A Chance Meeting

By George August Meier

s it her?” he wondered. He had seen her many times before. Not really, he only thought he had. Was wishful thinking controlling the optic nerve again? He squinted. The blond woman, wearing a white blouse and tailored business suit, sat by herself scanning a menu. He approached cautiously, hoping she wouldn’t look up and see him. If it was Beth, he wanted to recognize her first. The prospect of seeing her after all of these years was exhilarating, and unnerving, considering how they parted.

 

As the distance decreased, the recognition increased—it was her. His adrenaline flow was palpable. He exhaled slowly just as he did before a tough airplane landing. An impish idea hit him. He grabbed a cloth napkin from a nearby table, draped it over his bent arm, and walked up to her table.

“May I help you with the menu, miss?” he asked.

 

“No, but thank…” she said, but abruptly stopped. She recognized him instantly.

 

She played along. “Perhaps you can tell me what the special is today.” She gave him a smile that both delighted and frightened him. He remembered that smile. How could any man ever forget it?

The years hadn’t won many battles over her. Does she really look that young, or am I just seeing my fiancée of eighteen years ago? he asked himself.

 

“The Chateaubriand is the specialty of the house,” he said, continuing the charade. “But unfortunately, it must be prepared for two, and I see you’re by yourself. Perhaps you’re expecting someone,” he said, donning his “it’s great to see you” expression.

 

“No one’s coming. I’m in town alone on business. But if you like Chateaubriand, perhaps the maître d’ will let you take a break and we can dine together. What do you say, Spud?” She giggled. Spud was a nickname only she had called him. He loved potatoes. And, of course, he was from Idaho.

 

“Only if they have a loaded baked potato on the menu,” he responded.

 

She stood. “I wouldn’t patronize any restaurant that didn’t serve a loaded baked potato,” she said with a flare of bravado as she flicked a hand in the air.

 

Her face glowed just like it did when they were a couple. When she gave him a cordial hug, he shuddered inside. He still had feelings for Beth.

 

“Seriously, can I join you?” he asked.

 

“Of course,” she replied. “You’re here alone too?”

 

He looked toward the hostess stand. “Actually, I’m supposed to have lunch with my co-pilot, but he’s late as usual. When he shows, I’ll just tell him plans have changed.”

 

“He’s welcome to join us,” she said as they sat.

 

“Not a chance,” he replied. “I want you all to myself.”

 

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” The initial shot. He knew exactly what she meant, but he hoped to avoid the dark shadows of his big mistake.

 

“Well…” he said. The synapses were stunned from the salvo, and he stammered.

 

“I’m sorry, John. What I meant to say was—it’s great to see you.”

 

He shifted in his chair and leaned toward her. “No, you’re right. I was very stupid. But, Beth, I have regretted it every day since.”

 

“Every day?”

 

He smiled. “Okay, a slight exaggeration. Maybe every other day,” he said, hoping to lighten the mood a bit.

 

Paul Jenkins, the late arrival, appeared at their table. “So, I see you’re standing me up for a striking woman.”

 

John stood. “Paul Jenkins, I want you to meet Beth…”

 

“Doyle,” Beth said. “It was Stevens when John and I last saw each other.”

 

Paul’s eyebrows reached for his hairline. “Is this the Beth?” He immediately realized he had said too much. He tried to cover his misstep by quickly adding, “Let me repeat what a striking woman you are.”

 

Beth grinned and said, “Would you like to join us for lunch?”

 

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Paul said. “You guys have a lot of catching up to do after all these years.”

 

John shot him a look. “I’m going to Alfie’s Deli for lunch,” Paul said. “I hear they’ve got an excellent condiment for feet.”

 

Beth laughed. “Paul, you don’t have to leave. But there may be an awkward moment or two for your partner during this lunch.”

 

“Thanks for the heads-up, Beth. I think my flying partner is going to have to take this one solo. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Paul left quickly.

 

“I have to admit, Beth, I’m a little nervous,” John said.

 

“About the quality of the food here?”

 

“Well, I’m not worried about the quality of the company.” He was still trying to ease the tension.

And it came, swift and sharp. “John, why did you call off the engagement and leave me? And don’t insult me with the reason you gave me back then. I’m not twenty-one anymore.” Her voice softened. “And John, I need to know.”

 

On cue, the waiter arrived at the table. John was thankful this kind soul provided him a short reprieve.

 

Beth looked at the waiter. “We’ll have the Chateaubriand.”

 

The waiter grinned. “Excellent choice. That comes with sautéed zucchini or baked potatoes. Which would you prefer?”

 

She looked directly at John and said, “Make that two baked potatoes, fully loaded.”

 

As the waiter left, she grabbed John’s hands across the table and said, “Well?” Her tone wasn’t hostile or sarcastic. All John heard was sadness.

 

She was asking the question he had asked himself a thousand times and could never answer. So how was he going to give her a satisfactory answer now?

 

He looked at her and saw the young girl he proposed to one summer evening while they sat on a porch swing at her parents’ house. When he had asked her to marry him, she said yes. Then she had hugged him tight and whispered into his ear, “My dear, I’ll love you forever.”

 

When he ended the engagement and broke her heart, he had said he wasn’t ready for marriage. That may have been true, but why? With his eyes fixed on the lace edge of the white tablecloth, he felt her need for an answer and his own desperation to give her one. The air was heavy, and his surroundings faded.

 

John was now a little boy sitting on the floor in the dark between the wall and the sofa in the living room of his childhood home. That was his secret place. He was waiting for his mom to return home. The front door opened and he heard her laugh. Hearing a man’s voice, he assumed his dad was home early from his trip.

 

His mom said, “Wait a minute. I need to check on my son.”

 

“Baby, you go put on some music and get us a drink. I’ll check on him and make sure he’s asleep,” the male voice replied. It wasn’t his dad.

 

“He’s in that first room on the right.” Her voice was strange. The words were slurred.

 

John was scared, expecting the man to tell his mom he wasn’t in bed. But when the man told her that the lil’ tiger was sleeping, he was glad the guy wasn’t a tattletale.

 

Suddenly, there was a loud thud on the sofa. His mother giggled. After a while, she began moaning. At first, he was going to crawl out to protect his mom. But between moans she seemed to be urging the man to continue doing whatever he was doing. John silently sobbed. In his little boy’s heart he knew his mom was doing something terribly wrong.

 

“John, are you all right?” Beth’s voice had equal measures of concern and tenderness.

 

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said slowly, trying to regain his orientation. “Beth, I want to tell you a story that might, at least partially, explain why I may have been afraid of marriage and ruined our plan for a life together.”

 

Beth closed her eyes and listened. When John finished, she pulled a tissue from her purse. As she wiped her eyes, she said, “John, tell me about your life. Are you happy?”

 

“Well, there’s not much to tell. It can be summed up with a failed marriage, a successful airline pilot’s career, and a scratch golf game. Two out of three ain’t bad, huh?”

 

John wanted to hold her. But he looked at the gold ring on her finger, and that was a line he didn’t want to cross. Yet the feeling persisted. Was he reaching back and trying to grab a piece of the happiness he cast away eighteen years ago?

 

John asked, “And you?”

 

“Well, I’ve got you beat. I’ve had a great marriage, a rewarding career, and a completed Boston Marathon. I’d say that’s three out of three.”

 

The tension was gone, and as they talked during lunch, John felt a resurgence of the chemistry that they had when they were young, when they were a couple.

 

After the check was paid, he began to fear he would never see her again after this chance meeting. And although that was probably what should happen, he didn’t want to accept it.

 

They sat looking at each other, and Beth again reached across the table and took his hands. John wondered if she was giving him a signal.

 

He then heard the words he dreaded. “John, I should be going.”

 

They walked outside. He hailed her a cab. As the yellow taxi edged toward the curb, he turned to her and they embraced. He had wanted to hold her close one more time, ever since that day he told her that he no longer loved her, which was so untrue. He leaned back slightly, still holding her, so that she could see the sincerity in his face. He said, “You’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

 

She looked at his eyes and into his heart and said, “I know.”

 

He savored the moment, knowing it was to be fleeting.

 

She said, “I have to go.” Or wait, did she say I should go? No, probably not.

 

John opened the door of the cab. She climbed into the backseat. He leaned in to say good-bye and extend his time with her.

 

She put a hand on his cheek and said, “John, I want you to know that I’m happy with my life. But you should also know that I have kept that promise I made to you on my parents’ porch the night you proposed to me.”

 

He kissed her forehead and swung the door shut. She was still looking at him through the glass as the vehicle drifted away. He knew those final words would haunt him forever and that he would never see her again. He cried for the first time in eighteen years.

 

The cab accelerated, carrying away the woman he loved. Why hadn’t he said something? She’s married, that’s why. He didn’t care about that anymore. The cab was stopped at a red light, and he ran after it. When he got within a few feet, it drove on. But it slowed to make a right turn, and he rushed across the corner and was able to knock on her window. The cab stopped. He opened the door and jumped in.

 

“I know it’s wrong, but I can’t let you leave like this,” he said.

 

“Then kiss me, John. Kiss me like you’ve wanted to for years.”

 

“But what about that?” John asked as he nodded toward the ring.

 

“I lost my husband Bill two years ago to a National Guard training exercise. His helicopter went down. I just haven’t wanted to take the ring off, until today.” She slipped the ring off and put it in her purse.

 

John kissed her like he had imagined doing so many times. After the kiss, he put his mouth to Beth’s ear and whispered, “My dear, I’ll love you forever.”

 

 

——————–

George August Meier is working as trial lawyer in Central Florida by day, and writing stories in the evenings and weekends. He has won three writing contests for his short stories and has been named one of Florida’s “Elite Lawyers” by Florida Trend Magazine and one of Orlando’s “Top Lawyers” by Orlando Home & Leisure Magazine.


One Response to “A Chance Meeting”

  1. raptorrapture says:

    Excellent writing style. The author pulls you into the story immediately, forcing you to go through the adrenaline rush of the meeting and ending with you out of breath from chasing the cab. Well done.