Jake Masters had become what he had always wanted to be and so did I. We just did it without each other. There were a thousand good reasons why it never happened between us. But just like when we were young, I tended to forget them when I was around him.
I had seen him on several magazine covers. Most of them were paparazzi tabloid shots with him and the rest of his band partying in LA or Europe. I had caught their Grammy performance, my husband chuckling about the lead singer’s odd choice of neon pants. I had said nothing but turned back to tossing a salad. I peeked back at the widescreen TV and spied him under the strobe light. Jake was understated, jeans and a white t-shirt. The same outfit he had been wearing the last time I saw him as I was leaving Nashville that final Sunday morning.
New England autumn was ablaze in our hometown. I was visiting my parents and I braked at the crosswalk, my three year old son babbling in the backseat. Jake crossed the street, his coat collar pulled up to his ears. His sunglasses occupied half of his triangular face, long messy curls in the same style as they had been when we were in college. He gave a short, anonymous wave without looking at my car.
White knuckles gripped the wheel, my brain shooting back to that time of my life. It was like when I heard the song that played the night we sat on the jetty watching the guests dance at a wedding across the water. We had shared a bottle of beer and I told him about my first heartbreak. We were twenty one years old and thought we were all grown up. In reality, we were only old enough to buy the beer ourselves and that was it.
A car beeped behind me and I jolted, blinking down at my wedding ring. When I looked back up, Jake had hesitated on the sidewalk. He took off his glasses and met my eyes. He recognized me.
“Mama?” Steven chirped from his car seat. “Mama, we going?”
“Yes baby,” I breathed.
Jake lifted a hand and gave me a real wave. I returned the gesture with a shaky smile and drove towards the grocery store. Pulling into a parking space, I tried to catch my breath. But all I could feel were his fingers tucking my hair behind my ear, the rainy morning sunlight spilling through his basement apartment window onto the bed, I’ve never seen you more beautiful than you are this morning.
I got Steven out of the car and into a grocery cart. Numb and with a half-smile, I bought him a donut hole at the bakery to munch while I went through the motions. Avocado, banana, grape tomato, baby spinach. I marked off the produce section on my grocery list. Cheerios, coffee, whole wheat bread, frozen pizza. I couldn’t remember if I needed anything else. Waiting in the checkout line, I fumbled through my purse muttering to myself. What was I missing? My keys? My wallet was there thankfully.
“Mama, something is wrong.”
“What baby?” I asked breathlessly, unzipping the front pocket on my purse.
“Something is wrong with you.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“You let me eat two donuts,” Steven stated succinctly. He was sounding more like his accountant father every day. "You never let me eat two donuts.”
I sighed and looked up. He grinned and the knot in my gut melted away as it always did when I looked at him. "Well, I thought you were being especially good today.”
“Isn’t it because you love me so much?” He gave me a baby smirk. I shook my head, seeing myself in the cheeky twinkle of his eye.
“Yes, I suppose.” I leaned my head in and bumped noses with him.
As I was signing the electronic signature while the teenage bagger was loading up my cart, Steven tugged on the corduroy sleeve of my jacket. 811Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡEKRE8Y0cg3
“Just a second, Steven. Let mommy finish-“
“Mama, why is that man looking at you?”
I glanced up at the glass window in front of us. Jake was leaning into the glass, biting his lower lip. He tapped the window with the tip of his finger and nodded at me.
“Mam? Your receipt,” the bored looking cashier with the bad acne insisted, holding out a fluttering sheet of numbers.
“Who is that?” Steven insisted. "He looks funny.”
I lifted a hand weakly and pushed the cart towards the exit. “An old friend of mommy’s, baby.”
There was no avoiding him. He was standing with his back to me as I pulled out of the automatic doors. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket, glasses tucked in his breastpocket. His smile was the one you plastered on your face at a ten year class reunion.
“Norah Miniver,” he stated boldly as I stopped next to him.
“It’s Fabrizio now.” I lifted my left hand and wiggled my wedding band without thinking. I inwardly cringed and hoped that hadn’t looked bitter.
Jake’s expression didn’t change, his smile not reaching his spice brown eyes. “Oh yeah, I think my mom told me when you got married. Congratulations…on everything.” He motioned towards Steven.
“You also.” I had gathered myself enough to glaze my voice with the same programmed politeness. “I saw you on TV a few months ago with the Grammys. You guys were great.”
“Thanks, we got another album coming out next year. Hoping for more than a nod at the awards.” He shrugged, rubbing the back of his head.
“Better be careful walking around without your celebrity disguise, you’ll get mobbed.”
Jake shook his curly head. I remembered tangling my fingers in his hair that evening on his family’s boat with his head in my lap. We had been watching the Red Sox play on TV. They had lost.
“Around here?” His voice rocked me out of my reminiscence. “Nah, I’m just Reggie and Velma Masters’ eldest son. The one who didn’t take over my dad’s law firm and went the irresponsible route.” He chuckled with a shrug. “I suppose no matter how successful a musician you are, you’re still not considered a grown up. Not like you, at least.”
He hadn’t meant it as an insult but I shrunk back a little, feeling matronly. In my faded jeans, sneakers and jacket from two years ago, I was thankful I had actually done my hair that morning. Visiting my parents while my husband was on a business trip, I was in perpetual weekend mom mode. And I looked it.
Jake sensed my hesitation and chuckled again. “You look great.”
I gave a dismissing wave with a huff. “Sure.”
“No really.” He met my eyes, the corners of his lips falling a little. “You really do.”
It was that first summer we were together. I was flying back for the fall semester the next day and we were saying goodbye in the parking lot of the marina. He was holding me to him, his palms warm at the small of my back. He exhaled heavily through his nose and pressed his forehead to mine.
“You need a haircut,” Steven stated simply, staring at Jake.
My mouth dropped open as Jake barked out a laugh. “What? My mom said the same thing!”
Steven smirked. “My mom would too.”
“And she’d be right.” Jake winked at him, then peered at the cart full of plastic bags. “Can I help you get these in the car?”
I shook my head. “No, no, don’t worry about it-“
“C’mon, let me give you a hand. My mom would kill me if I didn’t insist.”
I knew it wouldn’t hurt. It was an innocent offer, he was only being polite. I nodded my consent and he walked beside the cart as I pushed it towards my jeep. I cringed at how dusty it was from the drive up the week earlier. There was a stroller in the trunk, a few baby toys, even a pacifier that had never made it into the house even though Steven hadn’t used one in years. I blushed and pushed the stuff out of the way, feeling even more unglamorous.
“Soccer mom, huh?” he joked, dropping a few bags into the vehicle.
I gave a breathy laugh and tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “Something like that.”
As he lifted another bag, his jacket slid open. I caught sight of his shirt and laughed out loud. “You still have that t-shirt?”
It was plain except for block letters that read ‘The Stringcheese Incident’. It was one of those obscure bands he loved. He had been wearing it the first time I had seen him since we had graduated high school.
Jake and I had gone all through school barely talking to each other. We didn’t become friends until we were well into our college years. Back in high school, I never would have thought I’d one day fall for Jake Masters. But I had.
“Hell yeah!” he exclaimed, pursing his lips after swearing and glancing at Steven as I lifted him out of the cart. “Sorry.”
“Its fine.” I shook my head with a smile. "Do you remember what I said to you that night at Joe Foster’s fourth of July party?”
“You asked me what happened to the Stringcheese, if they were ok.”
I scrunched up my nose. “I was drunk and thought I was being cute.”
“You were cute." He tightened his mouth after he said it. The words hung between us like specks of dust, suspended and present.
“Mama, your shoe.” Steven tugged my collar. I hugged his little body to my side and glanced down. My laces had come undone on one of my Keds.
Before I could set Steven down and fix the problem, Jake knelt to the ground. I held my breath as he tied my shoe for me. Inexplicably, tears pricked the back of my eyes. I blinked them away, staring into the brisk November breeze as he stood back up. He didn’t meet my gaze.
Marching towards the back seat, I strapped Steven into the car. I kissed his forehead, breathing in the scent of his black curls like a cure-all. I shut the door, rubbing my hands together as I turned towards Jake. He kicked an acorn towards the Jetta parked next to me and glanced up.
“You look happy, I’m glad,” he managed, his hands back in his pockets.
“You do too. You got your dream. The band, the music, everything. You’re doing what you love." I smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
“And you’re a good mom. I always knew you would be.”
There it was again, that knot in my throat. I wondered if he knew how many times I had imagined if things had happened differently. What if I hadn’t left Nashville that last Sunday morning when we were twenty-three but stayed. I could have found work in the city and he would have made it big. Someday we would have been married, maybe. But I had wanted something simple. I wanted to settle down at twenty four, not thirty four. I wondered if Jake would ever settle down. He was married to his guitar.
He took a step forward. His dark eyes were trained on mine like a target that he knew he would miss but wanted to try just to same. "Nine years after the fact and you’re still the only one I could ever imagine coming home to.”
I broke the connection and glanced over at the backseat window. Steven was watching with his father’s green eyes. I had met Gregory Fabrizio, the kind and honest recent accountant graduate, not five months after I had left Nashville. I had said yes to his proposal here in my hometown by the ocean on Christmas Eve of that year. I had said yes to him. And I still meant it.
“I wish you nothing but the best, Jake. You’re a good man.”
I didn’t look in the rear view mirror as I drove away.
Jake and Norah's song on the jetty