By the time the flight lands, it’s nine-thirty in the morning, and Tara has seen the sun rise twice. She’s flown from New York to San Francisco, where the architecture firm she works for has a second office. While she’s in the Bay Area, she’s having lunch with Rosaline, her ex.
Tara is equal parts nervous and excited. She hasn’t seen Rosaline in five years – since college – but she’s kept up with her life over social media. Rosaline moved to Nashville after graduation to break into music, then onto Boston when the band broke up. Now she’s in business school at Stanford. For a couple years Rosaline was dating someone, a lithe, smiley thing who wore sundresses and worked for a coalition. That seemed to have passed.
In the airport bathroom, Tara splashes water onto her face. Her cheeks are puffy and dry, though she can hardly blame that on the plane. Long nights at the office have her spending a small fortune on takeout and a gym membership she hasn’t used in months. The thing to do would be to cancel the plan. But Tara wants to believe she’ll get around to taking that spin class someday.
When her phone buzzes on the sink, Tara’s stomach somersaults the way it has every time she’s gotten a text in the last few weeks. Ever since she and Rosaline reconnected. She wipes her hands on her jeans and checks her texts.
“I forgot my fob! Mind letting me in?”
It’s Ian, her boss. Ian forgets everything: his keys, his kids’ birthdays, most of what Tara says.
“I’m not in the office today,” she reminds him, before texting half a dozen coworkers in New York to see if someone can let him into the building.
Tara often feels like a cross between Ian’s mentee/daughter/therapist. At 26, she’s the youngest associate, having recently been promoted, and the only one who can lasso his big sky ideas into blueprints and specs. Recently, their team won a prize for one of these designs.
“No one works as hard as us,” Ian said last week, kicking his feet up on the desk.
To his credit, Ian is kind of a bigshot. He designed a library in Manhattan and a highrise in Quebec. Tara’s learned a lot from him but that’s mostly because once he gets an idea, he tends to check out and leave the heavy lifting to her. Last week, in the hours before their deadline, she found him in his office playing with an etch-a-sketch.
“Help is on his way!” she texts. “The front desk guy is going to let you in.”
Ian doesn’t respond or wish her a nice weekend. Tara doesn’t take it as a snub. It’s just how he is. He never asks about her life. Only doling out compliments when he thinks he might lose her.
“You’ve got a future in this, kid,” he says anytime she pulls an all-nighter for one of his projects.
The worst part is it works. It’s not like designing luxury condos is her passion. But it’s nice to be needed by someone. Tara isn’t sure what she’d be otherwise.
Outside the terminal, she gets a cab. She’s going directly to Stanford to meet Rosaline, who has plans later in the day. In the backseat, Tara uses her phone’s camera as a mirror to put on a layer of cherry berry lipstick. Then she wipes it off. Did Rosaline like lipstick? She couldn’t remember.
Rosaline didn’t need makeup. She got by on long blonde hair and loose linen shirts that look good on people who are tall and thin. In college, she pierced her eyebrow and wore a cowboy hat that gave off the vibe of a person pretending she wasn’t a person from Connecticut.
Rosaline’s family had a summerhouse on the Cape. She went to high school in Greenwich. Her dad owned a commercial property insurance company. Spinner Insurance. They were old money. And new money. People rich enough to talk about timeshares and NESCAC.
The kind of people who, after the breakup, Tara was sure she’d never encounter again.
So it was a shock when one day, while working on one of Ian’s blueprints, Tara got an email from Spinner Insurance. A week later, she got another. And another. The emails weren’t addressed to her. They were sent to the general work inbox. Form emails with subject lines like Think You’re Covered? and Get the Protection You Need!
After the seventh email, Tara decided maybe this wasn’t just a coincidence. Maybe it was a sign that she should reach out to Rosaline.
She’d done that only once before. One night in the weeks after their break-up, Tara – drunk on cheap vodka and crying – called Rosaline to beg her to reconsider. Thankfully, Rosaline hadn’t answered but she texted Tara the next day. “I don’t think we should be talking,” Rosaline wrote. She was on the road with her bandmates who had always made Tara feel like she wasn’t quite cool enough. Rosaline told Tara that she was sure breaking up was the right thing. But she also said that maybe they could, “make it work someday . . .” Tara deleted the text but held onto that last line. Maybe someday was now.
“I know it’s been awhile,” Tara wrote in an email to Rosaline, “but I keep getting these emails from your dad. Hope all is well.” At the bottom of the message, instead of writing her full name, Tara signed off as “T” to be casual and familiar. And also to show she didn’t care.
Of course she cared. She’d never really gotten over Rosaline. There had been other people. The chick who wore exclusively white denim. The interpretive dancer. The guy who acted in War Horse. He was the horse. And the only guy.
But if she couldn’t be with Rosaline, Tara told herself, she was better off alone. Or at work, where she could numb out on deadlines and late nights that ended in a windowless bedroom. It was just a temporary place and not the true home she planned on building someday once she was in the right phase of her life. But for now, she’d lie awake on the pillowless bed and wonder when she’d meet someone who annotated the Sunday paper to make sure she only read the good articles. Who took her to the Cape for summers and Christmas. Who listened to Car Talk and steered with her knees, which drove Tara crazy. “You need to chill!” Rosaline used to say from the driver’s seat, messing up Tara’s hair with her free hands. Rosaline was not the kind of person who thought about consequences or held grudges. And for years that made Tara hopeful that Rosaline would eventually be curious enough to reach out to her. So far, there’d been nothing.
Then a few days later, an email. “I keep telling my dad to get a handle on his marketing strategies, LOL.”
Rosaline said it was great to hear from Tara. She asked about her job with Ian, life in New York. There was no acknowledgement of the breakup. Tara hadn’t said anything either, not wanting to seem bitter in the initial email. Now, she didn’t want to bring down the mood.
To play it cool, Tara waited a few days before responding. “I’m Brooklyn now,” she wrote back. “Just got my own place.” She left out the part about the windowless room and the pillowless bed. Rosaline responded with updates on her own life. Things Tara already knew from social media. About the band. Boston. Stanford. She didn’t mention a girlfriend.
“If you’re ever in the Bay Area,” Rosaline said in her sign off, “let me know!”
This time Tara didn’t wait.
“I’ll actually be there in a few weeks,” she wrote. “Work trip.”
The cab pulls up in front of a stucco academic building. Outside, it’s windy, the way Tara remembers California. The last time she was here, she’d been with Rosaline. It was early June and Tara brought only shorts and tank tops. She hadn’t done much traveling and didn’t know how cold San Francisco could get. Rosaline bought Tara an oversized sweatshirt with a rhinestone wolf from a second-hand shop in the Haight. They scoured record stores and kissed in a bookstore on a lumpy corduroy chair. In North Beach, a one-eyed hippie drew their picture on the boardwalk. He gave Rosaline big lashes. Tara’s eyes smiled shut. Rosaline paid for the picture so she got to keep it. Sometimes Tara wondered what she’d done with it.
At a patio table in the quad, Tara drops her bag and sits down. The plan is to meet here when Rosaline gets out of class. While she waits, Tara flips through a design magazine. She bought it at the airport because the cover story is about an architectural society in Norway. The society builds houses that reflect nature. Algae walls. Windows full of trees. Waterfalls running through kitchens. Years ago, Tara thought about applying to one of the society’s apprenticeships but she wasn’t sure if she could get herself to move so far away. Then she got the job with Ian, who called these nature houses “popsicle stick projects” for people who “believe in elves.” He was the kind of person who didn’t believe in a world beyond New York City. He’d been furious about the new San Francisco office and the company’s promise that employees could apply to relocate.
“I hope you’re not thinking of moving,” he told Tara. “No one gets anything done in California.” He threw a nerf ball at the hoop taped to his door and missed.
California didn’t seem so bad to Tara. The arcades and Spanish roofs were a little overdone. But at least there were real houses here. Her experience working with Ian would make her a good candidate for a lot of firms in the Bay Area. She could see herself living here, someday.
“Tara!” A voice calls out. Tara shields her eyes from the sun. “Over here!”
Across the street, Rosaline waves with two hands. She has the same long hair and wears a suede jacket, slouchy blue jeans, and a forgiving smile at the biker who cuts in front of her as she’s crossing the street. Rosaline, as Tara remembered, rarely let things bother her for too long.
Tara waves back, wishing she had a minute to fix her hair. But there’s no time. Rosaline strides across the street, and it’s all happening. A moment she’s imagined for years swallowed up in a fumble of coats and “hellos!” and hugs? Yes, hug! There’s the brisk smell of cinnamon gum and the lavender incense Rosaline used to burn in the off-campus room they shared. A kid on a scooter thunk-thunks over the sidewalk and someone talks loudly about ordering groceries. Tara wants to tell everyone to go back to their places. Take it from the top. Give it a second go.
“How was your trip?” Rosaline steps back from the hug. “Are you hungry?” There was a poke restaurant around the corner. Rosaline went there sometimes between classes. “It’s cheap,” Rosaline says. “Don’t worry.” Of all the places on the street, the poke place is Tara’s last choice. But she doesn’t say that. She wants to show Rosaline that she’s not uptight anymore. She can be chill now.
“Sure,” she says. “Poke sounds good.”
“Let me carry your bag.” Rosaline takes Tara’s carry-on. She’d packed light: a change of clothes, a toothbrush, drawing tubes with blueprints.
“These are so old school!” Rosaline nods at the tubes sticking out of the bag. “Are they for your presentation?”
Over email, Tara may have suggested she’d come all this way to give a presentation at the San Francisco office. Yes, her company had a San Francisco office. But it was under construction and wouldn’t open until next year. So there was no work trip. No presentation. The tubes were filled with blueprints for a sustainable condo Tara designed that never got off the ground. The truth was no one wanted a fully energy efficient home. The truth was she’d come all this way to see Rosaline. She’d bought a one-way ticket and wasn’t sure when she’d fly back.
“I like to give clients something physical to look at,” Tara says. “Studies show when they have the plan in front of them, they’re more likely to say yes.”
But Rosaline just smiles and touches Tara’s shoulder. “This is the place.”
The poke place is in an old firehouse across from campus. It’s airy and bright. On one wall, there’s an aquarium of fish that don’t know their future. A waiter with blue hair and sleeve tattoos seats them at a table in the corner.
“We’ll have pale ales and house salmon bowls,” Rosaline tells the waiter before he can hand them menus. “Trust me,” she tells Tara, “you’ll love it.”
Rosaline had always liked to take the lead. In college, she was a singer in a band. She always knew about the best parties. She edited the college art magazine.
They met in a figure painting class. Rosaline was the model. Tara was taking the class to get her art credit and planned to pass/fail it.
The other students drew Rosaline in easy blues and greens. With curious eyes and rapunzel hair. Sometimes, they stayed after class to show Rosaline their pieces. Tara always packed up quickly, but one day, Rosaline saw her canvas. The purple skin and orange hair. Fiery eyes and sharp angles.
“Damn,” Rosaline said, looking at Tara. “No one ever painted me that way.”
It wasn’t the best painting, but Rosaline saw something in it.
It was Rosaline who encouraged Tara to take another painting class. Who bought Tara her first sketchpad. Who taught her about color theory and white space. Rosaline had artist friends. She knew about exhibitions in the city where she took Tara on weekends. They’d stumble, arm in arm, down cobbled streets from one gallery to the next, getting tipsy on dixie cups of white wine. It was love and freedom that Tara had never experienced back home, where she grew up in a house without a bookshelf. In a town where girls kissed boys. When she started dating Rosaline, Tara’s parents stopped talking to her.
“How did you tell your parents?” Tara asked once.
“They thought it was a phase at first,” Rosaline said with a shrug. “But they got over that.”
Tara wished she’d come from one of those families. The ones who sent their kids to art camp. And had books around the house in different languages. Dating Rosaline was the closest Tara ever got to that life. And even though they were together three years, even though they shared a twin bed in the house on the hill that Rosaline and her friend group snagged in the housing lottery, Tara would never live like Rosaline. They talked about building a house together. Somewhere in the Redwoods, someday after college. A place for themselves. Plus a few chickens and goats. All their friends. Rosaline would write music. Tara would draw.
And then it had all come apart in Tara’s last semester. Rosaline, who was a year older, had already moved to Nashville with the band. Tara called her one night.
“I started my job search in Nashville,” Tara said. “You want to read my resumé.”
“You’re seriously looking here?” Rosaline asked. There was a bite in her voice. “Why would you do that?”
“What do you mean?” Tara asked. “I want to be where you are.” That had been their plan. Tara would find work in Nashville and worry about a real job once they were both settled.
“Listen,” Rosaline said. “I’ve been thinking, I just don’t know if I have time for a relationship right now.” Tara could barely listen as Rosaline went on about how she needed to focus on music and meeting new people, “real artists,” the kind of big names that could help the band make it.
“Aren’t I a real artist?” Tara blurted out. She couldn’t ask any of the other questions rushing through her mind. Was Rosaline really dumping her? How was this happening? Had Rosaline even loved her at all? If she asked, she wasn’t sure she could handle hearing the truth.
“You’re a student, Tara,” Rosaline finally said. “And I’m graduating.”
In the months after the breakup, Tara often fantasized about showing up to one of Rosaline’s gigs. If she could just see Rosaline, she could make her realize that breaking up had been a mistake.
She didn’t go to the shows, though. She moved to New York and got the job with Ian. But each project became a brick in her tower to Tara, her life’s work that would one day be so tall and striking that Tara would have to notice her. Over the years, that longing hardened inside her. People told Tara that heartbreak was something you had to wait out. But Rosaline was her heart. Her home. And hope flickered again when Rosaline’s band broke up. When Rosaline moved to Boston. With every change, Tara waited for Rosaline to come around. Once she got bored of Boston. Once she was single again. Once she saw Tara face-to-face.
Their poke arrives in two colorful bowls topped with cucumber and pineapple and sesame. Rosaline rubs her chopsticks together. Tara uses a fork. They talk about Rosaline’s classes, an end of year project.
“What made you want to go to business school, anyway?” Tara asks. It seemed like something Rosaline’s parents would have put her up to. In college, they were always pushing her to major in economics and work summers at the firm.
“I know, I know.” Rosaline jabs at the poke with her chopsticks. She didn’t think she’d end up here either. “But business is creative, too!” She liked the connections and big names, being a student. “It’s college all over again,” Rosaline says. There were parties every week and spring break.
“You’re going on spring break?”
“Tara!” she forgot to mention, she was going to Turks & Caicos.
“Today.” Rosaline does a little dance in her seat. “A bunch of us from the cohort are going.”
In so many ways – the mannerisms, the clothes –Rosaline looks the same, but Tara doesn’t recognize this part of Rosaline that uses words like cohort. It doesn’t match up with the vision she’s held in her mind, the bright strokes and fiery angles. But Tara pushes that thought aside. What she really wants to know is what Rosaline thinks of her.
Tara talks about her job with Ian, the new buildings she designed, the awards they’d won. Each accomplishment laid out like a cat-dragged mouse. She wants to show she’s a real artist now, and she watches carefully to see if Rosaline is impressed.
“It sounds like New York really suits you,” Rosaline says. Back in college, Rosaline was the one who wanted to live in New York. It was half the reason Tara had decided to move there.
“It’s okay, I guess.” Tara didn’t want to give the impression that she had to be in New York forever. “Some days I wish I had a different boss.” She talks about a recent incident with Ian where his Mr. Gumby went missing and he’d called for an office search party.
Rosaline laughs. It felt good to make Rosaline laugh.
“Work’s going well, though,” she assures Rosaline. “A bridge to doing my own thing.”
Rosaline’s interested. She wants to know what Tara doing her own thing means.
“Sustainable houses mostly,” Tara says, taking a sip of beer. “I have a few plans sketched out.”
“I’d love to see them sometime.” Rosaline leans in closer. “You were always so creative.”
Tara blushes and there’s a lull that buzzes with possibility.
Rosaline wipes her mouth with a napkin and sits back to look at Tara.
“It’s so good to see you,” she says. “I’m glad you wanted to catch up.”
“Me too,” Tara says, and she means it.
“Actually,” Rosaline takes a sip of beer. “I knew about your job before you emailed me.”
“You did?” Tara feels a raw piece of fish slide down her throat.
“My mom told me.” Rosaline’s mom saw an article in the alumni magazine that mentioned Tara as a new hire at a storied New York architecture firm. “You know how my mom and dad are stuck on their college days.” That was true. Rosaline’s parents were alumni of the school. They’d even donated a building.
“But seriously.” Rosaline reaches across the table to squeeze Tara’s arm. “You should be proud!”
Of course Tara was proud. She’d worked hard. She just wished Rosaline hadn’t found out from her mom. That she’d sought out the information herself.
“I wanted to congratulate you,” Rosaline says gently, “but we weren’t talking.” Rosaline sets down her chopsticks. “I’m really sorry if I made you feel bad when we broke up.” It’s sincere, but that’s not even why Tara came here. Does Rosaline think she wants an apology?
Tara suddenly feels uncool all over again. Pitied instead of desired. She wipes her napkin across her face to hide her disappointment. “It’s ok, really!” she says and races to change the subject by asking about Rosaline’s parents, her brother, the house on the Cape.
“They’re selling it,” Rosaline says, shoving the last bite of poke in her mouth.
“No!” Tara surprises herself. It hadn’t been her home but she wished it was.
Rosaline shrugs. “You can’t hang on forever.” Besides, her older brother and his fiancé were moving to Chicago. “They’ll probably do the kid thing, and my parents want to be closer.”
“That’s great.” Tara feels her chest tighten.
“And what about you,” Rosaline clears her throat. “Are you seeing anyone?”
Somersaults. In all her fantasies, Tara never imagined what Rosaline might ask her.
“Not really,” Tara shakes her head.
“I mean I’ve dated,” Tara reaches for her now empty glass. “But no one serious.”
“Really?” Rosaline squints like she’s trying to make up her mind about something.
Before Tara can answer Rosaline’s question again, the waiter comes up to their table.
“Take your time, girls.” He lays down the check.
Tara reaches for her wallet but Rosaline throws down her card.
“Please,” she says. “You came all this way.”
After Rosaline pays, they leave. Outside it’s raining, and Rosaline takes out her umbrella. She and Tara squeeze under it.
“When’s your work meeting?” Rosaline asks. She wants to know if Tara wants to see her dorm. They could even take a cab in the same direction since Rosaline is going to the airport and Tara will be heading to the city. “But only if you have time.”
Tara stumbles on part of the sidewalk. “I have time.” Maybe if they spend more time together, they’ll fall back into their old rhythm.
They walk, shoulder to shoulder, the way they did in college, coming back from the library to the house on the hill. They’d decorated Rosaline’s room together. Glow stars on the ceiling, cutouts from a copy of Eye magazine, an Albertina poster of a rabbit that Tara found at the Salvation Army.
“This is me,” Rosaline says, gesturing at a plain brick building that’s even plainer inside. There’s a tiny kitchenette. A wooden desk. Linoleum floors. Rosaline’s suitcase splayed out on the bed.
“Here.” Rosaline pulls a swivel chair out for Tara.
Tara swivels. Rosaline packs. It starts to rain harder, and it’s all Tara ever wanted. The two of them hunkered down in a room together after all these years. But there’s nothing close about it. As Rosaline talks about her brother’s wedding and her trip to Turks and Caicos, Tara struggles to see the version of Rosaline she’s longed for all these years.
“Do you still play music?”
Rosaline crinkles her nose. “It’s more of a hobby these days.”
Tara had come here to show Rosaline that she was good enough for her now. That she had become a person who made real art in the real world. That she had changed! But she never expected that Rosaline might have changed, too. And after all of this time waiting, Tara couldn’t accept that. The old Rosaline had to be there.
“You should really think about writing music again.”
Rosaline laughs in a hollow way and reaches for her phone.
“You were always so good at it.”
Rosaline looks up for a moment and then back at her phone.
“We better get going,” she says. “My flight leaves soon.”
When the cab pulls up, Rosaline puts her suitcase in the trunk.
“We’re making two stops,” she tells the driver. “SFX first and then . . .” She points at Tara.
“Oh,” Tara says, suddenly frazzled. The one-way ticket was the only plan she’d made. She doesn’t have a place to stay. “Let me just look up my hotel reservation.”
As an architect, Tara learned that you should always design something by thinking about how it fits into the larger context. A chair in a room. A room in a house. A house in a city. But Tara hasn’t done that. She packed a suitcase for a fake trip. Put her heart in front of someone she doesn’t know anymore. Planned for a future that isn’t happening.
The only thing Tara can do now is google “North Beach hotels” and tell the driver the first place that comes up. As she leans forward to read the address, Tara’s aware that her shirt is bunching up, exposing her lower back fat. She hopes Rosaline isn’t looking.
She leans back and they fall into conversation. About Rosaline’s summer internship at a marketing company. Old friends from school.
“Dylan’s getting married this year,” Rosaline says. He was her drummer who had a pet hamster and never showered.
“Greasy?” It was hard to believe the people who settled down first.
Rosaline nods and adjusts her seatbelt. “Do you want to get married?”
In another context, in another tone it would have meant something entirely different.
“Me too,” Rosaline traces a raindrop running down the window, “when I meet the right person.” They settle into another silence. This time it’s less buzzing. And more final.
When they arrive at the airport, Tara gets out of the car to say goodbye. Rosaline gives her a one-armed hug.
“Let me know if you’re ever back in the Bay!” Rosaline says, just like she did in her email.
“I will,” Tara nods. “Have a good flight.”
She waits until she’s back in the cab to brush tears from her cheeks. She can’t stay in San Francisco. She should go home. But where was home and how would she get there? There’s nothing to do except complete the trip to the hotel in North Beach, especially since Rosaline is paying for the cab from her phone. If she gets out anywhere earlier, Rosaline might see that she isn’t really staying at a hotel. It’s the smallest lie of the day, but still, she doesn’t want Rosaline to know.
The cab pulls up in front of the hotel, which is right across the street from the bookstore that Tara and Rosaline went to so long ago. Tara goes inside.
It smells like the past. Sour old books and dust. Creaky floors. On their trip here, they kissed in a fat corduroy chair and bought books from the bargain bin. But those two people were gone. Tara sits down in the chair and sinks into the beginnings of grief.
She’ll miss the old Rosaline. But more than that, she’ll miss the feeling of wanting Rosaline. For years, wanting Rosaline had been a padding against the world. While waiting for Rosaline, she didn’t have to think about who else she might love. Or where she might live. Or what she might do. She just had to build her tower and wait.
But tonight, she’ll fly back on a red eye to New York, running through the lunch with Rosaline in her mind. She’ll think about it as her flight takes off, as she flips through the design magazine with the cover story about the architecture society. She’ll think about it when she lands and goes back to the apartment with the pillowless bed. She’ll think about it when she starts leaving work earlier, well before dark, to spend nights sketching and putting together her portfolio.
She’ll remember the door slamming. The swish of Rosaline’s blonde hair disappearing through the sliding doors. The cab steadily pulling her away. There was no dwelling in the scent of a hug. No dot dot dot. It was a moment that made Tara sure that she wouldn’t come back to San Francisco. She wouldn’t see Rosaline again. Even the memory of the goodbye was so stiff and hollow that Tara could only see it as the ending.
But in a few months, she’ll receive a handwritten letter from the architecture society in Norway. They’ll tell Tara they got her portfolio. They’ll ask if she wants to work with them for the year designing self-sufficient houses in the mountains. She’ll say yes and quit her job with Ian and move away to build a home.
Kaitlin Roberts is a writer and journalist. Her stories have been published by Narrative Magazine, The Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, Parhelion Literary Magazine,Whisk(e)y Tit Magazine, Alma Magazine, and others. She lives in Berlin, where she serves as a Senior Producer for The New York Times.