With trembling hands, Nora reached for the crumpled pack of cigarettes in her purse. She’d had them for little over a week now. She hadn’t felt a need to light one, but had bought them on a whim. Until now. She hadn’t seen him in months. It felt like years had skittered passed, careless of the aging lives they left in their wake.
Without a second thought, she shoved the white cylinder between her lips.
“I thought you quit.”
Nora didn’t have to look up to know who it was. She knew. She wished she didn’t, but you couldn’t undo the past. Could you? “Quitting is for quitters.” she said before lighting up. Instantly, the bittersweet fingertips of the tobacco tickled her lungs.
“I didn’t think that you’d show.”
“So,” he slid into the booth opposite her, eyes never leaving her own. “How are you?”
“What do you want James?”
A frown marred his lips. “I wanted to see you.” He leaned forward as he swept a few stray curls behind her ear, letting the pad of his thumb brush against the side of her neck. “I miss you.”
She swatted his hand away. Wrapping her arm around herself tightly, she sat back in her chair and stared down at the lipstick stain on the rim of her coffee cup. Her cigarette dangled, almost completely forgotten from her index and thumb. The tip burned on. The ashes fluttering to the table top helplessly. She didn’t look up at him when she asked, “What do you miss?”
“Everything.” When he noticed the roll of her eyes, he barrelled on. “I miss the way you laugh. The way you bite your nails when you get nervous. The way your hair mats to your head when you just get out of the shower. I miss the way your red lipstick would smudge when I kissed you. I miss when you would cling to me as you slept. I could protect you from anything.”
After a moment, she looked up at him. She was the same Nora he’d always known. Fun loving, delicate Nora was there somewhere. Lost. But she was there. When she spoke, he had hoped that she would tell him how much she missed him too. How she loved him. In those few short seconds, he had never wished for anything more.
“You have a wife to feel all those things. Have you forgotten?” Nora sighed tiredly, raising the cigarette to her lips. She inhaled one long last haul, not caring whether he liked it or not. Exhale. The world became the home of smoke screens. Birthed from ruby red lips, going off into the universe to discover truths and lies that needed shielding.
“Please,” James begged. He cradled a her hand in his own. When she made a move to pull away, he only held on tighter. “Please don’t act like this.”
“Act like what?”
“Like it didn’t mean anything.”
“It meant something. Is that what you want me to say?” James opened his mouth to speak, but Nora cut him off. “It did. It meant the world to me. I didn’t think something like that could ever happen to me, that I could fall in love like that- with you. But I did. I loved every second I had with you. I loved you. The good and the bad.”
“Then why did you leave? If you could love the bad, why didn’t you stay?”
“Why didn’t you leave?” Tears swelled in her eyes. Nora pulled her hands free, accidently knocking over the salt shaker. Tiny grains skittered out like unsaid words escaping from timid subconsciences at last. “I wasn’t about to become the woman who continued to hope that the man that she’s in love with would someday leave his wife for her. I didn’t want to love you from far away. If we were meant to be together, shouldn’t it be freely and honestly? Don’t I deserve to be happy?”
“And are you?” He asked quietly, running his hands through a mop of dark hair. “Happy?”
“No. No, I’m not. But I’m hopeful that one day I’ll wake up and it won’t be this painful.”
A moment of silence passed over them, neither comforting or awkward. A simple silence that offered them mere moments to collect their thoughts. To retrace memories in the back of their minds and remember the wonderful. The bustle of the diner buzzed around them loudly. The clanking of dishes from the kitchen, customers gorging on their pancake breakfasts over morning gossip. Someone laughed loudly in the booth next to theirs. “Liza and I are getting a divorce.”
“Are you?” she said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be sorry. I want you to be delighted.”
“This hasn’t got anything to do with me James.”
“It’s got everything to do with you!” A few patrons looked in their direction with wide curious eyes. James ducked his head, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. “Haven’t you been listening?”
“Is that why you asked me here? To tell me that?” Shaking her head, she added, “It won’t change anything.”
“I’m in love with you.”
“Sometimes it’s not enough.” Gathering her purse, Nora left a couple of bucks on the table to pay for her caffeine. “I…” she started to say, but swallowed down the sudden feeling of sadness. “Take care of yourself.” Without looking back, she left him sitting in a crumpled heap. Head in his hands, desperation in his heart and love- invisible, circling around them until the last of it faded with time.