Drew opened the door to the small four seater plane and scrambled in without hesitation. John got in beside him and put the headset on, reaching forward, instinctively flipping switches and checking gauges on the instrument panel. “I’ll take that seat on the way back, after we leave you with Izzy,” he shouted to John over the sound of the engine. Annie laughed softly, covered by the noise. “Always so competitive,” she mumbled.
Both men were pilots, but Drew was probably the one most passionate about it. He was likely the most skilled as well, but he would never say it. He idolized John. He had already completed the exterior pre-flight checklist and was now working his way through the interior. He spoke to his brother in law through the headset, as he double checked him on every detail. They were on their way in under half an hour. Drew was so glad he was finally home. Maybe Isabel would start smiling again.
The airport in Watertown was small and they were grateful for that, as air traffic was minimal and they could be on their way quickly. Peter had called in a favor to a friend at a flight school near the lake house and secured them a single engine plane for one night. He was waiting for them to land on the other end at Hanscom Air Force Base, where he was finishing up a long day’s work in his office at the hangar, going over the schedule for next week’s flights and checking everything with the various pilots who worked for him at Linear Air. Thanksgiving was always a busy time and he was meticulously verifying everything with his employees, making sure all would run smoothly throughout the holiday.
Peter paused briefly to look at the picture he had framed and hung on the wall above his desk. It was a beautiful painting of Taormina, Sicily that Isabel had been working on last fall. She started sketching it on a napkin when she was at lunch with him the last time she had visited Boston and he was enchanted by the charming image as he watched her draw the scene from her imagination. She was clearly somewhere else entirely in her mind, and he was certain she was thinking about John. Not wanting to interrupt, he sat silently eating his lunch and observing her, as her meal went completely untouched. She looked up in horror when the waiter took his plate away, red faced and apologetic, but he waved off her words with authoritative dismissal. He admired the way she could focus on something to the exclusion of all else and imagined it was a survival skill she really needed. “Remember, “he winked, “You said you like it when the silence between two people is so comfortable.” She laughed then and squeezed his hand affectionately. It was good to be his friend.
That Christmas, a mailing tube had arrived on his doorstep, wrapped in white paper that was covered in green Dr. Seuss Grinches. He laughed, enjoying the way her sense of humor was shining through in vivid symbolism before he even opened the package. Inside, wasa signed print of her finished piece and a small handwritten note.
“Dear Peter, next time... interrupt me!”
“Ah Izzy, not a chance,” he thought, as he gazed at the painting. “Look what I would have missed.”
* * *
The lights below them glittered like multi colored jewels in a symmetrical pattern that stretched for miles as far as the eye could see. They each found themselves lost in thought as they took it all in from their vantage point high in the sky on this clear November night. They had just begun their descent and John was shifting restlessly in his seat, looking down to his left, knowing she was down there, so close within his reach. He found it interesting that so much of his life was spent in the air looking down, while so much of her life was spent on the ground looking up. She was the dreamer and he was the realist after all. It seemed so backward to him somehow.
He thought back to the day he’d arrived in Italy. The airport in Catania had been especially crowded for a weekday but the weather in Sicily was gorgeous in the fall and tourism was booming. He had lived there as a boy, on the outskirts of Mt. Etna, in the old town of Taormina, where you could practically smell the history. The entire region was full of rustic charm and he longed to bring Isabel there. In the evening, when the streetlights lit up the town, the place was simply enchanting, and the Ionian Coast as viewed from the high cliffs and ledges of Taormina left a lasting impression. With her love for the ocean, he was certain she'd fall in love with his birthplace.
His parents owned a small seaside Trattoria, covered in flowering vines. It had been in their family for decades. Known for their exceptional homemade pizza and pasta and fine red wines, as well as his mother's famous potato gnocchi and rich desserts, it was a favorite stop for locals and tourists alike and had flourished for many years. They had left it in the care of his uncle to try their hand at the restaurant business in America, moving to the charming village where Annie and Isabel lived. Eventually, theirresistible pull of the Italian countryside and their roots in Taormina would call his family back home but his love for Isabel had rooted him firmly in the States by that time.
His sister Carolyn was running the restaurant these days, and he had called her before leaving New York to ask that she meet him at the airport and take him to Sigonella. She had always been the family's strongest pillar and he was looking forward to seeing her. Grabbing his old faded duffel bag from the carousel, he made his way out to the bustling street in front of the airport and found her waving to him, wedged into the only space left between the multitude of taxis lining the sidewalk.
“She is nothing if not gutsy,” he thought to himself.
She ducked back into the car, but not before he noticed her giving the taxi driver in front of her a rather rude gesture with a smile. Grinning, he shook his head. “Some things never change.”
He threw his bag in the backseat and she honked her horn as she pulled away from the curb. The familiar sights and smells assaulted him and he blinked, trying to catch his mind up with his heart. This was a very different place from the one he’d left behind. There was history here, his history. God, he forgot how much he loved this place.
Carolyn leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek, patting his face before turning away with a cough. She was ten years older than he was and was like a second mother to him in many ways. She had been ill since early last spring and he was growing more concerned as time wore on. She wouldn't discuss it with him, and he knew better than to challenge that stubbornness that was so like his own. She was fiercely independent and toughened by loss, but had retained a soft heart. Carolyn didn't take anything from any man, least of all her brother, but it was refreshing that he always knew where he stood with her and it was usually on her good side.
She headed north up the coast and John dozed until she pulled off at their restaurant. He sat down at the counter in the little Italian cafe, quickly lost in his own thoughts. The smooth surface was cold on his forearms but he didn't even notice.
“You must have stirred four teaspoons of sugar into that cup by now," Carolyn said quietly after he had been staring out the window for a solid ten minutes. She ached for him, knowing how much he already missed his home and reached out to him, laying her hand on his arm. She was worried about him, especially knowing that where he was headed, would not be easy. It never was. SEALS were a force, whose job most civilians would never, ever comprehend.
John looked up at his sister and smiled apologetically, touching her hand and gently reassuring her.
“I’m alright,” he insisted.
He was so thankful for the strength of character she possessed. She had suffered some painful trials in her life, but she had somehow managed to maintain a positive, cheerful attitude in the face of challenges that would have crushed a lesser woman. She had lost her husband to cancer only four years after they were married. She had a way of seeing things that everyone else missed and she was larger than life to him. He was proud of who she was, and had leaned heavily on her these last few months. She was the one who had counseled him that perhaps it was time to settle down and think about leaving this life behind, but she was also the one who didn't bat an eye when he told her he was going back in.
Not long ago, she would have been unable to meet him in such a public place. Now, he looked forward to walking with her in the dark when they were finished eating. The street lamps would be on and the town would take on that special twilight magic he never could quite explain to one who had never been there.
He liked the way she linked her arm through his, and the way she saw the world and translated it artistically. Her camera had been a natural extension of her spirit for as long as he could remember. She loved wandering the city and photographing the various historic neighborhoods around Sicily. It was her way of preserving their story and it was something they both looked forward to very much when he came home. She reminded him so much of Izzy. Their shared love for art made their connection just that much stronger.
Isabel had been nervous about meeting his sister again, the week before they were married. Carolyn had been twenty when they came to the states initially, and she had seemed so worldly and grown up to Isabel. But Carolyn had made her feel as if they had known each other forever and when she pulled the ancient, well worn camera out of her handbag that first day, it had been love at first sight for his Bella. He would often tease that he was invisible whenever his sister was in the room, but he had loved watching the two of them together.
John tossed two bills on the table and winked at the waitress as they strolled out to the illuminated street, Isabel still fresh on his mind. They really were such an unlikely pair, but his sister had believed in them from the start. “I see the way you look at her,” she’d say in her husky voice. “She looks at you the same.”
It was Carolyn, that had finally convinced Isabel to stop fighting it and let him go back to Italy without further argument. At least this time, she knew Carolyn would be near. She had taken some comfort in that and slowly began to understand that in order to hang on, sometimes you had to let go. Somehow, it only made him long for her more.
He closed his eyes for just a moment, picturing their little cottage on the lake, the way he had seen it last, wondering again whether they’d be alright after this long separation. He had been through so much since the last time they were together and it would be impossible to explain it all to her.
Annie spoke softly into his headset, breaking him out of his reverie and he leaned forward, readying them for landing. He hoped with everything in him, that this reunion would be all they longed for it to be, as wheels connected to runway with a minor jolt.
So many miles the four of them had travelled together in such a short amount of time… Isabel, Annie, Drew, and John. From Italy to Hawaii, the four of them had lived an entire lifetime by the time they were twenty five, experience coming at them in giant tsunami-like waves, powerful and omniscient, engulfing them in its wake. John wanted nothing more right now than to take his wife in his arms and find in her, that time could indeed stand still for awhile. He wanted it to be true… ached for it to be true. He pulled out the picture of her he kept in his wallet and clipped it onto the visor over his head as he taxied them smoothly onto the tarmac.
Peter was already waiting with the car that would take him alone to Boston. John grasped his hand firmly, pulling him into a rough hug. “I appreciate it, man. More than you know.” Peter nodded with a knowing smile and passed him thekeys, motioning for him to leave already. “She’s waiting for you, now go. It’s long overdue for you both.” There was compassion in his eyes.
Opening the car door, he got behind the wheel and threw it into gear quickly.
“I’m coming, Sunshine, I’m almost there. I need you so much. Please wait for me…”