She sat by the window seat watching the countryside fly by. It wasn’t yet winter but the window fogged up with her breath as she leaned closer to get a better view of the landscape flying by. The exchange on WhatsApp was playing on her mind.
“Hey! Am in town this week. Meant to message you before I left… Any chance we could meet for lunch or dinner today? I understand if you are not able to.”
It would have been easy, way too easy for her to decline, to pretend she was not affected by his being in town. It was about 20 years since she had last seen him in person. 19 years if she was being accurate.
She had stood, her shoulder bag weighing her down, right in front of the bus she was to board for her hometown when he had reached for her fingers, holding them with both hands, caressing them almost as he said, “It’s not you. It’s me. I am not ready. You deserve better.”
She had jerked awake, her fingers suddenly cold, stunned, the smoke from the diesel obscuring his face as he turned and walked away. She had sobbed her way home, stopping at the crude wash area at the bus stop to splash water and affix a smile to her face.
She had remained friends all right, meeting him on her occasional work trips. She had invited him for lunch at the drive-in, handed him her wedding invitation and made small talk even as she hoped against hope that he would say something. He had looked the card over, reached for a hug and made a joke about not being able to hug her once she was married. She had demurred, muttering something about nothing changing because she was getting married. They had parted pleasantly. He was out of the country when she wed, sending a gift through a mutual friend.
She received an email invite for his wedding a few years later and replied with best wishes. They wished each other on birthdays and congratulated each other when their children were born. She kept up with his changing profile pictures and knew he had a paunch now.
The train pulled into the city and she found him where he said he would be waiting. They stood looking at each other critically and walked toward the restaurant as if they were still the people they were, instead of ghosts from the haunted past.
As he sipped his wine, his other hand reached for her, stroking the birthmark by her wrist. She resisted the impulse to pull away, choosing instead to focus on the hyperawareness she had always experienced in his presence. She looked up, his magnificent mane of hair now streaked with silver. Drawn, she leaned over wondering if she could touch, tuck away that errant strand. She found her hand drawing back and landing a resounding blow on his cheek. Startled as if she had not seen it coming, she kept looking at her hand as if it were an alien. He sat there, still, trying to understand what had happened. His eyes wide, hurt.
She gathered her bag and walked purposefully out, her fingers smarting from the pain.
“How was lunch?” read the text from her husband.
“Painful” she replied truthfully.