Stopover

“Hi. You beat me here. Have you ordered?”

“Just coffee.”

“Miss… Another coffee, please?”

“How long will you be in town?”

“I’m just passing through. I stopped for gas. I decided to drive for a change, instead of flying. See the country and take some time to think.”

“Sure.”

“I wasn’t going to stop.”

“Looks like you changed your mind. It’s been a long time.”

“Seems like forever. Seems like yesterday.”

“You look good. Rumpled, as usual.”

“I’ve been driving, but yeah, I guess I’m still the rumpled type. You look good. Better than ever. When I came in and saw you, I…”

“Let’s not get carried away. A long time is a long time.”

“Is that a new scar in your eyebrow?”

“I got clocked by my son’s dump truck in the sandbox.”

“I heard about your marriage. Fill me in.”

“Let’s see. Got over you. Met a man. Got married. Two kids. I teach at a community college. It’s a quiet life. All of a sudden I’m halfway to forty. What about you?”

“No wife. No girlfriend at the moment. No children. Making a living with the writing. Never got over you.”

“Whoa.”

“I’m sorry. Where did that come from? No, I know where it came from. I just didn’t think I’d actually say it. Stupid.”

“You never came back. Never wrote.”

“Sorry. Pretend I didn’t say that. Forget I said that. ”

“Said what?”

“Right. Thanks. After you married, I couldn’t imagine coming back… So we’re both thirty-five. How did that happen?”

“Get yourself two kids, a teaching job, and a husband who flies airplanes and you’ll find out.”

“It went by fast?”

“Fast enough. You?”

“Fast, but a grind. I never thought I’d make it to thirty. In my head I’m still in my twenties.”

“You were thirty-five at nineteen. I’ve kept up with your work. On the page, you sound like you’re in your fifties.”

“My God.”

“No, it’s a good thing. You impress the hell out of me. You always did. When I read your stories, I sense a very large spirit.”

“You know me better than that. Evelyn Waugh came across as a wonderful human being in his books. He wasn’t. I write like I write, but it’s just a style. It comes naturally. I spend my days alone in a room. If I ever had a spirit, it’s shrunk to the size of a raisin.”

“That’s not what the media says. You’re in Paris, you’re in Vientiane. You’re in Bali. You’ve got a girl on your arm.”

“I’ve seen the world, that’s for sure. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do with travel. And then some.”

“Did it change you, seeing the world?”

“Travel changed my perspective but I don’t think it changed me.”

“And the women on your arm?”

“On the arm. Not in the heart.”

“Poetic.”

“Sorry.”

“I won’t lie. I’m almost jealous.”

“You don’t look jealous. You look…”

“What?”

“I’m trying to remember. I know this look. It always got to me. It’s a wary look. Not a happy look. By the way, did you pick this booth on purpose?”

“Of course.”

“You’ve probably been in it a time or two since I left.”

“Many times. With my two kids standing where you’re sitting, looking over into the next booth and giggling. You always said you wanted children.”

“I do want children, but I need a wife first.”

“I’m amazed you’re still single. You seemed so pro-marriage. You said you’d marry me on the spot if I’d go with you. How close have you come since then?”

“You’re as close as I’ve come, and I blew it.”

“…Yes, refill it please. Thanks.”

“There’s that look again. I’m sorry. I’ll restrain myself. It’s just that I’m sitting here having feelings I didn’t expect to have. I’d say more than I already have if I thought it would do any good.”

“So we’re getting right to it? No, it wouldn’t do any good for you to say more, but I won’t lie. You and me together, that was the best time of my life. Followed by you and me apart, which was the worst, and I’m sitting here remembering it.”

“I don’t need to remember it, because I never forgot it. If you could do it over, would you make the same choice?”

“To stay here and go to college instead of running off with you?”

“Yes. Knowing what you know now.”

“I have my children now. That changes everything. Permanently. I’d stay, because otherwise, my children wouldn’t be here, and they mean more to me than you or my husband. So no, I wouldn’t go with you. What about you? Would you still go, knowing what you know now?”

“No, of course I wouldn’t. I could have sat in a room here and written just as well as I did in New York. I didn’t understand that then, but I understand it now. I didn’t have to leave, at least not then. I could have married you and learned my craft, and your children would have been our children and I would have saved myself ten years of regret. No, of course I wouldn’t have gone.”

“You know, I said that I got over you. Most of the time I do think I’m over you, but I don’t have any romance in my life to speak of, any more than you do, if you’re telling the truth. But then, most married couples don’t. Romance is for when you first meet and feel like you’re walking on air. It doesn’t last.”

“It lasted for us, as I recall.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have lasted forever. It would have been gone by now.”

“It doesn’t feel gone. Were you walking on air when you married your husband?”

“I love my husband. Did I say that already? Well, I do. He’s a friend. I trust him. I like him. I admire him. There was never any romance there, at least on my side, but even if there had been, like I say, it would have been gone by now. My days are about my children and my students and a man who sometimes wants me to be his mother and sometimes his housekeeper, who spends his time with flight attendants while I spend mine here in town with the same friends I’ve had all my life. What I don’t spend a lot of time doing is thinking about you and me. I wasn’t going away with you and you weren’t staying here, so now I’ve got my life and you’ve got yours. Our life together, our love, that just got… cut off, I guess. It got cut off the night you walked out of here. Ten years from now, neither of us will remember or care. Ten more and we might forget to mention it to our grandkids if they happen to ask, which they won’t.”

“You’re that bitter?”

“I’m realistic.”

“You don’t sound realistic. You sound angry. Listen. Life in the future doesn’t have to be like life in the past. Just because you’re not in love now doesn’t mean you can’t be.”

“Fine. Those women on your arm? Is that your future?”

“Those women on my arm equal several years of bad dates… All I’m saying is, sometimes you can see the error of your ways and turn it around and do something different.”

“As in, I could go home and collect the children and leave with you now? Like I didn’t before?”

“No, I didn’t mean that.”

“As in, you’re staying here now, like you didn’t before?”

“Would that be so wrong?”

“I probably want it more than you do. But if you chop off your arm, you can’t change your mind later and decide to sew it back on again. It’s gone for good.”

“What kind of analogy is that?”

“A bad one. Let me think of another… You have a large patch of fertile ground. You could cultivate it, build on it, base your life on it. But no, you choose to let it lie fallow. A forest grows on it and animals come to live in the forest. Finally, years later, you change your mind. You decide that you want the fields and the home and a life based on that patch of land. To get it, you’ve got to cut down all the trees and kill all the animals and turn the place into a wasteland full of stumps.”

“Jesus. Go back to chopping off your arm, please.”

“Look, I’ve got regrets, just like you. Yes, I’m angry, at both of us, especially me. I’m bitter. But I also have a life. Maybe not the best life, but a good life.”

“I’m not angry or bitter, but I’ve got an ache that won’t go away. I’ve been stuck with it for a long time. I keep waiting for the regret to fade. It hasn’t. I thought that if I came back, if we talked, if I could look at you and sit down with you like this, it might pull me out of the past. It might help me heal.”

“Well, I’m so sorry about your healing, but something just got torn back open over here.”

“I was stupid to come. Selfish.”

“You were stupid and selfish not to come sooner. I’ve been waiting forever. I haven’t felt this alive since I supposedly got over you.

“Can I…”

“No you can’t. Don’t even think about it.”

“My God, you’re lovely… There was a moment that night when I finally made the choice to leave without you. I’d been thinking about whether I should or not, or could or not, but there was a moment that night when I finally decided. That was the moment I wounded myself, and the wound never healed. You’re right. I cut off my arm. I cut out my heart. Now I can’t separate the hurt from the memory. I love you but it doesn’t matter, because that stupid kid made that stupid decision. It’s as if a ghost or a curse won’t let me touch you again.”

“It’s not a ghost or a curse. It’s my children. It’s my life. I settled for less when you left. It didn’t cure the pain but it dulled it. Or it did until now. It gave me my family and my career.”

“I settled for less, too. I just didn’t know it.”

“It’s going to hurt like hell when you walk out that door.”

“I could stay.”

“That would hurt worse.”

“Can we do this again?”

“Sure. Give me an hour for the tears to dry. Make that a day. Make that a couple of years.”

“I’ll stop for gas on the way through.”

“Call me when you do.”