Warm Voice, Cold Calls
by Morris Marshall
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
After work, I put on my black leather jacket and take the elevator down to the street. Tryst Cafe is only one stop away by subway, but I’d rather walk in the cool night air to clear my head. What would Tisa look like now? In university, she’d had light brown hair in a bob style, green eyes and a slim build. The way her eyes lit up when she smiled made you forget all your problems and believe that anything was possible.
My heart thuds as I approach the cafe. My breath comes in short spurts. College students are milling around outside, laughing and joking.
As I open the door, the dull buzz of conversation greets me. A line snakes along the counter from the door to the cashier. I scan the cafe for someone who resembles my memory of Tisa. She’d be thirty-seven today, the same age as I am. Most of the patrons are ten years younger, so it’s possible Tisa’s in the washroom. When I arrive at the counter, I order two large coffees: one black for me, and one containing two milks and no sugar. Then I sit near the door so I’ll be more visible.
My ring tone sounds. “Turn around,” the text says.
Tisa smiles at me. “You cut your hair, Niko. It looks good.”
I instinctively reach out to hug her, but her arms hang limply by her side, unresponsive. She puts her large red backpack on the floor and sits down across from me. Reaching for her coffee, she says, “You remembered how I take it.”
“What happened to you?” I ask.
Tisa’s right eye is black. Her hair is long and unkempt; her grey sweatshirt looks baggy over her thin frame and extends down over her ripped blue jeans.
She points at her eye. “Oh, this? One of the women at the shelter accused me of stealing something from her. She took my running shoes while I was sleeping and I took them back.”
Tisa sips her coffee. “It’s only temporary, Niko. I’m in the process of getting a place.” Her smile hasn’t changed, but the wrinkles under her eyes make her look fifty instead of thirty-seven.
“That’s great,” I say, wishing immediately I could take back my words.
“So... how long have you been doing phone surveys?” Tisa asks.
“Ten years. I spend the rest of my time writing. I’m working on a science fiction novel. Almost everyone at work is an artist waiting for their big break.”
“Have you had anything published?”
“A few stories. But enough about me, Tisa. It’s been a long time.”
“The last time I saw you was that night at bible study when you asked me to meet your parents.”
I nod, remembering my confusion and feelings of helplessness. And her sobbing.
“You must have wondered what happened,” Tisa says. “I wanted to call you, but every time I picked up the phone, I froze.”
“I thought we were getting along pretty well. I couldn’t figure out what I did.”
Tisa sighs. “You didn’t do anything. When I was five, an uncle sexually abused me. You were my first boyfriend and, when you got close to me, it brought up all the old emotions. I just lost it. Counseling has helped, but it’s still difficult.”
“Did you ever get married?” I ask.
“I did, but it didn’t last. How about you, Niko? Is there someone special in your life?”
I sip my coffee. “There were a few women, but nothing serious. I guess I always hoped that you would come back.”
Tisa smiles. “I wondered over the years what happened to you, too. Maybe, under other circumstances, we could have...”
Tisa interlaces her fingers together and stares at the table. “Niko, I was wondering...”
“What is it?”
“Could you lend me some money? We don’t get much food at the shelter, and I’m kind of hungry.”
“I could take you out to a restaurant. Do you still like Indian food? It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and if meeting you again isn’t something to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.”
Tisa looks at her sweatshirt and jeans. “I’m not really dressed for that.”
“It’s Indian food. You look fine.”
“I’d rather grab some fast food and take it back to the shelter.”
I reach into my wallet, remove a twenty and pass it to her. “Why don’t you come over to my apartment for a few days? You’d get away from the shelter.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble...”
“No worries. I live just down the street, in the building with the multi-coloured balconies.” I take her hand. “I’m a better cook now than when we were dating. I could make a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. Just like old times.”
“Except I don’t look the same.”
“You look great. You could sleep on the couch. There’s lots of room, as long as you don’t mind Simon, my twenty-pound Tuxedo cat, waking you up at five o’clock in the morning.”
“That’s nice of you, Niko. I really appreciate it.”
“Great, it’s settled then. I have to use the washroom, but I’ll be right back.”
I walk to the rear of the cafe, listening to the buzz of couples in conversation, glancing longingly at their smiles and body language. They’re oblivious to everything happening around them the way Tisa and I were when we were dating.
Once in the washroom, I walk directly to a mirror. A new grey spot has appeared in my hair. Fresh wrinkles have sprouted under my eyes. I pat down a stray tuft of hair just above my forehead and check my breath against the back of my hand. Then I splash warm water on my face and dry up with a paper towel.
When I arrive back at our table, it’s empty. I run over to one of the baristas. “Did you notice a petite woman in a sweatshirt and ripped jeans? She was waiting over there.” I point in the direction where Tisa and I were sitting.
The barista shakes his head and returns to a customer.
Within seconds, another couple has sat down at our table. I want to go over and explain that my girlfriend and I are sitting there, that she just stepped out and is coming back soon, that there are other available tables. Instead, I run out into the cool night, searching for Tisa.
As I walk along Yonge Street, college-age couples come toward me, holding hands, lost in their plans for the night. A light rain begins to fall. There are several women’s shelters in the area, but I’m not even sure that Tisa wants to be found. A wave of nausea causes me to double over, hands planted on my knees. When it passes, I take a deep breath, stand up slowly and walk back to my apartment.
Ninety minutes later, I sit on my couch beside Simon, picking at a fried chicken TV dinner, staring blankly at a rerun of The Bachelor. I’m about to retire for the night when several knocks sound on my front door.
“Who is it?” I yell from the couch.
“It’s Tisa. Someone let me in the front door. I got your apartment number off the board downstairs.”
I run to the door, open it slightly and stick my head out. Tisa’s hair and clothes are wet.
“I’m sorry about running off on you, Niko.”
“I thought you went back to the shelter.”
Tisa leans her left shoulder against the hallway wall. “I was going to, but I ended up walking around the neighborhood for a while. I’ve been sitting outside on the stairs for the last hour. I want us to be a couple again, but I need to take things slower.”
“I’m sorry if I seemed too eager. Seeing you again made me feel like we were back in university. All the old emotions came flooding back.”
“I felt the same,” Tisa says.
“How about something to eat? I don’t have a Thanksgiving turkey ready, but would a turkey TV dinner be okay?”
“That would be great.”
“Where are my manners, Tisa? Come in.” I swing open the door.
She walks inside, removes her shoes and puts her red backpack on the floor. “This is a nice place. Hi, Simon. What an adorable cat you are. You really are a big boy.”
He lifts his head off the couch and glances at Tisa but makes no attempt to move.
“Come on, buddy. Let’s make some room for my friend.” I walk over to the couch, hoist Simon up into my arms and place him on the floor.
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall