We carry people with us like a pocket full of stones, taking them out to look at and ponder over, turning them over in our hands until their sharp edges are softened, polishing them so they glow in the light of our memories and lose their flaws. Sometimes, it makes moving on harder. Sometimes, it’s what is needed to rebuild something precious which would otherwise be lost.
“Let me guess. An Iowa fan?” Kate said, locking eyes with the man who had been occupying a stool down the bar from hers and nodding her head, indicating the logoed hat he wore on his.
He smiled and nodded, revealing white, even teeth that stood out against the dark hair of his unshaven face — handsome in a way both easy and mesmerizing at the same time. Hazel eyes glittered under the dim overhead light. “How could you tell?” he asked, playing along.
Kate shrugged, playing with the label on her beer bottle. She’d been nursing it for a while, trying to work up the courage to break the ice with the stranger a few seats away. “What can I say? I’m good at reading people,” she quipped.
His smile widened. “Seems so,” he replied.
“Well, Iowa, surely you must be worried right about now. It’s not looking good for you,” Kate said, glancing at the television screens above the bar. Oklahoma State was in the lead, and it appeared unlikely that the tides would turn without a miracle.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve seen worse,” he said simply, his eyes shining with a hint of something Kate couldn’t quite put her finger on, yet she couldn’t tear herself away from his gaze. He smiled again, and she realized she was returning it.
“May I?” he asked, indicating the stool next to hers. She nodded, and he moved over. “Name’s Tom,” he said after resettling. “What’s yours?”
“Kate,” she said with a shy smile.
“Kate,” Tom repeated, like he was turning it over, studying it. “Good name. What do you do, Kate?”
“I’m a teacher. I teach English,” she said, realizing how boring that probably sounded.
“Very noble profession,” Tom said, nodding approvingly. “But you’re probably much too smart for me.”
“Sometimes I think my students are much too smart for me,” Kate replied with a laugh. “What do you do, Tom?”
“I turn wrenches,” he said simply, picking up his pint glass of dark beer and taking a pull. He put it down and set it squarely on the cardboard coaster in front of him before speaking again. “I work mostly on cars, but if it’s got an engine, chances are, I can fix it.”
“Cars, huh?” Kate asked. “So, you’re mechanically inclined. Honest work. What’s your dream car?”
Tom’s face lit up. “1978 Lil’ Red Express. They’re incredibly rare.”
“Interesting choice for a dream car,” Kate observed.
“Maybe,” Tom allowed. “What’s yours?”
Kate didn’t hesitate. “Fully restored 1986 Saab 900S, cherry red.” She shrugged. “My dad had one, and I grew up riding in it. Call me sentimental.”
“Saab,” Tom said with appreciation for her unusual choice. “Solid cars.”
“They were until GM bought them, you mean,” Kate corrected. “After that, they really weren’t Saabs anymore.”
“Watch out, son,” said an older man next to Kate who had clearly been listening in on their conversation. “This one knows just enough to be dangerous.”
Tom nodded. “That she does.” He stared at her a moment and cocked his head, the corner of his mouth tipping up. “I’m going to get your number,” he said, the smile on his face revealing a dimple she hadn’t seen earlier. “I hope that’s okay.”
The last customers straggled out of the bar, and Kate realized she and Tom had been talking past closing time. They paid their tabs, two people who had met hours ago now so firmly entranced by the other’s presence they seemed almost spellbound. The door closed behind them, and Kate found herself face-to-face with Tom under the dark blanket of night, with a cascade of stars watching. Standing there, she realized how well-built he was, how easily he moved.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Tom asked, breaking the silence of the air around them.
“Nothing important,” Kate replied, fiddling with the keys in her hand, wondering if he was going to ask her to dinner. Hoping he would.
“I’d like to see you again,” Tom said.
“I’d like that.”
“Good,” Tom nodded, moving close.
Kate could feel her heartbeat quicken. And then, in an instant, she was in his arms, locked in a kiss she could feel running through her entire body, like an electric current flowing through every inch of her. Time stopped, and there was nothing but the two of them. Finally, they broke the kiss, and Kate could see in the dim light of a nearby streetlight the look of surprise on Tom’s face. It was a look she had always wanted to see—as though she were some wondrous thing, some creature that defied imagination, some treasure found after an eternity of searching.
“Where have you been?” he asked in a hushed voice.
Four months had passed since that first kiss, four months filled with electric kisses, magical moments and looks passed between them that made the world fall away. But those four months were also filled with arguments that felt as though they were ripping Kate in two. This wasn’t going to work. Too many arguments, too many things they couldn’t seem to get past, no matter how much they both seemed to want to. She’d tried because she loved him, but even that didn’t seem to be enough. Not in the face of his jealousy, or her own inability to communicate. Even with the changes they’d both made, there were stumbling blocks that seemed to find them at an impasse, and her family’s disapproval of him hadn’t helped.
Kate steeled herself for the conversation she knew she needed to have, going over the words that seemed to be caught behind a heart that felt as though it was breaking. She trudged to her car and drove unseeingly to Tom’s house to find him just where she knew he would be, in his backyard, head buried deep in the guts of a car.
“Hi,” she said quietly as she approached.
Tom looked up. “Hi,” he said flatly. Even he was still raw after their last argument.
“Can you stop for a minute?” Kate asked.
Tom nodded and stood up, reached for a rag, and wiped the grease off his hands. He waited silently for her to speak.
“This isn’t working,” Kate said, feeling her throat tighten and tears burn her eyes. “As much as I want it to, as much as I love you, it’s just not.”
Tom nodded. “I know.” There was an edge of sadness in his voice that tore at her.
“I can’t be what you need me to be, and I’m sorry for that,” Kate said as tears slowly trickled down her cheeks.
Tom said nothing as she closed the distance between them and gave him one last kiss. She opened her eyes and saw his handsome face crumpled in agony as he kissed her back, both of them desperately trying to find something to hold on to in that moment so they wouldn’t be swallowed into the abyss.
At last, she pulled away. “Goodbye, Tom.”
As she walked away, Kate tried to control the sobs that threatened to wrack her body so that maybe he wouldn’t see.
“Let me guess. A Saab owner?”
Kate looked up from the papers she’d been grading, sitting in a back booth of the bar that had become a regular part of her landscape. She’d been so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t noticed anyone approach.
She stared up at the man standing over her, eyes wandering over the face that had once been so familiar. It had been a year since she’d kissed him goodbye, and there hadn’t been a day she hadn’t thought of him and wondered what if. She had done a lot of growing since then, soul searching and working on the same problems that had been so detrimental to their relationship. Maybe he had, too.
“How could you tell?” she asked with a smile, thinking of the Saab she had parked outside.
Tom shrugged. “What can I say? I’m good at reading people,” he said, returning her smile.
“That you are,” she said, wondering what was coming next.
“I’ve missed you,” he said quietly.
As she looked into those hazel eyes, she saw the same look, that look of awe and wonder that she had seen in Tom’s eyes that very first night. “I’ve missed you, too,” she said. “Where have you been?”