Soft Southern Winds
I’ve been running away so long and so far that I don’t even remember where I’ve been, but I remember where I’m from.
My accent doesn’t sound like home any longer but like the people on tv, with their nondescript pronunciation from places I’ve been and don’t remember.
The problem with running away is that after a while, you run out of places to hide.
And, that’s why I am here, back home, this evening, with the heat full around me and the fragrance of jasmine heady and sensual and cajoling. I cling to the shadows like the thief I am, thief of days, thief of life, thief of hearts. But there’s only one heart I think of right now.
Outside of Brews, I lean against the corner of the window and gaze in. He’s wiping down the bar. He’s changed, tall, lithe, bearded with glasses. For a moment doubt overtakes me. Is it him?
A couple passes by, laughing and kissing, they glance at me, the girl smirks and they both laugh and I wonder what I look like. A stalker? A vagrant? A misplaced woman on the verge?
My sister says he’s never married. There could be all kinds of reasons for that, but the romantic in me, the one who ran away when things got tough, hopes that maybe a part of him, more than a part of him, still yearns for me in the same way I’ve never forgotten him and still yearn for him.
I enter the bar. There’s no sudden silence. The music plays on. Don Williams. I can almost feel my face blanch, but I keep walking toward the bar. He glances at me without recognition. I know I’ve changed: angular, hair blonder than brown, pink highlights, weariness featured in the crimped lines by my eyes.
I settle on the barstool and squint at the beers on tap. We’re in Dominion country, lots of Dominion on tap.
“What’ll it be?” he asks, his voice soft and accented with a lull I’d forgotten. The mountains of North Carolina. It used to be that I would spread my legs just with the sound of his voice.
“Candi?” I say.
“It’s strong,” he says.
“That’s okay. I’m walking tonight.”
“You might not be after this.”
I watch him pull on the tap. The tripel fills the glass, its scent sweet, hiding the strength. He places it in front of me. I take a sip.
“Nice?” he asks.
I nod, feeling disappointed that there is no rush of recognition. Have I changed so much? Thirteen years? What’s thirteen years? I guess from 18 to 31, it’s significant. From a girl to a woman. Would I have recognized him passing on the street? He’s filled out. His beard hides his face, it’s flecked with gray hairs, which seem too soon. But his voice, like bourbon, sweet and sensual. I would always recognize that.
He walks to the other end of the bar where a pouty blonde lowers her lip and flirts with him. He grins, pours more white wine into her glass, and leans his hands on the bar. She’s younger, cuter, and her breasts lift into appealing cleavage. She twines her golden curls around her fingers as she smiles up at him. I vaguely wonder if I was ever her age.
I pull out my cell, thinking my sister might have texted, but there’s nothing. Loneliness pools around me. I glance back at Rick. He glances over his shoulder at me, checking my glass, I suppose, before returning his gaze to the young blonde. But then he jerks his gaze back at me as if seeing me. I think. I want. No, it’s the guy who’s just come in who lumbers up alongside of me, his burly body sliding onto the stool next to mine.
I barely glance at him until he says, “I was walking by and saw you sitting here and I thought I must be hallucinating.”
I look at him now. Tommy Lee. He’s gained a quarter acre, but gentleness still fills his eyes. I cry and hug him and his thick fingers pat my bare arms.
“How did you recognize me? No one else has.” My voice is almost a whisper.
He laughs and then confesses. “Your sister said you might be here. And, who else besides your family has known you since you were inches tall?”
Laughter fills me as much as relief. Would there be anything worse than returning home after thirteen years and no one recognized you or cared? Oh, Tommy Lee! The trouble we got into from his breaking his arm jumping out of a hayloft to my getting bit by a water moccasin when we sneaked a boat out on Pompano Creek. Everyone thought me and Tommy Lee would get together as we’d always been joined at the hip from the age of three until fifteen and then there was Rick Summers who appeared the summer of our Sophomore year and for three straight years there seemed to be no one else. But maybe my memory is faulty and that’s the way I choose to see things.
Rick wanders over to us, his eyes moving between our faces. “You know each other?”
“You don’t?” Tommy Lee asks.
“I don’t, what?”
Tommy Lee jerks his thumb toward me. Rick shrugs. But then his posture straightens, his jaw tightens, his eyes narrow. None of it feels friendly and I can almost feel myself wanting to cower inward, but I don’t. I don’t because I’ve spent far too much time running away from this town, from Rick, from me.
Maybe I thought there would be yearning in his eyes. The last thing I expected was to hear him mutter under his breath: “Fuck me.”
Wouldn’t this be the appropriate time to make a joke? To say, “okay, I’ll do just that,” but I don’t because there is nothing in his eyes that is welcoming.
My sweet Rick whose voice would have charmed eagles from the sky. My sweet Rick who made me cry out even my first time, a mingling of pain and happiness, sweet desire that obliterated everything else. My sweet Rick who now looks at me the way one would look at a black widow spider crawling up their arm.
I sip my beer and watch him over the rim. The weird thing is how his emotions are still so close to the surface after thirteen years.
He removes his glasses and wipes them on the tail of his green plaid button-down. His hazel eyes avoid me. He looks over at the blonde who is trying to regain his attention, but he looks away from her and down at the floor, at his shoes, at something.
Someone has put Trisha Yearwood on the juke box. “How Can I Live?” Someone must hate me very much.
“I thought you were gone for good,” he says.
“Why are you back?”
“Because I ran out of places to run away to.”
He nods, but still avoids my eyes. “I’ve moved on.”
“Seriously. I can’t do that again.”
“I didn’t ask you to. I just came back home. I needed to be here.”
He looks up at me. Wariness tinges his eyes darker to almost forest green.
Tommy Lee clears his throat. “Well, look, Megan’s here.”
I don’t know who Megan is, but Tommy Lee heaves himself toward a short red head whose smile grows large at the sight of him.
“They’re engaged,” Rick says.
I nod. “Great.” I mean it.
Rick snorts. “When have you ever cared about anyone else?”
Here it comes. The derision in his voice bites into me. I steel myself for further, because I am certain that I deserve it.
You have to understand that thirteen years ago I made a big mistake. We were pregnant. Rick, dear, Rick thought we could be eighteen and have a family and life would be perfect and that we would always be enough for each other. Me. Well, I, on the other hand, got really scared. I couldn’t see myself as a mother because I could barely take care of myself. Let’s be honest. I couldn’t take care of myself. I couldn’t remember to stick milk back into the fridge after taking it out. Have a kid? Raise a kid? No matter how much I loved Rick, I couldn’t see that happening.
I tried to kill myself.
At the time it seemed the only option because my mother would have killed me if I’d had an abortion and life would have killed me if I’d had a kid. When you’re in a corner at eighteen, there just don’t seem to be enough avenues for departure.
I survived suicide, but the baby didn’t. My parents were mortified. Rick’s parents were mortified. Rick didn’t speak to me. I left. And I had been leaving every day since, until yesterday when I returned.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’ve needed to say it for a long time because I never told him. He’d been so excited about us having a kid. Us at eighteen and so insanely young. But he’d been in love. Me, had I been in love? I know I had been scared. Terrified. Terrified of everyone’s judgments and a responsibility I couldn’t even begin to accept.
But now, near him, feeling things come back to me, I think I was in love.
He leaves to makes drinks and pour beers. He fills the wine glass of the blonde again. I see her eyeing me with suspicion. Maybe they are on their way to being something and I’m interfering.
I swallow down the rest of my beer, thinking that maybe it’s time for me to move on. There is no way in hell that this wasn’t a mistake. “You can’t go home again.”
So many birthdays and Christmases and baptisms and marriages and life events I’ve missed. I’ve seen things. All of those wonders that people tell you you need to put on your bucket list. No one tells you that family and friends should be on that bucket list. They should be your first bucket list. But, no, it’s all travel and things, just things.
Rick laughs with the blonde. I can imagine that they would have cute kids.
I’m counting bills to leave on the bar when he returns. I don’t look at him until he places his hand over the cash and pushes it back at me.
“The beer’s on me.”
“Thanks.” I don’t look at him. I’m afraid of what I might see there.
I start walking away. Tommy Lee shouts at me. Megan sits on his lap and waves although she doesn’t know me. I smile. It feels heavy on my lips. In a Hollywood movie, Rick would have jumped over the bar and told me that he’d thought about me every day. In a Hollywood movie, I would have cried with joy and kissed him.
I get to the door and turn. Rick is watching me, oblivious to the man in the flannel shirt yelling for another Bud. My heart sparks.
I’ve got a few days. I believe sometimes you can get a happy ending.