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Better Off Forgotten

by Charles C. Cole

Stitched into the patchwork quilt of a late commuter crowd on a Chicago el, you with friends. I sit watching nearby, camouflaged under a severe haircut and black, “military” horned-rimmed glasses.

We were friends at college (at Northwestern), just over a year ago. Now our lives cross unexpectedly, touch faintly. I knew you, but I can’t remember your name and so say nothing out of respect for our brief and fragile past. And you, you don’t even “see” me out of context.

Someone in your group mentions getting off at the next stop. You catch me staring from across the car, but I am a stranger to you now. Two of your companions, noticing, whisper with eyes that speak loudly and fiercely of the exclusive sanctuary of a small circle of friends, of unwelcomed — and outnumbered — intruders.

The stop comes quickly, the train screeching as it slows. I explode across the car, grabbing both your hands in mine, and implore you, “Look at me!” The man-boy beside you, in ponytail and khaki field jacket, coils in readiness to spring to your defense, but you are wonderfully unafraid.

“I see you,” you say, with the patience reserved for jealous boyfriends and the mentally unstable, but still without recognition. “This is my stop.”

Standing up, your friends make sure you’re the first off, that I don’t follow. Outside on the platform, someone says, “He was weird! Are you all right, Cathy?”

Cathy! Yes! Of course! How could I forget?

I remember you clearly then, even as the train doors close: the week you broke it off with M.H., staying up all night, sitting back-to-back on your dorm room floor, listening to your brother’s mix-tape, spoiling ourselves with a pre-dawn continental breakfast of piña colada-flavored popcorn and warm flat soda, promising lifelong friendship and platonic massages — two impossibilities between us. A month later, I left school for a different direction, avoiding goodbyes with all of the friends I felt I was divorcing.

“Cathy!” I scream out the window. “Cathy, it’s me!”

Hearing me call your name lifts the muting veil of time. “Charlie? Charlie, what happened to you?”

“I had to go away.”

The unsentimental train begins to move, to separate us, again, adhering to a schedule that leaves no allowance for inconvenient relationships.

“Wait for me!” you yell. “Wait at the next stop!”

“I can’t,” I blurt out. “I’m catching a plane.”

It’s true: I’m rushing for an airplane to take me back to my base overseas, rushing away from you just like the last time when, without warning, I didn’t return after Christmas break.

The last thing I hear then, before you fade completely from both sight and sound, is you, Cathy, asking, “Then why did you say anything at all?”

Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole

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