Isabel got up feeling like she hadn’t even slept. She pulled the old blue coffee cup out of the cupboard and held it close to her for a minute. It had a chip in the rim, but she just drank from the other side. She’d managed to keep it in tact for more than twenty years, though she’d had to glue the handle back on once when she’d dropped it on the tile floor. She sat there crying her heart out that morning, feeling like she’d lost another piece of him, before drying her eyes and finding some glue in his workshop to fix it. It had been John’s favorite, and he would push the others out of his way every morning, in search of that one blue mug. He never drank out of anything else. She had eventually taken to washing it by hand and setting it down in front of all the others so he wouldn’t have to go looking for it. Now, it traveled with her everywhere. She filled it with coffee and took it wearily out to the hammock. She wasn’t even in the mood to paint today.
She lay down on her back and let it sway her gently, looking up through the trees and listening to the wind rustle the leaves very softly.
John’s homecoming had turned into a comedy of errors, a story she would remember fondly forever. It was the week beforeThanksgiving and in direct contrast to the way the month had burst onto the calendar in a flurry of white, temperatures had just hit a record breaking 74 degrees and felt downright balmy. It looked as if this weather would continue on through the weekend and she was feeling incredibly cheerful.
“What a way to come home, John. You’re bringing sunshine and warmth right along with you!” Even the climate rejoiced at his homecoming.
Isabel had a plan. Her husband was on his way to Boston and she had been gathering supplies and packing carefully for several days. The forecast had improved a little more each day, along with her mood. Gathering the last few supplies, she locked the door behind her and dropped everything in a heap behind the car, trying to decide if she should take it all out and repack it, or just shove the last few things in the back unceremoniously and hope for the best. She decided on the latter and closed the hatch with a slam.
An hour ago, she had been doing the same thing inside the house. Her clothes were strewn all over the bedroom and the camping supplies she had purchased earlier in the week, were scattered on every available surface in the den. She had packed her suitcase so full she couldn’t close it and had spent ten minutes sitting on it, forcing the zipper shut.
With one last look at the lake house, she closed the car door and pulled out of the driveway feeling quite pleased with herself and excited about the prospect of spending the holiday season with John again. She turned the radio on to Sunny 102.1 and sang along with Bing Crosby as he crooned in his dreamy old fashioned voice. Looking out the windshield she thought about how nice it would be to listen to this music while palm trees were swaying in the breeze outside her windows, just like they had when she visited her grandmother.
“Maybe we should go to Hawaii for Christmas, John,” she thought, as she turned the steering wheel to the right andheaded south on Interstate 81 toward the New York State Thruway. Her mind wandered to the little place she loved on Oahu’s North Shore and she made a mental note to call and see if it was available for the holiday. She had a good feeling that it was. It made her happy to think that in a little over a month, they could be walking the beach in front of that sweet little white house with the blue trim and she hoped with all her heart to make it happen.
Over the years, she had developed the habit of talking to him in her head when he was gone for long periods of time. It was how she worked out the things that concerned her when she was alone, and while she found it comforting when he was away, she was beyond thankful when he was home and she could actually discuss the things that mattered to her, while looking him in the eye. John had always appreciated that she was a woman who would stand her ground on any issue and she did not back down easily from something she cared about. She wondered briefly if they would simply pick up where they left off on that cold autumn day, two years prior, or if they would start fresh on a warm November day, and move forward, carving out something entirely new. She favored the second idea as the sun came up on the horizon and cast its warm glow over the bare white branches of the birch trees and wild grass on either side of the highway.
The fog was hanging low over the hills as the miles disappeared behind her and she let her thoughts drift backward in time, to the night before John had gone to Sicily. They had gathered Drew and a few friends and met them for a quiet dinner, late in the evening. The atmosphere was somber and the mood subdued. Drew was irritable and she had given up trying to cheer him up. She wandered up to empty some change into the jukebox and selected several of their old favorites, the tunes now playing softly in the background. John took her hand and led her out onto the dance floor, where they could be alone for a little while.
“Ti amo, cara mia,” he whispered in her ear. He took her hand in his and laid it over his heart, pulling her close at the waist with his other arm. She loved it so much when he spoke to her in Italian. She tried once in awhile to copy his accent but she was terrible at it and would crinkle up her nose playfully, cross her eyes, and stick her tongue out when she failed, making him laugh. She was surprised to find a lump lodged in her throat and a tear trickling down her cheek at the memory. Brushing it away, she reached into the center console and found the old mixed tape. He swore he’d never do it but she begged until he finally gave in. It was still her favorite thing to listen to in the car.
The music went straight to her heart as she made her way closer to Logan International Airport and the only man who had ever truly understood her.
“You don’t need to pick me up, Izzy. Really.” he’d said. “I’ll take the train.” “I’ll call you when I get into Watertown and you can come get me there. I don’t want you driving all the way to Boston.”
“Yeah, right!” she thought to herself stubbornly as she mentally started packing for their favorite city. When she hung up, she immediately called the hotel across from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, where they had spent their first night together as husband and wife, and booked a room. He would be tired and would welcome a quiet dinner and a walk through the cobblestone streets that were reminiscent of his home in Sicily. She just knew it. The next morning, they would head for Old Forge and camp for a few days at Nick’s Lake, while the weather was still so nice.
Because it was late in the season and winter was approaching, most people had already put away thoughts of camping for the year and she had been able to secure their favorite site on the water, overlooking the brown footbridge surrounded by towering pines. He was going to be so pleased. John loved that place more than anything and they had often gone there on long weekends to kayak and hike in the woods. It wasn’t far from the house her grandmother had left them when she had passed on, last year and she thought it would be nice to check in on the place while they were up this way. It smelled of pine and lavender, which mingled together on the air. When she’d gone into the large general store she loved in the old Adirondack town and smelled the same scent, her heart had landed in her throat and her grandmother had come back to speak to her.
“I love you, Bella. You’re a good girl.”
She was living in California then and didn’t come back very often but when she did, they always made a point to see her. The first time she brought John up to visit her Grammy, they had bonded nearly instantly. She treated him like he was her own grandson and he had fallen in love with her little place in the mountains, often heading up there to fix things for her and check and make sure she was safe and secure. Isabel loved that about him. He was trained to do things he often could not speak to her about, things that haunted him. But he had retained enough of his heart, to care deeply for an old woman. Their life together was full of little mysteries like that and she held onto them like they were treasure. In many ways, he was an enigma, but in some ways, he was still quite simply, just a good man. Her man. Her grandmother had loved him, and that said enough to Isabel about who he was.
* * *
It was warm for November but John shivered anyway and reached for the blanket in the backseat of the old Chevy pickup Drew had left for him in the airport parking lot. He found a little cooler he hadn’t seen on the seat behind him with a sandwich, some fruit, and potato salad packed neatly inside. He recognized Annie’s thoughtfulness immediately and made a point to file that away in his memory so he could thank her when he saw her again.
“I cannot believe those two agreed todrive five hours both ways just to leave me this truck!” he thought, mentally reminding himself to find a special way to thank them for helping him.
They were in on this little plan of his and he really appreciated it. He’d managed to call his brother in law quickly after he’d talked to Isabel and let him know he would be arriving on an earlier flight in order to surprise his wife. He'd been driving now for a few hours and needed to stop, because he knew if he continued, it would be dangerous not only for him, but for anyone who might be in his path. He just couldn't chance it, as badly as he wanted to make it home by dinnertime. He pulled into the deserted rest stop, mumbling in frustration under his breath. A hundred more miles... He was so close he could feel her. She had no idea he was coming in early and he couldn't wait to see her sweet expression change from disbelief to sheer joy in the split second his presencewould take to register with her. It had been a long two years for both of them and he owed her this. He wanted it to be really special.
He shut the engine off and allowed his mind to drift slowly back in time. He leaned his head against the back of the seat, recallingthe gentle way she rested her cheek on one hand and smiled at him intently when he was talking to her. She possessed a strength that was born of adversity and it showed in her face. She rarely spoke of her past, but it was part of the fabric that had stitched the two of them together and it was worn but still woven tightly. Not even time had pulled them apart. Before he had gone, they'd had a quiet dinner at Harper’s, with Drew and Annie and a few of their closest friends. Isabel was crazy for a Canadian dish called poutine and he regularly took her across the border to get it. They could hop on the ferry in Cape Vincent, to Wolf Island and then on to Kingston and they did it quite often. Isabel enjoyed visiting the Farmer’s Market in the summertime and she was in love with the little old bookstore two doors down from Harper’s. They made it a point to stop and visit the man who ran it and was always ready with a story for Isabel.
He smiled to himself remembering what she'd said that night, as she raised her glass to him. The light shimmered in wavy, mesmerizing patterns in her wine and across her face as she spoke the words that had meant so much to her, gifted to her by a beloved friend. The tiny lights hanging over her head reflected in her eyes as she looked at him; details that were etched like golden filament in his mind. They were words she wanted him to carry with him to Italy, and she offered them in a gesture of acceptance. He understood what that had cost her.
“Stare time in the eye and know you are its equal because you understand the unique value of a moment and have lived with happiness and luminous grace.”
She had written it down on a napkin and given it to him that night. He slipped it into his wallet as he watched her hug their friends and say goodbye, knowing without a doubt that the tears were sliding down her cheeks as she turned away from the light. And yet what she had left him with when she came back to him, was a brilliant smile that lit up his heart and sustained him during the dark days he would endure while they were oceans apart. He had taken that napkin out and read those words again and again during his time in Europe, and they were almost completely faded away now. It didn’t matter though, because they were spoken forever inside of him, to the tune of her gentle voice.
He couldn’t wait to see her again as he headed west toward the little house on the lake he had dreamed of so often in the last two years. He could still see her face as clearly as if she were standing here next to him and would really enjoy the look of surprise on her face when he showed up on the doorstep a full day early. He closed his eyes and drifted quickly off to sleep with a smile, thinking about it.
Meanwhile, a little car, packed to the gills full of camping gear and a suitcase full of memories, passed by him on the other side of the highway going east, headed for Boston.