When I awoke in the morning, the ring was still in my hand. The morning light coming through the window shone on the inscription inside, Love is Forever. Except that it wasn’t – at least not in my case. Did I still think that it could be? Maybe, like the older couple I always saw at the library. I thought about what Sara had said, that she didn’t have time to wallow because of her children. I guess I was the opposite – I had too much time to think. Maybe that was part of the problem. I tossed the ring back into its box, disgusted with myself.
I look like crap, I thought as I looked in the mirror. My eyes were all puffy and my face was blotchy from crying. Even coffee and makeup would not help me today, but I had to do what I could to pull myself together. Please don’t let Mike come into the library today.
Well, he must have because I saw that he had written notes on the NaNoWriMo bulletin board, but thankfully I didn’t see him. Either he came when I wasn’t working or he didn’t come to find me. Either way, it was OK. I didn’t want to see him.
On the bulletin board he had written on a large sheet of paper: “Week #2: Your Characters Will Start to Do Unexpected Things.” I had resumed work on my novel after my two-day hiatus. I started the week at 12,452 words so I wasn’t horribly behind, although I definitely had some catching up to do. There was something remarkably comforting in typing a few paragraphs and checking the word count. I liked to watch the numbers increase, even it was only by a couple hundred words. Each word was one step closer to that elusive goal.
Indeed, my characters were, in fact, starting to do some unexpected things. Truth be told, I had considered scrapping all that I had done to date. My semi-autobiographical story was therapeutic to write, but it didn’t make for very entertaining reading. I didn’t even want to write it anymore. I was tired of thinking about the past. I truly believed that my writing belonged in the garbage bin. At the same time, I couldn’t bring myself to hit the delete key. The point of the novel writing month, I reminded myself, was to just write and shut off my inner critic. That was much easier said than done, however, especially considering that I spent most of my life in a library surrounded by great books. Nevertheless the whole purpose of the exercise was to just keep going, and no matter how much of a mess my life was, I was going to do this. I couldn’t surrender now.
That being said, my heroine, otherwise known as Anna, definitely needed to get a life. What could I do with her to bring some excitement to her world? I scanned the shelves for ideas when I was at work. Although I was supposed to write about what I knew, I didn’t want to anymore. I wanted to write about something I didn’t know at all. I wanted my heroine to have some adventure. I wanted to stop wallowing, once and for all. Maybe I could have her take a trip to France and fall in love with her French tour guide? Or, perhaps, she could have a quarter-life crisis and decide to quit her job, get a motorcycle and ride across country. I had always wanted to do that – the ride across country part, not the motorcycle part. There was so much of the world to see, and I had seen so little of it. Maybe my fictional character could go places I had only dreamed of. Perhaps she could come down with some serious illness and end up in the hospital where her roommate would be a wise old woman who would teach her about all the things that mattered in life. When she recovered and got out of the hospital, she would be a changed woman, facing life with a new sense of purpose. Perhaps my character could do all those things. I would need to do some research. Yes, indeed, my character was going to do some very unexpected things.
I looked for Mike all week, but he didn’t come into the library. I had considered emailing him but had successfully resisted the urge. He finally came strolling into the children’s room Friday afternoon, just before closing. Rachel and I were putting up paper turkeys for the annual Thanksgiving turkey hunt. He was carrying a large rectangular package wrapped in brown craft paper. He smiled as he walked toward me.
“Hi! I am so glad that you are here. I was afraid you wouldn’t be working. I realized I didn’t even have your phone number or address or anything.” He seemed really nervous. “I’m sorry I wasn’t in the library much this week. I was writing and painting and teaching and busy with the kids and the week just got away from me.” He paused to catch his breath.
“You hadn’t been around? I hadn’t really noticed,” I lied. He gave me a puzzled look.
“Well, I wanted to give you this,” he said as he handed me the package.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Open it and see!” he insisted. I tore the paper off. Rachel gave a gasp when she saw what it was.
“Wow! That is incredible!” Rachel exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me you were having your portrait painted! What are you doing keeping secrets like that?” She was my friend, but at that moment, I wanted desperately for her to disappear. I had to agree, though. The painting was incredible. The colors were somewhat more muted than the other paintings of his I had seen, but he truly captured the gentle light coming through the window caressing my face. It was beautiful. Mike had made me beautiful! How I wanted to see the world the way he saw it.
He was standing there, studying my face, waiting for a response. “It’s lovely. Thank you,” I finally managed to say.
“Oh, good!” He breathed a sigh of relief. “From the way you were looking at it, you had me worried there for a while.”
“I’m sorry. I was just surprised, that’s all. It’s not everyday that you get a portrait someone has done of you.”
“I should say not!” added Rachel. She was still standing there. Didn’t she have anything that she could be working on?
“I don’t feel like I should accept this. Shouldn’t I pay you for it or something? What do you usually charge for a painting like this,” I asked.
“You don’t owe me a thing! I won’t take a penny. I enjoyed painting it and I hope that you’ll enjoy having it,” he stated matter-of-factly. I stood there, continuing to admire the painting, grasping for something else to say.
“There is something you could do for me, though,” Mike said.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“I was wondering if you would like to go out to dinner with me tonight. Nothing fancy, just somewhere casual. I’ve been so busy working, I’ve been forgetting to eat, and I’m starving.”
“Uh – I don’t know.” I looked at Rachel. “I was planning on staying late tonight to finish these turkeys and get everything ready for the Thanksgiving party we are having here at the library tomorrow.”
“Don’t you even think about staying here and working!” Rachel ordered. “I can do this myself just as well. We’re almost done anyway.” That wasn’t true and I knew it. “You and this nice talented gentleman go off and have yourselves a good dinner. In fact, you can leave right now.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. You just be here bright and early in the morning, ready to entertain those kids.”
“Alright, thank you.” I turned to Mike. “Just let me get my coat. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“OK, I’ll wait for you over by the entrance.”
I found Mike over by the bulletin board, writing a few notes on people’s word counts that they had posted. “How’s everybody doing?” I asked, gesturing toward the board. I was still holding on to the painting. “Most are doing well. A couple of people have dropped out already, though. I noticed you haven’t been coming to the meetings. How come?”
“Oh, I’m not much of a joiner. Besides, I really do spend a lot of time here. After work, I like to go home and do my writing there. How come the people dropped out?”
He shrugged. “It happens. Life gets in the way, or people decide that they liked the idea of writing a novel more than the actual writing. This isn’t a project for the faint of heart. It takes commitment and endurance, and a little bit of insanity!” he smiled. “I see that you are still going strong,” he said, pointing to my latest word count.
“Is that supposed to be a crack on my sanity?”
“No, not at all. After all, I believe my count is still ahead of yours which obviously would make me even more insane.”
“I didn’t realize it was a contest!”
“It’s not. I was just wondering how the writing was going for you.”
“It’s going OK. There were a couple rough spots earlier this week when I was considering abandoning the project, but I decided to keep going.”
“Yeah, everybody has days like that when it seems pretty pointless. You need to just push through them.” He scribbled a “great job” on someone’s note, then he turned to me, putting his pen back into his pocket. “Are you all set to go?”
“Yes. What do you say we take my car this time? It’s cleaner.”
“OK, sounds good. Lead the way.” We headed out the side door into the cold evening.
“Oh, and I insist on buying you dinner. It’s the least I can do after you painted such a beautiful portrait of me.” I held up the painting.
“No arguments here,” he answered. “I’m always happy to have a free meal.”
I opened the car door for him and put the painting gently in the back seat before getting into the driver’s seat. “Will the painting be alright back here while we go eat?” I asked.
“Sure. I wouldn’t make that its permanent home, but for a couple hours it will be fine,” he answered.
“Is there someplace special that you wanted to go?”
“No, I thought I’d let you choose.”
“Well, I don’t know too many places around here, but there is a little sandwich shop over near where I live. They have a nice warm fireplace I like to sit near on nights like this. Would that be OK?” I asked.
“Sounds great,” he said.
At the restaurant, we ordered our sandwiches and sat down in my favorite spot. “This is nice,” he said, looking around. “I’ve never been here.”
“I come here often. They do breakfast sandwiches, too, so I sometimes stop by in the morning before work to grab something to eat then, or to order a lunch to bring with me to the library. I’m not very good at keeping food in the house, especially since I live alone. Well – not totally alone – I do have my dog. Anyway, the food here is good and it doesn’t cost very much – a winning combination in my book.”
“Absolutely,” he added, taking a bite of his warm turkey and cheese on rye.
“I’m sorry. I’m babbling, aren’t I?” Was it extra warm in the restaurant or was it just me?
“No, you’re not. Besides, you have a nice voice. I like listening to you.”
“Really? I think you are the first person to ever compliment my voice.”
“I shouldn’t be. It has a real nice quality to it – a gentle tone.” I smiled and began to eat. We ate in awkward silence for a couple minutes. Mike was glancing around at the other people eating dinner and the artwork hanging on the restaurant walls. “I’ve always liked that painting,” he said, pointing to a picture of a girl standing by a window holding onto a water pitcher. “It’s by Jan Vermeer.”
“I’ve heard that name,” I said. “He painted Girl with a Pearl Earring, didn’t he?”
“I read the novel about the girl in the painting. It was fictionalized, I know, but it was a great book.”
“I’ve always admired his ability to take ordinary people and ordinary occurrences and make them so beautiful, so that they are anything but ordinary. I try to do that in my art.”
“I think you succeed,” I answered wholeheartedly, thinking of the painting in the back of my car and the ones that I saw in his studio. “How did you get started painting?”
“I’ve always loved to draw or paint. I can remember being in 1st grade. My teacher had an easel set up and if we got our work done, we could go paint with watercolors on it. The other little boys would be off building things with blocks, or racing cars, and I would be there painting. I liked to do those things, too, of course, and if the easel was being used by someone else, I was the first one there building a tower to knock down, but painting was definitely my first love.”
“You must have been so cute, standing there at your easel!”
“My mom thought so!” he answered. “She was always so supportive of my artwork – hanging it up around the house, putting it up on the refrigerator. She was always getting me new art supplies to work with and when I got a little older she began to send me to classes downtown at the Springfield Art Museums.”
“What did you study there?” I asked.
“Everything I could – drawing, painting, photography. I loved every minute of it. It was, and is, a magical place,” his eyes lit up as he talked. “They have a whole room of classical plaster casts. I fell in love with the Venus de Milo! I used to go and take my sketchpad. I could spend the whole day sketching the sculptures or trying to copy one of the paintings that hung in the galleries. After a while, the artworks there became like old friends. I felt like I knew every one of them inside out.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
“It was. My Dad wasn’t crazy about it, though. When I was young, he didn’t care much. I think that he thought it was a passing fad. As I got older, however, and continued to spend every minute I could with my art, he got more worried. After all, he sold insurance for a living and it provided us with a comfortable existence. He wanted me to do something practical, to be able to support a family and make my way in the world. As far as he was concerned, artists were poor eccentrics – good to have around for the general culture, but you wouldn’t want to have one in the family.”
“Did he ever accept it?”
“Mostly. Eventually. It took a long time, though. When I told him I wanted to study art in college, he almost refused to help out with the tuition. Thankfully, I did get a fairly large scholarship thanks to my grades and my mother was able to convince him to provide the rest. I told him I would study education as well so that I could be an art teacher. That seemed to placate him a bit. At least I would have some job prospects.”
“And did you?” I asked.
“Did I what?”
“Oh yeah, I got my certification and everything. I taught kids when I was a volunteer after I got out of college. You should have seen my father’s face when I told him I was going to volunteer for a year.”
“I can imagine. Did you like teaching?”
“I did. I taught art in an inner-city school. The students were so poor. They had holes in their shoes and holes in their clothes, and for many of them, their sole purpose in going to school was to get the free meals it provided. For a lot of them, it was the only food that they got.”
“That’s so sad.”
“Yes, it is. But the kids were great. Life had handed them a rotten deal that they couldn’t see their way out of, but for the most part, they still had hope and love. We did this one project with them where we gave them each a disposable camera and had them take pictures of their world. It was like a photographic ‘all about me’ kind of project. We taught them how to develop the pictures (this was pre-digital) and then write about what they had taken photos of. It was amazing to see the beauty that they found in the strangest places – an old factory, a run-down house, a collection of worn-out toys. They also found beauty where you would expect it – a wildflower growing in a parking lot or the eyes of their baby sister. Those kids taught me as much about seeing beauty in the world as I ever learned in a classroom.”
“It sounds like it made quite an impression. Why did you stop?”
“The volunteer program was only for a year,” he said. “When I got back home, there were no openings in the art departments of any of the local school systems, so I decided to go back to school so that I could teach at the college level. A friend of a friend of my mother’s heard about my painting ability and asked me to paint a mural in her house. She liked what I did and through her word of mouth, I was able to get a few more projects. One thing led to another, and I soon found I was able to support myself with my art. It was a good feeling. Then, after I graduated, I got the teaching job at the college. Needless to say, my father was amazed, and forced to admit that I wouldn’t be penniless after all.”
“I’m glad that you succeeded. You are lucky to have found something you love so much. When you talk about your art, you have such passion. I wish I had that much passion about something, anything!” I admitted. “I wish I could see the world the way you do. You don’t seem to be looking at the same world that everyone else is.”
“Anyone can learn to be an artist,” he answered. “It really is all about truly looking at things – not just glancing at them superficially, but taking the time to pay attention. Take this for example,” he held up the salt shaker. “What do you see?”
“A salt shaker?” I answered.
“Yes, it is a salt shaker, but look closer. See the facets in the glass and the reflections on the silver top. Look at the way the light is reflected. If you look hard enough, you can even see your own distorted reflection in it.” He held out the salt shaker for me to take it. I tried to really study it. To, as Mike said, pay attention.
“Wow, you are right!” I said. “I can actually see all the different ways the light is reflecting. It is really pretty.”
“See, I told you. The whole world is like that. God created this amazing planet, and most people just pass it by without paying it any notice. I want to help people pay attention.”
“Well, you have helped me.”
“Great, one person down, six billion to go!” he laughed, then grew more sober.
“There is something I wanted to ask you. If it’s too personal, just let me know.”
“OK,” I said anxiously, “What’s that?”
“You have a great personality and a good sense of humor and I really enjoy talking with you.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad so far.”
“Let me finish,” he said. “When I look at you, and in the photos I took of you to do the painting, I couldn’t help but notice that you have the saddest eyes of anyone I have ever met. Why is that? What is hiding behind that smile that hurts you so much?”
“Wow.” I took a deep breath and looked out the window at the cloudy night. I didn’t know what to say – whether to say anything at all.
“I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have asked. You don’t need to say anything.” I could feel my eyes welling up with tears.
“I haven’t told anyone. Not since I moved here, and the people at home don’t know either – not really.”
“Here,” he handed me a napkin to wipe my eyes. “I didn’t mean to make you cry. You don’t need to tell me.”
“No, I’d like to.” It was the truth. For some reason, I felt like I could trust Mike. “Do you promise to keep it a secret?” I asked. “Not to tell anyone in the library or write about it in your story or anything.”
“I promise,” he said. I believed him.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” I hesitated.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” he encouraged.
I took a deep breath. “I was married.”
“Are you divorced?”
“No, I’m a widow.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. That must be hard. How did he die?”
“In the line of duty – he was a cop, but that’s only half of the story.”
“OK. So, what’s the rest of the story?”
“It could take a while.”
“That’s OK. I have all night.”
“Let’s see – the beginning. I met Alan when we were in high school. As you know, I come from a small town. Everybody knows everybody, but still, Alan and I most definitely did not move in the same circles. He was hugely popular – wealthy, handsome, captain of the football team and all that. Every girl wanted to date him, and the most popular, outgoing girls did. I was the bookworm. Honestly, I might have been invisible. He might have known my name, but that was about it. Anyway, after high school, I went off to college and Alan became a cop. He got to know my father from the local bar. Neither of them were big drinkers. They mostly just hung out there – watching sports on television and playing pool. It’s a small town – It was just the men’s hangout.
“Anyway, after my mom got sick and I moved back home, Alan started stopping by the house. He would spend some time helping my dad with the farm, and would end up having meals with us. We ended up spending more and more time together. Turns out, he wasn’t just a pretty face – he really was a good guy. It seemed like he had grown up a whole lot since high school, and so had I. A lot of the people he had hung around with in school had moved away. We didn’t have all that much in common, but we got along well. He had a good sense of humor and could make me laugh which I desperately needed at that point in my life. I love my mother, but caring for her every day and seeing her so sick – it was tough. Alan was a pleasant distraction. I fell in love. I had never been in love before – not really. I had dated in college, a few dates here and there, but no one serious. Most of them just seemed interested in hooking up, not in an actual relationship, and I really wasn’t into that kind of scene. Alan seemed like a knight in shining armor, as corny as that sounds. I was so happy when I was with him. He treated me like a queen – he would bring me flowers and buy me jewelry and always picked up the tab when we went out to eat. He was always such a gentleman.
“After my mom’s cancer went into remission, he asked me to marry him. My mom wasn’t thrilled. He wasn’t Catholic and that was a big sticking point with her. He was willing to go to Church with me though to make her happy, so that kind of smoothed things over a bit. For my part, I worried about his wild side. He liked to drive his motorcycle too fast, liked to party a little too much. I thought that he couldn’t be happy with me – that I was really kind of dull and that he would eventually get tired of me. After all, I wasn’t anything like the girls he used to hang out with in high school. He assured me that he had changed, however – that he truly loved me and wanted to be with me forever. So, I happily said ‘Yes.’
“We were married a few months later in a nice small ceremony. It was everything I wanted in a wedding. My father walked me down the aisle and I got to wear my mother’s wedding dress. Best of all, my mom was feeling much better and could be there. I was so happy that day. Standing there in the church with Alan by my side – I didn’t think life could get any better.
“Alan had some money saved up and we were able to buy a small house near where my parents lived. We had some adjustments as newlyweds. All couples do, I imagine. Still, I thought we were doing pretty well. We each had our own lives. Alan liked his police work – it wasn’t like it was a high crime area or anything, but there was always someone who needed help. And I was still helping out on my parents’ farm. I got a job as a waitress and I also started volunteering at the library. The only thing we didn’t agree on was when to start trying to have a family. I wanted a baby and Alan kept saying he wasn’t ready. We were both young. I figured we had time to wait a little while.
“Life was good, or so I thought, – until the day I got his cell phone bill and noticed that there were a whole bunch of long distance calls to a number I didn’t recognize. I dialed the number and a young woman picked up the phone. I told her I had the wrong number. Of course, then I was suspicious. I decided to check out his email account. I probably shouldn’t have, but the password was saved on the computer. I was crazy. I had to know what was going on. There were hundreds of emails to and from a woman whose name I recognized. She was a girl Alan had dated in high school. Apparently they had reconnected on one of those reunion sites on-line. I sat there reading message after message. He was having an affair. He had told her he planned to leave me and go to New York to be with her. I didn’t know what to do. I was so angry. I printed out a whole bunch of the messages, planning to confront him when he got home from work. I wanted to scream and hit him and tell him how much I hated him. A huge storm had started outside. There was lightning and thunder and driving rain. The storm matched my mood. I sat near the door, the letters in my hand, waiting for him to come home.” I paused to take a few sips of water.
“What happened when he got home?” Mike asked.
“That’s just it. He never came home. One of the other guys on the force came to bring me the news. I knew as soon as I saw John coming to the door that something had happened. I turned the letters I was holding over and put them on the coffee table and let him in. The first words out of his mouth were ‘I’m so sorry.’ Apparently, as Alan was driving around doing his rounds, he saw a lightning strike hit a house and set it on fire. He called the fire department and then ran in the house to see if anyone was there. There was a young teenager home. He could hear her screaming. By the time he got to where she was, she had passed out from the smoke. He carried her out. She came to as they got outside and told him her baby brother was still in the house. Alan ran back in. He found the baby upstairs, but by then the fire was too severe. He stood by the window with the baby. The firefighters had arrived and put up the ladder. Alan was able to hand over the baby who ultimately recovered, but it was too late for him. He was badly burned. He died in the ambulance.
“He was celebrated as a hero. After all, he had saved two children. His funeral was attended by everyone in town. And I was the hero’s widow! How could I tell anyone the truth? – that he was cheating on me – that he didn’t love me anymore – that he was planning to leave me. I didn’t even tell my mother. Whenever I saw anyone, they were always expressing their sympathy, telling me what a wonderful man Alan was; how much he loved me; how they were sure he was in heaven. I was so angry with God – I didn’t even want to think about heaven. I was mad at God for the fact that my husband was cheating on me, and mad at God that he had let Alan die before I had the chance to kill him myself. You know the worse part? – I had to email his girlfriend to tell her that he died. I figured that she would want to know. She actually had the nerve to show up at the funeral! She cried and cried and cried. It was all I could do not to scream at her right then and there – call her every name in the book and smack her across the face. But I couldn’t, because I was supposed to be the grieving widow and I didn’t want anyone to know the truth.
“I thought that in time things would get better, but it didn’t. People stopped mentioning Alan so much, but they still looked at me with pity in their eyes. I was still filled with so much anger, but then the sadness mixed with it. The thing was, as much as I hated Alan for what he did and for the fact that he died, I missed him, too. I had really loved him, and I thought he loved me. I have to believe that, for a little while anyway, he did.” I could feel the tears start to stream down my face and I stopped to wipe them away. I couldn’t believe I was saying so much, but once the words started coming, there was no stopping them. I had kept them bottled in for so long. I could feel Mike’s gentle blue eyes on me. At times it honestly felt like he was looking, not at me, but through me, straight into my soul.
After a couple moments he spoke, “When did you decide to leave and come here?”
“It was after about a year. I just couldn’t take it anymore. There was no one I could talk to. Everyone knew Alan and had such a high opinion of him. My parents and the couple of friends I had just thought I was having a hard time because he had died. I stopped going to Church. I tried to avoid our parish priest whenever I encountered him anywhere. Like I said, it’s a small town – there was just no escape. I just couldn’t take it anymore – pretending all the time. I eventually decided to sell our house, and move here and start over. I had some life insurance money to help out with a new beginning. My mother was so sad that I was leaving, but she knew I had reached a breaking point – that I needed to do something, or I was going to have a breakdown. I don’t miss much about home, but I do miss her,” I admitted.
“I’m sorry,” Mike said.
“For what? – You didn’t do anything.”
“I’m sorry that you have been hurting so much. I’m glad that you told me.”
I wiped away a few more tears. “Yeah – I’m probably really going to regret this in the morning.”
“I hope not. I won’t tell anyone. I just want to be your friend.”
“Thanks,” I smiled. “I could really use one.” A pregnant silence hung between us. “Could I ask you something?”
“What?” he said.
“How did you move on?”
“Your girlfriend – the one you were supposed to marry. She found someone else. How did you manage to forgive her and go on with your life?”
He took a deep breath. “It wasn’t easy. Like you, I was angry and sad and brokenhearted, but in the end I just realized that it wasn’t meant to be. We were something very special for a while and I’ll always have those memories – I told you I’ve never really gotten over her, but – it was just a chapter in the story. Well, maybe a couple chapters. There was still a whole lot of the story left to be written.”
“I guess you’re right. I admire you – and Sara. The other day at the party when I was talking to her I was really amazed by how she has been able to pick up the pieces after her husband left her. My pieces still feel like they are all over the floor! I want to be able to move on.”
“You will – it just takes time. Some hearts take longer to heal than others. It’s been years since Amy left me. Sara, on the other hand, has always been a pretty tough cookie.”
“Yeah, well I wish the healing process could speed up a bit.”
“You can’t rush it. You need to let it take as long as it takes. The hurt won’t ever completely go away, but one day you’ll wake up and it will hurt less.”
“You sound like you know what you are talking about.”
“Do you think you’ll ever fall in love again?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’d like to. I’d like to get married and have a family – if the right person comes along. I used to think that there was only one person for each of us, and that Amy was mine, and I lost her. I don’t necessarily think that anymore – I think that there is more than one potential mate for each of us. I think there are second chances – I mean there has to be, right? Look at all the people who get divorced and then get married again.”
“Maybe they just didn’t find the right person the first time around,” I suggested.
“Maybe – or maybe finding the right person is only half the battle. Maybe choosing to stay in love after the initial rush wears off is the harder part.”
“Yeah. Apparently it is.”
“I look around at married people I know and most don’t seem to realize how lucky they are to have someone to love. I mean, look at Sara’s husband. He just didn’t see how fortunate he was to have Sara and the boys. He threw it all away! Or your husband – obviously he didn’t realize how lucky he was to have you, or else he wouldn’t have gone looking elsewhere, right?”
“Oh – I wasn’t that much of a prize,” I said. “You should’ve seen the girl he was leaving me for! I think she was actually a model – that’s kind of hard to compete with!”
He looked at me intently. “Don’t ever sell yourself short like that. Every woman – every person has their own specialness. If someone has been blessed enough to see that specialness in someone and have someone see it in them, they should do whatever it takes to hold on to that.” He turned and looked out the window for the moment, seemingly collecting his thoughts, or perhaps recalling a memory. He turned back to me. “Look, I know I’ve never been married and that it is hard, probably much more so than I realize. I’m not trying to condemn anybody. I just don’t think people should give up as easily as they do, that’s all. Love’s worth fighting for. If I find love again, I’m going to hold on to it forever.”
“She’ll be a lucky woman, whoever she is. I hope someone will feel that way about me someday.”
“Oh, I’m sure of it,” he said. “There is some man out there just waiting for someone like you.”
“I hope so,” I said in a whisper.
“I know so,” he replied. “Hey, in the meantime, we have each other, right?”
Mike’s cell phone rang. He took it out of his pocket and looked at the number. “Excuse me,” he said. “It’s Sara. I need to take this.”
“Sure, I’m just going to go to the ladies’ room,” I said and got up.
When I got back, he had his coat on.
“I’m sorry. I need to go home. Sara just got called into work for a few hours and asked if I could watch the boys. I know it probably wasn’t in your plans for tonight, but would you like to come back with me? We’ll probably just watch a movie or something. If you don’t want to – if you could just drop me off, that would be great.”
I thought about it for a moment. “Thanks for the invite, but I should really go home. My dog will be waiting to go out.”
“Oh, OK. Well, can you at least give me a ride home? I’ll have Sara give me a ride to the library tomorrow to pick up my car.”
“Of course. Come on.” I grabbed my coat and we headed outside.
“It’s so cold, it feels like it might snow!” he said.
“Yeah – it’s quite a switch from last week. When I talked to my mom a couple days ago, she said that they actually did have some snow on the ground!”
We got in the car and I put the heater on high. Mike was rubbing his hands together. “The heat usually comes on pretty quickly,” I said. We were at his house in a couple of minutes.
“Are you sure you won’t come in?” he asked. “I’ll make popcorn!”
“It’s tempting.” Indeed, I would have liked to stay, but I knew I shouldn’t. “But, I really need to go.”
“OK. I understand. Could I at least have your phone number or email or something, so I can get in touch with you without having to go to the library. Not that I mind going to the library . . .”
“Yeah, of course. Hold on a second.” I grabbed an old receipt and scribbled my number on it. “Here you go.” I handed it to him. “And Mike . . .”
“Thanks for tonight.”
“You’re welcome.” He smiled then turned away and closed the door. I watched him walk into the house, then drove home in reflective solitude. It had been quite an unexpected evening. I felt like a huge burden had been lifted from me in telling Mike my secret. It was entirely possible that I would indeed regret telling him in the morning, but I didn’t think that I would. The hurt and anger and sadness were all still there, but they felt lighter somehow, like their grip over me had been loosened a bit. It was a first step. As for Mike, I still didn’t know what to make of him. All I knew was that I trusted him. I felt safe when I was with him, and I liked that feeling. I wanted it to stay. I knew he wasn’t interested in me – not that way, but I could still enjoy his friendship and companionship.
I took the painting out of the car when I got home and brought it into the house. Lady greeted me enthusiastically at the door. “Watch out, Lady, you are going to get stepped on!” I successfully navigated getting through the entryway, holding the painting up as Lady jumped up on my legs. “Yes, I will take you out in a moment. Just let me put this down.” I put the painting on the table in the kitchen. When I came back from putting the dog outside, I went over and looked at the painting again. It really was incredible. Mike was so very talented. Where could I hang it? I picked it up and carried it around the house, trying to find the perfect place. I decided to put it in my bedroom so it could be the first thing I would see in the morning. Besides, no one went in there but me. I didn’t have guests that often, but I didn’t want to share my painting with anyone. It was mine and mine alone.
I let Lady back in and fed her some supper, then settled in with my writing. What had begun as a whim had become a ritual for me. The month was nearly half over. I could hardly believe it. I was almost halfway to my goal. I had decided my main character would go to France after all. I had picked up a few travel books at the library. I was writing about places I had seen only in pictures and throwing in phrases in a language that I hadn’t studied since high school. It didn’t matter. No one would ever read this story, and I was having fun. I realized when I was writing, I had a peace that I hadn’t had for a long time. I could temporarily forget my life and live in someone else’s. Even if Anna was a product of my imagination, it didn’t matter. She and I were having fun!
I worked late into the night. The words flowed so easily. I was surprised when I checked my word count to discover I had written over 3500 words – in one night! I had reached the halfway point. I closed my laptop and headed off to bed, where I slept more soundly than I had in ages.