Trail of Discovery
When the morning sun shone, Sarah moved toward Robert only to find him absent from bed. She called out his name and hearing no response, walked downstairs into the kitchen to find a note.
Had to go on an errand. Will try to get with you late this afternoon. Here's a map, so go play with the horses. Yeehaw!
He was avoiding her, avoiding telling her whatever was wrong and allowing his obstinate nature to once again surface. Hadn't he always been this way? Able to help others but unwilling to share his troubles? Well not this time Robert! Sarah's reaction was immediate and within minutes she was dressed and on the road. Trying to find her friend in an area still unknown for the most part was challenging enough, but finding her way to his favored hiking trail proved an even greater obstacle. Every cell in her body told her he was there, hiking and hoping to find the answer to whatever complication had entered his life. She had to find him. Sarah traversed the back county roads, winding right then left, descending and ascending until she felt there wasn't a road she hadn't traveled. Which road? Why can't I find the blasted road? Exiting the parked car, Sarah walked around its exterior before delivering a swift kick to the tire out of frustration. "Why?" She cried out, "Why can't I find you?" Exasperated by her lack of success, Sarah was left with no other option but to head back home, wait for Robert's return and hopefully, learn what was driving him away.
Time seemed to pass slowly and it wasn't until a chill enveloped the house that Sarah paid notice to the setting of the sun. Darkness fell upon the landscape surrounding Robert's home as she stared out the front porch door, hoping for the umpteenth time to see his truck turning into the driveway. Sarah moved away from the mirrored reflection of her face covered with worry and decided building a fire would be a productive project. Beside the hearth was a basket equally divided with newspapers and kindling so methodically she built the layers, crossing the piled mass with the smallest log she could find. The ignited match soon transferred flame, with the yellow spires reaching and reflecting to illuminate the room. Thrilled by her success, for building a fire had never been a talent; the snaps and hisses that erupted let her know combustion was well underway.
Her eyes moved from the fire to the table already set, waiting only for the arrival of her long overdue friend, then continued to scan about the increasingly familiar contents of Robert's great room before settling on the piano. Moving to its seat, she began to leaf through the song sheets that bore Robert's name, sometimes only as a lyricist but often for the music as well. Sarah smiled gently in recognition of what wasn't written as much as for what was; protest songs just never were Robert's style, though he tried the seemingly required 'peace' song while they were in college. Life's experiences were the center of his words, songs of true love, first love, the pain of lost love, breaking up, a cheatin' song, but one song especially caught Sarah's attention and choked her with emotion. It was simply entitled "Angel."
I look skyward for the stars
And find comfort in their presence
Sparkling eyes fill the heavens
Yet I find yours amongst them
Your love comes to me
Through moments of reflection
We'll talk about the little things
Of what happened during the day
Or of secrets that we share
Listening to all we have to say
God took you as his angel
To help him shine his light
You're there with him in Heaven
Watching over me tonight
You know it's not been easy
Living here without you
Moments left unsettled
Our lives to muddle through
Your love was like a beacon
A light we were drawn to
You touched the lives of many
With your tender love so true
I miss you more than ever
But understand your leaving too
For God took you as his angel
To help him shine his light
You're there with him in Heaven
Watching over me tonight
For all the times I stumble
Feel beaten or alone
You're there to lift my spirit
You're there to bring me home
Just hold my hand and lead the way
When next we meet again
We'll share a laugh and even a tear
With a hug that's long overdue
Then take our journey one last climb
Where you will lead the way
For God took you as his angel
To help him shine his light
You're there with him in Heaven
Watching over me tonight
Watching over me tonight
The song was authored five years ago and though Jessie's name wasn't in the lyrics, Sarah knew the identity of Robert's angel. It was the song Sarah was struggling to play when Robert walked through the door. She ran to him and the tears streaming down his face were not unlike those found in her eyes. They embraced, with Sarah's arms holding him so close, refusing to let go for fear of losing him. The moments drifted by for some time before the couple separated, if only by inches, enough to speak.
"Thank you, it's so beautiful, just like Jess."
"It helped me to know she was safe and sound up there, watching over us, until we meet again. I haven't let anyone record it; it's just something I had to write, you know?"
"I understand and am pleased. I'm pleased to see you, too. I have to admit you had me worried. Where have you been? Can we sit on the sofa and talk?"
"Oh Sarah, there's no need to worry. Did you have a good ride at Coop's?"
"No, I didn't go. I wanted to be with you and tried to find you. Where did you go?"
"Just errands I had to run, people I had to meet with, nothing earth shattering but it took longer than expected. Well, how about I take a shower and then we whip up some dinner. How would that be?"
"You're avoiding me, aren't you? Is this about what's bothering you? Is the thought of talking with me driving you away? Should I leave? I just want to help you, like you've always helped me."
He pulled her back into a hug, softly speaking to her, "I know, when I'm ready, okay? I just have some things to take care of but I'm glad you're here. You are the most important person in my life, you know that don't you?"
"Yes. Listen, how about you take that shower, dress in a robe if you want, and I'll finish preparing our dinner. I stopped by the market and picked up a few items. Would you like a glass of wine?"
"You bet, just let me take a few minutes to clean up. I'll be back in a jiff."
In the time it took Robert to shower and dress, Sarah had composed herself enough to raise the questions she felt needed to be asked. The desire for answers seemed to preempt any ability she possessed for small talk. "Robert, has there been anyone in your life since David?" Robert's reaction to the question was one of surprise, not so much in the curiosity or interest, but at the timing of the question. He shook his head in declination but wasn't prepared for what she asked next.
"Would it be a nightmare for you if I were to remain here in Nashville, beyond a few days or months?"
He was laughing, certain she was kidding, but her face carried an earnest sincerity. "You're serious? Why... what..." His mind was scrambling to think why she'd want to give up her position at the university; for nearly two decades she'd been an instructor there. And her connection to Detroit was beyond teaching, she had friends, her parents were buried there and Jessie. How could she move so quickly to leave it all behind? Yet he knew the answer -- she was running from the pain and forgetting the comforts and joy.
"I have set you adrift I see. Well, I said it earlier, I had time to think about my life, reevaluate what was important. You know, I have spent the past 26 years pleasing Tony, doing what he wanted. It was easy when Jess was with us but now I'm left on my own, living in a home filled with empty memories, teaching a class full of young people where I find myself always looking for my daughter. There is nothing for me back in Detroit. I feel very much at home here, perhaps for the first time in a long time I feel loved, valued, maybe even needed. I want a new start. So if you want your privacy, I'll get a hotel room while I search out a new place to live but it's time for me to test my mettle." She looked into eyes that reflected love and concern. "I love you. I don't know what's wrong in your life, but if you'll let me, you can count on me. I'll never leave."
Adamantly he answered as he stepped away, "Don't make a promise like that, you have to go back. You're just running away right now and soon you'll need to return to your own world." He moved quickly over to a window, looking out into the darkness, grasping for control over the emotional surge that was erupting from within.
"Robert, I resigned my teaching position today. I faxed a letter to the university and I also contacted a lawyer back there to begin divorce proceedings. I don't want to leave so please don't make me. Let me stay and care for you."
Her eyes never left him and through the window glass reflection, she watched tears falling down his cheeks. Robert drew in a deep breath then answered, "You know I can never say no to you Sarah, so you can stay here as long as you like. It's wonderful having you here but don't you think giving up your home, your job, your friends, your entire life is just a bit much? Your life in Detroit was more than an extension of Tony. How can you walk out on your students? I can understand your anger, I can understand being so hurt that you want nothing to remind you of what was or could have been, but take time to really think through your plan."
"So you don't think I'd be happy here?"
"My concern is about you running from your life, looking for an answer here. Well, there is no answer here. The answer is within you. You need to face the changes in your life head-on, not hiding out with me. I know you are strong enough. There's nothing you have to prove to me, only to yourself." As he spoke he realized the advice he was giving was as much for himself as for his friend. The friends became silent; each lost in the problems of their lives and the uncertainty of the future. A temporary cease-fire had been silently observed that carried for the remainder of the evening. During dinner, they avoided the subjects that hounded their thoughts, grateful to share favored recipes or idle chitchat heard downtown. It was only after dinner, when Sarah asked Robert to draw her a map to the hiking trail that emotions swelled again. Robert's reaction caught her off guard, as he refused in such a vehement manner, rising from the table and yelling out his refusal, that she was instantly frightened by his actions.
"No Sarah, you shouldn't go there, promise me you won't attempt it." His eyes heightened the alarm that erupted from every muscle in his body before realizing the fear being caused. His voice softened down a few decibels before continuing. "It's not safe to go hiking by yourself, that's all I'm saying. If you want to go, tell me and we will go together." He shifted his weight, barely meeting her look of concern and hopeful his friend would heed his directive.
"I didn't mean to upset you Robert. I only want to find the trail again but I'm fine if you want to walk it together. Can we go tomorrow?"
Robert shook his head in response, "No, not tomorrow but perhaps Sunday. I have more errands tomorrow."
Sarah's eyes followed his as he stared at the piano. "Will you play the song for me?"
He let out a deep exhale, thankful this was her only request and one he could fulfill. "Sure, but then I'm heading off to bed." His fingers trembled upon approach to the keys and another exhale emitted before sound came forth. The music was plaintive, hopeful and perhaps captured the sentiments of the home's occupants. Sarah didn't ask to join Robert as he bid her good night, nor did he offer, as each seemed to prefer solitude to sort out the day's events. A final glance at the photographs around the guest bedroom yielded no additional information and Sarah was left with more questions and concern on Robert's behalf then answers.
A few days passed and it became increasingly obvious to Sarah that Robert's mood swings were directly related to interactions with someone, but just whom that someone could be was elusive. In the rare instance that she answered the phone, the caller would hang up, leaving her all the more apprehensive for Robert's welfare. At times she felt like an intrusive investigator, unwilling to settle for anything short of direct answers to her questions and still, somehow, Robert managed to resolve nothing, yielding to the urgency of a phone call or receipt of a letter. His departure always came with apologies adding encouragement for her to see the sites or go riding. Sarah's time alone allowed her to know every book stashed in his home as well as the vast quantity of record albums saved for the sake of preservation. The entire contents of the downstairs had been explored so naturally, her eyes moved toward Robert's room where she knew a few books were stored beside his bed and though she'd never looked at them closely, she gathered they were more personal in nature, perhaps even including his journal.
Within minutes she was there, moving through his private collection of books until her hand pulled out the untitled leather bound book, wondering if it held any of the answers she'd been unable to garner from her friend. Would there be any hint of what troubled him to be found there? She was invading his privacy and had succumb to raiding his belongings not out of an innocent stumble, but a deliberate search for personal knowledge that he was unwilling to share. Did the end justify the means? Difficult thoughts and yet she never felt more focused, more driven to identify the source of Robert's troubles, and grapple with the answers found there. Sarah opened the soft leather cover to find handwriting that wasn't Robert's and once realized, closed the book, setting it back onto the nightstand. It was one thing to invade Robert's privacy but this was the writing of another, was she willing and prepared to defend her action? Her hand reached for the book, opening it for the second time and this time, reading the handwritten words she recognized the author. Intuitively, her body moved to the window seat, noting the view of the front of the house and appreciating it for all the wrong reasons. Sarah sank into the nest of pillows and began reading the words David had written, with the full knowledge that her actions would never have been contemplated if Robert would only share his troubles. Emotions began to spill from the pages, professing love or describing wines obtained and finally Sarah's eyes focused on words that heightened her interest.
I have to tell him and can put it off no longer. Everyday Robert demonstrates the depth of his love for me yet my fear over his knowledge of my betrayal consumes my revelation. I guess it boils down to why should he understand when I still have no idea why I betrayed him. My weakness, my yielding to temptation has brought about this disease, but the fear of losing his love, his respect and commitment is the greatest challenge yet to endure.
Sarah's eyes raced back over the words, looking to see what it was that David had done to explain his perceived banishment from Robert's life. She paused to think how Robert told her of David's departure and nothing seemed extraordinary. They had grown apart and when David's father passed away, his mother wanted the comfort of her exiled son near her in whatever remained of her life. Their breakup was a mutually decided one, yet now, reading David's account, had Robert banished David from his life?
It's been a few days since last I've written, I needed time to absorb the emotion experienced and gain perspective. I've never been the writer Robert is, the talent he has of capturing emotions I have yet to articulate is beyond my capability, but I do hope this journal serves the purpose of expressing the emotions of my life. I returned this evening from closing up the shop to a candlelit home, with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Marie Beurrier, Henri Bonneau vineyards, 1988, opened and waiting for consumption. Robert had prepared my favorites, quail roasted with morel mushrooms and blackberries in a burgundy sauce, wild rice and string beans, followed by a freshly baked cobbler, all in anticipation of the news I asked to share, news he must have believed to be celebratory. My heart sank at the thought of wasting such a wonderful evening but I could delay the news no longer and maintain any link with sanity. I took one swallow of the full-bodied, tannic wine for courage or maybe just wanting the taste of determination to settle on my palate and then I told him. I told him I tested positive for AIDS, that the flu I had while he was in California was actually just the beginning of what would be my decline.
Sarah drew a deep breath, taking a moment to wipe the tears that were forming in her eyes, and tilting her head back in an effort to stop the progress of more from spilling out. Once feeling control over her emotions again, her eyes moved back to the handwritten script, finding the place where the storytelling continued.
What remained to be said seemed to strangle me. I couldn't even meet his hazel-eyed gaze as I told him there was more. I had to admit my weakness and confess the depth of my betrayal to him. It was more difficult to say than anything I've ever done, surpassing my gay revelation to my parents and the chance that I could lose it all was ever present on my mind, but there wasn't any turning back now. I confessed my brief affair and in so doing watched the look of pain that seized Robert's soul. It was a moment I would have given my life, yes, my life, to have back, but we don't get do-overs for these types of errors, all we have is the ability to do better. He moved away from me, crossing the room to look out the window. The seconds seemed to mount and I wondered if I would be given the opportunity to prove myself worthy of his love ever again. The words that followed seem a blur still, rushed sentences professing my stupidity, my hopes for forgiveness and my love, above all else I needed him to recognize the depth of my love. Robert remained silent, his back offering little insight to his reaction. I fell silent, waiting, hopeful, yes, even begging to understand his feelings. If only I could know what the next few minutes would provide but I've learned not to rush him. Robert spoke without turning to face me, offering words that clung to the belief he had pushed me away. How could he willingly accept the blame? It was mine, solely mine and yet he professed that the demand for his time as a songwriter and travels across the country had interfered with our relationship.
Sarah looked away from the page, with the realization that she had been holding her breath. She let out a deep exhale, turned the book over on the cushion and looked out the window. "Why Robert? Why didn't you tell me about David's illness? What happened? Did he go home to die or was that a lie too? Why must you be solitary in your troubles? Did you think I couldn't handle it? Was I unable to be your friend?" Her eyes gravitated down the driveway to see his truck pulling up and a panic fell over her. Quickly, she returned the book to its place on the bookshelf and then moved out of the room, down the stairs, trying to find a spot where she would look busy doing something. The sound of his footsteps could be heard on the back porch as he approached the door. She grabbed the kitchen towel and began a sweeping motion across the counter's surface. Upon entering the room, his eyes looked to find hers, with a smile quick to follow, "You're here! Great, I've finished my meetings today and thought if you wanted, we could go do something, or did you plan to visit with Coop?"
Sarah moved the distance between them and reached her arms around his shoulders, accepting his hug and welcoming the opportunity to spend time with him. "Yes, let's get out of here for a while."
In a few short minutes they were out the door, each eager for the time together. Robert drove his truck to the one area she'd been asking to visit again, with his only concern over the intense effort she was making to memorize the route. He could see the look of determination on her face and yet knew there were dangers to be found with a single woman hiking in a remote area. "Sarah, remember your promise to me. I don't think it's safe for you to come here alone." She nodded her head in acceptance then wondered what he felt was so scary about this trail. Exiting his truck, her body eagerly embraced the trail's challenge, stepping lively on the landscape as if it were smooth asphalt. They made progress up the trail, hiking to the spot where a water break would be taken and though the rookie of the duo, Sarah was proud of her progress. Feeling familiar with her surroundings, she managed to out distance Robert in pace and when she reached another stopping point, realized he wasn't behind her at all. She froze her movement, listening for him moving up the trail yet what she heard was the sound of his muffled voice. Sarah gravitated to the sound only to find Robert with his head buried into his hands, tears falling, struggling to regain control.
"Robert? What's the matter?" She moved to see his swollen face, absorbing whatever emotion his eyes would provide as her arms wrapped around his back. "Robert, do you have AIDS?" Sarah knelt beside him, resting her arm across his shoulders and leaning her forehead on his shoulder. "Is that the secret you can't share? Not even to me?"
"Why is it that when a man is gay and upset the first response must be that he has AIDS? What difference does it make?"
"Robert, I'm only trying to figure out what is troubling you. Won't you open up to me? I'm strong enough to provide assistance and love you." Her hands moved to massage his neck muscles, hoping to relieve some component of his harbored angst. Still, he remained withdrawn, standing with his head hidden from view with hands moving to wipe away any trace of tears. Robert remained silent, except for the sound of deep breaths drawn and sniffling. He was struggling desperately to hold onto emotions that raged out of control.
"Robert, do you have AIDS?"
His voice resignedly responded, "Yes, how did you know?" Sarah moved to hold him, telling him it would be all right, she was here for him. His arms wrapped around her desperately. "No one can know, not even Coop. Do you understand? I need to know he likes my songs for their words, not the status of the writer."
Sarah nodded agreement, sensing he needed this solemn expression of commitment. "Is there a spot we can catch a good view, just sit and see the majesty of the land versus the minuteness of our lives?"
"Follow me." He led her to a scenic vista that was well worth the climb. They sat on the slate boulders, breaking their silence on occasion with the "Do you ever think about...?" Moments were remembered from their past in quixotic fashion before Robert turned his body to take a nap, resting his head on Sarah's lap. Again, she watched his face, moving her fingers to gently stroke his forehead, placing the light brown hair now mixed with silver to one side. Sarah looked around to see just where they were, amazed at the shelter provided by the pine tree looming over the stony alcove. When he woke, it was to the sound of raindrops beginning to fall around them. "Why didn't you wake me, we'll get soaked and muddy!"
"So what? There's a shower at home that will get you clean. You're not scared of a little mud are you?" She taunted him by putting her fingers into the nearby soil.
"Oh no, Sarah, stop! We aren't kids and I'm not about to embark on a mud fight. Come on let's get going." As he finished his words he felt the thud of mud hitting his back. "Come on Sarah, be serious."
"Come on Robert, play." She reached down for more mud and was ready to cast it when he grabbed her hand forcing the release of the mud then swung her into his arms to carry her back down the mountainside. The couple hadn't traveled but thirty feet when Robert slipped, causing both to fall into the mud, sliding down hill until a tree stopped their bodies. Laughter erupted from both. "It seems God was on my side for a mud fight." Robert's hand moved to pull a pine needle from her hair, "Are you all right?" Sarah nodded her head then seized the opportunity to wrestle him back down to the muddy surface. "What's your hurry? We can't possibly get more filthy than we are and a little rain never hurt anyone." Robert pulled her to his chest, still trying to offer some form of shelter as they lay in each other's arms, gently laughing at the turn of events. The rain began to intensify and with the chill in the air, Robert wanted to be warm and clean. "Perhaps now, we could head for that shower?"
"Yes, enough fun for now. I reserve the right though to remind you to laugh again soon, and often. Carpes Diem."
"So the Professor returns to teach another lesson," he asked, mockingly. "I only hope she'll stay as long as she can, before returning to the classroom."
"I told you, I'm not going back. I've arranged to have my mail forwarded, and only wait for the divorce to be final. We'll sell the house, split the assets, store the contents and be rich -- well, at least I'll have a nest egg." The rain did little to dampen the enthusiasm she felt for the changes taking place in her life. It seemed perfect now, as if her arrival was destined from the start and all that remained was the care of her beloved friend.
"Sarah, is it that easy? Is it that easy to close the book on 26 years of marriage?"
"Of course not, not at first, it hurt and made me mad, but now it's time to move on and Tony's guilt should speed things along. God's master plan put me here, at this moment two friends came together to strengthen each other, and I'm thankful for that. I am more at peace than I've been for a long time. I feel you understand my grief and want to help me heal, to move on with life. You need me and you don't often need others Robert, much less allow a friend the chance to see how low you can get. So you see? It was all meant to happen, just like the circle of life, so don't worry about me. I may get overwhelmed from time to time, but I'll be here for you, as you are always here for me. That's something more than most people ever have." Robert nodded his head in agreement and as they sealed their decision with a hug, Sarah felt Robert's body shiver. "Come on, I didn't think about the growing chill in the air."
By the time they reached his truck, they were soaked to the skin. Robert pushed the levers to optimize the outflow of warm air from the vents and in so doing, managed to fog up the windshield. A few changes of buttons corrected the situation and their journey home came about without delay. Both opted for showers upon their return to the house, with Sarah stalling enough to let Robert go first. She had to be mindful of colds, of anything that would weaken him and so waited until she heard the sound of water stop before taking her shower.
Her arrival to the living room found a welcoming fire, soft piano music playing on the stereo and a bottle of red wine on the table. Robert moved a glass towards her, "To take the chill away. It's the last bottle of 88 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Marie Beurrier on hand and a fitting end to the day."
Sarah paused; her eyes startled by her knowledge of the reference and left her wondering if she should reveal her transgression.
Robert watched her reaction and hesitation from tasting the wine. "Sarah, is there something wrong? You still drink red wine don't you?"
"Yes, no the wine's fine. I'm sorry I was lost in thought, the after-effects of the hot shower perhaps."
He continued to watch her face for a moment then nodded acceptance of her reason as she sipped the wine, not wanting to venture down any more emotional lanes for the evening. The robust warmth of the wine seemed to linger on her palate, offering a full range of flavors. Normally, commenting on the wine would have been her next response but she wanted more insight on her friend's mindset. "Robert, when did you stop writing songs?"
Robert braced his body in reaction to the question, distressed at her knowledge and just as quickly, recognized the source. "Coop told you, huh? I might have known. Yes, I stopped writing the same day I received the news. It's hard to write when your life is in demise."
"But it isn't, is it? Haven't there been tremendous gains through medication that can delay the effects?"
Robert moved towards the kitchen while providing a nod of his head and softly answered, "Yes. What shall we make for dinner? Soup? I might have the makings of minestrone, does that sound good?" Sarah agreed to the plan and in so doing, also agreed to a change in subject, perhaps they had covered enough ground for one day.
Ever since Jessica's death, Thanksgiving always sent Sarah into isolation. She preferred to spend her time grading mid-term exams and developing lesson plans for the upcoming semester versus participation in any dinner. At first, Tony tried to coax her to join him if for no other reason than to get out of the house, but she would excuse herself under the guise of illness, encouraging him to go on without her. Tony did just that, going solo to holiday parties and dinners and soon Sarah's attendance wasn't expected. She found comfort in her solitude, desperately needing to treat the day as any other of the year. If she ate at all, it was a grilled cheese sandwich, simple, no fuss, absent of great expectations and ceremonious toasts. It seemed pointless to be with others as there wasn't anything she was thankful for so the thought of gathering around a table to celebrate wasn't the least inviting, and yet Robert had included her in his annual celebration. They were to spend the afternoon with musicians whose tradition began as a group of hungry souls wanting only to be successful enough to pay the bills for the next month, never mind national or global success. Robert hadn't mentioned how many were in the party, or how casual the affair might be, which left Sarah to stand before the mirror wanting something more from her reflection. Every move she made came with a fumble, mascara rubbed on her eyelid, eye shadow fell along her cheek and it felt as if she were incapable of dressing herself. She was determined to make the best of it, yet admittedly, wanted nothing more than to sit in front of the fire with only Robert for company.
The drive to Galletin, a small town outside of Nashville, did little to settle Sarah's anxiety. The view out the vehicle's window changed to reflect convenience marts, discount stores and fast food restaurants before they entered a neighborhood of moderate houses. Families were playing football or basketball in their front yards, neighbors were conversing and waving hello and the panic in Sarah's throat grew. She was dreading the moment when Robert would stop his truck and exit what had become her final safety zone.
Bill Owens was a studio musician, laying guitar solos on many of the hit songs for recording artists and a guarded man by nature. He was comfortable with his network of friends and only expanded the guest list when asked so naturally couldn't refuse Robert. Bill met his wife at a recording session fifteen years ago when Sue was a back-up singer and their musical collaboration led to a lifetime commitment. Timmy was the eldest of their two children at fourteen, and Abigail just turned eleven; each reflecting their parents' features in mirror image. Amongst the other guests was a bubbly backup singer named Justine, who originated from Omaha, Chet, who seemed to play just above every instrument and finishing off the group was Trent, a bass player with a firm handshake and shy smile. Each came to Nashville seeking fulfillment of a lifelong dream and instead found careers off center stage. Sarah watched them in their animated story telling of past sessions or sharing who was recording now or about to record; their camaraderie and competitive drive readily apparent, speaking in terms foreign to her. Any effort she made to answer a question or begin a conversation failed miserably, furthering her perceived isolation until she couldn't sink any further into the nap of the sofa. Her eyes reluctantly moved to Abigail, studying her features like an artist working on a portrait; the light reflected off the girl's straight hair like shimmering rods of gold and there was that anticipatory look she cast towards her father, followed by growing disappointment when he didn't return her glance. Sarah's concern grew for the girl's morale, remembering the angst Jessie experienced at that age; no longer wanting to be daddy's little girl but craving his blessing, wanting him to see the young woman emerging and still find her as interesting as when she was the center of his universe. Sarah was so absorbed in Abigail's plight until the touch of Robert's hand joined hers. Startled, her eyes quickly moved to meet his.
"You're staring," he whispered followed with a gentle squeeze of her fingers.
Sarah conceded with a weak smile and as her eyes moved about the room, caught herself being observed by their hostess. A conversation starter seemed at hand and what mother wouldn't enjoy hearing praise on their children? "Sue, you have every reason to be proud of your children. Do they have the family interest in music?" Timmy was prompted to tell about the school band where he was a drum major. Timmy began each answer to a question with "Yes, ma'am" or Yes sir" and seemed to shine under the spotlight of the adults. Sarah's focus returned to Abigail and she moved to sit closer to the girl. "If you weren't sitting inside with us Abigail, what would you be doing today?"
The girl's deep brown eyes moved to look at Sarah before answering, "Most days I'm at school ma'am."
Sarah smiled at the honesty Abigail set forth, "But when you come home from school or on weekends, what do you like to do?"
Abigail's long hair moved back behind her shoulder with a quick twist of her head and a smile began to grow. "Me and Michelle would be playing, maybe a board game, maybe with Barbies or sometimes we bake cookies."
"Do you like to play Monopoly?"
"Yes ma'am, though Michelle likes Mario better. We also play Nintendo when Timmy lets us." Sarah became mesmerized by the mannerisms of this young girl, eager to engage in a conversation beyond the nervous "yes" or "no". Abigail was usually quite the conversationalist and only Sarah's presence had changed the girl's sense of security. Abigail's comfort level increased enough that questions of her own were posed concerning Sarah's teaching, even seeking out feedback for a current book project on the author Jane Austen. Their conversation grew into an even exchange until Abigail's curiosity took a different approach. "Do you have kids ma'am?" Abigail's eyes stared, waiting for an answer. Sarah knew Robert was watching her as well and tried to answer simply.
"I did Abigail, but she died in a car accident."
Abigail's eyes remained on the woman as she answered, "That's too bad, I'm sorry. How old was she?"
Sarah's voice choked out "Seventeen, just seventeen," before her eyes began to glaze over, staring out without absorbing any of the images taking place. Robert stood, and stating more than asking, "Sue, how close are we to dinner? Time enough for me to show Sarah your backyard? I'll bet she's not seen wild bamboo stands." Sue looked up but readily gave her blessing, asking Abigail to help her in the kitchen. The hostess had an unobstructed view of the couple as Robert gathered Sarah in his arms nowhere near the bamboo grove.
"You're doing great." Robert offered the words while stilling enveloping Sarah in his protective arms.
"If you say so, but it isn't easy."
"Who said it would be or even should be? Give yourself a break Sarah. No one here expects anything of you beyond courtesy so don't put more pressure on yourself."
"But I should handle this better Robert, Tony's right on that point and you've said it yourself to me so why can't I? Why can't I answer a young girl's questions without breaking down emotionally or continually comparing her to Jess?"
"Come on, walk with me." He reached out his hand to clasp hers and then walked away from the house, hopeful his words would continue the progress that was slowly being made. "Sarah, why do you think you look for Jessie so intently in others?"
"I see her everywhere, need her with me."
"Do you? Are you scared of who Sarah is without Jessica as the center of your universe?"
Sarah stopped, unable to walk in unity while such a challenging question lay between them. Her eyes moved to his and tried to understand his reason. "Why would you say such a thing? Jessica is everything to me. There's nothing wrong with that."
Robert waited for her to finish, wishing the defensive tones hadn't erupted. "Sarah, you said you wanted to handle ‘this' better, how? What would you like yourself to do?"
"To feel like my heart hasn't been ripped out of my chest, I'm watching it beat but instead of pain all I feel is empty. She was everything to me."
"Do you think that was fair, not just to Jessica but to you, and to Tony?"
"Fair? Nothing about her death was fair."
"You gave Jessica all you had to give and perhaps, since she died, it's been difficult for you to fill the void; you're out of practice."
Sarah couldn't help but see the reason in Robert's words. "Yes, that's true."
"But Jessie was soon to attend college on her own, away from you, leaving you with an inevitable void. Were you prepared to let go then? When you look at a girl like Abigail, whose only commonality with Jessie is in her light colored hair and an appreciation for music, do you seek reassurance that Jessie once existed or does she become a confirmation of your love?" He watched her furrowed brow and her eyes seemingly search out an answer and yet their conversation was interrupted as Abigail called them back inside; dinner was on the table. "Sarah, it will be fine, just stay with the moments at hand, create new memories." Robert pulled her into a hug that was gratefully accepted for all the protection and strength it offered.
The two entered the room to find all the family and guests seated around a table expanded through the addition of a card table at the end. Sue directed Robert and Sarah to waiting seats and asked Abigail to say grace. It was a casual affair that had dishes of sweet potato casserole and cornbread stuffing adding the southern touch to the holiday feast of roasted turkey. Robert remained by Sarah's side throughout the meal, even taking hold of her hand as encouragement to participate in the conversation or beginning one that he knew she would enjoy. His attention to Sarah caught the notice of the hosts, who made eye contact with one another in such a manner as to indicate wonder.
Upon the conclusion of the meal came an interesting turn of events, one Sarah hadn't prepared for but obviously the others were more knowledgeable of its demands. Each guest was asked to provide some form of entertainment, homage of thanks in the form of words or a song, something that reflected the blessings of the day. Sarah enjoyed the other performances as Chet, Trent and Justine each took center stage by providing musical expressions of gratitude, even Robert borrow Chet's Gibson guitar to play one of his earliest songs. Lacking any such vocal talent, Sarah searched her mind for words to recite. The group's attention fell upon her and after thanking the hosts for an excellent meal she preceded with the only words that came to mind.
"Probably the best loved of American poets the world over is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many of his lines are as familiar to us as rhymes from Mother Goose or the words of nursery songs learned in early childhood. Like these rhymes and melodies, they remain in the memory and accompany us through life. Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine and lived for 75 years. This is the only poem I can think of that relates somewhat to each of you. It's called ‘The Day is Done' and I just hope I remember it all!" Sarah cleared her throat and tried to remember the cadence of the rhyme and once she was certain the metronome in her head was giving the proper pace, she recited the esteemed poet's words.
THE DAY IS DONE, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist:
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me,
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gush'd from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start,
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice;
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be fill'd with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
Sarah finished speaking Longfellow's words to hear the applause of an appreciative group and no face shined greater than Robert's. She moved to sit beside him, still uncertain of her acceptance by his friends. "Was it the right one? You should have warned me and then I could have prepared."
"You did just fine. Tell me, if I had warned you, would you still have accompanied me?"
They both knew the answer and as Sarah sunk a little deeper into his shoulder, each was satisfied with the strides made this day.
The beach was inviting them down to the shore, each wave crashing in from its journey with a solitary purpose and once accomplished, returning to the sea. Jessica ran ahead of her parents, the ten-year-old ever eager to break free of her parents' protective grasp. The girl's footprints left small depressions in the sand as she hurriedly rushed to the water. Jessica's voice squealed with delight as she reached the shoreline, slowing only long enough to feel the ocean spray upon her face.
"Jessica, wait! Don't go out any farther, not until one of us is with you!" Sarah's eyes only left their subject long enough to convey alarm to Tony.
"I'm coming, just give me a minute to catch up." Tony shouted the words over the ocean's roar, then softly turned to his bride of twelve years, "You're overprotective, let her have fun, remember we're here on vacation." He set down the umbrella he'd been toting and threw the towels onto the sand. "I'll swim with her."
Sarah's eyes followed her husband as he joined their daughter in the surf, feeling content to watch them play and convinced that no harm would come. She unfurled the old bedspread, using sandals on corners as well as the mask and pair of fins Tony insisted on purchasing from the local souvenir shop. He was always like that, looking for something fun to add to their lives. Thankfully, she was able to stop the purchase of the large rubber raft that upon inflation appeared as a seven-foot shark, but only through the time required to inflate the floating menace. Suntan lotions, sun block, soft drinks, sandwiches, even a loaf of bread to feed the seagulls were always her essential items for their day at the beach. Her task complete, Sarah returned her observation of father and daughter swimming in the ocean. Tony seemed to be showing Jessie how to body surf, attempting to catch waves, even if only for a few feet. They were farther out than she liked so she began to signal them to come in and yet her waving arm went unnoticed. Sarah rose to her feet and walked to the water's edge, shouting to them, pleading for their attention but their image became smaller and smaller, until the sea seemingly swallowed them up.
"Come back! Come back!" Sarah's voice became hysterical as she repeated the words over and over to no avail.
"Sarah, wake up! Sarah, it's me, I'm here, I'm right here. Come on, look at me, do you see me? Sarah?" Robert had raced down the stairs, awakened by the frantic cries that were part of some horrid nightmare. He grasped her in his arms, pulling her to his chest and repeatedly told her it was just a bad dream. "Deep breaths now, come on, you're safe, everything's fine, oh Sarah, you're alright."
Moments later Sarah grasped his words, and once her tears began to subside, retold the details as best she could. "He was with her, the three of us were together again, at the beach, just enjoying our day in the sun but Tony let her swim out too far. It was too far, they drifted away from me and I lost them both." The emotion of losing so much engulfed her, leaving her in a state of despair.
"Shush now, it was only a bad dream." Robert's words continued until he felt his friend pat his shoulder and pull away enough to speak again.
"But it wasn't, I've lost them both Robert and there's nothing that's going to change that, is there?"
"Probably not, but life goes on and you have to make the best of it. Sarah, what do you want?"
"To feel whole again, to feel like my life wasn't in vain, not to feel that the best years are all behind me. That's not even a fair thing to say is it?"
"What's fair in life?"
"But what? Tell me." Robert urged her to speak through the physical strokes his thumb applied to the back of her hand and still the words weren't forthcoming. His eyes pleaded with her to reveal more. "Do you think I'll love you any less if you say you want Tony back? That's it isn't it? That you've been able to see how much your grief monopolized your life and with that knowledge perhaps you can recapture some of the good of your marriage."
"No, that wasn't what I was going to say. Why would I want someone who doesn't want me? That would be ridiculous, besides it's too late; he's started his new life and is only waiting for our divorce."
Robert watched her denial, wondering if she could really ignore the subconscious sentiment of her dream but pressed to hear whatever other thought was on her mind. "Then what were you going to say?"
Preferring to delay any additional revelations for another day, her gaze gravitated back to his face. "I'm just too tired to deal with life right now. I'm just not ready, not tonight at least. Is that all right? Besides, I've interrupted your slumber long enough with my antics."
"Just remember, fear is never stronger than we allow it to be. Live your life Sarah."
Each held the other in a final embrace of the night before Robert returned to his room. Thoughts continued to rumble through his mind paying little regard to the need for rest. Finally, as if giving in, he rose from his bed and walked to his closet, removing a thin box from the fold of a sweater. He carried the box to the light for a closer look at the collection of envelopes; each contained words of anger, retaliation, and threats of exploitation. He was still in disbelief that his life could be so turbulent and his hope to ignore the letters' presence had failed. Robert read and reread each letter, with a vise grip of fear clutched at his throat forcing the sheer motion of swallowing a difficult act. His face grew red through held-breath and the throngs of an erratic heartbeat shook his body until he abruptly stood. The sight of letters spilling to the floor went unnoticed as he raced to the window. His fingers found the latch and just as quickly, raised the window oblivious to the next hazard. In an instant his head crashed into the storm window, sending shards of glass falling to the balcony below. His goal had been to feel the cold night air sting against his cheeks, and in this quest he succeeded. The reality slap he needed was soon followed by gulps of breath. Control; it was essential that he maintain control of his emotions and yet it was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal so much, especially from Sarah.
Upon first receipt, he thought it a weird joke, a prank gone awry, but then more letters followed. The words, clipped from magazines and pasted to glossy paper like one of those scenes from a theatrical mystery, had grown in accusations and demands. Now the writer wasn't satisfied to simply extort funds for silence; the threatening behavior had intensified beyond comprehension. Robert had been certain his decision best served David's memory but now, with the threat of harm to Sarah because of unfounded jealous rage became too much. How could he end the threats and protect her too? Robert knew he had to do something, and quickly, to bring this nightmare to an end. He thought he knew who the writer of the letters was and had planned to confront him at his place of business but an impromptu confrontation took place instead. Their confrontation erupted so quickly and was of little benefit, resulting in crushed lapels and expressed denial. One thing was certain, Sarah was still too vulnerable to know of anything; she couldn't--wouldn't know, and tomorrow Robert would protect her through every means at his disposal.
The morning came whether the occupants of the gable-roofed house wanted to see the sun or face the challenges of the day. It was nearly four in the morning when Robert realized the tasks at hand for the day and though some were ministerial in nature, the greatest challenge would be convincing Sarah all was well. He'd rehearsed the conversation that he thought would take place, right down to smiles and winks. Maybe his success centered on that rehearsal, or maybe on Sarah's weary state of mind but succeed he did in getting her to agree to meet him downtown in two hours, and after finishing his errands, he would join her at Coop's. There was some satisfaction found in his success as he climbed into his pick-up truck and headed downtown. He could only hope the rest of the day would go so well.
© 1999, 2000 Copyright held by the author.
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