His flight had landed ten minutes ago and he had another 45 minutes before the next one was ready to board. It was a rare occasion that his arrival and departure gates were not on opposite sides of the airport. He was going to take advantage of his free time.
He made his way to the Starbucks kiosk not far from his gate. He had been running late for his early morning departure and had to make a choice--miss his flight, or miss his morning supply of caffeine. Missing his flight had much more costly ramifications than skipping his morning coffee, so he went with arriving at the airport on time.
Serendipity brought him to where he was at that moment, standing behind a woman no more than five foot three inches tall, with curly, shoulder-length, dark-brown hair wearing a dark-colored fitted pants suit.
As the line slowly moved forward, he studied the woman in front of him. He decided to make up a fantastical story about who she was and where she was headed. He assumed she was traveling for business. She was the CEO or CFO of some fortune 500 company. She had a large leather personal item that could easily carry a laptop and a black curved roller suitcase, the kind with four rotating wheels.
He was next in line now, and the woman in front of him had made it to the counter.
"Hi, how may I help you?" The barista asked the customer in front of him.
"I'll have a butter croissant and a grande soy chai latte, no whip cream."
Her voice threw him for a loop. He knew that order almost as well as he knew the voice. After so many years, they were in the same place at the same time. He lost himself in memories of a past that he had tried to forget. It is hard to remember when you are the source of your own pain.
"Hey dude, you're next," said a teenaged voice behind him. He turned around and saw an annoyed adolescent female holding onto the strap of a book bag.
"Are you going to go or what? Some of us have planes to catch. And those planes, you know, they don't wait." The girl said.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm going."
She had felt eyes boring into her back for the majority of the time she spent waiting in line. She had chosen to ignore what felt like a personal violation. But hearing the commotion, she turned to see what was going on in the line she had just cleared.
Taken aback by the appearance of a man she never thought she would see again, she took in a deep breath to prepare her for what she knew was an inevitable encounter. Seeing him again was odd.
For a few years after he left, she had played out this meeting in her head—what she would say, what she would do. But those fantasies were before she met and married Mick. Her husband had his work cut out for him in trying to win the trust and love of a woman who had been so badly broken by the man now ordering his drink at the counter.
She looked up when her name was called and retrieved her drink. She thanked the woman who made the concoction and turned back around to find herself staring into his eyes.
"Well this is awkward." She laughed.
It was the woman he remembered that spoke—the one who had so much confidence in who she was and a quirky sense of humor. The woman in front of him was not the broken woman he left all those years ago.
"Yeah it is. Isn't it?” He confirmed. "You're hair is longer."
She touched her hair, "yeah, time will do that."
When he knew her, she was still growing out her hair. She used to pull at the curls, hoping they would stretch. "I like it."
"Thanks." She said.
She noticed his smile was forced and his eyes were dull. He hardly looked like the man she had last seen dancing the night away with his new lover. Her friend Dara had briefly mentioned running into him a little over a year ago. At the time, she wondered if Dara would have mentioned the encounter at all had it not been for her son, Dara's godson, Colin mentioning that 'Dara talked to a stranger at the farmer's market'. She and Mick had been trying to teach their son the dangers of talking to someone you do not know. Apparently, the boy had taken it to heart and thought that adults should not talk to strangers either. The man standing in front of her fit the description of the man Dara had described. Looking at him now, she felt sorry for him. It was obvious he was unhappy.
"How are you?" She asked. "How have you been?"
"Not too bad. I can't complain much. Morgan is getting married at the end of the week. So, you know, I'm flying out to do my duty as the bride's older brother."
She smiled. Morgan had always been a great friend, but he at least got to keep his sister in the breakup. Most of their mutual friends stuck by her through some of the toughest years of her life. "That's really good to hear. You'll tell her I said 'hello and congratulations', right?"
"Yeah, of course. She'll be happy to hear from you. Sometimes I'm not sure if she's forgiven me for breaking up with you. She always said you were her favorite of my girlfriends. Not sure I'll ever find anyone to measure up." He joked.
She smiled knowingly. She doubted he ever would. His sister Morgan had very high standards for whoever dated her favorite big brother. "Whose fault was that?"
"My own. Trust me. I know that was my own fault."
He looked at his feet and laughed nervously, "where is that drink." Less than a second later, his name was called and his drink was ready.
She waited for him to pick-up his coffee; she could not leave their conversation on that sour note. Realizing she had not left, he walked back to her.
"Still have a coffee habit." She said pointing to his venti cup.
"Yeah, couldn't shake that." He laughed. "And you, you're still going to Starbucks to buy non-coffee."
"Caffeine never really did anything for me. It still doesn't." She said.
"Right, of course." He paused. "We've been talking about me this whole time. How are you? I ran into Dara little over a year ago. She said you were married." The inflection on his last word indicated a question rather than a statement of fact.
He did not think it was possible for her smile to be any wider, but it was. Her eyes seemed to radiate not just happiness, but joy. He had never seen her like that before, even when they were at their best. She was a beautiful sight to behold.
"I am indeed married. To a man named Mick. It's just funny because he is so different from me in ways I never thought I'd be comfortable with." She said. "But it works, we work."
"That's, that's really good to hear. I'm happy for you."
She cringed slightly as she remembered saying those exact same words to him. It was hard for her to believe the person she became after he left. She did not know it then, but he had set her free. She had been ready for so much more than he could give, and though it did not feel like it at the time, she had been so much stronger than he could ever handle.
"I said those words to you once." She smiled sadly.
"You did, didn't you?" He watched her nod. "Did you mean them?" He asked because he was not sure if he did.
"Yeah, I did. I really did. You were happy." She said.
He nodded his head slowly. "I think I was then." Neither said a word. "I'm sorry. I don't think I ever said that. I don't think I ever had the chance."
"I've already forgiven you."
"Yes, not for you, but for me. There was no way for me to move forward if I was holding onto the ghosts of our past."
"Of course." He said. He saw her look at her watch. "I'm sure you need to get to your gate."
"Yeah, I do. You'll find her, you know. And when you do, you'll treat her better, because you'll know better. You will have learned from our mistakes—your mistakes."
"You think so?" He asked in disbelief.
"Yeah. I know it. You aren't a bad guy; you just weren't for me. I know that now, and hopefully you do too. I've got to go, but maybe I'll see you around some time. You can meet Mick." She waved and walked away.
He watched her retreating form as she went to her gate. Running into her ha been enlightening, and he hoped she was right. Maybe now he would stop dreaming about her and feeling so much regret and sadness whenever he hears what used to be their song. Maybe this encounter would be his push to move forward.