We can’t see the future very well, but sometimes we wonder what would have happened if we had done something differently in the distant past. What if we had said this or done that? Would our lives be different now? The people in the story below probably wondered the same thing. Does their situation seem familiar?
Delayed Awakening was originally published in The Yolo Crow literary magazine in January, 2008
As his train glided to a stop, Ted Blackwell neatly folded the morning paper and put it down on the seat beside him. He left it there when he got off, leaning on his cane while negotiating the steps down to the platform. As he stepped away from the train, he shrugged his shoulders to straighten his black split-leather coat, the one with the wide lapels and the four-button front that he always wore when visiting the city in cool weather. He peered through his bifocals, looking for that one familiar face as other faces pushed past him to board or disembark.
There she stood, near the parking lot. Sharon Carlisle had her arm up like she was being sworn in for something official except she was waving her hand and wore a smile bright enough to light the city. Her hair, the color of dark chocolate, framed her face with curls and waves down to the top of her white cowl-neck sweater. Her latte-colored purse, matching her wool slacks and pumps, hung from her shoulder. A shopping bag from Macy’s sat at her feet. They greeted with a simple “hello” hug.
“I’m so glad you could come,” she said.
“I am, too.” He stooped to pick up the handles of her shopping bag. He held it in the same hand as his cane being used more like a walking stick now. As they started to walk through the parking lot toward the street, Ted offered his arm, and she slipped her hand into its crook. He hefted her bag. “Been doing some serious shopping?”
“Just some blouses and perfume. It’s sale day today. Amanda would have loved it. How’s she doing? Is her recovery going okay?” She looked into his eyes.
“She’s recovering on schedule. The care at the convalescent home is really good. Her fractured hip requires more care than I can manage, but she should be healed up enough to come home in a couple of weeks. She sends greetings. Your card really cheered her.” His silver locks met the collar of his blue and white striped shirt, his favorite. He wore it open at the neck.
“Good. You seem to be almost healed up, yourself.”
“Almost. At least I’m off those damn crutches. If I’m on my feet too long, I need the cane, but in a few weeks I should be pretty normal.”
“That’ll teach you to play racquetball against someone half your age.”
“But I was beatin’ him right up until I twisted my ankle.”
She patted his arm.
The train station was small, to match the size of the down town it was in. They stepped across the street and were in the midst of boutique shops and the potted trees lining the wide sidewalks. They window-shopped as the strolled along, trading comments on the new colors for fall fashions, the aesthetics of the window displays, and the glitter in the jewelry stores.
Although it was cool, today the air was a relatively warm respite from the autumn chill of the last couple of weeks. They squinted in the bright sunlight. Leaves, fallen only this morning, crackled like little potato chips under their feet. Ted stopped in front of one window that had an especially bright reflection of the two of them. He squared his shoulders and stood up straight. Sharon saw what he was doing and did the same thing. They stood there with serious expressions, motionless for a moment as if posing for a formal picture of the last century: two trim, nicely-dressed people with she looking deceptively younger than he.
“Aren’t they a handsome couple?” he asked her in the reflection.
“They are,” she replied.
A clean-shaven young man in a dark sport coat and a bright blue tie was walking by. He could have worked in a clothing store. He noticed what they were doing. He smiled at them and gave them the okay sign with his thumb and index finger. They laughed an embarrassed laugh and resumed walking.
In front of a sporting goods store displaying tennis equipment, Sharon turned to Ted and said, “This injury must be very hard on Amanda. Besides the pain and inconvenience, it must worry her more than the average person just because she has always been so athletic. She was such an avid tennis player when we were in college. She’s still playing occasionally, right?”
“Oh, yes. In fact, it was a fall on the court that caused the fracture. She was neglecting her bone strength, thinking her tennis would make them strong. That obviously didn’t work, so now she’s on a medically-certified bone-strengthening program.”
Sharon pointed across the street and about a half-block ahead. “That’s our restaurant.”
As they crossed the street, Sharon asked, “The kids are doing well?”
“Oh, yes. They’re both still in the LA area and doing just great. Max just got a job as an operations officer with Bank of America and Sherry is back to teaching high school AP history now that Annette is old enough for preschool.”
“Annette must be almost four by now.”
“Just four. And cute as a button of course.” He smiled a proud grandpa smile.
“Of course.” She grinned at him.
As they entered the restaurant, they were greeted by the hostess. She was a tall, slender woman with long, straight, blond hair, wearing a white shirt with a pleated front and a tight dark skirt. She glided before them to a table about half way back and next to a wall. A linen tablecloth and a bouquet of small flowers lent an air that was both cheerful and formal to each table. About half the tables had patrons. The artwork on the walls, apparently all by the same artist, was colorful abstract paintings of fine texture and varying sizes. A small label accompanied each piece. It listed the title, artist, date, medium, and price. Ted liked the on by their table (“Sea Breeze,” John Behr, 1993, acrylic, $950).
Ted and Sharon didn’t sit opposite from each other, but at adjacent sides of their small square table. The hostess handed them menus and then left. Ted looked around for a minute, absorbing the scene without saying anything. He looked over to Sharon. “I thought Stan was joining us for lunch.”
“He sends his regrets. After I set up our date, he joined a new golfing foursome and Wednesdays are the only days they could all meet. Since the foursome is just getting started, he didn’t want to skip out on them. So it’s just us today.”
“I’ll try to make the adjustment.” He paused as he started to look over the menu. Then he turned to Sharon. “I thought he was already in a golf foursome.”
Without looking up from her menu, she replied, “He’s in two others.”
“Two others?” He looked over at her “Do you ever feel like a golf widow?”
Sharon gave him a wan smile, but didn’t say anything. She looked back at her menu.
They shared an appetizer of almond crusted calamari with aioli and spicy tomato sauce. As they took turns poking their forks at the crispy rings and curled tentacles, they talked of Sharon’s new semi-retired life. For years she had managed one section of a privately endowed fund that supported art projects. Although she was free of that now, she still worked a little in the art world, advising the city on public art and occasionally writing a grant proposal to a government agency for a city art project. She liked the slower pace of intermittent work.
Ted gazed at her face as she talked. The laugh lines had grown deeper and a few other creases had crept in around the edges. She no longer was the cute, bubbly coed Ted met long ago, but was now a handsome woman whose diligence had earned her the respect of her colleagues. Her eyes however, still had the inviting blue of a tropical sea.
Their server brought lunch on round, white, over-sized plates. He placed pan-roasted sea bass with green vegetables, mushrooms, and peppers over herb rice with curry sauce before Sharon, and a glass of Honig Sauvignon Blanc. For Ted he brought medallions of lamb with tomato, mushroom and artichoke ragout and a glass of Francis Coppola Pinot Noir.
They talked of Ted’s new life after his recent retirement from editing a magazine for landscape architects. He said he was ready to cut back on his travel, so retirement suited him just fine. And without those publishing deadlines, his life had a lower level of stress. His volunteer job as usher for the regional performing arts theatre provided him with enormous pleasure, especially when the big symphony orchestras were in town.
Their talk shifted to how society was so different from when they had been in college. The opportunities were now greater and the pressures different.
Then Sharon said, “Stan was surprised the other day when I mentioned that we had never dated each other in college. He just assumed we had.” She looked at Ted for some kind of response.
“Date you? Oh, I couldn’t have done that. There were so many guys waiting to ask you out that I didn’t have time to stand in such a long line.” He chuckled at his own cleverness. She slapped his arm with the back of her hand.
After lunch they ordered coffee (black, no sweetener) and a pear almond tart with vanilla ice cream to share. Sharon clasped her hands and her eyes lit up as dessert was placed before them. The tart and ice cream were dusted with cinnamon and posed next to each other on a long rectangular white plate. Ted picked up a spoon and carved out some ice cream and then some tart. He guided it toward Sharon. He watched her lean forward and part her red lips to receive his offering. The blue of her eyes seemed to sparkle from under her half-closed eyes. Her lips enveloped the dessert as her eyes closed. Ted gently slid the spoon away and her lips transformed into a smile of sensual pleasure. A soft “Mmmmm” escaped. She leaned closer to Ted.
Afterwards, when they stepped out onto the sidewalk, they noticed that clouds filtered out most of the sun. The air was cooler. More of the shoppers were wearing coats. Sharon reached across herself and rubbed both of her upper arms. She grabbed Ted’s arm with both of her hands and momentarily pressed her cheek against his shoulder. They walked toward the train station.
Ted hooked his cane over his arm and reached over and rubbed her hand resting on his other arm. “How are you doing Sharon? Really. You and Stan have been married almost thirty years now. All this golfing makes me wonder if things are still good.”
She didn’t answer for a moment. Then she sighed and said, “We’re doing okay. But,” she hesitated, “you know, our relationship seems to be flat. We don’t argue, but there doesn’t seem to be much life in our life. Even though we go out to events and parties together, our own relationship is, well, subdued. Do you know what I mean?”
He gave her hand a squeeze. “I know what you mean.” They walked along in silence for a while. “Sometimes people just grow in different directions. Thirty years is a long time to keep a flame burning.”
“I’m glad you understand.”
Sharon turned her head to look at him, but didn’t say anything. She squeezed his arm.
They arrived at the train station just as the train was pulling in. Ted put down her Macy’s bag and turned to her. Sharon slid her arms around his neck. They enfolded each other, the two of them forming one. He closed his eyes, drinking in the subtle fragrance of her perfume and cherishing her closeness.
Softly he said to her, “If we didn’t have these other obligations, I would be at your doorstep so much I’d make a pest of myself.”
She squeezed him a little tighter and responded, “You could never be a pest.” She relaxed her arms enough to lean back. Their lips met in a soft, almost lingering, kiss. Then she stepped back and pressed the palm of her hand against the front of his jacket. “You’d better go. You’ll miss your train.”
He took her hand from his jacket and held it in both of his. He searched her eyes, but he didn’t know for what. He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back. Then he let it go and stepped back toward the train.
Just as he reached the train, Sharon called out, “Tell Amanda I said ‘Hi.’”
He responded, “I will. Tell Stan I’ve been practicing my pool shots and he’s in trouble the next time we play.”
Sharon smiled and waved. Ted stood on the step on the railroad car, waving and smiling back. But mostly he was fixing the image of Sharon in a special place in his memory.