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Romance

Devin Miller should have just stayed home today. After all, it’s not like he needed to be in a coffee shop to write his stories. It was a cliched, tired trope, that all authors go to coffee shops to work on their stories, and it simply wasn’t true. 


If he had just stayed home, he wouldn’t be here now, slumped over in a booth with his laptop shielding his face and hot coffee dribbling onto his lap. 


This “change of scenery” approach had never worked for him before. His office at home suited him just fine, with his many bookshelves cemented in their layers of dust, and his rickety old chair with the one uneven leg, and the crude wooden desk he’d painted wheat gold. He drew just as much inspiration from the water stains in the ceiling and the bricked backdrop outside his window as a group of writers going on retreat to a different country. 


Devin peaked in his first year of college; he had already gone and done his galavanting. He’d seen everything the world had to offer, and he did it all before he reached thirty. What more did he need to see? And what, pray tell, was the point in regurgitating the same old adjectives used to describe, say, an ocean that millions of his readers had already seen? 


Devin could not be bothered to write a proper sentence to describe the ocean, as they often boiled down to: It’s fucking water. The waves are often foamy. Sometimes it's blue and sometimes it's brown. There’s a crap ton of salt. Don’t splash the water in your eyes because it’ll sting for the next two days. 


Yawn. Boring. Rubbish. 


No. Devin did not comply with the state of the world as it appeared around him. He thirsted for the innovative, the outlandish. The premise of writing, at its heart, was about creating worlds never-before-seen by the likes of anybody.


So, instead of oceans of water, he wrote about a sea of boundless glass prisms, edges smoothed by their constant, tumbling friction. He wrote of their dazzling colors of green, glinting in the light of three full moons. He wrote of the fantastical beasts that sprang out of the glassy depths, and of the new humanoid species belonging to this world, whose skins were diamond-tough and impenetrable. Much like humans, they would charge into the waves of glass and splash around, without earning so much as a scratch. 


It was a far more fascinating world than the one he currently resided in. It was an exciting, fresh change of pace. And he didn’t need a change of scenery to inspire the idea, when his mind was already so imaginative. 


But still, he found himself there, because he hadn’t the self control to deny himself this one last, fleeting opportunity. 


He wanted to stop writing about her. It was his greatest flaw as a writer. No matter what world he created, what new race of humanoids he invented, she was always at the forefront of everything. She wheedled her way into every aspect of his writing, always the protagonist and the heroine, always brave, and strong, and beautiful — and the love interest to the admittedly roguish and handsome self-insert he would throw in at the last minute. 


(Never intentionally, mind you; in earnest, he would write an entirely new male character with a vastly differing personality to his own, and over the course of the story, it would begin to manifest into him, no matter how much he resisted.)


Devin had taken some flack over the years for writing the same “bland” female protagonist, but how could he explain to his fans that it wasn’t his fault? She'd had total mental reign over him, had permeated every facet of his thoughts for the last ten years. 


And now, seated in this cafe, on a bleak Saturday afternoon, with hot coffee seeping through his pants to burn his nether region, he was reminded of just how tight her hold was on him. 


She was there, so painfully real, at the counter ordering a drink. It was a quarter to three; the same time as the post she made on her social media three weeks ago. She had one hand on the handle of a baby stroller, lightly bumping it back and forth; her other hand reached up to sweep the wheat gold hair out of her face and tuck it behind her ear.


It was her. In ten years, she had managed to defy the odds and come out of high school looking the exact same as she had when she was eighteen. Of course, her curves were more defined because of the baby, and her cheeks had swelled a touch. But overall, she was the same. Her lips were still plump and pink, wet and waxy as rose petals. Her green eyes glinted in the warm amber light, and her skin was still soft and creamy.


She was the same. Always the same. Just like in his books. 


While she passed along her card to the cashier, offering him a sweet and endearing smile, Devin fretted over how he would handle this situation. If he approached her too suddenly, he might startle her. And what if she didn’t recognize him? Over the years, he had paled and thinned and become more shadow than man. Even his eyes, a unique blend of gold and blue, had dulled to a near-gray. 


And what if she did recognize him? What, then? 


Devin tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as he closed his laptop. Now that she was here, no more words would come. To buy himself some time, he glanced to and fro as he swiped a napkin and dabbed at his crotch. 


As he cleaned himself, she wheeled her stroller down the aisle and now stood a foot from his table. She folded her arms over the handle and waited patiently for her order. She drummed her fingers on her elbow. She bumped the stroller back and forth to calm her baby whenever he started to fuss in displeasure. 


And, for no reason at all, other than God has a vicious sense of humor, she swiveled her head round to face his table. 


When their eyes met, his heart sputtered. The longer she stared, the more guaranteed it was to stop beating at any given moment. She tilted her head, trying to sort him out in her memory. He held his breath until he went dizzy. And then…


“Oh!” An exclamation that went through his heart like a shot!


Her expression had brightened. She swiveled the stroller and approached his table. Her hand was already out and reaching. He dropped the napkin to his lap, because the swiping had become aggressive and now resembled something unseemly, and stood. He bumped his knee hard on the table. He grabbed her hand — as soft and delicate as it had been, when she worked her fingertips slowly down his stomach — and shook. 


“Morgan,” she greeted warmly, and he winced. He hadn’t been addressed by his real name in years; he’d almost forgotten it. “My God, it is so good to see you.” The glisten in her eyes, the sincerity in her voice, nearly sent him flying over the moon. 


She moved to hug him. Panic rose like bile in his throat. He drew back into his seat. Her brow furrowed, but the polite smile remained. She rebounded quickly and, always the conversationalist, began chattering away:


“What are you doing here? I thought you had moved.”


“I had.” 


“But you’re back?”


I never left. 


“Well, where are you staying?”


“In an apartment downtown.” The one my mother lived in. The one my mother died in. 


“Do you not have a Starbucks near your apartment?” A teasing laugh. 


I’m going to be sick. “I’m visiting a friend from high school.” 


“How nice.” A pause. “This is my son, by the way. His name is Dennis.”


“He’s beautiful.” He’s got your hair. 


“He’s a handful — just like his father.”


He didn’t have anything to say to that. 


She glanced down at the book on his table. Her eyes widened, and she said, “Oh my God, I love that book. Have you finished it?” 


Devin’s voice trembled. “No, I, I haven’t.”


“Well, you’re in for a real treat at the end. I promise not to spoil anything, but believe me when I say: You are not prepared for what’s coming.” She put a finger to her mouth and winked when she said that last part. 


On Page 47, in his debut novel The Garden of Edonia, he had written: She put a finger to her mouth and winked conspiratorially, and the pucker of her lips, mixed with the mischief in her eyes, aroused a flame in his core.


It was the same. Always the same. Unbearably the same. 


“Big fan of Mr. Miller, I take it?” He asked, and immediately regretted it. He was fishing for compliments. Stupid. Petty. 


She smiled. “I love his work. I’ve been waiting for his next book to come out, but it seems he’s taken a bit of a break. I hope he’s doing well.” 


I love his work. I love his work. I love his work.


Devin’s brain chewed up the words and spit them out to mean, “I love him,” instead.


He needed to leave before he did something stupid. 


“He’s doing quite well, actually,” he said quickly, stuffing his things into his satchel. The look of surprise on her face was too much. He scooped up the book — tempted to confess to her, tempted to know what she might think if she realized he was the one behind some of her favorite novels, tempted to let her back into his life; then, dissuaded by the fact that she would just ruin him all over again, and he didn’t want that, God, he didn’t want that — and said, “And this is just a rumor, but from what I’ve heard, he’s planning to write a new series.” 


She gasped, stealing the air from his lungs into hers. 


“Are you sure?” She asked. 


Devin grimaced. “I’m positively certain.”


She had more to say, he could see it in the slight separation of her mouth, the curl of her tongue. But the employee behind the counter called her name, and her baby’s temperament finally broke, so she was forced to juggle her overfilled cup and a now-bellowing child, and Devin knew it was time to go before he did something stupid. 


But he couldn’t stop himself. This was his one opportunity. He had to know the truth. He needed the closure. 


He slid out of the booth and raised his voice above the din of noise, “Do you regret it?” 


“What?” She cocked her head. “I’m sorry — Dennis, baby, please…”


“Do you regret it?” He asked again, practically shouting. He was angry — shocked by his anger. 


Something changed in her. The cordial demeanor she’d adopted passed away, and she gazed up into his eyes with such dread and anxiety, it made him feel almost guilty for asking. Perhaps she’d been beating herself up over it all these years. Perhaps she had pushed it under the rug, blamed it on the alcohol. Perhaps she had misremembered things — got it wrong when he told her he wasn't feeling it, when he told her to stop.


Perhaps…


“Morgan...what are you talking about?” 


But she did what she had done ten years ago: Deflected. Lied. Remembered what she had done, and refused to confront it, not for his sake but for hers. 


It was everything he needed to know.


“Have a good life—” And he choked on her name. 


Before she could respond, he shouldered open the door — apologized handsomely to the gaggle of girls he almost took down — and rushed across the parking lot to his car. His pulse pounded in his fingertips. The blood pooled hot in his face. 


Her voice was fresh in his ears. He’d imagined hearing it so many times over the years, particularly in moments of such intense and lustful longing, moments he wasn’t proud of, moments he had cried shamefully over. And now that he’d heard it again, it was like ripping open a festering wound and administering a poison to taint him all over again. 


This would have to be his closure. And despite his feelings about it, he knew that he would continue to write about her. But now, she would be different. No longer a protagonist. No longer a heroine. No longer beautiful. 


On the drive home, he turned on the radio. Turned off the radio. Turned it back on, but kept the volume low. Tinkered with the vents until they all blew in his face. He thought about how he would open up his new novel, and at last, with some consideration, he rooted in his satchel for his tape recorder and pressed the button. This is what he settled on: 


“In a galaxy exactly three quintillion miles from our own, but with an organization of planets in an oddly similar fashion and of oddly similar names, a man awoke in a strange bed, with the woman he once loved draped across his chest. And recalling the night before — the taste of alcohol on her breath, the heavy weight of her hips on top of his, the ringing of his ears as he screamed and begged for her to stop — he stuffed his fist into his mouth and wept.”

August 10, 2020 23:44

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4 comments

Jane Andrews
23:31 Aug 19, 2020

Well done on a convincing and compelling story. You manage to make your central character quite unsympathetic - and then make us feel sorry for him at the same time. There's a pleasing ambiguity about the way we don't know who really was the bad guy here - is he a reliable narrator or an unreliable one? And the fidgeting with everything in his car as he drives away is a wonderful way of showing his agitation. I'm also impressed you didn't let it go down the clichéd getting back together route.

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Carolyn Ermel
23:47 Aug 19, 2020

Thank you so much for this insightful comment! I'm glad you enjoyed my short story. I'm a romantic at heart, so any other time I probably would have made them get back together, because who doesn't like a happy ending? But the way this story developed, it just seemed more impactful - dare I say, natural? - for the two characters to continue on their separate ways.

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Jane Andrews
02:59 Aug 20, 2020

I like that - it suggests you're open to your characters taking a bit of agency and sometimes leading you down paths you hadn't envisaged.

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Carolyn Ermel
03:47 Aug 20, 2020

Exactly! There is such a thing as letting your characters speak for themselves, sometimes.

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