James expected never to see Olive again. And there she stood, looking like yesterday, making coffee for a friend of Bill’s.
She gave him a passing glance and looked away. But her face changed as only James would see. Even after so many years she still had that glimmer of a smile betraying her thoughts. She spoke without looking at him.
“Well if it ain’t Mr. Big Stuff. Even the cat wouldn’t touch you. Put on a few pounds, you lanky s.o.b?” She gave him a bright smile.
“Good to see you too, Olive. How you been?”
“Can’t complain.” She gestured to another woman standing at the donut table. “Hey Glenna, I want you to meet the guy who popped my cherry back when I was… what, fourteen? This is Jim. Jim meet Glenna.”
James stepped back. Bystanders glanced at each other and got busy elsewhere.
“More like sixteen, if it matters.”
“That’s okay. I wasn’t using it anyway. You want a coffee?”
Jim shook his head. “I’m trying to cut down on stimulants.”
“Wow! Hard core!” She nudged Glenna. “You hear that? I owe everything to this Mormon you’re looking at. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Glenna said, “Eyeing the guys at an AA meeting?”
They laughed at her joke and the look on James’ face.
“We’re the same age, Olive. But since you brought it up, I’d like to make amends. Is that something…”
She made a face and pushed at him from across the table. “Oh phsaw! You goof ball. That was forty years ago. Give or take…” Jim blanched. She started laughing. “You think I’m still in a kink over that? Give it a rest, alright?”
“We lost touch when…”
“Yeah, sorry I didn’t visit you in the jug. Those places give me the creeps.”
People moved to sit. The meeting leader stepped to the podium.
“Stick around if you want to hear some war stories.” She gestured. “I sit over here.”
Jim drifted to the other side of the room and sat at the back.
His mind reeled at the encounter. Forty years had evaporated and they still shared so much unfinished business. What could he change?
‘She must hate me.’ How could he have responded? ‘I should’ve left. But that isn’t how the steps get done.’
They’d been latch-key kids together. Doing what kids do. He messed up bad. And, feeling in love, she hopped on board the non-stop party. They tried every drug known to man. And a few heretofore unrecognized.
Did anyone think it would all go south? Not them. But thinking wasn’t on their menu. Who doubted they would play around with more than drugs and booze, being higher on hormones than anything?
Who thought about the future? He repeated ‘Tomorrow is for losers’ like a mantra. Olive bought him a birthday tattoo with money ‘borrowed’ from her mother’s purse.
Some guy in prison added a rough fleur-de-lis.
He sat watching the clock on the wall over Olive’s head. He tried to fathom how their lives of promise had so unraveled? And the fact they each came here tonight, their lives still entwined.
James didn’t share. Many offered heartfelt stories of loss and recovery. Some had wit. Others wisdom. Olive sat it out too.
During the break, James looked at the free AA literature spread over a table. Donations accepted.
He thanked one guy for his talk. He walked away and thought, ‘You meet some people and you just know. Words are optional.’
‘Back stories aren’t required. Eyes meet and brokenness recognizes its own. A nod or handshake somehow transmits compassion and respect. You never meet again but always know someone understood the pain.’
Considering how many broken people there are, it is a connection surprisingly rare.
Olive lurked near the coffee pot. She and Glenna kept everyone laughing. She left James alone.
The meeting progressed in an orderly fashion. They all follow the same format.
James decided his encounter with Olive would suffice. He would be ready when they met again. Why rush things after a four decade hiatus?
The meeting adjourned and he made for the exit. Olive intercepted him at the door.
“You need to buy me a coffee.”
“I told you, I don’t…”
“You don’t need to drink coffee. But you need to buy me one. Drink root beer for all I care. Or is that too high octane for you?”
“That irrepressible Olive effervescence. How did I ever lose you?” She looked up at him and waited. “I don’t feel like a post-meeting committee. Ride with me.”
He opened the car door for her. She made a joke about there being a first time for everything.
“Nice wheels, Jim.”
“And paid for.”
“All grown up…”
He drove her to a little café where they could talk. They rode in silence. They’d known each other all their lives. Except for that forty year gap.
It felt like a weird first date. Something he’d never really had with Olive. It seemed they’d always been together. And then they weren’t. Where had their lives gone? So much vanished into the high fog.
James held the café door for Olive and they found an isolated booth.
She looked around smiling. “Classy place, Jim. Sure they’ll let us stay?”
He leaned toward her. “You wanted coffee. Play nice.”
“Hey, come on. You bothered by what I told Glenna?”
He gave her a look. “I don’t think anyone knew you were joking. I sure didn’t.”
“I talk like that to all my enablers. Can’t let you off the hook. It’s been a while, but you know me.”
“I don’t know what you think…”
“About how messed up we were? I remember. Rah! Rah! Team spirit, all the way.”
“Then I got popped for that stupid possession charge.”
“That sort of broke our rhythm.”
“I kept you out of that.”
“I never thanked you for that. I felt bad. But, you know… can’t do the time…”
The waitress stepped up to their table.
“Coffee for her and water for me.” He looked at Olive. “You hungry?”
“Do you have chili fries?” The waitress nodded. “Great. We’ll split an order of chili fries.” She smiled at James. “And don’t skimp on the chili, okay?”
The waitress left.
“I don’t believe it.”
Olive laughed. “Did you think I’d forget? We lived on those.”
“Still the perfect food. Anywhere, anytime.”
“You’d say archeologists found chili fries in the pyramids.”
“That’s right!” Olive pounded the table with a shriek of laughter. “’Still edible.’ I forgot that part.”
James smiled. “Wow, Olive. You’re still in there.”
“Of course it’s me. Who did you expect?”
“No expectations. I just came to a meeting. Last time I saw you, we were in a different state.”
“Different state of mind, for sure. Imagine my surprise when you walked up to the donut table.”
“Hey, while we were driving… It felt so strange riding together again. Such a time warp…”
Olive leaned in. She didn’t touch his hand. “I know.”
“The most vivid memory came to me.”
“Us swimming at the quarry?”
“Oh…” She shut her eyes with an ecstatic smile. “The best of the best. Floating on my back with the sun in my face… cool water lapping, minnows… floating… Drifting… Just floating… Heaven.”
“Wait. You know what I just got?”
“That was the highest high ever. With the drugs we just chased a Xerox of a Xerox. The quarry had it all, man.”
James listened with moist eyes.
She stayed in that moment. “Why didn’t we just keep floating, Jim? So simple. I could have done that forever. I want to do that now.”
“I wish we had.”
“And it’s legal.”
They sat in silence.
The waitress delivered their chili fries. Olive didn’t hold back.
“Oh, God! These are good. Have some while you can.”
“Since we’ve run into each other, I want to…”
She held up her hand like a traffic cop.
“Whoa, Jim. The flip side of your amends is my accountability. I’m no victim. Not yours or anyone’s. No more.”
“Let me finish though. I’m sorry for anything I did to derail your life.”
“You mean like all the fun we had? You didn’t abuse me. It was great!”
“You may have given me the shovel Jim, but I dug the hole all by my pretty little self.”
“We both dug.”
“Like maniacs.” They laughed. She wiped her mouth. “And, just so you know, after you disappeared, I kept digging. Seemed to be no end of helpful people offering me shovels and advice on best excavation practices.” James laughed. “And then pressing to collect rent from me on the hole I dug. Took considerable time and effort to clear that up.”
They bumped fists.
James ate some fries. “These are good. Been a long time.”
She continued. “So, as I said, you and I have quite a history.” Jim nodded. “But believe me, I’ve had a few more lives in the interim. As for hanging on to old news, it’s our quarry I remember and not much else.”
As if closing arguments in a trial, “I never thought I’d be able to tell you. I needed to get it out. If that’s your response. So be it.”
“But if you’re thinking on picking up where we left off…”
He sat back. “I hadn’t…”
“Full disclosure, I’ve got a slew of other people in my life. Bound to collect some over time. Who knew? A lot happened since we were teenies. My teenies have teenies of their own.”
“Between gigs. No prospects. You?”
“Just me. Which works. After I got out, I soon discovered if you’re willing to do work no one wants, you’ll always have a job.”
“Now I manage a team of like-minded grunts.”
“Cooler! You live around here?”
“Down from the post office.”
“We’re practically neighbors!”
“You want the last fry? I won’t ask again.”
“Take it. You skinny thing.”
James scraped up the last of the chili and popped it into his mouth.
“That’s good!” They smiled. “I’ll take you back to your car.”
Olive wrote her number on a napkin and pushed it across the table.
“I know you didn’t ask, but I figured if…”
James pocketed the napkin. He paid and they left.
They spent the ride back mainly in thought. He pulled into the lot and she pointed to her car.
“What a great evening, Olive. I’m glad we could connect.”
She agreed and gave him a clumsy hug. He opened his door and she said, “Don’t bother. I got it.”
Once out, Olive smiled, blew him a kiss, closed the door and walked to her car. When safely inside, James waved and pulled away.
As he drove away, they each thought, ‘I have to find another meeting.’