Before We Were Strangers by Renée Carlino is now available! Check out my review for it here.
From the USA TODAY bestselling author of Sweet Thing and Nowhere But Here comes a love story about a Craigslist “missed connection” post that gives two people a second chance at love fifteen years after they were separated in New York City.
To the Green-eyed Lovebird:
We met fifteen years ago, almost to the day, when I moved my stuff into the NYU dorm room next to yours at Senior House.
You called us fast friends. I like to think it was more.
We lived on nothing but the excitement of finding ourselves through music (you were obsessed with Jeff Buckley), photography (I couldn’t stop taking pictures of you), hanging out in Washington Square Park, and all the weird things we did to make money. I learned more about myself that year than any other.
Yet, somehow, it all fell apart. We lost touch the summer after graduation when I went to South America to work for National Geographic. When I came back, you were gone. A part of me still wonders if I pushed you too hard after the wedding…
I didn’t see you again until a month ago. It was a Wednesday. You were rocking back on your heels, balancing on that thick yellow line that runs along the subway platform, waiting for the F train. I didn’t know it was you until it was too late, and then you were gone. Again. You said my name; I saw it on your lips. I tried to will the train to stop, just so I could say hello.
After seeing you, all of the youthful feelings and memories came flooding back to me, and now I’ve spent the better part of a month wondering what your life is like. I might be totally out of my mind, but would you like to get a drink with me and catch up on the last decade and a half?
2. Five Days After I Saw You
I took the damn F train, an hour-long ride to Brooklyn from Midtown and back every day, at lunch, hoping I would run into Grace again, but I never did.
Things were bad at work. I had submitted a request to go into the field three months earlier but had been denied. Now I had to watch Elizabeth and Brad walk around in bliss as people congratulated them on the baby and Brad’s promotion, which came right after the announcement.
Meanwhile, I was still rejecting any forward motion in my life. I was a stagnant puddle of shit. I had volunteered to go back on location to South America with a National Geographic film crew. New York just wasn’t the same anymore. It held no magic for me. The Amazonian jungle, with all of its wonderful and exotic diseases, seemed more appealing than taking orders from my ex-wife and her smug husband. But my request hadn’t been approved or denied. It just sat in a pile of other requests on Scott’s desk.
I pondered the current state of my life while I stared at a blank wall in the office break room. Standing next to the water cooler, holding a half-empty paper cone, I tallied the insubstantial years I had spent with Elizabeth and wondered why. How had things gone so terribly wrong?
“What are you doin’, man?” Scott’s voice came from the doorway.
I turned and smiled. “Just thinking.”
”You seem a little brighter.”
“Actually, I was thinking about how I ended up thirtysix, divorced, and trapped in cubicle hell.”
He walked to the coffeepot and poured a mug full then leaned against the counter. “You were a workaholic?” he offered.
“That’s not why Elizabeth was unfaithful. She fell right into Brad’s skinny arms, and he works more than I do. Hell, Elizabeth works more than I do.”
“Why are you dwelling on the past? Look at you. You’re tall. You have hair. And it looks like”—he waved his hand around at my stomach—”you might have abs?”
”You checking me out?”
”I’d kill for a head of hair like that.”
Scott was the kind of guy who was bald by twenty-two. He’s been shaving it Mr. Clean-style since then.
“What do women call that thing?” He pointed to the back of my head.
“No, there’s, like, a sexier name for it. The ladies love that shit.”
“They call it a man-bun.”
He studied me. “Jesus, you’re a free man, Matt. Why aren’t you prowling the savannahs for new game? I can’t watch you mope around like this. I thought you were over Elizabeth?”
I shut the break-room door. “I am. I was over Elizabeth a long time ago. It’s hard for me even to remember being into her. I got caught up in the fantasy of it, traveling with her, taking photos. Something was always missing, though. Maybe I did work too much. I mean, that’s all we talked about, that’s all we had in common. Now look where I am.”
“What about Subway Girl?”
“What about her?”
“I don’t know. I thought you were gonna try to get in touch with her?”
“Yeah. Maybe. Easier said than done.”
“You just have to put yourself out there. Get on social media.”
Will I find Grace there? I went back and forth between wanting to do everything I could to find her and feeling like it was totally pointless. She’d be with someone. She’d be someone’s wife. Someone better than me. I wanted to get away from everything reminding me that I still had nothing.
“If you care so much, why haven’t you approved my request?” I asked.
He scowled. I noticed how deep the line was between his eyebrows and it occurred to me that Scott and I were the same age…and he was getting old. “I don’t mean the actual savannahs, man. Running away isn’t going to solve your problems.”
“Now you’re my shrink?”
“No, I’m your friend. Remember when you asked for that desk job?”
I walked toward the door. “Just consider it. Please, Scott.”
Right before I left the room he said, “You’re chasing the wrong thing. It’s not gonna make you happy.”
He was right, and I could admit that to myself, but not out loud. I thought if I could win an award again, get some recognition for my work, it would fill the black hole eating away at me. But deep down, I knew that wasn’t the solution.
After work, I sat on a bus bench just outside the National Geographic building. I watched hordes of people trying to get home, racing down the crowded sidewalks of Midtown. I wondered if I could judge how lonely a person was based on how much of a hurry he or she was in. No one who has someone waiting for him at home would sit on a bus bench after a ten-hour workday and people-watch. I always carried an old Pentax camera from my college days in my messenger bag, but I hadn’t used it in years.
I removed it from the case and starting clicking away as people flooded in and out of the subway, as they waited for buses, as they hailed cabs. I hoped that through the lens I would see her again, like I had years before. Her vibrant spirit; the way she could color a black-and-white photo with her magnetism alone. I had thought about Grace often over the years. Something as simple as a smell, like sugared pancakes at night, or the sound of a cello in Grand Central or Washington Square Park on a warm day, could transport me right back to that year in college. The year I spent falling in love with her.
It was hard for me to see the beauty in New York anymore. Granted, much of the riffraff and grit was gone, at least in the East Village; it was cleaner and greener now, but that palpable energy I had felt in college was gone, too. For me, anyway.
Time passes, life goes on, places change, people change. And still, I couldn’t get Grace off my mind after seeing her in the subway. Fifteen years is too long to be holding on to a few heart-pounding moments from college.