Beth stopped in mid-chew and her mouth hung open most ungraciously. Billy had whistled in disbelief and now he could not look at me. I felt so small – one person in one chair in one café in one city in the whole world. How could I possibly make such a big decision?
“Fuck, Lauren,” Beth managed to swallow her food enough to speak.
“What are you going to do?” Billy asked. He was not laughing and he did not look surprised. Instead he looked like a cop interrogating a suspect. Maybe Jake had shown him how.
I once put it this way to someone trying to understand why, months after our break up, I still wasn’t over Alex: Once I would have given everything to be with this man. Now I’ve given everything, but gotten nothing in return.
“Do you love him?” Beth’s voice was quiet, like she couldn’t believe she was even asking such a thing.
“I don’t know.”
Billy put his fork down. “No, Lauren. No you do not love him. No you will not marry him, or take him back for one fucking second. I’m sorry to be the voice of reason here, but this man ruined your life. RUINED YOUR LIFE. He kicked you to the curb for some slut and they played house in your fucking home. He disrespected you every time he breathed. If you’d never caught him, then what? One, five, ten years later you catch him? You walk in the front door with your two fucking kids in tow and some whore is standing half-naked in your kitchen wondering where daddy keeps the sugar? No fucking way, Lauren.”
He wanted to storm out dramatically to finish his rant. But he didn’t move.
“Lauren, please,” he said quietly. “Please do not think so little of yourself.”
My whole face burned. I knew that every word Billy said was true, and said with love behind it. Clearly I was incapable of defending myself so Billy was going to do it for me. We sat still for a full minute while the fury of his words burned into my heart. Beth pushed her plate away.
“You do love him.” It was not a question.
I drove around slowly on residential streets. I stared at the sky, watched leaves fall, I let thoughts swim around in my head.
Lauren was right: I did still love Alex.
Billy was right: I shouldn’t.
I’d forgotten how mad I was. He’d walked right back into my life with a hundred apologies, a couple of blue shirts and a library card, and I just held the door open. When I got to my house, he was outside. I’m going to have to move, I thought to myself.
“Hey,” he said, standing on the step. “Thought I might have scared you last night, came to make sure you were okay.” He walked down toward me. “Lauren?”
“What if I hadn’t caught you?” My voice hitched as I said it. I fought back tears, knowing I would undo my own point if I cried: I needed to be angry. My words hung in the air.
Billy was right. What if I had never seen with my own eyes what Alex was doing? How easily I could have missed the biggest event in my own life. We’d have stayed together, probably married, maybe had a baby by now. He’d have dragged me all over North America, spiraling downward while I bobbed behind like a rubber duck, complete with stupid smile on my face. What if I had never known?
“What if I didn’t come home that day, Alex?” I was getting some kind of answer to this question.
“I don’t know, Lauren. That was what I needed, my wake up call. You need to hit rock bottom before you can start making your way back up. That day was my rock bottom.”
“So you wouldn’t have stopped if I didn’t catch you? You would have gone right on fucking that girl and me in the same bed?”
He tried to come near me, but I backed away. “Tell me, Alex. Would you have carried on with her? Would you still be fucking someone else, right now, if we’d stayed together all this time?”
“I hope not,” he said. “I hope I would have figured out for myself that I was making a mistake. Maybe slapped myself around instead of making you do it. But it’s all hypothetical. I want to say I would have stopped, but I won’t give myself credit for something that I didn’t do.”
His hands were in were pockets. A dark soft shell jacket flapped open across his stomach. He looked at the ground as he spoke and I could feel the pain that still existed between us. I spent so long wrapped in my own despair that I never realized Alex was doing the same thing. Every time he thought of me, he relived his own terrible mistake. Yet here he was – back in my city, waiting on my porch, wanting to spend the rest of his life with me. You have to want something pretty badly if you’re willing to suffer your own humiliation every day just to be near it.
“I’m not good enough for you, Lauren. Never was.”
Alex got in his car, thankful he’d parked on the street so he would have to look at her as he backed away. When he got to the traffic light at the end of the block, he patted the small, square outline of the box in his pocked.
“Not today,” he said out loud.
That night was the hardest since Alex returned. I wasn’t sure he’d come back, ever. The real, true end to our story that I’d been wishing for all this time might have actually been written. And I was so scared I’d chosen the wrong one.
I did something I swore I’d never do. I pulled a box out the back of my closet and tossed every photo that I hadn’t destroyed onto the bed. There weren’t many – I’d spent some very long hours cutting and tearing. But a few were so good, so precious that they’d survived the massacre. Perhaps I thought someday I’d be over him enough to look at them again. Never once had I anticipated this.
Alex and I at our first Christmas party – taken not long after we’d met. We looked so young. My hair was straight, my face a little rounder. Alex had one hand over my head holding a piece of mistletoe, smiling as wide as I’d ever seen.
With Kara and Jarome on their boat in Chestermere Lake. I’m squinting into the sun, hand over my eyes. Alex is sprawled next to me on the bench. Kara’s sitting on Jarome’s lap. One of their kids had taken the photo.
Alex shoveling snow from our driveway. We’d had a few good storms that year and I always wondered if this one was taken after he started seeing someone else. But he looked so cute – like a snowman all bundled up. He’d whipped a shovelful of snow at the window where I stood, so a white out-of-focus blob showed in the top corner.
At the bottom of the pile, my favorite photo ever – Alex sleeping. Just sleeping. He lay on his side, curled a little inward, bare shoulder visible just beyond the comforter. Early morning light spilled into the room. I don’t think he ever knew I’d taken that picture; it was the first time I’d ever woken up next to him. My eyes stung, the picture blurred. Waking up next to him. What if that’s where I was meant to be?
I went to the game the next day. I didn’t wear his jersey or stand by the glass, I just watched and ate popcorn and talked to Kara about anything else I could think of. The team was leaving for a road trip, but I didn’t say goodbye.
The next six days went by very slowly. I’d learned the hard way that libraries were not the place to keep your mind off things. Unless you were reading, you were thinking. And my job was not to read every book in the place. I watched the Flames’ three games on TV, not-so-secretly hoping to see Alex looking as distracted and fraught as I felt. The few times they showed him, including once scoring a goal, he looked fine. Maybe he doesn’t miss me anymore.
“Come on, nothing but these guys for six days is boring,” Pardy said over the phone. “Pick you up in an hour for dinner. I’m buying.” I locked up at the library and went home to change. Fifty-nine minutes later, Adam rang the bell.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” I asked as he plopped onto the couch to wait for me.
“Meeting us there.” Then he laughed. He and Jake were besties now and they really would have made a cute couple. I wondered what they’d think of Jake at the Flames’ Better Halves charity events.
Jake, and Robyn, his girlfriend Kristen, and a couple of other guys met us at the same steakhouse we always went to. I practically knew the menu by heart. We’d apparently arrived early for drinks, and I was halfway through a beer when Alex walked in.
“Did you just call him?” I asked Adam.
“Uhhh…,” he tried.
“Yes,” Jake took my beer and replaced it with a highball glass. “He did.” I tossed back the bourbon and made a face as it seared down my throat.
We watched him skirting the sunken dining room floor – he hadn’t seen us yet. He made it one step onto the hardwood floor area of the bar before someone stepped in front of him.
Holyshit. My body locked.
Miss No-Pants herself was blocking his way, cooing hello with a hand all over his arm. Alex looked surprised and his eyes darted around. I stepped behind Jake so he wouldn’t see me. From around his side, I watched as this woman laughed and tossed her hair. I couldn’t see much of his face, but hers was really animated. She wore a white collared shirt and black pants but I still hadn’t really seen her from the front. I wanted to know what she looked like now, and how she was looking at him. Adam watched at me strangely as I wheeled away and circled the far end of the dining room. I practically had to cross the dining room and stand between two tables, but I finally got a good look at her.
She smiled like a First Lady. All ‘please please believe me.’ Blond bangs swept to the side and her perky updo was sprayed into place. She wore more makeup, but she looked good. She looked the same. Shit, she looks the same. And her hand was on Alex’s arm. For his part, he looked alarmed. He was laughing tightly and trying to keep from getting too close, even backing up a step as she pretended to let someone pass behind her. Her hand slid down from toward his wrist and then I saw it: Apron.
Oh my God, she works here.
From behind me, at the hostess stand, someone called, “Pardy, table for ten!”
Alex looked toward the voice, but all he saw was me. I turned and made for the hostess.
Near the table, I grabbed Jake’s arm and pulled him into the seat next to me. Adam seemed to take the hint and sat on my other side. Everyone was laughing and chatting, still carrying drinks when they arrived. Alex took a seat across from Jake and just stared at me. No one got a word in before she arrived.
“Hi guys, I’ll be your server tonight. My name’s…,” and then she saw me. I swear time stopped as her eyes went wide as saucers. They flicked from me to Alex, then back. Calculations ran over her face: not sitting together, here with other guys, no rings on hands. She gathered herself surprisingly well.
“I’m Jackie. I see some of you have drinks, would anyone else like anything to start?” She stared at her notepad, willing someone to give her something to write down. Adam got a beer, Jake a sidecar.
Alex cleared his throat. “I’ll have a Black Label, neat.” I wonder if she knew he drank that.
“And I will have an iced tea.”
The pencil hovered above her paper for a moment too long. Then she scurried away.
The look in Alex’s eyes was terror. I couldn’t watch for more than a second and I could hardly breathe anyway. The last thing I needed was for him to start apologizing. A busboy brought bread and butter, but I pushed my plate toward Jake. Best not to have ammunition if you might start throwing things.
She’d regained her composure by the time she came back. She served me first – a big glass of iced tea with a lemon hanging from the rim. Next to it she put another glass, what looked like a mojito.
“On the house.”
I dug my nails into Jake’s thigh.
We made it through dinner. I ordered and ate, even laughed a little, and watched her as she moved around the room. Alex didn’t say much at all. When we finished and collected our stuff, I went outside first. Through the window I watched what I knew would happen – she caught up to Alex, handed him a piece of paper and twirled away.
She never was worried about me.
“Bar?” Pardy asked. Jake gave me a hard look, like he wanted to know what the hell was going on before he agreed to go anywhere with me. I nodded slightly.
“Tanguay, you coming?” Robin said, leading Kristen by the hand.
“I’ll catch up.” The box in his pocket felt like a lead weight.
I ran for Pardy’s car. We are not having this conversation where she can watch us through the window!
“Make it four,” I squeezed between Robyn and Jake at the bar. The bartender lined up four shots of tequila. Before the guys could get a proper toast out, I tossed one back, then than another, bit the lime and ordered a beer. They started like I’d just grown a horn out of my forehead.
“Lauren,” Jake spun me around. “What is going on?” Robyn and Adam leaned in to hear.
“The waitress at dinner? That’s the girl Alex cheated with.”
Every single one of them slowly closed their eyes. It was the only natural response to something you couldn’t bear to think about – if I don’t see you, then you’re not real. When Alex reached us, they all turned to him like a defensive line waiting for the football snap. I took my beer, then his arm and steered him away.
“You okay?” I asked. It was a little bit sarcastic.
“Lauren, I’m so sorry I had no idea she was even still here, I….”
“Did she give you her phone number?” My eyebrow arched so high I resembled The Rock.
“Yeah,” he said, digging in his pocket and holding it out to me.
I stared at it like he was holding nuclear waste. “And you kept it?”
Now he looked scared. I knew he hadn’t meant to, had just panicked, but I was going to make him sweat for it. If I could order an iced tea from that two dollar hooker then he could sure as hell try to explain why he’d taken her phone number.
“Shit. I didn’t think. I just wanted to get out of there.”
“Give it to me.”
He laid it in my palm, number side up. It was written in blue ink. I took my beer and slowly, deliberately poured the entire contents of the bottle over my open hand. The ink bled, then ran, the number disappearing into a dark smudge. A whole bottle takes a long time to pour and I watched the digits slowly dissolve. When my drink was empty, I flipped my hand and the soggy scrap fell to the floor.
“Oops, spilled my drink!” I said loudly. Then I marched to the bathroom, leaving Alex with a puddle around his shoes.
What the fucking hell do I do now? My reflection had no answers. I had seen that Alex obviously had no feelings for her – instead he was worried about me and scared that his teammates would hate him. That was something. But what do I do?
Alex took a deep breath before walking to the bar. Jake, Adam, Robyn and Kristen were staring at him – they obviously knew. Time to take another beating, Alex thought. He’d given himself so many he was practically numb. This would be bad though. Last time he’d been able to run from the team almost immediately after it happened. He wanted to stay here, wanted to like it here. It was hard to know that not a single one of these guys had his back. But he was wrong. Jake let him through and slapped him on the back.
“Well that was awkward.” And then he laughed. Alex could have kissed him, put Pardy would have knocked him out.
Alex’s laugh was a little stiff. “Not the way I pictured tonight going.” He ordered everyone a round of drinks, then raised a glass. “Don’t fuck up, people, because it never stops coming back to haunt you.”
They all drank to that. When Jake put his glass down, he leaned in to Alex.
“Don’t forget that I’m a detective. I can kill you in a way that will never be solved, and I never really did get my chance with your girlfriend.”
Girlfriend. Never before had a death threat made Alex smile.
I took a brand new beer from Alex’s outstretched hand. The tension had broken – everyone was smiling, Robyn and Kristen were kissing. Hmmm, I wonder.
“Can we talk?” Alex asked quietly. We took a nearby table and he set out an extra full beer.
“Just in case,” he smiled. “Lauren, I’m sorry about that. I guess it was bound to happen eventually, so maybe I’m glad it did now. Before you decide if you want to give me another chance.”
This conversation had been building for a long time. Maybe since I’d first heard about the trade, maybe since I’d pulled into the drive to find him sitting on my steps. Tonight he wore a tan shirt that made him seem very blonde and washed him out a little. I thought about throwing it away someday. But that would mean being in his house, our house, folding his clothes or helping him pack. We would have a life together or we would have nothing, because this maybe-friends thing was not working. There was too much back story for our characters to run parallel courses. We were going to collide, or keep colliding, until we either merged or veered apart. I’d veered once already and frankly, I hadn’t liked where the road had led.
“Okay, Alex.” That’s all I said. No promises or ultimatums, no guarantees. Just okay, and everything that came with it. I will give you another chance. Heaven help me.
I watched as the words made their way to his brain and registered like cherries on a slot machine in his eyes. He smiled, then really smiled. In a great big rush he grabbed me alongside the table and kissed me on the mouth.
The bar surely collapsed around us into a pile of rubble and dust as an earthquake tore the floor apart. Beams fell, glasses broke, unlucky faceless bystanders were squashed in the melee. The mirror shattered and crashed to the floor with the sound snow would make if it weighed enough.
But when I opened my eyes, everything still stood. Jake, Robyn, Kristen, Adam, even the busboy mopping up the beer I’d poured onto the floor – they all looked back at us, surprised and amazed. I giggled and they all laughed. Then Alex kissed me again. We left immediately – not that anyone expected us to stay. I tossed Jake my keys and practically ran from the place. Alex drove out of the parking lot and a few streets down before he pulled over on the side of the road.
“What are we doing?” I was nearly hysterical but I wasn’t about to do anything about it on the grassy shoulder.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked me. “I mean, do you really want this? Because I want this so much that if you’re not sure we should wait. I know what I did to you and that I deserve anything horrible you might do in return. But please, Lauren. I cannot go through losing you again.”
“Alex, I should not still love you, but I do. I think if we can survive all this, we can get through anything.” I felt strong, nearly invincible. All the bad things that had happened, the lost weeks I’d spent in black depression, the pictures I’d cut and the memories I’d burned – they felt swept away.
Alex pulled back onto the road and drove to my house. He leapt out and I thought he was coming around to open my door. But he went to the steps, turned around and waited for me. My porch light glowed behind him. I got close…
He came off the bottom step, knelt down at my feet and opened his hand to reveal a black velvet box. A single square diamond on a silver band stared back at me.
“Told you I would ask again,” he said, pulling the ring from the padding. “Lauren, I love you. I never want to lose you again. If you’ll do me the honor of letting me back into your life I swear that I will never, ever give you another reason to doubt me. I will spend the next hundred years making you the happiest woman on Earth.
“Will you marry me?”
It’s true that you don’t ask that question if you don’t know the answer. But it’s also true that you don’t let someone ask. And I let Alex ask.
“Yes, Alex,” I said.
He slid the ring onto my finger and I pulled him to his feet. The only one to see this kiss was the man in the moon, but I’m pretty sure he felt it too.
THE END - It was quick, but I hope you liked it!