From the Cradle to the Grave
Author's Notes: Hey guys! I know, I know... all I can say is WOW it's been a heck of a long time since I've posted anything. I'm sure a lot of you have completely given up hope on me, which I don't blame you for! I'm so sorry that I've been gone for so long. It hasn't been intentional, I promise. The thing is: I'm in grad school now, and when I say I haven't had time to write, I mean I literally have had ZERO time to write. Considering this chapter and the next one will basically be all new as opposed to edited, that's why it's taken me so long. I've also just had the biggest writer's block in terms of getting Meredith's emotional reaction just to my liking, but I won't bore you with my rant.
For those of you asking if I could just post the remaining chapters so you'd know what happens, gotta break it to you that the story was never finished anyway! We're almost caught up to the point where I left off and decided to start editing. Anyways, I don't want to ramble on too long... again, I am very sorry for how long it's taken me. I really will try to do better in the future (graduation is a mere two months away!) I promise I haven't given up on this story, no matter how long it may take me. I love these characters and want to see them through to the end! Anyway... enjoy and please don't forget to review! And THANK YOU to all my faithful readers... you mean the world.
Chapter 22 – Enough to Break the Ice
It was that perfect time of day in New York City; no longer late afternoon, not quite early evening. The sky, until recently a striking, vivid shade of pale blue, had just begun to allow the warm pastel hues of dusk to seep into its turquoise expanse. The inky shadows of the high rises and storefronts were slowly but surely creeping up the streets as the golden sun gradually sank beneath the distant horizon. A wave of cool air brought in by the night was beginning to settle over the city, dropping the previously sweltering temperature of the daytime down to a pleasant 70 degrees.
Ideal conditions for a night out on the town: clear skies, breezy, calm (as calm as Manhattan could get, anyway).
And on that cool summer evening, Meredith Cable walked down 8th Avenue.
Briskly, purposefully, her gait and pace suggesting both a clear destination as well as a certain nervous, overwrought energy. Every muscle in her body taut, face unsmiling and pensive, brown eyes focused with laser beam-like precision on some unknown point of interest ahead; burning right through the hustle and bustle of the city around her, oblivious to the chaos.
She looked lovely that night. After what had felt like hours of frantically trying on and subsequently discarding dozens of outfit choices, she had finally settled on a stylish but casual airy black dress that showed off her mile-long legs and dewy, sun-kissed skin. Her long blonde hair fell down her back in loose, summery waves, bouncing playfully around her shoulders as she walked. Her cheeks were glowing, her eyes shimmery, her plump lips glossed and lustrous.
On the surface, she embodied calm, carefree, effortless beauty, exuding understated elegance as she strode down the street, attracting many an appreciative stare from male passerby...
Inside, it was a slightly different story.
She still couldn't believe any of it. Her and Chris crossing paths in the restaurant in the coincidence of the century (after weeks of dreaming about him, no less). Catching up over coffee. His shocking career change and overall life makeover...
And, of course, him inviting her out to dinner as they parted ways, and her—in a move that surprised even herself—ending up tentatively accepting.
To an extent, it still didn't feel real. Part of her felt as though she were moving through a dream. Looking back, their entire chance encounter had already been reduced to nothing more than a fleeting, surreal blur in her mind; an indecipherable mishmash of sights and sounds and strange, disconcerting, conflicting—and ultimately exhilarating—feelings she hadn't felt in...
Well, a very long time.
She had woken up that morning from a restless, troubled sleep feeling immediately skeptical of her own memory. Had she dreamt it? Running into him like this after all this time... it all just seemed so abrupt, so sudden, so... impossible. The more she tried to rehash it, the fuzzier her recollection became. She had gone about the day feeling strangely unsettled about the entire thing, almost to the point of convincing herself it hadn't happened after all; that it had been nothing more than a figment of her overwrought, bored, excitement-starved imagination.
But no. Sure enough, as she had been sitting there eating her lunch and reading a book in a fruitless effort to distract herself from the bizarre feeling in the pit of her stomach, the phone had rang. And when that all-too-familiar deep, rich, husky voice sounded in her ear, sending shivers of pleasure down her spine like it always had, she knew.
"Hi... Meredith? Hey, it's Chris. Glad I had the right number..."
So she hadn't dreamt it after all.
It was official.
This was really happening. Chris Shumway, her long-lost high school crush who she had never thought she'd ever lay eyes on again, materializing out of the blue, back in her life as quickly as he had left it all those years ago.
Before she knew it, she was agreeing to meet him at a brand new, absurdly popular hotspot right there in Chelsea. Though she'd heard that getting reservations for anything less than a month in advance was nearly impossible, Chris had apparently worked with the executive chef in the past and had managed to pull some strings. He had raved about the food and the creativity of the menu and insisted on taking her there... and who was she to question him? He was the newly minted professional chef, after all. And something about his newfound passion was intoxicating.
She didn't know how to feel. For the most part, she was handling it as she'd hoped she'd handle it: coolly, rationally, neutrally, with the appropriate and necessary emotional distance. As though he were just like any other old acquaintance she'd happened to cross paths with again. No need to get bent out of shape or nervous about it, her more calm, logical side told herself resolutely, because that would mean Chris Shumway was SPECIAL to you. When really, he was nothing more than some guy you had a stupid, juvenile crush on once. It's all in the past. You've moved on. There's nothing left there.
And for the better part of the day, her self-talk had been working.
But just when she'd think she had a complete handle on her state of mind, other less-than-desirable emotions would creep up on her without warning. One minute, she'd feel calm, cool, and collected about the impending evening... the next, suddenly, unexpectedly trapped in a vise grip of nerves, a million worries and doubts flooding her mind and drowning any last shred of self-assurance. She'd feel the older, stronger, and wiser 22-year-old she'd become regressing abruptly back into her fragile, insecure 18-year-old self, powerless to stop the transformation as panicked questions began stacking up in her head. Oh, god, was this a terrible idea? What the hell was she doing? WHY was she even doing this? Was it even possible to strike up any kind of real friendship with him after everything that had happened?
And, most importantly, and most alarmingly of all: could it be that maybe, just maybe... her feelings for Chris had been MORE than a "stupid, juvenile crush" as she'd so dismissively labeled it before...?
Even the mere thought of it was petrifying; one that chilled her to the bone, sending a most unwelcome shiver of fear down her spine. And suddenly, just as abruptly and just as disturbingly, an image of his dazzling, dimple-ridden smile or the sound of his deep, throaty laugh would pop into her head... and with it, hints of strange, guilty, terrifying giddy excitement, stealthily worming its way into her consciousness no matter how hard her more rational side tried to drown it out.
It was all terribly unsettling.
She didn't like it. Not one little bit.
"Mere... are you sure you want to do this?" Paige had asked her earlier that evening, looking on with growing concern as Meredith rushed around their apartment frantically trying to get ready, nerves exposed. "There's still time. You can still call him up and cancel."
"It'll be fine, Paige," she insisted resolutely, doing her best to look reassuring. "I'm fine, if that's what you're really wondering."
Paige heaved a deep sigh, reaching up to rub her temples. "Look, no one would blame you if you backed out," she pressed on. "The man broke your heart, for crying out loud!"
At this, Meredith visibly tensed. But, swallowing hard, mouth set in a grim, serious line, she let out a mirthless chuckle as she put in her earrings. "'Broke my heart'? That's a little dramatic, don't you think?" she said jokingly, her voice holding a slightly biting, defensive edge. "Let's not give him that much credit."
Paige stared at her, eyes narrowed to beady slits, desperately trying to get an accurate read on her emotions. The next sentence came after a lengthy pause, and Meredith could tell her best friend was trying to be as delicate as possible: "Look, I know you're over it and everything, but... I don't know. I just... worry that this might not be the best idea."
Meredith turned towards her, fixing her friend with a level stare, challenging her. "Why do you say that?"
Paige shrugged, throwing up her hands in exasperation. "I mean... I dunno. What's the sense in throwing salt in old wounds, you know? You told me yourself that he's been on your mind a lot lately, and let's face it... you were pretty pressed on him back then. Who knows what kind of weird old leftover feelings might rise to the surface? Why risk reopening a door that was closed so long ago? And for good reason, might I add."
Sighing, Meredith sat down on the bed next to her friend and fixed her with an earnest, level stare. "Look, I get what you're saying. I really do. And I appreciate your concern," she said, reaching over and patting Paige's arm reassuringly. "I mean... yes, I won't deny it: I did really like him back then. And yes, he... did hurt me." She paused, feeling a sudden sharp pang in her heart, but put on a brave smile and continued. "But that was such a long time ago. I'm a totally different person now, and from what it sounds like, he is too. I can handle this, Paige. I'll be fine. It's all in the past."
Even as the words escaped her lips, she heard how it sounded: like she was trying convince herself more than anyone else. She felt her heart skip a beat.
Her best friend paused, giving her a long, weary look. "It's not that I don't think you can handle it, Mere," she replied slowly, her brow crinkled in worry. "It's just... why? Why go to dinner with him at all? What's the point?"
That one simple question had stopped Meredith dead in her tracks.
There was certainly no easy answer.
Deep down, she knew Paige was right. On the surface, this seemed like an utterly pointless exercise. It had all happened so long ago... four and a half years, to be exact. Everything between them was water under the bridge now. They had both long since moved on to very different chapters in their lives.
So what WAS the point?
Her better judgment was telling her it was probably smartest to let sleeping dogs lie. No sense in risking a painful part of her past becoming a part of her present.
And, of course, there was the guilt factor. That nagging little voice in the back of her mind trying to act as her moral compass. Quiet, but stubborn and persistent. She knew what she was doing wasn't exactly wrong per se... Chris was fully aware that she had a boyfriend, and she had gone even further to make sure it didn't feel like a date, insisting on meeting him at the restaurant even though he had kindly offered to come "pick her up" and walk there together. But still... the feeling remained. In a particularly stinging moment of guilt, she had tried calling Trent at work to at least mention it to him... but, of course, he hadn't picked up.
Yes, what had happened between them was ages ago. Yes, on the surface, it was just a casual dinner between two old friends. But she wasn't so naive to think that Trent would have been thrilled had he known the identity of her dinner companion.
But somehow, even as all of the reasons why not began to stack up in her head, she still couldn't help but feel like this was something she just had to do. There was something drawing her in; a strange, incessant feeling lodged in her gut pushing her firmly in that direction despite all her misgivings.
Why? She wasn't exactly sure. Curiosity? Closure? Confirmation that she was, in fact, completely, 100 percent over him? Perhaps her vengeful, immature side wanting to show him how well she was doing without him? Or maybe... reassurance that the "connection" she had felt so strongly between them five years ago had been nothing more than fleeting, hormone-fueled adolescent infatuation; nothing enduring... nothing worth pining over or dwelling on?
Or perhaps... something else. Something that she couldn't even allow herself to think, much less say out loud.
She honestly didn't know. The list of potential subconscious motivations seemed endless and impossible to narrow down. But she had ended up giving in to her gut all the same, and now, it was too late. Here she was, all dolled up and on her way to meet him... for better or for worse.
Heaving a slight sigh, she glanced down to check her watch.
It was 7:05.
"Shit," she muttered under her breath, quickening her pace, the clacking of her high heels striking the pavement echoing through the air.
Three blocks and several minutes later, she slowed down to find herself in front of her destination, both the tantalizing aromas of superb food and the noise of the crowd inside wafting out from the double glass doors.
Meredith paused, staring at the doorway with wide, wary eyes. She'd left the apartment feeling confident about her decision to go, her mantras of calm, cool, collected level-headedness having seemed to have stuck for the time being. But suddenly, she felt herself hesitating, her stomach full of butterflies at the thought of his piercing pale blue gaze. Allowing her eyes to ship shut for a moment, she let out a deep breath, doing her best to compose herself.
It's going to be OK, Meredith, she reassured herself one last time. It's just dinner. What's the worst that could happen?
Finally, taking one last deep breath and putting on her most brave face, she strode forward and threw open the door.
Immediately, she felt as though she had stepped into a different world: the din of bar chatter, the warmth of the modern wood paneling lining the walls, the dim, soft mood lighting being emitted from the dramatic, sculptural chandeliers overhead, the smell of delicious, decadent food immediately filling her nostrils.
Before she even had time to take it all in, she was greeted by the tall, statuesque, utterly glamorous hostess.
"Good evening and welcome," the girl said with a white-toothed smile, her voice well-rehearsed and smooth as silk. "Reservation name?"
"Oh... hi," Meredith replied, still slightly on-edge. "I think it should be under Shumway for 2?"
One glance at her computer screen, and the hostess's lips broke into an apologetic smile. "Ah, yes. Unfortunately, it's going to be a few minutes. We're very sorry for any inconvenience." She pointed a long, perfectly-manicured finger in the direction of the bar. "The other member of your party just checked in a few minutes ago. I believe he's waiting in the bar area. You're welcome to go grab a drink in the meantime... we'll let you know when the table's ready."
"Perfect. Thank you," the blonde replied with a grateful smile, before turning to face the bustling bar area. She took a moment to scan the beautiful, stylish, undeniably hip crowd mingling at the bar, expensive-looking cocktails in hand as they made small talk.
And suddenly, there he was.
Standing there all by his lonesome at one of the bar tables, leisurely sipping on his beer, bright turquoise gaze flittering aimlessly around the restaurant. He was dressed nicely but casually, looking clean-cut and classically handsome in khakis and a pale blue button-down that almost matched his eyes. Much to her chagrin, Meredith felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of him, her eyes lingering on his chiseled features in spite of herself. She gulped.
God, he was attractive.
She immediately heaved a deep sigh of frustration, embarrassed at her reaction. Why did old habits have to die so hard?
She hadn't even finished inwardly chastising herself when his piercing gaze found her through the crowd. Eyes lighting up in recognition, his lips broke into a sexy smirk as he raised his arm to wave at her. Forcing herself to return his smile, she gave a little wave back, beginning to meekly, daintily, almost hesitantly push her way through the throng of people towards him.
Before she knew it, she felt a tall, imposing shadow fall over her. Slowly, she tilted her chin to look upwards... and found herself staring into a pair of all-too-familiar spellbinding blue eyes.
"There you are."
The sound of his pleasant baritone voice sent a shudder of pleasure shooting down her spine.
Meredith smiled up at him uncomfortably, feeling her stomach tighten. "Here I am. Sorry I'm a little late."
Chris's lips twisted upwards into that adorable half-smile she used to love so much. "Oh, it's fine. No need to be sorry."
Suddenly, before she knew what was happening, he was leaning down, moving his face closer and closer to hers... to hug her? Kiss her...? Instinctively, she felt herself jerk backwards skittishly in alarm, immediately feeling foolish as soon as she saw the confused look on his face.
"O-Oh," she muttered, giggling sheepishly. "Sorry..."
Exchanging embarrassed glances and awkward laughs, they tried again. Meredith hesitantly began to lean forward in greeting, meeting him halfway. She couldn't help but let out a soft gasp of surprise as she felt his strong hand materialize on the small of her back, pulling her closer to him. All she could do was continue to stand there like a deer in headlights, suddenly paralyzed with a mixture of exhilaration and nerves. Those striking blue eyes never leaving hers, he leaned down again.
Time seemed to stand still as she felt his soft lips graze her cheek in a kiss, his mouth lingering there for just a millisecond too long. She felt her skin tingle all over at his touch, a warm sensation instantaneously shooting through her body like wildfire. Her eyes slipped shut for a fleeting, beautiful moment, suddenly feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand up at the sensation of his hot breath on her cheek, of his hint of stubble brushing against her skin, the intoxicating scent of his aftershave filling her nostrils...
But she jerked backwards suddenly, cheeks reddening in embarrassment as her guard went flying back up.
Chris followed suit and pulled back, smiling at her a little awkwardly. They both stood there for a moment in silence, not exactly sure of what to do with themselves.
Finally, he cleared his throat. "Glad you were free tonight," he said kindly, breaking the ice. She felt his burning gaze survey her up and down appreciatively, looking on in silent awe, his voice suddenly getting quieter. "You look... lovely, as always."
Still reeling from the undercurrent of sensuality in his greeting, Meredith managed to force an uncomfortable smile at his compliment. "Oh... thanks. You look nice, too."
Another slightly awkward pause.
"So did you find the place OK?" he asked.
"Yup," she replied, her voice overly cheerful, nodding. "It ended up being a pretty short walk. Only about 10 minutes or so."
"Well, glad to hear it. That's not so bad."
"No, not at all."
He jerked his thumb in the direction of the hostess. "I went ahead and checked us in, but of course, they're behind. It might be a while before they can seat us." He shrugged apologetically. "Sorry about that. This place is always so packed even a reservation doesn't guarantee you a table right away. Are you hungry now? We can order an appetizer or something if you are..."
"Oh, no, I'm fine," she reassured him, shaking her head.
Chris still didn't look convinced. "Are you sure? Because it really wouldn't be a problem..."
"No, no, it's fine. Really," she cut him off, flashing an agreeable smile. "I can wait."
He grinned broadly at her. "You won't be disappointed. The food is seriously amazing here. It's well worth waiting for." He gave her a quick wink, before gesturing towards his beer. "Can I get you a drink in the mean time?"
Her eyes widened. Alcohol was sounding fantastic right about then. Anything to calm her nerves. She nodded eagerly, only too aware of how painfully uptight she was still feeling. "Sure. A vodka tonic would be great, thanks."
"The hard stuff, huh? I like where your head's at." Upon her attempts at forking over a couple of five-dollar bills, he laughed, shaking his head at her. "No way, Jose. Everything's on me tonight."
Meredith stared up at him, lips breaking into an uneasy smile, insistently thrusting the money at him once more. "No, no, I insist..."
"No, I insist," Chris cut her off, grinning at her warmly, eyes sparkling. "My treat. Your money's no good here."
When he refused to take her money for a third time, she finally gave up. Sighing, she put the cash back in her wallet, dually touched and slightly thrown off by his generosity. Insisting on paying for everything at an expensive place like this? That seemed like a gesture dangerously veering towards...
She swallowed hard.
"I'll be right back. One vodka tonic coming right up," Chris told her, touching her arm gently. And with one last obliging grin, he turned and headed in the direction of the bar, leaving her standing at their table, all alone.
Meredith looked down at the arm where his strong hand had been only moments before, dismayed to find her skin still tingling. It was as though every look, every touch burned a hole right through her flesh, a searing imprint left behind on each place his hand had been. To her dismay, she could feel that all-too-familiar anxiety beginning to bubble back up from somewhere deep inside of her, her confidence from mere minutes prior once again being swallowed up by her nerves.
She heaved an irritated sigh. What the hell was wrong with her? Before yesterday, she hadn't seen the man in almost five years, for crying out loud. Why, after all this time, did her body still have to react like this to him...?
She glanced over at the nearby crowd, her eyes immediately picking out his towering figure standing at the bar, presumably placing their drink order with the female bartender. The woman was leaning over the counter on her elbows to talk to him, certainly only too aware of how much cleavage she was exposing, a flirtatious smile playing on her lips, looking completely engrossed in their conversation.
Meredith continued to watch in grim amusement as the bartender threw back her head and laughed uproariously at a joke he'd made, reaching across the bar and slapping his arm playfully. Chris's mouth broke into that million-dollar, absurdly charming grin of his in response, chuckling good-naturedly back at her, turquoise eyes sparkling.
Sighing, her eyes found the front door, an idle thought suddenly dawning on her. It couldn't have been more than 15... 20 feet away, at most. She imagined herself stealthily slipping out of the restaurant and into the night, back to her safe, predictable world where Chris Shumway was nothing more than a long-forgotten piece of her teenage romantic past. He would come back to the table all smiles, drinks in hand... only to find her long gone.
And that would be that. Rightly so. She felt relief wash over her at the mere thought, letting out a breath she didn't even realize she'd been holding in. Only a few steps and she'd be free, free from that gut-wrenching, nervous, hopelessly irritating feeling in the pit of her stomach, from the spell of those pretty eyes and winning, white-toothed smile...
What had started as a silly, half-baked musing was slowly but surely taking hold, the idea sounding more and more appealing by the minute as she turned it over in her mind. She could do it. She really could. Was it rude? Yes. Cowardly? Certainly. Ah, but wouldn't it be easy... oh so tantalizingly easy...
Her eyes flew to the bar once more. Chris was still standing there, drumming his fingers on the counter waiting patiently for their drinks. He happened to turn his head at that exact moment, and their eyes met through the crowd. He smiled at her warmly, raising his index finger to signal that he'd be back over in a minute.
Meredith forced herself to grin back, nodding politely at him in acknowledgment, before quickly turning away, forcing herself to come back to reality.
What the hell was she thinking? She couldn't just leave. God, the fact that she had even been contemplating it at all to begin with was just downright pathetic. She felt her teeth grit in shame and frustration. To run away without saying a word would prove once and for all—to Chris, to the world, and most importantly, to herself—that under his spell, she was rendered nothing more than a scared, weak, helpless little girl.
Get your shit together, Meredith, she thought to herself frustratedly. This is ridiculous. He's just a PERSON, for god's sake! A flesh-and-blood person just like you...
"Here you go."
The sound of that all-too-familiar deep voice snapped her out of her thoughts. Meredith turned just in time to see Chris walk up to her, a fizzling lowball glass in hand. "Sorry that took so long," he apologized. "The bar's totally slammed."
More like that bartender wanted to slam YOU, she couldn't help but think smugly to herself. Instead, she flashed him a grateful, slightly overzealous smile. "No worries. Thanks so much," she said, practically snatching the glass out of his hands and immediately putting it to her lips.
Chris watched in awe as she took several long, overeager gulps of her drink, eyes widening. "Whoa, there, tiger," he said, chuckling quietly to himself. "Thirsty, I take it?"
She felt her face get hot, flashing him a sheepish grin as she noted that her glass was suddenly almost empty. "Oh... sorry," she mumbled, letting out a slightly embarrassed laugh. "It's... been a long week."
He shrugged nonchalantly, an easy-going grin playing on his features. "Hey, no judgment. We've all been there. I know the feeling only too well."
She barely managed to nod stiffly at him. "Yeah."
A pause that was much too long.
Finally, Chris spoke up.
He imbued the word with a certain weight, a purposefulness, staccato-like; a period following it instead of a comma, as if he were indicating he was determined to start a stream of amiable, easy conversation with her even if it killed him. "I meant to ask you before: how are your parents doing these days?"
Meredith shrugged. "Oh... they're fine. Same old, same old, really. My dad's about to retire, so... they're both pretty happy about that, especially now that they have an empty nest."
He raised his eyebrows in approval. "Wow, good deal. Retiring at your dad's age? Not too shabby if you ask me, especially in this economy."
She nodded and forced a smile, still feeling maddeningly uptight. When was that damn drink going to kick in? "Yes, he's very lucky. And how about your parents? How have they been?"
"They're doing well, thanks," he replied. "Still living in Paris, actually. They loved it so much they didn't want to leave, even when my dad's work commitment over there was finished."
"Oh, cool. Must be nice."
"Yeah, seriously," he said with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
Yet another pause. Meredith felt that all-too-familiar twisting feeling begin to materialize down in her gut, before Chris spoke up yet again, clearly striving to fill up the silence before it got uncomfortable.
"And how are your sisters?" he asked. "What have they been up to?"
"Well, Katrina's all done with medical school, and now she's doing her residency up in Boston," she replied. "And Victoria's acting career is actually really taking off... she's had some pretty major TV roles lately."
He raised an eyebrow, clearly impressed. "You know, come to think of it, I could have sworn I saw her face when I was channel surfing the other day." He chuckled quietly. "Good to know I'm not losing my mind. Is she on anything I would've heard of?"
"Um... let's see. Right now she has a recurring role on that sitcom Day in the Life..."
"Oh, yeah. Of course! That show's huge. Wow, that's awesome."
"Yeah. We're all very proud of her."
"I bet. Before you know it, you're going to have a celebrity for a sister."
She let out a weak, unconvincing laugh. "I know, seriously."
He gazed down at her with searching eyes, and smiled warmly, clearly doing his best to engage her. "Well, please tell them all I say 'hello'. I'm glad they're all doing well."
She nodded stiffly. "Sure thing."
"It really has been too long."
God, she hated small talk.
Before the awkward pause even came, Chris was on it, desperately stretching out the conversation well past its limits like it were a piece of saltwater taffy. "Come to think of it, I really should just stop by the old neighborhood and say 'hi' to your parents in person. It'd be great to see them."
She flashed him a faint smile. "I'm sure they'd love that."
"They still live in the house you grew up in?"
"Yup, same house."
"Well, maybe I'll stop by soon then."
And then... nothing.
This time, there was no avoiding it: the long, uncomfortable silence rolled over them like a bitingly cold ocean wave as they both came to the grim realization that this was potentially going to be harder than either of them had thought it was going to be. The conversation, which used to flow with the greatest of ease between them all those years ago, was remaining stagnant, sluggish, awkward, cautious, neither of them quite knowing how to best approach this old and familiar, yet completely new person that had reappeared so suddenly in their respective lives. The two of them simply stood there, fidgeting and sipping on their drinks, the air between them infused with their unacknowledged torrid, dramatic history, a nice, fat elephant squeezed into that tiny restaurant amidst the crowd.
Chris was studying her carefully with those searching aquamarine eyes, trying to get a read on her. The smile tugging at his lips was at once encouraging, hopeful, and slightly frustrated: OK, I tried... now it's your turn.
He was waiting, she realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach... waiting for her to be the one to break the silence. All she could do was force a smile at him as she racked her brain for a suitable conversation starter... a funny story, a witty comment, a thoughtful question, anything... but none came. Her mind was suddenly alarmingly blank, her inherent shyness, that maddening, ever-present specter of a character trait of hers, deciding to rear its ugly head and clam her up. She inwardly grimaced as an image of a little red demon, cackling evilly and wringing his hands together in devilish glee, literally wiping her mind clean as though it were a dry-erase board, popped into her head.
The seconds dragged on, suddenly feeling more like hours. The silence persisted, growing more painful with every passing moment.
She sighed inwardly. It all still felt so strange. To be here... with him. After all this time. God, after everything, what were they even supposed to talk about? Their families, the weather, the state of the Middle East? Like nothing ever happened? The coffee shop had been easy; they had been able to rely on the broad, sweeping scope of the what have you been up to all these years? questions, on the non-threatening casualness of daylight. But this... this was something else. The dim lighting, the booze, her dress, the enveloping, sultry summer night air...
It was an entirely different beast.
This felt... intimate.
She sighed in frustration, mentally kicking herself as she fought to regain her poise. All she knew was that if this kept up, it was going to be a long night.
"So..." she began finally, drawing the word out, biding her time as her mind raced. She had to come up with something... something charming, ironic, scintillating...
He was staring down at her expectantly, clearly having drawn in his breath slightly, eyebrows raised as if to say, come on, you can do it... you're almost there!
She inwardly groaned. Jesus Christ, Meredith. You have social skills! Just... ask him something. ANYTHING...
And so, she opened her mouth, blurting the absolute first thing that came into her mind.
"Come here often?"
She mentally slapped herself as soon as she heard the cliched, oft-mocked phrase slip out of her lips.
OK, well... maybe not ANYTHING.
All she could do to recover was let out an awkward chuckle and look up at him sheepishly, apologizing with her eyes.
But Chris just laughed. A deep, rumbling, thick, pleasant laugh; that same good-natured guffaw she had always used to love. It was kind. Non-discriminatory. Unconditionally accepting. She instantly felt herself relax a little as she allowed its warmth to envelop her; let out a breath she hadn't even realized she had been holding in.
His laughter was infectious. She could feel it; trickling out at first as mere uncomfortable chuckles... then, abruptly, rolling up from her belly like thunder, and suddenly, unexpectedly, she was laughing too, entirely unsure as to the reason why.
They just stood there for several moments, giggling like school children for no real reason whatsoever, exchanging looks at once confused and surprised and, most of all, relieved; relieved that the awkwardness of it all was finally being acknowledged in its own way, relieved that the air suddenly felt a little less thick with tension, as if their laughter had sliced right through it, a silent, unspoken understanding passing between them.
As their chuckles finally began to subside, Chris gazed down at her, eyes glazed over with something that looked suspiciously like equal parts tenderness and nostalgia. Cracking a bemused smile, he pretended to look scandalized.
"Are you trying to... pick me up?"
Still chortling, she did her best to clear her throat confidently and shoot him a defiant, faux serious glare. "So it would appear."
He heaved a haughty, disdainful sigh in a nod to the beautiful, shallow, I'm-too-good-for-every-guy-in-this-bar girls that Manhattan was positively teeming with. "Aren't you a little old to be using corny pick-up lines?"
As hard as she tried to get it under control, the laughter kept shooting out of her mouth in short, machine-gun-like bursts. "Apparently not."
He rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Oh, come on, Meredith. As painfully awkward as that conversation was rapidly becoming, I know you can do better than that. Impress me, dammit. Be original."
All Meredith could do was keep laughing, shaking her head.
"I'm serious!" Chris cried. "It's time to literally sing for your supper." He couldn't even say it with a straight face.
She threw up her hands in submission. "I don't even know what you're asking for!"
"I'm more than just a piece of meat, you know. I have thoughts and feelings and dreams, too," he said overly seriously, folding his arms across his chest, challenging her, eyes twinkling with amusement. "So give me your best shot."
"Your best pick-up line. Go."
"Oh, come on..."
"You want dinner? You're gonna have to do better than 'come here often?'."
She rolled her eyes. "Chris..."
He continued to stare down at her incredulously, his eyes unblinking. "I'm waiting."
"OK, OK, OK, fine," she cut him off, holding her hands up defensively. "Hmmm..." She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, clearly sifting through all the ridiculous pick-up lines she'd heard over the years to pick out a winner. Finally, looking satisfied, she fixed him with an earnest stare. "OK... how much does a polar bear weigh?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "How much?"
"Enough to break the ice."
A pause for emphasis, a look exchanged, and it happened again: they both burst into laughter.
"How'd I do?" Meredith asked finally through her giggles, reaching up to wipe her watering eyes.
Still chuckling, Chris shrugged, feigning ambivalence. "Eh, it was OK, I guess. Minus five points for excessive cheesiness. But plus ten for the double entendre."
She smiled triumphantly up at him. "Well, looks like I still come out in the clear then."
"Looks like it."
As their laughter finally began to die down, as if on cue, the hostess suddenly materialized by their side, menus in hand. "Shumway, party of two?" she asked, looking at them with wide, expectant eyes.
"Oh," Chris, who had been mid-swig, managed to sputter out, almost choking on his beer. He chuckled sheepishly. "Yes, that's us."
She smiled a dazzling white-toothed smile. "Your table is ready. Thank you so much for your patience. Now if you'll just follow me this way..."
Chris turned to Meredith, and their eyes met for one brief, electrifying moment. "Well, shall we?" Flashing her a knowing smirk, he reached down and lightly laid a hand on the small of her back, beginning to gently guide her in the direction of their table. She felt a shudder of pleasure shoot down her spine at his touch.
As she followed the hostess to their table with Chris close behind, she couldn't help but let a shy, somewhat relieved little smile begin to creep across her face as a sudden realization dawned on her:
She was joking around with Chris again. Just like they had so easily, all those years ago.
It was nice.
Maybe dinner won't be so painful after all...
Author's Notes: Now that things are finally a little less uncomfortable, how will dinner be? I hope you liked it. I realize it was a little shorter than usual, but I figured it was better to give you fine people what I had instead of making you wait any longer. I really hope I can be faster in the future. It's amazing how fast time flies! I promise I'll try to do better with updating. Thanks so much everyone for your continued support and please don't forget to review! See you in Chapter 23!