A/N: A one-shot that takes place ten years after Joel's gone back to New York.
She was heading down into upstate New York; not for the first time ever, but for the first time in a long while. It made her think of pumpkin spice, how it always seemed to be autumn here, and she could taste the foothills of winter on her tongue, the early slopes.
She's driving on her own; by choice, of course, not because Dan didn't offer to go with her. She told him this was as good a time as any to break up, since she was leaving, and she hated to be responsible for his immanent demise; she learned then why she didn't often warn men like this: because they took it as a threat. Luckily the cops couldn't be bothered to drive a hundred miles out of their way to follow up, and that made her take stock: did she really want to be involved with a man so unlikeable that he couldn't even convince cops to come and save him from his psychotic girlfriend? His words, not hers. She hadn't felt like anyone's girlfriend since Fleischman. She hadn't felt psychotic since him, either.
It's silly to think about him, anyway, after all this time, and she turns up the radio. Her beat-up clunker of a truck having long since died its final death, she's driving a beat-up clunker of a Jeep instead. "Beat-up clunker" tends to be the only type of car that comes on the market in Cicely, Alaska, and she never had the patience to go auto-searching anywhere else. She could give it a shot while she was here in New York, she thinks; could buy something without rust and dents, and leave the Jeep on the road somewhere, key in the ignition. An act of charity. Alright, not much of an act of charity, but still. Some homeless person could live in it, or something.
She kneads her hands on the steering wheel, leaning forward to look down at the asphalt. She doesn't see the man till she nearly hits him, and swerves at the last minute, braking haphazardly and shrieking half-spoken curses. She comes to a stop a few feet past him (the nearly-dead Jeep's brakes are still alive and kicking) and shoves it into Park before she gets out and races around the back.
"Are you okay? I didn't see you!"
"I'd guessed." His manner is mild and slightly amused, though the smile, if there was one, was hidden behind a thick dark beard. He also has a slight, unplaceable accent. Maybe not completely unplaceable; the most noticeable thing about him, after all, was that he was Jewish, what she thought of as a real Jew. Not the fake kind you get standing next to you in the supermarket complaining that nothing's kosher anymore as they buy their Cap'n Crunch. A real one, dressed in black robes and a flat black hat, the whole enchilada. The whole matzo, she corrects herself hastily.
"What are you doing out here? We're in the middle of nowhere, New York."
"I am going to Temple," he explains; his manner is no less gentle and kindly. He was polite, she thinks, unlike some Jews she could think of; taking a step back from this thought she realizes perhaps it was on the Mel Gibson side of Anti-Semitic, and takes it back. Alright, then, unlike Fleischman, this guy was polite.
"You're just walking there?"
"In Washington DC, a politician stole my bicycle." It takes her a minute to realize that he's joking. She loses the frozen look of confusion and forces her face to relax into a smile. She's aware that it looks a little strained; she's been told this often enough. But it's the best she can do.
"Well, do you want a ride?" She gestures towards the Jeep with her thumb. She's doing this mostly out of guilt, of course, for almost hitting him; but also out of a strange feeling of curiosity. It must take a strong sense of commitment to dress like this every day, to walk so far to go to Temple. She wants to question him, to find out what that feels like without actually having to be committed herself.
She gets the feeling that he senses all these underlying motivations; which should make her uncomfortable, but she shrugs it off instead. He's looking at her as though peering into her soul; she squares her shoulders and takes the gander.
He nods at last.
"I would like a ride. Thank you."
He has some trouble getting into the high-set Jeep; his robes get caught in the door and he almost topples back out on top of her. She says, "Whoops, whoops!" and supports him by the arm till he regains his balance and rights himself, sitting in the passenger seat. She assists him with his buckle, then gets in herself. The Jeep starts up right away, and she pulls back out onto the right side of the road, settling herself, getting back into the motion of travel, the rhythm of driving.
He says, "You have some questions for me?"
She glances over at him swiftly.
"Watch the road, please. We know what happens when you do not."
He chuckles, and so she does too, unwilling to take offense at such a gently-spoken jibe. She obeys, though, because he's right. For all she knows there's a whole platoon of Jewish hitchhikers along upstate New York's back highways, and if she keeps almost hitting them, then offering rides out of guilt, the Jeep will be full in no time. She'll have to strap them the roof.
"How did you know I wanted to ask you something?"
"Often, people do." He gives a slight shrug. "They are curious about this life."
She can't just barge in, even with an opening like that. She chuckles again, a little more forced this time, and holds one hand to her chest.
"Well, I'm Maggie O'Connell. And you are?"
"A traveler," he says, almost wistfully. "A traveler on the lonesome road of life."
Right. A traveler. The Unnamed Jew. She holds onto the steering wheel a little more tightly, and nods. "Nice to meet you," spins idiotically out of her mouth before she can stop it. This time, at this angle, she thinks she can make out a slight gleam behind his beard, presumably from a smile. She shifts again in the seat, wrenching at the steering wheel with both hands.
"I hate to ask things that aren't my business. I mean, I don't want to intrude."
"It will not be an intrusion." He folds his hands in his lap and looks positively seraphic. "I do what I do because I was born to do it. It is my birthright and my choice."
"Yeah, but—" She doesn't dare look at him because she knows what that will provoke, so she frowns thoughtfully at the road instead. "If you do something because you were born to, is it really something you're doing by choice? I mean, that kind of contradicts itself, don't you think?"
"Is it not possible to be both?" He sounds amused. She's too busy following her own argument to its logical end to really pay attention to whether or not she's offending him, but he doesn't appear to be bothered.
"It's like— hair dye. Say you're born with dark hair, like I was— well, like you were, too— and you live with it for a few years and then you decide, hey, maybe this isn't who I am after all. Maybe I'm a redhead. I mean, underneath it all, maybe you're a redhead. So you're dark-haired by birth but not by choice. And then you're— a red-head. I mean, not that I'm putting your religion on the level of hair color. I'm just saying—"
"I understand you perfectly," he says gravely, with almost no sarcasm at all. "But what, then, happens if you later tire of being redheaded, and go back therefore to having a dark head? Is that not birthright, and choice?"
She's quiet for a minute. Then, "I guess that's right."
They drive on a while, in the companionable silence of two utter strangers who've gotten the awkward conversation out of the way at once. The countryside is beautiful, but Maggie is used to beautiful. She's had it up to here with beautiful. She's beginning to wish the road to hurry, beginning to press a little harder on the pedals. There's a city somewhere ahead. People. Traffic lights. Pizza.
"So where are you going, exactly?"
"I will tell you when we get close."
She nods, as if she could expect nothing more from him; and maybe she couldn't. Not really. He's already answered more of her questions than she expected.
She's going to ask another, however, and it's poised on the tip of her tongue. She has to swallow a few times before she can spit it out, though.
"So— were you ever a redhead?"
He is amused. This time there is no mistaking it: a dry little chuckle, like rustling, falling leaves. He must have been anticipating this question.
"In a manner of speaking."
"Oh," she says, knowledgeably, nodding understandingly as though she knows exactly what he means, as though she's turned "redhead" into an acceptable euphemism for "past life as a lounge singer with a Chihuahua named Tinker-Bell." And perhaps, in a manner of speaking, she has. He's done something with his life other than the obvious; he hasn't spent the whole time traveling like this. And she won't ask him— she'll preserve the mystery. It's better that way.
"I was a fisherman," he says abruptly. "A professional. I had a TV show, on a local channel. You may have heard of it? It was called It Was Thiiiiiiis Big."
She cleared her throat. "I'm from Alaska."
"Ah." He gave a philosophical shrug. "But— as you can see, I gave it up. I returned to the things I had been taught since I was a child, and now here I am, on this road, traveling to Temple."
"In a Jeep."
"Yes," he says, gently. "So you see, it has all been worth it. To reach this moment."
She laughs, but she can tell at once that he's dead serious. He means it. This moment is everything; it is the be-all, the end-all. It is what he's been working towards for years, possibly his whole life. And the next moment will be the same, and the one after that. She's never met someone who lived so powerfully and yet so peacefully in the present.
"So you returned to your natural color," she says, to spoil it a little.
"I did," he allows. "And, I think, so shall you."
She puts a hand up, self-consciously, to her hair, as though there's a possibility it's been dyed without her knowledge. But that's not what he's talking about, she guesses.
"What do you mean?"
"I think you were born to something, and you decided against it." He was looking at her and she was itching at not being able to look back, not being able to give him her defensive eyes. "Or perhaps, it decided against you. But now you are traveling towards it, walking, like I am to Temple, and soon you will find the moment to live in."
As always when someone told her something true, she gets a little edgy.
"Hey, look, I appreciate you being open with me when I asked you things, but to be honest, I didn't offer reciprocity, and I'm headed for a funeral, so the last thing I need is mystic sayings from a guy in robes that I picked up on the side of the road."
"I am very sorry to hear that," he says contritely.
She allows a moment to go by.
"Well, that's okay," she says at last.
"Who is it that has died?" he inquires, since she's forgiven him. She holds her breath for a minute, but decides to reply.
"My aunt. I haven't seen her in a long time— I haven't seen any of my family in a long time— so I knew I had to emerge from my hibernation in the snow and come down and face it out."
"And will Joel be there, to face it out with you?"
"Joel?" She holds onto the wheel tighter. "No, I haven't seen him in— gosh, it's got to be ten years. He won't know anything about it, and I— hey, I didn't tell you anything about Fleischman—"
But he's sitting forward now, less arranged than he has been this whole time, and looking avidly out the window. "I believe we are coming up to my stop."
There's no Temple in evidence; she thinks there must be a driveway somewhere, and she slows down to look for it, but he gestures imperatively at the road. "Just here, here. Here is fine."
"This is it." He's oddly excited, and she obeys, pulling onto the shoulder and putting it into Park. She's stopped next to a wide yellow field, weedy and surrounded by trees. He opens the door and gets out, smiling at her from behind the beard, shouldering his homespun backpack.
"Thank you, thank you," he says rapidly, with more animation than she's seen in him up till now. "It has been so long— thank you so much, my dear. God be with you." He turns with rapture towards the field, and hitching up his robes a bit he begins to wade into it. Arms spread wide, he walks to the middle of the grassy clearing, and stands in the freeness of the air.
He's found his Temple, and she's got a moment to get to.
With a wry smile, she puts the Jeep into gear, and pulls away, back onto the road.
She won't look for him at the funeral, because that's just, plain and simple, ridiculous. She won't look for him anywhere, she decides, and drives into the city pushing him ruthlessly from her mind. As far as she's concerned, this is just New York; not the city that houses Doctor Joel Fleischman, not at all. In fact she can only dimly recall him even talking about it. He might have mentioned it. Once. There is no link between Fleischman and New York City, not at all.
Thus reinforced, she's ready to move on and be proved wrong. Which she is, when she catches sight of him five minutes after she's entered the city.
There's a little of that awkward hugging that you get when you meet one of your old friends that had been something more, and neither of you are quite sure what message to send or receive. He's bulked up some, and when she steps back the first thing out of her mouth, stupidly, is, "You've obviously been going to the gym." The second thing, rapidly, is, "Well, not— 'obviously.' I mean, there's not that big a difference. I mean, I wasn't really noticing."
He just stands and smiles at her. This is such a change from what she is used to— or what she used to be used to— that she is forced to respond the same way, and they grin inanely at each other for a few moments.
"Why, Fleischman," she says, softly, at last, "if I'd realized how much good New York would do you, I'd have encouraged you to come even earlier."
"You did." He's got his hands in his pockets, that familiar forward slouch. "You were telling me to go home from the moment I got to Alaska, remember?"
"And you kept telling me, 'I'm trying to!'" She exaggerates a couple desperate hand gestures for comedic effect, and he snickers obligingly. She laughs by default. She's horribly uncomfortable and has no idea what to say next. "How've you been?"
He shrugs. "Getting older. Building my practice. Doing what I was born to do."
She doesn't pursue that one. What's she going to say, that she had a cryptic conversation with a Jew she picked up on the road that led her to believe that they're really meant to be, even after all this time? That they should just pick up where they left off— or rather, not that. They should start over, except do it right this time. Start over on the right foot, instead of with their feet in their mouths. It's ridiculous, as she's been telling herself all this time.
"Oh, you know," she shrugs self-deprecatingly. "Same kind of thing. Not building my practice, obviously, but— flying."
"Still flying." He grins a little. He does look older; a full ten years older, just as he should, with wrinkles around his eyes and mouth to match hers. Like they've lived the same life, just on two different sides.
"Oh, flying my heart out." She smiles back at him. She wishes she could stop, he's probably getting the wrong impression. She means for him to understand that what she's been thinking about ever since she found out she was going to New York, could never happen, and every second that she stands next to him just goes to prove— but the smile will probably throw him off. He will probably think she means something else.
"Hmm," he says, and shuffles his feet.
"So, you married?" She asks it brightly in the hopes that he will think she's being casual; which she is, of course, but she wants him to know she's being casual.
He shakes his head. "No. You?"
"Well." She waffles. He notices, and tips his head to one side.
"'Well'? What's 'well' mean? It's a yes or no question."
"Well, not really, Fleischman. I mean, it's theoretically a yes or no question, but there could conceivably be all sorts of answers—"
"O'Connell." He's exasperated. Good, she thinks with relief, she's been getting the right message through to him then.
"I mean, I was," she clarifies in the rush of relief, without really intending to. "For a while. Then I got divorced."
He squares his shoulders, straightens up, removes his hands from his pockets. "What? What happened? To who?"
"Chris," she admits, in the hopes that this would answer all three questions.
"Chris? O'Connell—" Great, now he's upset. She probably offended his male ego. She wouldn't marry him, but she'd marry Chris, huh? She can practically hear him thinking it.
"Darn right I'm upset, O'Connell! You get married to Chris and I don't even get an invite?"
She bristles immediately, like a cat that's had water thrown over it. She feels like that, too, like there's been a shock to her system. "Well, thanks a lot, Fleischman! I tell you of my, my sad experience with matrimony and the first thing you complain about is that you didn't get a piece of the cake! Well, for God's sake, I should have thrown a party when I got divorced, too, just for your entertainment! Remind me next time my soul is being put through the wringer, that I need to give you advance warning so you can make some popcorn!"
He's amused. "This has got you pretty het up, huh?"
"Pretty— het— up," she repeats, slowly, seething.
"Good," he says, and then he puts one hand on either side of her face and kisses her; and the awkwardness is gone, and the anger turns to something else, and this all feels so familiar, like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time after you've gone back to your natural color.
"We were drunk," she murmurs to him, softly. "And emotional."
"I can see how that would be a problem. Hey, do I have to call you Stevens now?"
"No— I went back to my name after— it wasn't that long, you know."
"And was marriage and divorce everything you expected it to be?" He's very amused. He's so amused she wants to wipe that simpering, self-satisfied grin right off his face.
"It was amicable," is all she says. This just makes him laugh harder.
It's the day after the funeral, which he went to with her, and stood in silence and gravity, offering her a hand to hold, though she didn't take it; it was enough to know it was there.
"I'm going to be completely honest with you," he announces.
"That's a first, Fleischman." They're walking in the park. She wants to feed the ducks, but he's explained that they've all gone south for the winter already. She can't blame them; only early October and it is already cold enough for the coat she's grateful to have packed.
"You've been sort of popping into my head a lot these last few—"
"I was going to say years. Besides, it's only been one decade. Singular."
"Don't go all grammar teacher on me, Fleischman. I know it's only been one decade, and one decade is singular, because there's only one of them. Single. One." She holds up a finger to indicate her total understanding of the issue. He shakes his head.
"Don't get all you with me, O'Connell. At least, not now, give me a minute. I'm trying to tell you something."
"Okay. And what is it?"
They take two more steps.
"I miss you," he says. "I miss you a lot."
They take one more.
"And when did you come to this realization?"
"About five seconds ago," he admits. She can sympathize with the validity of this: they'd lived for so long weltering in their denial that even when faced with what they wanted, they were quite prepared to turn their backs, pretend to be looking at something else.
She says, "We can talk about it."
"What do you mean? Like, logistics and stuff?"
"Yeah, you know. Where we'd live, how it would work, when it didn't work before. How we could avoid killing each other and irretrievably warping our children."
"I don't want to talk about that now," says Joel, with a resurgence of the whiny tone she recognized so well from ten years ago, when he didn't get his way. She glares at him: at their age, this will not be tolerated. He stares her down. "I want to tell you things," he clarifies.
This might be okay. She's willing to find out.
"What do you want to tell me?"
He takes a deep breath. "That you're peripheral."
She considers this, and gets angry. "Nice. That's exactly why we always had problems, Fleischman, because you—"
"No, no no no." He steps in front of her to keep her from walking away, waves his arms in the air. "I mean, you're like peripheral vision. I have to look ahead to keep from walking into ponds and whatever, but if I didn't have peripheral vision I wouldn't be able to turn from side to side, wouldn't be able to, I dunno, back up—"
"Are you saying you need to see an oculist?" she inquires frostily.
"No, I'm saying I want you here. And by here I don't mean New York specifically, I mean— with me. Because I can see where I'm going, but not always where I want to be."
She stops trying to get away from him then. "Oh."
"You're a presence."
"I'm a presence?"
"A present presence. A present to myself."
"Did you have too much wine with lunch?"
He laughs, and takes her arm. "You're a portion of the whole."
"Not the whole itself?"
"That's what I mean, though." Joel frowned. "You're not the point of it all, you're the—you're the PS. You know how you always are so happy to get a PS at the end of a letter? You read it more carefully, scrutinize it more closely than some of the body. You're the PS. You're the dessert, or at least the penultimate course." He's gained some enthusiasm now, waving his arms around. "My life's like a sentence, and over here is the heavy meaning and the subject, and over there is the predicate, the movement, the verbage. You're my action."
She rolls her eyes. "You are such a twit. Who in real life uses a word like 'verbage?'"
They walk, hand in hand, for a while, then she says, "Since we're being totally honest—"
He pauses. "Yeah?"
She waits. "No, never mind."
They walk on.
She's not going to tell him she goes to Juneau every single year for that medical conference, that she sits in the bar or the lobby looking purposefully lonely so when a doctor takes a chance and tries something with her, she can be haughty and nasty and inform him frostily that she's waiting for her boyfriend, the very handsome and extremely successful Doctor Fleischman of New York, New York, who would be back any minute and defend her honor in a violent manner.
He's not going to tell her that he took flying lessons.