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Given the Time
He comes in late, sweating nostalgia in smooth beads of salt. Pulls up a chair at the table and eases into its wooden embrace, runs his fingers through his receding hair. The long instruments pull at it—a nervous habit—and it’s a wonder that so much of it remains. Those fingers remember, though, a time when there was more. Their prints ache with emptiness.
The cup of tea I push toward him steams, faintly, kissing the rim with fog. I do not tell him that my fingers remember, as well. I do not tell him of the startled realization of crow’s feet or of the faint tracks that trace his lips. I do not mention that there is a gray hair at the top of his head. I don’t even ask how the concert went.
“Don’t drink it too fast,” I advise instead, as the lip of the cup brushes his mouth. “It’s hot.”
“I know,” he mumbles with an eye roll.
Judging by his mood, I should leave the attitude alone. This time—this night—it can slide. But only because I know exactly what happened tonight. Only because I knew my boy finally realized he had grown up.
He nurses his tea quietly, stewing. When it is gone, he stares at the bottom of the cup, wondering where it has all gone.
Gently, I slip his fingers from his hair and put mine around them. “There’s something you should see.”
When he looks up, his eyes are a flash of hazel memory, a thousand moments strung between brown and green. First hello. First quip. First kiss. First date. First fight. First “I love you”. Every other first imaginable in twelve years, all hanging between his eyelashes.
“What?” He raises one thick eyebrow.
I grin at the brown caterpillar curved on his brow. “You’ll see. Come on.”
He forgets the tea as we climb the stairs. We do not stop where he assumes, but instead continue up the narrow flight to the attic. Each step protests our weight. Go back. Creak. Go back. Creak. Go back. Creak.
Shut up, I tell them resolutely. He should know.
“You remember my mother, yes?”
I don’t have to be facing him to know that he’s rolling those eyes.
“That demon who stole you from me last weekend? Yes, I remember.”
I squeeze his fingers. “Hey. That’s my mom you’re referring to.”
He tries again. “I mean—that angel who borrowed you for three days? I vaguely recall—”
“Anyway,” I interrupt, turning to face him. “She’s remodeling, which means—”
“Plaster everywhere,” he sympathizes. “No wonder you didn’t stay the full week.”
“It means that she’s tired of my old things in the basement. Which means,” I continue, releasing his hand to pick up a box by my feet, “that I get all of my stuff back.”
The caterpillar curls again. “All of your stuff fit in that box?”
I shift, suddenly uncomfortable. “All of the important stuff.” My voice is soft, unable to garner any volume from the dry recesses of my mouth. I swallow. “Look. I know revival concerts don’t always go so well, so I thought—”
“That you’d put me out of my misery in an attic? Tricky plan,” he’s teasing, but the smile cutting at his teeth doesn’t touch his eyes. “What’s in that box? A hatchet?”
“Oh, please.” He’s not the only one that can roll his eyes. “I didn’t hit my woodsy streak until college. This is stuff from high school.”
“I don’t remember you being particularly outdoorsy while we were dating.” His brow furrows as he tries to recall any episodes of Man vs. Wild that I might have appeared in. “I do, however, remember you spraining your ankle the one time we went hiking.”
I groan. “You’ll never let me live that down, will you?”
“Not a chance.”
“I’m seriously reconsidering showing you what’s in here. I get the feeling you’ll never let it go, either.” Or that you’ll think I’m crazy. Surely a decade and change of sanity could balance out a teenage quirk. Or maybe not.
Either way, he’ll stop thinking about the concert. Which is the entire point of this paleontology expedition.
I crouch down with the box in my lap and fold it open. Inside are five posters, thirty-odd magazine clippings, a journal, ticket stubs, and pictures—all with one common theme. I bite my lip and tease a frame out from beneath the journal and a faded poster. Holding it out to him is terrifying, but now seems as good a time as any. His night can’t possibly get any worse.
And this is the only thing I can think of to make it better.
He takes it gently, bemused hazel glinting under the caterpillars. “This is me.”
I nod, slowly. “Yep. It was—” because this wasn’t humiliating “—it’s from my old room. At my mother’s. I—I kept it on the table next to my bed.”
“But you didn’t know me.” He’s puzzled still. “You didn’t act like you knew me, anyway. Not when we met. I had to tell you my name.”
I shrug. The tension in my shoulders is a living thing, rippling and growling. This is a bad idea. “I wasn’t going to be the girl who told you I wanted to have your babies. Get real.”
“I used to hear that all the time,” he muses, easing down onto the floor. “Eight year olds would tell me that. It’s kind of creepy.”
“Exactly.” I nod fervently. “And, honestly, I was—well, you were more handsome in person than you ever were hanging up in my room, and—okay. You probably would have had to tell me my name. If my order hadn’t been called, I would never have remembered it.” Stop babbling.
“Luckily, it was written on the bag,” he mumbles, staring at the picture again. My stomach squeezes into a hard little knot. At least he’s joking. That’s a good sign, right?
“And then you gave me tickets to see the show that night, trying to get me to recognize you, even though of course I did. And it just—snowballed. The more I knew you, the less I could tell you that I was a…well, fan is a light word for it.” I wince, remembering. “I knew all the words to every song that night. And I never forgot it.”
“You’d be the only one who knows any words.” A grimace twists his face. “There were over a hundred thousand girls like you—girls that knew all the words, that hung posters, that made signs. That bought t-shirts. Where are they now?”
I wonder, briefly, whatever happened to my Fortishimo t-shirt. I paid through the nose for that. Oh, well. “Married, probably.”
“Spouses,” he grumbles.
I stick my tongue out feebly. “I know. How dare they keep their wives from going to concerts where they might be reduced to screaming teenage girls?”
“I like screaming teenage girls.”
“Look.” I reach across the box and touch his hand. He doesn’t pull away, which I take to be a good sign. “I was one girl. The luckiest girl on the planet, maybe—but one girl. I bet a hundred thousand more still have framed pictures of you and the rest of the band somewhere.”
“Too bad their mothers weren’t remodeling, too.”
His black mood needs lightened. Oh, God. I clear my throat. The things I’m willing to do for this man. “Wake up, I’m right here—“
“What are you—?”
“—Next to you, I’ll wipe your tears. Stay with me until it’s clear we were meant to be.” I take a breath, ready to start singing again. “Let me—“
It takes half of a verse of my terrible singing for him to crack up. I suffer through the rest—or maybe he suffers through it; there are tears in the corners of his eyes—as he laughs. And laughs. And laughs.
All right. I know I’m awful—but really?
“Whose part are you singing?” he finally manages to choke out. “I mean, Jake’s the tenor, but he didn’t—you know—”
“Squeak?” I suggest, and he nods again, roaring with laughter.
This is the boy I met at eighteen. This laughing, silly creature. He pours out from the cracks around his mouth, the fissures edging his eyes. This is the boy who appeared out of nowhere in a fast-food restaurant and lectured me with an easy grin when I cut him in line. The boy from my old pink nightstand, the boy in the magazines, the boy on TV, the boy with hazel eyes that entertain fantasy even in newsprint. This is the man I married.
This is also the man realizing that some loves fade, given the time. A man who expected a nation of girls to hang on, waiting for him, only to realize that nearly all of them let go and forgot him as soon as the rope burn faded from their hands, going on with the rest of their lives while he hung over a cliff, not knowing what lay on the ground.
And if pulling him up won’t work, I’ll wait at the bottom to catch him. We’ll walk back up together.
His laugh fades slowly, and he reaches for my hand. His aching prints quiet when our skin connects. “There’s one girl who still knows every song.”
I smile. “The luckiest girl in the world.”
My eyes close, sweating relief in smooth beads of salt. He moves quickly, pulls me beside him and eases my head onto his shoulder, runs his fingers through my thinning hair. The long instruments stroke it with the gentle memory of touch. This is the boy who sang softly at my father’s funeral, the boy who helped me forget the rain.
This is also the man realizing that—given the time—some loves will intensify, too.