by Jane Hertenstein
You were ahead of me in line at the Corner Bakery on State and Wabash, getting a salad, and you had on black pants and a very flattering white sweater. I was a few spots back, wearing a black coat, and I’m pretty sure we made eye contact numerous times. I wanted to say hello, but you were with a group of friends and I thought it might be awkward.
Yesterday I was riding my bike down Glenview and someone yelled my name, hey Sonja! Who was it?
Hey there, saw you at the pop machine just 30 minutes ago. You had on a tie-dyed T-shirt and I was sitting at the table next to the window checking you out. You looked and smiled. Wanna chat?
Tim, I said I needed a little time, but it’s been three weeks. Please call.
To the guy I made out with last night at the Fireside Bar—I lost your number. You wrote it on a tiny piece of paper I must’ve misplaced. Anyway, if you see this, I’ll be there again tonight.
We were on the train this morning, same car. You got on at Fullerton and I scooched over, and you sat down. I said nice shoes. You said thanks and read your Red Eye. Are you gay? Here’s hoping—reply, okay?
Ashley’s boss entered the room and she made Missed Connections disappear and reverted to her call center screen. After she passed, Ashley relaxed and looked at her watch. Ten minutes until break time. She had an oatmeal breakfast bar in her purse so that she might snack responsibly, but was tempted to buy a bag of chips from out of the machine. Before getting up, she brought back Missed Connections, where people leave messages in hope of connecting or in some cases reconnecting. She clicked on New Post and typed:
I’m not sure you check these, but I thought I’d give it a try. I was at the Starbucks by the Davis Theater, sitting by the window and you walked by and looked in. Because of the angle of the early morning sun it’s sometimes hard to see, so you lifted your hand to peer in better. You had on a wrinkled beige raincoat with a plaid scarf loose around your neck. Your hair is longish and rested on your coat collar. I think because of the glare you didn’t see me, but we were right next to each other. I like to sit and look out the window and write in my journal. Want to grab coffee together sometime?
Ashley migrated toward the break room. Said and Michael from the next cubicle over glanced up and then returned to their conversation. Ashley deposited her coins into the vending machine and hit J-8 and waited for the comforting pneumatic whoosh of her chips dropping down into the little drawer.
“I love that sound.”
Ashley turned around. It was Veejay from Accounts Payable. She nodded, too stunned to come up with a proper response. Later back at her desk she ate her chips one at a time, sucking the salt off first, while reading an article on “The New Orgasm” in a magazine she’d found in the ladies restroom. It hit her about two paragraphs in that she should have smiled. Next time, she told herself, though she knew there would be no next time.
I saw you again at the same Starbucks except this time you came in and ordered. You seemed shy with your hands in your overcoat pockets, staring up at the menu board. I do the same thing. The specialty coffees always seem so overwhelming, endless possibilities, that I usually just end up getting a coffee of the day—and then more confusion—what size? They disguise tall as small and then call it venti. A line formed behind you, and still you frowned trying to decide until some jerk said, Hurry up, we don’t have all day, which I thought was funny because, yeah we do, it was just 6 a.m. We really do have all day. You turned around and I ducked my head, trying to act all absorbed in what I was working on, just writing. Anyway, I’d be terrible company, but I’d like to drink coffee with you sometime.
Ashley banged on the closing bus doors out of breath. She’d just run half a block. She found an open seat next to a large sleeping man and sat down with her coffee. She surveyed the crowded compartment. It was one of those buses, two buses stitched together with a sheath of corrugated rubber in between. When the first bus makes a wide turn, for example where Sheridan curves onto the Inner Drive, the latter bus follows like a puppydog tail. There was a man and a woman sitting in the accordion center in seats that swiveled; they looked up and made eye contact with one another and then went back to checking messages on their cell phones. A very handsome guy with ampersand-type curls stood in front of her, self-occupied, listening to music on his headphones. His hook nose and dark hair reminded Ashley of a Roman Caesar. She tried to imagine him in a flouncy short skirt and sandals laced up to his shins. These were the kinds of details often omitted in the Missed Connections adverts. Some were so broad that they could be anybody. Girl in black leggings matched with oversized sweater—who doesn’t this describe? You were wearing headphones and talked really loud—can’t they be more specific? You hopped on the 146 Express heading south—that bus is always packed in the morning. Provide a clue that narrows things down. Something like: You had a pierced septum and a candy-cane striped sweater with holes in the elbows and heavily-made up eyes. Ashley stared into space, imagining all the missed connections.
It was Ashley’s turn to bring in a treat for break time. Every Monday, in an attempt to give themselves something to look forward to, the employees had instituted Sugar Buzz Mondays. Ashley dropped off a pan of iced brownies.
“Are those iced brownies?” Veejay asked. He acted as if he could smell them even though they were wrapped in tinfoil.
“They’re from a mix, no big deal.” She went to hang her coat up on the back of her chair in her cubicle and put her purse away in the file drawer.
She turned on her screen and watched it come to life. Quickly before the office filled up and her boss dropped off a list of daily calls, she checked Missed Connections.
There was a reply:
Wow imagine my surprise when I discovered that you were writing about me.
Ashley gripped her keyboard and continued reading, transfixed.
I frequent that Starbucks a couple of times a day, and to be honest, don’t remember you. Which window—the side by the door or the side by the bathroom? Let me know.
She leaned back in her chair, a current of hot flashes came over her followed by goosebumps and chills. Oh. My. God.
Ashley fairly jumped out of her chair. “Huh?”
“Are you okay, girlfriend? You seem, I don’t know, sick or something.”
“I’m fine,” Ashley answered her boss, while at the same time wiping a line of perspiration off her upper lip.
Her boss went on. “Lukas really liked that report you typed up last week. He said it had a little something something, you know.”
Ashley didn’t know, but smiled and thanked her, and then said, “There’s iced brownies by the coffee pot.”
Ashley sat back down and brought her screen up. She contemplated for a second and then began to type:
To the man at the Starbucks (on Lincoln and Sunnyside) I sit by the bathroom. Today I overheard you asking for ‘a regular.’ You sound like you’re from west Texas, maybe the panhandle.
Ashley paused to remember.
You were wearing a hat—my favorite baseball team. Maybe we could go to a game.
She blushed as her fingertips flew across the keys.
I mean when the weather warms up.
She hit POST.
Later that day she checked back. There was another reply. She caught her breath.
Sounds great. I think I know who you are. You read a lot—or are you writing in that notebook? Anyway, you seemed so engrossed (that’s always struck me as an odd word) that I never want to disturb you, and if I did what would I say. I love your eyes—blue like a doorway I remember passing on a stone pathway down to the sea in Greece.
It was break time and in the background Ashley could hear raucous laughter coming out of the break room. She tentatively tapped back:
I keep a journal. I don’t think of myself as a real poet, but a lot of what goes in there is snippets, word snapshots. My mom always accused me of living in my own world. I won an award in high school. For creative writing. It was weird, I didn’t even know it was such a big deal, and later even seniors came up and said they were impressed. My dad said I knew you had it in you, which has always made me feel special. So, yeah, I’m still doing the writing. Maybe we could meet for dinner.
“Hey, get in here. We’re eating all your brownies,” Said called out. “Yeah,” Veejay seconded.
Ashley stood up and smoothed her skirt and joined the Sugar Buzz.
The next day Ashley stopped at Roosevelt College (just around the corner from where she worked) and picked up a brochure describing the Master’s in creative writing. An application was included. She stuffed it inside her notebook and hurried onto her building, the office, her cubicle.
She wrote back to her Missed Connections connection:
What you wrote last night made a lot of sense. I AM thinking about it. Writing has always been my passion and I’ve sort’ve let it get buried. Buried under all these maybes, self-doubts, and worries. You’ve given me a real boost. Thanks! There’s a guy here at the office who’s VERY annoying, but kind of cute. Anyway, let’s get together for some Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. (Remember? we used to eat that just you and me, especially when your cancer came back and it was hard to eat. You could at least swallow.) Later—your little Ash
Ashley straightened her desk area and brushed some crumbs off her keyboard. She really was going to have to start eating in the break room with the others. A picture of her parents sat on a shelf level with her head. Her dad had died eight months ago from a prolonged bout of stomach cancer. It ate at him slowly from the inside out. She hated seeing him whittle away. It was like watching the steam fog on the bathroom mirror get smaller and smaller until it finally disappears. Come back, come back, she shouted at herself some mornings after getting out of the shower. The thought of her father never coming back made her lean over the sink bowl in anguish. On the way home from catechism on Saturday she used to take her for ice cream. He was the one who said you can do anything, be whoever you want.
In the break room Veejay opened the door to the fridge. A waft of sour salami and an indiscernible odor akin to Parmesan cheese and strong urine drifted over to Ashley where she sat sipping a French vanilla Slim-Fast shake.
“Whew!” he exhaled before quickly closing the door. He took a seat next to her. “Someone needs to put a box of baking soda in there.”
Ashley reached into her purse and drew forth an oatmeal breakfast bar. “I have an extra one of these—do you want one?”
At lunch Ashley stopped at the corner Walgreens and purchased a box of baking soda. In a bargain bin next to the cash register were some Whitman Chocolates left over from Valentine’s Day. Ashley picked up two of them and left them on the table in the break room.
“Whoa,” Said exclaimed. “Is it Monday again, two times in one week?”
“No,” Ashley said, “but maybe we should make everyday Sugar Buzz.”
Chomping down on an oozing caramel, her boss turned toward her, “I was wondering if you might help Lukas and me with that new account.”
Dad, I’m sorry I can’t meet you tonight, but I have to stay late at work and write up a phone script. I really was looking forward to hearing about your travels. I’ve never been to Greece. A guy on the bus this morning smiled and gave up his seat for me. It’s amazing how small acts of kindness can reach inside of a person. You’ve said that many times. I carry around with me a picture of you with your rumpled coat and fringed scarf, your dark eyes shining, always so interested in what I have to say. I hope to one day make you proud. At the office we’ve made a rotation for cleaning old food out of the fridge. LOL—Ash
When Ashley got off the bus that evening she walked past the Starbucks and looked in. Several customers were sitting at tables with their laptops open. She was about to keep going until she noticed a familiar face. She glanced up and down the street, taken aback by the coincidence, and then decided to walk in. “Hey,” she greeted Veejay. “What’re you doing here?”
“Oh, hi,” he said startled. He peered at her over his laptop screen, and then added awkwardly, “Nothing.”
As if realizing how inane her question must’ve sounded, she began again. “I mean . . . I didn’t know you came here. I mean, of course I wouldn’t know.” She stopped and wished a sink hole would open up and gobble her.
Veejay moved his jacket off the seat next to him. “Actually it’s a bit embarrassing.”
Ashley set her bag down.
“I’m interested in a girl and was thinking . . . Uhh—” Veejay rubbed his face vigorously with both of his hands—“how to get her attention.”
Ashley slid in next to him. In a confidential tone she told him about Missed Connections. “Maybe she checks it.”
“That’s a great idea.”
“Tell her you’d like to meet. Make it personal so she knows for sure the message is for her. The best ones go into detail—like I saw you on the other side of the street, crossing against the light, and when the Streetwise guy asked you to buy a paper you dug into your pocket and gave him five dollars. We walked together at about the same pace for a block or two and at one point exchanged self-conscious acknowledgment.”
Veejay held up his hand. “Wait, I like that. Can you say that again? I need to get that down.” He began to type, stopped, and looked up at her. A stray lock of hair had fallen over his eyes. For a second Ashley’s stomach skipped.
Veejay smiled, or tried to. “Can I get you a coffee? Tea?”
Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 80 published stories both macro and micro: fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre. In addition she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise, and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies. Her latest book is Cloud of Witnesses from Golden Alley Press. She teaches a workshop on Flash Memoir and can be found blogging at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/ @memoirjane
(tagged: fiction, short story)