Sara Smollett

December 2, 1998

Somehow the train was approaching the station. She was mostly glad of that. It was stuffy. The air was oppressive. It smelled faintly of old cheese. The trip had been a blur, she was almost surprised it had gone by so quickly, almost surprised she had even taken the trip as well. But really nothing could surprise her very much anymore, she thought, suppressing a bitter laugh.

She wasn't one for doing spontaneous things. She was a planner. She was constantly planning, and things went according to plan -- usually. No big surprises. It wasn't that she didn't like surprises, it was just that there weren't any in her life. She had a routine. She woke up at six, made breakfast, got Christie and Joshua ready for school, swam at the gym for half an hour, and went to her bookstore. She got home in time to meet the kids' bus, help them with their homework if they had any, and to make them snacks and dinner. Then she would write while Arthur got the kids ready for bed, and she and Arthur would ... no, she wasn't thinking about Arthur.

Right, the bookstore. Her bookstore. Work was often full of little surprises. She was always meeting people, helping them find books, talking to them about books. Lots of people quickly entering her life and just as quickly leaving, often without buying anything. But they were interesting, and she enjoyed making up stories about them: the young woman with the black beret who frequented her store but rarely said anything, the two men in business suits with cell phones, the families with kids who ran to the children's section.... She liked bookstores.

She had met Arthur in a bookstore, in the science fiction section to be precise. He was looking at a book she had read recently, and she, quite uncharacteristically, started up a conversation with him about it, encouraging him to read it. She remembered him coming across as witty and charming. That was eight years ago. Funny, how it seemed like so much longer.

No, the bookstore was still interesting. It was the rest of her life that was dull. She played a game on the bus coming home every day, asking herself "what did the kids do in school today?" and later "when will Arthur be home?" She'd answer the questions herself, making up outrageous stories about elementary school adventures. Sometimes she'd picture Arthur at home, playing with the kids or -- even better -- making dinner while the kids entertained themselves and she curled up on the sofa with a book.

Two months earlier she had come home and started dinner: spaghetti and meatballs, Josh's favorite, with garlic bread -- the garlic smell always wafted upstairs when she made garlic bread. It was only after dinner that she went to her room and saw the note on her bed. Arthur had been frequently working late frequently, drafting plans for a new office building. Often she would wake up the next morning and he was already gone, but he left a note for her, something sweet, often with a funny doodle. Maybe he'd been with a client in the neighborhood and stopped by.

She unfolded the note. "I'm sorry. I have to go away. It's for the best." She briefly considered that it was a mistake, a joke. But the meticulous handwriting was unmistakably his, and he wasn't one for that style of joke. There was no doodle. What? Who does that? Leaves their wife and children with nothing more than a note? (And no notes for the children; she would have found those when she read them their bedtime stories.) No explanation? No contact? No indication as to whether he was going away permanently, or temporarily? Who! Does! That! She was stunned. Nothing made sense. It was the first of many long sleepless nights, waiting.

For two months she had been living in a fog without him, without his notes, with two kids. True, she hadn't seen much of him even before he left, but somehow he was there for her. True, they didn't have the happiest marriage, and maybe she was just wishful or naive, but she really had no idea he would leave. Certainly not without talking about it first.

Tuesday at work, her assistant Nancy had taken her aside and said, quite bluntly, "you need a break." So now she too was just getting up and leaving. Only instead of leaving a note, she left her children, dropping them off at Nancy's house. They usually liked going to Nancy's house, with its big yard. She promised them she would be back by Sunday. She hoped they believed her.

At first she wasn't planning on going anywhere at all, just staying in their house in Lafayette, using the solitude to write perhaps. But that she soon realized was no good. It was too quiet. And too filled with memories. Whenever she was younger and stressed out, she had always gone for drives. In her first year of college she and her roommate had taken off two days before finals, just driving. They barely made it back in time to take their exams. She had been spontaneous then. She could be spontaneous again.

But Arthur, who had taken so much else from her life, had taken the car too. So instead, she packed a bag, took the bus to the train station, and bought tickets. That was yesterday. She stayed on the train for hours, watching the grey blur into blue and the yellow into green until it was dark. It seemed that the trees were moving, not her. She hadn't moved at all. Inside the train nothing was real. And now she was arriving. She got her bag and put away her fantasy book, mostly unread.

She stepped onto the platform, surrounded by the sounds of jazz that filled the station. She felt fine. No, she felt ill. A few cups of coffee helped. She watched other travelers come and go. It seemed she had been living off of coffee and sleeping pills for years, but it had only been eight weeks.. She was so anxious for something, anything.

New Orleans beckoned her. And yet, although there were many things she could do in the city, she didn't have any plans. She had several friends she could visit, but she wasn't ready to see them, not ready for their questions, questions she didn't have answers to. Perhaps she could stay at the station until the morning. Or find a motel and try to get a good night's sleep. Sleep sounded appealing. She headed for the travel brochures, grabbed the first two off the rack, and headed for the pay phones. No, she needed more coffee. And a newspaper to read with her coffee. She didn't want to watch other people with their plans, people coming and people leaving.

And then a surprising thing happened. Not a little surprising thing, like Christie coming home with a tadpole or a cold, but a big surprising thing, almost as big as Arthur not coming home. There in the paper was the name "Phil Patterson". Phil, her steady boyfriend in college.

Phil, her first major love, whom she had almost ended up marrying. God, it had been so long since they'd spoken. They had gone out for two and a half years in college, until the beginning of their last semester. They had been talking about getting engaged. And then one morning she woke up sick and didn't want to see him. They broke up soon after that. She still had the last letter she received from him. He sent it to her the summer after graduation. She always meant to respond to it, but she, who was usually so good with words, never knew what to say. She had even written a few letters, but those all quickly ended up in the trash. She hadn't thought of him for so long. Two and a half years of her life, really, and she had just completely forgotten about him. But recently she found herself thinking back on her college days.

And now here he was in the paper. Co-organizing a conference in Atlanta. What a strange coincidence. Was the universe trying to tell her something? Her mind was screaming that it would be a bad idea to visit him in her current state -- she wasn't even ready to see the college friends she had kept in touch with, but she knew she was going to do it nonetheless. She threw out the remainder of her coffee and bought tickets to Atlanta. She was a take-charge person, and now, free of responsibility, she was taking charge of her life.

Unlike the last train ride, this train ride was different. She had somewhere to go. She was, as she wrote in one of the small notebooks she always carried with her, "running, not away, but towards herself".

At 5 AM she woke from a short nap to find that she was almost there. With no plans. What was she going to do, just walk up to him and say, "Fancy meeting you in a place like this." She thought that would be kind of funny. That's what he had said to her at the poetry reading a month after they had broken up the first time. But did she want to get back together with him? This is ridiculous, she thought, for all I know he could be married. Hell, I'm married. Oh God. The train pulled into the station.

She got off the train and watched the sun rise. She walked around Centennial Park, amazing at the bustling downtown area, and the vast open space and quietude in the middle of it all. She stood by the fountain for maybe half an hour, watching the water leap and cascade, falling, falling, falling gently.

She made her way to the conference hotel, checked in (pleasantly surprised by the early check-in, and trying not to think about the price), then found a place for breakfast, a place to collect herself. It was downstairs, yet impossibly open -- an atrium in the huge center with shops and office buildings. The restaurant itself was an open courtyard with sprawling hanging plants. Through the white lattice, people walked hurriedly with a sense of purpose. Two glass elevators traveled up and down, continuously chauffeuring more people. A bird, every bit as out of place as she felt, flew through the restaurant. She marvelled at its strong wings.

Across the street, the CNN tower loomed over her. She started up to her room to change, but then realizing she had only wrinkled T-shirts, returned downstairs to the shopping complex. She picked out the first cashmere sweater she saw that matched her pants. Her sandals would do. At last, she went to the hotel room. The bed looked awfully comfortable, and she had to resist the urge to nap.

She showered, changed her clothes, and looked at herself in the mirror. It was the first time she had really studied herself in a long while. She was masterful at applying makeup -- she thought of it as an art, a self-painting -- and she quickly covered up the dark circles under her eyes. She looked and felt like a completely different person than the exhausted mother in a baggy sweatshirt she had been the day before. She was on her own, she thought, looking at herself in the mirror with a momentary sense of pride rather than loneliness.

She went to the conference room to find he was on stage speaking, and quietly scooted into a seat in the back, hoping no one would notice that she didn't have a conference badge. He looked the same, a bit older, but he had the same smile, the same look in his eyes. He had this presence that made you feel he was completely in control, not only of himself but of everything that was going on. It was comforting. She forced herself to take her eyes off him and looked around the room at the crowd of business executives and the far more casually dressed computer programmers. She looked at herself. She looked out-of-place perhaps, but she looked good, and she knew it. For the first time in weeks she felt confident about herself. Her mind wandered far from the worlds of address resolution protocol and system security. She was playing the question game again.

"And what did you do today?" "I got on a train and went to a computer conference."

"Why?" "So I could see how little Phil and I have in common."

"And what happened after his talk?" "I said hello to him and he didn't know who I was, and he was busy answering questions and he finally recognized me, but didn't want to talk to me. No, he talked to me, and I told him I'd taken the train from Lafayette to see him, and he told me he had moved on, and I was crazy to come all this way."

She had to get out of here before he spotted her. Watching Phil wasn't helping her at all. She didn't know why she had even come in the first place. She was crazy. What had she expected? Nothing. So why did she bother? What did she want anyway? For the first time in 24 hours, she wondered how her children were. She wondered where her husband was. She had to leave. But she was glued to her seat, mesmerized by Phil's talk, his motions. The room seemed silent. But he was moving across the stage, opening and closing his mouth and pointing at diagrams.

Studying him more closely, she realized he was nervous. He always seemed calm, but she knew that he was nervous because the corners of his lips were twitching, like they were at the poetry reading. She was such a mess then. In that moment she felt strangely connected to him. Here, in a room of 700 people, she was the only one who knew what he was feeling. She didn't know what he was saying, but she knew him.

And then that connection vaporized, like an ice cube that has been dumped into a pot of boiling water. Perhaps there was another woman in the audience who knew that expression as well as she did. Even better than she did. Maybe she was sitting in the front row sharing his nervousness. The idea of someone else understanding him made her stomach do flip-flops. Why did it bother her so much? So what if he was married? She was married. Well, sort of, maybe. It was all too complicated. She took off her ring (yes, she had still been wearing it) and put it in her purse. It was the first time she had taken it off in eight years. She was surprised she could even get it off. Her finger felt naked. Why had she come to the conference in the first place? To see someone familiar, she told herself. To remind herself that she could exist without Arthur. She hadn't really thought about it at all. She had just hopped on the train and it had seemed right. It was the first thing that had felt right in a long time, a lot longer than two months, if she was honest with herself.

His presentation was wrapping up. She could tell from the way he was talking. He had some point to make and he was drawing everyone's attention for his closing. He seemed so charismatic. Somehow he always knew what people wanted, what people wanted to hear, and he told them that. He was so unlike Arthur who never understood what she wanted. And even after she explained things to him, still didn't understand, didn't understand her. Arthur understood their children though. Phil, on the other hand, had never understood children. She remembered going to a soccer game that his six-year-old nephew had been in. He had been so uncomfortable. His nephew would be sixteen now. Sixteen, the same age she had been when her mother had joined the AA. Sixteen. Had that much time passed? Yes, it really has, she thought looking around the room.

They had started applauding. There were some questions, and then Phil was leaving the stage. She put her papers in her bag, preparing to leave before the crowd, before anyone realized that she wasn't really part of the conference, before she could find out if Phil was there alone. But she couldn't leave. She had no intention of talking to Phil. No, she would think about that. She might spend the rest of her life fantasizing about talking to him, about how he would react. But she couldn't talk to him. What she needed wasn't Phil, most likely wasn't something that Phil could give her. She didn't even know what she needed. The room was so loud, the voices so distant, so impersonal.

Her eyes were focused on the ground, on the little blue diamonds on the carpet pattern. For some reason, one of the diamonds seemed more real to her than the others, brighter somehow. It was right in the middle of the aisle. She watched it, watched as people stepped on it. Seas of shoes passing, some slowly, some in a hurry. Fewer and fewer shoes. Brown loafers stopped beside her. She looked up slowly and caught Phil's eye. Surely there was no way he could recognize her. She had changed so much. And he probably hadn't thought about her for years.

"Lisa? Lisa, is that you?" The voice was familiar. She waded through the fog in her mind. She must have been imagining that he had spoken to her. "Lisa?" It was Phil, and he was talking to her. Oh god oh god oh god. Just ignore him, she thought. She had nothing to say. She couldn't explain why she was there, couldn't answer any questions he might have. She wasn't ready to deal with anyone, least of all him. He started to walk away, his footsteps passing to the side of the diamond.

"Phil?" she heard her own voice calling out. He stopped and turned around. She smiled at him.

"Lisa?" He hugged her. It was a perfunctory but friendly hug. It wasn't a how-wonderful-to-see-you hug. It wasn't a you-need-a-hug hug. It was a I-can't-just-shake-hands-with-you hug. "What are you doing here?"

Yes indeed, what was she doing there? "I'm, I'm covering the conference for a newspaper."

"No kidding! Wow! It's good to see you." He sounded like he really meant it. "You look great."

"Thanks. It's good to see you too," she said. She meant it. There was a long pause.

He looked at his watch. "I have to get to the next session now."

So that was that. Ten years had passed and here they were standing in the aisle with nothing to say other than "good to see you". She didn't trust herself to speak. She nodded. "Oh, right. I was just leaving myself. Back to the office."

"You live around here?" he asked.

"A ways," she said, hoping he wouldn't question why she was covering the conference for a paper.

"Oh." He looked confused? No, disappointed almost. She was pretty sure he was disappointed. "I was thinking if you were here all day, we could go out for coffee this evening after the conference. Or tea," he amended, remembering her as a tea drinker. "We've just run into each other after so long, and who knows if we'll ever see each other again."

"Yeah," she said. "Who knows. I, I guess I could meet you this evening." Something inside her head was screaming that this was a bad idea. It was one thing to talk to him at the conference, quite another to go out in the evening. And with someone who remembered her as a tea drinker. If he only knew how much coffee she was drinking now.

"Great. I'll meet you in the lobby at 8:00."

And he was off, lost in the crowd. She sat back down and waited until the last of the people had left. Why had she just agreed to meet him? It's what you really wanted, isn't it? she asked herself. You came here to meet Phil. You came here because you still like him, and you regret breaking up with him, leaving him without an explanation. You wish you had married Phil instead of Arthur. No, that wasn't true at all. She had broken up with Phil because it wasn't working out, because they didn't have enough in common, because she couldn't imagine the two of them getting married and living together. It would never have worked.

She managed to take a nap, then had a swim in the hotel pool, and she was back outside the conference center at 6:00 wondering if she should go in. She found a payphone tucked in a corner of the flower-filled lobby and called her children. It was good to hear their voices for a few reassuring minutes, to know they were okay. She missed them. She sat down to read the book that she had brought with her. She was engrossed when a shadow crossed her book. She had completely lost track of time. "It's the old bookworm," said a teasing voice that made her feel ten years younger.

She felt herself relaxing and laughed. "Some things will never change."

"But some do," he said in a much more serious tone.

They walked in silence to a cafe around the corner, where they sat down and inspected the menus. "It's been a long time," he finally said. She agreed. He ordered coffee. She ordered coffee and a cream filled pastry. He raised his eyebrow at her order, but didn't comment. He laughed awkwardly. "I just had a sort of silly idea. We're not talking. You're a reporter. Why don't you interview me?"

She winced slightly, already regretting her lie. "Interview you?"

"Interview me. Ask me questions. And then I'll ask you questions." "Okay." She thought for a moment. "When did you get into computers?" That was a safe question.

"The year after I graduated. I got a job at a law office, and they were using computers for everything, but inefficiently. I ended up learning a lot and by the end of the year, I was the person that everyone in the building came to for computer help. I had planned on using the money I was making to go to law school after that year, but instead I ended up getting a job doing technical support for a firm nearby. I started reading computer books, and I took a few programming courses at a community college, and then I was hooked."

"Question two: where do you live?"

"East Carrollton. I'm working at Tulane now."

The memories came flooding back. So much for sticking to safe questions, she had to know.

"Question three: are you involved with anyone?" He looked away. "No. Now it's my turn to ask you questions."

Actually, I only have one question."

"Just one question? You wouldn't make a very good reporter," she teased.

"Probably not, he agreed. "Are you happy?"

The restaurant suddenly got quiet and warm, too warm. He could see through her facade. "That's your question?"

Just then their waitress returned with their coffee. Once she left, Lisa started laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Remember the first time we went out for coffee after a study group?"

They sat in silence for a few moments, remembering. They had gone out for coffee (and tea) with some other students and had ended up talking to each other until almost dawn. Later he had told her that he had fallen asleep during a test the next day, but that it had been worth it.

"Remember the time you made me breakfast?" he asked. She remembered that too. She had been visiting him at home for Christmas break their senior year. They had been making breakfast and had ended up back in his room while the pancakes were cooking. His mom had walked into his room, probably wondering if she had spent the night there (which she had). "She's making me breakfast in bed," he had said, by way of explanation. And so she had served him in bed, and he raved about the food, even though the pancakes were burnt.

Her coffee was getting cold. It seemed so natural for the two of them to be sitting there talking to each other. It was like nothing had changed. She realized that they were only talking about the times when they were together, like nothing that had happened since then existed, even though so much had happened. They were different people now. The two of them had been perfect together then (okay, not quite perfect), but now they had little in common, except for shared memories.

It was well after 9:00. "So," he said, "you never answered my question. Are you happy?"

She swallowed the last of her coffee slowly. It was bitter. "No, I don't suppose I am."

She sighed and then delved into the long story of her last decade, omitting some parts, but not much. How she had been married for eight years, how she had two children, how her husband had walked out two months ago and how she hadn't seen him since, how nothing made sense anymore, how she worried about her children, how she hadn't had time to worry about herself.

And he just listened. That was what she had needed. Not a fling, not a boyfriend, not a lover, not a husband, but a friend -- someone who would listen to her. She was so relieved that they could still talk, after all that had happened. She wanted Arthur to come back. She knew he just needed some time and that he would come back, just as she had had to go away for a few days to rediscover herself. Just as distance had allowed her and Phil to grow apart and heal, it could bring her and Arthur back together, back to being a family.

They were the only people left in the cafe. The waitress had been giving them looks for at least half an hour, clearly wanting them to leave. Phil paid and left a generous tip.

She stood up, signaling the end of the evening. "Can I ask a second question?" he asked. She nodded. His mouth gave a tell-tale twitch as he looked into her eyes. "Can I make you breakfast?"

She let out a breath that she didn't know she had been holding in all evening, holding in for years.