A romantic story I wrote while meandering down by the waterfront park in our town, just imagining...
“Maria? Is it you?”
She felt his hand on her shoulder before he started talking, but even before that, she sensed his smell of soap, cotton, warmth and the instant familiarity of an old love. Memories flooded her brain instantaneously and her heart raced. She took a quick breath as if she were startled. She was leaning against the fence bordering the marina overlooking the water. She turned slightly towards his voice.
“Aaron! Yes, it’s me. How are you?” How many years had she thought about him, quietly wondering how his life had turned out? He was standing there in front of her like an apparition from the past, just a little older in a pair of jeans and a white collared shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He even said her name the name way. His mouth was slightly open in a smile that made his eyes squint.
“I’m fine. What are you doing in this neighborhood? I thought you moved out to California or Washington or something like that,” he said. Aaron was facing her directly, a little too close for Maria’s comfort. “You look great. You don’t know how good it is to see you,” and with that he wrapped his arms around her in an enthusiastic embrace.
Maria hugged him back but was a little uneasy about the sudden show of such affection from him and stepped back almost instinctively. She turned to face the pathway to continue her walk, slowing at first as if to invite him to walk beside her. The excitement of seeing Aaron was both frightening and wonderful at the same time. Where had he been? Why was he here? She focused on the path in front of her. It was straight for a while before it meandered along the waterfront and then out into the wooded area by the picnic tables. She thought for a couple of seconds before answering him.
“Yeah, I live in this town again. Not much has changed since we were kids,” she said looking around the park. “Maybe it’s a little more cleaned up.”
“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since…” He paused and thought for a second. “I don’t know, years ago.” He kept stepping ahead of her and turning to face her and slow her down. “What brought you back?”
Maria looked at him amazed at the attraction she still felt for him. “Oh, Aaron,” she sighed looking at him and then out at the water, almost unwilling to face the events of the time passed. “I live here now after my husband died three years ago.” She said it quickly - almost bluntly. She knew she couldn’t skirt around things with him, he would only bring it up again until he got an answer. Nor could she fudge her words or he would see right through her deceptions. She took a deep breath and smiled slightly. “After things calmed down a bit, you know the funeral and the lawyers and settling all the legal stuff, I decided I wanted to be back on the water, by my childhood home.” She couldn’t tell him she wanted to find him, wanted to talk to him as an old friend. Instead she continued, “My parents invited me to use their house since they were retiring permanently in Florida.” She paused to look up at him, squinting in the sunlight, only to be flustered to see him watching her intently.
“Oh, really. Your parents’ house, huh? That place brings back a lot of memories.” He said it with a smile as if he was thinking about the home. “I loved their house. That stone fireplace was amazing. Remember all the times we spent hanging out watching football and stuff?”
Maria smiled nervously in agreement. “What about you?” She tried to take his attention away from her face. “Why are you here? Didn’t you move away, too?”
He looked out at the sparkling water and a slight frown came over his face. After a pause, he said quietly, “Bob died.”
“Your brother?” she asked, stopping now to look at him. Bobby was a year younger than both of them were, and although she never got to know him very well in high school, she knew that Aaron and Bobby were very close. “I’m so sorry! That’s terrible.”
“Oh, I’m alright now.” He shrugged his shoulders as if he had a chill. “It’s been three months now so I’ve had some time to adjust. He was living in a portion of an old house up on Smith’s Hill while he renovated it. After he died, his wife, Roseanna decided it was too painful for her to stay there, which I can understand, so she was going to put it on the market to sell.” He stooped to pick up a rock and fling it out to the water. “Anyhow, I saved her the hassle and bought it from her so I could finish what Bobby started. This week I am here helping her pack up and move out.” He kicked a stone in the path. “I love his old house and hope to bring it back to its full potential.” He looked at her again, “You’ll have to see it; you’d like it, Maria.”
Maria loved the way the breeze mussed up his hair. She studied his face as he talked, taking in short glimpses to not act too friendly too fast. His hair was grayer around his temples and tiny squint lines framed his brown eyes. The sadness in his face while he talked about Bobby made her want to cheer him up. Why did she just want to wrap her arms around him? She hadn’t seen him for over twenty years.
“That’s excellent! Good for you.” She smiled up at him hoping that her words would encourage him. “I love this town. I always have. There is a certain endearing quality about it.” Maria spoke with a quietness almost as though she was thinking to herself. “I‘m sure Bobby would be grateful to know you are finishing his work. You were always good at building things.” She bumped her shoulder against his arm in fun.
“Thanks, Maria. Man, it’s good to talk with you.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and it reminded her of high school - he did it the same exact way.
She wondered how she should broach the subject of Nancy, his wife. She and Aaron had been close friends during junior high and then started dating in their tenth grade together. She was an only child and Aaron was always at her parent’s home talking with her dad or helping her mom with dinner. His home was a chaotic place with no real schedule for the five kids, so his coming and going was just normal to his parents. They watched football together on Sundays and he always walked her to school in the mornings. They argued together and then laughed at themselves for fighting; she missed the laughing. Maria pursed her lips as she remembered how her family had moved to South Carolina for a year for her dad’s job. When she came back for her senior year, Aaron was dating the new girl, Nancy, from California. Maria was heartsick, devastated and angry. They avoided each other the whole year and then she left for college.
“What are you so quiet about? I didn’t mean to make you sad.” He wrapped his arm around her like they were old friends, drawing her close to him and for a split second Maria almost felt like it was the old days as she let her head lean into his shoulder.
“Aaron, we have so many years between us now. It’s a little hard for me.” She left it at that hoping that he wouldn’t make her explain her feelings.
“Yeah, I suppose we do. I was just so happy to see you.” He smiled at her. “You still look as wonderful as ever.”
“Come on let’s keep walking,” Maria said as she pulled away from his grip. She had to ask about Nancy before she could comfortably talk with him.
“So… where is your wife?” There she did it.
“Nancy? Well… that was a poor decision on my part.” He paused and was quiet for a few steps. “Don’t get me wrong. Nancy was a decent person but we weren’t friends. If I had been honest, I would have admitted that long before, but I have a hard time quitting anything. I guess we had different ideas about life and we ended up as two people living our own separate lives under the same roof. We tried to make it work long enough for the kids to have a decent home.” He clenched his jaw.
“I do have two sons, you know, Brian and Mark, both in high school.” His face lightened as he turned to look at her.
“No, I didn’t know. Good for you.” She hoped he would continue and silently wondered if his sons looked like him and what kind of dad he was. She was almost envious.
They walked up to a wooden bench overlooking the water. “Want to sit?” he asked.
She sat down and turned to face him, one arm on the back of the bench. “Go on. I like listening to you.”
He grinned at her, “You always were my best listener.”
“But tell me more about you. What happened?” she insisted, tucking one leg under the other. She felt amazingly comfortable with him and wished time hadn’t spaced them so far apart.
Aaron looked at her eyes for a few seconds and then looked down to watch his fingers tracing over the boards in the bench. “Aww, Maria. This is tough,” he paused. “I guess I owe you an explanation, though.” He paused again for almost a full minute. “Nancy seemed like a movie star to me when I first met her, back in 11th grade.” He said it somewhat quickly as if he was excusing himself. “I was such a stupid kid back then. After you left, school wasn’t the same.” He glanced at her briefly. “It was like something was missing. I don’t know. I really missed you a lot, Maria.” He stopped again and looked at her as if to see if she understood his words. “I thought Nancy would fix that, even though we were never friends like you and me.” He was wringing his hands together, and looked around over the water and pathway. He continued, “I got instant recognition when I started dating her, you know - the California girl with her long blonde hair. It was kind of fun having all the attention. At least until you came back.”
He looked at her searchingly as if to make sure she was all right with the topic. Maria looked back at him with her lips set together, waiting for him to go on. They had to talk about it - it had been twenty years of questions for her. He owed it to her and as painful as it might be, they couldn’t pretend the past didn’t hurt.
“Well,” he squinted and looked out at a small boat motoring away from the dock. “I was too caught up in the Nancy scene to come back to you, and I figured you probably hated me for it.” He stopped and smacked his hand on his jeans. “You have no idea what a heel I felt like and how much I really missed your friendship.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Geez Maria!”
Maria smiled faintly. “Go on.”
He sighed. “We got married the year after graduation. I had a good job in my father’s construction business and Nancy really wanted to get married.” He shrugged one shoulder. ”And so we did.” He took a deep breath and leaned back against her arm. “Ten years of marriage, two kids and now I am a divorced man of five years sitting here talking to you, my old high school friend. How’s that for a record of accomplishment?“ He smiled at her with a wry look on his face. “The kids are the only thing that I am proud of for that time.”
“No one else in the five years?” Maria asked him rather bluntly. She knew she should have comforted him but her own hurt and resentment hardened her response. If there was anyone else in the picture, she wanted to know, now. She pulled her arms across her chest.
“Are you kidding? I knew I was stupid for leaving my best friend when I married Nancy but I was so proud back then I did it anyway. I wasn’t going to do that again until I found you and had a chance to talk to you.” He stopped talking and looked at her. “There you have it. I think I have dumped the baby out with the bath water!” He stood up nervously.
“Can we walk some more?” Maria asked him. She had a thousand thoughts running through her head. “It’s a little easier.” Her face was flushed and she felt warm.
“If you’re not sick of me yet,” he said it with a sarcastic smirk as he helped her to her feet.
“No, I am not sick of you.” She paused, trying to pick the right words. “I would like to clear the air between us, though; it has been way too long.”
He slipped his arm over her shoulder again briefly and then released her. “Thanks, Maria. I wasn’t sure what you would think of me.”
They walked on in silence watching the others in the park. Maria was tempted to just leave things be and enjoy the niceness of having Aaron walking next to her. Part of her was content while the nagging questions that had plagued her mind for years kept interrupting her peace.
“Well.” She said it as she drew a deep breath. “I am not quite sure how I feel. I was married, too, you know?” she looked up at him to see if he knew or not.
“Well, I figured you had; you did mention it earlier.” He held out his hand to help her walk over the rocks lining the edge of the water.
Maria loved the feeling of his hand, the warmth. It was rougher than she remembered. “Right. Yeah, I left for college, full of ambition and hurt at the same time.” They sat down on some flat rocks. “I had to get away from here and all the memories of us. I met Matt in my senior year.” She looked out at the water to choose her words slowly. “He was a graduate student and so kind to me. We dated for about two years before we got married.” She slowed down and waited for a second before continuing. “I was working in a law office in South Carolina when we found out he had cancer - lymphoma.” Maria turned away from Aaron. She didn’t want to cry but she wanted to finish her story. She took a deep breath as he sat quietly listening to her. “The next eight years Matt slowly died. We tried everything to stop the cancer but it kept coming back.” Maria breathed deeply and slowly. “He finally got too tired and I had to let him die.” She lifted her hands as if she were tossing something in the air and then ran her fingers through her hair.
“Maria, come here.” He stood and sat next to her on the rock. He pulled her shoulder towards him and reached his arms around her. “I am so sorry.” He pulled her tight and buried his face in her dark hair. “I’m sorry! I really am,” he whispered.
She relaxed in his arms, feeling safe and secure for a second, leaning into his shoulder. “But why didn’t you come back to me?” she pulled away from his arms. She had to deal with her pain. “Why did you just ignore me?” The tears started running down her face.
“Please, Maria. I’m sorry now. I was so stupid. I have been sorry for years.” He tried to hold her shoulders.
“Do you know what I went through? You were my best friend for almost my whole life. The only reason I could bear to be away for the year was knowing you were going to be waiting for me when I got back. You said you would.” She was accusing him now, angry for her years of hurt. “You were my life. All my plans were with you. I loved you.” She pushed away from his hands reaching out to her as she stood up and walked further along the path to get away from the other park visitors.
The years of grief of missing Aaron coupled with the memories of Matt dying made her sob heavily. After a few minutes, she realized that she also was crying for relief. Relief that Aaron had loved her and did miss her over all the years. Her anger melted and her brain was quiet as her sobs quieted.
Aaron had caught up with her almost immediately and walked silently beside her, his shoulder next to hers and his hands back in his pockets.
“How do I know you aren’t going to walk away from me again? I don’t want the pain of the years I went through to come back again.”
“Is this painful?” he asked her.
“What?” She was confused.
“Walking here beside me?” His voice was almost pleading in its quietness.
She took a deep breath. “No,” she sighed. “It’s really nice. Really, really nice,” adding the second part quietly with a little smile. She wiped her face on her sleeve.
Aaron stopped and pulled her against his chest. “I don’t like it when you cry, Maria.” He whispered as he held her tightly for a few seconds with his arms wrapped around her back. He breathed deeply and released her.
“How about we start by just walking together for a bit and take it slowly from here and see if we like being together again. Could you handle that?” he asked looking down at her.
Maria grabbed his hand in hers. “”I’d like that,” she said smiling up at him.
Aaron pulled her close again and wrapped his arms tightly around her shoulders squeezing her affectionately. He kissed the top of her head.
“Friends it is, then.”
2015 copyright. Use only with permission.