Corey’s hand is warm, and dry, its nails clipped and clean. I left my hand on the diner table under his longer than I should.
“Hey Niki,” he said.
I withdrew my hand.
“Um, we should go. Thanks for the bacon, Corey.”
I put a ten on the table as Corey flagged the server for the check. He pushed it back towards me. “I got this,” he said. “Wait, and I’ll walk you to your car.”
Walking alongside Corey, I felt butterflies of trepidation in my stomach, and that disconnected from my body feeling I sometimes get. We made small talk, but I don’t remember what we said.
“Well, goodnight,” I murmured, putting my hand on the car’s door handle.
Corey once again put his hand over mine, but this time his other arm encircled my back. I leaned into him sideways, resting my head on his shoulder. He smelled like soap, clean and nice. We stood that way for a minute or so before, turning me towards him, he framed my face with his hands, and placed his mouth on mine. I leaned in, kissing him back.
Corey’s touch was strong and gentle, confident. We kissed again.
Separating, I looked up at Corey’s face. His gaze was soft. I imagine it mirrored mine.
“Now what?” This time he was murmuring.
“I don’t know, I can’t bring you home,” I said.
“Sheila might show up unexpectedly at my place,” but before he finished his sentence I was already protesting, “Oh no, I can’t do that either.”
“Let’s get a room. I know that sounds bad, but this is not some cheap thing for me, Niki. I care about you. I have for a long time. You’re very special.”
“I care about you too Corey. I don’t want to, but I do.”
“Let’s get a room,” he pulled me close, his face against my neck.
I gazed past Corey’s shoulder as if I were disembodied, a member of an audience watching a movie or play. I saw the sharp shadows cast by the bright California morning sun from the empty cars in the parking lot. There was no place to hide from its glare. Everything was in clear focus to my painful eyes. Had it been the cover of night, in the parking lot of a bar instead, I would have remained lulled.
“Corey, I can’t do this, I’m sorry.”
“Niki, wait. I know it’s not right. I’m not a player. I haven’t done this before either. But you and me, we’re the same. We care deeply, and we give everything. Simon and Sheila don’t understand us like we do each other. This way, maybe we can stay married, and raise our kids with both their parents. You and I already live in two separate worlds: one in the hospital, and another not of the hospital. This will be ‘hospital.’ We deserve some happiness, Niki.”
I thought hard about his words. Their logic was seductive: Wouldn’t I be a better nurse, a better mother, and in a twisted way, a better wife by surrendering to the fact that I live my life straddling different worlds, playing different roles in each? I live a separate life from the one I lived in my parents’ home; yet keep the role of their daughter. As a mother, I play another role too, with different rules. It’s the same thing really, adapting to the different contexts of life.
I leaned back against my car, and let the morning sun warm my face.