The day everything made sense again, the sweat dripped down my shirt, pooling between my breasts and running down my back. I longed for a swift and harsh southern thunderstorm to rip through town, cooling everything in its wake – including me. But I’m not that lucky. Standing in the center of town, I turn around in a circle taking in the bustle of a town getting ready for its tricentennial. My tiny staff is directing and guiding city employees in the finishing touches. Our official celebration kicks off in two hours and marks a week of events most planned by . . . yours truly. I told my staff earlier today I couldn’t function unless I’d showered before the kickoff. But it’s August in North Carolina. I am sopping wet again. August in the south is about as close to hell as one can get. Even here – so close to the mountains – especially this year. I guess there’s really no point to worry over this, everyone’s in the same boat.
As if on cue, a bolt of lightning lights up the ever-darkening sky and thunder quickly follows on its heels. The deluge begins then. I race across the street & duck into The Filling Station, but not before the rain has soaked me to the bone. Macie, the new owner The Filling Station, is behind the counter. I head toward her, hoping I don’t look as bad as I feel. “What can I get you, Ella? An iced-coffee maybe? I know you’ve got a long week ahead, maybe have a seat and dry off a minute, before getting sucked into the craziness?”
“I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” I say, as water drips onto the black and white checkered tile of the town’s oldest café. “It’s probably best if I stand here though. I’m sopping wet.”
“Eh. Don’t worry about it,” she says, pointing to an open barstool at the end of the counter. I sit down and moments later, Jess, one of the servers, walks out with a towel and hands it to me.
“Thank you, sweetie,” I say, taking the towel and wiping down my bare legs and arms and then slowly patting my head with the towel – feeling a little weird doing so at the busiest restaurant in town.
Johnny, the former owner and now sometimes cook, when he’s not fishing or hunting, walks out of the kitchen and without missing a beat says, “You look like a drowned rat, Ella.”
“Thanks, Mr. John. That’s exactly the look I was going for.” He hands me my coffee and as usual, he’s added a little extra flair of chocolate and caramel sauce on the whipped cream – just for me. I love my town.
I left home eight hours ago – way too early. I couldn’t sit still, so I got in the car a few hours early. Throughout my drive I replayed every dumb decision that had brought me to this point. It all seemed right at the time. Now – two years after walking out of her life, the thought of seeing her again has me equally parts terrified and hopeful. I hope it won’t take long to find her. I knew where she had moved of course. We were best friends. Who am I kidding? She was the love of my life. She is the love of my life.
For a year, I tried again to make my marriage work. When I finally decided once and for all, that there was no hope left for Stephanie, let alone us, I left. I got custody of our daughter in the ensuing battle that followed. I spent almost a year after our divorce figuring out where I went wrong in life and giving my daughter the stability none of us could have had living with Stephanie. I was in therapy once a week and resisted the urge at every turn to reach out to Ella. I had baggage to unload.
Once I’d created a little stability for Amelia and I, I’d prayed for six months that I’d figure out how to reach out – what to say, how to open the door, and where and when to begin. And then, in a moment that can only be assigned to destiny, my local news channel ran a report about the tricentennial in Lewisville – where she lives. True story – Newton – where I live – and Lewisville, though five hours away, have a competitive sister-city kind of relationship with each other. It was bound to happen. Our mayors are brothers and Lewisville is 10 years younger, which is utterly ridiculous to say when talking about three-hundred-year-old towns, but somehow that adds to the jabbing. It’s all good natured however. After the last hurricane, Lewisville raised an incredible sum of money for our town and sent crews to help with getting tarps on roofs and the clean-up of downed trees. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a report pop up as Mayor Pete, our mayor, was interviewed about his baby brother’s town’s tricentennial. I listened, amused, temporarily forgetting that Ella was there. And then her voice filled the room and I sat right up. Our local news channel was there in person, interviewing her. She planned the entire event of course. It’s her job – so why I was surprised, I’m not sure. Two years hadn’t aged her at all. Not even a little. She looked the same as she did the evening we said goodbye.
That wasn’t my finest moment. But leading up to that, I screwed it all up – everything – my life, her life – so I guess in the end I deserved anything she could throw my way. When she left, I knew her plan – where she was going and where she’d work. But I’d had no right, at that point, to ask her not to follow her heart. Truth is, I had become one of the reasons she needed to leave.
When I arrived in Lewisville, I parked in a city parking lot, across the street from the town park. Yesterday, I’d seen her standing in the gazebo at the park, talking to the reporter about the town’s history and the events planned for the week. There hadn’t even been a question. I had to go. Now that I’m here, the tension and anxiety build up, the longer I sit in my car. I try not to act like a crazy person searching every face for hers. Not able to control the anxiety any longer, I get out of the car and walk toward the closest restaurant – a café called The Filling Station. I snag a table next to the windows. Everyone around me knows each other, it’s clear as they talk about the town and all the gossip. The thought that the folks around me live and work around the love of my life – the one I’d lost – the one I’d let go, fill me with more hope than I’d felt in a while. Pretty rotten of me to think I had a right to hope.
“What do you think?” one of the cooks asked as he looked out from the kitchen through the service window. “How long before Ella’s drenched in that storm moving this way?” I followed his line of sight and just like that – there she was. Might as well have been a scene from some Hallmark movie. She really hadn’t changed. My god, she is beautiful. She turned in a circle, smiling in that way she did, at her vision come to life. I’d hurt her. And she’d already been hurt enough. I didn’t know how to recover what had already been lost. I kept asking for a sign, as if God was in the business of handing out signs to people who’d screwed up their entire lives. That’s when the rain started and she made a beeline for the café. I thought she’d seen me when she walked in. But she had no idea I was here. I watched her like some kind of creepy stalker, running through options in my head. Should I go and talk to her now? Follow her out in a few minutes? Or something else entirely? Why isn’t there a book or manual where you can get answers to questions like these? Beak a woman’s heart and want her back? Turn to page 49.
Yeah, too easy.
Only me. Only I would be drenched from head to toe – today of all days. After checking on my hair and makeup in the bathroom, I grabbed my coffee and headed back outside. Now that the storm had passed, the steam roiled and rolled in smokey wisps from the asphalt. The air was cooler, but only slightly. I crossed the street and set my drink down on the gazebo bench and stood in the sun, hoping my clothes would dry quickly all the while contemplating if I had enough time to get the two blocks to my house for a quick change. I looked at my phone and then looked all around. Everything was done. My staff, the city employees, and volunteers had done an incredible job. We were ahead of schedule. I slip off my flats, grab my coffee in the other hand, and run toward home.
Good thing I had a back-up outfit ready. Once in the house, I race to the bedroom, thankful that my old house had a new AC unit. It is gloriously cool inside. I slip on my white lacey dress. Since it’s already rained, I’m willing to tempt fate with the white. I grab my espadrilles on the bedroom floor and as I step into the hallway, the doorbell chimes through the house. What a racket that thing makes. Note to self – it’s time to get a new doorbell before I leave on vacation. I come around the corner and through the glass on my door I make out the form of a man. Dude – that looks like Cade, I think, as a I reach for the door and open it.
“Kincade?” I ask – as if the past two years have somehow made me forget what the love of my life looks like.
“Ella. Hi. I know this is crazy. But I needed to see you. Can we talk?”
“Now? I’m kind of busy. I mean, I can’t talk now. You always did have shitty timing. I have this event. I have to go – “I say, shaking my head as if this mirage of a man standing in front of me will disappear.
“I know. I’m here because I saw you on the news. I was in the café when you came in and I’m not going to lie. I obviously can’t. I followed you here. I knew I had to take my shot. I can stay and talk to you afterward. Or when you have a free moment. I can just hang out. I need to talk to you -please?”
“I guess. I – I have to get moving,” I say as I pull the door shut, locking it and slipping my keys into my dress pocket. Cade follows me down the steps. I don’t wait for him. I take off in a jog, leaving him behind. I mean, I barely jog. He’s a runner, runner. Like ultra-marathon runner. It’s not like he can’t catch me. But I do it anyway. I don’t look back. Kind of like I did two years ago.
Two years prior
We’d had this conversation so many times now I’ve lost count. We are the two most compatible people on the planet. We are perfect partners. But when we argue, we argue. He’s my best friend. He is the one person in all of the world, besides my son, that I live for. We are not dating. We are not lovers. We were once – before our marriages. But not now. And it’s clear we won’t be together now or ever. Here I am – thirty-eight, raising a teenage boy in a town that has nothing left for me – and the love of my life is still making the same dumb choices he’s been making for the last fifteen years of his life, since his real-life nightmare began.
I hate divorce. I went through the Divorce of all Divorces. It consumed our lives for far too long as my ex and I fought over every last nook and cranny of our lives right on down to the dog and the silverware. The custody battle over my son had only recently ended in a peaceful agreement, once Jon’s new Boo had, had enough. I hate divorce. I didn’t want Cade to get divorced for me. I hate divorce. Did I mention that? But his life was . . . awful. His wife and everything they had been through and lived through and were still going through – it wasn’t okay. It would never be okay. So, yeah, in his case, I was convinced it was what was best for him, his daughter Amelia, and . . . and yeah, truth be told, Knox and me too.
Staying for Amelia wouldn’t make it okay. Staying because he didn’t want to fail at something, when he never failed anything, wouldn’t make it okay. Staying because he believed it was bad for his career, didn’t make it okay. The Catholic in him that had fear and loathing beaten into him about divorce, wouldn’t make it okay.
It would never be okay. Stephanie would never be okay.
But he was staying.
I’m standing under the oak tree in my backyard. He’s sitting in one of my Adirondack chairs. I know it’s time to end this round and round argument that gets us nowhere. “Cade – it’s time,” I say.
“Time for what? What does that even mean? Why do you talk around things?”
“I’m not talking around anything. You started talking before I could complete my thought.”
“Whatever,” he says.
I know, he already knows what comes next. “Whatever? You’re mad at me? You don’t get to be mad about a damn thing right now. Unless it’s your own stupid choices,” I say.
He’s been staring into his drink and now his eyes are on me – boring holes in my heart. The intensity of those blue eyes will always be my weakness. I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and center myself. “I can’t see you anymore. It’s time for us to end this. It’s time for us to end our friendship. It’s time for us to stop spending time together. It’s time for the texts and the e-mails, and living as if this will end happily, to end. I can’t see you anymore. I can’t talk to you anymore.”
“Just like that?”
“Yes. Just like that. You’ve made your decision. And now it’s time for you to go all in. I can’t do this anymore.”
“How are you going to avoid me? How are you going to avoid this? We see each other constantly.”
“Remember when I left town a couple weeks ago?” I ask. He nods his head, setting his drink down and standing up. He’s inches from me now. It’s this thing he does because he knows I’m powerless.
“Yeah. I remember. I was miserable the whole time, concocting wild stories about who you were with and fearing the worst.”
“Apparently not enough fear for you to leave,” I say. I continue before he can open his mouth in protest. “I went for a job interview. They offered me the job and I’ve accepted. Knox and I leave in the next couple of weeks so I can get him there in time for football practice to start. This is perfect for him,” I say. I know in my heart this decision is what Knox needs too. But, the football – the school, it’s all icing. The cake is getting away from this town and the heartbreak. “Lewisville has the best football program in the state. They turn up more college scholarships than just about anywhere and their academic program is incredible. It’s still small-town living, but we’re so close to the mountains and the job is a dream, I wouldn’t ever consider saying no.”
“What’s the job?” he asks.
I’ve only seen him like this a million times – defeated. It’s his own fault. “We’re working on my official title. But basically, I’m running the downtown business development organization so I’ll be planning events, bringing in small businesses – it’s perfect for me. Literally perfect. Like God made it for me.”
“It does sound perfect. I wish I could go with you,” he says. My heart drops to my feet, like it often has when I’m in his presence.
“You’ve made that decision, remember?”
“How could I forget? You bring it up constantly.”
“You have a lot of nerve, you know? This whole mess is your doing.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I am just having trouble wrapping my brain around this conversation. Honestly, I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Kincade – I love you so much it hurts. Literally and physically hurts. But I can’t do this. I can’t watch you go through this and I can’t do this to myself. It’s time.”
“I am sorry. I’m sorry,” is all he says.
“I know. But we’ve long since past the point I can manage being in the same space with you and let her do this to you – while also living without you.”
“I don’t have anything else to say. I don’t have any excuses. I don’t have any hope left – none at all. I love you. I always will. I’m sorry I’ve made such a mess of things.”
“This is for the best for me and Knox.”
“I know,” he says. “I should go now.”
“I think that’s probably a good idea,” I say – thankful he’s not arguing like he usually does when I try to set better boundaries between us. Instead of following him out, like I might normally, I let him go.
When he gets to the backyard gate, he turns and says quietly, just barely audible, “I love you, Ella.” And then just like that, he’s gone.
“Ditto,” I say after his truck starts up and I know he’s gone.
Ella – Present Day
Within seconds of leaving my porch, the town square comes into view. It’s then that I realize my phone has been buzzing and pinging with texts and alerts. In the brief time it took me to get home, change, and head back – the park has filled with residents, the tourists that pay the bills, and former residents. And who can forget the media? I practically had to pay them to come. But whatever. They’re here. I stop jogging and drop my shoes on the concrete. I slip into them and bend down to buckle them. When I stand up, I try to sneak a glance behind me. Cade is nowhere in sight. I’m relieved. He has the worst timing – always has – since literally the day we met.
“Ella! There she is. The star of the show,” Royce Andrews, our Mayor and my boss, says as I walk up casually – as if I always make two outfit changes, get drenched in a torrential downpour, and reunite with my one true love, before the biggest event of my life. “What happens first?” he asks excitedly.
In spite of the agenda I gave him two hours ago, currently in his sweaty hands, I am prepared to tell him these details over and over again today and for the remainder of the week. Besides being mayor, he’s a successful businessman, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. Yet, somehow keeping this very successful, driven man on target for large scale community events, is like corralling a cat. Good thing I have experience corralling difficult men. I have a volunteer, Molly, who’s one job is to shadow him all day so that when he and I get separated, he stays on track. We go over the plan for the day and as we finish and on cue, the small clock tower in front of Harrell’s Department Store strikes noon. “It’s showtime, Mayor! Let’s get this party started!” From the small stage we’ve built in the center of the park, he starts his speech and I give him the thumbs up – which I promised to do so he knew we could hear him just fine. Here we go. It’s time for the wildest week I’ve had in ages. I’m going to love every minute of it. Unless Declan ruins it all.
I deserve it. My timing is horrible. It always is. She’s told me this a million times in the 20 years we’ve known each other. There wasn’t a chance I would run after her. I’d already failed miserably by showing up on her porch. I should have waited. Instead of heading straight for the park, I get into my car and drive around for a while and stop at a gas station on the far end of town. I sit in my car for almost an hour and try to figure out my next move. Maybe my next step shouldn’t look all that different than my previous plan? Where did I fail Ella all along? Risk. Or maybe I should say not taking the risks I knew I needed to take for her benefit.
And just like that, I know I need to go back and face her again. I need her to know I am not going anywhere. For however long it takes. I start the car and drive back into town. At the first bed and breakfast in sight, I pull into the small parking lot and go inside – booking a room. I’d worry about clothes and toiletries later. What good is retirement if I can’t take some chances. For once.
I walk the two blocks back to the park and by now, the party has really started. The concerts have begun – first up is some local band. I saw the name on a sign. I can’t remember much except it’s a dumb name. Great band – dumb name. I wind my way through the crowds to the first food vendor selling BBQ. With food and sweet tea in hand, I find a free bench in the small amphitheater at the far end of the park and sit down. I listen to the music and take in the scenes all around me. There’s food and other festival vendors, bounce houses and water slides for the kids – Amelia would love this – local businesses and arts and crafts booths. There are lawn games in progress all leading up to the grand finale concert and fireworks show. It’s quite the party. It’s impressive, actually. Typical Ella. Everything she touches turns to gold.
“Uncle Cade, is that you?” I look around me until I see Knox –surrounded by a group of friends. He’s wearing his football jersey, and so are a couple of his friends. “Uncle Cade!” He heads in my direction with all of the enthusiasm he’s always shown every minute of his life. Having coached him in football as a little guy, he could always be counted on to be the team’s hype man. That boy is nothing like his daddy – who walks around with a rain cloud over his head at all times.
“Knoxy!” We embrace when he reaches me. As if he wasn’t huge enough as it was two years ago, he’s now at least 6’4, just a bit taller than me and clearly working out a lot. “It’s so good to see you, bro.”
“I can’t believe it. What are you doing here? I’ve missed you all so much. Is Amelia here? Or Ryan?”
Ryan is my step-son, who is Knox’s age. “They’re not. It’s so good to see you, kiddo. I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. How is school? How is football?”
“All good. I’m a varsity starter this year although I did play a bit on varsity last year. JV had a good year last season for the first in a while. My grades are good, so mama is happy.”
“Happy Mama, happy life,” I say.
“True story,” Knox says.
“So JV had a winning season last year, eh? I’m guessing that’s because of their QB1?” I ask.
“I mean, I can’t take credit for everything. We have a great group of guys. I’m really lucky. But yeah, we had a winning season. It felt good.”
“I am sure it did. And you’re just as humble as you always were. Not that I’m surprised. You are Ella’s boy.”
“Thanks, Uncle Cade. Does mom know you’re here?”
“She does. But, uh – we haven’t had a chance to really talk. She’s busy, you know?”
“I’m sure she can’t wait to talk to you. I know for a fact that she won’t be busy all day. She has everything so far under control, like always, and has so much help, I’m sure she’ll be sitting around trying to look busy most of the day.”
“I hope we can catch up soon,” I say.
“If you don’t get time to talk to her today, the bar on Front Street, we call it FSB, is where she’ll be after the fireworks. She doesn’t know, but she’s getting some gift from the town. You should find her there. I know she’ll be excited to see you.”
“Thanks, Knox. I will keep that in mind. I don’t want to keep you from enjoying your friends. I’m sure I’ll see you again,” I say – probably wishful thinking.
Knox hugs me again and says, “Love you, Uncle C.”
“I love you too, Buddy,” I say as he walks back to his friends. As I let go of Knox, I see Ella nearby – surrounded by a group of women who are laughing at some story she’s telling – her arms and hands gesticulating wildly. Even after all these years, she’s just as adorable as always. She catches me watching her and though I wouldn’t blame her for a couple of middle fingers and an angry glare, a smile spreads across her face as she holds my gaze. I’ve missed her so much. Maybe there’s a chance. Maybe.
My emotions have been all over the place today. Anger, frustration, excitement over how well everything has gone, peace, contentment, and after watching Knox and Kincade together – hope. After his reunion with Knox, Cade disappeared for a while. I’m not sure where he went. But just moments ago, as we started the countdown to fireworks, he reappeared. There’s not a chance he’s leaving without us facing . . . us. “Hey,” he says sidling up next to me. His arm brushes mine and a jolt of electricity shoots through me – just like it did when we met at 20, in a community college class in Newton.
“Hey. I saw you ran into Knox earlier. Can you believe how tall he is?”
“I can and can’t. If that makes sense. Not sure how Jon produced those genes. He’s as happy-go-lucky as always, isn’t he?”
“Yep. I’m so grateful the divorce and move didn’t make him jaded. I worried about that. But he’s as happy as always. I don’t deserve him.”
“Of course you do,” I said. “Why would you say something like that?” I ask. Before she can say anything she’ll regret, or I will, I redirect the conversation, “Today was incredible. You did an amazing job. Congratulations!”
“Thanks, Cade. I appreciate that. I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she says as the first fireworks light the sky to oohs and aahs from the crowd. “I’m surprised to still see you here.”
“We didn’t get to talk so I wasn’t about to leave.”
“Oh. I was hoping you’d decided not to open Pandora’s Box and would be heading out of town now,” she says, her voice low – nearly a whisper, so I have to lean in closer to hear her.
“No such luck, Beautiful,” I say. I touch her elbow and though it takes her a moment, she looks up at me and I know then that we will be okay. It might hurt for a while. But we’ll find our way. Eventually. “I’m here for as long as it takes.”
Ella smiles at me. It’s a smile I know like I know myself. She’s an extension of me, really. She closes her eyes for a moment and when she opens them, taking a deep breath as she does – as if she’s centering herself and reminding herself of what she told me two years ago, there’s fire in her eyes. Maybe finding our way will take longer than I thought. She’s going to make me work for this. “I guess you’ll be here forever then,” she says. Before I can protest, she turns and walks away, stopping in the midst of a small circle of people – obviously friends. They give her high-fives and pats on the back as I head toward the bar, determined to at least tell her tonight where things stand with me, before giving her time to mull that over.
The hardest part about loving a man you can’t be with, is the terrifying loneliness in the midst of being the most loved you’ve ever been or ever will be. You know that song by U2, With or Without You? It’s like that. I’ve always said that was my favorite song of all time. When it came out, I was just a kid. But somehow it stayed with me until I was old enough to understand the beauty and loneliness. I miss him with every literal breath I take. But I chose every damn day to live my life well – in spite of everything. I am at once happy to see him and terrified that nothing has changed in his life.
After the firework show ends, I follow my friends to FSB and enter to the applause of the people who have become my friends and family. We’ve slowly started turning a corner in this downtown district and my hustle has begun to pay off, as new businesses are opening on the regular. The place is packed and of course I see Cade at the bar, on the far end of the room. Behind me, a whistle cuts through the noise and the music goes off. “Folks! Thank you all for the support and for making this such a great day. As you all know,” my boss is saying as I turn around, “we wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without one person. Ella, can you join me over here?” He motions for me to join him at the front of the bar, along the bank of windows that looks out onto the town square. I stand next to him, a little nervous about what is about to happen. “In the two short years that Ella has been running our downtown development corporation, Lewisville has begun to transform into the bustling downtown we knew it could be. While it literally takes a village to make it all work, we would be nowhere without her leadership, enthusiasm, ingenuity, determination, and creativity. As you know, Lewisville has been naming special residents as “Honorary Lewis’s” for about 200 years now. Since today is Founder’s Day and our 300th birthday – we want to name Ella as our next Honorary Lewis and to commemorate today, we’ve put something together for Ella that we think she’ll love,” the Mayor says pointing toward the back of FSB’s.
A couple members of my staff make their way through the room, carrying a large painting. It’s too much, really. But so sweet. It’s a painting of the original sketch I used to ignite some fire and passion around here – to get people excited about what could be. Or could be again. It was based on my research of what the downtown and square used to look like in its heyday. While we have some work ahead of us – the vision is coming to life. Everyone claps as the mayor shakes my hand. We stand with the painting between us as a few photos are snapped. Someone yells out, “Speech!” And everyone laughs because they know how much I hate talking in front of everyone.
“I won’t give a speech, but I will say thank you. Thank you all for welcoming Knox and I with open arms. Thank you for making us part of your families. And most of all, thank you for trusting me even when you questioned my sanity.” I knew that would make them laugh. When I got here you would’ve thought I walked around town dressed like a clown – shoes and red nose and all. I was a joke to them. At first. “It’s my privilege to live in this beautiful town and serve the community in this way. Enjoy the rest of the week,” I say to applause filling the room.
Mayor Royce gives me a hug and pats me on the back. “Thank you, kid. We owe you a lot. And we know this is just the beginning.” I smile at him and walk away, making my way through my friends and neighbors. Without intending to, I bump into Cade. “Oh. Sorry. I –“
“You thought I was on the other end of the bar and were trying to avoid me?” he asks.
“Well, yeah,” I say, squeezing past him and sitting on the last bar stool at the bar. He’s undeterred and shoves himself between the wall and my right side. “Listen – I can’t do this now.”
“You won’t make time for this at all this week and you know it. Just let me tell you what I have to tell you and then I’ll be on my way.”
“Oh. So you are leaving town tonight?”
“No,” he says, smiling that Kincade smile that makes me long for him deep in my soul. “I’m not leaving. Amelia is with my mom. Mom is staying with us for a while,” he says. “No. I’m not leaving. You might as well let me get this out so we can move on,” he says. “But first, let me order you a drink.”
I squirm on my bar stool and close my eyes a second. He always made fun of me for the little ways I’d try to remind myself where I was at in the present. My anxious ways are well known and sometimes I need a moment to get myself together. I take a few deep breaths. “What can I get for you, El?” my favorite bartender of all time, asks.
Before I can reply, Cade responds, “She’ll have a dirty martini, please.”
“Coming right up,” Jake responds, winking at me, as he starts working on my drink.
Cade takes a drink of his beer and then leans in. He may have had more than a couple beers already because his lips graze my ear, and his hand slips around me, resting on the small of my back. “I’ve missed you,” he says.
I move his hand and look up at him, “Say what you’ve come to say. This is a party I don’t want to miss.” Now I’m pissed. Jake returns with my martini – just how I like them – stuffed olives and all. “Thank you, Jake. You’re my favorite.”
“I know,” he says. “You okay?” He asks, looking Cade directly in the eye.
“I am. You are the sweetest,” I say, letting him know it’s okay to leave me with the jerk to my right.
“Ella,” Cade says again, looking sufficiently chastised.
“Yes?” I ask, daring him to try anything stupid.
“I had to see you. For a lot of reasons. But most important I needed you to know that Steph and I are divorced. We have been for a year. Before you say anything, I didn’t tell you when it happened because I needed to work through my shit. And there was a lot. I’ve been in therapy and done a lot of soul searching. I wanted to tell you. A million times I wanted to tell you. I felt like an addict who needed a fix. I’d wake up and reach for my phone to send you a text. I’d go to bed thinking of you – wanting you to know. My mom would ask me over and over and over again if I’d told you. Telling you was the first thing I wanted to do, literally every day. And that’s why I felt convinced that until Amelia and I had established some healthy patterns and until I’d faced this down, I just couldn’t. I loved you too much. I love you too much,” Cade says, tears forming in his eyes.
I wanted to hear this news. But couldn’t allow myself to fully hope it was possible. “You have custody of Amelia?” I ask.
“Yes. It didn’t take long. Things got really bad with Steph. Really, really bad. By the time I left with Amelia and Ryan – it was bad.”
“Did you get custody of both kids?” I ask, worrying instantly of Ryan – who had grown up with Knox.
“I tried. He’s with his bio dad and stepmom though. I get him over the summer for a few weeks and every few months for a weekend. He’s doing okay but sends me texts sometimes about coming back to NC. Amelia is with me full time. Stephanie was given visits initially, but a year ago she was arrested, with Amelia in the backseat. She was high as a kite. Didn’t even know my girl was in the car. I’ll be filing for her parental rights to be terminated, soon. It’s a process. DSS got involved since the policy had to take custody of Amelia. She was released to my custody but we both were given plans by DSS – to prove we were fit parents. I completed mine. Stephanie still hasn’t. It’s an open and shut case.”
“Wow. I don’t know – I don’t know what to say. How is she? Is she doing okay?”
“She is. With my mom around and all of our friends, it has eased the burden – a little. As you know, there wasn’t much of a bond there anyway.”
“I’m so sorry that it came to this,” I say, meaning it.
“I know. But you predicted it. I should have left with Amelia a long time ago. I have finally come to the point where I don’t regret leaving before Amelia came into our lives,” he says, though he probably knows it stings a little. “She is the light of my life. Being her dad is the second greatest thing to happen to me,” Cade says, looking up at me after staring at his bottle of beer, picking at the label.
“What’s the first greatest?” I ask, wanting him to say it and afraid he will at the same time. Just like everything else with us.
“Duh,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I mean, there could never be any doubt that it’s you.”
I don’t know where to begin. I’m thankful he’s no longer in the chaos that Stephanie brings to everyone around her. I’m thankful that Amelia is safe and that a judge picked a single father over a mother. I’m so grateful he’s okay. He sounds good – therapy has done him some good. But I’m scared. I don’t know what to do or say next.
“I know you probably don’t know what to say. I’m not asking for a response. Right now,” he adds. “I told you so,” might be about the only thing you need to say at this point. I’m the one who has some talking to do. I’m sorry,” he says to me. I’m sure it’s the billionth time I’ve heard him say those two words.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry isn’t what I’m looking for and never was. Not really. I wanted you. And more importantly, I wanted what was best for you above everything else. You chose your own misery and, in the process, broke my heart. Over and over again. So many promises,” I say, my voice as low as possible.
“All true. My only hope right now is that you’ll give me time – that you’ll give me another chance,” he says, the sincerity throwing me off of my determination to make this hard.
“A chance?” I say, gulping down what’s left of my martini. “You’ve lost your mind, Kincade James. You’ve lost your damn mind.” I get up from the bar and while he tries to catch me, I’m too fast and he stumbles before being caught by Knox’s coach.
“You okay?” Coach Reed asks me.
“I’m good. Thanks,” I say, patting him on the shoulder. Coach lets Cade go once he’s standing on his own two feet. But I’m long gone, through the kitchen, by the time he turns around to realize I’m gone.
At 2:00 AM, I’ve finally calmed down long enough to find some peace and perspective. Truthfully, I don’t make any sense. I wanted him to say these things to me. I wanted to feel his touch and look into his eyes – for days and days that have led into years. I wanted the nightmare with Stephanie to come to an end. But when he was right there next to me, telling me everything I wanted to hear, I lost it. I left my own dang party – which I’m sure led to plenty of gossip. I reach for my phone and scroll until I find his name. I compose a quick text before I can stop myself. Cade, I’m sorry for running out. We need to finish this. I will be at Cole’s (look it up) for a concert tomorrow around 1. It’s their own event so I’m off the clock. Will you meet me there? I hit send and hope I don’t regret it. Within seconds I can see him working on a reply. He must be choosing his words carefully because it takes forever before I finally get his one-word response – yes.
A few miles outside of town is a turnoff in the middle of nowhere. You’d miss it if it weren’t for the ginormous billboard with an arrow – pointing to Cole’s Farm. There’s a long tree-lined drive that winds up and down hilly North Carolina farmland – scattered with Highland cattle and goats. It’s like a painting. Only better. The air is cooler up here – just a little closer to the Blue Ridge. My windows are down and I can tell I’m getting closer, as music fills the air. I round a corner and the “farm” stretches out in front of me. Except farm is a little, how should I say this . . . tongue-in-cheek. It’s beautiful. Like a resort, that happens to have some farmland and animals on it. I turn into a gravel parking lot and after finding a parking space, I walk further up the road, toward the gathered crowd. The concert has already started. In front of me is apparently a restaurant and winery – in what is a very refurbished but very old barn. Up the hill, grape vines stretch into the distance. This place is – it’s so Ella. I’d bet a million dollars she’s plotting a way to buy this place someday.
I wander around for a while until I see her standing at an outside bar, a glass of wine in her hand. As if it were possible, she looks more beautiful today than yesterday. She’s wearing that dress – the one I stupidly bought for her when we ran away for a weekend – as if I had the cajones to follow through on my plan to leave Stephanie. Ella has always had a thing for vintage clothes. When we met, she looked like she stepped out of a Hepburn movie. She always did have a way of doing her own thing. The dress, by the way, is a little black one – strappy and like her in every way. I bought it for her because it reminded me of that day we met. I watch her as I walk up the path, talking with friends, the center of attention. Except she’s never been the type that craves it or seeks it. It comes naturally to her. When I reach her, I expect to wait, but she ends her conversation instantly. “Well folks, an old friend is here. It’s time for us to do a little catching up,” she says, breaking free and walking toward me. In only the way she can, she’s wearing a dress I’d spent hundreds on, with flip flops. Perfectly Ella.
“You look – I really don’t even have the words,” I say.
“I mean, you could try,” she says, smiling in a way I’d long to see for far too long now.
“You are a sight for sore eyes. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but that dress looks better on you now than it did when I bought it. What’s eight or so years when you’re Ella Langston?”
“Thank you,” she says, “Shall we take a walk?”
“I’d like that. Can I get a glass of wine first though?” I ask. I’m on her timeline – however long it takes – so I’m ready for a no.
“That sounds like a good idea.” She gets a refill on her Rosé and I get a glass of Pinot Noir. We wander through the people gathered on the patio of the winery. People greet or hug her as we go. She’s like a celebrity. It’s like that at home, too. “This path leads to the coolest pine forest and then stretches up the hill toward the vineyard. Does that sound good?”
“I’d like that,” I say. I mean, I’d follow her over a cliff if I had to.
We are quiet – our wine slopping around in our glasses a bit, as we walk. We are close enough that I could slip my arm around her waist, but don’t. I fight myself constantly as we walk, to not speak first. This is Ella’s show now. I need to let her do or say what she has to – as hard as it is to be quiet when we’ve waited so long for circumstances like these. When we reach the wooded path she mentioned, I’m struck by the sudden loneliness of it. Cypress trees bend toward the vineyard. The wind must really whip up through here. The towering pines give just enough cover that the party below is harder to hear now. It’s cooler up here, too. I look toward the sky and clouds and fog are rolling in above us. I can see why it’s a good spot for a vineyard. There’s a wooden fence along the path and rather than sit down on a bench nearby, she leans against the fence. I guess we’re stopping.
“So,” she says.
“So,” I say, in reply.
“Thank you for coming today. I know I didn’t exactly take your news the best. I have a few things I want to say – a few questions maybe. What I need from you today and always is just the truth, okay?” She asks me.
I try not to cling to the always, and reply, “You’ve got it.”
“First, I just want you to know that I’m so glad you and Amelia – and Ryan – are okay. I’ve lived ten-thousand years of fear and worry over what had become of all three of you. No one dared bring you up and I didn’t dare ask. Honestly, I’ve worried about how far Stephanie would fall, too. I’m grateful you survived,” she says, her free hand touching my chest. She’s leaning still. I’m standing in front of her – trying to will my blood pressure down.
“Thank you,” I say taking a chance by taking her free hand in mine. She doesn’t pull away, so I guess it was a good call.
As if she is willing herself to something too, she gulps what’s left of her wine and sets it on the post next to her. I’m still holding her hand – trying to decide how long I can get away with it. My wine is gone and I feel it a little in my head. Probably not the wine. “Can I take your glass?” she asks. I hand it to her and she sets it next to hers. “I want to get to the main thing. We both know we need to get there. But I have a question for you I’ve literally never asked you. I didn’t really want to know the answer back then. But I need to know now. Maybe it’s two questions,” she says.
“Ask away,” I say.
“Would you have – were you expecting – I mean, with Steph being Steph did you think I would let you – ” and then she stops. She always did have a hard time spitting out the questions when it came to her feelings for me.
“Spit it out, Sweetness,” I say. Hoping she’ll laugh.
“I always did have trouble with that, didn’t I?” She asked.
“Yeah, you could say that. You didn’t have trouble speaking your mind about most things. But there were always a few guarded places I wanted desperately to get to,” I say.
“You know why you couldn’t get there, right?” She asks.
“Yes. I understand it now. I didn’t always then. But I wish you would finish your thought.”
“When we went around and around back then, did you think before I made my ultimatum – divorce or nothing – that you were asking me to have some kind of permanent affair? Like some weird open marriage thing? I thought at the time that we were in a battle over a will he, or won’t he, thing. Will he leave her for me – for us? Or will he stay and I leave? But there was more in there wasn’t there? You never said and I never asked. You expected me to be your girlfriend without divorcing her, right?”
“I don’t really like admitting this, but yeah. I thought I could straddle two worlds. One where I stayed married to keep up the image and not admit defeat.”
“And the other?” she asked.
“And the other – loving you – being with you like we both wanted. Except there was that whole thing about me being married. I didn’t want to say it in those words because I kept thinking it would be okay if you brought it up first. As if someone like you would be okay with me staying married.”
“Right. That little thing,” she says, looking down at the dirt. God I was an asshole. I take her other hand as she looks up at me. “That little thing – you being married. You wanted me to be your mistress for some undetermined amount of time? Like I’d be okay with that?”
“Yeah. That about sums it up,” I say, shame taking over my face – it’s red hot now I’m sure. “I was so lost in that mess I didn’t see how wrong I was – how selfish. We were a thing before Stephanie was a thing. I guess somewhere in my messed-up head I thought you would stay long enough for things with Steph to reach their natural end – whatever that was.”
“But you know what that really translated to, right? Like you get it, don’t you?” she asks me.
“I do now. It was unfair. I was wrong. Not only should I have left, because of all of the reasons we know. But I shouldn’t have dragged you into that. I shouldn’t have expected a commitment from you, when I could give you none myself,” I say as tears fill up her eyes and spill down her cheeks.
“Yes, that,” she says.
I dry her tears and add, “You deserved better. I didn’t question this, Ella. The problem was, I wasn’t what you deserved then and I didn’t want to admit it. I’m sure that was obvious after a while.”
“It was and it wasn’t. Had I not known you before Stephanie and the drugs and the crazy and the never-ending trail of creepy dudes and her disappearing for months on end, it would have been easier to draw a line in the sand. Does that make sense?”
“It does. Perfect sense. I’m sorry I asked that of you – without actually asking – which is part of why I had a lot of work to do.
“I have another question,” she says. “What was different that last time – that last time I told you it was all over? I didn’t hear from you again. It’s what I wanted. But we’d been down that road before. What changed?”
“I am not sure I even know how to explain this completely. I guess the only thing I can tell you is that I knew that night that the bed I’d made was mine alone. The job offer, the new school for Knox, a chance to start over, they were what you needed and wanted. And rather than being stuck in Newton in a job that didn’t meet any of your goals, it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime designed specifically for you. What did I have to offer you? A shit show – that’s about it,” I say ashamed I ever thought I’d given her a viable option for staying.
“It was a shit show, alright. Thanks – thanks for this. In your ‘sorrys’ and ‘I’m divorced,’ pronouncement, something was missing. And this is what was missing. I wanted to believe you would come to understand on your own someday. I never felt like I should have to spell it all out. I needed you to understand what you were asking of me and how unfair it all was, no matter how much I loved you,” she says, tears spilling out again.
“Where do we go from here?” I ask her. Not sure it was the right time for the question, but unable to hold back.
“I don’t know. But this is a start,” she says. She looks up at me again and after letting out the biggest sigh I think I’ve ever heard from her, she says, “I’ve missed you.”
I smile because I can’t help myself. She’s all I ever wanted. I take her in my arms. She clings to me, my shirt in her fists like she’s holding on for dear life. “I’ve missed you too, Sweetness,” I whisper in her ear. “Can we both agree that today is the first day of everything?”
“Of everything?” she asks me, her head still against my chest.
“This is the first day of everything. It’s the first day of doing this right. It’s the first day of this life that should have always been. It’s the first day of Ella and Kincade – all over again. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like a plan,” she says.
“I love you.”
She looks up at me then, still clinging to my shirt. Her smile is one I don’t deserve. But I’ve prayed every day for years, that I’d see it for the rest of my life. “I love you too, Baby. I love you too.”