The observation area at the Albany International Airport had changed little since I had been here with her the last time. In the past three years, the seats had been updated. They looked like something a doctor’s office would refuse–fake wood frames with hard orange and blue plaid covered foam seats. You’d think they would have used purple and gold, the colors of the local state university, but a large donor thought otherwise. Just my luck, the blue was near the color of her eyes. All I could think of was those eyes. I was watching an American Eagle regional jet take off when I felt a light touch on my shoulder. I had seen her reflection in the window as she came closer. The reflection was almost too much to bear, and then I saw those eyes. I think she saw me watch her approaching reflection. I saw her smile and I smiled back. I wondered what she saw in my reflection, if she could see through to the outside where planes were escaping. I saw myself reach with my right hand across to my left shoulder to place my hand over hers. “Hello, Sarah,” I said as I turned to her with an embrace.
Three days ago my growing list of e-mails included one from someone I had not seen or heard from in three years. Just seeing her name gave me that feeling of a turntable that suddenly lost power and the music slowly wound to a stop. Sarah Watson was the icon of what cute little blondes should be. I spent a lot of time watching her petite perkiness in grad school. She was not very tall and slightly built, just enough curves to interest without being salacious. I was interested, too. I think she knew it, but never let on about it. We had the same writing class, a thesis preparation seminar. She was brilliant, but not a brilliant writer. I had the opposite problem. So, we helped each other. We spent hours together in the library, at Common Grounds, the coffee shop on Lark Street. I guess we went from study buddies to friends to family; family like brother and sister. I would have preferred more like husband and wife. My thesis, a novel for my MFA project, made my feelings painfully clear if anyone read between the lines. Sarah read between and around the lines.
“Lucius,” she said that last night, “you know how I feel about you.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Of course you do. I read your book. But…” she went on. “I can’t be who you write about. I’m not that girl. Not right now.” She told me this as she sat across from me at a window table at Common Grounds. “I don’t want to be tied down.”
“Is that what I do to you?” I replied, angrier than I should have. I showed her the book because we never really talked about my feelings. We talked about everything else. We talked each other through family problems, through dating issues, though those were mostly hers, and just about everything else. Honesty with each other was what our closeness was built upon. Honesty is what led me to write what I felt. It led me to letting her read it because I was too scared to tell her.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Sarah took my hand and stroked it gently. “You are the sweetest man I’ve ever known. I can tell you anything and I know you won’t judge me. Even things that I can’t tell my own family. You take that place in me. My confidant. You don’t tie me down, you free me.”
“I know this talk, Sarah.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes. “This is the dear-John-for-friends talk.”
“That’s only for lovers, Lucius. We aren’t.”
“And that makes a difference how?” I started tapping my ever present pen on the table. “We’ve done almost everything else. Correction, I wanted to do almost everything else. Anything at all, but you stopped. I gave up.”
Sarah looked at me with her head canted to one side. Her eyes were liquid blue and bursting with tears. Her mouth opened and silently closed. I didn’t understand why she’d be crying. She just told me I would not be her lover. That’s what I heard. It’s what I believed. She never lied to me.
“I love you, Lucius,” she finally said. “You are all I think about and it scares the shit out of me.”
“Then, why…” I started to protest, but she put a single soft finger of hers to my lips and I was silenced.
“Because I am afraid I will lose myself in you. I am afraid I will lose the best friend I ever had. I do love you. I just can’t handle being in love with you. Not right now.” Sarah removed her finger from my lips and ran it over the cover of my MFA project sitting on the table between us.
Not right now. The semester ended with us being uncomfortable near each other. I still wanted to touch her, but could only write about what that might feel like. It made for a great MFA project, but it was lousy for a relationship. I watched her graduate that spring. I still had a semester to go. We hugged after the commencement ceremony and shared a brief kiss before she turned and walked away. We didn’t see each other after that. She took off with the Peace Corps or some kind of volunteer thing. I started keeping journals. We exchanged the occasional e-mail about her adventures. I would send sections of my journals. I finally finished my MFA and sent Sarah a bound copy of my MFA manuscript. I hadn’t heard from her since. Not until three days ago and my heart jumped and fell seeing her name. She was back and she wanted to see me.
Three hours ago I woke to the smell of coffee downstairs. My wife always made coffee for me in the mornings. I showered, dressed in my customary dark jeans and t-shirt featuring whatever band I found interesting at the time. This time, it was Disturbed. She was disturbed. The coffee cup crashing into the wall behind my head as I entered the kitchen told me so. Damn.
“Morning, Dear,” I said calmly, sitting at my spot at the kitchen table. “Can I have another cup?” A second cup hit the wall. I don’t know how I kept so calm. I hate conflict. I hate arguing, but those cups were expensive. They were an eggshell blue, almost cobalt with flecks of teal like little irises. Now there were lots of eyes on me. “Well, I guess I’ll just have the two cups today. How about some eggs?”
“Who the hell do you think you are,” she asked, punctuating herself with a third shattered coffee cup.
“I thought I was your husband. Can I have some toast?” I ducked the toaster, turning to see it burst into sparks against the stucco. “Okay,” I sighed. “I can do without the toast.” She didn’t respond. Her back was to me and she was staring out the window over the kitchen sink. I could see her fingers drumming on the granite counter on either side of the sink, but couldn’t hear the beat over the sound of blood flowing in my ears.
“Who is she, Lucius?”
“Who is who, Erin?” I replied innocently.
“It’s the woman you wrote about,” she paused. She stopped drumming her fingers and hissed at me. “Isn’t it?”
Shit. “Oh.” I’d let Erin read my journals. Once. She didn’t speak to me for days. Something in one of the short stories, or several had pissed her off, royally. Honesty pays, in spades. Shit.
“You were with her last night,” Erin turned to face me, arms folded. Her short auburn hair was spiky and unkempt. Highlighted by the morning sun through the window behind her, she looked as radiant as she was enraged. Her eyes narrowed to little green slits, heralding the fling of another coffee cup. I don’t know how she missed me at that range.
“You keep that up and we won’t be having coffee ever again.” Wrong answer. I flinched, expecting another coffee cup. “They were porcelain. A wedding gift from my…,” motherfucker! The cup she threw clipped my ear.
“Did you sleep with her?” Erin had moved closer, still separated from me by the kitchen table that seemed way too small to do the job properly. She leaned over the table until her face was within inches of mine, her eyes ruddy and wet. “Did. You. Sleep. With. Her?”
“I slept with you. Remember?” I felt my ear for damage. “Honey, I love you. I only sleep with you.”
Erin seemed to consider this for a moment and slid a chair from the table to sit opposite me. “Do you love her?” Her eyes were still stalking me, looking for weakness. The rest of her withdrew, sitting back, arms folded.
“She’s my friend. We go way back,” I answered, looking past her and out the window.
“Do you love her?” Erin asked again, quieter, with softer, yet still red lined eyes meeting mine.
“Yes,” I said after a moment’s pause. “She loves me, too.” Erin looked away, rolling her eyes by rolling her entire head up and around as if scanning the room for cobwebs. She unfolded her arms and began to fondle some fruit we always kept in a bowl for snacks. Shit. Ammunition.
“Did you ever sleep with her?” Erin’s voice was barely beyond a whisper.
“Can I just get a glass of orange juice?” I started to rise from the table, but she fired just as I turned toward the fridge. An orange fastball whizzed into the wall behind where my head was a moment earlier.
“Why can’t you give me a straight answer?”
“Those juice up better when softened.” Because you won’t believe me.
“Lucius,” she was watching me again. “Please?”
I looked at her, truly looked at her and for a moment saw that same naiveté I saw when we first met. Sarah had left and my interest in writing had waned, replaced by a need to throw myself into music. I’d always wanted to learn how to play the guitar and since I wasn’t spending money on Sarah, I invested in a nice used Martin D-3. I met Erin when I was noodling around, trying to put the finishing touches on a song I’d written. Of course, I was writing it for Sarah.
“That sounds nice,” came a light voice from behind me. I was sitting on the steps of the New York State Museum in downtown Albany. The steps of the museum look out over the entire Rockefeller Plaza; to the state office towers and the Egg, which was the performing arts center. “What’s it called?”
“Don’t know,” I answered. Before I could turn to see who was speaking, she stepped down from behind me and sat a few steps below. Her spiky red hair had glints of gold and copper. Her eyes shone green. I don’t know how she did that. But however she did, I was fascinated by it. “It’s just something I was messing around with.”
“I’ve seen you around. My name is Erin, by the way.” She extended a hand. It was not smooth, but a little worn, like hard work was not unfamiliar. Her grip was firm surprisingly gentle at the same time. “I’ve seen you hanging out at Lark Street Musing and Mother Earth’s. Do you play out at all?”
“No,” I answered quietly as I placed the Martin back in its case. “I just play for me.”
“And you are…?”
“Lucius. Maguire.” She smiled at me and I think I blushed because she smiled even more.
“Do you know any other songs?”
“Sure. But, I don’t sing. Scares the neighbors. And cats.” I grinned at my own expense, but took out the Martin again. Something about her made it alright to try and sing. I got the feeling she was genuinely interested in what I had to say. So I played and sang an old blues song called “Little Red Rooster”. It was kind of dirty if you understood the words. I didn’t think she would. I was wrong. Erin smiled and grinned at me.
“See?” she said coyly. “I wasn’t scared off. Want to grab some coffee?”
I remembered that moment and looked at her now. Now, she was scared. “I wanted to. She didn’t. We didn’t.” I absentmindedly grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table. “Do you believe me?”
“Why not,” Erin asked, then added snidely, “You obviously like to spend time together.”
“A good way to kill a friendship is to fall in love with someone who just wants to be your friend.” I gave Erin my best honesty look. “She wouldn’t be my friend if we slept together.” I said this, not sure if I meant it or not.
“That’s stupid,” she replied coldly. She regarded me in silence for several minutes. She turned to look out the window behind her. She spoke again, barely audible. “I thought I was your friend.”
“Of course you are,” I said and reached across the table to place my apple free hand on top of hers. “I love you.” She drew her hand away.
“But, I’m not your friend because we sleep with each other, huh?” Her shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’m your wife, but not your friend.”
“You are more than a friend, Erin,” I tried to reassure. “I chose you over all others to spend my life with. But, it’s like she’s a part of my family, a part of me. Do you mind if I get a bowl of cereal?” I don’t think Erin heard any of what I’d said. She looked like she was going to go all Linda Blair, again. The sun was shining through the window with just enough force to make her hair look like an angry orange halo. I got up from my seat to look for a bowl for cereal.
“What do you do with her? What did you do last night, then?”
“We just talked,” I answered. “We just talked.” I spoke without looking at her. Shit. She’s pissed.
“You know,” I continued while eating my Frosted Flakes. “She was the first person who cared about me for who I was. It surprised me,” I slurped, but did not look at Erin. “She gave me confidence enough to believe in myself. I took it for love. My first real love.” I grabbed one of the remaining oranges from the bowl and began to peel it.
“I don’t want to know any more.” Erin rose from her seat and began to rummage through the kitchen cabinets. “Want some coffee with that orange? Oh, damn. No cups.”
“I fell in love with her,” I continued. “She said she loved me, too. But she wasn’t in love with me. Not like I wanted.”
“Stop talking.” Erin’s movements in the kitchen became frenetic. She kept looking in drawers, the cabinets, the fridge, but seemed disappointed where ever she looked. She found a hand juicer and began to squeeze some orange juice into a small glass. “Have some orange juice. Just shut up!” I didn’t.
“She just wanted the same emotional support that I wanted but without the complications of being in love. You know, someone to buy you Ben and Jerry’s when you’re messed up inside and then to stick around to help straighten you out.”
“One cup not enough,” she said coldly. “I can squeeze the whole fucking bag!” Erin had found our orange stash and began whipping them at me with deadly accuracy. “Shut up!”
“I can talk to her about things, Erin,” I ducked as I said this. “It’s not the same with you.” She flung an apple at me. “God damn it! Stop it!” She stopped at my sudden anger. “That shit hurts!”
“We fuck, but we don’t talk,” she said eying me coldly before sending one more apple and orange grenade my way.
“No… Yes,” I stammered. “No. It’s like the difference between apples and oranges. And you’ve got to stop throwing them at me.” I was done dodging fruit and moved to stand directly in front of her.
“Give me one reason why I should stop?” she demanded.
“Because it hurts! Those oranges are hard as hell!”
“It was the apple that hurt you most, Lucius,” she said as she turned to leave the kitchen. “There’s a difference.”
Three minutes ago, Sarah had found me in the observation lounge of the Albany International Airport. I was singing “Little Green Apples”, the O.C. Smith bluesy version when she came up to me. She must’ve checked her bags, because she was only carrying her purse and a small carry-on.
“So,” she said expectantly. “Are you ready to go?”
“I’m not going with you, Sarah.” I turned to stare out the terminal window.
“What do you mean you’re not going?” She was surprised. “You said you would tell her you loved me. Didn’t you tell her?”
“She took it hard? I know I would have. She’ll be fine after a while.” Sarah stopped talking for a moment. “You really aren’t going, are you?”
“No.” I could only manage one word answers.
“Look, I tried to make up for taking off back then. You stopped writing to me. I still thought about you all that time.” Sarah’s voice squeezed the juice out of my heart. I had to gently move her back from me.
“A couple days of talking over old times doesn’t change things, Sarah. I’ve moved on.” I found Erin, or rather she found me. “Besides, I never said I would go. Can we grab some coffee over there?” I pointed to a Seattle’s Best stand down the terminal walkway. “I really need a cup.”
“No!” She grabbed my arm. “What is this? Why are you backing out?”
“I’m not backing out, Sarah.” I touched her face. I so wanted to kiss her. She was still the most beautiful woman I had ever met and the thought of her wanting me was blinding. And that was it. She blinded me. Blindsided me right to the heart I had given to Erin. “I can’t leave her. As wonderful as these couple of days have been, I mean I really loved catching up, laughing like old times… it was like nothing had changed.”
“It hasn’t changed. You still love me. I see it in you. You still love me. When you came to my hotel room, I had your favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s waiting for you, didn’t I? I thought that meant something to you.” She pulled me to a seat nearby and leaned in close to me. Her eyes still blue, near cobalt and pooling with liquid misgivings.
“This time, it’s my life keeping us apart. It’s just…. Not now.” Not now, not ever.
“Don’t give me that bullshit. Be honest with me. You can still do that, can’t you?”
“Bullshit?” I was pissed. I never thought I could be mad at her, but shit. “I was the one who talked you down after every little crisis you had. It was me!” I thumped my chest for emphasis. “I was the one who was always there for you. I held you when your father died. I got you through those writing classes that last semester. Dumbass me actually wanted to be with you and you never noticed.” My voice quieted down. “How could you not notice? All I did was notice you.” I stared into her eyes and for a moment, I had clarity. I wasn’t lost. She never noticed me. Me.
“I…” she shuddered, and looked away from me. “Was I bad to you? I didn’t mean to…”
“No, no… you were the best.” Honestly. “My bad. I fell in love. You are so love worthy. I just couldn’t help myself.” Sarah looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back and it was done. “You didn’t come back for me. You just missed what we had. You just needed a little Lucius fix, right?”
Sarah punched me in the shoulder as hard as she could and laughed as I winced in pain. I guess I was right.
“Damn it! What is with you women and violence today?” I said rubbing my shoulder. She watched me compose myself, then stood up, grabbing her purse and carry on. I stood next to her and we shared a sigh. Then she kissed me. A real kiss with passion and love like I had imagined it would be back then. She really was in love.
We drew back from each other and I reached up to wipe a tear from her eye when we heard her flight announced.
“I’ve got to go, Lucius. Can we keep in touch?”
“I don’t know if that’s for the best, but…” I stopped as she placed her finger over my lips.
“I know,” she said. “Not right now.”
“I…” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I was going to take this on the flight, but I’m not hungry anymore. Take it. You look like you could use some nourishment.” Sarah pulled a small apple from her purse and placed it in my hand then walked off through security and on to her gate.
I stared at the apple and tossed it few times. It was a mottled red with flecks of green. I put it in my pocket.
Three seconds ago, I was standing alone at the window of the Albany International Airport observation lounge, humming an old tune when an orange hit me in the back of my head.
“She was beautiful,” she said. “Why didn’t you go with her?”
“What are you doing here?” I kept looking out the window as Erin stepped up next to me. We both looked out the window at an American Airlines flight that was taxiing down the tarmac in preparation for departure. “Checking up on me?”
“You didn’t finish your breakfast. Brought you an orange,” she paused. I saw her reflection glance in my direction. “I needed to see her.”
The reflection of Erin’s eyes seemed dimmer than the brilliant green I was used to seeing. Her eyes had lost their shimmer and her shoulders were slumped. “Why did you need to see her?”
“It looked like quite a conversation.” She looked back out the observation window. “She was beautiful.”
“Yes.” She was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. “She has a certain way about her. Kind of like you.” I smiled at Erin’s reflection, but it did not respond. “If I had not met her, I could not have loved anyone like I love you.” Erin’s reflection looked at mine and grinned. Those were the right words, Lucius.
“What did she give you before she left? I saw you put something in your pocket.” She took hold of my arm and leaned into my shoulder. “What did she give you, Lucius?”
Life. Love. An apple.
“Lucius?” Erin nudged me when I didn’t answer. “Do you regret marrying me?”
I watched Sarah’s plane lift gently from the runway and carry her away from me, again. Goodbye, old love. I turned to Erin, lifted my hands to cradle her face. Her eyes were wide with hope, dancing like dew laden grass in a morning meadow. I kissed her gently on her forehead. Hello, forever love.
“You didn’t answer me.”
“Let’s go home” I said as I took Erin’s hand. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the apple. Erin watched as I tossed it into the nearest garbage bin. No regrets. I hope you know that, Erin. No regrets. As we walked hand in hand toward the terminal exit, I started humming. Erin recognized the song as the one I was playing when we first met. She leaned into my shoulder and I felt her relax. She knows I love her. I only sang for her. But this thing with Sarah, it hurt her. We both knew it. And things between us had changed.
There were no cups for coffee the next morning. There were no oranges either.