I was wandering down the mall wondering what I could get for my wife’s birthday. She’s hard to shop for because Sally is very low maintenance. Maybe a cup or a scarf, I don’t know. On top of that I really don’t understand women’s clothes or sizes. A lot of the salesladies can’t deal with “She’s a real babe, a little shorter than me.” I saw Jen in the coffee shop having some caffeinated brew. She looked the same as the last time I saw her.

After an inward debate, I went in and asked if I could join her. She gave me a short pause and an uncertain smile and said, “Sure.”

I sat down and asked, “What has it been, ten years?”

“I suppose so, more or less. I haven’t kept track.”

That made me seriously wonder whether I should have just kept on walking when I saw her, but I still had a lot of questions for her. “What have you been up to during that ten years, more or less that you haven’t kept track of?”

She flashed that irritated look that I used to fear, but she didn’t leave. “After I left Eugene, I went to law school at Willamette University for four years. Finished with my J.D. and moved back to Eugene to get a job as a public defender. I married Ben, an FBI special agent, shortly after that and had Ken three years ago. We live in Coburg now because it seems like a good place to raise Ken.”

It was hard for me to imagine the Jen I had known married to anybody.

“It sounds like both of you are in some form of law enforcement. You must have a lot to talk about.”

Another frown. “It would be unprofessional of us to talk about our jobs, and we don’t talk much at all. I don’t even like thinking about the dregs of society that I represent.”

That sounded more like the Jen that I remembered, but never understood.

“Your turn Duke, what have you been up to?”

“After I got my masters in math at Oregon, I’ve been teaching at Lane Community. I married Sally Olsen, a librarian, eight years ago.”

“Any children?”

“On our salaries, we had to put the cat on half rations. I have no idea when we will have the finances to start a family, if ever. I’m thinking about changing jobs, if I can find something that pays more for someone with my background. I have no problem leaving this place, if that’s what it takes.”

We ordered more coffee. I couldn’t tell if this was as awkward for her as it was for me. I tried to maintain the demeanor of old friends catching up, but decided I would risk asking the question that had troubled me ever since the last time I heard from her.

“What happened to us? We had been seeing each other, I thought we were serious, at least I was. Then you just disappeared.”

She turned red and looked down at her coffee. She took several sips and finally looked me in the eye.

“Remember that you asked. There was never an ‘us’. How could you not get the signals? There never was an ‘us’. Didn’t the long periods when you couldn’t find me tell you anything? You were a distraction. I was seeing a lot of guys besides you. Believe me, you don’t want the details. You were my rock solid, unimaginative guy. I was trying a lot of things. Again, you don’t want the details. You probably noticed my erratic behavior, the highs and the lows, but you don’t know the reason. Can you remember the Kwiky Mart cashier killing about thirteen years ago?”

“Yeah, that was a big deal. The guys name was Blain or something like that. He was a great kid who was at the top of his class in high school and a big time jock, before he started at Oregon. What has that got to do with anything?”

“That was my fiancé, Blake, the only man I ever loved. His murder was just the beginning of my pain. Watching the meth-head that killed him at his trial made it worse. You may wonder why I became a public defender. Partly I needed a job, and partly I don’t do that good a job, and feel just fine about it.”

“So I was just a part of your male harem to distract you from your pain?”

“I probably wouldn’t have said it like that, but yes. I was trying to save my life.”

“You must have made some sort of recovery, you started a family.”

“After Blake died I was seeing a therapist, but he just asked me questions about how I felt about things. He was useless, and I got the idea that he wanted to have sex with me.”

I wondered if she was right. Any heterosexual male would want to have sex with her, but it is also true that she imagined offenses, so maybe she was wrong about the therapist.

“It helped to get out of Eugene and go to Willamette University. Meditating did me some good. Completely back to normal was impossible. At some point I decided rather than healing first, I’d fake it until I make it. That’s why I married Ben and started a family. He didn’t know anything about my background. He’s a good guy, and I’d like to be a better wife.”

We drank some more coffee and had some very insincere small talk before leaving as quickly as possible.

Now I wonder about myself. I should feel good that she has made a partial recovery from her trauma. The fact that she had no concern for me at all makes it very difficult.

Sally wonders why I’ve been playing Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny” a lot lately. I should have been listening to Eddy Arnold’s “I Really Don’t Want To Know.”

This story appeared in Down In The Dirt

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