One of the more uncomfortable sights on my journeys around town is the breakup scene. On the sidewalks, in cars, spilling out windows and in my favorite coffee shop, I’ve seen and heard more breakups than I would ever have cared to witness. I’ve listened to shouting matches and desperate pleading, seen slaps and final kisses. And yes, I’ve even watched – twice – a ring being returned across a coffee shop table.
So when I started thinking about why on earth this sock was sitting so prominently on this very public bench, I began to imagine that it had held a secret. An unformed plan that was revealed and thoughtless words that were overheard. A combination whose threads unraveled from that sock, spiked out around the town, sped south down the highway and ended in my favorite coffee shop.
“Alex!” his mom yelled down the stairs. He was staring at the ceiling of his childhood bedroom. He had been home for less than one day. “There’s a black sock missing! Is it down there?” He looked around and saw the empty duffel. He sighed. “It has an orange stripe at the top.” He suddenly took in a sharp breath, scrambled off the bed and began digging through his battered gray messenger bag. “You must have bought it at school, because I certainly didn’t get it for you.”
“Why would she have…,” he muttered as he turned and searched the floor briefly before picking up his large black duffel. He turned it inside out to confirm its emptiness. “If you find it in your clutter down there, bring it when you come up for dinner!” his mom said as he hurried out the bedroom door. A moment later his footsteps could be heard springing up the stairs. And 90 seconds after that, he reentered the room carrying a white plastic laundry basket loaded with neatly folded socks, underwear, t-shirts and jeans. On top, bridging the crack between dark denim and white cotton, turned right side out and folded in half was a single, thick black athletic sock with a gray heel and an orange stripe at the top. He sat on the bed, set the basket at his feet and looked at the sock.
His head fell into his hands. He took a deep breath, planning to sigh, but the exhale was interrupted when the odor of simmering tomato sauce, garlic and Italian sausage registered on his face. He shook his head and looked toward the bedroom door. He said quietly, “Just chill, Alex. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” And his mom breezed in.
“Janie called,” she said as she picked up the basket and swung it on top of the dresser directly across the room from Alex. “She sounded tired,” she said as Alex stood up and moved next to her. “When will she be back in t-” Alex put his hand on top of the laundry as he said, “Mom, I’m 22 years old.”
“Touchy! Do it yourself then.” She said it gently with a wry smile. She was looking at his face so she didn’t notice that his hand had gripped the sock so hard that his knuckles were turning white. “Why didn’t Janie come back down with you?”
“One of her sorority sisters got engaged.” Alex’s expression fell into one his mom recognized as one of regret for saying what he just said. Janie would have recognized it too. He continued anyway, “They’re celebrating tonight. She’ll be down in the next couple of days.”
“Ah ha,” she said smiling and completing the thought she had when his face fell earlier. She waited for a significant moment and then said, “Anyway, do you think you knocked that sock out in the car? Do you want to go check?”
“Mom, don’t worry about the sock. why did… I,” he paused for just a moment. “I thought that pair was in my messenger bag.”
“It was. Well, one was. Janie told me when she called to tell me she wouldn’t make dinner tonight. She wanted to let you know that she had tucked those socks into your bag.”
There was a sudden, strange silence in the room.
. . .
Twenty-three hours earlier, in the early evening of January 22, Alex was standing in the living room of his apartment. His messenger bag hung from his shoulder and the black duffel sat fatly stuffed at his feet. He stood still but for the rising and falling of his chest. His eyes looked ahead and down. It looked as if he were contemplating the second shelf of the bookcase to the left to the apartment’s front door. But Janie and Alex’s mom would have been able to tell you that his focus was entirely inward.
As Alex took a deep breath and leaned down to pick up the duffel, Janie was walking east on Sixth Street. She was walking quickly; her hands were balled into fists though neither fist was empty. Alex and Alex’s mom would recognize this behavior as barely masked rage. She suddenly stopped next to an empty wooden bench at the bus stop next to the newest dorm complex on campus. She took a deep breath, turned toward the bench and gently dropped something on the seat. She looked at it for a moment, took another shaky breath, turned and continued east on Sixth toward her sorority house. In the crosswalk at Line Street a lanky man crossing westbound had to step to the side to avoid her as she strode angrily by. A moment later he stopped at the bench and took a picture of the bench and the strangely centered black sock.
. . .
Twenty-six minutes earlier, inside Alex’s apartment, the slow insertion of a key in the deadbolt made a quiet click click click sound. The lock made a slight scraping noise and a lower pitched clunk. A moment later, the door swung open slowly and Janie poked her head and a shoulder in. She looked around the empty living room and smiled. Alex would have recognized that look as one of anticipatory satisfaction. Had Alex’s mom seen it, she would have turned away and possibly started blushing.
Janie completed her entrance, closed the door quietly and took off her coat. She hung the coat over a stool at the counter to her left and smiled again when she heard Alex’s voice through the half-closed bedroom door across the room. She slipped off her shoes and pulled her t-shirt off over her head and began tiptoeing toward the bedroom. She stopped for a moment smiling, and reached to her waistband. She heard Alex say, “Five years. We got together in high school.” Her hands froze at the button. “A long damn time,” he said and the look on her face changed. Alex and Alex’s mom would have recognized this look as confusion. She bent down to pick up the previously discarded t-shirt. She had to feel for it because her eyes never left the bedroom door.
“We’re both headed down to Emmett tonight.” Janie could hear the words getting louder. She took six quick steps into the kitchen area. She didn’t hide, but she was in shadow as Alex entered the living room. He was chuckling, holding a phone to his ear as he dropped his black duffel on the living room floor. He scanned the room as if recording it. He panned past the shadow Janie stood in without seeing her.
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I know that everyone expects it will happen, though.” As Alex turned and walked back through the bedroom door, Janie let out a gust of long-held breath. She remained almost still as her chest expanded and contracted once, twice and a third time before she heard Alex’s voice again. “Yeah. You’re probably right. Anyway. Thanks for hanging on to it. Was it in your sock drawer for the whole year?”
He re-entered the room with the messenger bag in his hands. He flipped open the flap and pulled out a balled-up pair of socks. “You could have just left the ring. I didn’t need the socks.” He unfurled the socks and a moment later, he was looking at a small vaguely cubical object in his right hand when he said, “These are ugly-ass socks, man.” Janie watched as he put the object back into the sock and balled them together again. “Well, I guess I have to decide.” He opened the messenger bag and put the socks in. He chuckled. Janie recognized it as a rueful chuckle. Alex’s mom might not have recognized it as easily. It was new since he left for college. “Maybe I’ll just flip a fucking coin.” He listened for a moment and then said, “I know. I’ll keep you posted. I gotta go. Have to take the trash out before I leave. There’s half a pan of Janie’s lasagna in there.” He started toward the trash can which was across the kitchen 13 feet from Janie’s shadowed corner. He began pulling the liner from the can. “It’s actually pretty good. Mom gave her the recipe. Yeah. Like always. Later.” He touched the screen of his phone and dropped it in his pocket. Janie’s eyes followed his movement as he tied the top of the white plastic bag and moved toward the door. He didn’t notice Janie’s coat shoes as he passed them. He opened the door and went out, closing the door loudly behind him.
The clunk of the door seemed to activate Janie. She sputtered out a breath and gasped in another. She walked stiffly to the door and slipped into her shoes breathing raggedly the entire time. She put her hand on the doorknob and suddenly stopped. She turned back into the room and looked down. Her expression changed to one that Alex and Alex’s mom would have recognized as defiance. She took three quick steps and crouched down next to the two pieces of luggage. Her head twitched to her right as if about to look at the door but then she reached down, flipped open the messenger bag, took the socks out, separated the pair and briefly held one in each hand as if weighing them. She balled one of them up again and put it back in the bag, flipping the flap back down. Still holding the other sock, she stood up and quickly exited the apartment. The door closed firmly and the floor joists of the empty apartment creaked once in apparent response.
. . .
67 seconds after Janie left, the door opened and Alex re-entered. He looked around the apartment for a moment then stepped toward the duffel and messenger bag. He stopped when his phone vibrated. He pulled the phone out and read the screen for a moment. He turned and looked at Janie’s coat hanging on the stool at the kitchen counter. He said, “Okay Google, Reply. Have fun. Tell Lacey congratulations. Don’t get too drunk. Ha ha. I’ll bring your coat. See you in a couple of days. xoxo.” He looked at the screen, tapped it once, twice and put it in his pocket. He stood there for a moment just breathing. Janie and Alex’s mom would have recognized the posture as one of relief.
A few moments later, Janie was standing at the crosswalk, waiting to cross Moscow-Pullman Road when the phone in her left hand lit up. She struggled to touch the screen while still clutching the sock in her right hand. She was looking at the screen as the traffic light changed. She didn’t move. When she looked up, the flashing don’t walk light was at 18. She stepped out into the crosswalk at 17. She stumbled on the rutted asphalt at 13 but stayed upright. She was across the street at 9. She was headed toward Sixth Street.
. . .
Fourteen minutes later Alex drove through the intersection of Sixth and Jackson headed south. Janie, who had just crossed Jackson, continued eastbound on foot, as he passed 50 feet behind her. Alex turned south onto the highway out of town and Janie stopped in the pool of light coming out of the window of the coffee shop on Sixth Street at Main. She stood for just a moment before stepping to the door, pulling it open and entering. She walked slowly to the counter. She raised her hand and dropped a small velvet cube onto the glass. As she turned 90 degrees and took a step toward the Main Street exit of the shop, the barista behind the counter said, “Excuse me! What…” Continuing toward the door Janie interrupted, “I found it on the sidewalk.” She walked straight out the door across the width of the sidewalk to the trashcan at the edge, leaned a hand on either side of the opening and threw up into it. Inside the shop, the barista had just opened the velvet box
When Janie turned around, a man pushing a stroller stopped and said, “You okay?” and reached a hand into the carrier slung across the handle of the stroller. She looked up at him with a dazed look that neither Alex nor Alex’s mother would have recognized. The barista closed the box, turned her head and looked out the window toward the exchange on the sidewalk.
“Wacey’s fweind!” exclaimed a cheerful voice from somewhere in the bundle in the seat of the stroller. The man extended a wet wipe toward Janie and said, “It’s a Water Wipe. Unscented.”
Janie took the wipe and said, “Thanks. I’ll be okay.” She wiped her mouth and started down the sidewalk on Main Street away from the cafe while the man stood with a confused look on his face. The bundle started happily chanting “wacey’s fweind, wacey’s fweind, wacey’s fweind…” as the man tried to open the door to the coffee shop. After a moment’s unsuccessful struggle, the door sprung opened as if by magic. Then he saw the barista holding it for him. “Hi Emma!” she said to the bundle in the stroller. She then looked up at Emma’s father and said, “Hi… um, Emma’s dad… sorry I don’t know your name. But. Anyway. Do you know that girl?” Emma’s father maneuvered the stroller into the shop. “No. Should I?” Emma’s father said while Emma continued her chant. The barista explained what had just happened, showing him the box and opening it to reveal a small diamond solitaire ring nestled neatly in the black satin lined slot inside. Leaving Emma, still chanting from her rolling seat just inside the door, they both stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked down Main Street. Janie had already crossed Main Street at Fourth and disappeared past the corner of the consignment shop before they could catch sight of her.
“Wacey’s fwiend, Wacey’s fweind, Wacey’s fwiend,” Emma continued as the barista and Emma’s father stepped back into the shop. “I’m not sure what to,” the barista began and then stopped and crouched down in front of Emma. “Are you saying “Lacey’s friend, Emma?”
“Wacey’s fwiend, Wacey’s fweind, Wacey’s fwiend!” Both adults recognized this as an affirmative response.
“Who is Lacey?” Emma’s father said. “I recognize the name.”
The barista smiled, “Lacey is Emma’s babysitter.”
“Ah,” Emma’s father said. “Yes. Right. Lacey.”
“Emma and Lacey come in here a lot,” the barista said with a slight smile of apology. “Anyway, I’ll ask Lacey about her tomorrow.” She started back toward her place behind the counter, saying, “So, some whipped cream for Emma. Dragonwell tea for you?”
“How did you?” Emma’s father started and then trailed off as he stepped up to the counter.
“Oh, we know lots of things around here,” the barista said with another smile.
. . .
Fifteen hours later, Janie was back in the coffee shop, sitting at a table by the window on Sixth Street. The velvet box was sitting in the middle of the table. A young woman sat across from Janie. She had her left hand extended across the table while her right hand rested on the handle of Emma’s stroller. Just under the volume of the big band music playing on the coffee shop sound system, Emma was saying, “Wacey’s fwiend, Wacey’s fweind, Wacey’s fwiend.”
Lacey said, “You kinda have to give it back to him.”
“I know,” Janie said. “But, ‘flip a fucking coin?'”
Lacey grimaced, looked down at the stroller, shrugged and said, “Well, you do have to give it back to him, but you can still f- mess with him first.” The chant from Emma’s stroller changed, but neither woman was paying attention.
Janie smiled for the first time in just under 16 hours. Had Alex seen it, he might have thought it was a simple smile of mischief. Alex’s mom would not have recognized it, but it probably would have concerned her.
Lacey took in that smile, cocked her head and said, “What?”
Janie held up a finger. pulled out her phone, touched the screen three times and held it to her ear. A moment later she said, “Hi, it’s Janie… Oh I figured but I wanted to call you and say I’m sorry I can’t make dinner tonight. Alex will explain… I – Oh, look, my friend is here, but can you just do me a favor? Can you tell him that I tucked his black socks into his messenger bag? … Oh, he’ll know which pair I mean. Bye. … I’m not sure … Gotta run.” She touched the screen on the phone and set it down on the table next to the velvet box.
The two women sat in silence for a moment. Janie looked at the box. Lacey looked at Janie’s face. In a brief silence between songs as Lacey reached out and swiped a tear from Janie’s cheek with her thumb, the whole coffee shop could now clearly hear Emma’s new chant, “King, Coin, Fuh, King, Coin,Fuh, King, Coin, Fuh, King, Coin, Fuh…”
Both women turned toward Emma then looked back at each other and smiled. Each woman knew exactly the meaning of the smile on the other face.