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Elyse's Smile

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“I think the angels are dancing,” you said to me softly, staring into the darkening, twilight sky. The hushed whispers that escaped our lips wandered into the swaying trees above, mingling with the steady hum of the chirping crickets and the quiet wail of a lone whippoorwill. You stared up at me with those curious, green eyes and pressed your thin, pink lips together firmly. The image of you, lying atop the jade blanket of that serene countryside hill, blends well in my mind with that of the beautiful, forested slope of Mt. Evans and the hazy, star-dotted heavens overhead.

I never told you, but that was the night I fell in love with you. As we watched the moon climb over that jagged, silver mountain peak, I felt a stirring inside of me- a feeling that brought tears to my dark, greying eyes. After we parted, when the moon lost its luster and wispy clouds began forming in the grumbling atmosphere, I climbed into my bed and cried until dawn.

I still have the rolls of film from earlier that day. Sometimes I rummage through my garage, bring out the dusty box that says “Elyse’s Smile,” and play them on the old projector. The blurred memories waltz across the tattered screen, dreamlike, the sounds of our laughter replaced with the popping and crackling of the revolving film canisters. My favorite shot is the first one. You’re trying to balance on the rocks, with the blue lake stretching behind you and the sun’s light reflecting on your long, golden hair. I always love the look on your face when you realize that I’m filming and you pull a strand of it behind your ear and blush.

Watching those movies always brings me back. I feel a sudden rush of all those emotions –catching sight of you on the tennis courts for the first time, talking to you in the library, thinking of you more and more each day. I want to say I never imagined us together during those long, summer months. I want to say that our sudden autumn romance took me by surprise, that I wasn’t expecting you to grab me by the chin and press your rosy lips against mine, that I didn’t anticipate inhaling your sweet, passionate breaths and taking you by the hand as I bit your lip. I’d be lying if I did.

I believe I saw through a delicate veil, an emerald shroud that blew softly in the stormy wind and masked your shadowed face. While the rest of the world caught only a glimpse of a charming, young, aspiring tennis prodigy, I could see. Quietly, I watched the broken, little girl concealed inside – a lost soul not only scared of herself, but everyone around her. And when she invited me in, let me hold her and promise forever, I felt like I had finally found my purpose.

As you played, the future in your hands in the form of a long, slender racket, I stood silently in a dark room, dreaming of a future of my own. Hoping that I could get the lighting just right, maybe find the perfect angle, I visualized the perfect movie – a short film that would make audiences around the world love you as much as I did. I wanted to share that passion with others, inspire them with simple, raw footage of the most beautiful girl in the world and all of her angelic wonder.

Do you remember crying in each other’s arms, falling to our knees and begging God for consolation, divine intervention? You decided that our love making was spitting in His face, and if we were honestly seeking His support in life, in everything, we would have to stop living in sin and pray for forgiveness. I always admired you for that. Even years afterward, I sometimes caught myself daydreaming of those sinful nights, reliving those magical moments.

One night we stood among the swaying pine trees, alone in the woods with the wind rippling through our hair and clothes, separate from the world, from everything. You laughed, grabbed my arm, and poured a couple of green M&Ms into my shaking hand.

“Here,” you whispered. “These are ours.” You put one over your left eye, winked at me with the other, and then slipped it in your mouth. It’s the moments like that one I remember most. The little things that made the spirits within me rise higher than towering trees. I felt like I was flying among them, swimming through the milky sky, past the stars and the clouds and the moon.

And then, we danced. I shuffled my feet slowly, yours on top of mine. When the rain started sprinkling, I was captivated – by life, by the world, and by you. It was the perfect ending to a perfect night. I was young and naïve, unaware of the fact that everything could slip away so easily. I should’ve cherished that evening even more, should’ve lived that day as if it were my last with you. Because – although I didn’t know it at the time – it was.

I can barely recall the night of the first party. If I try to close my eyes and really think about it, I remember brief moments – the worried glance you shot at me as your girlfriends begged you to go, the hostile look your coach gave me as he escorted you out the door, my endless pacing and pacing of our apartment floor. But most of all, answering the telephone and hearing your wavering, broken voice.

“Baby, I’m at a payphone. Can you come pick me up?” you pleaded.

Other than that, I only remember emotions, the terror, pain, and fear. The terror of knowing how innocent you were, in a house full of disgusting, rotten, abhorrent people. The pain of somehow knowing that I was going to lose you. And the fear of my future – a future without my only friend, my only love.

Every weekend afterwards, I sat on the recliner, staring ahead blankly at the wall while you partied, drinking away that lonely, scared little girl that still lived on inside of you. I begged you to stop, to remember how much God loved you, to remember how much I loved you.

“I’m not really happy,” you told me one day, staring at the crackling fire. “It’s Christmas, and I’m not happy.” I saw it in your cloudy eyes, in your dark expression. Our flame was dying out, smothered by the falling snow outside and the lonesome tears that trickled down your jaded face.

“I love you,” I said. And that wasn’t enough.

Somehow, the jagged end of life had prevailed and the thrill of living had suddenly vanished, leaving you alone in a cold, dark world. I’ve spent a lot of quiet nights wondering to myself exactly how you were torn from the love of Jesus – the savior that decided every move of your life up until that point. I’ve thought about what I did wrong. Did I not love you enough? Was I a different person than what I saw from the inside looking out?

And the answer – what I have gotten from a thousand heartfelt prayers – is that it was inevitable. Your demons were too much for you; they strangled your elation, extinguished your delight, and tore you from the things that you loved the most. And the decisions you made were what decided our fate.

Did I ever love you any less for what you did? I tried, but I couldn’t bring myself to. When I saw you with him, twirling at the annual ball, caught in a warm embrace in a snapshot for the local gazette, or smiling as you shared an ice cream cone after a long, intense match, I had to focus all of my energy on refraining from breaking into a never-ending sob. I had to turn away and forget.

And forget I did, but not entirely. As the years flew by, like blank pages in a timeworn book, I devoted my life entirely to filmmaking. I vowed to become the next Alfred Hitchcock and create a movie that would stun audiences all around the globe, but most importantly – amaze you. Maybe, just maybe, if I made the perfect picture, you’d love me again and realize your mistake.

My story was about a lonely girl in a big, bright city. She fell in love with a simple writer and they spent decades apart before finding each other again and marrying. Of course my characters were inspired by you and me. I sent the script in to the most extravagant movie studios around and had dozens of hotshot producers begging to buy the rights. They said it would be the “next big thing.” I was stupid and rejected the offers, because I didn’t want anyone tarnishing my story - what I hoped would bring you back to me.

Meanwhile, you had become the greatest athlete of the decade, the figure of a generation. I saw your picture in newspapers and watched your matches on television. You were an American symbol, a hero to all, and – despite all the glory – I somehow knew you weren’t happy.

I set off to film my script on my own, hiring actors and stage men, spending all of my money and on props and supplies. The movie was only half finished before it completely fell apart. Several of the major actors quit and everyone grew tired of the laborious hours and my perfectionism. I was broke, without a job, and my dream of being the next great director was shot.

By this point, you had gotten married to your wealthy coach, mothered a child, and became the single greatest female tennis player to have ever lived. I was still in love, but had a life of my own at this point and had to make some money before going anywhere else. After searching for a while, I took an open position as cameraman with the local news studio.

And then, it seemed to me as if fate had struck. You were returning home to do interviews and play in a local tournament, one which my boss had assigned me to. I thanked God for days and counted down the hours until I was able to see you again.

When that day came, and I stood on the sidelines, filming your quick, graceful plays, I was mesmerized. If I close my eyes now, even though it was an evening more than fifty years ago, I can see your image as clear as I could that night. You were wearing your signature uniform, a white tank-top and shorts and bright-green tennis shoes, and your hair was pulled back in a snug ponytail, bobbing with each dive for the ball. Your husband was right on the sidelines, in a matching coach uniform, cheering you on. I stood, quiet, moving the camera left and right as the ball bounced around the court, while my heart beat rapidly and butterflies fluttered around aimlessly in my empty stomach.

There was one moment when I was sure you saw me. I had stopped filming for a moment and you were taking a break and sipping out of a water bottle. When you glanced my way and we made eye contact, I saw the emptiness in your eyes. That’s when I knew you were still in love with me – you stared, hypnotized, for a moment and looked away, just like you used to do, when the grass was green and the sky was blue. I left shortly after that. And that was the last time I ever saw you.

I married several years later and had two children. My wife left me a decade afterward though, just like your husband walked away from you when you had passed your prime and your tennis days were over. I never stopped thinking about you, even while I was married. I always dreamed that I would muster up the courage to set out and find you, and that we would fall in love again and all would be perfect.

It never happened though. Instead, I spent most of my time with my children and grandchildren, never remarrying or trying to rekindle those dreams of long ago. Occasionally, though, I have pulled out my old box of memories – of swing records and film rolls and weathered photographs of us. Sometimes, when I’m alone and the world is quiet, I play “Thinking of You” by Don Cherry, and I sing along through the tears that come with hearing our song.

I attended your funeral today. It was a beautiful ceremony, and your casket was lined with lovely hydrangeas and vibrant emerald daisies. It was held in a magnificent church, and your preacher spoke of you so kindly, of your life and your triumphs.

I introduced myself to your children. You raised wonderful young men, and your daughter Jessica is lovely as can be. When I told her who I was, she burst into tears and told me what you told her days before your death: “When you find the man you love, hold on to him tightly and never let him go. Do you hear me?” You made her promise, because you didn’t want her to make the same mistake that you did.

Now I sit, dressed in black, alone in a room with a bowl of green M&Ms on the table. I’m clutching a pen in my shaking hand and writing sweet words on a tear-stained notebook. When I finish, I’m going to rip this letter into pieces, put them in an envelope, and release them on a warm, summer night into the wind over our Mt. Evans. And then, I’m going to take the film stashed away in that little box and make a movie about our days together. That way the world will meet the Elyse that I got to know one cold, bitter autumn in the year of 1951.

The clock on the wall ticks, warning me that time is running out. Because soon, I’ll be with you, staring into a darkening, twilight sky. The hushed whispers that escape our lips will wander into the swaying trees above, and mingle with the steady hum of the chirping crickets and the quiet wail of a lone whippoorwill.



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