You blame it on Facebook. Had you not bowed to the entreaties of your more connected co-workers, you wouldn’t have seen her name, read her profile, or seen she now lives two towns over from you.
For the last 18 years, you’d followed her clandestinely, as she filed stories from places thither and yon, from Paris to Berlin to Bhopal and Moscow. You imagined her first drafts written by hand, in that curly cursive she used in her notes to you, notes you used to find in your jacket pocket, or textbooks, or next to the coffee maker, spirited there in secret when you were otherwise distracted. She was fast, though. She had to be; you could never be distracted from her for long.
Eighteen years, two towns over, and she was the one who first made contact with you. You’re a lucky bastard; had composing that first message been left to you, it would still be undone.
Her picture online is the perfect image of how you’d seen her in your mind all those years—the pert nose and wide smile intact, and eyes that seemed to disappear behind that smile. Her hair still looked that perfect light brown, though you imagined it flecked with hints of gray difficult to see in a low-res graphic.
She contacted you and you stared at that picture for hours, planning what you’d say, saying it aloud to that digital representation of her. You’d talk about the old days, about the long talks and slow dances; about her love of that old playground, how the two of you would go there in the late winter, when the weather started getting warmer, and you’d push her on the swing just like you were kids. You’d both then sit together atop the jungle gym that someone had built on the perfect perch, overlooking the town—her town and yours, the one you’d moved to, but where she’d lived her entire life.
Christmas is approaching now, and you could talk about the times she wrapped the gifts you’d bought for your family, because you were useless at it and she was quite adept at the cutting and the folding and the taping. You had spirited Sinatra’s Christmas record from the radio station where you both met, and you put it on the stereo in your dorm room and played Sinatra and ate Hershey Kisses and talked, and you watched her cutting and folding and taping, those lovely fingers of hers employed to the tasks of the season. You’d tell her you still, to this day, lack the minimal dexterity required to wrap a box; you’d leave our the part about how hearing Ol’ Blue Eyes sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” brings tears to your eyes.
You’d leave out the part about how you avoid the music from that Journey tape she used to keep in the tape deck in her old Dodge, avoid it as if it were an illness, even though hearing those songs invokes a response within you—a sweetness and sadness—that is the most exquisite feeling imaginable.
You reassess the very definition of exquisite when you see her in the lobby of the Italian restaurant on the main drag of the town that rests between yours and hers. You get a table in the renovated wine cellar, just like the place you used to go for special occasions back in the day. She is just as you’d imagined—her face lightly aged, her hair graying at the temples, her smile still the brightest source of light in the room.
You get a Sapphire martini. She orders a Rob Roy. As you both look over the menu, you realize you’ve forgotten to prepare any words to speak about yourself, about what you’d done and seen and experienced in all this time. When she asks, you talk, quietly, about yourself; it is uncomfortable, but you’re honest—there have been disappointments; there have been happy moments. There hasn’t, however, been joy, not since you’d parted ways. You’d made your way in the world, on the small road of your profession, and you’d done it alone. You’d made some money, yet kept the apartment you’ve had for a decade, because a house was too big for you, in space and cost and responsibility. You’d read a lot—kept up with Roth and DeLillo and the comic books she used to laugh at. You’d read a lot of her work. You’d fallen in love with jazz, but had also seen Styx and Survivor play the previous summer.
She asks if you remember that old Journey tape. You laugh the laugh she laughs—deeply and without care for who hears you.
At one point in the conversation, she touches your hand and a little of her electricity flows into you and you think there may be no better feeling than her touch, the warmth of her skin. You both eat your food and continue to talk and there’s little you can imagine being more succulent than a meal accompanied by her voice.
You both skip dessert and coffee, preferring to venture upstairs to the bar—you have a glass of port; she goes for the espresso martini. You talk more. You laugh more. A song from that Journey tape pops in your head and stays there, playing behind her words for an hour or so.
She is so beautiful. She is there in front of you, for the first time in what seems like a lifetime, and there is little between you now but air and laughter and the promise of more. Two towns away. She’s still writing, still traveling, but her base of operations is two towns away. This is wonderful news, perhaps the best of all possible news.
You hug when saying goodnight. You give her a peck on the cheek. She kisses you on the lips—not a full, long kiss, but that electricity warms you through the drive home.
You have that song in your head the whole drive home. When you get back to your apartment, you look for the CD. You’d bought the disc 12 years before, maybe 13 years, yet it has remained in its shrink wrap, unopened and unplayed. You cut the plastic off the box, open it, and put the disc in your CD player.
The song and the evening melt you. You fall asleep on your sofa and wake up the next morning with the same song playing, on repeat. You lay on the sofa an hour after waking, letting the song flow through you over and over again, only now realizing, once and for all, that she is real, she is close by.
You open your eyes, and everything seems different, warmer. Even the ceiling looks brand new.