Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month's prompt is to write a story in which mistaken identity plays a major role. Today's tale comes to us from Val Muller, author of the Corgi Capers mystery series. Find out more at www.CorgiCapers.com.
A New York Reunion
by Val Muller
With her son moved out--he was on a three-month surveying expedition in Africa, and largely out of contact for the duration--the house was too quiet. How many times could she vacuum and dust Rob's room? An absent son left no messes to clean. Funny, all those years when cleaning and cooking and laundry seemed never-ending. And now what she wouldn't give for a son or a husband to care for.
Janet knew she'd have to downsize. It wasn't really the money: Micheal's life insurance policy had paid for the house and left her a modest safety net. Her job at the college paid all her bills, so she saved Micheal's nest egg for retirement. But she was too young to retire. She had too much life left. And the house kept her too tied to her son and late husband. She was an empty-nester now. Now it was time to focus on herself.
Which is why she found herself in the City. The college was out for a brief fall break--yes, even special collections librarians got the time off--and she took the four-day weekend to bus into the city. She stayed at a modest hotel outside of Manhattan (it was still ridiculously expensive, but what the heck?). She decided not to do all the touristy things. She'd seen the sights before, done all the touristy things back in her college days. This time, she visited local shops, looked off the beaten path.
Which is what brought her to KatKafe. She'd stopped in expecting a cup of coffee only to find the KatKafe was actually a book store, with no caffeine or cats to be found. She browsed the shelves. The books were all so new and supple. Nothing like the fragile collections she housed at the library. Here, she could actually handle the books, touch their pages, indulge for enjoyment and let down her guard.
This morning, during a walk through Central Park, she remembered the tapestry she'd hung on her dormitory wall. Everyone had a tapestry back then, it seemed. Hers was from freshman year, a highly-stylized illustration of a dozen or so angels meeting on the head of a pin. They were surrounded by celestial miasma. And didn't that perfectly capture her personality in college? It was all about possibilities and pushing limits.
And there were the handfuls of friends in various circles, ones she still saw on social media but not personally in years. Decades. Gosh, she'd gotten old. There were her junior-year apartment-mates: Jennifer, Jess, and Jenn (the 3 J's, they were called). Then there were her library cohort buddies: Matt and Ashley and Riley. And a handful of friends from the hip-hop club where she bravely but pitifully practiced her dancing skills.
There was Henry, of course. There was always Henry. He was the one that got away. After two years of on-again, off-again, they simply drifted apart. She always suspected they were too passionate about each other. The intensity of her feelings scared her, anyhow. Made her stupid and irrational. But isn't that what love does? With Micheal it had been different. Words had come easily to her. Her heart didn't flutter stupidly when he entered the room, but intellectual conversations flowed prodigiously. Micheal was more like a comfy hoodie. Henry was like bungee jumping. And you can't bungee jump every second of your life, can you?
Janet was flipping through a book about the cosmos when she saw him. His hair was gray now, but its wild cowlicks were unmistakable. When he looked up from his book--he was also browsing in the section on natural sciences--the sparkle in his eye pierced her heart. Isn't that just like fate, to throw him back at her in a second chance.
"Henry?" she screamed. But she didn't scream it. She didn't even say it. Her mind willed it, but her mouth would not comply. Her heart fluttered ridiculously, just as it had always done. Why did Henry make her so stupid? Just. Say. Hi. You are a grown woman. What is wrong with you? She forced herself to think of things scarier than talking to Henry. Childbirth. Her son leaving home. Losing her husband. This is nothing, you silly cow. Say. Hi. To. Him.
She cleared her throat and he looked up.
Oh, come on, she plead. But her brain-body sabotaged all efforts. Say. Something.
He smiled. That same lopsided smile that melted her heart. "I see we have similar tastes." He pointed with his eyes to her book.
"You know I've always fancied space," she managed.
"Same," he said.
Her mind raced, but every word in the English language meant nothing.
"I'm here alone," she said. The words surprised her. So she was going for blunt honesty? Desperation, even? Maybe. Maybe she was tired of being alone. "I mean, my son is grown and moved out. And my husband's been gone for..." He was cocking his head. Was this a good thing? Should she stop talking? She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I just thought, after all these years, why beat around the bush anymore, right? You're here, I'm here. I thought this was an actual cafe, and I really need a coffee. Would you--care to join me?" She realized she ought to smile, and she was shocked to find herself already beaming, without her knowledge.
He smiled back and grabbed the book out of her hand, bringing it to the cash register. "My treat," he said. "I always thought the way to a woman's heart was through books, not drinks."
She raised an eyebrow and nodded. Henry had certainly grown more assertive, too. She eyed his fingers as he paid for the books. Not a wedding ring to be found. Last she'd heard, he'd been married, but he wasn't big on social media, and she was too ashamed to stalk him. Maybe the stars were finally aligning.
"There's a great shop right down the block. We can get a cup, and I know a little park bench we can snag." He handed her the newly-purchased book.
"Thanks, Henry," she said.
He looked confused. "Good guess," he said. "That would be something if it were right. It's James," he said, taking her hand.
Her hand went limp for just an instant before she firmed it up and laced her fingers with James. He was neither a warm hoodie nor a bungee jump. He was somewhere in the middle. Like a new flavor of coffee and a book she'd never heard of. And maybe that was just what she needed.
The Spot Writers—Our Members:
Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/
Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/
Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com
Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.com/