One Word

It’s only a song. A heartbreakingly perfect song that played in a tiny café at ten minutes to closing time on an autumn evening when my heart was beating fast and my breath was shallow and the spinning of the earth made me unsteady. I had just sat down when the song began to play, a cup of hot tea warming my hands, my elbows rocking the unbalanced round table. The clerk behind the counter had smiled at us. Did she notice our wedding rings didn’t match? The one in the dining area glared for a moment, seeming to calculate the depth of our distraction, then continued flipping chairs upside-down onto empty tables.

We had been walking for an hour. Just walking and talking in a mostly deserted downtown. The cold air and surprising conversation and the certainty in her voice had stolen all my words except for three: “Are you sure?”

Her eyes never left mine. They were brown eyes. Mysterious, eager eyes so intense I had to keep looking away. Every time I did, gravity brought me back.

“Are you sure?” I asked, for the tenth time.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said without rolling her eyes.

“But why me?”

“Because…” and that’s when she paused. “Listen.”

Why’d you have to be so cute, it’s impossible to ignore you,
Must you make me laugh so much, it’s bad enough we get along so well…

It was the first time I’d heard the song. It must have been the second or third time for her, because she mouthed those words when the chorus came around again. And then I understood. She saw me as I had longed to be seen – as handsome. I studied her gaze, disbelieving how someone so impossibly beautiful could want anything from me but friendship, but I could see no lie.

The song continued and I heard its warning.

Say goodnight and go…

We would stand at her car for ten minutes. Or twenty. Or a thousand. Side by side, shivering but not touching.

“I know,” she had said after a heavy quiet, then again, with a weight of resignation in her voice. “I know.”

I had started to walk away.


My world turned on that word.

* * *

It was a new song then. It’s long past old now. What has it been? Six years? Seven.

I tried to focus on the bookshelves, yet I couldn’t help but wonder. Why this song? Why now?

Imogen Heap. I hadn’t forgotten the singer’s name.

I fought the urge to wander back to the music department and forced my attention once again on the books in front of me. Nothing new by Leif Enger. Where would he go after Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome?

“Handsome,” I read aloud.

The song ended and I took a deep breath, wanting to inhale only the good memories and maybe with them, a small hope of finding love like that again. A flash of cerulean blue caught my eye and I glanced down the aisle to see a toddler race by holding tight to a book nearly as big as he. A young mother followed close behind, smiling, thank God, and giggling.

“Come back here you little Sneetch,” she said.

Dr. Seuss. Yes. Immediately I was in the pages of Happy Birthday To You!, following the Birthday Bird through the land of Katroo, feeling more than a little embarrassed about the naked swan dive and wondering if I could have convinced the Birthday Bird to let me wear a swimsuit since it was my birthday after all.

* * *

I sensed her presence before I saw her. Maybe it was her scent. God, I loved the smell of her. Or the sound of her breathing. I’d like to believe I would even have recognized her silence – a daunting, sensual, hungry silence.

“Hey,” she said. Her eyes were softer, but the lines around them harder, deeper. She wore faded jeans and a chocolate brown cardigan over a white t-shirt.

“Hey,” I said.

“It’s been a while,” she said.


“You look good.”

“I look old,” I corrected.


“Mostly old.”

A teenage girl on a mission rounded the corner, came to an abrupt stop, then spoke.

“Mom, did you remember to bring my babysitting money?”

She smiled a parental smile that was three parts practiced patience and two parts exasperation. “Yes. But you can’t spend it all today. Remember what we talked…”

“I know,” the dark-haired girl said in a voice that was all parts exasperation. She looked at me for a moment, offered a half-hearted attempt at puzzlement, then turned back to her mom. “I just wanted to make sure you had it in case I needed some of it.”

Just as quickly as she’d appeared, the girl was gone.

“Wow,” I said. “She’s…”

“A pain in the ass.”

I laughed. “I was going to say ‘all grown up.’”

“I don’t think she would remember you.”

“No.” I felt a familiar ache like a punch to my stomach. “I suppose not.” I looked away.

“Did you hear it?” she asked.

“The song?”

“When I saw you in the store, I went back and asked them to play it. The clerk was a bit of an asshole at first and whined about how it was against the rules, but I can be pretty persuasive.”

“I remember that about you,” I said.

She smiled. Beguiling. That was what I’d named her smile.

“So, are things…good?” she asked.

I pushed at the spine of a book that was jutting out so it would line up with the others, then ran my fingers across the edge of the shelf as if checking for dust. I looked over her shoulder at the growing line at the checkout counter. I queued up a dozen words, then shook them off, considered a dozen more, then erased them.

“I really should be going,” I finally said. “It was nice to see you again.” I started down the aisle, only to realize I was holding a book I didn’t want to buy. Without pausing, I set it on the top of the bookshelf and apologized silently to the clerk who would have to re-shelve it.

I heard the word just as I reached the end of the aisle.


I remembered the touch of her hand on my face, the taste of her lips. I heard the soft moans of pleasure and felt her breath against my naked chest. I saw the hope and the dreams and the love and the ache and the fear and the mistakes and the goodbyes and the end of everything.

My heart was beating fast and my breath was shallow. I felt the spinning of the earth and kept walking.
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