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A Neatly Folded Life

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Ben was the most introverted man he ever knew. He had been that way since junior high school. He never ventured far outside his comfort zone; always shied away from the particularly daunting situations most guys tackled with enthusiasm. He was quiet, but had plenty to say if he felt comfortable enough around a person. And it seemed to him that it was easier to grow comfortable with a woman than with a man. The women he knew were the kind who invited him to join in on their conversations. They were friendly and he assumed they enjoyed having him around because he was friendly back and shared in some of their little inside jokes.


Ben was different from most of the men in their lives, and he knew it. Men always seemed to want to DO things. He was content to do nothing most of the time. Most of the men he came into contact with at his job talked at a volume and in a tone that suggested they were trying to impress everyone around them. Ben was not easily impressed.


That was the other thing that bothered him. Ben was a bit out of place working as a sales clerk at The Gap. Compared to the younger, college-aged kids, he was about five years too old. In out-of-workplace conversations, Ben was embarrassed to bring up the subject of jobs. But this was a job he could handle— steady and simple— so he stayed. And besides, he liked the women he worked with: Tina, with her harshly-short blond hair and elfish smile, was funny and sly and Jamie, the pretty, part-time waitress, had a sweet, down-to-earth quality Ben found refreshing. They liked him, too.


Considering his affable appeal to women, it was surprising, even to Ben, that he wasn’t married, or at least in a serious relationship, by now. After all, he was 27 and by all definitions, a genuinely nice guy. He was wiry, but not skinny, and had that broad, pleasing, all-American look across his face. With brown hair that was well-kept but not overly fussed with, Ben had that effortlessly gawky, boyish look that women seemed to like.


So he knew it was not his looks or personality that drove women away. It was the fact that he was a plain old underachiever. Not many women wanted a man who was unwilling to leave the safe cocoon of his low-paying job, a man who grows skittish at the talk of raising children because he’s afraid at how they’d turn out with him as a father. Ben hated that about himself and he thought about trying to change, but the girls that came his way no longer seemed worth the effort. Not after Kathy.


Now, here he was, standing behind his work station, folding a green cashmere sweater. A woman— Ben guessed she was about 50— had tried it on with a pair of Audrey Hepburn-style, pencil straight trousers, but she left without buying anything. Ben noticed the pitiful look on her face as she walked out. It was the look of defeat, the look that said, “I’m too old for this.” In a way, Ben could relate.


Ben sighed. Jamie was telling him and Tina about her weekend, how she had visited her parents and got to see her nephew, blah, blah, blah. He nodded and smiled whenever Tina did, so she would think he was paying attention. It was a Monday and he wasn’t in the mood to hear family stories. He was distracted by the music flowing out of the speaker overhead. He liked the song but was annoyed at how difficult it was to hear it clearly over Jamie’s rambling.


He got to thinking about Kathy. He didn’t know what brought it on, maybe it was Tina’s black nail polish. Kathy used to favor that particular color, no matter how many times Ben told her it made her look “goth.” But Kathy never took offense to Ben’s unnecessary worrying about such things. “Oh, come on!” she’d say, with a slap on his shoulder, “What do you know about goths?” He’d end up grinning with her and believing that, yes, maybe he didn’t know what he was talking about.


Kathy was his first girlfriend. She complemented him in the best ways. Fearless where he was nervous, uninhibited where he was reserved, she helped him come out of his shell a little more each day. That was probably why she was the only girl he mustered up the courage to ask out in high school. Even back then she had a warm, welcoming way about her. Still, it was a wonder that she actually agreed to go out with him. No one would have thought to pair two such different people together.


Neither of them went to college. She didn’t have the money and he didn’t have the confidence. But that allowed them to spend more time together. Kathy persuaded Ben to get an apartment of his own. They spent many hours there, watching TV, having special dinners prepared by her, and even having an occasional (small) party or two for close friends.


Of course, their breakup was inevitable. Ben wanted to get married. She would move into his apartment, he would continue to work at the department store, perhaps look for a promotion to manager or something, and they’d live a humble life. Maybe after awhile they’d move to a real house, once he saved up enough money to make a down payment. But retirement savings would have to come first. This was unacceptable to Kathy. She wanted him to go to school and get a job that had “more of a future in it.” She didn’t want to wait so long to live in a real house and she wanted kids. Three of them.


So they broke up. It was painful for both of them. Last he heard, she was engaged to some Alpha-male who edited the city’s newspaper. He was tall and good-looking, according to Ben’s mother, and the wedding was next year.


He leaned against the counter his cash register sat on. The breakup was all his fault, he told himself. He was so happy with her back then. Where did they get off track? What would their lives be like now if they had stayed together?


Dummy. It happened three years ago, why was he still thinking about it? What was the point? But Ben thought some more anyway. He was not positive they should have separated. They used to be, after all, perfect together. Could it be, that two people are meant to be together regardless of the choices they make? How much of a role does fate have in a relationship? What if he and Kathy were always meant to be together and they had ruined it?


Through the din of these questions he heard Kathy sneeze. It was unmistakably her, he could tell by the way her voice curled up at the end of it. But what was she doing there? Ben suddenly felt panicky in the back of his throat.


Kathy strolled up to the counter like she had never been gone. She tucked her fiery red hair behind her blushing ears and smiled at him. Her green eyes were piercing, especially against her freckle-covered skin, unnaturally tan for a redhead. Ben had forgotten how beautiful she was.


“Hi Ben,” she said. Even when she was obviously wary, Kathy’s voice was agreeable.


“Hello Kathy.” Ben’s voice cracked a little.


The corners of Kathy’s mouth perked up slightly. “How’ve you been?” she continued.


I’ve been... okay,” Ben answered honestly. “How’re you?”


Kathy smiled, sadly. “I’m fine.”


She sighed and looked at her fingernails. When she looked up at Ben tears glossed her eyes. “Kathy, what’s the matter?” He put a hand on her shoulder.


“Nothing! I was just wondering if we could... see a movie or have dinner or something. I want to... talk to you again.”


Ben looked into her eyes. “Are you sure? Is it okay with your fiancé?”


Kathy bit her lip. “He doesn’t have to know,” she said, almost as a question.


She peered up at him with pleading, desperate eyes. “I just want to talk.”


Ben glanced at the clock. It was 4:45, but he shut down his register, asked Tina to cover for him, and stepped out with Kathy. They walked separately, his hands in his pockets, her hands dangling free. She grinned at him. It took all his strength not to reach out and grab that hand and run away.





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