He didn’t know what to expect. It had been a while since he’d seen her, both of their lives had moved along, yet here they were. She was home and he was passing through. He’d stopped in off and on, but it had been a decade since here was home, longer maybe since it felt like home, nothing really had since. It was nice to be back, sure, sitting in a coffee shop he used to call an office. Funny in a way, they’d never met until they were up a mountain in the Rockies, a couple kids who grew up riding bikes- almost literally- a few doors down.
Main St. was always a breath of fresh air, just enough culture, tucked just close enough to everything. Not pretentious, not poor, not trying to be much of anything, just being. Gene was tucked in the end of an old building, erected to accommodate the odd intersection that gave the appearance of a miniature flatiron building. He sat at the same seat he always had, one where he could see downtown if he looked hard enough right and the bar if he looked left.
It was a couple hours before she showed up, he was early and expected her to be late. Just sat scribbling in a journal he had roughed up lately, only so many pages left to muddy. After finishing a note about coming back and about nothing he looked up. She was hugging a man who must be her husband just outside. He could see her say something to the man before he turned and walked down the street, without so much as a glance inside. Opening the door she looked around, the way you do when you’re looking for a friend. Beautiful as she always was, age had taken to her nicely, not that she was old, more that she didn’t look much different. Marriage and two children had done nothing to her mesmerizing blue eyes and crooked smile. He thought of waving but enjoyed her puzzled glances. Finally she saw him there, laughed softly to herself, the same shy laugh he loved. Standing up, she wrapped her arms around his neck, after letting go he grabbed her shoulders and smiled — its not bad to see you —
— its a little bad its been so long —
— everything is always a little too long or a little too short, but it is good to see you buddy, it has been a bit too long — Pulling her chair out before sitting down himself.
He laughed — so what — twisting a now empty coffee between his fingers.
— well I don’t know, how have you been? Ive heard your famous now, at least thats what they all tell me —
— I’ve heard your not bad at moming. thats what they say anyway —
— we invited you to the wedding you know, the girls are four and five. I haven’t seen you in six years, haven’t really talked since I told you I met someone, don’t get any news unless I visit your mother- who misses you by the way- couldn’t say if you get my letters because I don’t get any back.. you know I never wanted it to be like this, you know I’ve tried. Yes Alex, I like moming, but I know you already knew I would, its too bad the girls haven’t met you, but I’m sure you don’t really care.— She was more frustrated than maybe he expected, which wouldn’t have bothered him if he hadn’t been staring into her eyes. They looked at and through him, maybe even into him, that made him nervous, nervous because he knew how rare it was. Her lip quivered and eyes drifted around as she continued — you’ve always left everything behind, nothing mattered near enough to take with you, or look back at once it was gone. I came home and home wasn’t a good enough story for you to give a shit about — She looked at her feet and rubbed her hands up and down the sleeves of her wool sweater- waiting for him to say something- he didn’t have much to say yet, half expected cordial to last a couple minutes longer.
— do you want a coffee, I should’ve asked. Im gonna grab you one, don’t tell me, I remember — getting up and walking toward the counter, he could hear her mutter something as he brushed passed, probably something about him being an asshole, they knew he already knew that.
— yeah, one americano and one flat white — he smiled at the barista, she reminded him of an old friend, with her dark hair and ivory skin, suddenly this old life felt further away.
J always wasted perfectly good coffee with milk, he wouldn’t forget that. Couldn’t forget. Standing and waiting he looked back at her, she was sitting and staring straight ahead, not even the smallest chance she would indulge him and look over. She was mad now, especially now. He didn’t care much, he liked her better when she was angry, that was the realest she ever was, the most honest, the most alive. — thanks — he smiled grabbing the drinks. Looking back at the bar half expecting to see his old friend, half wishing the time hadn’t rolled away so quickly.
— flat white. I assume through everything the last half dozen years you still enjoy ruining coffee —
— and I guess I don’t have to assume that you still think a black coffee is poetic, since you’re still full of shit — she did smile slightly then.
He leaned back against the bench and thought about what she had said, right about one thing, he was a prick — during your wedding I was in Nepal, yes that was on purpose, I can’t think of a place I would’ve rather been less- not Nepal- your wedding. Im glad you and my mother can connect on being frustrated with me, I’m sure she loves having you around..— he stared at the chaotic weekend traffic and then quickly checked the time on his phone, some missed calls muddied the background photo, it was just after noon, the missed calls could wait — about the girls, I still haven’t missed a birthday. They get the postcards I hope, can’t begin to imagine how much your husband loves that. I don’t write back because you moved on, and that was tough to swallow since I never did. I’ve avoided home, gotten lost in my work and pretended not to think about how, maybe, maybe it could’ve been different. Most of the time, when I think that I have a drink, and then a few more, and then I write you a letter, and then I throw it in the fire. Because writing it does me good, and reading it would do you none—
They looked at each other then, neither dared break contact first, she was more stubborn- for sure- but right now he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. After a while, the short whiles that feel like long whiles, she found something to say — he loves the postcards, makes him jealous sure, but not so much because of who they’re from, more because of the photo on the front — she smiled — and the girls love them, they like their strange pen-pal, a pen-pal whos book they can find at the book store. Mommies mysterious old friend who seems like he’s seen everything in the whole wide world. To those little girls you're the luckiest guy alive, to my husband even, to the friends you left behind sometimes. To me… I just feel bad, bad about my best friend who keeps running away — she took a sip and shifted around uncomfortably, looking towards the door, he wished then- like he had a thousand times before- that he could hear what she was thinking.
— you were never my friend J and I love you either way. Maybe I am running, but at least imagine for a minute that it might not be because of you. Even if it was. wouldn’t it be better. What did you expect. We’d live on the same cul-d-sac. Our kids would go to grade school together. I’d settle down and be the adult you’re trying so hard to pretend to be — he wasn’t mad, felt a little numb honestly. He’d been excited to see her, to laugh again. Obviously that wasn’t what she wanted. Seemed a bit like she wanted to convince herself he’d made a mistake, covering for the fact that somewhere, somewhere buried, she thought she might’ve. Many nights he wished he had a life with her, even if it had to be on that cul-d-sac, every so often he just wished for her. — You always wish for the life you don’t have, its more exciting than the one you’ve got, but that doesn’t make it possible or good, it just fills the illusion. It coats you with some mystery and allows you to imagine the could’ves and should’ves. Wishes are just another way to escape and pretend, thats why you tell your girls to wish on a star, because they’re so fucking far away.— her eyes glassed over but she was too proud to cry, especially now, and here.
— its funny, you and he aren’t so different. Actually you’re a lot the same, you’d probably like him if you gave him a chance, but of course you couldn’t do that, because god forbid you do something for someone other than yourself. You left because you knew what the future was, you knew and it scared you. That was your choice, your baggage. Now I’m sitting here talking to you, and you dare say you never got over me. Where the fuck do you think I’ve been all these years since you decided my life and dreams weren’t as important as your own.— she was almost smiling now, this manic smile flirting with pure hatred — the best part of it, the irony, is that my perfect husband seems to think he made the opposite mistake, I watch him come home from work every day and see the same man as if I would’ve married you. Every day I get to feel like its all my fault for deciding to go back to school, every day I go to work and wonder what my life would be like if we were out on the road. Only the girls, only the girls make it worth it. I wake up and look at them and everything you’ve done and accomplished seems empty, whats worst is I think you know that, and I know he doesn’t.
He thought for a while, looking at her as she looked around — I left because I wasn’t willing to give up my ambition and I would never let you give up your own. Not because of anything else. You can believe whatever you want, whatever makes it easier, but thats the truth — he stood up then — go for a drive? —