This story is by Stephanie Mohs and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I am older now, the seasons have changed so I must be, but I don’t feel as though any time has passed. I only feel the before and the after. Things were, and they were not; I had everything and then I had nothing; I felt and then I was empty. A moment, like a stone hitting the water, it exists and then it doesn’t; a flash in time and insignificant to all but the fading stone.
A fading stone, that was me.
It was a miracle we even met; a happenstance of sorts, me in desperate need of a cup of coffee and he, shelter from the thundering downpour. To this day, the smell of brewing coffee brings me back to him.
My first encounter with Sampson was less than love-at-first-sight, as he shook his wet umbrella in my direction, unknowingly soaking the thesis I’d been working on for what seemed to be the better part of my adult life. He apologized, insisting the saucer-sized raindrops must have washed away his nobility, I argued he may have never had any to begin with; I was wrong.
Our second encounter occurred the next morning as I began my daily routine of “coffee first, thesis second.” I popped into the same cafe on the corner and there he was, dry this time, with a cup of coffee in his hand and a smile on his face.
“I want to apologize for my insensitive behavior yesterday. I assure you, drenching unsuspecting women with rainwater is not one of my ‘moves,’” he said.
“Your moves?” I questioned.
“Yes, you know, the moves I use to impress a beautiful girl,” he confidently responded.
“I see. But stalking them and buying their favorite coffee is?” I asked, appearing calm on the outside yet floundering hopelessly inside, focusing on “beautiful girl.”
Now it was his turn to flounder, “Um, no, I would never stalk anyone. I was just trying to be nice. I’m sorry,” he muttered as he tried to find his keys.
“Can I still have the coffee?” I asked, hoping desperately my sarcasm had not offended him.
“Of course! I’ll just leave it here.” He placed it on the table and began to turn away.
“Would you join me for a cup?” I asked, watching his eyes calm a bit, moving slowly around my face as if taking it all in, searching for the correct response.
“I would love to,” he sighed, and took a seat next to mine.
It’s difficult to describe the beginning of our journey without focusing on the end, after all, which is more important? Is it really better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? I don’t think so, in fact, I think that’s bullshit.
It was two weeks into our love affair when Sampson told me he was being deployed. I knew he was in the Army. Anyone with a pulse would be able to tell with his crisp appearance and attention to detail, but his deployment took me by surprise.
“When?” I whispered, feeling as though my breath were tangible, like he had wrapped his fist around it and pulled the last gasp from my chest.
“The end of August,” he replied.
“The end of August! For how long? Where are you going? That’s less than three months from now!” I blurted in a frenzy, feeling as if my stolen breath had been replaced by fire.
“I know, I know,” was all he could reply.
My father had been a Marine, so I know the logistics behind military duty. I know it all–the time away from family, the missed birthdays, the fine razor’s edge that separates a soldier’s love of family with their love of country. I know, but knowing isn’t the problem, it’s feeling that messes me up.
So the countdown began, like a child waiting for Santa, I too, was waiting, not for a gift but for a loss.
Over the next weeks Sampson and I spent every moment together, editing my thesis over coffee, walking the trails behind my house, making love. I knew every inch of him, the curve of his shoulder, the bend of his arm, the softness of his lips. I simultaneously lived and died in every moment we spent together, finding the darkness behind every laugh and the loss in every gesture. I often wondered how he felt, wanting to know but not wanting to ask. Was he dreading the finals days, allowing them to cloud our memories with the same kind of thunderous rainfall we experienced the first time we met, or was he like my father, able to separate his life into two parts, equal in his eyes but wholly disproportionate to those around him.
It has been ninety-seven days since I said goodbye to Sampson, I know this because upon my return home on the day of his departure, he left a calendar on the table with a note that read,
“I know how you feel about countdowns! Cross off each day with hope and anticipation for our future. Love always, Sampson.”
And that is what I have done ninety-seven mornings in a row. While my coffee brews, I mark the black X and my soul is wrapped in comfort; one more day closer to him.
Day 347 began like all the others, slowly shuffling my way to the coffee maker, patiently waiting for the rich smell of a new day to envelope my senses. The familiar gurgling was the only noise in the house, soon accompanied by the drag of the Sharpie across the paper; 347.
The sun was shining through the maple trees in my backyard, beckoning me to walk among them and breathe in the early morning air. The beams of light were like a laser cutting through the morning fog, trying desperately to overtake the darkness. Standing directly in the beam, I noted how ironic it was to feel the warmth of the light on one side of my face and the cold of darkness on the other. Like the powers of good and evil, love and hate, hope and despair.
“I should’ve written my thesis on this,” I said to no one. “The ability to feel and be two things at once is quite extraordinary.”
Just then the doorbell rang and I was once again filled with hope and darkness, as the outline through the door’s pale curtain was that of a soldier; light or darkness, which would it be?
It is impossible for me to try and describe the unending ache which grips my heart. My moments of light-heartedness are always accompanied by despair, as if I have an ugly twin and we are joined at the heart. The guilt of smiling at a humorous story almost swallows me whole, hating myself for being stagnant in my own life but feeling powerless to move on. Wanting to move forward, wanting to be happy, wanting to forget.
A fading stone, before and after, together and alone, all separated by a moment, a flash of light with the power to alter the momentum of my life, of Sampson’s life. As I walk through the streets I contemplate this mystery, the “why” of it all when suddenly the warm aroma of coffee wraps around me and I stop momentarily to breathe it in. As if choreographed just for me, the sky opens up and rain begins to fall upon my face. Droplets large enough to drench you in a few moments, causing people to duck into stores and coffee shops to save themselves from the downpour; coffee shops.
“Alright, my love; Day 1,” as I look to sky and let the rain wash over my face.