When Life Imitates Art (short story)

Individual release of my short story (March 2020)

~ Who would’ve thought when I walked into my neighborhood Chicago bookstore that I’d meet my fantasy boyfriend? Or was he…?! ~

When a twenty-something magazine writer visits her favorite indie bookstore, she doesn’t expect to run into the hunky man of her dreams. But even though their real-world encounter is brief, something about him sparks her imagination…

Soon, she finds she’s built up a relationship with him that is part reality, part fantasy, and part literary. But what happens when her whimsical imaginings come face to face once again with the very real man who’d inspired them? Is it possible for an actual romance to have its origins in fiction?

“When Life Imitates Art” is a 7,000-word original contemporary romantic comedy by bestselling author Marilyn Brant.

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WHEN LIFE IMITATES ART – copyright 2017 by Marilyn Brant

I could tell they weren’t married by their voices. As the couple browsed through volumes on the second floor of Between the Pages, my favorite Chicago indie bookstore, a woman I decided to call “Cherry,” after her bright-red fingernail polish, purred in response to her man—a tall, hunky guy wearing a black leather jacket.

I overheard the hunk in leather say, “I’m not going home without the book I need.” He ran his hand through his light, wavy hair and then sighed in a show of mild exasperation.

Her reply was kitten-like—playful but sharp. “Well, we’ll find it for you. I’m not a woman who leaves without accomplishing her mission.”

Ah, defining herself. She spoke a decibel too loud for the quiet section of the bookstore and used that irritating, overly solicitous, enthused tone reserved for people still trying to make a good impression. I guessed they’d been dating for three weeks. Okay, maybe four. But for anyone within a fifty-foot diameter, hearing more of their conversation was unavoidable.

“How about this one?” Cherry asked. “It’s an hors d’oeuvres handbook.”

“A Martha Stewart cookbook?” Hunk said slowly. “Well, um, that’s a thought…”

“Right!” she said, emboldened by his response, somehow missing the fact that he didn’t even reach for the book.

After an awkward pause, he pointed to another title. “Hey, they have Entertaining for Dummies.”

“That’s funny,” she said too quickly, her laugh sounding forced to my ears and tinged with relief at having managed to keep the conversation with him going. She reached over, fondled his leather jacket’s collar and fluffed his hair—letting her fingertips play cat and mouse with his neck before sliding her shockingly red nails down his spine and bringing them to rest on the back pocket of his Levi’s. She announced her ownership of the man (and, apparently, all of his clothing) with a pointed stare in my direction.

I smothered a snicker and glanced down at my book.

Before their arrival that April night, I’d been lounging in a chair to their left. I was flipping through a huge volume of preschool “fun foods” and party ideas while surreptitiously taking notes for a short article I’d been commissioned to write for a parenting magazine. This was a solid text and, if I ever had a toddler in my life, I’d buy it for sure. With my Single/No Kids status, however, I tended to restrict my purchases to fiction.

The atmosphere upstairs in the Cooking & Crafts section was always casual and relaxing, though. I was in no rush to leave.

A moment later, the woman sauntered off to inspect books on a nearby table while the guy moved closer to my chair. There were other catchy party-planning titles displayed on a rotating shelf not more than three feet from me. Perhaps the book he was in search of was a present for someone unforgivably social, difficult to shop for, and/or really into complicated canapés?

I studied him carefully and scribbled a slew of mental notes while he was busy perusing the volumes.

A young professional—newly out in the world.

Preppy. Like he’d just walked off the set of one of those legal dramas on TV.

He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five—about my age—and, beneath the black leather jacket, he was dressed in a layered cream shirt and pullover, fitted blue jeans, and dark loafers.

Attractive. No rings on his fingers, I couldn’t help but notice.

I stole a longer look at his girlfriend, too. No rings either. Blond, fine-featured, and slim, she was clad in carelessly tight black pants, a red knit top, black boots, and was in possession of perfectly manicured, chip-free nails.

Add to that, she wore impeccable makeup and what had to be a pricey name-brand handbag (I’d be damned if I knew which designer) slung over her shoulder. She gave off an arrogant, entitled air, and my dislike was instantly cemented. I returned my gaze to the handsome dude in the black leather jacket but, when he glanced over at me, I buried my nose into my book.

I sensed him moving a few paces forward, though.

Searching.

Leaning in.

Taking another step or two nearer to me.

My left elbow, draped in part over the armrest, was closest to him and to the revolving shelf he was spinning in that slow, deliberate way. I was determined not to look up, but he was so close. His loafers were in my direct line of vision.

He inched even closer, his thigh brushing against my elbow. I just knew it was an intentional act. In that instant of epiphany, though, I lost my equilibrium. The big book I was holding wobbled. I grabbed at it, steadied it, but then dropped my pen, followed by several note cards and a couple of loose-leaf pages, which fluttered to the floor. I closed the book and bent to snatch my fallen items.

He immediately kneeled to help, but I was faster. Once I righted myself, I found his face at eye-level with mine.

“Sorry,” he mouthed, looking intense, uncomfortable, and so incredibly hot. Wow. I held my breath.

Our gazes locked for a second longer and I noted with a writer’s observation the way his light brown lashes appeared to disappear as they moved away from his eyelids. I struggled to think of an appropriate metaphor, but he angled his torso toward the bookshelf again and rose to full height before I could complete the thought.

The blonde, with the ever-present radar of somebody on perma-alert to potential threats, suddenly focused her attention on us. Ignoring me and addressing him, Cherry asked, “What are you doing?”

“Just looking at titles over here.” He grasped a random volume, running his thumb along its spine.

With a shrill laugh that sounded like the scratch of a fingernail she said, “Oh, no, you’re not. You just want to see what she’s writing.” Her eyes washed over me coldly, then she flipped her hair back and emitted another pseudo giggle.

I gazed directly at the guy, expecting some kind of reaction from him.

Expressionless at first, he caught my eye once more before turning away—his face reddening. Then, trailing behind her, I heard him protest, “No, I wasn’t…” And with that, they avoided me for the rest of my visit.

When I’d finished flipping through the book for inspiration and had jotted down the author’s name and the title for reference, I returned the large volume to its shelf. I snagged one last glimpse of the couple, huddled in an aisle between two long stacks, before I walked out the door and into the spring night.

I thought that would be the end of it. After all, I lived in the heart of the city—an enormous, frenetic place. Any chance of running into Hunk and Cherry again in downtown Chicago would be unlikely at best.

The problem, though, was that I couldn’t seem to forget them.

They haunted me like an unsolved mystery. Like a mental puzzle my brain had to unravel. I found myself wondering what was going to happen to them next. Were they falling deeper in love and on to a greater commitment? Or, was that day the pinnacle in their short relationship and had things already begun to break apart?

Over the next several weeks, whenever I would pass by Between the Pages, I would stop in, head to the second floor, and meander down the aisles in partial search for one or both of them. Not intending to speak to either of them, of course, even if our paths should meet. No. I just wanted to observe and try to determine what had transpired in their romantic saga. Like Days of Our Lives, only in 3-D. But I never encountered them on those visits.

Clearly, the days of my life were lacking in excitement.

I’d been working diligently as a part-time magazine freelancer, a part-time closet novelist, and a full-time neurotic for over four years. I was long convinced my chance of breaking into big market fiction was miniscule, but I devoured how-to books on writing a bestseller and drank gallons of coffee while composing my first full-length novel, with cursory notes for a sequel.

I primarily paid the bills, however, by writing regularly for about seven different publications of varying status, exclusively nonfiction. It was a dry existence—research, write, edit, send—with very little whimsical fiction to entertain me on those nights when I lamented my lack of both fame and any kind of love life. I did have a few short stories published in obscure literary journals, but it had been months since I’d had the time or the energy to attempt writing another.

Suddenly, though, I was inspired to draft something totally different. Something light and…romantic. Pen, paper, and my own life intersected. Reality and fantasy converged on the page and within my mind.

The bookstore couple began to join me as I researched articles online or took the commuter train to conduct interviews in the suburbs.

They worked out alongside of me at the tiny gym in my apartment complex’s basement.

They laughed and cried with me while watching the latest soap-opera intrigues.

They even ate next to me on my solitary park bench and returned with me throughout that May to my ant-infested studio apartment.

Before long, I knew everything about them.

Well, I imagined I knew, which—to a writer—was essentially the same thing.

Turned out, Hunk and Cherry had first met about six months before at a company basketball game. They were each cheering on players from the public defender’s office where the guy (I named him “Neil”) worked. He’d graduated from law school determined to be one of those good-guy underdogs. A man who toiled for humanity in a largely pro bono way, seeking justice for all. He’d been laboring as an underling at the office for nearly a year after finishing law school out East. He was from there—Ipswich, Massachusetts, specifically—and his family had made their money in banking and stock trade. He felt he was finally able to share his own good fortune by helping others.

Cherry (a.k.a. “Jessica”), well, she came from money, too, but it was of the alimony/trust-fund variety. Her mom had a habit of marrying wealthy older men and divorcing them before they could say “prenuptial agreement.” It was a fifty-fifty asset split out in California, Jessica’s home state, and her mom was on her fourth property acquisition there. No wonder the poor girl was so insecure. So weirdly possessive.

Jessica worked in sales at a cosmetic company, which was why her makeup always had to be perfect. Her best friend and colleague, Anita, was married to a guy named Bryan, another lawyer at Neil’s office and a 6’2” guard on their firm’s pick-up basketball team. After several months of casually meeting up at various sporting and social functions, Neil heard through Bryan—who got the word via Anita—that Jessica had a crush on him. Neil, to be nice (and since she wasn’t actually horrible looking), asked Jessica out. She, of course, nearly pole-vaulted at the invitation.

On their first date Neil took her to dinner at an upscale Szechuan restaurant and then out to see a romantic comedy. He liked her, and Jessica worked hard to maintain appearances. A startlingly domineering streak and more than a hint of jealousy would find its way into her voice on occasion, but she did her best to minimize that and she scored a second date with him. That one culminated in a long kiss goodnight, which managed to erase—temporarily—the newly forming doubts from Neil’s mind.

Then Neil was thrown a curve.

Bryan and Anita, wanting to promote the fledgling relationship, pressed him into service as a host. It started when they invited Neil and Jessica to their house. Even though the event had been billed as casual, the meal was lavish, since Bryan took great delight in the culinary arts. A few years older than Neil and a few levels up in the office hierarchy, Bryan was well versed in the evening’s wine selection. He made the crab and scallion appetizer dip himself and had grilled the filet to tender perfection—even offering a delectable mushroom sauce as an accompaniment.

Anita did her part as well with an impressive seven-layer fiesta salad, sage-seasoned wild rice, and a homemade apricot torte.

Neil was floored by this. He usually microwaved his food or had it delivered.

Protocol, of course, required reciprocation, so he masked his reluctance and invoked a sincere-sounding invitation to the other couple for the following Saturday night.

Nearly a week passed. Not yet frantic but feelings of worry escalating, Neil raced to change out of his work clothes, asked Jessica to meet him at the local bookstore, and together they spent the first hour of their Friday night in search of helpful information.

This was where I came in. Well, a character very much like me.

Neil bumped into me on purpose, and somewhat more dramatically than in the original scene, but instead of turning away when Jessica said, “You just want to see what she’s writing,” Neil replied spiritedly, “Yes. Maybe she’s got the book we need.”

I smiled, the epitome of warmth and graciousness, and said, “Perhaps another book will help you, but would you mind if I offered a suggestion?”

Neil agreed at once. Even Jessica, walking toward me with scorpion-like wariness, appeared politely attentive.

Upon hearing about the event they were planning, I drew upon my extensive background knowledge, obtained from so many years of information gathering, and recommended a book series that had full menus along with a coordinating selection of song choices to add the right musical atmosphere to the evening.

“My sister is married to a school principal,” I told them. “She does a lot of entertaining and swears by these sets.” This was true, by the way.

Well, of course they were grateful, even more so after I helped them find the menu/music sets on the shelf.

“So,” Jessica said, not quite able to expel the snottiness from her voice, “how do you know so much? Do you, like, work here?”

“Oh, no. I’m a writer.” The pride accompanying this announcement always made me stand up straighter. “And I spend a lot of time at this store…improving my mind through extensive reading.” I doubted she’d catch the Jane Austen reference (“extensive reading” being one of Mr. Darcy’s requirements of an accomplished woman), but I tossed it in there anyway. Take that, you uncivil trollop.

She narrowed her eyes at me.

Before she could speak again, Neil insisted on making formal introductions. He told me their names, and I told them mine, as well as a little bit about the article I was researching. “So you see, nothing I wrote down would have been of much interest to you, unless you were planning to have a group of three-year-olds at your dinner party.”

Neil laughed at my joke and I grinned at him, certain that Jessica missed it since she was playing stupidly with the straps of her expensive handbag. He told me they were going to grab a late dinner and, while they were at it, select one of the recommended meal combinations to make the following night.

“Well, good luck,” I replied, hoping to come across as encouraging. “I’m sure everything will turn out beautifully.”

Jessica nodded, growing a fraction friendlier as she realized my departure was imminent. Neil, however, grasped my hand and said with genuineness and warmth, “Thank you, Lily, for your help! You rescued us from the complexity of Martha Stewart.”

We both laughed at that and, then, said goodbye. Within moments, I was out the door, pleased with myself for being of assistance to someone so nice and—well, let’s face it—so handsome.

Anyway, weeks went by and I was as busy as ever, bringing in a higher-than-usual income from my articles and making tremendous headway on my novel at last. On occasion, my mind wandered back to the evening I met Neil and Jessica. I wondered about them—him in particular. How had their Saturday dinner gone? I wished there would have been a way I could ask. Discover more. Or, better yet, run into him again. My love life was the only thing that had remained stagnant. Aside from some promising flirtations at the gym, which amounted to nothing, the only romantic overtures I experienced at all in recent weeks were in my imagination.

One rainy Wednesday, I was at Between the Pages—this time trying to dry off from the inside out with their strongest espresso. I wasn’t actually depressed, because things were going pretty well in my life overall, but I’d managed to get into one of those reflective moods that turn melancholy if not immediately remedied. I needed an Rx in the form of some good escapist fiction.

I’d just read the first page of a Wisconsin author’s debut romance with awe and envy—more or less equally mixed—when I caught a peripheral movement and looked up.

“Lily?” the voice asked. My ears registered its owner sooner than my eyesight.

“Oh, hi, Neil,” I said, surprised, though not at all unpleasantly so. It was funny how you could forget certain details about people: His smile displayed two fabulous, but previously overlooked, dimples. His eyes were a piercing Chris Hemsworth kind of blue. How had I missed that? What I said aloud, though, was simply “How are you?”

“Good, good. Thought that was you over here. Working on another article?”

“No, not this time.” I pointed to the books in front of us. “Just admiring the narrative styles of these authors.”

“Hmm,” he said, nodding as he cast his eyes along the rows of new titles. Then he looked up at me. As before, I was startled by the intensity of his gaze. My mind went blank for a nanosecond before I remembered.

“Hey, how did the big dinner turn out?”

“Oh, yeah. Everything worked well, thanks to you.” And he proceeded to tell me details about the menu they’d selected and the accompanying music. “Those sets were a great idea.”

“I’m so glad,” I said, sincerity gushing forth and overflowing. But then Neil went silent, and I was left trying to figure a way out of the creeping awkwardness. “So, umm, where’s Jessica? Did she come with you tonight?” I swiveled from side-to-side, expecting her to materialize at any second.

“No, um…we haven’t gotten together much these days. I haven’t seen her at all, in fact, for a few weeks, so…” Neil shrugged but didn’t look particularly despondent about the situation.

“Oh.” I bobbed my head, struggling to appear calm, empathetic, understanding. Internally, I was hip-hopping.

We moved on to other topics: The changeable summer weather, the state of world affairs and, in deference to our meeting place, good books we’d read recently. As I blathered on about some of my favorite romantic comedy authors, I could hear an odd, inflated tone hijack my voice and force it to rise to a delighted coo. Neil looked duly impressed with my monologue before embarking upon one of his own—featuring thriller writers and romantic suspense. I listened, attentive as a spellbound disciple.

All that remained now was the long-hoped-for setup for a future date.

Neil pointed to my espresso. “Hey, I love those, too. Did you get a double-shot?”

“How did you know?”

He smiled. “That’s the only way to do it. Decaf, herbal tea, and the like—those are for weenies.”

I laughed and told him I agreed.

“Well, maybe we can grab a couple sometime soon,” he said, “and, you know, just talk for a while.”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I replied, beaming my best grin at him. Then, with pride at my casual assertiveness, I added, “I need to browse through some materials on promoting heart health this weekend. I was thinking of coming back maybe Sunday morning to check out their books, so if you want to join me—”

“Definitely!” Neil broke in. “What time were you thinking of getting here?”

“Maybe ten or ten thirty. I only need to do about a half hour of work.”

“Why don’t I drop by at about ten thirty then? If you still have some stuff to finish up, you can spend as much time as you need. There’s always got a lot to look at here. Then, whenever you’re ready, we can take our espressos to go, stroll a bit if the day’s clear, maybe even grab some lunch or something later…” He shot me one of his preppy lawyer grins. I was charmed.

We quickly exchanged cell numbers, and then parted company with matching smiles and nearly matching fantasies of eternal love, which now seemed closer than ever.

And this was where my imagined tale concluded, complete with all the hopefulness and optimism that filled the heart of every romantic. That blissful, mystical time in a relationship’s beginning, before anything could swoop down to erode the magic of infatuation. Only in soap operas, fairy tales, or love ballads by eighties hair bands could one find a rival to such a glorious moment. Oh, the sweet sensation!

I adored my little love story and entitled it “Browsing.”

After several revisions and at least seventeen Mocha Frappuccinos, I submitted it to a regional magazine—Midwest Fiction Forum: Stories for the Modern Genre Writer—a journal that published monthly issues in print as well as weekly features online. They’d accepted a poem of mine about two years before, so I was positively inclined toward their publication. But what I liked best about them was this: Their response time was a shockingly prompt three weeks or less.

I sweated out the days, always with that fluttery impatience just below my lungs whenever a new email would appear. Then one Monday, sometime in late June, I got a ping in my inbox. It was from the magazine… I crossed my fingers and clicked open the message.

An acceptance!

“YES!!!” I exclaimed to no one but the ants in my otherwise empty apartment. My story would not only be on the web, it would be included in one of the print issues, too.

After celebrating my good fortune alone with a dark Colombian roast/brandy concoction I mixed myself, I added this publishing acquisition to my short list of fiction credits. Cheerfully, I marked my calendar with an asterisk and the word “Browsing” next to the “notes” box for September.

In the weeks that followed, I continued to stop by my favorite bookstore with some frequency. Admittedly, thoughts of Neil and Jessica always accompanied me there, but I’d grown less hopeful of ever seeing either of them again as the summer progressed.

One time, shortly after my birthday in mid-July, I thought I spotted Jessica. I saw someone, anyway, who was a leggy blonde with an identical designer handbag—could it have been a coincidence?

The woman was near the first floor information desk with her back to me, and I was on the escalator heading down. By the time I reached the ground level, whoever she was had vanished. But, since we’d never actually spoken, I supposed I wouldn’t have known what to say if I’d met up with her face to face anyway. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have had a clue who I was.

My romantic short story came out in the September issue as scheduled, and I was pleased to see my name in print for something this lighthearted and creative. I pulled out my box of novel notes and began sifting through them at more regular intervals—gathering, organizing, refining ideas. I could feel my confidence in storytelling growing.

In early October, as Halloween approached, I was assigned an article on simple children’s costumes for a citywide parenting publication. I went to my trusty bookstore on a Thursday night to peruse the shelves for costume ideas. I found myself drawn to my favorite lounge chair on the second floor.

I’d lifted four promising titles off the shelf and was scanning the table of contents page in the third book, when I noticed somebody stealthily taking a seat a couple of chairs to my right. I didn’t look up immediately. I just registered that the invading individual was male, turned a handful of pages, and scribbled several notes on “baby bumblebee” trick-or-treat attire.

But I had that feeling—that inexplicable sensation that occurs whenever you first become aware that you’re being watched. A weird The Sixth Sense kind of thing—minus the dead people. Reasonably sure I could identify the source of the gaze, I glanced over at the man who’d come in a few minutes before.

In truth, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him if it hadn’t been for his loafers.

He was watching me intently—this guy I’d once named Neil—only he wasn’t quite like my memory’s image. Seeing him in person for just the second time in my life, I realized I’d glossed over some significant details in my recollection: The dark blond chin stubble, the moderately protruding ears, the serious set to his jaw, and the astuteness in his light blue eyes. (Although they were as blue as Chris Hemsworth’s.) The eyelashes were unchanged, but a more accurate picture of the other features were starting to come back to me. Dressed in a dark sport coat this time, rather than a black leather jacket, with tan slacks instead of jeans and a fat briefcase touching the toe of his right loafer, he regarded me with a steady, unsmiling expression.

Damn.

I looked away—expecting him to turn his attention elsewhere now that I had.

He didn’t.

I took several yoga-style cleansing breaths, despite the fact that I never did yoga, and counted slowly to five before looking back at him. He was still staring—with a gravity that led me to mark the nearest exits if a quick escape would be required.

Crapola.

He couldn’t know about the story, could he? Or be angry because of it, right? It was fiction, after all. I mean, I didn’t even know his real name!

I was tempted to say something to him, but what? These fears had to be my overactive imagination working the late shift again.

Maybe he was just absentmindedly staring in my direction.

Maybe I looked like somebody he knew from Sunday School when he was ten.

Maybe this was his idea of flirtation…you know, smoldering like one of those CW vampires. (They do that.)

I’d nearly convinced myself of one of these scenarios—the Sunday School one—when I saw the corners of his lips curl slightly upward.

At long last, he whispered, “So, you write for Midwest Fiction Forum, eh?” It was presented as a question, but I could tell from the undisguised sarcasm that he already knew the answer.

Oh, shit, shit, shit!

“Uh, w-well,” I stuttered, “I’ve had a c-couple, umm—why?”

He didn’t reply. He got up from his chair two seats away and moved right next to me as I shot glances around the room in panic. I put the kiddie costume books on the floor and gripped my pen, dagger-style, just in case.

Then he leaned in toward me. “I remember you,” he whispered. My eyes widened while his crinkled at the corners. “You were the one here that day, weren’t you? You lifted our conversation. Verbatim.”

Oh, no. A psycho guy…who reads. Short-story and poetry journals, no less. Just my luck.

Then I thought, Hey, if only I could escape the bookstore unscathed, this would make a wild story. Maybe even a novel. Consider the fun premise. The natural, built-in conflict. It had so much potential, but first I needed to slip away from the tall, hunky man with the dangerous glint in his very blue eyes.

“Umm, look—” I began, using my most placating tone. “It’s just fiction, you know? I didn’t mean to offend you or, or, anyone—but, it’s—well, people are always asking writers where we get our ideas, and you can tell them it’s in the ‘random stuff’ we encounter in real life but, a lot of times, no one believes us. You two were in a public location, talking kind of loud, and, and… I mean, the things you both were saying made an interesting place for a story to start. So—” I ran fresh out of babbling steam right about then, but I forced myself to meet his gaze and hold my ground.

He snickered and sat back in his chair. I loosened my grip on the pen—a little.

“I should’ve known you’d be some writer. You had that shrewd, information-gathering look about you.” He raised his eyebrows at me and his gaze raked me over very deliberately before returning to my face. I felt myself turn pink.

“I must have reread the first conversation, especially your descriptions of us, and that sitcom-like elbow-bumping incident about fifteen times before I could believe it.” He shook his head. “And you were hardly objective in your narrative. But, I guess,” he said, wrinkling his nose, “it was a pretty bizarre night.”

“Why?” I asked, careful to show both respect and interest. I needed more information for the psycho-bookworm story.

“Because my girlfriend and I broke up about ten minutes after you left.”

“What? Really? The blonde?” Excellent. Crisis and several plot points already in place. Now I just needed more character details.

“Yeah. The blonde. Jessica, as you know her,” he said, mocking me. “Her name’s Kira, by the way, and she’s the lawyer.”

 “Oops!” I covered my mouth with my palm, but I couldn’t completely block out my surprise. “Well, so what happened?”

He inhaled and looked at me strangely. “Let’s see—uh, you, actually—among other things. She was mad because I’d been talking to you, plus there were about three thousand major and minor infractions I’d committed that day…and that month. She had sort of a jealous streak.” He exhaled but continued looking at me strangely. “Long story.”

Okay, I may have failed to guess Kira’s name or real profession, but I’d totally nailed the jealous insecurity bit. I kept watching the guy standing in front of me, though, and was surprised to see the strange expression on his face morph into sadness, followed by hurt. Could he be missing Cherry, the fingernail-polish chick?

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I began, figuring I could at least offer my condolences on the relationship’s demise. “Are you all right? I have time, if you need to talk. I mean—I don’t know what to say, but—”

“Don’t say anything. Don’t imagine anything. And, for mercy’s sake, don’t write anything.” His acerbic tone punctuated every syllable like a stylus jabbing at something. He pointed at me for further emphasis, and his face took on the menacing cast of a disgruntled literary critic. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t look fine, but I merely squinted at him. After forbidding me to do the only three things I felt remotely qualified for and/or capable of, I was left with few options.

Well, I also thought really hard. His problems with Cherry/Jessica/Kira weren’t my fault, I reasoned. He needed to learn to make better relationship choices. He should be more like my character Neil.

Additionally, I wondered if crawling into a parallel literary reality of my own construction would disrupt the space-time continuum in both the real world and in the virtual one. I promised myself I’d check out Einstein’s books on the first floor of the store later.

Meanwhile, the man in front of me tapped his chin with a curved index finger and pursed his lips, as if trying to hold back a cutting retort.

After a time he sighed and said, “I guess Kira was more of a snobby Caroline Bingley than a witty Elizabeth Bennet anyway.”

I was a little awed by this statement. He spoke of Jane Austen’s characters knowingly, as if he’d read Pride and Prejudice and understood all about faulty first impressions. Who was this guy?

“In any case, it turned out she wasn’t my type.” He shrugged, flicked at his fingernails with his thumb then ran his hand through his hair.

I was inexplicably tempted to fluff it the way his ex-girlfriend had once. I refrained.

“So, in addition to your charming tale, I read your byline, too,” he continued. “Unless you write under a pseudonym, your real name is not Lily.”

 “Hmm, well, yeah—that’s correct. The byline is accurate, not the character name,” I admitted. “But, who are you? I mean, who even reads Midwest Fiction Forum?” I waited and tried to project nonchalance although, by now, I was far from indifferent.

He glared at me when I asked this, his eyes awash with a series of emotions—none of them positive. “How could you?” he exploded. “Seriously. How could you name me ‘Neil,’ of all names?” Then he crossed his arms with very believable indignation. “When I think of Neil, I think: Diamond. Sedaka. Young. I am not some ancient, semi-musical has-been who—”

“You don’t like Neil Diamond?”

“That’s beside the point. Listen, I have a chunky Uncle Neil, who’s really annoying. And my parents go to another Neil, their bald accountant, every year for their taxes. I do not look like a Neil!” He underscored this statement by banging his fist against the armrest.

“Okay. You’re right, you’re right. It—it was a hasty, ill-considered choice.” I re-gripped my pen and noticed a few people staring at us from across the aisle in Travel & Vacation Guides. At the moment, I wanted to get away, too.

He studied my face carefully then exhaled—a stream of hot air, no doubt. A beat later he thrust his hand out at me. I debated whether or not to shake it, but curiosity won out. It was a warm hand with a good grip and enough roughness to remind me that he was a man. A pretty strong man, actually. How did he get those calluses on his fingers? Weight lifting? Carpentry? Playing guitar? I debated the possibilities.

“I’m Art Cavendish—Artie to my friends—originally from St. Paul, Minnesota. Never been to Ipswich, Massachusetts in my life, by the way, and I’m not preppy.” His eyes flicked up to the ceiling and down to my face. “And if you use me as the basis for a character again—and I mean ever—I do not want some lame-ass name. ‘Rick’ isn’t bad. Something solid sounding like ‘Steve’ or ‘Brad’ is okay, but definitely not ‘Neil’ and none of those English names like ‘Ian’ or ‘Graham’ either. Or names with a ‘y’ in the middle of them like ‘Kyle’ or ‘Daryl.’ Got it?”

“Uh, yeah. No problem,” I said. “I’ll remember your preferences.”

Then he flashed a grin at me, the intensity breaking its hold. For a second, he looked almost normal.

“So, okay,” Artie said. “I’ve read a fair number of thrillers and some romantic suspense like your character…who shall remain nameless, but I’m revisiting the classics at the moment. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sinclair Lewis. Some Oscar Wilde. And I’ve been watching Fellini flicks. 8 ½ is my favorite.”

He paused while I nodded my approval.

“I’m a set designer for a couple of small theaters in the city, and I’ve had an online subscription to Midwest Fiction Forum for about a year now. I do some scriptwriting, too.” He gave me an arch look. “I’d gone to the bookstore that night trying to get ideas to flesh out a character—someone who might be one of those socialite, home-entertainment types—when I saw you. You sort of fit the profile, so I came closer. Thought I’d poke around, try to read what you were writing.”

My jaw dropped open. Wide enough for a robin to fly in and nest awhile.

What?

He thought I was a Martha Stewart type? Me? The girl who lived in ratty jeans and old college sweatshirts? Whose idea of “holiday decorating” consisted of putting up a thin strip of icicle window clings? Who wouldn’t know how to weave a dinner placemat or make a canapé if her life and future family tree depended on it?

“Are you kidding?” I sputtered.

“Yes,” he said, not bothering to disguise his amusement. “I’m just messing with you. You deserve it.” Then he collapsed even deeper into his comfy armchair, scanned my entire body from top to bottom like an MRI, before finally refocusing on my face, his lips twitching. “You’re pretty cute when you’re flustered.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed, genuinely surprised for the first time in a long time. I’d misread this guy. I’d gotten his real character wrong when I’d assessed him before—or, at least, it was grossly incomplete. He had an edginess to him that I liked but, right this second, he seemed almost relaxed and personable, with an offbeat sense of humor and a quick wit I hadn’t attributed to him in my story. I couldn’t deny that all of those qualities were as attractive to me as his hunky appearance. Possibly more so.

I picked up one of my blank white note cards and waved it like a flag. “Truce?”

“Maybe,” he said, but he was grinning. “So, were you really working on an article last spring?”

“Yeah.” I pointed to the books on the floor and to my notes. “I’m doing it again tonight. Halloween costumes this time.” Despite our less than auspicious beginning, my radar registered something flattering: He might just be interested in me.

“Ah,” Artie replied with a nod, running his fingers through his light, wavy hair—a signature tic, perhaps? I didn’t know him well enough to be sure. “Perhaps I should let you get back to your work. You must have a lot more to do.” He motioned toward the door, but stayed seated, waiting. Waiting for me…maybe?

“No, I’m done for tonight,” I decided. “Wouldn’t be able to work on more of this now anyway.” I was conscious of eyeing him with interest, too, and of wanting to be utterly honest, even while I was flirting. “Having met you has put an end to my concentration for the day.”

“Well, good. Glad I managed that at least.” He laughed for a moment at my expense. “So, what are you gonna do instead?”

“I don’t know.” I looked toward the refreshment area. “Maybe get an espresso or a latté.” Then taking a chance—one that required more courage than I’d expected—I asked, “Want some?”

“Hell, no. Never touch that stuff.” He brushed imaginary dust off the arm of the chair and granted me a dimply grin. “Caffeine makes me edgy.”

“I see.” I began collecting my belongings, trying not to look as dejected as I felt.

I capped my pen and stood to leave when Artie chuckled, low but challenging. He shook his head. A few nearby customers turned their attention to us, guessing something semi-dramatic might be afoot. I, however, had no idea what would happen. Even the many fictional scenarios I could imagine didn’t give me relief in the moment. I wanted to know what this Art Cavendish guy would truly say next.

“No coffee, but I’m fond of tea—herbal, in fact,” he explained, raising an eyebrow. Then, just in case I missed his intention, he pointed to the beverage counter.

Incredulous, I asked, “For real, or are you teasing me again?”

He nodded. “For real. Truth is stranger than fiction, you know.” He grinned and motioned once more toward the café. “C’mon, we’ve got a second chance to write a new ending to our story. A more accurate one, I hope. Let’s take it.” He stood and stretched his palm out toward me.

As I took his hand, I squeezed and reveled in the actuality of the two of us connecting here and now, with the possibility of for always… It was a heady feeling. Then I said, “That’s a pretty good line. You might see it again. In print.”

He squeezed my hand in return. “I’d be disappointed if I didn’t.”

“When Life Imitates Art” was originally released as one of the short stories featured in SECOND CHANCES: A Romance Writers of America Collection (Sept. 2017)