“You’ll never believe who I saw last night…” Jen tried to sound casual, looking down at the fork in her hand instead of at Megan across the table.
“Try me.” Megan’s green eyes sparkled as she took a sip from her mimosa.
“Logan Hansen!” Jen announced in a voice that disgusted her—one that carried a false note of astonishment, she thought. She’d been working on taming her incredulousness for the last fourteen hours, but talking to Megan, she could feel that note creeping back in to the story. “I went to see my niece’s play, and he was there! I guess he has a son that goes to school with Gaby?”
“Yeah, Logan’s been back in town for a while now,” Megan said with a nonchalance that made Jen drive her fork hard into her french toast.
“Yeah? You never mentioned it. I thought you were supposed to be a newscaster.”
“All the news that’s fit to tell.” Megan shrugged her broad shoulders. “So did you talk to him?”
“No. He was all the way across the auditorium, and anyway, no, it just felt like it would be weird.”
“What’s so weird about saying hi to an old friend?”
“He was busy. He has his kid, just…” Jen could feel her cheeks tingling, and she could see Megan registering her reaction, the slow-spreading smile. She should not have brought it up.
“He’s totally available,” Megan said, leaning forward over the white table cloth.
“It so is! Don’t pretend that’s not why you brought it up. This is exactly the scoop you’re looking for.”
It may have been, Jen admitted to herself. She hadn’t been able to shake the thought of Logan since she’d spotted him sitting across the aisle of the auditorium, occupying a spot where Jen had a decent view of his three-quarter profile. It was definitely him. Of course, Logan had changed some in the last twenty-four years. His brown hair was shorter than she remembered it, and maybe it was streaked with a few gray highlights. His shoulders weren’t thrown back in the assured but eager-to-impress posture of his youth; they rolled forward unselfconsciously as he sat and watched his son on stage. Still, the sight of Logan had affected her. It was a ridiculous cliche. Jen could feel her heart sprinting, feel tension curling in little ribbons down her arms. It was hard to concentrate on the play that Logan seemed fully absorbed in. He didn’t lean over and whisper to anyone on his right or left, no conspiratorial glances or smiles. Just the stage. He’d seemed to be there alone.
“What? Divorced?” Jen ventured.
“That’s the spirit!” Megan pounded her fist lightly on the table, rattling the flatware. Then her smile faded. “No. Tragically widowed, actually.”
“Oh,” was all Jen could express out loud, the only voice she could give to the sinking, chastising guilt that came over her on hearing that news. “That’s terrible,” she breathed, almost an afterthought.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s probably been about a year, and I think he’s doing ok. That’s when he came back to town. His wife had been sick before.”
Leave it to Megan to know everything. As the revered evening newscaster, Megan saw every local press release, but as the PTA president with a warm, magnetic personality, she always seemed to have her finger on the pulse of the local gossip. It seemed like one or another of her four kids was friends with someone from every family that Megan and Jen had known growing up together. When she talked to Megan every few months, Jen felt like she’d never left her hometown.
“Anyway, water under the bridge,” Megan concluded. “Don’t let that scare you away.”
Jen was terrified—terrified by her own curiosity, and by the little flutter she felt in the pit of her stomach. “I’m not scared,” she protested. “I just don’t feel the need to act out some rebound scenario with a bereaved friend I haven’t seen in twenty years. It’s ridiculous, Megan!”
“Fine, sorry. You brought it up.” Megan sighed and leaned back in the chair with her mimosa. “If you’re not ready to move on, I’ll drop it. I’m just saying that there are plenty of fish in the sea. They’re yours to reel in when you’re ready. But I suspect this one is your white whale.”
Jen’s smile ached in her cheeks. “How do you know everything all the time?”
“Mother’s intuition?” Megan drained the last of her mimosa and set the glass down. “Come on, Jen, you were totally stuck on him. I mean it— stuck. Neither one of you would make a move. It was painful.”
“That’s not how I remember it. We were just friends.”
“Yes, I think you two invented the friend zone back then,” Megan laughed.
“He never—” Jen began.
“No?” Megan was giving her the denial look—that deep stare, head tilted, blond eyebrows raised.
“He was into you!” Jen reminded her.
“Puppy love.” Megan waved her hand dismissively. “With you it was the real thing, whether he knew it or not.”
“I think he did not,” Jen said.
“I’m just saying. He’s here and single; you’re here and single, like it or not. Aren’t you a little curious? I know where to find him…”
Jen had not spent the last two decades pining away for Logan Hansen. She had made a move—she’d moved five hours away, gone to school, moved on. That’s what she told herself as she sat at the Dancing Fox Cafe’s outdoor patio, her hand twirling a fork while curiosity and embarrassment wrestled inside of her.
Where was the embarrassment coming from, Jen wondered? So what? She’d had a probably-unrequited crush on a friend as a teen-ager. Who hadn’t? So why this discomfort that had been tormenting her since last night?
Seeing Logan in the auditorium where they’d shared so many rehearsals and laughs and dance spins, where they’d delivered lines in such close proximity she could smell his breath, had been like a flash flood and, with her foundations already washed away, it had dredged up a lot of sediment. It had muddied the waters of her life until things were too murky to distinguish that confused teen-aged Jen from the mature, confident woman of forty-one. All of the old insecurity, the jealousy, and the longing came flooding back. Here she was, watching and wondering about Logan with honest-to-god sweaty palms, while the thought of Jen had probably not crossed his mind that night—probably not for years and years. Jen resented the power Logan Hansen still held over her.
But how to convey that to Megan? “Of course I’m curious,” Jen said, carefully laying her fork down. “But I don’t know if this is good for me. I don’t think I can take any more rejection right now.”
“Oh, Honey…” Megan’s manicured hand grabbed Jen’s where it rested over her fork. “Break ups suck.” She paused and let her own love pour into Jen’s body through her French tips.
“Eleven years!” Jen said, grabbing on to Megan’s hand. “We were together eleven years and all of the sudden he’s like you’re not fun anymore. Bye!” The full story had been more nuanced, but no less of a surprising gut punch.
“Phil was an idiot. Which is exactly why you need a corrective experience,” Megan said.
“And you think Logan would be a corrective experience?” Jen scoffed.
Megan grinned. “Well, maybe corrective in a different sense. You know, like a chance to go back and correct something you’ve regretted.”
Jen took another bite of French toast as she considered Megan’s perspective. She had wished last night, as she stared at the back of Logan’s head, that she had been brave enough years ago to explore the truth with him. Now, with nothing but her own sense of self-preservation to hold her back, maybe this was the chance.
“I mean, it’s a badass take-control move,” Megan said. “Anyway, I’m sure Logan would be thrilled to see you again.”
Jen felt the corners of her mouth lifting unbidden. “If I found you persuasive,” she said, twirling her last bite through her plate, “What then?”
Megan smiled with a look that Jen recognized as triumphant. She waved the waiter over to their table and gestured for the check. “Then I’d say I need some Windex, some shampoo, and some dog food.”
Logan, it turned out, was a manager at the GigaMart. Megan ambushed speed bumps and swung her SUV into a parking space with a sharp turn. She ushered Jen through the scurrying Saturday morning crowd that swarmed the big box store like worker ants. She did not pause outside the groaning automatic doors for a purple plastic shopping cart.
“If you’re going to talk to the manager, you’ll need to pull a Karen,” Megan instructed. “It’s time to put those acting skills to use again.”
Jen understood. “I could buy something and throw away the receipt.” She threw her shoulders back and lowered her voice half an octave. "This is ridiculous! I demand a full cash refund! Let me speak to your manager!"
“Nice, you’ve still got it,” Megan said. “But you’re going to need to be more original than that. It probably happens so much here that an assistant manager could handle it.”
“I could demand a brand that doesn’t exist?” Jen morphed her posture once again, putting one hand delicately on her hip and waving the other through the air as if she were conducting a dramatic cadenza. “I can’t believe you don’t carry Opportunistique! It’s the only gluten-free granola bar made with goat probiotics and it’s the only thing I’ll buy from now on. I insist you bring the manager out.”
Megan chuckled appreciatively through her nose. “I haven’t heard that one before. Go for it. I’ll be waiting in the wings. I wasn’t kidding about the Windex.” She squeezed Jen’s hand. “Good luck,” and then she recoiled. “Oh, my god! You’re sweating. Are you really that into him?”
Jen looked away with a shrug. “Stage fright?”
“You’re going to be fine. Just think of him in his underwear.”
Both women dissolved into giggles. “Thank you for that image,” Jen said, looking toward the line that snaked through layers of stanchions as it wound its way to the customer service counter. “It’s ok, I’ll have plenty of time to rehearse my lines. Or else run away.”
“Ok. Break a leg,” Megan said before turning toward Home Goods. “I’ll meet you back here once you’ve scored your corrective experience.”
For a while Jen considered her character and motivation. She toyed with the idea of an accent or a tic, for old time’s sake. Then she noticed people staring at the seemingly random fluctuations in her facial expressions and decided to go for something more authentic.
She could feel her heart accelerating as she approached the front of the line. Her hands fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. She should have worn something cuter than the black v-neck. She thought of all the things that could go wrong in this surprise/assault reunion. What if he took her for a stalker? What if he was already dating the floor manager? What if he wasn’t even working today?
Jen considered stepping out of line as she concentrated on the tight feeling around her collar bone. It would be so easy to wait for Megan in the comfort of the food court. But sometime in the last twenty-four hours, Jen had developed a desire for the truth.
She had looked away enough times, in the service of her comfort, that she understood the danger of it, whether it was breaking eye contact with Logan or keeping her eyes on the television, avoiding the distance that had crept between her and Phil. The truth was not a comfortable feeling, Jen realized, but it felt necessary today, and it drove her feet forward. A corrective experience, she told herself.
And then the early-twenties purple vest guy behind the counter was calling Next guest, please, and Jen entered the zen of the spotlight—the place where all of her apprehension melted away and her character merged with her objective. Jen strode confidently toward the white quartz counter, stopped, and established firm eye contact with Purple Vest before stating, “I need to talk to the store manager.”
“You need to talk to my manager?” Purple Vest repeated, his thick eyebrows bunching like caterpillars. He seemed more confused than resistant.
Jen dug her heels in, but warmed her tone into something heavy but sweet—condensed milk in black coffee. “I need to talk to your manager.”
He picked up the intercom phone. “Manager to customer service, please. Manager to customer service.”
Logan stood before her, a solid black tie under his purple vest, churning out an empty smile that ended at his lips. His blue eyes that Jen had remembered as so animated were stagnant pools as they appraised her behind glasses. And yet it was Logan. His name tag left no room for doubt.
“How can I help you?” Logan asked. His voice still conveyed a practiced charm, though it was stretched thin and worn like an actor repeating his line for the thousandth time.
Jen’s throat sank into her stomach. “Hi! It’s good to see you.” The words poured out of her against her will.
“Um...good morning, Logan said, almost a question. “Thanks for stopping by.”
Jen watched a change come over his face, saw his eyes begin to come alive and search. She wondered if he’d find her in his memory—how deeply and under what she was buried.
“I wanted to talk to you,” she began, and wondered where to go from there. It’s me—your friend, your co-star, your partner in crime… did not feel right. She would not just hand that to him. He had to find her on his own, she decided.
“Um, the granola bars,” she blurted out, and she could feel her cheeks burning.
“Sorry?” Logan blinked and adjusted his glasses.
Me, too, Jen thought as she watched his hands. “You don’t carry my favorite brand. Opportunistique. With a 'Q'. Um... probiotics. They’re really good for you.”
Jen kicked herself as Logan picked up a pen and scrawled the word onto a piece of scrap paper. “Sure, I’ll look into it. Is there anything else?”
For three seconds Jen considered whether the domain name opportunistique.com was available and what she could put there as a coded message to Logan. She had an old box with pictures, but it was back in a closet at home. A line, then? Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Instead, she opened her mouth and took a deep breath. “Yeah, Logan, I was wondering if you’d like to...go out—hang out—sometime this week?”
Jen could see Logan become flustered. She still recognized “flustered” on him, in his shy smile and slow, contemplative chuckle.
“Okay, yeah,” he said. He drew out his words in a long breath, his eyes alive beneath his glasses, two dragonflies circling, appraising.
As far as Logan knew, she was an incredibly forward disgruntled customer, but she liked the effect it was having. She could remember this look, but never directed toward her. Jen dug deeper into her role. “How about tonight,” she said, flipping a lock of black hair over her shoulder with studied nonchalance. She smiled slowly, deliberately. “Dancing Fox? You tell me what time.”
“I know that place,” Logan said, just above a whisper, seemingly to himself. “Uh. Seven?”
“Perfect!” Jen smiled her most perfect smile as her chest danced and twirled. “See you then.” Quit while you’re ahead, the voice inside her head told her. Drop the microphone; walk away. She turned to go, then glanced over her shoulder to see Logan shaking his head. He stopped and smiled as their eyes connected once again.
“Hey, you never told me your name. I’m at a disadvantage here.” Logan tapped the name tag over his heart on his purple vest.
“See you tonight, Jennifer. I’ll look into the granola bars.” His smile, gaining confidence, extended all the way to his eyes.
Smooth, graceful, Jen reminded herself as she glided toward her exit, fighting the impulse to run.
She spotted Megan at a purple melamine table in the food court, a bulging canvas bag draped over her shoulder.
“Well? You were gone a while. What happened?”
“He has no idea who I am,” Jen said, her voice flat with shock.
“Oh, Honey.” Megan’s body crumpled a little in her chair. “His memory seems like a bit of a sieve. He’s terrible with faces. I’m sorry.”
Jen slid into the chair across from Megan. “We’re meeting up tonight. I think he might have flirted with me.” Jen’s poise collapsed into laughter.
“You vixen!” Megan exclaimed. “You can’t be in the friend zone if you’re not a friend. Well played.”
Jen caught her breath and sighed from the bottom of her stomach. “We’ll see. Second chance at a first impression,” she said, though inside she could already feel the benefit of this corrective experience. She felt interesting, attractive even. Older and wiser. The truth could change from moment to moment. Her job was less to uncover it than to create it.
“Ready for our next stop?” Megan asked. “We’re going to a real store. We have to get you ready for your hot date.”