City-bound.

“Could you stop that?” I snapped, nervously smoothing the front of my coat with damp palms.

“Stop what?” Martin whined, honking a wad of mucus into a wrinkled napkin for the thirtieth time since we sat down. I glanced furtively around us, wondering how many of the other passengers would be wrinkling their noses, looking at us like festering Petrie dishes.

Instead of answering him, I exhaled quietly and turned again toward the window. Queens was whizzing passed, a brick and concrete reminder of the city drawing ever closer.

“What time is the interview?” Martin sniffed, his voice slightly obscured by his congestion.

“Nine.” It was maybe the fourth time I’d told him.

“Don’t stress, you won’t be late.”

Martin is obsessed with stress. He thinks everyone’s biggest problem is that they stress too much. I’ve heard him blame everything from chicken pox to baldness to poverty on stress.

“I’m not worried about being late,” I snap. Part of me hopes he’ll see through my thin anger and ask, “Well, babe, what are you worried about?” Another part of me hopes he’ll just shut up and let me ride the last fifteen minutes to the station in peace.

He stays quiet, but I suspect it has more to do with his sudden interest in a game on his phone than any insight into what I wanted from him.

I lean my forehead on the cool widow for a moment, glimpses of tiny, weed-ridden yards and miles of fence and wire winking back at me.

One day, I think, you’ll never have to look at this again.

Next to me, I hear Martin search absent-mindlessly for another napkin from his backpack.

One day.

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What no one knows.

And here is the deepest secret nobody knows: The root of the root, bud of the bud, she would murmur unconsciously when she stopped to think about it, which she rarely did.

Becca had decided to take Travis back.

Second chances were not in her nature, so why the change? It was probably something that sounded like love. Probably, but if you asked her, the animal, self-preservationist part of her brain would stare you down with eyes full of steel and reply matter-of-factly that she was a woman of her word and vow. Unlike some people we could name.

And so, with her mind made up and the dry, unsatisfying taste of second chance rolling over her tongue, Becca drove to the buddy’s house where she knew Travis had been sleeping these days.

A bottle of wine sat in the passenger seat (to new beginnings!), wedged under her purse to keep it from rolling as she took every sharp turn.

The buddy’s windows were dark, but she knocked anyway, predictably to no answer.

She could have called him. For the rest of her life, she would wonder how things might have been different if she’d picked up her phone and just shot off a text telling him, if not exactly where her head was at, that she needed to talk to him about something important. The rest of their lives could have been entirely different with the few taps of a screen.

But Becca, a closet Luddite who was reluctant to let go of paper maps, handwritten thank-you notes, and face-to-face conversation, felt this wasn’t something she could tell first to a machine.

So she waited, lights off, engine off, thinking only of what she would say when she saw him and how long she could keep the radio humming quietly before she killed her battery.

And when the taxi rolled up eight minutes to three in the morning, Just when she was finally letting her shoulders slump an thinking maybe she would come back that afternoon, she still didn’t let herself think anything judgmental about Travis.

Because when Becca forgave, she forgave entirely, and she locked away her resentment and passive aggression to a place inside her that she would never open. And she had forgiven Travis.

Until he lurched from the car, drunkenly extending a hand to Lucy, who rose out of the can after him and stumbled into his chest, clinging to the green wool coat Becca had given him last winter. Becca watched Travis pull away only to pay the driver, and then the two of them fell into each other again in a sloppy, obscene embrace. She watched them slouch up to the apartment building and go inside, but she didn’t wait to see the lights flick on.

As she made her way carefully home through the now icy streets, Becca opened the part of her where she locked away the things she forgave and locked something else in in its place Because now there could be no forgiveness, no amnesia of Travis’s transgressions.

Because as completely as Becca could forgive, she could just a easily never, ever forget.

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What they had been.

Becca listened to him breathing, a wet, choking sound she had learned years ago meant he was at least six beers in. Not quite blackout, but not a state to be trusted with anything of importance.

“I was thinking, maybe, I mean maybe you, if you want, I mean, maybe, we could get a drink or somefin.”

If she had been uncertain of his level of intoxication prior to the request, Becca certainly wasn’t now. The sigh escaped her lungs before she could stop it.

“Travis. No.”

Beeeeec.”

The first syllable of Becca’s name was a hard one to whine. In regular conversation, it lent itself to an easy shortening. But a drunken whine followed with a hard consonant sounded too contrived.

“Travis,” Becca replied blandly. She didn’t care for his game anymore.

“You can’t just pretend I stopped existing, Becca,” Travis snapped, a rare moment of clarity shattering the fog of his drunken call. “We were so good together! ‘Member?”

The problem was, Becca couldn’t stop remembering. She tasted Travis with very cappuccino, to foamy drinks she had detested the thought of until he finally made her try one. She felt him whenever she slipped on her favorite worn leather boots, and unexpected anniversary gift after she was certain he’d forgotten. She smelled him in every dive-y bar, heard him in every strum of a bass guitar.

Travis haunted her. She would give anything to forget how good they had been together. So she said the only things she still believed to be true.

“You cheated on me, Travis. Whether or not we were good together ceased to be relevant from that moment on.”

“You don’t mean that,” he sniffed.

And maybe because he had always known her so well (better, in most cases, than she knew herself or admitted to herself), Becca allowed Travis’s comment to plant a singular seed of doubt in her resolve.

“You can’t tell me you don’t miss me. You can’t tell me you don’t wonder what would have happened if you’d just forgiven me and given us a second chance. Maybe not every day, but you think about it, Bec.”

And damn him to hell, because Beca couldn’t tell him any of those things. So she said the only thing she could truthfully say.

“I don’t want anything to do with you anymore, Travis.”

And then she held her breath and listened to Travis cry, willing herself not to join in the mourning of what they had been.

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No comparison.

Lucy poised her fingers dangerously over the screen of her phone. What difference did it make? If she texted or didn’t? He wouldn’t answer.

Before she could stop herself, she put the phone back in bag, burying it deep in a pocket beneath a cluster of gum wrappers, receipts, and an old compact she’d received for free after subscribing to a magazine she barely paged through anymore.

Where was this guy? Lucy leaned forward on the stiff upholstered bench to glance out the glass door. She ignored the judgmental stare of the hostess. Screw the hostess. Lucy had put her name down for a table for two because, dammit, there would be two of them.

Because this guy would show, right?

She felt her hand reaching almost unconsciously for the phone again. To check the time. Check for missed texts or emails. The guy had her number. He would call if he was running late, wouldn’t he?

Lucy would call. Which wasn’t to say she needed a guy who would do what she would do, she just wanted to know where she stood because God knows dating was awful enough already without the constant doubt that the person you were with even wanted to be with you at that moment or had torn himself away from a particularly good sitcom or was only doing this because his sister said it was time to settle already or who knows what else.

Without realizing it, she had started scrolling through her Facebook feed. There were the same updates as there had been 45 seconds ago (the baby of that girl from high school was still adorable, that old co-worker was still waiting for his delayed flight, that tramp from her old dorm still thought it was appropriate to post photos of herself she had taken in the mirror), and she stopped herself before she got the post that had caught her eye last time. His post.

A completely innocuous “so-and-so has read an article about an oil spill” update. Like she cared. Well, she cared about the oil spill, that was tragic. But she didn’t care who read it. She didn’t care what he read. She couldnt-

“Lucy?”

Lucy’s head snapped up, her eyes blinking rapidly to adjust to a world not depicted on a 2-by-3-inch screen. (Maybe there was something to those articles saying you couldn’t spend your life on a computer or a smart phone without going blind?)

“Oh, hi! Ralph, right?” She popped up, mentally chiding herself for appearing so pathetically eager, and giggled slightly (another subconscious scolding for that) as she held out her hand to shake his. Did you shake hands on dates? A kiss hello felt too intimate, a big wave too juvenile.

“That’s me!” Ralph confirmed, grinning broadly as he took her hand. “Were you waiting long? Traffic was horrible.”

Lucy smiled, her somewhat dormant dating instincts kicking in and serving her better than she would have thought.

“Oh, only a few minutes,” she said with another breathy laugh. That was a lie. Unless his definition of “a few minutes” was 22 minutes in her car in the parking lot waiting for it to be an appropriate time to go in and another 14 in the lobby on the uncomfortable bench while being silently judged by the oh-no-I’m-just-naturally-skinny hostess.

So, yeah. Probably a lie.

Lucy was somewhat gratified to see the hostess’s eyes widen in appreciation at the sight of Ralph. Even Lucy had to admit Ralph was attractive. Tall, muscular, great head of hair. He could be downright dreamy in the right context. Certainly made up for that dismal name.

They slid into the booth the hostess indicated with a limp gesture. Lucy shot her a victorious smirk before sipping politely on the glass of water a busboy filled in front of her.

Lucy mentally steeled herself for what would happen next. The initial assault: small talk on a first date.

“I was reading the most interesting article today at lunch,” Ralph started. She admired someone who could start a conversation without waiting for her to say, “So, [insert name here], what do you do?”

“Oh?” She looked up from the menu, hoping her expression conveyed genuine interest.

“It was all about those horrible oil spills down south.”

And there it was. Him. Again. Thrown in her face. Accidentally, she had to assume, based on the fact that Ralph didn’t know Him or how He had been part of Lucy life. Ralph couldn’t know. But the fact was, Ralph had officially invited him to dinner, and Lucy would spend the next hour and a half making comparisons Ralph couldn’t help but lose.

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The last to know

She felt herself staring at him from across the crowded room. Now and then, a mildly drunken partier would veer into her sight path, which she told herself would disguise the fact that she hadn’t taken her eyes off of him for the last 15 minutes.

Why hasn’t he told me?

The question nagged at her mind more than it should of, crowding down the roiling anger, the devastating sadness, the poisoning guilt and sense of inadequacy.

Why hasn’t he told me?

She watched him lift a hand and smooth down his shiny curls, worn shorter than she’d ever see them. She watched him smile his goofy grin, make ridiculous faces in time with the story he was telling. She could hear the laughter around him. Did they know? Did everyone else know?

And worse, could they know that she didn’t know?

But the worst, above the doubts, the sadness, the anger, the guilt, the insecurities, were the moments when he glanced her way, their eyes locked, and she made herself grin foolishly back at him.

It seemed fitting punishment. Hadn’t she played the fool all along?

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Winsome Wins Some

“She’s sort of…winsome. Very lovely.”

Lucy turned her head sharply to eye Travis carefully.

“Winsome and lovely?” she repeated, an edge of disgust creeping into her voice. Who was this man? Her friend Travis didn’t use words like “winsome.” And he wouldn’t be caught dead near anything lovely.

Something of the edge in her tone must have caught on Travis’s consciousness because he snuck a guilty glance at her.

“You know, she’s…pretty. She has…prescence.”

More like himself, but there was still something amiss. Before she could help herself, Lucy felt a pang of envy through her sternum.

“Yeah, everyone loves Becca,” she heard herself say flippantly. As if loving Becca were something common. Base.

“Yeah?” he responded halfheartedly. He hadn’t torn his eyes off of her yet, which was tearing Lucy apart.

“Oh, for sure. She’s had a zillion guys after her.” She wasn’t entirely sure what she meant to accomplish by telling him that. Make him think the competition was too stiff? Make him think he’d never stand out, so why bother trying? Either way, it made him finally turn to her.

“Yeah?” God, did he know any other words? Oh yes, “winsome.” And “lovely.”

“Oh, ga-zillions,” she emphasized. She had his attention, so she felt the impulse to keep talking. “Remember Matt?” She watched Travis’s eyes roll slightly to the upper left as he struggled to recall this name.

“The band guy?” he said finally.

“Yes!” she pounced. “He was ga-ga over her. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure at least three of his new songs are about her. And she didn’t even date him!”

It dawned on Lucy that she might not be helping herself. She’d managed to paint Becca as some sort of etheareal goddess with men throwing themselves at her feet and writing songs in her honor. Hell, she would date that. Shouldn’t she be mentioning the fact that Becca never covered her mouth when she coughed or that she had this weird wart on her left foot or that she always mixed up “they’re” and “their”?

“But I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect,” she finished lamely. A warmth grew in Travis’s eyes.

“Well, not everyone can be perfect like Lucy,” he said with a grin, putting his arm around her shoulders.

There was no romance in the arm. Lucy knew that. But she let herself drift for a moment, reveling the touch as she settled back into the crook of his arm.

“Well, it is very difficult,” she said softly.

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Bitter pills

Her heart swelled with the heavy hurt.

“Not worth it,” they said.

“Waste of time,” they said.

“Such a pretty girl,” they’d coo.

Always stroking hands and patting heads. And she would smile and swallow, swallow, swallow, never feeling full.

And always quiet, so well behaved.

Until her stomach, crowded out by her swollen, ulcered heart, would take too much.

So she’d vomit out her bitterness like a poison to anyone who would hold back her hair.

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