All day the rain beat relentlessly against the wall of windows at the front of the house. By late afternoon the powder grey sky had descended over the entire island, and the pounding rain eased, as though a giant atomizer was disbursing a heavy misting over the gardens and the winding lanes, leaving everything chilled, but crisp and fresh as well.
I thought about him in the morning as I sipped my coffee, scalding from the pot and sweet with heavy cream and sugar. Leaning against the French doors, watching the rain, I ached to be out in it, to let the steady droplets wash the memory of him from my being, from my soul.
I busied myself with home chores ~ laundry and beds to be made, supper shopping to plan, and still he filled my thoughts, intruding like the heady aroma of a cloying perfume, musky and insistent, sliding around my ‘busy work’ and searching me out. I am not sure he will ever leave me completely.
Habit is a plastic friend, unrecyclable, more brittle over time, and dull with use. All day, my fingers checked my phone expectantly, waiting for contact, any contact. Our habit of constantly checking in with each other had shattered when he left, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to this truth. His messages never came. They would never come again.
I feel feverish today, most days. There is no cure for this hot, intense aching, no pill that will cool my head and numb my heart. No elixir to still my racing thoughts, no tincture for my soul, to anesthetize it and leave me capable of moving on. Two years are like two hours to me.
Morning eased away, and the early afternoon found me with my feverish forehead pressed against the rain-tattooed glass. My fingers splayed around a hot cup of sweet tea, as I peered down the drive all the way to the curve where it winds out of sight, willing him to appear, willing his tall lanky form to stride purposefully around the very curve where I first saw him. He’d be hatless in this downpour, heedless of the rain with another casual comment tossed to me like, “What’s a little rain on a day?” and one of his reserved smiles that hid so much about who he really is.
By most late afternoons, I am fairly despondent, unless I plan some sort of mini-date with my friends. Then the knowledge that I will have to perpetuate the charade for my friends that I am healing, that it is getting easier to live without him, that I am nearly ready to move on, stops me from sinking completely into despair.
Tonite is such a night. I am meeting my friends for before-dinner drinks at a small bar in town. I have to keep it together.
So after a long scented bath and a careful run through my closet to choose just the right dress, not too morose, hopeful perhaps, if clothing can convey hope, I slide rebelliously into my favorite slicker, his slicker, and head out to meet my friends.
I have no way of knowing how my life is about to change.
I saw him.
Everyone was so kind about it, sure that I was just wishing him there, sure that I had imagined it, sure that I was having a little ‘episode’, much like those I had after he first left me.
But I know I saw him.
In the middle of Sable’s funny tale about her doorman and her neighbors’ rabid Pekinese, while trying to focus on her story and find the part of me that not so long ago would have laughed uproariously, I looked up from our table by the window just as he hurried past.
Even with the rain on the glass, the well-lit interior of the bar illuminated him completely, head bowed, shoulders hunched against the rain, thready thick sweater and bare-headed as always.
I must have made some audible sound of shock, because everyone at our table turned their focus on me in unison, all heads swiveling at the same time. That should have brought me to, but all I could think of was ‘I have his slicker and he’ll get soaked in this downpour!’
He had barely passed and I was up out of my chair, weaving through the other diners, muttering ‘excuse me’s’ as I made my way to the coat rack just inside the main entrance. I tossed coats left and right frantically in an effort to find his slicker, finally did so, and ran out the door and up the direction he had been headed when he passed.
Sheets of rain coursed down my neck and quickly soaked me through. I felt none of it. Like a woman possessed I raced up the street in front of me. There were few people out in this weather so he should have been easy to spot, but there was no one headed in this direction. Thinking he may have crossed the street, I swiveled in a half arc, scanning the sidewalk opposite and finally looking back down towards the bar. Nothing but an elderly couple getting into a car outside the bar, and a mad jogger running up the sidewalk opposite.
He was gone.
I think I really must have lost it for a brief bit then. I remember the brick wall of the building behind me, a firm support that I slid down slowly as I collapsed into a soggy pile on the sidewalk. By now my worried friends were into their own coats and headed in my direction. Someone kept moaning ‘no, no’ and the pitiful sound of it filled my head. As if through a long tunnel I recognized my own agonized voice. Sable’s husband Michael efficiently scooped me up and deposited me gently into the passenger side of my car; Sable was already in the driver’s seat.
For the second time that day, I pressed my feverish forehead against a cool rain-spattered glass. My eyelids closed slowly, like a curtain coming down after a bad dinner show, shutting out the cruel lights and empty streets, the familiar trees and houses as they rushed by on the journey home. My mind was racing, analyzing what had just happened. I know I saw him. I also know that there was not even a remote chance that anyone else would believe me.
The next hour was spent allowing Sable to dry me off, put me to bed, bring me a hot restoring cup of mint tea, and generally flutter about trying to console me. When she finally left, after numerous assurances from me that I was fine, that yes, I must have been mistaken and after just as many promises to call her the next day, I fully exhaled for the first time since I’d seen him outside the bar.
Then I did something I hadn't been able to do in forever. For the first time in two years I snuggled down into my bed, on my side, and I slept the night through.
The rain never let up.
Copper colored leaves swept gently against the glass of my bedroom window, and the early morning light, that wonderful fresh-washed light you get after a good storm, streamed in steadily, waking me in the best way. I sleep with my window open year round, so my bedroom smelled of late Autumn; fresh, frosty, almost spicy.
I lay very still in my deep, velvety bed, my eyes closed, and let wakefulness steal over me slowly. If he had been here, there would have been a leisurely morning snuggle to look forward to, followed by a walk together down to the coffee shop for a latte and a paper. Before last night, this thought would have left me absolutely miserable for the rest of the morning, but today was totally different. This morning I was finally able to accept what my heart has been telling me every day for the past two years. He is still alive.
I could barely breathe as I lay there and let that realization percolate slowly. I don’t know where he has been, I don’t know what happened to him, nor why he has been so long in coming home; I don’t need to know those things. I just know that he has finally come back to me.
The morning that followed was surreal. I rose and showered, a small smile as I washed my hair with his favorite pear scented shampoo, and shaved my legs, something I had neglected to do more often than not since he had left. I dressed, slipping into my long-legged jeans, the faded ones I’ve had since college, the ones he says make me look so tall and slender and elegant. Donning one of his flannel shirts over my soft grey long-sleeved tee, and thick wooly socks, I padded out to the kitchen and started the coffee pot.
I spent the morning going through the things they sent me when he went missing. The official notice that he was Missing in Action Presumed Dead, delivered by his Commanding Officer on a sunny Fall day full of brittle heartbreak. I pulled his dress uniform out of the closet and slowly unzipped the black plastic bag I bought to store it in, black so I wouldn’t have to see it hanging crisp and white every time I walk into the closet, black because they told me he was dead. Crushing the jacket to my face I inhaled deeply, searching for any remnant of his unique smell, his spicy after-shave, his integral ‘maleness', but no matter how many times I’ve done this, it still smells like the dry cleaners have just finished with it. His kit bag unzipped, I repeated the ritual laying out of his things, things he would have used every day that he was away from me, serving our country. It used to send me into near hysterics to picture his strong thick fingers wrapped around the razor or toothbrush that I was holding, but today, by touching his things, I just feel even more connected to him.
By late morning I am tucked in the wicker chair on the deck, wrapped in a thick grey sweater, onto my third mug of creamy coffee. I feel quiet inside, like what I imagine the center of a storm must be like. I should feel stormy, shouldn’t I? But there is such a peace with this Knowing, no rush, no sense of urgency, no feeling that I must rush about town, hunting for him. I Know and that knowledge calms me like nothing else could. My mouth has become possessed overnight; secret smiles work the withered muscles of my face, and it feels so alien that I cannot stop myself from repeatedly reaching up and touching my cheeks, feeling the smile lines, which only makes me smile even wider.
He’s coming soon.
In the trees the squirrels jump from branch to branch, stashing their hard won winter forage into every nook they find. The late birds are happy today, and sing especially for me. They know this is a special day.
I feel like I have awoken from a long dream and am fully awake for the first time in a long, long time.
I need to be busy so I bundle up and head outside. I cut the grass, probably the last cut of the year, it grows so slowly now.
And I wait.
I barrow the cuttings up the drive and into the compost heap.
Still I wait.
I rake leaves fallen from the Japanese maples that line the drive into a giant pile and add the branches fallen from the storm last night to the pile. I start a smudge fire, inhaling the sharp, smoky aroma, loving the snap and crackle as the branches ignite and perfume the area with scents of sap and evergreen. Leaning on the rake, I stare into the fire. And wait.
And then it happens.
Everything stills expectantly. I raise my head, and for the last time, I gaze down the curve of the drive, straining to see around the bend, searching. There is a rushing sound in my ears, and I realize I am holding my breath.
I see the copper top of his hatless head first, as slowly, unevenly, he walks around the bend. Head bowed, he’s watching where he walks carefully. He’s limping quite badly, enough to warrant a cane, something I did not notice last night. I’m so quiet, still holding my breath, willing him to raise his beautiful head. When at last he does, he sees me and stops abruptly, teetering a bit. We pause, eyes locked, and with a slow smile, he continues towards me. It’s everything I can do not to rush over to him but I stay where I am, just as I always have, waiting. When finally he reaches me, I see that he is much thinner than the last time I saw him, making him seem even taller than he is, and his face is very much more worn.
“So,” he says and his smile stirs me as no other’s. I can barely contain the fountain of emotion that washes over me, as I slowly reach up and place the palm of my hand on his rough cheek.
“You’ve been a while,” I say smiling up into his eyes. His free hand comes up to rest in a similar position on my face and with his thumb he gently brushes a smudge of dirt from the tip of my nose.
“Yes.” His deep voice catches and my eyes fill. “But then, you knew I’d be back, didn’t you my love.”
This story is dedicated to all the men and women who risk all to serve our country, and to those who wait paitiently, hopefully, at home, risking just as much. Never Forget.