Where was she?
Will pulled at his navy tie as he searched the crowd, frowning when he didn’t see her familiar face. Maybe if he—
He moved up a step to get a better view, and turned his attention to the fountain. A group of schoolchildren sat one right next to the other on the edge, listening to their teacher speak. The teacher resembled Charlotte with her smooth complexion and forest-green eyes, but her smile was all wrong. It seemed like nothing more than a poor mimicry of Charlotte’s with the lips curved so tightly upward that it seemed that willpower alone kept them from falling down into a frown.
His gaze drifted toward the schoolchildren, perched on the edge of fountain. One of them down at the end, the one with grass stains on his rumpled khaki shorts, tugged on the golden curls of the girl sitting next to him. She swatted his hand away without looking at him. The little boy smiled and tugged a curl again. Will smiled, watching as the little girl’s lips between to curve slightly upward and her fingers began to unlace as she lifted one hand ever so slightly from her lap. Pure Charlotte, he thought, so sneaky. The poor boy wasn’t expecting a thing.
The little boy reached forward and grabbed another curl. She pounced, shoving him as hard as she could. He shoved back, and before they knew it, they were both wading in the fountain, the little girl sitting on top of the boy’s chest with a proud smile on her face. The teacher’s smile dropped, and she reached into the fountain dragging them both out.
Will laughed a little, and murmured to himself. “I hope we have kids like that someday.” He glanced down at his watch. “But for that to happen, she needs to show up.”
He took another look around the crowd, searching for her pulled back chestnut hair and suit and skirt combo. Nothing. He loosened his tie, and shoved his hands in his pockets. He knew it had been too good to be true. He smiled crookedly, the left corner of his mouth just the slightest bit higher than the right. She had changed her mind. That was all, nothing to get upset over. He would stop and talk with the vendor with the thick Russian accent, buy one of those god-awful hotdogs, slather it with mustard and relish, and go home. No need to stand around and wait. Perhaps, the tightness in his chest would lessen with a walk. He ducked his head and began to make his journey down the steps.
He looked up.
She took the steps, one, two, three at a time, never missing a beat as she made her way up to him, her pin-straight hair falling down her back like a wave. She was wearing that bright green dress he loved so much, the one she rarely wore because it “drew too much attention.” He looked her in the face for the first time. Her cheeks glowed pink from her run up the stairs, and sweat coated her forehead. She took a deep breath or two, trying to even out her breathing.
She laughed, and the skin around her eyes crinkled. “What, no Charlie? Why so formal, love?” He glanced down at her feet, smiling slightly as he saw those crazy high heels of hers. How she could run in them he would never understand. The tightness in his chest loosened, and his hands relaxed, resting comfortably in his pockets now. She followed his gaze, and smiled. “Have to make up for the height difference between us somehow,” she explained, arching up to kiss him on the cheek before stepping back to look him over. “A suit, darling? Never thought I’d see the day.”
He stared at her. He couldn’t believe it. She was here. She hadn’t given up or changed her mind. She came.
“Love, are you all right?”
He blinked, and her face, her concerned, wonderful, lovely face, came back into focus. “Where were you?”
“The meeting ran late. You know how the big wigs like to hear themselves talk.” She took a step forward, brow furrowing in concern. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
The meeting had run late. How had he not thought of that? “Never better.” He pushed aside the overwhelming relief he felt, and concentrated on her. “You’re shocked by my suit, what about that dress?” He shook his head back and forth in mock dismay. “Don’t you think it draws a little too much attention?”
“I thought you liked me in this dress.” With a slight frown, she stepped forward to readjust his tie.
“Oh, I do,” he reassured her, “I just like you better out of…” she pulled his tie a little tighter, cutting off his words.
“Patience is a virtue.” She replied, the innocent smile on her face belying the grip she had on his tie.
“Good thing neither one us of is all that virtuous.”
She laughed again, the sound drowning out everything else around them. He didn’t hear the “she started it, no he did” of the schoolchildren down by the fountain. All he could hear was her.
Satisfied with her adjustments, she released his tie. This was it; he offered his arm. “Ready?”
She slipped her arm through his. “Let’s do this; let’s start our new adventure.”
Then they walked up those steps, entered City Hall, and got married.
As he stood in front of the justice of the peace, he tried to forget his last conversation with Charlotte’s father.
How he refused to give his blessing. How he neglected to give a reason why. How he only shook his head and stared at Will with those sharp gray eyes that never missed a thing and said, “one day you’ll understand.”
When it came down to it, though, Will kept to his word.
“I’ll marry her anyway, sir. With or without your blessing.”
His future father-in-law just smiled slightly, leaning back in his chair. “I expected nothing less.”
Will sat on the back porch as dusk crept in, his eyes on the ground, searching for a reason. Why? Why her? Why his family? What had they done to deserve this?
He tugged at the navy tie. He had never liked suits. They were always too tight, choking off air when he needed it the most. He took off his jacket, unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves, and pulled at his tie again. He still couldn’t breathe all that well. Maybe it was the air, strangely humid for spring.
The crickets hummed. The horizon burned with sunset. His eyes burned with something else.
“Here, love.” Charlotte handed him a glass filled with amber which gleamed in the dying sunlight.
“What, no lemonade on a spring day?” He joked half-heartedly — always half-heartedly now.
She reached for his tie and loosened it all the way, pulling it off. With a weak smile — always weak now — “What do I look like, Ms. Susie Homemaker?” Her hands lingered, gently unbuttoning the top few buttons of his shirt and caressing his collarbone.
No, she was never meant to be a housewife, serving lemonade on spring days, checking homework, and scrubbing dishes so long that her hands smelled like lemon for the rest of the day. No, instead, he thought wryly to himself, she brings whiskey as the worst days wind down, and drives her daughter to doctor’s appointments where there are no answers, only questions. Drove. Drove her daughter to doctor’s appointments.
He put down the whiskey, cradled her face in both hands, and kissed her. There would be other days for salty kisses, for bittersweet pledges, for angry questioning, for blankly overwhelming grief, but right then, there was just them. Always them, no matter what else had happened.
He broke away, and opened his eyes, just taking her in. She had forgotten, or perhaps she had been too exhausted, to scrub the tearstains from her face. The humidity wreaked havoc on her usually smooth hair, causing a stray curl here and there, some frizz on top. Black eyeliner smudged at the corner of her eyes, scarlet bled beyond the border of her lips. She looked a mess, a crazy, beautiful mess. “I love you.”
Her eyes fluttered open, mouth curving slightly up, a ghost of a smile, but a smile nonetheless. “I know.”
The back door creaked open. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude.” Charlotte’s father, Murray, stood in the doorway.
Charlotte leaned over to pick up the fallen tie and suit jacket before kissing him one more time and standing up. “Don’t worry, Dad,” she answered, “I was just about to head in anyway.”
Will watched as she walked to the back door, and prepared to walk in. Murray stopped her, though, grasping one hand in his and turning her towards him. She stared down at her heels, the same ones she’d worn so many years ago on their wedding day.
“Oh, sunshine.” Murray whispered. And with those words, she came undone. Will’s tie and jacket fluttered to the ground as she released her chokehold on them, and wrapped her arms around her father instead, burying her face in his chest. Murray held her, held her like Will used to hold Anna, like he would never hold Anna again. He looked away as Murray bent down to kiss her head. It was too much.
He heard the clack of her heels as she stepped away and the rustle of his tie and jacket as she picked them off the ground. He ignored her whispered words to Murray, the he-needs-to-talk and take-care-of-him-won’t-you, and picked up his glass of whiskey. The door clicked shut as she left, leaving the two of them alone.
Murray made his way over, sitting down on the porch with his own glass of whiskey loosely grasped in his hand. The silver in his hair gleamed, matching his hooded eyes. He shot Will a quick glance, and raised his glass. “Great minds think alike.”
Will followed suit. “Charlotte brought mine.”
“Eleanor,” Murray admitted with a rough chuckle. “To the women in our lives who are always one step ahead of us.” And they both took a drink. “How you holding up, son?”
Fantastic, Will thought, but he swallowed the words before they could come bubbling up. Instead, he stared out at the horizon, where only the last few threads of sunlight could be seen. “I’ve had better days.”
Murray sighed. “Haven’t we all.”
Silence followed. However, it was a comfortable one. Regardless of Murray’s refusal to give his blessing all those years ago, he and Will had an easy relationship, buoyed by a shared sense of humor and zest for life. Will also respected his father-in-law very much, seeking his advice when it came down to the important matters in life. The old man always knew what to say.
“Do I keep her pictures in my wallet?”
Murray winced, took another gulp of whiskey. “I don’t know.”
“What about when someone asks me if I have kids? Do I say I had a daughter or have a daughter? I mean, just because she’s…gone doesn’t mean she isn’t still my daughter, won’t always be, right?”
“I don’t know.”
Will stood up, and began to pace. “What about her room? Do we just leave it as is or clear it out?”
“I don’t know, son.”
“But you always know!” Will shouted, pushing back the unshed tears in his eyes, and pulling out the anger in his heart, instead. Because being angry was so much easier than being sad, after all. “How do you not know now, when I need you the most?”
And Murray just sat there, sat on the back porch, staring into his glass of whiskey as if it held the answers, but it didn’t. Will knew that. He had tried to find the answers there, but there were none, none at all. It seemed like there were no answers anywhere.
“I don’t know, son.”
And just like that, his anger was spent, replaced with a terrible tightness in his throat, choking him all over again except it wasn’t his tie or the humid air causing it. He slumped down on the porch, leaning against the pillar as if it was the only thing holding him up (because it was). “What do you know then?”
Then there was silence once more, except this time it was not the comfortable type, and Will was sure, so sure that Murray was just going to stand up and walk back inside, leave him there, drowning his sorrow in whiskey and using a porch pillar for support. He didn’t leave. Instead, he remained by Will’s side, contemplating his question, occasionally taking a sip of whiskey or staring out at the sky.
“I know you’ve always wondered why I wouldn’t give you my blessing all those years ago.” Will averted his eyes, but Murray didn’t notice, just kept looking out at the backyard. “Especially since I don’t seem to harbor any hard feelings toward you. And I don’t, by the way, son,” Murray added, glancing Will’s way. “In case, you were wondering. You remember what I told you that day?”
“That one day I would understand. And I still don’t.”
Murray laughed. “Oh, you do. More than you realize.” He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “No one wants to give up their daughter, to anything — whether it is death or another man. I couldn’t bless your marriage because I didn’t want to give her up. To me she is and always will be my little girl, the one who gave me butterfly kisses and asked me to scare away the monsters under the bed and made me breakfast in bed.” He laughed again. “Or breakfast on bed as the case sometimes was for Father’s Day. It had nothing to do with you, son, and everything to do with me. As a father, you’re the first one to fall in love with her, and the last one to ever give her up.”
“So how…how do you give her up?” Will asked, hesitant, not quite sure he wanted to know.
“You don’t.” Will lifted his head up as he eyed his father-in-law warily. “You never give her up. But sometimes, sometimes you have to let her go.” Murray reached over, and squeezed his shoulder.
Will stared down at his whiskey. “And how do you do that?”
“Hell if I know.”
Will stared down at his hands. His knuckles strained against the skin, threatening to burst out at any moment. When did his hands begin to look this way? What happened to the smooth, worry-free skin? When did the pain and panic worm under his skin, and lodge there, never to leave again? Twenty years had done a number on his hands. Fortunately, one thing hadn’t changed.
His wedding ring remained, snug on his left ring finger. It had lived there so long it had become part of his skin. Like his love for Charlotte, it would never disappear.
Let’s start a new adventure, she had said, moments before their wedding.
Well, they sure had. They had fought over taking in the stray cat that roamed the neighborhood, him for and her against. She lost. They had competed to see who could go the longest without speaking, who could play the piano better, who could name the most Billy Joel songs. He lost, he lost, he lost. They had raised a daughter and watched her die. Now that one… they both lost.
If that wasn’t an adventure, he didn’t know what was.
It wouldn’t be easy, mourning their daughter’s death, living without her, moving on. It would be a challenge that much he was sure of. But with Charlotte by his side, he knew one day it would be okay. Not great, not wonderful, but simply okay. He would let his daughter go; He’d live the adventure she no longer could – this crazy, beautiful mess called life.
About the Author
When I was little, I could think of no bigger or better adventure than visiting the bookstore. I would always dart through the doors ahead of my family and run through the aisles, searching for the next book that I just had to read. Once I found it, I would stow away in a corner and read, not stopping until my parents came by hours – or what seemed like hours – later. I would beg for a few minutes. Sometimes, they obliged. Other times, they would offer to pay for the book, so I could finish at home. I took them up on that offer more than once. Still, nothing could compare to reading in that little corner, surrounded by hundreds of books, hundreds of friends just waiting to make my acquaintance. http://sarahbenkendorf.wordpress.com
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