Ellen had just begun her second day in the marketing department of a dying chain of mid-sized department stores when Jon introduced himself into her life. He had walked past her office cubicle, stopped, then walked backwards and stopped again. Ellen turned to see who was invading her uncomfortably small cube space, and found herself staring into the cobalt blue eyes of a man dressed in an off-white dress shirt and casual brown pants. His dark blonde hair brushed up against the collar of his shirt.
A one-man welcoming committee, Jon charmed Ellen with his easy going nature and wit. He treated her to mediocre coffee from the office building’s basement cafeteria, and a friendship was born.
The two co-workers quickly became tight, initially bonding over their similar senses of humor and a shared love of cheesy sci-fi films. They discovered their commonalities included having fathers who were lawyers, being raised in the mid-West, and both hovering just shy of their fortieth birthdays. Within a few months, Jon and Ellen became best office pals, often sitting next to each other during conference room meetings, and seeking each other out for restaurant lunches once or twice a week.
Ellen had to admit to herself that she found Jon attractive. It wasn’t that he had stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks, but he was definitely easy on her eyes. His personality had a hold on her heart more than anything. He fit neatly into her figurative file cabinet under ‘J’, for Just My Type. However, she had spied Jon’s wedding ring on day one, and ruled out any role for him in her life other than co-worker and friend. He was married, perhaps happily (although he tended to speak of his wife only in factual terms, rather than glowing, infatuated ones), and she did not cross that line.
At a ritzy New Year’s Eve party held at Jon’s house, Ellen met his wife for the first and only time. Jon said, “This is my wife, Cecelia,” and Ellen made the mistake of attempting humorous familiarity too early, replying, “Hi, I’m Jon’s work wife!” The icy look from Cecelia could’ve frozen the pot of piping hot fondue centered on the antique dining room table. Ellen meant no harm. Her entire department referred to the duo as each other’s ‘work spouse’, but the charm of that apparently ended at the office doors.
After several cups of party punch laden with a top shelf vodka, Ellen plopped down on the family room sofa and swiveled her slightly hazy gaze around the room. She stifled a giggle at the juxtaposition taking place on the wall with the fireplace. What was obviously Cecelia’s collection of Hummel figurines on one bookcase was dwarfed by free floating shelves sporting a range of toy store purchases celebrating characters from the various Star Trek films and television series. Ellen recognized some of them as duplicates from the array of Jon’s desk toys back at the office. It struck her as a perfect illustration of the difference between this husband and wife.
The couple’s three young children made a brief appearance at the party before being ushered back to their bedrooms by a sixty-something woman, who could have been a relative or a nanny. Ellen noticed how the blonde boy who toddled in circles in his Spiderman jammies was the spitting image of his father. The older girls both sported the elongated chin Ellen noticed on their mother.
Ellen said her goodbyes just after midnight, and endured another cold look from Cecelia as she exited the party. Jon walked her to her car, and offered her a lingering kiss on the cheek. “Happy New Year, work wife,” he said, as she slipped behind the wheel of her car.
“See ya, work hubby,” she said, laughing and feeling rebellious, although she wasn’t exactly sure why.
Right after the turn of the new year, Jon sent a text to Ellen. Contact outside of work hours was not common for them, and Ellen noticed and then pretended to ignore the schoolgirl skipping of a heartbeat she felt when she saw the text was not work related. It was the opening to a knock-knock joke, and she took the bait. Thus began a series of bad jokes they would send each other at all hours, as well as conversations that were about their personal lives. While no inappropriate verbiage was exchanged, Ellen sensed that these textual interactions were not likely something to which Cecelia was privy.
They had become close friends in their time working together. Nothing more. Not in a physical sense. Yet the longing had been there, ebbing and flowing, for a very long time. Ellen often found herself resenting not Cecelia herself, but the concept of a Cecelia. If Ellen had gotten to Jon first, might they be together instead?
One night found the two of them working in the office until almost midnight, desperately trying to put out the social media fires that resulted from the news that their store had sold a line of toasters that were known to cause electrical shocks, including one that seriously injured a toddler in Vermont.
Sitting at her desk, Ellen tossed her empty Orange Crush bottle into the trash can under her desk and ignored her inner voice advising her to keep her musings to herself. She didn’t go full monty about her feelings for Jon, instead floating the idea that if he were single, she wouldn’t be surprised if they would have coupled up by now.
After a brief pause, Jon leaned forward in his chair, put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Yes, Ellen. I can see that, too.”
“Really? You don’t think it’s wrong of me to say that?” she asked.
“Not at all, kiddo,” he said. “I mean, we do have so much in common, and we certainly have a lot of fun together. You’re very …” He paused and looked to the ceiling tiles for a way to finish his sentence. Ellen held her breath while he contemplated. He finally looked her dead in the eyes, stroked her cheek with his fingers and said, “You’re easy to be with, honey.” With that, Jon stood to leave her cubicle, then turned and looked at her for several beats. Sitting somewhat askew in her chair after a draining day of damage control, Ellen could feel something of portent about to fall from his lips.
“Sometimes soul mates don’t marry,” he said.
With that haunting line, he headed for the elevator. Ellen spent the weekend pondering those five words. By the time her alarm clock sounded on Monday morning, she knew he was correct. Soul mates aren’t just the people with whom you walk down an aisle. They can be a best friend. A family member. Even an unrequited love of sorts. This redefinition of their relationship soothed Ellen. He could be happily married and still have a non-sexual, close friendship with someone he also considered a soul mate.
That new knowledge paved over acres of occasionally unsettling times in which Ellen pondered her feelings for Jon, and if he had them for her. But the concrete cracked soon after when she risked complicating things one morning by firing a question at Jon as they drove together to a breakfast meeting with a client.
“Is Cecelia your soul mate?” Ellen blurted out.
“What?” he asked, clearly taken by surprise at the inquiry.
“I mean, she is, right? I was just thinking about how we have different soul mates, and what you said about how sometimes they don’t marry.”
“Oh, right,” he said. Jon fiddled with the navigation system, double checking the location of a place he’d already visited many times.
Ellen pressed the issue. “So is she?”
“Sometimes. But we’re very different people,” Jon responded, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.
“Oh, okay,” Ellen said, having no idea what he meant. After a couple of city blocks of silence, Jon changed the subject to something neutral. Ellen withheld all follow-up questions.
Just over a year down the road, Ellen was near tears on Jon’s last day at work. He had accepted a position at another company that brought both an increase in salary and prestige. They stood huddled together in the break room. Ellen clutched a festive paper plate from a party store that held a piece of store-bought chocolate cake in which she had no interest. Co-workers milled around them, offering their well wishes to Jon while seeing if they could scam a second piece of cake without notice.
Jon pulled Ellen into the hallway and rubbed her upper arms with his warm hands in an attempt to comfort both of them. “I’ll be five miles away, not five planets. We’ll still be friends, Ellen,” he said.
“I know, but…” she said, her voice trailing off. She tried to finish the sentence with her eyes.
“I know,” he said. Message received. He embraced her for several seconds.
Just as Ellen took a seat in her master bathroom for her morning pee, the phone rang. She stretched to grab it off the far end of the vanity, almost falling off the toilet in the process. Caller I.D. volunteered only that the call was from ‘out of area’. “Hello?” she said tentatively, certain it would be nothing more than the annoyance of a sales call.
“Hey, fruit stripes. Still asleep?” The tenor voice hit Ellen between the eyes. It was Jon. Their attempts at keeping in touch had lessened over time, which initially saddened her greatly. She could not remember the last time she heard his voice. Familiarity and joy washed over her.
“Holy cow. Jon?” she said.
“Yes’m,” he replied. “How in the world are you?”
“I’m great! You?”
“I’m in hell, Ellen. More specifically, Los Angeles.” Jon said.
Ellen struggled to silently pull up her panties and left the toilet unflushed. She gathered her unbrushed hair into a red scrunchie and headed for her kitchen table as he began his story.
Jon explained how he had received a last minute invitation to an old college buddy’s wedding to be held on Malibu Beach. After consulting with Cecelia, who gave her blessing for him to take a much needed long weekend off from a currently hectic life, he booked a non-refundable ticket, and was in the skies before dinner the previous day.
Sadly, before he could take custody of his rental car, the best man texted him with news that the wedding was off. The proposal had been determined to be a huge mistake, and the hastily thrown together ceremony was not to be. Jon was holed up in a three-star motel, pissy that his airline wanted almost a thousand dollars to change his return ticket date, and full of self-pity.
“So here I am, stuck in So Cal for three more nights, and I don’t know a soul. This was a destination wedding, and the groom-not-to-be has already fled town to nurse his wounds,” Jon said.
“You poor sap,” Ellen sympathized.
“Save me, Ellen. Come out here. Come to California.”
Ellen nearly dropped the phone.
“What do you mean? Are you serious?” she asked.
“Heck yes, I’m serious. You, me, Hollywood, Disneyland. It’ll be a riot,” he replied.
“You go to Disneyland with your kids, you weirdo,” she laughed.
“They’re in school. Besides, I won’t have to buy you hundreds of dollars worth of Mickey Mouse shit,” he said.
“The hell you won’t!” she said, surprising herself.
“So you’ll come? Yes!” Jon said with pure delight in his voice.
“Don’t be silly,” Ellen said.
Jon fake pouted for a couple of minutes, trying his best to paint a picture of a weekend full of laughs and mindless adventure. He informed her that the motel parking lot was half-filled, which surely meant there were plenty of rooms available, although she was welcome to stay in his room. “I’ve got a dynamite view of the dumpsters behind an IHOP!” he said with mock enthusiasm. Ellen said she just couldn’t go, and they moved on to catching up on work gossip and trading personal life updates. Jon thanked Ellen for cheering him up with the phone call. She wished him a speedy long weekend, and they hung up.
Ellen’s morning at work passed quickly, but truth be told, her mind kept returning to the idea of actually dropping everything and flying to L.A. She knew it wasn’t a good idea, nor was it even a possible one. She had a presentation in front of the vice president of the company tomorrow. She had tickets to her nephew’s high school production of “Rent” on Saturday night. She was in charge of picking up her neighbor’s mail for another several days. All valid reasons she couldn’t just pick up and fly a thousand miles for an impromptu vacation with a friend.
Most of all, she had the good sense to know better. She didn’t have to ask Jon if his wife would be told he had invited a companion to help him pass the time. She knew the answer to that could only be no. She didn’t have to ask herself if his assurance that there were two beds in his hotel room meant he neither expected nor would consent to any hanky panky. To agree to go to him was to agree that the outcome was open-ended.
There was a second call from Jon that afternoon, which Ellen took after running down to the lobby of her office building, so as to avoid any co-workers who might catch on to whom she was speaking. He had asked one more time, quite firmly, if she would please come to Los Angeles. An offer to buy tickets for both the plane and the tourist attraction of her choice was extended.
Ellen stood near the revolving door of her office building, eyes squinting not from the sunlight pouring in through the glass atrium, but from anger and frustration with her dilemma. She wanted to say yes like a child wants to tear into a present before the dawn has cracked on Christmas morning. Ultimately, she knew the call she had to make; the one that would not include seeing the inside of LAX.
With a hitch in her voice, Ellen declined the invitation. Jon sighed deeply and accepted her decision. His final words before he hung up played on a loop in her head the rest of the day. “Alright, kiddo. It would’ve been a beautiful time, and something we both sorely needed. See ya around, soul mate.”
Over the next few days, Ellen kept herself busy. But time and time again, her mind floated off. While shuffling through the slides of her presentation to the V.P., she could see Jon in her mind’s eye. He was pulling his old routine of standing at the back of the room making faces only she could see, trying in earnest to crack her up while she powered through another boring staff meeting.
While pulling her neighbor’s bills and circulars from her mailbox, she thought of Jon’s assurance that her trip to visit him would be more fun than human beings should be allowed to have.
While surrounded by parents in a high school auditorium giving a standing ovation to the attempt by their teenagers to achieve Broadway realism, she imagined the two of them propped up against pillows on the hotel bed, binge watching a favorite comedy show while sharing a boxed pizza.
Most of all, Ellen asked herself if she had made a mistake by staying home. She could have gotten her own hotel room, kept a virtual chastity belt on, and walked away with goofy, happy memories that would last a lifetime. She could have sated her long festering need to spend time with her close friend and former husband-of-sorts without it turning into a sordid scene from a bad nighttime soap opera.
No one congratulated her for her demonstration of willpower, because she never told anyone about it. Ellen wanted to share her dilemma with a close friend, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It would mean opening up Jon to derision. A married man asking his female friend to join him on an out-of-town trip to which his wife was oblivious? What a cad! It wasn’t logical, but she couldn’t bear the thought of someone seeing the man she cared for so deeply in an unkind light. She also didn’t fancy the idea of casting herself in the role of someone who might have happily gone on the adventure to California under questionable conditions. She preferred to showcase her integrity in a more positive spotlight as well.
Ellen also wondered if she had made a mistake by denying herself this unique opportunity for different reasons. That meant admitting there was a part of her, buried deep in the dark, that knew she was willing to leave one of the beds in Jon’s motel room unused, the other one rumpled and smeared with the evidence of their long unrequited passions finally having been birthed.
Ellen tried giving herself credit for taking the moral high ground, but it all fell apart when, after three strong rum and sodas pounded in a short amount of time late Sunday evening, she realized she regretted saying no and staying home.
“Sometimes soul mates don’t marry. I get it,” she muttered in her empty living room, as she stumbled a bit while she walked to the front door to check that the alarm system was engaged. “But to hell with you, fate, that they can’t even play house together for a weekend.”
Read more from Eve Allen at: https://twitter.com/River_Writer