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Walking Away

Charlie Hudson

“It took me a long time to learn when to walk away,” Stephanie said in a voice that could only come with the willingness to embrace mistakes of youth as the soil in which wisdom takes root. A cosmic unfairness to be sure, to rarely be able to combine a lithe body with understanding human frailty. Ah yes, the if only I knew then what I know now…

“Don’t you believe in fighting for what you want? You think it’s better to just give up?” Crystal’s voice was filled with emotion, an uncried, wrenching sob of impending loss; of certainty that no one else in the world had ever felt such devastation. No matter that, in truth, this was not her first time to be drawn to a man who was as wrong for her as he was charming.

Stephanie brought her thoughts back to her niece. “Walking away is not the same as giving up. Learning that is what’s difficult.” Stephanie flexed her hand, refilled Crystal’s wineglass and returned the bottle of Vouvray to the acrylic lined pewter wine bucket. This was not a conversation for tea, their usual afternoon beverage. The square pewter tray of cubed Jarlsberg and smoked Gouda cheeses, sesame crackers and grapes she’d placed between them was untouched. Stephanie prepared a cracker and popped it into her mouth when Crystal shook her head.

They sat at her teak bistro table, armless chairs angled toward the water, glare from the sun interrupted by streaks of clouds breaking the blue expanse. It was calmer today than it had been, winds subsiding to no longer snatch hats from unwary heads Waves lapped in rather than roiled, although few people dotted the beach. Not on a Thursday in between tourist surges and not on this end further away from the luxury hotels. The paved path was more populated with a mix of those ambling, joggers with tiny headphones, two young women with babies in strollers, an occasional bicycle flashing past.

Crystal held the aquamarine-colored Mexican crafted glass half way to her mouth, slender manicured fingers gripping the short, thick stem too tightly. “I was being so careful this time. It’s not as if I jumped into bed on our first date. He took me to Giselle, for God’s sake. A man with some sophistication.” The wail in her voice was barely contained. “Two and a half months of spontaneous little surprises, fabulous dinners. I mean, it was perfect – tell-your-girlfriends perfect.” She set the glass down, the sip not taken, her brown eyes misted, but no longer brimming.

“Followed by six weeks of last minute cancellations and days between telephone calls.” Stephanie spoke softly, not explaining the type of man for whom conquest is the goal. This was not the time for lectures or philosophy – gentle guiding was needed. A nudge in the right direction, not a shove it under her nose.

Crystal’s protest came faintly and she stared at her aunt with a sad smile that meant reality was about to nudge away denial. “He said he was really sorry. He’s been very busy lately.”

“And you saw him with Tiffany last night – at your favorite restaurant.”

A sigh, a pause and her grip loosened. “I’ve tried to think of anything I might have said wrong, if I wasn’t being supportive and the rest of that shit.”

“But it wasn’t you, was it?”

A deeper sigh, not so much now for losing Jeffery as for longing for what she’d expected him to be.

“For a while, I thought he was it, was the one for sure. Guess I’ll have to kiss a few more frogs.”

Stephanie masked a giggle behind a cough and Crystal grinned permission. She joined in laughter, gaining strength. “This is why I come to you for these things. I love Mom to death, but she simply doesn’t know about men.”

Stephanie extended another cheese-laden cracker and Crystal accepted the offering. “That’s because your mother sat next to your father in Freshman Orientation and it was his first co-ed experience after twelve years of Catholic all-male school. Trust me, with her perky cuteness, he never had a chance. Having a man declare he’s in love with you the first time he opens his mouth can be a powerful attraction. He was nice-looking, was obviously intelligent, probably on his way to a good career. What more could she be looking for?”

Crystal tilted her head, perfectly cut wheat-blonde hair emphasizing her oval face, smooth skin lightly bronzed. A pretty face with a mouth a bit too wide and a nose a touch too freckled to be called beautiful. “Do you think hearing that story all my life has affected my judgment of men? That maybe I’m trying too hard, wanting to duplicate her experience; that love at first sight?”

Stephanie reigned in a quip, pursed her lips and puffed air before answering. Twenty-four should be too soon to be worried about finding true love. “A lot of people believe in love at first sight whether they admit it or not,” she said carefully. “On the other hand…”

“It’s just as likely to be lust at first sight,” Crystal finished in an amused tone.

“That has certainly been known to happen,” Stephanie smiled. “Feeling better?”

The younger woman detached a grape and shrugged. “Enough to matter. Not enough to be ready to take another plunge right away. My boss wants me to help with a project in Tampa that will last about a month. It’s interesting and should distract me for a while.”

“Tell me about it,” Stephanie urged, ready to move on to less sticky subjects.

Crystal rallied as she outlined the work and her smile was restored by the time she promised to come for dinner on Thursday. Stephanie saw her out, wandered back to the balcony and tilted the bottle for the rest of the wine.

Yes, she was the one Crystal could turn to when romance sputtered – the one who wouldn’t judge, the who understood the careening nature of allowing your passion to ignore warning signs. Yet, despite what her sister believed, she was not disillusioned from the parade of Jefferies and others she could barely recall. So many wrong men with instant attraction – excitement ignited in dimmed bars, memories of later sipping chilled champagne while wrapped in satin sheets, of learning about wives that hadn’t been mentioned, of overlooking flaws easily seen if she’d wanted to.

“All you care about is sex, sex, sex,” Allison chastised, cocooned in her uneventful marriage. “Do you actually think you’ll be pretty forever? Can’t you tell that these guys aren’t serious? You should find yourself a man who cares more about your brain than your bra size.”

Who needed serious? Or commitment? Let her sister embrace husband, children, the Golden Retriever with a red bandana and other suburbia trappings that came with its own price tag.

Then there was Dennis. A happenstance meeting. Her supervisor taken ill, a conference that couldn’t be missed. Stephanie off the bench and into the big time. An impressive delivery of her boss’s presentation, but it should have been since it was Stephanie’s background work. A smooth two days and Dennis. Catching each other’s eye at the icebreaker the first night, but for once, she was taking it easy, no wine-fueled sex that would carry on until after midnight. Ah, but he paid such attention during her talk and invited her to his table for lunch. Smiles transmitted an unspoken agreement for the evening, anticipation not disappointed. Dennis, Dennis. Older by a few years – muscular without being muscle-bound – hooded eyes of deep brown and straight black hair that bespoke the Mediterranean heritage of his mother’s family.

“Why go back? Stay an extra day and fly home Sunday.”

Such blissful coming together, discovering shared interests, promises of future rendezvous’. Four years, almost five. Her to New York, him to Miami, once in Paris, the London week, other cities, carved-out times. Dennis, Dennis. Almost always perfection in those interludes; never more than a flicker of disagreement quickly extinguished in heated kisses.

“If things just weren’t so complicated,” he murmured in moonlit rooms. “Your career, mine. Scars from a messy divorce that yes, I know I should put behind me.”

Stephanie pushed her chair back, carried her glass to the balcony railing and leaned against yellow painted steel. Her eyes followed a pair of gulls wheeling across turquoise sky, scattered clouds still shielding the sun, yet reflecting intense blue into the water.

“New York? You’re on the short list for New York? Well, what a surprise. I mean, wouldn’t that be great?”

She heard the lie in his voice and wondered why she hadn’t recognized it before. She’d created the scene in her mind before calling, expecting if not an immediate invitation to move into his more than adequate apartment, then at least a warm welcome of all the things they could look forward to. They exchanged false assurances to each other and when she replaced the receiver, cold emptiness alternated with anger. She could give a damn about the position – Dennis had been her reason for leaving.

“Screw New York,” her boss said when she withdrew her name from consideration. “Kirk Newling is retiring and I want to move you up.”

Another career boost, fewer trips to New York, excuses too quickly accepted as the weeks stretched into months. The emails trickled to occasional exchanges and the telephone calls stopped. Her life swelled with work, friends, urban life, being the fun aunt. Men, of course there were other men – some boring, some enjoyable, a few exhilarating, but never again that runaway, loose-your-head abandon that had gripped her with Dennis.

“For God’s sake, why don’t you stop being so picky? What’s wrong with settling for a man who can be a good provider? Okay, you couldn’t call Lenny handsome, but he’s very well regarded in Hal’s office, he’s sweet and you could tell he was interested in you.”

“Allie, I’m happy – do you understand? I’m not going to claim that every day is perfect, but you can’t say it is for you either, can you?”

An honest silence flowed briefly as their eyes met in the sisterly affection that was too often lost within the different rhythms of their separate lives.

Allison blinked brown eyes that looked like Crystal’s except for faint wrinkles. “You’re sure? This is what you want? No husband, no family of your own?”

“We all make choices, Allie, and this is mine. Please stop worrying about me. Who knows, it may just be that my Mr. Right will be hanging around the bridge table at the Senior Center. As for children, being doting aunt to Brady and Crystal has worked so far.”

They’d laughed then, Allison beginning to talk about the kitchen remodel she was planning as they each retreated into their personal truths of trade-offs; pluses and minuses that would be tallied later in quiet moments.

For Stephanie, moments of reflection came mostly here as she gazed at the bay. Her domain and a symbol of her success – the urban apartment to Allie’s house, the short stroll to favorite restaurants, pulsating nightclubs at her fingertips when that was her mood and the gardened terrace for more private time. She tilted her head to melodic strains from her upstairs neighbor, jazz she couldn’t identify floating from outdoor speakers.

Of course she still believed in love. What she did not believe in was being held hostage to the idea that she was an incomplete person without it. After all the men she’d known and all the friends going through divorce that she’d comforted as she had her distraught niece, she’d come to realize that timing, or fate, or whatever name you wanted to apply, was a factor to be respected. Perhaps tomorrow when she stopped for coffee, her soul mate would be in line behind her, striking up a casual conversation as happens. Perhaps nothing would occur tomorrow or ever, and she would continue to fill her life with things she enjoyed. The music above shifted to a Kenny G number – his distinctive sound recognizable if not the exact title of the song.

Stephanie pulled the note from her skirt pocket – the note she’d read and re-read a dozen times – the note she’d printed out as Crystal rang her doorbell. Darling, been thinking of you a lot lately. I’ll be in Atlanta next week. Come join me and it’ll be like old times. Love, Dennis

Her fingers had lingered over the keyboard – how easy it would have been to book the plane ticket. The searing pain when she understood her mistake in falling for him had healed – tears wept were long forgotten. In truth, she’d quickly searched the corporate web page for a recent photograph to see that Dennis had hardly changed at all. The inviting smile of full lips, light gray sprinkles, etched lines that hadn’t deepened into severe wrinkles – nothing to detract from his appeal.

Two nights, maybe three of romantic dinners. His face would be sincere, his voice low and his touch would be what? Gentle? Seductive? Electric? Saxophone strands hovered between the balconies, memories pirouetting as she gazed seaward. One telephone call, one email to say yes. Yes to what? Recapturing a delicious passion as contained as if it was a Christmas snow globe, a decoration to be left undisturbed except for occasional display? Was she ready for that again? Had the raggedness of those emotional edges softened enough to neither nick nor cut? Had the raw taste mellowed into a vintage to be savored?

Stephanie set her glass aside, ripped the paper into confetti, held her palm out to the wind and then turned to walk inside without watching the fragments scatter out of sight.

The End