Doing something a bit different this week; I found this chapter in an old drafts file, and I thought it was high time I posted some fiction to share. This piece comes from The Nora Project which eventually was folded into my work in progress Open Season. Please be aware that this is a draft and will have errors within. I hope you enjoy it and feedback – of any kind – is deeply appreciated.
He’d been watching her ever since he’d arrived at the train station, parking his car at the far end of the Metra lot. She sat with her back to the wall, a book in her lap and headphones on her ears. When taken together, her stance didn’t exactly beckon for him to come forth and make polite conversation, but he couldn’t stop watching her.
There was no law against watching someone in a public place, right? At least, he hoped there wasn’t. For cover, he tried to make an effort at finishing the Chicago Sun Times crossword he’d started, in pen. Eight down was something about a dead German composer, he was sure of it, but the name was dancing at the back of his brain. He’d have to call his brother-in-law Andreas, a very alive German-born violin teacher about it later. It didn’t help that most of that previously mentioned brain was focused on the young woman.
He’d been taking the train from his loft apartment on Lake Shore down to the pulsing artsy heart of the city for two months now. He’d taken a last minute teaching gig job covering a few classes during the summer session, taking the three months off from his old life. And every morning at precisely eight o’two he would spot her, laden with bag on her lap, entering the expansive depot of Union Station.
Sebastian repeatedly warned himself that this was how stalkers were made, one innocently curious observation at a time. But she was becoming a habit, a morning ritual he enjoyed more than his bagel and over-brewed coffee. Every morning she would sit at one of the cafe tables in the chain coffee house, order herself a cupcake, pastry or some other breakfasty item – never the actual coffee, he noted with amusement – and set to work.
Pulling out a sketch pad to sip her own contraband coffee and draw the people who walked by. He liked watching how her eyes narrowed when something – or someone – caught her eye, how she always tilted her head to the right, allowing her short bobbed curls to hide half her face, expose the open curve of her neck, as she swept her pencil or charcoal across the page.
He’d never seen any of her work, unless he counted the brief glimpses when she flipped the book closed to tuck it snuggly back into her bag and board the train. He only knew her name because he’d heard the Conductor – a young man with dark hair and gray-green eyes that was as thin as a birch tree in black vest and slacks – wish her good morning in German each day, before she was boarded ahead of the other passengers.
Nora. He’d turned the name over in his mind several hundred times, in the week since he’d first spotted her. It was, as his sister reminded him on their daily check-in calls, not unlike a high school crush. The geeky gamer watching the pretty girl from afar, but never making a move to do more than pine.
“Go say hello!” Helena would chide him down the phone line.
“I can’t …” he would answer, perfectly on cue as he paced from the kitchen, through the living room and down the hall of his apartment.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because she’s beautiful and sweet – maybe she’s a lesbian. I mean a girl like that can’t possibly be single and straight, right?”
Lena let out a sharp laugh. “Sebastian, ask the girl out, before you get arrested for intent to stalk. Start with buying her a coffee.”
“I can’t, she brings her own coffee.’
“She brings her own coffee to a coffee shop?”
“Don’t say it like it’s weird.”
“It is weird. Fine, a pastry then. Hold a door open for her -“
“She goes through the automatic ones, she’s in a wheelchair.”
“For the love of – our you trying to be impossible, Sebastian Eugene?”
“No, I’m just stating a fact. I can’t hold the doors open for her, because she doesn’t need me to.”
“Casually walk past her car, offer to help her with her bag one morning.”
“Because that doesn’t scream ‘this is a setup, I’m going to drag you behind the dumpster and murder you now’ at all, Helena.”
“Well, how are you going to meet this girl, if you never take a chance?”
“I want her to like me, Lennie, not Mace me in the face when I say hello. This is Chicago.”
They shared a sigh over the line. He wasn’t like his big sister; she was beautiful and elegant and could light up a room even on her worst day. Helena drew people to her in a gentle, magnetic way. Like Princess Diana or Audrey Hepburn. She carried that kind of effortless class and kindness with her like perfume lingering in the air. Trailing behind her long after she was gone.
He was too lost in his own world, everyone said. Most girls – women really, he was thirty-one now, time to upgrade the terminology – simply didn’t speak his language. They didn’t get lost in thoughts and patterns and ideas the way he could. Most of them couldn’t see the merit in a perfectly animated Disney film, the strategy it took to play most video games, or the beauty behind the way even a kitchen mixer engine came apart and went to back together.
Sebastian had always been good with patterns and symmetry. At finding what was hidden deep within anything from computer code to a Pollack painting. Most people didn’t want to see the patterns, had no desire to stop from the rush of living and ferret them out. Too many meetings to make, calls to take. Rush here, rush there and never really get anywhere.
“I just don’t think there’s a girl out there for me, sis’.” He leaned his head back against the beam that supported his kitchen counter. “And it’s easier to just imagine she might be the one, than to risk …“
“Breaking the illusion?” Her voice held no contempt, only understanding.
He nodded, as though she were standing beside him and not thousands of miles away in California. In the silence of the apartment that was his but wasn’t, Ian contemplated the merits of banging his head repeatedly again the beam, just to see if it helped.
“You could always come home, you know?” Helena said, gently and sweetly, like he hadn’t thought of it a million times already.
He couldn’t remember a time when he’d been this far away from his big sister. For as long as he could remember, Helena was the only family he’d ever had. Sure, Mom and Dad were around, but they were both vague shadows that passed in and out of his childhood memory like a fog.
Lennie had been the one constant he’d known since he was six. Since Mom died and Dad started to fade away bit by bit, minute by minute, until he was gone completely after Lennie turned nineteen. They hadn’t heard from him in over a decade. The only other people he called family were Andreas and Kurt Mitchell, his best friend since first grade.
“I miss you, too, Lennie.” He smiled, know she couldn’t see it, but hoping she could hear in his voice anyway. “I just need to get away from California, for a little while.”
She didn’t say anything, but he could imagine her with the phone tucked against her ear, nodding and pressing her lips together in that motherly expression he knew so well.
“Kurt’s pining for you, by the way,” she said, breaking the next round of silence.
“Mmm, he comes over every morning, looks around the house like he thinks we’ve secretly hidden you under a couch cushion and not told him.”
Ian chuckled. “Poor guy. He could come out here. I have a spare room.”
“No, he cannot, Sebastian Bartowski.”
“Why not?” He missed his best buddy, maybe with Kurt around he’d actually get out into the city for once.
“Because, if Kurt comes out there, all hope you have with that Nora girl is gone.”
“Kurt’s not that bad -“
“He’s sleeping on our couch, he’s eaten all of my secret cereal stash and I think my husband is one weekend away from adopting him. He’s like a human stray, and Andreas won’t let me take him to the no kill shelter!”
Laughing, Ian slid down, leaning against the beam, until he was sitting on the floor of his kitchen.
“Come on, give him a bone with some peanut butter in the middle, the occasional belly rub, he’ll be fine.”
“This is not funny, Sebastian.”
“Yes, it is.”
“All of my Life is gone, he’s lucky I hid the Oatmeal Squares. If he eats those, I reserve the right to kill him.”
“You and your cereal …” He chuckled. “Pick up some Cheerios the next time you got shopping and he’ll life your stash alone.”
He could mentally hear his sister considering this option. Buying Kurt cereal would be akin to admitting he actually lived with them, but it would also keep the nosy man out of her favorite midnight snack.
“Honey nut or plain?” she asked.
“Done,” she paused, “Sebastian, it’s Andreas calling from work. Can I call you back?”
“Sure thing, tell Andy ‘hi’ for me.”
“You know he hates that nickname.”
“He’s going to kill you when you get home.”
“That’s why I do it,” he sang, carrying the vowel on ‘do’ quite well. “Seriously though, send Cap’n Apple Jacks my love.”
“You are horrible …“ She giggled. “I love you.”
“Love you, too, Lennie.”
Then, with a final ‘bye’ she was gone, and he was left alone on the kitchen floor with his phone in his hand. Leaning his head back, he wondered for about the hundredth time since he’d packed his bags and moved from Ventura, California to Chicago, Illinois, if it was the right thing to do.
“Too late now.” He sighed pushing himself up off the floor.
Automatically going to the cabinets to pull out a bowl and glass, trying to remember what kind of cereal he had. He was in the mood for some Life and some Netflix reruns for lunch.
Turns out, despite having the cereal, he was out of milk. And, after a quick run through Google Maps to see where the nearest grocery store was – his apartment was a loan from an old friend who was on deployment in the Middle East, and the place had been stocked when he moved in – Ian set out on his first shopping trip in Chicago.
It was middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday, and he’d picked a Whole Foods for his venue. He figured a store that sold organics and other healthy stuff somehow magically lowered his chances of being mugged in the parking lot. It wasn’t exactly sound logic, but it was all he had.
Hands shoved in the pockets of his coat, and doing his best not to look like the out of towner he was, he stepped into the grocery store. It was so perfectly laid out, not like the Wal-Marts and Aldi’s he’d grown up with, all the produce and vegetables picked over and in shambles.
This was like a farmer’s market crossed with an ad from Pottery Barn. Everything neatly laid out, bright, exotic and inviting things surrounding him from every direction. It was like the Valhalla of grocery stores, if Valhalla had its own bakery, TimTams and refrigerated section devoted solely to Japanese milk tea. Forgetting that he’d driven there to get one item, not get mugged, and go home Sebastian wandered from aisle to aisle, like a little boy drifting through a dream, until he finally ended up in front of row of peanut butter and no idea how to chose one.
So many options. And not just the standard JIF, Skippy and Peter Pan. There were natural brands, organic brands, sugar-free brands, house brands. He wanted to sit on the floor and take it all in. It was peanut butter sensory over load.
A chuckle to his left disrupted his thoughts, and when he turned to face his audience, it felt as though his brain had stopped. It was her, Nora, the girl from the train. The girl his sister had been begging him to make a move on for months, here, in front of him smiling encouragingly.
“First time in a Whole Foods?” She smiled.
He nodded, dumb-struck that she was speaking to him. She’d never done that before. He wanted to say something suave and witty, something that would make her believe he was the most fascinating man she’d ever met in the middle of the grocery store.
“There’s too many options.”
That was neither suave nor witty.
“Well, have you tried narrowing it down?”
“I didn’t think that was possible,” he stuttered. Speaking seemed to be something he was relearning on the fly.
“Well, personally, I like to start with deciding whether or not I’m in the mood for smooth or chunky.”
“Smooth, definitely smooth.”
“A wise decision, mister …”
“Bartowski.” He smiled. He knew that word. It was reflective.
Were they actually having a conversation? Helena was going to be thrilled.
“Mr. Bartowski.” She smiled around his name and he could swear his heart stuttered. “Now, how are we feeling about flavors?”
“They are flavors?”
“Well you’ve got your plain, your honey roasted, your Strawberry and Grape Goobers. I prefer strawberry myself.“
“What the hell are Goobers?”
He must have made a face, because she only smiled at shook her head again. Scanning over the rows of offerings until she found what she was looking for, and being to scoot forward in her chair. He watched, unable to move – even though in a distance part of his mind, a part that wasn’t fogged up like a bathroom mirror by her very presence – that he should probably be the one helping her, and not the other way around.
But she stood up, using the rows for purchase, reached up to grab to two jars. He saw it begin to unfold in his head. Her feet were on the floor, behind the footplate of her chair to anchor it in place, he saw her reach shift her body out of balance, her hips twisting too far in one direction, and was tumbling in his direction, feet still wrapped up in the mechanics of her chair.
He caught her without thinking, filling the space between them and wrapping his arms around her chest, taking the weight of her body against his own. She was petite, more than a foot shorter than him, easy, and he could feel her heart beat inside her chest. Feel her chest raise and fall with each quick breath, and in that moment, all he could see was her. Looking up at him with embarrassed flush stained cheeks and a nervous smile.
“You fall on men often?” He fought for a smile. “Because that’s got to be the best pick up in the history of the world.”
She laughed, and his heart tried to detach from his lungs and fly straight out of his chest. If he were anyone else, he might have tried to kiss her in that moment. The kind of scene you’d see in a romantic comedy, where all the perfect moment are handed to the audience with swelling scores and close-up shots.
But helping her back into her chair was more real. Watching her struggle with her shoes – Converse, he noted with unabashed internal glee – to get them back in their spot, because she’d shooed off any remaining assistance though all he’d wanted to do was help, and make sure she hadn’t twisted an ankle. Waiting was real life, and when she was in his arms, for those brief minutes, he’d felt his heart come to the first time in years.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked, when she’d gotten herself situated.
Cue a half smile. “Happens all the time.”
He wanted to ask her if there was anyone to catch her when she was home alone, but that felt too personal, too prying. Too much like he was trying to find a way through her front door, went the truth of it was that he was a chronic worrier. Despite his internal need to ask questions, to double check and triple check, he took a deep, slow breath and made himself reset. Snagging the two jars off the shelf, he held them out to her.
“Goobers. Explain. Because, frankly, it sounds like boogers and – unless I’ve magically regressed to being a toddler again – that does not sound appetizing.”
And so, she explained Goobers to him while he carried her basket. He wasn’t entirely sold on her sales pitch, but he’d settled on one jar of strawberry Goobers, and a jar of smooth JIF. A familiar fallback in case the whole Goobers trial didn’t work out.
It wasn’t until they’d made it to the check out that he realized they’d walked through the grocery store together. She’d grab the things she needed, and he’d carry the basket. He found himself piecing apart what she put in the basket along with his peanut butter and bread. Almond milk, three pints of organic chocolate ice cream, eggs, asparagus, bacon, bread and canned tuna along with fresh salmon. He learned two things so far, she hoarded ice cream and she did not keep Kosher.
He insisted on carrying her groceries to car – because she’d refused to let him pay and shushed him like a kindergartener when he’d tried to protest for her buying it all – and because he couldn’t hold the door for her, and she wouldn’t let him help her in the chair, so damn it all, he was walking her to her car.
“Can I …?” He motioned helplessly toward the chair, and the car like some dysfunctional game of Charades.
She sent him a smile and a look out of the corner of her eye.
“You really think I’d come to the store if I couldn’t get back in my car?”
“Well, when you say it like that it sounds -“
“I was gonna say retarded.” He grinned awkwardly. “Can I … go grocery shopping with you again?”
He was standing there, in the early evening, holding a loaf of bread and two jars of peanut butter, trying to find a way – any way at all – to her there for even a moment longer.
“I don’t need to go shopping tomorrow.” She smiled as his face fell. “But I’ll see you on the train, Mr. Bartowski.”
With a thank you for all his help, she clicked on her seatbelt and began to park out of the parking space. He shuffled his feet excitedly as he stood in the empty space designated to handicapped parking. She knew who he was. She’d seen him too.
“Sebastian,” he called as she stopped at the light, her window rolled down. “My name’s Sebastian.”
She nodded, smiling and holding up the line. “See you tomorrow Sebastian.”
He grinned, nodded without thinking, watching the taillights of her car drive away. He stood there in the afternoon light until another driver honked their horn at him, needing the spot. He called Helena on the way to his car, and ate Goobers with a forgotten takeout spoon in the glovebox on the drive home. Strawberry was definitely the right choice.