Sugar or Salt?

We sat opposite each other, each stirring coffee in thick white cups, trying to cool it off.

“Cream,” I said. “Cream would help.”

Andrea shook her head. “I think the fat stores the heat, makes it take longer to cool off.”

I’d never actually thought about this. It made sense. She was good at making sense. That was one of the things I liked most about her.

The heat was stifling. I could feel sweat trickling down my spine. Kona winds, we called them here. That hot, humid air that blows from the south.

“I knew we should have ordered it iced. The weather today is atrocious,” she said.

Examining her face, I stopped stirring, turned my gaze to the palms of my hands. We’d had one of our discussions about children again. She wanted to get a start on a family, said we’d waited long enough. A family, like mine, I always thought. No, I can’t do this.

It hadn’t been easy, growing up in my family. As I dragged my way through childhood, I realized that what I’d seen as a kind of cold, non-communicative relationship between my parents, was actually a growing hatred. They’d married because she’d become pregnant. Not a great way to start, and the slow boil toward the end stifled me, really strangled me. Sometimes I would choke on the angry silence. Why they had to wait until I went off to college, had finally escaped the toxicity of their relationship, if it could be called a relationship, always bothered me. Why had they not divorced early on? I would have jumped for joy the day they announced it. I’d live with either. It didn’t matter which. When I was alone with one or the other, I could feel the tension ease.

The psychological toll on me had been enormous. I’d always had trouble forming close relationships with women. I feared any kind of affection. Feelings of any kind of attachment had frightened me. What if, I would always ask myself, my relationship turns into something like my parents? I couldn’t handle thinking about it.

All that changed when I met Andrea. Well, some of it changed. I really felt as if I loved her. At least I thought I did. Never having known what true love might feel like, I was never quite sure. But I would have done anything for her. Well, almost anything. The one thing she wanted now. I didn’t know.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said. “I know it’s hard for you. But really, Chris, you can’t keep on worrying about what kind of father you might be. I know you’d make a good dad. I know you’ve got a whole lot of love stored up in you. It’s not that you never had it, never felt it, it’s that you never were able to express it. At least not the way you have with me. You have a lot of love to give.”

I looked at her, then turned over my hands, stared at my palms. In one I saw sugar, in the other salt. One was for the future, the other for the past.

“You know what I mean, right?” she asked. “It’s there, Chris, years of it. You’ve shown it to me, you’ll have plenty for our kids.”

I could see it in her eyes, knew how much she loved me. Did I have some kind of reserve? Was love something that could be stored up? It wasn’t that the idea of children bothered me. I liked kids. But my own?

“You’d be a great father,” she said, lifted the cup to her lips, tried to sip some of her coffee, but it was still too hot.

“What are you doing?” she asked, puzzled by my weighing the heft of my hands, first one, then the other.

“Looking at my hands,” I said, glancing from them to her. “Thinking about your coffee. The flavor of it.”

A puzzled look clouded her face, a small smile attempting to break through. It was as if she thought I was in the process of cracking one of my dry jokes.

“Flavor it?” she asked, staring at each hand in turn. “With what?”

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes. Opening them and exhaling, “Here,” I said, reaching the sugar across the table, turning my palm down over her cup, then touching her hand.

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