In front of him, for nearly every minute he was awake, there was a screen.
He tried to recall a time when it wasn’t this way. He couldn’t, so he watched old movies to try to remember. ... [+]
They're at an age where the words "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" seem by turns awkwardly juvenile and invigoratingly whimsical. Sarah liked calling her most-immediately-ex boyfriend (not Steve) her "boyfriend" until they broke up, at which point she wished he'd been more.
The air is cold. Barely March. Maybe that's why she feels bricked up—shrinking from the wind. Or maybe it has more to do with Steve. She wishes she were walking. Everything would seem more distant. Her mind would be better able to adapt, unarrested by the unnerving speed of bicycling.
She parks her bike two blocks from the coffee shop where they're meeting so she can prepare in that slow, walking way.
The coffee shop's huge sheets of glass are opaque in streaks of late-morning glare. He's only here for a few days. She wishes she were only here for a few days, instead of for most of her life.
With a block left to go, she thinks she can see him through the window. But it isn't him. Whoever it is gets up and leaves.
The shop arrives sooner than she expects.
She puts her hand on the handle, sure she shouldn't go in. But it's too late—he sees her, rises, gives her a hug. He's still in his coat—a nicely cut wool thing in charcoal grey. The kind of thing you can wear downtown in a decent-sized city and look like you work in one of the bigger buildings. He might actually work in one of those buildings, or he might just be dressing for the job he wants. She's not up to date on what he's up to—social media isn't her thing.
She gives him a smile she hopes isn't flirting—a nervous sometimes-habit—then retreats to the line at the cash register. Her heart's going a bit. It feels unjust that she's a captive of whatever has turned a bike ride and coffee into low-grade trauma. Her voice comes out wrong when she tries to order, at first. She decides to get herbal tea at the last second because she's already skittish. She tries to be nice to the barista and not treat her like she—and the rest of the world—is Steve.
Turning back toward the front of the store, tea in hand, she finds herself looking past Steve at the monolithic glare of late-morning sun.
When she sits in front of him, she can't find the walls of the brick room that was pressing in. She's not sure what happened to it. She's afraid it's hiding, waiting to encroach again. Maybe it receded because she was kind to the barista, or because she decided to get tea instead of coffee, or because she regretted maybe-accidentally flirting. Whatever the cause, some gear has disengaged, some lens replaced with a differently shaped one.
She doesn't want to like Steve anymore, or for Steve to like her. They're on two sides of a very long bridge, and he's no more likely to cross it now than he was while they were dating. But this time she doesn't feel like she's on the wrong side of the bridge. Steve's too-nice coat and the way he's already talking about his commission from a recent sale affirms that she's not on the wrong side of the bridge, regardless of how stuck she is in her hometown, or for how long.
The tea is hot, which she appreciates about tea in a way she never has before. She knows other people appreciate this, but for her, it's a first. Steve's inability to hold her attention has enlightened her about tea.
By the time they're hugging again and saying goodbye, she's said some polite things and shared innocuous details about her life. Her smile for him is real, but it's for a part of him neither of them knows, but that she has faith exists.
She leaves, keeps walking when she reaches her bike, circling the nearby park instead, happy that she's not, for the moment, ashamed of being in her hometown, or afraid of Steve, or feeling like she owes someone something.
She sits on a bench. The sky is too bright to look at. The grass seems close. She can't believe it's already as green as it is. Her eyes well up, something rising in her—like the warmth of the tea and the green of the grass—from somewhere beyond the edges of the brick room.