Paul Martin’s cafe table basked in late-afternoon sunshine. He sat alone, sipping at a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir, eyes closed as he stared up into the lowering sun. A mini-Christmas tree adorned each table on the cafe’s patio, tiny LED lights barely visible in the bright sunlight. He’d been at this cafe in the neighborhood a handful of miles northeast of downtown San Diego a few years before.
Kate had been with him then. It was her neighborhood. The home she shared with her two teenagers (when they weren’t at their father’s) was walking distance from the cafe, which occupied a corner in the quaint neighborhood’s core near several restaurants, across from a small movie theater and surrounded by a handful of artsy shops. A sign comprised of white lights on green metal arched over the main road between the freeway and the lone stoplight declaring the neighborhood’s name.
It had been December then, too, and the multicolored lights draped over the sign and in many of the palm trees confused Paul’s mental calendar even though it was his second Christmas in Southern California. He wore shorts and flip-flops, but in his New England brain December meant long pants, flannel shirts and wool socks, and maybe even a hat and gloves.
Kate looked fabulous yet again, Paul thought. Her light, summery dress still managed to look Christmasy with its red and white pattern, and in her stylish sandals, blonde hair and blue eyes she looked every bit the San Diegan she’d become since leaving Long Island twenty-plus years earlier.
They each had a glass of rosé, the December evening being warm enough that anything redder seemed too heavy, and talked of things they’d always discussed: Kate’s work as a lawyer helping families and foster kids, Paul’s projects at one of the local biotech firms, politics and society, her kids, fun things they’d found to enjoy in Southern California. They laughed and bantered and worked their way through the wine before they rose and walked back to Kate’s house. Kate liked the way Paul always made sure he walked on the outside, nearer the street. And they both liked the way it felt when their fingers intertwined for the final couple of blocks.
In the kitchen, Paul opened a bottle and poured it into a decanter. Kate pulled out the lasagna she’d set to baking before they left. They ate on the back patio beneath a string of lights that ran from the house to the converted garage and on to a large tree near the back fence. After dinner, after they’d left the dishes in the sink, they settled together into each other in a lawn chair beneath the large tree. Stars peeked through the San Diego haze, the branches of the tree, and the string of white lights that ran to the fence.
That had been five years ago, Paul calculated as he took another sip of Pinot. Every so often he sought out Kate’s profile online. She looked happy in her new life in the Bay Area, the photos usually showing her with one or both of her kids, now graduated from college and on to lives of their own, or by herself on hikes in the hills of Marin County. There were also photos of her with a man. Those photos went back two years and Kate’s big smile beaming beneath her glowing blue eyes told of her happiness. There was a light in her face in those photos that he could recall, a light that shined even in the dark beneath a tree in her backyard.
The sun had set and Paul looked up to see one bright star already twinkling in the southeast. He drank the last gulp of wine, left a twenty on the table and walked to his rental car. He drove to the airport and boarded the redeye flight back to New York, where it was forecast to be cloudy with a chance of snow.