She spotted him across the stacks.
He was barely visible through the mounds of used books, but it was definitely him. That beautiful head of unkept, curly locks. He still had his rugged charm, his boyish smile; he had always looked dashingly haggard, like a prince who had given it all up in pursuit of something less paltry. Should she say something? He had not seen her yet. What cowardice would she be proving if she did not at least say hello? She would wait, perusing a bit longer until her curiosity—or their nearness—got to her. He was close to the entrance and she, nearly ready to go with her armful of Christmas presents, had to make her way in that direction eventually. Her arms were getting tired. Courage, courage. She made her way toward him. He was engrossed in a book she could not see the title of, not that it really mattered.
“Pst” she whispered. He looked up and around. Eye contact. Heart beats. Moments of silence. And then, recognition.
“Wow,” he said, “look at you.” She blushed. Of course she was different, he was too. Time always makes a difference. Her hair was short, her body thinned, her smile more resolute. And he looked different too, though she could not quite place how.
“How are you?” she asked, feeling her face begin to form into a smile she could not stop. He had always had that effect on her. When they had been together, her lips had a semi-permanent smirk inclined to the right side of her face, conveying a general sense of happiness and mischief. She hadn’t felt that sensation in quite some time. They embraced: lingering, exploring, remembering.—probably held too long if they were both honest about it.
“You look amazing—your hair!” He reached his hand up to touch the nape of her neck, then remembered convention and slowly brought it back down, into his own body space. She wished he would have touched her hair; she wished it was long again so he could have run his hands gently through it like he used to.
“You really do look amazing—total transformation.” He was beaming.
“It was cheaper than moving.” Small laughter, sentimental laughter. She wished she hadn’t said it. Sometimes thanks is all that is required. She was nervous. She could feel every muscle in her body, every sensation pulsing through her, the storm brewing all over again. Why can’t the body behave itself? Impulse, control, pain, joy; sympathetic chaos, always hand in hand. Did he feel it too?
He looked around, like someone was eavesdropping, and whispered close to her ear, “I went to rehab.” He hadn’t said it with dread or eagerness, but in a way that she understood as intimacy. He was telling her a difficult truth, but he was also proud to say it to her, because it meant something.
“I am so proud of you.” She was smiling, leaning in even after hearing the whisper pronounced. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to erase all the memories of pain and anger and frustration they had shared and keep only the special, meaningful ones. He smelled of nutmeg and cologne, and for an moment she was tempted. Her nerves suddenly got the best of her. “What are you reading?” Conversation. Bland convention.
“It’s nothing, picking it up for Dad. You?”
“Christmas presents. Can’t resist this place.” She noticed that he was clean shaven, that there was a spark in his deep blue eyes. “Where are you living these days?” Her curiosity was wavering on eagerness.
“Near West side, close to California and Washington.”
“Oh wow, that’s definitely a change.”
“I bought an old walk-up and I’m slowly fixing it up, tinkering here and there.”
“That’s great.” What was she doing? She couldn’t quite recall at this minute why she had left him. Had she been dreaming, only to be awakened in this bookstore? The nightmare of their separation had been temporarily lulled by his charm and grace and changefulness. She would soon awaken. She would eventually remember, and the pain would rush through her, convulsing her emotions into a torrent until she resigned herself—no. This was different. Fear was not in the equation. He was different. And frankly, so was she. But was it enough?
“Let’s catch up sometime.” Relief. He had said it. Those simple words, bridging the chasm between them.
“Yes. Please, let’s. Here’s my number.”
“Is it the same one?”
“Yes. How silly. Yes, it is.” She put her phone back into her purse, and began to turn toward the register, trying to stay calm.
“Elise. It was wonderful to see you today.” She turned back toward him and walked into his embrace. She hugged him tightly, attempting to keep as tight a control on her feelings.
“You too, Leon. I am genuinely happy for you. You look great. So healthy.”
“Let’s have coffee soon.”
“I’ll call you.” She headed for the register and glanced back one more time to smile at him, but he had already gone around the corner, deeper into the stacks.