Author: Jen Tidwell
Summary: Reflections on a night 20 years in the making.
Rating: “Hard” R
Warnings: Contains adult LGBT content
Copyright: © 2017 Jen Tidwell. All Rights Reserved.
Notes: Thoughts in italics
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
The glass of the window is cool against my forehead. I feel each spattered drop of rain strike against the outside – a scattered staccato – and try to calm the separate cacophony of rushing blood between my ears. I press my face harder against the glass, as if to will the chill of the pane to the rest of my body. My mind is racing, my heart is pounding. It feels as though a great, straining, high-pitched, squeal is seconds away from bursting from the knot in my throat. I swallow it back down and feel it settle at the top of my stomach – tight and forcibly restrained.
Beneath me the train swaps tracks, jostling me away from the glass.
This train. Why am I on this train? I should never have left the city. Not so soon after last night.
Last night. Last night. My god, last night.
This is ridiculous. I am ridiculous. I’m 38 years old but I’m sitting here, on this train, feeling like a giddy, love-struck, teenager. All over again.
I glance around to the other passengers, scattered here and there about the car, and double-check that none of them are looking my way. I’m certain that if they did, they’d be able to see me glowing and they’d know something about me I’m not ready to share. This glow is not for them. Not for their eyes. It’s for her. Her eyes only.
I close my eyes and press my lips together, as though the act of doing so will bring back the sensation of her mouth against mine: soft, sweet and wet. A low note thrums through the space below my belly-button and I push my hand into my stomach to stop the rush. Suddenly image on image like beads on a rosary race through my head as the memory takes hold and I’m in two worlds at once – the then and the now; I’m 18, I’m 38 – and the dual experiences of a life on hold and a life in progress mesh and spin and almost knock me out with intensity of the juxtaposition.
A fuzzy detachment wraps itself around me and outside the world slides by in slow-motion. I settle, cautiously, into my thoughts.
When I’d decided to come… to go… to the reunion, I didn’t think she’d be there.
What could possibly have brought her back? I’d skipped the ten year, knowing the risk of seeing her would have been too high – after all, doesn’t everyone go to the ten year? Mostly? But the twentieth. Who goes to that? Why did I? Isn’t that why Facebook exists now – to avoid taking part in the antiquated tradition of high school reunions?
I shook my head, trying to clear it of confusion. I’d dealt with this years ago. Took a hammer to every memory… every memento. Yet here it all was again. Fresh as yesterday. Fresh as last night.
I’d walked into the rented ballroom at the hotel. I’d stopped at the sign-in table for my name badge. My senior photo stared back at me through the plastic – shy, scared, alone; hiding behind a curtain of hair. Reluctantly, I’d pinned the stupid thing to my blouse and stepped passed the table to scan the room. Then I saw her, and the floor dropped out from beneath my feet.
There she was. Standing there in a room half-full. Looking gorgeous, radiant… the same. How could she look the same? Well… not entirely the same. Her face was a little more round and hints of crow’s feet tickled at the edges of her eyes. But otherwise. The same. Time-locked.
I stood perfectly still, fearful that if I took a step – in any direction – I’d fall away into nothingness. I could feel my knees trembling beneath my skirt. I worried they’d give out any second. I watched as she turned toward me, recognized my face, acknowledged my existence. She started toward me and I felt like a colt about to bolt. Somehow, I stood still, rooted to the spot.
“Emily. You came.”
My mouth was dry. Too dry to speak. Hesitantly, I nodded.
“I was hoping you’d be here. I…” She looked around, as though checking for spies.
“Can we talk?”
I’d known she’d spoken. I’d seen her lips move, forming words, but I couldn’t hear them. The waves of panic crashing against the inside of my ears had made me deaf. I shook my head, a tiny action, to indicate I hadn’t heard what she’d said.
“Oh. Ok. I… I can’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me. After…everything. I’ll leave you alone. It’s… it’s so good to see you, Em.”
She started to step away and stopped suddenly. She looked back at me curiously and then down to the space between us. I was holding her wrist. Grasping it tightly. I hadn’t even realized I’d done it. She gazed up at me questioningly; several ringlets of auburn hair fell forward, framing her face. I looked into the startling emerald pools of green that were her eyes and my heart stopped.
“There’s a café in the hotel lobby.”
I blinked. I nodded. She stepped passed me, tenderly pulling out of my grasp, and started for the door. I followed, like an obedient puppy. Just like I had so many years ago.
I was there again. Trailing behind her in the school halls. Always staying the appropriate distance away – so as not to arise suspicion from our classmates. We’d meet in the storage attic above the drama classroom, where some enterprising technical theater students had managed to shove a small love seat and easy chair, creating a sort of secret clubhouse for those in the know. I’d sit on the left side of the little sofa, sketching or reading. She’d stretch out, her head in my lap. Typically, she’d nap. Occasionally, we’d talk and share secrets, our fingers dancing with each other, tickling palms. Then, that day, twenty years ago, as we reclined in our usual positions, she slowly turned her face toward my body and kissed the button of my jeans. I remember freezing. Afraid to move. Afraid to breathe. My heart clanging around the inside of my rib cage like the hammer of a violently rung bell. I watched, enthralled, as she glanced up at me from the corner of her eye, then nosed the hem of my shirt up above the band of my pants and pressed her lips into my skin there. I dropped my notebook off the side of the armrest, and carefully rested my hand against the back of her head; impossibly soft red hair sifting through my fingers. She looked up at me and smiled: beatific and sweet, her tongue poking out slightly between her teeth. Propping up on an elbow, she reached up with her free hand, cradling my neck at the base of my skull and drawing me to her. I watched her eyes darken as I closed my own, and felt her lips brush against mine for the first time.
“Where would you like to sit?”
I blinked again. We were standing at the entrance to the hotel café. Back in the present. Twenty years older. Not teenagers anymore. I peered into the dimly lit space, seeing several tables for two, little tea-lights glowed inside the transparent globes dotting the tabletops. I looked back to her, and shrugged.
“Ok, um, over there?” She gestured to an empty table near the center of the café. I nodded and followed her. Again.
We sat down and for what seemed like ages of minutes said nothing, each fidgeting in our seats. A waiter came by. She ordered Grey Goose and soda over rocks. I stuck with water. My head was swimming enough already. We stayed there, in silence, waiting for the drinks to be delivered. I could feel her looking at me intently; examining…remembering…perhaps even judging. My looks had changed, unlike hers. Compared to her I felt old and haggard. I kept my eyes trained to a spot on the edge of the table… an imperfection in the wood. Finally, the drinks delivered, she reached quickly for her glass, and took a steadying sip.
“You, um… you look the same.”
I looked at her disbelievingly. This was how she was going to start? With a flattering lie?
“Except…brunette now. It’s pretty.” She took another drink. Setting down her glass, she rubbed her thighs with the palms of her hands. “I’m so nervous. I can’t believe how nervous I am. You know the kind of nervous you feel when you meet someone famous?”
I shook my head. I’d never met anyone famous. Nor had I ever sought anyone famous. But I understood what she meant by feeling nervous. I was sitting across from her, a jangled bag of nerves in a new outfit, terrified to move for fear of shattering into a million pieces.
“Well, um… that kind of nervous.” She looked to her glass, as though willing it to be full again and then puzzled her fingers together in her lap. “You’re… you’ve been… this big thing in my mind… kind of like a celebrity, I guess. Anyway, you know… just… big…and important… and, um… special. You know?”
I just looked at her. The way we’d left things so long ago hadn’t made me feel very special.
“I’ve been waiting twenty years to apologize.”
I felt the world close in around me… black at the edges.
Her lips were sweet and tasted like the Dr. Pepper lip-gloss she liked to buy at the Target near her house. And they were soft, and insistent and everything I’d ever dreamed they would be. She pushed herself up on the love seat, our lips separating only by necessity, and then coming together again, once she’d settled herself – seated in my lap, her arms wrapped around my neck, her hands tangling into my hair. I folded my arms around her back, my palms flat against her lithe frame; cradling her as our mouths danced. I couldn’t believe this was happening. This was joy. This was perfection. This was everything I’d ever wanted in my life… from her… for me. I felt a profound throbbing in my most private place, a level of arousal bordering on painful that I’d never experienced. This was her effect on me. On its own, my hand started to slide under the back of her shirt. I felt her whimper softly as she opened her mouth against my lips and our tongues touched. She tasted like electricity. A surge of wetness rushed between my legs. This, I knew, was heaven.
This, I knew, was right.
We were so caught up in each other we didn’t hear the hatch door open. Didn’t hear the footsteps on the ladder. Didn’t hear a thing until the half-scream, half-gasp, that startled us apart.
“Oh, my god, you guys are total lesbos!” It was the unmistakable voice of Ophelia Lloyd, senior drama diva. “Holy shit, Melanie, check this out.”
Suddenly, my lap was empty as she scrambled off me, as though I had some disease she could catch. The hot place on my thighs where she had been began to cool rapidly, like vapor-breath disappearing from a window pane.
“No, Lia, wait. It’s not what you think.” Her voice was desperate and terrified.
“Oh yeah? ‘Cause it seems pretty obvious to me.”
“No… no it was… it was a joke. A prank.”
I felt my heart cave through my chest and into the cushion at my back. A prank?
“A prank?” Clearly, Ophelia didn’t believe it either.
“Yeah, um…” she glanced at me, her green eyes wild with fear, waiting for me to back her up. Too shocked and hurt to speak, I said nothing. “A prank. You know to mess with… Alex and Jesse?”
“Really.” Ophelia crossed her arms, not buying it.
“Yeah. They normally come up here after lunch and we thought it would be funny to mess with them. We only started…um… faking the whole thing when we heard the hatch start to open….”
From behind the safety of my hair, I watched Ophelia’s face as she scrutinized the lame explanation.
“Okay.” She shrugged, seemingly mollified. Whether she really believed it or not, I didn’t care. It’s not like I had a reputation to ruin. There were only a few weeks left until graduation, anyway.
A blonde head poked up through the hatch. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing, Mel. Just an April Fool’s Joke gone wrong, apparently.”
“But it’s May?”
“Exactly. Now can you two lame-brains clear out? We need the room.”
I clumsily grabbed for my notebook and book-bag and rushed passed them all, practically falling down the ladder in my haste to get away. I couldn’t let them watch me go to pieces. Wouldn’t let them see the tears of rejection spilling down my face.
“I’ve been waiting twenty years to apologize.”
I regarded her across the table.
“The only reason I even came here tonight was because I’d hoped that you’d be here.”
“I’d hoped that you wouldn’t.” They were the first words I’d spoken to her in twenty years, and I’d surprised myself with the cruelty of them. But it was true. I’d said the words softly, almost to myself, and I’d watched her curl in on herself at the utterance.
I should have just stayed silent. Speaking my mind was never my forte.
“No, it’s ok. It’s fair. I’d not want to see me, too.”
She’d chased after me down the hall, passed the color-coded lockers, catching me before I ducked into the first available empty classroom.
“Emily, wait.” I felt her tug on my arm. I stopped and turned to her, keeping my head down.
“Was it a j-joke?” I willed my eyes to look up at her.
A horribly long, breathless, silence filled the air between us. I could hear the gears turning in her head. It shouldn’t have taken this long to answer a simple question. My stomach churned. I felt like I was going to be sick.
“Was it r-real?”
I watched her eyes grow sad. Knew I wasn’t going to like the answer.
“It was… a test.”
“Like an experiment.”
“An exp-p-peri–…” I felt the world tilt sideways, and leaned against the lockers for support. Bile churned up into my throat. “I h-have to–” I slapped my hand over my mouth and ran, bolting for the nearest bathroom.
I focused. Tuned my ears to the present tense: the soft instrumental jazz of the café’s soundtrack, the sounds of utensils on plates, murmured conversations.
I looked up at her again. She was so beautiful. It’s almost unfair how beautiful she still was. How could someone who had hurt me so badly, still look so lovely?
“I feel awful for everything I put you through. I’m sure you’ve moved on with your life by now. But, I haven’t. I mean… every day… not a day goes by that don’t…” She bit her lip. “Can we start over? Like, completely over?”
I didn’t know what to say. She wanted to start over. How? Why? What was the purpose? Had she really been dwelling on what had happened all this time? Was I some sort of reparation she felt she needed to make for her own reasons?
She thrust her hand toward me, her expression open and unguarded. “Hi. I’m Julia.”
I felt my mouth pull to the left, unbidden, into an amused smirk. I stared at her hand, hovering in the space between us: patient and hopeful. My right hand twitched in my lap; it wanted to join hers. I clenched it into a fist. I wasn’t ready yet.
I closed my eyes and felt the cool of the tile under my jean-clad knees as I grasped the porcelain bowl, retching into it violently. Tears and snot mingled together off the tip of my nose, and the sensation and the taste as they coalesced with the remains of my lunch made me heave that much more.
“Emily?” Her voice came from behind me, bouncing off the tiled walls and plaster.
“Emily, are you okay?” I sensed her come up to me, standing at the stall door.
“G-go.” I coughed the word out between retches. I so desperately wanted to be unseen.
“I’m not gonna leave you like this. This is my fault, I–”
“Don’t.” I managed to catch my breath. I grasped at the toilet paper roll, tore off several sheets and hastily wiped my mouth. Dropping the used tissues into the bowl I flushed everything away, trying frantically to forget the whole terrible situation. I refused to turn my head to look at her, keeping my eyes locked on the polished metal hardware of the plumbing. “Go away. P-please.” The final word came out almost like a keening cry of mourning. It sounded awful and raw, a perfect demonstration of exactly how I felt. The sound of her footsteps, followed by the open and shut of the bathroom door, and I had what I’d begged for. I was alone. I curled around my backpack as I leaned up against the stall wall and wept until I’d run out of tears.
I looked up at her across the table, her eyes dashed back and forth between her hand, good-naturedly waiting, and my face, which I kept as neutral as I could manage. Her features wavered briefly, from hope to disappointment. Her arm slowly started to lower itself in defeat.
I made my decision then. I gradually reached forward, and took her hand in my own.
She beamed at my acceptance, her face momentarily lighting up the dark café.
“But, we can’t start over. Not completely.”
Her expression darkened slightly at my statement. “No…no, you’re right. Not completely. But… we can get to know each other again? Even just as friends?”
Friends? I felt my brow crinkle at her phrasing. ‘Even just as friends’ and it was a question. As if to just be friends was only the beginning. But the beginning of what?
“So, what have you been up to the last twenty years?” She winced even as she asked the question, recognizing immediately how lame it was.
“Tell me something.” Much as I hated to admit it, I was insanely curious. I also wasn’t ready to talk about myself. “Why have I been ‘big’ in your mind for so long?”
Her eyebrows rose up into her hairline. “Cutting right to the chase? That’s definitely not the Emily I remember.”
“I’ve had a long time to learn new skills.”
She shifted in her seat again and appeared to gulp. “I’m gay… now. Have been for a while.”
I tried very hard not to visibly react to her news. Inside my chest my heart started beating triple-time. It was definitely an odd place to start from as far as personal biographies went. There were only a few reasons I could think of that would cause her to start there, and I didn’t dare to even hope.
“I mean, I guess I’ve been gay always, but… you know…. Well, sometimes things can be confusing and it can take longer to figure stuff out.” She looked up at me, trying to gauge my reaction. Apparently, my attempt at implacability was working as she seemed unsatisfied by whatever she found on my features. “Anyway… that’s why you’ve been ‘big’ on my mind.”
My eyebrow quirked. “Because you’re gay?”
“Because I used you to figure myself out… because… I knew how you felt about me… back then… and…”
“And you knew you could take advantage–”
“No!” She blurted in protest and then blushed. “Um… well… yes. I mean… sort of.” She twisted her fingers together and apart repetitively. “I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I mean… I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t understand it. Does that make sense?”
I nodded, allowing her that much. The folly of youth. We were all guilty of it in some way or another.
“Are you still…?”
I smirked a little. “Still… what? Gay?” Or still in love with you?
“Yeah. I mean… yeah.”
I finally started to relax and allowed the tiniest bit of wall to come down. “A lot has changed over the past twenty years. But not that.”
She grinned, her classic child-like grin, and I felt my stomach flip inside my belly. The giddy sensation of twitterpation tickled at the edges of my emotions and I had to focus hard to keep the feeling at bay. I would not allow myself to be swept up until I really understood what was going on.
“When did you come out?” Definitely after high school. I knew that much.
I nodded. It was the standard story. “Met a girl…fell in love…”
I looked at her curiously, waiting for her to explain.
“More like… met a boy who called my bluff.” She continued off my look. “I kept trying really hard to be straight, and I wasn’t good at it. Apparently. He told me I was going to leave him for a woman.”
“Was it serious?”
“At first. But… ultimately…not a good match.” She sat back in her seat and crossed her legs. “What about you?”
“What about me what?”
“See… some things don’t change. You made me do all the talking in high school, too.”
“I let you do all the talking. Key difference.”
“Well, you have the floor now, Miss Maclay. Or… is it?”
“Is it what?”
“Still ‘Miss’… still ‘Maclay’?”
“Are you asking me if I’m single?”
She exhaled a soft chuckle. “Ok, are you a psychologist or a lawyer now or something?”
I laughed lightly, too. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I’m really giving you a hard time, aren’t I?”
“I guess it’s only fair.” She shrugged, and then leaned forward, her forearms pressing into her thigh. “I am… single, that is. Not a lawyer or psychologist or anything like that. I’m a computer programmer. I know – big surprise there, right?”
“I thought you’d wanted to become a lighting designer, for live theater.”
“I did. Or, I thought I did. But, really what I loved about it was the gadgetry – not so much the ‘painting with light’ part. Plus… turns out… not a very good painter.”
“I remember really liking your design for ‘Brigadoon’.”
Her brow knit in surprise. “You… you saw it? I didn’t figure you for going after… everything.”
“I stood in the back. It was the last production of our senior year. I wasn’t going to miss it – even though I’d quit the drama club.”
“Because of me.”
I decided to sidestep the statement. “It was a really lovely design.”
“Yeah, well… they don’t exactly scout for the next Broadway lighting designers in Rockaway high schools.” She sighed and picked at something invisible on her skirt.
“Anyway, I started at NYU and quickly realized I was out of my league as far as artsy creativity went, so I switched majors.”
“Where are you living now?”
“Brooklyn, I’ve got a place in Bay Ridge.”
“Fancy. You must be doing well.”
She shrugged. “I do OK.” She rapped her knuckle on the table. “Now come on, you’ve got to give me something about yourself. Come on, anything.”
I smiled. “I’m an occupational therapist.”
“Is that like a psychologist for businesses?”
I laughed. I was pretty sure she knew better and was just pulling my leg to get me to smile. It worked. “No. I help people who’ve suffered an injury relearn skills that have been impaired.”
She smiled sweetly. “That sounds like you.” I felt myself blush and looked away – her penetrating gaze a little too intense. She fidgeted a little, as though hesitant to ask her next question. “So do you do that locally, or…”
“West Long Branch.” I took a drink of water. I could feel myself warming to her more and more and it scared me a little.
Her face dropped. “Jersey? Oh god, how did that happen?”
I chuckled. “It’s not that bad. It’s a cute little community.”
“Yeah, but Jersey. And… and isn’t West Long Branch part of the shore? Snookie country?”
I couldn’t help but laugh at how genuinely appalled she was. “Yes and no. Yes, it’s technically part of the shore – sort of. No, I don’t see many ‘Snookie’ types.”
Her expression washed with relief on my behalf. I found it adorable. She was adorable. Some things never change.
A lull fell over us. We had so much to talk about and so little at the same time. After so many years we were as good as strangers to each other. Our paths had taken us in very different directions and the conversational distance between us wasn’t helped by my forced stoicism. I realized that, unless I wanted everything to stop right there, I needed to relax and trust in the fact that I was now a mature adult woman with agency and not a scared, heartbroken, teenage girl.
I didn’t know where this was going. Wasn’t sure what she wanted. What I wanted. I kept finding myself staring at her lips and, if I was honest with myself, at her chest. Her dress had a slightly plunging neckline and whenever she leaned forward it… It was distracting. I felt a strange ache start to form in my chest and had to quickly remind myself that this entire chat was most likely her making amends and nothing more. But I slowly realized that, even after everything, even after twenty years, a part of me still wanted more.
“We should get out of here.”
She’d spoken suddenly and I was startled at the implication of her words.
“Just to get some fresh air. Go for a walk?”
“Fresh air in New York City?”
“Ha ha.” She rolled her eyes. “I just think we should get out of here before any of our classmates filter out of the reunion and interrupt us.”
“Isn’t the point of these things to talk to old classmates?”
She captured and held my gaze. “The only person I came to see tonight is you.”
She’d spoken with such intense sincerity I felt the guts below my stomach drop and twist. I grasped at my belly to steady the feeling.
“Are you alright?”
I swallowed and tried to regain my composure. “Fine. Yeah, let’s, um…” I exhaled nervously. “Let’s go for a walk.”
She paid for her drink and I busied myself pretending to brush away lint from my blouse and skirt. After a moment, we stepped out of the café into the lobby and then exited the hotel onto 8th Avenue. I remember thinking it was odd that the reunion committee opted to book a hotel ballroom in Manhattan, rather than arrange something closer to the home of our alma mater in Queens. I supposed it was to make travel easier on those who lived or worked nearer to the heart of the city. Whatever the reason, I was grateful for the decision now. There was no risk of getting caught up in or by personal landmarks of the old neighborhood. We could keep ourselves almost completely separate from the past.
It was only a little after 9pm and the sidewalks and streets were still crammed with people. Locals and tourists wending their way through midtown. We were walking distance to Times Square and even Rockefeller Center – if we decided to play tourist. She started north on 8th and I kept pace at her elbow. After several blocks she guided us east down W. 40th Street, and I began to have an idea of where we were headed.
“A little late for a walk in the park, don’t you think?” They were the first words either of us had spoken since leaving the hotel.
She shrugged and attempted to ooze nonchalance. “For Central Park, definitely yes. But Bryant is made for nighttime.”
I couldn’t help but agree with her. The tiny park (only 4 acres compared to Central Park’s 843) was gorgeously well-lit by a border of triple-globe-topped street lamps. The inner lawn, about the size of a football field, glowed under high-powered flood lights. The New York Public Library main branch (made famous by countless films) stood in pride-of-place at the edge of the lawn, up-lit along the base to show off its beautiful, beaux arts-style architecture. Park-goers strolled through the trees under the golden glow of the lamps, and reclined in seats and on blankets scattered around the lawn. A large, inflatable, movie screen was set up at a dark corner of the lawn, near to the library, and a small crowd of viewers picnicked nearby, watching. It looked like a classic film, black and white, the audio muffled from the distance where we stood.
“It Happened One Night.”
My brow quirked, confused by the statement. “What did?”
“The movie… the one that’s playing over there? It Happened One Night is the title. Sorry, I should have prefaced.”
“No, it’s ok. It’s cool that you know that.” I watched her smile a little at the praise.
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, you know… the usual romantic comedy stuff. Two people who are meant for each other keep messing up. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, missed connections… you know…” She made an indefinable gesture, waving her hand loosely back and forth between us. “The main girl thinks that the main guy has deserted her when in fact he’s trying to fix everything, but maybe does it in the wrong way…”
“Uh-huh.” I was eyeing her closely. “So… are you a fan of classic cinema?”
“Um, not really. This is just a super famous one. One of my ‘Easy A’ courses in college was a film studies class. It was really more of a ‘movie-appreciation-slash-history’ type thing.” She looked away, as though eager to shift subjects again. “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten. I think the waffle place is open late?”
“Um, sure… that sounds great.”
We started to head for the corner of the park at 6th and 42nd. Again, our walk was silent, until she decided to broach a subject.
“Is it okay… can I say something… that I’ve noticed?”
“I don’t know. What are you going to say?”
She blushed, recognizing the silliness of her question. “Um… your… your stammer. It’s gone. Did you grow out of it, or…?”
“Why? Do you miss it?” I elbowed her playfully. I remembered her saying in high school that she thought my stutter was “cute”. I was just grateful to have finally put the impediment behind me.
“No…” She’d answered unconvincingly. “It was just a feature. Like, remembering someone’s eyes as blue and hair as blonde…”
“And here I am a brunette with no stammer. Are you sure you’re talking to the right Emily Sutton?”
She grinned. “Fairly sure… unless you grabbed the wrong name badge.” She pointed to the thing on my chest.
“Oh god!” I grasped at the offending article still pinned to my clothing. “I forgot I had it on.” I undid the clasp and pulled it off, looking for a waste bin to throw it in.
“Here.” She took it from my hand and tucked it into the side of her dress. “I’ve got pockets.”
“Handy.” I made a mental note to see if she ultimately threw away the badge or kept it.
“Very. It’s my favorite thing about this dress.” She pulled a different badge out to display. “I wasn’t too thrilled with my nametag either.”
I placed my hand behind hers, in order to take a closer look at her badge, and found myself breathless at the feeling of the soft skin of her fingers and the undeniable energy crackling through the connection. I dropped my hand and took a small step away. “Um, yeah… I think they picked the worst photos on purpose.”
She glanced at it again and then returned it to her pocket. “Yeah.” She scuffed her shoes against the sidewalk, toeing a small pebble in her path. “So… you’ll have to give me your secret.”
“Yeah… you know… the one for eternal youth.” She gazed at me appreciatively, not bothering to disguise the meaning in her glance. “You really do look incredible.”
I still didn’t believe her, but if she wanted to flatter me, I wasn’t going to argue. This time. “Well, it’s nice to know the virgin sacrifices have been paying off.” She chuckled and swatted at my upper arm. “Anyway, you’re one to talk. Look at you, you’re…” I stopped myself before I could say “gorgeous”. “Um… standing there looking like a teenager.”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “Hardly. I’ve got jowels.”
“You do not.”
“I do so! See?” She pointed along her jaw-line. I genuinely couldn’t see what she was talking about.
“I think you need to get your mirror fixed. You definitely don’t.”
“That’s the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in ages.” She looped her arm through mine and I tried not to stagger as my knees went weak at her sudden closeness. Her eyes lit up as we approached the Wafels & Dinges food kiosk. “Oh, hey! Here it is. What would you like? My treat.”
“You don’t have to…”
“I insist. Please?”
I chuckled at her persistence. “Alright. Just a waffle.”
“No toppings?! That’s like… against the law, I think.”
I adopted a faux-somber expression. “You’ve found me out. Since we last saw each other, I’ve become a hardened criminal – refusing waffle toppings up and down the east coast.”
“Despicable.” She shook her head in mock-disgust. “Well, there’s always a chance for reform. How about whipped cream?”
I rolled my eyes and laughed a little. “Ok, fine. But just a dollop.”
“One waffle with a conservative dollop of whipped cream, coming up.”
She stepped up to get in line while I meandered over to a vacant park bench. I dusted off a few bits of organic detritus – fallen leaves, a few twigs – and sat down. I took the time to observe her as she waited her turn. She clasped her hands in front of her body below her waist and bobbed up and down on her toes a little impatiently. She used to do the same thing when we were kids waiting for the ice cream van. I grinned in spite of myself. She looked over her shoulder at me and gave a little wave. I lifted my hand subtly in response, and relaxed into the boards of the bench’s back rest. I took a deep breath and let it out.
Glancing over my shoulder I looked back to the far corner of the park where the film was playing. Two characters, male and female, were in a small room. The man was finishing hanging up a blanket down the center of the room, I assumed to create some sort of privacy screen. He turned to the woman and started talking, apparently trying to convince her of something. Then he started disrobing one piece of clothing at a time until he threatened to drop his pants, and the woman scurried to the other side of the blanket. I giggled to myself at the scene. I recognized it a little, recalling that I must have seen it somewhere before. Probably some film retrospective or something.
“Here you go, milady.” I turned toward her voice as she spoke. “One waffle with whipped cream.” My eyes went wide as I took in the site of the little cardboard tray with a small, hand-sized, waffle topped with what could modestly be called a mountain of whipped cream on top.
“I know.” She winced. “I did say ‘conservative dollop’ and I guess this is their version of that. I can try to scrape some off if—”
“No, it’s fine… I, um, I’m always saying I need to up the whipped cream quotient of my diet.” I reached up and took the dessert from her outstretched hand. “Thanks.”
She sat down next me, close enough that our knees touched, and hummed happily over her own treat.
“Wow, that is impressive. How many toppings is that?”
“Just three: strawberries, whipped cream and chocolate.” She eyed the confectionary bounty in her hands. “Gotta say this about the Belgians… they’re a generous people.”
I laughed. It was getting easier to laugh openly. She was charming and attentive and her proximity caused my head to start to swim again; made it impossible for me to ignore that the long-dormant feelings I’d worked so hard to bury were coming alive again within me. I felt my skin flush as our knees pressed against each other. Felt my ears burn and my tummy flutter. The closest thing I could compare it to was an alcoholic having their first sip of wine after twenty years sobriety. Only… I wasn’t sure if falling off the wagon in my case was a bad thing or not. Too many uncertainties. My mind screamed to my heart to center itself, calm down, and try to focus on something else. Purposefully, I redirected my attention to the little tray in my hands, searching for a utensil.
Her cheeks flushed like a child who’d been caught mid-plot. “Belgian street waffles are technically a finger-food…” My eyebrow arched critically. “I mean… I could go back and grab forks. They do have them. I just thought, ‘why not be authentic’?”
She revealed a stack of paper napkins from beneath her tray. “I brought napkins?”
She grinned sheepishly.
I snickered through my nose and shook my head, taking a few of the proffered sheets. I stared at the squat tower of whipped cream before me and started to devise an approach. I was about to carefully lift the dessert to my lips when I looked at her and let out a blurting yelp of amused shock. She’d apparently decided to ‘dive right in’, taking a bite from the base of the waffle and ending up with whipped cream smeared across her cheeks, nose and upper lip. She looked back at me owlishly, aware that she’d made a mess of herself.
“How bad is it?”
I pursed my lips together in a tight grin, trying very hard not to completely fall out into laughter. I raised my hand in front of my face and made an all-encompassing motion. “It’s sort of… all over.”
“Oh god.” She set her tray on her knees and broadly wiped across her face a few times with a napkin. “Did I get it all?”
I smirked. “There’s a little, um…” I tentatively reached up with my hand and gently caressed her cheek with my thumb, removing the last little trace of cream there. She leaned into my touch and toward my face. We hovered there for a moment, our lips centimeters apart, the air crackling between us. I could feel the magnetic pull; it would be so easy to give in to it. But then, my wits came back to me and I drew away, resting my hand back in my lap against the cardboard dessert tray there.
“What are we doing?”
My voice was soft and laced with apprehension. “What are you doing? What is this?”
She blinked, caught off-guard by the questions. “What? I… I don’—”
“What do you want from me, Julia?” It was the first time I’d spoken her name aloud, not just that night, but in years. “What am I…to you?”
She let out a long slow breath, and looked up into my eyes. “Everything.”
I felt my heart squeeze tightly in my chest. The strange, dull, ache that had been isolated there spread over my body and I felt hot and cold all at once. My scalp tingled as I felt the blood drain from my face and once again the world tilted on its axis. “Wh-what?”
“Emily, using you like I did was the worst mistake of my life. I don’t think it’s possible to have a bigger regret than how I hurt you. Somehow, at the time, knowing you had such deep feelings for me made it… I don’t know… easier, somehow?, to ignore my own. I was caught up in the labeling of things and not the meaning of them.” She was speaking quickly, almost rapid-fire; as though if she didn’t get everything out at once it would never be said. “I thought that to be a thing was to do a thing. I was testing myself that day. Not you. But… it took getting older to understand how horrible I was to you. And to realize that I was… had been…” She drifted into a short silence and then seemed to gather her courage again. “Still am… in love with you.” She took another quick breath and continued. “I’ve had a few girlfriends over the years but none of them…. There wasn’t a good fit. Because there’s only one person in this world I think I’m meant to be with. And yeah, I did know that ‘It Happened One Night’ would be playing here tonight and I did sort of scheme to get you here. And the waffles and whipped cream was on purpose too. Only I’d pictured you getting it on your nose and me wiping it off and it would be sweet and romantic and…. I… I still don’t even know if you’re single. I could be sitting here pouring my guts out and you could be dating or engaged or even married and she took your last name and—”
“Stop.” She stopped. “I’m not… any of those things. I’m…alone… Single.” A massive wave of tension seemed to drain from her shoulders. “But, we don’t know each other. Not anymore. You’ve obviously built me up to be this…mythic…figure in your mind. The answer to some great question. But what if I’m not her?” I’d spoken with as much care and tenderness as I could manage given the maelstrom of emotion pounding through me. “You’ve spent the past 20 years building me up and I’ve spent it trying to…break…this hold you and… that day… have had on me.”
Her eyes were watery. Her lower jaw jutted slightly forward as she breathed shallow breaths into her chest. I watched as her nose started to pink with embarrassment and sadness. “So… you’ve been trying to…forget me?”
“I could never forget you. You’re like…graffiti…on my heart. No matter how many coats of paint I try to cover you up… you’re still there.” I felt myself on the verge of tears and suddenly I realized I’d made the choice to interrupt her spell. I’d known what she was doing the whole time, and I could have just let it happen and might have been happy with the outcome. But I couldn’t let her drive the narrative a second time. I needed things to be on my terms. Maybe she was right. Maybe we were meant to be together. It could be why neither of us had had a serious long-term relationship. Why neither of us had been able to let go of the other. I handed her one of my napkins; she dabbed at her eyes.
I stayed still for a moment, watching her collect herself, and felt another realization wash over me. “It’s all down to you, isn’t it?” She gazed at me through wounded, red-rimmed, eyes – not understanding what I meant. “It’s always been down to you.”
Even as I said the words, I knew what I needed to do; and it would be for me this time. I reached up and placed my hands on either side of her face, drawing her to me. I leaned up slightly and pressed my lips to her forehead, and then dropped them to within millimeters of her mouth and whispered against them. “This is a test.” I made the connection then, her lips to mine, and the world exploded in electric light.
A sparking fire ignited in my belly as time stopped around us. I felt her wrap her arms around my body, pressing her hands into my back as she pulled me toward her. Absently, I felt the cardboard plate slip from my lap and fall to the ground and imagined hers had met a similar fate. My hands slipped up into her hair as I opened my mouth against hers, inviting her inside. The floodgates were open. This was proof of concept in its brilliant, most-glorious, form. I’d never dreamed it was possible to hear music while caught up in an embrace and yet, now I would swear under oath, it was there. A swelling of strings like violins rose up around us, wrapping us in the privacy of sound. Even if it was only in my head, it felt as though the rest of the world was locked outside. My heart raged with elation. My mind was void of anything but the sensation of her lips on mine, her body held close and my skin turning to goose-flesh as her soft tongue explored my mouth. This was a kiss of our own invention. If love and lust combined were like rocket fuel, this was lift-off.
We pulled apart, for no other reason than air. Our foreheads rested against each other as we gasped in each other’s faces.
“Are you staying in town?” Her question bounced hot and breathy against my cheek.
I nodded. “At the hotel.”
And then we were there. Logically, I knew we must have walked the six blocks or so back, gotten in the elevator and traveled up to my floor. But somehow the entire journey was washed from my memory as we made it inside and she pushed my body back against the door – her mouth greedily seeking out my own. Her kiss was rapacious; it chewed at my lips and lapped at my tongue and made me burn with hunger for her. I pulled myself against her, forcing us back into the small room, our knees knocking together as we stumbled and bumbled unwilling to stop our mouths for even a moment.
Her hands slid to the waist of my skirt, wantonly slipping inside and untucking my blouse. Her fingers inked lusty messages into the skin of my low back. “Is this alright? Is this what you want?” She murmured the words, as though speaking them any louder would snap me back to my senses.
“We’ve waited long enough.” I claimed her mouth again with my own and thrust my hands under the neckline of her dress, pushing it insistently off her shoulders, the material falling and bunching at her elbows. She dropped her arms, allowing the sheer fabric to slide from them, the dress stayed clinging to her waist. My hands flew to the buttons of my blouse, hastily undoing them and flinging the thing off to the floor. We stood, topless, in front of each other; our chests heaving, straining at the material of our bras – mine white, hers black. I stared at her breasts, watched them rise and fall unevenly as she panted with excitement. I studied her eyes, and the warmth of her darkening emerald gaze spread through my body like kneading fingers. The air crackled between us – sparkled with the electricity of want, the current of need.
Slowly, she reached behind her back and undid the clasp of her bra, the lacy material fell forward, revealing the pale hillocks of her breasts. My mouth went dry, my eyes traced the dusting of freckles that dipped into the shallow valley of her chest. Her skin was like cream speckled with cinnamon. Lifting my gaze to hers, a silent agreement passed between us, and we finished undressing; presenting ourselves to each other. Every uncertainty that was left in my mind fell with the fabric to the floor.
I leaned forward and caressed her lips with my own. She sighed into my mouth, wrapped her arms around my body, pulling me to her. I realized with full clarity as our skin pressed against each other soft like velvet, firm like wanting: this was happening. After twenty years, this would be our first time.
Starting right now.
I shifted my weight, pushing us down onto the bed, still tangled together. She giggled against my lips and rolled us to the center of the mattress – her body hovering over mine. She kissed me hotly, her ravenous hands traveling up and down my body, libidinal and curious, mapping my flesh. I allowed her to explore. My hands clutched at her shoulder blades, nails raked gently across her skin. She bent her head to my breasts and I arched into her mouth, gasping; pops of yellow and white bursting in front of my eyes. I squeezed them shut and saw the remnant spots of ghost red against my eyelids. She’d made me see stars. I pulled her face back up to mine and crushed our lips together. Pressed my hands against her back and pushed her down, properly on top of me, our chests mashing together, and maneuvered us onto our sides.
I slid my hand up, cupping her small breasts, running my thumb over their peaks; delicately pinching and caressing; relishing her gasps and whimpers as she reacted to my licentious touch. She clutched at my hips and squeezed at my bottom; I sighed and drew my knee up, wrapping my thigh over her waist. I felt her hand slide between my legs, felt her fingers curl into me, and I gasped wetly.
I clutched at her back, clung to her shoulders, our sweat-slicked skin sticking together as my hips rocked against her hand – taking her in again and again; deeper and deeper. I buried my face into her neck and inhaled the salty tang of sweat, tasted the sweet cream of flesh. Finally, I let my own passion lead me, and slid my hand down, across the silky expanse of her belly, through downy auburn curls and into wetness – into her. A bleat-like cry came from the back of her throat as my fingers were encircled in her warmth. I pressed into her softness, imprinting her with my touch. If she was graffiti on my heart, I would be a tattoo on her soul.
She rolled her hips in time to the thrust of my hand, the rock of my hips; the flat of her palm rubbing the source of my want, her fingers inside me, shaping and fluttering. We moaned, and sighed, and breathed each other’s hot breath and suckled each other’s lips swollen from wanton kisses. My body hummed as the ultimate sensation built and rose within my core, felt the precipice approaching closer and closer. Our rocking became frantic, our hands thrusting wildly, our rhythm faltering into chaos. I felt her body go rigid against mine, felt the word rise up from her chest and onto her tongue; and the word was my name, and I held it on her lips with my mouth.
She was still for a moment, save for a few involuntary shudders, and then I felt her start to move again – inside me, against me. She suckled on my neck and the rush of sensation that had momentarily stalled on the cusp resumed course and moments later; a yawning of energy, an electric fire, an explosion of everything and for a moment the world went white and then a cry I didn’t recognize as my own voice ripped from my throat.
We lay quietly for several long moments, trembling and panting. And I thought about her and I thought about me and I thought about sex and how, when you’re a single adult, it doesn’t necessarily mean as much. How sometimes it can just be something you do for fun, because it feels good. I thought about how taking her to bed had started as a test; a trial on my terms. But this, what we’d just shared, hadn’t been sex. It was something greater, deeper; profound and beautiful. It had been love. I wondered if she had managed to write our story after all. And, if she had, I was grateful.
She reached up with a shaky finger and traced the outline of my jaw, the curve of my lips, and I smelled the sharp tang of my lust on her skin. I swallowed, trying to steady my racing heart; trying to slow my heaving breath. Her gaze darted from my eyes to my lips and back again. “I love you.” The words passed over her lips unsteadily, but in earnest. She waited for my reply. I kissed her deeply instead, for now.
We snuggled down under the bed sheets. The soft cotton cool against our over-heated skin. Our hands roamed up and down each other’s bodies, tracing lazy patterns. We kissed again, slowly and sleepily. Eventually, emotionally and physically exhausted, we drifted to sleep.
The next morning – this morning – I left her sleeping in my hotel bed. I quietly dressed, wrote her a quick note explaining I had to catch a train, and left my phone number under my name next to a cartoon heart. I kissed her temple tenderly, soft enough so as not to wake her and slipped out into the hall.
I walked the short distance to Penn Station feeling the pavement rise to meet my feet as I pulled my small overnight bag behind me. The morning sun stretched my shadow to a length that matched how tall I felt. The city was just waking up. It never truly slept – but the mornings were still quiet. I purchased my ticket and made it to the platform in plenty of time to catch the NJT 7221 back to Long Branch.
Why had I done that? Why had I left? It’s not like there weren’t other trains running, every hour. I’d left her alone. The person I didn’t know I’d been waiting for for twenty years…and I’d left her alone. What is she going to think of me? I left her my phone number, but I didn’t get hers. I’d been so high on love and her and the after-glow this morning I may as well have been drunk. Maybe I kept to my original schedule because it felt sturdy, and familiar, and…planned.
I’ve shed the fuzzy blanket of detachment I’d enjoyed reliving the previous night in my mind and now I glance around the train car, once again clear-eyed. The seats are occupied with different faces – riders who had gotten on replacing those who had gotten off at earlier stops.
We’re getting close to home. We just pulled away from Middletown station, which means only Red Bank and Little Silver remain before the train reaches my destination. I shake my head and rub at my face with my hands. I am so stupid. I’d wanted to control the narrative this time, but I’d written it out of my hands and back into hers. I can only hope that she’ll call me. I can only hope that she’ll forgive me and I can only hope it takes her less than twenty years to do so.
I turn my gaze back to the window. The rain that had started somewhere around Rahway has subsided as we’ve traveled further south. I watch the rooftops of old houses race by as the train rolls on, trying with little luck to settle my thoughts. Everything has changed. I was looking for someone to complete me and hadn’t realized she’d always been a part of my life.
The train pulls into Long Branch station as my mind continues to swirl with panic and mixed emotions. I stand from my seat and pull my overnight bag from the luggage rack overhead. I move purposefully, trying to calm my inner turmoil with a steady gate. Leaving the platform, I take the stairs down into in the pedestrian underpass leading from the tracks to the parking lot beyond.
As I summit the steps up to the other side, the mid-morning sun filters down into my eyes, momentarily dazzling me. As I reach the top step, my vision clears, and for a long moment I wonder if my eyes are deceiving me.
I can only gape at her. Here she is standing in front of me. A redheaded miracle.
“Oh my god, Emily. We… we must have been on the same train.”
She reaches into her pocket and pulls out the note I’d left back at the hotel. “When I woke up and saw this… I wasn’t sure how early you’d left. I figured you must have already been gone for hours.” She tugs at her wrinkled dress. “I threw on my clothes and raced to Penn Station and barely caught this train…” She looks at me, sheepish and worried. “I… I hope you don’t think I’m some weird stalker-person now or something….”
I rush to her, closing the distance between us in an instant, and throw my arms around her shoulders, pressing my lips against her mouth. At first she’s startled, but then I feel her relax against me and my kissing becomes less frantic as I realize that she is real… and she is here… and she is mine.
We pull apart and I rest my forehead against hers, just as I had last night. “Thank you for being a weird stalker-person.”
She giggles and pecks at my lips. “So…um… I didn’t actually have a plan beyond just getting here.”
“How about breakfast?”
She smiles, open and child-like. “Will there be waffles?” She grins cheekily and pokes her tongue between her teeth.
“Definitely. With toppings.”
She bounces happily and I can’t help but laugh like a giddy fool. I take her hand and lead her to my car, onward to breakfast and then into the future.