Cathy had just paid for her coffee at Starbucks when Jamie sidled up next to her, his own coffee in hand. Cathy blinked at him in surprise, having not seen him in the shop. Would she have done something if she had? Gone up to say hi or ignored him or maybe gone to the Starbucks on the next street? She didn't know.
It had been three years since she had seen him and she had tried her best to avoid thinking about it.
Jamie apparently had no such hang-ups. He was grinning at her. "Hi."
"Excuse me," the guy at the register said. "Can you move off to the side?"
Embarrassed, Cathy stepped aside. Jamie followed her.
"Who'd have thought we'd run into each other here?"
"We both still live in the same place," Cathy said. "I go to the same gym as my favorite actress. If anything, it might be weird we don't see each other more."
"Do you still spend the summer in Ohio?" Jamie asked.
Cathy resisted a shudder. She had found that months of dreading her yearly return there had made her build it up in her mind and it was never quite as bad as she remembered it. It was still really bad, though, so it was a minor blessing. "No."
Jamie's smile widened. "I'm glad. I know how much you hated it there."
That wasn't entirely fair of her, she supposed. She had heard Cincinnati was quite nice, even if it was no New York, but it was just tainted by association.
Cathy's drink was called then and she took it from the woman behind the counter.
"I should hope you knew after all the time I spent complaining."
"Oh, but you do it so well!" Jamie exclaimed. "I've never minded complaining so long as its entertaining."
What were they doing there? Why was he acting like he was so happy to see her? He hadn't been the last time or any of the times before then, not for a long time. She was standing in a Starbucks making small talk with her ex-husband. Why didn't he seem to feel the awkwardness?
She switched her coffee from one hand to the other and jerked her head towards the exit. "Well, I should probably get-"
"Oh, no," Jamie interrupted. "Stay. Have coffee with me."
Cathy looked longingly towards the door but, inexplicably, she hesitated. "I don't know, Jamie."
"Come on," he said, smiling disarmingly. "Won't you share your life with me for the next ten minutes?"
It really should have upset her, Cathy thought distantly, to hear him so lightly tossing around the words of his proposal. But for some reason, looking at him, she just felt absurdly fond. "Okay. But I reserve the right to refuse if you ask me for another ten. I've been down this road before."
He just grinned again and mimed a chest wound. "Right to the heart! Come on. I'll show you where I'm sitting."
He was holed up in a corner next to a window, his computer plugged in and an empty plate pushed off to the side.
"You are still the only person I know to get lunch at a Starbucks," Cathy informed him.
Jamie laughed. "Still such a snob! You shouldn't knock it til you've tried it. It's very convenient."
Cathy narrowed her eyes. "I am not a snob!"
"You really are. But I don't mind. I'm one, too. Sometimes I think everyone who lives in New York is a total snob. But why accept less than the best?"
Cathy forced a smile and took a long drink of her coffee. He never did settle, he'd rather just smash everything apart to get what he wanted.
"So I saw that you've become the face of Doritos."
Cathy laughed. "You would notice that."
"I will not apologize for my discerning taste in chips," Jamie said, sticking his nose up in the air comically. "But seriously, Cathy, that's great. It's great exposure and I don't know a lot about these things but a national commercial must give you a decent amount of money."
"I am not revisiting the question of alimony with you."
Jamie looked almost insulted. "That's not what this is about. I don't care about the alimony."
He hadn't then, either. Cathy had been angry and hurt and confused. Once she had accepted that there was nothing she could do to make Jamie stay, she had wanted to get the divorce over with as quickly as possible. But she'd also spent five years of her life on this man and planned out their whole lives. She thought he would be the father of her children. She wasn't making enough money to support herself and she didn't want to walk away empty-handed. And Jamie hadn't fought her lawyer's demands. She always thought it was guilt and tried not to think too hard on what he had to be guilty about.
"I am doing a few other commercials though they're all local," she said instead. "Like you said, it's something but it's not exactly living the dream."
"Are you still doing plays?" he asked. "Somewhere other than Ohio?"
Cathy nodded. "I joined this acting troupe that travels all around New York. It's mostly in the suburbs and not the city but it's acting. I've also done a few mystery trains and those were fun."
"I know it's not everything you ever wanted," Jamie said, his hand starting forward before he pulled it back. "But you're making it work."
"I…don't think I'm ever going to make it to Broadway," Cathy admitted, looking down. It was hard to say, even now, though she'd mostly made her peace with that. Jamie had probably known before she did.
"Most people don't," Jamie said gently. "But you're still acting and getting paid for it and lots of people don't even make it that far. Besides, what was your whole reason for wanting to be an actor in the first place?"
Cathy hated that question. He knew she hated that question. She'd known she wanted to be an actor from the moment she firs stepped foot on the stage but that was a feeling. The words never came to her when people asked. All this time and she still couldn't explain it. Did it really matter? Wasn't it enough that she did?
"I'm not trying to speak for you but I've always thought it was really two things."
Cathy leaned forward in her seat. "Oh?"
"Living in New York, being an actress…it's a pretty far cry from Carol Anne and white picket fences. And you love your hometown but staying there may very well have killed you."
Cathy smiled a little at that. "I think that's being a little dramatic."
Jamie scratched his nose. "Eh, I could never see you living the suburban life, acting or no acting."
And wasn't that just what she wanted to hear? "And the other thing?"
"What?" she asked, suddenly feeling self-conscious.
"I just…it's not a bad ting but I'm not sure how to say it without it coming out wrong."
"You won a Pulitzer."
Jamie's eyes brightened and he grinned. "Yes, I did. But that takes a lot of revision. Come back in a week and I'll have the best answer to that question you've ever heard."
"Or you can just tell me now and trust I'll forgive a little awkward phrasing."
"You like acting well enough," Jamie said. "And singing. But you don't love it. It doesn't seem to consume your very being and take over your life the way writing does for me."
"That doesn't sound very healthy," Cathy said doubtfully.
Jamie actually laughed. "And I have it on good authority that you think my writing process is insane."
"Well, actually I said you were insane," Cathy corrected him.
"You always hear about how the greatest actors were all method actors," Jamie said. "They'll lose or gain obscene amounts of weight for a part. They'll shave their heads or hang out with the mob or…or do all kinds of ridiculous and extreme things, just so they can be sure they truly know their role. You never half-assed it but you always lived for the applause. And there is a lot of that, true, once you get the part but there's also directors who don't cast you or ask too much and critics who have seen better."
It stung, what he said, but she wasn't altogether convinced he was wrong.
"It should be easier out in the suburbs," he concluded, "where they can't get to Broadway in fifteen minutes."
"You sound like our old shrink," she said accusingly.
That startled another laugh out of him. "Speaking of method, I'm writing about a psychologist right now. I need to come off as having some sort of an idea what I'm talking about. It's kind of hilarious, actually. They're ethically banned from giving out any testing information, like those ink blots, but I can buy books on the tests. Half of the time you can just google it or learn everything on Wikipedia."
Cathy nodded. "I read your books, you know. The ones that came out after."
Jamie looked genuinely surprised by that and Cathy felt a strange sort of pleasure at that. "Why?"
Cathy rolled her eye. "I'm not here to stoke your ego, Jamie. You know damn well that you're a brilliant writer."
Jamie flashed a quick, guilty smile. "Force of habit. But there are a lot of brilliant writers in the world, Cathy. And you're not even that into reading. So why?"
That was a difficult question to answer. She hadn't really sat down and compiled a list of pros or cons. She had just been walking past a bookstore one day and seen his name on the cover of the book in the window and, must like that summer in Ohio a millions years ago, she found herself unable to leave. She had actually just let his book fester in her apartment for a few weeks until she couldn't stand it anymore and stayed up half the night reading it.
"I'm not a quitter," she told him.
There was a ghost of a smile on his face. "I know you're not. Even when quitting is the only sane thing to do or the only way to make you happy. Sometimes other people have to quit for you."
She pressed her lips together. "I don't recall asking you to make decisions for me. My happiness is my own concern."
Jamie nodded. "And mine is mine. But we've already had this conversation and I didn't go up to you to reopen old wounds."
"Then why did you?"
"Because it's been long enough and I thought we could try and see if we could stand to be in the same room together," Jamie said. "You were my world for five years."
Not quite five. That was how long their relationship lasted but it had been over for about a year before either of them – Jamie – would admit it. Writers did so like to romanticize these things.
"I guess I just wanted to," Cathy said at last. "Why do your other fans read your works? I liked your books and I missed you and you were writing a series, Jamie. I wanted to see how it would all end."
"That series is over," Jamie said quietly.
Cathy nodded. "You gave us a happy ending."
"They weren't us."
Cathy gave him a skeptical look. "They kind of were."
Jamie let out a long, low sigh. "Yeah, kind of. Write what you know, right?"
"Except you didn't write the ending. And don't even tell me tragedy doesn't sell because I know people all that kind of crap right up."
"Maybe I just wasn't interested in my public denouncing me as an asshole," Jamie said noncommittally.
"Does your public know it's you?" Cathy asked.
Jamie shrugged. "Maybe some? There's always people who read too much into these things and know way more than I'm comfortable with about my personal life. Maybe they're a little less likely to think it's us after I changed the ending."
"You don't have to write yourself as the asshole," Cathy said. "It's your story and, while I was completely blindsided, you didn't just wake up one day and decide to leave me. 'I could never rescue you'? You clearly felt you had grievances, too."
"That's barely any better," Jamie objected. "Either I'm the ass who wrote a book to complain about his ex-wife or I'm the bad guy in what happened. No, far better to do it this way."
"You could have just stopped with the sequels," Cathy said. "You didn't have to go out and give them a bonafide happy ending."
"Ah, then people would always be hounding me about when the next book in the series was coming out," Jamie said. "You have to be firm about these things."
He sighed. "Fine. You were my muse, Cathy. Far more than my love, my muse! The first woman I've ever loved enough to get me published. Not the last, no, but so much of success in the arts is luck, of having the right thing at the right place in the right moment. I wouldn't be where I am today without you and, even if we couldn't make it through, I wanted…" He trailed off.
Cathy did her best not to let what she thought of them being incapable of making it through show on her face. He had chosen not to and she had moved on but it was still a choice. Maybe even the best choice but it hadn't been a choice she had had the luxury of making. "Wanted?"
He grinned ruefully. "I guess I just wanted there to be at least one world where we got our happy ending."
It could have been this one, once. But that time was dead.
"I…did appreciate it," she said hesitantly. "You're a shameless sentimentalist, Jamie."
Jamie crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "What can I say? Sentimentality sells. And what's the point of fiction if you can't use it to improve upon reality?"
That could explain a lot about him, actually.
"Are you still with…what was her name, your editor?" Cathy asked as if she didn't know damn well what her name was.
Jamie shook his head. "No, that fell apart. At least this time before we made it to marriage! That always makes it easier. I'm dating another girl, name's Kara."
Cathy opened her mouth and then thought better of it.
"No, no, what?" Jamie asked.
"It doesn't matter."
"No, tell me," Jamie said.
"Well, it's been five years and you took up with your editor – is she still your editor, by the way?"
"She's very professional," Jamie said. "It's a bit awkward but mostly inspiring."
"Right, anyway, you took up with her pretty quickly after the separation and I guess it's not weird to have had two girlfriends in five years," Cathy said.
Jamie knew her too well. "But?"
Cathy gave a sheepish smile. "But I know you and I was going to ask if you're actually capable of being single for longer than five minutes."
"Guilty," Jamie admitted easily. "I probably could but it would be a terrible idea."
"Oh, yes, think of all the things you might learn about yourself!"
"Hey, you have that same problem!"
"Used to," Cathy corrected. "I'm single right now, actually. It took me a long time to realize that I was just falling into the same old patterns and…I'm not getting into this with you but being single has been good for me. I think it'll make my next relationship better."
Jamie reached over, grabbed her cup, and raised it. "I hope it will. Cheers!"
Cathy managed to grab it back before he could take a sip. "Seriously?" she asked, laughing.
"What?" Jamie asked innocently. "I didn't have a cup. Should I have waved my plate?"
Cathy just shook her head fondly.
"But I'm not like that," Jamie said. "You know I'm not. It might seem terrible but I need to be in love. If I'm not, I can't write worth a damn and that's my career. I can't afford to just not be working like that."
He had fallen in love again so quickly after he left her, long before the divorce was finalized. He had never admitted anything, even at the end, but she had had her suspicions for years.
"Have you considered that maybe that's a crutch?" she asked. "I mean, it's great when it's working and the results speak for themselves but it just doesn't seem to me that being dependent on always being in muse-level love is going to lead to sustainable relationships and the older you get the harder it's going to be. Unless you're one of those guys who goes after girls half his age and, come on, nobody wants to be that guy."
"I think you mean that everybody wants to be that guy," Jamie corrected.
Cathy made a face. "I don't, actually."
Jamie just shrugged as if to say 'your loss' and tried to swipe her coffee again.
She moved it out of his reach. "So what does this prove? We managed to have a conversation without killing each other and we're both doing well. We should totally have a picnic together."
Jamie shrugged. "I don't know. It's probably cliché to want to be friends with your ex."
"That's never something the new girl – or guy – is cool with," Cathy pointed out. "Especially if it's so serious a relationship as to end in divorce. And we don't even have a kid to tie us together!"
"You're not seeing anyone," Jamie pointed out.
"But you are. And who says I even want to be friends?"
"That's fair," Jamie said reluctantly. "Not really what I wanted to hear but fair."
"I'm not saying I don't," Cathy said. "I'm just saying…the idea never occurred to me before. Things were pretty…final between us."
Jamie's eyes lit up. "But do you want to?"
"Do you?" she countered.
"Cathy, I know it's unconventional but when heave I ever cared about that? You were such an important part of my life for so long and I do think we needed a break from each other but now it's been long enough," he said seriously. "I may not be in love with you anymore but I still love you and I'd like to get some of that back, if I can."
Cathy looked out the window. "I don't know, Jamie."
"You never would just rush into things," he mused.
"Maybe you just rushed into things too much and damn the consequences."
"That's…probably fair," he admitted. "But I'm mostly fine with how it's all turned out. Just promise me you'll think about it. I come here all the time. Just think about it and if you do want to just come find me." He gathered up his stuff to leave. "It's been good seeing you, Cathy. Take care of yourself."
Cathy couldn't believe him. "You can't just leave like that!"
He looked confused. "You wanted to spend more time with me? You won't even commit to wanting to spend time with me at all."
"I'm just saying, 'I'm here all the time, come find me' is a terrible plan! I'm not just going to lurk here hoping to run into you or hope we happen to come in at the same time!" Cathy objected. "Let's be a little bit practical about this!"
"I thought it was perfectly practical…"
"At least give me your damn phone number."
He grinned and rattled off his number. "Are you going to call?"
Cathy gave him a look. "Weren't you leaving?"
"I will sleep with this beside my pillow, awaiting your call," he promised, faux-solemnly.
"I'm sure your girlfriend would love that."
"She's a writer's girlfriend; she's very understanding."
"The longer you stand here the more my chances of actually making contact are dwindling into nothing," she warned.
Jamie laughed. "Alright, alright, I'm leaving. Be seeing you."
He was so certain of everything, same as he'd always been.
He was so certain she'd call.
Well, now that she had to think about.