She didn't realize how long she was sitting in her car, but when she glanced at her watch, it was twenty past three. Andrea didn't move. Instead, her eyes returned forward to stare at the endless field of green in the distance. It was the meeting place of the sky and earth. She could be firmly grounded on land, but looking up into the sky made her feel like she was falling through a timeless realm, where nothing existed but the present.
Slowly her eyes returned to the sheet of worn paper settled on the passenger seat. It felt like an out of body experience, and yet, she was completely aware of her every breath, the hum of energy beneath her skin.
Sunday at 3 P.M.
2748 Masonwood Conservation Road
If you decide to come, I'll be here.
Andrea shut her car door and turned her heel. The memories instantly swept into her mind. The gravel under her boots felt familiar; the smell of nature; the distant sound of laughter. It had been so long since she'd been here; over a decade, at least, where life got too hectic and time seemed like a luxury. Now it felt like all she had was time, ticking in the silence.
She shook her head and walked purposefully to the main building. The blonde woman at the front desk looked up with a welcoming smile, but it was the man leaning against the counter who captured her attention.
He straightened immediately from his relaxed position, stopping in what sounded like the middle of his sentence. He was wearing faded blue jeans and a forest green plaid shirt that brought out the colour of his eyes. His brown hair was in complete disarray. Probably from running his hand through it, she thought.
"Andrea," he said, relief palpable in her name. "You're here."
The calm she'd felt on her way to meet him fled. "Yes, I decided to come. I am late—"
"No, it's fine." He smiled then. "Ida kept me company. I was just telling her about one of our trips here. It was a while ago, but I don't think I'll ever forget Clara sneaking into the stalls to be with the horses while we practically ripped apart the place trying to find her."
He said her name, was all she could think in astonishment. She waited for a shadow to pass over his face, for his eyes to grow distant and cold, but he was looking at her with a combination of expectancy and what she thought was tenderness. A strange combination.
"We'll see you Ida." Jon looked like he was about to reach for her hand, but stopped himself and jerked his head to the side door instead. Uncertainty crossed his features, and perversely the sight of it relaxed her.
She followed him silently, conscious of maintaining the distance between them. Her eyes traced the outline of his broad shoulders, down his left arm, to his hand, which was clenched at his side.
His voice brought her back. "How are you?"
"I am well," she replied, unable to reign in the touch of oddity in her voice. "How are you?"
Only one end of his lips curved upward slightly, but both his eyes glinted. "You'll think it's a line, but much better now that you're here."
Andrea raised her eyebrows and gave a little smile. "It does sound like a line."
"It's also the truth."
She couldn't dispute his words, considering the way he was looking at her. It made her hands feel clammy and she almost wanted to pinch her own arm to make sure she was awake. Silly thoughts. But she couldn't shake the feeling of his eyes on her, the intensity of his gaze grounding her into the moment. This was real and she was terrified.
Terrified but not naïve. Andrea could hardly imagine what was going through his mind but there were too much important things between them left unsaid. Artemis. Noah. Clara. The gap between them was only growing larger, so how could he not mention them?
Jon led her toward the trail headed for the woods next to the open fields. It was a path she was familiar with but there were different directions they could take and it's been years since she was last here – for all she knew they changed the scenery. Andrea had no choice but to follow him silently even when she wanted to blurt her thoughts just to ease the tension growing in her chest.
She noticed a mark on his hand swinging at his side. "Pen accident?" she heard herself say.
Startled, he stopped walking and glanced at his hand. "Oh, yes. My . . . son somehow got a hold of it." He stopped speaking. Of course Andrea knew of his son, but hearing and watching him claim another child as his—one they didn't share—was surreal.
She'd thought she would imagine him in the arms of another woman in a moment like this, but all she saw flashing through her mind was a memory of a particular night. It wasn't a special holiday but an ordinary day. It was late and the house was dark when she entered. When she went to peek into the girls' rooms it was empty and she'd hurried to find Jon. Her panic faded when she entered the master bedroom: The three of them were sprawled in bed, Artemis and Clara tucked on either side of Jon.
The memory had always brought a smile to her face, but now only a sharp pain in her chest. Andrea schooled her expression. Jon was staring too closely and he couldn't know how brittle she was.
"How old is he?" she asked politely.
Jon barely hid his grimace. "Andrea . . ."
She could see his struggle, but she didn't have the resources to examine his reaction. "You don't have to answer, Jon."
He didn't protest, but he looked deeply troubled as he resumed his pace. Amazing how a simple comment could severely change the atmosphere . . . not that the atmosphere between them had ever been stable to begin with. Andrea observed her surroundings intently to keep herself from thinking of the past.
"We're here," Jon said a few minutes later. They were at the edge of a small clearing. On the other side next to a larger tree was a wicker basket with a blue blanket folded neatly over it.
Jon's small smile faded as the silence stretched. Hope warred against disappointment on his face as he waited. He said nothing to explain the scene – it was like he was offering himself to her completely raw, without excuses or explanations. Take him as he was. Was this his peace offering? What did he expect from her? From this?
"Okay?" he echoed uncertainly.
Andrea set her jaw. She felt the tears in her eyes but the fury contained and overrode the anguish inside her chest. "Okay, let's sit down and eat."
Jon looked at her and moved like a man with years of experience dealing with a woman on the edge. Andrea gained some perverse satisfaction watching his behaviour. The fire of indignation she believed to have died roared with life and she greedily sank her hands into its flames. Months of fatigue and grief faded and the relief she felt was only temporary, she knew, but long enough to get her through whatever this was.
Jon handed her the plastic utensils and paper plates and he uncovered the bowls and plate of salad and sandwiches, respectively.
The first few minutes were silent as they ate. No eye contact was made and the only sounds were the scraping of plastic over paper and the distant echoes of activity from others carried by the wind.
"She gets it from you," Jon said suddenly. She looked at him, eyes narrowed imperceptibly. He looked at her for a moment longer and smiled wryly. "Her strength. Her steel will. Both." He gestured to her and she took a moment to see herself the way he saw her. She felt like her jaw was locked tight and her back was tense in its ramrod straight position. It was easy for her to fake this posture, but today it was genuine.
It was also easy to accept his words, but she knew where they were coming from.
"If you think Artemis is like me only because she isn't like you then you're wrong." Andrea wanted to leave it at that, but couldn't help herself. "I know you, Jon – you think you're weak for what happened. But losing a child will never be easy on anyone. You only know how you've handled it." Her voice was bleak. "You are right, though. Artemis is strong."
Her words sounded final but they were only the ones she allowed herself to speak out of the many other thoughts running through her mind. Artemis was always a safe topic between them, because for Artemis they would move mountains.
"And you, Andrea? How was . . . how is it for you?"
She looked at him expressionlessly.
No language could ever describe the void.
"I'm years too late, I know," Jon said. "I can't even begin to imagine. I'm a selfish bastard, Andrea, and I thought it was something I outgrew. But it was like I couldn't stop myself. It was too much. It couldn't be real – Clara didn't deserve to die!" His voice rose, sharp with pain. "How could someone so good and pure like Clara die when someone as flawed as me continued to live? I wished it were me. Every night, I begged whoever was listening to trade my life for hers."
She knew that feeling well, for it had pervaded her existence.
"I saw her everywhere I went, in everything I did. Her favourite food, the building she tried guitar for the first time and said she hated it. The teenagers. But I saw her mostly in you and Artemis. Especially Artemis. I couldn't . . ." Jon took a moment to steady his breathing. "I couldn't stand to be around her. But she still stayed." He grew quiet. "I didn't deserve it, but she stayed."
Silence, and then, "I would have gone crazy without Artemis to watch out for me. And I know it's years too late, Andrea, but I . . ."
"All things considered," she said, albeit rigidly, "I'm fine."
He gazed at her.
What did he want her to say? She was glad – relieved – to know that she made the right choice to walk away – that Artemis' presence impacted him in such a way that he recognized what happened. For years she agonized over this fork in their road, wondering if the path she chose to walk on was the right one. And now that she knew it was . . .
"How old is Noah?"
Jon tensed, but she knew he wouldn't lie. "Eight months. Almost nine."
A year ago, then. What was she doing a year ago? She was working a lot. She took a lot of road trips to visit old friends. When Artemis had time, they went out for dinner and long walks downtown to catch up.
"Has Artemis met Noah's mother?"
"Yes," Jon said slowly.
She was probably blonde.
The infantile thought came out of nowhere and she twitched. Jon had always been attracted to blondes, and she was the exception that became the rule. At least, that's what she thought. A year ago she was working, and Jon had been sleeping with another woman.
This was plain. He had a son. But the reality was only sinking now—the reality that stood as a mark in their relationship. She tried to take an even breath, but felt her chest tighten. She'd wanted him to come alive again, but was it at the price of her soul? Was she going to be that woman who stayed with a man who cheated on her? Were they even in a relationship anymore?
Did he even love her?
The questions were relentless. Logic warred with her emotions.
For the past four years she stood in the sidelines, helping her family in the only way she knew how. She thought she'd be rewarded for her sacrifice.
"What's her name?" The words came out through Andrea's numb lips.
Jon looked pale and worried. But he came here with the intent of baring himself, and she was going to draw blood. "Emily."
"Where did you meet?"
"At a business dinner."
Jon looked sick. "She . . . was like me. We were both lonely. Tired." He grew silent.
They were both lonely. Lonely, like the stillness of a small apartment with silence as her constant companion? Or lonely where she knew the only way for him to heal was to remove herself from his life? He said he was tired. She wondered if it was the same bone-deep exhaustion that kept her immobile for hours on end, wondering if there was any point at all.
"I wonder why she's lonely," Andrea said.
Jon sat stock-still.
"How many times?"
Jon didn't answer at first, but he swallowed hard and said, "Two different occasions."
"I bet she's beautiful."
He looked agitated, but all he said was, "Yes."
"Did it help her? Sleeping with you," she added, and saw him flinch.
"I don't know. We both regretted it."
"Probably not enough since you saw each other again."
Jon's jaw was clenched so hard she could hear his teeth grinding. There was a suspicious sheen in his eyes, but he still kept his eyes on her.
"Did it help you?" she asked.
"I—I don't know. I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't."
"And the second time?"
Jon swallowed hard twice, and she saw his hands trembling in his lap. "The second time she came to me. And I didn't stop it."
"Emily was hurt," Andrea filled in, and his nod was barely perceptible.
Andrea felt stinging in her palms and realized she was clenching her hands into fists. Immediately she forced her body to relax, but it felt like it was in vain. It felt like a boulder was lodged against her chest, and there was a ringing sensation in her ears. How she managed to keep a straight face was a miracle in itself.
At the expense of making him bleed, she was wounding herself. Of course she was – she knew that, and yet she still asked. Questions were natural; curiosity was unavoidable. She couldn't help comparing herself to this woman, to this time when he sought someone else. Not only in his affair, but the memories were relentless. All their time when they were young, learning, growing, creating these links between their lives . . . Suddenly it felt like it didn't matter. How could those experiences be compared to this, except to think that it meant nothing to him—that everything they ever did together was pointless because after everything they've been through to together, she was just another thought he wanted to forget in his moment of grief.
She didn't know how long she was staring at him. All she knew was that she was pulled into a desolate space, unable to speak, because there were no words to articulate what she felt.
"Please say something," Jon whispered.
She didn't know what to say. Did she want a divorce? But there would always be a connection between them, in both life and death. She wanted to ask if he loved Emily, but there would be no point. Even if he did it would only be a small mark compared to the tumult of emotions welling inside her. She ruthlessly shoved them down.
"I think we've had a good life," Andrea finally said. The words were quietly spoken, yet heavy on her tongue. "We raised two beautiful daughters. Traveled a bit. Accomplished our goals." She grew silent again because her throat was closing.
"We had more than that," Jon said fiercely. The fire in his eyes burned through the vague, numbing cloud she was enveloped in, but it only brought forth an intense desire to leave. Suddenly she couldn't be here with him, couldn't listen to what he had to say—that they had love, hopes and dreams; that their life together wasn't over.
"It's time for me to go," she interrupted. She didn't wait for a reply and stood. Jon copied her movements, but he didn't reach out for her like she expected him to. The resulting disappointment was unexpected. "Thanks for . . . this." She made a vague gesture to the clearing.
Jon had his hands in his pockets and a small smile was on his face. "Thank you for coming."
He wasn't begging her. There was no desperation in his words or in his eyes. If anything the longing she thought she saw almost scared her into taking a step back. The fear was ridiculous and Andrea couldn't rationalize in the state she was in. All she could see clearly was resignation and patience.
"Goodbye," she said, and turned her heel quickly.
It was a few feet away where she chanced a glance back. Jon stood still in the clearing, watching her walk away with an unreadable expression. When he realized she'd turned, he lifted a hand. A shiver ran down her back and she nodded curtly in response.
For four years she'd waited for Jon to come back to her. They were long years, and she knew they wouldn't be the same people. She'd always thought her bravery was worn with her grief and seen in her patience, but looking at the stillness in Jon's frame, she recognized his own fortitude for what it was in that moment: Infinite patience where she suddenly knew what he wanted . . .
But Andrea knew there were some things you didn't want to live through again.
She turned and walked away.
Author's note: Omggg. I have like 3 different versions of this chapter—this is so ridiculous! It's the same with the Brown Eyes epilogue. I'm going to stop apologizing because at this point it pretty much goes without saying. Sigh.
Anyway, Happy New Year! Second month into 2015, I hope you all are doing well. Please let me know what you think about Andrea and Jon. And I welcome constructive criticism on my writing . . . I feel like I make my character gaze and look at each other too much, LOL. Thanks for reading!
PS. Happy (early) Valentine's Day! Tell me cute stories!