I met her on a Wednesday afternoon in a Starbucks. I ordered a venti caramel macchiato, she was waiting for her grande chai tea. I made an offhand comment about her Star Wars t-shirt. She laughed. We went our separate ways.
The next time I saw her was on a Tuesday, some weeks later, in a bookstore. I was picking up a copy of The Princess Diarist as a birthday present for my sister; she was waiting in line, leafing through a Tana French novel. When she saw me she smiled, and made a comment about Carrie Fisher. I was surprised she remembered me, even more surprised that she remembered my throwaway Star Wars joke. We stood in line and talked until the overworked cashier was ready for us; I paid for her book and offered to walk her to her car. It was so easy to talk to her, that's what I really remember. Like we'd known each other forever. Like a cheesy romantic comedy - we met and we clicked and everything was right.
I still think about that conversation sometimes, wondering if it was real or if she was already playing a part. Wondering if I ever really knew her at all, when it immediately felt like I'd spent my whole life missing her.
Before we parted ways, she wrote her number on my receipt, in bright purple gel pen.
I called her before I even got home.
It's borderline inconceivable how we went from then - talking books and movies over coffee, late-night phone conversations about nothing much, holding hands in the park and not even needing to speak - to now.
The last time I saw her it was only for a moment. I caught up to them outside a rest stop in Memphis and didn't even have time to get out of the car before she saw me and threw herself into his passenger seat, screaming go go go!
They were gone before I had a chance to react.
She was wearing a green mini-dress and blue sneakers. Her hair was short and curly. She had on red lipstick and no nail polish.
She looked like a stranger.
She looked like the girl who haunted my dreams every night.
I wasn't delusional, I knew I could make her stay. But I couldn't let her go.
The last time I really saw her was at a charity ball my parents held. She was my date, dressed in a black dress and heels, long hair straight around her shoulders, joking about how she must love me if I'd convinced her to wear something other than jeans. My mom hugged her hello. My dad asked when we were going to make it official. She laughed and I tried not to think about the hotel room I'd rented, about the roses and champagne and the little black velvet box set in the middle of it all. WE'd been together two and a half years. It felt right. It felt terrifying.
I didn't think anything of it when I saw her with him. I was busy, talking to potential donors at my mom's request, and she was a social creature, the life of every party. They were talking. Later I saw them dancing. It didn't seem important.
I didn't know him, not really. We'd met a couple times at similar events. He was a banker, or a stockbroker, or an accountant - something like that, something to do with money. I'd thought he as boring but inoffensive.
I wondered, briefly, if I should rescue her from terminal boredom, but she didn't look bored. She was laughing. So was he. I left them to it.
I wonder now what they were talking about.
I wonder if things would have gone differently if I'd asked.
She texted me once, after. At least I think it was her. It came from an unknown number, Pennsylvania area code, and when I tried to call it a recording told me the line was not in service.
I'd saved every text she sent me while we were together, full of abbreviations and gifs and emojis and incoherent autocorrect. This wasn't like those.
It just said, Don't blame him. I needed a reason.
I didn't blame him. I didn't blame her. I just wanted to know - what had brought it to this, why she'd needed to find a reason, what she was running from, if she'd ever really loved me. If what we had had ever been real, or if I'd made it all up, mindless dreaming and wishful fantasies.
They robbed a bank together in Nebraska, of all places. I got a copy of the police report. Don't ask how. I poured over that thing, looking for any trace of the girl I'd known, the girl who drank maple lattes and bragged about her James Taylor vinyl collection and patiently untangled every strand of Christmas lights. But she wasn't there, or if she was, I couldn't find her.
The really sad thing? Even after all of this?
She still feels like the one real thing I've ever known.
I found him sitting in the corner of a shitty bar next to a shitty motel in a shitty town in Nevada. They'd been using the same car for the past month, and I'd been trying to track it. A private detective had tipped me off that it had been spotted in town. I was expecting them to be gone by the time I got there - they always were - and the car wasn't in the parking lot, so I thought I was too late. But I went into the bar - I knew they'd been spending a lot of time in bars - to see if anyone could tell me about them. And there he was, head bent over his whiskey on ice.
He saw me approaching, and he didn't leave.
"She's gone, you know," he said when I sat down next to him. "We were supposed to meet in the bar, she said she'd be right behind me, and - " A gesture.
"She even took the car."
I shouldn't have felt bad for him, this guy who'd run off with the woman I loved on the very day I'd planned to propose, and used my car to do it.
I did feel bad for him.
He'd thought he'd known her, too.
I paid for his drink. Offered to arrange him a ride home. He said thanks but no. I left. There was nothing more to say.
I'm still looking for her in every crowd. I haven't found her and I don't know what I would say to her if I did. I know she won't come back, and whether she said what we had was real or she said it was all a long con I don't know if I could believe her.
But I can't stop.
She's out there somewhere, in jeans or skirts or dresses, hair straight or curly, long or short, blonde or brunette or red, buying a chai tea or maple latte or Old Fashioned or Sex On The Beach, charming whoever she's with. Already planning her next escape route.
Keep a look out for her. You might be her next reason.