The Best Years

They met at Jade Cafe in New York, nearly 30 years after last seeing one another. Kip sat on a high wooden stool and ordered coffee as he perused The Wall Street Journal at the counter. Lana occupied the vast space of a windowside booth alone, sipping a cup of chai as she sketched in her notebook. Both were shrouded in an imperceptible veil of grief.

It was Kip who noticed her first. He had swiveled around slightly to grab the waitress’ attention, when he caught sight of the elegant silver-haired woman by the window. He knew her at once. But he could do nothing but look, remembering how she once was: young and lovely, fresh with joy, and dreamy with romantic ideals.

Lana scratched her cheek as a strand of stray hair escaped her bun and brushed against her skin. Then, on a sudden impulse, she looked up. And she saw him peering at her through his spectacles, aged gracefully except for a slight paunch. She blinked and remembered him as he used to be: young and handsome, boyishly playful, and determined to change the world.

“Dark and bitter? Or light and sweet?”

Kip stared at the waitress uncomprehendingly for a moment before realizing she was talking about his coffee order.

“As it is, please,” he said, then grabbed the cup and made his way over to Lana.

She rose to her feet and smiled weakly, dimples softly denting her cheeks. “I can’t believe it’s you,” Lana said, shaking her head. “Good to see you, Kip. It’s been too long.”

“Much too long,” Kip nodded, holding his coffee cup – a real ceramic mug – close to his chest, warming it. “I see you’re still doing well with your art.”

Lana, noticing the cup, said, “Please, put that down on the table. Sit.”

Kip acquiesced, sitting opposite her in the booth. And all of a sudden it felt like it was 2013 again, so long ago, sitting across from each other in some dim, trendy bar and throwing back their beers. That was when Lana had told him she was getting married and moving to Israel. And he congratulated her, because that’s what friends did, and because she had been 34 and antsy for settled life, and because she needed to marry a nice Jewish man to appease her traditional parents. And she had asked him what he was doing with his life, and Kipp had replied he would continue to date until he found a woman whom he loved, because he refused to settle, and until then would work his way up the corporate ladder and let the money multiply, because he was a cash king, a green guru, a savings sorcerer. Then, with his beloved wife, he would start his own non-profit business to help educate impoverished youth. At least, that was the plan.

But soon afterward he knocked up Jenny, a nice pretty girl he had been seeing so that he would have a date for the wedding. In the end, though, they never went to the wedding. In the end, Lana got married and flew off to Israel, followed by London and Paris as her art career blossomed, while Kip did the respectable thing and married Jenny, who really was a nice girl, and started his family. Because in the end, settling wasn’t really so bad…was it? That time at the bar had been the last he’d seen of Lana.

Until now.

Kip cleared his throat. “I’m so sorry to hear about your husband passing. From what I heard, he was a good man. ” He studied the black abyss of his coffee cup and snatched a creamer packet from the bowl on the table, watching as the dairy swirled through the darkness, burgeoning and brightening like a sunlit cloud.

Lana smiled sadly. “A very good man. He treated me well, so well. A real gentleman. It’s been six years. But it’s still hard. I don’t remember how to be alone after so long. I miss him all the time.” Her voice wavered.

Kip nodded. “Jenny and I…” He cleared his throat again. “She divorced me, a few years back. It’s hard. Wondering what I should’ve done differently, you know? But at least the kids are already grown. At least there’s that.”

“Oh I’m so sorry to hear that, Kip,” Lana said. And the way her brow furrowed with so many lines of concern, like a dozen forehead-frowns, it was clear she meant it. “I had hoped Jenny was the one girl you were looking for.”

Lana remembered her wedding, how she stood in her white, lacy gown and smiled beside her husband. Smiled as she searched the crowd for Kip, hoping he had managed to make it, even with his big-bellied shot-gun-wed wife. Because they had always been there for one another, through college finals, job-hunting, dating debacles, group trips with friends, quarter-life crisis meltdowns. Because they knew how to cheer each other up with their silly sarcastic humor that nobody else really understood, insulting each other terribly since deep down they knew they really meant the opposite of what they said. Because it was impossible to imagine beginning this all-important next stage of her life without her best friend there to support her. And because it was impossible to imagine he didn’t feel the same.

Kip was silent for a moment. “It’s alright. Jenny wasn’t the one, but I knew that when I married her. I grew to love her in a way…after sharing all you do when you raise children together. And I really did enjoy having a family…you know, playing ball with my daughter, reading to my kids, making horrible Dad-jokes. But once the kids became teens, they stopped needing their old mom and pop so much…and once they went to college, Jenny and I couldn’t escape the fact that we had nothing in common. Nothing but the kids. We tried, we really did, but in the end, I just spent a lot more time at work. All my time, really. And that wasn’t fair to Jenny. I don’t blame her for leaving me.”

Lana impulsively reached out and took Kip’s hand in hers. “I know what you mean. I know exactly what you mean. Raising kids together…it’s a wonderful thing, especially when you make a good team. But take away the kids, and sometimes what you have left is not all that substantial…but that doesn’t mean you don’t miss it.” Her glassy eyes reflected Kip’s own.

The silence enveloped them for a while, the coffee-shop silence of white noise, the silence of clinking china and liquids pouring and soft mutterings.

And then Kip said, “God you’re so ugly. You’ve really aged quite awfully.”

After a beat, Lana replied, “I know, right? At least I’m not a washed up has-been like yourself.”

“You’re a horrible person.”

“You’re Hitler reincarnated.”

They had begun to chuckle, slow and soft at first, but then escalating into full-bodied, robust laughter. Youthful laughter. Giddy laughter. The kind of laughter they hadn’t encountered in years, if not decades. The kind of laughter that washes away time.

“Let’s get outta here, kid,” Kip said. “This sad old coffee shop don’t suit us, see?”

“Yes, Mr. Bogart.” Lana smiled. “I suppose it’s time I live again,” she said.

And so they left the coffee shop and traipsed about the city like teenagers, like friends, like lovers. The best years of their lives about to begin.

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