An air of abandonment clung to the walls of the empty house. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink, articles of Sindi’s clothing littered the living room sofa. Johnny stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, looking unsure. Grace gathered up Sindi’s clothes and gestured for him to sit down. He remained on his feet.
She went to put the kettle on to make tea. From the kitchen she could see him scanning the row of framed family photos that hung on the front room wall: Sindi as a newborn, portraits of the three of them, a large confection of a wedding photo in a flowery frame. His presence jarred. Johnny was larger than David, whose frame was the only familiar one to Grace in this space. Johnny was broader, taller, and disproportionate to the room and the furniture in it. As if reading her mind he stooped a bit to get a closer look at one picture. Grace brought the tea and sat down as a soft rain began to pelt the windows. As the house darkened, a sense of desolation crept over her. She felt like crying. She felt trapped with this stranger whom she couldn’t let go.
“Well, all right. What else is there to say, Johnny?” Wordlessly, he contemplated the question.
“Well, I spilled my guts already down there. Do I have to say it again? You like to see a man completely powerless before you, huh?”
The attempt at a joke fell flat.
“Yes, I know what you said. But now what? What is it that you want?”
He sighed. Grace noticed fine lines criss-crossing his cheeks, running up to the corners of his eyes. She noticed for the first time, too, that his eyes were circled by dark rings. He looked tired.
“I don’t know, Grace. It’s confusing to me. All those years ago, we were just children. But I loved you. You were something good in my life, something beautiful. And you loved me, I know you did. And after you left, after the thing with you mother, I was sad, bitter. I had lost a good thing in my life. I was back there, next door to your house, but nothing was the same. The cops, they kept me for ninety days. Nothing was the same after. I was never the same. I was broken. And I came back and you were gone, your mother gone. My parents were dead. I asked myself, why did I have to lose everyone I loved?”
There was nothing Grace could think of to say, so she kept quiet and listened.
Johnny’s tongue continued to loosen.
“And through the years I’ve thought about you, wondered. But you became unreal, like a beautiful dream that I’d had, something I could go back to in my mind whenever I needed it. When I was sad, hurt… I could go to this place that was you. You became a place for me to go to. I could feel better there. And then I saw you again. Just like that. Real. I knew right then that I still loved you. You were alive and … shining.” He smiled at the recollection. “Don’t laugh. It’s the only word I can think of. You were shining with this light from somewhere inside you. I knew it would be easy to love you, because I could see you were still the same girl. You never really left me.”
He was crying now. Grace had never seen any man, except her father, do that. He lowered himself onto the couch.
“Oh God, I know what you mean, Johnny. I loved you too, so much. I never said it to you then, and after, when I thought you were dead, I wished I had. But what did we know then? We were kids. But, yes, I did. I loved you. You were the one constant thing that kept me sane in those days.”
They sat looking at each other, each absorbing the other’s words. Having him there was like having a bit of her, Mary, with her, a part that Grace thought she had lost forever.
“I’m glad you thought about me too,” Johnny said. “And to hear you say you loved me. That means a lot, even if it was long ago. I’m glad to hear it, that you’ve thought of me too all these years, Grace.”
There it was, out in the open, an old love posthumously declared. A reciprocal love. And what could be sweeter than the delight of loving someone and having that love returned?
“But, Johnny, things are different now. Yes, I thought about you every day, but now there’s this.” Grace gestured around the room with her hand. “I have a family. I’m sure you do too. I am building something now, something I never had.”
“Is he good to you?”
“Yes, he is very good to me. He is a very good man.”
“Are you happy together?”
“Of course. He’s my husband.”
Johnny put his cup of tea aside. He stood up, scooped his jacket from where he’d put it the couch and folded it over his arm. He said something about having to leave and although Grace nodded she knew she didn’t want him to leave. If Johnny left now, she would lose him all over again. She watched as he walked towards the door. Her limbs felt like lead.
She jumped up from the couch, reached for his shoulder and pulled him back around to face her. He turned, pulled her towards him and kissed her. She didn’t resist.
This time there was nothing to break the spell between them. She kissed Johnny back with everything in her, every cell rejoicing at the marvel of his touch, the homecoming of skin on parched skin. Years, longings, grief melted away until there was nothing, nothing but a searing heat between them, burning them both until the edges between them blurred and disappeared. Johnny’s body became a hollow into which she slid with perfection; he was a balm that erased every hurt and care from her weary soul. Grace allowed him into the sacred, un-entered corners of her heart, and nothing else on the entire surface of God’s beautiful earth, or below it, mattered.
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