“It’s not you,” my now-ex-boyfriend insisted. Psychology 101 hard at work here. “It’s me.”
I said nothing. I knew the real reason behind the break-up. His former fiancée called off her engagement and reached out to him to see if he was still available. She’d been a hard ghost to compete with during our brief unconsummated relationship. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep with a man who refused to take his ex’s picture out of his wallet. Truth be told, he beat me to the ‘I Wanna Break-Up’ speech.
After three months of trying to make this work, I was worn out and fresh out of cares. “You’re right,” I said, unwilling to give him the out I knew he angled for. “It is you. And Regina. And that’s okay.”
Phil sighed, going for the sad-eyed look. He didn’t quite pull it off, in my not-so-humble opinion. Before he could say anymore, I shoved up off my chair, grabbing the coffee I’d brought with me. He didn’t get a free pass for playing with my affections, promising stuff he couldn’t deliver, wasting my time. He just didn’t.
“Good luck to you and Regina. Something tells me you’re perfect for one another.”
“Avery,” Phil protested as I strode away. “Don’t leave like this.”
I ignored him and squeezed around the other bistro tables. A middle-aged woman who’d clearly had a front row seat to our drama whispered as I passed her, “Don’t look back. He’s not worth it.”
I tossed my empty coffee cup into a corner city trash can, restless and not wanting to go home. As sure as the moon tugged the tides, I didn’t need to hear my roommate expounding on Phil’s faults. According to Mary, they were numerous and grievous. Her words taunted me now. Words she’d tossed at me after Phil and I’d been dating for about a month and a half during one of our many arguments about my dating him.
“You’re in no hurry to sleep with him. That should tell you something. And it should tell you something that he’s not trying harder to get into your panties.”
Judging a relationship on whether or not you wanted to sleep with the guy didn’t seem valid to me. Sure, I found Phil attractive. He took pains with his appearance – from salon cuts and highlights in his hair to manicures. As a junior partner in an accounting firm, he made decent money and he didn’t need a roommate to help make rent. We’d had much in common – way more than any other guy I’d dated in recent history.
For me, he’d been as close to perfect as could be.
Yeah, I found the highlights a bit weird, but whatever made him happy, right?
My favorite hole-in-the-wall thrift shop beckoned. My ‘Spidey’ senses tingled every time I came within a few blocks. Luckily, it was only one block over from where I stomped today, so I headed over. I always found something there to cheer me up if I was in the doldrums.
Something told me today would be no different.
Imogen Nolan owned and operated the thrift store and had for as long as I could remember. Osteoporosis and being in the middle of her eighth decade didn’t keep her from opening shop every morning at eight and closing it every afternoon at five. She lived in the walk-up above it, which had to be a sweet deal as far as work commutes went. I hoped when I got to be her age, my hair was still as jet black as it was now. Her hair glowed gorgeous auburn and if any silver lurked in her tresses, they had the good sense to not draw any attention to themselves.
“Avery Jackson. It’s been a while since I saw you last,” Imogen greeted me when I entered the shop.
I inhaled deeply. Old leather-bound books, antique linens, cedar chests, you name it, it lurked in Ruby Heart Thrift Store, and it all contributed to an aroma that reminded me of my Grandma’s house.
“Hi, Miss Imogen. Got busy at work. I’ve hardly had time to breathe. And I had a boyfriend for a spell.”
“He decided he wanted to go back to his former fiancée, once she called off her current engagement. I just waved buh-bye to him.” I stated this matter-of-factly. The fact I felt nothing about the break-up spoke volumes. Maybe it hadn’t had time to sink in yet.
“His loss. Have a look around.” Imogen waved her hand, indicating the shop. “I have many new items. Lots of the old ones, too.”
I picked my way through the clothes racks, grabbing a couple of blouses and a vintage blazer. There in the bins of castoff kitchen implements, I found a potato ricer and wooden-handled potato masher. Books came next. Imogen usually had a great selection.
Boy, what a shame I hadn’t stuck a few plastic bags into my purse. I sure hoped that Imogen had some. She didn’t always. I set my goodies down on a nearby table, and my pile of books grew. Boyfriendless now, and not anxious to jump right back into the shark-infested dating pool any time soon, the books would keep me occupied on the typical date nights. I refused to listen to roomie Mary’s voice echoing in my head, with words I’d imagine she’d say about my date avoidance plan.
“If you stay at home, doing nothing but reading books, then Phil the Pill wins. Let’s go dancing.”
My fingers brushed a silky-soft book cover. I pulled the small book out, delighted with the antique leather binding so well worn it felt buttery smooth to the touch. Years of handling had left dark marks in the creases of the dark ruby red of the cover. This book had been very much loved by all who’d touched it – that much was obvious. No back cover blurb, no flaps with a short synopsis. Nothing to indicate what this book was about aside from the title, which I read aloud:
“The Tale of the Ruby Heart.”
“Oh, that’s a lovely one, dear,” Imogen called to me. “Have a seat and read a bit. Slow day today. Enjoy yourself.”
I sank onto a wooden kitchen table chair, book in hand and so intrigued, I didn’t pay much attention when the chair’s chipping green paint snagged at the fabric of my untucked shirt. I fancied the book warmed between my hands. Oddly, the title and publication pages were blank. No writing appeared until five pages in, a very ornate, calligraphy-drawn Roman number one to indicate chapter. Words appeared under the heading only as my eyes skimmed down the page, and what I read left me sitting gape-mouthed as the tale drew me in and refused to release me.
He noticed her right away, the lovely woman across the street. She stood there on the curb, looking to the right, then the left – back and forth until it was safe to cross. Her glossy black hair bounced around her shoulders when she moved her head. Nash couldn’t help but grin when she made a growly face at the continual traffic. The mid-block crosswalk wasn’t governed by any sort of traffic signals, stop signs or yield signs to aid the pedestrian.
He changed his direction, intent on bumping into her as they passed. Nothing hard, nothing weird. Just a jostling of shoulders as they crossed in a crowd. He needed to know if she felt the same pull he did. No explanation for it – he’d never experienced anything like it before. His heart had never thundered so hard before. Every ounce of him wanted to reach for her.
It became very important that he somehow stage a meeting. If she didn’t have a reaction, then no harm, no foul. Nash didn’t need to be creepy about it.
“Oh, beg pardon,” he said when at last traffic cleared enough to allow the gathered pedestrians to cross. He stopped in the crosswalk, half turned towards her as he shoved his sunglasses to the top of his head. “My bad.”
“It’s…” her voice trailed off when she looked over her shoulder at him. She, too, pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. He looked like the stereotypical California surfer dude – sandy blond hair, tan complexion. Dimples. Serious dimples that got deeper when he smiled. “Okay.”
“I hope I didn’t hurt you?”
“Not at all. So, uh, you’re going that way, huh?”
Nash shrugged one shoulder. “Just out enjoying the weather this afternoon. Wandering about with no real plan other than to take deep breaths of this glorious air.”
A horn honked. “Oh, for God’s sake,” came the voice of an exasperated driver. “Ask her to join you for coffee and get out of the middle of the street.”
“Sure. I’m Avery.”
“Nash. There’s a coffee café just around the corner, if you’re really interested. You don’t have to just because some jerk tired of waiting for the crosswalk to clear suggested it.”
“An iced coffee would be refreshing.” Avery didn’t consider herself a foolish woman. Not by a long shot. She knew the café he referred to and the streets were busy enough for her to feel safe. What she couldn’t know was that her heart pounded like Nash’s had when he’d first seen her. Her soul recognized his. It clamored for a closeness inappropriate with someone she’d just met. But, oh, she wanted to change their stranger status.
They ordered coffees and scones, well settled into the ornate cast-iron chairs.
“I’ve never met anyone before who actually roots for the Kansas City Royals,” Nash teased after they’d finished two coffees each and decimated a plateful of scones. They’d talked childhoods, college, failed relationships, family, life goals, politics – which they discovered they were completely in sync about – all that left was sports and possibly travel.
“I’ve never met anyone who actually roots for the Dodgers. Don’t those sorts of people live over there on the left coast?” Avery refused to be the only one in the hot seat over her sports teams.
“Dodgers fans are everywhere,” Nash replied, going for offended, but not quite carrying it off well.
“You’re thinking of Yankees fans. Those types are everywhere.” Avery nodded towards the table to her right. Sure enough, a guy wearing a Yankees’ jersey sat there, pounding back his coffee. She watched Yankees Boy wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and made a face. ‘Ew. Use a napkin,’ she thought.
“We’re in New York City. Of course Yankees’ fans are everywhere.” Nash snorted.
The coffee date continued into the sushi bar further up the block, for dinner. And after that, a dance club. For that, they took a cab. When at long last they called a halt to their coffee date, Avery let Nash take her home. And kiss her.
She wandered into her apartment in a daze, mildly startled when her roommate, Mary, made a sour observation. “Are you sure it was wise of you to let a strange man walk you home? And kiss you? Don’t tell me he didn’t, because he left whisker burn on your face.”
“He’s not a strange man, Mare,” Avery said on a somewhat annoyed sigh. “He was born on March seventeenth. Attended Brooklyn Friends School and is a recent graduate of Columbia’s where he earned his M.D. and is working on his master’s in public health. And he likes the Dodgers.”
“Nobody in New York likes the Dodgers. You’re making that up. Seriously, Ave, it’s a mystery to me how you haven’t ended up dumped in Central Park, the way you carry on with men.”
Avery rolled her eyes. “Right. That would be you you’re thinking of, not me. I haven’t been on a date since Phil. I’ve sworn off men. Nash is enough to make me swear them back in.”
Mary harrumped and stomped off to her room. Relieved, Avery headed to her own.
“He’s never going to call, you know,” Mary hollered through the thin wall that separated their bedrooms. The apartment had been a one bedroom, but their landlord had put up a flimsy wall down the center to make it two-bedrooms, likely so he could charge more money. He got away with it, too, as both tiny bedrooms had their own windows. Avery had the room without a closet. Made her no never-mind.
Avery’s phone chirped. She had a text message. From Nash.
“Hah! He might not call, but he’s already texted,” she called in triumphant glee. The sound of Mary’s sputtering retreated as Avery read the message, feeling the familiar tug to this enigmatic man she’d felt since he first bumped into her.
‘Bumping into you was the best thing I ever did,’ the text read. ‘Can’t wait to do it again. G’night.’
Avery sighed as she sank down onto her narrow bed. ‘Me too,’ she replied.
“He’s probably an axe murderer,” Mary shouted through the wall, punctuating her statement with a pounding knock on the wall.
“Oh, please.” Again, the trill of her text alert sounded. “What sort of axe murderer texts you that he wants you to meet his mother? And that his mother wants to meet you because he called her on his walk home to tell her he’s met his soulmate?”
A long silence, then Mary’s gobsmacked voice, much subdued, “Holy Moses on a pogo stick.”
Avery’s bedroom door opened, revealing Mary, already in her jammies. “Avery, damn me, but I think maybe you’ve found The One.”
They met in the only empty spot on Avery’s floor, hugging and jumping up and down and squealing. When they got dizzy from jumping clockwise, they switched directions and jumped and squealed some more until they crumpled to the floor in a giggling heap.
“I’d best be your first pick for maid of honor,” Mary admonished after they finished giggling themselves to oblivion and back.
“You and my sister can arm wrestle for it,” Avery said.
“Your sister is a sissy. She cries when you look cross-eyed at her. She’ll be a mess at your wedding. Better pick a dark color for your attendants, so the mascara that drips off her face won’t be a big, gnarly old stain down her front.”
“Kelsey isn’t that bad. She has a very delicate temperament. And she likes you.”
Mary snorted as she hauled herself to her feet. “Of course she likes me. I’m cute. I’m friendly and personable. I’m a downright joy to be around.”
Avery got up so she could flop onto her bed. “Have you met yourself?”
“Haha. Very funny. I’m going to bed. Some of us have to go to work tomorrow.”
“Dream about your Mr. Wonderful.” And with that, Mary shut the door.
And dream of Mr. Wonderful, Avery did indeed. All night.
I came awake with a jolt. How very strange I should’ve fallen asleep in the thrift store. Probably all those back-to-back twelve hour shifts I’d pulled over the past three days. At least I had the next four days off before I was on for another twelve. Good thing I liked nursing. That was for sure and for certain.
The red leather-bound book rested in my lap, closed now. I couldn’t shake the story I’d read. I wondered at the odd coincidence at the end, when the character with my name had been asleep and dreaming, while I’d apparently done the same. Had I really read that, or had it all been a dream? Did it matter? Who cared, I finally decided, when the end result was I felt a bit more rested than before.
“I think I’ll take you home with me, too,” I whispered to the book. I set it on top of the pile of books teetering on the table to my right and gathered up all my second-hand treasures. “Miss Imogen? I’m ready to check out.”
The elderly proprietor appeared out of nowhere. “Alright, doll. I went upstairs and got a couple bags for your purchases. I saw you gathering that armload. C’mon up front. I’ll ring you up and you can be on your way. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, not quite three yet. You should enjoy the nice weather. Spring is always finicky, you know.”
“Only three? I thought it was much later.” Ol’ fuzzyhead here. Hoo boy. My brain wanted to still be asleep. Miss Imogen was right about the afternoon, and even with two plastic bags hanging off my crooked elbow – one bag weighing half a ton thanks to the books, I decided a nice stroll was in order. Besides, the sunshine would be good for me.
My phone jangled. A quick glance at the screen announced it to be Kelsey, my sister. Had to love Kelsey, because otherwise her constant drama would wear you out fast. I let the call go to voice mail. A gal carrying two bags, along with her purse, distracted by talking on her phone was an invitation to a mugging. Her own. Been there. Done that. Didn’t want to repeat it, mostly because it was a pain to cancel all my credit cards and get a new driver’s license issued and alert all the credit bureaus…I stopped kvetching. Pay attention, Avery. Sheesh.
I came to a crosswalk that seemed very familiar. It took me a few heartbeats to realize it was the one described in that funny old book I’d found at the Ruby Heart Thrift Store – the one now safely ensconced in my bag and going home with me. Wait until Mary got a load of that book. I giggled to myself. Quietly. I didn’t wish to draw any undue attention my way.
An eon passed, but finally there came a break in the traffic. I half expected the sandy blond Nash from my book to brush against me. Disappointment welled inside when that didn’t happen. On a whim, I stopped at the coffee café. Nope. No California beach bum there, either. Now I juggled the bags, my purse and an iced coffee.
“Brilliant. You’re just brilliant. Might as well wear a sign that reads ‘mug me, I’m a moron.’”
“Perhaps not a moron, but definitely living in a world of your own.”
Why did I recognize that voice? I turned towards the speaker. There he stood, a Nash doppleganger, staring at me as if he’d just been struck dumb. He took off his sunglasses. Mine still sat atop my head where I’d shoved them when I’d bought the iced coffee. He had eyes the rich dark brown of dark chocolate.
“Hi,” I whispered. “Have we met?” I braced myself, thinking he would tell me his name was something like Josephus Doofengrimer. Yes. That had to be his name, because it couldn’t possibly be –
“Nash. Nash Benson. I was about to ask you the same thing. For some reason, I want to say your name is Avery. Avery Jackson.”
My mouth dropped open. “You like the Dodgers.”
“Guilty as charged, you Royals fan.”
We both blinked.
“Would you think me creepy and weird if I told you, Avery, that my soul recognizes you and yours?”
I could see him holding his breath, waiting for my answer. “Not if you won’t think me creepy and weird if I said yes. And confessed to same.”
“How about some sushi? Hungry?”
“Sushi’s my favorite.”
Nash fell into step with me, casting me a sidelong glance and a smile that showed off his amazing dimples. “I know,” he said simply.
Yeah. He knew.
* * * * * * * * *
“Welcome back, Ruby,” Imogen said when the red leather book returned to the shop. It always found her, even if she wasn’t in the shop. “Did you do your job?”
Not that she expected an answer. The Tale of the Ruby Heart didn’t do anything more than tell people a bit of the story about their romances. Imogen rubbed the cover. It always felt warm to the touch, so soft and worn smooth by several scores of years of handling.
“Let’s put you back for someone else to find.” She carried it reverently to the used book section of the shop. “Where would you like to be this time?” The book always picked a new spot on the shelf, and this time was no different. Imogen shelved it on the top left shelf between a dog-eared copy of Robert Frost’s poems and a hardback with Shakespeare’s collected comedies.
“I wonder,” Imogen mused as she made her way upstairs to her apartment. “Will the next reader be a Frost or a Shakespeare fan?”
(c) 2015 Laura Hamby
Comments very welcome! I’m contemplating a Tale of the Ruby Heart novella-length book…The Muse and I are in negotiations. Happy Wednesday!