Long Story, Short Life

Chapter One

“Shit,” Jessie cursed.

The moment she keyed off the engine, she realized she had forgotten. Today was Presidents Day, so the postal office main desk was unmanned. There was a line at the self-serve postage kiosk. She wasn't going to get another weekday off from work and school to mail her package, so she resigned herself to the painfully long line.

As she settled into single-file, she sensed the foment of boredom and frustration in the impatient looks of the other patrons. The woman at the front was apologizing to the line.

“Sorry, everyone. The buttons aren't working or something,” and she angled so everyone could see how unresponsive the keypad was when she jammed the button with her thumb. A man from the middle of the line walked away without a word.

Jessie sighed and casted her eyes around the room for amusement, when a line in a letter caught her eye. The letter was in the hands of the woman in front of her, whose hands shook slightly. She was middle-aged, maybe forty, and had the look of a suburban mom. She wore flowing dark yoga pants, a moisture-wicking exercise top, and a light jacket. Her strawberry blond hair was drawn in a loose bun. Her expression was visibly distressed.

Jesse could only make out the address on the page, and her curiosity burned to know more.

Hesitantly, she ventured, “May I ask what you're sending?”

She tried hard to sound polite and interested instead of like a nosy kid. The stranger made eye contact, looked away, chewed her lip.

She said, with an edge of snark, “It's a long story and a short life.”

“Sorry, my bad,” Jessie murmured, apologetic.

She averted her eyes and tried not to feel the intensity of the woman’s lingering gaze. She felt heat on her face and knew she was showing bright pink spots on her cheeks. When she could stand it no longer, she looked back at the stranger, and their eyes locked.

The woman with the letter glanced at the front of the line. Someone with the patience of a saint was coaching the front-of-the-line woman through the prompts on screen, and the line extended so far that the two of them were almost out the door.

“What the hell,” the stranger relented after her assessment. “We’ve got time.”

“No, it’s okay,” Jessie began to back pedal, but she didn’t want to protest too much and risk not finding out more. “It’s none of my business, really.”

Jessie leaned forward, her face intent on the woman’s while attempting to swivel an eye at the page like a chameleon. She hadn’t caught sight of more than the address. She didn’t want to seem to pry, but she couldn’t help wanting to know more.

The woman wasn’t fooled by the performance of indifference.

“I’m Sandra,” she introduced herself. “Sandra McCullough.”

“Je-Jenny,” Jessie Ackman stammered. “Jenny Pierce.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Jenny,” Sandra said with a smile, and she meant it. “I didn’t mean to snap earlier. I mean - well - I did, but I’m sorry.”

Jessie was turning bright red, and Sandra was becoming embarrassed by her obvious mortification.

“I was hoping to get one of those insured envelopes with the tracking for this letter,” Sandra said. “What are you shipping?”

“Just some stuff a friend left at my place.”

Sandra was assessing the line again. The apologetic woman at the front had given up, along with the person helping her. The line was moving quickly now, but only because each person left it unfulfilled, some checking that the kiosk was uncooperative before huffing out the door. Sandra groaned when they reached the machine; a loading symbol spun endlessly, and no amount of button pushing was resolving its orbit.

“What am I supposed to do now? Maybe it’s a sign, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do this.” Sandra’s letter crumpled a little in her hands as she spoke. She was turning toward the door to leave.

“No - wait - I have some stamps in my purse,” Jessie offered, and dug into the bag hanging by her hip. “They aren’t enough for my package, but you can send your letter today. That’s a sign, too, don’t you think?” She extended them in a rush and sidestepped to partially block the path to the door.

“That’s kind of you, but I couldn’t, you should use them for yourself,” Sandra declined and moved again toward the door around Jessie.

“Please, take one,” she said. “I’m not even using them for anything, they’re leftovers from a trip in New York. I needed them for postcards and had extras.”

It was fortuitous enough for Sandra to feel that fate was pushing her toward sending the letter. Her opponent looked self-conscious but determined, and she was touched by the kindness of the gesture.

“Okay! Thank you, Jenny,” Sandra said. She stuffed the envelope and applied the required stamp to the corner before dropping it in a mail slot.

“Not at all,” Jessie replied and then stood awkwardly, uncertain of what to say next.

“Well, bye, I guess. Good luck with your letter.”

Jessie hefted her package and walked to her car. She had almost forgotten the frustration she felt at seeing the post office unmanned. Her box would have to wait for the next day she was free, although she couldn’t say when that would be.

“Hey, Jenny!” Sandra called. “Do you have some time? I get you a coffee, maybe? I’d love to do that as a thank you.”

“Sure,” said Jessie. “What the hell, we’ve got time.”

Chapter 2

Sandra claimed a table in the Feine’s coffee shop across the street from the post office. A survey confirmed she had beaten Jenny to the rendezvous. She remembered this place from when it was a run-down donut joint. It had transformed since then into a tasteful, modern coffee shop. Gone were the booths and tables with scratched surfaces and mysterious permanent stains. The pastry display counter remained, but instead of bearing an assortment of donuts it was staged with croissants, artisan bagels, slices of cheesecake, and danishes. The walls were painted a dark green-gray shade, like an old school chalkboard. In place of the sickly sweet aroma that made her want to vomit the last time she was here, a rich coffee aroma saturated the air.

Of course, she had been pregnant the last time she was there, in the throws of morning sickness. The last time, some twenty years ago, she was telling her then-boyfriend Danny she was pregnant and he was the father.

She scanned the room. She identified the corner she sat in last time, now occupied by a mother on her phone and a toddler on a tablet. She couldn’t hear what the mother was saying, but she watched her mouth move. The woman’s laugh pierced the din of the coffee shop, and the child looked up at his mother. His chestnut hair looked downy-soft, cheeks full, and eyes sparkling. He laughed in a childish way at her laugh: a nasal “ha-ha” that seemed unaware of why they were so amused.

Was Jenny here yet? Her eyes swept the entrance, the line to the order counter, the bustling main space with its tables and chairs that screech as patrons drag them sitting up and down. No Jenny. Why was she nervous? She was nervous the last time she came here, too.

Unbidden, she remembered Danny’s square face beaming to find her waiting. His nose seemed too small for a broad, sharply cut face like that; it was like how his wiry frame was too small for the canvas duster he wore. A mop of dark curls perched on his glistening head. He was slightly out of breath.

“Could you hear me, before?” He asked.

“What? When?”

“Just now, before you came in in. I was dropping off a package, and I saw you, tried to call you, but you didn’t hear.”

“Oh, sorry.” She looked down at her glass of unsweetened iced tea and wiped a drop of condensation from its side with her thumb.

“Want a donut? I’m getting one.”

“No-no, thanks. Stomach’s acting up.”

She worried the minutes away as he ordered and returned with a Boston creme and water.

“Everything okay?” asked Danny.

She tasted copper from chewing her bottom lip too much. It was best to just get it out.

“I’m pregnant, and you’re the father,” Sandra blurted.

“Sandra!” the barista called in the present. She broke from her reverie rush to the counter and retrieve her white chocolate lavender frappe.

She turned and nearly jumped out of her skin.


“Oh, sorry, hi, didn’t mean to scare you,” Jessie apologized. They chuckle, and Sandra pointed out the table she annexed for their conversation.

“What are you getting? Let me pay, as a thank-you for the stamps.”

“You don’t have to, really.”

“I insist.”

Jessie ordered a green tea and a flaky strawberry-filled pastry.


At the table, Sandra broke the ice.

“So, what do you do, Jenny?” she asked.

Jessie had just taken a huge bite of her pastry. Some people have a way of asking questions right when you can’t answer. She chewed, took a sip of her tea. She still hadn’t developed a taste for coffee. Despite her attempts to play it cool with this virtual stranger, Jessie was nervous. She had lied about her name, and now she was keeping the lie going. It was too awkward to tell the truth now, though.

“I’m a customer service rep, answering phones,” Jessie answered. “But that’s really just to support myself while I’m going to school. My student loans don’t cover my living expenses.”

“What are you studying?”

“I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m a sophomore undergraduate, so I decide this year.”

“Don’t worry too much about deciding. Even when you’ve declared you can always change your major. I did. I started out in business, then switched to fine arts the next year. And you could end up doing something that has nothing to do with your major after you graduate, too. Life’s funny that way.”

Sandra caught Jessie’s gaze and smiled; Jessie smiled weakly back and nodded.

“I’m second-guessing myself a lot lately. I tend to screw up big life decisions.”

“I’m sure it’ll work out. You’re only what, 19?”

“I turned twenty this year.”

“What happened?”

Jessie heaved a sigh. “I broke up with this guy, turns out he was seeing someone else when we were long distance.”

“It’ll be alright. Break-ups are hard, but you did the right thing. You don’t want to be with a man you can’t trust.”

Jessie cringed. “We broke up, but he broke up with me. I tried like an idiot to get back together.”

“Oh, honey,” Sandra said. She knew what it was like to lose all self-respect. She had felt like trash after giving birth. She had felt like the worst kind of mother: one who abandons her child. This girl would be okay, she knew. A break up wasn’t nearly as bad. It could have been so much worse.

Chapter 3

Jessie’s freckled nose crinkled, and she sniffed loudly. She took a big bite and chewed for a minute before gulping it down. Her eyes shine with moisture and lingering regret.

She had confronted her ex, Sean, at a Feine’s coffee shop. Not the one they were in now, but another on campus, close to the library. It contained the same color scheme, similar furniture and coffee-related art. But it had been populated by a much younger crowd, most wearing backpacks, who paid with campus dining cards in addition to credit cards.

She had pulled on the straw of her green tea frappe with whip, gulping it down anxiously as she waited for Sean to show.

“Ow,” she mumbled and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Hey, everything alright?” Sean asked as he slid into the chair opposite her booth seat.

“Brain freeze.”

“That sucks.”

The ache receded, and she took him in. He had a round, tan face and straight nose speckled with freckles. His hand ran through the Beiber hair sweeping over his forehead, briefly revealing a smattering of acne.

“So, what’s been going on?” asked Jessie.

“Nothing much.”

“I didn’t mean it like ‘what’s up?’ I mean, is there something we need to talk about?”

He shrugged.

He wasn’t going to come out and confess. She would have to press him.

“Is there something you want to tell me? Like, that might have happened when we were long distance?”

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, louder than she expected.

“Just the truth, I guess.”

“I didn’t want you to transfer here for me. I told you to stay at Austin Peay, where you had a good financial aid package.”

“I wanted to be closer to you; freshman year was hard with the long distance. It was getting bad for my mental health. I thought I would be better where I had more of a support system - you. But I moved for me. Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”

“All that mental health stuff; I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Her empty plastic cup popped as she squeezed it a little too hard. She set it aside and wrung her hands in her lap under the 2-seater table.

“I wouldn’t have moved if I had known we weren’t serious.”

What she didn’t say was that she had been lonely, and she thought she wouldn’t be lonely here, with her boyfriend, the first man she had ever loved. If anything, it was lonelier now, when he was inattentive, even put off by her sometimes. She didn’t fit in with his friends, but they were the only friends she had made here. It was scarier now that she’d go back to being completely alone if they broke up, because they would drop her in a second for him.

She tried to push her fear away and take deep, slow breaths.

She said, “Look, Sean, I deserve better than this. If we’re going to be together, there need to be some changes. I’ll get help at the student counseling center, with my mental health, and I can make more of an effort as your girlfriend, but you need to be there for me, too.”

Sean did a double-take at her.

“It sounded like you were about to break up with me just now, and when you didn’t - I don’t know - I was disappointed.”


“I mean, I always expected you to break up with me, even when we first started going out over the summer senior year. We knew we were going to different schools. It was kind of unspoken that we wouldn’t stay together when we started in the fall. You were the one who wanted to try long distance, and I figured, we would grow apart living in different cities. It was just a matter of time.”

Jessie considered herself a smart girl, maybe even a good judge of character. She had never felt so foolish and wrong. Her mind was a storm of voices berating her stupidity and patheticness, ruing all her terrible choices.

“But I love you, and I know you love me.”

“Yeah, I think you’re amazing. Probably more amazing than I deserve. Guys will be all over you. I think you deserve better too, like you said.”

“If you think I deserve better, then just try - fight for me - please. We’re so good for each other.”

The heat in her chest was rising, boiling her from inside. She was bubbling over with moisture, and it streamed over the brim of her eyes, running down her cheeks. People were looking at them now. How humiliating.

Across from her, a kind hand reached forward and grasped hers, and with the other patted the back of her hand. It was Sandra.

Chapter 4

“Oh honey, what’s the matter? It’s okay,” Sandra soothed.

“I transferred for him, gave up a good aid package. I let everyone down - my parents.”

“That’s… oh, that’s bad.”

Tears roll down Jessie’s face. She swiped them away, but her face was still bright pink and her nose leaky. She hadn’t meant to cry. She dared to look at the older woman and wanted to cry all over from the compassion on her face.

Jessie reminded Sandra of herself at her age. She was bright pink, crying shame-faced in the very same building she had. Her thick auburn curls fell to cover her face as she stared despondent down at her drink.

Her own mother would have admonished Sandra for letting her strawberry-blond waves cover her pretty face. And sit up, girl!

“You made a bad mistake,” Sandra said. “And I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ll find a way to keep going forward, and you can still make the best of it. You’re young.”

Jessie blew her nose on a napkin. “Thanks. I can’t help feeling like my whole life will be different now, from this mistake, for the worse. I let everyone down.”

“I understand.” Sandra, emboldened by her counterpart’s vulnerability, opened up. Her posture changed so she was leaning forward a bit, and she widened the space between her hands as she gestured.

“You see, when I was your age, I gave up my daughter, when I was in college. I thought my life was over, I let everyone down: my boyfriend, my parents, myself.”

Jessie’s gaze was rapt, her attention intense, and she barely moved.

“You made a mistake getting pregnant, and you fixed it by giving up the baby,” Jessie said. Her tone made it a statement, but something in her eyes asked, “do you regret it?”

“We didn’t choose the timing, but she was made with love. I wanted a family but wasn’t ready. It was the hardest choice I ever made, giving her up. I think the mistake was that I kept it a closed adoption. I felt like I didn’t deserve a place in her life. I took a semester off. When I went back I couldn’t shake the guilt, that I was pretending nothing happened, like she didn’t exist.”

Now, Sandra was the one sniffling. “My boyfriend, Danny, he loved me and saw how hard it was for me. I think he would have raised her, but he didn’t want to be a father yet. He said what I decided was best for everyone, and I wondered if he stayed with me out of guilt or loyalty.”

“Can I hug you?” Jessie asked.

Sandra nodded and waved her hands in as she opened her arms for a hug. They embraced tightly and held it for a breath before Sandra patted her back and let go.

“Thank you, I needed that.”

“Me too.”

They shared a smile, no longer strangers but unlikely confidants.

“So, what happened with you and him?” asked Jessie.

Sandra paused, like she wasn’t sure how to answer. “We stayed together and got married, but we’re separated for the moment. I… did something bad, and he’s taking care of our son and daughter while I figure some things out right now.”

“You have more kids?”

“Yes, Annabelle and Tom. Twelve and eight.” She pulled up a picture of two light-haired children, a girl pushing a boy down a slide. They looked elated, playful. Was that a booger coming out of the boy’s nose?

“I really want them to meet their sister someday. That’s what I borrowed the stamp for. I’m trying to reconnect with my first daughter.”

“That’s really brave. I bet you’ll hear back from her.”

“I don’t know, I’m so screwed up right now.”

“Yeah?” Jessie prompted, hinting for elaboration.

“Yeah. Hey, why don’t we stay in touch, Jenny? I think we could both use a friend.”

“I’d like that.”