“We are all the same. Every one of us, cut from the same cloth. We aren’t so different. We are all looking for a place to call home.”
These words echo out of my sleep this morning before I fall back into reality. Coming back from such a dream jump-starts my heart, the same way a choir stomping on risers in unison will send a ripple across the room that goes right through you. It’s a shock for an 82-year-old heart. All of it.
The morning light floods through my closed eyes, the dream tumbling away so I can’t even begin to chase it. I would if I could, but my life has returned and I am an old woman again.
I lie in bed, still, listening to my husband Hank pounding on something out in the barn. It’s a comfort - the steadiness of Hank - always in the barn or the recliner or the next field. I appreciate things I can rely on. I try to be thankful while I make some space between me and that dream. The feelings it brought back to life. I count back, realizing I haven’t dreamt of my friend Ruth in over 20 years.
This bedroom is still cool, but it won’t be for long if I don’t close up the windows. Only June and already this summer hasn’t let up. I rise from the bed slowly, my body creaking with the bed springs and I shuffle slowly toward my window. I stand at the sill and linger, looking out at the sun as it tries to burn through the haze over Wisconsin. Our farm land comes into view in pieces. I gaze past our clothes hanging on the line in the yard, soaking wet from a thunderstorm that snuck up on me, toward the corn field and the trees popping out through the morning fog. The very same grove from my dream, but it’s not the same this morning. It’s not the place where I came to realize there really is a heaven on the earth.
I could get myself good and upset thinking about a life I lived long ago, so I shut those windows up tight to keep the cool air in and the blasted heat out. I appreciate my own forward thinking, since the heat has yet to arrive. I go about getting dressed and ready for my day.
I’ve been a good farm wife my whole life through, even as a girl growing up with all my family in the South. There were always gardens and chickens to tend, mouths to feed no matter who they belonged to. I have always hit the ground running on what needs to be done each day.
There isn’t much needing to be done around this house anymore. Every one of my five children, grown and gone, off living their own lives. Hank and I have been married so long now, we have a system. Ain’t much changes around here. I manage to keep busy enough.
I pause on my way down the stairs, finding my breath and letting my body catch up to me. I use the time to scan the family photos on the wall. Our kids, our grandkids. Even great-grandkids. A miracle, every one of them. I truly believe this.
At the base of the stairs is a photo of Hank and me from when we met almost 70 years ago. I look at the photo every single day, and I think about how Hank asking me to go walking and me saying yes created this whole family tree. Every single face on my wall, because he asked and I said yes. Even on my darkest days, there is strength there for me to hold on to.
I was just a girl growing up in Mississippi when I met Hank. He’s a few years older than me and we are different in many ways, so it took some time for my family to be sure we were a good fit and that I was old enough for such things. All those years, Hank told me that I was worth the wait. He earned my heart and eventually my family’s approval, mostly with the steady and gentle way he walks through the world.
We wanted to get married but prejudice ran rampant in the South back then. Our love was considered illegal because of the slightly darker hue of my skin and the particular quality of my hair. As if we aren’t all just human beings.
Hank just wanted to settle us in on a farm of our own and raise us a family. He said, “Lilly! Why would we want to build a life here if they don’t want us? We deserve better. Let’s go north to Wisconsin.”
The southern life was all I’d ever known and I had never even considered leaving, but I didn’t think on it for more than a day before I said yes. Hank is the only man I’ve ever kissed and the only man I’ve ever loved. I would still follow him wherever he tells me is safe. He is my home.
We’ve always looked like opposites together, what with his long legs and body, and my short, stocky one. The shock of blond hair he grew for many years and his creamy skin only accentuated our differences more. I’ve always believed the contrasts make us fit like puzzle pieces, and between us we have every color of the rainbow covered.
I leave the old photos on the wall where they belong, shaking my head at myself for the mood I’m carrying with me today. I shuffle my way to the back hall and put on my rubber boots. The early morning storm left a mist in its wake and I don’t need to carry the moisture through my day. I slip on Hank’s old parka in the back hall and head out to check on my garden and the chickens. Talk to my roses. I’m thankful the morning air is still cool enough to call for this bulky plastic layer so I don’t get my hair all wet.
Hanks huge coat just dwarfs me, even though I’m a stocky woman. I was straight as a stick for years, but after five babies, the roundness in my belly and breasts stayed. I have a set of hips to match. I don’t think much of my size. My husband has always made it clear how he thinks of my body and that’s all that matters for me.
I make my way down my steps and see Miss Jana Jenkins driving by in her pink car. She sells make-up and used to try to be friends with me until she realized I don’t give that sort of primping the time of day. But Jana! Talk about somebody who thinks about what they look like. That woman wears lipstick every place she goes. A new day, a new shade. All she talks about is the make-up, and how it changes your life.
Women these days and how they think about their own bodies and faces, comparing them and nitpicking them into some strange idea of just right. I think the TV is what does it, all those images of the job we are supposed to be doing as mothers and wives and women, and how we are supposed to look doing it. I don’t watch the stuff. I think it rots your brain.
Most times folks just baffle or irritate me with their narrow little views of the world, throwing every thought in their head around with no knowledge behind it, mimicking the politicians and movie stars. Caring about what people think instead of who they are. Seems to me very few folks worry about how things really are. No one really wants to know the real truth. It makes me tired so I just stay home.
What I do like to do is read books. I admit to liking the sweetness and swirl of a romance, but I will read almost anything. Now, I never had much school so there are a lot of things I don’t understand. I grew up pretty far back in the woods of Mississippi where no one was exactly pushing education. But I learned to read and write and do simple math. Seems to me I know just as much as most folks do. I get by just fine anyhow.
We left the South in the 1950s without looking back, taking our family, just Hank and me with a baby on the way, up to Wisconsin. We tried to set down roots in Milwaukee, but eventually landed in Green County, tucked into the rolling hills on our own little farm. And though the small towns of Wisconsin were less progressive than the bigger cities - still are - no one threw rocks, and we’ve lived our lives in freedom. We got out of the South because they still didn’t have any perspective in the ‘50s in terms of color.
I am darker than most folks, but not dark enough I’ve been told. My whole life, I never felt like I fit in. Eventually I realized I didn’t need to fit in with the whole world, just with certain people, and I stopped my worrying. I’m sure some of it comes from my history. Hank likes to tell people I’m a descendant of slaves and slave owners. He says it like it makes me special, but I know of plenty of families like mine. The white slave owners taking up with the slave ladies and girls, and at some point or another, along come some babies. When the Internet came out, with the miraculous way of documenting and researching your very own family tree, I had my youngest daughter help me. We pored over the documents and found just what I had always known. I come from both sides of slavery. No wonder I have always tried so hard to see everyone’s side.
The chickens aren’t exactly happy to see me this dreary morning, but they do get out of my way so I can do my job. I’m sure my big old boots help my cause. I try to enjoy the motion of my chores, keeping my hands busy so my mind doesn’t try to escape me. This morning I could go out looking for some fairy-tale in the grove of trees behind my house.
I let the pull of the past and its memories take seed and before I know it, I’m long down the path toward the grove, still carrying my basket of eggs. I can hardly remember collecting them and I don’t recall walking this way. I think briefly how Hank will be bitter I left my cell phone at home.
I veer off before the trees and walk slowly up the path through the corn fields. Hank’s parka swishes against the corn stalks - already grown past my hips from this heat - as I walk the trail toward the big swimming pond. Naturally fed off a spring, and the perfect place to keep kids cool in the summer.
I pause and look up the field toward Ruth’s house. It’s just her husband Fred living there now, and their grown daughter, Sarah. Megan moved out years ago. Truth is, it’s Ruth I’m searching for this morning, but she’s been dead almost 30 years and that is that. Tromping around this land in my boots isn’t going to change a single thing.
I look up the path to the pond, but I find Ruth there too. How we shared stories back in the day of skinny-dipping in those waters with our husbands when a wild hair caught us. We made peace with bugs - thick as Biblical plague - for a few stolen moments with our men beneath the moon. And how those very same bugs would sing us to sleep at night.
That damn dream… Bringing Ruth here to me so very clear on this hazy morning. I am the earth below and I can’t break through into the light. So today, I don’t resist. I let my mind and heart and weathered old body wander where they will.
I hear the words again, the ones that broke me out into the world this morning:
“We are all the same. Every one of us, cut from the same cloth. We aren’t so different. We are all looking for a place to call home.”
The words come through as a whisper, but it is in my own voice that I hear them. I let the words repeat and lead me down the path towards the grove I’m always avoiding. Where Ruth’s ashes live. I think back into my dream, so vivid and full of color and life, and I am carried away to a place and time that doesn’t exist anymore.
I arrive in the grove of trees behind my house, but somehow Ruth is still with me, and our girls are so little, laughing and playing at our feet. My grandbaby Jasmine with her mop of unruly curls. Ruth’s girls, Sarah and Megan, with their golden blond hair flowing all the way down their backs, covering wing-like shoulder blades peeking through sundresses. Not twins but less than a year apart and nearly identical, like matching bookends.
The wind rides in through the trees with the sound of wind chimes, though I know this land by heart and there are no wind chimes for miles. In my dream, we speak in our own language, one that doesn’t need words exactly.
We are made of magic, bits of stardust and the galaxies shining right out of us, like we are composed of all of this but we just don’t see because we are looking at all the wrong things.
Ruth is singing with the girls, her voice so beautiful and rich, filling not just the grove of trees but some empty place within myself. The girls sing too. Sarah, quiet, but steady. Megan, loud and bold. Jasmine, a strong solid force. Their voices harmonize, make something new together. I don’t know how they can sing so brilliantly and I just laugh in my dream. I’m so happy to return to this place that I don’t even question how the girls got so little again.
Megan runs over and kisses me, her tiny hands on my neck pulling me close. She loves me so, this little one. This fills my empty spaces with such joy too.
“Sing with us, Lilly,” she says to me, but her sweet child whisper comes through in my heart and not my ears. We are magic and don’t need our voices to hear each other.
Sarah stands peering out in the distance, like she’s waiting for something to arrive. I feel her hope run straight through me.
Ruth is the strongest light in that grove. She is so bright, she shines. She turns and smiles at me, this most treasured friend of my life. Her strawberry-blond hair flows on the breeze and sets the trees alive again with their wind chime melody.
“I’m always with you,” she says to me.
I feel her. Feel this love, this memory, this magical place. In this dream, it becomes real again and I know it. I brought it here.
“But I miss you so much,” I tell her, pleading and feeling the tears begin to swell.
But as soon as the sadness returns, Ruth is gone and so is the dream. So is the magic and the best times of my life.
I find myself standing on the edge of the grove, the basket of eggs still with me. I can’t say I remember walking here. There’s no more fog, only a bright twinkling of sunlight on the wet leaves. But no Ruth.
I look up the well-worn path that still weaves across the greens of our yards, straight through to the dirt from my screen door to Ruth’s. It was Ruth and Fred who helped my family get out of Milwaukee back in the early 1960s. So after Hank and I bought the land for the farm, we agreed on them buying the empty house on the property to raise their family. Hank wasn’t really much for selling the home, but we were both so grateful for what they had done for us. And we couldn’t ask for better neighbors. We gave them a decent price for it and we all settled in, our back yards reaching each other’s in the middle of the grove of trees.
I waited my whole life for a friend like Ruth. As a girl, I enjoyed the closeness of my siblings and cousins and playmates, but until I found Ruth, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about having a best friend. And we were that, living in our own little world, secrets and all.
Ruth and I could fill up a morning talking, tears rolling down our faces from laughing. I talked to her about the South, about how my husband Hank charmed me back when I was a girl. We shared our joys and worries about our babies, our marriages, and our hearts. It was worth the wait, having a friend like Ruth. I still miss her every day.
Ruth’s girls were little when she passed, Sarah having just turned 11 and Megan just 10. I promised Ruth I would look after them and I did as well as I could. I had some troubles of my own then, and a new flock of grandbabies to boot. Truth is, I’ve loved those girls like my own since they arrived on this earth. Would’ve moved them right in with me, but Fred wouldn’t have it. He loved them and did his best, but it’s hard for a man to raise children. Not that I haven’t met one or two men in my day who were so good with little ones I thought he must’ve been a mama in his past life, but that is the exception to the rule, it seems to me.
Both girls took their mama’s death hard. How could they not? It’s a terrible thing, this part of life called death. Run toward it and fly in its face, or run from it and live in fear, but it’s where we all end up. Just like a baby’s birth is an everyday miracle, death is the very other side of that coin.
We had many years of magic in that grove, and then it got taken from us. All of us struggled with the loss in our own way. We all have crosses to bear and sad stories we carry. We never spoke of ours. Sworn to secrecy, it seems.
I come back into my house and feel like I’ve been on a long adventure already and it’s not even 7 a.m. I’m not sure I have my wits about me yet, but I find Hank sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper. There is a large cooking pot and some eggs sitting out on the stove. A gallon of milk and some bread. Hank’s best attempt at making his own breakfast, sitting waiting for me to finish. I shake my head at him as he peers at me with a smirk over his morning paper.
“Get lost collecting eggs this morning, Miss Lilly?” He’s teasing but I’m in no mood. So many years I’ve spent trying to keep the peace, but I could go swinging this sadness right at him today. For whatever good it would do.
I let my gaze fall from his face to the newspaper. A story about some missing teens whose bodies they found. A fifth-time DWI offender. More hubbub about Governor Walker.
“I sure wish those newspapers would say something nice about the world once in a while!” I bark to Hank, but not really at Hank. He lets it slide by and doesn’t even look up. He knows me well enough to read me loud and clear this morning.
Most times though it’s the sad times folks want to hear all about, because truth be told, everyone likes a sad story. You’d argue it’s not true, but it seems everyone can arrive on time each day for the news broadcasts. All those crimes and hardships and plain old bad times. Look how everyone slows down to see the accident all close up and morbid-like.
What it comes down to is the hard times make us feel connected, because we’ve all had our share of sad days. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t telling you the truth.
The man I’ve been dreaming of my entire life showed up on a Monday. He just walked right in to my daddy’s diner on Main Street. I usually work in back doing the books and schedules, but Bonnie, who has waitressed for us since I was a girl, asked me to go around with some coffee during a rush. I’ve almost emptied the coffee pot when I notice him walk in the door, toward me and the dark booth in the corner. My favorite booth. Most people avoid that end of the diner, as it lacks the honor of the big bay windows on the other side. Here just dark paneling decorates the space, but I’ve always found it comforting and safe.
Time seems to slow to a dull crawl as he takes a seat and looks over at me with a true smile. He nods toward his coffee cup with a twinkle in his eye as if he knows me. I am no longer a praying woman, but I sure do pray I don’t pour coffee all over my dream man. I’ve dreamt of his face for nearly 30 years, since I was a small girl, and now he’s sitting two feet away from me. A dream come to life, in the flesh.
My sister Megan will tell you I am afraid of the male persuasion, and this is why I hold on to this fantasy but won’t talk to real men. But the truth is, I don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the men in which I have any attraction. I suppose I’m picky. I suppose I really don’t give many guys any kind of chance. I judge quickly and with bias. But shouldn’t we be picky with something so important? Shouldn’t we only do what honors our heart in matters of such intimacy?
I say these things to Meggie and she says, “Sarah! You are never going to get a boyfriend that way!” in her best whining voice. When I say this is fine with me since “a boyfriend” isn’t what I’m after, she scoffs, not even understanding how a woman could think such things much less believe them.
Until he arrived, it was an ordinary day. I spent the morning running errands, grocery shopping for the house, and then I drove up to Madison to the community college to pick up my book for the photography class I’ll be starting in a couple weeks.
“I would’ve thought you’d know everything there is to know about that camera by now, with all the time you spend staring into it,” says my father. He’s joking with me. For a long time now, he’s let me do my own thing as long as I get my work done at the diner and his supper on the table. Sadly, he does think the camera is a waste of time and money.
Dad is not a creative man. His dream was the diner and he runs it straight and narrow. No bells and whistles, just good business and good food and turn the sign and shut down the lights until tomorrow. I must have gotten my creative side from my mama, who I’ve been told liked to paint. I enrolled in the photography class because the idea spoke to me, and there just isn’t much I can say that about around here.
The tech school in Madison smells like every school in the universe. Cleaning supplies, box lunches, a cafeteria, maybe even the faint odor of books or copy machines. The combination of smells reminds me of my years in high school, quiet and studious. And how I couldn’t understand why no one else found the wealth of information around us fascinating. I studied religions and theories on the cosmos and Hitler’s terrible regime. Great writers dropped into my lap and I gobbled them up, emerging from each class and book feeling new.
My sister Megan spent our high school years on top of the cheerleading pyramid, or at least those are the moments I remember most clearly. She would stand up there on one leg with the boy cheerleader’s hands under her skirt (God knows where) and I would try to imagine I was Megan. What it would really be like to be Megan, with her wealth of available words and voice, thriving in all the attention I purposely avoided. In terms of looks, it wasn’t that far of a stretch, but our similarities end there. Friends and boys surrounded Megan while I encircled myself with characters and great thinkers in my books.
On the last day of high school, I returned to our locker after the yearbook signing party. Megan stood in front of her locker and mine, blocking half the row with her entourage of boys. Half a dozen, at least. They were all in line like signing Megan’s yearbook was a movie premiere, though we’d just been given the last hour to do so. I had spent the last hour of high school reading, as I felt compelled to leave my current book for no one.
I stumbled across The White Hotel and had never read anything so bizarre and sexual in my life. I felt as though I might get caught, as if I were hiding drugs or firearms in my hands instead of vivid fiction. So those boys gathered around my sister, and I ended up with one lonely signature in my yearbook. It was from my sister, and it read: “For fuck’s sake. I am the only person who signed your yearbook. Good thing I’m the only important one anyway. Love you, sis. XO.”
Meggie has always had a way with the boys. Even as a small child, she knew how to work a room. I remember recess in grade school, the two of us in our standard matching dresses and identical blond pigtails. We looked the same, barely a height difference between us and that was about all. But I would stand in silence observing her, while she enjoyed teasing the boys and being coy. She enchanted them without trying. She acted bored with them and they loved her all the more. I remember thinking I could do that if I wanted. I could play pretend too and make them like me. But then would they really like me, or just who I pretended to be?
I still think this way. I still see my sister enchant a man and think, “I could act like her and have men adore me and fall in love.” Well, I guess I should say I know what to do. I don’t know if it would work for me, if I could pull it off. Meggie does it so naturally, like a switch that gets flipped. She touches guys in some subtle way that seems to make them crazy. She ignores them at least half the time and has no consideration for their feelings or schedules or lives. And the craziest part is they still swoon.
Her magnetism isn’t about her looks, not really. Even now that motherhood has taken its toll and she’s not such a startling beauty, she possesses this quality with men. She carries herself apart and remains mysterious and still in charge. Really, she has a gift, if you ask me. If she were the type, she could write a book on the subject and help some girls out, maybe make a few bucks in the meantime. Of course, she’d have to see herself as good at this, and right now she’s all wrapped up in thinking she’s a failure because of her divorce from Darren and the mess that ensued.
Trying this out with men is tempting. But I haven’t, and I know now that I won’t. I want someone to care about me for me. And since I have yet to find such a man, why would I possibly want one in my life, or my bed, much less pressed up naked against my body?
Part of why I didn’t care about boys in high school is because I had one, at least for a time. Darren Jackson, a class ahead of me in school, played the star quarterback and was handsome as can be. I felt special when he asked me to the homecoming dance my sophomore year, because all the girls liked Darren, especially Megan. She was green as can be with jealousy, but Daddy said she was too young to date, so no more discussion. But since Megan ended up marrying Darren and having three kids with him, I guess she got the final word there. Typical Meggie.
Darren wasn’t thrown off by my quiet, shy nature. He listened about my books, but admitted often they were “really deep,” and he just didn’t get it. I couldn’t blame him for this, as people can only wrap their brain around the mysteries of this world for themselves. But we got along well enough. I was actually too scared to have sex with him, though we had our hot and heavy times in the back seat of his car and out at the drive-in. But just when I would start feeling the sort of sexual longing that get kids in trouble, I would stop feeling anything. I feared getting pregnant and Daddy or Hank killing us with their rifles. I also longed to see what could be found outside of Wisconsin. Getting married to the boy I dated in high school seemed a good way to suffocate that dream.
Darren went off to college to play football, but he sat the bench during the games. He took the transition from star player to backup very hard, and started drinking too much. He came home after a few semesters pretty angry that college wasn’t what he had imagined. Our school is small and the focus is more on getting kids to graduate, not to show them the long view of the world. This creates quite the shocker for the kid who finds his way to college but never knew the whole world outside this town even existed.
Darren and I parted ways during my senior year. He apparently held some idea even before I left that we’d be we’d be reunited when I finished college. We had cooled off a lot by then, and I had assumed he knew it over between us. I sat with him on my porch swing the weekend before I left for Chicago, telling him I would always care but he should move on, find a girl who wanted to settle down and have a family. I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever want to. Secretly, I did. But the American views on religion and marriage seemed so closed-minded to me. I wanted to see for myself what was going on in the world since I wasn’t sure what I believed yet, and that was my business.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was carrying with me a hole in my heart from losing Mama. I had to find out for myself that such a void can’t be pasted up and filled by a new place or school. I went off in search of the world, but in truth, I knew part of me embarked on a search for the man from my dreams.
The dreams started not long after Mama died, so they feel like they’ve always been with me. I could’ve told you what he looked like by heart long before I met him. Crisp and so vivid, the dreams come and go, changing in quality and type. Often, I only remember his presence in them, and with a glimpse of his face, my heart soars at his company, and then I fall heartbroken as he fades out with the light of day. I return to reality feeling as though I miss him and I spend a few hours trying to get out of that faraway place within myself. Megan doesn’t want to hear about it. At first, my visions fascinated her, but by high school they were just another thing setting me apart, and even now, Meggie mostly concentrates on fitting in.
I was praying for something back then, though I don’t remember what. I asked God to give me an answer. I seemed to know I wasn’t ready for whatever I was asking to find. And then I dreamt of this man - the man that I would see for many years only in my head. And in the first dream, God told me that this man was going to be my husband. Only He didn’t say it exactly. It was more like I felt the sentiment and the words were how they got through.
I told my Sunday school teacher, feeling excited. I thought she would be happy too, but she wasn’t. She threatened to talk to my father and our priest and made me sit in the corner with a Bible during class. She told me God doesn’t talk to us and anyone who says He does is blasphemous. She told me I’d better pray.
Had Meggie received the dream, she would’ve told that woman she was praying and the dream came as her answer. This is precisely how Megan storms through life and often finds trouble, but I am me, so I stayed silent. But in the moments of my punishment, I realized I already knew more than the grown-up Sunday school teacher. God’s presence in the dream overwhelmed me. I didn’t have the words to quantify it for many years, but I believe the first dream was some sort of miracle. And if my Sunday school teacher didn’t believe me, then she clearly did not know God. At least not the same God I knew.
I used her quick judgment and superiority as the catalyst in my choice to follow the God in my heart and not the one everyone else talks about. I marvel at my 11-year-old self, being brave enough to quietly search out my own religions and spirituality because I wasn’t being given anything useful. I can’t tell you what I was searching for back then, but I’m still searching for it.
The result has been spending my whole life like I’m on the verge of remembering something. As if the dreams of this man and the hazy pieces of my childhood are connected somehow. But I’ve never been able to put this puzzle together. Depending on the time in my life, this looming answer terrifies or excites me. But it seems no one who knows anything is talking. Regardless, since that day at Sunday school, I have kept my dream man to myself, with the exception of telling Meggie and later on, Lilly. Even now, he mostly resides in my heart.
I’ve finally acknowledged the man as the illusion Meggie always told me he was. I certainly no longer expect him to walk in the front door while I’m doing a coffee spin for the waitress. But he wanders in casually, strides across the room toward me and sits in my favorite booth in the corner. He’s watching me, and nods his head at me as he turns his coffee cup over to signal me with a smile.
I move in slow motion to fill his cup, wondering briefly if I’m dreaming. A combination of elation mixed with nausea sweeps over me so fiercely that I feel dizzy. I am forced to set the coffee pot down so I know this is real. I place my other hand on the booth where he sits in an attempt to steady myself. Bonnie rushes over in no time. Somewhere behind me, I hear her asking in a tinny voice if I’m all right, worried I might suddenly start dying of cancer right here in the restaurant. This seems to be the worry now. I appreciate the support, and of course I’m grateful. But the horrors of cancer are hard to forget when everyone is so convinced you might drop dead in front of them.
“Are you all right?” says a male voice I swear I’ve heard before. I notice his hand lay on the Formica amid the silver sparkles, just inches from mine. My gaze follows his forearm to his shoulders and then finally, his face. A small smile, but a frown of concern. Blue eyes. Soft freckles not faded from childhood. Wavy, brown hair. And his voice. All of it, as familiar as my own sister. Except I have never seen him in all my life, except for in my dreams and fantasies.
I promptly pass out.
Apparently, he caught me and lowered me to the ground. How he got out of that booth in time, I will never know. I woke up to his face, so calming, and not in my imagination, but real.
I’m known to create such a fuss. I seem to do this in situations where I don’t even open my mouth to say a word. And now everyone is more convinced than ever that I will die like my mama did. I can’t simply blurt out my real reason for fainting. That I merely just saw the man I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, the one I spent my childhood and young adult years believing I would marry.
Only I guess I’m wrong, because as he helps me to standing, he takes my hand and I see his wedding ring. This does not make me want to pass out. Now I want to cry. I never cry. Well, almost never. I have found little time for such an extravagance. Crying means a day of big puffy red eyes that tattle to everyone. It’s easier to keep myself together.
I force myself to look at him for a moment. My dream man, after all these years. I almost melt at his soft, concerned eyes. “Thank you for your help,” I say, but I can’t stop myself from frowning at him. I tell Bonnie I should go lie down for a bit. I turn my back on my dream husband, who is obviously someone different than what I had dreamt. I am numb more than anything in the face of the truth.
I feel fine. I know my passing out isn’t the cancer returning but a reaction to my dreams coming to life. The whole thing reminds me of the panic attacks I suffered from in my teen years after Mama died. My reaction does anyway. For years I was plagued with imaginary worries, and I would crumble trying to face those fears. For a while, I even did some of my high school studies from home. No one knew but Megan and Lilly, and our school counselor. The counselor liked me and told me to keep doing things my own way and everything would work out. And it has. It’s been many years since I’ve been struck down with such a panic attack, or whatever that was today at the diner.
I lie in my bed though I’m all right, taking advantage of the quiet and the light of dusk filling the room with pink warm color. I chastise myself for the hope of my childish fantasy still living within me. What a thing to still believe in! I might as well hope Santa can come down the chimney at Christmas and deliver me some babies to love on. I thought I had my feet under me, but I found myself so high up in the clouds, I keeled right over in the face of reality.
And yet, how strange that such a man really exists. And everything about him is exactly as in my dreams. And he walked into Daddy’s diner. Why did he have to seem so kind? He couldn’t know me, but he acted like he did. Who is he? What is he doing here in this little town?
Megan brought her kids over while I rested. The loud clanking of her cooking has been making its way up the stairs for an hour. Daddy will be home soon, and I suppose I’ll have to go down and join them. Or go to the doctor tomorrow to prove I’m all right. They’ll come up to get me, assuming I’m napping, so I wait. Lie still on the bed and feel each and every breath reach down into my belly, watching the rise and release of the air. I feel the humidity of the room on the second floor, and notice the soft pink light of the evening creeping across my room. I look around the space, plain and tidy. Photos of Meggie and me growing up, tucked into the frame of the mirror on my dresser. Some photos I’ve taken of Megan’s kids. One of Lilly and my mama in our garden where my mother has to be a million years younger than I am now. Both of them laughing open-mouthed and so happy, streams of sunlight reaching around them. Mama looks lovely and not at all like someone who was about to get sick.
Megan and I shared this room and even the bed, back in the day. She didn’t really move into the room down the hall until her thirteenth birthday when she wanted time with her friends or the boys on the phone without my watchful eye. I look at the pink rose-petal wallpaper that I still love. The poster bed. A bench by the window with pillows, looking out toward the orchard and Lilly.
I am suddenly claustrophobic about the fact that I am 40 years old, but I might as well be seven or a hundred. I am still in this room. Nothing has changed. The whole world - Daddy, Meggie, even Lilly in her way - they all grow and change. They evolve. But what do I do?
I thought I had evolved, once upon a time. I thought I wouldn’t come back here. I truly believed I would spend my whole amazing life outside this little town. I would leave the sadness behind me like a cloud of dust that settles and gets forgotten. I thought I would find some new place, a new job, a new person to begin with. But what I found is the hard things in life - just like the good - we carry those with us wherever we go, only on the inside. And when I got that call about Daddy and his heart, I came home. What else could I do? I couldn’t leave Meggie to deal with it. She felt up to her eyeballs in life as it was, and I had already lost Mama. Suddenly all those ideas and amazing realizations from school disappeared in the words “Daddy had a heart attack.” I came home. Took over at the diner. Took care of Daddy, and then Meggie with her new babies. Life moved on, every single day. But I didn’t. I never did.
I look up at the corkboard by my desk, full of magazine clippings from National Geographic and other travel magazines. Faraway places I would love to photograph. Dreams, nothing more. It’s not just the money, which I don’t have. I can handle the dream - that part is exciting and alluring - but could I really travel to all these places all over the world? Especially since I have a hard enough time talking in average ordinary America.
So I compromise. I take weekend trips with friends. I try out kayaking and rock climbing, or sometimes girls’ weekends wine tasting. It’s not exactly what I’m searching for, but it’s closer than what I’m finding in my living room.
A knock downstairs on the front door jars me out of my daydream. I shake my head at myself, at the things I will do with my brain if left to my own devices for a few minutes. I change into some jeans and an old t-shirt to head down for dinner. I steal a look in the mirror in the hallway as I pass by. I so rarely take the time to notice myself that my reflection always startles me somehow.
I’m tan and my normally dusty blond hair is highlighted from the sun. I’m thinner and more muscular than I’ve ever been. My face is thinner too, but the lines around my eyes show more when I smile. I don’t mind them. I always think I’ve earned them. I just look healthy, and feel satisfied and surprised all at once. I head down to dinner.
Riley and Caroline, my nephew and niece, are on the porch, shucking corn. I see them through the window and try to slip through the squeaky screen door quietly. I sit beside Caroline on the lumpy old sofa we keep out here and grab an ear of corn to help.
“Hey guys,” I say, trying to sound normal. There is no way they don’t know everything about this afternoon at the diner. They probably know more than I do since I’ve been unconscious or been hiding out in my room ever since. Of course Meggie would have told them I passed out. She never could keep her mouth shut.
“How are you feeling?” asks Riley. For an eight-year-old boy, he is a little mother in training. He is always taking out the garbage without being asked, toting around Noah, his huge toddler brother. He even helps get the little guy dressed and changes diapers. Riley’s sweetness is all Meggie, but his face reminds me so much of a young version of Darren, as if I can watch him grow up again through his son, my nephew. He reaches out to me and I gather him onto my lap.
“You know, I’m all right, Bug. I am. I went too long without eating is all. Just plumb forgot.” He looks at me warily, as if searching me for cancer. I let him look, hoping his keen sight will show him I really am fine. He breaks out into the smile I love and nuzzles his nose into my cheek. I breathe him in, thinking he smells like love.
Riley scrambles off my lap, satisfied. I pick up my ear of corn and glance at Caroline. She gives me a smile from wide eyes and I know everything is fine. She brushes back her long brown hair and starts telling me how Bonnie wanted to call 911 even after I walked out the door and how Daddy sat here downstairs all day just in case.
“And Grandpa called Mom to make him dinner, because apparently he doesn’t know how to order pizza…” she says and I laugh. She has a quick wit I appreciate. Even at 13 years old, she carries a force I have lacked my whole life. She is Meggie’s daughter, for sure. But Caroline and I share the love of stories and faraway places and photography. She never sounds her age to me, no matter what we’re talking about. Wise beyond her years.
These children are the closest I have to my own. I love them inordinately. When I was sick, I worried most about what my death would do to them. My biggest fear for myself was how much I would miss them.
We sit comfortably shucking corn, my fingers running over the gold strands that feel so much like Barbie hair. I want to braid them, but I don’t want the kids to see how odd I’m feeling. And I am feeling odd, still. I thought coming downstairs would help shake the man from the diner, but it hasn’t. I want to tell him to get out of my head.
“A man was here asking for you. I think Grandpa took him to his shed.” Caroline says this matter-of-fact.
I breathe in deep around the sudden lump in my throat. The loud sound I create makes both kids look up at me from their shucking with open mouths and big eyes.
“Who?” is all I’m able to manage.
Caroline answers again. “I guess he was at the diner and lowered you to the ground. Held your head on his lap until you came to. He’s an out-of-towner. A doctor, I guess. He wanted to know if you were all right. Nice, huh? Grandpa is talking to him.”
My mind races around itself. Here? He’s here? And with Dad in the shed, no doubt showing this guy all his birdhouse projects and telling him every detail of my life. Jesus. Who is he anyway, and how come I can’t shake him? But then, why would that surprise me? I’ve been dreaming of him my whole life. It sort of makes me feel like I brought him here, no matter how crazy it sounds.
Dad knocks on the screen door but only opens it an inch, peering at me through the crack nervously.
“Sarah?” he asks, though he can plainly see me. “You up for some company?”
I can’t think of a thing in the world to say, so I just nod and finally manage a “Sure.” This is like my childhood, when I had no voice. I merely relied on my sister to use hers for the both of us.
Lilly tells me that people are shy sometimes because they don’t trust themselves. She says other times, it’s just because you value yourself so much that you hold your thoughts sacred. And since you don’t need anybody’s approval, there is no reason to throw around what you know. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think of this as my dream man enters the room.
He’s tall and trim, like he takes care of himself but not like he lives at the gym. I would guess he’s my age, 40 or so. Maybe older, because carries himself really confidently. He should be confident, I think, because he’s truly is gorgeous. Though I’ve known his face for years, it is unsettling how attracted I am to him. I so rarely feel this way for anyone, and I’m almost put off how much it affects me.
He has a full head of brown hair with a few strands of gray glistening in the mix. I can’t decide if he’s really so attractive or he just is to me. I pause in my onceover on the small wrinkles forming around his eyes, gentle and comforting, like he fits into them. Like a pair of jeans you love. He brings into the room a wave of relief that flows through me and I settle down. I have no idea why I feel calmer. Almost no one makes me feel this way.
He ducks his tall frame into the low doorway on the porch, wringing his hands together some as if he’s nervous too. But his smile, his sweet face. I smile back, an honest real smile because he just feels so very much like a friend. From somewhere inside of me, I find the strength to stand up and walk over. I shake his hand and manage to say, “Thank you for today. Won’t you sit down?”
He nods as I gesture toward the chair beside the sofa. Daddy has gathered the kids and the corn off the porch, telling me dinner will be ready soon and I am welcome to ask my friend to stay. I feel 14, so really not that much different than how I usually feel. I am certain my dad told him all about the cancer, about Mama dying, about no babies for me. About what a help I am. No matter how shy I am with my own voice, no one seems to think twice about telling my stories for me.
But the truth is I run this house and this business and this family, and no one notices. They think they have to protect me. Regardless of how much I take on, they can’t see there is no one here in need of saving. Understanding, yes. But not saving.
We sit in silence until the room clears, and then it’s just him and me and the crickets. I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything. I sit playing with some strands of corn silk that got left behind. When I finally glance up at him, he’s perched out of his chair towards me, looking at me like he can see right through.
“I...I was worried about you,” he says gently, as if he really means it. I cock my head at him like Lilly’s dog does when I say “scraps,” because I can’t think of why he would be here, worrying about a perfect stranger.
“Why?” I ask, too sharp. I can tell by how his face reacts. Then I say, “It’s just… That’s nice. But you don’t even know me.” I say this gentler, because he has been nothing but kind. The part of this scenario that is one big, strange illusion is mine, not his.
“I know. I’m not really sure why I’m here. I thought of you all day, hoping you were all right. I wouldn’t have slept if I hadn’t checked on you. I… I didn’t mean to bother you.” He starts to get up, like he’s going to leave. I wonder once again how I can cause such a problem using so few words. In a competition for such things, I would take the gold all the time. He’s being nice and I should let him be nice.
“Please don’t go. You were kind to stop by. I just get tired of everyone acting like I might keel over…” I stop mid-sentence and then start to laugh. I look up at this stranger and realize I don’t even know his name. He’s studying me quizzically, but still with that gentle smile. As if he finds me amusing.
“And then I did go and keel over,” I say. “I’m Sarah.”
“I’m Jacob,” he tells me. He reaches out his hand to mine and I take it, letting it linger for a moment. I don’t want to let go. The warmth stays with me long after he takes his hand back. I close my hand around the feeling as if it’s something I can keep.
“So, Jacob. What brings you to this town, other than saving damsels in distress from cracking their heads open in their fathers’ diners?”
This time he laughs, a real laugh, and it comes from deep inside of him, all the way down to his feet. It’s contagious and I laugh, too.
“I’m here for a conference at the hospital. We’re staying at the little inn next to the diner.”
“The hospital in Monroe? You have to drive all the way in? Why not stay in town then?”
I’m being nosy. It’s a small-town privilege. Although he does not seem like he’s from any small town that I’ve ever been to.
“I’m not a fan of cities, truthfully. Or those big-box hotels. I’d rather be somewhere that feels like home.”
I feel a chill at his words. Summer arrived early and in full force and it hasn’t really cooled off since. This June evening is plenty warm enough, but I’m suddenly cold anyway. He notices, takes the quilt my mama made off the back of the sofa, unfolds it halfway and steps closer to me to wrap it around my shoulders. I look up at him as he does this and feel drunk from the closeness. I suddenly want to tell him everything. Just let all the things I never talk about come spilling out with the breeze. About my dreams of him, about Mama and Lilly and Meggie and how I will never have babies. And then I see his ring finger and it’s empty. The thoughts stop. This is someone’s husband, and yet now he has no ring on. Is he trying to hide the fact he’s married? Or…
“Dinner!” I hear Meggie yell from the belly of the house. I look up at Jacob’s face and can tell he is studying me. Our eyes lock and I don’t look away from this stranger. Jacob. My dream man, on my porch.
I say to hell with all of it.
“Would you like to join us for dinner?” I ask. And he says yes.
The table in the dining room is set, which only happens when I do it for Sundays or holidays or special occasions. It seems strange that it’s set up without me, as if I missed something. It makes having Jacob here for dinner seem more meaningful, and I’m not sure I want that. I feel like I’m riding a Tilt-A-Whirl, trying to keep my thoughts on something steady. But it’s only my thoughts swirling around. My feet stay under me. I don’t panic or need to retreat to my room. I can’t say I’ve shaken my nerves around the situation, but I know the fear or whatever made me pass out is gone. It disappeared when Jacob walked in the door.
I sit across from Jacob, with Daddy and Megan at the heads of the table and one of the kids next to each of us. Little Noah is on Meggie’s lap. We pass potatoes and corn around the table while Dad cuts the chicken. There is a pitcher of lemonade and one of water on the table. There is also a glass of milk for everyone, including me, even though I haven’t drunk a glass of milk since I turned 14, when I realized from reading I have an intolerance to dairy. I count back, realizing 25 years have gone by and my family doesn’t know. It’s tempting to let it upset me, but I shake it off. I am lucky enough to be at a table full of food with people who love me, who have done so much for me. And I think maybe the only person we really know well is ourselves, anyway.
Daddy asks Jacob about what it’s like to be a doctor. I’m not a fan of hospitals, or blood and gore, or even medical tubing. But his answer isn’t what I expect.
“I deliver babies by profession, and every single time it’s an honor worth all of medical school. It happens every day, but it’s still a miracle. And with the medical industry being in such a transitional stage, I have gotten into some research and practical applications on stem cell use for severely disabled children. It’s exciting and… excruciating. Full of hope and failure, but I believe we end up where we belong. I believe we are led to where we need to be in life.” He looks at me when he says this and I feel a wave pass through me, like a fault line opened up under Wisconsin and started shaking the earth. No one else seems to notice.
Jacob is easy to listen to and have here, chatting with the kids in the lulls and it’s clear he has his own experience with kids. He alternates between smiling at me across the table as if we share a secret and then seeming shy. I stay quiet, listening to it all, watching it unfold.
Meggie doesn’t say much, she just eats her dinner and feeds Noah quietly. She looks tired, exhausted really. Her hair is dishwater blond now, almost brown from not dyeing it anymore, and always up in a bun. No make-up or trendy clothes and shoes like when we were in high school. She used to shine, I think to myself, but now she seems put off. Today I’m sure it’s because of me. But I didn’t ask her to cook dinner. She needs to learn to use her words and plumb say no to our father. I found my voice with him a long time ago, but it’s almost like Megan thinks how happy Daddy is with her has something to do with whether he loves her or not. I tell Dad to cook a frozen dinner and be thankful for the television when I can’t make supper.
Megan has a hard life, harder than mine in many ways. The dark circles under her eyes show it even if she doesn’t say. I know she works too hard at everything and sleeps way too little. I worry about her working so hard because she’s from the same cancerous gene pool that I am. I know she’s doing all she can. She is a good mother to those kids, but she has to work so hard. I help her as much as I can, because I don’t really need much, but the truth is the diner doesn’t cover more than Daddy and some socked away for if he gets really sick. None of us have much. And she is outnumbered by those kids. They keep her running.
It makes me wonder about Jacob, about his house and who lives there. No one even asks him if he’s married because there is no ring. Maybe he’s divorcing and finally got up the nerve to take off the ring? I almost wish someone would ask, but he is genuinely good company and by the time we are all clearing plates, it feels like an old friend is visiting.
Riley wants to take him to the greenhouse to see the bugs he’s collected, but Megan says no. She takes the kids home and Dad retires to his recliner to watch some PBS. Jacob says he should head back to the hotel, so I walk him outside to his rental car. It’s dark out by us, still not the middle of town. There are a million stars and we both stand with our faces towards the sky.
“Have you ever been to the mountains?” he asks me. I shake my head no.
“When you drive, or climb up to some of the higher peaks, the sky ends up below you. So that the stars are down by your feet, like you could touch them.” He says this and shows me with his hands, and I think it is such a dreamy thought for a man of science. He is a mystery to me, and maybe that is the attraction. That and I’ve known him in my mind and my dreams for my entire life.
He kicks at the dirt for a minute and I wait. Being mostly silent has its perks, one of them being that you can always tell when someone has something to say. “I know this is probably forward or unusual, but would you have dinner with me?”