Full Circle

By Hayden Pursley

A restaurant with empty tables

He checked his watch again. Then he thought of how he must look: sitting alone at a table for two, dressed and groomed nicely enough (he had tried very hard to not look like he was trying too hard), checking his watch then checking the entrance every few moments. He suddenly felt embarrassed. He pulled his phone from the inside breast pocket of his jacket — a gesture that always made him feel slightly more sophisticated than the usual motion of retrieving it from the back pocket of his jeans– and pretended to check something very important, something that was definitely not rearranging the apps on his home screen. Once the very important task had been completed, he replaced his phone, made a conscious effort not to check his watch or the door, and watched the candlelight reflecting off of two glasses: one full, with a clear purpose to serve and the other empty, seemingly anxious and hopeful.

In the well-lit parking lot of one of the few fine dining restaurants in town, in the driver’s seat of a small Toyota SUV, she hurriedly applied mascara and checked her work in the visor mirror. It was not necessarily a matter of time– for once, she actually had a fair amount of time to get ready after her mother had picked up her son earlier that evening– but she had become such an expert at applying makeup piecemeal in car mirrors that the opportunity to do so in her full-length mirror at home felt foreign and uncomfortable.

“He must be something special,” her mother had said when she saw three dresses and five pairs of shoes laid out on the bed.

“I don’t know,” she had replied. “I’m honestly just excited to do a grown-up activity and eat a meal without ketchup.”

Her mother had raised an eyebrow in silent, skeptical response.

Of course, she did hope that he was something special, that this would be something special. But she knew better than to get her hopes up about these things. Plus, there was a reason it hadn’t worked out between them the first time around. In fact, there were several reasons. And although they had both lived, grown, and experienced quite a lot in the years since, she was not sure that they could have changed that much.

“Dammit,” he mentally chided himself for reflexively checking his watch again. It was only 8:07. She was only seven minutes late, but he had been sitting there for 17 of the longest minutes he could remember. He fidgeted with the buttons on his jacket, covertly examined the entrees of other diners, ran his fingers across the flame of the candle, avoided eye contact with the restaurant staff. It would have been easier to wait with a drink. This was another of the countless small challenges of sobriety that normal people would never understand. Of course, if he had a drink, it would quickly turn into three, then six, and everything he had worked for over the last four years would go down the drain. This is the constant, lethal danger of living with alcoholism: that every restaurant, gas station, grocery store, drug store, venue, and essentially anywhere else commerce exists sells poison for him. It was as if he had a deadly peanut allergy– if peanuts were a foundational element of socializing that made everyone else happy and carefree. As if mentally drawn, the server appeared– temptation and pity personified– and asked, “Would you like a drink while you wait?”

It was not his drinking that made her end things between them 11 years ago (had it really been that long?), but it made for an easy excuse. He was an obvious, undeniable alcoholic, but he was never violent and rarely mean. They were never officially a couple anyway. She knew that he wanted to be, but she was 22 and unready to commit to anyone, especially someone as flaky and damaged as he had been. Of course, one of life’s countless little ironies came only 10 months later in the form of a cute guitarist, a missed period, and a little plus sign on a pee stick. She would always feel conflicted about this, as it irrevocably changed the course of her life but also gave her the most perfect little human to ever walk the Earth. She quickly became an adult and put all the partying and a fair number of possibilities in the rearview mirror. She knew that she had still accomplished quite a lot for a single mother (community college, a fulfilling career, homeownership), but it was hard not to think of what could have been. Although breaking things off with him had not been in her top five regrets, she certainly thought about him from time to time, and it might have been in the top ten.

She wasn’t coming; he knew it now. If she hadn’t loved him all those years ago, why would she even be interested now? His belly had flattened, then rounded; the pepper of his hair seemed to have more salt every week; he had been through more treatment centers, courtrooms, therapists, and AA meetings than 10 normal people would ever see. Yet he knew it was not all bad; he might not necessarily consider himself to be a success, but he was certainly no longer a failure. He had finally put some potential to good use and established a relatively successful career; he had a decent amount of money and even a few stocks and ETFs; and most importantly, he had not taken a drink or a drug in years. He was the closest he had ever been to happy with himself. If he was ever going to deserve to be with someone as wonderful as she, the time was now. His mind flashed back (as it had at least a thousand times over the years) to the first time he saw her– standing by a ping-pong table, with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a red paddle in the other, all but glowing the way he thought a goddess would. Judging by her social media photos, she still looked mostly the same. But maybe when she walked now, her feet tread on the ground.

Her makeup was as good as it was going to get. Her hair was meticulously styled to look as though she had put no effort into it. She had changed from her sandals into her heels. There were no emergency calls or texts from her mother. There was absolutely no reason for her to still be in the car. Yet here she was. She checked her phone again: 8:11 pm and no new notifications. She was not intentionally making him wait, but she would rather he think that than think she was nearly crippled by anxiety over the first date she had been on in over a year. Maybe this was a mistake. She started the car and began formulating a reasonable, not technically lying, excuse. Then she said aloud, “Fuck it.”

Maybe he should call her. She was almost 15 minutes late now, and in his experience, that was generally the longest a person should be expected to wait without calling or leaving. But he knew she had a son and so many more serious adult responsibilities than he had, and maybe it was understandable. He did not want to seem overzealous in reaching out to her; he feared that he had already come on too strongly by asking her to dinner before he had even fully moved back into town. Maybe that is what happened. Maybe she had only agreed to meet up with him as friends and then changed her mind once he suggested the overtly romantic restaurant. Or maybe she had had an emergency with her son and could not be bothered by such a tedious chore of cancelling their date, which was relatively meaningless by comparison. Or maybe he had just told her the wrong time. If that were the case, he would look silly for waiting there for so long and not calling.

Once again, he retrieved his phone from his jacket pocket, this time with no feeling of satisfaction or sophistication, and scrolled through the contacts to her name. After realizing he had been holding his breath, he said aloud, “Fuck it.”

He pressed SEND and held the phone to his ear. Then, simultaneous to hearing the traditional ringing sound in his phone, he heard an old song — a song that he remembered loving approximately 11 years ago — in the tinny, condensed audio of a ringtone. He looked over and saw her, as stunning as ever, standing just inside the softly lit foyer and pulling a phone from her handbag. A tiny smile flashed across her face as he inferred she had read the caller ID, and she looked around the dining room.

Their eyes met.

Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student