A twenty-something man, a twenty-something woman. Her toddler daughter. They sit in a diner in a northern California coastal town. They talk. The conversation sways between awkward and easy, sad and funny.
She asks, "Why didn't you ask me out in high school?"
He thinks. Simple answer, really. "Because your boyfriend was my brother's best friend."
"Oh yeah." She laughs a sad laugh.
He talks about his five year-old boy, and how he misses his mom, who was stolen by a guy with money. She talks about her ex, and wonders if her daughter will ever see her father again. They talk about mutual friends. They damn their alcoholic parents.
He curses himself for being so shy, so cowed by her beauty. She doesn’t think she’s beautiful anymore, no. A baby, twenty pounds, and a couple of scars left by her departed ex have created a chasm between now and then, when most of the high school guys thought she was hot.
But to him, her beauty has evolved to something even more enchanting. To him, the years and the pounds have made her all the more alluring, more womanly. He looks at her little girl. Mama’s face, Mama’s smile. Maybe she would break a high school boy's heart the way his had been broken.
They dance around the goodbye neither wants to say.
She asks, "Will they keep you on at the warehouse permanently?"
He wants to lie, aching for a chance with her, but he won’t risk poisoning the future with false promises. "I don't know. They tell me that I'll be off for three months, and they'll bring me back in the spring. I won't know if they'll make me permanent until the end of next season." He looks at her, looks at her little girl. "Stay. We can make it. I'll find something until I go back to the warehouse."
The young woman wants to cry. She won’t. "Why are you asking me now, when I'm leaving for Portland tomorrow? And how can you know you want to live with us? We've never even gone out on a real date. Watching our kids play together in the park doesn’t count."
"The time never seemed right," is all he can muster. He doesn’t know if he can say the rest, but there might never come another chance. "I've loved you since the eighth grade." As soon as those words leave his lips, he knows it’s too late. Months, years too late.
She tries to forget what he said. She tries not to see the trembling of his lower lip. She won’t believe his words; she can’t afford to place her faith in one man again. The conversation ebbs. They eat half their food, and the little girl grows cranky. She says, "I have to go. I have to. The job in Portland is too good to pass up." She looks down at her daughter. "I have to do it for her."
She stands. "Let me walk you to your car," he says.
"No, please . . . just stay here." A tear escapes, defying her efforts. They hug. No kiss. She walks toward the exit.
The little girl looks over her mother's shoulder at him, and calls out “bye bye.”
He drives away. Tears flow. He hadn't lied to her. He couldn’t. “She’ll come back,” he says aloud, over and over again, grasping for hope, trying to stem the fear that truth will leave him twisting in the wind.