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Inspirational Reads

The Photograph - Part Nine

June 14, 2012

"Just put the kids to bed, Drew. You're a big boy. I'm pretty sure you can handle it." I heard her yelling into the house while I sat in my car with the windows rolled down. Hearing her angry tore at my heart, but I sat silently, staring through the windshield down the long, straight, silent street. No one else drove through the neighborhood, save for a few cars I could see flickering into view at the intersection at the end of the street.

"I'll be back in a little bit. We can talk about it then." A second later, Tori was sliding into the passenger side of my car.

"Ready?" I asked, raising my eyebrows. "You know, if it's a problem, we don't have to--"

"No, he's got his panties in a twist. He saw me looking you up the other day online." She shook her head as I started the car and pulled away from the curb. "He's jealous of everything."

"Do you blame him? You're quite a catch."

She smiled at my awkward compliment. We drove on in silence, punctuated only by her pointing and giving directions. An emotional wall was slowly erected in the space between us in the car.

"You still smoke?" she asked as we drove down a wide avenue lined with strip malls and shopping plazas. The glaring, bright lights were blinding compared to the dim, quiet street on which Tori lived.

"No," I said, coughing as I did so. "I quit a few days ago."

She shot me a look but said nothing more. We continued on in silence before she directed me into a plaza. A sleepy restaurant sat at the junction of two rows of shops. The inside hummed with fluorescent lights and a the scent of decades of fried food laid a heavy pall of different aromas throughout the restaurant, varying from the freshly delicious to the agedly rancid scent of old grease.

"It's not the finest dining," Tori said, sliding into a booth opposite me and setting her purse down beside her, "but the coffee's good and the waitresses do a good job of not letting your cup go empty."

"You do know how much I love coffee," I said with a half smile. My stomach growled as I inspected the menu. "Excuse me," I said, "I haven't eaten anything today. Are you hungry? My treat, for, you know, not going to your wedding."

There was a moment of silence and I felt her eyes upon me. The years that stretched between us far outweighed the years we were together, and despite that, I could tell that something heavy was on her mind. With so many things left unsaid, I simply continued thumbing through the menu until the waitress came to take our orders. A moment later, we both had full cups of coffee before us.

"Here's to old times," I said, raising the cup up before us in a mock salute. Tori watched me over the brim of my cup while I took a sip. Her eyes, which always carried at least a hint of smile, were the saddest I had ever seen them. I lowered the cup and set it on the table.

"Why didn't you ever call?" she asked, her voice soft and distant. "Or send an email or write a letter or something?"

It was difficult to look at her, so I didn't. I looked everywhere but at those sad, crystalline green eyes. If she started crying, I knew I would lose it. I was halfway there already.

"I drove home that night," I said, still not looking at her. My fingers twitched and twiddled with the flatware on the table. I desperately wanted a smoke. Quitting cold turkey might have been the dumbest thing I had ever attempted. "I drove straight through. I stopped for gas and snacks and smokes. I fell into my bed exhausted, but I could only think of you and how happy you must have been and how happy I was for you--truthfully, I was simply happy that you were happy.

"And yet, I was fucking miserable, Tori." I closed my eyes and tried to compose myself for a moment. "I'm pretty sure you can guess why. As tired as I was, I just could not stop thinking about you. I wanted to. I wanted to sleep, but my mind wouldn't shut down.

"It was like this for the next...twelve years." I finally looked at her. Unshed tears stood in her eyes. I kept quiet while the waitress set our orders down on the table and checked our coffees. She sauntered away and I began to retell my story. "Rob..." she offered, but my name died on her lips.

"You were my everything, Tori," I said softly. "You were my life and the reason for living it."

She lowered her eyes and pushed some food around on her plate with a fork. I took another swallow of coffee. "Surely, there were other girls."

I laughed, a sardonic, bitter note. "Of course there were other girls. Bunches of them. Hundreds of them. But, they all shared one thing in common, Tori: they weren't you."

"Rob, it's been, what, fourteen years? You can't keep waiting for me. We're not in college anymore. I've moved on. I'm married...I have three great kids. And even though Drew's a jackass sometimes, deep down, buried in there somewhere is the man that I love."

My emotions were beginning to turn. Instead of allowing myself to get mad at her for lecturing me on how I should have been over her--as if I had not been trying for nearly fourteen years--I picked up the coffee and stared into the bowl of the mug for a long time before drinking it. I pretended like I was deeply in thought, but I was buying time to let the emotion drain from my voice.

"You were my everything, Tori," I stated as flatly as I could. An edge of anger crept into my voice along with a hint of the love and desire that flooded back into me when I saw her once more. "When I was with you, nothing else mattered. I've never been as happy as I was when we were together." I hesitated, unsure of how to put the next parts.

"Rob..." she said, and my throat seized up. The way she shook her head, I knew she was preparing to lecture me some more. "You're acting kind of like a child."

"Yeah," I said, setting the coffee cup back down and pushing some food around on my plate. "Maybe I am. Probably I am." I looked at her and gave her a half smile. "When you broke up with me over the phone, though, I never had the closure, never had the chance to say good-bye." I sighed, feeling a tightening in my chest. "I...was up in Maine. When I was up there, I was trying to find myself, and that's when I found that picture from graduation. It was in with a bunch of papers and such that I had grabbed on my way out the door. That's when I realized, in order to fill what was missing inside of me, I needed to come and see you. I needed to talk with you once more, face to face. So, I got in the car and drove."

"You could have called ahead."

"And say what? 'Hey, Tori, I'm on my way. I've come to finally get over you breaking my heart so many years ago?'"

"That was unfair."

I shrugged. "Exactly. So, I pulled up in front of your house and decided to wing it."

"Yeah, how'd that work out for you?"

I rubbed my jaw where Drew had punched me. "Not so well." I smiled at her. Suddenly her demeanor broke and the smile I had come to love so much finally curled the corners of her mouth.

She laughed and the tension between us faded a little bit. We both picked up our coffee cups and drank simultaneously. Setting hers down, Tori looked up at me and smiled.

"So, that's why you came out here? For a little bit of closure?"

"I thought it was time to see you again," I said, sipping the coffee.

"It's good to see you, Rob. I really have missed you."

"Thanks," I said. "I've missed you, too." I felt my chest tighten again as I stared at her. For a moment, in the low, heavy light of the diner, the years melted away and we were sitting at a truck stop near Saint Alban's again. Some nights, when we'd been up drinking too late, we'd hit the twenty-four-hour eateries that clung to the interstates where we could laugh, talk, joke, smoke and watch the people rolling in and out of the joint. One night, over coffee and omelets, a man bearing an uncanny likeness to all the pictures of William Shakespeare we had ever seen walked into the truck stop, which elicited an impromptu recital of Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy. While we laughed through the end of it, the man was not half as impressed and I had to pay quickly before he could make good on the threats he shouted at us.

"There's something else, isn't there?" She could see through me, no matter how many years we had been apart. Despite whatever face I tried to show her, Tori knew me well enough that it was impossible to hide secrets from her.

"Yeah," I said softly, "I wanted to say good-bye."

"Isn't that what closure is, Robbie?"

"No, Tori," I said, tears involuntarily standing in my eyes. "I'm dying."