Suffering

By on Apr 2, 2023 in Featured, Fiction

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Massachusetts state house with aid and journalist

“Well, I love your books, and I’m not just blowing smoke. They’re great. I’m serious, they really are.” She paused and lowered her head. “I even think I’ve recognized me in a character or two—or is my ego showing?”

“Every female character I’ve ever created contains a part of you. I can’t help it. You’re all over my mind every day. It’s like a curse.”

“Jonah—”

“No, I need to say this.” I put my elbows on my knees and leaned forward. “I’ve asked myself this question. If I’d known the pain I’d feel later, would I have introduced myself to you that first day? Would I have spent so much time with you? If I could have seen where it all would end, would I still start?” My heart pounded, and my hands felt moist. “Well, I would have done it all the same…right up to our talk in the bar. We had so much fun—we were the best of friends. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. The way it ended almost killed me but at least I have memories.”

“From my vantage point, you’ve got a pretty good life. A successful novelist. Books in all the bookstores—”

“Yeah, my characters are my friends now. There’s too much pain in real friendships.”

She cocked her head to the side, not buying it. “Your books have too many love stories to just be made up. They’re obviously based on things you’ve experienced.”

I let out a small laugh. “Love is just an emotion that invades my characters’ innocence.”

Her hand shook as she lifted her half-empty glass and said in a voice so soft that I could barely hear it, “Well, here’s to the innocence we once had.”

We talked more about the past, and as we spoke, a flood of memories came to mind, images of how things had been, our friends, our enemies too. Then the laughter died, and the glow in her face disappeared. I imagined her remembering the words we had spoken on that night long ago.

She placed her hand on mine. “Each memory, every single one, is special.”

I resisted the urge to brush a strand of hair from her forehead. “I’ve had this recurring dream. I close my eyes and I’m back in the bar. Only this time I tell you what I was afraid to say then—that I loved you…that I’d loved you since the day we first met.” I placed my hand on the seatback in front of me, steadying my nerves. “You were my best friend, Jessie, but it wasn’t enough. You needed me then. I’ve needed you ever since. Our stars just never aligned.”

Her eyes welled up, and she changed the subject again. “Are you…” Her voice broke. “Are you working on anything new?”

I nodded and tried to blink away tears of my own.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about how the simplest choices we make can change everything. How casual choices can lead us down a path we never intended to take. It’s about a decision that was made on a cold November night and the consequences that followed.”

We drained the rest of the champagne in silence. When our glasses were empty, Jessie checked her watch. “I guess I’d better go.”

“Big New Year’s Eve plans?”

She rolled her eyes. “We’re having a few couples from Ron’s office over for dinner. He’ll love it, but I’m just not in the mood. You?”

“It’ll just be me, but I’m used to it.”

What followed was embarrassing silence, two people thinking the same thing but not daring to speak the words out loud. It was New Year’s Eve. I was all alone, and she was with someone she didn’t want to be with. I could have stayed right there inside the limo all night, and I think she would have liked that too. But it wasn’t going to happen. She would go her way and I would go mine. There was nothing either one of us could say or do that would make a difference, so what would be the point of bringing our thoughts to the surface?

I didn’t want the night to end, but when her chauffeur climbed into the front seat, I opened the door and stepped out onto the wet sidewalk. She slid across behind me and climbed out, too, standing with one hand on top of the car for support. Then she placed her lips against my cheek and let them linger, as if she were trying to make the moment last. With one last feeble attempt at a smile, she ducked back inside the car, closed the door, and stared straight ahead. Through the window I saw her cheeks, now damp with tears, and as I stepped back, the limo pulled away. I watched the taillights of her car move slowly around a corner before converging into a sea of heavy holiday traffic.

I closed my eyes, and, for just a moment, I was back inside the domed Capitol building, where she and I would talk about how each new session of the legislature was like the opening day of school, and we’d run with our clique of friends.

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About

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.