By Katie Gergel
He sat across from what he once believed to be his destiny, and her eyes were bluer than he remembered.
Days of anticipation had led up to this reunion. Jason didn’t know what to think at first when the notification popped up on his computer, accompanied by a picture of Christine Mulligan. She looked just as she had during their time at North Copperdale High School, with only a few more creases around her eyes and a shorter haircut. In the photo she stood next to an unfamiliar man, who was tall, polished, and had an appearance that bothered Jason, although he didn’t know why.
The message sent by Christine said: “Hello, Jason…long time no talk. How long has it been – almost 10 years? Hard to believe. I’ll be back in town this weekend and would love to catch up with you, if you are available. Let me know.”
It was brief, but still enough to produce a hollow feeling in Jason’s chest. He told his wife later that he would be meeting up with an old friend on Saturday. She didn’t ask questions, and was glad he had something to do while she was at yoga. So Jason arranged lunch with Christine Mulligan, spent over an hour deciding what he would wear, and was barely able to dull the anxious pounding in his brain that persisted for the four days before their meeting at Moriano’s Pizza Palace.
Jason arrived at Moriano’s twenty minutes early; he didn’t want to have to walk around and find Christine. But she didn’t have to either. Once the doors opened and Christine walked in, her excessively curly blond hair looking like it formed a soft halo illuminated by the light outside, the two former lovers noticed each other right away, and she made her way over to his table. He stood, they quickly embraced, and then sat down on either side of the table. The space between Jason and Christine was filled by a red table, napkins, condiments, and nearly ten years of past memories hanging in the air like tangible objects.
Jason would never forget the first time he saw Christine Mulligan. She walked into his chemistry class twenty minutes late on the first day of their sophomore year. Her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment and her eyes were red and tired. But while most of their classmates mocked her in hushed voices and quietly laughed at the flustered look on her face, Jason stayed silent. He noticed how pretty her hair was and how she walked with her toes pointing slightly inward. He noticed the lightness of her voice and when she spoke, he savored every word. As the year ticked by, he continued to pay attention when no one else would. Jason wanted to know everything and more about Christine.
He eventually mustered up the courage to ask her on a date, and after the first there were many others. A typical high school romance evolved into a serious relationship between two people with similar interests and dreams of the future that included each other. Everyone at North Copperdale believed they would be The Couple That Makes It, and for a while they were. After high school graduation, Jason and Christine went to different colleges, but overcame the obstacles of long distance. After college graduation, they came together once again. A quaint, inexpensive house on the outskirts of a big city became their home, and after just a few months of living together Jason knew he had a question to ask Christine.
Similarly, Jason had a question to ask Christine that day at Moriano’s Pizza. After several minutes of light discussion and catching up on life (Christine was married, had two kids, worked as a financial consultant even though Jason knew she once dreamed of being a veterinarian, and lived in the suburbs a couple hours west of their hometown), the thought that had been nagging at Jason just couldn’t stay contained any longer. He looked at her, remembering all the years he had spent in love with those eyes, and asked, “Why did you leave me, Christine? I was going to ask you to marry me.”
One day, nearly ten years ago, Jason came home from work to the house he and Christine shared and found that all her stuff was gone. The drawers were half empty, the countertops had been half cleared, and her photographs no longer donned the walls. The only trace of Christine Mulligan in the small house on Bernard St. was the lingering aroma of her perfume. The worst part for Jason was the lack of explanation.
Christine looked back at Jason over the pizza that had arrived at their table. In the silence he tried to read her eyes, which looked angry, confused, and shocked all at once. Finally, she spoke. “What about the letter you wrote me, Jason? You said you were done with me. I left because that’s what you wanted me to do. And I never answered your calls for the months after because it was too hard for me.”
She reached into her purse and produced a piece of creased, yellowing paper. Handing it to Jason, she said, “I wanted to meet with you today so I could finally get closure about this.”
Jason took the paper and unfolded it. A long note, certainly written in his handwriting, was sprawled across the page. As Jason read, his heart sunk deeper and deeper into his chest and the hollow feeling returned, but this time it was stronger. Jason remembered that he had written this note as a draft for an e-mail he would send to his boss at work, explaining how he couldn’t do it anymore, that he enjoyed his time while it had lasted but he needed to move on with his life. “This is nothing personal,” he wrote. “But I don’t feel the same way as I did in the beginning. I can see bigger things in my future, and right now I feel like I’m not going anywhere.”
Jason reached the end, where he had signed “I’m sorry,” and looked up at Christine. Her cheeks were as red as they had been the first day he saw her in chemistry class. He tried to speak, but no words came out on his first attempt. He took a few deep breaths, and explained the situation to Christine as well as he could, but even he could barely make sense out of it.
She thought he broke things off with a note. He thought she broke things off when she left. A simple misunderstanding, one that could have been easily avoided with a single sentence of explanation, had profoundly altered their lives. Now they were married, with separate existences that only intersected with conscious and forced effort, left to wonder what could have been.
At one point in Jason’s life, he was utterly convinced Christine Mulligan was his destiny. And maybe she was, but now he would never know. He would never answer the “what ifs” or quench the wonder of a life never tampered with by that note. They left Moriano’s that day with more questions than answers, and more emptiness than closure.
On his drive home, the rain tapped danced furiously on the roof of Jason’s 2003 sedan. The sky was painted a murky grey, and the thick misty clouds overhead swayed and intermingled rhythmically as if performing for an audience below. The trees outside the car windows whipped in the wind, trying to join in with the choreography of the sky, and the air smelled fresh and earthy.
Jason may have paid attention to this frantic state of the surrounding world on any other day. But his mind was elsewhere, disconnected from the rigid body with knuckles pulled white over the steering wheel. He turned up the radio and stared ahead, ignoring the pounding raindrops and racing windshield wipers. He hoped that the music would distract his thoughts, but he failed to notice that the noise coming from the radio was plagued with static.