Ch. 44 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued Once More (3)

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The first time Zacharias Steele fell in love with Angeline Conners all over again was a few months after they’d begun to dine at her apartment instead of at a restaurant or a cafe. Angeline said she was tired of walking to and from any restaurant, no matter how close, no matter Seamus and the car. Even with the car, she had to walk a short stretch to and from the restaurant, and that, she said, was annoying. In summer, the heat; in winter, the cold. Why bother?

Since Zach couldn’t care less about what they ate, they did what Angeline proposed. They got into the habit of taking turns to cook. Nothing extravagant. Neither of them had the skills to prepare a full course meal. Neither of them wanted one.

The purpose of their meeting wasn’t food, after all. It was—back then, Zach had thought—love. Looking each other in the eyes, instead of wasting time making the perfect sauce, was a good way to prioritize love and love alone.

But on an autumn day neither cold nor hot, Zach realized something. There, Angeline stood in her kitchen, stirring soup, because starving was as inconducive to love as wasting too much time on cooking. They hadn’t spent a dime on dining out in the past few months. Angeline must have spent a lot of money on groceries, but every time Zach had wanted to pitch in, she’d told him it was no big deal, her family paid for all of this, it wasn’t her money either.

For months, they hadn’t needed to endure the glances of restaurant clientele who wordlessly questioned why Angeline was the one who was paying. For months, Zach hadn’t had to starve three days before his date with Angeline to be the one to pay for the meal. Actually, for months, Zach hadn’t spent a dime to be with her.

He blushed, and it wasn’t because the air was filling with the savory smell of Angeline’s signature tomato sauce. It was because he felt ashamed and grateful.

That was the thing with Angeline. It was rare that he felt only one emotion at a time—except when he looked at the larger picture. Then, everything that he felt, he thought, was love, and love alone.

Ever since that autumn day until the day he died, Zach had refused to take turns when washing the dishes—he washed them every time they cooked at home. That was the least he could do.

That’s not fair, Angeline had protested.

This is what is fair, Zach had said, and besides, so what if it’s a little bit unfair?

Then, to himself he’d thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if I had more ways to make it a lot more unfair for myself? If I had the ability to hire a cook, take you to the most expensive restaurant in town, gift you all the jewelry you could possibly want?

So, there. The first time Zacharias Steele fell in love with Angeline Conners all over again: when he saw her standing in her kitchen, stirring soup, making sure that they didn’t starve and the world didn’t interfere, because none of that was conducive to love.

The second time was in the middle of winter. Zach had caught a cold.

For a week, he suffered from high fever and nonstop shivering. This meant that he had to miss all the one-time gigs that he’d miraculously managed to book. Without such gigs, Zach couldn’t make any money. While he coughed and sneezed and shivered, he thought about the bleak future—which only made things worse.

On the last and worst night of the cold, Angeline visited Zach’s place for the first time. He had no idea how she’d figured out where he lived, because he certainly hadn’t told her. He’d wanted her to never know where he lived. But news of failure always spread faster than news of success. And people tended to recognize someone like Zach, whose vocation it was to play on the stage. It didn’t matter how small the stage, how unimpressive his career. He was the man on stage, they were the ones in the audience; they got to talk about him, he didn’t even get to know who they were.

Through such people who liked to talk, Angeline must have found out where Zach lived. But they didn’t seem to have warned her about how he lived. The shabbiness of his abode, with its drafty windows and total lack of heating, seemed to shock her.

The only furniture in the room was the bed. It was clearly a bed because no matter how dilapidated its state, Zach lay there.

But next to the bed, there was a box-thing of sorts, made of rotting wood. It was collapsing. Only when you walked around the thing and looked at it from the bedside could you see its purpose: the thing was a piano. It was recognizable as such because the black and white keys were so iconic. No other instrument in the world had keys like that. No other object in the world, really, had such a regularly repeating pattern of black and white in one row.

Zach had put the piano there, with the keys facing the bed, so that he could play seated and use the one remaining, crooked pedal. The other one was long gone. A few hammers and strings were missing too.

Because this miserable piano blocked the view, Zach couldn’t see who had visited him until Angeline walked around it. At her sight, he tried to sit up in his bed.

He wanted to tell Angeline to leave. He was thankful that she’d come, but she didn’t have to be here. Here, in this forlorn, cold place, in the deep night. More importantly, by “here,” he meant “in the proximity of a person with a cold.” It didn’t matter that she wore a thick mink coat. The cold always found a way into a person’s system.

But his swollen throat didn’t let him speak. Angeline sat at the bedside and kissed him before he could stop her.

Then, with great vigor, she hopped up. On those tiny feet protected by tiny pumps, she bustled around the little room, taking out the porridge she’d brought in a container, keeping him hydrated, bringing fresh cold compresses.

Zach drifted into and out of fitful sleep as his temperature rose. At some point, he couldn’t remember where he was, and who that angelic person was, that person who cared for him so dearly.

Then, he awoke.

Daylight shone through the small window. He sat up. Angeline had spread her mink coat on the floor by the bed. She knelt there, her head resting on Zach’s lap. She slept, one hand holding his, their fingers interlocking.

The third time Zacharias Steele fell in love with Angeline Conners all over again was on a spring day, long after they’d tacitly agreed to meet anywhere but at Zach’s place.

That day, just like on so many other days, Zach was playing the piano for her in her apartment while she boiled water in the cattle. Suddenly, outside, a cheer broke out. Both Angeline and Zach scurried to the window to see what was going on.

There, far below on the street, was a young couple: the woman in a white dress, the man in a black tuxedo—newlyweds. The crowd cheered them on. They wildly waved, ecstatic, cheeks flushed.

Touched, Angeline placed her hands on her chest. Was she praying for the young couple? Or wishing for something similar for herself?

Zach watched as she watched the couple disappear around the corner. Only then did Angeline notice Zach’s eyes on her.

“What?” she said, as if she’d been caught while doing something shameful.

Zach held her gaze, even though, what could he possibly say? He wasn’t a proud man. He knew that he couldn’t doom her to a lifetime of living in his wretched room, at best, and at worst, on the streets.

Angeline’s ashamed look turned into a glare. Not of resentment, no. It was something else. Something akin to a warning that he shouldn’t do what she thought he was going to do.

The kettle whistled at a high pitch. Angeline hurried off to the stove. Zach remained by the window. The excitement of the crowd outside hadn’t died down yet.

“Come, sit,” Angeline said.

She nodded toward the elaborately carved table and two chairs that she’d recently purchased. He sat. She brought the kettle and two cups. He poured tea for both of them. Sweet chamomile tea. Together, they savored its warmth and aroma. She smiled at him. The look of warning, shame, and being touched had disappeared. It was as if that moment earlier hadn’t happened, as if Zach had imagined the tension.

That was the thing with Angeline. She was quick to forgive. Otherwise, she couldn’t possibly continue to see someone like him.

“Play something for me,” she said.

Zach was glad to do so. He left the cup on the table, walked over to the piano, and sat. He placed his hands on the keys.

Then he realized that Angeline had never asked of him anything other than “Play something for me.” She’d never even remotely implied that maybe it was time that he quit chasing his dream and do something for her, for a change. She’d never implied that she dreamed of their future together.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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