Back for the third week, I’m taking part in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. (To recap, every person posts a 1,000 word story beginning. Each week, another writer will build on the story culminating in a four-part tale written by four different authors.) I’ve written Part Three of Love Story.
Part One (Love Story-Part One, lisboeta1’s)
Holy crap! It’s him, I heard my inner voice yell out. I was sitting in a small booth in my favorite coffee shop doing what I do best; drinking coffee and reading. As my eyes wondered from the pages of the book to the crowd gathering by the registers I saw him. He hadn’t changed much in the last twenty years. If anything he seemed to have improved like a good wine. I noticed that he was even taller than the last time I had seen him all those years ago. Thick blondish curly hair still framed his handsome face and his slanted almond-shaped eyes looked just like I remembered them. Not the skinny, slightly awkward young man he had been at 18, his well-toned arms and chest now stretched the black plain t-shirt he was wearing. He had obviously just come from the gym, sweatpants hanging low on his tight hips and sneakers on his feet. A smile crept up to my lips; I remembered him saying that his mom used to tell him that when he died he would die standing up because of his giant feet. God! I remembered our conversations as it was only yesterday.
My eyes went to his hands, big and masculine, and a shiver went through me. I remember well the feeling of those hands on my body. I was so young back then. Still, I was about two years older than him, an “older woman”. For all sense of purpose I was an adult but I still fell hard for the young man he was then. The first time I laid eyes on him, walking across the hotel atrium, I was lost. My heart fluttered every time I saw him and my legs turned to Jell-O every time we spoke. Ours was a whirlwind romance that lasted a few days but left a soft spot in my heart for 20 years. I always thought of James as the one who got away. And now, there he was, a mere few feet away from me, and my heart was doing that familiar flip-floppy thing it had always done in his presence. What was he doing here? More to the point; what was I going to do?
As it turned out, I didn’t need to do anything at all. Before I could even begin to think whether it was a good idea or not to walk up to him, our eyes met and a slow smile spread across his face as recognition dawned in his eyes. My heart picked up speed inside my chest and my face felt hot as the blood rushed to it. God, I hated that! I hated the fact that I couldn’t control the blush as it flamed across my face in what I knew was a bright red color.
I put my head down as he started walking in my direction, trying to get the color under control. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so they became a tight knot in my lap that grew tighter the closer he got to the booth. I look like an idiot just sitting here. I stood up and lifted my head to meet his eyes once again, startled at how close he was and that he was still getting closer. My eyebrows lifted as he walked right up to me and put his arms around me like we were old friends.
“Oh my God, Liz! It really is you!” He leaned back, his hands holding my upper arms as he took a long look at me that did nothing to help the heat in my face.
“Hi James.” I sounded so awkward.
“Where have you been all these years? What happened to you?”
“Me? I seem to recall it was you who disappeared.” I said it with a smile but watched as something flitted across his eyes and it looked like he was going to say something but he dropped his hands instead and cleared his throat. What was that about?
He finally said, “I can’t believe it’s you after all these years. How have you been?”
“I’m good, just, you know. I don’t know.” I didn’t know where my eyes should go, so I looked down and shuffled my feet. My eyes landed on my coffee sitting on the table and the book beside it. I gestured towards it with my hand. “This is my favorite place for coffee and a book.” I glanced back up at him and caught him smiling at me.
“That’s one of the things I remember best about you. You always had a book. It’s nice to see that some things don’t change.”
“Can you stay a while? Catch up? I can buy you some coffee…” The words trailed away as I realized how dumb I sounded. God, I was so nervous. I wanted the shaky feeling in my stomach to settle down so I could breathe.
“Damn, Liz, I wish I could. I’ve gotta get showered and get to work. Rain check?” He really looked like he meant it and I almost couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted to see me again? My face went back to flaming just as I thought it had settled down. I couldn’t trust my voice so I just nodded my head.
“Well, uh…” Now he was the one stammering and shuffling his feet.
“Do you… Can I give you my number?” There. I said it. I wanted to see him again, but I knew that if he walked away without leaving me with something, I would probably never see him again. I never thought of our city as a big one, but if he lived here and we hadn’t run across each other in twenty years, who knew how long it would be before we crossed paths again, if ever.
“Of course! Geez, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” He let out a short laugh as he reached into his sweat pants. He pulled out his cell phone and punched on the screen a few times then actually held it out to me.
“Here, put it in my phone.”
When I reached for it, our hands grazed slightly and a bolt of electricity jumped from his hand to mine and sent my heart racing again. I looked into his eyes and the world seemed to spin. Could it really be that after all these years he still felt the same way? I wasn’t getting any answers staring into his eyes like a love-struck fool, so I gently took the phone and dialed my number into it. I slowly handed it back to him, suddenly struck dumb, not knowing what to do next.
“Is it okay if I dial it so you have mine?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s perfect, actually.”
I heard my phone buzzing behind me and reached over to click the ignore button. As I looked back at James, I realized he was leaning in again. I didn’t know if my senses could take another hug at this point, but I didn’t want to refuse either, so I hugged him back, trying to keep the tingling under control.
“It was really great to see you, Liz. I almost hate to leave,” he said as he pulled back for a second time in less than five minutes.
“Yeah, I know the feeling.”
We stood there for a few minutes more in an awkward silence that hung suspended between us. I didn’t know what else to do so I said, “Take care of yourself, James.”
He smiled again, “You too, Liz. I’ll call you.” And then he turned and walked away.
My entire body was wobbly and I fell back into the booth with a loud swoosh and sat staring at my now cold coffee. Could I even hold out hope that he would call me? Did I even dare to invest my heart in something that had lasted only two days twenty years ago? The crazy thing was, I’m not sure my heart was giving me a choice. It was still beating so fast and I knew that if he didn’t call or text or something, I would be heartbroken all over again.
I’d waited three weeks for that call. Every time my phone buzzed, chirped, or rang, I dashed for it hoping for a missed call, a voice mail message, a text. Something. I’d knocked over my coffee yesterday in my mad scramble.
This morning I’d woken with a firm purpose of amendment. I would not waste another second anticipating a call that would never come, a foolish hope in the first place, considering the source. Seriously. The guy had taken off twenty years ago after only a few days never to be heard from again. Until now. What made me think his word was good for anything more than the pleasure of watching his lips move?
Today my coffee sat safely in the center of the table, its hazelnut fragrance teasing my nostrils. I’d tucked my phone into my purse, and a stack of freshman essays lay in front of me. I set aside my book, a literary best-seller, and clicked my red pen.
I laid my hand over the name in the upper corner, wanting to read my new students’ short biographies without prejudice. Five essays in, I discovered a real writer, one with authenticity, a unique voice, and an understanding of comma usage – all three a rare commodities.
In dynamic prose, the young woman recounted her father’s abandonment before her birth, her admiration for the man who became her dad, and the her mother’s battle with cancer. Despite her hardships, the girl remained hopeful, grateful, and upbeat. A testament in part, no doubt, to her father.
I marked several grammatical errors and scratched some notes in the margin.
My ringtone sounded from deep inside my purse. At least I thought it did. Two tables over, a busboy dropped his tray. Ceramic mugs and silverware clattered to the floor. The room went silent save for the pumped-in pop music. And my phone.
I wanted to ignore it and complete my work. Why hadn’t I turned the ringer off? Seven seconds in, curiosity got the better of me, and I shoved aside tissues, lip balm, and crumpled napkins in pursuit of the vibrating phone. Afraid that I’d miss the call altogether, I raised the phone to my ear without examining the caller ID.
“This is Liz.” I hoped my breathy voice didn’t betray my anxiety.
“Liz, it’s James.”
My heart leapt. He’d finally called.
“Hey, I’m sorry it took so long to call. I’ve been busy moving my kid into college then catching up on things at home. . . . But I thought about you every day.”
I swallowed. Lingering too much over that last statement would throw me into a dither, so I ignored it. “Oh. It’s, uh, it’s fine. So, you don’t live nearby?”
“Nope. I was just in town to get Stacey situated in her dorm. Had to get back to my Shelby and work.”
“I see.” My stomach dropped. He wasn’t even local. And he had a daughter, which most likely meant he had a wife. Shelby?
“I’m in town again though. Parents’ weekend. Can I meet you at that coffee shop a–” His voice cut off.
I pulled the phone away from my ear. The call was still connected. Signal was strong. “James?”
He cleared his throat. “Look up, Liz.”
He stood just inside the door, stamping the rainwater from his shoes. He smiled and slipped his phone into the pocket of his denim jacket.
I averted my gaze to end the call and replaced my phone in my purse. Butterflies stirred in my stomach.
He walked toward me.
Shuffling my papers, I tapped them into order and placed them beneath my book. I laid the pen across the top and sipped my coffee, hoping it would settle my nerves. How ridiculous was that?
James pulled out the chair across from me. “May I?”
I nodded. “Sure.” I’d daydreamed about this encounter for weeks, but now everything had changed. James was married. Was he looking to catch up with an old flame? Just a ‘hey, good to see you again’ kind of thing? Or did he hope to rekindle the passion of the most magical three days of my life?
If it was the latter, he had another thing coming. A married man was a line I didn’t cross. Period. If I got even one inkling that this encounter was a means to a cheap fling, I’d grab my things and hightail it home, deleting his number from my phone as I went.
“Well, my day just got a whole lot better. I think this coffee shop is my lucky place.”
My lips tightened in a smile, still unsure of whether this tete-a-tete would bring good or bad luck for me. “So, your daughter is a student at State U?”
“Yes, Stacey is a freshman, hard as it is for me to believe. My baby girl is all grown up.” He grabbed a napkin from the metal dispenser and wiped away the pound cake crumbs I’d left on the table. The ring finger on his left hand was bare. Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t married. Plenty of married men didn’t wear a wedding band. My own dad complained it was uncomfortable and got in his way.
“You mentioned getting back to work. What do you do?”
“Advertisting. I design print ads, mostly.”
I remembered the cartoonish drawings he’d made of us using the hotel notepad. He was talented.
“What do you do, Liz?” He nodded toward my pen, papers, and book. “Something to do with writing, I’d bet.”
My cheeks heated. “Yes. I teach some basic writing courses at the university and do a little freelance writing on the side.”
I emptied my coffee and steeled my nerves for the answer to my next question. “You said you had to get back to your Shelby, too. Is Shleby your wife?” I gritted my teeth and waited.
His brow furrowed in confusions for a moment before he burst into laughter. Loud, unrestrained laughter, that caused the heads of the other patrons to turn in our direction.
Finally, he quieted. “No, Shelby is not my wife. I said I had to get home to my Sheltie. I have a Shetland Sheepdog.”