Cars rumbled down the narrow, cobbled street, adding to the cacophonous ambiance. Passersby strolled the sidewalks in what seemed like droves compared to what I remembered.
The stretch of road culminated in a fork split by the unassuming structure of a cafe that all but exemplified the cliche "hole in the wall" compared to its towering neighbors if it weren't for its stark peach color edifice that stood out against its beige surroundings.
It was just as I remembered and yet somehow felt brand new.
It was as if the energy had shifted and now, rather than a place to find solace and escape, the cafe was a pit stop oasis for the city's inhabitants as they took one path left, or the other right, rushing off to their monotonous day-to-day lives.
As I approached closer to the cafe, the nerves started their unrest once again and my pace faltered.
I could see a lone figure leaning against the stucco, set apart from the crowd both physically and mentally as she stared blankly down the path to my right, her left arm wrapped across her midriff to prop her other elbow as her hand rested under her chin, fingers fiddling with something I couldn't yet see.
Just like our cafe, she looked the same. I recognized her, but there was something in the way she held herself that seemed completely different and that fact alone set me on edge, though I wasn't entirely sure why.
Before I could ponder that question for long I felt a pair of hands press lightly into the small of my back, urging me forward.
A voice whispered in my ear at the same time. "Go. We'll be right here waiting." And the hands pressed firmly now, forcing me to take a step.
Without looking back I steeled myself against the nerves and continued forward, never taking my eyes off the woman who still hadn't noticed my presence.
Once across the street, I was close enough to see the necklace with which she fiddled and the sight harshly stopped my momentum. I immediately recognized the silver medallion.
Its shine, or lack thereof, showed its age, but the image of St. Christopher was still easily recognizable.
My astonishment stole the greeting from my lips and replaced it with an abrupt question.
"You still have that?" She jumped, her arms wrapping around herself in defense before her shock-widened eyes registered recognition.
I felt a brief pang of guilt for approaching her so abruptly but my eyes fell back on the necklace and I couldn't help but gawk. Slack-jawed, she stared at me for a moment before stuttering.
"You- you actually came?!" I watched her eyebrows draw closer together in worry and fleetingly wondered if she was waiting for an answer or wondering if I were truly there. Or perhaps it was a bit of both.
Pursing my lips, I nodded absentmindedly, eyes drawing back to the medallion once more.
I couldn't fathom the fact that she still wore that necklace after all of these years.
The nerves began to seize my muscles and I finally tore my eyes away, glancing around me for a moment as I attempted to regain my composure.
From the corner of my eye, I saw her hand come back up to play with the necklace. Her voice was soft when she spoke next.
"Did you truly think I would have gotten rid of this?"
I shrugged in an attempt to appear indifferent and glanced back, but when I saw her looking at me so earnestly the bitterness I thought I had gotten past reared its head and came rolling off the tip of my tongue when I replied.
"Did he ask questions about it?!" I felt the bite of the words before I saw her surprise and embarrassment and once again the guilt mingled with the multitude of emotions that had begun their surge through my body.
"I'm- I'm sor-" Shaking my head to help formulate the words, I tried again. "I shouldn't have-"
But when my eyes landed on her worried features again, it was as if someone had loaded a film into a projector.
I could see her sitting at our favorite table in the cafe, laughing at something I had said, her features shining brightly with joy before her body tensed wholly as soon as she heard the falsely charming voice remark: "I've been looking everywhere for you!"
A large hand gripped her shoulder, fingertips subtly digging into her skin.
And then she mewled and the look of terror that crossed her features ignited such a rage inside of me, and a fear I couldn't immediately place.
Trying to remember where I was, I struggled to voice my apology once again.
"I shouldn't have-" But the vision was still alive before my eyes and I wasn't able to find myself again until her chuckle interrupted its strength.
When I was finally able to refocus, I saw her softened features and apologetic smile.
"It's okay..." She began, glancing down at the pendant. "He continuously insisted that I take it off. But that was one satisfaction I refused to give him willingly." Her fingers clutched around the medallion as she said this, almost as if it were a reflex.
I turned my gaze away from her again, confounded by my visceral reaction to this situation.
As I stared down the stretch of cobble that branched to my left, I reminded myself that there was still a chance to walk away.
"I'm-" Her voice was soft and the hesitance I heard there drew my gaze back to her. She was staring down at her feet now. "I'm really glad you decided to show up."
When she looked back up at me, her smile was small and sad.
Releasing a shaky breath, I felt myself finally begin to relax. "Honestly, I'm not sure I could have stayed away even if I wanted to."
A genuine smile made its way to my features now as we both chuckled, and I decided to leave unsaid that fact that I was here partly at another's insistence.
"I'm glad. I'm sure it seemed completely out of the blue, me inviting you here after all of these years." My eyebrows shot up involuntarily and I felt sarcasm creep into my voice.
"You could say that again." She let out a full laugh and it helped momentarily ease the seriousness of it all.
"It really is, I know," She began, raising her palms in apology. "I just... I sincerely wanted to apologize to you. Not those knee-jerk 'sorrys' that I gave you all those years ago.
Not to say those weren't sincere, because they were! They really were!
It's just that I always kept saying them without any kind of explanation and I was always saying those words back then.
They were like a shield that I always had to deploy without truly understanding why and I never thought I would ever use those words with you like that.
When I was with you, you made me feel like I could be unapologetic in who I am and everything that I do and you made me forget.
You made me forget what I had been through; what I was going through. You made me forget where I was coming from.
And I just-" Her voice finally broke with the tears that had begun to fall from her eyes and I felt myself begin to shake with sympathy as her body began to shake with emotion.
Barely allowing herself to take a breath, her mouth opened to continue her ramble.
Without thinking, I reached forward and grasped her hands, stilling her frantic motions and stopping her words though the sobs continued.
I couldn't find words adequate enough to comfort her so I stayed silent as she gaped at me before dissolving into a mewling mess once again.
"I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I just-" I felt that rage begin to form inside of me again and I used my grip on her hands to shake her once as I yelled "Stop!"
Immediately her whole body ceased its vehemence as she began to cower into herself.
Suddenly it all made sense, despite the lack of a coherent explanation, and I softened both my grip on her and the whole of my features.
"Stop that," I whispered more gently this time, eyes imploring her calm. "Stop apologizing like that. It's okay. It's okay." I emphasized the repetition to draw her eyes back to mine.
"I forgive you. I forgave you long ago."
She let out a ragged breath and closed her eyes, all of the strength seeming to leave her body as she stepped into me and rested her forehead on my shoulder.
Remembering I was being watched, I hesitated at the contact, but the sniffling in my ear appealed to my sensibilities and I wrapped my arms around her until she was calmer.
She brought her hands to my shoulders to push away just enough to look at me once again. "I wronged you," her voice was hoarse but steadier now.
"I hurt you. I'm sorry that-" I felt my features scrunch up at her apology and she paused, smiling knowingly before setting her jaw and subtly shaking my shoulders as if to tell me to focus.
Whatever retort had begun to form immediately died and I stayed silent as she continued.
"I'm sorry," the emphasis had me narrowing my eyes at her in warning but she persisted. "I betrayed you like I did. And I know that time has made explanation and excuses null, and perhaps it is indeed selfish of me, but I wanted to ask for your forgiveness. So...thank you.
Thank you for saying that. I'm not sure you know how much that means to me." She moved away from me now, gripping her arms at the elbows self-consciously.
Once again I found myself at a loss for words and utterly confused by the torrent of emotions. My mind felt as if it were participating in a track meet against itself.
I was so lost in the maze of my thoughts that I hardly heard the small voice yelling out to me, and it wasn't until a small body crashed into me from behind that I finally registered who the voice belonged to. . . .
----- To Be Continued in Part 2
----- (c) SabrinaS, 2020