I keep looking back-and-forth at the coffee shop’s entrance to see if he’s arrived, but all I see are unfamiliar figures puffing tiny clouds before scurrying through the revolving door, trying to escape the frigid air. Part of me hopes he doesn’t show. Just continue the cycle he started many years ago, one of avoidance and ultimate disappearance. But I don’t think we could actually handle that.
My hands break out into a slight tremble, so I wrap them around my steaming mug of hot chocolate. The cubes of marshmallows bob up and down like buoys during a slow, low tide. That motion doesn’t help because it triggers a simultaneous flutter in the depth of my stomach, warms my core, then settles. I ask myself whether my hands shake from the actual cold or my nerves; nevertheless, I grip the cup tighter, realizing its temperature has to be one degree shy of a serious burn.
I finally admit to myself it’s he who’s making me this anxious.
It’s the “he” from my sophomore to senior years of undergrad. The “he” who camped out in the McGrew Towers lobby pretending to need my macroeconomics help. The “he” who winked and spit subtle rhymes at me while he chilled with his frat brothers inside the student union. The “he” who made me a homemade strawberry cake complete with buttercream icing and real berries for my birthday. The same “he” who flew me to Birmingham during our spring break so he could introduce me to his parents during junior year, only to abandon me right before graduation with no conversation to gain understanding. The “he” who coincidentally appears at my job miles and cities away in Chicago, of all places, 12 years later. The “he” who ignores me in the community room and passes me in the hallway with nary a glance.
Until yesterday when I looked at him through that glass wall.
I’m sitting at my desk making lunch plans with my friend and colleague, Alisha. She cracks a joke about how we turn our daily ritual into some big production as if we don’t dine at the same five or six spots every week. Our lunch plans should resemble some preset cafeteria menu, she says, because we rarely switch it up although I now eat nearly thrice a typical school serving. I’m mid-laughter when he passes by, and for whatever reason, he turns his head a slight right towards my office, and our eyes lock for a split second until I look away. It’s just a reflex. A reaction to the awkwardness of no closure. The only response I can give to someone who blankets my guilt with silence.
But Alisha wants to uncover what’s buried as she glances behind her to see what causes my sudden discomfort. I know she sees my cheeks flush into a bright burgundy. I can feel heat seep down the length of my neck. I feel constricted with the extra layers of clothing I now wear. I want to tug at the collar of my blouse, but I don’t.
She peers at me a few seconds before leaning forward.
“Is there something going on between you two?” she whispers.
I don’t want to open my mouth and say his name because pieces of my secrets might spill out with it. And for what? For Alisha to put them back together with her bias and judgment?
Alisha claims she senses some weird tension whenever our general counsel is around. I drop my words mid-sentence and make hasty exits. He teeters somewhere between hot and cold: brisk when I’m within the circle of conversation but balmy when I’m absent. She thinks there’s a workplace crush on my end or some failing ploy to detract from an interoffice affair. I remind her that I’m already in a relationship.
“Did we forget about Elijah?” I ask her. Her mouth straightens into a punctuated dash while her right eyebrow arches into a carat. She stares at me when she asks:
“No, did you forget about Elijah?” as she motions towards my desk.
Since Trent started working for the company, I’ve completely erased Elijah from my office life. It’s like he never existed. No more pictures of us vacationing in Havana or on Santorini. No more peony or tulip deliveries. No surprise visits to whisk me off to Two or similar restaurants. I didn’t even bring him to our holiday party. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I’m protecting Elijah from Trent, but maybe I’m protecting Trent from Elijah. Perhaps I keep Elijah from Trent because I don’t want Elijah to reveal anything in pride and unknowingly smear anything in Trent’s face. And just maybe I want Trent to believe I stayed single for all these years just so it doesn’t seem like it was easy for me to start over.
I assure Alisha that Elijah and I are still very much a couple; I almost tell her she should join us for cocktails tonight until I remember I stopped drinking, a fact I’ve yet to share with her. So instead I stand and divert the conversation back to lunch. I tell her to go get her stuff, so we can beat the rush crowd, but my plans are interrupted with the speed and sound of a simple “ping!”
I look down at my computer screen and see the flashing rectangle in the bottom right corner – an instant message from “TrentJD.” It’s our first correspondence in the three months since he’s been here and the 12 years since I’ve last seen him. I presume it’s an error. Hope it’s a message to a colleague who has an instant message handle similar to mine. I ease back into my chair and slowly move the cursor to maximize the orange box, hoping to read a “my bad” message.
“We need to talk,” it says. “Tomorrow. Sip on Grand. Noon.”
Twelve. I scrunch my face at the time and wonder if he realized the irony when he set it.
“Lana,” Alisha says. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I say, as a force a smile. “Let’s roll.”
Trent arrives at the coffee shop at 11:44. He’s early, too. We still think alike. I watch him unravel his scarf instinctively fanning out my own shawl to ensure I’m fully covered. He glances around the café for a seat, but I don’t wave him over because I’m not as eager to talk. So I study his appearance. I notice he still looks the same as he did senior year. Low cut. Close shave. But more muscular, or more manly than a slender 22-year-old, and no casual attire, either. He’s dressed in jeans and loafers, a checkered navy and brown dress shirt and brown sweater under a camel pea coat like he’s headed to work on dress-down day. Maybe he’s lied to someone like I did.
“A last-minute marketing campaign,” I say to Elijah as I left. “For Valentine’s Day.”
But really, it’s hot chocolate with an old sweetheart.
Trent finally spots me in the little corner nook and seems to freeze in place. Perhaps deep down he wanted me to stand him up, too.
As he approaches the table, I stare back at the bouncing marshmallows, now forming a thin layer of gooey froth across the chocolaty surface. He hovers for a few seconds while he sheds his coat and gloves before he pulls out the chair to sit. The sights and sounds of the surrounding coffee shop patrons seem to dim and blur.
A pool of saliva settles along the sides of my tongue. I take a sip of the salted caramel froth to urge it back down my throat, but it only rushes forward as quickly as I swallow it. I give Trent the “church finger” as I flee to the restroom.
He’s ordered his own hot beverage while I’m gone, indicating this might not be as quick as I had hoped or he’s trying to stall. I sit back down.
“You okay?” he asks.
I manage a nod.
It’s his turn to take a few sips. When he looks up, his brown eyes pierce mine not like he’s reading, but actually seeing, my thoughts and emotions and past truths play outwardly in real time.
“Why did you even bother telling me you did it?” he finally asks.
He’s taken us back to that early spring day in 2004 when we’re standing alongside the bank of our “home by the sea.” Two ducks and three ducklings were quacking across the lush green while a sea gull was perched on a nearby stump, witnessing the words of someone who carefully considered a stable, immediate future, who fully supported the young man’s dream to move north because it would benefit the both of them, who believed in diving off springboards but not drowning in oceans of abyss. I’d just told him about my appointment, how I scheduled the procedure a mere two days prior, only then he didn’t ask me why I didn’t tell him because he’d given me an incredulous look and simply walked off. He didn’t give me the chance to explain that I only wanted to be honest and not keep any secrets as we started our journey into real adulthood, which included actually living together and delving into our careers. He didn’t try to hear me say that we didn’t want to be the reason he didn’t enter law school in New York that fall and that he couldn’t juggle torts and contracts and fatherhood.
But he wants to know now.
I didn’t rehearse for this.
I struggle to uproot something that was buried so many years ago; it had settled and become tangled and stuck. Yet somehow I manage to revive and string together a pile of empty, decomposed words. Whether I had the chance to verbalize it back then or not, I did assume full responsibility for the life-changing decision I made without Trent’s knowledge and consent.
Yet what may have been once planted by one is sometimes reaped by another. I found out I’ve been given a second chance to bring forth life – 12 weeks is what my obstetrician says. I can’t tell Trent I’ve now chosen parenthood and this time with another man. But soon Trent will learn that I’ve not only considered someone else’s feelings but also reached a mutual agreement with that person. Soon Trent will see that I and Elijah have decided to keep our child.
While this short story references actual places, it is a work of fiction.