Caller ID

THIS IS A WORK OF ORIGINAL FICTION

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Aaron Silverman vacantly stared into greasy, fingerprinted phone booth doors. He rubbed two quarters together between the middle finger and thumb of his right hand; a subtle, exterior tic manifested to control inner chaos. The faint sound of metallic friction, and the repetitive motion, calmed him to a degree, but he wouldn’t feel complete relief until he entered, ran his eyes along the frayed phone book pages, and dialed what he simultaneously longed and feared to be the correct number.
The untapped possibility caused a painful build up of hope. The twisted desire to hold onto the exquisite pain of possibility outweighed the need to relieve it with closure. So, he simply stood there, blank and still, except for the ineffectual abrasion of the two coins in his hand.
He felt the same tightness in his chest and tingle in his limbs he felt before he made this same call thirteen years ago. He didn’t have the manufactured courage and delirium born of adolescent fantasy and winter cabin fever, or Ronnie there to bully him into it this time, though. He wasn’t safely snowed into his parents’ suburban two-story; he was alone in an abandoned parking lot, in the baking summer heat, having internal debate about completing a task he first attempted in high school. That attempt was successful, which only added to his agonizing optimism.
Positive thinking inevitably led him to disappointment. With only the one exception, whenever he allowed his hopes to rise, they crashed down around him in disaster. He operated with less difficulty on the down slope. He moved his thoughts decidedly to the worst case scenario. If ‘worst case’ happened, he’d be validated by being right. If ‘worst case’ didn’t happen, he’d be uplifted by the pleasing shock of a better conclusion than the imaginary, catastrophic one he’d drawn for himself. He was happier as a pessimist.
He prepared to cope with failure. Setting himself up to fail was a tried and true defense mechanism. It’s what made him stand, rubber soled shoes sticking to scorching, broken blacktop, perspiring from heat and nerves, and fidgeting with fifty cents, in front of a relic from his past. Looking up the number on the internet was certainly more accurate, efficient, and convenient, and so was calling from his cell phone from somewhere climate controlled. Those call options, however, would save data in a search engine, or a redial log, or outgoing call bank. He wanted room for error to help him rationalize being wrong, and he didn’t want to delete a record of his wrongness when his mistake was confirmed. Plus, his own number wouldn’t show on anyone else’s caller ID. The gaffe couldn’t be traced back to him. Using this antique pay phone was not only symbolic, but would eliminate revisiting the blunder he was convinced he was making. It was worth the fifty cents to walk away without forfeiting his anonymity. He knew it was self-defeating. The only person who’d ever really beaten him at anything was himself. He’d constructed his own demise eleven years ago, leading to his current self-created dilemma.
He shifted his weight, pulled his shirt tail up to wipe the sweat from his face, and thought. Aaron was a thinker. He thought many people didn’t list their numbers, or only used mobile phones, which would render his search fruitless. He thought perhaps she’d married, and changed her surname. He thought maybe she didn’t live close enough to be in the local white pages anymore. He thought about calling a wrong number, of course. He thought he may call and a man would answer, forcing him to ask for her and likely cause undue tension in a presumed happy life. He WANTED her life to be happy, or to become happy upon his re-entry into it. His personally defined ‘worst case’ could happen: he’d call and she’d be available, but unreceptive, or even hostile toward him. Then there was the nagging ‘best case’ he was working to bury. It could do even more damage than ‘worst case.’ He could strike gold twice in a lifetime, endorsing his calamitous misstep years ago, fueling already crippling regret. He didn’t know which was worse; rejection soothed by authentication, or elation tainted by remorse.
His erratic, stalling thoughts turned from plausible outcomes to whether or not bravery really existed. He once thought it did, and sometimes even felt he possessed it, but over time, apathy, mislaid sacrifice, and unfortunate circumstance convinced him true valor was a myth. It could be explained away with biology. In youth, human beings’ brains weren’t developed enough to appreciate the nature of consequence, and this allowed them to be bold. They were too naive and headstrong to accept the likelihood that their grand plans would dare not happen. Then, of course, he began replaying history.
*********
At sixteen, Aaron sat cross-legged on his living room floor, bending a paperclip to his will, first into an abstract ‘A,’ then an ’S.’ He had a vague perception of Ronnie’s presence and music playing. It was white noise until one lyric in a song he didn’t recognize conjured a vivid picture of her face, as if she was indeed sitting across from him on the floor, returning eye contact. The words were only meaningful in the brief moment they played. He couldn’t summon the musical poetry that drew her face in front of him, but the vision of her eyes, brazen and blue, looking back into his, retained its intensity thirteen years later.

“You’ve spaced out, man. Where’d you go just now? You sure weren’t here,” his brother had said, noticing Aaron’s checked-out appearance.

“Something in that last song just made me think of…sssomething.”

“Who is she?”

“Shut up.”

“’Shut up’ is ‘You’re right, Ronnie. It’s a girl.’ C’mon. What am I gonna do, tell her?”

“No. I know you’re not gonna TELL her. But why do you even care?”

“I don’t care. I’m just bored. Sick of being snowed in this house. After this weekend, I’m goin’ back to school.”

“Next semester’s still another week off.”

“They’ll let me back in the dorms on Monday. I’m there Monday night. Tired of this shit. I gotta get back into LIFE. Until then all I got’s your pathetic high school drama, which, if I know you, and I DO, is all in your head anyway.”

“Love getting mocked. Thanks, asshole.”

“Tell me who the girl is.”

“You remember Charlsie Anderson?”

“’Chuck?’”

“Yeah.”

“Her!?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, Aaron. You need outta the house, too. We haven’t seen that girl since you were in seventh grade.”

“I know. Weird,” Aaron lied. He thought about Charlsie all the time.

“You’re hung up on a girl from seventh grade,” Ronnie charged, correctly assessing his brother’s dishonesty.

“I am not. And I was four when we met Chuck.”

“Right. Not seventh grade…PRESCHOOL. That’s a lot less lame.”

“Shut up.”

“You need a more original comeback, man. ‘Shut up?’ Weak.”

“So what if I think about her?”

“For four years without even seeing her? Damn. Why don’t you do somethin’ about it?”

“What am I gonna do? She moved away.”

“She didn’t move to Ecuador. She’s not even ten miles away. You got a car and a license. Make something happen. Call her up.”

“I don’t know her number. I didn’t have it when she lived in the neighborhood.”

“You didn’t need it then. She was across the street. Look it up in the white pages. I thought you were supposed to be ‘the smart one.’”

“I’m just gonna look up ‘Anderson’ in the phone book and hope I guess right? Embarrassing. Getting a bunch of wrong numbers.”

“You’re more afraid of getting the RIGHT number. Chicken.”

“Shut…”

“’…up, Ronnie.’ What are you afraid of? You daydream about her every day but won’t call? Textbook definition of ‘chicken.’”

“What if she doesn’t remember me?”

“Do you think she had a traumatic brain injury? How could she not remember you? She lived across the street and saw us every day of our childhood.”

“What if she has a boyfriend? In fact, that’s a dumb question. She certainly has a boyfriend.”

“So? Look, if you get a wrong number, who cares? You’re never gonna talk to those people again. If you get the right number and she’s with somebody, you’re just an old friend calling to see how her life is on a boring snow day…and…come ON, man…if you get the right number and she’s INTO you…isn’t that a risk worth takin’? You’re still thinking about her. Four YEARS. That has to mean something. Call her up.”

“I dunno, man…”

Ron ignored his brother’s skepticism and flakiness, and hunted for the family white pages. He opened to the ‘A’s,’ flipping through names semi-violently until he reached ‘Anderson.’ “There’s only one ‘Anderson’ in Stanley. Call. That’s gotta be her.”

“But I…what if…”

“You want ME to call? It’s that level of ‘bored.’ I’ll call a high school girl for my kid brother just to have some kind of story in my head today.”

“Hell no! I’ll call.” He snatched the heavy brick of listings from Ronnie’s hands, and stared at the digits standing between him and the beautiful, aching promise of a dream actualized.

“Well…phone won’t dial itself.”

Aaron picked up the cordless phone, his hand shaking slightly more with each baby step forward. He swallowed hard and exhaled heavily as he heard the last ‘beep,’ then held his breath for three rings; a total of perhaps twenty seconds, but those seconds felt like days deprived of oxygen.

“Hello?”

He knew her voice instantly, even after years of total separation. He hadn’t expected to get it right, despite his brother’s encouragement, and his stunned silence prompted her to repeat herself, in a slightly less friendly tone of voice.

“Hel-LO?”

“May I speak with Charlsie please?” he needlessly asked.

“This is me,” she cheerfully replied. “Who’s this?”

“It’s Aaron. Silverman. From Laney Street. Do you even remember me?”

“Who is this, REALLY?” she asked snidely. “Is this YOU, Drew? Is it? You jerk. I’m sorry I ever told you about Aaron. You have to be so mean about it. So I have a crush. I admit it’s dumb and immature. But I can’t believe you’d do this. Are you really THAT bored?”

Aaron’s heart raced at her unintentional revelation that she reciprocated what he regarded as unrequited affection. He interrupted her berating with a word he thought would clearly identify him. “Chuck?”

Harsh realization struck Charlsie. She flooded with overwhelming inhibition and minor panic. “Oh my…Oh shit…Oh NO…this IS…” Each halting sentence fragment became louder than the previous one.

“Aaron. Silverman. From Laney Street,” he repeated with much more confidence. He found himself flattered, rather than upset, at the dead air he faced. “Still there?” An irrepressible grin spread from ear to ear. Ronnie, upon seeing the smug, unbridled mirth on his little brother’s face, exited the room, whistling.

“Yes,” Charlsie meekly answered.

“Guess you remember me.”

“Yeah. Stuff I said…not good.”

“What?! Totally good.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Kinda…really surprised you called me.”

“I gathered that. I’m sorry…I mean…”

“You shouldn’t be sorry. I’m the one that should apologize.”

“For what?”

“For…nevermind.”

Aaron chuckled. He couldn’t believe this was the same girl that routinely stole his baseball hat. And his Coke and French fries. And his scooter. The same girl that skinned both knees and shins, permanently scarring both legs, to prove she could ride a skateboard as well as he could. When his thoughts of her weren’t poetic about her aquatic blue eyes, they were mathematical, counting the warrior marks on her legs.
Her uncommon apprehension tamed his, and, strangely bolstered by her nervousness, he directed  the conversation toward his ultimate aim at its relative beginning. “Who’s Drew?”

“My chemistry lab partner.”

“Not your boyfriend?”

“Oh, no way. Drew’s just a friend. If he’s that.”

“Who’s your boyfriend, then?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want one?”

Her surprise at his stunning audacity topped her already grandiose amount at just receiving his call. She had written him off as a silly, unattainable childhood goal, like winning Wimbledon. Beyond that, she mercilessly flirted with him at every previous encounter beyond fourth grade with all the fervor and skill she had, and he was oblivious. She was certain he had zero romantic interest in her. She’d pushed thoughts of him to the back burner, dismissing them as childish, but also involuntarily compared every unwitting teenage suitor to Aaron, and the challengers never could conquer the champ. She answered him with the same candor he displayed. “Depends on who’s asking.”

“I’m asking.”

“Then yeah. I want one.”

“Now you’ve got one.”

“Now you’ve got a girlfriend named ‘Chuck.’ Your friends are gonna make fun of you until you’re nearly suicidal.”

“Not once they meetcha. Then they’ll all start looking for girls called men’s names.”

“You must be all that, setting trends and shit.”

“Listen to you talkin’ tough now. You couldn’t even get out a syllable a couple minutes ago.”

“I was amazed to speechlessness that Silent Silverman called me.”

“Silent Silverman?”

“That’s my little pet name for you.”

“I have a pet name already?”

“Already? It’s been YEARS in development.”

“Any room to change the nickname?”

“I guess. You don’t seem silent anymore. What should I change it to?”

“Sexy Silverman.”

“Haha! How ’bout Silly Silverman?! Where was this guy when I lived right across the street?”

“He was here. He was just too young, scared, and dumb to say anything.”

“Glad he grew up and got brave and smarter.”

“You really had a crush on me?”

“YEAH.”

“I’m in a moderate to severe state of disbelief about that.”

“I can’t believe you couldn’t TELL. I used to sit on the curb across the street and watch you play basketball in the driveway. I thought you didn’t even notice me.”

“Believe me, I noticed.”

“Then how could you not know? I thought you were smart.”

“I was afraid to get my hopes up.”

“Shit. That’s some POWERFUL self doubt. I literally sat across the street waiting for you to look my way.”

“Self doubt’s still there.”

“Well, what the hell made you call today?”

“Snow. And Ronnie.”

“Only time I’ve liked the snow since Christmas morning. Maybe the only time I’ve liked Ronnie EVER.” Aaron let out an amused scoff, but then latent shyness bubbled to the surface. “So…w-what do we talk about?”

“What’s new in your life?”

“I’m on the tennis team here. Can’t wait to start playing in the spring. And I’m doing alright in school, I guess. How about you?”

“Playing baseball. That’s about it. Nothing else exciting happening?”

“Well…some guy I’ve had a crush on since I was eight called me up out of the blue and asked me out today.”

“He likes a girl named Chuck? Must be a weirdo.”

“He is a weirdo. I’m not sure why I like him so much. I’m not sure why he likes me, either.”

“He digs the scars on your legs.”

Her normally ironclad poker face turned expressive and scarlet when he called something out as an asset she hid in her new surroundings, as she’d learned to view them as a flaw. “I don’t wear shorts in the summer anymore…”

“Bummer. They’re one of my favorite things about you.”

“My ugly legs?”

“Those scars aren’t ugly. They’re badges of honor. They show you’re a force to be reckoned with. And I can remember when you got every one of them.”

“Damn, Aaron. Nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Her voice wavered and the beginnings of tears formed in her eyes. Other boys that wooed her complimented her beauty, which didn’t go without appreciation, but Aaron’s sincere admiration of something beyond the tangible truly touched her. It was another unexpected reason to hold him up as a superlative.

“Wanna hear some other reasons the weirdo likes you? You swear like a sailor, you’re trying not to cry now because I’m being nice, and you go by ‘Chuck.’”

“I don’t go by ‘Chuck’ here.”

“Have you outgrown it? Does it embarrass you now? I’ll try not to call you Chuck around your friends.”

“No, I…I kinda like it when YOU call me Chuck.”

“That’s good. Because it’d be a real effort to quit.”

“There probably really is something wrong with you…wanting to date a girl you call ‘Chuck.’”

“It’s like calling a big guy ‘Tiny.’ That’s the last thing you look like…’Chuck.’”

“What DO I look like?”

“Gorgeous.”

“Oh, stop it. I can’t believe you’re going with ‘girlfriend’ based on this awkward phone call and memory.”

“You’re taking the same leap.”

“True. I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but you haven’t even seen me in years.”

“Did you change?”

“A little.”

“I did too. So?”

“You might be really disappointed when you see me. And then I’ll be crushed”

“Somehow I doubt it.”

“I was lying when I said ‘a little.’ It’s pretty radical change.”

“Oh yeah?” he egged her on, hearing her oozing sarcasm. “Tell me all about it.”

“Let’s see…I got braces with rubber bands and headgear, I have a serious acne problem, and all my hair fell out.”

“I’m having a hard time visualizing that. I’ll still have to see you in person to know for sure I don’t find you attractive.”

“Alright. If you aren’t ashamed to be seen in public with a troll like me…”

“I’m sure school’s gonna be canceled tomorrow too. Can I take you out to lunch?”

“You wanna TAKE ME OUT?”

“Yes? You know…I’ll come and pick you up…I’ll drive us to a restaurant…we’ll eat…I’ll pay the check…”

“Alright. Guess you’re in charge. Take me out.

“Did I use the wrong phrase to refer to a date, and now I blew it? You know I think you’re my equal, Chuck…if not my superior.”

“I wasn’t pointing out a mistake, just a difference from the other guys I know. Honestly, getting ‘taken out’ is kind of a turn on.”

Really?

“Yeah. Guys around here seem kind of afraid of me. They always just concede every decision. ‘I dunno. What do YOU wanna do?’ gets old quick.”

“I’ll surprise you tomorrow then.”

“What time should I be ready?”

“How early do places open for lunch? Wanna go to breakfast instead? Wanna go to dinner tonight? Want me to pick you up and ‘take you out’  right now?”

“I’ll be ready at eleven tomorrow. Wow. I really hope I’m as good as that picture you have in your head.”

“I’m probably underestimating you with the picture in my head.”
***************

Aaron fast forwarded to the last time he was inside the same phone booth; the summer before his first semester of college, about a month before he made what he’d judged the worst decision of his life. The movie theater was still open then. He was leaving one of dozens of forgettable films with Charlsie, who was wholly unforgettable. He couldn’t remember anything about the movie they’d seen, but he relived every detail of the time he’d spent with her with startling clarity.
It was a sweltering, late July dusk, and the humidity was oppressive. After the short trip from the car, both of them were overheated. He smirked, watching her dramatic relief as he opened the theater door for her to enter the air conditioned lobby. She sighed audibly and closed her mesmerizing eyes, relishing the cool burst she normally complained about. She habitually dressed in jeans and brought a sweater to the movies, even in the summertime. This film, however, was a whim fulfilled, lacking all forethought. They’d left right from a day of swimming, their skin still smelling of chlorine and coconut-scented sunscreen. She was in just shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals.
She started wearing shorts again the summer after he’d made the errant January phone call that jump-started what he still thought were the best two years of his life. She felt secure exposing her legs, unevenly tanned due to scar tissue, because Aaron liked them, and his pedestaled opinion devalued those of any strangers that lingered too long with curious stares. To that point in her life, the time she felt most loved was that first eighty degree day with Aaron. He ran his fingers over her knees and shins, tracing the lines left by persistent youthful stubbornness with care and esteem, as though he idolized them; both the physical imperfections of the flesh, and the quirk in character that caused them.
She watched the movie, knees curled up to her chest, as close to Aaron as humanly possible, trying to usurp his body heat without actually moving to his lap. He watched HER watch the movie and sidle closer to him for warmth, and wrapped his arms around her arms and bent knees. When the credits rolled, she couldn’t wait to exit into the muggy night air, but an unpredicted thunderstorm trapped them inside.

“Future reference: spontaneous movie…bad idea. I’m freezing.”

“I’ll keep you warm. Not hurting my feelings to hold you close a little longer.” He stood behind her, enveloping her, resting his chin on her shoulder and whispering in her ear.

“Making my heart pound. But I think I’m gonna make you cold at this point.” She shivered, goose bumps raised on all her visible skin, and she talked through gritted teeth to keep them from chattering.

“I’ll make a run for it with you, but it’s pouring.”

“I can’t be in this icebox too much longer. I’ll turn into a Popsicle.”

“Can’t have that! Out in the storm it is, then.” He stooped, and she jumped onto his back.

“Go when you’re ready, boss. Take me out.

He held her legs behind her knees and treasured the soft, sunned skin of her cheek against his for a moment before kicking the door open with one foot, and dashing out into the driving rain.

“Shit! Another bad idea! Why in the hell did you listen to me?”

“I’m just tryin’ to make you warm and happy, Princess Chuck,” he teased her, yelling over the din of splashing footsteps and rain beating down on car roofs.

“Make a pit stop! Please?!”

“Where? We’re in a damn parking lot!” They both laughed.

“Phone booth on your left.” He pushed the doors open and backed in with her still riding piggy back. “Oh my gosh. Drenched,” she huffed as he closed them in. She wrung water from her shirt tail, pulling the fabric tighter against her form.

“Yep,” he agreed, watching her, and passively dropping water into a small puddle at their feet.

“You’re totally waterlogged,” she said, finally looking up at him.

“I’ve capsized.”

“Drowning? That bad?” She ran her hands down his chest, drawing the surplus water from his shirt too. The sound of rain pounding the glass around them forced their intimate conversation louder than normal.

“Shit, Chuck…when you touch me like that…pulling me under.”

“Sorry.” She closed the already small distance between them, and reached for his hand, lacing her fingers between his.

“Don’t be sorry. Save me.” He pulled her closer until she was right against him, the only barrier between his bare skin and hers were the clinging, second skins of their saturated clothing. Droplets of water hung from the ends of her hair, and one ran down the bridge of her nose, like she’d cried it out. He cupped her jaw and wiped the artificial tear away with his thumb.

“Who’s gonna save me? I’m drowning too.”

The dewy tension in the claustrophobic space finally precipitated into a kiss, more passionate and momentous than even their first. When they exited at the storm’s end, both of them raced toward a finish line that seemed much further away before getting caught in the weather together. The raised stakes made the next three weeks ecstatic, and turned the week before they parted ways for college into them parting ways for good.
********************

“Aaron…don’t.”

“Chuck…”

“I don’t want this. I want US.”

“I can’t let you forfeit a scholarship to stay with me.”

“So…then I’ll go to Western and you go to State, like we planned. But we’ll stay together…LIKE WE PLANNED.”

“I can’t be apart from you.”

“Then I’ll transfer…”

“No. I just feel like…we’ve only been with each other all this time. You should be able to see whatever’s out there.” Aaron made a unilateral decision after three weeks of what he could only describe as unadulterated bliss, to call things off with Charlsie before he was sure she would. He couldn’t conceive being happier, or even maintaining any level of satisfaction after experiencing that euphoric last month before college. So instead of trying for the fairy tale, he wrote a tragic last page instead. Immature blindness made him rely on fate to write another chapter to reunite them.

“Am I supposed to think you’re all noble and shit now? You’re opening my small world up to shining opportunity by dumping me? Is this your bullshit heroic justification? ‘If you love something, set it free,’ or whatever? You’re not setting me free, Aaron. You’re breaking my heart. That’s what you’re doing. Just so we’re clear.”

“You feel that way now, but…if we stay together…even if we survived, there will always be a part of you that wonders if you settled on me. I can’t live with that. That you could have done better, had more, been happier, but you stuck with the kid from across the street. Because I’m comfortable and easy.”

“You kidding? You are NOT EASY. All this waffling between inferiority and swagger can wear a girl out. Difference between me and you is I think you’re worth it.”

“Don’t make this harder for me than it already is.”

“Oh? This is HARD for you? Just don’t do it. Problem solved.”

“Chuck…”

“Only my boyfriend can call me Chuck.”

“So we’re done? Not even friends now?”

“Yeah, done. I can’t be friends with you. How can I be friends…? You’ve seen me naked. That’s not ‘friends.’ This is it unless you wanna change your mind right now. It’s ‘goodbye and good luck.’”

“Goodbye and good luck, Chuck.”

“LAST TIME you call me Chuck. Don’t ever do it again.”

“I won’t. I’m…sorry.”

“Yeah…’sorry.’ Hope you’re sure. I walk away from you now…I’m not coming back. If you want me EVER…you have to stop me from walking away NOW.”
*****************

Changing global technology, local economics, and personal philosophy left the sensation of her lips on his, her smell, and the heat of closeness alive and unaltered in the empty blacktop lot. He’d seen her face with every woman he looked at since. He had no conscious recall of any day in his life he didn’t think about her.
He took a deep breath and finally stepped into the booth, shaking away the stinging pangs of nostalgia. It seemed smaller on the inside, which was counterintuitive. Without Charlsie sharing the enclosed space, he should have sensed more room, but her presence always drew comfort from the uncomfortable.
He laid the worn phone book open to “A.” He singularly turned pages, prolonging the march toward “Anderson” until he landed on the correct column. He ran his index finger over the toasty, sun-bleached page until he found it. “Anderson, Charlsie…”

“That must be her,” he stated aloud to himself in a moment of gratitude for the uniqueness of her name. He hung the heavy, black receiver on his shoulder and listened to the drone of the dial tone. He punched the sequence of silver keys, and temporarily stopped breathing, just as he had as a kid.

“Hello?”

There was no immediate voice recognition this time. “May I speak to Charlsie, please?”

“This is me.” The answer she always gave when asked for herself on the phone turned his demeanor abnormally rose-colored. He pretentiously assumed she’d already made him, as if she was waiting for his call, and just as it had years ago, anticipation overpowered his trepidation. He launched into a series of questions meant to steer her toward a prized end.

“Are you married?”

“No,” she answered casually, believing she was now caught in a survey, as her caller ID flashed an unfamiliar number, but from her own area code. She rolled her eyes and cursed herself for picking up. At the onset of questioning, though, she masked her annoyance, and decided she’d be kind and complete the benign interrogation for the sake of the poor soul working in the call center.

Her nonchalance to his blunt question confirmed to him that she knew it was him, so his tone became even more relaxed. “Divorced?”

“No. Never been married. No committed relationship of any kind at the moment. I’m twenty-nine. I’m not comfortable giving out my yearly income, but I’m a college graduate. Now do you wanna know what magazines I read? TV shows I watch? Laundry soap I use? Or what political party I usually vote for? Let’s just cut to the chase. I have shit to do,” she said, teasing and snappy, but still friendly and free of hostility.

Her flippant manner encouraged him, so he did as she wished. “I wanna take you out.”

“You wanna take me out!?” she asked, quizzical and mildly offended. Her unknowing emphasis on those specific words fed his sanguine attitude. “I think you might get fired.”

“What? How would I get fired? I work for myself.”

“You do? I suppose you’re independently wealthy.”

“I wouldn’t say wealthy, but I’m doing alright on my own. I assume you’re doing alright, too. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna ask for your yearly income.”

“So…you called for…?”

“A date. Do you not know what ‘take you out’ means anymore?” He considered calling her ‘Chuck,’ in a brief moment of doubt, but didn’t. He remembered her categorically forbidding it the last time they spoke.

“You’re SERIOUS?!” She’d moved beyond minor trespass to consternation.

“Totally serious.”

“This ever worked for you before? Calling a girl up out of the blue and asking to take her out?”

“Once.” Shameless to the point of ‘completely out of character,’ he believed he was playing his hand expertly.

“Uh-huh. Couldn’t have ended up well…”

“I did screw up with her. It was the dumbest move I ever made,” he said, referencing her in the third person; a strategic move for storytelling effect.

Charlsie Anderson was taken aback by his original approach and his stark honesty. Her instinct to hang up and forget about the strange event evolved into a form of curious acceptance. “What the hell?”she thought to herself. “Carpe diem, right?” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, she finally answered, “Alright. Let’s do it. But you can’t ‘take me out.’ I wanna meet in a crowded, public, neutral location.”

“Afraid of losing self control?”

“What a funny guy! I’m afraid you’re a serial killer.”

“Looks like I’m not the comedian, here. I admit to some criminal social blunders, but I’m incapable of murder. Or any violent crime. Damn.” His feelings were hurt at the seriousness she conveyed in her concern. Had he lost that much of her trust?

“Well, still…”

“OK. I sure don’t wanna make you uneasy. I want ya to like me and everything. Where do you wanna meet?”

“Let’s do Starbucks. Tomorrow morning around ten too early?”

“Nope. Which one? They’re everywhere.”

“Town center?”

“I’ll be there.”

“How am I gonna know it’s you?”

“You’ll recognize me. I’m sure I’ll recognize you.”

“A man of extraordinary faith. Intriguing. Can I at least get a number in case the place is so packed we can’t get by on faith? This number alright?”

“No. This number’s from the pay phone outside the old showcase on Matchbox Pike.”

“Are you a fugitive from justice?”

“Told you…not a serial killer. I promise.” He felt discouraged his mention of the location failed to elicit a more resounding sentimental response.

“Well, it’s creepy that you’re at a pay phone in the digital age. AND it’s in the run down parking lot of a vacant movie theater. If you aren’t running from the law, are you conducting some weird social experiment? I don’t wanna be part of somebody’s psychological research paper. This is a real date, right?”

“This is one hundred percent sincere. I’ll email you my number. What’s your address?”

“WimbledonCharlsie@email.com…you know how to spell Wimbledon?”

“Yeah, I got it.” She obviously retained her love of tennis. The interpreted satirical insult of his intelligence caused a smile, and he pictured her playing on some public court, her designer-original legs completing graceful footwork to return a serve.

“What’s YOURS? You know…so I can rescue it from the spam folder if it lands there.”

“Aaron.Silverman45@email.com”

“I was expecting something way more entertaining than that. Where’d the ’45’ come from? You’re the 45th Aaron Silverman on email? Dull.”

“My high school baseball number,” he said, slightly let down that detail escaped her.

“That’s a little more individual. Better. I like baseball.”

Thinking her droll, he returned assumed jesting with irreverent redundancy, and wryly told her something well within her awareness. “Do you? That’s a lucky turn my way. Baseball is a religion for me. It falls right behind my family, friends, and career in order of importance in my life.”

“I like it almost as much as tennis,” she honestly replied, detecting no farce in his statement, and including none in hers. “My two favorite sports to watch.”

“Why those two?” he asked, hopeful that she’d give a reason regarding the two of them.

“No time limits. I like to watch people control their own destiny.”

“Best answer ever.”

She smiled in spite of surreality. “Well, on that note, I’ll look forward to getting your number. Don’t stand me up.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow morning then, Aaron Silverman.”

“I can’t wait.”
****************

Charlsie Anderson sat at an outdoor cafe table with her legs modestly crossed, bouncing her right foot. She dangled the ballet flat from her toes, trying to harness the tempest raging within her. The only evidence of the worry and outright stupidity she felt was the surface expression of nerves in her right leg. This was decidedly the most irrational act of her life; showing up to meet a complete stranger, sight unseen, based on a brash and intrusive random phone call. She blamed the need for mystery and narrative in her otherwise routine life. At least she’d have a story to tell. She had no quandary readying herself for a first date, and confidently drove to the coffee shop, ordered, and took her seat in the mid-morning sunshine with conviction. Moments after settling, though, she examined the ridiculousness of the situation, and found its countless illogical flaws.
She resolved to give him until quarter after ten to show up and wow her before packing up to leave. That gave her twenty more minutes of restlessness. She determined not to allow the jitters to become so uncontrolled that she kicked her shoe off into pedestrian retail traffic. Then she would suffer public ridicule on top of the self-imposed kind.
Following last night’s chance contact, she was further floored by the swiftness of receiving his cell phone number. Less than thirty minutes after the conversation from the pay phone, she had new email from Aaron.Silverman45, asking for her number in return. Next in the astounding series was her immediate, compliant reply. Seconds after selecting ‘send’ on her laptop, wishing she could somehow retrieve her message from digital space, the following alert appeared on her phone:

AS: Testing…Charlsie? It’s Aaron 🙂

Her normal proclivity for quiet, humble men was bested by abnormal attraction to this newcomer’s cockiness. Arrogance being a common turn off, her inclination to retreat was stifled by an underlying sweetness to his excessively forward behavior. It was as if he already knew her, and the daring he displayed was almost facetious in nature. She was strangely compelled to answer him.

CA: Successful test. Charlsie 🙂
AS: Care to text?
CA: Why not? It’s already the strangest Friday night I’ve ever spent.
AS: What’s strange about it?
CA: Um…some guy called me up out of nowhere and asked me out. That’s strange.
AS: You agreed to it.
CA: That’s strange too.
AS: Wanna call it off?
CA: No. And THAT’s strange too.
AS: 🙂
CA: It’s nice you’re happy about it, I guess.
AS: So…did you start drinking coffee in college?
CA: Yep. Became an addict.
AS: LOL What do you usually get?
CA: Vanilla latte. Hot in the cold weather. Iced in hot weather.
AS: Iced vanilla latte tomorrow then?
CA: For sure. 90 degrees they say.
AS: Do you do a triple shot? Soy milk? Extra foam? What’s the whole fancy barista order?
CA: Haha! ‘Tall, skinny, iced vanilla latte.’
AS: Had to have the lingo. I’m not a coffee drinker.
CA: Want to change the meeting place?
AS: Absolutely not. I’m counting on my company to carry the morning.
CA: Great expectations. Hope you’re not disappointed.

The striking identical nature of this exchange to his fruitful phone call from thirteen years past boosted Aaron’s morale.

AS: Are you toothless? Marvin the Martian forehead tattoo? Plastic surgery to make your face look like a great white shark?
CA: Haha! No. But I’m not so great it’s worth going to Starbucks when you hate coffee.
AS: On the contrary, I’m sure you’re more than worth it.
CA: You’re SURE?
AS: Positively certain.
CA: Wow. LOFTY presumptions. You could find me entirely ugly and boring.
AS: I’ll find you lovely and captivating. That’s what you ARE.
CA: You’re scaring me a little.
AS:  😦 Definitely don’t wanna scare you. What’s wrong?
CA: You’re just so…assured about things you CAN’T know.
AS: I guess that’s right. I can’t KNOW. I’m just making educated guesses.
CA: That’s a little relief. I thought you might be…watching me or something.
AS: No. Not a serial killer. I swear. <crosses his heart>
CA: What are you then?
AS: Just Aaron. Like I’ve always been.
CA: Well everyone’s always been themselves, I guess. Existential. Oooooo…
AS: Getting late. Gonna have to go. Need beauty sleep.
CA: You do, huh?
AS: Have to look my best tomorrow morning. Don’t wanna disappoint you.
CA: ‘Are you toothless? Marvin the Martian forehead tattoo? Plastic surgery to make your face look like a great white shark?’ 😛
AS: No. But tomorrow’s important.
CA: It’s just meeting a girl for coffee. 🙂
AS: It’s meeting THE girl for coffee. 🙂
CA: Again…WOW.
AS: Scary again?
CA: No. REALLY flattering. For no logical reason. Maybe kinda scary. Not ‘bad’ scary, I guess.
AS: Sorry for being illogically flattering and ‘good’ scary…forgive me? 🙂
CA: Apology accepted. 🙂
AS: Goodnight, Charlsie. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. 🙂
CA: Night. Tomorrow it is. 🙂
*******************

AS: Good morning, beautiful. 🙂
CA: This is CHARLSIE ANDERSON.
AS: I *know.* SMH.
CA: Just checking. You have no idea if I’m beautiful or not.
AS: I have an idea.
CA: Scaring me again.
AS: I don’t KNOW. I cannot see you. I have not seen you at any point in recent history.
CA: Promise?
AS: Scout’s honor.
CA: Were you a boy scout?
AS: No. Sarcasm. Gotta love it.

Aaron thought Charlsie’s question about being a boy scout was acerbic. He felt she would clearly remember that he never dressed in uniform and attended troop meetings as a kid.
She translated his mention of sarcasm as explaining his use of ‘Scout’s honor’ when he hadn’t been a scout, and having nothing to do with any words she’d sent him. They both let their misinterpretations stand without further questioning.

CA: So…you just have an idea that I’m worth all this trouble?
AS: I have a hypothesis.
CA: A hypothesis? Big fancy word. 😉
AS: I read at a ninth grade level and everything. 🙂
CA: So you have a ‘hypothesis’ that I’m attractive?
AS: I’d say it’s more of a probability. To be proved as fact shortly.
CA: I appreciate your compliment of my unproven beauty, but I need to get ready to meet at 10.
AS: I’m looking forward to it. See you soon. 🙂
CA: I suppose you will.

Aaron pulled into a parking space in the back of the town center, sat in his car and took a few deliberate breaths of recirculated air before getting out. He walked right past Charlsie seated at the outdoor table, without even a passing glance, and stood in line to place an order at a Starbucks for the first time in his life. “Tall, skinny iced vanilla latte,” he told the friendly order taker, adding, “And an ice water.”
Because she was seated outside, Charlsie didn’t hear the barista call out “Iced Vanilla Latte for Aaron!” It was now five minutes past ten, and her shaking right foot increased its speed and magnitude.
Aaron did a cursory scan of the interior of the coffee shop, and finding no familiar faces, walked outside, took a seat at the outdoor table directly to Charlsie’s left, still not noticing her, and took out his phone.

AS: Did you change your mind? 😦
CA: No. Did you?
AS: No. I’m here. Where are you?
CA: Here.
AS: Where’s ‘here?’ I can’t find you.
CA: Well, how could you? I told you…force of will or blind faith can’t do it at a crowded Starbucks.
AS: I thought Divine Providence would intervene and spotlight you for me.
CA: Poetic. I have to admit, that’s impressive, even if it’s phony.
AS: Phony? No way. I thought you’d be easy to find. I’ve seen you in my head every day I can remember.
CA: No wonder you’re so enamored of me. I’m a fantasy. Reality’s gonna suck for you.
AS: Doubt it. Where are you? I’m eager to see reality.
CA: Outside.
AS: You can’t be. I’m outside. I can’t believe I’m actually typing this, but…what are you wearing? OMG, I feel like a pervert now. That was a necessary question. <gah!>

The woman to Aaron’s right giggled. Her laugh had a soothing melody about it that made him smile without looking up.

CA: Haha! I know you aren’t being obscene. 😀
AS: I didn’t want to be ‘scary’ again.
CA: I’m not scared. You’ve proved yourself a man of honor. You had to ask what I’m wearing. 😉
AS: Well…what ARE you wearing?
CA: Purple v-neck t-shirt, khaki shorts. I’m at a table in the row closest to the sidewalk.
AS: You wore shorts! 😀
CA: ?
AS: I can check out your legs. 😉
CA: !!! <blushing>

Aaron looked up and to his right to see a beautiful stranger wearing the clothing Charlsie described to him seconds before. He thought of calling her out on text for playful misdirection, but didn’t. The girl at the table was drinking the same iced coffee he’d planned to surprise the love of his life with, and he was captured by her enchanting face upon really looking for the first time. Awareness claimed him, and it incited him to make the only impulsive, unthinking decision of his life. Abashed but thankful, he determined to let the happy accident play out in full. He took two steps to the right toward a woman that was just as lovely, just as daring, and had the same name as the girl he pined for his entire life, but wasn’t her.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked with a supplemental, formal respect he felt he owed her to atone for the previous fourteen hours of presumption based on mistaken identity.

“I’m waiting for someone,” she said, suspecting but unsure that this man was who she thought he was.

“A friend?”

“He’s friendly. I think.”

“He? Hmm. Lucky guy.”

“Well, thank you.”

“Charlsie?”

“You ARE Aaron…t-take your seat.”

“Hope you’re ready for a refill,” he said, sliding the coffee across the tabletop to her. “Would have been a lot smoother if I’d found you before you ordered.”

“Well, an addict is never gonna turn down a free hit. Thank you! You got it exactly right.”

“I read it right off your text from last night.”

“You’re just drinking water?”

“They didn’t have Coke. Should have stopped at a drive through on the way here, I guess.”

“It was really sweet of you to buy me a coffee, sight unseen and everything.”

“Well, I wasn’t kidding before. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world right now.”

“I’m not that big of a prize.”

“I think you are. What made you decide to meet me?”

“You were just so…insistent. And full of…I dunno…”

Shit?” he kidded, raising his eyebrows comically.

“PROMISE,” she laughed. “You made yourself undeniable. Calling some random number out of a phone book? That’s serious grit. And you were just so genuine about wanting to meet up with me. You don’t find that combination of senseless courage and full-on sincerity very often.”

“Totally brave to meet me here, not seeing me, not really knowing me at all. It kind of blows me away.”

“You like a spirited gal, do ya?”

“Yes. I’ve only ever fallen for two girls. They’ve both been dauntless. It’s pretty hot.”

“Tell me about them…the fearless girls you’re into.”

“The first one was when I was a kid. She had to prove she could do anything I could do, but  better. Tore her legs up skateboarding down a seventy degree hill in our neighborhood. She had to get stitches and everything.”

“A little crazy, maybe. But definitely tough.”

“I know, right?”

“That what made you a leg man?”

“Probably.”

“OK. Pretty cool your top priority in a woman is ‘indomitable.’ A lot of guys want ‘tame.’”

“They’re idiots. Don’t know what they’re missing. Strength. Competitiveness. Guts…major turn ons.”

“Tell me about girl number two.”

“She’s sitting across from me now.”

“You’ve fallen for me already? You don’t know anything about me.”

For the first time in over a decade, Aaron shared the company of a woman that wasn’t Chuck, and didn’t turn his thoughts away from the face in front of him to reminiscing about his time with her. “I know how you take your coffee. I know you’re adventurous. Now I know you have espresso brown eyes I can’t look away from. And I want to learn the rest.”

Charlsie had blind dates before, but they were fix ups arranged by situational friends. They felt skewed from open to close, and never progressed beyond heavily censored conversation. When she answered his first inappropriate question from a deserted parking lot yesterday, in spite of the outlandishness, she felt an uncanny ease with Aaron. Such pure, distilled kismet had never touched her life before, and she was overwhelmed by its peculiarity. “Alright. Ask whatever you wanna know.”

“Are you still afraid of me?”

“Oddly…no. Not at all. In fact, for some bizarre reason, I feel…safe.”

“Good,” he smiled at her, atypically composed.

“You gotta be the ballsiest guy I’ve ever met.”

“I’m actually quite a coward.”

“Had me fooled. I’m usually repelled by such irregularly high self-confidence. Not everyone can pull that off without seeming like an asshole.”

He laughed out loud at her choice of words. “I don’t even think I’m the ballsiest person at the table.”

“Did I offend you?”

“With ‘asshole?’ No. I favor a woman that will speak her mind. Even if her mind’s full of cuss words.”

“Well, how DO I make you feel? Do I scare YOU?”

“Not even a little.”

“So you really don’t do this all the time? Cold call women, gambling that you’ll get lucky and find a dumb one that will agree to meet you somewhere?”

“No. I’ve only looked up one other number in the white pages in my life. That was back in high school, when it was the only way to find someone.”

“She must have been something.”

“Well, she was.”

“First girl, right?”

“That’d be her.”

“What was her name?”

“Don’t think I should tell you. It will ruin what’s going on here, and that’s the LAST thing I want to do.”

“What have you got to lose, really? I’m just the result of an aimless search.”

“No, you aren’t. You’re the second girl. And the insistent, fortunate prospectus in my head keeps saying, ‘Not the second girl. THE girl. The last girl.’”

“Love at first sight?” She playfully asked, winking at him, flirting with a dose of laid back sass that was deviant for her, hoping the earnestness she sensed from him wasn’t false. Against all reason, she wanted to be ‘the last girl.’

“Not exactly. But something like that.”

“It won’t ruin anything. Do I know her or something?”

“There’s no possible way you know her.”

“So tell me. What’s her name?”

“Charlsie Anderson.”

“Cute.”

“I’m serious. All that brass on the phone? No way I could have mustered that had I known you were a dazzling stranger. I thought I was talking to someone I’d known since right after I started sleeping through the night.”

“I have the same name as your first love?”

“Yes.”

“That’s incredible. I’ve never met anyone else named ‘Charlsie.’ And she has the same last name, too?”

“I don’t really know what her last name is now. I haven’t spoken to her at all in eleven years. But her maiden name was Anderson.”

“Unbelievable.”

“I know. Amazing coincidence.”

“Best stupid mistake ever.”

“Tell me about it. I’m glad you’re not running for the hills. I meant what I said about only falling twice. I fell fast and hard this time. Knocked the wind outta me.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Nothing.”

“Liar. You have to be thinking something. I can see the wheels turning.”

“It’s silly.”

“So? After the confession I just laid on the table? Can’t be that bad,” he teased her.

“OK, I’m thinking this is the first time I ever really liked my name. It’s weird. I got teased in school all the time. No fun. Today’s the first time I’ve ever been happy to be ‘Charlsie.’”

“I think it’s a beautiful name.”

“I guess you do. You might be the only man in history to fall for two girls named ‘Charlsie.’ I thought you were a call center employee when you called me. You asked for ‘Charlsie.’ No one I know calls me that.”

“You go by a middle name? Or a nickname?”

“My old friends and family call me ‘Charlie.’ Guess that’s strange. Girl that goes by ‘Charlie.’”

Aaron mused at the near alignment with Chuck, but delighted in the subtle differences. THIS Charlsie was more polished, sophisticated, adult; or perhaps it was he who had appropriately matured. He didn’t feel the pressure of perfection with the woman sitting across from him, returning his unflinching gaze, that he had with the girl from his youth. He distinguished his preference for the present. “I don’t think it’s strange at all.”

“Are you just gonna say whatever I wanna hear? Don’t be ‘that guy.’ I don’t want a minion. I want a MAN.”

“I’m not placating you. I dig it. Can I call you ‘Charlie?’”

“Sure.”

“You want a MAN, huh?”

“Well, not a misogynist douche. But yeah. A MAN.”

“Had a lot of experience with those?”

“Minions or douches?”

“Both.”

“Both. Done with it. I was starting to think there wasn’t any middle ground.”

“I’m all about middle ground. I’m ‘no man’s land.’”

“Alright, Mr. Silverman. What do we do now that we’ve established some middle ground?”

“Wanna go get married?”

“Mmmmm…maybe gimme a little while longer for that one.”

“Can I take you out?”

“Of course.”

“That’s an authoritative ‘yes.’ What made that happen? You know…so I can keep doing it?”

“I like the way you ask.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Take me out.”

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