16 for a moment.
He is tall and thin, brazen and obnoxious in his St. Louis cardinals jersey. It clashes fantastically with his ridiculously red hair. He always has something to say, some playful jab. classes with him are fun. Everyone knows him, most people like him. she likes him, but there is no edge to it, no intrigue. He is all openness and light and she foolishly scorns him while she craves his friendship like water. He hurts her best friend’s feelings at a basketball game, makes her cry, sitting in the bleachers. High school drama. She doesn’t talk to him for a while.
19 for a moment.
They are in the same dorm Freshman year, together constantly, but not dating. In the summer after freshman year, before her parents move to Colorado, he fills her car with pink roses. roses everywhere, so many that there is nothing to do but throw some of them away. The note he left stays in her glove compartment for nine years. Until, at 27, she finally sells that silly little-girl car and tucks the note into a box of treasures.
23 for a moment.
He is tall and strong and she loves him, but he doesn’t call her any more. She has hurt him like this, she knows. She has played games and fallen back on him and relied on him to be always there, steady and open and wonderful. He has been her lover and her best friend and her scapegoat for five years. Except now he’s gone from her and she’s moving away, out of Ohio forever, and it hurts like a million bees stinging from the inside. She sits in her girly blue car, with his love note in the glove compartment, watching him play tag football, because she wants to say goodbye.
26 for a moment.
Her favorite picture from the wedding is of him. It is the moment she entered the chapel. The clever photographer snapped the groom and not the bride. So many pictures of the bride anyway. The smile on his face makes her heart flutter. It floods her with peace. She feels lucky and so loved. She curls fetally on their bed. Their mattress on the floor in their very first house perched on the edge of the District of Columbia. She still wears her black
pencil skirt and peacock blue silk blouse, though it is untucked so that he can rub her back from behind. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers, “maybe I’m having a nervous breakdown?” It’s hard to eat, she hardly sleeps. That’s how much she hates this life, her life, her fancy law firm job and the crushing hours and the never-ending stress.
He leaves the magazine, folded open, on the counter in their tiny kitchen. They eat Thai take-out straight from the styrofoam. “What do you think,” he asks her around a mouthful of noodles. The chopsticks in his hand jab at the top page. She glances down. Do you want to live in paradise? The ad queries boldly. It’s the page of open positions in a pharmacy trade magazine. Saipan. Micronesia. She’s never heard of it. “Really?” she asks him with her eyebrows.
29 for a moment.
Really. Has it really been three years? A soft tropical breeze blows off of the pacific into their tiny apartment. He sits on their narrow balcony, a corona in one hand, his gaze East toward California. she negotiates the piles of boxes, ready for the post office. “I’ll miss you every moment.” He snorts. Their nervous feral island dog pokes his sharp head
under his hand. The boxes horrify the dog. “You’ll love it.” she smiles. Southeast Asia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India. She will travel for three months; he is headed home. “I’ll be there before you miss me,” she tells him.
31 for a moment.
She calls him from the parking lot of the clinic. “The technician wouldn’t say anything,” she says. She is calm. The calm of shock. “I’m headed to the doctor’s office. But, I don’t think, I couldn’t see a heartbeat. I think the baby’s gone.”
It’s a 40-minute drive, but he is there in moments, or maybe the minutes stop until he gets there. He fills the doctor’s office with his presence. He holds her tightly and she finally cries.
34 for a moment.
They hold hands, nervous and sweaty on the suffocating plane. She has tears in her eyes. She wants to be here, her daughter and son are so close now, but her heart is torn. He’s fine, he’s OK. She closes her eyes and she can see his baby face, just two nights earlier, and a world away, covered in chocolate crumbs from his first birthday cake. Frosting smears his bright red hair, the exact color of his father’s hair at 16.
They celebrated his birthday a few days early because they were leaving to fly to Haiti. It will be OK. He’ll adjust. Oh God, he’s only 1. He has a sister and a brother, that’s a joy. It’s OK. “Ready,” he asks beside her. No. Yes. Never.
She watches him sleep, crunched into the tiny bunk in the stuffy room of the orphanage guesthouse. His daughter. Their daughter? Beautiful and tiny and brown sleeps on his chest. Just like their redheaded son waiting at home. She likes to sleep on his chest just like their son. It’s OK.
36 for a moment.
She can see him through the kitchen window, tall and broad and bald, working in the backyard. The redheaded boy and his chocolate-skinned twin sister ride their new bikes on the patio. The baby pushes a little shopping cart filled with sticks and flowers and various other treasures. It makes her laugh, suddenly. Is she really standing at the sink in a kitchen in socks, arms wet from washing dinner dishes, hugely pregnant with their
fourth child? She would be barefoot if it weren’t so cold in this backwater city in May.
Is it possible to end up with nothing you ever dreamed of 21 years ago and be this happy? Their 10th anniversary is this week. She knows she won’t get flowers. He rarely buys flowers or cards; it’s not his way. Except in college, she remembers enough flowers for a lifetime filling her entire tiny car.
On a whim, she pads into the cluttered office and opens the closet full of random things with no other place. It’s blue, she thinks, a blue folder with pockets. The kind you used to use for high school reports. She’s almost given up when she finds it tucked into an ancient backpack. It’s there, in the back of a pocket behind other cards and notes and letters. A piece of loose-leaf paper, folded into fours. The blue lines are faded and almost
gone, but his writing is clear and bold, in all block capitals. The same 18 years ago as it is today.
The note starts simply and ends simply, to the point and honest, so like him, then and now.
You’re always going to have at least one person who cares.
It seems anything is possible, and even ordinary love stories can be extraordinary.
This piece was originally published in the print issue, BALANCE.