So there I was, out to coffee at Sufficient Grounds with my brother. Ian nodded at a giant sitting at a table with a thin, weaselly man. The guy looked like a fifth wall to the room: tall, wide, muscular, with a layer of fat over it all. His brave baldy-head shave and goatee bracketed a pair of warm, intelligent blue eyes. "Bear," he said, "Everyone calls me Bear."
Good name, I thought, shaking his massive hand. Firm handshake. "Karen. Ian's sister."
The place was packed; there were no free tables. “Mind if we join you?” asked my brother, but turned away to grab a seat from another table before they could answer. Not that Bear, or his companion weasel, seemed to mind. It's not a place you go for a private tete-a-tete, Sufficient Grounds.
I pulled up a chair, bumping one of the legs on a motorcycle helmet. "Let me get that out of your way," he said, bending down to tuck it under his seat. Considerate.
As he straightened up again, his eyes travelled up my body. Subtle.
His gaze reached my face, and he realised I'd noticed. He had the good grace to blush, but his eyes twinkled. Honest.
Ian and I chatted for a while, before the conversation became general. As the four of us talked, I realised the weasel was a troll. He expounded some elaborate theory about September 11, ignoring all input, deaf to disagreement. Ian, who hates conflict, left to smoke a cigarette and chat to the less argumentative people outside. Bear left too, and I was trapped. I offered to agree to disagree. The weasel trolled onward. I considered gnawing off my leg, but looked out the window instead.
Bear was standing outside the cafe, watching me, finishing a cigarette. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he came back inside and turned the conversation with soft-voiced, implacable persistence. The weasel finally gave up and left, and Ian rejoined us. We talked the rest of the evening, a three-cornered chat that ranged from computers to truck driving to children. Bear and I compared tattoos, and joined forces to gross Ian out. We all laughed a lot.
And in between the words, I got to know him. Bear was an unhappy optimist, divorced from one woman, separated from his beloved toddler son by another, entangled with the boy's lesbian mother. I felt almost guilty, describing my own baby, asleep at home, and the happy marriage that produced her.
Another round of coffee, and we all moved outside so the smokers could indulge. Walking through the door as he held it open, I felt a sudden rush of physical attraction to this mountain of a man. The conversation outside was electric: fast, funny, wide ranging, and sociable. People kept stopping by the table to chat with my companions. We were the center of a whirlpool of activity.
Then Ian wandered off to speak to a couple of paramedics he knew, and the two of us sat in silence. Bear took a deep drag of his cigarette, held his breath for a moment, and blew out a lungful of smoke. "You sound really happy," he said.
"I am really happy. It's been a good year. I have a good life."
He looked at me with his blue, blue eyes, and I saw his soul in them. "If it ever goes sour..." he said, but didn't finish the sentence, didn't make the offer, didn't quite take the risk.
I met him halfway, neither lying nor telling the truth. "I'll look you up." A promise I won't keep, a gift I could afford to give. He nodded.
Ian came back, and we left soon afterwards. I shook Bear's hand once more while Ian lit his last cigarette. We didn't say anything much; the important stuff was already past.
I didn't sleep much that night, but lay in bed shivering for hours. Was it the caffeine? The cold? Or the memory of what might have been?
He wasn't my soulmate. If I have such a thing as a soulmate, I am married to him. But Bear needed to believe that night that I was his, or one of his. He needed to know that happiness was possible. I hope he treasures the memory of me, as I do of him.