This story is by Karen Margaret Hall and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Hello & good-bye
My soft-spoken friend
We don’t know how this journey ends
As we come together and fall apart
I feel you anchored in my heart
Love has no limits and life is an art.” From Love Knots
After Henry’s call, Annie strode outside to water her plants in a panic. She looked around her hard-won hillside bungalow. This was her nest – she loved the small Craftsman house with its garden, gleaming wood floors and view of the San Juan Islands. She’d purchased it when her torturous divorce was settled. Annie had gotten lucky when Frank’s former secretary, who had his new baby, told Frank she’d leave if they didn’t get married ASAP.
So Annie, for once, hadn’t been totally screwed by Frank, and was enjoying her newfound solitude. And she was in no mood to bring a new man into her life. Especially not Henry! Why the hell had she ever friended him on Facebook. She knew the answer of course – because he was a journalist working in Paris, exciting, but safe and distant. Writing back and forth had come naturally and she treasured his emails, which were always plain-spoken, playful and heartfelt. But who knew that he’d actually show up in Seattle! She just wasn’t ready for this.
She turned her face towards the golden October afternoon sun, feeling the warmth on her skin. It might be nice to spend an evening with an old friend. Oh, who was she kidding. One thing Annie had learned over the past few years was that there was no hiding from the truth. Henry had always been the fish that got away.
As the handsome, blue-eyed student teacher in her senior English class, he’d made her feel like someone who had something worthwhile to say. When Henry said that her poems were good, she’d begun to believe in herself. Maybe she wasn’t just “dreaming her life away” like her lawyer father insisted. And she’d felt lost after her mother died, so when he turned her on to Buddhism and writers like Jim Harrison, Mary Oliver and Barbara Kingsolver, it was like entering another universe.
Embarrassed, she recalled how often she, a clumsy, half-orphaned virgin, had fantasized about kissing him and more, although back then it could have cost him his teaching credential and led to jail-time. Henry had seemed so mature – he actually meditated and played guitar in a coffeehouse – but he’d only been 23 to her 17. Jail bait then, but really not so far apart. She suspected that his appeal might have been partly because he was off limits. And her romantic notions had been fueled by the film, Titanic, which she saw ten times that year.
On Prom Night 1998, Henry had rescued her from that idiot Joe, who wasn’t taking no for an answer when she refused to sleep with him in his ridiculous shag-carpeted van. Henry was outside the dance having a smoke, and had seen her lunge out of the van’s back door, pushing off Joe and then tripping over her platform shoes. He rushed over and grabbed Joe, saying sternly, “You mess with Annie over my dead body!” Joe got the message, and had slunk unsteadily back to the dance.
“Annie, let me give you a hand,” Henry had said, pulling her up from the ground.
She was still shaken, and slightly drunk, and had fallen right into him. Henry, smelling exotically of cigar smoke, had held her gently while she tried to wipe away her tears.
“I feel so stupid,” she sniffed.
“You? Nah. You’re just … a babe in the woods.”
He’d taken hold of her shoulders to see her at arm’s length. Annie recalled his gentle touch as he smoothed her hair, lightly twirling one of her long blond curls. Even now, she smiled when she recalled his words as she straightened out her navy, tulle-skirted prom dress dotted with silver sparkles.
“You look like a star fallen from the Milky Way. No wonder Joe can’t keep his hands off you.”
Then he kissed her lightly on the cheek before disappearing back into the prom, turning once to add, “Just let me know if you need a ride home.”
Dazed, Annie touched her cheek. By the time she realized she’d hurt her ankle, she was too mortified to hobble after Henry and his date and ask for a ride, so she went home with a girlfriend. She had kicked herself a million times for not accepting Henry’s invite. Who knows what might have happened once she graduated.
A few weeks later she’d heard that he’d gone off to Europe. He never said good-bye, which hurt. But she’d started college and later, had married Frank, the smart, aspiring lawyer that her Dad approved of, raised two amazing kids, taught high school English for several years, and finally, had divorced.
It had been an okay life, she thought, at least on paper. She tried not to think about how Frank often had criticized her, wanting her to be someone else. Maybe she’d been a fool, but she’d wanted to keep her family together. Even now, the kids didn’t understand why their “perfect” parents had broken up. She should have taken up acting, she’d been doing it so long. What was that quote from Kurt Vonnegut … “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
These days she felt more aligned with her heart. She had finally published her first book of poems, Love Knots. The poems were inspired by sailing, which always made her spirits soar, even with Frank. She suspected Frank liked it more for his image than for the chance to dance with wind and water or sleep under the stars in a gently rocking boat. Strange how two people could live together for almost twenty years, yet experience everything so differently.
A cold splash on her feet caught her attention. She’d nearly drowned her flower pot, and her feet were soaked from the hose. She turned off the faucet, feeling a chill in the air. She glanced up as she heard the sharp cry of wild geese migrating south, hinting at the long winter ahead. She made a mental note to get some firewood for the fireplace. She wished she had some for tonight. She checked the time. Too late now, Henry would arrive any minute, so she hurried to the bathroom to freshen up.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she sighed, wondering if Henry would be disappointed when he saw her. She still had fair hair, green eyes, and some nice curves, but she was a woman now. She fingered the puckered scar on her belly from her C-section. She realized with a pang how much she hoped Henry could love her for herself. What if she was a total disappointment to him, or what if he was to her. What if all relationships were bound to crash and burn after a few years and she had filled her head with fantasies about a harmony that didn’t exist. She yanked the brush anxiously through her tangled shoulder-length hair.
Back in the bedroom, Annie wondered briefly, as she searched for something to wear, if Henry was as nervous as she was. Her palms were clammy and nothing she put on looked right. The red dress was too bold. The little black dress, too safe. She finally settled on her skinny black jeans and a slim white tunic top edged with lace, and some pearl drop earrings. She’d just loaded a playlist featuring Louis Armstrong when the doorbell rang.
Just sail with this, she told herself breathing deeply. Enjoy the moment, even if the winds change. And she slipped on her black high heels and headed for the entry with her heart pounding.
She swung open the solid oak door with a squeak and there he stood, with a familiar crooked grin and a few more wrinkles around the his deep blue eyes. When she met his gaze, she felt her wild rabbit heart stand still.
He handed her some flowers – Queen Ann’s lace, forget-me-knots, yarrow.
“Hi Annie,” he said gently, “Been a long road, but I made it.”
“Well, I’m sure not a teenager any more,” she said, nervously burying her face in the flowers.
“Thank God for that! And, you can call me Hank.”
She looked up to see his eyes taking her in.
“You look incredible,” he said.
“These flowers need some water,” she replied, feeling herself blush, She turned away quickly, but her heel caught the carpet, and she fell flat on her face.
The next thing she knew she was on her back, and he was kneeling next to her.
“Are you okay Annie? You hit the floor pretty hard.”
“I’m fine, I think … I, well … it kinda looks like I’ve fallen for you.”
“Well, I kinda like picking you up.” And he kissed her. Perfectly. At last.