Chapter Two: But a Sword
(16 Years Later)
All Rafe could do was watch Bri play with her curly red hair instead of focus on the task at hand. He even held the menu in front of him as a last-minute shield in case she happened to glance at him. After several months of dating, she was still that intoxicating.
Behind her, a lamp with the perfect color temperature gave her just the right glow, and Rafe moved in his booth seat a little to find the right angle to take a mental picture of her.
“Alright, I think I’ve got it,” she said with a small chuckle. “You?”
It was then that she finally looked up, and he melted, completely smitten by her beautiful blue eyes and freckles.
“What’s so funny?” he asked as an automatic defense mechanism.
She looked around at the small Mexican diner and admitted while leaning in, “Whenever I got a veggie burger as a kid, they always assumed that my mom had ordered it. I’m sure I’ve confused a lot of waiters in my day.”
Rafe found her treasured menu item at the bottom of the page, and after checking to see if it was within budget, he joked, “Well, if I order the same thing, then the poor guy won’t have to worry.”
“Have you ever had one?”
“Nope. First time for everything, I guess.” He quickly scanned a few side dishes on the menu should the vegetable atrocity not sit well with him. In his mind, it was downright un-American to eat such a thing. Right now, though, a side dish would be a luxury.
“Wonderful! They’re amazing! I hope you like it!” She smiled in such a way that cemented the whole ordeal, and he couldn’t resist it.
The little diner was crowded and noisy, so Rafe didn’t hear his phone ring. Although they had reached an agreement about their order, the only way he could relieve his anxiety about the burger was to study the image design of Mexican paintings on the walls.
“Is that your phone?” Bri asked.
He reached into his pocket, looked at the screen, and declined the call as if nothing had happened.
She continued amiably, “Who was it? You can take it if you like. I don’t mind.”
“Oh, it was my mom,” he responded, slightly bitter. For him, the mood had changed. Instead of being present with the love of his life, he was reminded of his mother’s tendencies.
Bri sat up and genuinely asked, “How is she doing? I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
“The same as always, I guess—”
Across the room, a group of men at a table had grown impatient, and one of them shouted at the waiter, “Hey beaner, can we get some service over here?”
The sole waiter in the small diner was a slow-moving, elderly Hispanic man. “Yes, sir. One moment, please,” he managed as he finished serving his current table.
Bri turned to Rafe as if she wanted to start a war. She wore her moral compass around her neck as if it guided every single action, and he knew that she couldn’t let the racial slur go unchecked. They had been down this road before.
As soon as she edged toward the end of the booth seat, Rafe whispered, “Don’t worry about it. Just let it go.”
“I can’t do that. That man needs to be called out.”
“Why? It’s not going to do any good. Just look at him. He’s probably not going to change.” The man across the room was a tall, rugged cowboy, and Rafe wanted to avoid any confrontation with him.
Bri stood up right away. “Sir, please apologize to the waiter.” The noisy diner quieted down, and most of the patrons stopped to watch.
“Why?” the tall man asked. “Are you calling me a racist?”
Rafe tried to tap her foot, but she was too far away; talking about all of this was horribly awkward. But of course, if any of those gentlemen approached Bri to hurt her, that would be a different story. He understood that kind of fight.
“No, I’m just asking you to apologize,” she responded calmly.
The waiter humbly interjected, “Really, ma’am, it’s no trouble at all.” He approached the new table with pen and paper in hand, ready to take the orders.
“Good! Because I’m not a racist,” the tall gentleman declared.
“How you choose to identify yourself is your prerogative. I’m just calling you out on your actions. Why do you want to offend this person?” Bri asked. The duel was getting more and more awkward with each new volley.
“Well,” the cowboy replied as he looked at the waiter, “it seems he doesn’t take any offense, so it’s not offensive—”
“I’m offended,” she quickly rebuked.
The towering man then slowly walked up to Bri, and the closer he came, the tighter Rafe’s fists clenched as he sat at the table. After all these years, Rafe still had a small frame, but he was very trim and athletic. He thought about running out the door with Bri in his arms to escape the situation, but he figured that they would inevitably return to a similar confrontation again.
The small restaurant was silent, and all eyes were on Bri and the rugged cowboy that approached her. If someone in the room were willing to fight against racism, they could now vicariously take up the mantle through her. Many phones were already recording and live streaming the standoff.
“But you’re white,” the man argued, now standing two feet away from her. At this, Rafe slowly rose with both fists seemingly glued to the table.
“I’m offended as a human being,” Bri stated as she stared the tall man straight in the eye. A slice of the current state of America, the two squared off like a brewing storm.
Quickly breaking the stare-down, the cowboy noticed Rafe’s white knuckles that were ready to strike. The man unexpectedly turned around to face the waiter and repented, “I’m sorry for what I said. There was no need for me to be mean. I’m sorry.”
With that, the tall man tipped his hat toward Bri with a sheepish smile and returned to his table. A crisis was averted, and a different atmosphere fell over the diner. A few more pleases and thank-yous were heard, people smiled a little more, and the waiter stood a little taller.
When they finally reached the motel parking lot in his truck, Rafe couldn’t ignore his error anymore. “I’m sorry about that back there. You were right.”
Bri opened her passenger door and playfully asked, “About the burger or the guy who was very rude?” Before he could say anything, she closed the door, leaned through the open window, and teased, “Don’t worry about it. I usually am.”
Her smile was disarming, and in the moonlight, he could do nothing but admire her. He truly aspired to be more passionate and courageous like her but felt that he couldn’t possibly attain that, even after several lifetimes.
As he offered no reply other than a chuckle, she asked, “So, tomorrow at 4 AM then?”
“Yeah, we need to head out early,” he answered, looking at the New Mexico desert landscape with anticipation. “I appreciate you doing this for me. Hopefully, you can get enough sleep.” By the time he had finished speaking, she had already set an alarm on her phone.
While scanning her texts, she returned, “Not a problem,” and gave him a peck on the cheek. “It looks like the Townsend hearing was stalled. I may need to call in and help.”
“It never ends, does it?” He no longer had her attention, and she was off on one of her crusades.
As they walked toward her motel-room door, she replied, “No, not really.” Her tone was both disheartened and energized at the same time.
A few years younger than Rafe, Bri was a natural-born spitfire reporter. She had the uncanny gift of yanking out the truth and presenting it in a way that anyone could understand. This was her oxygen. You knew that as soon as she adjusted her glasses, she was trying to look past whatever you may have just told her and look right into your soul.
When he reached his own motel-room door, which was next to hers, he couldn’t help but be inspired by her and her dedication to her craft. He watched her read the latest on the Townsend hearing, and he assumed it was political. To him, it didn’t matter, but he knew it should.
“Well, goodnight then,” he said as a reminder of his presence.
“Goodnight,” she politely replied, not lifting her phone-bound gaze as she closed the door behind her.
Rafe couldn’t close his door, though, as there was too much promise in the vast New Mexico desert, beautifully lit by the early winter moon. Everything was perfect.