She was twenty-three back then. Maybe young. Maybe stupid. Maybe old for her years, maybe young for her heart. So many maybes. All she knew was that she was twenty-three, and it was her lucky number. Lucky for what? God knew. Lucky for whom? Who cared? Twenty-three was twenty-three, and if she wasn’t superstitious, she was simply — happy.
What is the opposite of happy, anyhow? Sad? Forlorn? Despondent? Anyone could open a thesaurus and get the academic answer. But the real answer, she would later know, was “escaping.”
That’s because if you’re not happy with how or who you are, you tend to find another world inside your head, where you’re running free and wild, and nothing is going wrong. It’s the opposite of happiness.
Screw the grammar, she thought. Let me just escape. Let the misery end.
God, please, let the misery end.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
What is the story, anyhow?
Ten, twenty years ago, she would have told it to anyone willing to listen to a whining, complaining girl. She was unmarried, halfway between bitter and uncaring, happy and cynical, childlike and childish. She was torn amongst a thousand emotions, unwilling to set herself free.
That was her problem, really. She had a story like a chain, wound around her neck, keeping her too attuned, too linked to the past. She had a story that disabled her, that lived on her tongue and threatened to burst out every single time someone was willing to listen.
He didn’t care about the problem. He made her forget.
That was who he was, you see, in those few years after, when she prayed for the misery to end and the chain to set her free. She looked at him now, as she thought, and looked back.
Hair gold like grass burned by the sun
Eyes a mix of sea and sky
With whispers of gentle slate and stone
She wrote that poem about him years ago. Or was it just a month ago? Was it even a poem? Or a novel? Or —
She forgets so easily now. She finds it so strange: she is so young, after all, not yet the two score years that marks the time when brains start saying goodbye, while the heart remains; when the heart beats to a tune devoid of images, remembering the shadows of feelings for things long gone.
Perhaps she has used her brain too much, and her heart too little. Or her heart has tired her brain out. She laughs as she thinks of this; laughs aloud, laughs as she keeps her dark eyes on him.
Their eyes meet. He laughs, throws his head back. They understand each other at that moment, the way they have understood each other for years. There is enough craziness between them to last two lifetimes. It is that thought that makes them calm their laughter, makes them simply smile at each other, makes him watch her, makes her remember.
There is one thing she remembers, as she looks at him.
He looks the same.
She is tempted to laugh again, but she hesitates. He smiles at her, as though to warn her not to go beyond her own smile, not to break her gaze from his, not to say another word but live in a moment that is possible only because Fate has a strange way of making miracles happen.
But that’s God, you see. Miracle-worker at your most desperate hour. Rescuer just when you think you’re at the brink of your heart’s death.
Don’t laugh again.
She can’t. When she counts her blessings, she somehow remembers how dark the road was, how rocky, before she saw the light. She only vaguely remembers, but the heart — well, the heart beats to the tune of vague things that should be forgotten.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
So what’s there to tell, before the road opened up, before it was even paved, before she plunged into darkness? What is there to tell?
Well — only that he was there. The first. The one she thought was the last.
He spoke, and she hoped, but he left.
So what else is left to tell?
Only that he was gone for years. Only that she never saw him again. Only that she missed him, waited for him, waited for that email that would never come, that message that would never come, that hope that had long been extinguished but she denied that it had — denied it because she was just like that. She just wanted to hope because there was nothing left to hope after.
And then she changed. And she hoped. And she succeeded.
She didn’t forget, but when the road opened up, somehow, the light at the end exposed all her nakedness, showed all her iniquities and weaknesses and stupidities and how she was supposed to be so much older and so much better and so much wiser because she really was. She needed no one to tell her.
She grew, at the end of that long, dark, rocky road. She grew, like a bloom that unfolds when it is nourished by the sun, like a bloom that opens in the night because the day has given it strength, and the stars give it hope.
She didn’t understand it then, why she had to walk the long, lonely road. But when she met him — him, the golden haired, blue-green eyed man who had inhabited the pages of her dreams — when she met him, she understood.
She also forgot the old images, the old tears, the old hopes. But you see, the heart remembers. It is a trite, oft-used phrase that belongs in romance novels with no real soul. She doesn’t use it herself, simply because it is true, and she chooses to keep it within, like some mantra of sentimentality.
The heart always remembers.
When the heart remembers, however, it does not hope for more or ask for more. It only knows, very vaguely, that something has gone, that something must be pushed to the back of one’s mind, that something is useless unless discarded. The heart has its own mind, and when it sees that vague shadow of yesterday, it takes up its own pen and carves words.
She carved poetry, and stories, and she won.
By miles, she won.
And then she met him, Mr. Golden Hair and All.
And he made her say goodbye to a past that only her heart could remember.
She looks at him now.
She knows that there are things she wished had been different. But if one thing — one little, little detail had been different, would she be here? Would she be on the opposite side of escape?
But who’s to say she’s truly happy now?
And who is she to question her state?
She looks at him again, Mr. Blue-Green Eyes with Slate Grey and Stone Grey and All That. She meets his gaze, tempers her smile, lowers her own eyes to her hands. She does not know why she does so. Perhaps it is a game, a little flirtation.
It works, too. She knows him well.
He sets his pen down. He rests his chin in his hands, and watches her: watches her ever so closely, as though she might fly away at any moment, and he must catch her, his precious bundle. Catch her, as he has always done.
She stands up, smiles at last, then walks toward him. When he opens his arms, she throws her own around his neck, and seats herself slowly, but comfortably, on his lap.
(He laughs quietly. They do this at least once every day, and he never grows tired of it.)
They kiss. Long, lingeringly, as though they are still the same lovers on that field, on that road, on that way to forgetfulness and a lifetime together. The children will run in at any time, and call for their mama and their papa to play, to watch TV, to watch the God-knows-how-many-seasons-edition of American Idol.
She laughs at the thought, breaks away for a moment.
He pulls her near again, to resume the kiss. Every moment is precious. Every kiss a delicious, tantalizing touch of heaven.
They kiss, just like that. Maybe hours. Maybe minutes.
The heart remembers, but her heart knows him more. She truly loves him, because she learned her lessons the hard way.
Maybe it’s the temperature, the summer, the coffee, whatever.
Maybe she’s still dreaming, deep in her thoughts, drowned in the opposite of happiness.
Or maybe she’s seeing the future.
And she’s getting ahead of the story.