*A short story I shared with you in 2019; I was re-reading it and the editing bug hit, so some changes were made and now I’m reposting it. Enjoy.*
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 enter the local bookstore a few minutes apart, her first, him second, neither aware of the other. She naturally gets lost in the Fiction section, trailing her fingers over endless book spines as she passes them by, pulling a few out here and there to gaze at plot lines in the hopes that one or two will capture her attention. (Many do.) 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 volumes.
The soft whir of espresso machines and various aromas from the nearby café eventually pull them out of their respective stacks and over to the order line. They’re both armed with books that require more time and investigation over cups of coffee; her with three novels that giddily bear a Jane Austen-like feel to them, him with four intriguing anthologies by the latest Poet Laureate. Soon, she places her order with the barista behind the counter and steps 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 time that he glances over at her.
Her eyes widen with instant recognition. A beaming smile spreads across his face.
“Order ready for Sabrina.”
“Large coffee for Riley.”
If neither had recognized the other, the calls of those two names would have provided all the information they needed to incite familiarity. They approach one another.
“I can’t believe…” she says, her voice trailing off.
He doesn’t reply, still stunned that she is standing before him. Twenty years had passed them by. Twenty entire years.
He grabs their drinks while she finds a table for them in the corner of the café. He glances at her books and grins. “Were you in Fiction?” he asks.
“No surprise there. And you were lost in Poetry.”
“Literally and symbolically.”
Silence had never been an issue for them. In the past, they always had plenty to discuss; theories to riff about, silly jokes to share with one another. And yet, now, a silence steals into their midst. It is not a passive silence, however; their prolonged, respective stares are heavy with meaning, the kind of indefinable 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 ticklish sensation in her chest. Yes. Her heart had skipped a beat when he smiled. She breathes through it, deciding not to mentally explain it away. It happened. “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, rather than pursue a degree in Poetry, he chose a Business path instead and eventually obtained an 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 would have never envisioned that.”
“Same here.” 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.” He gazes at her. “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 says quietly. “I thought about you and me.”
Her heart quickens once again. She waits for him to continue.
“But I pushed it away,” he continues. “You were only 19. I was 21 and not living my best life, as you know. I was so toxic, just so bad for all the people around me. I was–”
“It’s okay, Ri,” she says, gently squeezing his forearm. “We weren’t ready back then. We both had to do a little phoenix work with ourselves.”
He 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. Gently, he takes her hand.
She remembers to breathe.
“And now we meet again, in a bookstore, no less,” he says. “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 the fancy restaurants you take me to and all the poetry you write me.”
“Done and done.”
They walk toward the registers at the front of the store, hand in hand. He buys her books. She buys his. In the the parking lot, they 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 poetry anthology.