The "Missed Connections" Contest

Story Title: Two Words
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns any Twilight characters that may appear in this story. No copyright infringement is
Word wordcount: 9598


I kept your note - m4w - 26 (L Train)

Date: 2011-03-05, 2:21 PM EST

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Back in the summer I saw you on the L going into Brooklyn. I complimented you on your jacket and you wrote me a note on a scrap of paper. I've kept it tacked to my desk these past few months, hoping by chance I'd run into you again one of these days. If it's you, please write the two words of your note in the subject line of your e-mail.

Location: L Train

It's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

*0*0*

It's hot down here, and it smells like all kinds of bodily functions. The platform is crowded, but quiet in that odd way they are when a lot of New Yorkers are packed together, studiously not speaking. There's just the rustling of fidgeting bodies, the footsteps of people coming down the stairs to the platform, and the rumble of the A train pulling in somewhere else in this underground labyrinth.

I'm sticky and sweaty, and really ready for a shower and a cold beer. I had to stay late at work fixing some bullshit issue that wasn't even my problem to begin with, and this endless fetid wait for the L train is pushing me past my tolerance for discomfort. I want to be back at our cramped, run-down apartment in Williamsburg. Not for the place, but for the people.

The sun has started to set and no doubt Jasper and Emmett are heading out to sit on the stoop and drink. Rose and Alice are probably already there. Maybe Alice is making dinner. I love her cooking. It's my favorite part of the summer: sitting outside with them, drinking and shooting the shit well into the night, watching the city roll by in front of us. Alice talks so much that there's barely any room for anyone else to get a word in, but that's okay. She's sweet and means well. Rose will bitch about something… everything. But as the night wears on and the beers disappear, even she'll soften up and start smiling. Emmett will get louder and funnier as the hour creeps later and Jasper will just lounge back on the steps and mellow. I'm smiling just thinking about it.

So much about my job and life in the city just wears me down. I've wanted to give up and move back home about a thousand times. But every time I think I'm done, I spend another hour or two with them and I remember again why I can't quit, why I stay in this place. The city is great, but I don't stay for the city. I stay for my friends.

A long roar and a spine-rattling screech accompanies the L train when it finally pulls into the station. I push in with everybody else and drop onto a seat, grateful for even the weak air conditioning of a subway car.

It doesn't leave right away since 8th Avenue is the end of the line, but I don't even care. At least I'm sitting down. I loosen my tie and pop open the first two buttons of my dress shirt. I shift my messenger bag onto the empty seat next to me so the strap quits digging into my shoulder.

We wait for five minutes with the doors open. Finally, the car lets out an electronic "ding", signaling that the doors are about to close and that's when this girl decides to fling herself into the car. Not in the five minutes we've been sitting there. Now, when we're finally about to leave. She almost gets caught in the closing doors— they catch her oversized backpack— but she curses and yanks it free. The doors slide back open and everyone in the subway car gives her the silent stink-eye for holding up the train for an extra fifteen seconds. She doesn't seem to notice.

There's one seat left, caddy corner from me. She drops down onto it heavily, jostling the guy next to her, but she's got her earbuds in and seems not to notice that either.

She drags her giant backpack, a beat-up olive green Army surplus thing, up against her shins and starts digging around inside. She absently hooks her long dark hair behind one ear, but it falls forward anyway, partly obscuring her face.

My attention is caught by her hair. Not just the contrast of the dark brown against her white skin, but also by the streak of muted magenta in the front on the left and the way the front right is caught back in three long, thin braids.

I slide my black sketchbook out of my messenger bag and onto my lap and pull my pen out of the breast pocket of my shirt. Surreptitiously, I open my sketchbook and start drawing her. I like to draw people on the train, but people don't always like being drawn, so I try to be subtle about it. It doesn't really matter, though. She's got her headphones in and she's intent on her bag and she's not paying any attention to me.

I catch little glimpses of her face inside the curtain of her hair. She's pretty, even though she's scowling and biting on her bottom lip. Her skin is amazing, so pale and clear. I like the graphic swing of those braids and the slash of color. She's wearing an old Police concert t-shirt under a little black leather jacket, even in this heat. I think about the best way to render the leather in ink. I think she could make an interesting character in a graphic novel. Maybe a teenage freedom fighter or something. Revolutionary. Dangerous.

I'm thinking of adding a weapon in her hand in my drawing, maybe a crossbow or something, and when I look up, she's looking straight at me. She's expressionless, but still manages to make me feel judged. I drop my eyes back to my book quickly. I hear her exhale and shift positions. I go back to my drawing to add in what I've seen of her eyes. Dark brown and wide, with long lashes.

The train empties out a lot at Union Square and she shifts one seat over, so she's against the window, facing front. I'm still facing her side of the train. She props her feet up on the bench perpendicular to her, then she fishes her ipod out of her jacket pocket. She gives the screen a look and lets out the long weary sigh that's universal for "my battery just died". The ipod gets stuffed in the top of her backpack and she starts to fidget.

I keep my eyes on my notebook, shading in her hair.

"I hope you plan on showing me that."

I'm startled when I hear her voice, kind of loud in the mostly-empty train car. She's sitting in the same position, but now she's looking at me, one eyebrow raised. Her eyebrows are perfect, thin and arched, and very expressive. I could draw them in with a single pen stroke, but it has to be the perfect pen stroke. One tiny error and it wouldn't be her anymore.

"Excuse me?" I finally ask.

"That." She points at my sketchbook. "You're drawing me, the least you can do is show it to me."

"How do you know I'm drawing you?"

She gives me a bored, disbelieving look.

"I like your jacket… the leather. I was drawing that."

She just keeps leveling that stare at me. I don't protest again, I just lift the book and flip it around to show her. She looks at it for a minute.

"That's really good. Like a comic book, right?"

I shrug. "Sort of."

"Is that what you do? Are you like, a comic book artist?"

I scoff slightly and shake my head. "No. I mean, yeah, I draw. I'm working on a graphic novel. But it's not my job."

She shrugs in return. "Seems like it should be. You're good at it." She pauses for a minute, her fingers working the frayed hem of her jeans. She's got really long legs for a small girl. "So what is your job then?"

"Um, I work for an ad agency." It makes me irritable to say it. Starting the minute I leave the office every day, I work very hard at forgetting about that part my life until it starts over the next morning. It's finally Friday and I have forty-eight whole work-free hours ahead of me and now this girl is making me think about it anyway.

"Like, computer art and stuff?" She sits up a little straighter, like she's actually interested in my answer. It makes me wish I had a better answer to give her.

"No," I sigh. "IT, actually. I fix the computers for the art guys."

Her perfect eyebrows draw together. "What's up with that? You're clearly talented enough. Why aren't you doing the art part?"

I scowl slightly. "I needed the job, okay? New York is expensive. I'd like to be doing this all the time." I tap my sketchbook. "But it's not exactly practical."

The eyebrows shoot up as she appraises me. She's got the most judgmental eyebrows I've ever seen.

The train slows to a crawl and then, with a shriek and a shudder, it stops. It's no big deal, sometimes the train just stops in the tunnel for a few minutes, so I'm not immediately alarmed.

"So what do you do with all that stuff?" She waves a hand towards my sketchbook

I shrug. "Nothing, really. It's not done anyway. So I just keep working on it in my free time."

"How long have you been working on it?"

"Um, three years."

She chokes a little. "Excuse me? Three years? You've been working on it for three years and it's not done?"

I roll my eyes. "I've done a lot of revising. It's not perfect yet. Plus I don't get a lot of downtime outside of my job."

She scrambles up and crosses the car to the bench perpendicular to mine, dragging her backpack across with her. She drops down into the seat. Our knees are just inches apart now. She holds her hand out to me.

"Gimme."

"What?"

"Let me see it."

"This isn't it," I protest. "The storyboards are at home. This is just my sketchbook. Ideas and stuff. I work things out here."

"I bet I can keep up. Let me see."

I let out a long sigh and hand it over. She flips through it slowly. Now and then she stops and asks a question. I explain the basic idea I've been working on, the bare bones of the story, the main characters. She hums and nods, her fingertips skimming over the pages one at a time.

"What's this?" she asks, pausing on a later page.

"Oh, that's not from this story. Just another idea I've got for a different story."

"Another story? It looks like there are about a hundredother stories here."

I shrug and take the book back when she gets to the blank pages. "It's just stuff I scribble down in my free time."

She shakes her head. "That's not a hobby, that's your life's work. You're frozen."

I look at her skeptically. "Excuse me? Frozen? What's that mean?"

"Look at that book. All those ideas and you've been working on the same one for three years? While you work at that IT job that you clearly don't like? You're frozen. You need something… something big… to bust you out of this. Something that will free you, so you can finish your book and get a start on all those other stories. You need to quit wasting time on surviving and start living."

"Believe me, I'm trying. The job is just for the money. I'm saving up so I can—"

"What?"

I don't say anything for a second. I've never tried to put my life plan into words before and now that I'm trying, I'm not sure that I can. Anything that I can say just sounds lame and disappointing. Oh, God, my life is a disappointment. It's a sober realization to come to in the middle of a stalled subway car when you're trying unsuccessfully to flirt with a cute girl.

"I need a fall back," I say, not sounding at all convincing, "something I can count on, in case this doesn't pan out."

She stares at me for a long time. "Faith is taking the first step, even when you can't see the whole staircase."

"Huh?"

"My mom quotes that all the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it. Like, you just need to stay focused on what matters and have faith, and the rest will work itself out by the time you need it to."

Now it's my turn to stare at her for a while. "And you live like that?"

Now she looks offended. "How shouldI live? Like you? Working at some gig you hate and sneaking your drawing in on the subway?"

"I'm working on it! Saving up and stuff. You know, trying to be responsible. How do you live?"

She spreads her arms wide. "This is it. This is how I live."

I shake my head a little, confused. "Let's start over. Where do you live?"

"Nowhere, really. I go hang with my mother in Florida when I want some down time. Otherwise I travel."

"With who?"

She squirms in her seat and scowls. "We were talking about you and your art."

"Yeah, and now we're talking about you. So who do you hang with as you wander the country?"

She shrugs, eyes on her hands where she's fiddling with the zipper on her jacket. "Whoever. Mostly alone."

"Where do you stay?"

Another shrug. "Wherever. In hostels. Or I find short-term stays on Craig's List."

"What do you live on?"

"I live cheap. Sometimes I stop and pick up a gig for a little bit, then I float on that for a while."

I stare at her in wonder. "Leaving out how insanely dangerousthat is for a minute, don't you ever get… lonely?"

She blinks and looks surprised at the question. "I…um, I don't….."

For the first time since we started talking, she's speechless. I start talking to fill the void. "Because I know there's a lot about my situation that's less than perfect. You're right. I don't like my job but I still seem to spend all my time on it and that sucks. But I have my friends. They mean a lot to me. My roommates, and their girlfriends, the people we live with in our building… it sounds stupid, but we're kind of like a family. I don't know what I'd do without them. Yeah, my job sucks, but my real life… you know, outside of work… is pretty great."

"Oh…. That sounds nice. It's good that you have them." She takes a deep breath and seems to regain a little of her bravado. "My mom moved around a lot when I was young. Like, a lot. So yeah… I didn't make a lot of friends. So I don't really have… you know… that." She waves a hand at me. "Friends like that. I bet it's nice."

"It is nice. It makes up for all the stuff that's not so nice."

"You're lucky. I'm really bad at stuff like that."

"Bad at what?"

"You know… friends. Family. I don't really know how to do that."

I laugh a little. "It's not something you learn how to do. It just is."

"Maybe for you it just is. It's a lot harder when all you know how to do is leave."

She sounds sad and kind of lost, and now I feel bad, like I put her on the spot. "Well, look on the bright side. You have complete freedom, right? I guess that's pretty cool, too."

She brightens, smiles a little. She's got a nice smile and I feel myself smiling back. The train still hasn't moved. We've been sitting here for a long time now, but I don't mind. I'm hoping it lasts a while longer, honestly.

"Exactly. Total freedom. I don't have to answer to anybody. I can go where I want, whenever I want. And I want to see everything while I still can."

I chuckle. "What, are you running out of time or something? You're like, twenty, right?"

"Twenty two. But you never know how long you've got before life grabs you."

"What do you mean, grabs you?"

Her forehead crumples and her perfect eyebrows furrow in as she thinks how to explain herself. "Well, take my mother for instance."

"I don't know your mother," I point out. She huffs and rolls her eyes. She opens her mouth to speak, but the train intercom dings and a garbled voice echoes through the car.

"There's a police investigation at Lorimer. As soon as it's cleared, we'll be moving. Please be patient."

A collective groan goes up from the people scattered around the train car. Of all the delays possible on a subway, police investigations are the worst. They always last the longest. But for the first time ever, I'm not unhappy to hear that news. I'm perfectly fine to stay right here, doing what I'm doing, talking to this crazy, cute girl.

She looks back to me and I smile. She smiles, too, a little sideways curling of the corner of her mouth. It makes me think she's not all that unhappy about being stuck either.

"So, your mom…" I prompt her, leaning forward a little.

"Oh, right!" She scoots forward until our knees are almost touching. I angle myself on the seat so I'm facing her more fully.

"See, my mom's this total free spirit—"

"Like you."

She meets my eyes and smiles again. "Like me. Anyway, I already told you we moved around all the time when I was young. I thought she'd travel forever. It was just in her blood. But then she met Phil a few years ago and fell in love. And she loved him more than she loved the next new city. So she stayed put, got married, settled down. Life caught her."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

She shakes her head. "Not at all! She's really happy. But see, it had to be the right time and place. She tried to settle down with my dad when I was a baby, but that wasn't the time or place or person for her, you know? She was never going to be happy there. So she hit the road with me and found her own happiness. At least, until Phil came along. Mom couldn't have settled down on her own and been satisfied. But she was more than happy to do it for Phil. Life settled down around her. When the time, the place, the person… was right, life made the choice for her. And it was the right choice."

I laugh and shake my head. "Okay. But what if you don't meet the right person because you never sit still? What if they're right there in front of you, but you're already on your way to the next place and you miss them?"

She shakes her head vehemently and her little braids bounce against her cheekbone. "It doesn't matter. If you force yourself to hold still, then you're not being true to yourself. So even if you do meet the right person, you're not being who you're meant to be, so how can you be the right person for them? It's doomed."

My head falls back on the wall. "I'm not sure if I agree with that."

"Of course you wouldn't. You've already locked your whole life into place before you know a thing about yourself."

"All because I have a paying job?"

"No, because your passion is withering right in front of your eyes while you slog back and forth to the office every day."

"That's just adulthood. It happens to everybody."

"Only if you let it. Lemme ask you, if you didn't have your job, your responsibilities, all that stuff…if you didn't have to answer to anyone but yourself, what would you do? Where would you go? Anywhere. Anything. Don't think too much, just answer."

"I don't know…Europe? I've always wanted to go and really spend some time. I went on a tour in high school, but that's not the same. I want to stay and get to know a place, get to know the people that live there."

Her face lights up in a smile at my answer. "I knew it."

"You knew what?"

"I knew you were in there someplace. A little flicker, at least."

I sigh and drop back in my seat, confused by her but still more intrigued than I care to admit. "That's all well and good, but how do I pay my rent? And what the hell do I live on over there? It's not always so easy to do."

"Of course it is. You just need to believe that things will work out. Faith is taking the first step, even when—"

"Yeah, yeah, even when you can't see the staircase. I remember."

"You have to do more than remember. You have to believe it."

We lock eyes and she smiles. I smile. I'm opening my mouth to ask her if she wants to continue this conversation over drinks when the subway car suddenly lurches forward. The air brakes screech and we slowly roll forward along the tracks. Fuck.

Her eyes drop to her backpack and she starts to close it back up.

I clear my throat and wipe my palms on my thighs. "Um… where do you get off?"

"Bedford," she says without looking up. Damn. I'm Lorimer, two stops further out. If we'd gotten off together, I could have maybe casually suggested stopping into a bar. This is trickier. Now I need to ask for her number. But the train is rocketing along now and we're almost there. Bedford is the next stop. So I need to act fast if I'm going to do this. Am I going to do this? I cast a look over at her, at her dark hair swinging against her face, casting shadows on her pouty bottom lip. I take a deep breath to steel myself. Yes, I'm totally doing this.

"Can you…um, can I maybe get your cell number?" I spit it out in a barely intelligible rush and then keep going, like maybe more words will make it sound less lame. "You know, if you want to grab a drink or something before you hit the road again?"

She looks up at me, pausing for a moment, a pensive look on her face. I hold my breath, waiting for her to shoot me down and trying to come up with something blasé and dismissive to say when she does. The corner of her mouth curls up again and she leans forward, reaching for my sketchbook. I hand it over to her. She curls her fingers around my pen, brushing my hand as she does.

I keep my eyes on her face as she flips through the pages, past all the drawings that I've been working on for a dozen graphic novels that will probably never see the light of day, until she gets to the first blank page. She bends low over the book, scribbling her number. Then she folds the corner of the page way over, concealing everything she wrote. I wonder why she didn't just ask for my phone and put it in there, but she's odd that way. I've figured that much out already.

When she's done, she closes the book and hands it back to me, still with that enigmatic little half smile. The train is pulling into Bedford. I take the book back. Yeah, she's a little bit crazy, but I'm looking forward to puzzling her out, if I can. This conversation has certainly been the most fun that I've had in a while, so there's something to that.

She stands up and hefts her backpack up on one shoulder. Then she reaches out and lays her hand along my jaw. The unexpected, intimate contact sends a jolt through my system. I look up at her and we lock eyes.

"So much potential," she says softly. And I smile, because hell yes, there is. She smiles, too. I start to reach up to put my hand over hers, but she backs away and turns just in time to exit through the open doors.

Just as the bell dings and the door starts to shut, I remember something. I shoot to my feet and my palms slam into the glass doors.

"Your name!" I shout.

She's standing just on the other side of the glass. I see her lips moving, but the train is pulling out and the screech of the wheels drowns out whatever it is she's saying. I guess it doesn't matter, since I have her number, but it would have been nice to know. I leave my left hand pressed against the glass as the train pulls out, to say goodbye. She raises hers, too.

When I can't see her anymore, I swing around and sink onto the bench. I flip open my sketchbook, thinking I'll program her number in now so maybe I can text her right away and ask her for her name. It's a good opener and a little less pressure than jumping straight into asking her out.

I flip to the last page and unfold the corner. But there's no number. There are just two words written there. Two fucking words.

"Goddammit!" I shout. Everyone on the train car turns to look at me, but I just groan and slide down into my seat.

*0*0*

My mood is black by the time I reach home. Just like I expected, Jasper and Emmett are camped out on the front stoop. Rose is there, sitting one step below Emmett, leaning back between his legs, her arms hooked casually over his thighs. His hands are kneading her shoulders and she's got her head tipped back, smiling lazily up at him. Alice is there, too, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk with Lauren, the little girl from the building next door. They're in the middle of some epic sidewalk chalk mural.

"Hey, man!" Jasper calls, when he sees us approach. "You're just in time. We're grilling out tonight. Steaks."

"Yeah," Emmett chimes in, "Rosie landed a commercial, so we splurged. We're busting out the hibachi and living large!"

I manage a weak smile. "Just let me ditch my stuff. I'll be down in a second."

I trudge up the three flights of stairs to our rabbit hole of an apartment. It's hot as fuck up here, with no breeze. As much as I was looking forward to hanging out tonight, now I'm just pissy and foul-tempered. I'm sure to make lousy company.

When I've changed into a clean t-shirt and cargo shorts, I head to the kitchen to grab a beer. I spend a few minutes in front of the open refrigerator door, trying to cool off and adjust my attitude. I think back over that whole, long fucked-up conversation. Yes, she was a little crazy, and we mostly just argued. But she was also really cute, and I thought we had a connection. I was pretty sure that she was feeling whatever I was feeling.

And what the hell was that moment right before she got off the train? When she touched my face? When she said "so much potential", I thought she meant potential forus. Clearly not. After reading what she wrote, I'm thinking she meant me. I have so much potential. And I guess, until I've fulfilled it, then she's not interested. Well, fuck her andher goddamn judgmental eyebrows.

I slam the fridge closed and curse.

"You okay, Edward?" Alice is leaning on the kitchen doorframe.

"Yeah," I mutter. "I'm fine. Just… I met this girl on the subway today. I thought we were really connecting. We talked forever and it was… I don't know. It was different. But then she totally blew me off, so I guess it was all one-sided. Kind of a blow to the ego, you know?"

Her head tips to the side and she smiles sympathetically. "She just doesn't know you well enough to know how awesome you are."

I laugh a little and sigh, "And I guess now she never will."

Alice crosses to the fridge and retrieves a beer for herself before sliding her arm around my waist. I wrap my arm around her shoulders and hug her to my side.

"She'll be sorry," Alice says firmly. "I bet she's already kicking herself about letting such a catch slip through her fingers."

"You're good to me, Alice. Thanks."

"That's because you're my favorite. Shh, don't tell Jasper."

I laugh for real then, already feeling a little better.

"Oh!" she gasps, pulling free of me and waving her little hands in excitement. "This is just like a Missed Connection!"

"A what?"

"You know, on Craig's List. Missed Connections. They're like personal ads, people looking for the one that got away. 'Hey, I met you at the bar on Saturday. You said you liked Kings of Leon and I said they were overrated. You were cute. Let's get coffee.' Stuff like that!"

"People actually do that?"

Alice nods vigorously. "Yeah, lots of people. I like to read them. You can imagine such great stories about them. I wonder if they ever manage to connect, and if it really works out…" Alice's face gets dreamy and I laugh. "You could try it with this girl! Post an ad and see if she responds!"

"Uh, no way. She already let me know that she wasn't interested. Pretty definitively. Plus, she travels all the time. I seriously doubt she spends much time reading personal ads on Craig's List."

"Hmmm, too bad," she sighs.

"Hey, I still have you guys. I'm not in such sorry shape, right?" I hook my arm around her neck and give her a noogie. She squeals and swats me away.

"Not if you mess up my hair! Now come downstairs and hang out. You know it will make you feel better."

So I go downstairs. And yes, I feel better. But not all the way.

No amount of beer and good conversation manages to completely erase that crazy encounter. It eats at me all night long. She eats at me.

It shouldn't still be bothering me. She was so judgmental. Who is she to decide I'm the one whose life needs fixing? She's the one wandering the country practically homeless. She has all this big talk about life reaching out and grabbing you, making you settle down when the time and place is right. But life isn't going to be able to catch her if she never holds still. She'll just keep moving on, looking for some connection that never happens.

I tell myself that even if she'd given me her number and we'd gone out, it would have been a waste of time. She'd be back on the road and gone in no time. So there's no point in wasting another minute thinking about her.

But by Monday, I still am. All that stuff she said to me is like an earwig, burrowing into my brain and refusing to let go.

I hate my job. I already know this. But Monday, it seems intolerable. The workaholic graphic designers spend every weekend slaving away at their desks and by Monday morning, they've always compiled a massive backlog of technical problems for me to wade through. I spend the whole morning going through their files, backing shit up properly, saving to the server, and cleaning up the coding.

When I took this job, I was thinking I could work my way up to being one of the graphic designers myself. I'd do my time in IT and then graduate to a design slot where I could actually be creative. But as my eyes skate over yet another generic print ad for bathroom cleaner, it occurs to me that I'd rather cut off my right arm than spend six or seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, churning out this crap like they do.

So if I'm not hoping to move up, then what the hell am I doing here? By Friday, I've turned in my two weeks' notice.

*0*0*

It's early fall and I'm finally back in the city. Spain was amazing, and just what I needed, but I'm glad to be in New York again, dirt, noise, traffic and all.

After I quit my job, I realized that all my cautious planning had left me a nice little rainy day fund. I didn't blow it all right away. I'm not that guy, and I never will be. But I allowed myself one indulgence as a reward for three years of IT servitude. I went to Spain.

There was no plan, no itinerary; nothing but me and a backpack. I took the first step even though I couldn't see the staircase.

I hung out for weeks at a time in big cities and in tiny villages. I ate amazing food and met great people. I picked up some of the language. I filled three sketchbooks with drawings.

Jasper and Alice came over towards the end and we traveled together for a little while. I think they were worried that they might lose me to some European itinerant lifestyle, but that wasn't going to happen. I might not have had a job to get back to, but I had a plan.

I came home and knuckled down on the graphic novel. After toiling on it in secret for three years, I finished it in three weeks and sent it out all over town. I've had a couple of interested nibbles. We'll see if they pan out into anything. In the meantime, I've started a new one. It's sort of post-apocalyptic/ dystopian. The heroine is a teenaged freedom fighter who wields a crossbow.

It's Friday night and still warm outside, even though we're nearing the end of September. Jasper, Alice and Emmett have gone down to hang out on the stoop to soak up one of the last warm nights of the year. While I was in Spain, Alice moved in and she stayed once I came home. We really don't have room for a fourth person in this shoebox, but it's Alice, so I'm willing to make an exception. They try to drag me downstairs with them, but I'm on a roll with my work and don't want to quit.

I'm inking in the heroine's three long braids where they brush the side of her face when I hear the front door open. Alice's voice calls out moments later.

"Back for more beer! When are you coming down?"

"Later!"

She appears in my doorway moments later, a six pack in one hand. She comes to stand behind me, resting one hand on my shoulder as I work. She watches me for a minute in silence.

"What's this from?" she finally asks.

"What?"

"This. You've had it since the summer. I remember it from before Spain, and then it showed up again when you came home."

I look up. She's fingering the torn corner of paper pinned to the bulletin board over my desk. It has two words scrawled on it in messy handwriting.

"Oh, that. Do you remember that girl I met on the subway last summer?"

Alice's eyebrows shoot up. "She gave you this?"

I snort in laughter. "Yeah, instead of her number. Nice, huh?"

"Still, you kept it all this time."

"Yeah. And?"

Alice shrugs. "Seems like it mattered to you."

I shrug again, eyes on my desk.

"There's always Craig's List."

"What?"

"Missed Connections. Remember, I told you about it? You could put an ad up. See if she's still out there."

"Alice…"

She holds her hand up in defense. "Just a suggestion. Put it out into the universe and see what comes back to you. What can I say? I have a feeling about this. Here." She deposits a beer on my table. "Since you're not coming down."

"Thanks, Al."

When she gets to the doorway, she stops and looks back. "You know, you did it."

"Did what?"

She points towards the slip of paper. "What she told you to do. You did it."

Alice leaves and I stare at that stupid piece of paper for half an hour. Those two words.

When my beer is gone, I get another. Then another. Sometime around midnight, I open my laptop and google Craig's List. I peruse the posting rules. All very straightforward. I'm sure all I'll get are a bunch of gross pornographic propositions, if I get anything at all. I set up a new hotmail account, just to be on the safe side.

I sit with my hands on the keyboard for twenty minutes before I even type a word. I erase it all and start over three times. Finally, I down the last of my fourth beer in a gulp and click submit.

*0*0*

I kept your note - m4w - 26 (L Train)

Date: 2010- 9-22, 12:21AM EST

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Back in the summer I saw you on the L going into Brooklyn. I complimented you on your jacket and you wrote me a note on a scrap of paper. I've kept it tacked to my desk these past few months, hoping by chance I'd run into you again one of these days. If it's you, please write the two words of your note in the subject line of your e-mail.

*0*0*

Two nights later, I'm back at my desk, settling in to work, and the scrap of paper catches my eye again. The hotmail account. I hadn't even thought about it since I sent that ad in a crazy fit of late-night optimism and curiosity. I log onto hotmail and sure enough, I see a string of emails with subject lines like "RU looking for a date?" and "Improve your stamina now!". I delete, delete, delete. Then two words jump off the screen at me. The two words.

Become you.

I hold my breath as I open the email. It's not very long.

Hi,

Become you. That's what I wrote on that piece of paper. I've been hoping I'd hear from you again. Can we meet? I'm in the city, still in Williamsburg.

Bella (by the way, I'm Bella)

I'm breathing hard and breaking out in a sweat by the time I get to the end. She answered. I'm calculating the odds that she stumbled on my stupid ad and they're astronomical. But it's happened. She wrote the same two words she'd written to me on the train that day.

I get up and get a beer. I sit back down. I read her email again. Then again. Finally, I hit "reply".

*0*0*

We meet at Fabiane's onBedford. I pace back and forth in front of the door a few times before I realize that she might be inside already, watching me pace and freak out. So I take a deep breath and go in.

She is there, but at a table towards the back, away from the door, so I don't think she saw my attack of nerves. She stands up fast the minute she sees me, smiling and raising one hand in a tentative little wave. I smile back and start weaving through the tables to get to her.

The magenta streak is gone from her hair, as are the three little braids. Of course. It's hardly like she's been on pause all this time. Her hair is a little longer and wavier than I remember. She's just as pretty. My memory hasn't embellished that.

"Hi," she says on an exhale when I get close enough to hear her.

"Hi." I try to smile. I'm afraid it looks as tense as I feel. She swallows and throws her shoulders back before thrusting her hand towards me, her face grim with determination.

"I'm Bella Swan."

I blink once. "Bella Swan? That's your real name?"

She lets out a nervous little laugh. "I know, right? But yeah, I was born with that."

I smile, then remember to take the hand she's still offering. It's warm, soft. Her fingers are thin, with delicate, unpolished nails. "Edward. Uh, Edward Cullen."

"Edward," she says slowly.

I roll my eyes. "Yes, Edward. No nickname. It's every bit as uptight as I'm sure you thought it would be."

I meant for it to be a little joke, to break the tension, but she grimaces.

"I'm… can we sit? And talk a little?" She motions at the table.

"Sure. Let me grab a coffee. You want something?"

She shakes her head and points at her cup. "I'm good."

When I've gotten my fancy cappuccino with a design drawn in the foam, I return to the table and settle in across from her. In my absence, she's gotten her laptop out of her bag and set it up on the table.

"So," she begins. "Was that the first time… I mean, have you ever put an ad up on Missed Connections before?"

I laugh. "Absolutely not. I didn't even know it existed until my roommate told me about it. It was her idea."

"Her?"

I smile. "My best friend's girlfriend," I explain. "She saw that I still had your note on my bulletin board. She gave me the nudge. I don't know. I just thought that maybe—"

"Can I show you something?" Bella interrupts me. She looks really nervous. I nod.

She pivots her computer around so I can see the screen. The browser is open to Craig's List. Bella types a few things and accesses her account. She has an accounton Craig's List. I posted as a guest. A few more keystrokes and she's at what appears to be her history.

"You should see this first," she says quietly, pushing her laptop at me. I cast her a nervous glance. She's biting her bottom lip and gripping her coffee cup fiercely. I turn back to her computer and start to read.

It's the history of ads she's posted on Craig's List and I have a momentary flash of panic that she's the bait in some elaborate scam, but the first ad dispels that fear. It's dated July 15th, the day after I saw her on the train.

*0*

Sketchbook Guy - w4m - 22 (L Train)

Date: 2010-7-15, 11:18 PM EST

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You were drawing me on the subway yesterday. You asked me for my number and I gave you words instead. Just two words. I wish I'd given you my number. Email me the two words and give me another chance to do it right.

*0*

I smile a little at the thought that she regretted it almost immediately, just like Alice said she would. But there are more ads and that confuses me, so I read on before I say anything.

*0*

Sketchbook Guy - w4m - 22 (L Train)

Date: 2010-7-20, 2:02 AM EST

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I think I really screwed up. You were special. That was special. And I was arrogant and careless. I'm not good at this. I told you that I don't have friends. I'm not used to connecting like that to people. I've spent my whole life leaving, and sometimes it's just easier to leave. I should have stayed and talked to you. I keep thinking about those two words. I could kick myself. I wish I could take them back.

*0*

Sketchbook Guy - w4m - 22 (L Train)

Date: 2010-8-03, 3:15 PM EST

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It's August and I'm still here. I was supposed to leave. I had a ride to Phoenix and I was supposed to be there by now. But when it was time to go, I just couldn't. I didn't want to leave again. I'm always leaving. Maybe you were right. Maybe for once, I should stay put and see what happens. I think I should have given myself that note instead of giving it to you.

*0*

Sketchbook Guy - w4m - 22 (L Train)

Date: 2010-8-12, 10:02 PM EST

Reply To This Post

I'm staying here. I don't know for how long. But I think I want to try this. I remember you talking about your friends and your life and it sounded so nice. I wonder if I could ever find something like that if I give myself the chance to. If I just quit leaving. So I'm staying. I ride the L train every day and I look at all the guys, looking for your crazy hair. You know your hair is amazing, right? I look for hands like yours and I look for your sketchbook, but I never see you.

*0*

Sketchbook Guy - w4m - 22 (L Train)

Date: 2010-9-10, 8:40 PM EST

Reply To This Post

I haven't stayed in one place this long since I was fifteen. I have a job. I'm renting a room from some other girls in an apartment. I have a checking account. I've made some friends. Life hasn't grabbed me yet, but I feel like it could. I feel like you could. What am I saying? You're not even reading this, and even if you were, I'm sure I'd just freak you out with all of this talk. But I don't know. I feel like there was something there that day and like an idiot, I blew it off and walked away. I just keep wondering if you're still out there, still drawing people on the subway, still working on your book. I wonder if you even remember me.

*0*

That's the last ad. I just stare at her computer screen for a minute, processing everything I read. Finally I look up at her.

She's looking back. Her dark brown eyes are wide and terrified. Her hands are gripping her coffee cup so hard that her knuckles have gone white. I think about how hard it must have been for her to show that to me. It's a massive thing she just did, putting herself on the line like that. All of it was massive. She stayed. That's even bigger than what I did. Leaving.

She told me the truth and I feel like I should, too, so we're on level ground. I reach into my own bag and pull out my sketchbook, laying it on the table in front of me.

"Your hair is different now," I say.

Her hand shoots up automatically to smooth it. "Oh, yeah, the pink. I got rid of it."

"And the braids."

"Braids?"

"You had three little braids that day. On that side," I point out.

"Oh…. I forgot I even did that."

I don't say anything else, I just flip through my sketchbook to one of the more recent pages, a sketch for the graphic novel I'm working on now. I turn it around and push it towards her. She looks down at the girl on the page, the heroine with the magenta streak and the three little braids. Her fingers reach out to trace her own face on the page and the corner of her mouth curls up in a smile.

Finally, she looks back up at me, less terrified than she was a minute ago. We look at each other for a long moment, a silent communication. People laugh and talk all around us. This place is too loud and crowded for what I feel like needs to happen between us next.

I swallow hard and speak. "You want to get out of here? Maybe go for a walk?"

Her shoulders drop infinitesimally and she nods. I close her laptop for her and slide it back across the table. She stows it in her messenger bag. I stand up and hold my arm out, gesturing for her to walk ahead of me. We leave the café in silence and walk together up Bedford for a few blocks.

The light starts to change as we're crossing North 8th, so I grab her hand and pull her into a run until we reach the far corner. We're both laughing when we get there. I don't let go of her hand. She doesn't let go either.

We start to talk as we walk, just small talk about the neighborhood. We get toMcCarrenParkand find a bench. We watch the moms chasing toddlers and the couples walking dogs. I ask her about her job. She's a waitress in a little lunch place. It's hard, but the tips are good. She tells me about her roommates and her regulars at the restaurant. She lists off their names and their daily habits that she's now memorized.

She asks me about my job and I tell her I quit. She's stunned, but smiling as she listens. I tell her all about Spain. I tell her about the cathedral in Toledo and about the amazing merguez sausage I had in Seville. I tell her about the retired watch repairman I befriended in Cartagena and she insists that I speak a little Spanish for her. My Spanish is terrible, but she laughs and claps like it was the performance of a lifetime.

The light starts to fade and I debate what I want to ask her next. I don't want to overwhelm her all at once, but if we're going to do this, she should see my life, my wholelife.

"Um, come back to my place for a while?" I finally ask.

She gives me a sly, sidelong smile.

"Oh! No, not for that," I scramble to correct myself. "I mean, I like the idea of that. A lot. But no, I just… my friends are there. I'd like you to meet them."

She laughs at my verbal stumbling, but she nods. "I'd like that."

We wander back towards my house. We're quite a ways away, and it takes us a long time, but it doesn't seem like it. We keep talking. She lists off all the cities she's been to, which takes forever. I list off the ones I want to visit, which is also a long list. It's dusk when we reach my building. It's another warm night, so as I suspected, Jasper, Emmett and Alice are out front. There's no sign of Rose, but that's probably for the best. She can be a lot to take on the first meeting and I don't want to overwhelm Bella.

Alice is teaching Lauren how to play hopscotch on the sidewalk. She sees us coming and stands up straight. Her eyes dart from me to Bella and then down to our joined hands. Her whole body goes on alert and her eyes spark with excitement. I'm afraid she's going to outright pounce on Bella. I give her a warning look and she backs down.

"Hey," I say as we approach the stoop. "This is Bella. Bella, this is Emmett, Jasper, Alice, and over there is Lauren. She lives next door."

"Are you with Edward?" Lauren asks in that blunt way little kids have, with no social sense or filter whatsoever.

Bella flashes a panicked look at me. "Uh…"

I take a deep breath and squeeze her fingers. "Yeah, she is. So let's make her welcome, okay, Lauren?"

Lauren shrugs. "Okay. We're playing hopscotch. It's your turn."

She holds out the chipped chunk of concrete they're using for a stone to Bella. Bella stares at her for a second. Alice leans forward in anticipation. Then Bella takes the stone.

"Okay."

So Bella plays hopscotch with Alice and Lauren for a while and I sit down on the stoop with the guys. Emmett passes me a beer.

"S'that Subway Girl?" Jasper asks.

I look at him, stunned. I never talked about that day with Jasper or Emmett. Alice, yeah, she's a girl. But the guys? Just… no.

Jasper shrugs. "Alice tells me everything, whether I want to hear it or not. Sorry. So is that her?"

"Yeah, that's her."

He just nods. Alice and Bella keep up the hopscotch until Lauren's mother calls her in for bed. They're breathless and laughing together when they finally fall onto the stoop. I smile at Bella, at her glowing, happy face. Alice is giggling and elbowing her like she's known her forever already. I've been spending all my free time with two couples for three years now and never once resented being the single man out. But having Bella here with me? I won't lie. It's nice.

Bella settles in next to me and I hand her a beer.

"Thanks," she says quietly, with a little smile meant just for me. I lean into her a little.

"You're welcome."

She leans back. I decide to go for it and slide my arm around her back. She just tucks herself into my side.

"It's great that you all hang out like this," Bella says to the group. "Your neighborhood is great, with the little girl next door and everything."

"Tonight's nothing," Emmett says, waving his hand. "Wait till you see it on a serious summer night. Carlisle and Esme will be out here, and Kate and Garrett."

"Who?"

I fill her in. "Carlisle and Esme own the building. They live in the apartment on the first floor. Kate and Garrett have the back apartment on Two. There's also Laurent and Irina on Four. She's Russian, and a model and kind of crazy, but he's cool, although he's pretty much always stoned. And then there's Peter and Charlotte. They run this really great website—"

"And you know them all?" Bella asks me.

"Yeah. They're our friends. It's great."

"It sounds great."

"It is." I nudge her and smile. "You'll see."

She smiles back.

A couple of hours and a lot of conversation later, Emmett stands and gives a dramatic fake stretch and claims exhaustion. Once he heads upstairs, Jasper and Alice stand to go, talking about some band playing at a bar a few blocks away that they want to see. It's the first I've heard of it, but I don't argue, since once they're gone, it's just me and Bella, alone on the dark stoop.

"Your friends are amazing, Edward," she says. "Your life is amazing. I'm sorry I was so… I had no right to say the things I did to you that day."

"You were right about some of it, you know? I was stuck. And what you said…well, yeah, it pissed me off. But it also got me moving again. Besides, I think I implied that you were a commitment-phobic drifter with no social skills, so I think we're even."

"You were right, too, though. That's exactly what I was. I thought I was free, but really, I was just scared. I said I wasn't ready for life to grab me, but really, I was afraid that if I stopped moving, I would find out that no one cared if I stayed or not. I always left before I could learn the truth, in case I didn't like it."

"I care if you stay. I've established that, right?" My arm is still around her back, my hand resting on her hip. I slide it up to her waist. Her shirt rides up a little and my fingers brush smooth warm skin. I hear her take a deep breath.

"Yes, you have. Edward, I can't… when I saw your ad… when I knew you still thought about me… I can't tell you what that meant to me."

"I took that piece of paper with those two words all the way to Spain with me. Of course I still thought about you."

"Ugh!" She buries her face in her hands. "Just burn that piece of paper!"

I laugh and reach up to pull one of her hands away from her face. I don't let it go. Instead, I rub my thumb across her palm, relaxing her fingers open. "No way! It's the first thing you ever gave me. I'm never getting rid of it."

She finally raises her face to look at me. The streetlights glint off her eyes and her lashes cast long shadows on her cheeks. I lean in, until my face is close to hers.

"It won't be the last. I promise," she murmurs.

"I don't need you to do anything but stay."

She presses closer into my side. I can feel her breath on my mouth. "I'll stay."

Another inch forward and my lips ghost over hers. "Does this mean you still think I have potential?"

She twists her hand in mine until our fingers weave together, palm-to-palm. "Quit reminding me of stupid shit I said. We have potential. A lot of it."

"I think so, too. I always did." I kiss her. Kiss again. Her lips part just a little. So do mine. Her hand comes up to cup my jaw just the way it did that day on the train. She sighs when our tongues touch. I pull her closer. She lets go of my hand and slips her arm up between us, wrapping it around my neck, pulling me in. I dig my fingers into her hair. God, it's soft. I want to do this with her for the rest of my life. Well, at least until we move on to other stuff. Even then, I'm still going to want to keep coming back to her perfect lips.

When we stop, many minutes later, she leans back a little, eyes bright, lips parted, cheeks flushed. Her expression is surprised, but also dreamy, a little stunned. "Oh, wow," she says. "I think I'm caught."

I smile, because I know exactly what she means. I tell her, "So am I."