Only Time (excerpt)

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

 “I packed your black socks,” Emily said to her husband, who was packing in another room for yet another business trip.

 “Have you seen my toiletry bag?” James asked.

“It’s not in your suitcase?” she said, annoyed by his unnecessary helplessness. She used to have more patience for this sort of shit. But her patience was increasingly growing thin. 

“No,” he said, with a layer of panic in his voice. “Oh, wait,” he said, pulling his toiletry bag out of his suitcase. “Found it.”

So typical…

To an outsider looking in, the Smiths seemed just like any other suburban couple – certainly not the type of couple that that harbored dark secrets behind their white picket fence.

Then again, every couple has secrets. Just not every couple has a fence.  

But if there was any couple that would be described by outsiders as “perfect” –it would certainly be them.

Up until a year ago, things really were smooth sailing.

Before the incident.

Previous to that, their lives had morphed from carefree, kindred spirits and into the rut of domestic purgatory known as parenting. Of course, it didn’t help that James traveled to work on an almost weekly basis – sometimes, for the entire week.

What started out as a “dream job” quickly became the greatest fissure in their relationship. Not to mention, the impetus for the incident itself.

 At first, it was on account of James’s travel schedule, but his salary at least partially made up for it, giving them the comfortable suburban existence that once upon a time, they used to detest – in fact, it was on the things that made them fall for one another to begin.

On the surface, James hated the traveling component as much as she did – especially after Jimmy Jr. was born. But five years later, a nagging reality had morphed into a devastating one.

An affair.

The incident.

 A year later and Emily was still reeling. And teetering back and forth between leaving him, or toughing it out – not just for her sake – but for the sake of their son, Jimmy.

For the sake of the family.

Where her heart and mind stood really depended on the day, or which way the wind was blowing. One day, she couldn’t fathom putting their son through a divorce. Other days, it seemed like the only logical choice.

The urge to leave him was like a bad cough that you couldn’t quite shake, long after its onset.

            Of course, he was ready to put it all behind him and move on– as suggested by his umpteenth apology – a thinly-veiled attempt to get off the very hook he hanged himself upon to begin with. She wanted to believe him that it was only one time. And for the most part, she did. But how could she really be sure? Did she want to spend the rest of her life…wondering?

            She, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to move on. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. It was that she simply couldn’t.

At first, his apologies did little to convince her to stay. Nor, did pleas from her mother who didn’t want to see their grandson become a victim of divorce, encouraging her to “ride out the storm.”

“For the sake of the family.”

Followed by: “People don’t get divorced in our family.”

Of course, James could do no wrong in her mother’s eyes. And up until the incident, her mother’s assessment of him was accurate. Sure, he was wasn’t perfect. But, neither was she. Nobody was. But they were perfect for one another. And still could be if she could just…forgive.

And there was no questioning James’s resolve to make things right, including his promise to find a job that wouldn’t require travel. (Then again, it wasn’t so much a promise on his end, as it was a mandate on her part, even though he tried to spin it into a decision made on his own terms).  She was grateful he was willing to find another job, despite absolutely loving the one he had – even if the travel frustrated him at times (or, so he let on…after the incident she wasn’t so sure).

             Despite limited job prospects and the likelihood of a pay cut, he was determined to make it happen. To make things right. In fact, the previous week, he had a very promising interview at Ford Motor Company – right in the safe confines of suburban Dearborn where they lived.

Landing this job would mean, of course, no more travel. And therefore not having to cast suspicion every time he got on a plane. It would mean no longer having to lie awake every moment of the night, wondering who her husband was fucking at that very moment. They were both willing to sacrifice a little income in exchange for domestic security.

Yet, even if he got the job, it didn’t automatically mean she was staying put. He was well aware of this, but they both knew finding the job certainly couldn’t hurt their chances.

Meanwhile, here she was on the eve of their anniversary, helping him pack – still considering tearing down the white picket fence.

As a matter of principle.

            Jimmy entered, holding his favorite toy – a plane James bought him on his last trip. Jimmy hated the fact his dad left all the time, but the guilt gifts he got each time made up for it.

“Daddy?” Jimmy asked in syrupy sweet tone.

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Why do you always have to leave?”

“Because my work makes me. That’s why Daddy is looking for a new job.”           

 “But when will you get a new one?” Jimmy asked.

“Soon. Now go give Mommy a kiss so I can tuck you in.” Jimmy ran to give his mother a kiss.

“Goodnight, Mommy.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart. Sweet dreams.”

“You, too!” Charlie exclaimed, before running full-speed back to his dad. James picked him up and carried him over his shoulder, causing Jimmy to drop his plane.

            “My plane!”

            Still holding Jimmy, James crouched down to pick it up,

They then entered Jimmy’s Detroit Tigers-themed bedroom. As James tucked Jimmy into bed, Emily listened down the hallway.

Despite the issues between them, there was never a doubt about the kind of father he was. Sure, he did things that annoyed her, or that she didn’t always agree with (like taking Jimmy to the movies more than she would have preferred), but it was during times such as this that the scales of their relationship were tipping in its favor. Whenever she found herself leaning too much in favor of leaving him, she always came back to this:

            The family…

            Was she really willing to give all of this up? 

            She never one thought she was capable of even considering such a thing. 

            Once again, she reminded herself that he was the one who cheated. Not her.

 “I’ll see you in three days,” she heard James tell their son. “Take good care of Mommy.”

“I will.

“Daddy?” Jimmy said as James was about to head down the hall to finish packing.

“Yeah?” James said.

“I’ll miss you,” Jimmy said, before breaking down into tears. “I wish you didn’t always have to leave.”

“I know.”

Emily bit her lip to prevent tears of her own.

 “I’ll miss you, too,” James said. “But it will go by so fast, you won’t even realize I’m gone. And you know what else?”

“What?” Jimmy asked.

“I’ll still be able to see you, even if you can’t see me.”

“How?

“Because I’ll be in the tallest building in New York. It’s so high, I’ll be able to see our house and right into your bedroom as you sleep.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Will you call me from there?”

“I promise.”

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

            “But even if you don’t call, I don’t want you to die.”

“Deal” James said, chuckling.           

 “Daddy?”

“Yeah?”

 “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

As James headed back to the master bedroom to finish packing, Emily sat on the couch in front of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes overlooking Lake Michigan – one of their favorite spots.

 She attempted to fit a few pieces of her puzzle together, but couldn’t concentrate. She used to dread his business trips even before the incident. Now, there was an added suffocating layer of jealousy. She was never prone to jealousy before. It angered her that he gave her reason to feel this way.

As much as he assured her that it wouldn’t happen again, she couldn’t help but be suspicious.

Of everything.

The fact that it happened at all was exactly the problem. The seal of trust was forever broken.

James came down the stairs and sat next to her. By instinct, she moved further away from him – it was subtle, but noticeable. It’s possible he didn’t notice, but it was much more likely that simply pretended not to.

He knew that there was nothing he could say right now to quell her fears and make her feel better. Not until he was back in his own bed. Or better yet, landed a new job.

“When I get home, we’re finishing that damn puzzle,” James finally said.

“That’s what you said last time.”  

“This time, no excuses.”

            “Right,” she said, having her doubts.

“You could always finish it yourself,” James said.

“I want to finish it with you.”

“I know and we will. You know I always finish what I started.”

            “They couldn’t let you stay home for our anniversary?” Emily asked, her eyes swelling with tears. She promised she wouldn’t bring that up again. Yet, she couldn’t help herself.

            James moved in and put his arm around her.

Much to her surprise, she let him.

            “If I could have, I would have.”

            “You could have pretended to be sick.”

            “Trust me, if I could have gotten out of this, I would have.”

            She wondered if he meant it.

Did he even try?

And even if he was able to stay home, would it have made any difference?

            “Why can’t they ever send someone else for once?”
            “Because I’m the most reliable.”

            “Then why don’t they hire more reliable people? Or, pay you more?”

            “It’s only three days.”

            “But one of those days is our anniversary.”

            She was growing more and more frustrated with herself. Yes, it was their anniversary. But she was still so angry at him, she had no desire to celebrate it. It wasn’t that she wanted to be angry at him. But she couldn’t help it. Perhaps guilting him about their anniversary an attempt at forcing herself to find some normalcy again.

            “You know how hard I’m trying to get another job. The Ford interview went really well and should have a decision by the end of the week. They might not offer as much, but at least I won’t have to miss another anniversary.”

            As angry as she still was, perhaps that would be the fresh start they needed.   

“And I promise we’ll celebrate Wednesday night. In fact, I already made reservations. And remember, if things go as planned, we’ll never spend another anniversary apart.”

            Although she didn’t show it, this made her feel at least a little better. She didn’t think she wanted anything to do with their anniversary, having already passed on their original plan of taking the trip up north they were supposed to do last year.  

“And we still have tonight,” James added, with a seductive glint in his eye, triggering a nauseating feeling in the pit of Emily’s stomach – a feeling she connected with sex ever since her husband’s indiscretion.

Prior to the incident, if someone were to ask Emily how their sex life was, she would cheekily describe it with one of her favorite old-timey phrases:

“Fair to middling.”

The quality of their love making was never in question, however there was no question that the quantity had waned in the years that followed their son’s birth.

Post incident, they could count on less than one hand how many times they had sex over the course of the past year. And quite frankly, she wasn’t sure if that would ever change any time soon, even if they stayed together.

Even in those rare times they had sex, it certainly wasn’t the same.  Prior to the incident, climaxing was never an issue for her. In fact, they usually climaxed together, in perfect two-part harmony. Now, she felt hardly sensation at all. This was nothing new to her. She had lost sensation for a brief period after Jimmy was born, but then returned to form. But now, all she could do was picture him being inside the “other”.

Or,was it “others”?

There was only one that she knew of. He claimed there was only one. There was no way she could ever really know.

So, she preferred not to do it at all

“We don’t have to,” he said.

We don’t have to.

            She hated when he said. Of course, she didn’t have to. At least he didn’t beg. He understood. Just once look at her face and he understood. And as easy as it was to reject him, she would subsequently awake all night, battling a mixture of guilt and conflicting feelings. Perhaps this trip would give her the clarity she needed. Then again, she thought that before his last trip a few weeks ago and the many trips before that. 

            At some point, something would have to give.

The night slowly passed as sleep continued to elude her. An unexpected dread grew deep within her soul. Almost like a premonition.

When the alarm went off at 4:15, she was still wide-awake.

James shut off the alarm, then kissed Emily softly on the cheek, whispering “Happy Anniversary” into her ear.

It felt fake.

Phony.

She realized that it wasn’t that he didn’t sincerely mean it. It was that she didn’t want to accept it.

As he climbed out of bed, she wondered: Does he even have any idea I didn’t sleep?

Too exhausted to get out of bed, she waited as James showered, waiting to fall asleep. There was nothing she wanted more. And soon, Jimmy would wake up and she wouldn’t be able to sleep even if she wanted to.

James returned from the shower, unaware that Emily was watching him dress, looking at his moderately-toned body that used to instantly turn on. Back when it was all hers. Once again, she couldn’t help but imagine his other all over him, even though she had no idea what she even looked like. Nor, did she have any desire to.  

When James finished getting dressed, she dragged herself downstairs to join him for breakfast. But she had no appetite. She hadn’t had an appetite for months.

She stared into her soggy cereal bowl. 

            “It’ll go by quickly,” James tried to reassure her, oblivious to the root of what was really ailing her. Or, perhaps not oblivious, but thinking her mood was more impacted by the fact he was leaving, rather than the elephant in the room.  

            “For you,” Emily said. “You aren’t here dealing with a five-year-old all day and all night.”

            “Trust me, I would much rather be helping out with Jimmy, rather than going over data in a PowerPoint presentation.”

            Did he though?                      

            There was no question he loved being with his son, but she did sometimes wonder if it was only because he felt like he always had lost time to make up for. It bugged her more and more that James got to always be the “fun parent”, while she was left behind doing all the work that wasn’t fun. Sure, there were plenty of fun times for her, too. But James was so often off the hook when it came to the heavy domestic lifting since he was gone so much.

She could tell James was searching for additional words of encouragement, but Hallmark sentiments were rarely effective on her – especially now. There was nothing he could say that could make things any better.   

Only time.

And even that was uncertain

She couldn’t fault him for trying. If anything, he tried too hard, as though trying to cover up the multiple layers of guilt that she assumed – hoped? – was consuming him.

            As James finished off his second cup of coffee and headed upstairs to gather his things, Emily suddenly wanted nothing more but to see him leave the house. His presence was suffocating and wanted to breathe again.

            This feeling caught her completely off guard. In fact, it both saddened…and frightened her. When Chris came back down, he attempted to hug her, but she pulled back. He respected her wishes and backed off.

“Well, I better hit the road…or, the friendly skies.”

She sensed he expected a smile out of her. But she didn’t find his attempts at “being cute” endearing anymore. That used to be one of the things she liked about him most. Now, it made her one to puke her fucking guts out

            “Just in case, same place as last time – the Courtyard Marriot.”

            “Gotcha,” Emily said, seeing him to the door.  “Please be careful.”

            Her words felt empty. Without meaning. Because she realized she was simply going through the motions.

“You don’t have to worry. About anything.”

She knew what he meant and as much as she wanted to believe him, she couldn’t.

Emily spotted his wallet sitting on the end table.

“Forgetting something?” she asked, retrieving the wallet.

“What would I do without you?” James responded.

Maybe someday you’ll find out.

She hated herself for thinking that. Yet, she couldn’t help it.

“I love you,” he said.

She fought off her instinctual desire to respond and stood mute. She could tell it bothered him, but once again, he didn’t let on. And though she knew it bothered him deep inside, he deserved it. And would get over it.  

“Don’t be late,” she urged him toward the door.

“You wouldn’t want me to miss my flight now, would you?” James said with a wink.

“God forbid,” Emily said in return, catching herself off guard for expressing a sentiment that she was going to miss him.

Yet, coated with a thick layer of resentment.

Did he even notice?

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said, almost as a half-baked afterthought, before finally turning to leave.

            Such a blanket statement.

And so easy for him to say.

As James headed toward his car, Emily stepped out onto the porch, under a cloudless sky that was perfect shade of blue as though painted by hand. It felt more like late May, than early-September. Then again, in Michigan, both months were two sides of the same coin, really.

Birds chirped gleefully. An American flag hung from the porch, gently blowing the wind.

A perfect day to fly.

James blew her a kiss. As she blew him one back, an unexpected chill ran through her. As he pulled out of the driveway, the flag drooped at a perfect, poetic standstill.

She waited until James was out of sight, before she slowly closed the door behind her. The chill was gone. She sat down on the couch, anticipating the usual rush of sadness she experienced whenever James left. Now, she felt an overwhelming sense of…relief. Like a giant weight had been lifted off her chest.

Maybe now, she could actually get some sleep before Jimmy had to get up for school.

“Good morning, Mommy!” Jimmy’s high-pitched voice rang out behind her.

She turned around, startled.

So much for that.

“You scared me!”

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jimmy said.

She stooped down to hug him.

“Someday, you are going to learn the joy of sleeping in as long as possible.”

“Sleep is boring.”

She laughed. She could always count on Jimmy for a unique perspective on things.

Though he usually woke up earlier than he had to, this was earlier than usual

            “Let’s get you some breakfast.”

            Jimmy followed her into the kitchen.

            “Go take your pull-up of. And go potty.”

            They were really hoping he would be able to sleep in underpants without peeing his bed, especially now that he finished kindergarten. She was tired of constantly having to wash sheets, despite wearing pull-ups. She would never seem to understand how it never seemed to bother him. If it were up to him, he would go all day in a soaking wet pull-up if he could.

As Emily prepared his breakfast, she turned on Good Morning America half-listening to an update on a senator’s missing intern.

            “Mommy!!” Jimmy shouted from the bathroom.

            She headed over to the bathroom.

            And there he was, standing in a puddle of his own pee.

            “Jimmy! You’re stepping in it!”

            Then there was that issue.

            “Sorry, mommy.”

“You need to get it in the toilet! Not the floor! You’re a big boy now.

            “I promise.”

            “Now hop into the bath tub. You need to wash your feet.”

            She ran the water.

            The shit James never had to do deal with.

            “Get in.”

            He dipped his toes in.

            “It’s hot!” Jimmy screamed.              

            She felt it. It was far from “hot”, but she was trying harder to pick her battles.

            She added some cold water.

            “Suit your fancy?”

            He tried again. “Yes.”

            “Why did you make it so hot?”

            “It was an accident. Just like you should have been before you peed on the floor.”

            He couldn’t argue with that. He finished rinsing off his feet.

            “Can I get out now?”

            “Yes.”

            She dried off his feet.

            Next up: breakfast, leaving an hour to spare before she had to take him to school.

            “Can I watch Lion King?” he asked after he was done.

 “How about you play for a little while?”

            “Please?”

            Once again, she found herself being the bad guy. James would say yes in a heartbeat with some sort of rationalization that movies encouraged imagination and taught life lessons.

            “But so do books,” Emily would say.

            “And so do movies. Neither one has to be better than the other. It’s all about quality. I am not going to let him watch a bunch of garbage.”

            And on and on. She saw no end in sight.

            The Lion King was his favorite movie. In fact, the only one he ever wanted to watch. So much so, the VHS tape was beginning to wear out and degrade. It was time to get the DVD. Christmas wasn’t far away.

            “Please, mommy?”

            And per usual, she gave in. Because she didn’t want to be the bad guy…again.

She looked around for the tape, before realizing it was already in the player. Of course, it was in there! She hit play. It was somewhere in the middle of the movie.

“Do you want to watch it from here? Or, should I rewind it?”

“Here’s okay.”

            She remembered the first time he watched it. He was so traumatized. And she couldn’t blame him. It was similar to when she watched Dumbo and Bambi as a kid.

What was Disney’s problem?

            While watching it with him for the first time, it dawned on her that Jimmy never had to deal with death in any concrete way and she wondered how far he would get through life before he had to.

Mufasa’s death was the first death he encountered. And of course, there were questions.

            “Why happens when you die?”

“It’s like going to sleep forever.”

“That sounds boring.”

“It’s peaceful.”

“But what about heaven.”

Right. Heaven.

“Yes. You get to rest in heaven.”

She wished it didn’t feel like lying.

“That’s it? That sounds boring.”

 “And you get to be with all your friends and family.”

“Will they be dead, too?”

“Yes.”
“Are you and daddy going to die?”

“Everyone dies.”

“But I mean when I’m little.”

“No.”

“Promise?”

She wished she could.

“Nobody can promise such a thing. But what we can promise is that it’s the last thing mommy and daddy would ever want to happen.”

That seemed to satisfy him.

The last several times he watched it, he fast forwarded the scene when Mufasa died. He realized awhile back that he didn’t have to subject that to himself. He could simply skip it.

If only we could do that in real life.

Then again, how much of our life would we skip past if we could?

Too much.

Even though Jimmy knew Mufasa was dead, he didn’t like to see it happen. Plus, he could get to the funny parts with Timon and Pumbaa sooner!

But today, he didn’t forward through it.

Guess he was ready to handle it now.

            As he watched, she used the time to gather laundry. Though she tried to limit it, TV time was usually the only time she could be productive…or, in some cases, take a nap. He demanded so much attention and without a sibling, she really couldn’t blame him. If he wasn’t watching a TV during her nap, chances are, he was going to wake her up. Either by asking for something, or just making a general racket while playing.  TV was the one way to keep him still and distracted. Of course, James blamed her for not putting her foot down. He had a point. But it drove her nuts how he always seemed to have a simple solution for things he never even had to deal with.

Of course, she would have preferred that Jimmy slept in, but was too tired to put up a battle.

            As she folder the laundry, she was reminded that it was this exact domestic chore that yielded her first piece of evidence: a torn-off corner of a condom wrapper. As though she needed one more reason to hate laundry.

            Before she could finish, it was time to take Jimmy to school. In fact, she was so lost in thought, they were almost late.

            En route to school, Emily passed a school bus filled with laughing children.

            “Mommy, why don’t I ever get to take the bus?”

            “Because some kids don’t have a mommy or daddy who can take them to school. Many mommies work. But since daddy makes good money, mommy can spend more time with you.”

            In truth, she was lately itching to make a change in her life. As much as she loved being there with Jimmy, now that he was in school, she was thinking that maybe it was time to get back out there in the “real” world. Even if only a part-time job at an art gallery. She even considered being a barista just for the experience. But James was adamant that she stay home, under the illusion that she preferred it this way. For the longest time, she did. But between Jimmy starting school…and the incident…she felt like it was time for a change.

            “But the bus looks fun,” Jimmy continued to plead his case.

            “But if you took the bus, you would have to leave earlier and it would take a lot longer to get to school.”

            “But then I’d be with friends.”

“And if you took the bus, who would take you out for donuts or ice cream after school sometimes? Or, take you to the bookstore?”

            “Well, you still could still take me when I got home.”

 “You got me there!” she laughed, as they pulled into the school.   

This kid is going to be a lawyer.

“And maybe one day, we could work it out so you can take the bus. Sound good?”

“Sounds good. I still prefer you driving me. Especially when you take me for ice cream. Can we go today?”

HE ASKS WHEN SHE PICKS HIM UP

“I don’t see why not.

She gave him a hug.

“Have a good day! I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He got out of the van. Halfway to the entrance, he turned around and blew his mother a kiss.

Like father, like son.

Emily blew him one back.

Though he was only in kindergarten, she couldn’t help but think about the fact that one day, he would outgrow this gesture. This made her turn suddenly sad.

As she watched Jimmy turn around and head into school, she began to tear up, then regained her composure.

Where was this even coming from?

She reminded himself that he just started kindergarten (which in itself was a Pandora’s Box of emotion that she was still getting over). Yet, she knew nothing that it wouldn’t last forever. She was always like this. Rather than enjoying the moment, she would fixate on the inevitably that nothing lasts forever, whether a vacation, a special occasion, or – in this case – childhood. She knew that it made it so much harder to enjoy the moment. And as much as she tried to stop it, the more she seemed to dwell on it. She didn’t know what it was about this morning in particular, but she felt a permeating sadness engulfing her. She realized most of this feeling was the result of not just James leaving, not just that they were missing their anniversary, but everything surrounding the incident.

The current lack of stability in her life.

She had to keep reminding herself that she had full control over the situation.

It was up to her to stay…or, to go.

Two options. And the ball was totally in her court, which is what she found most terrifying. 

She was the one who was contemplating divorce. The ball was totally in her court, which is exactly what terrified her. The more she thought about it, it seemed like the more she was getting away from making a decision.

Something would have to give. Or else, she would be in a holding pattern forever.  It already felt that way.

            Emily headed home, determined to take a nap before picking Jimmy up at noon. Once inside, she realized she no longer felt tired and decided to finish folding the laundry as Good Morning America played in the background.

Suddenly, something caught her eye: a huge, flaming hole in one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Wait…

…James had a meeting scheduled in that very building.

She looked at the time: 8:48. His plane would have landed an hour ago, but would he have already made it across town?

Unlikely.

She picked up the cordless phone and quickly dialed James. It went straight to voicemail.

 “James, please call me. I just saw the news on TV. God, I’m so worried.”

            She hung up the phone and paced back and forth, before she dialed him again. Voicemail.

“Why isn’t your phone on?” she said with a fusion of annoyance, panic, and suspicion. She would have gladly discovered that he was safely in bed with another woman, rather than in that building.

 “Call me. Please.”

She hung up. Seconds later, the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number. Normally, she would ignore unknown calls, but this time, she wasn’t leaving anything to chance. 

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Cindy calling from DTE. I wanted to let you—”

She hung up and dialed James again. No luck. She hung up and gave his office a try.  

“Freedom Marketing please hold,” said the receptionist. Ingratiating hold music played.

            “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Emily said as she waited.

Finally, the receptionist picked back up.

“Thank you for holding. How can I—”

“Susan, it’s Emily Smith. Did you see the news?”

“Yes, we just heard. Have you—”

“…heard from James? No. I was hoping that maybe you have.”

“We’ve been trying to contact him,” the receptionist said.

“Do you know what time his meeting was?” Emily asked.

“8:30.”

“Do you know which tower he’s in?”

“The South,” the receptionist said.

“Which tower was hit?”
“The North.”

“Thank God,” Emily said overcome with potential fool’s gold relief, before adding: “But you haven’t heard from him?”

“No,” the receptionist said. “If you do get a hold of him will you please call us?”

“Please do the same,” Emily begged.

“Well, if anybody will find a way out of this, it’s James,” the receptionist said. “Please let us know if you hear from him. And we’ll do the same.”

They hung up.

If there’s anybody that would wait until everyone else got out first, it’s James.

Emily stared at the phone, as though willing it to ring. After a few moments, she redialed James’s number.

Voicemail again.

She ran her hands through her hair, watching the nightmare unfold on T.V., struggling to fathom the fact that this was reality and not a disaster movie.

The phone rang. She answered it without even looking at who was calling.

“Hello?”

“Anything good on T.V.?”

“You’re alive!” she blurted out, irritated by his cavalier nature.

“I’m alive.”

Emily was too stunned to speak.

“Emily?” James said after a beat.

“I thought you were dead.”

“I’m okay, baby. I’m okay.”

“Why wasn’t your phone on?”

“It was. The phone lines must be jammed. But I’m fine. And today’s still our anniversary.”

Why is he so calm?

“Where are you?”

Again, she couldn’t help but feel suspicious about his whereabouts. She hated this feeling.    

“At the office. I can see the flames across from my window. And the smell—”

“Why aren’t you leaving?” Emily asked, more as a demand than a question. She realized she believed him. He had had proven to be sneaky, but there was no way in hell he would go to this length.

“They asked us to stay put.”

“I want you out of there.”

“Everything’s under control,” James assured her.

“How do you know? Do you even know what’s going on?”

“No one’s panicking.”

“Everyone’s probably in shock. Please, leave.”

“I told you, we got orders—”

“Well, I’m your wife and I’m ordering you to leave.”

            “Okay, okay, I’ll leave,” James finally said, irritated.

“Promise me.”

“I’m grabbing my briefcase as I speak. I’ll call you when I get back to the hotel.”

“You call me as soon as you step outside.”

“Okay, okay.”

“I love–”

But he hung up before she could finish.

“–you.” She realized that was the first time she said it since the incident. In fact, she couldn’t remember exactly when. She thought about calling him back, but didn’t want to delay him getting the hell out of there.

All she could now was wait. She took a speck of comfort in the fact that she at least heard from him. But until she heard back, she could only rely on the news. But just as she turned around to look, the second plane hit the South Tower.

This wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

She screamed – shrieked – in absolute, pure terror, dropping the phone onto the hardwood floor. She couldn’t remove her eyes from the TV, suspended in the horror of the moment until she was able to stoop down to pick up her phone to dial James. It was useless to even try.

She slumped onto the couch and stared at the TV, rocking back and forth in stunned disbelief, repeating over and over again:

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

The phone rang.

Dear God, please be James.

But it wasn’t. It was her mother, calling from Florida. Emily picked it up, but found herself unable to speak.

 “Hello?” Rose said on the other end.

 “Mom, James, I, I can’t—” Emily struggled to articulate her thoughts.

“Emily? Are you okay? Do you have the news on? All those people—”

“When I hung up, the second plane! – oh my God! – the second plane!”

“It’s just awful,” Rose said in response, with no clue what her daughter was getting at.

Emily finally managed to form a full sentence.  

“James is – was –  in the Trade Center.”

After a slight pause, Rose responded:

“Oh, dear.”

“What do I do? What do I do?” Emily kept repeating, on the border of hysteria.

“Have you heard from him?” she asked.       

“Yes, and he was fine, but then I hung up and the second plane, oh God, the second plane!”

“What floor was he on?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”

            Emily hung up before Rose could even reply and dialed James’s phone once again. It actually rang this time. And then voicemail. She went ahead and left him a message, as though in doing so, it would somehow force fate to keep him alive in order for him to receive it. But deep down, she knew better.

            “Hi, James. It’s me,” she said, trying to hold back tears to no avail. “I really hope you get this—” she was disconnected before she could finish her sentence.

She called back James’s office.

“Freedom Marketing –”

“This is Emily Smith again. What floor was James working on?”

“The 80th,” the receptionist said, with panic in her voice; the sound of chaos all around her.

“Above or below the crash site?”
            “We’re still looking into it,” the receptionist said. “You still haven’t heard from him?”

Emily hung up and raced to her computer, regretting that they never updated their modem – one of many things put on hold in recent months.

She frantically searched for information relaying the impact zone of the South Tower. There was a lot of contradictory info, but it seemed most likely that the point of impact was around the 78th floor

This information left her swirling in a whirlpool of hope, panic, and confusion. On one hand, she knew he wasn’t directly hit. But by the same token, he could be trapped.

The phone rang again. It was her mother again.

            “Have you heard from him?” Rose asked.

“No. But he was above the crash site.”

“Then he must be on his way down.”

“What if he’s trapped? Why isn’t he calling me?”

“I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets out.”

“Why can’t I reach him?”

“Maybe the signal’s jammed.”

“Why is this happening?”

            “I don’t know, sweetheart. I’m not even sure God knows.”

            Her mother knew her daughter’s stance on religion: she was a borderline atheist. But even Emily was taken aback by her statement. Ordinarily, she expected to hear something along the lines of “put your trust in God”, or “God will help you through this.”

            Her more pessimistic tone certainly took her by surprise.  

“Is there somebody that can come over?” her mom asked. “You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

            “Not really. And honestly, not sure if I would want anybody here right now.”

            “You know I would hop on the first plane I could, but who knows when anybody will be able to fly again.”

            “I know you would, Mom.”

            “But what about Jimmy?””

            “He’s at school.”

            “But I mean, picking him up. And taking care of him. Nobody would blame you if you asked for some help.”

            “I know. What do I even tell him?

     “The truth.”

            “That daddy’s dead.”

            “That his daddy is missing.”

            “Then you’ll have to tell him the truth.”

            “That his daddy’s dead?”

“That his daddy’s missing.”

“He’s gone, mom. I just know it. I feel it.”

     “You can’t be 100% sure about that…that the worst outcome has happened.”

Both James and her mother were co-chairs of an unspoken Optimist Club. And it drove her nuts, if only because she usually felt double-teamed.  

But this wasn’t the time for optimism.

 It wasn’t that Emily was a flat-out pessimist. She considered herself to be moderately positive, just as she was moderately, well, agnostic (though, she certainly leaned more toward full-blown atheism following the incident.

            “Now is not the time to lose hope,” Rose reminded her, returning to her familiar optimism.

            “I’ll call you later, Mom. This isn’t helping.”

            “You know I’m here for you,” Rose added.

            “I know mom,” Emily said, hanging up and turning her attention back to the TV, greeted by an image of the smoldering Pentagon  

            The phone rang. It was James.

“Oh my God, I thought I lost you. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. And I’m out.”

She had never felt a greater sense of relief in her life. They still had one another and from here on out, that was all that was going to matter.

They would get a clean start. All it took was the near murder of her husband.

“Thank God! Where are you now?”

“I just walked out the lobby. There’s debris and bodies everywhere – oh my God, a body just landed 10 feet from me! This is unbelievable. This is insane. But I’m okay, baby. I’m okay. I love—” 

Suddenly, a deafening roar drowned out James’s voice.

Drowned out everything.        

“James?” Emily panicked.

She turned around to look at the TV, just as one of the towers of the World Trade Center come crumbling down. As she watched it in seemingly slow motion, she never felt more helpless in her life.

She could come to only one conclusion.

James was gone.  

It was more than simply being a witness to the destruction that made her think this. She felt a cord – the lifeline connecting her heart to his – snap and break into two.  

            And all she could feel inside was…

            Emptiness.

One More Episode

“One more episode.”

An almost nightly re-run.

 How many late nights were made even later after succumbing to just one more episode? Followed by another. And another

Binging shows together was their “thing” from the start. Their first date was a movie night. He held her hand for the first time. But made no other moves, even though she was hoping he would. When he left, she was worried that he wasn’t interested after all. She would later admit this. And he would admit how much he wanted to do more than hold her hand, but he promised himself that he would be a gentleman. And that made her like him even more.

Watching TV together was not their only thing, but certainly the one they enjoyed the most – if only for its low key, simplicity. They equally discovering new shows together, re-watching shared favorites, or introducing individual favorites.

 Combined, they had access to all the streaming services, even sharing the same password across them all.

Then came along a global pandemic, which took their binging to a whole new level, especially during the first couple of months. They could not only get through more shows faster…but carve in time for new ones.

 The apex of their pandemic binging was by far The Sopranos – a show that they had both wanted to watch ever since it first came out, but somehow never found the time for until now.

No more excuses.

They chugged along at a steady pace, sometimes switching to another show, or two, for some variety, including that train wreck that was Tiger King.

As the seasons progressed, the unthinkable happened: their relationship began to slowly erode. Before it quickly crumbled. At first, they failed to even notice. But eventually, once the denial wore off, it became painfully obvious that they were heading down a one-way street to a dead end. And once it go to that point, it seemed that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t know how.

In the weeks and even months to come, the one constant source of stability and unification in their dying relationship was The Sopranos, which played against the backdrop and upheaval of their real-life drama.  

They both admitted it was now their favorite show of all time, eclipsing Mad Men and Twin Peaks.

And despite the fact their love was crumbling all around them, their usual refrain remained untarnished:

“One more episode.”

 Before they would go off to their own separate beds

It seemed like the only thing keeping their relationship alive – or, at least on life support – was the show itself. Perhaps deep down, they knew that once the series was over…so would they. It was almost as though they knew they couldn’t possibly break up until they finished the series. And what about the unfinished audiobooks and podcasts that they had started, but never finished? They couldn’t rest their entire relationship on the backbone of mass media, could they?

They continued to stretched it out as long as possible, continuing to mix in other shows, or an occasional movie. 

Dreading not just ending a show that they loved so much, but the inevitable real-life ending.    

Not a fade to black.

But an abrupt hard cut of a relationship they thought was foolproof.

The first relationship either one of them felt that way about.

But it was over now.

And all that was left in its wake was one more episode.       

How could they not have finished the last episode of a show they loved so much? Together. After nearly six full seasons. And three years of happiness together.

Despite all the uncertainty leading up to the sad ending, they never questioned their ability to at least finish what they started.   

How was it possible that they were over, anyway? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Their meet-cute romantic comedy was never supposed to end. With all the uncertainty in their lives and the world at large, that was supposed to be the one thing they could count on. They had promised one another that.

They were supposed to be cancel proof.

But sometimes, the network executives, the universe, fate, God, whatever you choose to believe has other plans.

Neither one felt right about watching the last episode without the other. So, neither did, clinging to the irrational hope that they would somehow find their way back to each other. That they would one day soon laugh at this accidental hiatus, which would only make their love stronger.

But days soon turned into weeks and weeks turned into months.

And yet, they both clung to the hope that someday, the would be back together again.

And could finally finish what they started.

Because it wasn’t supposed to be end like this.

Or, so they said. And thought. And believed.

A sad, unsatisfying series finale.

Ending both a show and a relationship the right way is one of the hardest things to pull off.

Other relationships would come and go. After all, what is life but one ending after another?

They would continue to hold on to that one last episode until their dying day, thinking about it from time to time, but never finding closure.

If only to ensure that at least something didn’t have to come to an end.

That some things could last forever.

Even if incomplete.

And without resolution.

Take Me with You

“Take me with you.”

These were the words he woke up to,

on a note left on his nightstand.

Though asleep when she left it,

he clearly pictured her,

first standing in the doorway,

hoping he was awake,

before retreating into the bed that used to be theirs.

How many nights did he know she stood there,

but feigned being asleep?

Seeking reconciliation and comfort,

in attempts at salvaging their

shared promise of forever.

A promise now buried

after being on life support for far too long.

All he had to do was invite her in.

And maybe they could fix what was once

so beautiful and pure.

Maybe, it could have been different.

Would have been different.

One last ditch effort in

the waning days of sharing the apartment

where they once cried with joy

when they finally had a place to call their own.

Though it was still theirs for a little while longer,

they were simply going through the motions,

as he awaited his new lease

set to begin the following month.

Before her new roommate would move in.

Though they never officially broke up,

what else could this be?

They were blinded by the denial,

that clouded the obvious steps

they had taken to ensure a slow, prolonged death.

“Take me with you.”

Day trips and weekend getaways

had been their thing from the start.

But today, he needed a solo pilgrimage

to get away and clear his head.

A fall getaway and return

to their favorite beach town.

Their first trip to northern Michigan.

It would always be “their” town;

their shared paradise.

But now, it would have to be shared separately.

How was this possible?

“Take me with you.”

How could he say no?

One last trip.

An eulogy for an unexpected break-up.

That neither saw coming.

Yet, did nothing to stop it when they could.

It was time for one last happy memory,

following a deluge of unhappy ones.

A memory that could exist

non-canonically outside the context  

of their sad timeline.

A bittersweet coda,

with no turning back.

Even if they wanted to.  

Rain was in the forecast.

A high of 43.

In total contrast to the bright summer day

when they first came.

But they would make the most of it.

Just like they used to do.

When being together was

more important than where they were,

or, where they were going.

As they drove,

they listened to their “infinite playlist”,

which had been finite for quite awhile now.

The last song was added over two months ago.

just before their long fall.

Neither one would listen to it again after this trip,

but neither one would delete it, either.

“Take me with you.”

When they arrived,

they headed straight to the empty beach,

stars of their own black and white art film

like the kind they used to watch together.

Not another soul in sight,

as though the world

was giving them space to mourn.

Against the backdrop of a beach enveloped

in a foreboding fog,

mixed with a misty drizzle,

and a whirling, whipping wind.

Even the red lighthouse

jutting out in the distance

was bleached out

like a ghostly figure shrouded in fog,

as violent waves splashed against it.

Though neither did anything about it,

they both secretly longed to hold one another,

as both shelter from the cold,

and a last chance to salvage themselves,

before they faded forever into the mist.

“Take me with you.”

But sometimes, it’s too late,

even when you don’t want it to be.

What they did take with them

was one last memory.

A memory as sweet and beautiful as their first.

Steeped in melancholy and sadness.

A memory they would always carry in their pocket.

“Take me with you.”

He moved out as planned.

And over time, they both moved on

from one another.

Though, we can never fully move on from

these sort of things.

“Take me with you.”

He held on to that note for the rest of his days.

A final, sad promise.

But not in the way

they had promised once upon a time.

As these things so often go.

Observations from the Tangent Gallery

Observations from the Tangent Gallery

i.

She barely looked old enough to be out so late.

Let alone with someone his age,

Though he couldn’t be more than 25,

It spoke volumes about just how young she looked.

Perhaps she was older. I hope.

With her drugged-out, spacy, quasi-vegetative state,

a puppet in a Barbie doll skirt,

following her master like a puppy dog,

without a consciousness to call her own.

He spoke nary a word to her,

nor did she speak to him.

How could she in that state?

His only interaction with her

consisted of tossing his jacket over her head.

A human coat rack.

He then turned his back from her

and toward his bros,

and she barely blinked,

promptly removing the jacket, placing it over her chair.

She then fixed her messed up hair,

caused by the jackass’s jacket.

He with the backwards douchebag hat,

Shooting the shit with his douchebag bros.

As though she did not exist.

Beyond an existence for her convenience only.

Eye candy

and presumable sexual gratification,

A likely two-pump chump.

If even that.

Perhaps this was some sort of sub/dom fetish thing?

Would that really make much of a difference?

Perhaps, if it made her a more willing participant.

As the minute dragged on,

she continued staring into the void,

as the douchebag continued giving

her more reason to disappear into it.

And then he got up,

motioning for her to do the same,

as he was the one who called the shots.

She handed him his jacket.

He snatched it from her with grave indifference.

He was the one who called the shots.

He headed toward the exit.

The puppy puppet followed.

I couldn’t help but feel the need to save her.

Could I save her?

Did she need to be saved?

Wouldn’t it have been worth a try?

Like so many other things left undone.

ii.

On the other side of humanity’s coin,

entered a girl in a wheelchair,

pushed by a caretaker.

Sister, friend, or lover?

Not clear. And perhaps not relevant.

She had two artificial limbs,

capped off with some bad ass classic Doc Martens.

Her friend wore a matching pair.

Her friend, who was so attentive, navigating her wheelchair

through the pebble-coated ground.

Adjusting the chair for the best possible sightlines.

Engaging her in conversation,

even if it meant having to stoop down on her level.

A reminder that love lives among us.

As hard as it is to find.

And of course, the old adage…

where there is love,

there is always hope.

Audio Spotlight

“Just think…if this goes well…we’ll die like this,” he said, as they lay entangled in the afterglow of amazing sex.

She laughed, knowing exactly what he meant.

“Remember this moment after you leave me.”

“Who says I’m going to leave you?”

“My collective past.”

“Well, I am not part of your past.”

“Someday, you will be. And somewhere down the road, you will find yourself at a Kohl’s or JC Penney just before closing, and you’ll find yourself unknowingly standing underneath a speaker and our song will come on. And you’ll freeze beneath an audio spotlight.”

“An audio spotlight?”

She elaborated:

“Someday, after we are no more, you will be shopping at Kohl’s on a Friday night just before closing – and quite possibly the highlight of your weekend – and unbeknownst to you, you will be standing directly beneath a ceiling speaker, as you are looking at comforters or Yankee Candles, and our song will hit you. Under an audio spotlight.”

He knew exactly what she was talking about and assured her that he would never have such a moment with her – at least not of the heartbreak variety, of which she elaborated was its most common form.

“It doesn’t have to necessarily be at a store,” she continued. “It could be in a restaurant restroom, coffee shop, or doctor’s office. Maybe while sitting in the dentist chair. Or, late at night at Big Boy.”

The memories invoked by an audio spotlight could be happy, sad, or somewhere in the bittersweet melancholy of in-between the two. The most powerful moments, of which were usually defined by loss – if only the natural passing of time, when the past is awash with rose-tinted, nostalgic perfection, which is why even the happiest moments were often tinged with sadness for a period of your life that no longer existed. Though memories could also be sparked by olfactory and oral senses, nothing hit quite like an audio spotlight.  

No matter where it occurs, one thing is certain: transported to a nostalgic journey back to a memory attached to a song. Though most often tied to a relationship, it could be from any part of your past – or example, but not limited to: a family vacation, a childhood memory, a bonfire, etc. Though you don’t always have to be directly beneath a ceiling speaker for it to work, it is more often than not a final, necessary ingredient for it to reach maximum impact. And the moment it hits you, you freeze in place, as you become fully enraptured and blanketed by the music coming out of the speaker like a spotlight.

Transported back in time.

Acoustic time-traveling.

When the source feeling was new and immediate.

A feeling akin to being high on weed, or shrooms.

“And in that moment under an audio spotlight, despite how badly it will presumably have ended, you will be stripped of all the negativity and will instead only feel the loss of what once was beautiful and perfect. And in that moment, you will achieve the perfect monument to a love that once was.

No what couldn’t be.

But was now no more.

Preserved only in this moment.

When everything was possible.”

In this present moment, they were still in the GPS phase of their relationship – not just in terms of trying to figure out how to navigate one another, but in terms of still needing GPS to get to one another’s apartment (due to his awful sense of direction, he realized it would probably take longer than usual to memorize the route by heart (though, he probably could get there by heart if he tried…but mentally, he wasn’t willing to allow his mind to make that sort of commitment).

Most relationships rarely get past the GPS phase – a modern-day milestone, much like not only programming somebody’s number into your phone, but eventually changing it to an endearing nickname like “Love Monkey”, or some other such moniker.

 Until recently, his inbox was filled with dozens of texts of unprogrammed numbers with different area codes from Bumble and Tinder matches from across the land that never evolved beyond the texting phase. There are so many “how are yous?” one can exchange with someone without going deeper beneath the surface?

Then there were the occasional exchanged pics, which provided a valid reason to lock his phone for the first time to keep out of the hands of his children. He was finally at the point where he could feel safe about unlocking it again. Keeping his phone locked always made him feel sneaky. He didn’t like it.

Getting out of the GPS phase certainly made things feel more…official. Some relationships would get right on the cusp of being GPS-free, but most never came close. Even first date that went well often went nowhere.

Shooting stars.

Of course, some dates were complete dumpster fires from the start and he couldn’t get done fast enough. There were so many, they all sort of just blurred together into a cacophony of nightmare fuel.

The endgame, of course, was getting to the point where our phone was convinced that your place of residence was actually the address of your special someone. Currently, his GPS didn’t even recognize his own bohemian apartment that he moved to after his separation as his residence. It was convinced he lived at the liquor shop kitty corner from it. If that didn’t say it all…

Looking back at his first date with Jackie just over a month ago, he remembered not having a real indication of which way things would go. But he was okay with this. He preferred when both parties went into it with a layer of casual ambivalence. A no-pressure date where it was clear from get go that neither party was looking for anything serious, but also open to anything. Most often translated as “down to fuck.”  Perfect for a newly single father of two who could count on less than one hand how many partners he had been with in his lifetime.

The problem going into single life was that he was a hopeless romantic who fell in love too easily – or, at least convinced himself that he was in love. It took months of therapy to finally built a defense shield around himself that (he thought) was impenetrable. He sealed himself off, which was progress for someone who was always a little too open and vulnerable. If someone were able to somehow penetrate him (for lack of a better description), then (for another lack of better description) it would be like Cinderella’s slipper.

And only then would he know.

And then it hit him like an audio spotlight.

Cut to one month later. They were out of the GPS phase. And for somebody with no sense of direction like himself, he took at it as a sign how quickly he memorized her route.

It only took a couple of weeks to realize that it was clear that they had something.

(Who was he kidding – more like after the first date).

So much for the defense shield. But maybe…the defense shield actually worked.

Maybe she was truly the one?

Both had been heartbroken too many times to have full confidence in what they were feeling, as much as they wanted to believe it. They were both especially convinced that it was only a matter of time before the other grew sick and annoyed with the other. And though they both reminded one another that the past was the past, they still couldn’t help but feel the past was very much alive in the present, no matter how much therapy they both had. They both had to learn how to trust not only one another, but themselves. And though they had both made progress, there was still a long way to go.

As much as he tried to re-assure her that they would never have to worry about having such a moment in the context of an ending, he also knew that deep down, she was probably right, just based on the odds alone (as much as they both hoped that it wouldn’t be the case). But for now, things were going great, so it was possible they were both wrong.

“That won’t be me. That won’t be us.”

 But as it turned out – as it always, most likely turns out – it did become them.

A beautiful thing – a seemingly invincible, beautiful thing – would die.

Such a delicate flower love is turns out to be more often than not.

But as they acknowledged, the spirit of love doesn’t die. It lives on. In the memories you take with you. And then someday, it will find a new host. And the cycle begins again. A cycle that rarely has a happy ending. But arriving with the naive hope that one will come.

And maybe this time, you will get it right.

You vow to get it right.

Until some day, you find yourself alone in a Kohl’s.

Just before closing.

Looking at comforters, or shopping for a Mother’s Day or birthday gift.

Under a ceiling speaker.

And it doesn’t matter how many years have passed.

Or, how many relationships have come and gone.

You will find yourself sucked into the undertow an audio spotlight.

And it would be in this moment that you finally fully realize that it is over. And how much you lost.  

And how much you had gained before your lost.

That you were in denial that the relationship was not over, but rather on pause, or hiatus.

And even though you already knew this, there was still part of you that refused to accept it.

You were in denial that something so beautiful and pure could turn to rot and crumble apart.

That the future that you thought was set in stone has evaporated. And that there is no going back. There is no fixing things. Maybe once upon a time, there was. But you let that moment pass, as you helplessly watched it sail past you, thinking that every ship eventually returns to port.

Until you find yourself under an audio spotlight.

And even though you have gone down this road time and time again, you are likely to go back down that road time and time again.

Even when you thought your convinced yourself that you were done searching.

That you could be happy single for the rest of your days, until the next person comes along that penetrates your defense shield. Because this time, it would be different, even when you know deep down that it will probably never be.

And it would be in this moment, you accept that it is truly over. And that the hope you were clinging on to is set free like balloons accidentally released, when all you can do is watch them disappear forever into a blue sky-turned gray.

And now you know with a certainty hitting you like a brick wall that person you built your word around was no longer yours. Just as you were no longer hers.

How is this possible?

How could everything that once felt so perfect and beautiful, and secure rot at its very core?

How do we allow to happen?

Over and over again?

How can something feel so in our control, yet feel so out of control at the same time?

These were the moments tailor made for audio spotlights.

Time portals that take us back to when everything was great.

And everything was perfect.

And all that is left is hope and potential to once again find somebody someday that will inevitably once again catch you off guard at a Kohl’s just before closing.

Under an audio spotlight.

Shut the Light Off

“Shut the light off.”

“No.”

A fair enough request.

(Or, so she thought).

And a totally unreasonable response.

(Or, so she thought).

At first, she thought he was joking. He had already proven to have an uncanny sense of humor, so she just went along with it.

But in this instance, he was deadly serious.

And with Billy, here she was actually thinking that she finally met someone who didn’t arrive immediately waving, or even handing out, red flags. But as she knew all too well, some guys held their flags close to the vest. It didn’t matter how nice they came across initially. Some took a few dates to reveal their truth, but it was always only a matter of time. At least the ones who reveal their true selves right away didn’t waste as much of her time. The endless stream of disappointment that had been her dating life was just so…exhausting. She had grown tired of it. But she had a feeling that Billy would be…different.

She couldn’t help but wonder: what red flags did she sound off? Surely, she had some of her own. She was by no means perfect. She was the first to admit that.

It was just about finding someone who could not only tolerate your limitations, but barely even noticed them…if at all.

 She wasn’t naïve to think that Billy was perfect. Nobody was. But she certainly didn’t expect…this.

They had met a few weeks ago on a dating site. Unlike so many guys, he didn’t come on too strong. In fact, it seemed there was no hint of flirtation at all in their initial Bumble conversation.  He seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. And she felt the same way about him.

Aside from the general lack of flirtation, there was also the absence of the superficial “getting to know you” stuff. She didn’t think it was even possible to meet someone in the modern age of dating that lacked the robotic feeling of a job interview. With Billy, they both  started with the very core of one another’s essence and allowed the superficial stuff to reveal itself organically, rather than a stilted, forced way.

They had prolonged, (sometimes, but not always) deep, stream-of-consciousness tangential conversations that seemed to flow with seamless transition from topic-to-topic. This more than made up for the lack of flirting, too. In fact, the way she saw it, their deep conversations were flirting. And she was excited to see how it would transpire in the real world.

As it turned out, very well.

Despite the lack of traditional flirting, there was no question that she was attracted to him. And she assumed the feeling was mutual.

After nearly two weeks of intense texting – the kind that makes your fingers and wrists sore – she was surprised that he hadn’t actually asked to take her out yet. But she would remain patient.

And sure enough, he finally came around to ask her to meet for coffee.

Most guys asked for a drink.

A short analysis:

Did he not drink? Or, was he just attempting to be a gentleman (of which he had already proven to be so).

She tried not to overthink it. At the end of the day, she was certain he would turn out to be a creep and/or jerk like all the others. In fact, she was so tired of it, she nearly deleted her dating apps entirely, on the heels of so many first (i.e. last) dates and bad experiences. But like every gambler, she couldn’t help but think that just maybe, next time, she would get lucky and hit the jackpot.

And then came along Billy.

In fact, she felt so confident, she decided to respond to his invite for coffee with a request of her own:

“How about a drink?”

“Even better!’

She had no idea where a sudden burst of assertion came from. All she knew was, she liked it!

Before they knew it, they made dinner plans.   

The date went well, ending with a sweet kiss on the side of her mouth and the promise of a second date.

A half hour later, she invited him back over. She had never done something like that before. They were both already dressed in bed and agreed to keep it that way.

They made out on the couch for awhile, before she invited him back to the bedroom and everything was sunshine and roses.

And then came his refusal to her simple, reasonable request.

“Shut the light off.”

“No.”

Once she realized he wasn’t joking, she added:

“Please?”

He still refused, despite climbing into her bed.

She still wasn’t fully convinced he was serious, but it was becoming more and more apparent. She began to regret inviting him back and was trying to think of the best way to politely let him know that she just wanted to go to sleep.

Though she knew he was the one in the wrong, was she really going to let such a simple matter get in the way of what had otherwise been a spectacular evening? An evening that up until now had been glorious two dates in one night?

She would give him one last chance, hopeful that he was pulling her leg, but she was really beginning to lose faith.

 “Why not?” she finally asked, forcing the issue.

“I like to see everything.”

Oh, here we go.

“But I’m really self-conscious. Plus, I have a night-light.”

At least she was asserting herself. A lifelong struggle.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But the light stays on.”

She was seriously getting creeped out.

What kind of guy would risk not having sex over a stubborn refusal to keep a fucking light on?

This guy apparently.

She thought about asking him to explain his intentions. But she was really beginning to question his stability and didn’t want to make a bad situation potentially worse.

And then he had the audacity to attempt to kiss her. She turned away.

“Seriously, because of a stupid light?” he asked, offended.

“I should be asking you the same question.”

“You are so beautiful. And I want to be able to see you.”

What a dick.

For one thing, this was her room. Her rules.

Lights out, put out.

No lights out, no put out.

He continued trying to remind her that she had nothing to worry about. That she was “so beautiful and deserved to be “both seen by the light and bathed by the light.”

 Was this guy for real?!

This is the exact same sort of bullshit men say when they are trying to get what they want. Only, she was already willing and ready to let him have it.  

Was.

So, what gives?

 At this point, it no longer mattered. Light on, or light off, it was too late.

 “I think you need to go,” she finally demanded.

 “Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come across in a negative way.”

Should she give him a second chance? After all, he really did seem like a great guy. Was she really going to throw it all way over something as trivial…as a light?

She realized it was a question that she should be asking him.

Deep down, she knew she could never recover from this. It felt oddly like a variation on assault.

Maybe she would be willing to give him another shot.

Just not tonight.

 Maybe it was time to give up on dating altogether.

She was tired of all the disappointment.

She was tired of all the too-good-to-be-trues.

At first, she thought he was going to refuse to leave. But then he finally got out of bed, waving the white flag in the form of a woe-is-me pout.

“I had a really wonderful time,” he said with no trace of irony or cynicism.

“Me, too…until, well to be honest, this whole light thing is really weird.”

“Do you want to know the truth?”

Oh boy.

“Of course.”

She braced herself for what she assumed was going to be a bullshit answer.

And the answer she got threw her through a major loop.

“I wouldn’t normally admit to this. At least, not this early on. But I like you. A lot. And, well…”

 She waited on pins and needles.

“I’m afraid of the dark.”

She froze, unable to begin to even process this.

“Are you serious?”

“I am.”

She wasn’t sure what was worse: if he was telling the truth. Or, if he was lying.

He looked so pathetic and vulnerable that she couldn’t fathom it being anything other than the truth. So much so, that she considered inviting him to stay.

And who was she to judge, anyway?

Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, underneath our shiny veneer. She was certainly no exception.

Yet, the damage had been done. For that night at least.

He knew it. And she knew it.

“Guess I’ll get going,” he finally conceded. “Again, I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.”

“But I have a night-light,” was all she could muster to say.

 And then he headed out the door with his tail between his legs.

 She instantly regretted that she didn’t let him stay. If only to talk. Or, maybe watch a movie. He really didn’t do anything wrong, especially after his explanation.

Again, she could always give him a second chance.

Another date.

But there wouldn’t be.

There rarely ever was.

Mask Me for a Date

They met on Bumble.

After a brief stumble through the no man’s land of Tinder douches and bots.

It was time for a change.

Neither one had come close to finding a date on Tinder

Not even close.

But they both had a similar overall excuse: a global pandemic.

And a handful of specific individual excuses.

Then there was the quality of content out there. Neither one was impressed.

It was time to seek greener pastures. 

Though they were both masked up in their profile pics, it was clear that they were both attractive from the top half of their respective faces. It was a natural assumption that the other half would follow.

Though both would deny that there was any sort of political message in their masked pics…there was certainly one subliminally Like silently waving a flag, without getting too far out of hand. Of course, it was an assumption on both of their parts.

In truth, they had a much more obvious motivation for wearing their mask. But neither one could have possibly guessed it.

When they matched, they hit it off right away. And though initially hitting it off on a dating app wasn’t that uncommon, he rarely had the courage to actually initiate contact, which is why he liked Bumble. He later came to realize that the issue wasn’t so much him – he just wasn’t meting anyone worth opening up to. And she rarely messaged anyone herself, even after matching. But unlike Tinder, Bumble gave her full control in this regard when it came to first contact.

In this instance, they both felt an instant connection. The competition wasn’t much to write home about, but even with that in mind, they both knew they stumbled upon someone special.

Neither seemed judgmental or disinterested in one another’s dating bios – the highlight reel one brings to a date to showcase their best selves. Of course, the real trick was to do it in a way that didn’t so much come across as bragging.  

Both came across to the other as humble, yet confident and abundant with talents and passions and aligned politically and even religiously.   

She even fell for his cheesy pun: “May I mask you out on a date?” – if only because of her love for all things cheese.

It would be their first date since Covid. And even pre-Covid, It had been almost a year for both.

And though they both felt rusty, they both felt like they found a match worth jumping into the deep end with – not to mention worth the potential Covid exposure, despite both being recently vaccinated and ready to mingle!

They agreed to meet at a coffee shop. He proposed a drink, but she didn’t drink. Normally, this would be a red flag for him, but he was trying to drink less, anyway. So naturally, he saw it as a sign.

She suggested a new French-inspired café that felt like it was right out of a Wes Anderson movie. It was the kind of place where you feel compelled to order a double shot of espresso so you could drink out of one of those teeny cups. And then choose among an immaculate display of pastries and tortes that resembled enlarged Victorian doll house pieces. The fork and spoon were as dainty as the cups their espressos came in.

Somehow, she even laughed at his incredibly awkward joke upon entry: “The little girl in me is excited.” In fact, from the moment they met in person, it felt as though they had known one another forever.

They ordered.

He offered to pay. She insisted they split.

He added the tip.

They then headed to table. And the time for the great unveiling of the lower face had come. They would finally see one another’s full face – a sign of the pandemic times. And they were both dreading it

 He noticed that she seemed reluctant to take off her mask, yet not wanting to make a scene about it. Perhaps she had lower face acne, too? If so, she certainly wouldn’t be alone.

She lowered her chin, as though to hide, then slowly removed her mask     

In solidarity, he looked away, then removed his, before looking back up.

Only to see a grotesquely disfigured face starting back…

…at his.

It was as though they were both staring into a mirror.

Coffee Shop

Emily’s fantasy cliché of meeting cute was bruised, but not broken. Her romantic yearnings were part of her DNA, implanted by a healthy (some might say unhealthy diet) of Disney films and The Princess Bride

She was eager for another shot at love (but not the likelihood of missing out at said shot).

Emily was comfortably perched in her favorite cozy, indie coffee shop where everyone is creative and full of life and purpose and ideas. Though outwardly conservative, she always felt more at home among these “type” of people, despite the realization that they were likely to see her as the outsider –a plain Jane. Of course, she knew there was more to her than that. Rarely, did others see it. If only they could hear her playlist.

Even in her own social circle, she was an enigma. Her liberal friends found her too conservative. And her conservative friends found her too liberal. So, where did this leave her? One would think being smack dab in the middle would make her feel at home anywhere, but instead, she felt adrift in a no man’s land, never quite good enough for either side, uncomfortably doing the splits with one foot in one door and another foot in another door.

At least she felt like she had a safe haven at this coffee shop, eschewing Starbucks in favor of supporting small business (though, admittedly, she preferred the big chain coffee over most indie brews). She felt even better about the fact that was using a mug, rather than wasting a paper cup. Two levels of guilt killed in one stone.  

Aside from her primal need for caffeine and finding the man of her dreams, she was here to study, work on sketches for her art portfolio, and hopefully if she had time – read her hard cover copy of Lord of the Rings that she got from her parents for Christmas – one of those collector’s editions from Barnes & Noble.  

But, of course, she was always on the lookout for his Prince Charming – no scratch that, her Westley to her (albeit nerdy) Princess Buttercup.

 And this is why she was single.

But then suddenly…

She first spotted him standing at the front of the line from her vantage point in the back of the café. She could tell he was flustered about his order. She turned down the volume on her music to listen in. She immediately noticed that he was going out of his way to be as polite as possible, despite the inconvenience. Being assertive probably wasn’t his strong suit because he hated coming across anything other than ‘nice’. Some might see this as a weakness. She saw it as enduring. She hoped he knew that.

She got the sense he was the type of guy who was too humble to ever take a compliment well.

Whatever the problem was, he appeared to be doing everything in his power not to appear like an asshole – the type of guy who was used to putting up with shit – probably a bullied kid. An ugly duckling who blossomed into a beautiful, humble swan prince. In other words, the male version of herself.

As it would turn out, she couldn’t have been more right.

She rarely got such a strong sense of someone’s character. It was as though she already knew all there was to know about him. Although she was admittedly never a good judge of character, this time just felt so…different.

So, what could she do about it?

For starters, she hoped he wasn’t simply taking his coffee to go. But even if he stuck around, then what? Probably nothing. Why should today be any different?

So even though she was unlikely to find the courage to approach him, what was the likelihood he would approach her? As much as her past shook her confidence, what was more upsetting was the unlikelihood that another guy would ever attempt something like that again.

For what it was worth, she got a similar vibe from this guy as she did on that fateful night. Again, she realized this probably meant nothing. But she was hopelessly devoted to her internal hopeless romantic.

 He certainly didn’t strike her as the type of guy who would hit on girls in a bar – let alone a coffee shop. But as much as she saw this trait as a plus, her inability to convey any sign that was interested made the probability of finding someone like this problematic. Somebody would have to break character.

So why not her?

She devised a plan. She would stand behind him in line with the hope he would somehow notice her. At the very least, she could settle for being noticed.

But she was tired of settling dammit!

And knowing her track record, even if she got noticed, it would be by being awkward. It was her modus operandi.

So, what she could do to end her streak of bad luck? Like she promised herself and her friends?

First, she would wait to see if she stayed in the cafe, or took his coffee to go. If he was leaving, she would have to act far more quickly. If he was staying, she would have time to game plan.

Hypothetically, if he did happen to stay in the café, perhaps she could sit closer to him. Leaving nothing to chance, she gathered her belongings and hopped into line. She needed a refill, anyway.

But as her luck would have it, it was just in time for him to get his order straightened out, along with a coupon for a free drink that he thoroughly thanked the barista for, going as far as to tell her that she didn’t have to do that.

He turned around, making direct eye contact with her.

“Excuse me,” he politely said as he sidestepped her, heading toward the door as “Another One Bites the Dust” played.

No, please don’t leave!

  But he wasn’t leaving! Instead, he veered off to a window table.

 Phew!

And it just so happened that there was a table open right next to him. It was all working out so perfectly! It was all but written in the stars!

But now what?

Even though she was next in line, she debated leaving it so she could grab that table, but she also really needed more caffeine. Besides, it would have been odd if she didn’t have a drink with her after sitting back down.

Would anybody even notice?

She could always set her stuff down, then get back in line. That wouldn’t be so weird, right?

She continued eyeing the table like a hawk. She noticed him watching her.

Oh my God! He saw me. Is he on to me?

Was it possible he would even know why she moved in the first place?

She pretended to be scoping out the rest of the room, neglecting to realize that it was her turn to order.

 “Miss?” the barista nudged.

“Oh, sorry!”   

Panicked, she went ahead and ordered.

“Yes, can I please have a refill. Almond milk. Little bit of sugar.”

 Rather than waiting for her order, she bee-lined it toward the table next to her crush du jour, but was suddenly cut off by another customer who swooped in and took her seat.

 Fuck!

“Order for Emily!”

  She frantically grabbed her drink, nearly knocking it over as she realized that not only had somebody already taken the table she was previously sitting at, but there was not a single table left at all.

So now what? She looked around helplessly, hoping she didn’t look at panic as she felt.

Was she really going to have to leave?

At the very least, she wanted to get work done.

But she would probably have to do so at home.

She turned to head toward the door, bumping into another customer and spilling half of her coffee – and the customer’s.

“So sorry!”

The customer was clearly annoyed and walked away. She couldn’t even clean up her mess if she wanted to, as she had nowhere to set her stuff. Embarrassed and paranoid that she was making a scene, she continued making her way back out into the cold, cruel world.

But then, across the room, she spotted a customer exhibiting signs of the universal language of getting ready to leave.

She made her way over there, struggling with the balancing act trying to keep a respectful distance, but also signaling to others that this territory was being staked out. Same principal applied to parking spots. However, she was trying to become more assertive. She lost way too many spots over the years. This was a sign of progress.

As the customer continued on gathering his stuff, she asked just out of common courtesy:

 “Just checking, are you heading out?”  

“Yep. Will be out of here in just a second.”

“Thanks!”

“All yours,” the man said with a warm smile.

She sat down. It wasn’t ideal, but at least she had a spot.

As she got herself settled in, she kept a periodic eye on her Westley at all times.

Would he even notice me way over here?

  But then, a customer got up from the table directly next to him!

  Fate was certainly testing her.

She wasn’t going to get up again, was she?

Was she trying too hard?

Maybe she should just stay put to avoid drawing even more attention to herself. Then again, maybe being too obvious would be a good thing? Moving closer might be the only way to get his attention.

As long as she didn’t look too desperate.

She also considered: what if the customer wasn’t actually leaving? She didn’t want to get caught in a no man’s land between tables. 

 Next thing she knew, she was heading over there. It didn’t even feel like she had control of her body at this point!

She waited awkwardly, knowing that her mere presence was putting added pressure on him to hurry up, which was only half-true. Should she say something? Or, would that only make it worse? While she waited, she contemplated which side of the table to sit on. Did she want to sit opposite him? Or, parallel to him? What would give her the best shot of being noticed? What would be less awkward?

Just as she arrived into prime position, the customer did an unexpected bait and switch and sat back down. She either changed their mind, or never planned on leaving to begin with.

What a ruse!

Not to mention embarrassment.

She turned around to head back to the other table she had just abandoned. By some divine miracle, it was still available!

But right on cue, she knocked a book off a customer’s table. At least this time, it wasn’t a cup of coffee.

She picked up the book and continued her journey back to her table, but just in time to get cut off by another customer who swooped it and took it.

Part of her felt the urge to claim what she thought was rightfully hers. But by the same token, it was all her own doing!

She accepted this fact: fate was telling her to throw in the towel and leave. She gave it a worthy effort. It just wasn’t meant to be. As she headed toward the exit, with her tail between her legs, a voice beamed out, as thought through parting clouds.

 “You are more than welcome to share my table.”

The man of her dreams.

Is this really happening?

  “Are you sure?”

            An employee rushed to the scene with a mop bucket.

            “So sorry,” she said to the employee, who either didn’t hear her, or ignored her.

            “Thank you so much.”

            “No problem.”

            She settled in awkwardly into her spot.

            “Thanks again. I feel like I am taking up space you need.”

            “Seriousyly. It’s fine. I’m very flexible.”

            I’m sure you are.

            She felt frazzled and embarrassed and could feel her heart racing. She would have been shocked if he didn’t notice, which, of course, only made her more nervous.

            To ease her mind, she pulled out her book, but quickly realized she could only pretend to read it, taking nervous sips of coffee and trying to control the butterflies that were trying with all their might to escape from her belly. Adding more caffeine to the fire probably wasn’t the best idea.

            The words in her book might as well have been in a foreign language.

Meanwhile, her future husband appeared to be far too engrossed in his work to even glance in her general direction – perhaps out of politeness, as to not encroach up on her limited space.

            Again, she considered the possibility that he not only did he not noticed her at all, but that he simply didn’t care. Yet, she couldn’t help but sense his gaze on her. She was too nervous to look back, thus limiting any chance she had at making a meaningful connection. And as much as she wanted him to notice her, she was also equally self-conscious about it.

When then she somehow found the courage, she realized he wasn’t looking at her at all – he was deeply immersed in whatever it was that he writing in his tattered composition book and lost in whatever he was listening to on his headphones. Which also made her realize the possibility that he was a writer. Which, in turn made her fall in love even more.

At least he seemed pretty settled in for the long haul.

Wishful thinking?

Of course, there was no way to know how long he would stay, but he seemed pretty engrossed in that notebook. It was as though she wasn’t even there at all. But she should have expected otherwise? Perhaps it was her time to make a move.

For now, she decided her best course of option was to get busy with her own work. But all she could do was fake it, fixating instead on what he could possibly be writing in that notebook.

As much as she wanted to continue taking secret peaks at him, her shyness prohibited her from diverting her eyes away from the book she was pretending to read.

  But then she thought of a low-risk way to get his attention. She stood up and turned toward him:

“Excuse me, but can you just keep an eye on my stuff while I go to the restroom?”

   “Oh, of course, no problem.”

  She always found asking people to do this was pointless. Did this security measure actually ever prevent a theft? Maybe people only did it in the context that she was doing it? A subtle form of flirtation

 She headed toward the restroom and immediately regretted her method. Because this now meant that his first interaction with her painted an image of her using the restroom. Nothing she could do about it now.

 She entered the restroom and realized she really did have to go. She could feel her heart racing and realized how utterly ridiculous she was being. She couldn’t help but wonder  whether he had any ulterior motives with asking her to sit with him? Or, was he just being nice? Would he have done the same if it were a guy? Or, a less attractive woman?

Why am I so hopeless?

But it didn’t have to be. Hadn’t she already learned her lesson? She had complete control of her destiny. Well, as in making a move. If he didn’t reciprocate, there was nothing she could do about that.

The question remained: what was she going to do about it? Leave it to chance? Risk letting the potential love of her life walk out the door with the likelihood that she would never see him again? She couldn’t let her past dictate what she was likely to do in this situation. She would have to be proactive. But realizing this didn’t necessarily mean she would follow through on it. In fact, it probably meant there was a greater chance she would crack under pressure.

But there was only one way to find out.

She headed out of the stall, washed her hands, and took a long, last look at herself in the mirror, before realizing that the longer she spent in the bathroom, the more likely he would think about what she might be doing in there.

With a deep breath, she headed back to her table.

 “Thank you,” she said with a smile.

“No problem,” he said. “I had to fight someone off with a stick, but other than that, no issues.”

She laughed.

Oh my God, he talked to me!

Granted, he was only replying to my thank you. Probably just being polite. Can’t possibly mean anything.

  So now what?  

Since reading wasn’t in the cards, she took out her sketchbook to work on her portfolio. Last, but not least, she put on Enya to settle her nerves.

 Her Enya obsession was one of her dirty little secrets. In fact, she made sure her phone was turned so he wouldn’t notice. 

But even with the soothing melodies of Enya pouring into her ears, she still couldn’t concentrate. He was like a magnet, erasing all of her data. She got the sense that even if he did leave, the regret of throwing away a chance for romance would dominate her thoughts for weeks.

  And then…

. “Excuse me…?”

 At first, she didn’t realize he was talking to her, but then she saw the way he was leaning.

  She removed her headphones.

  “Hi, yes.”

“Okay, your turn. Mind watching my stuff?

  “Hmmm, let me think….sure, I guess?” she said with an unexpected coy smile.

“It’s okay” he said sitting back down. “Guess I’ll have to hold it in.”

He’s totally playing along! Is this really happening?!

  “Okay, but what should I do if someone tries to steal it?”

  “Want my stick?”

He’s not only playing along, he’s using innuendo.

   “Oh, my God, that sounded awful,” he said, blushing. “I honestly—”

  “I know,” she said, laughing. “It’s even funnier that you didn’t mean it.”

She actually found herself wishing he meant it. But was more impressed by the fact that he didn’t. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, he did.  

She watched as he headed to the restroom. She couldn’t help but wonder: did he feel self-conscious, too?

  And what was supposed to happen next when he came back?

  If she went by her track record, she knew the answer to that question: nothing.

She would find out one way, or another.

 What she really needed to be doing was studying for her upcoming exam. Or, work on her portfolio. But she knew it was useless. She was relishing being the female lead in a romantic comedy and she had to play the part. And the part was that of a nervous, awkward, hopeless romantic.

 But when wasn’t she?

  The only difference, she now had a seemingly willing co-star.

   She looked up. He was already on his way back! It wasn’t even a minute!

   “That was quick!”

   Seriously?! That’s the best I can do?!

    “You were timing me?”

  “Sorry. I can’t believe I said that.”

    “Don’t be,” he laughed. “And I owe you a big thank you.”

   “For what?”

“Well, everything seems to be accounted for.

   “Oh, yeah. But only because I fought off five people with your stick.”

    “Knew I could count on you.”

   “Glad somebody can.”

   “It’s funny how we feel the need to ask someone to watch our stuff when we go to the bathroom. Because what does that really mean? Has anyone ever had anything stolen? And has anyone ever had to defend somebody’s stuff?”

  “Exactly!”

  “So why do we do it?”

  “You tell me.”

  “You tell me.”

  “And if it were to happen, like what does the person doing the guiding do? Signal for help? Address the thief directly? Call 911?”

   “I bet it’s never happened before. Ever.”

  “Yet, we do it anyway.”

“Sometimes, it’s the only way to get someone’s attention,” she said coyly.

“Now who would do a thing like that?”

They both smiled.  

“James,” he said, offering his hand.

“Emily.”

They shook hands.

 “So, Emily, tell me, what do you do when you are not hanging out in coffee shops?

“Hanging out and drinking coffee at home. But mostly sleep. And study.”

 “Oh! What do you study?”

“Art student.”

“Oh, that explains the sketches!”

“Oh, you noticed?”

“Maybe?”

“You?”

“Marketing student by day. Failed musician by night.”

“Accordion?”

“Bassoon.”

“My second guess.”

“Guitar. Singer songwriter.”

They both laughed at their breezy interplay.

“But the failed musician thing. The artist in me cries.”

“But I can’t quit! Hence, the song writing I’m going. And got a few possible gigs coming up. So, by ‘failed’, I mean, the idea of making money off my art. But I have learned that making money is not what counts the most. Sure would be nice, but not the end all.”

 “I know what you mean. And that’s why I am pursuing a teaching degree to fall back on – even though there’s a part of me that want to get rid of my safety net.”

  “I know what you mean. Sometimes, it feels like my naive childhood dream is all but dead as I get closer to finishing my degree. Can’t help but feel that career is looming. Hoping to at least land something in entertainment marketing, so I can at least help other people’s dreams. And maybe make the right connections to help mine.”

 “Well, that sounds nice at least.”

  “But I will never fully give up on my dream. My philosophy is “Just keep doing your art. No matter what.

“You make it sound so easy.”

“Well, looks like that’s what you’re doing.”

“Yeah, well…it just feels like I’m spinning in my tracks after what my parents call my “pipe dream”.

“Don’t listen. Or, listen and use it as fuel to prove them wrong.”

“Trying.”

 “That’s all we can do.”

 “Well, I will let you get back to your art. And Enya.”

She realized she had turned her phone over!

  “Oh, how embarrassing.”

    As embarrassing as it was, she was honored that he took the time to not only notice, but remember.

 “Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures,” he laughed.

Only, it wasn’t a guilty pleasure. But she wouldn’t let on.

But was he being sarcastic? Or, genuine? Or, genuinely sarcastic? She couldn’t tell.

“Yep, so true.”

“Take me, for instance. I love Hall & Oates. Without shame.

“Okay, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.”

“In fact, I’m listening to them right now.”

He put his headphones back on.

As they both got back to “work”, she was a bit disappointed that their conversation was over. For the time being, at least.

As much as she wanted to keep talking, she didn’t want to be a pest. Perhaps he was very busy. He looked busy. And she was supposed to be busy, too. But she gave up on focusing. She just had to fake it.

 A half hour later, he began packing up his stuff and she realized it was over.

 But then he put a folded Post-It note in front of her.

 “It was nice meeting you, Emily,” he added.

 “Nice meeting you,” she mumbled.

Then he was gone.

  She looked at the note: “Call me if you ever want to get coffee sometime.”

Followed by a smiley face.

She smiled right back at it.

The Thing About Leaves

They enter our lives in the spring

and greeted with great fanfare.

In the brilliant pastels of the season.

A promise of re-birth.

New life.

And better days ahead.

A reminder of the life cycle that we are all part of.

Spring leaves, heralding the arrival of

summer’s warmth and breeze.

We soon take the leaves for granted,

with the distraction of summer’s endless splendor,

even while seeking shelter in their shade.

Before we know it, summer fades into fall,

and we return our attention back to leaves,

who cry for attention with their vibrant cornucopia of color.

Our world is once again filled with color,

but a warmer palette to blanket us from the cold.

An echo of the distant spring from which they arrived.

And we embrace them with wide-open vigor.

But then one by one, they drop from their limbs.

And we mourn both their sudden absence,

but the oncoming dead of winter.

And then we rake and we rake

and we moan and we moan,

now seeing what was once so beautiful as a burden,

fallen from their heavenly loft,

as they lay in their mortal slumber on earth.

Only to be disposed of. And forgotten.

Something that was once so young…

…so comforting.

And so beautiful.