She looked at him and her expression relaxed slightly. “Anthony, my gratitude is for what my life is now. God knows I didn’t even dream I’d get here. It’s for how I’ve been enabled to survive the worst and have come to anticipate the best. I can’t help but be grateful.” He looked at her doubtfully, willing himself not to let any liquid leave his eyes as he fought with the conviction that she was just putting up a front.
She smiled and shifted her attention to a couple that just walked in with a little girl in front of them. Before getting to the counter, the child tripped and fell. As low whimpers warned of the wail soon to follow, the man quickly scooped her up and bobbed her in his arms, covering her face with kisses and making silly noises. The fall was quickly forgotten and giggles interrupted the solemn hums of the air conditioning systems in the room.
“See what just happened?”
Anthony turned to follow her gaze, spotted the couple behind him and turned back to face her. “No. What happened?”
“That little girl just had a rather unpleasant fall. She probably even hurt her knees a little, judging from her trip.” She refocused her attention on Anthony, her smile broadening. “But because of her little accident, she gets cuddles and kisses…and might even get an extra slice of cake if she asks.”
Anthony shook his head. What was his business with all of this? “I don’t understand how—.”
“If it weren’t for that incident – unsavory and horrible as it was – I might never have gotten to experience some of the things in my life today which give me the most joy and contentment. So as crazy and daft as it may sound to you and everyone, I am grateful for every experience that has contributed to me getting to this point in my life. And that includes what happened twelve years ago.”
He remained silent for a long time. Finally, he sniffed and looked away, as though her steady gaze would rid him of his words.
“I’ve always wanted to apologize you know. All these years I’ve been wanting and trying to but — each time I think I have a chance, I just — I don’t know, I always end up changing my mind like…” He shook his head and his volume reduced so much, she had to strain slightly to even hear him. “You didn’t deserve that. Y–no one does. And I hate myself for the fact that I’m only just admitting that now.”
She shrugged. “I guess that was why you’ve been following me all this time? To apologize?”
His eyes shot up. “You knew?”
She nodded. “Of course. Your disguising skills are very sad. Somehow I always managed to spot you before you disappeared but then I’d keep doubting if you were the person I actually saw. Six years ago, three years ago and I think the last time is about a year plus now. How come you never said anything?”
“I was guilty- am guilty- …and scared. Have been all these years. The guilt wouldn’t let me have peace and I had no idea what to expect if I approached you. I avoided thinking about it to be honest, especially after I found out my anger should’ve been aimed at someone else all along.”
“Well you’re facing me now aren’t you?”
She smiled encouragingly and although he didn’t think it possible a few moments before, he suddenly hated himself even more. She shouldn’t be acting so understanding. As they sat there in silence, their minds traveled back to the events that changed her life and never ceased to haunt his. She took a few far-spaced sips from her cup while he simply turned to look outside and gaze unseeingly at the cars in traffic outside the shop.
He was the first to break the silence and asked somberly. “When did you hear about her? As in, find out she was the one who did what we blamed you for?”
She took her time eating a piece of cake before responding. “On the news.” She looked at him. “What about you? Did you know?”
He shook his head. “I found out during my trial.”
“I got only six years.” He glanced at her to gauge her reaction. She said nothing but her eyes told of surprise. “I’m sure it must have killed you when you found out. Sometimes, I almost wish it was longer…”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to say that to impress me. Plus, I don’t really care what the sentence was – I’m actually just finding out. I stopped following the case after her confession and no one around me was to speak of it again.”
The grieved expression on his face wasn’t make-believe. “I swear, you cannot imagine my anguish when I realized the horrible mistake we’d ma–.
“Okay stop.” she interrupted, shaking her head. “It is you who can’t imagine my suffering at being deceived, lured into such a foul trap, and ripped to shreds by someone I considered close enough to be family. So just quit it.”
“You’re right, I-.”
“You can’t really talk to me about anguish. Just don’t, please. Really Anthony. Guilt, regret, shame –maybe. Not anguish.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. What I am trying to say is I’ve never been sorrier for any action and I’ve regretted those choices every moment of every day for the past twelve years! I know what we did is unforgivable but-.”
“It isn’t. What it was, is cruel. Emotionally crushing, mentally destabilizing, but certainly not unforgivable.” She pushed cake crumbs around on her plate with her fork, suddenly slightly tired of the conversation.
Anthony considered her for close to a minute, frustrated, before glancing at his wristwatch. 9:45 Am. He looked at her again as she took another sip from her now lukewarm coffee. For the first time since they began interacting, he noticed the absence of any ring on her finger. He sighed internally. Of course she wouldn’t be married.
“You know, I think this was just a waste of your time and a vivid display of my selfishness. I’m deeply sorry. I’ll be leaving now.” He pushed back his seat and made to stand.
She raised her eyebrow and replaced the cup on the saucer. “What do you mean?”
“My apologies and my regrets are useless because they can’t undo what’s been done.” He felt so defeated and regarded her bare left hand once again before moving his gaze back to her face. “Things might have been so much better for you if it hadn’t been for….”
She smiled and motioned to a waitress to come over. “You aren’t selfish to want forgiveness this guy. You wronged me, I hated you accordingly till I could move on and now you’re trying to lay your demons of guilt and condemnation to rest and move on as well. Simple.”
“Yet I deserve their torment and I know you think so-.”
“Anthony, focus.” She commanded sternly, her face contorting into a frown. “My opinion isn’t really relevant, the truth is. And the truth’s that though you may have wronged me and messed up, I am not without my own fair share of misdeeds and unkind actions. Same goes for the waiter who served us and everyone else on planet earth. We may deserve tons of evil based on all the nonsense we’ve ever done but if someone decides to spare us all the punishment we are most deserving of, then why choose to punish ourselves? You have to try to forgive yourself. I have.”
He almost laughed at that but stopped himself. What a liar. “I haven’t even apologized, technically.”
She shook her head. “I forgave you guys ages ago silly. Before you got out of jail and began following me around, before we began this conversation – I’d already forgiven you.”
Anthony wasn’t buying it. “That’s not even possible. What are you, some variety of martyr? No one does that please. You should hate us! I bet you do and this is just a front you’re using to hold your anger in check and not bury that fork in my chest.”
Anthony waited. She said nothing.
“How can you be like this?”
She excused herself and spoke to the young lady who’d come to stand by their table, placing another order for what she’d just had. “Look, I’m not that much of a bad guy that I’d just let you guys off the hook and be forming World’s nicest. It’s not about my strength but the person who’s strengthened me. I’d be a wreck if I never met Him and, truth be told, He’s the only reason I was able to let the past go and move on with my life.”
Something changed in Anthony’s eyes. A tiny splinter of hope and relief began to creep into his mind as he assumed she meant she’d found a guy who loved her despite her past. “Your boyfriend? He actually encouraged you to pardon bastards like us?” His tone showed he found the very idea ludicrous. “Wow. Strange guy. But I’m happy- super happy to hear this.”
“I wouldn’t say boyfriend exactly. Come, I’ll show you.” She pushed her now empty plate and cup to the side and leaned forward, placing the fat novel in the center of the table and turned it so Anthony could read also.
He barely glanced at it. “What’s this? Have you forgotten books and I were never close?”
“You’ll like this one. Trust me, it’ll answer your questions about my coping strategy much better than I can. The reason I didn’t stay depressed, was able to forgive you all, have moved on with my life and all of the stuff that sounds so mad to you – it’s all in here.”
The waitress arrived then, cleared the empty dishes and placed the fresh order beside Anthony. He looked at her and shook his head.
“I didn’t -.”
“I did. This discussion might take a while so you might as well have something.”
He looked at her strangely and then glanced at his wristwatch again. “Look, I’m actually game for this because I really need to understand and I’m near ecstatic that you’re even willing to explain and all, but you know you’ve got work right? I found out your shift begins by ten, unless I was misinformed.”
She shook her head. “I took the day off. Someone told me I’d be kind of busy with other things today.”
With that, she smiled at him for the umpteenth time, flipped the pages of her bible and right there began witnessing to the person who’d hurt her most about Jesus’ love, salvation and the dispensation of grace.