He met her on an online dating site. She was tall, had green eyes and dirty blonde hair, and had just broken up with some guy named Todd. They met for coffee; afterward, they went to her apartment.
The next three weekends he took the train to see her. But the fourth weekend she said she was busy. And then she stopped returning his calls.
He, though, was infatuated. One night, drunk, he texted her: Please call me. I miss you. I think I’m in love with you.
She responded immediately.
U miss me? U LOVE ME? U hardly know me. Listen. We had a nice fling but that’s all it was, okay? We should both move on.
He was devastated, but he didn’t text or call her back. He had, after all, his pride.
Five days passed, and then six and then seven. He was pleased he hadn’t caved and tried to contact her. But on the eighth night he got drunk and left a long voicemail.
The next evening he got a text from her right after he dismissed his first class of the semester.
Here’s the deal. I’m back with Todd. I tried to give u hints about this but obviously u didn’t get them. So I’m stating it clearly: We r over.
A few seconds later, another text came.
I didn’t mean to come off as harsh. Ur a sweet guy. I wish u the best.
As he drove home, he thought of Todd, whom he’d never met but whom he thought he could picture from what she’d mentioned about him: long-haired, tattooed, a drummer in some band. He wanted to beat Todd up even though she said he was as big as a football player.
In his apartment, he made one vodka and Coke after another and reread all their texts. Sometimes he was filled with such sadness he thought he’d cry.
Then, after his eighth drink, a moment of drunken clarity arrived, and he deleted the texts; this felt like a healthy decision, but he also knew he’d regret this in the future.
By the time he went to bed, he was so drunk he fell asleep immediately and soon dreamed of an image of a woman that was vaguely her yet also an amalgamation of dozens of other women he’d been in love with- whether he’d known them or not- over the years; whoever she was, in his dreams this woman loved him unconditionally and completely, and he was safe in her somnolent embrace for the next few hours, protected until the next morning, when the heartbreak would revisit him with the same starkness and undeniableness of the morning light upon remembering she was gone and not coming back.
He got through the next week by teaching and grading papers in the day and drinking at night. Often he’d wish he hadn’t erased their texts so he could reread them.
Then one night he got especially drunk, and after staring at her number on his phone for a minute he hit “send.”
To his surprise, she answered.
He was caught so off-guard he stammered. Hi. Um, how are-
What do you want?
I…He tried to sound sober. I just wanted to, you know, see how-
Didn’t you get my texts? I’m back with Todd.
In the background, he heard a guy’s voice.
Right. He wondered how badly he was slurring. I know. It’s just-
The guy’s voice now yelled. He could hardly understand it, but he caught some words: “ell im . . . going out . . . fuck off . . . for all. . .” Then there was silence, as though she’d hung up or put her palm over the speaker.
But suddenly there was background noise again.
I’ve gotta go, she said, her voice impatient but also, he thought, frightened, and she hung up.
Another week passed full of longing and drinking. He was certain he’d never get over her. He wasn’t even jealous of Todd’s being with her; he was just sad he wasn’t.
A couple of days later, he was still melancholy but not as sad as he’d been. Then one more day passed, and he felt better still, and after another, he was even in a somewhat good mood at times.
One evening before class he was talking with two of his students about the recent Michigan game; all three were in awe of a catch a wide receiver made which was nullified by an awful officiating call. As the rest of the class filed in, he suddenly realized he was not only happy but that he hadn’t thought of her all day until now. And now that he was thinking about her, he didn’t feel longing or sadness; he was instead indifferent and even magnanimous. It was as if the fling had happened to two characters in a movie he’d been absorbed in, but now the end credits were over and he was able to return to his life.
He was over her.
The summer, which at its best had been uncomfortably warm and at its worst unbearably humid, had stubbornly and sporadically appeared throughout September. But one day right before October it officially died: the sky was a stark gray, a steady breeze blew, and it was the first time that season it called for long sleeves and a jacket.
He was still single. He knew it was crazy to think he was too old at 36, but he felt as though he’d had enough failed relationships to resign himself to the fact that he’d be alone forever. He knew there were worse ways to end up, but that did not provide much comfort.
He had a few friends, but these were companions from former jobs whom he only saw once or twice a year and with whom individually he did not feel close enough to call up randomly to do something or even just to talk. So he spent his free time grading papers, reading, and occasionally writing. Sometimes he went on dating websites. He drank, though not as much as he used to. It was a lonely and even sad existence, but it was his life.
One night in mid-October he was up late and buzzed from multiple vodka and tonics. He was crawling into bed and thinking about Salma Hayek so he might dream about her when his phone vibrated.
Slowly he got up. He rarely received texts, and when he did they were usually severe weather or Amber alerts. He tried to remember if he’d heard about any oncoming storm as he picked up his phone.
It was a text from her.
I feel like such an idiot. Todd beat me up and put me in the hospital. He’s in jail now.
Part of him was numb and shocked; another part was saddened and concerned; and yet a third part, for which he felt shameful and weak, rejoiced: maybe, after all, he had a chance with her.
He reread the text. He told himself he’d gotten over her, and because of this, her contacting him was unfair- beaten up and in the hospital or not- since she’d broken up with him. He was wondering what, if any, his responsibility was, when his phone vibrated again.
Fuck my life. I’m so stupid- so goddamned stupid.
He considered this message, too. He reread it several times, wondering if he should respond.
Finally, he started to type a text. Then he deleted it. He composed another but erased that one, too. Then he typed one he thought was direct yet also politely distant and sent it:
I’m sorry. You’re not stupid; you just made a mistake. I hope you’re okay.
He waited fifteen minutes, but no response came. He considered calling her but dismissed this idea. She had friends. She was almost certainly talking to one now (assuming she could talk, he suddenly thought, shaken, and he wondered what exactly had happened to her). He waited another ten minutes. No other text came, and he went to bed.
But as he lay there he anticipated the vibration of his phone, the blink of its red light. This didn’t happen, though, and he told himself she’d contacted him in panic or delirium, and that most likely he’d never hear from her again.
But he checked his phone constantly the next day: in class, on the way to class, at the takeout Chinese restaurant while waiting for his dinner. There were no messages. He again considered if he were responsible for doing anything because she’d reached out in a time of distress. But he’d gotten back to her immediately, and she hadn’t responded.
He’d done all that could be expected.
Another day passed, and then three and then four. The October weather and all its stark beauty were in full force: it rained; the wind pierced; leaves fell and blew and danced.
The following Friday evening it was drizzling and he was watching a rerun of All in the Family on YouTube when his phone vibrated.
He picked it up and saw she was calling him.
He stared at her number, his phone vibrating in his hand. A barrage of emotions- surprise, anxiety, excitement, doubt- enveloped him, but underneath all of them, what he felt most acutely, was happiness.
He pressed “talk.”
He showered, shaved, dressed, sprayed on cologne, looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, and locked up and left.
It was dark as he walked to the train station, and his dollar-store umbrella only somewhat shielded him from the drizzle. The night was cool and damp but pleasant.
An hour and a half later he got off the subway. It still drizzled but faintly. He closed his umbrella and donned a hat instead.
Inside the diner, waitresses and busboys in black-and-white uniforms bustled about. At a table near the front, two men drank coffee. In a booth, a group of girls talked. All the stools at the counter were occupied. The place was a din of voices talking and silverware scraping and banging.
He looked around but didn’t see her. He thought she’d changed her mind and suddenly felt not only sad but alone. The hostess approached and asked if he’d like a table for one.
Then, in a booth in the back, a man in a baseball hat got up, and he saw her in the booth behind his; her back was to the entrance, her dirty blonde hair tied up.
He told the hostess he was meeting someone and walked past the table with the two men, the booth with the girls, and the people at the counter; he then passed a booth with a man eating a piece of pie and reading the Post, and a table with an old couple. Finally, he reached the booth where the man in the baseball hat had sat. He stared at the nape of her neck, her dirty blonde hair, and her white knitted sweater. A few wisps of untied hair hung loosely.
His stomach felt light, his heart fluttery; a tingle of exhilaration went up his back.
Tentatively, he walked up to her.
When she turned, he saw a faint purple and yellowish bruise above her eyebrow.
Hi. She smiled the way she did the first time he saw her, her green eyes just as resplendent, and he was, he realized, as fixated as he’d ever been.
As he sat down, his mind became lucid, and he saw what he’d be getting into: a person who’d never felt much for him and who was seeing him to ward off loneliness and for sex; someone who’d dumped him with no regard for his feelings; a girl who was mixed up with a guy who’d beaten her up, a guy who, as far as he knew, might still be around.
A waitress asked if they were ready; as they ordered, her foot pressed into his ankle, and he knew what would follow: her apartment, her bed, holding her.
One day he’d look back on this with shame, maybe even disgust. It would be pathetic to remember how lonely he was, how much bliss this human touch aroused in him. But right now, who was he to even consider this?