He watched her multicolored eyes sparkle as she silently beamed with the flow of her thoughts from her mind to the page. Not knowing exactly what she was writing in her journal made him want to know her. She was brilliant; that was certain, but there was more to her…something he couldn’t explain.
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She had spoken to him before, but only to order café chai. She didn’t say anything to him that wasn’t merely business, although he could tell that she had felt stifled. What could she have been trying, and failing, to tell him?
‘Oh, stop with the overanalyzing already!’ he chided himself. ‘She was probably only debating whether or not to introduce herself.’
She hadn’t introduced herself. He hadn’t introduced himself to her, either, but surely she had read his name tag. Did she believe that her mysterious appearance in the coffee shop a few days ago that became a daily occurrence was enough of an introduction?
Owen. The name was as nondescript as he himself, a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy whose appearance wasn’t about expression. Surely the young lady was an Althea or a Carolina or something else absurdly elaborate and complicated. Her bejeweled screen-print dress and patent leather platforms screamed intricacy. Owen assumed that only a truly complex person would dress in such a way.
If she was so complicated, then who was she? It drove Owen crazy to not know anything about her, reason unknown. He was going to find a way to discover her, method unknown.
“Owen, you’re staring at her again,” his coworker Roger dryly pointed out.
“Café chai, if you don’t mind…eh, Owen.” She called him by name! Not to mention her exotic accent. As he mixed the caffeinated concoction, Owen resolved not to let her leave without having her spit out her fabulous moniker.
“If you can address me by name, then surely you can tell me yours.”
She didn’t say a word; instead she blushed and closed her eyes.
Was it too much to ask for her name? Owen couldn’t imagine her being a runaway criminal. So he challenged her. “You don’t get your chai until you tell me your name.”
“You don’t scare me,” she blurted. ‘Damnit, now I have to tell him,’ she silently cursed. ‘Nice going there, self.’
After a few seconds of silence, she continued. “Lena. That’s my name.”
Owen was quite shocked. ‘Just Lena?”
“Yeah, just Lena. Did you think that I was an Althea or a Carolina or something else ridiculous?
Was Lena reading Owen’s mind? He didn’t want to give her the glory of knowing it, however. “I believe I’ll remember it, Lena.”
‘He sure does know how to avoid the question,’ thought Lena, as Owen handed her the café chai. “You expected me to be more exquisite, a diamond rather than a pearl, eh?”
“No, er...-” But she walked away faster than he could speak.
At least now he could safely assume that she was French-Canadian. The ‘eh’s’ and the smooth flow of her words said it all. But what was a French-Canadian doing in Pennsylvania?
“L’Éternel, Vous m’aidez, s’il Vous plaît ?” Lena had been in Philadelphia for only a few days, yet people were already noticing her. So much for her plan to run from her past; surely curious people like Owen would Google her. What if he knew her last name, too? Then he’d type it into the search engine, and there it would be, the first result on the list. Lena had checked it many times only to find it glued in its place. As long as it was there, no one would care to scroll down to find the GPA award listing or her poem that won her college money from the Canadian Authors’ Association.
No, Owen would burn inside once he traced her past all the way back to her middle-school infamy. He’d order her deportation, if not her execution. Oh, well; she’d just have to enjoy what little time she had attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
Owen figured that he’d wind up watching the door for Lena instead of doing business as usual if she intrigued him even half an iota more, which he was sure she’d do. After all, she did walk into Starbucks every afternoon. He wondered where she attended college, attempting to not keep his hopes up that she went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia. She probably didn’t take night classes, either, which Owen had to do so that he could work during the day in order to pay housing costs.
“Café chai, if you don’t mind, or do I have to do something this time in order to deserve it?”
Owen jumped back, causing him to run into the espresso machine behind him. What a cruel irony it was that the very same lady about whom he was daydreaming startled him back into reality! She looked damn proud of it, too, with that vainglorious grin spread wide across her face.
“Well, a proud woman like you must be proud of her heritage,” declared Owen, once he had regained his composure.
“I don’t believe for a second that you don’t know where I’m from,” Lena maintained.
“I meant your last name.”
“Then you mean my lineage, not my heritage.”
Owen would ask her to help him write his English papers-that is, if he could be her friend. He wasn’t sure how to go about achieving that here and now, not to mention that she impressed him.
“So tell me your lineage, and you get your chai,” he pressed.
Lena silently accused Owen of being a Googler. She knew better than to give him the tools to access the webpage of her shame. “I’m a paying customer, you know.”
Owen took the wallet she had set on the counter and shoved it back into her purse. “Now you’re not. It’s on me.”
Lena smirked back at him. “Why in the world would a guy like you be so hell-bent on impressing a lady like me?”
Owen and his co-workers erupted in unreserved laughter. Well, at this rate it wouldn’t be long before they all knew the abashment that burned beneath her confident exterior. “Just get me my café chai, if that isn’t too much to ask.”
“Tell me your last name, if that isn’t too much to ask,” Owen pressured her.
It was too much to ask; the problem was that she’d look like an idiot if she played that card. There was certainly no use in looking like an idiot on top of her historical scoundrel status. “Roquébrune. Now give me my chai before the caffeine receptors in my brain revolt against you!”
“At your service, Mademoiselle Roquébrune’s caffeine receptors,” said Owen.
‘Merde,’ she silently cursed. French pronunciation didn’t seem to phase Owen. Lena was sure he’d shun her the next time they saw each other; he’d have plenty of time to Google her between now and then.
Owen zoned out as the Dr. Horton called attendance. It was Thursday night, which meant that for three consecutive hours, he would have to vegetate over poetry and stories he couldn’t write. ‘Why is this a requisite course for studio art majors?’ he silently wondered.
“Here,” a French-sounding voice deadpanned.
Owen jolted, nearly falling out of his seat. Lena was here? He was sure he’d lost his mind to its own imaginative vortex, although he certainly wouldn’t forget the name.
Still too shaken to speak, he raised his hand. Then he surveyed the room until he spotted Lena, who was sitting in the front row, paying attention only to her journal.
“Class, I doubt that each one of you knows everyone else in the room. So tonight, you will pair up and write character sketches of each other,” the teacher said. “You can choose your partner if you can trade seats in ten seconds.”
Owen knocked the chair over and shoved his way to the front of the classroom. There wasn’t anyone else he wanted to know more than Lena.
“Why am I not surprised?” Lena grumbled when Owen sat down next to her. So much for being shunned-and for Owen having time to Google her.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” countered Owen. “Now you have to tell me everything about you.” Despite saying that, Owen was certain that Lena would hide as much information as possible. But she couldn’t hide everything.
No way in hell would Lena spill her every detail to Owen. “You don’t need to know everything about me. And I bet that you won’t tell me everything about you.”
Owen chuckled. “I’m just a regular Philadelphia guy.”
“You’ll have to explain that to me. I do not know what regular Philadelphia guys are like.” Other than American, pushy, and good-looking, that was.
Oh, well; it looked like Owen would have to go first. He planned to speed through it so that he could make Lena spend most of the time talking about herself.
“So tell me, Lena, who are you?”
Reviled. Detestable. Infamous. Scared to death that Owen would find out all of it. She’d just have to emphasize her intellectual assets enough to keep her personal history out of it. “I’m an author,” she began, and immediately regretted telling him.
So Lena was a crime thriller author, a sharp contrast, Owen believed, to who she seemed to be. Maybe she had family who worked in law enforcement; perhaps she read case files. Surely she had no criminal history from which to formulate her stories.
The whole character sketch that Owen wrote about Lena pertained to her writing ability. Owen knew that wasn’t anywhere near all she was. He wanted to know who she was other than intelligent, talented, proud, assertive, mysterious…and desirable.
“You need an espresso,” Owen’s manager insisted.
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. Zoning out on the job isn’t going to get you paid.”
Owen stood up and began to mix espresso macchiato. He needed to work now in order to earn the money if he were to take Lena out.
“Where does Coffee Addicts Anonymous meet?” an unmistakable voice facetiously asked.
Owen couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he turned around to face Lena. “Right here, and there’s plenty of chai.”
“Actually, I want whatever it is I smell brewing in here.”
Well, there were certainly some emotions brewing in this room-in Owen, specifically. But, of course, he knew what Lena meant and heaved a sigh before doubling the espresso macchiato.
“Whistle while you work, and perhaps you’ll be more cheerful on the job today.”
“I never learned how to whistle,” groaned Owen.
“Neither did I.”
She was funny and sarcastic, too. He learned in a few minutes what she wouldn’t tell him in an hour during class. Imagine that.
“Hey, Owen,” Roger whispered. “Take your break time now while she’s here.”
Lena felt like an idiot now that Owen had managed to persuade her to walk around Washington Square with him on Saturday evening. Sure, she’d love to see the historical landmarks of early America, but she could do that without company-or at least without Owen.
Owen was a good guy, no doubt about that. The problem was that Lena knew that she wasn’t a good woman, and when Owen found out why, Lena was sure he’d throw her out of his class, coffee shop, and life forever just like she’d been thrown out of Québec City’s public schools. The only thing different would be that she would lose the respect of a good man.
Not that she liked Owen in that way, or so she thought.
Washington Square was lively and bustling with people on Saturday evening. Lena made sure to comment about it.
“I know. It’s hard to believe that this very place was once a graveyard for fallen Revolutionary soldiers,” said Owen.
“We’re walking on top of dead people?!” Lena could picture Revolutionaries shoveling the dirt out of the ground and then over the bodies of their fallen comrades. It reminded her of sitting across the street from her middle school, watching the local trash collectors shoveling the wreckage and dumping it into the garbage truck, only to unload it all in the landfill later. Like the American Revolutionaries cleaning up the redcoats’ mess, the trash collectors had been cleaning up Lena’s mess.
“Better in the ground than left for the vultures,” Owen concluded. He found Lena’s inquisitive nature to be incredibly alluring.
How Lena wished that her past could be buried with the dead soldiers, forgotten, untouched, unacknowledged! But instead she had to run from the vultures. Maybe, hopefully, she had a knight in Owen.
Owen wrapped his arm around Lena’s shoulder and drew her in so that she was leaning against him. “Do you mind if we just walk out here and be at peace, pretend like there’s no one and nothing else traversing the roads?” He wished that he could share Washington Square just with Lena there, even if only for a few precious moments.
“That sounds like a perfect idea to me.” The tuned-out cacophony and Owen’s embrace were solace for Lena, unintimidating unlike approaching Owen at the coffee shop and receiving the googly-eyed stares from Owen’s co-workers. For these few precious moments, her past would be meaningless. For these few precious moments, her life would be perfect.
“Owen, I honestly didn’t learn much from the character sketch you wrote about Lena,” said Dr. Horton.
Pretending not to understand, Owen asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you didn’t describe Lena as a human, only as a professional. The fact that she’s an author doesn’t describe her character. Owen, who is Lena Roquébrune?”
“That’s a good question, Dr. Horton.”
“I know. And it’s an excellent one to answer. I’ll give you two weeks to figure it out.”
Owen was pretty sure that there was no way he’d meet the challenge. He’d known Lena for two weeks and had managed to take her out once but had few explanations and numerous questions about her that she never volunteered, and only with chai could she be pressured to answer the simple questions. Forget the big questions. “I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can, Owen. Just ask her.”
“Been there, done that, and failed miserably.” He’d had to coerce her in order to make her speak.
“But you’re still intrigued by her. You’ll find a way if you’re interested enough.”
Lena ordered her usual café chai for the third time in six hours when she came to the coffee shop after her Wednesday afternoon class.
“You’ll have to do something this time if you want it.” Owen was up to his antics again.
“What is it this time?”
“Tell me something about your life in Canada, and why you chose to leave from there.”
Lena wouldn’t step up to this challenge. She couldn’t, either. She couldn’t justify what she would have to tell him, not that he would give her the chance to do so. “I don’t want my chai that bad.” With that, she turned around and left, knowing that she could never return.
“Lena, wait!” Owen urged her. But she ignored him, spared him of the unnecessary knowledge and herself of any worse pain-or so she hoped.
Sitting at his desk in front of the computer screen, Owen felt terribly dishonest for what he was about to do. Unfortunately, he was down to the last day of the two-week extension that Dr. Horton had granted him for redoing the character sketch of Lena.
Lena hadn’t let on to anything more about herself. Owen knew that she was afraid to tell him, but he couldn’t imagine why. What could she possibly have to hide?
Resignedly, Owen typed the keywords ‘Lena Roquébrune’ into the Google search bar, then closed his eyes when he pressed the Enter key. He opened his eyes only to find hundreds of listings. How could she keep a low profile when her name revealed vast content on the Internet?
He began to scroll through the listings, only to find that he couldn’t go beyond the first result. It was a headline stating, “Suspects arrested in school library arson”.
‘This has to be a Google-bomb,’ Owen thought. Still, though, he clicked on it. And found the horrible truth in the face in the mug shot that stared back at him from the screen.
“Owen, do you have your rewritten character sketch to turn in?” Dr. Horton asked Owen as he entered the classroom on Thursday evening.
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry,” was all he could manage to utter as he half-consciously sauntered to his desk.
A few minutes later, Lena sat down in her front-row seat. If she had any shame at all, she seemed to be numb to it tonight.
‘What a hypocrite,’ Owen silently insulted her, ‘even if she is beautiful.’
“Café chai, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, Lena,” said Roger, who then proceeded to mix the coffee and chai.
“Where’s Owen tonight?” she inquired.
“He took the night off. Said he had homework piling up.”
“Owen, get the mop!” the manager’s voice stridently commanded. “One of the coffee makers leaked!”
“Apparently he didn’t have too tall a stack of papers.” Lena glowered at Roger, then made her way behind the counter and into the kitchen, where Owen was mopping a spill. Why hadn’t Lena known any better than to enter the coffee shop at this time of night?
“Owen, what’s going on?” she asked him. But he didn’t answer.
“What in the hell do you want, Lena?” he fulminated.
Lena couldn’t believe his attitude toward her. “I want to know what the hell is going on.”
“Wait one second.” Owen entered the manager’s office, then returned with a stapled document. “This is what the hell is going on.”
Lena took one glance at the article she’d read countless times before. “You Googled me. Why didn’t you just tell me that you were worried?”
“Because you wouldn’t reveal anything, Lena. You just wanted to come to Philadelphia and pretend that you were a good woman.”
Did hiding her past because of her fear of being hated constitute pretending? She had improved herself in the past six years enough to move away and build a new reputation but not enough to earn back her respect in Québec City. That was why she was in Philadelphia now. She had believed that she had a chance to be good again, but now she knew that would never happen. No matter where on Earth she went, she would always be the ex-juvenile arsonist, the criminal of her own passion. “I knew that something like this would happen when someone managed to trace my past. I left Québec City to escape the shame, only to run into it headlong again. You’re not going to forgive me, are you, Owen?”
“Lena, what kind of a writer do you think you are? You torched your middle school library!”
“I see that you didn’t read the article.”
Owen felt the redness of anger fade into the pallor of exposure. But he wasn’t about to let his guard down, and he felt like fighting. “I read the damn article. Lena, you’re a criminal no matter what side of the border you’re standing on.”
“Owen, reading the headline and looking at my mug shot do not constitute reading the article! You would know why I did it if you had read it.”
“Shut up, Owen, and don’t talk to me again until you know who you’re talking to.” Then Lena turned around and made her way out of the kitchen before exiting the coffee shop. Every click from the heels of her shoes sent a piercing ring through Owen’s ears, a piercing sensation that seemed to stab his heart bloodless.
What had made Lena think that the Americans wouldn’t be as judgmental as the Canadians she knew? At least the Canadians had read the article. What kind of person did Owen think he was by condemning her without knowing the details of her shameful past?
But then again, Lena knew that she shouldn’t expect anyone to be understanding. A crime was a crime even if it was committed out of passion. She’d always be an ex-convict, no matter how much character she could build throughout the rest of her life. Her genuine character would always seem to be a deception. And maybe if she had told Owen from the very beginning, she wouldn’t have fallen for him or become addicted to the café chai he served.
Fallen for him. Yeah, she was going to regret ever coming to Philadelphia now that she could never have Owen.
Owen felt like a total loser. He’d never before mistreated a woman on purpose. Why did he have to commit that crime at Lena’s expense? Her own crime had nothing to do with him. She’d sent her middle school library up in flames, reason unknown to Owen.
She’d set fire to his heart, method unknown. And she’d never hurt him; she had only kept her mouth shut about her past because she was familiar with the way people reacted to her. He should have been the one to break the cycle of hatred that surrounded her.
Did he still have a chance with her? He so desperately wanted to win back the woman he’d embraced at Washington Square. He wished he could hold her and kiss her wounds away, even and especially the ones he’d inflicted on her.
Owen powered up his computer. To hell with receiving no grade; he was going to do Dr. Horton’s assignment anyway, and he was going to do it for real this time. And while the computer loaded, Owen shredded the article.
“Dr. Horton, do you have a minute?” Owen entreated.
“Sure, what do you need, Owen?”
“I came here to turn in my character sketch of Lena.”
“Owen, you know it’s past due. I can’t accept it or give you your points for it.”
“That doesn’t matter. All I want is for Lena to receive it when you return the rest of the character sketches.”
Dr. Horton sighed. “Well, I suppose I could do that much. Just remember: no grade.”
“It’s fine. Thanks, Dr. Horton.” Owen smiled for the first time since before he discovered Lena’s past. He sent up a silent prayer that Lena would smile soon, too.
Lena drifted half-heartedly into the classroom on Thursday evening, not looking forward to being in the same room with Owen. She cared about him, yes, but he’d have to show that he cared about her before she’d let him know how she felt.
“Okay, class: Today I am going to return the character sketches. You will receive what your partner wrote about you and another sheet of paper with your own grade on it,” Dr. Horton announced before sending the stack of papers down the row.
For once, Lena regretted sitting on the front row. She didn’t want to read a word that Owen had written because she figured that he had either written page after page of accusation and hatred or a few lines of kindness that he no longer meant to say. But when Lena received the paper, she noticed the date on the page. Owen had written this only two days ago. No way would Dr. Horton have given Owen any points for it being so late, so why did he bother to write anything at all?
‘Jésus, protège mes yeux de l'haine, ouvre mes yeux à la bienveillance,’ Lena silently prayed before she began to read Owen’s description of her.
To her surprise, his words sounded genuine; he didn’t even mention her past shame. But it was the last paragraph that truly moved her.
"Lena Roquébrune isn’t a character enlivened by words; instead she brings words to life. I don’t know if she realizes that she can bring people to life as well, for she ignited a flame in me that I’ll forever regret extinguishing. I will sorely miss the woman I held on Washington Square."
“He loves me,” Lena whispered so quietly that even the person sitting next to her could not hear her. Nevertheless, she had said it now, said it to herself because there was no reason to doubt it anymore.
Owen sat in the now-peaceful center of Washington Square. He was alone this time, and the silence sang its loneliness to his heart. Would Owen ever find out if Lena had forgiven him? Did she even know that he forgave her for her past?
A few birds pitched a chirping fit in spite of the dark. Maybe they were as restless as Owen was. But they certainly weren’t alone, considering that they had each other to chirp at.
Someone to speak to in spite of the dark was exactly what Owen wanted. Even though Lena had dusted her past under the rug, she didn’t will herself to not speak at all. The funniest thing was that Owen loved Lena’s wry sarcasm. How he wished she would break the silence that shrouded him in the night!
“Nice crowd, eh?”
Owen jolted in response to the unexpected exotic voice. He looked up ahead of him-there she was, regardless of expectation. Then she flashed a heart-stopping smile to him.
“Yes, a very nice crowd,” said Owen.
Lena sat down next to him. “You write so well.”
Owen chuckled. “I’m no raconteur; I’m just a regular Philadelphia guy.”
“You spilled heart and soul onto the page. Surely that counts for something.”
“Lena, will it count for us?”
“Are you ready?”
“Yes.” Owen took Lena’s hand. “I’m ready to hold you here on Washington Square for more than just a few precious moments.” Then he lifted her and held her close, forgetting about time as he leaned in toward her to kiss away the past.
"Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not."-Jeremiah 33:3, King James Version
"Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path."-Psalm 119:105, New Living Translation
The present and future are not about who you were in the past-rather, they are about who you are and who you will become.
"Writing is truly glorious in that an author can put on paper the words that fear denies the voice to speak."-from my short story, "Set Free"
"...What you feel is what you are;
What you are is beautiful..."
-from "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls
Life surprises you! And I'm talking about the good stuff, because a bad surprise is not a surprise at all, it is just shock and horror. All of these good surprises, they are rewards, and the things that happen to remind you that you matter and that you should make yourself faithful so that you can be deserving of all of life's good surprises. Every wonderful surprise in life is a chance to flourish, so grab life by the horns-but don't ride, steer instead: life's horns are life's joystick. You can handle it, because your life's horns are made especially for you. If you don't give up, all of this will hold true and life will continue to surprise you.
Aubri, a. k. a. "Leopard Lady"