I saw you at Starbucks today. I was alone with my iPad doing a crossword and drinking black coffee. Weird, isn’t it? Who goes to Starbucks to drink black coffee? I did because I was waiting for my son to finish his session with the speech therapist, and I always hated all those fancy coffees: cappuccinos, lattes. It’s coffee for people who don’t really like coffee.
I looked up, and you were walking in the door with two girls so lovely they had to be your daughters. Both of them were dark-haired though the smaller one had your soulful brown eyes and the taller one had eyes that sparkled like a cool lake.
It took me a moment to realize it was you, not because you looked twenty years older. You didn’t. Sure, you had a few lines around your eyes, but you still had that terrific smile, and even in those old jeans and that faded orange tee shirt, you looked amazing. You still wore your hair long, and you had it pulled off your face in a really sloppy bun. I liked it.
I watched you order Vanilla Beans for your girls and a skim milk latte for yourself, and for once I didn’t feel like a coffee snob. You made me smile because you talked to the barista like she was a real person and give her a two-dollar tip.
She said, “Thanks, Mrs. Evans”, and I filed it away because I thought maybe I’d look to see if you were on Facebook later.
I saw you wore a good-sized diamond on your left hand, and I hoped he treated you well. Your girls wore uniforms, so I figured they went to some kind of private school. This area is full of private schools. That seemed a little out of character for you, but maybe not. You’d want only the best for your kids.
Even though I was watching you, it was hard for me to think of you as a mom and not the girl who loved camping under the stars and wanted to learn to fly that old red bi-plane Joe Greevy used to take out for thrill rides. But I guess you got tired of always moving around. I know I screwed things up too. Dumb things. Drinking too much. Hanging with the guys instead of coming home. Not looking for a job. I told you I didn’t want to be tied down. You said to grow up and stop pretending I was some kind of cowboy. Then one night I came home, and you were gone. I figured you’d come back, but you never did. I found out later you took the bus home. I guess that’s where you met your husband.
I wanted to come over and tell you that over the course years I’d found out the hard way you were right. I had a lot of bad nights and rough years. I finally did get straight though. I found someone who helped me through the worst of it, and now we have a terrific son. We even have a business. I’d always been good at making things out of leather—belts, vests—Ellie handles the books and the computer stuff. We aren’t millionaires yet, but we’ve made enough to move here, buy a house, and start to expand.
I promised Ellie when I married her, we’d move back to her old hometown and I’ve kept my word. I just didn’t figure on seeing you.
I wanted to tell you I changed and thought if you lived near the Starbucks, and if you came in regularly, maybe I’d see you again and we could talk about what went wrong.
There were so many things we left unsaid, and I wished I had the nerve to get up and say hello to you. Would you even remember me? Would you still smile or would you turn around and walk away?
I watch you hustle your girls toward the door. I hear you say, ”We have to move, girls, so we can get to the barn before five. You’ll have to change in the car.”
The girls look at each other at grin. “Strip tease,” they say in unison.
You laugh along with them. “I don’t want to see any booties shaking out the window, ladies.”
The taller girl says, “Pizza for dinner, Mom?”
You shake your head. “You know your poor Dad doesn’t want to eat pizza every night, Miss Katie.”
She gives you a knowing smile. “But we won’t be done till after six, Mom.”
I watch you bite your lip for a second then kiss her on the head. “Let’s just move along, doll face.”
Katie skips ahead, and I watch you shift your oversized purse and the jacket that’s slung over your arm. You pull out a phone, look at it quickly, and for a moment you pause and take a breath. Two seconds later you’re out the door and down the street.
I don’t know you any more, but I recognized something in that pause. You used to do that with me when I’d come home at eight in the morning hung over and you knew I’d been with another woman. Or maybe it was just a trick of the light. Maybe I want to see something that isn’t there.
A moment later my own phone rings. It’s Eric calling to say he’s finished. I tell him I’m on my way. Slowly, I follow you out of the Starbucks, chucking the cold coffee into a nearby trashcan. I watch you piling your girls into a silver Mercedes SUV and hope you’re happy. I’ve found peace after all these years. Ellie’s brought me that and given me a family to fight for. I want you to have that as well. I tell myself that, but those old memories linger like fragments of a song you can’t get out of your head.
Once upon a time you and I used to imagine that life would always be carefree and nothing would ever change. Now our lives are filled with therapists and lessons, pizza dinners and other people. But it looks like you’ve found your stability, and I’ve given up being a cowboy. I want to tell you I’m respectable now, but you’ve already slid into your seat and pulled out of the parking spot. You turn left and zip out of the lot. I watch your car fade into the traffic.
I walk up the street to fetch my son and feel a passing relief that you won’t see us getting into our five-year-old Honda. I guess in the end we get what we deserve, and you always deserved more than I could give you.
The dregs of the coffee taste bitter in my mouth. I wonder if your latte tastes any better.