Fuck a duck, it’s cold.
I revved the engine, sung along with Floyd. It was my day off, and I had planned to stay in bed, catching up on some ZZZZ’s, but things change, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. My cell went off, blasting AC/DC-”Back In Black”-and even though I didn’t recognize the number, I broke my rule and answered it anyway.
And it was her. Marita. Now to be known to me from here unto my dying day as her. Always her.
A blast from the past. It’s been, what, eleven, twelve years now. I hadn’t heard her voice in such a long time. Hadn’t spoken to her in all that time. Except for once, I saw her at a party of who I found out was a mutual friend of ours; I said hello, she smiled politely, walked away. That friend never invited me back. Guess not as good a friend as I thought.
“I need to talk to you about something,” she said. Out of the blue. You know how these things go. “Will you meet me, Jack?”
I couldn’t refuse her. Never could refuse her. Of course, the problem that our former relationship suffered was that there were not a lot of women I could refuse. She got tired of that. Real fast. You know how these things are.
“Where?” It’s hard to say no to a pretty face.
“You know where; where we first met.”
So I showered, shaved, all smiles and curiosity and wonder, and drove the twenty miles to River Bend Mall.
Maybe it was stupid of me. To just up and go like that, to meet someone who I knew really didn’t like me, most likely in all actuality hated my guts, but there it is. What did she want? Me? Hopeful, wishful thinking. But doubtful. Marita had made it quite plain at the end of our time together what she thought of me, where I could go, the quickest way to get there, and she even offered assistance.
But she called. So, you know, maybe there’s something good amiss.
But what if it was something bad? What if she had something, what if she was dying and she wanted to forgive me for all the hurt I had caused her so she could die with a clear conscience? What if I became anymore melodramatic–that’s all crazy I told myself.
So I hadn’t been to River Bend Mall in years, not since they took the cineplex out and replaced it with a tax center, or something, I forget really what they replaced it with but I remembered it was something I didn’t care about. Now the Royal Theater 6 was something I loved; I had spent many a happy Saturday at the Sinbad’s Arcade, browsing Book King, and then taking in a multi-million dollar piece of Hollywood time-passers. Those were the days, weren’t they?
When I got to River Bend Mall, the parking lot was a labyrinth of wooden saw horses, construction signs, and caution tape. Apparently they were adding new stores and expanding. Apparently, more than just me didn’t frequent the place since the Royal 6 was shuttled.
On a Wednesday at 10:30 in the morning, the old River Bend doesn’t have a lot of people crowding it. There are geriatrics power-walking (or attempting something akin to power-walking), mothers pushing baby carriages, house-wives with too much money, and some pretty wide-eyed hopeless looking people milling about. The teen scene wouldn’t descend for a few hours still, and the mall is pretty much yours for the taking.
I found a parking place clear of saws and hammers and industrial detritus, and entered on the North side. This is where the food court is, and first thing to greet us happy patrons is a carousel, startled molded horses striking poses and going round and round and not getting any place much.
Marita was right where we decided to rendezvous. The Cookie Hut. That’s where we first met. She was slinging the chocolate chip delights and I had a major snickerdoodle addiction. Plus they had Slush Puppie. Freak yeah! Slush Puppie!
There she was. The smell of cookies, pretzels, and cheap Chinese going in endless circles with the carousel ponies. The scant crowd minded their own business as we spotted each other right off.
Marita hadn’t changed that much. Her hips were a little roomier, her love handles developing. It’s not like I really had any room to judge. The years had been kind to her, no gray in her deep fiery hair that I could tell, her green eyes still a sparkle that even I could not diminish.
Cutting to the chase: Still beautiful after all these years. Still made me wonder, what if I had not been an asshole, an idiot, a dog? Look at what I had missed out on. Right then, right there, if she called to, somehow in the great big universe, say she wanted another go at it, I would gladly have lain down and eaten glass to have her back.
Marita’s smile was small. A polite gesture.
I knew then any hope for me was out of the question. The only question remaining, what was all this about?
I smiled, genuinely. “Marita.” I didn’t know if I should hold my hand out for her to shake it, or what. Truth be told, I wanted a hug, I wanted to be that close to her.
She had a Cookie Hut large sugar cookie in her hands, wrapped in a napkin. She didn’t offer to shake. She held on to her cookie.
“Jack,” she said. “I’m glad you came.” She tugged at the fringe of her sweater nervously.
“Try to contain your excitement.”
She smiled. “Let’s sit down.”
I shrugged my shoulders, tried to keep from beaming a smile that said Yes dear God it is so good to see you. We sat at a little table for two next to the railing that bordered the carousel. My leg twitched, my fingers thrummed the table. Marita picked at her cookie, smiled a pained smile, picked some more.
“Well,” I said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I tapped the table to fill the void. “I hope it’s nice to see me, too,” I said.
Marita said, “Yeah, it is. You look good.”
“You look great.”
“Thank you,” she said, her eyes on the cookie, not me. Mouth nowhere near a smile. “You had no qualms about meeting. I guess you’re still eager as ever.”
“What’s this all about?” I said. “I can tell you don’t really care to be in this close a proximity to me, so-”
“That’s not true,” she said.
“Not entirely, I think,” she said. Her eyes glanced at me, tried to stay on me, but found it easier to look around the mall. Anywhere but on me for more than a second. “But can you blame me?”
“No,” I said. “I can’t. I’m sorry for, you know, all that. I really am.”
“I accepted your apology the first time.”
“No,” Marita said. “But I’ve tried to forgive. I’ve really tried. I think I have, mainly because I don’t think about you that much.”
“Thank you,” I said, ego deflating.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
Sadly, I think so. I said, “Just tell me what this is all about. I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just curious. You call out of the blue, you want to meet, you want to talk.” Get it over with, let me leave with some dignity intact.
“Yeah, I know, I just, uh….I want a clear conscience.”
Oh God, is she really dying?
“That sounds…cryptic.” I shifted in my chair. “Are you sick or something? Far as I know, I don’t have anything, so you didn’t give me-”
She quickly put in-”I think in our relationship if anyone was going to give the other something, it would not have beenme giving something to you!”
Her cute little nostrils flared, her cheeks flamed. She was staring at me now, full on. And I really was hoping she would look away so I wouldn’t feel so small.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You know I sometimes open my mouth and words just fall out. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s nice to see you’ve not changed.”
“So what’s with this clear conscience thing? You’re not dying are you?”
“Oh my God,” she said, “what the hell-”
“Well, this is kind of crazy, Marita, a little strange, okay. What am I supposed to think?”
“I’m not dying.” Her smile was genuine this time. “You thought about this on the drive over, didn’t you? Maybe I want you back for some reason, couldn’t live without you, even though I’ve lived very nicely without you for the last eleven years. Or maybe I’ve got some horrible disease and I wanted to forgive you, clear things up so I wouldn’t die angry.”
“No,” I protested, “that’s not it at all-”
“I got over being angry with you a long time ago, Jack. You’re not worth eleven years of heartache and what-ifs. I’m getting married.”
My eyebrow shot up. “Getting married? You wanted to tell me you’re getting married? You couldn’t have told me this over the phone?” I shook thoughts from my head. “Why tell me at all?”
“Listen. I’m starting a new life okay, and I want to lay some things to rest.”
I said, “Is it someone I know?”
“Yes,” she said. “And don’t worry who, okay. This is the last of you in my life, all right. This ends it. I want to start this next phase of my life not troubled by things, or by the past.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She stared at the damn cookie. “I had an abortion, Jack. After we broke up.”
“You….” That’s a word. That was the only word I could form. Marita didn’t look at me. All I could do was look at her. There was an express train going through my head, pictures of birthdays, and Christmas mornings, of first days at school, of my son or of my daughter learning to walk, saying his or her first word. I had never really wanted to be a dad until that instant. I was a father. And then I wasn’t.
I finally cleared my head, my tongue able to work. “What the fuck?” I had chosen better words at better times. “Why the fuck you telling me this now for? Goddamn.”
“I’m sorry, I wanted to-”
“Wanted to tell me I was a dad a decade ago? What the shit is wrong with you?”
She said, “I understand you’re mad.”
“I’m glad one of us understands something, Marita. You tell me you aborted my baby just so you can fuckin’ get married with some kind of clear fuckin’ mind or some shit. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck. You.”
“Your baby?” She spat the words. “You still think the world revolves around you.”
“Well it certainly doesn’t revolve around our child, does it?”
“How many times did you cheat on me, huh? Tell me Jack, why did you sleep around on me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was young, I was–I don’t know, okay. I don’t know!”
“How many relationships, in all these years, have you had that have lasted more than a month?”
I stuttered, stammered, hemmed, hawed. “I-I-This is about-”
“Jack, I wasn’t ready for a baby!” A vein popped out on her forehead. The vein of exasperation. I knew it well. “You weren’t ready either!”
“Why didn’t you tell me then? Back then, Marita?”
“I was scared and you were screwing around. You didn’t love me, Jack. You know that.”
“No, I don’t know that,” I said.
Her cookie was in pieces on the table.
Marita breathed deeply. “You were unreliable, Jack. You still are, aren’t you? You still come and go as you please, happy-go-lucky. Have your fun, your kicks. Everyone is secondary. That was you then, that’s you now.”
“Yes it is, you still haven’t grown up!” she practically yelled it. Softer: “I can look at you and tell. I didn’t even have to try to get you to meet me today. Dial your number and POOF! here you are.”
“How did you get my number anyway?”
“Don’t fret over it, Jack.”
“Okay,” I said silently. Soreness was beginning to set in. I wanted to blame the uncomfortable chair.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” she said. “I still cry about it, sometimes, when I let my mind wander, when I imagine what might have been. But I imagine it would have ended in heartache between us anyways.”
“Maybe,” I said. The horses on the carousel seemed to have lost some of their rough and ugly features. “Congratulations on your wedding.”
“You, uh, you deserve a good man.”
“I know,” she smiled. I couldn’t help but join her. “You still have potential, Jack. You’ve always had promise.”
Marita stood up, wiping stray crumbs from her sweater. I stood and hugged her without warning. She pushed away gently, her eyes strong, mine moist. I got to carry the burden now.
“Take care,” she said.
She left. I watched her go. She walked away, around the corner. She was off, out, free. Gone.
There is an old saying, an old belief from some part of the old world that goes like this: When you part, if you look back at each other, you’ll meet again.
She never looked back.