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“Girl, you are looking fine.

” Leo looked her over with an appreciative smile


as the matre’d brought her to the table. She grinned and did a little spin for
him, drawing the glances of the guys seated at the tables around. But she did
look good. It was close to a year since he had last seen her. She had changed
her hair. Gone were the thick braids that had hung down her back like lithe
snakes. Instead, her head was crowned with a mass of honey-gold ringlets.
She had lost weight too. Her curves were subtler. The flair of her hips more
suggestive than blatant, the thrust of her bust more subdued.
Her chocolate eyes sparkled and danced as she looked him over as well.
“You don’t look a day over 35.”
“Ha!” He grinned. She was such a bullshitter. He had just celebrated his 50th
birthday last week. “What have you been doing to your self? You look
fabulous.”
“I do, don’t I?” She laughed, picking up the menu. “I am starving. I haven’t
had a good steak in like forever. Mmm. They have the pepper steak. I’ll have
that.” She snapped the menu shut and gave him her full attention. “Now.
Tell me everything. Work, the boys, golf, baseball, everything.”
He opened his mouth to begin, but the waiter stepped up to introduce
himself and wax poetry about the chef’s specials.
“Did you say your name was David? Like king David from the bible? See?
You’re my favorite person already! I am starving. If you hadn’t shown up
just now, I swear I was going to start chewing on Leo’s arm. I already know
what I want. You guys make the most amazing pepper steak and I want the
biggest you have. With extra, extra pepper sauce.”
Leo leaned back and watched her charm the waiter. In no time, she had the
poor guy eating out of her hand. He had forgotten her talent for doing that.
By the time David was leaving with their orders, Leo didn’t doubt for a
minute that theirs was the most important table for him for the rest of the
evening.
“You look skinny. What happened? You finally start going to a gym?”
She gave a delicate mock shudder.
“Gosh no. Nothing so barbaric.” She grinned. “I was sick. Then I sank into a
mini depression thingie and lost my appetite for a couple of weeks. Now I
keep a food log to remind myself to eat. On the first page is a list of all my
favorite foods. It’s working so far. I’m making myself eat regularly,
especially the main meals. I try and eat one piece of fruit a day too. Who
would have thought eating was such a chore!”
As usual, she was rattling on, but he had latched onto one thing.
“What are you depressed about?”
“Was. I said I was depressed. I’m not any more. I snapped out of it. Just the
usual. Life.”
“What?” He pushed. There wasn’t a stronger person than Ayana. She always
seemed to have so much confidence and energy. What had happened to
make her sink into depression? Even for a little while?
She sighed dramatically, dropping her shoulders as she did so.
“So much was going on all at once and I think something in me finally
snapped. I think it was more of a panic attack than actual depression. The
fact that I still had to go to work everyday and interact with people stopped
me from locking myself in my room with a tub of ice-cream, an endless
supply of microwave popcorn, cheese balls and the remote. But I was like a
little drone. I had no appetite, I didn’t want to do anything, I stopped reading
or answering my phone. It was terrible.”
He swallowed back his scolding, knowing she had probably already heard it
all from her friends.
“Did you at least shower every other day or so?”
“Hmm. Yes, every other day or so.”
“But you didn’t sink as low as wearing sweatpants in public, did you?”
Something of a fashionista, Ayana had always distained sweatpants,
sweatshirts and sneakers, declaring them workout clothes that should only
be worn when working out. Since she never worked out, these items of
clothing were not a part of her wardrobe.
She gave him a look.
“I said I was depressed, not dead!”
He laughed.
“So what have you been up to? Other than keeping food logs?”
“I’m seeing someone.”
Leo sighed.
“A preacher. You went and found yourself a preacher.” A third generation
preacher’s kid on both sides of her family, she had always teased him that
she’d marry him as soon as he graduated from seminary school. With Leo
being Jewish, no matter that he didn’t take his religion seriously, it had been
a light-year of a long shot.
Ayana laughed.
“Nope. I told you. That tradition dies with me. He’s not a preacher.” She
paused to let David arrange their food in front of them to his satisfaction. He
all but kissed her fingers in his puppy-love worship and she all but let him.
But then Leo knew first hand how lethal Ayana’s smiles were. He couldn’t
blame the kid for something he himself still fell victim to.
“Is he black or white?”
“White.”
“Ha! I told you I’d get you hooked on vanilla!” he crowed, digging into his
filet migon. “He’s a wasp isn’t he?”
“Actually, he’s German.”
“What?! Oh man! Ayana, Ayana. You are dating a freaking Nazi? You
might as well have gone over to the dark side! Does this guy know you’re
black? Have you met him during the day?”
Ayana chuckled. She had expected nothing less than this reaction from Leo.
He had always been something of a cynical bastard. It was one of his most
endearing traits.
“Yes, and he still adores me. He can’t wait for me to give him caramel
babies with nappy hair.” She bragged.
Leo smiled.
“So you’re happy? Really?”
“I’m ecstatic.”
Leo nodded, the growled, “Then where the heck was he during your mini
depression?!”
Ayana laughed.
“He was there. Sort of. It’s complicated, as all things with me are.” She
grinned.
Leo knew that look.
“And? Come on. Out with it. What have you gone and done now?”
She laughed, a light musical sound that made something in his belly clench.
“I’m going back to college.”
“Good for you! You should never have quit in the first place. I always told
you that.”
“I didn’t quit, I was broke. I couldn’t afford it. Not going because you have
to work instead is so not the same as dropping out.”
He shook his head.
“You’re going to make a lousy lawyer, I hope you know that.”
“I know, especially since I’m not going to law school anymore. I’m going to
major in Sociology and Economics. My boyfriend and I have been talking
about going to Darfur or Somalia and opening an orphanage or something.
He’s a doctor, so he can do his thing and __”
“And you’re a preacher’s kid, so between the two of you, you can heal their
bodies and their souls. Oh my God. The tradition really is ending with you.
You’re not marrying a preacher, you’re going to become one!!”
Ayana grinned back unrepentantly at his look of abject horror.
“It’s cool huh? We Owens girls are always told we make great preacher’s
wives, but never actual preachers. Isn’t that so 1965? When mothers told
their daughters to grow up and marry doctors and lawyers but never to
actually aspire to become one?”
“You’re going to seminary school?”
“I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.” She shrugged. “Either way, I still want
to do this. I am good at helping people, Leo, you know that. If there are
people out there who need help, I should help them if I can, shouldn’t I?”
Of course she should. It would not occur to Ayana to do otherwise. It was
one of the reasons why they could never have worked out. He loved to see
what was wrong with the world and complain about it. Heck, he hadn’t even
voted in ten years. Not Ayana. She was a doer. It would have been even
more annoying if she had a holier-than-thou attitude to go with her goodie-
too-shoes. But even that mix of virtues was a fashion faux pas for Ayana.
She really was a PK, right down to her painted toenails.
“I’m proud of you. You finally figured out what you want to be when you
grow up.”
She rolled her eyes.
“As if! People like you and me Leo, we just never grow up.”
He smiled. She was wrong. He had deliberately locked himself up in a time-
warp, where he never grew up. He had always dated girls young enough to
be his kids, he smoked weed with his sons, and he still kept his hair in a long
ponytail, reminiscent of the flower-power days that had ended just about the
time of his birth.
From the very first time he had met her, he had known she was nothing like
the usual bimbos he picked up. She had goals and ambition and passion to
make a difference in the world. She was not the type of girl you could take
to Rio and spend the entire week on the beach with. She was the type that
would be curious and want to explore the whole damn city. She would be
work. Yet despite it all, he had been drawn to her. On their first date, they
had sat down in this very restaurant, at the booth in the far corner and with
dreamy eyes, she had told him of the seven world capitals she wanted to
visit before she died. Not that she was dying soon, she’d added with a
chuckle, “but if you have a list to focus on, death is sort of postponed, at
least for the year, you know?” He had fallen in love with her odd reasoning.
Over the next 3 years of their acquaintance, he had taken her to six of her
seven capitals and had done the whole tourist thing with her. To his own
shock, he’d loved every minute of it. It had been 8 months into their
relationship before he found out that she was allergic to his cigarette smoke
and took benedryl every time she was with him. He had stopped smoking
soon after that, and her response to the gesture had been a kiss on the cheek.
Nothing more. She had never asked anything of him, yet her very presence
in his life had made him change. When her sister had been diagnosed with
cancer, she had quit school and re-located to Canada to be with her. It had
been an amicable breakup. No tears, no fuss, just another pre-functional kiss
on the cheek, well wishes and a wave from the back seat of a black town car.
“You know how you meet people and they change you forever?” He began
in a rush, before he lost his nerve. “You are that for me, Ayana. You literally
altered my genetic make-up. Made me a better father, a better person. I don’t
know what I’d be without you.”
Her eyes turned glassy.
“Oh Leo.” She reached for his hand. “That’s exactly what you are to me too!
I was so lost when I met you. You stripped me of all the labels I’d been
carrying and made me find myself. You made me face up to me, and be okay
with me.” She sniffed. “I don’t know what I’d be without you.” She smiled
as teardrops pooled under her lashes. She dabbed then with the napkin,
careful not to smudge her mascara.
Leo lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it.
“Good.” He cleared his throat. “Now that we’ve gotten the sappy stuff out of
the way, how about dessert?”
“Gosh yes!” She looked around for David, who seemed to have been
watching for her signal, because he immediately appeared at her side.
“Does the chef still make that amazing chocolate mud cake? Oh! And those
warm doughnuts with the dip. You have to get those Leo, so I can get the
chocolate mud cake. Then can I have a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the
side as well? Are you having anything Leo? No? Good. I think that’s it,
David. The steak was delicious, by the way, please tell the chef, but I had to
save room for the dessert.”
Leo grinned as poor David walked away, still scribbling on his note pad. He
had to come back a second later when he remembered he had forgotten to
offer them coffee or espresso.
“So you’re happy?” He asked her again.
“Yes, I am. I really am, Leo. I never thought I would be, but I am.”
“Good, coz nobody deserves it like you do, kid.”
She blew him a raspberry.
“And nobody deserves it like you too, Leo. The world is out there, waiting
for you.”
It was? Waiting for him to do what? Explore it? Conquer it? Live it? All of
the above?
He leaned back and gave her a small smile.
Maybe. Just maybe.
FIN