1.

A small, framed sign is mounted to the office lunchroom wall. Decades ago, it was stamped from tin and painted red, and gold letters were spelled across its face:

Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”

He has this terrible habit of tracking me down right before my birthday.

“Hello,” he offers up in that sing song sort of way he has when I pick up the phone. And I huff and puff, determined that his ex-boyfriend shenanigans are not to be forgotten! But pretty soon he has me laughing or tells me about a book I would like. “I’ll lend it to you.” In person, I wonder?

I drift off, curious as to how he looks now. I heard his hair was long, almost shaggy, which I think ridiculous, and I smile. Then, somewhere before “I told you not to call me,” we make plans, to lend a book, to catch up, to let him properly take me out to celebrate my birth.

I pick him up at his office, quickly reminded of how much I had hated his job and yet how it had once thrilled me. I remember as I sit there waiting in the big, scary atrium of business suits and fancy cars, how he’d rolled off me one night to get the phone, how he’d turned back and said he had to go out, to his boss’ house, to a party, that I, now in a lowered tone, couldn’t come. And I pretended not to care, to understand. I stayed in his bed over a series of nights, wanting to be what he’d come home to, asking, “Just call if it’s late. But have fun!” I wished him well for the things he wouldn’t bring me to.  Staring up through the darkness, there in his bed, I was hopeful that every noise from the street was his truck pulling in from the night.

He’d finally arrive and I’d have the “audacity” to say, “You don’t think 2 a.m. constitutes as late?” He’d pause and sigh and have a faint genuine moment of truth. “I don’t think I can do this,” he’d whisper.

I’d roll over, not knowing what it was we had decided, but still there in his bed, not demanding he take me home. He’d off to some trip the next day, some business that very much needed to be done. And when he’d return, we wouldn’t speak of it. We’d just continue, barely able to say what we were wanting, just calling each other less and less, hurting more and more for about a year or so until he was squiring some new girl around town.

Then he saunters in, all tall and exactly the same and I hope there are lots of people standing there in the atrium to witness our reunion, to see him greeting me. We behave ever so properly and discuss our dining options, deciding on a place, acting as if we’d just seen each other some recent summer day.

“Same car,” he says matter of factly as we are on our way. I answer, “Yes,” very aware of every word as I struggle with the radio button that I know by heart, surprised he doesn’t ask to drive.

We take our seats after a few hellos to other patrons, and I feel on equal footing because I know people too.

I sip my lemonade, which he orders for me, worried that the next forty minutes will be the same. I look at him and think, “Oh, that’s right, you’re kind of boring.” And I feel happy we aren’t together. But then he leans in, only for me to hear, and tells me how he found his eighth grade English teacher’s phone number, called her and thanked her for his education, for the things he was able to accomplish. He tells me how she cried. I excuse myself and hurry to the bathroom, almost crying myself, for the story is too lovely to be ignored, and I am furious that he suddenly isn’t boring.

I return and we eat our salads, and slowly a giggle emerges. We talk of Vonnegut and bad movies and trips we have taken, and pretty soon I forget the speech I am practicing in my head, of how we can only be friends, if that, of how I know now that that was not a way to be treated, of how I’m very much on track if you haven’t noticed.

But he doesn’t give me the chance. He doesn’t ask for me back. (That won’t come for another week or so – late and drunk in some diner somewhere. It’s always late and drunk in some diner somewhere.) He tells me he is too embarrassed to ask for another chance, that he knows he’s used up his chances, that he’s sorry.

I melt just a little more than is good for me, convinced that maybe once he really did love me.

With that conversation out of the way, he feels permission to pick at my salad. I let him, enjoying the reach across the table and he asks me what he’s been waiting to all day, “Seeing anyone?”

“No one special. A writer,” I say, angry that I hadn’t lied, hadn’t claimed to be riotously happy, nearing nuptials actually. He pauses and inquires some more, but I won’t budge. Then he waits for me to return the question, but I won’t. I know who she is. She’s why I’m not her. I get momentarily flustered thinking of her, even though I’d heard they’d broken up, and talk of the two or three (or four or five actually) other writers there’ve been this year. Then I push my salad away.

“Happy Birthday,” he finally offers.

“Oh yeah,” I say. “To you, too. You know, I think you find me right around my birthday so you can butter me up by the time it’s your birthday in a few days,” I pretend to scold.

He laughs, denies it, but with a glint of “you caught me” in his eyes.

And I remember his eyes and stare just a little too long.

“I’m having a party actually. A birthday party. Friday,” he says, as he pays the check. “I’d like you to come.”

I hem and haw and say, “Lunch was probably enough,” even though I make a mental note of the time and place. I seem miraculously to forget about how he’d had his birthday party anyway a few years back. I had been rushed to the hospital earlier that day with a ruptured ovarian cyst and recuperated in bed alone as he drunkenly turned thirty.

“Thank you. It was good to see you,” he says in his most genuine tone as we head back to his office. “Friday?” he tries again.

“Probably not,” I say, suddenly remembering those last years.

“What is it you want?” he inquires almost hurt.

“You know. House, husband, baby, dog.”

“Oh.”

“Hanging out with you just postpones those things,” I say, feeling momentarily powerful with my zinger of truth.

“Not necessarily,” he sheepishly musters as he slowly glances away, not aware, or maybe all too aware, of how cruel his flicker of hope is to me.

I drop him off, anxious for him to get out of the car and then missing him as soon as he’s gone. I drive off not wanting to watch him walk away from me.

I head over to the writer’s house. “Hi, I’m around the corner,” I call. I enter his apartment very determined to have a good time. I let him touch me. Kiss me. We end up on the hallway floor, not worthy of a bed or a couch. And just a second after the moment where we go too far, where seeking companionship turns to utter isolation – I rise and make some excuse and hurry home, leaving him there on the hardwood floor, promising nothing’s wrong, I’ll call you later behind an almost believable smile.

I drive almost in a daze not sure how I make it home or what is wrong.

I shower like Lady Macbeth and scare the bejesus out of my friend when she calls, not realizing as I answer the phone that I am heaving and wailing. She races over and listens to me rant about my day, about how I violated myself, by my actions. How dirty I am substituting one man for another. “If I had a therapist it wouldn’t be lost on them that both men have the same name,” I say attempting levity. She takes that as a cue to suggest therapy. I dismiss it, knowing she is right.

I calm down and think I look pretty when I cry. She agrees with me, pointing out how green my eyes are. I should cry more often, she instructs. “Not a problem,” I respond. Then we both laugh.

“I’ll take you out for your birthday, just the girls,” she offers. And for the first time all day, I smile and think, “Oh, yes, lovely.”

“Friday? How’s Friday?” she offers as she tears into planning a grand fete.

And I shrink back and calmly say, “I can’t Friday. I’m busy. Friday, I have plans.”