Stella wasn’t a light sleeper, but Kitchener worried that the sound of jangling keys might stir his wife from her sleep. He took care to minimize noise as he fumbled for his wallet and his keys in the dark. When he was dressed and ready to leave, he stood still next to her side of the bed and listened to Stella’s soft, regular breathing. He bent down and touched his lips to her bare shoulder. “See you in a bit, sweetie,” he whispered, and turned toward the door. He craned his neck to look toward his sleeping wife as he closed the door behind him, and whispered again, “Back before you know it.”
Kitchener shuffled across the house, stepping gently so the heels of his shoes wouldn’t click on the Saltillo tile floor. The night before, he’d set the coffee maker to start at a quarter to five; the aroma of fresh coffee filled his nostrils as he crossed the room. The hiss of the machine greeted him as he as it pumped the last ounce of water through the filter into the carafe. He poured the coffee into the thermos and sealed it.
Kitchener didn’t need an alarm clock. He awoke well before five every morning, a forty-year habit since his first job in a bakery. He’d been surprised to learn, back then, that he liked getting up early, before anyone else. Early mornings were his most productive times, times when he was happiest. In the two years since he retired, he’d begun using those early morning hours at the gym, trying to work off the weight he’d gained during a career in the restaurant business. Despite his efforts, though, the weight he lost kept coming back, thanks to his passion for cooking and eating.
This morning, the gym wasn’t Kitchener’s destination. He grabbed his thermos of coffee, opened the side door and stepped across the car port to the driver’s side of the red Miata convertible. He’d bought the car, used, shortly after he and Stella had moved to Brazos del Diablo two years before. The purchase was his only visible nod to the tendency for old men to try to regain their youth. Kitchener had never had such a vehicle when he was younger, but he’d always wanted a sporty car. He climbed inside, depressed the clutch with his left foot, and started the engine. As he eased up on the clutch, he flinched at the pain in his knee. Five speed transmissions are better suited to younger men, he mused, as he pulled out onto the street.
The drive to Sheila’s cottage took less than five minutes. When he pulled in the driveway, he saw her through the blinds in the kitchen window. She waved at him, then closed the blinds. A moment later, the porch light switched on, illuminating the pathway between the driveway and the front entry.
Kitchener flinched as he extricated himself from the car. He cursed his knee and the car as he hobbled up the sidewalk to the door. Sheila opened the door just as he reached for the knob.
“Oh, you brought me coffee! You’re such a sweet man.”
“Yes, I am, and good-looking, to boot!”
“Yes, you are that. Come in here!” She reached for his upper arm and pulled him beyond the door, shutting it behind them.
Sheila took the thermos of coffee from him and set it on the kitchen table and turned back toward him. “Good morning, mister. Want some coffee?”
“Indeed I do. I’ll take mine with some sugar, please.”
“Happy to oblige, sir.”
Sheila wrapped her arms around Kitchener as they embraced. They kissed, a long, passionate kiss.
“Okay, you did say you wanted coffee with that sugar, right?”
“Right again. How are you doing this dark and dreamy morning, hon? You look beautiful.”
“I’m giddy because you’re here.”
Kitchener glanced to his right and caught the reflection of the two of them in a mirror on the wall between the dining room and the kitchen. For a fraction of a second, Sheila’s profile looked to him exactly like Stella’s. He sucked in a breath.
“I’m giddy, too. But…”
Kitchener’s gaze drifted toward the floor as Sheila reached for his hand.
“Listen, honey, I know you feel guilty about our relationship. Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. I mean, I am incredibly happy when I’m with you, but I can’t stand the thought of Stella being hurt by this.”
“I feel guilty, too. But we shouldn’t feel guilty about allowing ourselves to be who we are. I know you love Stella; but it’s not like how you feel about me. I admire you for not wanting to hurt her. We won’t let her get hurt; we will take great care to make sure she doesn’t get hurt.” She put her arms around Kitchener and hugged him.
ALL RIGHT, ENOUGH OF THIS SORT OF WRITING FOR THIS MORNING.