The Next Best Thing

the-nextWhen Ray died he was still perfect in my eyes. We’d only been dating for six months so we never even had a disagreement that could be called a “fight.” We’d never so much as grown impatient or testy with one another. It was the honeymoon phase of the relationship when your heartbeat still accelerates at the initial sight of the other person. He told me on our second date that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, “the non-cancer” he called it. He made it sound like asthma or something – an inconvenience that, if managed, need not change much of anything about your life. But there were changes – he got more tired, skinnier, less apt to laugh, more distracted. And of course there were the doctor visits which increased in frequency.

He died at his parents’ house in Maine. The weekend he told me his sister was coming to get him, I never suspected he was going home to die. Ray had contacted a man he found on the internet and bought enough morphine to down a horse, which he took after a nice home-cooked meal and a warm shower. His sister Susan told me when they found him he looked like he was in a deep sleep. He had a smile on his face and looked happy. The note he left was one line: ‘I love you all.’ It was a perfect representation of Ray himself – few words, but profound ones.

Ten months after Ray died I was working the same coffee shop where I’d been working when we met. I was on the register, which I hated because it required some semblance of concentration unlike barista duty. There was a line of customers because it was almost nine a.m. and people were coming in for their morning pick-me-ups. I worked quickly and efficiently, settling into a rhythm – repeat order, repeat currency amount, make change; repeat order, repeat currency amount, make change – until this guy stops in front of me and digs around in his pocket, taking a long time, mumbling an apology. His order was a plain coffee which I’d already handed to him so it was only a dollar and twenty-nine cents.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, impatient to get my line moving again.

“Thanks,” he said.”I’m good for it.”

I smiled dismissively and reached for the next customer’s money.

At ten-thirty I took a break and went out back to sit in the morning sun. I used to smoke but after Ray died, I stopped. It seemed grotesque to know someone you cared about who’d died of cancer and yet be a smoker. I’d been smoking for easily ten years, but stopped cold turkey. So during my breaks, I read a book or just watched passersby. I’d left my book at home so instead watched people hurrying to get to subway, or answering email on smartphones as they walked.

Ray was a real estate broker; a real adult job. I liked listening to him on the phone talking to his clients and to banks, getting deals together. The fact that he was interested in me made me believe that I could have a regular life, maybe one day buy a house, settle down somewhere. I’d even begun to make myself believe that he might be the person I would do all of those things with. I didn’t really think it would work out in the long run, but I’d sure hoped it would.

I knew he liked me when he came to my apartment that first time and didn’t say a word about the fact that I, at twenty-eight, still slept on a futon on the floor and had nothing but ramen noodles and beer by way of food. He treated me like I was just as good as those girls who worked downtown and wore suits to work and got their hair and nails done. When he asked me where I’d gone to school and I told him I hadn’t even finished community college, he didn’t judge, he just said that it was a wonder he’d managed to get through four years at State.

When I got back inside, a guy accosted me at the door.

“Hey,” he said. “Thanks for earlier. Here’s your buck twenty-nine.”

I looked at him blankly for a moment.

“You gave me the coffee earlier, remember?”

I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But I do,” he laughed. “I hate owing people.”

“You don’t owe anyone,” I said. “If it makes you feel any better, they factor a certain amount of waste and freebies into the bottom line.”

“Well in that case . . .” he shoved his money back into his jacket.

I gave him a dismissive smile but he just stood there.

“Anything else I can help you with?” I asked.

He was tall, about 6 foot 1, and pretty good-looking. I figured him for one of the kids from State. He had that studiously grungy look, like his tattered denim shirt and worn cargo pants had been bought looking exactly like that. He had a knit hat pulled down low over his ears so I didn’t know what color his hair was, but he had striking gray eyes.

“What if I told you I made the whole thing up?” he asked. “That I always had the money. That I wanted to ask you out and lost my nerve when I got up to the register. That all those impatient yuppies behind me made me chicken out.”

“I would tell my co-workers to look out for you because I have a stalker,” I said without cracking a smile.

“Oh, well in that case, never mind,” he grinned.

It was one of those smiles that make it impossible for you not to smile back.

“Seriously,” he said. “Want to go out for . . .”

“A cup of coffee?” I said.

“A movie. A pizza. Lobster thermidor, if you want.”

“The lobster thermidor doesn’t sound half bad,” I said. “How old are you anyway?”

“Let’s go grab burger or something someday this week,” he said ignoring my question.

“Oh now it’s a burger,” I teased. “Whatever happened to the lobster?”

“I’ve never had lobster thermidor. I can’t vouch for it.”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “Come get me here at six.”

Then I turned and walked away without looking back.

“My name’s Judd,” he called after me.

It was only when he was gone that I realized he hadn’t asked me mine.