Embedded under your fingernails and staining your fingertips was black ink. Carefully placing your hands behind your back, you plastered a smile on your face, and scanned the room full of people.
A woman walked up. She looked about fifty, and she was holding out her copy of your book. You attempted to make your smile reach your eyes, but failed. Taking a Sharpie from one of the cups, you scribbled a signature. It was not your own. You wondered absentmindedly what made up a signature. Could someone’s whole life story and personality be put in one hasty scrawl of their name?
“Thank you.” You focused back on her. Beside the woman’s eyes, her skin wrinkled with pleasure. You wanted to roll your eyes and tell her to go away, but you didn’t.
Out of the corner of your eye, you saw someone enter the bookstore, making the bells chime melodically. You recognized him immediately. He didn’t even lay eyes on you.
Years of hard work and stress were built up on his face. He grabbed a name tag but left it blank.
“So, I was wondering what inspired you to write this book of yours?” the woman folded her hands in front of her, beaming up at you.
You were speechless, your eyes trailing the man. “Jem,” you whispered, imagining that perfect word on his name tag.
“Jem?” the woman echoed, confused. “Is that the name of your son?”
Words caught in your throat, so you just shook your head. He grabbed a copy of your book and headed over to the cashier, a distracted grin playing on his lips. A grin you loved.
The woman blinked a few times, her face still stuck in cheerfulness. “Alright. Are you excited about how many copies of your book are being sold?” she asked, leaning towards you, her elbows digging into your desk. She momentarily blocked your view of the man.
You nod, stepping aside so you could continue spying on him.
The woman followed your gaze to him. She pursed her lips, trying to suppress a smile. “Do you know him?” She nudged her elbow in his direction.
He handed the cashier some bills, and brushed brown hair off his forehead. It was graying at the roots.
You gulped. “Yes—no,” you muttered, twisting your mouth into a frown.
The woman didn’t look convinced.
He grabbed his copy of your book, mumbling a “Thank you” at the cashier. Turning towards your desk, your eyes met. His were a deep blue, the same color as they were in high school. He headed over, and you averted your eyes. Hands trembling, you pretended to neaten your desk.
The woman raised an eyebrow, “I should go.” You silently agreed. She took her signed copy and hobbled away. Looking back once, she gave you an encouraging thumbs-up.
He was still beautiful. His skin was smooth and scarless, unlike yours.
Holding out his copy, he said, “Do you remember me?”
“No.” You answered a little too quickly.
But you did.
He chuckled, leaning casually against your desk. “Clarice,” your name came out as a sigh, like the wind was whispering it.
You didn’t look at him. “I go by Reese now. Reese Waterson.”
“I go by James now. James McDimon.” He stared intently at you.
The name was so familiar, as if it was your own. You stayed quiet.
A few moments passed, and then you took his copy. Picking up the Sharpie, you wrote your signature. This time, more careful and delicate, as if finally realizing the pen was permanent. You slid it back towards him.
His eyes dropped to the book, examining your handiwork.
“What happened to us, Clarice?” he whispered, taking your hand across the desk. “Why did you abandon me?”
You ripped your hand out of his, your jaw dropping slightly. “Me abandon you?” You instantly shut your mouth, realizing with embarrassment how loudly you had spoken.
He reacted to your hurt expression by raking a hand through his hair.
You took a deep breath and continued, “I waited all night at the airport. You didn’t show.” You swallowed visibly. “We were escaping to Paris, Jem, Paris!” Choking on the last few words, you could feel tears welling in your eyes.
He shook his head, letting his hand fall onto the desk. “I have no good excuse, Clarice. I was scared.” You took a step back from him, your lips curling in disgust. “But think about it,” he pleaded, “we were about to forfeit our lives and leave our families, just to travel around the world and convince ourselves that we were free. You have to tell me, though, was it worth it?”
Glaring down at the Sharpie in your hand, you nodded furiously, not trusting yourself to lie to him with your words.
His lips parted in surprise, “You didn’t go, did you? Why?”
Because I couldn’t go without you. I loved you. The words hung in the air, waiting to be spoken. Instead, you gripped the pen harder, your knuckles fading into white.
“Just leave,” you said, turning your back to him. “I never want to see you again, which is exactly what I wanted after I left the airport that morning.” You were spitting your words out, still not facing him. Hurting people with words was something you didn’t do very often, but in this moment you wanted to hurt him beyond healing. “I guess I got what I wanted for forty-three years.”
Hearing him inhale sharply made you smile viciously at the wall.
“Okay,” was all he said, and you could hear him place something on your desk and turn on his heel.
After hearing the bells chime again, you whirled around, wiping your wet eyes on your sleeve. Your mind was glad he left, but your heart thought otherwise.
Nobody around you had seemed to notice your emotional conversation. They were all invested in either chatting or flipping through pages of your book.
Glancing down at the desk, you saw a crumpled piece of paper. It sat in the middle of your desk, waiting patiently for you to open it. But opening it would be exactly what he wanted, and you were over him—or so you thought.
Grabbing the paper ball you unfolded it, smoothing out every single wrinkle and crease. Laying it back down on the desk, you noticed tiny inked words. Pushing open the case, you took your glasses out and fumbled as you tried to slide them up your nose. Leaning down to examine the paper, all the fine print became clearer.
It was a boarding pass. A pass with an expired barcode and traces of your life before. Part of a corner was torn off, but you could still understand what it said.
June 21st, 1976.
Departure: Chicago, Illinois.
Arrival: Paris, France.
You choked on nothing but air. Why had he kept it all these years, you wondered, when he didn’t even show up for the actual flight?
Hands shaking, you picked up the piece of paper and turned it in your hand. On the back, faded graphite rested. There was a drawing, but it was obvious time had done its turn on this useless boarding pass.
A heart was drawn on the back, with C+J scribbled in the middle.
Your heart skipped a beat.
It was old, though, that drawing. He couldn’t have still loved you all these years.
But suddenly, your whole body ached. For him.
You balled up the paper and stuck it in your coat pocket. You didn’t want to lose the only bit of hope you had left.
Thoughtlessly, you stepped out from behind your desk. Nobody seemed to notice. You took two steps forward and then stopped.
No, you shouldn’t go after him.
But you wanted to so bad.
Even as your mind chanted a chorus of No’s, you took another step forward. It was like your brain wasn’t controlling your body anymore—your heart was.
Taking more robotic steps towards the door, you tried to pull it open as softly as you could. As expected, the bell rang, loud and clear. Many of the customers turned their heads curiously, and watched you step out into the New York freezing air.
“I’ve gotta get something from my car,” you called, but then almost immediately took a run for it down the sidewalk.
Snowflakes buried themselves in your hair and landed lightly on your eyelashes. Pink spots formed on your cheeks, and you shivered as you fled.
Scanning all the faces on the street, you didn’t see him.
Walkers and bikers and taxi drivers all gave you interested looks.
You didn’t care. All that mattered now was finding him and telling him the truth. You did still love him, even after forty-three years. You had missed him every single day, despite the fact that you were married and loyal to another man. Whenever you looked at your son, you imagined him with his features, not your husband’s. And your husband—just some man you clung to because you couldn’t get over him.
Finally, you came to a stop on a corner. You didn’t bother to look up at the signs to see where you were. You knew you were lost. You knew he was lost.
If he wanted to be found, he would’ve been found already.
You closed your eyes, forbidding the world to see you cry.
Puffing out a last breath of hope, you felt your tears freeze on your cheeks, just as you felt any spare droplets of love freeze in your heart.