anyone, she decided she would order before trying the back of the coffee shop, behind the sandwich counter.
The cashier told her they would bring her order to her table. After, her hands trembled as she walked briskly past the counter and rounded the corner. There he was.
Elise’s heart sank, even though she had been hoping it wasn’t Kurt wanting to give it another try. In that moment she could be honest with herself. She didn’t know who she wanted it to be.
Phillip half rose, waving her over. “Elise!”
“Phillip,” she said, letting laughter keep her nerves from crawling all over the place. “What are you doing here?” She pulled out the chair across from him, hanging her clunky embroidered bag across the back and trying to sit as gracefully as her new weight would allow. Trying to dissolve into the chair.
A smile darted across his face, disappearing as soon as it arrived. He jumped right in, dispensing with niceties. “Man, I’ve gotta be honest with you. I—uh—this is not an easy thing to say.” He tented his fingers, and then released them as if to mimic birds taking flight.
Elise’s heart sank.
He forged ahead. “I owe you an apology. You got them, right? The flowers?”
Her voice flattened. “Yeah. I was pretty surprised.”
“See…I…I liked you. For Kurt, I mean. You had always seemed so good for him, and I didn’t understand why you guys would break up. I thought he was just being an idiot. That if I could just get you guys to…” He shook his head, “Shit, it sounds so stupid now.”
“Yes,” Elise said tightly.
“I thought I could get him to come, Elise. I’m so sorry. I didn’t…”
She sighed. “What made you think he wasn’t over me?”
He took a deep breath. “You moved back here for him. I know how much you sacrificed for him. It gets to me, that he doesn’t see it, that he only looks at—” he abruptly cut off.
“At what?” she fumed, remembering Kurt’s occasional comments in the past year. He had cloaked them in euphemisms, but she recognized them for what they were.
The server then appeared, setting down the cup and saucer and depositing a dish of various sweeteners. This created distance, and Phillip visibly regrouped. His build and face hinted of Kurt’s, but his features were softer, his eyes more wide-set. He took another sip of his drink before forging ahead.
“Look, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have interfered.”
Humiliation heated her cheeks. “Does he know? Because you know, we still talk sometimes. I want to know how embarrassed I should be.”
He looked right at her, his eyes a shade greener than Kurt’s. “You should stop talking to him. Look, he’s my brother, but he’s…he’s in a weird place. He doesn’t realize what a good thing he had.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
He nodded. “Yeah. He knows. He wouldn’t come.” Phillip said this softly, as if that would ease things for Elise.
She should have felt angry with him, but mostly she felt empty. Sad. For herself, for the life she didn’t choose but could have been hers.
Taking a sip of coffee, she discovered she didn’t want it anymore. None of it.
As she stood to leave, she said, “Thanks anyway for the flowers. No one’s ever sent me Valentine’s flowers before.”
Before he could say anything, she disappeared through the coffee shop.