Five years later, a young man runs into his ex.
The moment Chris walked through the front door, he traveled back in time. Duke’s on Main, the all-night diner down the street from his college apartment, hadn’t changed a bit since the last time he’d been here five years ago. The neighborhood around it was barely recognizable, but Duke’s was the same venerable institution that had reliably served generations of NYU students who weren’t lucky enough to secure a dorm, and weren’t rich enough to afford an apartment in Manhattan. Chris, like many of his classmates, found cheaper accommodations just over the river in Brooklyn, and would take the MTA to campus every day.
Seating himself at an empty booth in the corner, Chris looked the place over. It had the same cracked red vinyl booths he remembered. The same dark wood tables and chairs. Even the same collection of liquor bottles behind the bar. Chris was pretty sure that even the bartender was the same. The televisions had been updated; flat screens now replaced the chunky CRTs that had been mounted in cabinets during his college years, but that was about the extent of the updates.
He was just about to get up and go order a drink at the bar when a young woman walked in. Chris’ jaw dropped. Not just because she was beautiful, which she was, but because he recognized her. She hadn’t changed one bit over the past five years.
“Hey, Jimmy,” she said as she greeted the bartender.
“What’ll it be tonight?” the bartender asked. “Martini or Old Fashioned?”
“Thanks. This was a big one.” She smiled at the bartender and Chris felt a familiar pang in his gut. That authentically demure smile was one of the things Chris had found most endearing about Jasmine, and even five years later seeing it made him question their breakup all over again.
Jimmy handed her the dry martini with a twist, her celebratory drink of choice. Chris was just debating whether to go over and say hello, pretend he didn’t see her, or see if he could magically teleport himself out of there when Jasmine turned to find a seat and spotted him there in the corner. Their eyes met, and there was no way he could play it off like he hadn’t seen her now.
Recognition blossomed on her face and she approached.
“Hey Chris,” she said, almost shyly.
“Good to see you, Jazz.”
“I didn’t know you were in town.”
“Just for a couple of days before I head back to LA. I didn’t know you still came here.”
“It’s on the way home... ish. I live just over in Fort Greene so whenever I finish a case - win or lose - I stop on the way home to either celebrate or brood.”
“Just like we used to do after finals in college.”
“I guess I never quite kicked the habit.”
An awkward silence fell over them until Chris realized he hadn’t asked if she wanted to sit down. He indicated the booth across from him.
“Please,” he offered. “You’re more than welcome to join me if you’d like.”
She slid into the booth across from him, the aging incandescent light fixture casting a golden yellow glow on the honey blonde curls that fell past her shoulders. Her blue eyes were as piercing as ever.
“How have you been?” she asked, clearly taking stock of him as well. He was proud to admit he was leaner than he had been in college, thanks to healthy eating and regular exercise over the past couple of years, although he wondered if she noticed the graying hair that was starting at his temples.
“Good,” he said automatically. “Can’t complain. Work keeps me busy.”
“I saw on Instagram a while ago that you were dating someone out in LA. How’s that going?”
“Really well, actually,” Chris replied, cursing himself for adding the ‘really’ and making it sound as if that would be a surprise. “Been together for a little over a year now.”
He also decided not to mention that he knew she saw the pictures of him and his girlfriend on Instagram because she had “liked” some of them and he had spent more days than he would care to admit obsessing over that fact.
“That’s great,” she said. She looked as if she were about to say something else, but then stopped herself.
“Are you and April still together?” Chris asked.
“Yep, still going strong,” Jasmine said, looking a little uncomfortable.
“I’m glad you two got back together,” Chris said. “You make a great couple.”
“So did we.”
The words hung in the air, neither of them really sure how to follow it up. They had been a great couple. Both were career-focused law students from similar backgrounds. They had the same tastes in movies and music, the same sense of humor, and their physical connection was unlike anything Chris had experienced before or since. The only real difference of opinion, which ended up ending the relationship, was the fact that Chris eventually wanted to settle down and start a family, while Jasmine had zero interest in a traditional family experience. She was openly bisexual, had no desire to become a parent, and was laser focused on her career and hobbies. He wanted a house and two-point-five kids; she wanted a stratospheric career and two-point-five dozen stamps on her passport.
Her relationship with Chris had come at a time where she had just broken up with her then-girlfriend April, and was questioning all of those things about herself. She wondered if a more traditional lifestyle was what she wanted. It took her less than eighteen months to realize that it wasn’t, and to get back together with April. But it was enough time to cause a deeply remorseful breakup on both their parts, the kind that can only come from a couple who has every reason to stay together except for that one single reason which would require someone to completely change who they are.
“Do you ever think about us?” Jasmine asked him.
“Often,” Chris admitted. There was no point in denying it. In his darkest and most pained moments of their breakup, he’d wished they’d never met. But that was just anger and grief talking. The truth was that he wouldn’t change a thing. He was better for having known her, even if their relationship was ultimately destined to be only a short season for each of them.
“Me too,” she said softly.
They both reached for something to say after that. Jasmine took a big gulp of her martini and then beat him to it, surprising him with the topic.
“Do you remember that trip we took to Mexico?”
“How could I forget?”
Of course he remembered that trip to Mexico. To celebrate being done with the bar exam, they got passports and took their first international trip ever. Ten days in Tulum, exploring ruins, relaxing on white sand beaches overlooking turquoise waters, and making love repeatedly in their beachside hotel room. That was where he had fallen in love with her, when he realized it was more than just a physical connection or enjoying someone’s company; that’s when he realized a life with her was infinitely more appealing to him than one without. For Chris, Mexico remained one of those “perfect” memories; the ones that remain unspoiled and undiluted by the passage of time, a pristine moment that he would always look back on as one of the best of his life.
“You know,” Jasmine said, her voice carrying a mixture of hesitance and excitement. “I have a bottle of tobala mezcal at home. Want to maybe ... get out of here? My place has a rooftop terrace with a decent view of the East River. We could sit up there and enjoy the breeze, the view ... maybe pretend like we’re back in Tulum again.”
“And April would be okay with that?”
“April’s up in Boston for the week, overseeing the installation of a couple of pieces on loan from the Met.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “And if I’m being totally honest, “going strong” is probably an overly optimistic assessment of where our relationship is at right now.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t--”
“It’s fine, really. We support each other, we love each other ... we just stopped being in love with each other a while ago, I think.”
Chris’ head spun. There was a part of him that very much wanted to go back to her place, sip mezcal on the roof, and see where the night took them. It was the same part of him that always wondered if things could have been different between them, if there was really that much daylight between what they wanted, and a compromise could be found.
But he also knew, deep down, that there couldn’t be. Even if he went back to her place and they picked up where they left off. Even if they got back together. At some point, somewhere down the road, he would start thinking about having a family. And she would pretend to be interested, maybe even willing to give it a try. But deep down inside, he’d know that she was just doing it for him. It wasn’t what she really wanted. And he could try to talk himself into the idea of being happy without a family, but he would just be lying to himself.
He looked across the table at Jasmine, her eyes wide and hopeful. Vulnerable. Chris wondered how long it would take him to get over the regret about what he was about to say. In a perfect mirror image of what she told him five years ago when he asked her to move out to Los Angeles with him, he said:
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Jasmine’s face was a rollercoaster of emotion. First disappointment, then hurt. Sadness. Acceptance. Relief.
“I guess we both know where that road would lead, don’t we?”
Chris nodded, afraid that if he opened his mouth to say anything, he’d cave and say all the things she wanted to hear only to get his heart broken all over again.
“Not that I’m not tempted,” he said. “But it’s hard to move forward while still looking backward, you know?”
“Wise words. Some ancient Greek philosopher?”
“One of the real housewives of wherever, I think. Trina always has that stuff on in the background. It seeps in.”
Jasmine laughed and gave him a look of genuine fondness.
“I should probably get going,” she said, downing the rest of her martini. “It was really good to see you, Chris.”
“You too, Jazz.”
“See you around.”
Jasmine got up and returned her martini glass to Jimmy at the bar. She paid her tab and headed for the door, giving Chris one last glance and a small wave as she stepped through the door and back out onto the street.
Chris sat there for a long time, thinking about the interaction. About how, five years later, he was still as in love with her as ever. And about how, of all the ways tonight could have ended, he was absolutely sure he made the right choice.
He approached Jimmy at the bar.
“What’ll it be?”
Chris looked at the bottles on offer behind the bar.
“You got any tobala?”
Word Count: 1,891
Submitted To: "Sound & Vision Contest" (July 2022)
Prompt: Inspired by the song "Damage" by The Band CAMINO. Lyric Video ▼