Subtitle: Always My Girl
|It’s been over four years since I’ve seen you. That’s almost long enough for this to qualify as a first date, right? Taking a deep breath for courage, I grip the handrail and take the first step down towards the sound of your voice.
I don’t think I was this nervous during our actual first date, when you were 20 and I was 17. Mom hesitated before giving her permission, but I wore her down. You were my dream date. Tall, handsome, athletic. Older and wiser in the ways of the world, at least in my eyes. Maybe my folks saw me as gullible; I know my brother did. He told me you were no good, that you were toying with me. I didn’t believe him. I told him so, right to his face. He said, “you’ll see; I’m right”.
My pulse starts to race as I hear the rumble of your car’s engine, running to the window of my bedroom to peek out, drawing back quickly lest you see me. Pleased that you are early, I appraise myself in the full-length mirror, needlessly smoothing the rounded collar of my blue dress,
wiping suddenly damp palms on the full skirt.
I thought I looked like a little girl in the outfit, but Mom insisted, especially when she saw what I was planning on wearing. It was just a sheath dress that I had borrowed from my best friend Ellen, but when I put it on for her inspection, she sent me right back upstairs. “It’s too tight,
lamb. And the pattern is too wild—you look like a hippie. No daughter of mine is going to be seen in that outfit and God forbid your father see you in it. You can wear the dress you wore to church last Sunday. I’ll let you borrow my pearl necklace.”
I trudged up the stairs to change, knowing she has the final say in the matter, that this first date might not happen if I got on the wrong side of her. She had already reminded me that I was three years younger than you, as if I didn’t know that.
The doorbell rings and I hear my brother answer, the tones of his voice and mom’s mingling with your deeper one. Resisting the urge to spritz more Diorissimo on my wrists, I give my hair a final primp, adjusting mom’s pearl necklace under the white collar of my dress. I remember my hand trembling on the railing as I walked down the stairs, all three of you looking up at the same time. I see your lazy smile. “There’s my girl.” My brother makes a gagging gesture behind your back but I ignore him. Because it’s true. I am your girl. Always was. Always will be.
That was the first day of the best part of my life. We waited until I graduated from college before we married. I was all for getting married when I turned 18, but you said no, honey, let’s wait. I want you to get your education. You said: I’ll join the Army and serve our country while you get smarter than you already are, and if you still want to marry me in four years, then we will.
And so we married. I remember walking down the aisle on Dad’s arm, seeing you standing in front of the altar, looking so handsome in your uniform. Your hair is shorter than I like, but it's still you, short hair or not. My smile was tremulous as you and Dad embraced, so happy to see that your relationship with him was strong. Strong for the times we need strength, I thought to myself that day, before Dad kissed my cheek and clasped our hands together.
Strength indeed needed when I gave birth to Aaron, me screaming at the top of my lungs, crushing your fingers in my hand, half-laughing, half-crying when I see you wince. Railing against the Army for keeping you from me and then clinging to you in gratitude, bursting into a
fresh spate of tears when you bravely gave your hand back to me as the next contraction started. The cries that turned to murmurs of joy as I held our firstborn in my arms, you leaning over the bed, counting his fingers and toes. The glorious rush of our kiss as we realize our world had changed forever.
The next two came in short order, Caleb and then Devorah. How many sleepless nights did I power myself through while you were away, a career Army man now, still proud to serve his country even though you were what seemed a million miles away from your family? The four of us waiting for you to tell us when you were coming home, the phone calls that come at odd hours of the night, me whispering into the phone that I love you, that I need you to come home. That I can’t do it all myself. Your whispers back over the terrible connection, half of the words lost: don’t forget you’re my girl; don’t forget how strong you are. Those words got me through days filled with crying babies and dirty diapers, and those long lonely nights, hugging your pillow close to me. Had the pillow even known the touch of your head? I can’t be sure any more. It’s been too long since I’ve last seen you, last held you in my arms, last kissed you good night.
It was just an ordinary day. Preoccupied with Devorah’s middle school dance rehearsal, I wasn’t paying attention as I sped across town, late and out of sorts. I was already on the outs with her, God bless it. She hated everything I suggested and made sure that I knew it. Even my promise to have you call her didn’t break the stony silence, lips pressed together, arms folded as she sat in the back seat of the SUV, studiously ignoring me. Only her screams stay in my ears now; they wake me every night. That and the screeching of brakes and blaring of horns as our car ran the red light and plowed broadside into the light blue VW bug, the heavy SUV pushing the little car in front of it as if it were an insect on its grille. I screamed too as the airbag inflated and smacked me in the face, the SUV only stopping when the Bug hit the fire hydrant, water shooting up to the sky. I don’t blame her, not one bit. Devorah—the light of my life. My only daughter.
The headlines blared: TWO DEAD. ARMY WIFE PLEADS GUILTY TO VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER.
That brought you home. For good this time. Taking early retirement and racing home from the other side of the world, gathering your children into your arms as my mother looked on, tears seeping into the dark circles under her eyes, the product of many sleepless nights. I heard from my brother, too, after Mom called. Why doesn’t he come see you? He knows you didn’t do this on purpose, right? See? I was right about him, Sis. I hang up on him, but the words remain, needling into my brain.
Why didn’t you come to see me? Is it because I wouldn’t—no couldn’t, read your letters, sending them back unopened? What was there to be said? Sometimes I can’t breathe, the questions circling endlessly in my mind—confined to this hellish existence of my own making,
forever paying for the sin of distraction for that one deadly moment—my own judge, jury, and executioner.
I serve my sentence, all of it. The parole board wants to release me early for good behavior; I decline. Four years will never be enough to atone for what happened.
The children are doing better, Mom says. They send their love. That’s nice, I murmur. Where will I go when I get out? Do they even want to see me? Do they hate me? Oh, honey, no one hates you. They just didn’t—we just didn’t know how to talk to you. I’m their mother, Mom.
That hasn’t changed. And I’m still his wife. Right?
The door slams shut behind me. I don’t look back. I never want to see that place again, not for as long as I live. Mom is waiting for me, just as she said she would be, and the tears finally come. Tears of relief, of regret, of time lost. She looks older, dear, dear Mom, and I sniffle into her hair as she holds me tightly. He wants to see you.
Now? What about the kids? No, just the two of you. He’s asked to come over tonight. I thought you could stay in your old room? I’ll make some nice dinner for you both; you can rest and take a bath and get ready. I even got you some Merlot to go with dinner. Won’t that be nice, honey? A nice glass of Merlot?
I don’t demur as she shepherds me to the passenger seat and belts me in as if I was her little girl again. Maybe I am. I don’t look back. I don’t watch the road as we drive away. I close my eyes and grip my seatbelt, willing the last years undone.
My room is the same. I touch my old stuffed animals that are lined up on the bed, petting Mr. Cuddlebug’s head gently, the X sewn over his eye in place of the missing button. Mom did that for me when I was what, twelve? I cuddle his furry little body to my chest, plopping wearily on the bed. Who wants to have dinner with an exhausted ex-con?
You stand and smile, the grooves of grief etched in sharp relief on your too-thin cheeks. But you are still tall and straight and handsome, years of Army life showing in your posture. I think about a mock-salute, but don’t dare be so sassy. It’s been four years, no wait, four years was my term. “It’s been how long?” Mom heads back to the kitchen, leaving us alone in the dining room. I don’t sit.
“There’s my girl.” Your arms are outstretched as you come around the side of the table. I back away, folding my arms over my chest. “Am I?” “Always were and always will be. Come sit.”
I let you pull the chair out for me and slide in, watching with hungry eyes as you sit at the head of the table. “I told you I couldn’t do this all myself. Look what happened.” The tears stream down my cheeks unabated. I am not ashamed to cry. But I am ashamed.
“What’s done is done. Aaron and Caleb are ready to see you whenever you are. You did a fine job of raising them, and then I took up the mantle when you couldn’t.”
I raise my weepy eyes to meet yours, your gaze steady in return. “It’s not your fault that Devorah wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.” You hold up your hand to stop my words. “Yes, yes, I know. She was in the car with you. But I know you. You would never have driven with her had you known she had taken it off. Our sweet daughter, with a stubborn streak like her Mama’s.” You shake your head ruefully, a faraway look in your eyes before they return to mine.
“Forgive me for not coming to see you. It’s taken me some time to come to grips with this.” You pause, your throat working. “I want us to start over. With a new life and a new beginning.” You cover my hand with yours. “Come home to us, sweetheart. Let’s let tonight be the first day of the rest of our lives.”
This was written for a contest on vocal.media. Contest rules: between 600 and 2000 words. a short fiction story about a first date, involving a glass of Merlot.