Story: The Last Time

The Last Time

© 2020 by Robert Moskowitz

He was looking at me.

I'm used to it, of course. But this was different. He was different. He was tall and slim, with long brown hair and an athletic pose, even though he was standing still. My stomach fluttered briefly, and then I was off about my shopping, as though nothing had happened.

I strolled through the grocery store, picking up the fragrant fruits and vegetables, the icy frozen items, the squishy meats and plastic-wrapped cheeses on my mental list. Several times as I paused in an aisle to look for an item or to consider my choices, he appeared at the far end of the narrow space, always looking in my direction, a slight smile on his lips. Involuntarily, I felt pleased that I had chosen this simple white dress to wear instead of throwing on my usual shorts and t-shirt for grocery shopping.

For a brief moment, we locked eyes. We said not a word, my face impassive, his with that same quiet smile. Then I went to the checkout. He looked at me again, briefly, as I chatted with the clerk. A minute later I had paid and left the store.

I was both happy and sad that I would never see him again.

***

I went home and put the things away, then fed and watered the cat. I straightened up the house a little, idly wondering where he lived, what his story might be.

About 10 AM I sat down at my desk and began going through my e-mail. I had several client appointments on my schedule, but there were still a few minutes before the first of them. I tried to use the time to write another post for my blog, but I couldn't keep focused. I wished I knew more about the tall, slim guy. What did he eat? Where did he live? Was he interested in anything? Passionate?

I could have smiled at him. I could have approached him. I could have dropped my handkerchief, figuratively speaking, and started a conversation. Mom would have criticized me for being too "forward," but I had been ignoring her advice on social matters for years. Anyway, I hadn't done any of it, and now he was history. Just another fond memory.

My client appointments went OK, as they usually did. Women feeling stuck in lives they didn't want, reporting instances of disrespect, feeling helpless, wanting better options, more control. My counseling practice was all about empowering women, but since power comes from within, it was always a long and uphill struggle to trigger any real improvement. Today I was on the uphill part of the process, and I wished for a hint of progress, any feeling of a breeze at my back.

When I ended the session with the last woman of the day, I checked my calendar and remembered the open air concert. It was to be a program of young classical performers at a park just a few miles away. With the temperature so balmy and the sky so clear, it might be fun, relaxing, even rejuvenating. I still had time to make it.

I checked the mirror, ran a brush through my hair, applied some lipstick, and headed out. Traffic was light. Street parking was plentiful. I chose a seat near the front, where the sounds of the music wouldn't have to compete so heavily with children laughing or crying, friends chatting, or trucks rumbling past on their way to their deliveries.

The program promised "young," and that was no lie. One of the girls was no more than sixteen. She played a Chopin piece very beautifully. A string quartet looked to be approaching twenty, and a clarinetist was barely a teenager.

Midway through the concert, a helicopter chopped its way overhead. I looked up to see a local station's "eye in the sky" start circling. They were probably shooting video for the evening news. Did they realize they were drowning out the very concert they were supposedly reporting? As I craned my head this way and that, a flash of bright red in the rear of the audience caught my eye. It was a placket shirt on the tall, slim guy!

That's not possible, I told myself. The town is too big. The concert is too small. No chance it's the same guy from the grocery store. But it was. He was looking down at something in his lap, possibly the printed concert program notes, and didn't notice me.

I could take advantage of the opportunity and strike up a conversation. I could remark on what an odd coincidence, to see the same stranger twice at two such different venues. Would he enjoy being remembered from a grocery store mini-encounter? Be embarrassed? I turned around once more to be sure it was him, but the red shirt was gone. I stood up and scanned the audience, the rest of the park. The only flash of red came from the sneakers of a four year old girl, pumping herself higher and higher on the park swings.

After that, the music seemed to go downhill pretty rapidly, and I soon left.

***

That night on the evening news, I happened to catch the story about the afternoon's concert. I leaned closer to the screen when the video came on and -- sure enough -- there was the red shirt on the fringes of the audience. And there was me in my white dress. So it wasn't my mistake.

Sometimes, life seems just like a dream.

The next day I was taking my car to be washed. But before I left the house, I remembered I hadn't fed or watered the cat. Then I remembered the litter box needed my attention. I put my breakfast dishes carefully in the machine and left.

As I drove in to the car wash, I swear I saw that same guy again, driving out. He was alone, and he had put down his convertible top. His hair waved chaotically in the wind as he accelerated away. Dang! If I had been a few minutes earlier, if I hadn't been so compulsive about the cat and the dishes.... What? What would I have done if I had been a few minutes earlier? I don't know. But at least I would have had a choice.

I sat impatiently, arms and legs crossed, amid the smells of soap and exhaust fumes as I waited to get my car back from the attendant. It seemed to be taking forever. Finally he waved for attention and I slipped him a couple of dollars as I retrieved my keys. For a moment I toyed with the idea of turning in the same direction the tall, slim guy had driven. Would I see his car if I drove after him? Knowing that would be both silly and futile, I headed to the local library.

***

I enjoy spending time at the library. The tactile sensuality and slightly dusty smells of the book aisles have always attracted me. Plus, the librarians work hard to find and push books that might be interesting or informative. I nearly always enjoy thumbing through at least some of the books on display.

Today I was just browsing, looking for something easy to read during the hot, lazy days ahead. I had settled on a guided meditation book when I glanced up and noticed the same tall, slim guy settled comfortably in the lounge area, intent on a book he was flipping through.

I turned away and froze. How could this be? Once, that's normal. Twice, might be possible. Three times, no way. Now seeing the same guy four times in four different places over two days! This had to be a dream. No amount of coincidence could explain this sequence of events.

I put my hair behind my ears and straightened my back. I turned around, determined to talk to him this time. But he was gone. I walked quickly toward where he had been sitting, my head swiveling to see into all the nooks and crannies. No, he was nowhere in sight. I was fast becoming unsettled.

On the drive home, I began working up a script in my mind, so I'd be ready to approach him if -- no when -- I encountered him again.

"You're not going to believe this," I might begin, or "Do you notice anything strange going on in your life the past few days?"

No. There's a good chance he's not even aware of all these coincidental sightings.

"Haven't we met somewhere before?" might be a better way to go, or "I've been having the strangest experiences recently."

No. If I start out on a strange note, the whole conversation could derail.

"Hi, my name's Dierdre. You have a very interesting look." That might work. Oh, who was I kidding? I have never been able to plan what to say to someone. At the moment of truth, I always get tongue-tied or embarrassed. Anyway, the chances are very good I'll never see him again.

***

I was halfway home when a dashboard light came on. "Fuel." Was I actually that low? I couldn't remember the last time I had filled up, so I shouldn't really have been surprised.

Fortunately, my favorite gas station was only a few blocks ahead. The traffic light turned green and I steered into the right lane. There was only one other car next to the pumps, so I carefully pulled in and lined up my filler door with the pump hose. As always, the gas station surfaces seemed a little oily, so I was careful not to let my skirt touch the pump as I pulled at the nozzle.

But it wouldn't budge. I pulled harder. No movement.

I was thinking about moving my car to a different pump when a deep voice said: "Here, let me."

I turned toward the voice with a "thank you" on my lips, and stopped cold. It was the tall, slim guy.

We locked eyes for a moment.

"I don't believe this," I said, half to myself.

"Don't believe what?," he asked, with a mischievous smile.

"I don't believe that I've run into you half a dozen times in the past few days, over and over again. That just doesn't happen."

"Five times," he said. "Not six." He had a nice smile. He brushed his long hair out of his eyes, like a little boy.

"You've noticed it, too?"

"You're someone who's easy to remember," he told me.

"I liked your red shirt."

"I liked your white dress."

He pulled the fuel hose nozzle from the pump and put it gently into my car's filler pipe. We locked eyes again, and that was the last time, sweetie, I ever had to pump my own gas.

"I like that story, mommy. Tell it to me again."

***