Once More With Feeling - Sunrise short story romance

Once More, With Feeling

A Sunrise short story

Read here, or head to Wattpad, Inkitt

He’d known well in advance that 14th February would be a Saturday night. It wasn’t rocket science—last year it had been a Friday.

Sadly, that made it unduly auspicious, and he’d been trying for weeks—no, months—not to make it A Big Thing. An offhand comment from an acquaintance seldom morphs into something more tangible. It had been no more than a “We must catch up”—a phrase not known for its stellar follow-through record.

Hadn’t it?

Why had he gently fixated on it? If the apartment kitchen had been decked with a wall calendar—a lame Christmas present or 7-Eleven impulse purchase—would the date have been circled?

He liked her, and had taken her offer of a future Valentine’s hook-up at face value. Yet at times, he looked back on it with the same easy dismissal reserved for mock suicide pacts or laughable throw-aways like “If we’re both not married in twenty years, let’s get hitched rather than being single forever”.

When she’d it last year—and he’d agreed—was it a sop, or was she truly interested?

In case she was interested, he remained hopeful… and vigilant.

Sure, so he’d thought about it occasionally, a little during fall, more over the winter.

Hell, who are you kidding, Beckman? You’ve been listening for clues that EJ has hooked up with someone since last Valentine’s. Are you really that desperate for a long shot at a romantic liaison that you’ll spend a year on tenterhooks?

I think we both know the answer to that.

All the definitely-not-stalking tactics of seeking signs that she had company in the apartment opposite—a change in her demeanour when they passed occasional greetings, a new car parked outside, deliveries of flowers—had been mere curiosity, he’d told himself. But, recently, they’d come up trumps.

She was moving out.

To move in with someone? It was moot. She’d no longer be a neighbour, and the chances of a friendly—possibly more than that—reunion looked wafer-thin.

By February 8th she’d not said a word, not knocked on his door to explain, and he convinced himself of what he’d suspected all along—that it wasn’t meant to be. So the next day, Monday, he shipped out for his usual week on the road, determined to focus on what he could control, not what he couldn’t.

So EJ—Ellie—is moving? People move. Look on the bright side—it could be just to find a bigger place a few streets across. It’s bound to have kept her busy either way. Perhaps she’s forgotten our most good-natured and spontaneous of suggestions. If you had any sense you would too.

Friday 13th rolled around, 1656 miles later, and he’d done well not to waste too many hours gazing into the bottom of cups at Coffee Planet. Back at apartment 1122, he busied himself making dinner and checking a week’s worth of mail, sorting the real from the junk. There wasn’t a restaurant in town which hadn’t festooned their flyers with hearts, flowers and special dinner-for-two offers.

It’s like trying to avoid the Christmas Coke ad.

At just after eight, there was a knock on the door. As he seldom received visitors, a small spark lit in his stomach.

The look on EJ’s face was certainly apologetic, perhaps downbeat. ‘Hey, Beckman.’

‘Hey, EJ.’ He brushed crumbs from his rumpled tee.

There was a silence.

‘Look—I can explain.’

He held up a hand. ‘No need.’

‘Yeah, Beckman—need. I guess you figured out I’m moving.’

An ironic smile tweaked his lips. ‘I know some about travelling, upping sticks.’

‘I should have said earlier, but it’s been crazy.’

‘I understand. Hell—most neighbours would just leave.’

‘I though because of…’ She bit her lip. ‘…what we said—and because we get along…’

‘And you’re my overflow postal service…’

She smiled. ‘Yeah. So—I wanted to say goodbye, and that the timing sucks.’ She sighed. ‘It happened real quick. Work wanted me to move to Pittsburgh. It’s a promotion. Short notice, but—what’re you gonna do, huh?’ She shrugged.

He worked hard to internalise the kick in the stomach.

Serves you right for building it up, buddy. You latch onto enough certainties in this world, anchor to the predictable and controllable, roll with the punches the rest of the time. This is a punch to roll with—no different from a lost sale in any of a thousand towns on any of a thousand days.

‘I’m pleased for you, EJ.’

‘I ship out tomorrow.

‘Sure.’

‘It’s all boxes in there. Guys are loading in the morning, then it’s adios…’

‘Well, happy trails.’

She stepped a little closer. Her earrings twirled. They were silver mice. It took him back almost a year—the diverse collection of mouse-related ornaments in her apartment. He hoped the removal guys had packed carefully.

‘So, I can’t make our… date,’ she said.

‘Not sure it was a date.’

‘Okay. I can’t make the date.’ Her eyes searched his.

‘Well, I’d invite you in—or out—but it’s not technically Valentine’s yet. Plus, I’m sure you’re last-minute packing. Mice, or whatever. Plus, you know, EJ, don’t be guilty—I’m the guy across the hall. Getting a life makeover is more important than a friendly soiree to stick two fingers up to the hearts-and-flowers tsunami.’

‘Yeah. I guess. All the same, it would have been nice. Instead I have this lame goodbye work thing to go out to.’ She gestured to her evening attire.

‘You look nice.’

Because she does. And that makes the rain check—which is probably not even that—just that bit tougher.

‘Thanks.’

Silence washed the corridor.

‘You have good evening, EJ. And a good life.’

Her brow furrowed in what he imagined—hoped?—was a tinge of sorrow. ‘You too, Beckman.’

A presumptuous, ridiculous, opportunistic part of him willed her to peck him on the cheek as a parting gift. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. True—he wasn’t seamlessly practised in the art of spotting a nascent attraction, but he was a people watcher (it came with the job) and it didn’t feel like straw-clutching.

Instead, she painted on a smile, gave a nervous wave, turned and left.

He held the door open and watched her go for longer than was strictly wise or necessary, then returned to another evening of bachelorhood.

During Saturday, EJ flitted in and out of his mind, much as he tried to busy himself mentally and physically. He deliberately went out at nine, trawling the food shops for stuff he needed and other shops for stuff he didn’t need. He visited both Coffee Planet places at either end of town.

Some would call it “pining”, but you couldn’t pine for what you’d never had and thus never lost.

He might as well have dredged up past failures—the time Tyler stole away his chance of a date with Glenda was a real lowlight. Except this wasn’t a failure, not of his actions, nor of his inaction. It was merely circumstance. It was the universe saying that it wasn’t meant to be—not this time, not with EJ… Ellie.

I still wonder what the J is.

They might not even have hit it off. It could have been a non-starter, a platonic hookup which never got past misplaced notions of mutual attraction.

Equally, it would be nice to come home from weekdays of empty motel rooms to find a non-empty apartment. One furnished with a five-foot-seven brunette with a penchant for rodent-related bric-a-brac.

When the endless store fronts hawking romantic staples became too much—as if their laughter towards his single-man status was louder this year—he took the Caddy for gas and an automated car wash, then headed home.

All was quiet.

He set his mind to wondering who his new neighbour across the hall would be, trying to thing about the future rather than the past. Who was to say that the next inhabitant of 1123 wouldn’t be equally likeable?

At six-thirty he ordered pizza. It was about the only thing guaranteed not to come in a heart-shaped box or flavoured with chocolate and/or champagne.

At six-fifty there was a knock at the door.

See—it could be worse, Beckman—you could be this guy, having to work on Valentine’s evening. At least you get to chill out, fill your face with carbs, and try not to think of

‘EJ?!’ His mouth hung open.

This time her face and posture were easy to read—awkwardness and embarrassment. Her right hand clasped the handle of a small roller case. She wore jeans, a hoodie, no makeup and—quickly—raised eyebrows.

What the…?

Don’t even begin to think that she’s changed her mind and given up a new life to be with you. Don’t even begin to begin to think that.

‘Yeah, er… hi. Again.’

‘You okay? What gives?’

She forced a chuckle. ‘This is a peach. The truck broke down. About five miles out of town. With all my stuff.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Yeah. They’re sending a guy with a spare part—tomorrow. They won’t offload onto a new truck, of course not. So, I have an empty apartment there, and no key, and this,’ she tugged her case.

Some guys—maybe those without an inner monologue or a soft spot for bright, smart brunettes—would have pointed out the existence of such things as motels, either in town or in Pittsburgh. But Beckman, possessing both those attributes said,

‘Come in.’

‘I couldn’t.’

That short-circuited his brain for a second. ‘So why knock?’

Her shoulders fell. ‘I don’t know. Panic?’

‘Or needing a friend to lean on?’

She pursed her lips. ‘Yeah.’

‘So come in.’

She did, and as he closed the door behind her it nearly smacked into the face of a pony-tailed youth bearing a twelve-inch cardboard box. He relieved the guy of his cargo and followed EJ into the living room.

‘Oh god, I’m interrupting.’

‘I’m not sure it’s technically possible to interrupt a white knight? They’re sworn to be ready at a moment’s notice.’

That made her smile. ‘At least don’t let your pizza get cold.’

He held it up. ‘The Valentine’s meal of champions.’

‘And knights.’

‘Did the maiden eat yet, or was she getting a burger en route to her glorious future?’

‘She didn’t eat yet, no.’

‘So sit down, EJ. There’s enough for two champions here.’ He gestured to the table.

She hesitated for a moment, then conceded. He dumped the box down, retrieved two beers from the fridge, and rejoined her.

They tucked in, the atmosphere tingling with things he wanted to ask, or say, and things he imagined she wanted to explain.

‘You’re a good guy, Beckman.’

‘So I’m told.’

‘You are a white knight, two years in a row.’ She smiled with her eyes. ‘Thanks.’

‘Sure.’ He raised his beer in toast. ‘Happy Valentine’s again… ex-neighbour.’

‘I think it’s just “Ellie” now.’

‘Sure.’

Wow, real verbose tonight, aren’t you buddy? What’s up—nervous? Careful—she’ll hear the armour chinking when you shake.

‘Look, I know the situation’s not ideal.’

‘Which—you leaving forever, or you being here now?’

Her eyes narrowed, but in query, not anger. ‘What do you think?’

‘I have no clue, Ellie. I like you, and I can’t say I hadn’t been looking forward to what we planned, until…’ He trailed off.

‘Which? Until I left unexpectedly, or until I returned unexpectedly?’ She smiled.

He drank in her face for a few moments, then made an uncharacteristically bold and swift decision. He rose, went to the kitchen, dug out his quarry and returned to the table. He set the candle down in the centre, flicked the Zippo, and lit it.

She laughed. ‘Definitely the meal of champions now.’

They polished off the pizza and he refreshed their empty bottles. She talked a little about the new job, the packing and temporarily delayed relocation, asked how his recent weeks had been. She even admitted that her ex, Jerome, had tried to win her back since the breakup last Valentine’s.

It was all very friendly, skilfully skirting the elephant in the room.

She shifted in her seat, as if uncomfortable. He realised he was being less than a good host.

‘Let’s go sit down.’

He led her to the sofa, and she sank gratefully into it. Then she leant forwards and pulled off her hoodie—she’d been so preoccupied with the food, and being bailed out of a situation, that she’d spent the whole time looking like she was loitering in the Departures hall.

The elephant trumpeted.

Was their conversational lull a reflection of the situation, or an indication that they had little in common? More than that—was it an elephant that she imagined too, or merely his romance-starved, over-hopeful misinterpretation of a friendly but odd situation?

‘Look, Ellie, I may have this wrong, but it’s still just a regular day—like it was last year—and I don’t have any agenda here.’

‘You bought a candle.’

Busted.

‘Maybe for once I was a hopeful romantic, not a hopeless one. All the same, the important thing is that you find a place to crash while the truck is fixed. If you want to have another beer, I’ll call you a cab. I hear good things about the Twisted Pine Motel.’

Her face softened. Behind it, the dancing candlelight caught her cheekbone. He’d not turned down the room light—that would have been a presumption too far—but there was still a whiff of Eros in the air.

She laid a hand on his knee. ‘Okay, here’s a confession. I’m not a one-night stand kind of girl. And, though I don’t know you so well, I don’t think you’re a one-night stand guy.’

He met her gaze. ‘I never presumed, EJ. That’s what this sofa is for. You have a long drive—you take the bed. Hell—I bought this fold-out six years ago and it’s never been used.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t need it if I hadn’t moved out, or at least if the truck hadn’t broke down.’

‘Yeah—otherwise we could have had dinner—maybe something with vegetables and everything—and then you could have just walked back across to your apartment.’

She smiled, then fixed on his face. ‘Or stayed.’

‘You just said no one-night stands.’

‘Sure. But if I lived across the way it could be two. Or more.’

He took her hand from his knee and gently held the tip of one finger. ‘If wishes were horses, huh? And if I hadn’t served you pizza on Valentine’s.’

‘The way to a girl’s heart is not through her stomach—not like a guy’s. It’s through kindness, decency and not being too shabby looking. Well, for this girl, anyway.’

He swallowed, trying to slow his heartbeat to normal.

Thirty-six and nervous like a teen? What is this—invitation to Prom?

‘I’m not sure that makes it easier—now I have that nice comments like that in my brain, which might try to find their way here.’ He touched his chest.

‘Would they?’

‘Maybe. I’d wonder what might be possible. But not as much as if we did something rash—and it went well. Doing that, and then you leaving?’ He shook his head. ‘That could be a recipe for long-distance heartbreak. Or regret. Or both.’

‘Sure. I understand. Then we’d better do nothing.’ Yet what was in her eyes belied the words, at least two some degree.

‘Yeah. Not a single thing.’

Then the elephant trumpeted so loudly, the only way he could make it shut up was to kiss her. So he did. Gently, briefly, and hopefully gallantly. It was received by a maiden no longer in distress, yet one who didn’t seem perturbed by the gesture.

He checked her face for an unspoken response. What he found was her seeking similar.

‘I figured it was only fair you should wonder too,’ he said. ‘You know—whether making this crazy arrangement was dumb, whether it actually happening was fate or blind luck. And if acting on it was a good idea or not.’

She smiled. ‘It’s not the worst idea.’

He tested that hypothesis by kissing her again.

She took his hand and clasped it between hers. ‘I was serious about the one-night stand thing. Same as the first date thing—it doesn’t happen.’

‘And I’m serious about the pull-out bed. If I can’t get my money’s worth tonight, when can I?’

‘So I’ll stay?’

He shrugged. ‘What are friends for?’

‘Hard not to like you, Beckman.’

‘Same, Ellie. Besides, it’s Valentine’s—kick out a girl I just kissed? Major asshole behaviour.’

She nodded. ‘So what do you want to do for the next three hours? Netflix? Ice cream?’

‘I have both of those.’

‘Those sound like good alternatives for consenting adults.’

‘On one condition.’

She cocked her head. ‘Oh yeah?’

‘Will you be my Valentine, Ellie?’

‘Hell yes.’

She gave him a kiss which delayed the arrival of ice cream and Netflix by a half-hour.

The pull-out bed didn’t give him cramp, and his whirring mind hadn’t kept him awake too long. Fortunately it had majored on enjoying what had happened, rather than regretting what hadn’t. When he awoke, he congratulated it on a sense of perspective.

There was no noise from the bedroom by eight, so he grabbed coffee and had a shave and a shower.

When he emerged in his robe, the bedroom door was open, so he tentatively approached, hoping to rescue some clean clothes.

The room was empty. Puzzled, he checked the living room, then the kitchen. Oddly, both were vacant.

He spotted the folded piece of paper on the side and his heart sank.

Somewhat crestfallen, he read;

“First off, this is the coward’s way out, and I’m sorry. It’s a crappy way to pay you back for your hospitality and delightfully close company. I’m hopeless at goodbyes. You saw how useless I was yesterday. Today would have been worse.

Thanks for being my Valentine and my white knight. I’d do it all again in a second.

Unless I write you before, come up and see me this time next year. Make sure you have a long weekend booked—if we make it a two-night stand, it gets past that silly rule I have. 

Take care, Ellie x ”

After he’d stood there for a long minute, wondering if it was possible to make time pass more quickly—a year in five minutes would have been ideal—he stupidly rechecked that she had in fact left, then, with heart flitting between disappointment and fond remembrance, got on with his day.

The year largely evaporated—as his years did—and his temptation to call her remained. He doubled down on his sales effort, and had the best year ever, finishing fourth in the annual Salesman of the Year rankings.

He didn’t meet anyone quite like Ellie—and the fact that he could make the comparison proved that her nice comments had indeed spread beyond his brain. He wondered if she was thinking of him, or whether life had taken over. She didn’t call, or write, but he made himself believe that no news was good news.

January came round, and the tingles of hope and expectation were again quietly forming in his heart and soul, when one Friday he returned to the apartment to find a mailed envelope with the address written in familiar hand.

He eased his shoulder bag to the floor and nervously opened the letter.

She was brief, and he quickly appreciated that the economy of words was probably disproportionate to the difficulty she’d had in writing them;

“I’d hoped not to have to write before the 14th, but it didn’t work out like that.

I’m sorry, Beckman. His name is Brad, and I think he’s the one.

Thanks for two Valentines to remember.

Take care and good luck. She’s out there for you, somewhere.

Ellie x.”

In the lower corner was the doodle of a mouse.

He was happy. Then he was sad. Then he was angry—at the world, not at her—for not running according to his selfish whims.

Whatever else he felt, he was never going to find out what the “J” was for.

That gave him a wry smile, and he decided that was the best was to sum up the whole episode, so he wore it for a while. And then, as always, it was time to move on.

Chris Towndrow

Playwright & author. Three professional adult pantos have sold out their runs in Guildford in the past 3 years. Currently planning for 2017.

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