She moved through the rain like she was a veteran in the Russian ballet, with the smooth sway of her arms at her sides and her delicate and confident steps amidst the forming puddles. She didn’t look discomfited by the wet either. Rather, she might have been happier because of it.
Jake took his coffee mug in both hands and sipped the French roast with cream and sugar. Then he returned his eyes to the coffeehouse window. She was still out there, still walking in the rain. She wore dark green galoshes, black leggings and a matching mini skirt, and a grey pea coat. She was maybe thirty and pretty.
“It’s really coming down,” Chris said as he sat at the table with another cup of coffee. Both men were wearing suits and the damp newspaper Chris set on the table was folded open to the business section. “How was the meeting with the boss this morning?”
“Good. I think I’ll have a chance at partner before the year’s out.”
“Nice. But you must’ve known it was coming. Isn’t that why you made plans for the big date tonight?” Chris winked and looked absurd doing it.
Jake glanced out the window again but the woman was gone. “Tonight’s dinner has nothing to do with this morning’s meeting. I just wanted a nice night with Lacey.”
“You made the reservation a month ago. I figured it was a big deal, like you were popping the question or something.”
Jake almost spit his coffee out. “Proposing? We’ve only been dating seven months. We’re not even thinking about marriage.”
“I bet Lacey is.”
“We’re in the same place.” At least he hoped they were. Lacey told him she wasn’t eager to get married. He believed her. He wasn’t either. His career was just getting rolling; he had his whole life ahead of him.
Jake pushed the dessert plate back and signaled the waiter for the bill. Lacey sat across from him attired in a sleeveless black dress and wearing a diamond necklace. They’d had a fun night, though Jake couldn’t get Chris’ comments out of his head and wondered a few times if Lacey’s blue gaze was a little too expectant.
“Thanks for making the effort to get us a reservation here,” Lacey said.
“Of course.” It had taken a single phone call. Not really a big deal. But Lacey looked happy. It didn’t take much to give joy.
Jake offered the waiter his credit card without even touching the folder with the bill. Lacey didn’t notice; she was already grabbing for her Burberry cashmere coat and matching purse. “I’m going to use the ladies’ room. I’ll meet you at the door.”
After signing the receipt and leaving a fair tip, Jake stepped out the front door and under the overhang just outside. It was raining again.
“Need a cab, sir?” the doorman asked. Jake said he did and the man hailed one, though Lacey hadn’t appeared yet. “It’s quite a deluge tonight,” the doorman continued while Jake waited. “Lots of umbrellas and cabs, though I’ve seen a few folks braving the wet.” Jake thought of the woman he’d seen that afternoon and wondered if she was still braving the weather.
“Look at this mess,” Lacey said, coming out the door behind them. “I thought it’d stopped.”
“Started again, miss,” the doorman said. “Let me get the door for you.”
Jake and Lacey were soon warm in the cab, only slightly splashed from their dash to the vehicle. They said goodnight at the door to Lacey’s apartment building and Jake reentered the cab alone.
As they drove, he watched the gloss of the rain on the sidewalks reflect the streetlamps. It gave a glow to the city, as if the rain set it alight. But it still looked mostly just wet to him.
She was there again, walking in the rain outside the coffee shop. It was the fourth time he’d seen her. Nothing had changed, and she still looked content as she glided through the water. Jake wondered if maybe she just didn’t own an umbrella. His was dripping next to the table.
“Earth to Jake,” Chris said. “What are you looking at out there?”
“Just looking. Thanks,” Jake said as Chris slid his coffee over to him. Chris took a drink from his cup, but Jake was still preoccupied. He said, “Do you see that woman out there, the one with the green shoes and grey coat? What do you think her story is?”
“I am being serious. Out in the rain almost every day, and look at the size of her bag.”
“I don’t think so. She looks pretty neat. And I think that’s her purse.”
“Then why is she walking in the rain?” Chris was wearing his know-it-all grin.
“Maybe her umbrella was stolen.”
“Then she’s crazy. Homeless or crazy. Or both. Maybe she’s both.”
Jake looked out the window again and saw that the woman was gone. “Maybe.”
“Why does it matter anyway? I thought we were here to talk about this weekend’s golf game.”
“I think we might get rained out again.”
They talked about the country club and the members of their weekly game, though Jake periodically looked out the window to see if the woman in the pea coat would come back from where she’d gone.
Two days later, Friday, he was at the café, coffee in hand, watching out the window again. Chris wasn’t coming this time. It was raining hard and Jake was waiting for the woman who walked in the rain. He was early, knew she wouldn’t go by for a few more minutes, but he was afraid he might miss her.
She was on time and looking the same as always. Jake released his coffee on the table, grabbed his umbrella and a package he’d laid next to him, and ran out the door. He opened the umbrella as he crossed the street to the sidewalk where the woman walked.
“Hi,” he said as he stepped through a puddle and up onto the sidewalk next to her. She turned to face him and he smiled. “My name’s Jake and I have something for you.” He held out the package.
“No, thank you,” she said politely and turned from him as if he were some crazed stalker, which, he rationalized, in a way he was.
“No, it’s okay. It’s an umbrella.” He pulled it out of the bag. It was green like her shoes. “You see, I have coffee in that coffeehouse over there, and I see you walking in the rain a lot. I thought maybe yours was broken and you needed a new one.”
She turned to face him, taking in the umbrella and then looking more closely at his face. “Wow, thanks. But I have an umbrella at home.”
“Why don’t you use it?”
Jake stood under his own black umbrella. The woman stepped far enough away she was clear of its protection and the water pouring off its edges. Her dark hair was wet and water streamed down her face. She blinked rain out of her eyes, but kept watching him.
“I don’t have far to go,” she said. She pointed up the street and Jake looked, expecting to maybe see her destination. But dozens of buildings were in view and he looked back.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought maybe …” What was he going to say? He thought she was homeless, poor, crazy?
“Thank you anyway. It was nice of you.”
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee then? I already have a table.”
“I think you just lost your table.” She pointed at the coffeehouse.
Jake looked back and saw the waitress clearing his coffee cup and wiping down his table. “How did you know I was sitting there?” he asked.
“You always sit there.” She smiled. “I have to get to work. It was nice meeting you.”
“A rain check on the coffee then?” Jake persisted.
She hesitated, then, “Sure. How about next Tuesday at 1:00? At the café. You wouldn’t have watch for me then.”
Jake stared as she walked away from him, embarrassed she’d noticed him watching, shocked she’d agreed to meet him for coffee anyway.
She was half a block away when he called after her to wait. “Can you tell me your name?” A gust of wind caught his umbrella as he spoke and it moved away from above him, allowing drops of cool water to hit his face.
“Beth,” she replied and then continued walking.
Jake stood in the rain a while, staying dry beneath his umbrella. The interaction with Beth had been surprising. She hadn’t taken the umbrella gift from him, and he felt silly standing there holding two of them. He slipped the green one back into the bag. He couldn’t imagine what had made him do that, approach a strange woman with a strange gift, one he couldn’t even really explain. She must have thought he was crazy. That made him laugh out loud.
But she hadn’t cleared up the mystery about walking in the rain. She said it was because she didn’t have far to go, but why get wet at all? And why look so happy about it?
Tuesday came slowly, but at 1:00 he was at the coffeehouse when Beth walked in. The day was sunny and warm, so the pea coat, leggings, and galoshes were replaced with low-heeled boots, jeans, and a fitted t-shirt. They made small talk while they ordered their coffees and then Jake asked where she’d like to sit.
“Thank you for the coffee, but I’m not staying,” Beth said. “It was nice of you to invite me, but I don’t generally take gifts from strangers, like I said last week.”
“This isn’t a gift. It’s my apology for startling you. And I don’t mind if you want to go. I understand. But can I walk you out?”
He held the door for her and stopped just outside to say goodbye. He was disappointed and surprised by how much. “I wasn’t trying to hit on you,” he said. “It’s just coffee. I meet a friend here a few times a week, at the same time; it changed recently. We like that table in the front, by the window. I saw you in the rain and it was curious. You didn’t look bothered by the rain. I wondered why.”
“I guess I misunderstood.”
“I was a bit awkward about it all. I could start over. Hi, my name’s Jake. I’m an investment rep and I work in one of those big skyscrapers over there. I like coffee and umbrellas. What about you?”
“I’m Beth. I work at the children’s hospital over there.” She pointed in the direction she’d pointed before. “I also like coffee, but I like the rain too. How long have you lived in the city?”
“All my life. You?”
“About two years.”
“Do you like it?”
“I love it.”
“Do you have to work today? I need to get back to my office, but I could walk you partway.”
“Yeah, but it’s—”
“Not that far. I know. But I don’t mind. And it isn’t raining.”
“Maybe a block or two.”
As they walked, Beth told him that she was a nurse at the hospital, though she hoped to be a doctor someday and was saving money. Jake told her he’d started out studying art in college, but on a whim had taken a couple of business classes. It turned out he was pretty savvy, switched to business, and was able to get connected right out of school. He still liked art, but he was happy for the time being.
“It’s not bad, working in an office. I get to meet different people and travel a lot.”
“I like that about my job too. The people, not the travel. I don’t go very far.”
“Right. It’s not far.”
Beth laughed. “Something like that.”
“Hey, I said I was only going to walk you a couple of blocks, and I don’t want to freak you out anymore, so I think I’ll stop here.” He thought he saw disappointment on Beth’s face, so he continued. “Could I see you again? I don’t mean see you, like through the window; that’s weird. I mean in person, talk to you.”
“Are you free this Saturday? Around 2:30?”
“Yeah, I don’t have anything planned this weekend.”
“Come to the hospital. I’ll meet you at the visitor’s entrance. Dress casual.”
“Okay, why not.”
Beth said goodbye and Jake pulled out his cell phone. He was going to have to cancel his golf plans.
Beth was waiting for him at the hospital doors. She was dressed in a colorful nurse’s uniform and wearing a badge with her full name and last initial: Bethany F. “I see you brought your umbrella,” she commented with a grin.
“Yeah, it looked like rain.”
“I have a place you can leave that, and I have some people I want you to meet.”
They rode the elevator to the fourth floor, and when they stepped out she led him down the hallway to the nurses’ station, where he left his things, and then proceeded a little farther to a room with a sign that said “Activity Room” in bright letters. Hand-drawn pictures hung on the wall and window outside and Jake wondered what he was walking into.
The room was filled with kids in hospital-issued gowns and bathrobes from home. Some had tubes in their skin and others looked pale and papery. One boy wore a baseball cap. Some of the kids were playing games, some were reading, some were drawing or writing, a few sat on the outskirts of the room, seemingly doing nothing. A couple of the kids looked sad, but most lit up when they walked in the room.
“How are my favorite patients today?” Beth asked them. Some of the younger kids ran over to hug her. “I’d like you all to meet a friend of mine. This is Jake. He’s a big investment guru at one of those skyscrapers out there, but he still wants to be an artist when he grows up.” A couple of the kids giggled.
A little girl raised her hand. “Can we ask him questions, Miss Bethany?”
“I hope you will. He’s really nice and I know he’s excited to talk to all of you.”
Half a dozen more hands went up and the questions began. “What’s your favorite color?” Green. “Who’s your favorite singing group?” The Beatles. “Who’s that?”
Bethany slipped out after his attempt to explain the British Invasion, but the kids had decided he was safe and the questions continued. “What do you like to draw?” People. “What’s your favorite food?” And on. What kind of car he drove. If he had a girlfriend, the answer to which brought another round of giggles. One young boy raised his hand and asked how much money he’d lost in the recession.
Then Jake started asking questions, some of the same they were asking him, but others too. He sat down and asked them what they were reading and helped them draw pictures and make cards for their parents and friends. He helped a ten-year-old boy fix the ties on his baseball glove, and he stopped to watch a thirteen-year-old girl take a handful of pills when a nurse came in.
He noticed an older boy, maybe fourteen, sitting by the window, looking out. Jake went over and sat on the windowsill next to him.
“How’s it going?” Jake said when the boy didn’t look up.
“What’re you looking at?”
The boy didn’t answer and Jake thought he might as well leave, when the young man asked, “Do you really want to be an artist?”
“Well, I definitely like to draw. But I don’t know if I’m good enough to make a career out of it.”
“Are you good at your other thing? The investment guru?”
“I do okay. Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?”
“Something outdoors, anything.” The kid looked out the window again.
“I guess you don’t get out much when you’re in here.”
“Almost never. And if the weather’s bad, forget it.”
Jake looked out the window again. The clouds were dark and rain was falling, splattering the window, though it was impossible to hear it through the double-plated glass.
“It looks like a good one,” Jake said.
“Just once I’d like to go out into the rain and enjoy it. ‘You’ll get chilled. It’ll make you sick,’ my mom says. As if I’m not already sick.”
It felt as if the room and all its occupants faded for a moment and only Jake and the window with the clouds and the rain were left. He could suddenly hear the rain, and it mixed with the boy’s words and with the image of Beth in her grey coat, walking without an umbrella.
“Snack time,” a voice called from the doorway, and there was a general outcry of glee as the kids moved toward the door. The teenage boy joined the throng.
Jake found his way back to the nurses’ station and waited until Beth appeared from a room down the hall.
“How was it?” she asked.
“It was fun. They’re great. Thanks for inviting me.”
“I’m glad you came. You didn’t give them investment advice, did you?”
“Not even a little.” Something beeped behind Beth and another nurse said he’d get it. Jake hurried to speak again before they were interrupted. “Would it be alright if I came again, sometime when you’re working maybe?”
“I’m here again next Saturday.”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
“I’ll see you then. Maybe sooner.”
“Don’t forget your umbrella. I hear it’s really coming down.”
Jake looked over in the corner where he’d set the accessory. He’d forgotten he brought it. “Thanks.”
He took the elevator down and walked toward the automatic doors at the visitor’s entrance of the hospital, all the while handling the umbrella with delicacy. It suddenly felt foreign to him.
He stepped outside, and it was indeed pouring. He held the umbrella in his hands for a few moments, then walked over to the wall next to the door, leaned the umbrella against it, turned, and walked away. The rain hit him in the face and ran down his neck. He smiled a little, finally understanding.