What are you doing here?

Hello, all! Welcome to another un-edited creative exercise. This one gets a little background: I listen to a podcast called Writing Excuses (excellent podcast for writers and creatives, by the way) and at the end of each short episode they give a writing homework. Here's the one that inspired this story:
A husband and wife find themselves at the same coffee shop, when both of them are supposed to be somewhere else. Write a conversation between them without using any dialogue markers (he said, she said, etc.). The point of the exercise is to practice writing character voices that are distinctive and unique. So. here's what happened when I sat down to participate in this particular exercise Enjoy!

What Are You Doing Here?

I've always had a soft spot for those unlikely encounter jokes. You know the ones -- x, y, and z walk into a bar. My dad always told them, and my brother and I always rolled our eyes, but secretly I thought they were usually pretty funny.

Yeah, when your life feels like the set up for a punch line...it's not quite as funny.

A man and a woman walk into a bar.

Nope, not quite.

A husband and wife walk into a bar.

Closer, but still not it.

A husband who's supposed to be on a 25 mile bike ride in the opposite direction and a wife who's supposed to be at work an hour away walk into a coffee shop. Well, technically, the wife walks into the coffee shop and sees the husband sitting at a table in the corner.

My first instinct is to march over to the table and demand to know what he's doing there. In fact, I take a step out of line before it hits me that perhaps I don't want to be throwing stones from inside my glass house.

I get back in line and place my order and walk around to the other side of the counter to wait. My stomach knots up, but I force myself to keep my head down and look at my phone -- pretend to be looking at my phone, if I'm honest -- instead of staring at Denis. Which is what I want to do. But I don't want to risk him looking up because he feels eyes on the back of his head.

The coffee shop is busy, so I have to wait longer than is really comfortable, but finally they call my name. The knots in my stomach clench, hoping that Denis has his earbuds in or at least isn't paying attention to the baristas. At least Sarah is a pretty common name. I walk up to the counter and grab my latte then head quickly toward the door, head still down.

Ironic, because if I'd had my head up I might not have literally run into the person I was trying to avoid.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!"

"Excuse me."

I am now intimately acquainted with the phrase 'my heart was about to beat out of my chest.'

"Well. This is awkward."

"Awkward!? I was thinking something more along the lines of -- 'what in the world is going on?'"

"No...I mean...I think we're blocking the door."

We move outside into the gorgeous spring day step to the right of the door.

"Well?'

"Well, what?"

"Well, what is going on!? Aren't you supposed to be at the depot by now, chowing down on a BLT from the Bacon Burner?"

"That was...that was what I said, yes. On the other hand..."

"...On the other hand?"

"You're going to make me say it."

"Yes! I'm going to make you say it! For goodness sake, SAY SOMETHING!"

"Fine. If you're going to be like that. What are you doing here? I thought you had a shift this morning?"

"That's it. Mild curiosity? 'goodness, this is odd.' Are you mad? hurt? confused?"

"Are YOU mad?"

"Yes! I'm mad! Why did you lie"

"Why do you assume I lied?"

"Gahhh!!!! This conversation is so frustrating! YOU are so frustrating!"

"Can we start over?"

"Well, it can't get any worse."

"I'm surprised to see you, and I bet you're surprised to see me."

"Yes. And I'm unsettled, and suspicious, and right now I suspect the worst."

"Don't. Please. The truth is, I've been working on a project for a few weeks, something I wanted to be a surprise. The only time I could figure out to work on it without letting anyone know is during my usual bike ride. I come down here because it's away from work and school and most of the places you shop or run errands. It's nothing bad just...I didn't want to talk about it yet."

Seconds tick by.

"Well, I"m intrigued. Less scared. How long until you were going to tell me about your...secret?"

"Surprise...not secret."

"What's the difference?"

"Well, one implies the possibility of something shameful, or at least something that I don't want anyone to know about at all. The other implies something good. Happy. Something to look forward to. But also, to answer you question: in a couple of weeks."

"Hmmm...ok. I'll concede to your semantic clarification, and allow this to pass. But the waiting might just kill me."

A smile.

"And to answer the question you'll be too 'polite' to ask -- my being here has to do with more of a secret than a surprise, but it's not bad. I'm not cheating on you."

"That wasn't my first thought."

"Seriously?"

"Maybe my second thought."

"Finally! A little honesty and openenness! Look...I'm...I've started seeing a therapist."

Blink. Blink.

"And you're...ashamed?"

"A little, yeah. I never know what you think! You always seem to have it together, and I didn't want you to think it was all about you, or that I was dissatisfied or unhappy."

"But if you're seeing a therapist, doesn't that imply that you ARE dissatisfied or unhappy?"

"Well, yes. But not with you. A few months ago, I started having trouble sleeping, and -- you remember how I told you I had panic attacks in high school? -- well, I've experienced a few panic attacks at work, and between that and the insomnia I thought I'd get a little help."

"Sweetheart...why didn't you tell me?"

"Honestly, I don't know. Because I thought you'd try to fix me yourself. It's so hard to know what you think, and...I needed to do this without assuming any judgement."

My stomach is still in knots, but now my anxiety is directed at myself. I'd been staring over Denis's shoulder, afraid to look at his face and see judgement or worry or the lack of visible emotion that I'm used to seeing. But when I finally glance at him, all I see in his dark eyes is love, and worry, and sadness. He sets down his backpack and closes the distance between us, wrapping strong arms around me. A sob erupts from my chest.

"I'm so, so sorry. I should have trusted you. I shouldn't have kept you out."

"No, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you didn't feel comfortable sharing with me, and that my tendency to fix things is too strong sometimes. I would never judge you for seeing a counselor. In fact, I am so proud of you right now."

I pull back a little bit, so I can see his face. "Seriously?"

He nods. "You're taking care of yourself, and that is admirable."

"I love you, you know that?"

He pulls me in close again, kissing me like we're not standing on a sidewalk in the middle of the day. A kiss full of apology and promise and love.

It's not exactly a punch line, but I like this ending better.