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Change of Address

Jim Schepker


She slid into the booth parallel to Josh, directly facing him.


She had almond-shaped brown eyes, and wispy blonde hair.


Mother, Swedish, Dad, Greek or Italian, he concluded.


Her lips curled softly at the edges, her nose ever-so-gently upturned.


She was perfect.


“Look, we both know this isn’t working,” she said to the man who had sidled himself into the booth opposite her.


She had now just become even more perfect.


“We argue too much, we don’t have many mutual interests, and your friends all drink too much,” she added.


The ex-boyfriend mumbled a response that Josh couldn’t really hear, but the words really didn’t matter.


“Yes, the opposite attractions did work for a while, but not anymore, at least not for me,” she said.


Josh had been editing essays for the past half hour, sophomore compositions, his red felt pen darting into and around the words on the pages before him. It was a Saturday morning. He liked doing this work in public places. It was more interesting than sitting alone in his darkened apartment or some stifling library cubicle.


And who knew who might wander by and be impressed that he was a teacher, teaching writing.


For added appeal he also always kept a copy of the day’s Wall Street Journal spread out at the end of the table.


She had pulled up in a red, hybrid SUV just beyond the picture window to his left, parking precisely between the white stripes. Very smart, he thought: adventurous and conscientious at the same time.


Her perfection was growing more perfect by the minute.


The boyfriend had swung his chrome-laced black Harley into the space next to hers. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.


Josh had admitted to himself a long time ago that he was a romantic. He was, after all, an English teacher. He loved losing himself in the thick anthologies of the classics: poetry, short stories, novellas and novels, he enjoyed them all.


Most of all, he loved to teach writing. Of all the skills that could be taught, he believed that this one was unquestionably the most important. Good writing required clear thinking. Most high school students were brand new to thinking. They all had opinions, of course. The problem was that most teenagers adamantly mistook those opinions for thoughts, rather than ideas foisted on them by their social groups. In truth, most had never encountered real thinking going on inside their own heads. Shaping thoughts based on facts was entirely foreign to them.


That was true, he believed, for people of all ages and walks of life. He had read once that most people do not like to think at all, ever, or they like to think as little as possible – a phenomenon attributed to about 70 percent of mankind.


Doing math calculations? That was easy for the so inclined. Studying history? That was nothing more than an enjoyment of storytelling. Learning a foreign language? Memory work.


But thinking? That was hard – but worth it, he knew, when he saw the lights go on in some students’ eyes as they crossed that threshold into original thought for the very first time. It was his mission and passion to ignite those lights.


And so it was his job, his gift, he believed, to provoke thoughts in his students that would lead to thinking, and then to help intelligibly usher that thinking onto the page.


“No, I don’t think moving in will help. In fact, I think that would be a big mistake, and that’s why I wanted to meet today,” she said to the hulk opposite her.


His first marriage had ended badly, but even at its end he knew that he had made the right choice because he was still madly in love with his wife when she left him. She had announced one Friday night that she was going to the mall to do some shopping, and she never really returned except first to get some clothes, and then later, to tell him that he needed to move out of their apartment. She had begun dating her new boss, a married man with young kids. The divorce would take a while, she said, so she needed a place to stay….so he needed to move.


He believed that she was making a terrible mistake, that the promised divorce would never happen, and that she would soon enough come back to him. He had made the right choice, and now she just needed to relearn that she had made the right choice, too.


Nevertheless, being the good husband, he had moved out a day later. That had been several years ago. His wife, now his ex, had indeed married her boss. He saw their photos several times in local papers, broad smiles and entwined arms, attendees at various black-tie galas. They looked like a happy couple, but he knew they could not be. What kind of man could ever walk away from his own kids?


Some people, he had concluded, were resigned to living with their mistakes – but not this woman now sitting opposite him.


He could see from her increasingly agitated gestures that she would soon be making her exit. He sat, but ready to rise, just in case some ugliness emerged.


“And please don’t bother trying to get in touch with me,” she said. “I’ve changed all of my contact information this morning, that’s how certain I was that we need to end this.”


Hearing that, Josh pulled a note pad out of his backpack and began scribbling.


Dear Goddess,


You’re right – the goatee guy is all wrong. And who does he think he is – Pan? He does look a bit wild, but you’re certainly not one of his nymphs, that’s for sure.


So I’d like to meet. I’m including my phone number and email here. If I don’t hear from you I certainly will understand. If I do hear from you, I’ll be the happiest man in town.


Josh


He dashed outside, bounded down the diner’s three steps, and slid the note under the red SUV’s windshield wiper.


Dashing back inside the diner, perched again on the bench in his booth, he resumed his editing.


“OK, I appreciate that. So let’s just go our own ways, and if we do meet again somewhere let’s just wave and walk on by,” she said as she slid to the end of the booth and stood.


“Thanks for the coffee, I’m leaving the tip,” she said, and then walked away.


He watched her approach her car, unlock the door, and swing in. Starting the engine and then seeing the note, she lowered the driver’s window, deftly fished her arm around the windshield, and snagged the folded paper. She read it, brow slightly furrowed, and then tossed it on the dashboard as she reversed the car out of the parking space. Then she was gone.


Several days passed, but nothing.


Then he received the anticipated email: If you’re the guy in the diner who pretended to be correcting those papers last week with that stupid red pen, no doubt eviscerating the hearts and psyches of your students, forget it. I knew that you were eavesdropping the whole time and I did not appreciate it. And your mythological allusion to Greek deity was silly. I’m responding with this email only because that’s how I was raised. But now I’m changing this email address, so don’t bother responding. Remaining nameless.


He took this note as a complete win. Insightful, educated, succinct, she had just confirmed that his earliest assessment of her was entirely accurate, now completely validated.


Josh began returning to the diner on Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, too. He always took a window booth, sometimes waiting at the counter until one cleared. He continued correcting papers on those mornings, but kept the stacks in small, neat piles that could be quickly stowed in his backpack if he saw her SUV pull into the parking lot.


He had grown a beard. And he had ditched the earlier black-framed bifocals for wire-framed glasses with progressive lenses. He now wore a sport coat, its collar turned up.


He visited the diner for months, always feeling good about the work that he was doing, and always buoyed by the anticipation of encountering his nameless goddess once again.


And then one rainy Sunday morning, he saw the SUV pull into the parking lot. Quickly stowing his papers and red pen, he grabbed his coffee and took a seat at the counter, asking for his check.


She entered and took a seat at the far end of the counter, spreading a newspaper before her.


Good, he thought, she’s by herself.


Josh sipped his coffee and slid his check and cash across the counter. Then he walked toward her.


“Hi,” he said. “Not to sound like a hackneyed cliché, but have we met before? Did we go to school together?”


“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “You don’t look familiar.”


“Mind if I take a seat? I won’t rest until I figure this out,” Josh said, settling onto the stool next to hers. “You do look very familiar to me.”


For months he had imagined this moment. During those months he had often recalled a passage from The Iliad, lines that expressed how Achilles, the legendary Greek hero, viewed his life’s journey: “If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory, dies.”

The goddess next to him had become his Troy. The siege might be long and painful, but the safe route would leave him forever disappointed.


“Or maybe we worked together somewhere,” he added, hopeful for a connection.


“I don’t think so,” she said again. “I was an English teacher for a couple of years at a private girls’ school downstate, but I gave that up because I never really felt like I was getting through. I moved up here last year to take a job with a marketing firm. I’m doing a lot of hack writing now, but the pay is good and the clients are grateful,” she added.


An English teacher! he said to himself. And now he understood the red pen reference and “eviscerating” comments in her earlier email.


“I think that I might have applied for that same private school job, three years ago, right? Well congratulations – I see that the better scholar won,” he said.


“That’s it,” she said. “You do look familiar now – you’re the guy in the next booth when I broke up with Al here four months ago.”


“You know, I think you’re right, but I wasn’t eavesdropping that day. They guy looked like trouble, so I decided to stick around just in case.”


“And you put that note on my windshield,” she said.


“Yeah, I just wanted to be sure that you were OK. And, truthfully, I was pretty taken by your cool and your charm that day. And when I got your email message, I thought to myself that there just might be something there,” Josh explained. “And now, here we are,” he added with a broad smile.


“OK, but if you’re thinking about taking this any farther, you should know that I’ve just begun seeing someone new,” she said, stirring the coffee in front of her. “And so far it’s been very good,” she added.


“Sure, yes, certainly,” he said. “That’s great, I’m glad for you. “And here’s the thing, maybe you still have my contact information from that note, or I can give it to you again,” he said.


When she sat expressionless, he continued. “Or you can always find me here, maybe. I still come here to correct essays sometimes, and the crew here is like my second family,” he said, waving toward the kitchen.


With that, he stood, slung the backpack over his shoulder, and retrieved a toothpick from a dispenser on the counter.


“Take care,” he said. “And who knows where all of this might end up someday. Until then, all the best. And my name is Josh, Josh Svengali” he added, hoping that she would laugh.


She stared at her coffee mug instead.


“OK, then, you take care, and let me know if there is anything that I can ever do for you,” and with that, he headed for the diner door.


He knew exactly where this would go. She was smart and sensible and sweet. She would soon see that he was the better choice. Better still, the perfect choice. And he also knew where he would be spending his Saturdays and Sundays in the months to come, but not too many months, he was sure.

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