August was ended and Labor Day done by the time he felt well enough to travel and the inquiries were done about his killing of the attacker who nearly ended his life and the life of his partner. This time I made sure my vacation coincided with his day by day, for the first time.
He turned down my offer to pick him up at the airport, telling me he was well enough to drive. Waiting on my front porch for his rental car to pull up, I was profoundly aware that this visit was on a footing different from all his others. "I was just lying there on my back," he'd written in an e-mail a couple weeks ago, "thinking I never was going to have the chance to see you again. Thinking about the things I never said to you because I was afraid to take the chance. I'm going to have to say them to you, but I don't want to lose your friendship, okay? Promise me that if I come off sounding stupid, you won't stop being friends." He was going to say things to me that would risk our friendship, that would rattle it and make it into something new. I replied with a single sentence, my hands shaking so nervously that I mistyped nearly every word two and three times, "I promise I won't stop being your friend." Meaning: Say all the things you were afraid to say. I want to hear all those things.
How should I greet him? Pounce on him, shrieking, as Andersol did in her uninhibited delight? No, might hurt him -- he said he was still a little sore in spots. Shake hands with him, staring meaningfully into his eyes? Nahhh, that looks good in the movies, but you know you're going to blush and stutter, and you don't want to look dumb in this scene. Grip him by the shoulders? Forget that, what would he do with his hands?
His car pulled up, and before he could shut off the engine, Mary was off the sidewalk and waiting by his door. He got out and they hugged gently, the mother taking stock of her offspring, reconnecting with the life that she and her long-dead love had created. She knew him as an infant learning to say "Mama," I thought. And as a kindergartener, headed off for his first day of school. She would have seen him in his first suit and tie, and does he look to her just the same in the suit he was wearing now? My eyes blurred.
"SULLY, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?" Mary shouted, loud enough for the entire block to hear.
I met him on the sidewalk, and hugged him as gently as Mary had. Then the question of how to proceed was answered for me, as he kept one arm around me. I draped my right arm around his waist, by way of saying I welcomed the gesture, and felt a thrill as his left hand caressed my shoulder. He put his right arm around his mother and dragged us both towards her house. "Why are you women keepin' me standing in this sun? I'm an invalid, remember? Where's the nice, icy beer?"
"John," I said, in loving tones as I gently squeezed his right side.
His face went slack and he stared into my eyes as though he was trying to read the back of my retinas. "What, Sully?" he said, his eyebrows furrowing into concern and anticipation.
"You're still an ass."
Mary laughed her wild laugh, trying to smother it with her hand.
John's eyes narrowed. "Well, just you remember, Sweetcakes, it takes one to know one."
I gasped at the nickname, and Mary left us, laughing harder, and hurried to her downstairs bathroom. "Shame on you, see what you've done?"
"Yeah, I gave my mother a chance to sit down. That leaves you to fetch me a beer." He was laughing, too, and I was taken by the almost colorless gray of his eyes.
"Only because you're a public servant," I said, and reluctantly moved away from his touch to open the refrigerator.
"Hey, hey," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "I was only kidding. You don't have to get me nothing."
I took three bottles from the refrigerator and put them on Mary's kitchen table. "I don't have to get you anything. I don't have to talk to you, I don't have to visit with you, I don't have to like you. I know that. Maybe I just want to. Maybe I just wish I had -- " my voice failed. I looked away from him, determined not to break down and blubber all over him.
He put his arms around me again. "Sully, don't cry. I'm fine. I'm fine. Oh, Jeeze," he said as I turned my head so that my nose was touching his earlobe.
"I'm not crying, I'm just sweating from the eyeballs," I whispered directly into his ear, and he shivered.
He drew me away a little, grinning. "Now that was just low down and dirty."
"It was, wasn't it? I'm so ashamed, John, I can't imagine what I was thinking," I said insincerely.
His eyes glittered challengingly; he lifted my chin with his right hand. Our first kiss was imminent, and my blood roared like the sound of the sea in my ears.
"Whoops," said Mary, who had entered the kitchen unheard, and now did an about-face.
"No!" John and I cried together. "Ma!" he said emphatically as I said "Mary!"
"Mary!" I said again. "Here's your beer, for a toast to John."
"I don't want to interrupt," she said.
"She had something in her eye," John said. "You weren't interrupting nothing."
"Anything, John. I wasn't interrupting anything." She pressed her lips together pretending to look prim, but her eyes were twinkling. The conniving old bat finally got what she wanted, didn't she?
"Here's to John," I said holding out my bottle. "May he have a long and happy life."
"Here, here," Mary agreed, clinking bottles. "And learn how to speak English properly."
After our early supper, and after John had changed into a t-shirt and jeans, we brought Gabe over and with great exhortations to "Be gentle!" let him greet John, which he did with much puffing and groaning with excitement.
"You could take lessons from your dog on how to welcome me," John whispered out the side of his mouth when his mother went to turn off the kitchen fan.
"Gabe, heel!" I commanded, and the dog swung to my left side, ears pricked at the prospect of a new task. "Sit." He sat, still watching me. "Down." With a mumble of disagreement, he stretched his big yellow legs out before him. "Up, Gabe!" He leaped to his feet. "Stay." I walked across the room. "Here," I said, and snapped my fingers. Gabe threw himself against my legs and rubbed his face on my belly. I looked pointedly at John. "You could take lessons on how to behave."
"Would you like another beer, John?" called his mother from the kitchen.
"Yeah, Ma, thanks! All this arguing with Sully here is drying out my throat."
Mary walked over to the couch where John had sprawled. "Speak!" she said, holding the little bottle above his head.
"You guys are trying to insult me," he said. "Woof."
An hour later, John was soundly asleep on the couch with Gabe snoozing on the floor beside him. Mary and I tiptoed out to her backyard patio, where the little fountain she maintained burbled a comforting sound. Gabe remained beside John, to my surprise.
"Maybe he knows that John was hurt," Mary said, "and he wants to protect him."
I sighed. "I guess all of us have that instinct kicking in, don't we."
"Sully, I've done something that I need your advice about," she said. "I'm afraid that you'll be upset with me."
"You signed me up for aerobics at the gym."
"No, I'd never do that."
"You've been in contact with my ex-husband."
"Oh! Good God, no!"
"I'm going to go to Reno."
Blinking in the dimming light, I tried to understand why she thought I would mind. "You and Albert are going to run off and get married?"
She cackled. "Well, maybe, but not this time. I'm going to Reno with Lourdie and a couple other girls from the parish, to play the slots and see a show or two. It's a tour group, so we don't have to drive."
"And why would that upset me? I don't mind if people gamble."
"I'm going tomorrow afternoon."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, like in cartoons, her tour bus ran me down with a loud "Beeeeeooooooomm!" Flattened out on the cartoon highway, with little birds circling my head.
"Can you keep John entertained for me?"
All I could think of was his eyes, and being all alone with him. "Umm, yeah. If he gets restless, I'll drag him up to Port Laughton and set the kids on him. I'm not upset, Mary, just surprised, I guess."
"We've been planning this escapade since last February. I was just going to cancel out when John was shot, but he's doing so well now, and he's going to be here until the twenty-eighth, and you and he seem to be getting along like wildfire ... "
Wildfire. Yes, Mary, just run off and leave a wildfire to burn. "Have you told John yet?"
"Oh, hell, no, he's such a stick-in-the-mud, he'd have a fit. He hates gambling."
I snorted. "He plays poker."
"He thinks poker is a game of skill, not gambling. I'll tell him when I'm leaving so that he has no chance to shout at me about the evils of the sinful casinos." At my silence, she asked feebly, "Are you angry with me?"
In the dim light I reached out and took her bony hand. "No. No, I'm not. Just don't bet the ranch, okay?"
"Ayee-hee-hee!" she laughed. "Oh, no, Sully, I have a sock full of quarters for just this occasion." She held up her hand by her mouth and said quietly, "Just keep my son out of my hair and I'll cut you in on the winnings for ten percent."
We both laughed loudly, and then jumped in our chairs to see John standing inside the screen door, watching us. "What are you two hens cackling about?" he asked, sounding like he was still sleepy.
"About you and your first dish of spaghetti," I lied.
"Ma, you didn't."
"I didn't show her the picture we took of you -- yet." Mary said.
"There oughtta be a law," he said, and went to the refrigerator for the pitcher of iced tea.
I said goodnight to Mary.
John said, "I'm going to walk Sully home and make sure she doesn't lose her way, okay?"
"Don't be afraid to ask directions," Mary called after us.
"You two really have it in for me this time," he said.
Serious for a moment, I said, "Yes, we do. You could have been killed." We stepped over the low hedge between our yards. "Part of it is just hijinks because you're alive and we can tease you, and some of it is to make you think about the present and leave your wounds behind you."
He leaned against the pillar on my front porch while I opened the door and put Gabe in. "So is it hijinks or psychology or what?"
"With what?" I asked, moving closer to him.
"With me." He seemed troubled, but I couldn't see his expression clearly in the shadow of the porch. "I guess I want to know if you're just trying to make me feel good, or just teasing, or ... what."
The palms of my hands itched to explore his shoulders, his back, his neck. His leaning put him at almost exactly my height. "What. I think we're talking about the 'What' category here." I touched his face with my right hand. If he was getting scared off, he needed to say something soon.
"Where I come from, that move is an invitation for a kiss," he said tentatively, taking his hands from his pockets.
"Would that offend you?" I asked, thinking, In for a penny, in for a pound.
"No, ma'am, I just -- "
I kissed his mouth, dragging my lips across his, and as his arms embraced me, I melted against him like I was making a contour map by touch. His right arm swept up my back to support my neck, and he took over the kissing operation with an urgency that begged to be free of teasing or therapy. I let myself drown in the fireworks of sensation that I'd forgotten existed.
We paused, breathing heavily, foreheads touching. He was only a few inches taller than I was, everything so perfectly within reach. I was pulling his shoulders against me again when Mary opened her front door and peered over at my house. She disappeared again.
"Crap," he muttered. "She's probably wanting to close up the house so she can go to bed, and I don't have a key on me."
"Maybe she'll lock you out," I said into his mouth, prompting another desperate kiss.
"Nah, she'll stay up all night rather than take the chance of me having to sleep on the porch."
"While I was in the hospital, I got malaria. You're gonna have to be careful with me."
I leaned my head back and laughed. "Go ease your mother's mind," I said to him. "I'll try to find some gin and quinine to treat you."
After he'd stepped over the hedge, he turned and looked back at me. I couldn't see any expression, but his shape in the shadows was so stunningly wild, like a coyote caught in a spotlight at night, that I began to burn like Mary's mention of wildfires.
I went inside my house, took a shower, put on an attractive nightgown, and waited on the couch by the windows for him to reappear.