“Maybe life was better with a full crayon box, even if you didn’t use all the colors consistently.” A short story offering hope that when the clouds of dismay finally part, the beauty of the world will again manifest itself…
by: Allison Maschhoff
Ainsley checked her watch, a frustrated sigh escaping her as the bell over the coffee shop door declared the entrance of another person that was not Xander. She had promised her mother she would be home in one hour, and that hour was slowly ticking away. Glancing at her watch proved him to already be ten minutes late. Had she gone to the wrong place? Was he standing her up? Holding back a groan, Ainsley rolled her eyes. She’d known this would be a mistake from the moment she received the invitation to meet her childhood-best-friend-slash-crush-slash-whatever at the new coffee shop down the road from her childhood home.
“Why don’t you go?” her mother had said. “It’s exactly the kind of thing you need.”
Ainsley was pretty certain seeing Xander was the last thing she needed. “I came home for the weekend to be with you, not to be reminded of yet another failed relationship.”
“Friendships like the one you two have don’t fail. They get put on hold.”
She remained unconvinced, but somehow had still ended up sitting on the long bench that ran across the back wall of the new coffee shop instead of curled up on the couch watching Hallmark movies with her mom.
Ainsley glanced around with a judgmental tilt of her head. It looked as though a child had been hired as the coffee shop’s interior decorator. The walls and floor were white, but the furniture appeared cheap and its colors lifted straight out of a Crayola 64 Pack. Lime green and hot pink plastic chairs were tucked in next to aquamarine and yellow plastic tables. The worst was the blue-violet paint-splattered bench. She had sat on it to keep it out of her line of sight.
She pulled her attention away from the strange décor to see Xander standing in front of her. Mentally cursing the bell for not catching her attention and giving her time to size him up, she hurried to her feet.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, surprising her with a half-hug. “I got stuck on a work call.”
Her mother’s reminder to be nice was echoing in her head. She said, “It’s okay. Sorry if you’ve, um, been standing here a while. I, um, I didn’t see you come in.”
He laughed like the people-pleasing politician he’d grown up to be. “Oh, that’s my fault. I snuck in the back. Perks of knowing the owner.” He said it as if Ainsley didn’t know the owner also, as if they hadn’t all ridden the same school bus together every day for ten years. The coffee shop owner’s name was Vera, she’d never left town and she’d always been one for bright colors. It was Ainsley’s understanding that Vera had been the shoot on the grapevine who’d told Xander that she was going to be in town. She had also started many rumors back in the day that Ainsley and Xander were more than best friends. She imagined Vera watching them from some backroom, patting herself on the back for reuniting two long-separated friends. Or worse, conjuring up some rumor about an affair.
“Oh, were you waiting to order?”
Ainsley glanced down at her coffeeless hands folded in her lap and then back up at Xander. “I was, but I’m, um, not really in the mood for coffee. Why don’t we just sit?”
He nodded, taking a couple steps toward the open spot next to her on the bench, setting his folded jacket down next to him as he sat. Ainsley took mental notes of the lines that the years had drawn around his chocolate eyes, the way his hair had gone from strawberry to sandy. Thirty-two looked so much older on him than she had expected. She supposed that the public life was tiring him out. Ainsley wondered what changes he was noticing in her face, whether he could see the tear stains on her cheeks and the bags under her eyes. Whether he could infer that she hadn’t felt the need to order a drink because her recent string of sleepless nights had led her to drink three cups of coffee before she’d even arrived at the coffee shop. Her leg bounced soundlessly. She realized she was mindless twisting a strand of dark red hair around her finger and re-folded her hands in her lap.
Ainsley forced a smile, steering that depressing train of thought off its tracks. The goal was to get through this little reunion without unloading all of her personal baggage. Then go back to her mother’s blissfully boring house with its crayons-still-in-the-box color scheme and drown her sorrows in ice cream.
“So how have you been?” she asked.
Xander responded with the easygoing head bob and tight-lipped smile of someone who was used to these sorts of surface-level conversations. “I’m well. Been married for about four years now. First little tot is on the way, due in June.”
Her forced smile shrunk a little, mostly against Ainsley’s will. “That’s awesome. I remember you always said you wanted a big family.” For a short time, Ainsley had hoped to be a part of that family. Really, it had been an effect of hearing so many rumors for so long. She eventually remembered that Xander was not her soul mate, she was certain he’d never suspected her of being his.
Xander nodded, leaning a little closer. “To tell you the truth, it took us longer to get started than I had hoped. But now that Maggie’s pregnant, none of it matters. All that matters is we’re on our way.”
“Do you know the gender yet?”
“Officially? No. Privately? The doctor’s said she is looking healthy.”
The brief moment of comradery caused the tension in Ainsley’s chest to subside. Her smile was real as she said, “That’s amazing, Xander. You’ll be a great dad.”
His smile changed, morphing from the tight lipped one practiced for public appearances to one as real as the ones he used to flash her during their childhood adventures. “Thanks, Ains, that means a lot.” After a moment of consideration, he added, “You know, I get to pick the middle name.”
“Yeah. Maggie wants to name the baby after her grandmother, so the compromise is that I get to pick the middle name. I think I’ve made up my mind.”
As if she was still used to being privy to all his secrets, she said, “What is it?” before remembering they weren’t even close enough anymore for her to have already known Maggie was pregnant.
But Xander didn’t seem to think she’d overstepped. Instead, he eyed her thoughtfully and said, “I haven’t decided if I should trust you with it, yet.” He winked. “We’ll just have to keep chatting.”
Ainsley rolled her eyes. That playful teasing and winking had been able to cure any sadness when she was a teenager. No doubt it had helped to feed those rumors that Ainsley was the future Mrs. Xander Thompson. Little did anyone, including Xander, know that title would actually go to the quiet chemistry nerd who sat in the back of every class she took. Xander and Maggie never even said a word to each other until college. Now they were married and expecting…everything everyone had said Ainsley would have by now. Meanwhile she was thirty-two, single and hiding from her problems at her mother’s home.
“What about you? How have you been?” Xander was looking at her with so much expectation. He wanted to be told she was living the same not-quite-a-fairytale-but-pretty-darn-close dream.
Before she could think of any evidence of actually being good, he said, “That wasn’t very convincing.”
“Well, I mean, I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch, but I’ll get through it. I’m visiting my mom, recharging and then I’ll be back at it.” She quickly added, “I’m on staff for a magazine now.”
That thoughtful look was back, but not in a playful way. Ainsley’s stomach tightened.
“Where are you living again?” he said.
“Missouri or Kansas?”
“I’m on the Kansas side.”
He grinned slyly. “Traitor!”
Ainsley bit her lip, questioning if she should allow herself to be pulled into the banter. It had been so long. “You moved first.”
“Not to Kansas!”
“You spend most of your time in D.C., and that sure isn’t in Missouri.”
“I’m there on behalf of Missouri. That has to count for something.”
Ainsley pursed her lips. “I don’t know.” She drew out the last syllable of the phrase, her tone climbing and then sliding down, like a child on a playground.
“Well, I’m not afraid to mention the elephant in the room.” He looked pointedly at her left hand in all its bareness before saying, “Kansas has made you paler.”
For the first time in weeks, Ainsley felt laughter bubble up out of her without pulling or prodding. It flowed freely from her belly out into the air, causing a couple of heads to turn. When she’d finally contained it, she said, “No, not Kansas. The lack of color comes from a lack of sleeping and eating.” Suddenly remembering where she was and who she was with and that she wasn’t a teenager and Xander wasn’t really her best friend anymore, she clamped her mouth shut. She wasn’t sure what had made her think she should respond like that. And yet having those words out in the open…she felt a little lighter.
Worry overtook Xander’s face. Ainsley decided to try to play damage control. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m not dying. I just made a bad relationship choice.”
“Are you being hurt?”
Xander spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable. “Is he hitting you?”
“Oh! No, no he’s not hitting me. He just decided to knock on my door after three years of dating and say he didn’t love me anymore and asked for his things. I guess I should thank the stars above that I listened to my mother and didn’t move in with him. I mean I moved to Kansas City for him, but at least I’m not out on the street just because he changed his mind at the drop of a hat.”
As if taken over by instincts of a bygone era, Xander took her hand. “I’m so sorry. What a jerk move.”
Ainsley nodded, closing her eyes. She was determined not to cry in front of him. At least she could spare him that awkward situation and spare herself the embarrassment. Besides, she was so tired of crying. She didn’t understand why her sore eyes continued to produce the tears; what good was it doing?
After a couple of blinks, the clouds subsided from her eyes and she did her best to put on a neutral expression since she wasn’t ready to be sunny. “I just feel like I’ve wasted so much time, you know? I’m thirty-two. Most of my friends are married. I mean, look at you! You’re going to have a kid! And then there’s me. Living in a city where everyone I know knew my ex before they knew me, working for a company I despise and sitting in a coffee shop covered in a rainbow’s puke crying to a U.S. Representative that I haven’t spoken to in, what, ten years?”
Xander didn’t respond right away. Anxious thoughts began swirling in Ainsley’s mind, making her wish she would’ve just stuck to her original plan and not told him about any of it. Why had she thought he would care? He hadn’t cared enough to bother to keep up their friendship. She thought of the months of unanswered emails and phone calls. Once upon a time, it had been him she had cried over. And now here she was, years later, begging for sympathy. She was certain he thought her pathetic.
And then he said, “Do you think our friendship was a waste?”
Ainsley was taken aback. “No? Uh, I mean, no! Your friendship, our friendship, it’s part of what made me who I am.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“You like the effect our friendship had on you?”
“Um,” Ainsley rubbed the back of her neck. Where was he going with this? How was she supposed to respond? “I liked how it felt being your friend.”
“But you said it made you who you are, to some degree.”
Was this what law school had taught him? “I mean, you were a major influence on me during very formative years.” Images flashed in her mind of late-night bonfires and lazy days by the creek behind his house. “I still love creeks and bonfires. I still find that I’m most relaxed when I’m outside.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “I do, too. Maggie wants to move and I told her we need to find a place with the creek. Told her about all the fun we used to have.”
Ainsley was baffled at the idea that Xander and Maggie Thompson had ever spoken about her. The way Ainsley remembered it, Xander’s radio silence had neatly coincided with the rumors that he and Maggie were getting “serious” about their future. Back then, she had wondered if Maggie had been a believer that there had been a secret romance between her fiancé and her least favorite lab partner (Ainsley wasn’t the greatest at measuring chemicals).
Xander cleared his throat. “I just figure, if we weren’t a waste, then maybe the last few years weren’t a waste either. I mean, I kept calling you my best friend for months after we stopped talking. I kept telling myself that once things weren’t so hectic I’d get around to emailing or calling you back. But then things never seemed to slow down and soon it felt like it had been too long to just randomly reach out. It took a lot of courage to ask if you wanted to meet up today. It was actually Maggie’s suggestion.”
That surprised Ainsley. Maybe Maggie believed the truth about her relationship with Xander after all. She whispered, “I held onto our friendship for a long time, too.”
His smile dampened. “And I hope we are eventually able to get it back. I’d love for my little girl to have someone like you to look up to. Someone who was willing to follow their heart five hours away from home to give love a chance.”
Ainsley swallowed. She hated being reminded of why she’d moved. In hindsight, it felt so stupid, so naïve. What thirty-something doesn’t know that moving across the state for a boyfriend is a bad idea? But that way Xander talked about it encouraged a flicker of hope. Maybe being willing to trust her heart was still a good choice, even if it had ended poorly.
“That means a lot to me, Xander.”
He nodded. “I mean it.”
The lull in the conversation felt unnaturally long to Ainsley. It reminded her that even though it was easy to fall back into the flow of old relationships, the sense of normalcy only lasted so long. She found herself examining her nails and wiggling her toes inside her shoes, searching for something to say next. Back in the day, she wouldn’t have needed to search. It would have just been there. Even if she had chosen silence, it wouldn’t have felt like this.
Xander checked his watch. “Oh! It’s already past 2:00. Unfortunately, I have somewhere else I need to be.”
He looked truly repentant, but Ainsley was happy for the excuse to say their goodbyes. She’d rather leave with memories of a meaningful, friendly conversation than an uncomfortable silence and forced small talk. “That’s okay. It was really nice to see you, Xander.”
Smiling, he rose to his feet. “It really was. And I do hope things look up for you.”
Ainsley smiled back. “I’m feeling a bit better already.”
He paused, debating. Finally, he said, “I am sorry for the way things ended between us. It all feels so silly now. I should have just called.”
A year ago, even just three hours ago, Ainsley would have told him he had every right to be sorry. She would have told him he caused her a lot of pain by just cutting her off. She would have told him that she hadn’t had a conflict with his wedding; she just hadn’t felt like going. But now, looking at the earnestness in his eyes and knowing he still cared enough to sit and listened to her problems, she felt able to just accept the apology. “It’s okay, Xander. I forgive you. Just make sure you let me know when the baby is born.”
He nodded. “For sure. And you know, I don’t know how much longer you’re in town, but I wouldn’t write this place off so quickly. Vera accomplished something rather amazing here. I mean look at all these colors, living in harmony. And the ceiling is pretty cool.”
Ainsley chuckled, not so sure she’d call the haphazard array harmony. But then she looked up for the first time since entering the coffee shop and saw that there was an exposed ceiling and that every beam and tube was painted a different color. It was actually kind of beautiful. Not a single piece managed to cross the length of the ceiling without intersecting with another. Most of them intersected with multiple. Some beams ran side by side the whole time, others only connected for a moment before they went their separate ways. But without all of those intersections, the ceiling would fall apart.
Maybe it took intersecting with Vera and Xander and her ex and everyone else in her life in order to keep her life intact, in order to make herself into who she was meant to be. Maybe life was better with a full crayon box, even if you didn’t use all the colors consistently. After all, wasn’t the point of those huge crayon boxes that you could color whatever you wanted? And that you could start using new colors whenever it felt right?
“Well, I’ll see you,” Xander said, pulling her eyes away from the ceiling.
“Wait, you never told me the middle name.”
“You know you can trust me. Who am I going to tell, anyways?”
He gave her a knowing smile. “Elizabeth.”
She smiled and said, “That’s your mom’s middle name, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Yours, too.” He grinned. “Keep in touch, Ains.” Then he was gone before she could say anything in return.
A little stunned, Ainsley sat back down, her eyes finding their way back to the ceiling. Who would have thought, after all this time, that Xander would do something like that? What a beautiful reminder of their friendship. Ainsley felt it lift something inside her, bolstering her spirits like one of the beams that held up the ceiling. Mom was right again, Ainsley thought to herself, chuckling. As hard as it was to believe, this had been exactly what she’d needed.
Allison Maschhoff is a student in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Missouri, Kansas City; she earned her BFA in Creative Writing from Truman State University. Her short fiction has been published in Glass Mountain and The Index and her poetry has appeared in The Blue Route, Green Blotter, Windfall, and Better Than Starbucks.