Carlton knew the perfect place. A hip counter-culture coffee shop with an independent label brand. The kind of place where poets and students hang out. To Carlton the coffee had a very slightly burnt taste, like they were trying too hard to be cool, but it was cool because it was local. Carlton liked it. It was in downtown Salt Lake City, an hour away, but Carlton lived near there and it turned out, Rachel did too. This was the place where, in his daydreams, he had gotten down on one knee and asked this woman to marry him many times.
Rachel was a constant bubble of questions about the computer, Salt City, and Carlton’s life. She kept it up quite easily which was fortunate, because if the conversation was left up to Carlton it would probably been a few nervous murmurs. Carlton felt like a kid again. They laughed about old times, old friends, and 10 years of lonely life evaporated out of Carlton’s mind.
She would not stop asking about the computer. Every time the conversation strayed to some childhood event, Rachel steered back to Carlton’s computer at the library. It wasn’t so bad, Carlton got to explain how it worked, and how he had developed the systems that ran it. Let’s not forget that he was the genius who had revolutionized computing. Even though, however, the revolution had turned out to be a minor blip in the march of progress. He felt self-conscious and he checked over his shoulder more than once.
Carlton had rehearsed conversations like this one, with Rachel, in his daydreams. He had played out his scene in a way in which he was completely prepared, composed, in charge, and directing the action. Now that he was speaking with her for real it was strange, not like he had thought at all. He was nervous, disconnected, and frequently exposed, unaccustomed to any scrutiny or expectation of accountability, suddenly being scrutinized and held accountable. He had imagined her gazing at him with big school girl eyes like a star-struck kid. Not so. Here was a mature woman who was not going to take any crap, and was certainly not going to swallow Carlton’s usual line of bull. Yet she kept on asking questions, and he kept on answering them.
At times his answers became deeply technical and he was afraid he was boring her. Rachel, however, did not seem to have have any difficulty grasping the details. Rather, she was quite familiar with the back story of how the blood-based computer system came about. She knew about some of the recent breakthroughs and developments too. After a while he relaxed. It was delightful that all the time he talked he could gaze into her face. It was too much to be true. Not only was she sitting here with him, but he actually had an excuse to look at her, and looking at her was what he wanted more than a dying man in a desert wanted a glass of water. It was the face of his dreams, both awake and asleep, but now it was not a girl in his memory, but a woman in his presence. It was a far more beautiful face than his imagination had dreamed of, it was a woman, not a kid, there were lines and a seriousness that was startling, but there was a girl in there too and at times if emerged with a flourish. The best part of it was that she kept on smiling, listening and asking questions.
As time ticked by Carlton noticed that the coffee shop had emptied out. They were getting irritated looks from the Barista, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere. Carlton tried once or twice to wrap up the conversation and move on, out of a weird sense of wanting to do the Barista a favor and let him close up the shop, but Rachel was a lively stream of questions and comments so he gave up. They talked and laughed. Carlton felt himself falling in love, for real, not in an imaginary way. Yet he could already feel the pain of another failure, it brooded at the edge of his thought. He lived the emotions of the whole cycle of acceptance, trust then dismissal and being crushed. But this was Rachel. He would go through all of it for her, that was his dream come true.