“It was a dream, you’re fine,” Helen said, waving me off.
“But I kissed her, Helen. I shouldn’t have done that,” I replied, unwilling to drop the subject.
Helen shifted in her seat, uncomfortably. “I don’t care what you did in a dream to some woman that you haven’t seen in twenty years,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, okay.”
“Okay,” I conceded, “I’m sorry. I just feel terrible about it.”
Helen took my hand and looked me in the eyes. Her brown eyes stared through me, making me feel worse, even with the soft touch of her hands. I could smell the eucalyptus shampoo she used as her brown hair got close to my face.
“There are things that are okay to stay in your head, Stephen. You know that, right? I appreciate that you told me about this, but why was it important? Why does it matter?” She asked.
“I don’t know, Honey. I just felt like I had cheated on you is all,” I said, shaking my head, “I love you, and will never do that.”
“Only in your dreams,” she teased.
“That’s not funny, Helen. I’m trying to be honest. It shouldn’t have happened,” I said. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Listen, you’re here with me now. That’s all that matters. You haven’t seen her in two decades, and you told me early on in our relationship that she’s the only ex that you never got closure,” Helen said, kissing me on the cheek. “It’s natural for people like that to cross your mind now and then. Just don’t make a habit of dreaming about her, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
Days went by, and I had forgotten about the dream. Then, on a night six weeks later, I was at the grocery store, and there she stood. My dream flooded back into my memory, along with the awkwardness of my teenage youth.
Rose was in the produce section, selecting the right head of cabbage. Her strawberry blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, creating a cascade of hair down her back. She wore a pair of jeans and a zipper hoodie identical to the one I’d seen in my dream. She turned to continue shopping, and when she saw me, there was no recognition, only her brown eyes and a pleasant smile barely revealing the gap between her two front teeth. My breath caught in my chest as she walked past me.
“Excuse me,” she said, and she pushed the cart past.
I stepped to the side, dumbfounded. There were a million things that flooded my mind, but my mouth wouldn’t process the words. I left my cart where it sat and walked for the exit, feeling my heartbeat thrumming in my chest like it was a drummer in the marching band.
“Stephen?” Helen said as I passed her. “Are you okay?”
I came to a halt and looked over in shock. “I’m fine,” I lied.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Helen said, patting my shoulder. “Why’s you come here today? It’s my day to pick up dinner.”
“I forgot,” I said, trying to shake the excess thoughts from my head.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Helen pressed.
“Not really,” I admitted. “You remember the dream I talked to you about?”
“The one I don’t want to think about? Yeah,” Helen replied, pressing her lips together in a tight, disapproving expression
“She’s here. Now. She’s wearing the same sweatshirt and everything,” I rattled off quickly. “She didn’t recognize me, but I know it’s her.”
“Really?” Helen asked. “She’s here, in our grocery store?”
I nodded. “I was leaving. I was going to the car. I-I didn’t think of anything else to do. I couldn’t. I wanted to say something to her for a second, but I was surprised and overwhelmed.”
“Calm down, Stephen. I think you’re overreacting. Breathe, it’s just an ex from when you were a teenager. Honestly, I thought you’d be better about this. We ran into Beth a couple of years ago, remember, when we were on vacation. You were fine then,” Helen said.
“I know you think I’m ridiculous, but I don’t know that I can talk to her, Helen,” I said, shaking my head, “Especially not after that dream.”
“You know I have to see her now,” Helen said as she took my hand.
“No,” I protested. “I just want to leave.”
“If she’s shopping here, you know that means she lives locally. Now you’ll take me to her, or you’re sleeping on the couch, sleep cheater,” she said.
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“I’m only playing with you,” she said, flashing me a smile, “but I do want to see what the big deal is.”
“Do I have to?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Helen replied, tugging on my hand. “Where’d you see her?”
“In the produce section,” I replied, deflating.
Helen led me through the store, pushing her cart in front of her with me dragging along. I felt my ears growing warm the closer we got to where I had seen Rose.
“She was picking out lettuce,” I said, nodding toward the produce case.
“She eats lettuce? What a monster!” Helen teased, “What was she wearing?”
“It was an orange zip hoodie,” I replied as Helen dragged me around past the deli counter. We moved faster than average, drawing looks from other shoppers as Helen passed the ends of the aisle after aisle. She came to an abrupt stop at the end of the fifth aisle.
“Is that her?” Helen asked as I looked down and saw the back of the hoodie.
Helen turned down the aisle at a reasonable pace, making sure to walk a little faster than Rose did as she looked at the cereals.
“Excuse me,” Helen said, as my heart stopped. “Is your name Rose?”
Rose turned around, looking more than a little confused.
“Yes,” she replied.
“My name is Helen Donnolly. This is my husband, Stephen Donnolly. I believe you two dated when you were teenagers,” Helen said matter-of-factly.
I felt the color drain from my face. I was mortified. I wanted to sprint. I wanted to be anywhere, but there at that moment. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the conversation. I suddenly remembered that I had better things to do than be at the grocery store. I tried to pull away from Helen, but her grip had suddenly become a vice.
“Stephen Donnolly?” Rose asked, staring at me. “Oh, my word! I didn’t recognize you with the beard!”
I nodded, unable to speak.
“Stephen told me about your relationship when you were younger,” Helen said. I thought I would faint. “I’m afraid he never really had much for closure. I figured since he saw you that we would come over and say hi.”
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was much of a relationship,” Rose said. “He only ever held my hand. He never even tried to kiss me, despite my repeated attempts to give him the ‘signal.’ I just figured he wasn’t interested in me at the very least, women at the most.”
“He’s interested,” Helen said, “but I know what you mean. He’s never been very good with the subtle. I think he has some things that he would like to say if you don’t mind hearing him out?”
Both Rose and Helen looked at me. My first love and the love of my life. They both looked at me with an amused expression while my lungs refused to take in more air. It felt hot in the store suddenly, too small and crowded as well.
“I’m listening,” Rose said, shifting her stance.
“Hello, Rose,” I muttered, looking at the floor.
“Hello, Stephen,” Rose replied, her voice almost musical.
I pulled my hand from Helen’s grasp and ran. It wasn’t graceful for a man in his forties, and I’m sure it wasn’t very mature, but I couldn’t do it. I ran out of the store to my car and got it. My hands were shaking as I sat in the driver’s seat. I hadn’t realized I was crying until I put my hands on my face and felt the tears. A minute later, Helen was at my window, her face full of concern.
“I’m so sorry, Honey. I didn’t think you would get upset,” she said.
“Why would you do that to me?” I asked, fighting back sobs.
“I didn’t think I’m so sorry, Stephen. You haven’t seen her in twenty years. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal,” Helen said.
“When we talked about her when we started dating, I told you I didn’t know what I would do if I ever saw her again. Apparently, this is it. I don’t want to get close to her, or talk to her, or see her. I don’t want to test my feelings for you. I told you I still loved her then and thought I explained vehemently that I always would,” I said.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Helen said, reaching through the window. “I honestly didn’t think it would be this way. Can you forgive me?”
“Of course, I just need to calm down,” I replied.
“On the plus side, she probably will avoid you in the future,” Helen joked. I shot her a look of anger, and she put her hands up. “Too soon?”
“I think it’ll be too soon if I see her in another twenty years,” I replied. “I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe I did that! There were so many things I wanted to say to her. I wanted to tell her how she broke my heart. How scared I was to try to do anything. So many things about our relationship, but every one of them would sound like I wanted another chance. Which I don’t. I don’t know. Just don’t do that again, please?”
“I won’t. I promise,” Helen said. “Why don’t you go home, and I’ll grab some dinner?”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I definitely don’t want to go back in there.”
“It was a dream, you’re fine,” Helen said, waving me off.