A short story of new beginnings
If loneliness were a bitter pill, John Stratford had had too many to swallow. It was unusual for him to be introspective. Yesterday’s fortieth birthday changed the usual. As he walked to see his friend, his dominant thoughts were about love and companionship, or the lack of it. His man score was zero and he’d never been seriously kissed. ”Life sucks,” he thought. There had always been something in the way: sports, college, work, lack of time, always something. His rotating Saturday lunches with his five male friends were his social activity.
“Oh well,” he said to no one. “I suppose life could be worse. At least I’m healthy, rich and not too ugly.” He laughed at the absurdity as he opened the door to Jillian’s.
Jillian’s was the best restaurant in town. Well, really, it was the only restaurant in town. The four-thousand-three-hundred and four people who lived in the small community called it Sumerton. As a suburb of Washington D.C., it was close enough for jobs and far enough away to be peaceful. John stopped just inside the door to scan the crowd. This was always the worst part of going out. He was shy and always avoided calling attention to himself. Of his five friends, Bill was the one with whom he could be most open. Today John wanted to see only Bill. He quickly found him sitting in the back and started for the booth.
“Hey John. Happy birthday,” Bill greeted him happily.
“Bill,” he nodded as he sat his initial smile disappearing.
“So how ya’ doin’?” Bill asked.
A great smile bloomed on Bill’s face. “Annie’s pregnant,” Bill announced.
The joy pierced John’s heart, but for the sake of his friend his face smiled. “Congratulations,” John said
“We’re excited. So is Tim. He needs a brother or sister.”
“I’m very happy for you both. When’s the magic date?” John asked conventionally.
“Sometime late spring or early summer,” Bill slowly answered as John’s glum air finally registered.
The waitress appeared and they ordered and chatted aimlessly while it was delivered. Bill didn’t want to ask, but finally decided it was time.
“So. What’s up with you? How did the numismatic convention go?”
“Pretty well. I’m the proud owner of a perfect 1954 D silver dime. I now have a dime from every mint and every year,” John’s voice took on a bit more life. Coin collecting was one of his hobbies and he’d been trying create a complete set for years.
Bill studied him. He had known the man for over twenty-five years. They had fished and been drunk together, they had spent four years in the Marines together. John was best man at Bill's wedding, as he had been for their other four friends. He didn’t love his own brother any better.
“While I think that’s great. I don’t think that’s why you wanted to meet. What’s up?” Bill asked.
John’s gaze was long and intense. And, though his face didn’t show it, there was fear behind the gaze. John measured what he wanted to say against the friendship they shared. The other four men, though he cared for them, loved them even, were not like Bill. Bill would actually listen.
He shrugged. “I’m lonely.”
“I’m convinced there’s something wrong with me. My birthday was yesterday. You know I don’t regard it most of the time, but, well this time I got to thinking. My birthday got me pondering my life. You know I work in DC and I see a lot of women. See is all though. I go on dates, but nothing ever happens: never a spark, never an ember. What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m gay?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Bill assured him. “Are you attracted to men?”
“No. But something sure seems wrong,” John whined.
This was not the first time they had had this conversation. His other friends and he had talked about it; about some way to help. Maybe it was time for some honesty. He took a deep breath.
“John?” he started. “How many times have we sat at this booth and talked about this?”
“I want to say some things to you that may be hard to hear.”
John studied his friend for several seconds. “Go ahead,” he said, resigned to another lecture.
“What do you do with your free time?” Bill asked.
That was unexpected.
“Read, watch TV and work on the house.”
“And have lunch with us each Saturday and dinner with us now and then,” Bill added. “What else? What about hobbies?”
“Antiques and my coin collection.”
“What’s wrong with the life you just described?”
John cocked his head as if by doing so he would gain some insight. Then he shrugged, giving up.
“You’re not ignorant, you’re friendly and a little shy, but John … you’re … boring.”
“I’m happy,” John said defensively.
` Bill raised one eyebrow and waited.
“Okay … maybe I’m not, happy.”
How many women have you met who got excited about coins? You went to that coin collecting convention last month. How many women were there? On their own?”
“Four.” He answered immediately.
“Out of … ?”
“Three hundred and sixty,” He said sheepishly.
“Right. Do you ever go to a book club? You know, where you talk about the books you read.”
“No. I never thought to do that.”
“Antiques could be a topic women would find interesting. Do you ever go places where you can talk to people about antiques?” Bill asked.
“Do you ever go places where you can talk to people about antiques?”
“No, I see what you mean,” John admitted.
“It’s not that those things are bad. But if you want something different …”
“I need to do something different. Anything else?” John asked quietly.
“No. Don’t be. Anything else?”
“Well your wardrobe could stand an upgrade. Maybe you could talk to someone about that,” Bill smiled.
John did not smile. He wasn’t angry; not even hurt. He was … pensive. He’d come to a crossroads in his life and was in a place where he could listen. And he’d had enough.
“Thanks Bill. I know you mean well,” John said as he rose and left the restaurant.
Bill stared after him and worried. It was three months before he heard from him again.
“Bill,” John said after picking up the phone.
“John? Where’ve you been? We’ve been worried sick.”
“Sorry,” Bill said. “Sorry to disappear like that. I’m fine. Just been … busy.”
“Yes. Can we get together for lunch?”
“How’s Friday? Say twelve at Nage on Rhode Island Avenue.”
“Nage, okay. It’s good to hear from you. We were all getting nervous.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I’ll see you Friday,” John said, ending the call.
John waited until a few minute after twelve before entering the restaurant. He was a few feet from the table when Bill looked up.
Eyes wide and with a huge smile, Bill said as he stood, “Wow! John you look great. New hair, new clothes.”
“You approve then?” John asked extending his hand.
“Definitely. What’s the occasion?” Bill asked.
“No occasion. A new me. I’ve thrown out the old me and found a new one. Clothes, hobbies, activities, everything. Including a new attitude and outlook.”
Bill studied him briefly.
“Wow! Okay, I’m impressed! ”
“You remember the talk we had a couple of months ago?” John asked.
“The talks before, I wasn’t ready to listen. Turning forty brought my life to a nexus. I spent several days deeply contemplating that conversation. Anyway, it came to me that the things you mentioned were symptoms. I decided it was time for an overhaul so I found some courage, a counselor, a coach and worked on me.”
“I’m impressed,” Bill said. “That is excellent.”
“Besides the wardrobe etc., what else have you changed?”
“When we were in high school you remember I was always talking about drawing and painting. Well I’ve been taking classes. Turns out I’m pretty good at it. And I’ve been taking guitar lessons too. I’m terrible, but I’m learning. And, I finally took a class on guitar building. Something not even you knew I wanted to do. I’m no longer doubtful. After about two hours it just clicked. I have the first guitar well underway.”
Impressed, Bill could only say, ”I’m very happy for you.”
“But again those are just symptoms. The most important changes are in here,” he said, laying his hand on his chest. “I’ve come to two important places in my life. One, I realize it’s up to me … to be happy in my own skin. And, two, I decided to quit being afraid. I’m doing the things that interest me and am willing to let nature takes its course, whatever that may be.”
They continued to talk about the changes John had undergone, his counselor and coach and the steps he’d taken. It was after two when the conversation wound down.
“I need to get back to work,” Bill noted as he checked his watch.
“I wanted you to be the first to find out since you were the catalyst. Thank you.”
“I just pushed a little. You did all the pulling,” Bill said as they stood to go.
The four months since that first lunch had been revelatory. There were few signs of his previous life. The only thing intact was his coin collection. He’d kept it because of its value. He had lunch with his friends when he felt like it. He had dated more than in the past twenty years. Love had not found him, but peace had.
John was excited and nervous. His first art show was coming up. He had finished building the guitar and the lessons were paying off. He could almost play an entire song. He smiled at the thought. Saturday mornings had become his favorite time. It was the time he chose to walk and think. He enjoyed visiting the various shops on Main, especially the antique stores. At every one he struck up conversations and was starting to be known. It was fall again. The mornings were cool but pleasant. The trees lining the street were just beginning to turn; their leaves a fading green with not a few showing red and yellow. It was still early and the morning mist was just about gone. It was quiet time; a good time for reflection. It was a good time to be happy.
He walked, not paying particular attention to his surroundings. He was allowing his mind to rest. He stopped in front of the antique store to admire the eighteenth century bedroom display. His eyes focused on the dresser mirror; on his reflection. His rapidly silvering hair ruffled slightly in the breeze. The movement of his hair initially caught his eye, but he'd seen that before and so refocused quickly on the scene reflected behind him.
The woman had her back to him. Her red hair, brilliant in the morning sun, hung to her shoulders in soft waves. She was petite with an excellent curve from this perspective. His eyes refocused on her reflection in the large plate glass window. She appeared closer this way, though her image was not as bright.
She turned, slowly, apparently sensing a presence near her; someone was looking at her. Her sixth sense homed in on the eyes reflected in the store window and caught the silvery haired man looking at her. He turned, regretting the need to break eye contact, to shift from glass to flesh.
They stood staring at each other: not gazing as lovers do, or as friends might, but absorbing as those who’d just found a great treasure might. She moved toward him, nature compelling her legs to comply. His feet, too, moved, as if the Earth demanded it. The pull, elastic, gravitational and magnetic -- strengthened as they closed the ten feet between them. They reached out and took each other's hands. When they touched, John felt the universe rearrange around them, shifting to its proper form and assuming a new and inevitable course.