This story is by Jennifer Palmer and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jennifer is an electrical engineer by education, a stay-at-home mom by vocation, and a writer by determination. In between diaper changes and reading lessons, you’ll find her running, dreaming up her next short story, or blogging about finding beauty in the everyday at choosingthismoment.com.
You’d laugh to see me writing this now. It was the first thing you asked when I told you I was a novelist. “Are you going to put this in a story?”
I gave you my standard answer. “Only if you piss me off.”
You grinned. “Revenge fiction, huh? Better than revenge porn, I suppose.”
For the record, you didn’t piss me off. And this isn’t fiction, though most people will think it is. Mysterious figures with magical powers will do that, every time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Let’s start over.
I’m a pro at that now, thanks to you. Starting over.
You were my latest foray into the exciting world of thirty-something dating. If that sounds sarcastic, it might be because it is. You were preceded by a string of dismal failures.
There was the sci-fi nerd who’d read all my books and had some sort of weird fanboy fetish going on. There was the Tom Cruise devotee who spent our entire date trying to convert me to Scientology. There was the drummer—literally, that’s what he did for a living—who wouldn’t stop tapping on every available surface.
I had the rhythm of “All I Want is You” on repeat in my head for days after that one.
And then there was you.
We met at that Mexican place on the corner of Fifth and Maple, the one that advertises the best enchiladas on the planet and a live mariachi band every Friday and Saturday night. I can’t speak to the quality of the music—hard rock’s more my style—but the food is top notch. I’ve only ever been there with you, but I’ve tried everything on the menu.
I almost walked away the first time. You opened with a cheesy grin and an even cheesier pick-up line—“Are you a time traveler? ‘Cause I see you in my future!”—and I just didn’t have it in me to have another bad date. I turned to leave, but you reached out, grabbed my arm.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Stay. I’ll be on my best behavior.” You straightened and raised three fingers, looking for all the world like a nervous teen vying for his Eagle’s badge. “Scout’s honor.”
I hesitated. You gestured toward the door, somehow managing to convey the perfect blend of sheepishness and confidence.
“C’mon, it’s just dinner. What’s the worst that could happen?”
The worst that could happen, indeed.
I will forever wonder why I ignored the voice telling me to leave.
(I tried it once, walking away. Didn’t change a thing. Well, it did, but in no way I’d want to repeat.)
My most distinct memory is the one where we took a booth in the back corner, as far from the band as we could get. “So we can hear each other,” you said, but I eyed the distance to the door and hoped it might make a difference.
Wouldn’t it have been ironic if, after all the crazy things I’d tried, it was our seating arrangement that changed things? If only.
You nodded at the garish sombrero on the wall and grinned. I knew what you were going to say before you said it.
“Maybe I should have chosen a place with better ambiance.”
It took all my self-control not to wince at what you said next.
“Then again, their salsa is to die for.”
I won’t bore you with all the details of our meal, the intricacies of our conversation. We talked. We laughed. I think we both felt a spark. I know I did, anyway.
Everything seemed perfect. For just a moment, I let down my guard, let myself picture a future—our future—together.
And then, the evening was over and I could come up with no excuse to linger.
When we reached the front door, it was pouring. You insisted I wait inside while you hailed a cab for me. I grabbed your arm, protesting, but you pulled away. Laughing, you looked over your shoulder at me as you stepped into the street.
I squeezed my eyes shut, but I couldn’t block the sound of the squealing brakes, couldn’t unhear the sickening thud. I stepped outside and turned my face to the sky, letting the rain mingle with my tears.
I had failed. Yet again, I had failed.
I started toward you, but between one step and the next, time stopped. The drops hung, suspended, above my head. Nothing moved.
I found him lounging in the shadows by the front door. He leaned against the wall insouciantly, his long legs stretched in front of him.
“How’s that happily ever after treating you?”
Would it sound too dramatic to say I spat at him? Because I did.
He raised his hands, a mockery of innocence.
“Come now. Is that any way to thank me for the opportunity I’ve given you?”
“Oh, please. Spare me the generous benefactor act.”
“Tut, tut. Why so angry?”
“You said it didn’t have to end this way.”
He raised a finger. “Point of order. I said this didn’t have to be the end.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, you like the guy. You had a pleasant first date.” He paused, as if reconsidering his last statement. “Well, until the last two minutes, you did.” Satisfied, he nodded once before continuing. “So I gave you the chance to do it again, as many times as you wanted. You got the budding attraction and an enjoyable evening of flirtation without having to go through all the growing pains of a new relationship. No fights. No meeting the in-laws. No annoying habits or risk of rejection. Just a great night, again and again and again.”
I scowled. “Except he dies. Every single time, no matter what I do, he dies.”
“You all die, eventually.”
“Not like that, we don’t. Not randomly and senselessly, when we have so much more life to live.”
“So he went earlier than most.” He shrugged. “That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the time you do have.”
“I can’t ‘enjoy a great night’ knowing he’s going to walk out that door and die at the end of it.”
A silence stretched between us. He leaned back against the wall again, examining his fingernails. I forced myself to stay still, to bite back all the things itching to get out. If I started talking, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to stop.
Finally, he looked at me. His eyes caught mine and held them fast.
“Tell me. Why? If it isn’t for the pleasure of his company, why do you keep going back?”
I gaped at him. “What do you take me for? I can’t just let him die.”
“The good Samaritan bit might explain doing this once or twice. But you’ve done this now, what? Three dozen times? More? I’ve lost count. If all of this”—he pointed to the street, to your body sprawled on the asphalt, to the bus driver’s face, frozen in a state of horrified disbelief—“leeches the good out of what came before it, why put yourself through it?”
I turned away and refused to answer.
After a moment, he spoke again, his voice soft.
“I’ll tell you why. It’s safe.”
I barked a laugh, short and bitter. “That’s not the word I’d choose.”
“By now, you’ve realized you can’t save him, even if you won’t admit it to yourself. Going back lets you have something that looks like love without having to face what comes next.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“That’s up to you. You can stay here. Keep reliving the evening as many times as you want.”
“Or you walk away. You process what happened here tonight.” He paused. “Personally, I’d recommend therapy, but that’s just me. And then you move on. You date. Maybe you find romantic love. Maybe you don’t. Either way, you live your life.”
“If I walk away, he dies.”
His gaze was direct, but not without compassion. “Yes. He dies.”
“Could you make me forget?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Would you really want that?”
I took a deep breath and then another. I thought about our conversations, about the dozens of ways they’d played out. I remembered the way you gasped when you laughed too hard and the cowlick you smoothed when you were self-conscious. I forced myself to look at you, crumpled and lifeless on the pavement. I swallowed.
“I suppose not.”
“Well, then. Make your choice.”
Time snapped back into place. I rushed to your side. Like all the times before, I sensed his hand on my shoulder, heard the whispered invitation to claim a future with you in it, felt the pull of a million what-ifs.
I hesitated, glancing back once at the place which now held so many memories.
But this time—this time, I let you go.