Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.
She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.
“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”
“Did it go well with the cake?”
He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”
“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”
Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.
The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.
Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.
He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.
“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”
“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”
He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.
Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.
The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”
“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”
“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.
Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.
“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”
“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”
As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.
“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”
“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”
Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”
Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.
“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”
His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”
Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.
Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.
One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.
“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”
Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.
“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”
He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.
“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.
He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”
Sela stirred but did not get up.
“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”
They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.
“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”
“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”
Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.
“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”
But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.