By C. A. Cooke
How can I consider love again?
The carnation in Robert’s hand shook as he waited for the train to stop. His mind buzzed - fear and excitement warring over his attention. After Candice, he had sworn never to put himself on a string again. He spent eleven years being yanked on one, and even after the divorce, he came running whenever Candice beckoned. Promises of reconciliation eventually turned to ash in his ears, and Candice cut him loose.
Robert thought he was done with women, done with dating, and done with love. But then, Lizzy. She popped into his life like a firework, showing up as a random challenger online in the Scrabble boards and chatting idly with him as she laid down triple word scores. There was something about her, something different. He sought her out whenever he was online, feeling lost when he couldn’t find her name.
After months of chatting on the Scrabble boards he had built up the courage to ask her to dinner. Nothing fancy. Lord knew he couldn’t afford fancy after the divorce. But the diner on Grand had great food for cheap, and who doesn’t like pie?
Lizzy’s initial hesitancy worried him. He was no Brad Pitt after all, unless Brad was beefing up for a role as the Cookie Monster: Robert wasn’t fat so much as padded and covered in the fine fur bestowed unto him by his Mediterranean ancestry. Lizzy acquiesced, however, and set a date. She insisted they meet today on the train and wouldn’t answer when Robert queried as to why. The only thing she would tell him was that she had a “prior engagement”.
They hadn’t exchanged pictures, either. Lizzy was old school, and Robert was too shy to send anything more than a vague description of himself. Candace had ever been so aware of his faults, and eleven years of listening to itemized lists of them made it difficult to see anything else. Lizzy laughed when he told her this, typing, “Nobody’s perfect, Roberto.”
Roberto. Lizzy’s pet name for him. He loved it. It made him swell with the Italian pride so characteristic of his father’s side of the family. Papa died before Candace left him, but Robert had a feeling he would have liked Lizzy. She was funny and wise. She was always ready with a quip and good advice whenever Robert was down.
"Robert checked the hands of every woman that came in. The flash of red of the matching carnation should be easy to spot, regardless of the frenzy."
The train slowed, inertia rocking everyone in the car forward. Robert adjusted his weight like the city pro he was. He hadn’t needed to grab a hand rail in twenty years. Like many metro travelers, his calves were his best feature. The train slid into the station, the tinny automated voice announcing the street. Robert’s pulse quickened, and he rubbed his sweaty palms on his slacks.
The surge of end-of-day commuters crashed against one another like opposing armies on a battlefield. Those egressing the train pushed forward with all the grit and determination of Patton’s Third Army pushing into Bastogne. The group on the platform washed around them, elbowing and shoving them aside to gain entrance to the carriages. The exchange had all the order and grace of an explosion.
Robert checked the hands of every woman that came in. The flash of red of the matching carnation should be easy to spot, regardless of the frenzy. Once his eye caught a crimson splotch, and his heart leapt. Its owner, a petite blonde in a navy business suit, stopped and scanned the seats. She moved away moments later, and Robert saw she held not a flower, but a small, gaily wrapped package. He continued to scan the crowd, his panic rising with this heartbeat. He wondered if he had gotten the wrong day or the wrong train. He didn’t want to consider that Lizzy might stand him up. They were soul-mates.
The crowd settled down and the doors slid closed. The familiar weight of acceleration accompanied the familiar weight of disappointment. She hadn’t come. She’d reconsidered or, perhaps, just forgot.
“That’s me,” he muttered. “Mr. Forgettable.”
“Excuse me, young man,” a voice said from beside him. He looked up.
Gliding around the other riders was a woman in her seventies. She wore black slacks and a tie-died tank-top, over which she had draped a sheer floral-patterned wide scarf, which flowed around her like water as she walked. Her gray-white hair was styled in a textured bob which made her look as though she had just wandered in from a day at the beach.
“Excuse me,” she said again. “Are you Robert?”
Robert blinked and nodded.
“I am,” he said. “But who are—”
His eyes caught the flash of red in her hands and his mouth went dry.
“Roberto!” Lizzy said, and threw herself at him, arms open.
C. A. Cooke is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Visit his website at http://cacooke.com.