By Kate Bennett
Reincarnation. That’s what I decided it must be. Why else would Jared Taylor be so in to me and know exactly what I wanted to hear? It was like he could read through me like an open book. His dedication was alarming, but I was undeniably drawn to him. It wasn’t just that he was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. Or that his voice could cause my body to melt into a warm puddle of goo. He really got me.
Soul mates. That was the other option. But wasn’t it too soon to be putting such an intense label on our budding relationship?
Or was it more accurate that maybe the possibility of reincarnation and the idea of having a soul mate went hand in hand?
Or maybe it was just that I needed to stop thinking so much and just live.
“Carina, he sees you drooling over him.”
I didn’t respond to her with words. Instead I turned to look at her for a moment, wiggled my eyebrows and playfully smirked. I knew he could see me. That was why I was ogling him shamelessly. I hadn’t seen him in months and I wasn’t about to let the opportunity go without at least trying to make some kind of connection, however flimsy or fruitless my efforts might be.
I was standing behind the long black granite counter at Abingdon Books & Café, my place of employment. To my right was an ordinary, run of the mill cash register and to my left was a wide glass compartment showcasing everything from delectable cakes and cookies to tasty bagels and muffins. Behind me was an identical long black counter, except that it was cluttered with large stainless steel contraptions designed to produce large quantities of in demand coffee merchandise. However, tonight the café was almost empty and no coffee was presently being demanded.
I went on leaning against the counter with my elbows and flirting with the dark haired guy whose face was hidden behind the pages of a thick hardcover book. Every so often, he would lower the book a fraction of an inch so that he could peer over the top of the pages and confirm that I was, without a doubt, still looking.
The front of his hair was long enough that if it was apt to fall forward towards his hazel eyes and I felt the urge to reach out and move it back, tucking the wayward strands safely behind his ears.
Indisputably, his tousled brown hair was part of what attracted me to him. But his gorgeous eyes had been the first thing that I noticed when I met him four years ago. Nothing should ever be allowed to cover them, not even said hair.
Jem sighed. “I feel like I’m watching you have eye-sex. Maybe I should leave you two alone.”
“Jem,” I chuckled and removed my gaze from the object of my desire. “I’m sorry. You came to visit me like you promised and I’m completely ignoring you.”
I turned so that my body was angled in the opposite direction. I had to give Jem my full attention. She wasn’t technically allowed behind the counter, but it was a wintry Sunday night just before closing time and I wasn’t too concerned with following the rules. We weren’t exactly full of customers. The patrons who had been courageous enough to brave the lightly falling snow and subzero temperature outside had come in earlier that evening.
“So, what do you think?” she asked excitedly.
“About what?” I tilted my head back and to the left. “Him?”
“God, what are we, in third grade again?” Jem rolled her eyes and laughed. “I meant about this.“ She pointed to her latest nose ring and I studied the ornament.
It was a thin onyx hoop with even thinner scarlet colored lettering that read: Jem. The dark red script matched her very unnatural red hair which was closely cropped in the latest pixie fashion.
“Sweet,” I remarked approvingly and reached out to lightly touch the hoop. It had a matte finish, but still felt smooth between my thumb and index finger.
“It’s just one piece in the design line that I need to make this semester for my final project. I worked on it all day while you were slaving away here. I’ve tentatively titled the line Gems by Jem,” she informed me proudly.
She was a senior at FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology. She would graduate with a degree in Accessory Design.
“I’m jealous that you know what your final project is already,” I told her. “You have months to work on it. Classes start for me next week and I doubt I’ll know my final projects before March.”
I was a Journalism major at New York University, NYU, and I only had one semester left before graduation. This spring, I was going to have to make up my mind between continuing my education and enrolling in grad classes or entering the career world and securing a job that helped me afford my astronomical rent. I currently shared it with Jem.
I couldn’t, however, expect to have her as my monetary crutch forever. She didn’t mind sharing a cramped one bedroom with me while we were both in school, but soon, I assumed, she was going to want to branch out on her own.
And where would that leave me? I would be scouring the New York City real estate market for an affordable closet to sleep in.
“Lombardi,” Joshua barked, “do I pay you to socialize? There must be something you can do up there.”
The manager on duty that evening was Joshua Pickens, a loud, overbearing jerk. The other managers at AB&C were really laid back, and if you did your job, they left you alone. But Joshua always had something to harp about. So, it wasn’t surprising that with only a few minutes left in my shift and no customers in line, he would still find a way to complain, that being Jem hanging out.
You don’t pay me at all, was how I wanted to reply. Instead, really not caring to start an argument with management, I remained subordinate.
I held up my hand and casually checked off the list of things I had already done with my fingers. “Joshua, I stocked up the supplies for the morning shift, made an extra batch of the cookies that are on special tomorrow, counted my drawer, and you won’t find a speck of dirt or a single crumb back there, guaranteed.”
I held an innocent smile on my face. He came out and looked around at my work space and then grumbled while walking away, unable to complain further.
“Why do you put up with that fool?” Jem inquired, wrinkling her tiny nose.
I shrugged. “It’s a job. A job that’s close to our apartment. And except for him, everyone else here’s cool.”
“I think you should just take out more loans so that you don’t have to work. Seriously, Carina, do you remember last summer? You worked an internship at the Technique Magazine and you worked here at AB&C. Yuck.”
“Jem, that’s a really nice idea, but the reality of it is that not everyone has mommy and daddy’s dough to fall back on like you do.”
“Oh, whatever,” she dismissed my accusation with a wave of her hand. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard it.
We had grown up together in a suburban town a few hours south of New York City. Her parents were upper-middle class and my parents were comfortably around the middle-middle class. The difference was that she was an only child and my parents had a total of six children to raise. The playing field wasn’t exactly level.
Not that I was complaining—not at all. My family was definitely blessed. But Jem could be a spoiled brat at times; though a generous spoiled brat considering that she carried seventy percent of our rent.
She opened her mouth to say something else, but she quickly shut it and I could tell that she was trying not to laugh. I should’ve known why Jem was behaving like that, but I didn’t figure it out until I heard someone clearing their throat behind me. I jumped several inches up into the air and turned around to see him standing there.
“Hello,” he said through his timid, and amused smile. I appreciatively checked out his dark gray wool coat and blue striped scarf which he had just put on—very trim indeed.
I recovered quickly from my surprise and spoke with what I hoped was a confident and engaging tone. “Hey there, how can I help you?”
His voice was soft and deep without a hint of gruffness. The sheer cadence of it made my pulse quicken and I began to absently play with a lock of my curly black hair.
“I’d like a hot chocolate to go, please.”
“Leaving so soon?” I questioned flirtatiously, though absentmindedly. Really, I didn’t have any better pick up lines.
“Yeah,” he paused briefly, and then asked, “You’re closing in a minute, aren’t you?”
“Wow, is it that late already?” I giggled, aspiring to sound appealing, as I pressed a few buttons on the cash register. “That’ll be two sixty five.”
I turned to make his hot chocolate and keenly grabbed the largest cup, though I had only charged him for a small, and filled it with the creamy hot chocolate that Abingdon Books & Café was locally famous for (it had some secret ingredient supposedly).
I decided that after I was through flirting with him, I would make one for myself so that my hands wouldn’t freeze on the way home.
I had forgotten that Jem was standing there until she whispered to me. “I’m out. I’ll see you at home.” She had a loaded face that spoke more. With her widened eyes, she gave a slight nod towards my guy.
I smiled and mouthed the words thank you in her direction. She was giving me privacy to make my move. I just hoped that I could actually do it, or all that brazen staring would have been for nothing—well, not nothing, considering that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I placed his steaming cup into a thermal sleeve, set it on the counter next to the register and repeated the price, “Two sixty five.”
He handed me a five dollar bill. “Thank you.”
He turned to walk away. I called after him, “Wait!”
“Um, you forgot your change.” And will you go out with me?
“Oh,” he mused, “keep the change.”
Damn, too chicken.
He hesitated before turning around again and I started to kick myself, literally—yes literally—in the shin, as I let him walk away. I watched while he made his way to the other register at the front of the store to purchase the book he had been perusing at the café table for the better part of the past hour.
I quickly made my cup of hot chocolate, turned off all of the machines and ran to the back for my scarf and coat, into which I quickly threw my arms and bundled up. Hot guy or no hot guy, it was freezing outside.
“Hey, where are you going?” Joshua snarled when I swiped my card through the digital time clock. “You have two minutes!”
“The last customer left and I didn’t want to waste your money by just standing around! Have a great night!” I hollered back while remaining in stride. Again, he grumbled, but couldn’t argue with my response.
I high tailed it to the front of the store and wouldn’t you know it, luck was on my side because he had just finished up his purchase and was on his way outside.
“You again,” I uttered with contrived shock.
“You again,” he mocked me. I thought I saw a spark in his eye as I held the front door of the store open for him, but I couldn’t be sure.
“You’re J--Jared, right?” I pretended that I wasn’t sure of his name. I even knew his last name, Taylor. Jared Taylor: a simple, every day, common name, but to me, it was beautiful.
“Mmm hmm,” he affirmed. “And you are… Karen?”
“Carina,” I corrected unperturbed by the mistake. People often mispronounced my name. “Carina Lombardi.”
“Which way are you walking?” I grinned. The chilly air hit me. What I wanted to do was cry that it was so ridiculously cold out side. The night sky was dark, but there were plenty of street lights to illuminate the couple of blocks that I needed to cover before I could lock myself up in my small, but cozy and warm apartment.
Or in the warm, cozy arms of Jared Taylor—whichever came first.
“I live a few blocks north of here,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“So do I!” I exclaimed enthusiastically. I was being honest. So what if I technically lived north east. It was still north. “Mind if I walk with you?”
“No.” He shivered, handed me his hot chocolate and reached into his pocket for a knit hat. He promptly placed it over his head causing several tendrils of his hair to stick out of the bottom sides, framing his adorable face.
There was a light dusting of snow, not even a centimeter’s worth, and I could see a set of fresh, petite footprints which must’ve belonged to Jem. Despite the fact that we lived in one of the most crowded cities in the world, the streets were virtually empty. Also empty were the trees of leaves which helped to make this section of town so charming in the spring and summertime.
It looked dull and bleak on the street. A little bit of liveliness had been breathed into the landscape by the powdery white snow, but by morning it would all either be blown away, or if we accumulated a significant amount, it would just become dirty. And there was nothing uglier than dirty snow.
Okay, maybe there were uglier things, but at that moment, I couldn’t think of any.
“So, Jared… What book did you buy?” I nodded toward the book in his left hand as I returned his steaming beverage to him.
Again, he seemed to be amused as he responded, saying, “Dalliance by George Halbruner.”
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing.” His half-smile disappeared and his lips pressed into a firm line.
We trudged through the bone chilling cold and fell into a sort of silence—a deafening lull in the conversation, and I began to wonder if maybe he didn’t want to walk with me. I had basically forced my company on him after all. Maybe he just didn’t have anything to say. From what I knew of him, he seemed like the quiet type.
My freshman year, I had had an English class with him, and then later, I had two more, one in both semesters of my junior year. I was pretty sure that he was in the same graduating class as I was. Anyway, we had casually said “hello” now and again. But he pretty much kept to himself. He was totally the sexy ominous type; a trait that I was always attracted to, but never seemed to actually go for in a guy.
All of the guys I had dated, especially my long term ex-boyfriend, Ben, had been comedians, which I was really appreciative of. But the problem was that they were never serious. Like, ever. Maybe it was stupid of me to go after a guy who sometimes gave off a bit of a menacing vibe, but I was up for a change. Looking forward to something different—and it didn’t hurt that he was a hottie.
“Are you looking forward to school starting next week?”
“Yes,” Jared answered. And then he volunteered, “It’s my final semester of undergraduate studies. I’ll most likely be heading back right away though, so I can get my doctoral degree. I’m toying with the idea of becoming a professor.”
“Toying with the idea? It sounds like you have already made up your mind.”
We were almost to the point in our walk where I was going to need to head east or I would have a very long walk home. But, I wanted to know more about Jared. I wanted to see him again and the longer we talked, the more time I’d have to work up the courage to ask. But, it was so unbelievably frosty out that I couldn’t dawdle for long. And from the sound of his chattering teeth, I didn’t think that lingering now would’ve made a favorable impression of me on him anyway.
“I’ve made up my mind, but it’s not just up to me. I have a few applications in at some Universities I liked. I have to hear back from them, and then see what feels right.” Jared looked at me and smiled briefly.
I nearly tripped over a bump in the sidewalk as the force of his gaze bore down on me, but I managed to remain stable.
In New York City, everyone walked fast. Not that we walked slow in the town where I originated, but it took me several months after I first arrived to get accustomed to New Yorkers’ pace. Regrettably, we had both been clomping along so quickly, that I abruptly stopped and had to say, “Well, I wish you luck with your applications. I… I have to turn here.”
“Which way?” Jared looked from left to right.
“That way.” I pointed east.
He moved toward the direction I had shown him. “Come on. I’ll walk with you.”
“No, really, it’s too cold. You should go home. You’ll freeze.” Shut up, Carina! He’s offering to walk you home, I chided myself hoping that the damage hadn’t already been done.
He took a sip of his hot chocolate. I had forgot that I was holding one too.
“I’ll be fine,”he said. “What about you?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine too,” I said and took a sip of my hot chocolate to show him. “This really helps bring up your body temperature, doesn’t it?”
He chuckled lightly. “Yeah. But, I meant, what’s next for you? You’re graduating in May too, aren’t you?”
How did you know? Are you as interested in me as I am in you? “Yes. I don’t know what is going to happen after May, but I should be graduating.”
“What’s your major? English?”
“Journalism,” I said. “I want to write for a magazine, but so does everyone else.”
“Not everyone,” Jared told me.
“Oh, right. Professor. I stand correct. But anyway, it’s a tough market to get into, so I’ll probably have to become a cliché assistant for awhile until I can work my way up. I interned for Technique Magazine the past two summers, but that doesn’t even guarantee me a position there or anything.”
Another lull in the conversation occurred, but this one was much shorter.
As we drew closer to my six story walk-up I asked him, “What made you want to become a Professor?”
Jared didn’t hesitate. “I tried to think of something that I wouldn’t mind doing as a profession while I worked on my writing.”
“What kind of writing?”
Man, I was a good question asker. Maybe I could establish a career writing surveys for magazines… I rolled my eyes at my internal banter and waited for Jared who had finally stopped shivering after taking another long sip of his hot chocolate.
“I write books from time to time, but so far nothing that’s actually publishable. And, I write song lyrics.”
“Really?” I stopped suddenly. We were in front of my building and I nodded to it so that Jared knew why I had stopped moving. "This is my stop,” and then quickly to press for the conversation to continue, I added, “Do you play an instrument?”
“I know a little of other instruments, but not enough to even mention any of them.”
He took another long sip of hot cocoa and I didn’t press further because watching him press his shivering lips to the contours of the plastic lid inspired me to do what I had wanted to do.
“Jared,” I began courageously. “Would you maybe want to hang out sometime?”
I blinked several times, but not to be coy, simply because I was nervous. It felt like an eternity passed while I waited for his reply, but it couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds.
He contemplated. Then said, “Yeah, sure. When are you free?”
Oh great. How pathetic that you asked to see him tomorrow. As if he doesn’t already have plans!
“Tomorrow would be great. Should I pick you up around dinner time? Seven o’clock?”
“Oh, I could pick you up.” I had to offer since I was the one who had asked for the rendezvous.
“Carina,” he said patiently. I liked the way the “R” rolled off of his tongue. He continued, “I know where you live.” He motioned toward the commonplace red brick building behind me.
I laughed and obnoxiously said my address out loud, basically insulting his intelligence. I just didn’t want him to get confused since everything looked exactly alike in the dark. Thankfully, he didn’t think I was being obnoxious, because he laughed briefly and then looked deeply into my eyes for a moment.
“Seven o’clock?” he repeated finally.
“See you then.”
“Bye,” I whispered and a puff of white cloudy breath swirled around in front of me.
He turned quickly and began to walk so fast that he was practically jogging. I wondered exactly how many blocks in this weather he had to travel. When he was out of sight, I unlocked the front door to my building and sprang up the six flights of stairs it took to get to my place.
A lot of people didn’t like the idea of living six flights up in a building like this, without an elevator, but the good part was that we didn’t have anyone above us making noise - like I was about to do as I burst into my place with a clatter.
“Jem! I’m home!”