In case anybody is new around here, we used to do Sunday Stories on TTAC, which were works of fiction loosely based on automotive stuff. This is like that, but without the cars. It’s a fictional story. Please don’t get confused. Gracias—Bark
“I should not be doing this,” Kate thought to herself.
There was not one good reason why Kate was in Chicago on this particular day. Not one. And yet, as she let a second glass of champagne pass through her thin lips, every cell of her slender body was full of the same sort of jittery excitement she felt on her wedding day.
Well, not her first wedding day. Definitely not that day. That day had been a $50,000 mistake that Kate had been ambushed by, a day that had been set into motion by expectations and the need to do what was right and good. And although she felt as beautiful as she had ever felt on the outside, her soul felt like a thorough fraud. Here was a man, as good as anybody had the right to expect to be with, and she knew that she didn’t love him. So, no, she hadn’t felt excitement that day.
Come to think of it, she hadn’t felt it on her second wedding day either. Eager to erase the error of her first catastrophic pairing, Kate had allowed her father to throw an even bigger, more absurdly extravagant fete. It had been featured in the local society magazine, for God’s sake. She had cut a statuesque figure on that day, her athletic frame snugly contained within the lace flowers of her five-figure dress.
It was white, of course, because when everybody knows that your first marriage ended thanks to your infidelity, you buy the whitest goddamned dress you can find, even if every time you look at it, the floral designs seem to rearrange themselves neatly into an “A” in your mind. So while the day had been beautiful, the wedding that little girls don’t dream of, but women approaching thirty sure as hell do, she had felt…fraudulent. Damn. There was that feeling again. Because she didn’t love him. But when you blow up your marriage because you got caught fucking the neighbor, well, you have to marry the neighbor to save any sort of dignity your parents have assigned to you.
So maybe, she thought, this is what a wedding day should feel like. But as Kate sat at a table near the bar at the J. Parker on the roof of the Lincoln Hotel, she poured white sparkling wine down her gullet like it was her bachelorette party, not her wedding day. Because he was coming.
“Fucking Facebook,” she laughed aloud to nobody in particular. She shook her head as the glass reached her mouth. “Fucking Facebook,” she murmured again. “About to torpedo my life.” And even though she’d waited almost nine years since the day she got the first message from him, hoping the feeling would pass, it hadn’t. She wanted to see him, desperately.
The year had been 2008, and she hadn’t thought about Justin in a decade. Maybe more. And then one day, that damn notification had popped up.
“Justin Stark has sent you a friend request!”
She wasn’t going to accept it. In fact, she just let it sit there for a few days, looking at that red number “1” over and over. Justin had been a bad influence back in high school, quite literally the guy she had told her boyfriend not to worry about. He was smug, sarcastic, and everything else she didn’t like in a boy. He hung out with the jock crowd and the cheerleaders, and Kate was an honor student who twirled a flag on Friday nights. He dressed like a member of the Michigan Fab Five, with baggy shorts and black athletic socks, and she was often accused by her friends of dressing like a Puritan, hiding her broad shoulders and narrow waist under baggy clothing. They couldn’t have been more different.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, he passed her a note in English class, asking her to go to a movie with him. Turned out that all that posturing and preening had been a valiant attempt to impress her. Kate, in spite of herself, had to admit that it had worked. She quickly scribbled back. “Yes. And help me think of a way to let my boyfriend down easy.”
Her ever-corporate, Chief Financial Officer father, conscious of the fact that Justin’s mother worked as a cashier at the local grocery store, essentially forbade her to see him. So their relationship, such as it was, had consisted of sitting next to each other in class, holding hands underneath the desk when the teacher wasn’t looking, exchanging handwritten notes as they passed in the hallways. They didn’t even sit together at lunch—neither his in-crowd friends nor her honor society pals approved of the pairing.
But, by God, he was thrilling. The one night her parents were at a social function, she screwed together the courage to ask him to come over to the house. Of course they came home early, and even though she and Justin had barely even kissed each other, much less anything more, she got in so much trouble that she really had no choice but to end it with him the following week. They had barely spoken since. That was 1994.
So why the hell did he send her a friend request in 2008? Turns out they had some mutual Facebook friends, and he had seen that they shared a dislike of a certain political candidate. She was already on marriage number two at that point, and he appeared to be safely married himself, and he had moved a thousand miles in one direction while she’d gone a thousand in the other. In fact, upon reviewing his profile, it looked they even had adorable little girls who were about the same age, so it seemed like talking to him would be…safe.
It was anything but.
They remembered why they were so drawn to each other in the first place all those years ago. The conversation was light and easy, and it quickly turned from politics to how much they both hated their ill-matched spouses. Kate’s second husband was a narcissistic buffoon, much to her chagrin, as the ripped body and chiseled jaw that had been so tempting when he lived next door came at a terrible price. Justin’s wife was a sexless ice queen who spent all of her time volunteering for the PTO and chairing committees. They even came up with nicknames for them—Kate called Mrs. Justin “Sweater Set,” while he called her husband “The Teammate.” It was cute and clever, and maybe a little flirty. But still very safe. Years went by.
And then it happened. Maybe she’d been drinking a bit of wine, as she often did when the now two children were safely in bed and he was out doing God-knows-what with God-knows-who in the name of “business,” and the words somehow slipped out of her fingers, directly into the keyboard of her laptop.
“I love you.”
Her heart began thumping wildly as soon as she hit “send.” It had been a mistake. She didn’t really love him—did she? No, of course she didn’t. That would be pure insanity. She had two children, a house, a comfortable life. Wait. There was a reply.
“I love you too, Kate.”
Oh, God. In that instant, his affirmation validated everything she’d been feeling for over twenty years but had successfully kept hidden, even from herself. What had they done? In a moment, thousands of miles apart, they had ruined two families with eight words on the screen of her device. In the years that they’d been talking, they’d never so much as heard each other’s voices. It had all been over Facebook, first chat, then Messenger.
She waved the waitress back over.
“Another glass of champagne, please.” Kate needed to be as close as drunk as possible without actually being drunk. She’d gotten on a plane that morning from Seattle, despite the protests from her husband who had no fucking clue what to do with the children if he wasn’t busy trying to force the little girls into loving basketball and exercise as much as he did.
“It will be fine,” she had reassured him. “I’m just going on a little girls’ weekend. We’re meeting in Chicago for two nights. You can handle that.” And she’d written out instructions on what to feed them, and what time they needed to be in bed, and where the pediatrician’s office was if they got sick. In fact, just the act of doing that had convinced her that she was right to be heading to the Midwest. How was it possible that they had a nine-year old and he didn’t know where the fucking doctor’s office was? Because she’d always done everything for the girls, that’s how.
The original plan had been for her to meet him at The Franklin Room, a trendy little subterranean restaurant nestled in the River North district. But as she settled into her hotel room and began to get ready, Kate froze.
“I can’t. I can’t do this.” She paced around the room for an hour as her phone buzzed intermittently. Kate knew that it was Justin, who was sitting at the Franklin Room bar, wondering if she was really coming. She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t even look at her phone.
The plan to meet had been carefully crafted. Justin was going to be in Chicago for a meeting. Much to her surprise, it was Kate who had suggested that she join him.
“Chicago is easy for me to fly to,” she threw out casually from her iPhone.
“So then come see me. Stay the night with me,” Justin had replied.
Well. She wasn’t sure if she could do that. So she had gotten her own room at the Lincoln, two miles away from the Palomar where Justin would be staying. That way there was no chance that he’d claim he’d had too much to drink and couldn’t get back to his hotel, but it was far enough away that she could escape if she needed to. Kate was always responsible for planning everybody else’s happiness, and she was proud that she’d planned this trip so well, because didn’t she deserve to be happy, too?
But as she prepared to make the mile and a half walk down Wells Street, she found that her legs wouldn’t let her leave the hotel. She picked up her phone.
“Okay, you want reality?” she texted. “Here it is. I can’t come there. I just can’t. If you want to see me, you need to come here.” Send. Done.
The reply came quickly. “Yes. Of course I’ll come. See you on the roof in 15.”
Shit. She hadn’t considered that he’d take a taxi. But thankfully, there had been traffic, followed by several texts of apology from him to her. It had given her enough time to finish two glasses of champagne, and she was almost done with the third when she saw him.
My God, it really was Justin.
Sure, he was twenty-five years and twenty-five pounds north of where he was the last time she’d seen him, but the swagger was the same. The walk was the same. The smile, goddamnit. The smile was the same.
Kate rose to greet him as he walked toward her from the elevator, and was immensely proud that she didn’t throw up immediately.
“Hi,” she said, because what else needed to be said? Over the last nine years, they’d said everything without speaking an actual word.
He embraced her, longer and firmer than she expected. “Hi. Wow, Kate, it’s you. You look unbelievable.”
This, strictly speaking, was not true. She had awakened at 5:00 am, hopped on a flight that was delayed, and had done little more than put on some lip gloss and run a brush through her hair. She hadn’t felt anything like beautiful until the moment he said those words. And then she did.
He sat across a small table from her and ordered his own drink from the waitress, a Moscow Mule with Ketel One. He laughed.
“We couldn’t legally drink the last time we saw each other,” he grinned. “Cheers!” He clinked his copper mug against her champagne flute.
She was so nervous her hand shook as she raised it in toast. But it got easier. Much easier.
In fact, they talked so effortlessly that it was as though no time had passed at all. It started safely, with the children and their activities. Kate relaxed with each note of laughter, and as the afternoon faded into the evening, she cursed herself for not doing this sooner. Why hadn’t she seen him nine years ago, when she was younger, more confident?
As though he had heard her thoughts, Justin looked at her and grinned that boyish grin again.
“You know,” he said as he sipped at what must have been his third copper mug of ginger beer and vodka, “you’ve gotten more beautiful with every year.”
Kate’s head dipped down into her lap with a blushing smile.
“Thank y—,” she began as she raised it again, only to find his hand on her chin, pulling her face toward his.
They kissed. And it was like she was back in her parents house, decades ago, kissing this forbidden boy. She felt exactly the same rush throughout her physical body, but this time, her mind was older. Wiser. She should stop this before it goes too far.
But she didn’t. And she was glad.
“I didn’t expect that.” Her face was momentarily stern as their lips parted. He looked crestfallen. She let him feel that way for a split-second, and then playfully punched him in the shoulder. “Let’s do it again.”
For the next thirty minutes, the rest of Chicago made its way to the rooftop, filling the bar with people in every possible square inch, but they didn’t notice. And if anybody had looked at them, engulfed in each other, they might have thought they had been together their entire lives.
They stopped kissing long enough for Justin to grab her hands and look her squarely in the eye.
“Let’s go. Let’s go back to my hotel.” His gaze was firm but kind, locking directly onto hers. “I want you.”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Let’s go.” She paused. “But I have to shower and everything first. I want this to be perfect.”
Kate stood up. “Go. Go back to the Palomar. I’m going to go to my room and get ready. I’ll meet you there.”
He stood up as though shot from a pistol. “Okay.” He pulled her close, kissed her gently. “I love you, Kate.”
“I love you, too, Justin.” She laughed and shoved him toward the elevator. “Go.”
He laughed, and turned his head over his shoulder to look at her as he walked. In doing so, he stumbled into a cocktail table, knocking over the drinks of a very annoyed couple. “I’m sorry,” he drunkenly giggled in apology to them. “But I have to go!”
Kate watched him get into the elevator, and waved slowly to him as the doors closed. She quickly asked for the bar tab, signed the bill to her room, and made her own way to the elevator.
When she got back to her room, it took her only a few moments to throw her toiletries back into her suitcase, zip it closed, and pull it behind her as she closed the door. Kate got back into the elevator and pressed the “G” button to take her to the ground floor.
“Sir, can you call me a taxi?” she asked the bellman.
“Certainly, ma’am. Where are you headed this evening?”
As the bellman placed her small suitcase into the trunk of the Prius taxi, Kate made a call. “Yes, I need to change my flight. I need to return to Seattle tonight. No, I don’t care how much it costs. Just get me on the next flight.”
And then she cried.