This is a short story I wrote probably 6 years ago. I think, looking back, it meant a lot more than I realized at the time I wrote it. I’m very happy with it as a character piece. Enjoy!
Evan couldn’t pull himself away from Valerie’s gaze. Her eyes, red and swollen, laced with tears, reminded him of where it had all began. It had started here, in the Starbucks on22nd Street, three years ago. Valerie wasn’t crying over him then. She had just stopped in for a cappuccino on her way to the funeral parlour; her father had passed away.
It was different knowing that the reason she felt pain was because of something he had done, something he could have so easily avoided by just listening to her. That’s all it would have taken, someone to give a damn.
“Brings back memories, doesn’t it,” Valerie said, wiping away a tear with her finger. She tried to cover up that she was hurting, but Evan knew her better than anyone.
There were roughly a thousand things he could have said but he knew not a single one would be what he wanted to convey. He was really sorry, yet sorry was so trivial. Evan nodded.
Valerie sighed and took a sip from her iced latte. Her hands were trembling. They often did when she was nervous. She breathed in, trying to take a deep breath but was only able to muster short staccato bursts, the way one often does when they cry.
“Emily is coming up tomorrow, helping me pack my things,” Valerie continued, nodding her head slowly. She looked out the window. It was unusually warm outside for October. “She hasn’t been up this way since last fall when we went on the hiking trip.”
“That’s good, Val, I’m sure it will be good to see her.” He stared into his coffee mug and took a deep breath when silence followed.
Valerie took another sip. Evan still thought the way her lips scrunched up over a straw was cute. She always half closed her eyes when she sipped from one. He couldn’t help but remember the silly straws they won at the summer carnival. Valerie had a wonderful time that night.
“Mom couldn’t make it. She really wanted to see you, but…well, you know,” Valerie said with a fading smile. “She understands, really she does. I think she’s going to miss you though, Evan.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Why are you doing this, Evan? Why are we doing this?”
“Doing what, Val?”
“We’re sitting in the same coffee shop we met in, pretending like it’s just another Saturday.”
“It is Val, it is just another Saturday.”
“No it’s not, Evan, no it’s not. Did you think asking me here would make it easier, or were you just being melodramatic again?”
“I did think it would be easier. I thought the memories might soften things a little.”
“Oh my god, Evan, this isn’t a damn movie. Do you even remember why I was here three years ago?”
“Yeah, of course, how I could forget Mr. Sensitive himself is sitting across from me,” Valerie said as the tears began to flow again.
“Look, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Well you did, Evan. I should just go.”
“No, please, wait.”
“Why, what can possibly come of this? It’s over Evan, you made sure of that.”
“I just… I don’t know… something.”
“Something?” Valerie asked, crossing her arms over her chest. Her forearms were red and Evan knew right away that she was furious. Her demeanor was the first sign, but she never stayed mad for long unless her forearms had turned red. That was the permanent angry. “Alright, well you come up with something. I’m going home.”
She stood from the chair, grabbed her purse and tucked it under her arm. Evan put his hand on her forearm.
“Please, give me time.”
“Time for what?” she snapped.
Evan looked down and stared at the table, unable to find anything to say to her. Three years of his life with a woman he loved. He couldn’t bear the thought that she would walk out that door and curse his name. Evan looked back up at her. She was a stone, impervious to anything he could possibly say.
“It’s over, Val. I guess I needed to come here to know for certain.”
It wasn’t what she had expected. He could tell by the way Valerie’s eyes squinted and how the left corner of her mouth twitched ever so slightly. They stood there, staring silently at each other for minutes. Valerie slowly sat down again.
“Do you remember when I said…”
“I don’t want to remember, Evan, I’m not here to reminisce. It took everything for me to get out of bed this morning. Please, spare me making even more of a scene, alright?”
“Do you remember when I said that I wanted to marry you because I loved you?”
“Yes,” Valerie whispered.
“Did you believe me?”
“Yes,” she whispered again.
“I don’t know Evan, because we had been together for long enough to know that you loved me?”
“See, that’s just it. When did it become about time?”
“I mean it, Val. That’s all we did, we… we aged together. We used to be alive, you know, there was this… thrill.”
“Is that what this is about… the sex?”
“I‘m not talking about sex Valerie, I’m talking about how we used to feel together. You grew distant, I stopped listening… I stopped caring. Nothing separated Monday from Tuesday except for what we ate in between. You never saw that, you still don’t!”
“You don’t think I ever felt any of that? I laid beside you every night feeling like I loved a stranger.”
“Why didn’t you say anything, then?”
“I did, Evan. But you were like a ghost. I swear I was alone all the time.”
“You deserved better than that,” Evan said.
“I know I deserved better, but I deserved it from you, not the next man who comes along. You owed me that much, Evan. Was it that hard to love me?”
“Then why are we here, why are we doing this to each other? Do you still love me?”
There was a long pause and Valerie wringed her hands together. Her eyes darted back and forth. Evan knew she was debating something in her head.
“No, I won’t do this to myself. I don’t want you back, Evan. It feels like I do, but every time I do this I get hurt. You had your chance to be with me, but you were too busy to notice I was gone.”
“I didn’t bring you here…”
“Let me finish. Let me speak and please for once, just listen to me.”
Evan nodded. He wanted to speak, but right now so did Valerie and it was her turn to escape the numbness that he knew they both felt.
“When my father started to overnight at the hospital, I came here to get away from it all. I couldn’t stand to see him suffer, and I knew deep down he was ashamed to be seen by mom and me. I never drank coffee until then, not until I came here. I saw you that day, Evan. I saw you a few times every now and then, tucked away in the corner reading your stupid fantasy books. God, I doubt you even noticed me.
It was like everything inside this place was safe, and I hate saying that about a place like this, but it could have been anywhere, Evan. It could have been at the mall or the bar… but it was here. When dad died, I came here to feel safe. I didn’t order a coffee, I just sat down and prayed that the day would end.
It didn’t end. Dad was still gone and I was still a grieving daughter sitting alone, coping the only way she knew how. You changed that. You changed everything by sitting down with me. You didn’t say a thing, you just sat there. In that moment, it wasn’t the place that made me feel safe, it was you.”
Valerie cried. She continued with a broken voice between gentle sobs.
“I’m sorry I put that on you, Evan. It wasn’t fair that you were the one to shoulder all of it, but you were my goddam hero that day.”
“Everyone loves a hero,” Evan said. He didn’t smile.
“Sometimes I wonder if maybe you thought I expected you to be a hero all the time. I never wanted that, I wanted you to feel comfortable with me. I never wanted that Evan, you need to know that.”
Evan nodded. He wanted to be her hero all the time, but he was only human.
“I… I just needed you to know that before I said good-bye,” Valerie said as she wiped the tears from her cheeks and blew her nose with a tissue. She stood up again and looked at Evan with sorrowed eyes. “I have to go, Evan. You wanted to meet here, is there anything you needed to say?”
Evan stood from his chair and stepped to Valerie. He wrapped his arms around her tightly, tears flowing from his eyes, and whispered into her ear.