He couldn’t hear her over the roar of the espresso machine and the steady hum of dozens of people talking all at once. Still, he watched her lips move from above the hardcover he wasn’t really reading in the quiet corner of the coffeehouse.
Her order was the same as always. He recited it from memory: Café Marocchino with a drizzle of caramel.
If he closed his eyes, he could still remember the way her breath smelled as she drank it. Nutty from the espresso, chocolaty from the cocoa powder, with just a hint of sweet as she dipped the tip of her index finger into the drink and licked off a drip of caramel.
His lips curved involuntarily.
They had so many memories in this place. The two of them curled up on a chair meant for one, giggling as they tried to balance Scrabble tiles on their laps without the other seeing. The throaty sound of her laughter as he recited Shakespeare with the most horrid English accent he could muster. Her smile, so brilliant it lit his soul on fire, even from the other side of the table as she leaned back in her chair to take a sip of her drink.
There were days, those magical days, when the afternoon coffee turned into a moonlit walk on the beach. Their bare feet brushing past each other in the sand, her hand warm and firm in his.
He cherished those moments, the rare and singular time in his life when he’d thought nothing could ever be better. That his happiness was so thorough it would see no end.
He was wrong.
His mind reeled from the force of the memories falling on him like giant hailstones from the sky.
Moonlit walks became home-cooked meals. His failed attempt at a souffle like something out of a sitcom. Her uproarious laughter as she rushed to extinguish the out of control crème brûlée. The smell of cinnamon and vanilla on the apron she left hanging in his pantry. Their faces and hands covered in flour, the aroma of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven wafting over the apartment they came to share.
The soft press of her lips on his, smelling of spices and tasting of home.
Each moment tumbled into the next, as though he could relive their entire lives in an instant.
Her tears as he opened the velvet box housing the ring that would bind her to him. The way his breath hitched when he first caught her silhouette in her wedding gown. The countless number of times he felt his stomach turn just as she walked through a doors.
He brushed away tears he didn’t realize were falling.
He should never have come here. He should never have risked it.
This woman, lacking the smile lines and the crow’s feet he came to love, was not his Julie. But seeing her, so young again, stirred something painful inside of him.
She smiled at the barista and made her way to the high back chair they used to frequent.
He couldn’t breathe.
He had to go before he did something he’d regret.
He rushed to his feet, placing the book back on the table and gathering his jacket. He didn’t see her coming. Didn’t expect the impact of her shoulder against his.
“I’m sorry,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “I was trying to reach over you. Were you done with that?”
He looked back down at the collection of Shakespearean sonnets. Her brown eyes were the same chocolate color he remembered. She still smelled like cinnamon and vanilla.
She was the proverbial apple. All he had to do was reach for a taste and he’d have it all. Everything he wanted, needed, to continue breathing. And risk breaking a hole in the universe in order to recoup his happiness.
“I’m done,” he said gruffly, walking away from all they could be, knowing that they lived that lifetime and it was not his right to try and take it again.
Even if his Julie was gone.