He's standing across the street, waiting for the light to change, but I know it's him even before he starts walking in my direction. I think: I'm not ready for this. Because my least favorite thing in the morning, besides waking up, is meeting people I know unexpectedly.
And it's been nine years.
There are certain meetings in a person's life that should be one hundred percent significant. They should define a moment, answer a burning question, or resolve something. Right now is a good example. I should have something to say to this man, something fairly significant. After all, we were once inseparable and in love.
But I don't. Have anything to say, that is.
I just have this memory of him. We're standing in front of the boathouse in Northhampton. His head is shaved. He's wearing a beaded necklace and a ton of friendship bracelets on both wrists. His skateboard is tucked under his arm, and his eyes -- light brown, big, intent -- are watching my every move.
Just last week someone was talking about him. It seems every week someone's mentioning his name. Because Jack owns Sullivan Brewery in New England; Jack just bought a five-bedroom house on four acres of land.
I decide I'd rather not run into him.
I lower my head and take a drag from my cigarette, confident he'll pass by without noticing me. But instead of walking past me, he walks toward the hotel's entrance, which is adjacent to the employee entrance, where I'm standing. He stops, comes back, says my name. I look up and try to do my best impression of being shocked to see someone.
"Wow." I flick my cigarette past him and smile. "Sullivan."
I call him by his last name, the same way most of my ex-boyfriends call me "Stark" oh-so-casually when we run into each other somewhere. It's a defense mechanism. It always makes me feel bad, like I'm not even worthy of a first name. I don't know why I do it to Jack. I don't want him to feel that way.
"How long has it been, Ken?" he asks.
He calls me "Ken," short for Kendall, the way he used to. He makes it seem like nothing's changed.
"Years, I guess."
"Nine, I think," he says softly.
We stare at each other awkwardly. He takes in my unkempt hair, ill-fitting cargo pants and white-socked feet stuffed into old Birkenstocks. Graciously, he remains expressionless and looks directly in my eyes.
"You look great," he says. He was always good at lying.
"Same to you."
I'm not lying. He's actually more handsome than I thought he would turn out to be. His glasses are small, round and rimless; he used to wear contacts. His hair has grown. His body, which has always been long, agile and thin like the body of a swimmer, is hidden underneath clothes straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog. He looks rugged and stronger and changed.
"I'm surprised to see you." His tone is still soft, neither friendly nor mean.
"Been a while." I nod, keeping my tone light. "You live in Maine, right?"
"Nice," I say. "And you still brew beer."
"Yeah." He tilts his head to the side. He wants to tell me everything I already know, but I guess he doesn't want to brag because all he says is, "I still brew beer."
"And you're in New York."
He nods, still staring at me. I try to read the expression on his face. And then there's the slight shake of his head that I remember -- like he's trying to banish some thought from his brain -- and the expression is gone. He points to the hotel. "I'm staying here."
"Oh?" My voice almost gets caught in my throat. "This hotel?"
"Yeah." He avoids my eyes.
"Yeah," he says. "You live around here?"
"No." There's a silence. I try to catch his eye again, but he's doing a good job of diverting his gaze. "I live in Brooklyn. With Gary."
"Right." As though he's just remembering. "I think I heard that."
"I work here," I say. "At the hotel."
"Oh." Another silence. This one is longer. He glances at me but quickly looks away again. "That's a coincidence."
"Sure is," I say. I replay the last fifty conversations I had with Gary and Nick this week -- we were all in college together -- but a mention of Jack actually coming to New York today doesn't come to mind. "Have you talked to Gary and Nick? Do they know you're in town?"
"No," Jack says distantly. "I checked in late last night."
"Nick mentioned he ran into you last August," I say casually, as though Nick hasn't mentioned it a hundred times. As though Nick doesn't talk about how excellent Jack's life is every time they exchange an e-mail. "He said you might be in New York, but he wasn't sure when. I think he had the impression it would be sooner."
"Family emergency," Jack says. "I'll call him."
"I'm sure he'll be happy to hear from you. He said he's been e-mailing you a lot."
Jack smiles, then he looks at the hotel entrance as though he's ready to dart away.
"Well," I say, giving him an out.
He swallows hard. "It's good to see you." I hear the involuntary emotion in this simple statement. "I mean that."
I hug him suddenly, and I feel his body stiffen. When I let go he steps back.
"You smell like smoke," he says disdainfully, and then he adds, "I quit."
"Congrats" is all I can think of to say. And for a second, I'm distracted by the way he's looking at me. Like he's trying to remember what he ever saw in this girl standing before him.
I try to imagine what he sees.
When he knew me, my hair was always neat and polished in a pageboy haircut. Now it's messy, the front bits standing up in the air. My eyes have always been too close together though, and my eyebrows have always been too thick. But maybe he notices that I still lift weights and run when the mood hits me.
Strange, I think, that I care.
"Maybe I'll see you around," he says casually, moving away.
"Maybe," I say.
"Dinner?" The casual front disappears, and he moves closer. "In a couple of days?"
I don't know about dinner. There's no way in hell I want to spend several hours with my ex, rehashing the past and how poorly I treated him. I tell him life is hectic, especially this week. He doesn't believe me -- weird how I can tell that he doesn't -- but it's been too long between disagreements to suddenly have another one.
He watches me as I escape inside the employee entrance. I glance back, and I realize he looks disappointed.
It's a look I remember.
Copyright © 2004 by Karen Siplin