I spent much of Saturday and Sunday trying to focus on the week ahead of me. I was scheduled for a business trip to Oklahoma City on Monday morning, and found some solace in preparing for the change in climate. Despite its relative latitude, the forecast was calling for temperatures in the upper 40s for most of the week. The coat that Karen had given me last Winter proved to be hot and cumbersome in anything less that blizzard conditions, so I set out to find something lighter.
It was late Sunday afternoon before I found a jacket that suited me. There were few things I resented more than packing into the late hours of the evening, so I hastily made my purchase and stepped outside the mall into a heavy drizzle. I had taken about three steps toward the parking lot when a little red raincoat jumped out of nowhere, landing both of his feet in a puddle directly to my right. I tried stepping back, but it was too late. A thin geyser of rainwater shot up to ankle-height before descending onto the cuff of my pants. As I looked down in bewilderment, a toddler's wondrous smile emerged from underneath the red hood.
For a precious second, his wide blue eyes locked onto mine. Bright images of rainy Spring mornings flew by at a dizzying pace. Three children of different ages stood in our driveway, jumping into puddles and splashing each other as joyous shouts echoed down the street. We sat on the porch, laughing and taking pictures as the youngest tried to generate a splash big enough to soak both of his sisters at once. I put my arm around her shoulders and turned to study her expression. It spoke of a rare contentment; one which I hoped was a sign of renewal...
"Joshua! Shame on you!"
Shaken from my diversion, I looked up to see a young mother pull her child from the point of impact. She seemed both embarrassed and surprised by his adept puddle-jumping skills.
"Sir, I am so sorry."
I didn't mean to be flippant, but couldn't stop myself from laughing.
"It's okay. Don't worry about it."
"But the hems of your pants...they're soaked!"
"Really, it's not a problem."
"Nonsense. Let me get you a towel from the car."
There was an amusing quaintness in her speech and mannerisms that seemed charming and anachronistic. I followed her back through the parking lot as Joshua (whose hand was now tightly secured to avoid another incident) persisted in trying to hit every puddle along the way. For the first time in several weeks, I felt myself smile.
We soon arrived at a blue SUV, which was promptly unlocked and stripped of a thin white towel.
"I keep them for when we travel with the dogs, but don't worry. This one hasn't been used."
Humored by her reassurance, I graciously accepted the towel.
"Thanks for this. How should I return it?"
She seemed amused by my query.
"It's a beach towel. Keep it, throw it away...it doesn't matter."
I thanked her again and headed toward Barnes & Noble, which housed the nearest restroom. Along the way, I thought of Joshua and his mother, envying the apparent normalcy of their lives. Even during the best of times, my life with Karen was never typical or easy. She often seemed undecided about the merits of a "traditional" marriage over a contemporary one, but couldn't settle on a balance between the two. She simultaneously embraced the role of staunch feminist alongside a more subdued identity; a modern day "damsel in distress" of sorts. Our first conversation was over the phone, and I remember being intrigued by her confidence. I didn't understand why someone who was so independent would need a husband in the first place. Maybe a few sporadic relationships here and there, but certainly not a marriage.
Over time, I began to sense a paradox. It took awhile for the facts to align, but Karen's insecurities gradually came clear as the manifestation of two opposing personalities: the downtrodden single mother with a strong inferiority complex, and the self-assured intellectual with a sharp demeanor that bled arrogance. As we stumbled through the early stages of our relationship, I remember being caught off guard by her ability to cycle rapidly from one extreme to the other. Over the course of many conversations, she would regal me with stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing, and how it ostensibly promoted her culture and character. But invariably, a particular question or comment would prompt recollections of some long-forgotten trauma, thereby derailing the conversation into a shallow abyss of indignation and self-pity. The ensuing moments appeared cathartic, as she would seemingly relive each transgression with a level of detail that was eerily vivid. In hindsight, the red strobe lights flickering through my head should have been enough to produce a migraine. But at some point, I had subconsciously learned to ignore them.
By the time of my arrival at Barnes & Noble, I was considerably aware of the cold dampness permeating my socks. After finding a bathroom and drying myself off, I checked my watch and saw that it was almost five o'clock. My new jacket was supposedly water-proof, so I hurriedly tossed the white towel into my bag and began traversing the stock green carpet toward the door. After successfully navigating around hordes of casual browsers and strolling families, I found myself within several strides of the exit. I could finally see an end to the weekend's trial when something appeared in my periphery, calling out like a flock of sirens through a dismal fog.
I came to a dead halt and turned to my left. The "new titles" rack stood in front of me, but only one of its twenty-odd selections had grabbed my attention. I anxiously plucked a non-descript paperback from the shelf, and began reading from the back of its pale brown jacket.
It appeared that fate had finally thrown me a bone.