He had watched her gracefully slide through the crowd outside of the café, her blonde hair bouncing around her face in large ringlets that whispered of eminence. His fork was stopped midway between his mouth and the greasy plate the waitress had set before him minutes ago. Pancakes and scrambled eggs. Usual meal, new place. He had tried to make it easier for her and meet her where she lived.
She clutched her bright red purse against her chest as an old man opened the door for her to come into the café. He watched as she confidently clambered into the small and old building with coffee-stained tables and walls that spoke of old times. Her eyes, those beautiful blue eyes, scanned the room for something familiar, as he had done earlier before he took his seat in the corner, away from everyone else.
Their eyes met. Cinnamon brown against diamond blue. Time stopped around him; he only had eyes for her. Everything faded into the brown and raucous and dull blob of a world that New York was to him and he smiled as years and loud unspoken words melted away between them. She smiled a hidden smile, a smile that had an untold story, a smile that wanted one to stick around for a while and listen to what it had to say. Embedded in her smile, he saw his longings, his cravings, because a smile like that delivered hope to even the most hopeless. It pried open his soul and probed for his deepest secrets. It fulfilled his needs.
She sat across from him, gently putting her purse down beside her chair and unwrapping herself from the Burberry trench coat she wore. Gloves were discarded smoothly from ivory white hands with perfectly manicured fingernails and none of this went unnoticed by him. Thoughts raced through his mind, but time, oh blessed time; it left his mouth dry.
“Hello, Andrew,” the angel across from him spoke. By now, his fork was placed back onto his plate, forgotten with the rest of the irrelevant background that interrupted their realm, his glorious world he could have with her if only for a few minutes with a promise of harmless coffee. He looked into her eyes, faintly detecting the mascara that enlivened the jewels he stared into.
A joyful tinkle enlightened his ears as the girl across from him laughed merrily, amused by his reticence. “Ca alors, Ahndi. I don’t bite.” His brain registered the juxtaposition, the contrast, the collocation of the words that flowed from her mouth like a waterfall. The thick French accent he assumed she had acquired from the ritzy and exclusive streets of the affluent didn’t cover the mud-covered, cow tailed country accent that sounded familiar on her lips, like the childhood friend he once had. He gathered his senses. Noise filled his ears up to the brim, life reviving itself, inviting its way back into their world, their table for two in the back of a small diner. Andrew took a small sip of the water that was set before him what seemed like ages ago.
“Wow. You look stunning, Charlie,” was all he could muster from the orchestra of thoughts that sang through his mind. He watched as her smile faltered at his response, her blue eyes lowering to the table, and he wondered to himself how he could have screwed up this moment. But in an instant, she was back to her normal self—not normal to him but the normal in which she had attained in her new life, the life that left him in the muddy, cow-filled pastures of their childhood. “It’s Charlotte now, Andrew. Not that silly old nickname.”
The waitress came by and an awkward silence passed over them. Charlotte asked for a skinny latte, no sugar, and soy milk and Andrew began to wonder who exactly he had invited for coffee. “I’ve never known you to like skinny anything,” he inquired after the waitress left, taking his half eaten plate of pancakes with her. Charlotte brushed his response away with a flick of her hand and a tiny chuckle. “I don’t know where it’s been all my life. How have you been though, bon ami? How is everyone and…” her question faded away into the rest of the unspoken words that accompanied them at their table. Suddenly, Charlotte seemed nervous, and Andrew didn’t see the airy, vivacious blonde he saw walking into the café. Her façade didn’t fool him; they both knew that. But he saw that she continued to uphold it regardless.
“Everything is the same as how you left it. Ma asks about you every so often and your parents are tending to the cattle just fine.”
“The same as how I left it…” Charlotte held onto those words even as he continued to talk and Andrew saw her face prune in slight disgust. He was about to bring up their favorite phrase to say in the mornings when they used to milk the cows together but he stopped, his sentence paling and becoming dull and meaningless as Charlotte cringed at every word he spoke of their blessed home in Idaho. No longer making eye contact, she smiled absent-mindedly and Andrew found himself searching her face for the freckled and curious Charlie he once knew.
The waitress brought her latte to the table and immediately, Charlotte physically lifted up with relief. “Ahh, Ahndi. You must have one of these one day. It’s simply buttery, just buttery!” He noticed she had amped up her fascia and each word added another year, another lifetime, another reality between them. Charlotte stirred her latte and sipped daintily for a minute or so. Andrew took the time to sip at his own beverage.
“Do you like it here, Charlotte?” he asked her, her name feeling fuzzy and foreign as it lingered at the tip of his tongue before slipping out and splattering into their conversation. She put down her drink and immediately and enthusiastically and unreservedly plunged into her tales of the fast-paced and ultimately prosperous paved pathway of her newly modelesque lifestyle. He hardly paid attention as his hopes of rekindling those late nights of fireflies and talks in the wheat fields dissipated with every superficial piece of her portico.
“—and you have to see my new flat, Ahndi, you just have to!”
His attention was brought back to reality and he mustered a slight mumble and she took that as permission to keep going. He nursed at his water and did his best to pay attention to the shallow, empty contents of her world as she laid them out generously for show. He joined in, asking questions he knew he should ask and not the questions he wanted to ask. People passed in blurs around them and the latte and the water were finished and picked up by the waitress. The girl with the lively blue eyes and the boy with the warm brown ones. Their conversation danced and twirled and pirouetted around the unspoken and formidable past that intertwined their existences but ultimately set them apart; and in the end, he knew this was the last time he would try to reach out to her. She was far gone and the world had sucked her in and spat out someone else.
Frost had collected on the windows and the waitress came by once more as the light outside vanished, the only light visible was the light in the closing café and the dimming spirit within Charlotte’s eyes.
“Can I get you all anything else before we close?” the waitress probed, allowing them the obvious knowledge that the café hours of operation were coming to an end; and so was their conversation.
“I don’t think so,” Andrew said and the waitress left their table, leaving a suddenly filled silence that enraptured his being. Charlotte collected her gloves and her Burberry trench coat and her purse and piled them into her lap. Andrew saw a faint glimpse of the Charlie of his past as she smiled an innocent smile, a smile of white picket fences and sweet iced tea on the porch at sunset. She got up to leave, a second time, a last time. “I think about it sometimes, Ahndi,” she said quietly, putting on her coat. There was no need to elaborate; the years between them hadn’t expunged their understanding of what the other meant.
“You should come back sometime.” He watched as she pondered the thought and he allowed himself to believe that for one instant, she would pack up her façade and throw it away onto the tattered streets of the lost and sapped world New York was to him, that she would come back and spend the rest of her life in their unremitting and incessant yet satisfying realm of her past, his present. His hopes peaked, yet he still sat there, the image of her standing taller than him poetic and necessary.
He said it absentmindedly yet it was all she needed. She visibly shook the thought from her mind and briskly placed the gloves onto her hands. Her eyes were relit with a fire and she smiled, finally looking him in the eye. “Charlotte, Ahndi. It’s Charlotte.”
He watched her leave the diner with an air of hastiness, leaving him there with the rest of the memories she had taken with her. A suitcase of the past lay sprawled by his feet, along with the unexpressed and implicit conversation they had covertly shared over a latte and a water. Charlotte. Charlie. She had left him in the dust yet again and he could only stare like he had done before. The waitress turned off the OPEN light as Andrew picked up his coat and walked out, leaving a tip on the table. He saw Charlotte walk down the street, her hands in her coat pockets, her hair bouncing to the rhythm of her steps. He watched her until she was just a speck in the distance, another person among the many crowds of New York. The girl with the dreams, the woman with a purpose. The childhood friend, the one who actually got up and left like everyone else said they would. He watched her flow easily back into the stream of New York and its endless current. Then, he turned in the opposite direction and headed home.