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Words by Patricia Walkow
Image by Gretchen Gales
It was a summer day and late in the afternoon. Inside the opened garage, she was preparing to stack boxes on a table, boxes no one had opened in at least twenty years. The idea of cleaning out the garage had been rumbling in her head for a few weeks. Today, despite the heat, she would just get it done.
Armed with love songs from the 60s and 70s playing on the portable CD player, and a cool, tall glass of icy lemonade leaving sweat rings on her husband's table saw, she placed fourteen sealed cardboard boxes of various sizes on and beneath a large, heavy-duty folding table. Her dog joined her and positioned himself, prostrate, on a blanket on the floor, right in the path of the floor fan's breeze. Apparently, his desire to be with her was stronger than his desire to stay cool in the air-conditioned house.
She opened another table to place items she would keep, and yet another for items she would donate. A large trash bin would hold anything she would discard.
The afternoon's heat was late-August-American-Southwest-desert oppressive. Yet she had not started to sweat from the physical exertion looming before her.
She placed a blue hair band on her head to keep her long bangs away from her face and gathered the rest of her hair into a short pony tail and secured it with a rubber band. Her neck would stay cooler that way. She remembered when she had long brown, shiny hair, uncolored and easy to arrange.
Selecting one of the fourteen boxes, she easily opened it since its brown tape was brittle with age.
A tangle of newspaper-wrapped knickknacks assaulted her. Porcelain birds from China, never-used beer steins, candle-holders, and magnets commemorating places she visited all revealed themselves as she removed their wrappings. Everything from the box found its way to the "Donate" table. She broke down the old box and placed it in the trash bin.
She chose a second box. It contained wedding mementos, including her wedding cards. They were tucked inside a white, lace-edged satin drawstring purse, protected inside a white box. The satin purse was still in perfect condition, despite the fact the first, and only time it was used was decades earlier.
She pulled out a few cards. The first one read, "Wishing you love and lots of sex. Love, Tom and Lynn." They were divorced.
The second card proclaimed, "May your life together be happy and full of love," from Palma and Joe, family friends she liked. She thought they had an ideal marriage. They were both dead now.
The third card was from Elliot and Marge. She had no idea who they were. She figured they were her parents' friends. When you marry young, as she did, much of your wedding was your mother's grand party. She turned the elaborate card over. Its price was twenty-five cents. "God, I've been married forever!"
She made a mental note to share the whole satchel of cards with her husband, returned them to the satin purse, and placed them on the "Keep" table.
As she tackled another box, just inside the lid she recognized an old scrapbook from her teenage days. Black & white photos of friends, summer camp in upstate New York, programs from plays and piano recitals, prom photos, Girl Scout badges, and a bracelet from a brief hospital stay slowed the clean up process. She had to stop and look at them. "I can't believe I was so young!" she said aloud. The scrapbook showed considerable wear and the gummed corners holding the photos on the page had all come loose. She knew she had to remove everything and create a new scrapbook. She placed it on the "Keep" table and wryly considered opening a "Fix it" table.
She turned her attention back to the contents of the box and sorted through a few more things, all of which were placed on the "Keep" table. Near the bottom of the box was a three-inch thick pack of letters tied with a turquoise ribbon. They were from her husband while he was in the Army. They were dating at the time. She smiled, and would read them another day. She tenderly added them to the "Keep" table.
Beneath the stack of letters from her husband was another, smaller stack from his best friend, who had written to her during his tour of duty in Vietnam. He had been so lonely and returned from the war addicted to heroin. After Vietnam he fought another war with the drug, and eventually won. These letters, too, she would read again and they found their way to the "Keep" table.
"Some clean-up," she thought to herself as she looked at the nearly empty trash bin.
She turned her attention to the box where the letters had been, and expected nothing else in it, but as she lifted it to rip it up, she found a smaller stack of three letters tied together with a pink ribbon, a dried fern leaf pressed between the first and second envelopes. She couldn't place the handwriting and furrowed her brows.
Picking them up, she noticed there was no return address. She carefully opened one.
They were from him!
Her throat tightened and her eyes welled up. "I didn't think I kept these," she whispered to no one.
She opened a folding chair and sat down, cradling the letters in her hands. She touched the fern leaf, now grayed, dry, and fragile. It had been a beautiful full-moon night when she plucked it from the forest floor, on a long-ago September night with him beside her. She remembered the touch of his helping hand on hers as she tugged at the stubborn fern. Here in the garage, her left hand lightly touched her right hand, as though it was his hand once again helping hers.
Time stopped at that moment in the garage. The heat evaporated. The years vanished.
The tears arrived. Her body was here, but her heart and soul were somewhere else, thousands of miles away and someplace in time many years earlier.
* * *
She was nineteen. He was twenty-two.
The first cousin of a girlfriend had just been ordained as a Catholic Priest, and this friend was hosting a party for him at a country cabin his family owned. But the party was not only a celebration of ordination; it was also a tribute to the summer coming to a close and the start of a new academic year at college.
Still cradling the letters in her hand, she recalled how her girlfriend telephoned her and invited her to be one of several young women at the party. The other guests were all seminarians in various stages of the religious studies that were necessary predecessors to their own ordinations. Since they were studying to be priests in the Catholic religion, the seminarians were all young men and they were expected to be celibate. They knew they shouldn't get involved with the young women. The women knew they couldn't compete with God.
With the absence of any expectations of romantic encounters, the atmosphere was comfortable. The conversation flowed smoothly.
Sitting on a sofa near the back door of the cabin, which opened to the forest outside, one of the seminarians sat beside her. She studied him. His hair was deep, dark brown, cut shore, and a few shades darker than hers. His build was neither stocky nor slight. He appeared solid, with broad shoulders, and she found him attractive. They started to talk about who they were, what brought them to the party, and what they would each be doing in the fall. Small talk. He was easy to talk to, like an old friend.
When it was almost dusk and the air was still warm, she told her girlfriend she would be taking a little stroll outside, into the forest, not too far away.
When she neared the door, the young man who had sat beside her on the sofa spoke up. "I'll go with you. Do you mind?"
"No, that's fine," she responded.
She started down a narrow path which was bordered by ferns at their peak of arching gracefulness. Still in full leaf, the trees showed just a hint of autumn color. He walked slightly behind her. After a few hundred yards, the leafiness of the woods hid the cabin from view and the leaves, rustling in a mild zephyr, silenced the sounds of festivities coming from the cabin. The earth beneath her feet was soft with fallen pine needles.
He took her hand.
She stopped, reeled around, and he still held on to her hand. She liked the firmness of his grasp, the smoothness of his hands.
Directly, boldly looking into his brown eyes, she inquired, "Aren't you supposed to be studying to be a priest? Are you allowed to do this — hold my hand?"
He relaxed his grip, but didn't let go. "During our seminary years, we are encouraged to find out the depth of our commitment to God."
She gave him a long, withering stare. "That sounds like a quote from a textbook," she shot back. "Besides, I'm no one's homework assignment!"
Annoyed, yet amused, she continued walking and he continued to hold her hand. They walked together a few hundred feet in silence, side by side on the narrow path, the ferns brushing their slacks. He stopped and drew her to him, kissed her on the lips. She kissed back.
A boundary melted. Something meshed. An entity greater than either of them emerged from that kiss.
The rising moon illuminated the path, toyed with the canopy of leaves, and bathed the tree trunks in silver. They continued their walk and neither cared if they never returned to the cabin. They talked about everything: their pasts, their futures, how they both felt the same thing when they kissed, of when, or if, they would ever see each other again. They lost all sense of time. Had they been in the woods an hour? An entire evening? A lifetime? They rested on a jumble of granite outcrops and embraced each other, knowing this night would be with them forever, even if it turned out to be the only moment they ever shared.
There was no groping, no sex to distract their intimacy.
Eventually sensing they had been away from the cabin for a while, they headed back, stopping to hug, to kiss. He did not want to let her go. She did not want him to let go. Their embraces were lingering ones, as though they might never hold each other again. As the cabin's lights became visible, he halted and faced her, grasping both of her hands in his.
"Will you write to me?" he asked, stroking her long smooth hair as he gently kissed her forehead.
"Yes, and will you write back?" she asked, looking into his eyes and squeezing his hand.
"Yes," he smiled, a bit sadly, she thought.
She bent down to pick the tip of a fern frond. It was tough to pull, and he assisted her, placing his hand firmly and lovingly over hers, helping her snap the tip of the fern.
"I want to keep this night forever," she said and placed the fern in her pants pocket. They plucked another fern tip and he placed it in his shirt pocket.
When they entered the cabin, there was a sudden hush. Apparently their absence had been noted.
They had been gone over three hours.
* * *
"It's getting late, and we have a two hour drive home," her girlfriend said, wide-eyed, brows arched. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes, just give me a minute." But she would never truly be ready to say goodbye to him.
He hastily wrote his address on a piece of paper, and gave it to her. She placed it in her pocket, next to the fern. She wrote her address for him, and he placed it in his shirt pocket, next to the fern. He held her hands securely in his, in a lingering farewell that had to substitute for a lover's embrace, enfolding her with his eyes, instead. She felt the same pain at this farewell she was certain he felt—the pain of fearing they would never see each other again, of being unable to hold each other close.
Numb, she sat in the front passenger seat of her friend's car.
"Everyone was worried about the two of you. He's a seminarian!" exclaimed her friend.
She felt peeved at the subtle implication about his being with her in the woods for three hours was all her doing, about her leading a seminarian down the wrong path.
"He's a young man who asked to accompany me during my walk. The others needn't have worried. Nothing physical happened, but I think I fell in love tonight."
"Oh, that's a dilemma. What are going to do?"
"We agreed to write to each other."
The trip back home was a blur, and the moon teased her, being the same one she shared with him just a short time ago.
* * *
A few months later word came through a friend that he had injured his back and was in the hospital. She went to see him. It wasn't a long visit, and as she was preparing to leave, she kissed him goodbye. With that kiss, she felt a sense of foreboding. He held her hand for a long time. She didn't remember what they talked about. Before she turned to leave his bedside, he lifted her right hand to his lips, kissed it, then wrapped both his hands around her hand.
It was the last time they saw each other.
* * *
During the following two years they wrote a few letters to each other. She had no expectations he would leave the seminary and never pushed him to make such a decision. She may have hoped he would choose her and yearned for him to want to be with her, but it was not her nature to coerce him. If more was to come of the bond they shared, she believed it would happen. But deep down, she knew it would never work out. He had invested all of his young life in his relationship with God; yet now, he had left a gentle spot in her heart that she would preserve forever.
Then she received the invitation to his ordination. She held it in her hands, saddened for what might have been, but glad he had clearly made his decision. She declined the invitation and wrote him a congratulatory note.
A year or so later, she wrote to him telling him of her engagement to the man she would marry.
It was the last time either one of them heard from the other.
* * *
As if awakening from a dream, she stretched her arms and neck, then looked at her hands. They were certainly not as smooth and pristine as they were when she met him. The garage was still hot. The letters were in her lap and her memory of the tenderness of their few hours in the moonlight was still fresh and poignant, almost painful. She wondered if he still had the letters she sent him and if he, too, still cherished a dried and delicate piece of fern.
Since the night they met, the Vietnam War was fought and ended, man visited the moon several times, probes visited Mars, terrorists attacked the United States, the Titanic was found and computers proliferated. She married a wonderful man and pursued her career. Somewhere along the way, she learned he left the priesthood and also married.
She got up from her chair, placed the letters on it, and headed into the house. Turning on her computer, she opened her web browser and searched for him. Several possibilities turned up, all still in the eastern U.S., and each with an e-mail address. She wrote a note to the one she thought might be him. Her hands trembled as she typed. She didn't want her note to be interpreted as a romantic interest; she just wanted to know if he was still alive. That's what she told herself.
She removed her hands from the keyboard to read the note before hitting "Send," and thought of her husband. She knew how he drank his coffee, if he snored, his hobbies, his likes and dislikes.
But she knew nothing about him. Did he snore? Did he ski or sail? Did he wear boxers or briefs?
They had a perfect moment together. The memories of that night formed just a sliver of her young womanhood, but it was a defining piece of her youth. In her remembrances she would always be young, always be thin, always be beautiful. He would always be tender and always be handsome, although she could no longer recall the details of his face. That magical night needed to remain etched sharply in time, un-blurred by life’s intervening years.
She deleted the e-mail.
At the kitchen sink, she splashed cool water on her face and neck before returning to the garage where she left his letters. She re-positioned the dried and tattered fern in its resting place between the first and second letters and tied his letters together again with the pink ribbon.
With the bundle of letters held to her heart, she stood between the "Keep" table and the trash bin, her decision what to do with the letters vacillating wildly. But she realized she had been so right, all those years ago. She would never be ready to say "goodbye" to him or to the treasured memory of their enchanted night in a moonlit forest.
Eventually, she placed his letters on the "Keep" table, and rested her hand on them for a few seconds.
She would not be love's assassin.
It is the first week of my retirement. Early retirement. Odd...I have no need to get up at 6:00 a.m., no deadlines, no lunch meetings to attend with colleagues.
Colleagues? Who am I kidding? They are all sharks. And I am...was...one of them. Competitive, fast-talking, fast-acting. Until twelve days ago I was a commodities trader, driven, relentless, and I grew financially comfortable. Some would say rich. It was my second chosen career. There was another one before the commodities gig.
Gig’s over, though. I find myself unneeded in the world and am amazed that a few days ago I was a mover and shaker, and now I may as well be a doorstop. The things that worried me, caused me to lose sleep, and allowed me to pour another scotch, no longer matter. I suspect they never really did. Nor was it of any importance that I pressed my boxers before donning my suit. Only I knew I did that. Well, once in a while, a woman may have noticed. I have stopped ironing my underwear. At least I have some golf dates with friends, some of whom have also retired early. They made lots of money. We all did. And there is that community in Florida I want to explore. After all these years in the Northeast, I would like to go somewhere warm. Maybe I’ll also check out the deserts in the west...Arizona or New Mexico. No, no, that’s so far away from my family.
My family. No children of my own, at least that I know of, and my marriage lasted barely two years. Not my ex-wife’s fault. Mine. She was a safe port for me when I lived my life on a stormy sea. Married not quite two years, we parted quickly, each going our own way, and she has forgiven me. Said I lived as though I was haunted by my past, and wouldn’t let her in. I have a sister and a brother, and my nieces and nephews are my life. They soften the hard edges I’ve honed over the years, after I abandoned my first career. I am smart enough to realize the time I spend with the children—and I spend as much time with them as I can—helps me remain human, rounds those edges, makes me more like the man I was before.
Before. I have a lot of stuff from before my life in commodities, before I changed careers, before I moved into this house, before my marriage, before my divorce. There is stuff stowed away in drawers and folders and boxes and old briefcases, in the garage and attic and spare bedroom. It can’t be all that important because I have never missed most of it. Detritus of life. I made a promise to clean, reduce, trim the clutter. I start today, and today I also start a new routine, one I followed years ago, when I greeted each day with morning prayer.
Morning prayer...I search and find my breviary on a shelf in the closet in the guest bedroom. It’s the closet where I store “before.” The prayer book is tucked in the corner on the top shelf. The book’s cover is dusty, and it smells mildewed because I haven’t opened it in years. Now and then, I missed it. Once, it meant a lot to me, that book.
That book needs attention. I swab it with a damp washcloth, and as I wipe the cover, it feels comfortable in my hands, as it did all the years I was a priest. Still am a priest, I guess. Once you have been one, I think you are always one, no matter how hard you try to push it away or bury it, or place that life in the recesses of a rarely used closet, pretending to forget.
Forget? No, I didn’t forget. The book reminds me. It is an old friend...prayers I love, devotions I no longer exercise. I thumb the pages quickly, smiling at the sound they make, like a deck of thin cards. I close my eyes and ruffle the ultra thin sheets of cream colored paper again, remembering my daily routine when I was a seminarian, the quietness of the chapel in the early morning, gentle light streaming through the windows, the aroma of incense, my ordination, my daily routine as a priest. The tip of my right thumb grazes against something crinkly, something that crumbles a little when I touch it. I can feel it pulverize even before I open my eyes. My heart skips a beat. My eyes rest on a withered gray fern peeking from the pages of the 139th psalm.
The 139th Psalm. Her favorite. My sacrifice.
O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways...
She has been here in this book all these years.
* * *
Just on the cusp of autumn, the night is warm. I am twenty-two. One more year left at the seminary. Almost a priest. The sky sports a full moon.
The moon is remarkably brilliant. I meet her at a summer party in a cabin in the northern mountain’s woods. We are all seminarians, except for the girls. I wonder why young men who commit themselves to celibacy want to party with members of the opposite sex. Test their commitment, maybe? She, the girl who has hidden in my unused prayer book for years, arrives with a friend whose cousin, a older classmate in the seminary I attend, has just be ordained.
She is a pretty young thing. Nineteen? Twenty? We sit beside each other on a sofa, introduce ourselves, and talk.
Talk about her life, about mine. She is an easy conversationalist. Seems interested in the world, has read a lot, and is interested in me. I want to be alone with her, away from everyone else. Does she know? When she stands up, she announces to her girlfriend she is going outside for a little while to enjoy the night air and the moon. As she approaches the cabin’s back door, I jump up.
“Do you mind if I accompany you?”
“No, not at all,” she smiles.
I wonder if she feels safe with me. I mean, I am practically a priest. Someone she is supposed to trust.
Trust...do I trust myself? We walk along a cushioned pine-strewn path. The rustling needles are thick and soft under the soles of my shoes. Each step releases a pungent, but pleasing scent. Moonlight highlights her long, dark hair...hair I want to touch, bury my face in, tousle. I take her hand. She does not resist, although she looks at me with head cocked, her forehead furrowed in inquiry and surprise.
Surprise myself...that’s what I do. I stop and she turns to face me. We are still holding hands. She asks if it is OK for me to hold a girl’s hand. I say something truly stupid: “We are encouraged to test our dedication to celibacy,” or something similarly ridiculous.
She snaps that I am not some kind of homework assignment for her, and she is right. I lift one hand and cup it under her chin and kiss her, gently. She does not flinch. We walk in silence, find a jumble of granite boulders, and climb them. There we sit, and talk, hold hands, kiss, embrace. I recognize love.
Love. We talk forever, and there is no awkwardness. Do we know each other from another place, another time?
Eventually, we decide to return to the cabin. On the path back, she bends down to pluck a fern arching over the trail. The frond is still supple, not yet dried by the cold. She has trouble breaking its stem. I help.
“Help us remember this night,” she says, as she tries to break the stem of another fern. Again, I help with my hand on top of hers as we tug. We each take a frond. She carefully inserts her fern in her right pants pocket. I fold mine in my shirt pocket.
After three hours together, we return to the cabin, where heads turn, eyebrows arch, faces disapprove. I want to tell my classmates, “Nothing happened,” but that is a lie. Something did happen. I am standing beside my soul mate. In front of the others, we do not hold hands.
When we part, we do not kiss before the eyes of the assemblage, but simply grasp hands. Months later, she visits me when I am ill in the hospital. We kiss goodbye there, suspecting we will never see each other again, not because I am ill, but because our situation is hopeless.
“I am going to become a priest. It’s my life’s path,” I tell her. She does not complain about my decision, but kisses me again before she leaves my hospital room. I hold on to her hands a long time.
It was the last time we saw each other.
“Hopeless” is a choice, but I did not know it then.
The following year, I send her an invitation to my ordination. She sends a card, does not attend. I am disappointed, but understand.
We write to each other over the following years. She sends me an invitation to her wedding. I send her a card, do not attend.
We never communicate again.
* * *
After I leave the priesthood and a few weeks before I marry, I burn her letters. Why upset my bride? Start a fight? My wife does not know about her, never finds the prayer book with the fern, never asks about my love life before I became a priest. Did she assume I did not have one? As we are divorcing, she harps on the theme of my having ghosts in my life and they leave no room for her soul to be part of it. She is correct.
She is correct that the decision to the leave the priesthood consumes my spirit, and she is unaware the girl from the cabin in the woods haunts me.
* * *
Suspended in memories, standing in the middle of my guest room, I hold my book of prayers in my hand. I cannot part with the fern sheltered by the prayer I know the girl from the cabin loves. When I was a priest and recited the psalm at services, the congregation before me never knew the depth of its meaning to me. The girl is a love I cannot destroy. I wonder where she is, if she is well, if she has children, what she looks like, if she is happy.
Happy...I swallow hard, and tenderly touch the withered leaves of my fern. I feel her hand under mine, as we pulled the feathery frond from its base.
Search me, O God, and know my heart...
I close the prayer book, the fern still in place, and take it with me to the kitchen, away from the dark closet.
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