The "Missed Connections" Contest
Story Title: Enlightenment
Disclaimer: All associations with Twilight belong to Queen Meyer.
Prompt: Saw you lounging in the corner on Thursday around 11am. You were wearing a grey sweater and had wild auburn hair. I was the brunette in green with a gold scarf. We connected too briefly, but I sensed something there. I'd like to find out if there's more.
"Jesus. How hard is it to find kink-free entertainment these days."
The phone cuts through my wanderings. "And…there's my conscience calling." Radar like a bat, that one.
"What's up Doc?"
"Think you're amusing do you?"
"I don't just think. How's it going over there? Blood? Mayhem? Any chance you're getting off early?"
"No, I wish. And that's why I'm calling. I just wanted to let you know I have to fill in for one of the other residents, so I've got another ten hour shift ahead of me."
Of course. "All right…guess that means I'll see you when I see you."
The sound of someone being paged echoes in the background.
"Look I've gotta run, let's have dinner tomorrow night."
"Yeah, sure. Go save lives. Bye…"
Weeknights are often spent here: on the couch, libation in hand, in front of the laptop, with the sounds of the city as my stereo. I'd prefer the company of a real, live woman. But apparently, she's stuck at work. Again.
So instead, I squander my time efficiently.
Copper Cutie at Ipsento Coffee – w4m
Date: 2011-01-20, 9:14 PM CST
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Saw you lounging in the corner on Thursday around 11am. You were wearing a grey sweater and had wild auburn hair. I was the brunette in green with a gold scarf. We connected too briefly, but I sensed something there. I'd like to find out if there's more.
Mocha my way?
- Location: Wicker/Bucktown
- It's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
I re-read the ad several times, trying to deny the thrill that's attempting to tempt me. Huh. This is…interesting. Very interesting. I do remember her.
That day, I'd arrived at work earlier than usual since I was required to present the new campaigns for our latest big project.
Writing a clever turn of phrase is all in a day's work, and if it weren't for my pure creative genius and…humility, I'm sure the powers that be would never let me chronically slide into the office at my convenience.
But talent and charm buys you a surprising amount of latitude in the advertising world.
Target market…Brand message…Consumer research…
Yeah, I got it…an hour ago. But the team liked to suffer every—little—detail.
So there I sat.
My eyes were heavy and my mind numb by the time I dragged myself out of the conference room several hours later. With my mad-dash that morning, I had managed to miss my required amount of caffeine and could feel myself on a downward slide. If I wanted to accomplish anything that day, I needed to clear my head and find a quiet place to regroup.
The closest café was within walking distance. Which meant I could hide for a while, but still be accessible. Grabbing my coat and bag, I'd left the office.
Cup in hand, I had commandeered the well-worn, high back chair in the corner. And, as I settled in and bent down to grab my meeting notes, I caught legs out of the corner of my eye—long, lean legs, getting up from the table ten feet away.
Of their own accord, my eyes trailed upward to discover those legs, had nothing on that face.
She'd arched a knowing brow and smiled, but the only reaction I could muster was stupefied. Until of course, a group of dirty hipsters had wandered through our field and broke the moment.
Just as they'd cleared, I caught her long dark hair turning the corner.
I glance at the clock on the monitor—the witching hour.
"What's your move Edward."
I know even considering this is several degrees of shady. I'm not so morally bankrupt I can't see that.
But at twenty-nine, there are still a number of unknowns.
I mean, in the abstract, yes, I want a wife and a family and a successful career—I think we're all hardwired to want that. Eventually.
Right now, all that just sounds so far off.
The one known: I want to enjoy the woman I thought wanted to enjoy me. But it seems these past few years there's less and less enjoyment. Or, more accurately, less and less woman.
I get it, I have ambition too—I just don't let it consume me. There's plenty of time for that.
So, a beautiful woman looks my way and I look back. A little harmless flirting never hurt anyone. In fact, it's rather nice to be appreciated.
Before reason can override spontaneity, I down my third beer and let my hands do the thinking, as fingers become a blur on the keyboard.
"Ung." I'm drowning in a sea of blankets. Pretty sure I'm dead.
Most mornings start this way—my alarm screaming and my cognitive function dormant. It's painful getting my bearings given my usual late night endeavors, but this morning is particularly brutal.
Late night…"Oh, God." It's all coming back, bringing with it a feeling of dread.
Coffee. Shower. Then deal with this.
I check my outbox, and indeed, I did reply to Coffee Girl. But no new mail has come through in the wee hours. That's good. Probably nothing will come of it—then I won't have to give it a second, or even third thought.
Except when I step out of the subway on my way to the office, my phone pings with a new email. Along with it, dueling pings of apprehension and excitement.
Subject: Re: remiss(ed) connection
Date: January 25, 2011 8:44 AM CST
What an incredibly pleasant surprise. I figured the chance of you finding my ad was a long shot at best. But here you are. I know it's last minute, and maybe even a little presumptuous, but what are you doing around noon? I was planning to head out for lunch. What better way to get acquainted then at the scene of the crime no?
Scene of the crime. Yeah, that about sums it up.
Maybe I'm losing my mind, but I can't help it; I'm completely intrigued. And I have to get food at some point right? Besides, I eat with the attractive women in my office most days.
It's just a harmless lunch.
Decided, the rest of the morning I'm distracted and anxious. My stapler is fascinating, my keyboard is clean, and I've beaten my high score in Angry Birds.
The entire five-block walk to the café, I squint against the bright winter sun and the anticipation burns me from the inside.
It's easy to sit back and judge the actions of others: pointing fingers and placing blame. But, there's complexity to human compulsion. I suppose it could be excused with, I'm a guy this is what we do. Except this is not what I do. Or at least, not what I ever thought I'd do.
Ironically, once in the door, the rich aroma of coffee soothes my buzz. And there she is, at the same table—every bit as striking as last time.
In this city, where everyone is vying to get ahead of the person next to them, she seems completely at ease and unaffected. Self-confidence is an appealing trait—and also rather intimidating.
She hasn't seen me yet, so it buys me a moment. Time to gather my wits and grab something from the counter. I focus my attention on the menu board and try to make a decision.
Suddenly, I'm at a crossroad, and ordering a sandwich has never been this difficult.
Ham on rye, or use a false name? Tuna salad, or ask if she wants to leave and go someplace? Or, I could just sit down, make pleasant conversation and see what transpires.
I take one last look before heading over, and instantly I'm dowsed by a bucket of ice. Most of what I see is profile and hands—a thumb running a pass back and forth over the cup handle. Fingers rake through hair. Just small gestures, but I've seen these familiar details countless times. The resemblance is startling.
"Oh God," How did I not see it before? I'm paralyzed, and there's a moment when all the sound is sucked from the room before it comes rushing back and overwhelms me.
Okay. No need to panic. I can still call an audible. And that realization is my only consolation.
Slowly, I make my way over.
She laughs. "I think we covered that."
"We apparently did, yes. I…uh…have to apologize." I don't even sit—it might be too hard to get back up. "You'll probably think I'm the biggest jerk for doing this…but I can't stay."
"Oh?" There's a flash of disappointment.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come actually."
"Really? Come on, have a seat."
"No, I really can't. I want to, but I…shouldn't."
Her slim arms fold and there's a shift in her ease. "I see."
Suddenly it feels too warm in here. I glance to the nearby tables, but nobody seems to be paying attention.
"Listen, I'm incredibly flattered you would seek me out. And perhaps under different circumstances, I would stay. But I can't…and I didn't want to completely blow you off after I responded."
I cringe at that—not sure I have a good explanation anymore. "You got me there. Again, I'm sorry."
Her dark eyes are penetrating, and for a second, I wonder if I should just take it back and pull up a chair.
"Hmm…sounds like you're working awfully hard to convince yourself. I'd like to think we're both adults here."
I can't stay locked in her tractor beam any longer, so I take a step back and motion toward the door. "I'm sorry, I've got to…"
"Wait." There's enough distance now. "I think I get it. And yes, I'll admit it's disappointing, but I appreciate you telling me in person at least. Although, if you ever change your mind…"
All I can do is offer a conciliatory smile before making a break for the exit.
I trudge back to the office and glare at the discarded gum littering the pavement—my thoughts everywhere and nowhere.
The rest of the afternoon is just as unfocused as it started, and the office swarm tiptoes around my troubled mood as if all my sins are on display.
Somehow, my corner of the world looks the same but different. It reminds me of going on vacation and coming home to air that's slightly stagnant. I really don't know what I'm doing anymore. I've never felt this lost, and I'm not able to reconcile what got me here.
Edward Masen, pity party of one.
I vow to keep this day locked in a vault and put it behind me, while grabbing enough take-out to feed a small country. Maybe flowers would nice too.
"Hi honey, I'm home."
"Bella, you in here?"
The house is mostly dark; only the cool glow from a streetlamp sneaking through the window lights my way.
I stop in my tracks when I see her slight frame perched like a bird on the edge of the kitchen chair; feet tucked up and arms locked around her knees.
This doesn't look good.
She turns her head and I'm met with a pained expression—eyes crimson. Hugging herself tighter, she quickly looks away.
"Bella…hey, what's wrong? What happened?"
The air is still with foreboding, and my guilt is no longer securely tucked away. I slowly make my way over—sinking to my knees in front of her. Years have taught me, it's usually my fault, but this time I have no doubt. I reach for her hand but she pulls back.
"This." She motions between us. My stomach drops.
"What is this about? Obviously you think I did something…"
Without even glancing up, she points to the laptop.
I don't need to see to know. In a breath, there's anger, shame, fear. And a war between what I regret more: being caught, or the misdeed itself. She's violated my privacy. But I've done far worse.
"God…I know what this looks like. And I'm…"
"Stop. I don't want to hear that you're sorry."
Her tone is defeated. "You left your browser open from last night. And your email is up. I wasn't trying to snoop.
"So this is what it's come to? You're so unhappy, that you've taken to answering personal ads?" A ragged breath escapes her lips and she's unable to look at me. I don't blame her.
"Bella, I didn't…"
"Shut up!" I flinch at her uncharacteristic venom, and look to the hardwood for a reprieve.
"I'm so exhausted from work, I feel like I can't even keep my head above water anymore. And the one thing…one person, I thought I could count on…I'm questioning everything right now Edward. How long has this…"
"You think…?" I cut her off and try to keep my indignation in check. "I don't know what you want me to say. I wasn't looking. I'm not looking."
I forcefully point to the evidence. "But you know...it's nice to be acknowledged. It's hard to be in a relationship with someone who isn't here."
She swats away more tears, but pulls herself up straighter. "Don't you dare blame this on me!"
"News flash Doc…you're not exactly around much."
"Are you kidding me?" Now she's aflame. "You knew what my schedule was going to be. You promised we'd get through my residency together…"
My defense is hollow. I do remember. I did promise. And at the time, I meant it. The things I love most about her—her compassion and strength, intelligence and drive— are what make her excellent at what she does. And, are also the same things that take her away.
"Is that what this is? I ignore you so you do something stupid to get back at me? I'm not the only one that has been inattentive over the years. How many nights have you worked late? How many weekends have been spent at the office or out with your buddies? You don't get to play the victim here."
But I am a selfish creature. I had no idea it would be this difficult, or this lonely.
"How can you be such a hypocrite? You were the one that encouraged me to go to med school. You were the one that said you would be proud, knowing I was out there helping people. What you really meant was, 'go save lives, just as long as it doesn't interfere with the attention you give me'."
There's a beat, and I see her deflate. "You know it won't be like this forever."
An intangible. Would I wait that long—for her? At one time…she was everything.
Her tears fall harder now, and I'm caught between wanting to comfort and wanting to disappear—the weight of my remorse reducing me further.
I used to be good at making her laugh. We'd walk for miles along the lakefront on warm summer evenings, concocting stories for each passerby—chasing each other into frigid water to outrun the oppressive August humidity.
"I thought we were in this together Edward." Her fingers knot and unknot. "Maybe I was wrong."
"No, you're not wrong. I just don't know what to think anymore. Even when you're here, you're not really here. So, what am I suppose to do? Distractions are easy to find, but it's not the same."
I can see her struggling to find the right words. This isn't her fault. Not really. But I know her. And there's an unsettling feeling crawling up my spine. It's clear this is something that's been left unsaid for some time, and the moment for candor is here.
"Eight years. I've given you eight years Edward. Followed your flight of fancy to a new city, left family and friends—up-ended my life for you."
It was supposed to be an adventure.
"Maybe if we'd stayed in Washington, we'd have had more support. I bought into your big dreams, and at the time it didn't matter; I was so in love with you I would have followed you to the moon. But love only gets you so far, and the rest takes hard work."
I look at her then—I really look. Her youthful features now transformed and refined; her face reflects the woman she's become. It's been so long since she was the lovely, wide-eyed, small town girl, gaping at the sights, sounds and goings on of this metropolis.
Of course, she's still lovely, but now she's also sure and accomplished. I can't even remember when the shift happened, but it seems like she's surpassed me in every way.
I can't help wonder if she'll want more.
Her voice returns me to the here and now. "I realize that we've been drifting apart for a while, and I just don't know how to find our way back.
"You're such a man-child, Edward. You could have almost anything, if you wanted it badly enough. But, I don't get the sense anymore that you really want anything. At least not anything that requires real effort on your part. You excel at your job, because it comes naturally to you. Unfortunately, you expect everything to come that easy."
"I have never pressured you for more commitment then you've seemed willing to give. I've kept quiet, tried to accept who you are and be patient, hoping that someday you'd figure it out. I need to know Edward, what you want. Cause this…what we've become…I definitely don't want this."
She doesn't want…me.
I'm usually good with words. I use them daily to sell, persuade, manipulate. But there's a difference between convincing someone to buy your client's soap, and making them believe you didn't hurt them intentionally—that you never, ever, want to hurt them again.
I sit bound and mute.
"Maybe you should give it some thought." She uncurls from her roost. "I have another shift tonight, I'll be home late tomorrow."
A half-hour after the front door slams, I'm still rooted to the floor, trying to figure out how we got here—my only company, the now cold Chinese food and forgotten tulips.
I pull the phone from my pocket but there's nobody to call. The one I seek solace from isn't here, and I'm fresh out of clarity.
Eventually, I find myself slumping on familiar cushions—remote in hand—and drown out the internal with external, while my conscience settles around me like a dense fog.
There's a vampire show on, they 'glamour' humans to make them forget. I'd like to be able to do this—erase my mistakes.
If only it were that easy.
After hours of staring at the TV without really seeing, I'm not sure I have any new insights, so I do something I never do—go to bed early.
There's no reason to go straight home after work tonight. Bella is not there.
So, I head toward the Green Mill, an old speakeasy, left behind by Capone and company. It has played host to many an infamous character—so who are they to judge me.
I plan to find myself in a barrel of pale ale.
At some point in the evening, I become a liquid philosopher, and wonder if it's possible to be nearsighted and still have hindsight be 20/20.
So many things—big, big things—I wish I could do over. Can't say for sure I'd know how to do them differently. But I wouldn't mind having the chance to try.
Someone once told me they could literally see the path that led them to where they stood—almost as if they could look over their shoulder and discern a clear trail in the grass.
There is no easy road to enlightenment, they'd say. It must come from within, they'd say.
They. I don't think they know what the hell they're talking about.
The realization that I've finally broken this patient, kind, and forever-understanding woman is a burden I can't bear. She's put up with a lot over the years. I don't deserve her—not in the least. But I'm going to do everything in my power to figure out how to change that.
Setting my pint glass on the weathered bar, I glance at the clock above the top shelf. Dammit.
"Hey Jake, I gotta hit it. Cash me out?"
"On the house tonight man. Get me next time."
I toss him a wave. "You bet. Thanks."
Stumbling out into the wintery night, I search up, then down the street for a cab. "Dammit." Again.
With the corner of the block looming to my right, I pick up stride and head toward the intersection. Just as I reach the curb, I catch the glint of headlights rounding a turn in the distance.
"Thank you." Who knows how long it would take for another cab to pass at this hour.
My right arm signals as my left hand reaches my lips—releasing a shrill pitch that cuts through the silence. The car flashes its lights. I might just make it home before she gets there.
"Corner of Clark and Belden is fine."
"Nice night, huh?"
"It's Chicago. In January."
He glances in his rearview mirror. "True enough."
Fifteen minutes later and $8.50 lighter, I hop out and trudge the half block to our brownstone.
Home. Yes, it is home. It is warmth and meaning and all the things I know I could continue to search for yet never find anywhere else. Or with anyone else.
God, you're slow on the uptake Edward.
As I brush off the snow and step through the door, the hum of the fridge highlights the silent space.
Coat on rack.
Shoes on mat.
Gravity tugs harder. She's already here.
I creep to the bedroom and discover her form curled tightly beneath the blankets.
Someday we'll replace the drafty windows...
Quietly slipping off my clothes, I leave them in a pile by the foot of the bed—just one more mess that can wait till tomorrow.
The mattress shifts as I slide under the covers and she rolls to face me—her voice weary.
"Did I wake you?"
"I really am sorry."