By on Apr 2, 2023 in Fiction

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Massachusetts state house with aid and journalist

Now that it was too late, I developed an incredible craving to go back to the night in the bar when she had opened up and revealed her feelings. But looking back changes nothing. At least it didn’t change anything for me.

I took her advice, though, and quit my job at the paper. Rustling up what savings I had, I put a down payment on a modest two-story house on the southern coast of Maine. That’s where I wrote my first novel, then my second, and then my third. And every female character I created carried a part of Jessie inside them. I lost myself in my writing, but her shadow followed me day and night.


Our paths crossed five years later, on a dreary New Year’s Eve evening. Temperatures hovered around freezing and huge snowflakes covered the streets and sidewalks like a down comforter. I was in a cozy little bookstore, on the last stop of another boring book tour. I had just wrapped up a labored presentation to an audience of a dozen or so loyal readers and was free to head to my hotel. But I jerked to a stop when I saw Jessie’s slender frame standing between two bookshelves. She was examining my new book.

I checked her out: the same light brown hair, longer now, hanging around her face before settling at the base of her neck. My chest tightened as I watched her read the front and back flaps of the book’s dust jacket and saw her studying my three-year-old photo.

Gathering my courage, I approached cautiously and touched her on the sleeve. “Jessie?” I said nervously.

She turned, our eyes locked, and neither one of us broke the trance for what seemed like an eternity. Then her mouth widened into that familiar smile. She said my name and wrapped her arms around me in a warm hug.

We walked to the checkout stand and I blushed when she made a big deal out of asking me to autograph her copy, the salesclerk looking on with an approving smile. After the book was purchased, we moved through the revolving front door and into the cold December night. I had an impulse and asked if she had time for a drink or a cup of coffee.

She checked her watch. “I’ve got a better idea.” Her voice had become light and breezy. “Come with me.”

She grasped my hand in hers and led me down the wet sidewalk to a sleek black limousine, then opened the back door and, with a playful grin, told me to follow her in. “I’ve got a couple of bottles of champagne I’m taking home. We can open one.”

I ducked inside and watched her lean over the front seat, whispering to the man behind the wheel. He got out and went into the bookstore.

She retrieved a bottle of champagne and two long-stemmed glasses from a compartment between the front and back seats, filling each glass to the top. One drink became two, then three, and our tongues numbed as we relaxed and caught up on old friends, both of us laughing at each other’s stories. The minutes passed, and we tried to find more to say, but groping for words made me feel awkward and foolish. She looked at me intently and asked if I had ever remarried.

“Nope,” I confessed. “Still a hopeless bachelor. Haven’t had a decent offer in years unless you count the come-ons from the prostitutes on Forty-Second Street.”

She giggled. The champagne had taken a toll on her. But the smile left her face when I asked about her husband, Ron. She sighed and stared out the window. “Yeah, old Ron.”

I raised my eyebrows and managed to say, “His firm seems to be doing well.”

She nodded. Maybe a smirk? “He’ll be with the firm till the day he dies…which will probably happen at his desk. He’s what you would call ‘committed’”—she used her fingers to paint quotation marks in the air— “to his job.”

Silence filled the interior of the car, so I changed the subject. “The years have been a friend to you, Jessie. You haven’t aged at all.”

The corners of her mouth lifted, and she offered the obligatory compliment. “You look the same too.” We both knew better. My dark brown hair had thinned, and an additional fifteen or twenty pounds layered my body. Still, she was sweet to say it.

“I’ve kept track of you through your books,” she added. “I really liked the first two.”

I looked at the book she had placed on the seat between us. “Hope you’ll like this one.”

“And I follow you on Facebook. Imagine you on Facebook!”

 I shrugged. “I blame my agent for that. She says I’ve got to build my brand. I’ve kept up with you too.” She lowered her chin and looked at me through raised eyelids. “Well, in a roundabout way. I keep up with Ron through the newspapers, and our friends make sure I see every picture of you that he posts on social media. His pride is obvious.”

“He’s proud of all of his possessions.” Her bluntness came as a surprise.

I scanned the inside of the limo. “And look at you with a chauffeur and all. Miss Highlife herself.”

The cynical expression on her face told me that she knew my enthusiasm was forced. “But am I happy? That’s what you’re wanting to ask. Am I in love and all that?” I said nothing as she shifted positions on the seat. “Ron’s a decent man. He treats me well…”


She paused and let her eyes answer the question. Then she changed the subject. “Are you on the road a lot?”

I nodded, thankful to get off her marriage. “Much more than I’d like. The folks on the tour are great, but the traveling sucks.”

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James W. Fried graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a political science degree and a love of writing. He currently has four novel manuscripts (in various stages of completion) and over fifty short stories ready for submission to agents and short story publishers. His latest two stories ("Playing Handball Off a Curb" and "Along Michigan Avenue") are scheduled for publication in the coming weeks. His works of fiction are drawn from his forty-five years of experience as a banker, legislator, and lobbyist. He previously co-authored The Winning Edge (with Jack Fried), a nonfiction sports book that chronicles a college football team’s season-long journey to a national championship.