By HEIDI HOLTAN
As Emma walked through the automatic doors of Wilson Library she was positive she never looked worse. Her hair was matted down on one side due to skipping a wash this morning and she had sprouted a whole new crop of blemishes on her chin. And she reeked. Of onions from leftover Thai food and the stink of cigarettes from the concert at First Avenue the night before. It was just her luck that she would run into Robert.
"Hey you," he said quietly to her, just like he used to.
"Hi Robert. What's up?" she asked him in that upper register of her voice.
"You got your hair cut!" He reached out his hand to touch her but pulled back rather abruptly.
With a biting sarcasm she forgot she was capable of she answered, "Yeah, about six months ago."
"That long ago, huh? I like it short." He rubbed his chin and asked, "Have time for a cup of coffee?"
She knew she shouldn't have time for him right now. She knew if she was really the person she pretended to be she would decline and walk away triumphant. But the thought of turning him down vanished as she saw that spot on his tooth that was a little whiter than the rest of his teeth.
"Yeah, I think I do. I've got about an hour until I need to be back at the campaign office."
"You're still working for Wellstone? Oh, excuse me, President-elect Wellstone! That poor bastard won't even get close . . . and he'll make us look like fools! It's one thing to win in a state that elects the likes of Jesse Ventura, but nationally?" He grinned at her as they started walking away from the university.
"Oh yeah, Al Gore is such a man of the people. And Rod Grams is out there making us proud every freaking day! Who else shall I mention, Robert? One of the Kennedy descendants perhaps? Bill "Morals" Clinton? Wait, wait, is Rush Limbaugh more your style? I admit there's almost no way Wellstone is going to win, mainly because Americans don't believe there could be an honest politician anymore, but he's got the best damn intentions I've ever seen."
"Fair enough. It just seems kind of futile to be involved in a campaign where you know you won't win the election. What's the point?"
With semi-flailing gestures she responded, "You know Robert, some people aren't obsessed with winning. Some people just like to be in the game, fighting for what they believe in. Anyway, I, for one, believe he's got a chance."
"It's nice to hear that somebody still has beliefs, as misguided as they are." He smiled lazily at her and suddenly she felt a lot better.
"All right, all right, I'll lay off," he said. In the time that had passed since she last saw him she had become more adept at defending herself. It's funny how heartbreak sometimes produces a clarity of ideals.
As they crossed Riverside Avenue and walked into the Urban Peasant Cafe she began cursing herself for agreeing to have coffee. It's not that she wasn't over him yet. It's just that she hadn't met anybody else and she had hoped that she would be different by the time this moment rolled around.
And somehow she knew that this moment would come. God, what was she
doing? Okay, to be honest, in a pathetic way she wasn't really over him. Not that she mooned over him constantly. But quietly, the thought of him was there. There had been other guys since Robert. But nobody who interested her like he had. She had gone on a date with a guy just a couple of weeks ago, to remind herself that she was still attractive to men. But even then, after they kissed and when she had chosen to not take the creep up on his offer of "breakfast" she thought of Robert: how she had anticipated kissing Robert; how he poked her knee on their first date.
Emma lifted her eyes and watched as he walked across the gothic-styled coffeehouse and set down two coffees, with real cream and no sugar. "Man we're old!" he said. "That kid who brewed this must be 17! How the hell did we get to be 32? I don't feel that old, do you?"
"Not at all, especially when I look at my friends' lives, I feel like a teenager still. They're married and have babies, for crying out loud! I'm still eating takeout every night and scrounging for laundry quarters." Was she saying too much? Should she seem more Martha Stewart and domesticated? Why did she analyze everything? Maybe she should have lied and said she was into decoupage and pinecones and that she wanted to settle down soon. Does anyone else have a constant urge to blatantly lie about themselves?
"So what are you doing now Robert? School?"
"Yeah. I'm trying to finish up my thesis and I'm working part time for a publisher. Of course every day I convince myself that I'm no good at writing and that I should just sell insurance. You know, screw the creative lifestyle." As he spoke, his legs and hands bounced about, never quite catching the beat.
"So things are going well then?"
He laughed. "Actually they're fine. It's just my normal inner demons. Sometimes my dad's voice telling me to get a real job is a little too loud in my head. By the way, did I get the coffee right?"
"Yeah, I still drink it like this. Thanks." Putting both her hands around the cup, she continued: "So have you gotten anything published lately?" As Emma waited for Robert's reply she reassured herself that everything was fine. Why, it didn't mean anything -- it was just two friends running into each other and catching up. She
could do this.
He continued, "Yeah, I've been in a few small presses -- local mostly. But I'm working on this book kind of thing, in fact it may be of interest to you." He paused and looked straight at her and calmly said, "It's this series of short stories about a writer who drinks away every decent element of his life."
"Fiction I guess?" It was moments like this that made Emma realize breathing was a real necessity. Of course it was proving a little difficult to actually do so. So many nights she had chastised herself because she created a fantasy just like this, which made her happy and hopeful for five minutes and dejected and stupid the rest of the night. Was this actually happening?
"Emma? You okay? I didn't mean to drop that on you like that. It's just that I've been wanting to talk to you a long time. But I haven't been able to do it."
"Why?" she whispered.
His answer almost raced out of his mouth. "You see, I've been afraid that you'd gotten on with your life. And afraid that I'm never going to be able to apologize enough. Have you found someone new? Okay, I don't need an answer to that one. I don't want to know. I know I'm a big stinking coward for waiting so long. I completely understand why you ended it. But you're not wearing a ring. So you're not married, right?"
She stared into her still full coffee mug. "No, I'm definitely not married. I'm not even seeing anyone right now. I'm a career gal, don't you know?" Suddenly Emma was starting to get irritated. "That's what my family has pigeonholed me as because I don't ever bring anyone home. It's easier, you know, to create a category for someone instead of asking if I'm okay."
"But Emma, you always act like you're more than okay. You don't know
how hard it is to approach you sometimes."
"How would you know? You haven't 'approached' me in a year! Maybe I've mellowed out! Okay, fine, obviously I haven't. But it feels weird for you to talk to me like you still know me so damn well. It's been a long time, Robert. And I'm not the same as I was."
"I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't assume to know who you've become. Can I just say something though?" As he spoke he twisted the napkin in his hands until it began to disintegrate. "Is there any chance we can talk? I realize I don't even have the right to ask, after how I was--"
"You know what? That's true, you don't have any right. And in a way I wish I could just tell you to go to hell but the thing is, and, God, I hope I don't regret this later, I still think about you. A lot less than at first but more than I'd like. I'd like to not be thinking of you at all. And I don't know that I'm ready for this again. You see, lately I've been figuring out how to be alone."
"I don't know what I'm ready for either, Emma, but you have to admit this is good. This thing between us. Isn't it? Seeing each other again . . . arguing, talking incessantly? I can't believe how much I've missed you." He reached across the table and grabbed a hold of her fingers. "I've got some things I'd like to explain."
Emma let her hand be held as her heart lurched loudly in her chest. Like a speeded up scene from a Charlie Chaplin film, Emma replayed the nights that he had been so drunk he didn't know who she was. And the mornings afterward with the apologies and the promise of change. Against her better judgment she nodded at him to continue.