Short Story of the Day
And now, I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could've missed the pain, but I'da had to miss the dance
(The Dance, Garth Brooks)
Anna and I walked the few feet between her grandfather's old house and the lake. I was debating on whether or not to make us coffee and breakfast and serve it to her in bed. But then I suddenly had a better idea. Anna loved sunrises. She had always found them so beautiful, so magical, so…poetic. From the age of eight, to now at twenty-eight, Anna has never lost her fascination with (as Homer put it) the "rosy-fingered dawn". So I surprised her with breakfast on the lakeshore while watching the sunrise. Anna had always been a morning person. I wasn't always. I only learned to become a morning person in the Army. When that bugle sounded, you had to be up and making your bed, hospital corners and all. You had 30 minutes to make your bed and take care of personal hygiene. Then you had to fall in for morning inspection and PT. It was Hell on Earth. You did not wait for your drill sergeant to march in there, kicking the doors down, and blowing his whistle. By then, it would've been too late. There were consequences. Even after graduating from basic training and getting discharged from the Army (honorably, of course), I retained that discipline. You might think it sucks getting up before the crack of dawn, and you would be right. It does suck. But you get to be more productive throughout the day. You get more done. Plus, I get to be the one to wake my lovely wife. I get to see her beautiful sleeping face, lost in peaceful dreams. I get to kiss her good morning.
We reached the lakeshore and I set up the picnic blanket on the dewy ground. Then I opened our picnic basket and took out all the food I had cooked. There was sausage, fried rice, and sunny-side-up eggs. I also cooked bacon, half of it soft for Anna, and half of it extra crispy for me—just the way we liked it. I also made the fluffiest pancakes, my mother-in-law's very own recipe. That put a smile on Anna's face. We sat down facing the slowly rising sun and I poured us our first cups of coffee. I watched as Anna smelled the coffee, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. I smiled at how happy she was. During my two tours in Afghanistan, I was away all the time and we rarely saw each other. I only went home on three or four occasions. As soon as I was discharged from the Army I vowed to make it up to her by going on a second honeymoon. And what better place to take her than to Pine Springs, Oregon.
Pine Springs (and Pine Springs Lake) holds a very special place in our hearts. This was where we spent our happy childhood. Anna and I grew up in the rolling hills of San Francisco, but her family was originally from here and owned property here. So every summer, she and her parents, along with her two sisters, visited her grandparents. At first it was only them. Then Anna's mom had the brilliant idea to take me along with them every summer. As a businessman, my dad was rarely around. He was always off on some business meeting or other, traveling the world and meeting investors. Even in summer, I was left to my own device. I guess it was his own way of dealing with his grief as a widower—by keeping himself busy and avoiding the son that caused his wife's death. Anna's mom would have none of that. And so I tagged along with her family every summer. Pine Springs was also where we met our friend Roy. In the summer of 1997, Roy's family moved to Pine Springs. He and his family were practically Anna's grandpa's neighbors. Shy at first, Anna and I eventually got Roy to open up. And when we did, a beautiful friendship blossomed. We were the Three Musketeers. We did everything together. We even carved our initials on a pine tree for posterity. We signed it, RAGs. It stood for Roy, Anna, Gerald. We just added the little "s" at the end to make it sound like a really cool band or gang or something. Anna then wrote, "All 4 1, 1 4 all!" under our initials.
Anna pulled me out of my reverie by tugging on my shirt sleeve and pointing out over the horizon. I watched and my breath hitched in my throat. It was the second most beautiful thing I had ever seen. First was Anna's beauty—inside and out. As the sun peeked over the edge of the water as if to say hello, it painted the sky with a glorious array of colors—red, orange, yellow, deep blue… The deep blue gave way to a rich purple, and then to pink, and then to orange mixed with a pale sort of blue as the sun dispelled the night's darkness. Anna reached over and squeezed my hand.
"Thank you for this, Gerald," she said, flashing me her signature Miss Universe smile. "You didn't have to do this, though."
"But I just had to," I said, squeezing her hand in return. "How could I not? Seeing your face light up at the sight of a sunrise just fills me with joy. You're more radiantly beautiful when you're happy like that. You outshine the morning sun."
Anna turned as red as the sky on the horizon and scooted closer to me. I leaned in closer towards her, our lips only inches apart. She closed the gap between us and we kissed slowly, sweetly as the sun rose higher, painting everything in its path with an ethereal golden glow. From that slow kiss grew one of fiery passion and breathless need. We kissed until our lips and our lungs burned, and then we parted, breathing hard.
"Well, isn't that something," Anna said with a breathless laugh, throwing her head back.
"You are something," I said with a smile, raising her hand to my lips and kissing her knuckles.
"Uh-huh," Anna said with a chuckle and a shake of her head. "Let's eat. Breakfast is getting cold, Casanova."
We ate and talked—about the past, of days gone by, of Roy and where he was now—whether he was in Heaven or in Hell. We talked about his death and the last time we saw him happy. We talked about how Roy "saved my life" from a black widow while we were playing in that old wood shed. We talked about high school and reminisced about prom and my nervousness of asking Anna out. We talked about homecoming. We talked about the dances we danced, the times we kissed. The ones we wished would last forever but ended all too soon. We talked about the heart we carved on that same pine tree, mine and Anna's initials inside the heart. We talked about the present and how we would both like to stay here forever. Lastly, we talked about the future. Where would we go from here? We talked about kids, we talked about jobs and what I want to do as a civilian. We talked about renting versus owning a house and if we'd have enough to pay it off if we bought one. We talked about the kind of house we wanted. I'm more of a Santa Fe style kind of guy while Anna was all about white painted Colonials with blue shutters, a wraparound porch, and white picket fences. We talked about growing old together and having grandkids. We both agreed on the idea of spoiling them rotten. We ate and laughed. And then we ate and cried. And then we laughed some more until our sides ached and no sound came from our laughter.
As the sun rose higher and higher over Pine Springs Lake, I took my iPod out of my pocket and played our favorite country songs. It was a mix of Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Dolly Parton, and Mindy McCready. I put it on speaker. When Garth Brooks' The Dance came on, I stood up and pulled Anna up with me.
"Miss, may I have this dance?" I asked, with the most charming smile I could muster.
"You may," Anna said, batting her lashes at me, making us both laugh.
We danced until the song ended, and then we danced again when Mindy McCready's version of The Dance came on. And then we sat down by the lake and kissed some more until we couldn't.
It's been two years since Anna's death. Now I sit here all alone on the shores of Pine Springs Lake, watching Apollo's twin sister as she casts her silvery beams on the dark water before me. When we came home from Oregon after our second honeymoon four years ago, Anna started feeling off. She wasn't quite herself. She set up an appointment with her doctor. We were together in that pristine, sterile office when he broke the news to us. Anna squeezed my hand, trying so hard to be strong for the both of us. To this day, I can still see her smile and the tears that threatened to spill out of the corner of her eyes and down her marbled cheeks. After they ran tests on her, it was confirmed that Anna had stage IV uterine cancer. She was referred to an expert oncologist and was treated as best as could be treated, but it was to no avail. The doctors gave her two years to live. Two years with me. And how beautiful were those two years—right up until the end! None of our dreams came true. No kids, no whitewashed Colonial with blue shutters, a wraparound porch, and white picket fences. No children or grandchildren. We didn't grow old together. But we were together. And we danced together—as long as her strength permitted. During our last dance, she whispered softly in my ear. "I'll dance with you again someday. I'll wait for you, Gerald." A week after our very last dance together, she quietly slipped away in the early hours of the morning, just as rosy-fingered dawn was beginning to paint the sky.
For the first year after Anna's death, I couldn't bear to come back here to Pine Springs. It was too painful. But this year, I sold the Santa Fe house we lived in and moved up here. I fixed up the cabin and started a business of my own. Anna's Ballerinas. I now make a living making music boxes and snow globes featuring dancing couples. I put my heart and soul into it and business is booming. At night, I come out here to the lake and watch the moon. At dawn, I come back to watch the sunrise, coffee in hand.
And now, as I stare out over the surface of the lake, with the moon serenely reflected on it, a melody forms in my head and I see my Anna dancing. Alone. Another figure approaches and he extends his hand in invitation. She takes it and they dance the night away until sunrise.
"Take care of her, Roy," I whisper softly through the wind. "Dance with her until I come for her."
Garth Brooks was right. Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I would have to miss the dance. Had I the power to change things, I would've taken away Anna's cancer. It never would have happened. But then I realized that without it, I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate our dances together. Without the bitter, there would be no sweet.
Wait for me, Anna. We'll dance again someday.