The First Slow Dance

The wind was picking up, and Jack leaned back, draping his arm across the back of the bench.  A storm was moving in.  It didn’t bother him though… he had always liked a good raucous thunderstorm and in late spring and early summer, they were plentiful.  Warm air flowed in from the west and went to battle with the cold air streaming in from northern Canada, pushing it up and out for another year. Eventually, it always won. He loved the change of seasons. They were beautiful in this part of the country and just when you were getting tired of one, another would surface, bringing a welcome change of scenery and a renewed sense of wonder. It made him feel alive… born again each spring. There was comfort in that metaphor.  He supposed that’s why spring was his favorite season. He couldn’t imagine living in a place where temperatures were constant and he didn’t understand at all why anyone would even want to. 

There were little whitecaps forming on the lake and it was churning up, slapping against the shore wall in front of him.  The spray from the water made it all the way to the bench and he didn’t relish the idea of getting soaked before the storm even got here, so he stood up and walked the short distance to the gazebo at the entrance to the pier.  He leaned against the railing, grateful to have a roof over his head for the moment, watching how the waves continued to grow and the color of the water changed from a murky gray to a light aqua that looked like it had chalk dust sprinkled into it, stirred up with a giant invisible spoon.  He knew it had something to do with the minerals in the rock.  This lake was one of the cleanest in all of America and most of the time you could see clear down to the bottom with crystal clarity.  It was a great place for sailing, but not quite yet.  Soon…

He folded his arms across his chest and turned his back to the lake, seeking shelter from the wind. There, across the street, was the library where Annie had spent so much of her time.  It was relatively small, but it was a gorgeous work of architecture and it had a little porch in front, studded with columns of multicolored stone, muted by time and the laying on of many hands.  He could still see her running up the steps on warm summer evenings. On the days he’d meet her down here, he’d often find her picking the dead flowers out of the window boxes and watering them, making sure they stayed healthy and tidy.  She knew that it was really someone else’s job to do that but she liked to imagine the look of surprise on the caretaker’s face when he scratched his head the next morning, puzzling over how the petunias seemed to magically absorb their own dead flowers overnight, several times a week.  Jack saw him catch her red-handed one day.  The man had come around the side of the building, pulling his gloves off, lost in his own thoughts.  When he saw what Annie was doing he stopped and backed into the shadows where she couldn’t see him, delighted by her thoughtfulness.  He adored her.  She often took the time to stop and chat with him out back when he was working and he began to look for her on the days she usually came.  Funny how he never made the connection between Annie and the window boxes before that, but once he did, he kept it to himself, just as Jack had done, when he had watched the whole exchange.  Truth was, it saved him a fair amount of time, and her antics allowed him to attend to some smaller things he hadn’t had energy for at the end of the day before she took it upon herself to help him.. like hanging up the small bulletin board the librarian had been asking him to do for weeks. It was covered in a flowery fabric that felt odd in his rough hands and he had been avoiding it, worried that he’d get it all dirty or tear it somehow. But the day after he’d hung it, he walked in and found it covered with pictures of her life and the people she loved, and his heart felt glad.  Jack ran his hand through his hair absentmindedly, trying to remember the old man’s name but it alluded him.  If Annie was here, she would remember…

Turning to his right, his gaze rested on the pier that jutted out into the water.   She liked to walk there at the end of the day… all the way to the very end.  The floor of the pier where it stopped, was laid with a circle of stones in a repeating pattern. Standing there, you could see the lake from all directions.  She had taken to putting her toes at the very center and pulling him close so his boots touched hers. “Toe to toe, Jack,” she’d laugh. And she made good on that over the years. Even though her nose only made it to his shoulder, she could argue with the best of them.  She had a thing about facing the church on the east bank and he would face the old mansions that lined the west bank.  She would recite the Psalm inscribed on the plaque inside the church: As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.  He had grown to love that little routine, and looked for ways to slow her down so their time together would last longer.  He liked listening to her talk about the latest books she was reading (she always had three or four going at one time) or the funny antics of the children who came in for story time.  As a teenager, she’d had a job at the library reading to them, and sometimes she’d still go in and do that, just for the sheer joy of it.  She loved kids and had an easy way with them, and they with her. 

Life had a special rhythm back then and he really missed it.  He missed the free fall feeling of being newly in love. God, they were so young and idealistic at the time.  It was raining hard now, so he moved to the table in the center of the gazebo, sinking further into his thoughts.

Sometimes they would stay out late and eat by candlelight at her favorite restaurant over at the inn. It sat beside a beautiful flower garden fashioned after a Monet painting Annie favored.  She had a cheap museum print of it taped over her bed as a little girl. Her father had given it to her for her seventh birthday.  By the time she was seventeen, the edges of the tape were worn and a little yellow but she refused to take it down.  He always wondered how the stuff still stuck to the wall.  He liked staring up at it when they’d lie side by side on her little twin bed, his feet hanging off the edge.  They weren’t supposed to, but like most teenagers, they did it anyway, whenever they could.  He would lay there and imagine her walking over the footbridge in another time period, her dad beside her wearing a big, formal top hat, a wooden cane in his hand, the gorgeous grain polished to a sheen.  The inn had installed a bridge just like the one in her poster and it spanned the lily pond with a soft green handrail.  He never told her then how he had seen it all in his head, but many times since, he wished he had. She would have enjoyed it.  

He realized with a start, that the same man who tended the gardens at the library, had also taken over the care of the one at the inn. He had completely forgotten that! He paused again, searching his memory for the man’s name.  It seemed important to remember it somehow.  It was an unusual name…that much, he remembered. Come on Jack, think!  He knew it would come to him if he gave it enough time.  His mind’s eye kept focusing on the gloves.  They always seemed too tight for him and they had a hole in the thumb. Annie used to say she’d buy him a new pair, but he stubbornly insisted that he liked his old ones just fine. “That’s it! he thought suddenly. Tight gloves ...  Titus!  His name was Titus.. how fitting. He chuckled under his breath, feeling rather smug.  

The rain was coming down sideways now and the floor of the gazebo was soaked, but he wasn’t ready to leave.  She’d grown up here… about eighteen miles from where he had.  This quaint little village meant everything to her.  It’s why he kept coming back.  He had taken her away from it eventually, to live in a small mill town to the north.  His father had left him the house and it just made sense.  Once, on a spring day much like this one, they’d gone out for a walk after a heavy rain. It was a Friday night and the air was moist and fragrant. He remembered that because she used to say it was the best night of the week; the start of a weekend that always held another adventure and would see them completely inseparable. He could still recall so many details about that night.  He thought at first that she might grow to resent him for the move, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.  Annie found everything about the neighborhood charming and she saw things he never had in all the years he had lived there. He would complain about how the old electrical wires and poles obstructed their view and she listened patiently to his grumbling until his mood was spent.  When he finally shut up about it, she had done something totally amazing... she taught him to see their world the way she did.  

She wound the green scarf she had knitted for him around his neck and linked her arm in his and they walked awhile in total silence, listening to the chatter of birds that were slowly returning from the south.  He could feel her breathing it all in, slowly, deliberately.  About a quarter mile from the house, she grabbed his hand and pulled him out into the middle of the street, wrapping her arms around his neck, swaying to her own inner music, ignoring him when he looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching.  

Then he saw it too.  The sun was setting in a brilliance of fire and where the wires were strung from pole to pole, it looked as if they were made of molten lava. The light was reflecting on their surface and on the little lanterns in the grass beside the mailbox.  There were places up and down the street that had been repaired over the years and were worn smooth.  They meandered like glassy rivers of silver and they were reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors off the flowering trees all around them before running into the distance, disappearing out of sight.  

She laughed and pointed across from them and said, “Oh no, look! Someone’s going to get grounded when his mom comes home and sees that he failed to put the trash out again until after the garbage truck made its rounds. Poor kid.  I wonder if he’ll ever get that right.”

The following week, she’d gone out for a jog while he was getting ready for work. She’d made him late again, but he sure wasn’t complaining and when he pulled out of the driveway and looked up the road, he saw her dragging those trash cans out to the street herself. Driving slowly to meet her, he rolled the window down and yanked on her ponytail.

“You smell like tuna fish,” he said and drove off laughing after she smacked him hard.  

When he looked back at her reflection in the rearview mirror, hands on both hips, feet planted wide in the middle of the blacktop, blowing him a kiss, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he really didn't care how late he was. He made it up to her in spades later.. and in return, she made him understand in equal measure, that he need never question moving her here.

Running his hand roughly over his face, he turned his collar up to his ears, and stepped out into the storm.  No one but Titus noticed that the water making tracks down his cheeks… wasn’t rain.