Sweet Caroline

January 25, 2011
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“Popular burger shop uses tainted beef patties.” I stared at the front page of the Portland Press Harold. I had never seen a headline like that. It was a sign that literally nothing important was happening in Portland, Maine that unusually hot September of 1977. Temperatures got around eighty degrees, with the average usually being around sixty-nine. I sat at the kitchen table of Scott Kamford’s small apartment. It was cool inside, but I wore a tank top and a mini-skirt with my hair pulled back into a sloppy bun. The tile floor felt good against my bare feet. I held a cup of hot chamomile tea with one hand and gently stroked the hair of my baby with the other. A small radio in the corner of the room quietly played an Elvis Presley song. A month earlier, he had died. My mother was in mourning until January 1978. I sighed and looked down at my six-month-old son.
“Well, Mike, I guess we’ll have to stop eating at Sam’s. They’re apparently trying to poison us.”
Michael smiled and looked up at me with those bright blue eyes of his, just like his father’s.
“Please don’t end up like your dad.” I said. I didn’t actually know who his father was, but I can’t imagine he was much of a good person. What he did to me doesn’t exactly earn him any brownie points.
Scott Kamford was a friend of mine. I met him a couple months into my pregnancy, and he offered to help me out. He’s got some sort of crazy Jay Gatsby-type crush on me and I feel bad being so closed off with him, but I'm not ready for a relationship. Not after what happened last year.
“Hey, Caroline.” Scott entered the apartment in a hurry.
“Hey!” I said, surprised that he was home so early, “are classes over for the day?”
“No. I just wanted to check in. You’re doing okay?”
“I'm fine.”
“How’s Michael?”
“He’s perfect.”
Scott walked over to the baby seat and kissed Michael on the head.
“He’s getting so big!” he mused.
“Yeah,” I smiled sleepily at my son, “it’s crazy.”
Scott now kissed Michael on the nose, causing him to scrunch up his little face and let out a delighted laugh. The baby leaned forward and gave Scott a little peck on his nose as well.
“All right,” Scott laughed and stood up straight, “I should be going. Don’t want to be late for psychology!”
“Okay,” I said reluctantly. Michael loved having Scottie around. And I didn’t mind him too much myself.
“Happy twentieth, Caroline.” Scott smiled charmingly at me.
“Thanks,” I said. Twenty. I don’t feel that young. I didn’t plan to have children until at least thirty. I had always wanted to live a little first.
“Are you okay?”
It was dinner. Scott had prepared a lovely meal of bowtie spaghetti and homemade meat sauce. It’s about all he could afford at the moment, but that was okay. I hadn’t been very hungry lately anyway.
“I'm fine,” I said, “just tired.”
“You’ve been ‘just tired’ an awful lot lately.” Scott said.
“For as long as you’ve known me, I've been tired, Scott. Having a baby is tiring.” I said calmly.
“I know, but I think something’s bothering you.” Scott said.
“It isn’t.” I insisted.
“Carol, do you want to come back to school?”
“That’s a ridiculous question. Of course I want to go back to school. I miss my friends. The parties, the sororities…”
“The learning.” Scott smiled.
“Yeah, that too.” I returned the smile.
“You know we can hire a nanny and—“
“No! Look, Scott, I appreciate the offer, but no. I grew up with a nanny, and it sucked. I didn’t know my mother at all. I want Mikie to know me. He’s my baby.I don’t want anyone else but me taking care of him,” I took a bite of pasta, “you can help out too.”
“I do help out. I work three different jobs so I can provide for the two of you and I look after Michael while you work at Anthony’s Italian Kitchen during the weekends.” Scott said, obviously hurt by what I had said.
“I know you do,” I sighed, “I just feel overwhelmed. I'm sorry. I didn’t mean that you don’t help. You’re great. And Michael loves you.”
“A nanny isn’t a bad thing. She wouldn’t have to be around all the time; just so you can take some classes. We could talk to the Dean and see if we can make our schedules work so that the nanny hardly has to be there. You can take day classes and I can take night. That’s fine. The nanny will just be there to help whoever’s home. She’ll never be here by herself.”
“Scott, no. I'm not gonna mess up your class schedule. It’s fine. Just drop it.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you what, after this year, I've only got one more. Then I'm done. I’ll get a good job and you and I can get married. We can—“
I was shaking my head before he could finish his thought.
“I can’t—I'm not ready for that step.”
“When are you going to be ready, Caroline? That gives you practically two years—this year just started.”
“I don’t think that’ll be enough time.”
“Will any amount of time be enough?”
“Maybe like a decade.”
We both look away from each other, frustrated.
“I know you don’t understand, but that’s just the way it is and you have to accept that. I am not ready for marriage and won’t be for a very long time.”
“What, because one stupid guy drugged you and got you pregnant? God, Caroline, why can’t you see that I'm better than that? I would never hurt you!”
“I know you wouldn’t, but that doesn’t matter. I'm just not ready for any kind of relationship besides friendship.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. It always ends like this. He gets all upset. I think he keeps expecting me to change my mind. We look at each other for a moment. His deep, dark brown eyes fixed on my olive-colored ones.
“I respect that. I don’t understand it, but I respect it.” He said. I could tell he wanted to be cursing me out right now, kicking me out on the street because I didn’t want to commit to anything serious. But he held himself back.
I smiled and spoke softly, “And you’re very sweet. I'm going to check on Mike, make sure he’s asleep.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Three stockings hung in front of the fireplace. Mine, Caroline’s, and Michael’s. I had thought of doing something stupid like putting an engagement ring in Caroline’s, but I knew she wouldn’t have said yes. In fact, she would’ve accused me of trying to bribe her with the jewelry, then she would have packed her things and left. I never would have seen her or her son again. I didn’t want that, so I instead filled her stocking with her favorite candy and some nice but meaningless jewelry like necklaces and earrings.
The fire is blazing and the apartment is nice and toasty. Everything outside is covered in a powdery white blanket. There’s something so great about this time of year despite all the sickness and the spending money left and right.
On the mantel sits one of the cutest and most comical pictures I have ever seen. Two weeks ago, dear old Santa had been at the mall, so we decided to take a little trip down there and get Michael’s picture taken with him. Michael, however, is absolutely terrified of anyone but his mommy. He occasionally lets me hold him, but that’s only when he’s in a good mood. It doesn’t happen often. So much like his mother. Anyway, Caroline had promised her mother a picture of Michael with Santa. I offered to dress up and take the picture at home, but she wouldn’t accept that. So, what ended up happening was Caroline held Michael while she sat on Santa’s lap. And, if you ask me, the old creep seemed to enjoy this arrangement a little too much. We mailed this picture off to Caroline’s mother in Vermont and she called us when she got it, telling her daughter that it wasn’t funny and was extremely inappropriate. In the background, I heard Caroline’s father heartily laughing, saying it was funny. Then there was a lot of arguing and eventually Mrs. Frost hung up.
We decided it was best to proudly display this photo on the mantel. One day when Mike is grown, we will point it out to all his friends and girlfriends. Parenthood can be so much fun sometimes.
Then again, Caroline never made any promises that I would be around long enough to even see Michael have a girlfriend.
“Merry Christmas!” Caroline quietly emerged from her bedroom. “You started a fire already?”
“I was freezing.” I said.
“Understandable.” Caroline nodded. She sat next to me on the ground in front of the fireplace. She rubbed her hands together quickly and then breathed into them. She rested her head on my shoulder—something she had been doing a lot lately. Maybe it was just because of the cold weather, but I liked to think that she was getting more affectionate with me.
“Did you sleep well?” I asked.
Caroline nodded.
“I, uh, I got up earlier when I heard Mike starting to fuss. Fed him some formula, changed his diaper.” I said.
“Thank you. That’s really nice of you.” Caroline said genuinely.
“Yeah, I didn’t want you to have to get up.” I shrugged.
I gazed into the fire and I could feel Caroline looking at me. It was a good, warm feeling though. Not an icy “you did something wrong” type of stare. She was just looking at me. I didn’t mind.
She tapped my arm.
“Hmm?” I asked.
“Hey, um, if I were to take your last name, I want Michael to too, okay?” she said.
I looked at her, confused.
“What?” I didn’t dare to think what my head wanted to think.
“Just, I don’t want Michael to be Michael Frost,” she shrugged and rubbed her socked feet, looking down at them while talking, “I want him to be Michael Kamford if I'm going to be Caroline Kamford. I don’t want him to know about his real father. You are his father. I don’t want him to feel set apart because he’s a Frost and everyone else in his immediate family is a Kamford. He’d feel like Hester Prynne or something, being branded like that. Especially when his siblings are born…”
“Siblings?” I asked, looking nervously at Caroline. She had been looking a bit heavier lately, but she only ever lets me kiss her on the cheek. She hadn’t been seeing any other guys, as far as I knew.
“Oh, don’t freak. I'm not pregnant, but don’t you want children, Scottie?” Caroline looked me in the eye.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course, but…what are you saying?” I asked. I'm not stupid. I knew what she was saying, but it was just too difficult for me to believe.
“I'm saying,” she scooted closer to me and put her arms around my neck, her face just a few inches from mine, “I want to be Mrs. Scott Elijah Kamford.”
I kissed her. She didn’t push away.
“On one condition.” She said once we stopped kissing.
I looked at her. Seriously? So close…
“Don’t look so disappointed,” she laughed, “I just don’t want to rush this thing. I want to find a date that’s kind of far away. You’ve proven yourself pretty perfect since I met you, but I still want to make sure this is right. Life isn’t a fairytale, you know. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. I don’t want that to happen to us.”
“It won’t.” I said confidently.
“You can’t make that kind of promise.” She laughed.
“Caroline, I love you.” I said.
“I know. I love you too. That doesn’t change the fact that we might drive each other crazy as a married couple.”
“No offense, but you already drive me crazy. But I don’t mind. I want to be with you.”
“Oh my Lord, Scott, please just let us have a long engagement. It’s the perfect test.”
“I'm not giving you more than five years.” I gave in.
“Deal,” Caroline smiled and rolled her eyes.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
We married on March 25th, 1979—just two days after Michael’s second birthday. On June twelfth, 1980, we had a daughter named Ellie. On November eighth, 1989, we had our second daughter, Elise. Currently, it is late April of 2020. I'm sitting in front of a headstone that is surrounded by beautiful flowers. For some reason or other, she didn’t find life worth living anymore. After sixty-two years, she had had enough. There is an empty void in my life that I don’t think will ever be filled. I do have the small comfort of knowing that she lived a full life. These days, people consider sixty-two a young age for death. Caroline was always old for her age. I never saw her as carefree and youthful. She was always mature, busy, doing something for her children. I guess having a child at nineteen will do that to you. As I sit staring at the engraving in the stone, the lyrics to an old Billy Joel song run through my head: “Some people see through the eyes of the old before they ever get a look at the young.”
“Are you ready to go?” I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up and for a moment I swear it’s my Caroline. But it’s Elise, with that same straight brown hair and those same sparkling green eyes and that same soft voice. My youngest girl, a grown woman of thirty.
I don’t say anything, but I stand and walk with her toward her two older siblings.
“We don’t have to go yet if you aren’t ready.” Ellie says sincerely, holding both of her five-year-old twin girls—one on each hip. She is now thirty-nine. She and her family live down in New Orleans and her husband couldn’t get time off of work to fly to Maine.
This isn’t Caroline’s funeral. It’s been two months since her death. Today, April 19th, is her birthday. I wanted all of my children to be with me, and they all agreed. They’re angels, just like Caroline.
“No, I'm okay. I'm ready.” I manage to say. Michael, now a man of forty-three, steps forward and gives me a hug.
“I love you, dad. And mom loved you. This wasn’t your fault.” He whispers.
“I know.” I say quietly. He knows exactly how I'm feeling. His first wife took her own life about ten years ago, leaving him with his eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.
“So, is Charlotte ready for college in a few months?” I try to think of something pleasant to discuss.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, she’s ready.” Michael says, confused by the topic.
“I just…I don’t want to talk about what happened anymore.” I say.
Michael nods, understanding. His wife, Amy, and his kids are back home in Georgia. They wanted to get off school and come, but I told Mike that he best tell them to stay. I just needed my kids for the day.
I take one of Ellie’s daughters, Sophia, from her arms and hold the child close to me. She rests her head on my shoulder and quickly falls asleep. I kiss her on top of her head.
“Who wants lunch?” Elise asks as lightly as possible as the four of us begin the long walk from the cemetery to my home.
“I could go for a hamburger right about now.” Mike says, throwing his arm tightly around my shoulders.
“Anywhere but Sam’s,” I warn, smiling as I recall an old newspaper headline that Caroline had found amusing, “they’ve been tainting their beef since 1977.”





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