The Mouse Trap
by Salvatore Amico M. Buttaci
It was all so romantic, even the red baseball caps they'd agreed to wear for their first meeting.
"That's how we'll recognize each other," Paul had e-mailed. "Red for passion. 7:30 tomorrow night. The Mouse Trap Diner. I'll be there soon as I can."
On her second coffee now, Barbara sat in a booth and watched the door for the other red cap. It was still early. Her heart was pounding. It reminded her of how she felt twenty years ago when she first met Johnny Stanton. It was at her high school graduation. He was the older brother of Jenny, a girl in her class with whom she hardly spoke. Suddenly their eyes met. Jenny introduced the two of them. Something deep inside her knew somehow he was the one. Months later he admitted that at that magic moment he knew too.
A man walked into The Mouse Trap, but it wasn't Paul. No red cap. Minutes later another. Then a man and a woman. Barbara sipped her coffee, pushed her cap further back on her blond hair. What am I doing here? she asked herself.
Three weeks ago her world was as dark as nighttime. Then she met a guy in one of those chat rooms on the Net and she found herself laughing again. The way she and Johnny laughed a lifetime ago. What could it hurt, she decided, so the two of them began an Internet friendship, day after day exchanging a few messages, most of them silly at first and then gradually more serious. Bottomline: they were looking for love. He was in his forties, a businessman from Connecticut who'd never married. She had just turned thirty-eight: bored and miserably alone. Or maybe "alone" was not the word; more like "lonely." After all, in the other bedroom lay her husband, a far-cry from the man she had married twenty years ago. They had loved each other. Their home had been filled with laughter. Despite their inability to have children, they remained in love with each other. Then out of nowhere came-- Odd how she could only whisper the word-- Cancer. Always with a capital C. Always the frightening word that once upon a time murdered her father. Now it had reared its ugliness, reached out its thousand tentacles towards her husband and claimed him. Once a strong man, once the pillar Barbara could lean against, he had become suddenly old and tired. Skin like yellowed wax, rich black hair gone to baldness, sparkling brown eyes devoid of hope, voice almost silenced. After months of chemotherapy he had been sent home. To die? she asked the oncologist, who could only shrug his shoulders.
At first Barbara did all she could for him, but it tired her. She hired a nurse for him. She watched him day by day grow smaller and smaller. In time she was certain Johnny would vanish from that deathbed. And she-- he!-- would be free.
"Another cup?" asked the waitress. "Or are you ready to order?" Barbara could see the impatience on her face.
Barbara apologized. "My date should've bene here by now." Both of them glanced at their watches for different reasons. "Yes, one more cup," Barbara said.
What did she know of Paul? Not even a last name. Or address. Or what he looked like. Of course, he knew as little about her. It was their choice. Keep it light. Discuss the weather, politics, movies. Go so far as e-mail each other a list of likes and dislikes. See how compatible we seem to be! When they decided on a first encounter, step outside t he safe anonymity of electronic mail, they agreed not to meet on serious ground. No commitments. Nothing beyond a first date from which they would "take it from there." She remembered their lists of likes and dislikes: both of them had placed as a high "like" priority "the need for physical companionship." It was a polite euphemism for what Barbara-- she believed Paul as well-- hungered for. It had been a long time for her. Too long.
Suddenly, without calling for it, she pictured Johnny lying in his bed. What fault did he have? He didn't ask for cancer to ravish him like that. How many times had he said how unfair it all was. How he didn't deserve this, then recently, at the height of his pain, he stopped railing against the injustice, made a feeble attempt to squeeze her hand as she sat beside his bed. He even smiled. "What would I do without your love?" he asked. It was an effort for him to speak. But the words were clearly from the heart. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. Quickly she finished the coffee, opened her purse and took from it a few bills to leave on the table. The waitress smiled at her from another table. Scooting out from the booth, Barbara removed the red cap and shoved it into her coat pocket.
It was too late now. Paul would come and not find Barbara with the red cap. Or Paul had changed his mind about their meeting and decided he had no time for games. It didn't matter. She didn't belong here. "What would I do without your love?" Johnny kept repeating in her mind. "What would I do without your love?"
On the way to her car in the parking lot of The Mouse Trap, she walked past a man and a woman talking and laughing. It was Paul in his red baseball cap. "How many red caps could The Mouse Trap hold at one time?" Paul had e-mailed only yesterday. Had he mistaken the woman for me? she wondered.
"Hey, you two ladies care for dinner on me?" Paul asked her and the woman beside him. The other woman said yes. Barbara smiled. "Thank you, but my husband is waiting for me at home."
Sal Amico M. Buttaci's poems, stories, articles, and letters have appeared widely here and abroad, such as in The New York Times, USA Today, Cats Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and many others. Buttaci is a long-standing member of the New Jersey Poetry Society, Inc.
A newly released poetry collection, published in India and now available for sale, is called Two Can Play This Game: The Saturday Afternoon Poets. For ordering information, Contact Buttaci .
© 1999 by Salvatore Amico M. Buttaci
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