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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Short Story: One Afternoon in the Village (1998)

One Afternoon in the Village (1998)

She looked up distractedly from the paperback she had been merely skimming through. The gray-haired, middle-aged man standing on the sidewalk seemed familiar. Maybe it was the tilt of his head, or was it the way he parted his hair? The fog quickly lifted, a sudden, sharp reality. It was Jim. Jim -- after all these years. College. All that seemed so many years ago. A different time, a different place.
"Jim Williams, of all people! What a surprise!"
A smile quickly spread across the wrinkled, sun-bronzed face of Jim Williams. His eyes sparkled. It was the way her blond hair bounced whenever she was surprised. Had to be. Curious, he had never forgotten that.
"Can I join you?"
"Of course, you'll have to excuse my surprise." Julie was uncharacteristically flustered. "I didn't expect to see you again, after these many years. How many years has it been?"
"Oh yes, thirty years. It's been a long time. How have you been, you look pretty good."
"You, too," He pulled up a chair from a nearby table, draped his worn, leather jacket over the back, and sat down with a sigh. He leaned forward conspiratorially, but just looked at his new tablemate. Could it be that it was really her?
Julie interrupted his reverie. "Do you live in New York?"
His private thoughts faded. "No, I'm just here on business and was passing through the Village. And you?"
"I moved here about three years ago, after Tom died."
"My husband. I've always wanted to live in the Village ...."
"Of course .... Where do you live?"
"Coral Gables, Florida. Tom?
"I met him after college, in Philadelphia .... "
"I went there to work as a paralegal .... "
"Paralegal, I didn't know you were interested in law .... "
"Jobs were tough to find and my dad had a friend."
"How about you?"
"Well, after the war, I sort of traveled around for several years -- didn't know what I wanted to do with myself."
"The war?"
"Viet Nam. I signed up for Navy OCS after college. Went to Nam for two tours on a destroyer escort."
"That's terrible, but you got out okay."
"Yeah. Okay."
"Did you marry?"
"Twice? Anyone I know."
"No, the first one was someone I met after the war during my years wandering around California. Didn't last very long."
"What do you mean, wandering?"
"Had to get my head back together, didn't know what I wanted to do? The war really screwed me up."
"Oh," Julie was surprised. Jim had always been so sure of himself. "What about your second wife?"
"My second wife and I stayed married ten years. We split about ten years ago." It was a mechanical response, something that had to be said.
"I'm sorry to hear that." Julie fidgeted in her chair.
"Did you ever get the old, rambling Victorian house and four kids?" Jim leaned forward in his chair, again.
Sitting back, Julie smiled, remembering those nights, the long talks.
"The Saint Bernard, too," added Jim.
"Just two and a split-level -- and you?"
"I have two kids a boy and a girl, by my second wife. What about your two?"
"Two girls, both grown. Did I tell you that I'm a grandmother?"
"Really! Boy or girl?"
"A little boy, about six months old, Robbie is my oldest daughter Abigail's."
"You named her Abigail?"
"Yeah, funny isn't it."
It had been one of those late night discussions at the coffeehouse near campus. They didn't talk about deep philosophical things, just things. One of those discussions had been about favorite names for kids. Abigail seemed to Julie to be an odd, old fashion name. Jim thought it would fit a Victorian house.
"What about your other daughter?"
"Toni, short for Antoinette."
"What about you?"
"Johnny and Sarah are still in college. I don't get to see them much. They live in Kansas with their mother."
"Yeah, that's where I met Susan, their mother. I was trying to bounce back from Christine."
"My first wife. We met in San Francisco after the war. Just didn't work out."
"What happened with your second wife?"
"I guess I was just looking for something different."
"Different. I tried to find you, you know."
"It was after the war. I wrote to you at your parents. The letter came back 'addressee unknown'."
"Dad died shortly after I graduated and Mom couldn't stand the memories and moved away."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I was hoping that .... "
"Me, too."
"When did you marry Tom?"
"Your husband."
"Oh, yes. Tom joined the law firm about three years after I started working there. We were married two years after we met."
A waiter interrupted.
Jim looked up annoyed.
The waiter asked if they wanted anything. Jim turned to Julie.
"I'll just have an iced tea. And you?"
"Just a Coke, please."
When the waiter left, there was an awkward silence.
Jim sneaked another look at Julie. It was the same face that he had remembered for so many years. The face that carried him through Viet Nam, the lonely nights on the deck of the ship with nothing but the dark water and the darker sky. The blond hair, now streaked with gray, the deep blue eyes, the curiously asymmetrical smile on a delicately oval face.
Ever so quietly, "A penny for your thoughts?" She leaned close to Jim.
The memories flooded in. How many times had he heard that same question, asked in the same quiet way. How many times had he yearned to hear it once more.
"Nothing special," Jim abruptly replied.
Julie seemed taken aback by that response, she had a quizzical look on her face.
"Do you come to New York often?" Julie said.
"No, this is my first visit in probably five years."
The two sat quietly looking at one another. Time had created a gulf, but the memories were just as fresh as they were then. Time hadn't really changed anything. Jim had dreamt of this moment so many times, so many nights. How he had planned what he would say; how she would respond. How it would be once again.
The waiter came with the two drinks. Jim quickly paid the bill.
"Thank you, you didn't have to do that."
"That's O.K.," said Jim.
He hesitated. "Julie, I've thought about you often."
"I've thought about you, too."
"I tried to understand why we ... "
"Jim, that was a long time ago," interrupted Julie, quickly. "We were different people."
In anguish, Jim continued, the words flowed with a life of their own.
"It didn't go away. I tried to make it go away. I have thought over and over how to say it again. How many nights have I lain awake wondering where you were, what you were doing, how you were, whether you were happy."
"I'm sorry, but it was for the best."
"The best?" Jim's throat was dry, he tried to swallow. He fidgeted with his glass of Coke.
Julie looked into Jim's eyes. He stared back -- trying to see a reason, a reason why it had to be.
Silence. Awkwardness. Her face unbending. A hardness.
"Jim. Here's someone I want you to meet," Julie interjected with a sudden, glowing smile.
Jim turned to see the distinguished, gray-haired man striding quickly toward them on the sidewalk. The man was obviously coming from his office, he looked like an investment banker. Jim rose from his chair as if to greet the interloper.
"Jim, this is my husband, William," said Julie.
"Yes, I met William after Tom died and we were married shortly afterwards."
"Oh, glad to meet you," stumbled Jim. "I'm sorry. I just remembered, I gotta go."
Jim hurriedly gathered up his jacket and swiftly walked down the sidewalk; the Coke left untouched.
Julie watched Jim as he quickly walked away.
"Who was that?" said Bill.
With her back to William, watching Jim's retreating back through glistening eyes, Julie softly replied, "Oh, just someone I knew in college."

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