Slipping my ear buds in place, I walk delicately down the dew covered porch steps, careful not to disturb the terra cotta pots and glistening pumpkins that line the steps. Florida just cannot compare with a view like this. The early morning sun glints silver off the choppy Atlantic, peeking through the gaps in rooftops and autumn leaves. Though there aren’t nearly as many people taking advantage of the morning quiet, those that are out and about work to avoid my smile, making me smile all the more. Ah, the not so friendly avoidance of a true New Englander on the streets. God, I missed being home.
Treading carefully down the hilly sidewalk toward city center – running in Florida is an even keeled adventure where this takes focus and careful footing – I savor the thick, salty air, swaying my arms in a gentle back and forth to match the rhythm of my hips and shoulders. Bearing down the narrow side roads, weathered triple deckers give way to faded brick facades as residential homes slowly begin to mingle with antique shops and funky local artisan museums. The sounds of shop owners opening up for the day blends with the call of seagulls swooping along the shipyards, scavenging the decks of troller boats just come in from their runs. Haddock and lobster abound just off the rocky norther coast of Cape Ann, an industry steeped in tradition that spans across generations of families here.
Descending upon the city center, I slow my pace, soaking in the old fashioned lamp posts and family owned sidewalk cafes. How cars manage to park in both directions and still allow traffic to pass baffled me even when I lived here. It’s absolutely confounding now. I don’t think I’d even attempt it anymore. What would it be like to make this my home again, I can’t help but wonder.
The music filtering through my thoughts by way of my earbuds is nostalgia incarnate.
As if on cue, my reverie is interrupted by the sound of Dave’s ringtone burning through my ears.
“Hello?” Slowing my stride, I know my breathing betrays me. No matter how often I run here, my body just cannot get used to the demands of uphill (or downhill) jogging, after more than twenty years in the flatlands of southwest Florida.
“What the hell, Annalise.”
“Good morning, Dave.” Dryly. My stomach lurches, betraying the droll of my voice. He’s mad that I told Connor. That makes it too real for him, I know.
“I thought we agreed to tell them together, Anna. Jesus Christ, how hard would it have been to just fucking respect me?”
“When did we agree to that? I asked you to come with me so we could tell them together, and you refused. Remember? Do you remember that?”
A long sigh, and then nothing.
“Hello?” I’ve just made it to the salt-worn metal barricade, the only thing separating the raised wavered walkway from angry whitecaps and sea spray. Leaning against the scarred metal, my torso stretches down against the cold toward the swirling gray ocean. I will myself to stay calm. “Dave? I’m in the middle of my morning run. What is this about, seriously? Because you knew I told Connor last week when I booked my ticket up.”
“You’re throwing away twenty-eight years of marriage like it was nothing!” Explosive words, but his voice sounded. . .crazed. Desperate. Broken?
“How dare you even say that to me? How many times, Dave? How many goddamn times did I ask you to wake up? Where were you then? Where were you then!” Bitter tears sting her flaming eyes, blurring the many stares as locals move to give the crazy screaming lady downtown a wide berth. Typical New Englanders, steering clear of any public display of emotion.
“I can’t do this with you anymore. We talked this whole thing out at home. You’re supposed to be packing for Christ sake.” Hissing into the phone, I impatiently sweep the tears off my cheeks and about-face, walking at a pace that was closer to my normal running speed though I don’t feel winded, but energized.
“We didn’t talk out shit, Annalise. You told me you were done, you threw some vague excuses making me out to be a total piece of shit husband and you a saint, and then you left. Who are you to tell me I need to pack up and get out. I worked my ass off for this home, I gave you and Connor everything you ever needed. Well fuck me, man, I’m a real fucking nothing then.” His breathing is sharp across the miles, and she knows he’s pacing, rifling nervous hands through still-thick hair.
Pausing, to control my tone as much as to choose my words with caution, I continue walking, this time away from the picturesque harbor and up the steep, winding main street headed out of town and closer to my favorite place to think things through.
“Dave, please hear me. Just because my reasons don’t hold any water with you doesn’t negate their value. I’ve spent the last few years absolutely pleading with you to be more present. I have the right to be done. I am unhappy, don’t you understand that? I’ve been unhappy. I deserve to be happy, I really think I do, and I’m done waiting on you. That’s all there is to say. I’m not asking your permission, I’m making a decision for myself.” Letting these last words fall from my lips in a whisper, I know it’s too harsh for him just yet, but he needs to know. I’m not going back to the way things were. Even if he’s scared. Even if I have no idea what this new life might look like. I’m done wishing for something I know I will never have, as long as I’m looking to get it from him.
The stunned silence hangs heavily, accenting every one of the fifteen hundred miles between us. My own labored breath hammers into my end of the phone, making me feel self conscious. I’m sweating in spite of the brisk autumn air, marching all of my frustration and hopelessness into each step along the steadily inclining road. Thankfully, cars are few and far between, leaving me to the falling leaves and frost-hardened earth.
“I’m going to let you go. I. . .I can’t do this now. I’m sorry I called. Enjoy your trip.” Click.
Chills run down the length of my arms, prickling the hairs along my neck. My pace slows, and my head spins. I shudder my shoulders and roll my head back, looking to the sky. Something feels different. In my gut I know, I’ve done something permanent. I just don’t know why that makes me feel so unsettled. . .
Breathless and shaken, I continue on my way until I’m greeted by a shallow decline, opening up to a familiar clearing. Just the sight of the inconspicuous bend in the otherwise treelined road warms my heart and settles my nerves. I’ve arrived.
Walking with reverence toward the opening in the wood, I inhale deeply, tipping my head to the sky. The sweet fragrance of fallen leaves, salty sea air, and that special earthy scent of woods blends together, intoxicating. Just like that, the tension leaves my bunched muscles and I feel like I can breathe again.
Running my hands along the low lying underbrush, newly fallen leaves blend with layers of long decayed foliage, crunching under my feet with a deliciously familiar sound. Tiny trees like sticks blend with tall, skinny maple and birch, all reaching for the sky as one. Some hold fast to their deep green hue while others shimmer magnificent in pale orange, crimson and gold. I am enchanted.
The deeper in I wander, so the grumble and roar of the Atlantic grows stronger, crashing along the rocks of the cliffs. Searching for the first glimpse of ocean through the leaves; not yet. I turn to see how far I’ve come. The roadside has disappeared all together, and I am completely enveloped in this place. It’s funny, I remember the walk being shorter than this. Maybe I took for granted all that now as an adult captures my attention and slows my pace. Again, I just can’t believe I ever gave this up for a place as uninspiring as suburban southwest Florida. . .
All at once, the trees fall away, and low lying timber with sparse leaves scattered among spindly arms pave the way to where the leave covered ground meets with stone. Through the branches my greedy eyes soak in the first open views of the harbor. What just a few moments ago was a gentle grumble is now consuming the space around me. All I can hear is the wind, the water, and the crash of waves to rocks. To the left, I can climb higher. To the right and directly in front of me, lower.
Water pools on smooth stone where the tide has just gone out. My spirit lifts so high I feel tears at the corners of my eyes, and my cheeks crest to a smile for no reason at all, except that I am home again.
The rocks feel grainy and cool to the core beneath my outstretched fingers, muscle memory bounding my much older body up, up, up to the highest possible vantage point. From here, I can see the jut of Rockport’s famous Bearskin Neck, a smattering of islands in the distance, the curve of rocky beaches and public parks blending from once north shore city to the next. The sky is so clear, and the colors so bright, by the time I settle myself atop the uneven ledge I am breathless though more with awe than effort.
Laying myself down right there, the sound of gurgling shallows blending with the roar of angry currents, I am swallowed up by sensation. I stare up at the sky and out into the open water.Clarity.
The schlump and crunch of footsteps along the underbrush grow louder and closer, dragging me reluctantly from my place of calm. Always in the back of my mind is the evolution of my beloved community. Where once we would have had artsy teenagers, skipping class to eat junk food and make out here on these cliffs, these steps could just as easily now belong to a drug addicted vagrant, looking for their next fix. I bound to my feet, scooping my dangling headphones closer to my side in equal parts embarrassment and anxiety. I move to descend from perch just as the footsteps produce their maker. His voice carries along the breeze, sending the hairs on my arms and neck into a frenzy.
There he stands, wild barren branches tangle behind him, the dull winter landscape a perfect contrast to his cornflower blue fleece and rosy, wind brightened cheeks. Hands buried in the pockets of his faded jeans, I notice he’s holding car keys.
“Really, James? Can’t handle a little hike these days?” Dropping to my feet from the final twist of granite, I smile up at him, happy for the opportunity to see him again, here in this place. I can’t resist a moment of levity after the seriousness of our earlier run in at the airport a few days ago.
His smile is relaxed, a nice change from before. “Honestly, I didn’t really even plan on being here. It just sort of happened. . .”
“Well, yeah, where else would you go on a day like this?” I turn back to the water, not wanting to turn away and let it go until I absolutely had to. This view is good for my soul, I can’t bear the thought of leaving again. Both right now, and when I return to my home in Florida next week.
“Anna, I want to apologize for how I left things the other day. I was short with you, and that wasn’t fair. You have your life, and I have no right to make you apologize for the choices you’ve made.”
Something in my gut keeps me from reassuring him. I feel like this is some kind of invitation, and I just can’t let it go that far. Something about the way Dave sounded just now. . .it’s weighing on me.
Listen to your intuition, Annalise. You know what you need to do. . .
“James, you have nothing to apologize for. It’s unnerving, seeing you again. I know you can see that all over my face, and in all of my nervousness, my clumsiness, my quirkiness – “
“I’ve always loved your quirkiness.”
I smile, tucking an escaped strand of hair behind my ear and twist the square stone of my decades old engagement ring gently.
“Well, thank you. . .What I tried to tell you on the plane is that Dave and I. . .we’ve separated.”
His eyebrows raise instantly, the only indication of interest I can read anywhere on his devastatingly familiar face.
“Anna, I’m sorry. I know you’ve been happy together. That’s too bad, really.”
“Thank you. I’m. . .I’m actually not sure what’s happening. I’ve come here to sort things out with Connor, and give Dave time to pack his things while I’m not around. Better for both of us I think, definitely easier, but, honestly, I just don’t know anymore that we’re even on the same page. . .”
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound cold here, but. . . Anna, why are you telling me this?” He raises his hands defensively, and steps back, eyes gentle and concerned, “What I mean is, is there something that you need me to do to make things any easier for you, or. . . ?”
“Oh my gosh, no, I . . .well honestly in the airport it was just so jarring to see you. I’ve always remembered you, remembered us and what we had together. I guess, I intended then to seize the opportunity to tell you that I’ve cared for you, and wished you well, and wondered if things had been different, if we’d still be together, even after all these years. I guess I just didn’t want to let another thirty years go by without telling you that in some small way, I’ve always held on to my feelings for you. . .”
He stands motionless, eyes widened in surprise, otherwise his expression hasn’t changed a bit. I can’t read him. My stomach drops. I’ve got to do something to fix this.
“James, seriously, I don’t expect you to say a thing.”
“I’ve wanted to get this out all this time, and now I have. That’s all there is to it. Now we can say goodbye, and you will know how I felt, instead of thinking I just didn’t care.”
“Anna, slow down, seriously. Let me – just let me. . .”
He closes the space between us, eyes locked on mine. The blue of his irises only grow bluer, his brow arched deeply in concentration. The hair on my arms stands on end, he is close enough to touch. The ocean swirling behind me, peaceful in contrast to the crashing of my heart, and he’s sliding his arms around my waist, pulling me tightly into his embrace. His hands are in my hair, my face buried in his neck. My body trembles against his chest so that I’m certain he knows the effect his closeness has on me. I think I like that, I think maybe now he’ll believe me when I say that I’ve loved him forever. In spite of my life, in spite of where my road has led. This is, somehow, just as real. I breathe him in, slowly exhaling against his skin, until my shoulders release. Beneath my fingers, his body is disarmingly lithe. I can’t stop my hands from holding him close, keeping him from pulling away just yet. It’s been too long, I’m not ready. It may never happen again.
“Are you okay? You’re shaking.” His voice is so low, amusement bleeding through.
“I’m good.” It’s all I can manage. I don’t even know what to say, now. What’s left?
We move apart, slowly.
“I’m happy you told me. I never knew. I never would have known. Why didn’t you ever tell me before?”
I laugh in surprise. “When could I have told you? You’ve been so happy with Meredith, with your children, your life. . .”
“And you? Haven’t you been happy, up until now?”
I pause, unable to dismiss the life that gave me so many wonderful memories with my son. Unable to dismiss the good years that came before the bad. . . Looking at James, I see his struggle as well.
“Here’s the thing about me and Meredith. We had the kids, we made it work, until we didn’t have to anymore. I did think of you, of course I did. I wasn’t about to interrupt this life you’ve chosen with Dave. That’s not who I am. How could I have known. . .”
“Of course not, James, I never would have reached out either, if we hadn’t randomly run into each other like this. . .Even now, Dave and I. . . it’s been hard for so long, but this is only just the beginning. I don’t really know where to go from here. I just needed you to know I guess? It’s fine, it doesn’t have to mean anything. I wasn’t trying to do anything here, I would never be that person – ”
“I’m not going to push you, or assume that your words are an invitation – but please, Anna, just breathe for a minute.” He catches my eye, and smiles. Squeezing my hands in his, he lingers, and then continues speaking after a beat. I’m transfixed on our intertwined fingers, remembering a moment between us that happened a lifetime ago. I wonder if he still remembers. . . the sound of his voice brings me back to the now.
“I just cant get my head around this. I wish I had known.”
“Well. . .I was always afraid it would just be unwelcome. I didn’t want to be a bother to you, make you uncomfortable with my feelings? Does that make sense?”
He laughs a little, with the kindest eyes looking back at me. “You would never be a bother to me.”
I smile back. “I was afraid. And it seemed pointless, anyway.”
“. . . until now. . .”
Everything stands still, and there is only ocean, falling leaves atop crisp autumn winds, and us.
I wonder if he’ll kiss me. Will I remember the taste of him, or how to meet his lips with the ease of how it used to be? Will our bodies fit the way they did before, in spite of the decades between then and now? Will –
And then he steps away, head bowed, brow furrowed (as ever).
“Anna. . .” He laughs nervously, exhaling with some effort as he puts just a bit more than an arms length of distance between us. “Anna, what are we doing?”
I laugh, shaken by the raw honesty of the charge between us.
“This is surprising. Overwhelming, really.” I smile, putting my hands over my face and shrugging my shoulders, tipping my head down before letting my hands fall again, revealing my newfound composure. “Umm, I should go. I know Connor and Vanessa are wondering where I am, my morning runs never take this long.” Looking back toward the opening in the woods, all I can see is that first night together, back when we were kids. Am I walking away and closing a door, or just giving myself the space to gather my thoughts? What happens next?
“Of course, yeah. You should get back. How long are you going to be in town? I know you have a lot on your plate, but maybe . . .it’s crazy. I want to say maybe we could grab a coffee, or dinner.” He lets his words hang, looking away toward the water. Waiting.
“But, you don’t drink coffee.”
“You drink coffee.”
“I do, I definitely do. . .”
We linger there on the edge of an unspoken cliff. The next heartbeat will determine if we jump off or turn away once again. Adrenaline surges, and I decide.
“Why don’t you meet me tomorrow, then? There’s that little spot in Manchester, just across from the waterfront? We could sit and talk? On purpose, and maybe not in my running clothes?” I look down to my well worn sneakers, suddenly self conscious.
“That would be really nice. I would like that so much.”
My breath is ragged, and I feel the flush in my cheeks like fire against the cold. “Me, too.”
“What time works for you? I’m pretty flexible tomorrow.”
“Let’s say evening? Fourish?
I move to hug him goodbye, pressing my cheek to his, and breathing deeply one last time before turning to walk back toward the narrow road along the harbor to Connor’s. It is everything I can do not to look back. It doesn’t matter, much. I can feel his eyes on me the whole way.