Dennis never came back that night. I don't know what it was that always made him vanish like that, but he didn't come back or call or anything. After about a half hour the idea pretty much settled in on me, even though I couldn't make myself get up from the glider on the porch and go back inside. I don't know how long I sat there waiting on something the better part of me knew wasn't going to happen, but I had it in my mind that if I ever did get up and go inside without knowing anything more about Dennis, a part of my life was going to end and I'd never get it back. I've never been one to be stubborn, but I kept sitting and rocking back and forth and humming golden oldies under my breath, like I was passing the time listening to the radio. I think it was all those songs I had in my head that kept me from crying my eyes out right then, but after a good while even the melodies I'd known so long began to dry up. It got late and I didn't have any more songs to sing.
Yes, Dennis never came back. It's been all this time and I can say it now, but it took a long time for me to be able to accept it. I'm not naïve or anything, you know, and I know how boys and men are sometimes when it comes to relationships. Didn't I have that sort of thing happen to me way back when I was dealing with Joel? And that certainly didn't matter as much as this did. That was just Joel, but this was Dennis. There is a lot of difference between the two.
I didn't go to work for a couple of days that next week. I didn't call and tell anybody anything, because I just couldn't put into words why I didn't feel like coming in to work, but after a couple of days of the phone ringing off the hook and knowing it was my sister or the office, I finally picked up the receiver and said hello. I couldn't talk about anything after that, and before I knew it Katherine and Jim were inside the door and Jim was helping me down the steps and we were on our way to the emergency room. Inside I had a lady in a white smock ask me a thousand questions about when was the last time I ate anything and what kind of medicine I'd taken and if I'd done anything to harm myself or even just thought about maybe doing it. I thought I kept my cool pretty good answering all her questions, but after a while I started crying and feeling like I couldn't breathe. I was shaking all over and gasping for air, and a nurse came in and gave me a shot. Katherine came in to talk to me with the doctor there and I did my best to listen to what they were saying, but after a few minutes they didn't make any sense whatsoever and I went to sleep.
I was in a rehab unit for a few months -- two or three, I forget -- and when it came time for me to go home I found out I didn't have a home to go to anymore. All my clothes and possessions had been moved to Katherine's and Jim's house outside Marietta. My sister and brother-in-law had one of these places out in the suburbs where you had to be rich and preferably white and you could live in a mansion that was a lot like the one your neighbors lived in next door. There were bedrooms galore and balconies and kitchens and kitchenettes and swimming pools where you could sit for hours and look off at the thickets of trees at the edge of the property. It was a lot nicer than our old house, which was now on the market, and there was room for me to have my own bedroom on the second floor with my niece just down the hall from me. Jim and Katherine lived one floor above, so they were mostly around if I needed them for anything. There was a garage for my car to repose inside, because it never left much anymore, since I had no job to go to. I was safe and sound and this was my life. Katherine and Jim were making sure I didn't have anything trouble me again like before. I guess they thought I'd had more than enough the last time.
My niece Marilyn was seven years old by then, so I was trusted enough to be her babysitter on the nights when Katherine and Jim worked late or went out to weekend gatherings with their crowd. The consensus was that I could watch Marilyn and keep her from burning down the house or taking off out the front door and she could likewise do the same for me. We watched game shows and sitcoms most nights until bedtime, and ate TV dinners and ice cream sitting together in the den. It wasn't that bad an existence really, although there were times I missed being in the office and hearing the gossip from Theda and Becky and all the stupid jokes Danny told. Danny called me up once in a while from work to check on me, and I'd always promise I'd come by to see them, but I never did. I didn't want them to know I didn't drive very much anymore, or that a lot of the time I was afraid to leave the house for very long. It wasn't that I was frightened of the world that much; it was just I didn't want to be away from the phone too long in case Dennis was to call. It wasn't my old number but I knew he could find me if he wanted. He always told me he was going to be a detective when he grew up. Well, he was grown up now, and finding missing people was one of those things detectives do.
I didn't mention this to Katherine or anyone. I knew I was a little weak in the psychological department, but I wasn't so far gone that I didn't know I was being watched and talked about constantly. Katherine had been suspicious of my relationship with Dennis way before Mother died -- I used to walk in on them in the middle of a conversation and I would know what they'd been talking about -- so I knew it wasn't a good idea to give Katherine any more ammunition about Dennis and me than she already had. It was a little tiring -- and yes, depressing -- to feel like I was a semi-prisoner in my own sister's home, but things could be a lot worse. I knew that for certain. I could go back into one of those dormitory units again, like where I'd stayed last time, and have people asking me questions and checking in on me constantly. They'd always be so friendly and interested in what I was doing or how I was feeling and that was okay for a while, but it got old. I figured out somebody was making a whole lot of money for themselves because I was crazy. I didn't know if it was my money paying for the treatment or Katherine's or something coming from Daddy's estate, but I felt like I needed to put an end to it. It made me ashamed of being nuts, if that was really what I was. I knew what was wrong with me and nothing a doctor could do was going to help make it better.
I wasn't going to kill myself and I wasn't going to go around the bend. I just needed to find out what had happened to Dennis. It was hard to think he might not love me anymore.
* * *
I was aware of it. It would have been hard not to know.
I knew what people thought about me. My own sister, try as she might, looked at me most every day like I was some carnival attraction. There was the real world and then there was the world of the imaginary, and there I was for everyone to take notice of. When friends came to visit I was introduced as the little sister, then semi-shuffled off out of sight before I could answer any questions or show my true colors. I don't truly think Katherine was ashamed of me in any sense, though; she just got to the point where she didn't know what to do with me anymore. When she took me in as a boarder I don't think she intended for it to be forever. I think she thought she could whip me back into shape and farm me out in a few months. I believe it messed with her mind when she started believing I wasn't going to get any better.
I lived in an upstairs bedroom five years by the time Katherine and Jim began to talk about perhaps moving away. Marilyn was almost a teenager by then, and gone the majority of the time at school or in dance lessons or staying over with friends, so most of the time I was alone in the house for long periods of time. I watched so much television I knew all the commercials by heart. I came to think I knew the local news people personally because I watched them so much, morning, noon, and night. I knew the plots and casts of all the shows. TV Guide came for me in the mail and I could work the crossword in a matter of minutes, never getting stuck on a frame.
And after a while, the routine of it even started to drive me crazy. I was already there, and it was making me go even farther.
That was when I told Katherine it was time for me to move out.
She looked at me like I was crazy, which I was, so there was at least that much we didn't have to argue about.
"Julia, where do you think you are going to go?" she asked. "What do you think you can do?"
"I can get my own apartment somewhere. You act like I don't know how to cook or do my own laundry or anything."
"I know you can do those things, Julia. I just don't think you realize how expensive things are these days, or how so many things have changed. You haven't been out and on your own in a long time."
"I'm pretty sure I can find a job somewhere. I can type, if nothing else. It's not like I'm stupid. I can learn. Shoot, I could even start teaching swimming and diving again, back like I did during high school."
"Julia, that was more than thirty years ago. I think you'd find things a whole lot different from what you remember now. For one thing, our old club is not even private anymore. You'd be teaching every race and nationality known to mankind." Katherine shuddered like she'd just imagined something horrid.
She went on and on listing all the reasons I couldn't be by myself out in the cold cruel world, but I wasn't listening to her anymore. I was listening to myself, and what I was hearing made as much sense as anything I'd had in my head in a long time.
I would move away. I would leave the state of Georgia and go somewhere I'd never been in my life. I would find a job doing something I'd never dreamed of doing before and live in a town where I was a complete stranger to everyone. I'd get a new car I liked and make new friends and live in a place by myself and paint the walls a different color than I'd ever seen a wall before. Of course, I'd need money to get this whole new life started, but I was certain Daddy left me enough to do anything I wanted. I could sell the Mercedes that was out back in a shed for a pretty penny to one of these people who fixed up old classic automobiles, and I could hire a moving company to come here into Katherine's house and take away everything that was mine. Katherine could kick and scream all she wanted to, but in the end she couldn't stop me. I was, after all, only her little sister, not her prisoner, and this was a free country.
I decided to keep quiet about my plans and make all my arrangements during the day when there was no one around to bother me. I had to do some prowling in desk drawers and getting into some filing cabinets in Katherine's office before I found what I was looking for. I had not only my checking account with its meager funds that were doled out to me by Katherine and Jim -- not much, since I hardly ever went anywhere or bought anything, but enough for me to have what I wanted, I have to admit, so it wasn't like it was a bad thing -- but then I ran across a savings account that just said JULIA across the top, and there was more money in it than I ever imagined having. I won't say how much, because I don't really like to talk about those things too much because it seems like I'm bragging or flaunting my good fortune, but I will say it was a sizeable amount. There was enough there to last me the rest of my life.
And that was what this was all about -- the rest of my life. I wasn't physically sick or anything and I wasn't old enough to qualify as an elderly woman, so it wasn't unfeasible to think I had a few good years left to enjoy. With money like I had available there was simply no sense in sitting in a den wearing out my eyes watching television or doing crossword puzzles or listening to the ticking of a clock until I thought it was time to go to bed again, to end another day with really nothing to say about it.
I waited until I'd decided on a place -- Athens, Tennessee, which I picked off of a map in Jim's road atlas in his library -- and I decided I'd get a job in a K-Mart or a Wal-Mart or something there, then I looked up a real estate broker who used to go to my church and asked him if he could maybe find a small house for me soon. I waited for Katherine and Jim to get out of bed and downstairs in the kitchen on a Saturday morning and then I let them know what I was doing and when I was going to do it. The two of them sat at the table looking at me like I'd truly gone insane for good this time, but I let them know that maybe I had but that was just the way it was.
I told them I was going to start my new life and they were just going to have to get used to it.
* * *
When a woman has as much money as she will ever need and more than she knows what to do with, it's easy enough to accomplish what she wants to get done. The real estate agent found me a nice little house in Athens, and over my sister and brother-in-law's objections I had what things I was taking loaded onto a moving van and sent the one hundred fifty miles to my new residence, then, with Katherine in the passenger seat and Jim following behind, I drove my Escort across the state line and past Chattanooga and its mountains and continued east for two hours until we were there. I had a nice map printed up by Danny at the AAA office, who I'd gone to see right before I left. By this time Theda and Becky had both retired, and he was the only one down there I knew anymore. I didn't say so, but he was starting to look a little long in the tooth too. I wondered what he thought about me, since I didn't have to guess if I was getting up there too.
It's strange when you leave the place you call home for the first time -- stranger still when you are doing it that first time at the age of fifty-five. I drove along the highway thinking such thoughts, watching unfamiliar scenery go by through the windshield while Katherine talked about my new surroundings and all I would have to do once I got settled in. I listened to her go on about finding a good doctor and finding churches to visit and deciding if I was going to work or not, because, she reminded me, I didn't really have to work if I didn't want to. I got the feeling she'd rather I stay inside my new house with the doors bolted, frightened and bored, until I couldn't take it anymore and decided it would be best to give up this foolish adventure and come back home. She made it abundantly clear my room would always be waiting for me. I listened to her go through all sorts of schemes and scenarios and found myself tuning her out by the time we were out of Georgia and in Tennessee.
I took a wrong turn and ended up lost in what I took to be the ghetto of Athens, since there were old appliances and used mattresses piled up in front of dirty run-down houses with grown disheveled yards and driveways with no remaining gravel most everywhere we looked. Old people sat on porches fanning themselves, and one little boy who was perhaps eight waved at us as we passed while he urinated on a trash can in front of a house where boards were across the windows and torn tarpaulins stretched across a roof that was only half there.
"Julia, turn this car around and get out of here right now!" Katherine said. She had one hand on the dashboard and the other gripping the door handle. "You are going to get us killed."
I pulled in a driveway and turned around. The car lurched when I put the transmission into Drive, and Katherine's head jerked forward and snapped back.
"You're never going to live to see this new house," she said. "This is exactly what I've been trying to warn you about. You just have no idea what you are doing."
I started to stop the car and tell her to get out. I wanted to drive away about fifty feet and make her think I was leaving her there to die, but I decided against it. The last thing in the world I needed to do was get her so upset she would go and do something legal to keep me from doing what I wanted. I needed to keep my cool.
We spotted Jim at the top of the hill, so Katherine calmed down quickly. Cell phones weren't that prevalent then, so I suppose it was distressing for her losing sight of her husband in the middle of a housing project in a strange town. I tried to act like it hadn't been that big of a deal, but I have to admit I was pretty scared for a minute, too. I'd seen such places on television before, but I'd never really been smack dab in the middle of one. It had been like landing on another planet or something. Everywhere I looked was strange and different and probably dangerous, too.
My new house was the third one on the left after we turned off one of the main roads that connected the town and the high school and the junior college. It was a small brick with a new roof and a carport. The moving van was just getting there, so I had to get out and show them where to put my bed and what little furniture I had, which was a chest and a kitchen table and an assortment of chairs from our old house I never had gotten rid of. I had our old sofa and Daddy's desk and chair and rocker. There wasn't much of a porch, but I had the old glider still, so I had them put that there. It wasn't until they got everything unloaded that I realized how little I had to show for somebody starting to become an old woman.
"You're going to have to do a little shopping, Julia," Katherine said. "You hardly have enough to set up housekeeping."
"I've got enough for right now," I told her. I knew it wouldn't happen too quickly, but I was already wishing she and Jim were back in their Lincoln and on the way back to Marietta. I knew it was better to let them leave on their own accord, though, and not by me going into a snit and running them off. I knew they were both looking for something to justify them taking control and getting me back in a place where I could be looked after.
We drove into town and ate supper at a restaurant called Molly Sue's, where we all ordered fried chicken and baked beans and potato salad. While we sat there the place filled up with couples and people off from work and families coming from somewhere. It wasn't so much like Marietta. Everybody here seemed to all be white, except where we'd been lost earlier in the afternoon.
Katherine and Jim left just after seven to go back home. I watched them turn the corner and stared after them until the taillights disappeared, then I sat down on the glider and watched it get dark. It was quiet and I counted the lightning bugs until I got to a hundred.
I was alone in my new home, waiting to be found again.
* * *
I never did find a job. Of course, that can be explained by the fact that I never went out looking for one. I sat in my new house and thought about how I'd have to dress up and go somewhere and try to sell myself as somebody hirable, and the more I thought about it the more I knew I just couldn't do it. I couldn't see myself taking aptitude tests or looking some employer square in the eye and telling him or her how skilled and reliable I was. Somehow I didn't think having the ability to complete difficult dives off a high board forty-something years ago was much of a selling point to my resume. So I found it easier to just sit.
Eventually, though, I had to venture out of the house for some things.
I couldn't order a Domino's pizza every night, because even if I had a truckload of money in the bank delivery people still wanted cash when they got to the door, and so I had to make my way down to my new bank to cash a check from time to time. I hadn't had cause to go into banks much over the last decade, and it came as a shock to me how no one had much of a preference for cash anymore. People seemed to like carrying their plastic cards around and swiping them whenever they wanted. I didn't like the idea of it much and did my best to stick to writing out my checks slowly and meticulously at the counter, but I could sense the impatience of the tellers waiting on me and the people behind me in line. It was a feeling I didn't enjoy too much, and there was something in my mind that told me this was the way the world was at every juncture now. The pace of life I had once known with Mother and Daddy and our sojourns into the land of everyday life was changed now from what I had known before -- changed forever. There would never be any going back to the way things used to be, not back in Marietta, and I wasn't going to find it these one hundred and fifty miles away in Athens either. I sensed in a strange small way standing there in that bank line how ill-equipped I was to go forward with my plan. I couldn't work and I couldn't go out into the world and face up to what it now was, and I certainly couldn't stay inside the place I was trying to make home without some way of channeling supplies in to feed me and keep me from admitting to myself what a desolate lonesome idea this had all been. I was not going to go forward with any plan of revival and redemption of myself, for I had never been born so much as to expect a rebirth of whatever there was that was me, and what loss of spirit or gift I might have once possessed was now so far gone there was no virtue in trying to retrieve so distant and dead a thing. I knew without going any farther with my masquerade that it was time to admit this had not been much of a plan at all. This had been merely an exercise in running away from what I was afraid would never happen.
For I didn't truly want Dennis to find me. I was afraid if I stayed where I was in Marietta he would never come back, and then I would be stuck with the fact in my mind that he was gone from me forever and wished to be that way, but by leaving my home perhaps it would be I would not know if he had returned to find me or not, and in that vast uncertainty maybe I could live in some form of anticipation of his coming to find me in that private detective manner he always said he would adopt.
I was hoping that by running away I would still be allowed the beauty of dreaming, but it was coming to me in sudden unending waves that this was not going to be.
* * *
So my grand experiment lasted just over two months. It ran through my mind to call Katherine and tell her I wanted to come back, but I still had enough pride left in me that I didn't want to see that look of triumph and supreme knowledge on her face when I asked, so I kept quiet and waited for her to make the decision for me. I knew it wouldn't take long.
She and Jim drove down to see me on Veteran's Day, and Katherine had a true fit when she saw I hadn't dusted or taken out the trash or even been eating regularly. She kept asking me questions and I just sat and didn't answer. I didn't see much need in opening my mouth. For one thing, I didn't have an answer to anything she asked me, and for another I couldn't tell her what I wanted to do next or anything like that. I could tell by the middle of the afternoon that I would be going home with them on the return trip to Marietta, and that my time of living alone as an independent single woman was over. I didn't put up too much of an argument, because it seemed to me there wasn't that much to fight over anymore, and the more I thought about it, I knew there hadn't been anything to fight about for a long time now.
"Julia, you're going to have to come back home with us," Katherine told me. It was like she was talking to her own little child again, but I remembered how my niece was not that little girl anymore, she was getting ready to go away to college now. She was a young lady. I was a little girl again, but I was an old woman too. It was like I was having a hard time deciding who and what I was. It was a familiar comfortable feeling. I was used to it, and maybe that was an okay thing right now.
"Okay," I said. "Okay."
* * *
It was more of the same as before when I got back to Marietta, but I truly didn't mind half so much as the last time. I was glad this time to have appointments to keep and programs to follow and people to see who were studying my status and deciding what would be best for me at this point in time, because it beat what I'd gone through before with all the purposeless factors of my life overwhelming me and sinking me down so deep there was no way to rise above it. It was nice to not think anymore, to simply sit back and allow the rest of the world to determine what was going to happen to me. I was more than glad to get the consequences of my actions out of my hands.
The initial course of action, of course, was for me to check into a hospital program and be reevaluated one more time. I sort of thought this was a useless phase to go through since I hadn't really changed too much from the last time -- just a little more assertive in my unacceptable behavior, I suppose -- but I kept my opinions to myself and checked in at the long row of buildings and dormitory-like rooms where I was to stay for the next twenty-one days until the powers that be had a handle on me and knew which road to lead me down this time. I had my own television and private bath, and three meals were served in a small cafeteria between the therapeutic sessions. At night it was like I was home again. I could watch TV until eleven. I didn't even mind being locked in so much. It was reassuring in a way, and it wasn't like I was going to go anywhere anyway.
I didn't cause any problems. I was a perfect patient the entire three weeks. I was agreeable and smiled a lot and nodded my head and cleaned my plate. I knew I wasn't fooling anybody because I could feel everyone on the staff watching me like a hawk, but I was determined not to cause anyone to evaluate me any more negatively than I'd already warranted. There comes a time, you know, when a person can get downright ashamed of themselves and the corners they've backed themselves into, and in the end they decide the thing to do is try not to make things worse attempting to right the course of events with the same equipment that got you where you were to start. I'd proven to myself and everyone over the years that I could make bad decisions. I thought it was high time I sat back and got wise and allowed the people who knew better figure it out for me.
When the three weeks ended Katherine and Jim drove me home and moved me back into their house. The only difference this time was I didn't get my same bedroom on the second floor, but got situated into a makeshift room on the first floor, in what used to be Katherine's sewing room. The reason for this is they were in the process of getting the house painted. When all the rooms were done they were putting the house up for sale and moving to something smaller. Since my niece was gone they didn't need a house this big anymore. This made me wonder about my own presence again. Had they planned on me being gone too? Or had they known all along I would soon be back? I didn't know if I was a given in being around or if I was an unexpected blight who appeared at the wrong time, like one of the plagues God and Moses visited upon Egypt from time to time.
After my weeks of being locked in and secure at the rehabilitation facility, it was initially somewhat scary being by myself at night on the first floor of the house. Katherine and Jim were on the third floor above me, and even straining my ears I couldn't detect any sound they made from up there. It was like they had disappeared into a great cloud when they walked up the stairway, and I was left below watching them disappear like one of those members of the crowd at Cape Canaveral, raising my chin up to see them for as long as I could. At first I kept the TV on, but Johnny Carson was retired, and I didn't like the newer hosts on any of the networks. I tried reading from Katherine's big wicker basket of magazines, but found I didn't know half the celebrities in People anymore, and Time only had articles about things I knew little about. After a few nights of tossing and turning and listening to nothing whatsoever I finally began raiding the refrigerator and eating pickles and olives and peanut butter with a spoon. I used to take my jar of Skippy and my spoon and go and sit by the pool in the December moonlight, shivering and wrapping myself in a blanket and looking at the tarp that covered the surface, wondering if there happened to be a high dive present if I would climb the ladder and look down at that cover with its puddles of water covering the concrete. Would I be brave enough to try a dive? No, I told myself, I wouldn't. I told myself it wasn't good to think about weird things like that anymore.
I was trying to decide if I was getting better or not, or if what I was doing was treading water like before and contemplating whether or not I was going to try that one difficult dive one more time. In the back of my mind I knew already I was through doing senseless maneuvers and turns, so the thought of flips and gyrations all for show and eventually nothing kept me from getting into anything deeper than I could wade through. This was good, I told myself. This kind of thinking meant I was coming to grips with myself at last.
I still had my car, though, and every so often I would take my keys in the middle of the day and go out to lunch somewhere, usually to the same meat-and-three those miles away out by Williamson. Most days the place was filled with kids from the college, sitting at tables by themselves reading, talking to friends while they ate, carrying their books in backpacks and satchels in these most wonderful days of their lives. I thought of myself at their age and wondered if my smile had been so bright, if I had possessed the same amount of happiness as they did now.
I probably wouldn't have done such a thing if I hadn't been feeling weirder than usual, but I drove through the three roads of the campus one day, checking out what had changed and what was still the same. It surprised me that I couldn't tell the difference either way, that my memory was lagging in those departments. Try as I may, I had trouble picturing myself walking these lanes, going in and out of doors, or just being here in this place at some distant part of the past. In a way, I still thought of myself as that same young woman, but in truth, I was so far removed from that vista I couldn't even imagine such moments in time. I wondered if this was the way all aging people thought of themselves as they journeyed on toward old age, or if I was just so weakened by my limited participation in the world that I didn't have the mental prowess to conjure up something that may or may not have been such a long while ago.
It wasn't so bad outside for a winter's day, so I pulled the car into a lot and got out for a minute. There was really not that much of a hint of coolness in the air, and I walked on down past the dorms and the student center and on up the main lane toward the convocation center. A Korean War memorial statue stood outside the stairs leading up to the outdoor courtyard, and on the ledge I could see a squad of geese resting before resuming the trip further south. Either I was invisible or they didn't consider me much of a threat, but I felt their eyes watching me as I climbed the steps to where they were.
"Hi, birdies," I told them.
I walked past the birds and made my way over to the doors of the auditorium and pulled on them to see if I could get inside. They were locked as I knew they would be, so I took some steps over to a railing and looked out at the street to watch the traffic come and go beneath me. Elevated like this, there was a slight breeze from the west, and I pulled my coat a little tighter around my neck, thinking how it had been a while since I'd felt the wind chill factor in my state of Georgia.
Right across that street, I told myself, although it's not there now, is where the parking lot was, where I parked the Mercedes and waited for my next class. It wasn't too long, I remembered, when it wasn't the next class I was waiting on at all. It was Dennis. I had given up my high board for those three years of Joel, for losing my virginity to someone who turned out not to give a damn, and I had sat there in that car thinking my life might as well be over.
Then, there he was. Dennis. That face I remembered being there before, being around. And there were words I heard, words I said, music in my ears -- all of a sudden they came like white flashes of light -- and suddenly I wasn't forgotten anymore, I wasn't just another pretty girl who didn't matter in the long run. Suddenly I mattered, and it was the strangest nicest thing I'd ever imagined myself to be. I was as special in that parking lot as I'd ever been on the high board. No, I told myself, what I had over there in that lot where houses are now was better than that moment on the high board, better than that feeling I had when I was in the air and in the middle of a dive, frozen up there in open space with the knowledge in my heart and soul that I had gotten it right this time. This time I had nailed it. And all I had to do was wait until the water greeted me, and I would be under the surface with only myself, knowing I had done something just then no one could ever take away. My existence was indeed special.
Yes, I thought, that was what it was like. That was what it was to be in love. That was what it is.
* * *
All afternoon I have sat in this room with Dennis and his obituary. Out of all the thoughts that have crossed my mind, I suppose the strangest of them is how I do not hold any ill feelings toward this man in the picture, even if it is obvious to most everyone that he is the one who left me hanging out here in the world. He never returned like I liked to think he'd promised he would, and somehow the years went by without me ever holding him accountable for any of that. It would be easy, I guess, for me to be that way. It would be as simple as adding one and one for me to state out loud right now that he has let me down and ruined my life. You are no better than any other man, I could say. You took from me what you wanted and when you had it in your possession you went away to other things. Other girls, I'd bet. Other loves. You had it just the way you wanted.
I look at the picture again and shake my head. I know that deep down this is just not true.
Dennis Barton loved me. A girl knows these things without anybody having to tell her. I was the one person in this world he trusted. I was the one he'd loved from afar, the girl he'd loved so much he'd thrown caution aside and allowed himself to come near. I am the one to whom he told the truth. I was all those things, and that was why he always returned, because there was something in me that wasn't contained in all the rest of the world he knew. I was like something he'd dreamed and looked for, and so he couldn't help but be drawn my way.
But Dennis always had a way of staying out of reach. I don't think he could help the way he was. He'd seen some bad things somewhere before I came along. He'd learned somehow the world couldn't be trusted. He also knew he was a part of that world, and somehow someday he would act in the same crass manner the world had acted toward him. He knew he would return the favor someday with a lot of interest, even to me.
I think he was afraid he would wind up doing such a bad thing to me, the only girl he had ever loved.
So no, I do not hold Dennis Barton accountable for what has been an idle life. Most people would examine my actions over the years and conclude that this relationship was a wasted existence, but I don't believe that is true. I have always done what I thought was right, and waiting for Dennis to finish his business with the world and be at peace when he came to me seemed like the proper path to follow. I think if the roles had been reversed he would have done the same for me. He would have waited until I came to him unencumbered with the strands of the world, free of everything but my love for him.
Looking at this photograph, I realize I have never seen Dennis in a suit and tie before. I wonder where this picture was taken, and for what occasion. In his list of survivors there is a daughter mentioned, an Elizabeth Susan Barton from Atlanta, but there is no mention of any wife either living or deceased. It is a form of relief to me that Dennis wasn't married, yet I wonder who the mother of his daughter is. Is she alive or dead? Does she know about Dennis' death and does she even care? Was she the woman he dressed up for in this picture? Why did they never marry? Did he leave her waiting too? That is a part of the story I don't truly want to know. If there was ever really someone else, I don't want to know about it. I'm sane enough to want to keep it all a mystery.
There are so many questions in my mind, but it doesn't bother me to never know the answers. I realize keeping myself oblivious is just a big case of denial, like the doctors keep stressing to me every time I check in for rehab, but I don't think they are totally right on that assumption. I think there are times when the truth is just not acceptable. I think there are a lot of people out in the world who can do better without having all those facts shoved down their throats like castor oil to cause them to regurgitate the safe harbor where they've managed to navigate their lives. Life can just be so cruel sometimes; it can tell you the wicked sorts of truths you really are better off not knowing.
The phone hasn't rung all afternoon, but I know Katherine has started to call me a thousand times. I'm sure the thought has run across her mind almost every minute that maybe she should leave and come home, that maybe I couldn't be trusted to be here at home by myself under the circumstances. I'll bet she's called Jim two or three times wondering what she should do. I can see her checking her calendar to see what she can juggle or postpone so she can come here and make certain her little sister doesn't drink Lysol or tie a concrete block around her leg and jump in the pool. I wish she'd understand that kind of thing isn't going to happen. I don't think I was ever anywhere near being in that state at any time down through the years, no matter how far away I believed Dennis Barton was from me.
Anyway, I expect somebody to come home very soon, so the time for me to sit in this chair and reflect with this photograph is growing short. While I can, and there's nobody here to interrupt, I'm just going to go ahead and say what I think.
"You should have trusted me," I tell him. "You should have known, after all the people in the world, that I was the one you didn't have to worry about. You had to know I wouldn't have done you wrong, not after I'd been so wronged myself and you'd come along and made it right again. Couldn't you see how grateful I was? You should have been able to see that we were put here for each other, that what we'd suffered through before was placed there by God so we could understand each other."
I am waiting for the tears to fall on my cheeks, but I am dry-eyed. I think this is what they call the peace that passes all understanding.
"It was all so we could love each other," I tell him. "I see it now."
I don't know how long I sit there like that, but there are shadows in the room and the sun is going down. I don't much like the winter; everything gets dark too fast. The night has never been a particularly good friend of mine. Sometimes in the dark you can see too much.
There's a squeal from the brakes of a school bus outside, and a few minutes later I hear the sound of Katherine's car and the automatic garage door going up. I sit here prepared for all the questions she will ask, though I know Katherine, and she will skirt around the issue if she can. She will talk of the weather and a new house she's looked at. She will tell me about the young man she hopes my niece is going to marry. She will click on the TV and allow the evening news and weather to fill the room with useless noise. There is a Falcons game on Sunday. I can go with Jim and her if I want. There is an extra ticket. Maybe we would like to go out and eat tonight. Do I feel like eating Italian?
"That sounds like a good idea." I hear my voice answer her. With someone present besides me and Dennis in his suit and tie, the sound of my words hang in the air like tonight's lead story or tomorrow's forecast. Something dire has happened, but no one knows all the details. Perhaps the weather will turn bad, but no one can be really sure. It is all something only tomorrow will tell, something to be learned next week.
On the television screen is a commercial for Mercedes Benz. A man and a woman lock arms and approach the car. To go where? Home? On a trip? They are dressed so nice. They are not too young and not too old. They are in love.
* * *
This is as good a night as any for me to keep watch. Just a jacket will do to sit outside for a time, and thank god I live in the South when it comes down to that. Wasn't it nice of Jim to paint my glider like he did? He knows it's one of the things I like the most, that and that old Mercedes sitting out back inside the garage. He's watched over that for me too, argued with Katherine about it and made sure she let it stay around. I'd sit out there in it tonight, but you can't really see anything from the garage. You can't watch the skies or listen to the night or hear a car coming if it rounds the corner by the community entrance. I don't know if hearing a car is all that important at this moment, because whoever turns the corner is probably not going to be driving by to see me. But it's a nice thing to think about, to remember, to think of all those nights as a girl when I'd sit and wait for Dennis to drive his car up that old hill by our old house in the old neighborhood. I would cozy up right here on this same glider where Daddy used to tell me stories and watch it get dark, waiting not so long when it wasn't summer, but sometimes near to forever in July and August, when the sun just wouldn't go away and make room for the moon and the stars and the fireflies. I never wore a watch, so I couldn't really tell what time it was, so I didn't know if he'd clocked out yet and was on his way or if I had a while longer to wait. Sometimes I'd try to parcel and count the time down in my head, imagining a clock dial inside my eyes with minute hands sweeping around the face until somewhere a chime would sound on an imaginary grandfather clock, and that's when I'd try and stretch my hearing and keen my eyes for the sound of his car or the sweep of his headlights.
I think it was in that moment when I anticipated his arrival that I felt myself alive so much. It was the feeling I had up on the high board, when I waited to take that first practiced polished step that would send me up into the air, away from the world where everybody else sat watching. Being with Dennis was always like that.
He and I were above that world of everyone else, out there in heaven by ourselves.