Sometimes I imagine that he had lived. That he didn’t stop breathing at 26 years of age. We find each other once again. It is like a story, he and I, a story that I both live and write. Here it is.
That autumn evening, they both walk into the local bookstore, neither aware of the other. She naturally gets lost in the Fiction section, trailing her fingers over spines of endless rows of books, pulling a few out here and there to gaze at plot lines in the hopes that one or two will capture her attention. (Many will.) Over in the Poetry section, he skims through collections that remind him of just how much he misses writing poetry; he wishes that real life and a lack of time hadn’t taken away his dedication. Or had he given his time away? He shakes off that unanswered question and continues to peruse.
The soft whir of espresso machines and related aromas in the nearby café eventually pull them both out of their respective stacks and over to the line. They’re both armed with books that require more time and investigation over cups of coffee; her with three novels that each bear a Jane Austen-like feel to them, and him with four intriguing anthologies by the latest Poet Laureate. Soon, she places her order with the young man behind the counter and steps over to the side to wait. He does the same a few minutes later and takes a spot a few feet away from her. While they wait for their drinks, they respectively study the other patrons in the café. It is then, during their mutual analyses, that she happens to gaze in his direction–at the same moment that he glances over at her.
Her eyes widen with instant recognition. A beaming smile across his face face.
“Order ready for Sabrina.”
“Large coffee for Riley.”
If neither had recognized the other, the calls of those two very familiar names would have provided all the information they needed. They approach one another.
“I can’t believe…” she says, her voice trailing off, her eyes fixed on his.
He doesn’t reply, still stunned that she is standing before him. Twenty years had passed them by. Twenty whole years.
He grabs their drinks while she finds a table for them in the corner. He glances at her books on the adjacent table and grins. “Were you in Fiction?” he asks.
She chuckles. “No surprise there. And you were lost in Poetry.”
“Literally and symbolically, of course.”
Silence was never an issue for them. In the past, they always had plenty to discuss; theories to riff about, silly jokes to share. And yet, now, a silence steals into their midst. It is not a passive silence, however; their prolonged stares seem heavy in meaning, the kind of unreadable expressions that will soon require defining.
“It’s nothing like our old spot, is it?” Riley then asks, gesturing around them.
“Nothing at all, save for the books and the harried girl behind the counter making all the drinks.”
He laughs. “Sounds familiar.” He remembers being scheduled with her one afternoon, watching her deftly prepare drink orders without batting an eyelash at the long lines. That day had stayed with him long after he moved on from the store, for reasons that, at the time, he couldn’t explain. “But you were never harried. You were always so cool.”
“I played it cool, my friend.”
“Do you live in town?”
Sabrina nods. “I just moved back. After college, I did some soul-searching and ended up in Phoenix, Arizona. ”
His eyes gleamed. “So you did go. Remember how much you wanted to live there? The whole mythical bird thing?”
“I do. And it was transformative it many ways. Moving away from family, being on my own.”
“So you rose out of the ashes,” he says, smiling warmly at her.
That sudden sensation in her chest. Yes. Her heart had skipped a beat. She breathes through it, deciding not to explain it away in her mind. “I did. What about you? Tell me where you’ve been. When I last saw you, you were headed back to Texas.”
He had indeed moved back to his home state to go back to college. Ultimately, however, that degree in Poetry was replaced with a Business degree and an eventual MBA. He had moved back a year ago and was now a finance executive at a firm in the city.
“The poet became an MBA? I could have never envisioned that.”
“Me, either.” He pauses. “Are you married? Kids?”
Sabrina shakes her head. “No and no. I was engaged for a bit but it didn’t work out. You?” she asks.
“Divorced. We had a good year but she was still in love with her ex, so she decided to go back to him. While we were married, I should add.”
“Riley, I’m so sorry.”
He waved his hand. “Therapy does wonders. I’m in a great place now. Are you still writing?”
“Five books published. Working on number six, the long gestating novel.”
Riley applauds softly. “I’m so proud of you. You stuck with it. I knew you would. When I first met you, I could see it in you, that love for writing. It was amazing. And it helped me, believe it or not. I was so inspired by you.”
“And I had a massive crush on you. I actually thought I was in love with you for a month or so.” She allows the words out without thinking, deliberately leaving them there, in the air.
Riley gazes at her, not completely taken aback. “I had a feeling.”
“Could you blame me? You were a poet, for goodness sake. My writer’s heart was toast.”
They both laugh, still aware of her admission, still aware of those stares in between the silences, still able to allow levity to join all the other elephants in the room.
“I thought about it,” Riley then says. “I thought about you and me.”
Her heart quickens once again. She waits for him to continue.
“But I pushed it away. You were only 19. I was 21 and not living my best life, as you know. I was toxic. So, so bad for all the people around me. It just–”
“It’s OK,” she says, gently squeezing his forearm. “We weren’t ready back then. We both had to do a little phoenix work with ourselves.”
Riley looks down at her hand. Yes, he hears in the back of his mind. It is the answer to a question he’s not yet sure of, but welcomes it all the same. He puts his hand on top of hers, linking his fingers through hers.
She remembers to breathe.
“And now we meet again, in a bookstore, no less,” he replies. “Could you fall in love with me again, for longer than a month this time?”
Yes. They had always been waiting for each other, waiting to cross paths once again. She recognizes that now. Sabrina laughs. “It depends on all the fancy restaurants you take me to. And the poetry you write me.”
“Done and done.”
They walk toward the registers, still hand in hand. He buys her books. She buys his. They depart in the parking lot with a promise to see one another the next day.
She learns, three months after their wedding, that the Poet MBA can also do wonders with plywood: he builds her a home library, complete with all five of her books and room for his first anthology.