Miserable At Best: Chapter One
"Because these words were never easier for me to say
Or her to second guess
But I guess
That I can live without you but
Without you I'll be miserable at best"
"Welcome to Washington University's Writer's Workshop."
I smiled at the elderly woman seated at the foldout table before me. "Thanks."
"This folder," she slid a blue packet towards me, "has everything you'll need for the workshop: schedules, biographies on the speakers, details about future workshops, etc. Now, what did you say your name was?"
"Montgomery. Aria Montgomery."
She nibbled her lower lip as she scanned the roster before her for my name. "Ah, yes. There you are. Go straight through those doors to the auditorium. The first lecture starts," she glanced down at her wrist watch, "in five minutes."
I nodded, thanked her again, and slid my folder into my bag.
The lights were already dimmed when I entered, and an elderly gentleman was setting up a projector on the stage. Hurriedly, I made my way to the front row, only to find there was one seat left.
"Excuse me." The man sitting in the seat beside it turned towards me. In the dim light, I could barely discern his face, but when he spoke his voice left no doubt as to his identity.
"No, I don't think-"
I sat down beside him.
"Aria? Wow- I mean it's wonderful to see you. What are you doing here?"
Had I not been so shocked myself, I would've laughed at his ridiculous question. "Attending the workshop."
He shook his head. "Right. Sorry, I guess that was kind of a dumb question."
"Yeah-" Before I could say anything else, the speaker coughed into the microphone, and began his lecture.
Looking back, that was the most awkward forty-five minutes of my life. Knowing that he was beside me, smiling at me, after all these years, made me physically ache. Every so often, one of us would shift and our fingers, or legs, or feet, would brush against the others. The shiver sent down my spine each time that minute contact was made left my nerves on fire. How was it possible that he still made me feel this way? I'd glance up, wondering if he too, could feel the jolt when we touched. Much to my relief, our eyes would meet at the same time, and he'd smile shakily.
By the time the lights clicked back on, it felt like I'd forgotten how to breathe. Luckily, Ezra seemed to have recovered from the initial shock of seeing me again.
"Are you here for the whole workshop?"
"Yes." Nerves still on edge, I swept my hair to one side, hoping the familiar gesture would calm my raging emotions.
"This is-" he laughed tensely, "really lame, but could I have your number? I'd like to have dinner with you sometime. It's been a while."
"Sure. Here" I scribbled my number on a scrap of paper. He did the same.
"Thanks. Listen, I've got to run but-" He trailed off as a thin blonde woman appeared at his side.
"Aria," Ezra paused for a moment as the woman took his hand, "This is Christine. She's my-"
"Fiancée." Christine beamed as she spoke, extending her hands towards me to display the ring on her finger.
"That's some ring." I was speaking to her, but my eyes couldn't seem to leave Ezra's.
"I know. It's a little small, but one day I'll have a bigger one. Isn't that right, Ezra?" She squeezed herself to his arm tightly.
"Hmm? Oh. Of course. Christine, this is Aria. We met...She used to be..." Ezra seemed to be at a loss for words.
"Ezra and I lived in the same town in Pennsylvania for a short while."
"You never mentioned that you lived in Pennsylvania!"
I wasn't sure whether to feel relieved that Ezra had never spoken about our relationship, or hurt that he hadn't deemed me important enough to bother with.
"Well, I-" He rubbed the back of his neck; a gesture I knew as well as I knew how to apply eyeliner. He was obviously completely uncomfortable with the relationship. "I only lived there a short time. Aria was really the only person I became good friends with."
Ah. So we had just been friends. Christine however, seemed to pick up on what Ezra was not saying. Her eyes roamed over me, as if assessing the threat I posed.
"Aria, it was lovely to meet you, but I'm afraid we," she tugged Ezra's hand, "have got to go. We're having lunch before I fly home for a week."
"Oh. Well, congratulations on your engagement."
"Bye Aria. Maybe I'll see you at one of the other lectures?"
I nodded. "See you then."
Ezra gave a brief smile, before turning and heading back up the aisle of the auditorium, Christine clinging to his arm.
The earlier buoyancy and joy I'd felt at seeing him again had been crushed. Engaged? But he...and I...what we'd had...
Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I sighed heavily. Yeah right, Aria. In what world did you think that you and Ezra had something special? You were sixteen and he was your teacher. It was nothing more than a fling for him.
Though my inner monologue was wrong, I couldn't help but let the anguish seep in, leaving my eyes burning with tears.
The momentary bliss I'd found in the hot water of my shower dissipated with the shrill of my cell phone's ring tone. A glance at the screen revealed it was an unknown number.
Memories of my junior year, and the terror that "A" had caused shot like ice through my veins. I reeled myself in quickly. Fearing the unknown would get me nowhere.
I swallowed hard and wiped my suddenly sweaty palms on my towel.
"Ezra?" Sure, we'd exchanged phone numbers, but that was before I'd met his fiancée.
"Yeah. So I know I had to leave in a rush today, but um..." he paused and laughed rather shakily, "are you busy tonight?"
My eyes flitted about the living room of my apartment. Boxes were stacked against walls, still waiting to be unpacked. The situation was no better in the kitchen or my bedroom .
"Actually, I'm still unpacking, and it was a long drive so-"
"Later this week then?"
"Ezra I- tonight's fine. Did you want to go out?"
"Whatever you want."
"How about you pick up Chinese and come over here? That way I can unpack some more and not have to dig for something to wear."
"Sounds good. Text me your address and I'll be over there, say six-ish?"
"Alright. See you then."
After texting him, I quickly dried my hair and dressed in jeans and an cut off sweatshirt. There was no use in trying to impress him.
Five minutes after six he arrived. Even three years later, my first instinct upon seeing him was to remind myself to breathe. His appearance this particular evening did little to help my respiration.
It must have been raining outside; his hair was dripping, as was his grey t-shirt, leaving it clinging to his chest.
Noticing my gaze, he shrugged.
"It started pouring the minute I parked my car." He held up a plastic bag. "Mr. Woo's. Best in the St. Louis area!" Ezra grinned.
"Yum. I'm starving. Come in and we'll see if I can find you a towel to dry off with."
I stepped aside and allowed him to pass.
He scanned the apartment. "This is nice but," he pointed towards the boxes, "isn't that a bit much for a three day workshop?"
I laughed. "I told you I still had some unpacking to do! After all, a girl can never have too many pairs of shoes."
He laughed then, and I realized with a pang how much I'd missed him. I took the bag from his hand and led him into the kitchen. "I'm starting the University in a few weeks. My dad got the apartment for me. You know the whole 'divorced-parents-try-to-outdo-each-other kind of thing."
"Ah. Still planning on majoring in English?"
We fell into silence, both of us shifting uncomfortably.
"I um- got you orange chicken. Is it still your favorite?"
"Yup." I pulled the containers from the bag and handed one to him. "We'll have to sit on the floor or", I hoisted myself up onto the counter top, "up here."
He followed my lead and sat on the counter opposite me.
"So, are you still in New York?"
"No, I only stayed there until the end of the year. I teach at a private school here now."
"It's not a bad job really, and I get paid a good deal more." He laughed softly.
I forced a smile. It was strange to go from talking about everything, to not speaking at all, and now having to make awkward small talk.
"Christine seems nice." I couldn't help the edge in my voice. Even if I had tried to convince myself that we were only friends, the old jealousy still reared its head.
"I-she is nice."
"How did you meet her? She's obviously too old to be a former student."
He blanched at my words. "Aria." The agony on his face made me regret my biting barb.
"I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
He nodded. "I met her at a party. Friend of a friend kind of deal. She's a math major at the University. She'll be a senior this year."
Somehow, I pushed past the pain at knowing he was someone else's, and laughed. "A math major? With an English teacher?"
"Unusual. I know."
Finished eating, I set the carton on the counter. He did the same.
"It must be hard moving to a new city, leaving all your friends behind."
I swallowed hard. In all actuality, leaving Rosewood hadn't been all that difficult. Most of the memories there weren't all that fantastic. The old anger welled inside, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stave it off. "This isn't hard. Hard is having your parents' divorce, a murderer stalk you and your boyfriend leave without saying goodbye. That, Ezra, is hard!"
I was volatile, my emotions encased like dynamite, ready to combust with the first touch of a flame. Ezra had just struck a match. "I cried myself to sleep every night for a month after you left! Ezra, why didn't you say goodbye?" My voice rose as I spoke, choked every few words by tears. "Thanks for dinner, but I think you need to leave. I don't know what I was thinking letting you come."
I started towards the door, intending to show him out, but he slipped down from the counter and grasped my arm.
I glanced down to where his hand gripped my arm, and then back to his face. Instantly his hold slackened.
"Do you think it was easy for me?"
"Clearly. Did you know that I haven't been with anyone since you left?"
"Because, Ezra," I sighed heavily and wiped away falling tears," when you love someone, even if they don't feel the same, it feels like betrayal."
"What makes you think I didn't feel the same?" He was moving closer, hands lightly brushing my waist.
"Ezra, I really think you should go." He took a few steps towards me, backing me up until my back grazed the counter. "Please?"
He nodded and moved to stand on the other side of the kitchen. "I'm sorry. It's all I've thought about for years, alright? There are nights when I still feel like such an asshole for leaving you like that…for leaving you at all. But I can't change that Aria! I wish I could. I'd give anything if I could!" He ran a hand through his hair and drew a ragged breath. "But…I can't. I can't."
"I know." I bit my lip and wrapped my arms around myself.
"I just thought we could have dinner, catch up, and talk for a bit. That's it. I swear I didn't mean for things to play out like this."
I glanced at the clock. It was getting late. "I-thanks for dinner." The tension between us was palpable and I wanted nothing more than to relax it, relax both of us. "I can't believe you remembered orange chicken was my favorite." He lightened up at that and smiled ruefully.
"Well, it seemed like it was all you ever ate. I had hoped you hadn't grown sick of it."
I grinned. "Never."
"So-I…it's getting late. I should probably be heading out. Need my help to clean up?" He gestured to the take out containers and utensils.
"I got it. Thanks again for dinner. I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Goodnight, Aria."
I followed him to the door.