CATCHING UP • by Ezgi Üstündağ

The silence was a few minutes deep. The pair had surrendered to it when they ran out of stories about mutual friends from the three years since their last rendezvous. The boy used the lull to sip his americano; today’s choice of beverage demonstrated a maturity missing from his chocolate milk-chugging high school days, when Özge really knew him. In the quiet she felt her own updates, the ones too complicated for their initial back-and-forth, lose importance.

A short while later, the apparition of a smile appeared on his lips. He locked his eyes into Özge’s. She pulled away quickly, focusing instead on his beard, which was new to her. Though not entirely grown in — the upside-down “U” of black hairs above his lip floated apart from the dark patch on his lower chin and cheeks — the facial hair made him look older.

“Okay, here’s my news: I’m moving,” he said. He would be in his new city, a few hours north of the unremarkable college town in which they’d grown up, by the end of the month.

The tag on the tea bag that Özge had been folding and unfolding broke free of its string. For years her reminiscing had been confined to the few seconds spent texting him birthday wishes, but his new beginning felt like a betrayal.

“Congratulations. I think getting out of here will be good for you.” This comment was sincere. She’d gotten out at the first opportunity.

“You need to visit once I’m settled in. It’d be so much fun,” he said. But what would be her reason to return here once he left?

Some nights she’d tap her fingertips against her leg to mark the time spent away from the things she didn’t know why she missed: the roads that ended abruptly at cornfields, the burnt smell and total darkness of winter mornings, the suburban saplings too scrawny to obscure the endless summer sky.

“Are you excited?” Özge asked, clasping her mug with both hands.

His gray-green eyes blinked. “Yeah, and scared. I was born less than a mile from here.”

Özge had not been scared to leave. It had felt right; it was right. Why else would her family have made the same decision just a few months after her? At any rate, she couldn’t even claim the town where she’d learned to drive and kiss as her birthplace. And her name was proof that she came from somewhere else.

Returning to the town was frightening. It teemed with ghosts. One sat opposite her now. Özge perceived her own translucence when she caught the specter’s gray-green eyes looking past her. She hoped he wouldn’t evaporate like the rest. Her stomach in knots, she guided the mug resting between her palms to the tabletop for a hard landing. His eyes moved with the crash. He saw Özge again. Now they would sit together a bit longer, maybe long enough that she would appear as flesh and blood to him, and he to her.

Ezgi Üstündağ was born in upstate New York but did most of her growing up in Ames, Iowa. Her Turkish short fiction has appeared in Kitap-lık, Lemur, altZine, and others. In English, she’s published fiction in Flash Fiction Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Eastern Iowa Review, and The Bosphorus Review of Books. She is also the author of Mother Tongue, a novella (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2019).

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