What if I Fly?
by Jayne Conway
“Venti iced coffee!” the tattooed barista with the spiky green hair shouts from behind the counter, seemingly oblivious to the small mob of people surrounding her station. In desperate need of a caffeine fix, Will squeezes through the crowd and gratefully grabs his drink, then searches the room for a free seat.
The patrons are taking advantage of the air conditioned space on this steamy day and he waits patiently for a chair to become available, leaning against the newspaper rack stacked with today’s issues of the Providence Journal, Boston Globe and New York Times.
The shop is much more crowded than it’s been over the past couple of months. He’s gotten used to having his run of the place since the Brown University students made their exodus in May, but now they’ve begun streaming back into town from their summer breaks, forcing the locals out into Wayland Square in search of alternative shelter. The mildly hostile, but inevitable takeover has begun, the coffee shop overrun with their laptops and stacks of books.
Whatever happened to studying in a library? he wonders.
He feels old. It seems like a hundred years since he walked in their shoes, though it’s only been…what? A decade? So much has changed in ten years. Or, not enough. Maybe the only thing that has changed is his perspective. What he wouldn’t give to go back to those days, he muses, his eyes glazing over.
Mercifully, Will’s reverie is interrupted when an elderly gentlemen slowly vacates one of the leather chairs, his favorite place to read. Perfect.
He positions himself for a quick turnover before one of the kids in line beats him to the empty seat, then victorious, he settles in, opens the paper to the sports section, and notes with a smile that the Red Sox are coming out of their annual slump and could be headed to the playoffs.
Will attends games as often as possible, though it’s not as easy to get away from the office these days. Growing up, he made the two-hour trek north to Fenway Park regularly with his father, a devout fan who was born and bred in Boston. It’s his favorite childhood memory.
Reviewing the stats, he takes another sip of his drink and feels a hand on his shoulder, a gentle squeeze. Startled, he looks up from the newspaper and almost spits out his iced coffee. Julia? Coughing, he sits up in his chair, his heart hammering against his ribcage. Is it really her?
“Hi,” she says, softly.
Will rises and takes both of Julia’s hands in his, looks into her warm brown eyes and shakes his head in disbelief. It’s been almost six years since he last saw her, and hoped, but never believed he’d see her again. Julia’s face breaks into a smile and she squeezes his hands.
“How are you, Will?”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he whispers. “How long have you been in the States?”
“Almost three months now.”
Julia has a table in the corner of the room and they sit across from one another in awkward silence. He doesn’t know what to say. I’ve missed you every day since I last saw you? I can’t forget you no matter how hard I try, and I’m not sure I even want to?
No, he can’t say what he’s thinking, so he just stares and resists the urge to reach out and touch her. She’s more beautiful now than ever.
“How’s your father, Will? The last time we spoke his health was improving.”
“He’s good, in remission,” he says, a tremor in his voice. “You remember that?”
“Of course I do. I remember everything about our time together.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
He remembers their last two days together more vividly than the past six years. Will turns and stares out the window, watching Andy from the bookstore across the street carrying a pile of paperbacks and depositing them in the free bin. Andy raises his hand in greeting and Will nods absently, garnering a worried glance from his friendly acquaintance.
“Will, are you all right?”
He focuses his gaze down into his drink, and away from her knowing eyes. He’s never been able to hide his feelings from Julia and God knows he has no right to complain. He made his bed, now he has to lay in it.
“No one’s asked me that in a while,” he pauses, running his fingers through his hair. “No, Jules… I’m not. I haven’t been for a long time.”
This is killing him, sitting beside Julia. He’s prayed for this moment for so long, to apologize to her if nothing else, but now he wants to run away. Over time, he’s trained himself to not feel much of anything, and being around her is stirring up emotions he thought were dead.
I left her sleeping in that bed, alone. I walked away from her. For what? After what he did, he doesn’t deserve her kindness or sympathy.
“Talk to me, Will.”
“There’s nothing to tell. I knew I wouldn’t be happy with her,” he pauses, “I just never thought it’d be like this...” his voice trails off and he stares into his drink, swirling the green straw in circles.
“Come with me.” Julia rises and holds her hand out to him, “Come on. I’m driving your car.”
“Where are we going?”
“Does it matter?” she asks.
Will shakes his head and hands her the keys to his Volvo. His wife hates his old station wagon and makes sure they take her Audi convertible whenever they’re together in public. He gave up caring what other people think long ago. Only his parents’ opinion matters to him, and that doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to.
Julia drives them five minutes down the road to India Point Park at the mouth of Narragansett Bay. The city began a revitalization program last year and is turning this once crime-ridden area into a park with a playground, boat launch and a community center. Other than a few sun worshippers, they’re alone.
There’s a light breeze coming off the bay, making the heat bearable, and she leads him to the recently built dock, kicks off her sandals, then lies down, arms folded behind her head.
Will has a sense of déjà vu as he lowers himself down beside her, and turns his face to the sky, taking in deep breaths of salty air mixed with car exhaust from the nearby highway. He finds the whoosh of the passing cars above them and the sound of the water lapping below, oddly soothing. For several minutes they lay together in silence watching the clouds pass by, just as they did years ago.
Julia rests her head on his chest and his arm winds around her, naturally, comfortably. Closing his eyes, he imagines they’re in their early twenties again, laying on the dock in their hometown making plans for their future, and for the first time in years he feels at peace.
“You have to look for the joy in life, Will,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the little things that get me through the day.”
Will mentally wraps them in an insular world of his own, trying desperately to ward off the inevitable. He knows their time together will soon come to an end and he’ll be alone again. It doesn’t matter how many people surround him, without Julia, he’s alone.
But not now. Right now, he imagines they’ve spent the past six years building a life together, not apart. Will breathes her in and tries to memorize how her body feels pressed against his side, his arm holding her close, then realizes there’s no need…he never forgot. She’s a part of him, she always will be.
Their moment lasts for little over an hour, until Julia’s phone beeps, forcing him back to reality. She sits up and flips open the offending device to read a text message. Who is it? A friend? A lover? He swallows hard, trying not to think of her with another man. Surely, she has a man in her life.
“I have to get going, Will.”
Reluctantly, he pulls her to her feet and tucks a stray curl behind her ear, his fingers lingering against her cheek. Please, don’t leave me… Julia’s eyes connect with his for a long moment, filling him with hope, but she sighs and smiles, slowly shaking her head.
His heart sinks…but he understands. Julia deserves more than he can give her. They walk to his car, and for an instant he considers driving them to the nearest airport, but forces himself to continue along Gano Street and take the turn into the parking lot at the coffee shop.
“No goodbyes,” she leans in and kisses his cheek, “I’ll see you.”
And she’s gone.