The clock on the wall behind him softly chimed the hour. Jack counted them off in his head and could hardly believe it was ten o’clock. He didn’t move to leave and she didn’t ask him to. With only a brief reprieve on their separate drive down, they had been talking continuously now, for almost seven hours. The only other person he’d ever done that with was Annie, and the first time they had, was a disaster. He thought her parents were going to kill him. He brought her home at four in the morning and her dad opened the door looking so disappointed, he actually felt a flash of remorse. It was short lived though. They’d had a fight and he was still simmering. He had spent hours trying to make Annie see his point that night, but she had dug in her heels and he had quickly learned, she was as stubborn as he was. Neither one was willing to bend until they finally just gave up in exhaustion and drove home in silence. Her eyes were puffy and her hair was a mess and he realized too late that he had never even given a thought to what her father might think about depositing her on her doorstep like that in the wee hours of the morning. Her dad was so gentle hearted, Jack had underestimated how protective he was of his daughter. It was a week before he’d let him anywhere near her again. He would make that mistake many times in the early years… but, that was not something he cared to think about right now.
Isabel got up and went to the window, grabbing a blanket off the back of the chair on her way and wrapping it around her shoulders. She noticed it had begun to rain again, watching the drops slowly make their way down the window pane like little tears. She’d fought this kind of weather fiercely as a younger woman, viewing the darkness outside as disdainfully as she saw it inwardly and doing everything she could to escape it. It had cost her a lot; in wasted days, missed opportunities, financial hardship, and perhaps most painful of all… that piece of herself she spoke of, to no one. Some things cannot be fixed, no matter how badly you’d like them to be.
Rubbing her temples gingerly with one hand, she thought about how people often say time heals all wounds, reciting it mechanically as if doing so, might actually render it true. She’d wanted to scream at a thousand decibels if she heard it one more time after John died, but instead, she smiled at everyone, hugged them, and made allowances. People meant well. She knew they did. She didn’t actually believe them, but she was willing to concede that time would inevitably change the way she felt those wounds. It had a way of reducing the roar that threatened to overwhelm her with its bite in the beginning.. to a sting that buzzed incessantly in the background, demanding her attention occasionally, but deftly muted. She had learned in time, that sometimes the best way to fight, was to lay down the sword and get down on your knees. That humble perspective had changed the way she saw things and was a good reminder that sometimes, she just needed help. She sighed heavily, temporarily forgetting she wasn’t alone.
Jack had been watching the emotions pass over her face like clouds boiling over the sun. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, feeling almost as if he was intruding. He wished he could read what she was thinking. Although she was incredibly expressive, she had somehow mastered the art of revealing very little of what she truly felt. He cleared his throat softly, feeling sorry about that, wanting to spare her and bring her back to the present.
She walked into the kitchen and pulled a small plate out of the cabinet, opening the fridge and dumping most of its contents onto the counter next to her. She looked back at him and smiled, shrugging. She made some excuse about not having time to go grocery shopping today, but he had the distinct impression that an empty refrigerator was not an unusual occurrence and that it was a subject she preferred not to talk about, so he let it go. He nodded easily when she held up a box of crackers and a brick of some exotic kind of cheese the owner had left for her in the fridge, realizing that they had been so engaged in conversation all night, that they passed the dinner hour long ago. He was starving.
He worked beside her silently, slicing the pepper crusted salami and adding a small bunch of grapes to the plate. He found a little tangerine in the wooden bowl on the table and he picked it up, peeling the wrinkly skin and breaking it in half. It looked a bit worse for the wear but the grumble in his stomach assured him it wouldn’t matter. She put a kettle on to make some tea and arranged the cheese and crackers in a circle around his meager offering, adding two paper napkins and a small dish of olives. When he turned around, she was digging in her purse for something and made a small squeal of delight when she found it - a lone chocolate bar, flavored with little pieces of bacon. She peeled off the wrapper, broke it in half and added it to their dinner plate. Jack was skeptical but she convinced him to try it in the end and he laughed out loud when he actually enjoyed it.
Since they were both tired of talking, she put on some music and they ate as they listened. It was easy and comfortable, and he was grateful. He wondered, as they finished, why he had never paid attention to this woman when they were younger and she and Annie had been friends. But when he really thought about it, he supposed it made sense. Annie was larger than life even though she was tiny in stature. She had piercing green eyes and a shock of long curly black hair that framed her face in constant disarray. It somehow only added to her appeal. She was beautiful in a captivating way that made every man in a room turn to look at her when she walked in. He’d thrown one or two punches over that in the past. She was the kind of extraordinary beauty that made a woman like her, the subject of many a poem and love song.
Isabel was different, but no less compelling. As he looked thoughtfully around the Lodge, taking in the warm glow and the rich wood, the beautiful paintings on the walls and the towering stone fireplace, he realized that her choice of accommodations actually reflected that rather well. It was quieter and less obvious, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might actually miss it altogether. He puzzled it over in his mind, wondering why he was comparing the two women in his head. He was still thinking about it when she got up and carried the dishes to the sink.
When she came back to the living room, he expected her to say she was tired and ask him to leave, but instead she smiled and said, “If we could close our eyes right now and jump, and land on any day in your past… what day would it be… and why?” She handed him a hot cup of tea and sat down in the chair across from him, folding her legs under her and looking at him expectantly. He grinned and settled back into his chair, knowing immediately how he’d answer that. Pulling his wallet from his pocket, he opened it wide, fishing around for the photograph that he’d kept there for thirty five years. It was faded and worn at the edges and he gazed at it for some time before laying it on the table and pushing it toward her. It had been a long time since he’d thought about it.
“Annie told everyone it was my first love and her only real competition.”
She saw him wince slightly when he said it, but didn’t comment. He was good at hiding his feelings too. Picking it up to examine it curiously, she smiled in spite of herself.
“You know… she just might have been right.” he winked, and he settled in, to tell the story.