“‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
― Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Kessie smiled at the sign haphazardly plastered onto the shop window under the larger “HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY” banner. It read:
“CLOSING EARLY TODAY FOR PRIVATE PARTY: GAL-ENTINE’S DAY WITH MAH PEEPS!”
Only Renée could write something like that and not have it seem ridiculous. There were even tiny hearts over the “i’s”.
Pulling open the door, Kessie heard the familiar bell jingle overhead and inhaled deeply the smell of fresh bread and cookies and cake and other delicious baked goods that were currently making Renée’s little bakery one of the most popular places to be on such a romantic day. The shop was packed, with people queuing along the long display case and hovering near the pick-up counter. Only one table with a lone chair was available in the sitting area, which was otherwise overflowing with chatting couples and laughing friends enjoying delicious treats. Kessie wound her way through the crowd to the solitary table, waving at a flour-dusted Renée at the counter, who looked haggard but happy as she rang up order after order. She could only give a distracted nod back before her attention returned to a customer, but her blue eyes had brightened upon seeing her friend.
The chair’s leg was loose and tottered slightly when Kessie sat down, probably why it hadn’t been spirited away to another table. The shop was noisier than usual, but it was a pleasant sort of clamor, full of conversation and the rustling of sugar-coated wrappers. Kessie hoped that Renée had remembered to save a few chocolate heart éclairs for their party.
It had been Belinda’s idea to have a “single ladies only” get-together on Valentine’s Day, a holiday that was typically a painful reminder of the lack of a significant other to share it with, hence its other moniker, “Single Awareness Day.” Though Belinda had been rarely short of boyfriends, none would ever last through her hectic retail schedule during the Christmas/New Year season, and by February, she’d usually be alone again. So Renée had offered her bakery as a location, Kessie had come up with a better, if not terribly original, name – Gal-entine’s Day! – and Marie, Virginia, Michelle, and Mariah had brought board games, conversation topics, and further company. It was enormous fun, especially as the years waned on and it was harder for the friends to come together regularly due to work or family or other responsibilities. The 14th of February became famous for the wild antics and deep conversation that would arise over the course of the night, and served as a form of pleasant nostalgia the rest of the year. Predictably, though, the tradition in full couldn’t last forever, and Marie was the first to break away when she met her now-husband, and others followed suit. Today was the seventh anniversary, and the group had been whittled down to only four: Kessie, Renée, Belinda, and Virginia.
It was almost sad, really, Kessie reflected as she gazed absently at the bustling scene around her. What had started as an entertaining way to celebrate an obstinately couple’s holiday, was once again just another signifier of their perpetual solitude. She knew that was a particularly cynical view, but her mother had called this morning, wondering when she would “finally settle down with a nice boy,” and Kessie had remained in a pessimistic mood ever since.
“Okay, everyone! We’re closing up shop in fifteen minutes! Get your last orders in now!” Renée’s clear voice rang out over the cacophony.
A few groans answered this, but it was with a general feeling of good cheer that everyone except Kessie began gathering their things and exiting the shop. The tip jar that Renée had wisely placed by the door sang with the sound of dropped coins, and regulars departed with words of farewell for the bakery owner. The shop slowly emptied. There were only a few people by the counter now, likely still overwhelmed by the luscious and varied baked goods on display. Kessie remained in her seat, waiting until the final customers were gone before greeting Renée properly and helping her get the place ready for their other friends. The last person, an older woman, had just paid for her blueberry streusel muffin and left when the shop door jingled again, and a tall, thin man strode in.
Renée frowned slightly at him. “Sorry, sir, but we’re closing right now.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I just – I really need to get something special for my . . . Well, it’s Valentine’s Day,” the man said unnecessarily, turning slightly in place to look at the pink and red decorations all over the walls.
His voice was warm and apologetic and joltingly familiar. Kessie stared at him. Was it . . . ? Could it be . . . ?
With a softened expression, Renée motioned the man to the counter, and he moved forward with a quick, awkward motion that emphasized his gangly frame.
“One of those amazing-looking chocolate heart éclairs, please,” he said, placing a finger on the glass over the nearly-empty tray. “Er, better make that two. Or three.”
“Have the lot, my good man,” Renée laughed, scooping the entire tray’s contents, doily and all, into a paper bag. “I’m assuming they’re for someone special?”
The man grinned and ran a hand through his messy black hair, making it stick up on all ends. “Oh, very much so. She’s very – well, she loves chocolate, first of all.”
“Always a plus,” Renée said generously, ringing up his order. “Smart? Pretty?”
“Oh, yes. Yes to both. Why she sticks around with a guy like me is really a mystery, but hey, I’m not complaining.” He shook his head to emphasize his bemusement.
He paid and was turning to leave when he noticed Kessie staring at him from her corner. The grin on his face froze. “Kessie?”
She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t move. It was impossible for him to be here . . .
“Is that you, Kessie?” the man said, moving closer.
“Hi,” she managed to croak out. Mortified, she cleared her throat brusquely and tried again. “I mean, yes. It’s me. Kessie. Hello.”
“Wow, I can’t believe it’s you! It’s been what? Eight—nine years?” His smile returned, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Something like that,” Kessie said, plastering an equally false smile on her face.
“Wow,” he said again. “How are you? Is everything good?”
“Yup, everything’s been great. You?”
“Yeah, really good. Really, really good.”
There was a horribly awkward pause, and Kessie could sense, more than see, Renée staring at them from behind the counter.
“Are you living here in Chicago, then? Or just visiting, or . . . ?” Kessie asked, a little too quickly.
The man’s apparent discomfort increased. “Oh! Er, just visiting. My . . . fiancée has family here. It’s just for the weekend.”
He couldn’t quite meet her eyes, and the top of his bag of éclairs crinkled under his tightened grip.
“The engineering thing working out for you, I hope?” he asked.
Glad for the change of subject, Kessie said, “Yeah, I work here in a clinic. In charge of it, actually. This is my friend Renée’s shop.”
Renée gave a wide-eyed, stilted wave when he glanced at her.
“How’s your photography?” Kessie asked, the forced smile still firmly framing her lips.
“Great! I’ve worked for some big companies and some freelancing and stuff. Everything’s great.”
“Well!” the man said, looking at a non-existent watch on his wrist. “I probably should be—”
“Yes, Renée needs to close up now.”
“Right, of course.”
” . . . Well, it was nice seeing you again.”
“Likewise, likewise. Good luck with work and all that.”
“Yeah, you, too.”
“Thank you for the éclairs, ma’am,” he then remarked to Renée, who just raised her eyebrows at him.
To Kessie, he said, “Well, bye, Kessie. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again someday. Catch up properly.”
“Sure, hopefully. That’d be . . . nice.”
The man nodded, backing up to the door. “Goodbye, ladies.”
He dropped some change into the tip jar and, glancing at Kessie one final time, disappeared into the slowly darkening night. The jingle of the door’s bell denoting his departure echoed loudly in the empty shop. Then it was silent.
“Who was that?” Renée demanded, coming out from behind the counter and marching over to Kessie, who hadn’t moved.
She didn’t answer right away, still staring at the door where the man had last stood.
“Well?” Renée stamped her hands on her hips, causing the flour on her apron to floof up in small clouds.
Kessie said softly, “Jack.”
“Jack? Jack who?”
* * * * * * * * * *
“Jack Nguyen, nice to meet you.”
Kessie shook the handsome boy’s hand. “I’m Kessie Dayton.”
“What?” He leaned in closer to hear her over the booming music.
She just threw her head back and laughed.
It was the biggest party on campus that weekend. The seniors were celebrating, and rightfully so. Finals were over, intern applications had been sent, and graduation was only a couple days away. It would be the last soirée for many of them before their transition into full adulthood, and they were all making the most of it. Kessie felt slightly out of place, having been more the studious type in her four years at the university. She had only been to a couple dorm shindigs, and only with people she knew. But this one was a party absolutely no one could miss, lest they forego the full “college experience.” So she’d come and then had spent the first half hour trying to find her friends and avoiding the more drunk partygoers. That’s when she’d literally run into the tall, gangly guy carrying a tray of red plastic cups. He offered her one that hadn’t spilled—it was a mixture of orange juice and red Hawaiian punch—and when she’d accepted it with thanks, he’d introduced himself. Unable to sustain conversation so close to the music source of a “DJ” and her stack of CDs by a giant stereo, Jack had guided Kessie to the next room, which was also full of people, but slightly quieter.
“Now, what was your name again?” he asked, grinning.
“Kessie,” she grinned back. “And you’re Jack, right?”
“The one and only.” He paused and seemed to think the statement over. “Well, no, I’m sure there are a lot of Jacks around, but I’m the only one talking to you. Probably.”
Kessie laughed again and vaguely wondered if the punch had been spiked. It was a fleeting concern. She was nearly done with school, she was happy, and she was talking to a really cute boy who was smart and funny and adorably clumsy. He tripped twice as they walked around the room, chatting animatedly, and apologized numerous times whenever he bumped into someone. It was charming. Kessie’s friends eventually found her, though they quickly retreated back into the crowd when they realized the situation, each flashing her a thumbs up of encouragement. She hadn’t dated very much the past few years, desiring to focus on her studies—engineering was no slouch major—and most guys had been fun flings for double-dating or summer break, more to have someone to spend time with than to date seriously.
But Jack was shaping up to be someone else entirely, and they spent the whole time just talking. They had similar interests in terms of pop culture and school subjects, though she was studying to be an engineer and he was an art major. Even so, they didn’t run out of things to discuss, and Kessie was disappointed when the party started to break up. As college was now finished, she was wondering if she would ever see him again (or worse, if he already had a girlfriend) when he suddenly dug into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper and a ink-covered pen. She watched him, bewildered, and took the paper cautiously when he finished writing on it and offered it to her. It featured an untidy scrawl of numbers.
“Call me?” he asked, smiling.
The corners of Jack’s eyes crinkled when he smiled, and Kessie said, “Definitely.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“How come you’ve never talked about this Jack before?” Renée interrupted. “We’ve all talked about our exes numerous times.” She handed Kessie another roll of paper towels.
Kessie took it thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I guess it’s because . . . Because I’ve always considered him . . . The One That Got Away”
She turned from Renée’s incredulous look and began wiping down another table, hoping her friend hadn’t seen the tears in her eyes.
“Wow. That’s . . . sayin’ something,” Renée said, slowly picking up a chair to stack it on the now-clean table.
Kessie said nothing. They tidied up the rest of the shop in silence, and Kessie organized the few remaining pastries in the freezer while Renée emptied the till. It was nearly time for the others to arrive, and they began decorating the one table whose chairs weren’t stacked, putting down the personalized placemats and centerpieces and other crafts that were the products of previous Gal-entine’s Days.
“I wonder what Virginia will come up with this year,” Renée said, breaking the silence.
“Something amazing, as usual,” Kessie said, grateful that she sounded relatively normal despite the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings raging inside her.
Renée seemed to hesitate before asking, “So what happened between the two of you? You and Jack, I mean.”
Kessie made a face. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Aw, c’mon, you have to tell me now. If he hurt you, I’ll need to go and punch his lights out.”
Renée punched her fists together, looking so fierce that Kessie couldn’t help but laugh.
“To be honest, it’s really not that big a deal,” she said, placing forks and knives by the plates that Renée was putting down on the placemats.
“After graduation, we started dating. I worked at a bookstore, waiting for an internship to open up, and he was working as a wedding photographer for a small local business. Neither of us got paid very well, but we didn’t care. We just liked being together.
“That lasted about four months. We hung out every night and every day whenever work or family didn’t get in the way. We were inseparable. It was easily the greatest time of my life. I loved him.” Kessie’s voice suddenly broke, and Renée hurried over to place a comforting arm around her friend’s shoulder.
After a moment of composure, Kessie continued, ” . . . I loved him so much, and he loved me. We were planning to get married even, as soon as we had proper careers and enough money. We wanted to have a future together. But then . . . “
* * * * * * * * * *
“Yeah, I’m leaving in October. There’s finally an opening there at a clinic I’ve been applying to since like, forever.”
Kessie accepted Jack’s kudos by pulling him closer and planting a kiss firmly on his lips. He made an appreciative noise and reciprocated.
A few minutes later, Kessie said, a bit breathlessly now, “What about you? Did those people ever call you back about buying that seagull photograph? Did they want to commission more work from you?”
Jack made a dismissive gesture. “Nah, but they were flakes anyway. Took them forever just answer an email. Not the kind of people I want to work for.”
“I’m sorry, Jack. I was really hoping it’d work out.”
“If not them, then just someone else. It’ll happen. I’m too awesome and talented for it not to,” he said, striking a pose with his arms in the air and then nearly toppling over their seat.
The park was cool and quiet at this time of day, early in the morning when only joggers and dogwalkers were around. No one paid attention to the two lovers, dressed in different work uniforms, cuddled up together on the bench at the side of a gravel path. Kessie felt truly comfortable and happy and couldn’t imagine how her dream career in Chicago could be better than this.
“What about us, then? Can we make a long-distance relationship work?” Her voice expressed only a fraction of the doubt she was feeling.
Jack’s face grew serious, and he adjusted his position to look at her fully in the face. “Hey. Of course we can. I love you. If I have to move to Chicago myself, we can make it work. Besides, it’s only a few hundred miles away or something, right?”
“Like 800 miles.”
“See? That’s nothing.”
She laughed into his warm jacket, and he wrapped his arms around her. They stayed like that for a long time.
When October came, she told Jack she loved him, and Jack answered with a kiss on her forehead. He came with her as far as he was allowed at the airport, and she waved at him until they couldn’t see each other anymore.
The last words he ever said to her were, “I’ll call you as soon as you land!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Renée’s hands flew to her mouth. “He never called, did he?” she asked, voice slightly muffled.
Kessie stared at the ceiling, trying not to let tears fall. “No. But . . . I never called, either.”
She could sense Renée’s confusion. “I don’t know why. I think I was waiting for him to call first, and when he never did, I guess I thought it was over. I didn’t try to contact him, I didn’t try to find out what happened, I just . . . let it die. I never even stalked him on Facebook when I finally signed up.” She let out a hollow laugh.
“The worst part is that there was no closure. Our relationship was there one day, gone the next. If I really cared about him, I wouldn’t’ve let that happen, right? That’s what I’d tell myself, anyway. I was really messed up for a long time, and I almost got fired from that job. I managed to get it together, and eventually I forgot about him for the most part. I mean, there are those dark days when I’ll remember—which are, coincidentally, also tequila and Netflix days—but I thought maybe I was over him for good. Until I saw him tonight. All those feelings came rushing back.” Kessie let her head fall, and she stared at the floor. The tile shone brightly from the recent mopping.
“Well, yeah, I mean, if he was The One . . . ” Renée said.
“Who Got Away,” Kessie reminded her. “I don’t think there’s only one One for everybody. But he was definitely high on the list.”
“Man, I’m sorry, Kessie. I should’ve turned him away. I should’ve – “
“You couldn’t’ve known,” Kessie said, waving away the apology. “Like you said, I never told anyone. Not even my parents.” She grimaced. “Especially not my parents. I was gonna wait until it was all more official. We’d only been together for a few months, I thought I had all the time in the world.”
Renée gave a crooked smile. “Yeah, if you had told your mom, there’s no way you wouldn’t ever have heard from him. She would’ve called him herself.”
This remark was rewarded by a snort of amusement from Kessie, and the two women then laughed together for a tension-breaking moment.
“I really am sorry for bringing it up, though,” Renée said, wiping her eyes with her now-clean apron. “I shouldn’t’ve pressed you.”
“It’s okay,” Kessie said sincerely. “I feel better having talked about it. And despite everything, I’m glad he’s happy. Whoever that girl is, she’s a lucky lady.”
“Really?” Renée searched her friend’s face for any sign of doubt. “I can still go punch his lights out if you want.”
“No, no,” Kessie smiled. “It hurts, but . . . in a good way. He moved on. So can I.”
She reached out and hugged Renée, and they held each other for a comforting moment. Then a rapping sounded at the door, and they jumped up simultaneously.
“Oh! The gals are here!” Renée said eagerly. She started toward the door, then stopped and looked back at Kessie. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Kessie refrained from giving a glib response and really thought about it. She felt like her heart had been broken all over again, but she hadn’t been lying: she did feel better having talked about it. She let herself smile, and the anxiety in Renée’s face lightened. “I’m more than okay.”
Renée nodded, content with that answer, and went to open the door.
The following few hours were a blur of emotion as Kessie retold the story to Belinda and Virginia, who cried with and comforted their friend, and then they had a laugh at other ex stories, each one full of heartbreak and drama and humor as they remembered why none had worked out—and thank goodness! Later, Virginia brought out the friendship bracelet set she’d brought, and a little while after that, Belinda set up Cards Against Humanity with the new expansion pack. It was the small hours of the morning when the last chocolate heart éclair had been eaten and the last drop of vodka consumed. They trooped up the stairs to Renée’s apartment above the shop, happy and tired and slightly drunk. Belinda and Virginia collapsed in the ready-made cots set up in the front area, while Kessie joined Renée in her bedroom.
“Did you have a good time tonight?” Renée asked sleepily as she handed Kessie extra blankets and pillows.
“I did. Very much so,” Kessie said honestly. She felt less tired than the others, and even after the lights had been turned off, she lay awake and gazed at the ceiling, which was covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. It was so like Renée to have those.
She had had a good time that night. She’d found out that Jack wasn’t dead, which was definitely a relief, though he hadn’t been pining after her, either, which was both a blessing and a curse. He had met someone else—ouch—but he was happy, and Kessie didn’t have the temperament to wish otherwise. After all, wasn’t she happy herself? She had a great career, truly amazing friends, and a whole future ahead of her. True, she was still single, but there was time. It would happen.
She was too awesome and talented for it not to.
That last thought made her smile, and she closed her eyes and let sleep take over.
The One may have Gotten Away, but tomorrow was a new day.
Whew! That was one heck of a prompt! I wasn’t expecting this to be as long as it is, but it was one of those stories that kinda takes over and does its own thing. I do love when that happens, but that’s partly why it’s so late! I’ve also been busy the past couple days – and in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t prepare posts ahead of time, though I really, really should. So you’ll have to forgive and forget the actual dates I gave on the last post: this writing challenge will have to be just posting days, not actual ones, heh.
Want to do the challenge yourself? Today’s prompt is: “The One That Got Away: You bump into an ex-lover on Valentine’s Day—the one whom you often call, ‘The One That Got Away.’ What happens?”