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Contemporary Romance

Costa Rica

“Miss, Miss!” The guide whispered, jumping in front of Jen’s lens, ruining the perfect photo she was about to take. Naturally, as soon as he moved, the toucan with a donut in its beak flew off. Cursing silently, Jen looked up. She’d joined this tour group after being told by her agent that it would be good to have a local take her around. So far she’d just gotten a lot of nonsense.

“Yes?” Jen was aware she sounded angry as she stood from her squat. It had been the best shot she’d seen so far.

The guide seemed to realize his error, “Sorry,” he said, accent deepening as he blushed, “But it’s the first chance I’ve had to speak to you alone and I wanted to warn you.”

“Warn me?” Jen swallowed. It was a sedate nature trail through the rainforest. She’d already studied all the things that might kill her and found them wanting.

“There is a man,” the guide said quickly, “He keeps… watching you? I wanted to make sure you knew. Things like this, could be harmless, could be bad.”

Jen’s gut sank, mind already guessing what she would hear back as she asked, “What’s he look like?”

“Tall,” the guide gestured, “Yellow jacket. Big smile. Too happy.”

Jen paused, collected herself and turned. She scanned the group of tourists milling about the clearing. There, in the middle, watching her like the guide had warned, was Eric.

“Sonuvabitch,” Jen scowled.

“You know him?” the guide asked, watching as Eric waved and Jen, grimacing, waved back.

“No,” she answered but, with a groan, she walked over.

“Thought I’d see you here!” Eric beamed, fingers looped around his backpack straps.

“Really?” Jen kept her voice as calm as possible despite wanting to strangle him.

“Yep!” Eric nodded, still smiling, “This makes five spots in a row, now I just assume you’re everywhere.”

Eric was a travel writer. Jen had learned that after being forced to share a row with him on a river cruise in San Juan six locations ago. He was working on content for his new book, just like her. He liked nutella but hated hazelnut coffee and would die arguing about how good his mom’s sangria was even though, secretly, everyone knew it was terrible. Jen had not asked him any of these things.

The fact that he’d popped up in every location she’d visited on this tour was a cruel joke. It was enough to make Jen seriously consider switching this book’s focus to Alaska.

“Great,” Jen said, realizing Eric was still waiting on an answer.

His smile turned slightly wry, “How long are you in Costa Rica?”

“Just tonight,” Jen lied. She could change her flight to get her out tomorrow.

He raised an eyebrow as if he didn’t believe her but kept his smile up. Then something caught his eye.

“Oh! Jen!" Oh no. She knew, immediately, where this was going.

“No.”

“Come on, it’s such a cool view.”

No.”

“Just one.” Eric was already moving.

“It’s never just one with you,” Jen sighed but she was following him. It was easier, she’d figured out in Peru, to just acquiesce and move on.

Eric was right, the view was annoyingly impeccable.

“Just one photo." He wheedled and she sighed, nodded and was rewarded with his immediate joy.

“You know I’m the one who ends up with these photos, not you, right?” Jen asked even as she squatted to take the photo of Eric posing. At this point she had more photos of Eric than of the birds she was supposed to be photographing.

“As long as someone has them,” Eric smiled, and the worst part was that she believed that he believed this. So long as the photograph existed somewhere he would be pleased.

She took fifteen poses. He pulled in other strangers from their group, the guide, a child who was curious about the lizard on his t-shirt. It took twenty minutes of what was meant to be a ten minute break.

Then, just as she thought she might be done, he said the dreaded words.

“Selfie time!" Jen closed her eyes and counted to twelve. Then fifteen. Then twelve again.

“Nope,” Eric looped his arm around her shoulders, “None of the silent counting.”

Jen opened her eyes in surprise. He grinned.

“You’re not actually silent.”

Jen shook her head, “I don’t want a selfie.”

“Didn’t ask,” Eric waved his hand at her camera.

“This isn’t a selfie camera,” she argued even as she turned the camera around.

“You said that in Panama,” Eric nodded, helping her hold the heavy camera up, the lens beaming down at them.

“It was true in Panama,” Jen glared, but she still held her finger on the button and let the shutter snap.

It wasn’t fair that the best photos from Costa Rica - the only ones her agent liked - were the ones of Eric. 

Mexico

Food was Jen’s weakness. It had been true when she was a child and it was still true now, sprawled in the taqueria after a brutal (bird-less) five mile hike.

All she wanted was a giant platter of tacos, two beers and the answer to the mystery she had on her kindle. It had been days in Mexico and she had taken five photos of note. She couldn’t shake the sensation that something was missing.

“Jen!” the voice was loud and perky and - Oh God was that what she’d felt missing?

Jen sank lower in her booth, maybe if she tried hard enough she would blend in with the black pleather.

“Jen, my traveling buddy,” Eric was beaming as he dropped himself into the seat across from her.

“Buddy?” Jen groaned, “We’re basically strangers.”

“Would a stranger have as many photos of me as you do?” Eric asked and Jen sputtered. The waitress giggled as she deposited a giant beer in front of Eric. He thanked her in poorly accented but otherwise flawless Spanish.

“You’re the one who made me take those photos!” Jen finally managed.

Eric raised an eyebrow, “But you kept them." It was unfair and true and Jen dropped her head down to the table.

“How’s Mexico treating you?” Eric asked and Jen groaned into the vinyl.

“Yo también,” Eric sighed. It took her a minute to process what he said. It was so uncharacteristically unhappy.

“Are you… not happy?” Jen lifted her head to study his face. He looked tired.

“No one is always happy,” Eric leaned into his seat.

“You are,” Jen corrected, “You always are, it’s infuriating.”

Eric chuckled and Jen felt the vibration of it through the table.

“Thank you for that,” Eric saluted her with his stein, “I work hard to be as happy as possible when exploring. We get to travel for a living, it’s awesome.”

It was, but he didn’t have to show it all the time.

“Plus strangers are more open to happy people,” Eric shrugged, “if to get their real stories I want them to be as comfortable as possible." It made an uncomfortable sort of sense.

“So why is Mexico rough for you?” Eric asked, his eyes alight with interest.

Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the fact that he might actually get it.

“I can’t find the photos,” Jen groaned, pushing off the table so that she was a mirror of him, sprawled in their booth.

Eric looked startled, “You lost your memory card!?”

Jen scowled, “I mean the magic, I can’t find it in the viewfinder. My agent hates 90% of the photos I’ve taken and goddamnit she’s right.”

“Nothing worse than a correct agent,” Eric nodded and they tapped their steins together in a quiet toast.

A platter of tacos arrived.

“What about the other ten percent?” Eric asked.

Jen scowled deeper, “Those are the ones of you.”

She expected him to make a remark about how of course they were, but instead he choked on his beer.

There were a few long seconds of him coughing before he finally got out, “You’re fucking with me.”

“Wish I was.”

Eric shook his head, “My agent hates 90% of the stories I’ve been sending her. Except the ones about this stormcloud photographer I keep running into.”

“You’ve been writing about me?”

“I write about everything,” Eric shrugged, “But the stuff about you has just been a running update on the funny coincidence I include in my emails to my agent, with the real shit attached. And yet you are what she actually fucking likes.”

“Fucking hell,” Jen stared at him. There was an idea in her brain. An idea she hated. An idea she really, really hated.

For once he looked as miserable as she felt.

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking, aren’t you?” he asked.

“That this seems like an unavoidable sign?” Jen groaned, “Where’re you next?”

Eric closed his eyes and for once Jen thought that he might be the one counting, “Havana.”

Jen laughed, “Same.”

Eric cracked a single eye, “We can’t avoid each other, huh?”

Jen sighed, “My agent loves you. Your agent loves me. We both know what this means.”

“That I’m your muse,” Eric smirked and Jen glowered.

“Sounds like I’m yours too." Eric's grin faltered and something about it, the look of desolation on a usually joyous face, had Jen grabbing up her camera from the seat beside her and snapping him.

“Oh woah!” Eric threw up his hands in self defense, “Doesn't the muse get a say!?”

“No,” Jen answered but she was laughing and it felt so good to get a real photo that she wanted to cry.

“So… a book about a stormy photographer,” Eric mused, and from the way his fingers were edging towards his backpack Jen could see, could feel, his need to start writing. She nodded slightly and if he looked surprised to be seen and understood it was immediately underscored by how quickly his notebook was on the table.

“And a photo book about the irritatingly sunny travel writer… or some kind of collab?” Jen mused, letting her brain span out the possibilities, “I’m going to hate this.”

“Probably,” Eric agreed cheerily, “I’ll hate it too. Being sunny is a lot harder with a stormcloud, but I can persevere. Maybe there’s a rainbow in you yet.”

Jen studied him, writing notes, curls falling in his face, and closing her eyes tightly she let out all her reservations in a big sigh.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this but -”

Eric’s head shot up, “Selfie time?!”

Jen grimaced, she was really going to hate this.

Havana

It was absurdly easy to match up their plans. The flights were already the same. Her hotel was around the corner from his. Even if they hadn’t committed to seeing this bit through to its end, the universe had intended them to anyway

The universe had a cruel sense of humor but, as Jen watched Eric through the tiny square of her viewfinder, she had to admit that there was something fun in being the butt of its joke. Eric was always smiling and bright and it was infuriating to sit next to him on the tour bus and hear him befriend every single stranger they met but -

He fit alarmingly well in her memory card.

Brazil

Their AirBnB in Rio had spiders. Not just a few spiders but a full on spider colony. As it turned out Eric was severely arachnophobic and it was the first time she saw his happiness crumble. And the stupidly sunny man was willing to sit in terror rather than trouble the Airbnb’s owner.

Stormclouds are, Jen was pleased to hear Eric admit, very good at getting things done. He didn’t let her read any of the things he submitted to his agent but Jen had a feeling that the piece he wrote from the bug-free comped hotel suite cast her in a really good light. Sunlight even.

And the photos she took of him playing soccer with the Redeemer statue in the background? She had no idea what her book was turning into, it was definitely going to confuse her fans, but she didn’t hate it.

Chile

It was mutually agreed that any and all records of Santiago would be deleted and redacted.

Bahamas

It was the last stop before the end of the scheduled trip. Tomorrow was back to the brownstone in Brooklyn. Lazing on the beach chair, camera precariously stationed between her corona and his margarita, it was almost possible to forget that this had all started off without inspiration.

Eric landed in the chair beside her, “Hurrah!”

Jen looked over her sunglasses, “What.”

Eric shrugged, unbothered, “Last night!”

Jen lifted her bottle in a salute, “And then back to normal.”

Eric raised an eyebrow, “Normal?”

“Normal,” Jen nodded, “I will take photos of snails for my next book. Snails along the Mississippi.”

“Sounds slimy,” Eric shrugged, “But sure, I can find people to write about along the Mississippi.”

Jen froze, “What?”

“People live there. People live most places actually, didn’t you do a whole series of photos about how people live in trees?" She had, but that wasn’t the point.

“Why would you be in Mississippi?”

“Because that’s where you’re going,” he said it slowly, holding her gaze as if she were a child.

Jen sat fully upright, “Once was enough, thank you.”

Eric’s smile dimmed, “One and done?”

She nodded. One and done. One month of sunshine was more than enough. She needed to be alone with her camera and snails.

“You sure?” Eric asked, and his voice was serious, the voice he used when he wanted to make sure she knew he wasn’t kidding. When had she gotten to know his voices? Was it in the rainforest when they’d gotten lost without a guide? Somewhere in that cow pasture when she’d really had to pee?

“I’m…” she trailed off, turning back to study the ocean.

“Cool,” Eric’s voice was still quiet, “Well, I have an early flight, let me know if you end up in Mississippi.”

He was gone before she could decide if there’d been something else she wanted to tell him.

Manhattan

Jen’s agent worked in a building in the middle of FiDi. Gwen had confided once it was so she could wander around the bars after work and land a very rich girlfriend. Jen had never followed up. Eric would’ve.

‘Eric would’ve’ was a thought she couldn’t seem to shake. Eric would’ve talked to the driver who picked her up at JFK. Eric would’ve asked Jen’s neighbor how the petunias were coming in (they weren’t, Mrs. Glande would never successfully grow petunias but Jen respected the effort). Eric would’ve held the elevator that Jen was running across the lobby to catch.

Eric, to Jen’s shock, did.

Eric, the real Eric, not the fictional one she’d made up in her head, was really there, really holding open the elevator. He looked as startled as she felt.

“Eric!" Jen looked at him. He looked at her.

“Hi?” Eric’s statement was a question, “Are you following me?”

“What!” Jen blinked, “No!”

“Oh,” Eric looked sheepish, “Too much to hope for.”

“Wait, you hoped I was following you?”

Eric lifted a shoulder and the elevator let them out onto the fifth floor. He walked with her to the agency lobby and sat in the chair beside her.

‘Why are you here’ was the easy question, but it wasn’t what Jen needed to say.

“I missed you.”

Eric blinked.

“It’s been three days and I miss you. How? How did you break my brain?”

“It was the spiders,” Eric answered immediately, “You can’t share trauma like that and not break.”

“It wasn’t the spiders. It was…" but it was the spiders. It was the spiders and the soccer and the laughing and the yelling and the rain and -

“I miss you,” Jen said again, and, on an impulse, she grabbed his hand, “It’s awful and I hate it but I miss you.”

Eric looked at their hands and then back at her face.

“Good,” he nodded, “I miss you too.”

It was a confession and, while the lobby of her agent’s office was an odd place for declarations, it worked.

“The throughline of my book,” Eric continued quietly, “Is me falling for this stupidly grumpy, unapproachable, hot photographer that I keep running into and trying to charm with my sunshine.”

It was so absurd that Jen laughed, “Oh god, do you know how furious I am that your sunshine worked? I have thousands of photos of you, thousands of professional grade photos and yet the best ones are the stupid blurry selfies.”

“Really?” Eric smirked.

“They’re the only ones with both of us,” Jen shrugged, “I like how that looks." The smirk melted into something stupidly sweet and Jen was positive her face was a mirror and it was entirely too much.

The lobby of her agent’s office was not the worst place for a first kiss.

The sound of a clearing throat was the only reason they broke apart.

Gwen stood there, watching with wide eyes.

“Gwen,” Jen sighed, sliding back.

“Gwen!” Eric beamed, not releasing Jen’s hand.

Then they froze, turning to each other. Gears whirred and -

“Oh hell,” Jen swore, “You’re his agent too, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“You intentionally had us run into each other at every location?”

“Yep.”

“Seriously?” that was Eric, “You didn’t want to share that?”

“Honestly,” Gwen leaned against the doorframe, “I assumed you two would have realized? And you both needed inspiration. You” she pointed at Eric, “were too sunny. While you,” a gesture at Jen, “are always too stormy. Together though; one book, epic story. Storm and sun and-”

“Rainbows,” Jen groaned, “You turned me into a fucking rainbow?”

Eric snorted, “I think we should get all the credit for that.”

She looked at him, his face still flushed.

“Rainbows?” she asked and he smirked.

“Rainbows.”

November 10, 2022 22:26

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