First Words-Part V

THIS IS AN ORIGINAL WORK OF FICTION…
It will be published in several parts over the course of several days.

2019

burritos

Melinda Pantazis stood in line at the burrito hut, filled with a complex mixture of unbridled glee and annoyed impatience. “After you,” she said, again, to the person behind her in line, who was, this time, engrossed in whatever song or podcast filled his brain from his ear buds. He didn’t acknowledge her selfless random act of kindness at all. And he was one of eleven people now (the ten before him; four women and six other men) who failed to acknowledge Melinda’s random acts of kindness so far that day. Her random acts of kindness, that day, weren’t exactly random. Her words had shown up that morning.

At twenty-eight, she had all but given up on ever seeing words. She only went on a few lackluster dates with people who also didn’t have words (or at least claimed to not have them…she didn’t ask people to consent to a strip search before dates or anything). All of her friends’ words showed up for them before high school graduation, and Melinda had examined her body in the mirror before and after every shower she took in her life since she turned ten. In college, she’d gotten so desperate, she actually asked her sister, Penelope, to look for her. “Penny, are they on a blind spot on my back or my ass or something?!” Her sister fought back hard laughter as Meli stood before her, naked as a jaybird, and even bent over to be absolutely certain the words weren’t there, but just in a place she couldn’t see. Penny knew her sister would have consulted a doctor if she wasn’t so embarrassed to ask where her words were when everyone else had them and seem desperate to a virtual stranger. And she didn’t have the money to make a doctor’s appointment for something like that. Penny feared Meli’s next action would be shaving her head, which also seemed hilarious thinking of the theoretical possibility, but she knew her sister’s very real angst wasn’t funny. Penny worried and felt it a cosmic injustice that her hopeless romantic sister didn’t get words when she got hers at thirteen and met her wife, Carla, at nineteen. But at last, that morning, after her shower, Melinda saw her left wrist in passing, conditioned to only look at her reflection peripherally. There they were; the first words her soul mate would speak to her, plain as day. She wasn’t even naked; she was wrapped in two towels. She washed her wrist in the sink to make sure they were really there and not coming off and began her Friday off work at the hospital with a renewed hope and sense of urgency to find her person; the person who would speak those words to her. She thought back throughout her life of every first encounter she could remember, fretting that maybe she’d missed her soul mate because her goofy words were tardy in showing themselves. Such common, simple words: ‘Thank you.’ She’d probably been told, ‘Thank you,’ a million times in her life. But she couldn’t remember it ever being the first thing someone said to her. As she walked up to the coffee cart on the corner to treat herself to a Day Off Fancy Latte, an idea dawned on her. She paid for the woman’s coffee behind her, handing the barista at the register an extra six dollars. But the woman didn’t thank her. Or even speak to her at all. She simply said, ‘Oh, ok,’ to the barista. Disappointed but not deterred, Meli went on with her planned morning of shopping, retrieving the thrown pacifier of a baby in a stroller for its haggard father…no thank you. Not even a nod. She’d held six entry doors and one set of elevator doors…no thank yous. And now the man who stepped in front of her in line for lunch remained in his own world…in his own head. “Damned if this world isn’t full of a bunch of apathetic ingrates,” she fumed to herself, now stuck in her own head. “Not one single, ‘Thank you,’ all damn day.”

She decided she was tired of making herself ‘next,’ and stepped up to order her Day Off Indulgent Lunch. “Maybe I’ll just take it home and eat it. Turn on Netflix. Watch some documentary on Greek or Norse mythology. Or the Italian Renaissance maybe. Or I could always go back to the old standby of World War II…” Meli continued thinking to herself, now tired of being Out Among People, even with new motivation on her wrist. She’d become so temporarily disillusioned with humanity that she’d all but forgotten the novel appearance of her words after years of desperation. She took her prepared food and headed for the exit door in a bit of a huff, when out of the corner of her eye, she saw a smartphone fall to the floor from a loose fitting front pocket as the phone’s (and pocket’s) owner took a seat. “Hey you dropped your phone,” she casually said, almost unthinking, and pushed the door open to leave, but stopped in her tracks. The man whose phone had hit the floor didn’t mindlessly return the device to his pocket. And he certainly didn’t ignore her. He spun around in his seat, almost stepping on the mistakenly discarded phone to lock eyes with Melinda in flustered, happy awe. An irrepressible smile claimed his face and the depth in his gaze captured her before he said a word or made another move.

“Thank you,” he stated, nodding her way to make sure she knew he was talking to her, and slowly bent to collect the phone on the floor to re-pocket. He never broke eye contact. At his words, Melinda’s brain reset to its default settings. He stood and rotated his forearm to show the inside and the words inscribed there: ‘Hey you dropped your phone.’ Her intense stare softened and her smile equaled his as she held out her wrist for him to read: ‘Thank you.’ “Am I really the first person whose first words to you were, ‘Thank you?’”

“Yeah. And y’know what? I’ve been doing nice shit deliberately all day…not that I’m not normally a nice person, but I mean…no thank yous! Not one. Not until…you, anyway. And I wasn’t even going for…or expecting… Now you probably think I’m an ass,” she said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

“No, I totally get that. Know how many screens I’ve cracked dropping it on purpose? I won’t tell you. It’s embarrassing. Let’s just say I always get the extra warranty.”

“Hahahaha! I’m…um…Melinda. Pantazis.”

“Luke Baker.” After he reciprocated, he whispered, maybe involuntarily, “Melinda.”

“My…friends and family…call me Meli. And you’re…you should call me Meli.”

“Would…you like to…join me for lunch? Meli?” He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He was full of obvious wonder to put reality to the countless times he’d imagined who this person would be in his life. He’d even begun in the past year to question whether or not he should start dropping his phone around other men. He’d never felt attraction to a man before, but…he wasn’t having any luck finding the woman he’d imagined, whoever she was. He hadn’t been out on a date since he was fifteen, because he was wholly disinterested in wasting his time with anyone who wasn’t his soul mate. And now that he was in her presence…she was stunningly beautiful. From the inside out. And he was enchanted at the melodious sound of her voice.

“Does it feel weird to you too? I mean to be…beginners…together?” She didn’t verbally answer his question. She just took her seat across from him.

“Kind of. I’ve been waiting for this moment for fifteen years. I begged for a Nokia brick when I was a sophomore in high school. You know. So I could start dropping it.”

“Hahaha! Fifteen years is a long time to wait. I can’t imagine.”

“It feels like longer than that. Like…centuries. It feels like I’ve been waiting maybe thousands of years to hear your voice say those words to me. I know that doesn’t make any sense. On every conceivable level. I’m way exaggerating the time. And I mean…there have only been phones for about a century and a half and not phones you could really carry around until like the 1970s and…”

“No, I totally get that. Because…my words only appeared this morning. And I went around holding doors and letting people cut lines on me and…it was only this morning for me, knowing what the words were, but it feels like I’ve been waiting that long to say those words to you, too. What a strange but ordinary thing to feel millennia’s worth of relief to say.” They looked at each other in great appeasement and repose, and mingled their crossed legs together beneath the table. Luke took a deep breath and Melinda closed her eyes and swallowed hard. The first touch of a soul mate was definitively different than the first touch of anyone else. Luke cleared his throat.

“Ahem. So what do you do?”

“I’m a speech pathologist. I work four days a week at Gaines Hospital, and I usually rotate Mondays at district schools, but this Monday’s Labor Day and the kids are off so…made myself a four day weekend.”

“That’s…a really cool job. And you’re off weekends. I’m off most weekend evenings, but…yeah. Working most weekends. Today is kind of a fluke. I’ll be working all day tomorrow. And most of Sunday. Mondays are my down days, usually.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a pastry chef. You know…wedding cakes…retirement cakes…graduation cakes…birthday cakes…Saturday’s the big day for that…”

“You’re a pastry chef?”

“Yes.”

“Luke Baker, the pastry chef?” she giggled.

“Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before,” he chuckled.

“What a prophetic name!”

“Maybe. It does oddly feel like…a calling. Like…I’m definitely doing what I’ve always been meant to do. Do you feel that way about your career?”

“Kind of? Speech pathology came about as like…a mishmash of nursing and education. Which isn’t where I thought I’d go when I was a girl. I liked art classes the best. I still mess around drawing and painting and…but…yeah. I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. Now. Just…maybe took me a little longer to get there. To make a declaration about it.”

“Every job I ever worked was baking related. Even my high school job was at a donut shop.”

“I bagged groceries. And then sold cut flowers. And then housewares. And then I got a career and not a job.”

“You really help people every day you work. That’s…awesome,” he said, showing her genuine admiration that turned her on. And she thought to herself that had she met Luke Baker, even without the words, she’d have recognized him as her soul mate. She already loved him. And she could tell he already loved her.

“So do you. Really. Can you make a Greek honey cake?”

“Yes, ma’am. That your favorite?”

“It’s…my family’s Greek. And Norwegian. And Italian. And German. Honey cake is probably my favorite though. I think I must have tried it first when I was a baby or something.”

“Well, I can certainly make one. And I can make Norwegian skolebrod and tiramisu and a pretty mean chocolate Bavarian torte. But you know, if I’m honest, when I really get down to things, my favorite thing to make is simple loaves of bread.”

“Can we have a honey cake for a wedding cake?”

“Absolutely. Wanna get married on a Friday though?”

“Hahahaha! Yes. Which Friday?”

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