Leo found her on State Street, sitting on a bench partially shaded by California sycamores. Her hair burned golden in the dappled sunlight. His mind became a tornado of emotion, with love, disappointment, and anger spinning off like storm debris. Should he confront her about unfinished business? Forget about the past? Ignore her and pretend she didn’t exist? He leaned against a storefront, squeezed his eyes shut and tried to decide, imagining what he would say and how she’d react.
Leo pasted a smile on his face and approached. “Laura, it’s been…been years.”
She looked up from her book, her expression questioning. He felt that cold feeling of mistaking a stranger for someone he’d once known. But she smiled and looked at him with the same playful eyes that he remembered from twenty-five years earlier.
“Leo, it’s so good to see you.”
“How long have you been back in Santa Barbara?”
“Oh, about six months. I’ve got a job with the County doing some consulting.”
From behind Dollar Store sunglasses he studied her, trying to reconcile his memory of a late-thirties curvaceous blonde with the woman before him now. Time had not been kind to her, nor to him. Stifling a groan, he sat next to her and let go of his cane. It clattered to the pavement, making her jump.
“Sorry, I get distracted easily. I forget I’m holding the damn thing.”
“That’s okay. My husband uses a cane now. Macular degeneration has taken most of his sight.”
“Sorry to hear that. So…so you’re still with Mark?”
“Till death do us part, etcetera, etcetera.”
The summer breeze off the Pacific whipped the trees and blasted the sidewalk crowds. She drew the pearl-buttoned cardigan around her and tugged the dress below her knees, her legs encased in opaque stockings that revealed little.
Leo sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, hoping to bring his racing heart under control. “You’re looking good. Those East Coast winters haven’t been too hard on you.”
She laughed, almost a giggle. “Come on, Leo. I still look in mirrors, ya know. I know what I’ve become. We…we both got old.”
“Ya think?” He joined her in laughing and tugged at his gray beard, a nervous gesture he used when buying time to think.
The wind brought with it a cold afternoon fog. They moved inside the adjoining bakery café, sat at a window table, sipped coffee and gazed at people passing by. Their conversation started safely enough: her current management consulting work; his retirement from the engineering office and new bohemian life style. Her daughters had daughters. His wife had breast cancer.
They edged toward the emotional cliff of memory, with Laura the first to jump. “So why haven’t I heard from you all these years? I…I thought we were close.”
“Yeah, well, you were starting a new life back east with Mark, raising a second family, getting good consulting jobs, while I…”
“Ah come on, Leo. You knew my address and later my e-mail. But I heard nothing. After all we…we talked about, I thought you’d be at least curious.”
“Yeah, that was the problem. It was all talk. I knew our situation was impossible. We could never be lovers. So I felt your leaving was a good time to just end it.”
Laura blushed. She reached for her coffee cup with a trembling hand and sipped, as if choosing her thoughts carefully. “Yes, you’re right. But still, all the experiences we had at work, all the shared challenges. I could have used your help.”
“You never asked.”
“You never offered.”
It was Leo’s turn to sip his coffee and figure out how to get past the quandary. “You know, I could have lived with being your long distance friend…if…if you hadn’t turned away from me.”
“Leo, what the hell are you talking about?”
“It happened before you left and you know damn well what I’m talking about.”
“Is it about you getting kicked out of the Planning Department?” Laura frowned and looked away.
“Ah, at last, you seem to remember. You were the City Manager’s Girl Friday, and yet you wouldn’t do anything. You couldn’t even acknowledge how much pain that son-of-a-bitch caused me.”
“Hey, Leo, he was going to fire you. Half the developers in the county wanted you gone, said you were a hard-ass, wouldn’t compromise. You’re lucky they sent you to work with the engineers. At least you kept a job…and your retirement.”
Leo grimaced. “Yeah, I’m so damn grateful. Do you know what it’s like to work at a place for twenty years, then lose your entire work family because of some malcontents and their stooges?”
“Look, I didn’t like it one bit…but I couldn’t do anything about it. And if I tried, I would have gotten burned. You were radioactive back then.”
“You could have been a sympathetic friend, even at a distance. But I guess my fall from grace was just too embarrassing for you. I get it. I was heading downslope and you were climbing.”
“It’s been so many years, Leo. Can’t you just let the anger go?”
“Not until someone acknowledges my pain.”
Laura opened her mouth to say something, but stopped and looked away.
A gust of wind blasted Leo. He dropped his cane and it clattered to the sidewalk. Opening his eyes, he stared at the woman sitting on the bench, reading. Yes, it was Laura, old but still beautiful. The lines of their imagined conversation ran through his head like an out-of-control ticker tape. His jaw ached from clenching his teeth.
Tired of muttering to himself, he brushed away tears, picked up his cane, and hobbled away.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor), and two plump cats (his in-house critics). Since 2005, his stories have been accepted more than 340 times by popular journals, magazines, and anthologies. Terry is also an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist.