by John Michael Bruno
It had been some time since I last saw her. But it was definitely her.
I had been walking towards the exit of the mall when I first caught a glimpse, thought it might not be her, took a closer look and that’s when she spotted me and approached. I froze. The butterflies taking up residence in my stomach multiplied before I could–
“Hi,” she said and leaned in for a hug. The hint of her floral-scented perfume took me back. “It’s been a long time.”
Four years. Four years since that night in her apartment in which she informed me that she wasn’t happy any longer. Those words struck me like a middle-of-the-night phone call. Unable to face her, eyes closed, I was leaning up against the wall of her living room, anticipating that she would come to her senses and comfort me. I was hoping that we would talk it through and find a way to salvage whatever had been lost. However, when I surreptitiously snuck a look, the image of her standing up against the front door, with her arms folded like she was waiting for a late bus, told me that there would be no talk coming. We made eye contact at the front door, but before I could say anything she had the door open. I assumed, at the time, that she was just as heartbroken as me and turned to tears as soon as the door closed. At least that’s what I told myself. That was the last contact we had until…
“Hello, Jules,” I said. “It’s nice to see you. How have you been?”
Although it had been a few years, Jules hadn’t looked all that different from the last time I saw her. While we were dating, she had gone from brunette to blond and back to brunette. Apparently, she had decided to remain a brunette. She had her hair up in a ponytail and was wearing a khaki colored sweater which complemented her brown eyes.
“Nice to see me? I could have sworn you were making a beeline for the exit once you saw me.”
“No. That? No. I mean. You know, I wasn’t really sure if it was you. So I didn’t want to stare. Because if it wasn’t you, that would have just been weird. I guess. But it’s you and you look great. By the way.”
“Come on,” she said and started looking around.
I noticed a slight change in her complexion. “You know the only reason I said that is because I remember how much you love compliments,” I said, followed by a wink. “But anyway, how have you been?”
“Been good, thanks. Good. And how about you?”
“Doing well as well, thank you. How is everybody? Mom and Dad? How’s your sister?”
“Everybody is doing fine. My sister had twins a couple of years back so that is keeping her busy. Those little terrors.”
“Well congrats on the additions to the family, Aunt Jules! Please tell everybody I said hi. Anyway, I should really be–”
“Will do. You know,” she said, while attempting to reach for something in her bag, “I thought I would have seen you last year at Veronica’s birthday party.”
“Yeah, couldn’t make that.” I turned my head, distracted by something loud coming from a teenager’s phone behind me. “Something came up.”
“Hope you didn’t avoid it because of me.”
“No,” I said and scratched at something behind my ear. “Something. Yeah, uh, something just came up. And. And I had told her, way before the party that I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I didn’t even know who was actually going or who did go. So, it is what it is, right? Did you have fun?”
“Yeah. If I remember,” she said. “It was nice. Hey, what are you doing right now? Let’s go grab a drink at the restaurant next door.”
“Uhh, you know, Jules, I would love to, but I should probably get going. My girlfriend is expecting me–”
“Jason,” she said, leaning in closer. “I am not asking you out on a date. It’s just two old friends catching up over one quick drink. Come on. It’s been a few years and I just want to see how you’re doing. That’s it.”
I looked around the lobby area of the mall and then down at my watch. “Yeah, o-okay. I guess one drink is cool.”
We went around a group of shoppers, who either had just purchased some new luggage or were planning one heck of a shopping experience, to the entrance of the restaurant, which was right in the mall. As we made our way in, I wondered why Jules was so persistent about having a drink with me. The Jules I remember wasn’t really much for small talk.
It was early afternoon, and the place had a decent lunch crowd going. The hostess was over by the bar speaking with the bartender, and there was a young waitress having an issue with the credit card machine. Before the hostess approached, we sat down at a table in the bar area.
“Afternoon, folks,” the bartender said as he approached the table. He placed a small white napkin in front of me and another one in front of Jules. “What can I get for you?”
“Bud Light,” Jules said.
“And for you, sir?”
“Uhhh. I’ll take a vodka and tonic, please. House vodka, please,” I said. I lightly knocked on the table and looked over to see Jules nodding her head slowly.
“Great. Be right back with those drinks,” he said and walked back towards the bar.
Jules raised her eyebrows and nodded her head slowly. “Wow, Mr. Fancy with that drink of yours,” she said.
“Not really. House vodka, right? And I don’t really go for beer too much anymore. It’s kind of heavy.”
There was a lull in our conversation after that. Jules sat at the table, preoccupied by something on her phone. She was looking at it like it was a strange object in her hand. I thought about reaching for my phone as well, but then the bartender was making his way over with our drinks. Jules and I toasted and took a sip from our respective drinks.
Jules opened her bag, reached inside and took out something resembling some sort of lip gloss. “It’s funny that we ran into each other today,” she said. She lightly applied her lip gloss and placed it back in her bag.
“Yeah. It is.”
“Believe it or not,” she said. “I’ve thought about you lately.”
I took a slow sip. “You’ve thought about me? Why?”
“I don’t know. I just did. Does that surprise you?”
“Well, to be honest with you, it’s been a few years and I’m sort of shocked you even remember what I look like.”
“Oh come on now! We were together for two years. I think I can still pick you out in a lineup.”
I took another sip and held up my index finger. “Two years and two months to be precise. Although, to be honest–”
The nearby sound of a glass shattering right near the kitchen doorway put a temporary halt to our conversation. The waitress was arguing with a busboy, presumably about the demise of the unfortunate glass. The bartender headed over in their direction in an attempt to smooth over the dispute. Jules turned her attention back to me.
“You were saying.”
“Uhhhh, good question. I was…What was I–”
“You were saying something about two years and two months and then something about honesty,” she said.
“Mmm, uh, yeah. No. I was just saying that it was two years and two months. That’s it,” I said. I took another slow sip and noticed Jules’ gaze, her brow slightly furrowed.
“Come on, out with the truth, Jason.”
“Truth about what?” I asked, leaning back in my chair.
“About the two years and two months.”
“Ok,” I said, followed by a double knock on the table. “I was just going to say that it was two years and two months. But the way I remember those last two months, I would probably say, at least now, that I fondly recall those first two years, sans those last two months.” I stopped to take another sip of my diminishing vodka. Jules was looking in the direction of the bar while slowly nodding her head. Her face appeared pale. “I would assume you would agree with me.”
“Or shit, I don’t know, maybe it’s the first two years you didn’t like, but thoroughly enjoyed the last two months. I’m kidding, just a joke. Don’t know about you, but I could use another drink.”
“Uhhh, yeah why not?”
After ordering at the bar, I headed back to the table and noticed Jules staring through her empty beer bottle. “Jules, you alright?”
“Yeah, all good. Jason. I wanted to say something to you. Something I probably didn’t say enough of when we were together. I’m sorry.”
“Yes, sorry. I want to say that I am sorry for how things ended with us.”
“Jules, you don’t have to–”
“Please,” Jules said and raised her hand. “You were pretty good to me and I think I could have handled things better. Especially at the end. So I’m sorry.”
The emergence of the bartender with our drinks gave me a moment to collect my thoughts. After he placed them on the table, I took a slow, deliberate sip, and out of the corner of my eye, noticed Jules taking a long drink from her bottle. “Jules, I-I don’t know what to say. I mean I appreciate that, but I’m sure I wasn’t the easiest to deal with at times, especially towards the end there when I sensed things were heading south for us.”
“You mean by having flowers delivered three days in a row and getting me those earrings? Yeah, you were awful,” she said.
“Come on, I don’t think it was three days in a row. It was two, non-consecutive days of flowers and the earrings. Hey, if I was going to go down, I thought it best to really make you think about it first, right?” I held up my glass and she clanked her bottle unto it. We both took another extended sip and I noticed I was just about on the cusp of drink number three. “But seriously, it’s all good. It is what it is, right?”
“I’ll drink to that,” she said. “What do you think? Maybe one more?”
“Yeah, I could go for one more.”
“And let’s do a shot!”
“A shot?” I asked. “I don’t know. At some point, we do have to drive.”
“It’s just one shot, Jason,” she said. Jules was attempting to get the bartender’s attention by raising her hand like an overeager fifth grader with the correct answer. “We’ll have two shots of Jager, please.”
“Some things never change.”
She looked perplexed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean. The Jager. I see you still like Jager,” I said.
“Riiiight. Hey, let me ask you a question,” she said. “You mentioned the earrings earlier.”
I took a sip and noticed that the bartender making his way over with the two shots. “Actually, you mentioned the earrings earlier.”
“Whatever, doesn’t matter who–oh, here’s our shots!”
I downed my shot. Too quickly I gather by the burning sensation in the back of my throat and the burning gaze my ex bequeathed upon me.
“Geez,” she said, and then took her shot. “Thought you would wait till we could at least toast to something.”
“Can’t imagine your girlfriend would approve of such a lack of drinking etiquette. How long have you been together?”
“Uh, Jules, I don’t want to. Let’s not chat about her.”
“Ok. Whatever you say. Was just going to say that she is a lucky girl. That’s all.”
I took a deep breath and scratched behind my ear. “Well, she puts up with me and you of all people sure as hell know that isn’t easy.”
She laughed and started on her next beer. “I will drink to that. So getting back to those earrings. I remember Veronica questioning me, shortly after we went our separate ways that–”
“You mean when you dumped me?”
“Ok, sure. Fine. Anyway, I remember that she mentioned that you were surprised that I kept the earrings. I mean, I did like them.”
“Just didn’t like me anymore–”
“I still have ‘em. I still wear ‘em. Sometimes.”
“Glad to hear.”
“Honestly! Jason. That kind of made me feel bad. Like I was an awful person just because I didn’t offer you back those damn earrings!”
“When I told her that, that wasn’t meant to make you feel bad. Hell, I didn’t even know she was going to talk to you about that. All I said was–” The bartender made his way over, but before he could say anything, I held up my hand to indicate now was not a good time. Jules jumped in at that point to order another drink and the bartender made his way away from the table. “Awllll I said was that I was surprised, if you were that unhappy as you EX-plained to me that night, that you would have not even offered back the earrings. That’s it, excuse me. That is all that I was saying. I mean, I wouldn’t have taken them back from you.”
“O. K. And now we can drop this damn thing about the damn earrings. If you want them back, I will drive home right now and go get them for you.”
“No. You keep them. To remember me by. And all the good times.”
We both stayed silent for a moment. I was rubbing my eyes and as I looked around noticed there were more people in the bar area. A couple of fellows sitting at the bar and an older couple being sat at a table next to us. I was feeling sort of fearless, so I decided to break the silence. “Speaking of Veronica, you know what else I remember discussing with her? About you? Shortly after our two year/two months relationship ended.”
“I always wanted to ask you about this. Unfortunately, didn’t get the opportunity.”
“I remember. You did this thing. With your friends. Probably still do. St. Patrick’s Day.”
Jules nodded her head slowly. “Mmmm. Hmmm,” she said. “Yes, I would go out with my friends. I know you always had such a problem with it.”
“No,” I said. “Didn’t have a problem with it. Thought it strange that I wasn’t invited, but it is what it is, right?”
Jules didn’t respond. She wasn’t even making eye contact with me. She just sat there, with her arms crossed.
“A few weeks before you ended us, you went out for your favorite holiday with your friends. I called you just to see if you were having fun. And safe. And all that other stuff. Left a message. Didn’t hear from you till next day,” I said. “Theeee next day, you invited me over and gave me the biggest embrace you had ever given me. You apologized about not getting back to me, something about your phone’s battery. Whatever. We had a great night together. A few weeks later, you dumped me. I don’t know how you could go from one extreme to another in such a short period of time. I told Veronica about it, but, but she didn’t say much. Just thought it to be strange.”
Jules lightly tapped her empty beer bottle on the edge of the table. “Guess I can say this now,” she said. Jules continued to stare at the edge of the table like it contained a hidden message. “I met somebody. That night in the city. I’m sorry.”
“Wow, wow,” I said quietly.
“Jason. You are a great guy. You just weren’t the guy for me, that’s all. I tried, I really tried, but I knew it wasn’t working and you weren’t making it easy. Sending me flowers and giving me earrings and all that stuff. I wasn’t happy for a while, and I just didn’t know. Look, I’m not proud of what I did and–”
“So you just go out and sleep with somebody else?”
“I know you think I’m a terrible, terrible person. And that’s the thing. I wasn’t just apologizing to you because of why our relationship ended earlier. I was apologizing to you about how it ended.”
“I just don’t understand how you could have done that to me. At that time.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know how to get out of the situation, and my straying, if you will, was sort of the kick in the butt I needed to–”
“It’s not a situation, Jules!” I said, louder than I intended. I could feel the looks of those in the vicinity. “It was a relationship,” I whispered. “And you–”
“Did wrong. But like I was saying about our–relationship. I-I wasn’t happy and I did something stupid because I wasn’t happy and didn’t know what else to do.”
“You could have talked to me.”
“I tried. You weren’t listening. Hey, it obviously worked out the best for you. You’re in a relationship and I’m still alone, so–”
“I asked you not to bring that up,” I said. I started to get an anxious feeling in my stomach. “Please. Just one more thing. I mean, we were together for a while. What made you just one day get up and say you weren’t happy any longer? With me?”
“Please, I think you owe me that much.”
“Ok,” she said and glanced down at the floor. “You’re a great guy. Who treated me great. Too great, probably. I just felt like you were the type of guy that just went along with everything. I picked where we went to dinner, where to go on vacation, when to–I don’t know, you get the picture, right? Doesn’t mean that’s the wrong way to be, it just wasn’t right for me. It is what it is, right?”
“Yeah,” I double knocked on the table. “That was the thing with us. We couldn’t talk like this unless we’d been drinking. Except that time after St. Patty’s, in which we had what I thought was a great day. We went to a diner that didn’t serve alcohol. I picked that place.”
“I’m sorry, Jason.”
There was not much more to say after that. Jules and I waited for the check. I thought about picking up the tab, but thought better of it. We made some idle chat while divvying up the bill. After clearing up with the bartender, Jules came over and gave me a hug that lingered more than most of our hugs in the past did. Her eyes looked like two recently drained pools. Don’t know if that was due to our conversation or perhaps the imbibing of one too many drinks. We said goodbye and left from different exits.
Closure, I thought to myself as I was walked through the parking lot on the way to my car. Closure would ultimately lead to that comfort I was craving four years earlier. That’s why I’d asked her about that night on St. Patrick’s Day. I’d sort of had an idea that something took place, but I just wanted her to confirm my suspicions. All I did was clear her conscience I suppose. It’s weird though, because I feel less bad about her infidelity, yet completely shattered by her proclamations of being unhappy with me. Four years later and she still goes by the same script. Four years later and the only closure I’ll receive is from the bottle of vodka waiting for me back home. I guess…it is what it is.