The clinks of champagne glasses and the buzz of light conversation drifted through the cool evening air. Long white tablecloths flapped unnoticed in the breeze, while the smell of barbecued meats finally convinced me to grab a plastic plate. I was just reaching for a second BBQ sauce drenched rib when I was greeted by a familiar pale hand on my shoulder. I smiled.
"Hey." I nodded toward the food. "Can I get you anything?"
Kathryn's face scrunched up a little and she tucked a dark curl behind her ear as she contemplated the food options. "Nah, thanks." I put down the tongs. "Actually, some cornbread." Her other hand darted out to steal a potato chip from my plate while I dropped an oddly shaped yellow nugget beside my ribs.
"Hey!" I scowled in mock annoyance, but she just made that face at me that says that if it were socially appropriate for her to stick her tongue out at me, she wouldn't have thought twice. I rolled my eyes. It’s no wonder where our son got it from.
She sighed as her eyes flitted over the crowd of semi familiar faces. "It's been awhile since we've been back." To our college, she meant. We hadn't found the time to show up at the other alumni reunions, but figured that the fifteenth anniversary might be a good year to go. And so far it had been. We spent the morning touring the campus, catching up with old friends, and feeling way too old.
I reached for her hand as I waited for the little redheaded girl in front of us to finish serving herself the perfect amount of pasta salad. After the third miniature spoonful of the spiral tubes I came to the conclusion that she wouldn't allow a single carrot sliver touch her plate. Just as I was considering stepping out of line and coming back later, a woman whom I could presume was the girl's mother stopped her.
"You're holding up the line, Anna." she chastised, plopping a spoonful on her plate and pulling her daughter out of our way while quickly apologizing.
I didn't hear the child's whined reply. There was something familiar about that voice, that face, that hair. My mind was spinning as I went through the motions of finishing serving my lunch. And then it hit me like my Calculus textbook to my face. Cassidy Thorpe.
A pale freckled face peeked out from vibrant red hair. She stared at me for a moment. For that moment fear crept up my throat. Did she remember me? If she did, would she pretend she didn't?
"Ezra?" She almost whispered, but then straightened and said clearer, "What are you doing here?"
I chuckled. "We went here. Did you?" Did I miss something?
"My husband did." She looked a little flustered. I scratched the back of my head, Kathryn still on my plate holding arm. Luckily, little Anna came to our rescue.
"Mommy? Who's that?"
"Anna, this is Ezra Faulkner and..." Cassidy stalled, coming to the awkwardness of introducing someone she didn't know.
"My wife, Kathryn," I filled for her, smiling down at the child.
"Well, this is my daughter, Anna, and my husband is...." she glanced around, "ah, James, over there." She pointed to a man who was seated with a small group at a picnic table under a tree. There was an awkward silence before she continued, "Oh, y-you should join us! I'll introduce you."
When I resisted, saying I'd intrude, she simply smirked and said, “I’m not taking no for an answer. Now let’s go, for my harem does not eat before I have graced them with my magnificence.”
I laughed. "I thought you only quoted from sophisticated sources,"
"Toby Elliott isn't a sophisticated source?"
By the time we sat down, Kathryn had figured out that this was "The Cassidy Thorpe" and come evening, there had been enough teasing, funny stories, and catch up to make any initial awkwardness worth it.
Apparently both James and Cassidy were college professors, him in mathematics and her in literature. They'd met when they started teaching, while Kathryn and I met as students. Anna was about the age of our son, Cole, and starting kindergarten. James and Kathryn bonded over living in New York.
When it was time to part, we didn't exchange contact information. We'll probably never see them again. But I still can't get past why she invited us to sit in the first place. She could have just given her greetings and gone along with her business. Maybe she'd stopped associating me with her brother's death. Maybe she was just being polite. Maybe I'll never know. But it's comforting to know that she's living too. Not just existing.