Penname: Feisty Y. Beden
Summary: Alex has everything he always dreamed he wanted—money, an important job, living in the best city in the world—so why is he so unhappy?
A/N: I wrote this ages ago for a Parkinson's disease charity thing. Clearing out the ol' hard drive. Enjoy. Or not. You know, whatever.
If I Could Just Hold You Again
Times Square at any time of day is a pedestrian nightmare—the Broadway crowd of tourists with their green Statue of Liberty foam headbands and the Phantom-of-the-Opera freaks honestly terrified him—but there was something amazing about the pre- and post-work set. A sea of gray suits and shiny shoes and monogrammed briefcases against the backdrop of yellow taxicabs and bright flashing lights and that creepy, giant ramen cup with the troubling steam curling out of the top. The sight made his heart swell and sing patriotic songs. More often than not, he'd take the train uptown from Canal Street to Times Square during his dinner break, when his workday was just beginning, and watch the crowd, thinking how lucky he was that he was part of this, this amazing city, this civilian army that kept this country alive.
He'd look at the comforting sameness of their faces, their corporate uniforms, feeling like he belonged. Feeling like he was part of a family, even if his real family was hundreds of miles away. He tried to pretend he didn't care that he hadn't seen them since going home for the holidays, that no one ever came to visit. His younger sister was busy with college applications and too young to make the trip by herself, and Mallory, she hadn't meant to get pregnant and drop out of school, but that's the way life worked sometimes, especially when you didn't quite understand how the human reproductive system worked. His parents claimed the city made them nervous. "You'll always have a room here," they said, implying that if he wanted to see them, he'd have to make the trek to Ohio. How big was his baby brother now? It seemed like one moment he was a gurgling, cooing, drooling baby, and the next—practically overnight!—he was this walking, talking, functional little person. He wondered what Andy was doing right that second.
He was making far more money than anyone under the age of thirty had any right, but his loft was sparsely furnished—just a bed, a lamp, an expensive, austere leather couch that managed to be even more uncomfortable than it appeared unwelcoming. He was barely there anyway, always at his office, even when there was no work to be done. Somehow the florescent lights and the hum of the skyscraper's central air made him feel less lonely than the too, too quiet of his apartment.
He stood, as he often did, on a bench, watching the sea of people ebb and flow in some unseen tide. Pulled from work to their families or to important dinners. They were like schools of fish, really, moving as one, all looking so similar that their individuality disappeared. But at least they were part of something. They knew where they belonged in the world.
He hated admitting to himself how lonely he was. After all, he'd achieved everything he'd ever thought he wanted. So why wasn't he happy? Should he just move back home?
He ached to, but he knew that was the coward's way out. And there was no telling if he'd be happy there either. Had he ever been happy? When was the last time he'd truly felt at peace with himself? "At peace," he thought, rolling his eyes. I'm starting to sound like dirty hippies like Mom and Dad.
And then in the wash of gray and sameness, a ribbon of color, a bright bit of turquoise. His eye went immediately to it, a strange hopefulness in his heart, a fluttering in his stomach. He followed the wind-whipped scarf to its owner, a distinguished gray-haired woman in a smart black overcoat. A wave of disappointment washed over him, and he found himself swallowing back a lump in his throat. He shook his head, feeling foolish. What was that all about? he asked himself.
It was strange, though, like a part of him had been asleep and was slowly prickling back awake.
And somehow he felt even lonelier than he had before.
He lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, the orange light from the streetlamps bleeding through the blinds and painting his comforter in tiger-like stripes.
Why couldn't he sleep?
He was afraid to glance at the clock, but he thought, Maybe music will help. So, without looking at the glowing red numbers, he fumbled with the knobs and dials until soft sounds broke the silence of his sterile home. Just the usual Top 40 crap, the kind of music that took no brainpower to process. His eyelids began to droop, and he felt his mind clear to a blank canvas, a wash of white and a blissful numbness, and …
What did you think I would do at this moment?
His eyes snapped open. What?
When you're standing before me with tears in your eyes …
He bolted upright. This song hadn't been popular in years—a decade, maybe! His heart was racing, his back damp with sweat. Part of him wanted to shut off the music with a smash of his balled-up fist, but something else forced him to listen to the whole song, remembering that first dance, her warm body in his arms, the smell of her shampoo, her mouth still sweet from the sorority punch.
Eventually he fell asleep sitting up, his head resting on his knees, hugging himself instead of her.
Why was he here? He had slept poorly and found himself shuffling down sidewalks in a brain fog, his hands in his pockets, his eyes barely open. Coffee. He felt like a bloodhound following the aroma of freshly ground, freshly brewed. That was one improvement over Ohio, for sure, and living at home. He couldn't believe there was a time he thought that weak stuff dripped through a paper filter was coffee.
"Can I take your order?"
"Dark roast, venti," he said, hands near the light strip on the glass case filled with pastries. His eyes were closed as he focused on the warmth coming through the glass and the hissing sounds of the cappuccino machine.
"This isn't Starbucks," the cashier scoffed, and he finally opened his eyes. Where was he?
"Oh, sorry, just a … just a regular, then."
"Name, corporate boy?"
"Alex," he said, voice cracking a little from embarrassment. The cashier looked back at him, sneering slightly behind his too-cool hipster mustache. Well, at least the guy was working a job and not living off his tax dollars.
"You can move now," Hipster Cashier said, indicating with his head the people in line behind him. "They'll call you when it's ready."
If he hadn't been so sleepy, he would have said something withering, but all that came out was, "I know how coffeeshops work, thank you."
"Could've fooled me," the hipster parried.
What was this guy's deal? "There goes your tip," Alex muttered.
The hipster looked him up and down. "You're not a tipper. I have a sixth sense about these things."
"That's fair," Alex admitted.
He stationed himself by the sugar and cream and little wooden stirrers area and tried to look cool and nonchalant, but he soon realized this was a poor waiting place. He was reminded of a knife-throwing show he'd once attended when his dad was on one of his magician kicks, with the breeze on his cheek from blindingly fast arms whizzing by his face as harried customers reached around him for packets of Equal and carafes of milk and half-and-half.
"Oops, sorry, sorry, my fault entirely," he said, trying to duck and sidle over to somewhere less crowded as the arms kept reaching. He bumped someone slightly, who, for a slight young woman, could swear like a herpes-ridden prostitute just because he'd made her slosh a bit of hot coffee on her hand.
He whipped his head around, glad to find a friend here where he felt like a tragically small-town buffoon. They never told you that, in all those songs glorifying New York—how if you didn't live there your whole life, you'd always feel like … well, probably how Skippy felt every day of his life, anywhere.
"Alex! Any day now! Alex!"
"YOUR COFFEE IS READY, CORPORATE TOOL," yelled the asshole hipster cashier, cupping his hands by his mouth for extra volume.
Alex's ears felt hot as he went to the pick-up counter. He just wanted to grab the coffee and go, head to work as soon as possible. Cut and run. And he would have, too, except the same voice that had been yelling his name over the din said in a hushed voice, "Alex? Is that really you?"
He raised his head up just enough to see pink, chapped lips. It could be anyone, he thought, shaking off that brief flitting of hope.
He hesitated. He thought of the turquoise scarf yesterday, the disappointment, the weird aching in his chest.
Finally, just a whisper. "Oh, Alex."
He finally looked up and met her eyes. "Hey."
"'Hey'? I haven't seen you in … what, eleven years? And all you can say is 'hey'?"
"Hey, Ellen," he corrected, his brain and mouth not quite cooperating.
She laughed—oh, her laugh!—and shook her head in such a gloriously familiar way. He could smell her shampoo, and he wanted to bury his face in her hair. He'd once spent an hour in the shampoo aisle of the Duane Reade, uncapping each bottle, trying to find her brand. But nothing smelled quite right. It wasn't just shampoo that he wanted to smell; it was shampoo and Ellen.
"So, what are you doing here?" she asked.
Tongue-tied, he pointed stupidly at his coffee cup.
"Right, I get that part. But New York—how long have you been here?"
"A while," he said, his mouth finally working. He shrugged and tried to smile, giving up when he realized he probably looked socially odd and possibly serial killer-ish. "How … how about you? Are, are you still dancing?"
Her face fell, and Alex wished he could take those words back from the air and stuff them back down his throat. She suddenly seemed small and lost. "It turns out I was just in a really small pond," she said sadly. "It was pretty obvious early on."
"I love you," he blurted out. "I love you," he said, just as he noticed light glint off the ring on her left hand.
"Oh," he said, grabbing his coffee and turning to leave.
"Wait," she called, and he stopped, afraid to turn around, afraid of what she might say next.
He was frozen, and she didn't say anything. He should just turn around. Turn around, Keaton, he commanded, but the body was not taking orders today.
Then, fluttering and heat as a hand slipped inside his. "Alex." She was right next to him. He could just fit his chin on her shoulder, if he moved his head a bit to the right. "Don't go," she said. "Not yet. Not like this."
"But, you …" he began, but wasn't sure what he was going to say. You're married? You've moved on? You wouldn't want to know me these days?
"I never thought I'd see you again," she said, giving his hand a little squeeze. "After Paris, I wanted to disappear. And here you just walk into my coffeeshop." She shook her head. "I guess I should have figured you'd end up in New York someday."
"Are you happy?" he asked, turning his head so she couldn't see his eyes watering. "Does … he … I mean, who is … no, I suppose I don't have a right to ask."
"He … what?"
Alex moved his hand until his fingers touched the ring on her fourth finger. "He," he said, simply.
"Oh, this?" She wiggled her finger. "Oh, Alex, you are so deliciously old fashioned. I just like wearing rings. And I might as well use both hands. That way I can wear twice as many rings."
"So you're not …"
"Married? Oh, god, no," she laughed. She actually snorted. "Is that why you …"
"Don't want to get my hopes up," he mumbled, turning away again.
"Hopes, Alex? What hopes?"
"Do I have to say it, Ellen?" He swallowed hard, wondering what he'd say. Then again, he'd already had a bout of verbal diarrhea.
"Reed! Get your ass back here!"
Ellen squeezed his hand. "Look, I have to get back to work."
"Do you?" he asked.
"My manager is a hell demon from another dimension. I do."
"Do you want to go back to work?"
"Alex," she said in that way that made him warm deep in his belly. "I want to be able to pay my rent and my heating bill."
"How much are you making an hour?" he asked abruptly.
"You'll just laugh. Something ridiculous and fifty cents an hour, plus tips."
"I can double it. Triple it, I'm guessing."
"I'm not a common whore, Alex. You can't just buy my time." But there was a smile behind her words.
"I just want to make sure you're adequately compensated. And that your domicile is properly heated." He leaned in to stage whisper, "And I'm kind of loaded now."
"Me or the hell demon?" Alex asked, one corner of his mouth pricking up into a grin.
Ellen untied her apron and slapped it onto the counter. "I quit," she said to the demon.
Alex's coffee had cooled by the time Ellen collected her belongings and met him outside. He poured it into a dirty snowbank, enjoying the way it made the crusted ice and snow steam.
"Hey, I made that for you," she said, catching him as he poured out the last drops.
"No, I'm pouring libations to the gods, you know, for bringing us together today."
She took the paper cup from him and threw it in a nearby trashcan. "You know, I thought of you last night."
"Did you, now?"
She gave him a dirty look. "You can wipe that smug smile right off your face before I knock it off you."
"What? What face? This is just my face!" He rearranged his features into a more neutral expression. "How's this?"
"You look like you belong at Madame Toussauds."
He spoke while moving as little of his face as possible. "You were telling me how you thought of me last night," he said through oddly clenched teeth. "Humor this fiscally conservative waxwork?"
"I was having a crazy dream," she said, smiling and closing her eyes. "You were waiting for me at the train station. You know, the time you …"
"I know." God, he wanted to kiss her so bad, just as he had that night. Kiss her and kiss her and … just never stop kissing her.
"It was so real. I mean, I could feel the fabric of your rented tuxedo, smell the mustiness of the station. And I woke up with a start because I was right back there. I thought for a second I'd traveled back in time and had a second chance, a do-over. Or just to live those months together again, because I wouldn't change any of it. Not a thing."
He nodded, but she was still closing her eyes, so he reached out and squeezed her hand.
"I was so surprised to find myself in my apartment here, with my old futon mattress on the floor. And I never listen to the radio, but I felt this, like, tingling up and down my arm, and …" She stopped suddenly, shaking her head. Her eyes flew open. "I know it sounds ridiculous and is way too New Age crap for you."
"What do I know? I'm just a devilishly handsome wax statue."
She punched him in the arm.
"A bruised and devilishly handsome waxwork," he corrected.
"Anyway, I flipped on the radio, and they were playing, you know …"
"I heard it last night, too."
"It was at, like, three in the morning!" she said.
Alex instinctively protected his arm with his hand. One Ellen Reed punch was quite enough for a morning. "Couldn't sleep," he said. "And then, that song …"
He took a breath and took a chance, walking forward and clasping one of her hands. He put his other arm on the small of her back. "And I wanted you there so much, dancing with me like this."
She put her cool cheek next to his. "Just like this."
And the passersby gave a wide berth to the crazy couple slowly swaying to an unheard song on an icy sidewalk in front of a coffeeshop that was decidedly not a Starbucks, not once looking back, not even to see the moment when they kissed again for the first time since they thought they'd said goodbye forever, not even to see the moment they both knew they would never say goodbye to each other again.