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The Autumn of a Romance
First love; it tastes of lemonade and sweet tea. It feels like his rough denim shirts and the sun shining on my freckled shoulders, and his arms around me as we dance in the moonlight. But times change, people change, and the things that seemed so important to us under the summer sun became a vague memory.
His name was Jonathan and it was the summer of 1992. I don’t recall the exact time or place that we became an “us”, but soon everyone in the town began to refer to us not singularly, but together. I was no longer Emmie, but EmmieandJonathan. All summer we were stuck by the other’s side, only leaving to sleep, and even then we were rarely apart more than eight hours. Soon, my universe became his deep blue eyes gazing into mine, and the sharp scent of aftershave mingled with sweat, a fragrance that was as intoxicating to me as any spirit or liquor. I was drunk with my love for him. I was just a small town girl, innocent and naïve, and this newfound emotion tossed me head over heels into the black hole that was his adoration.
“Emmie, I love you more than all the stars in the sky times a thousand,” he would whisper in my ear as we sat on the old dock down by the lake. Then he would take my chin in his hand and kiss me, the tenderness of it always making me pull him closer, a longing growing inside me that I didn’t recognize. Then we would strip to our underwear and go for a midnight swim. I was always startled by his body, strong and sleek. I dived in fast, attempting to hide my soft curves, but the way he looked at me told me that I had nothing to hide, that every flaw and imperfection was beautiful in his eyes. My momma always warned me about teenage hormones and what boys of our age expected, but Jonathan was never like that. Every touch was tentative and gentle, nothing was hurried. We never made love; we didn’t find it necessary to express our feelings. Looking back, I realize how mature we had been, how different from other couples we were, and I am thankful for that.
Summer ended and the leaves began to change. School commenced and I rarely saw Jonathan, as he was attending the community college the next town over. My tan faded and the smile I had worn all summer began to make fewer appearances. Jonathan called me once a week and I cherished that hour. Every story he told, even of unimportant things, I locked away inside myself. I think I knew that it would end, that this love wouldn’t last. It was simply a summer romance, beautiful and sweet, but not everlasting.
Jonathan called less and less, and whenever I told him I loved him he would mumble a “you too” before hanging up. I still don’t know how I had the strength inside me to do it, but one afternoon in September I went to visit him. He was lounging on his bed, hair a mess, and I had to fight the wave of nostalgia that washed over me and the urge to run over and curl up in his arms. But this was not my Jonathan. He was a different, older, indifferent Jonathan. Through my tears I told him I couldn’t love him anymore and he merely shook his head and looked away, as if ashamed of my display of emotion. I was seventeen years old and I felt like my life was over.
Now it is 2009 and I am returning to that little town once again, my children in tow. We pull into the gas station to fill up and my son leans out the window to gawk at the convertible parked beside us. I barely register a glance until I hear a, “Hey, Emmie”. It had been ten years since someone had called me anything other than Emma or Mrs. Sanders and even though almost twenty years had passed, I recognized that rumbling voice better than my own. I felt my heart beat faster as I turned and saw the man Jonathan had become. He was still tall and broad, just as I remembered, and his deep midnight eyes shone like they had when we had been teenagers. Time, however, had made its mark. His hair was a mix of gray and chestnut, and wrinkles had begun to form around his eyes. Despite all that, he still took my breath away, and I had to fight the tears that welled up. Somehow, my heart had locked away a scrap of emotion that had evaded capture all these years. Before I could open my mouth he spoke again, “I heard about your husband. I’m sorry.” Of course he had heard, in this town news traveled fast and secrets, well, there weren’t many secrets. My husband was a big corporate lawyer in Chicago. We married fresh out of college and lived an extravagant life. He came from money, lots of it, and somehow I thought all the pretty dresses and jewelry could make up for the fact that we lived in a loveless marriage. I bared it, though, for the children more than anything, until I had caught him with his nineteen year old secretary. That’s when I decided I couldn’t keep up the façade anymore. So I packed up the kids and headed home, and that’s what led me here to this gas station, staring into the eyes of my first and only love.
“It was for the best.”
“Do you… well, would you want to go grab a cup of coffee with me?” I thought about it for a second, remembering all the pain he had caused me, all the sleepless nights crying over him.
I could think of a million reasons not to, and yet I found myself replying, “Sure, let me drop the kids off at Mom’s first. Would you want to follow me?”
“Then we can just take my car.” I nodded, paid for my gas, and drove to my mother’s.
After dropping off my children at their grandmother’s house, Jonathan drove us to a small café downtown. We sat there for hours, talking about what we had done since we saw each other last. I was surprised to learn he had never married, never even been close. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him why though. I hated myself for hoping that perhaps I had something to do with it. When we finally returned to Mother’s house, I turned to Jonathan and asked the question that had been eating at me for over fifteen years, “Why did you stop loving me?”
“That’s not true.” He kept his eyes down, never looking at me. I felt a fury building inside me.
“You stopped calling! You didn’t even care when I told you we wouldn’t be together anymore. You broke my heart, Jonathan.”
“No, you’re wrong. It was for the best. I was no good for you.”
“Why? We, you and me, were perfect. I would have given you the world.”
“That was the problem, I didn’t deserve all that. You were, you are, so smart Emmie, and I was just some dumb boy. I had no idea what I was gonna do with my life, I wasn’t smart. There was no way I could have given you the life you deserved. I couldn’t have gotten you out of this small town, and you deserved so much more.”
“That’s why? That’s why you broke my heart? That’s why I have been miserable for the past seventeen years?”
“I didn’t mean for that to happen… I have no right to say this, and if you want to slap me or tell me to leave you the hell alone and never bother you again I understand, but I love you Emmie. I always have. That’s why I never married, why I never had a serious girlfriend after you. Because every time I held another woman in my arms I always imagined it was you, and when it wasn’t, I just couldn’t handle it.”
I was speechless. Everything I had been longing to hear since that summer long ago was finally being said. He must have interpreted my silence as rejection because he said, “I’m sorry, I won’t bother you anymore. I know it’s too late.”
“No, it’s never too late.”
He took me in his arms, and again whispered all the things that had made me fall in love with him as a girl. “I love you more than all the stars in the sky times a thousand.”
I smiled at my granddaughter, sitting beside me on the verandah. Both of us were dabbing at our eyes with Kleenex. Jonathan hobbled out onto the porch, supporting himself on his old oak cane. “What’s wrong with you two?”
“I was telling Jeanie about us, dear.” Jeanie was nineteen years old, the daughter of my oldest son, and her boyfriend has just proposed to her. She had begged me to tell her about the story of “Grandpa” and myself, for although Jonathan wasn’t biologically related to her, he was still her grandpa.
“How did your love last all those years?” Jeanie was staring at Jonathan with wide-eyed admiration.
“Because your grandma, she is the love of my life, and love perseveres. Love doesn’t disappear just because time passes. It doesn’t forget. I never forgot Emmie. I had always loved her. When she came back into my life I knew that I had been given the most important blessing of all and I couldn’t let it slip past me once again.”
I stood up and took his hand, helping him back into the house. He grimaced as he sat down; the cancer caused him a lot of pain now and the doctor told me he only had a few more months to live. More and more I found myself simply sitting by his side, relishing in his quiet companionship. I knew that when he went I wouldn’t be far behind. I had lived without him for far too long and I wouldn’t let him slip away from me again.