Thirst by Lori Cramer

Fiction

“Guinness,” Reece tells the bartender, sliding onto the stool beside mine. “And another Stella for the lady.”

The last time Reece and I were in the same place at the same time…. No, don’t go there, Casey.

Reece gives me that handsome half-smile of his, the one that appears out of nowhere and vanishes almost as quickly. “Wasn’t expecting to find you here on a weeknight.” His voice is a song I’d play on endless repeat if I could.

I shift in my seat. “Didn’t think you spent much time here anymore.”

The bartender sets two bottles down in front of us. Reece claims his Guinness and slides the Stella over to me. “I needed a break.”

From the baby’s crying? Or from Kim?

“Jared’s still not sleeping through the night.”

“No?” I know next to nothing about babies. Except that they need their daddies.

“Five hours a night, tops. Sometimes only two or three.” Reece grips the beer bottle in his left hand, the bar’s soft lighting illuminating the gold band on his finger. “You should’ve seen me at four a.m., trying to get him back to sleep—rocking him, bouncing him, reading him a Sports Illustrated article about Cooperstown ballots.”

I smile, imagining a sleepy-eyed Reece cuddling a sweet-smelling bundle. How I’d have loved to have witnessed that scene.

“Wanna see a picture?” He pulls out his phone, taps it several times, and hands it to me.

Swallowing hard, I take in the dark hair, eyes, and skin. Gorgeous. “Looks just like you.” The baby doesn’t resemble Kim in the least, a fact that pleases me in a way I’m well aware it shouldn’t. Guilt scorching my cheeks, I return the phone. “He’s beautiful.”

The half-smile reappears, then evaporates again. Reece slips his phone back into his pocket. “Where’s Owen tonight?”

I shrug.

Reece raises an eyebrow. When I don’t elaborate, he peers into my eyes. “You okay?”

“Owen and I broke up. It’s no big deal.”

Surprise registers on his face. “Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“No, you’re not.”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I’m not.” He smirks.

“You never cared much for Owen, did you?”

“Did you?”

Owen had “rebound” written all over him. Everybody who knew me knew that. Including Owen.

Reece signals for another round.

Shouldn’t he be getting home? To the baby, to Kim? But that’s his decision, not mine. I don’t get to weigh in on how he lives his life anymore.

He leans in, close enough for me to recognize his Aramis cologne. “It’s so great to see you, Casey.”

“You too,” I admit. Great, yes. And also dangerous.

“I almost called you when Jared was born. But that seemed kind of….”

Wrong. “No, I didn’t expect you to.”

“It’s been a long time. Thought we’d have run into each other before now.”

I’d had the same thought. Which is why I’d been so careful, avoiding all our old haunts. With this one exception. What had made me take a chance tonight? Had some part of me wanted to bump into him? And what am I supposed to do now, with him right beside me, wearing that Henley shirt we picked out together two summers ago, the one that clings to him, shows off his pecs? He’s close enough to touch—except I’m not allowed. Not anymore.

Neither of us says anything for several moments until I ask, “So what’s it like? Being a dad?”

Reece sets down his beer bottle, gazes off into the distance as if the answer’s written on the wall. “Hard,” he says finally. “The way Jared stares into my eyes when I’m holding him. Like I’m his lifeline. He trusts me unconditionally, expects me to have this parenting thing down.” Reece shakes his head. “What do I know? I don’t know anything.”

“Sure you do.”

“How can you say that? You, of all people. Nobody’s more familiar with my shortcomings than you.”

I raise my beer to my lips to keep from saying something I’ll regret. Don’t I already have more than enough regrets where Reece’s concerned?

“See? There I go again: looking to you for reassurance. That’s not fair to you.”

He’s right. It’s not. None of this is fair. I push away my beer. “I should—”

“Don’t go.”

I start to say that it’s getting late, but the insistence in Reece’s eyes quiets me.

“Just…a little while longer, okay?”

Truth is I don’t really want to go. Who knows when I’ll see him again? “Okay.”

“I need to tell you something.”

Oh, no, he’s going to give me a speech about how I need to move on, forget about what we used to be, what we could’ve been. I tense, anticipating his words.

“I still love you,” he whispers.

His confession seeps into my being, filling the empty space. I flash back to that night long ago when we first spoke of love. But then there’s another flash: his son’s face. Innocent. Trusting. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“But it’s no good for anyone.” I stand up.

“Wait. Can’t you stay a few more—?”

“No.” I should never have come.

“Please?”

What had I been thinking? The past is over. I take one last look at Reece, drinking him in, memorizing every detail—in case someday I want to tell my own child about the man I used to love.

Biography
Lori Cramer’s short prose has appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Riggwelter, The Cabinet of Heed, and Train, among others. Her story “Scars” (Fictive Dream, February 2018) has been nominated for Best Microfiction, 2019. Links to her writing can be found at loricramerfiction.wordpress.com. Twitter: @LCramer29.

Image: unsplash.com

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