Of all the places I might've imagined my final encounter with her could be, an In and Out burger joint was the last spot that came to mind. The dialogue didn't play out how I thought either. I admit, there were times before when I pictured us romantically walking along the banks of Lake Lagunitas, melancholy piano music playing in the background. We'd look at each other with sad yet loving expressions, remind the other how much they had meant to us. There might have been an odd laugh or two when one of us brought up a happy memory or one of the thousand inside jokes we had. We would sit on a bench overlooking the water and watch the swans gracefully sail by. At last we would hug, say thank you, get into our respective cars, and go our separate ways. Sadly, that idle dream was the farthest from the truth.
Fate has an interesting way of throwing things at you when you're least expecting it. For the past month, any time I had passed through her home town I couldn't help glancing over my shoulder expecting her to be there. The last time I saw her, though, she was the furthest person from my mind. A coworker of mine had invited me to go out to a rave with him. I was excited. We were going to smoke, drink, and dance with promiscuous girls who showed more skin than clothing. I perhaps would kiss a girl for the first time in months; maybe I'd get laid. The night seemed full of possibilities and I was excited to find out where my intoxicated mind would take me. Before we left for the club or drank, though, Casey decided we should stop by In and Out to grab some food. I walked through the front door and there she was, sitting a couple booths away in deep discussion with her best friend.
At first I thought, That can't be her. It had been two months since I'd last seen her, two months since she had torn out my heart and left an empty nothingness in its place. She looked familiar yet I had somehow forgotten the finer details of her appearance, enough that she initially was a stranger in my eyes. Then with a pang I realized that yes...it was her. I pretended I hadn't noticed.
"Fuck," I muttered to my coworker.
Casey looked up from his phone, "What's up?"
"My ex is sitting over there," I tilted my head. "Talking to the girl with the bike helmet." Casey stretched, casually glancing over his shoulder before returning to his phone.
"Oh I recognize them," Casey was two years ahead of me in school and we hadn't hung out before this summer, "She's cute." My eyes couldn't resist staring. She hadn't once looked in my direction. I couldn't tell if she actually hadn't seen me or if her calm demeanor was all a facade. "Do you want to eat somewhere else?" He asked me.
"No, it's fine," I lied. I tried to put on an air of confidence, rolling my shoulders back, raising my chin a little higher, tilting the corners of my lips into a half smile. After placing my order I debated going over and talking to her. A dozen voices were arguing in my head, the advice from all my friends and family. My dad told me to ignore her, my mom and aunt advised I try and get some closure while I had the chance, my best friend swore I should tell her what a bitch she was before dropping the mike. I couldn't trust my own body which screamed for me to run over and beg her--in front of all these strangers--to take me back.
Without realizing I had come to a decision, my legs became animated. I started walking over. Each step felt like an eternity of anticipation. As cliché as it sounds, the crowd around me became a muted blur for all I could perceive was within that booth. I rounded the corner and stood before them. No turning back now, I thought as they both looked up at me.
"Hey guys," I beamed down at them.
"Hey, how's it going?" Her best friend, Elisa, smiled.
"Good, good. Mind if I join you guys for a minute?" I asked, "Just waiting for my burger."
She said nothing. Her gaze had returned to her plate. "Yah, of course," Elisa said scooting over so I could sit down. I was left directly facing her. My eyes appraised the love I had lost. She didn't look great; for some reason I was ten times more critical of her appearance now than when we were in a relationship. She wasn't fat but suddenly she seemed heftier to me. Had she gained weight or had she always been like that? Her slumped shoulders and averted eyes displayed an insecurity that I found repulsive. She was both less attractive but at the same time more attractive. The imperfect beauty of her made me miss that connection, that bond we used to share. My eyes found her neck and for a moment my heart stopped. The necklace...the necklace was gone. That jade pendant I'd given her for Christmas, the one which matched the color of her eyes and had her favorite animal: an owl, carved into it. She had worn that pendant every day. Instead, a few conjoined beads with a red stone wrapped around her neck. Bile rose into my throat.
"What are you guys up to?" I asked cheerfully.
Elisa shrugged as she munched on a fry, "We were just biking around town. You're looking good. Showing off the guns today?" She patted my bare arm. I was wearing a tank top, something I didn't normally do; my farmers tan needed some work but besides that I knew it was a pleasant view.
I smiled and looked at her, who still wasn't making eye contact. "Yah me and my buddy are going to a rave tonight. Going to get really hot in there."
Elisa laughed, but she had no reaction, "Damn," her friend said, "Well have fun, tell me all about it afterwards."
I searched for a reaction, a sign, "Yah," I said slowly, "Should be quite an experience." Still nothing. My jaw clenched, my stomach boiled. You have nothing to say? You're really going to ignore me? A part of me wanted to slap her, another part wanted to cry. Why doesn't she look at me the way she used to? Those beautiful, emerald eyes, lighting up at the sight of me like she'd finally found the solution to all her troubles. Her smile, stretched from ear to ear, and she couldn't stop giggling because she had been so excited. That was how she had looked at me. Now, there's nothing. In her eyes I saw a cold, frozen landscape devoid of happiness or humor.
"How's work?" Elisa asked me.
"Pretty good," I said, "My boss is kind of an asshole. There's this one kid named Owen who won't stop bugging me; he follows me around camp all day. Long hours, but it's fun. I like it."
Suddenly she spoke, "I'm going to the bathroom," she told Elisa. Her eyes avoided me as she got up and left.
"Did I interrupt a conversation or something?" I asked Elisa when she'd moved out of earshot. "Were you guys talking about me? Why won't she say anything to me?"
Her friend sighed, "I honestly don't know what's up with her. No we weren't talking about you, she was just telling me something personal."
I nodded slowly, taking it all in. "Oh." The emptiness inside grew even larger. Of course they weren't talking about you. She's moved on. She doesn't care about you anymore. A part of me wanted to know what "personal" thing was going on. I wanted to be there for her, to support her as I had been doing for the past year until...I had always been the shoulder she had used to cry on.
"Hey man," Casey came up with our food, "They called your number like ten times." He handed me my bag.
"Oh," I repeated, "Well, I guess we should head out. See yah." I said to Elisa.
She smiled pleasantly, "Yah have fun tonight!"
I got up. Casey and I made our way towards the exit, which the bathroom was right next to. She came out just as I passed. "See yah later," I waved.
There was no response.
How is it, I wondered as Casey and I got in the car and drove away, that someone who you thought you knew better than anyone else in the world suddenly can turn into a complete stranger? Thinking back on all the love letters she wrote, all the gifts she gave, all the times she kissed me and said "I love you," for her to suddenly grow so cold was like a knife in the back for me.
That was the last time I saw her. I'll never forget it. Her hands glistened with moisture because she didn't dry them thoroughly. Her hair was tied back in a pony tail with that black tie she always used. The cute librarian glasses she wore whenever her contacts itched too much. And the eyes. Those beautiful, emerald eyes, looked at me with nothing but frosty indifference. That was the last time I saw her; that was the end of our story. Sometimes, I can't help but miss her despite the way she ended things. I wonder if I'll ever meet someone who'll fill the emptiness she left behind. And if I do, when will they come into my life? A day, a year, a decade?
I am still mourning. I have never felt pain like this before. Yet, in the darkest hours of the night, when I lay awake staring at my dorm ceiling, there are moments when the heartache subsides. I look back on my memories with her and smile, crying from pure joy because I got to experience what true love was. And while it didn't last, while it wasn't my happily ever after, I still was blessed by God, the universe, karma, or whatever to come across this rare connection with someone, a bond that goes to the very core of who I am. A friend of mine once told me, "You gotta taste the bad so you know how good you got it." She made me happier than I ever thought possible, and for that I have to say:
Charles H. Hunter is a student currently studying Creative Writing at CU Boulder. His goal for all his writing is to produce stories many people will find relatable and insightful to human existence. In his opinion, writing is about bringing people together through shared experiences so that we may make sense of our strange reality.