Mending Time by Cheri Lasota

Today he’d “walked” Aurelia to the Waterfront Park in downtown Portland.

Well, a few yards behind her as always, but he liked to think he was looking out for her. Unusual for a Sunday to find Aurelia wandering the city. It was nice to see her out of her element, though the day wasn’t nice now. Aurelia stood at the railing in the cold wind, but she wasn’t looking at the Willamette River’s white caps or the jet boat screaming past. She was shouting over the phone at her boyfriend.
Mending Time
Mending Time by Cheri Lasota
“One day you’ll wish you had!” she yelled into her cell phone—that damned red crackberry she had glued to her head 24/7—oblivious to who would hear it. Jack yanked his headphones out, though he could still hear the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” bursting through the earbuds. The last time he had heard those exact words spoken was five years ago—almost to the day. He thought he’d just forget at some point. But he still saw his gramma’s finger wagging at him, still heard that condescending scratch in her smoker’s voice. But it wasn’t Grams saying those words from six feet under the Oak Hollow Cemetery across town. It was Aurelia Luciano speaking them now. Aurelia from his 10 a.m. lit class at PSU. The one who never seemed to notice that he had his eyes on her nearly every single day. The one who had a too-large mouth and cat eyes with tiny flecks of gold in them. He wondered what she’d say if she ever found out that he walked her home every day from class. Walked behind her anyway. But Aurelia didn’t notice anyone but her friends and her worthless excuse for a boyfriend. Jack didn’t realize until this moment that her words had made him get up from the park bench. And now he stood three steps closer to her. He wanted to know what made her say that particular phrase. No, he needed to know. He walked up to the railing, staying the usual stranger’s distance away. But just like in class, she was oblivious. He watched her still, out of habit, from the corner of his eye. “You say that now—” The boyfriend must have interrupted her. “No. You know what? I’m done with this. I’m done with you.” Then Jack heard a sharp clatter over the hum of Portland traffic that made him glance at her despite his efforts to act nonchalant. No, she hadn’t dropped it. Miss Luciano, of the pristine academic career and perfect hair had just slammed her phone down on the sidewalk after breaking up with her rich, classless boyfriend. And now she was looking at Jack. Square in the eye. “Don’t have steel-toe boots on, do you?” Ah, that Italian accent of hers. He gave her the most complicit smile he could muster and tried to sound cool. “Nah, but I have a decent throwing arm.” He pointed out toward a river buoy. “I can launch that sucker so far out there you’ll never hear his obnoxious ringtone again.” Jack watched as a laugh toyed with the corners of her mouth. It somehow gave him courage or stupidity—he wasn’t sure which. “Can I ask you something?” he said. “What made you tell him ‘you’ll wish you had’?” She narrowed her eyes, wary. “How do you know I was talking to a guy?” Jack flashed her an innocent smile. “Only a girl would say that to a guy. And only a guy would need it said.” She nodded. Yes, they both knew that was true. It was about time he came clean. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” She took a step back. Not a good sign. She didn’t say a word but cocked her head to the side, peering under his baseball cap. He felt his face go sticky hot, and he yanked the cap off and bit his lip. Why didn’t he dress up in something other than jeans and a T-shirt all the time? Didn’t Gramma always say that first impressions were everything? ‘Course this wasn’t a first, but by the look of confusion in her eyes, he might as well count it as such. Aurelia crinkled her nose and smiled. It nearly made him lose his breath. She remembered! “Of course, you’re one of the checkout guys at the grocery mart on Third.” Well, he thought, sometimes invisibility had its benefits. For one, jeans and a T-shirt were perfectly acceptable attire in general. And for another, he supposed he never had to worry about what to say in awkward situations. “Ah, no.” She didn’t seem embarrassed. “The coffee shop on Fifth?” “Ehrm, PSU actually.” “Oh! You’re at the university? Hmm.” She raised an eyebrow, which might have been cute in other circumstances. Well, apparently narrowing it down wasn’t going to help much. Geez. “St. Cloud’s English Lit?” he prompted. She snapped her fingers. “You sit behind me!” Now it was Handel’s “Hallelujah!” chorus drifting through his head, and he tried to hide the stupid grin that plastered itself on his face. Without preamble, she said: “What are you doing here?” The question was a little abrupt, which almost made him blurt out the truth. Um, yeah, so I’m in love with you and I follow you home from PSU like a little puppy dog every day… Yeah, right. He shut and opened his mouth. Then he pointed to his iPod. “Tunes.” Didn’t sound too intelligent, but it could have been worse. “I suppose it’s obvious what I’m doing here.” “So I can erase him from your speed dial, you know. Just a quick toss, and he’ll be at the bottom of the river.” He made to pick it up, but she stepped on it with her heel. “I might have been a little hard on him.” “No,” Jack blurted. “He’s an asshole.” He shouldn’t have said that. The frown on her face told him so. She was wondering how he would know that, of course. But he wasn’t stupid enough to tell her. He stepped toward the railing, put his elbows on it. Glanced at the dark river, attempting to keep his heart steady, trying to look calm. She straightened up and left the phone there. Just left the boyfriend lying on the sidewalk like the garbage he was and stepped to the railing too. This did nothing but crank up his heartbeat, and he gripped his Mariners cap until his fingers hurt. She blew out a breath. “He is.” Her accent was subtle but he could pick it out in a line up. Aurelia. He wanted to say her name. Out loud. But he didn’t dare. He realized he would do anything for her. Why her? He’d asked himself that dozens of times. He had no idea. She was beautiful, sure. But then, they all were. And she was Italian. He’d always wanted to go to Venice. But she was oblivious. A little bit peevish. Self-absorbed. But he would. He would do anything for her, and expect nothing in return. Is that what Grams was talking about? When she said those words? He hardly remembered that final argument they’d had. He asked Aurelia again. “What made you say, ‘you’ll wish you had’ to him?” “Why?” Jack swallowed. Looked at her. “’Cuz my Grams said it to me once.” He felt a tickle of embarrassment in his throat, but he cleared it. “Just before she died.” Aurelia pressed her lips together, and a touch of rosy lipstick smudged the skin just below her bottom lip. He wanted to touch her, to wipe it away, but he would never do that. He put his hand in his pocket instead. “I wanted him to know that one day he’ll wish he had given me more time…” She paused, embarrassed. “Given me more love.” So that’s what Grams had meant all those years ago. He remembered now. She had asked him to pick up her heart medicine, and he blew it off to play video games. “One day, you’ll wish you had put others first. We only have so much time, Jack. So much time, and then it’s just over.” And then it was for Grams. Two days later. A heart attack. And he hadn’t paid attention until it was too late. Would it be like that with this girl some day? Would he never say what he wanted to say? And if she needed him—selfish though she may be—would he be too afraid to see it? If he did help her, though, it wouldn’t just be because he was a nice guy. He’d do it to get something in return, wouldn’t he? A touch, a kiss, returned affection. And wouldn’t that actually make him the selfish one? Geez, Grams, you’ve got my head spinning with all this stuff. “We always do that,” Jack finally said to Aurelia. “Never take the time, never do what we promise. And then it’s always too late.” She was silent, clasped her fingers together tightly. “Why do you do it, then?” “There is no why. We’re idiots.” “Yes, you are,” Aurelia said. She was serious when she said it, and he knew she was really talking to the asshole. But it might have been Grams talking to him all the same. “Yes,” he agreed. And hunched his shoulders. Felt sorry for her. And Grams. He hated knowing he was no different from the asshole. Aurelia’s scream of shock made him jerk up. It was a second, a moment. It happened so suddenly that he nearly shouted too. He saw first that she was tearing off her heels, throwing them down on the sidewalk like a madwoman. Then he saw the man, running like a damn quail—a skinny, waddler of a man in running pants and a faded Aerosmith T-shirt—and Jack saw a flash of red in his hand. He understood at once. Without so much as a thought in his head, Jack took off after the man. He ignored Aurelia’s pleas and shouted at her to stay back. He saw it all as he slowly caught up to the quail. Just a couple at the railing in the fading light. Not another soul in the vicinity. And a free phone he could sell, just lying on the ground. Jack had heard Aurelia’s scream. He wasn’t the smartest freshman in lit class, but he had read Wuthering Heights and all that crap. He knew Aurelia was going to forgive that guy, the asshole who didn’t deserve her. And stupidly, that phone was her lifeline to him. And even more stupidly (or heroically? tragically?), Jack was going to save it—him—for her. He was on the man’s heels now. And they were one block away from the park, running down a deserted street on a Sunday evening. Traffic here and there, but no one on the street. What the hell was he going to do when he caught up to the quail? Take him down? Dang, this guy was a fast little bird. Jack grabbed a hold of the quail’s shirt. Damn thing stunk of sweat and fear. And then they were down, tumbling, scraping along the pavement. He felt the scratches on his arms, his chin, his palms. He thought he much preferred watching this sort of street tackle on TV. It was a little less unpleasant when it was somebody else’s blood. Then he lost his air. He heard a scream somewhere, ricocheting off the buildings, slamming him with a fear that seemed to originate outside of him, though he was sure he should be feeling a bit more of that now that he really couldn’t breathe. It felt like his lungs were collapsing in on him, like they were about to drop to the ground underneath him and spill out into the gravel and dust. He couldn’t move at all. He heard the clatter of that damn phone, painfully loud as it fell next to his ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man’s running shoes making off again, down another street, his quail legs moving like the wind. Then he looked up at the night through the buildings and pressed his palm to his chest. But he felt something there, something foreign, something hard and cold. You’ve got to be kidding, he thought. And if he had had any breath, he’d have a good laugh. “Don’t touch it!” Aurelia whispered, and then she was hovering over him. And he rather liked that it was him now, not some TV actor faking it. Because he’d done it, hadn’t he? Done a bit of good. The phone was safe. Aurelia was safe. He said he’d do anything for her. Or rather thought it—but it was the same thing really. “You shouldn’t have done that. It’s probably broken anyway. And—why’d you do it?” The Proclaimers’ song lyrics ran through his head then, as the breaths came slower and slower and the fire in his chest burned hotter and hotter. This was it and he knew it, that moment of triumph or regret. His hands and feet were turning to ice. “Don’t—don’t go back… to him.” Damn, it was hard to talk. She took up his hand, and he felt her warm fingers curling around his sweaty ones. He actually saw tears fill up her eyes. He’d never even seen her cry for the asshole. “I won’t. I won’t.” She shook her head, tried to say something. Stopped. He closed his eyes, tried to focus on his breathing. This really hurt bad. He wasn’t sure he liked it after all. All he could hear was his own breathing. His vision started to get cloudy. The taste of blood started to come up through his mouth. He had to say it or it would be too late. “Wanted to show you we’re not all like that. Loved you all this year, you know. Wanted . . . to show you.” She bit her lip hard, and he saw the smudge of lipstick again. He wasn’t afraid now. He reached up, though his arm felt like lead, and touched away the color. “I don’t even know your name.” He felt the left corner of his mouth rise up. “It’s Jack.” “But I’m not worth this—this—” “You are. To me.” Aurelia shook her head. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open now. And the fire was much too hot. And the blood—it felt sticky, soaking through his T-shirt. He could really use a shower. He heard Gram’s words again… Aurelia’s words. “One day you’ll wish you had.” He took a last breath. “No regrets now.” Aurelia smiled and touched his cheek.

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