In beginning of the summer, he told her he would be flying in. She waited for a clarification, in silence.
The flurry of his messages resumed in a few days: the tiny little jabs that, with his craftiness and her gullibility in tow, could easily be reinterpreted as tiny strokes of her ego; and if she really, really wanted to feel needed and missed — she could be pleased. He was visiting his mother. She said hello, said that she was sorry about how things had turned out. She’d always “liked her”. He spoke about how sick and tired of the North-East he had grown. (They’d moved there together years ago, on the basis of her curiosity alone, pretty much. Being young in New York sounded perfect, at the time.) And wouldn’t it be nice to raise a family out here, instead? She would’ve made a wonderful mother.
On that, she came out of her silence: “What do you want, Mike?!” she texted. (She had always avoided abbreviations in her messages; but with him, she also insisted on being brutally precise with her punctuation.)
But her irritation went right over his head: “dunno hang out?” he wrote back.
It had to be a bliss to not see life’s gray areas at all, and to trample over other people’s precious boundaries with this much oblivion. Or could he be simply manipulative? Perhaps, he enjoyed watching her lose her cool, for his sake. But the casualty with which he treated their break-up she found plainly and increasingly offensive: He had been acting as if nothing terrible had happened at all and as if they could remain friends, on the other side. Didn’t he know long it took for her to achieve the lightness of the forgiven past?
They took a few days off from talking. She began sleeping a lot.
When he finally appeared, she wished her mind had tricked her into not recognizing him. She wished he had changed. But no: A pair of long shorts ending at his half shins; a one inch buzz cut of his coarse, tight curls, which he had worn the same way for years; and a backpack. And a sizable backpack at that! (The day they met back in college, she was stumbling across the campus from the bus stop. Having left her glasses at home, she was walking by memory. He was leaving his Calculus class, in shorts and — yes! — with a backpack. A sizable backpack!)
Now, he was walking on the opposite side of the street. He seemed to have noticed her from ways away. Eventually, she noticed him too: that gait, that tilt of the head. She felt zero sentimentality. Once they made eye contact, he didn’t smile. Neither did she.
“Oh, no! Your hair!” he said right off the bat. He now stood in front of her, his lower lip chapped from the wind. “What happened to your hair?”
She had cut it all off, in the heat of the new city; and she’d been keeping it that way, since they’d last seen each other.
“And where are you off to?” she responded, immediately defensive. “Camping in the canyons?”
It was just like she remembered the very end of them: terse non-sequiturs and impatient physical contact. Now, they had both grown older, but not kinder.
Considering to take an offense, he looked at her with his shiny eyes, then shrugged. They exchanged a stiff hug. (How long does it take for the muscle memory of lovers to fade?) She braised the air near his cheek with a polite kiss, but their skin never touched. He pulled away, held her arms for a moment, looking into her eyes. Forcing it. Then, after studying her boyish hairline again, he shook his head. At least, he was smiling this time.
“Can I get you a drink?” he sized up the empty plastic cup on her end of the patio table, with its walls murky from a blend of coffee and milk.
“I don’t know: Can you?” She narrowed her eyes. She was beginning to feel tired and bitchy again. A tension headache was squeezing her temples. She sat back down. His backpack now took up the chair across from her. She began to study pedestrians, particularly the ones with dogs. When the dogs were left waiting outside, tied down to immoveable objects, she wondered how this much love could ever be forsaken. How could love survive this much waiting?
When he returned, with two identical iced drinks, he plopped the backpack down onto the dirt patch, himself — into the chair. Brazen, she thought. Not even an apology for having her wait for him for nearly half an hour.
“So. How the hell are you?” he said, while twirling the cubes of ice inside his coffee with a straw. They clunked against each other, dully.
He nodded: “Yeah. I’d say.” She watched him take a good stretch in his metal chair and yawn.
“You?” she said.
“Bueno!” he said and grinned at her with that boyish bravado that he’d nearly lost at the end of their marriage. His arms hung stretched behind his head. “It’s good to be back, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.
She felt her headache tighten. She needed fresh air, or rather moving air, against her face. She wanted to be crying under the rain. She wished to be in the water.
So, she stood up, groped the chair for her purse and picked up her drink. “Mind if we walk to the beach?” she said.
His eyes, despite the panicked confusion (was it something he said?), began to shine with a curiosity. “Yeah. Sure,” he responded. “That would be awesome!”
She shook her head. He was pushing now.
Not wanting to go through the store filled with other people, exhausted by the sun, she began to search for the gate of the patio. She needed to be near the water, to hear it, and to imagine all that distance stretching ahead of her and all the places on the other side.