I swallowed the enormous lump in my throat and checked my own reflection for the fifteenth time in the back of my spoon. Or was it the seventeenth? Honestly? I had lost count.
The little girl behind the counter in the forest green apron has given me exactly three small smiles since I’ve been sitting here checking the clock on the wall over and over again. I’d been here since 8:30 but, the meeting was until 9:15.
I’d already gone through a myriad of intense, ridiculous questions in my head. Would she recognize me? When was the last time that we actually spoke? What were the last words that we said to one another? How long had it actually been? What would her kids look like now? Holy crap! What did I look like now? I checked my reflection again.
Just as I suspected… me… Sixty six, a hundred and 170lbs, gray hair (what was left of it anyways) and those same dark eyes; although a little more crinkled around the edges. Would she recognize me?
I breathed a film of hot air onto the spoon, rubbed it against my napkin, looked at myself again, put a hair back into place and put the spoon down, rolling my eyes at myself.
Looking into my empty white cup with the dark ring around the bottom, I leaned my temple against my knuckles and glanced at the clock. 9:10; she’d be here any minute. Or would she? Was she generally early? Or late? I thought about it for a moment. She was generally on time. That was one of the things that I always loved about Julia. She was on time and always greeted you with a smile.
She always said “hi” in the most sincere tone as if what she was actually saying is, “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you since last week,” or “last month” or however long it had been since we’d seen one another. She was always there, Bill on her arm, or trailing behind her.
They were a gorgeous, star studded couple; the ones that everyone in the church looked up to or turned to for advice. Not only were they physically beautiful; her with her soft, dark features and slanted eyes, and him with his broad shoulders and wavy blonde hair, but they were beautiful together as well; complimenting one another like the ocean and the shore. He was the ocean, raucous and virile, yet kind and she was the shore, calm, lovely and soft. And when I went to bed at night, on occasion, I had to ask God to forgive me for daring to want a wife like that. Or maybe it was that, really… I just wanted her.
“God will give you the desires of your heart!” Pastor Frank would say.
I would sigh under my breath, “No, He won’t. He can’t.” Then I’d side glance Julia and Bill, “Billy” as we called him, and Julia would look at me and smile.
“You’ll be married,” Julia would say, patting my forearm where I wished that her small hand would stay.
I was. I was married. And that was when I learned that sometimes you can make a decision for someone, and they don’t always make it for you. We were married twenty six years, me and April. Regardless of my attempts at being a good husband, though admittedly I have my faults, I just wasn’t what my wife ended up needing.
April was more “up and go” than I was. She wanted to travel constantly and go out all the time and I wanted to stay home and save money and spend time with Brad; our son. April was independent, strong and vivacious. She was like a hurricane at times. This was originally what attracted me to her. However, as she got older that particular trait didn’t die down or stay at a smooth pace. It became rampant and got out of control. Before I knew it she was out every other night. After about a year of this, I stopped asking, “with who?”
She eventually met a slightly younger, slightly taller, slightly more attractive man named “Adrian”. And even though I had every intention of making our marriage work, our dual counseling sessions with our pastor soon became solo counseling sessions. Then finally counseling following a divorce.
Brad was twenty four and no longer living with us and that was it… I was alone again. For years, I couldn’t even conceive of getting married again. I hated the word marriage with a passion. That was until one day a little over a year ago.
I opened up my laptop to do my normal thing before I started work and among all of my junk emails sat one from a name that looked familiar to me, “Julia Wilder.” My heart thudded in my chest and blood rose. I had never forgotten about Julia but, she and Billy had moved to a different part of the state about fifteen years earlier and I rarely saw them. Occasionally Julia posted a photo or update on facebook but she hadn’t emailed me personally in years. For a moment, I was enthralled, elated, mystified and excited. Then my heart sank, the subject of the email was, “Terrible news.”
Swallowing, I opened it. It read,
“I apologize for the massive message to all of you. This was the only way that I could think of to do this right now. To my sadness and despair, today at 2:23PM, Billy went home to be with the Lord,” Tears streamed down my face. After all, even though at one time I had been in love with his wife, I was just as much Billy’s friend as I was hers. He and I had gone out several times together to see a movie or go bowling or just to meet up for coffee. In fact, I think that was the last thing that we did. I’d never done anything to compromise their marriage and at any point if I thought that I would, I backed off. I continued reading. “As many of you may know, Billy has been fighting colon cancer for a little over ten years now, he finally lost that battle. He died peacefully, in his sleep, surrounded by friends, family, and Pastor Dale. Everyone was praying and singing for him. I am deeply saddened at the loss of my long time love and other half. I can not convey the amount of sadness. There will be a memorial service for him on the 14th, everyone on this list will receive a invite. I would love to see you there for support and to honor the memory of a most cherished and wonderful man- Julia.”
I tried to copy her name into a new email and write a message. I got as far as, “Julia, I am so terribly sorry…” and broke down. I drug myself to my bed, which was absent of my wife, and cried for hours.
I thought of Billy and how he loved the ocean and surfing and bonfires and really getting into biblical talks, and I remembered the last time that I saw him.
It was randomly on a Tuesday evening shortly after my divorce. He traveled for work occasionally and sometimes he’d be in the area without Julia. I received a text from him, “Hey, Gip!” (I never fully understood why he called me Gip) “In town til’ Friday. Coffee at the usual place? Let me know when.”
“Sure, man! How about 7PM Thursday?”
“It’s a plan!”
The fact that Billy made time to see me showed me how much he truly cared for me. Besides his parents and his sister, there were a few people that he chose to hang out with when he was in town and I was one of them.
I don’t remember our conversation. I think that I mentioned that I had gotten divorced, and I remember him briefly talking about the early stages of cancer and the fact that they had treated him already and thought that they got it all. The conversation shifted to kids, and weather and sports and mundane things.
Like I said, I don’t remember what we talked about.
What I do remember however was that at about 7:15, he glanced at his watch and shouted, “Crap! We can still make it!” and without another word he paid for both of our drinks, drug me to his car, drove, and parked on the edge of the shore right at the beach. The sun was just setting and the sky turned a brilliant shade of orange. It was unlike anything that I’d ever seen.
“How’s Julia?” I asked watching the colors fade.
“Beautiful, man… just like this,” he gestured at the vision in front of us right before he drank off the last of a mocha.
That was the last time that I saw him; giving me a quick wave out the window of his driver’s seat.
I lay on my bed and cried and cried. I didn’t know what to think. For some reason, the fact that Billy had gotten sick again and was dying had eluded me. Maybe she had written me before; it ended up in my junk mail and accidentally got deleted. Or maybe somehow I overlooked it. It was also possible that she simply forgot to let me know about it considering that I wasn’t like Billy’s best friend or anything, or the fact that she was dealing with a lot.
At this point, I was grateful to be on the list of people in the email and to be invited to the memorial. Which, I was. I received an invitation in the mail not more than a few days later during a time when I wasn’t even thinking about Billy or Julia anymore.
Unfortunately, the memorial conflicted with a random family emergency. I would have gotten in the car and driven the four hours to be there if I could have. I even wrote a speech in case there was an open mic. But, my father called to tell me that my mother had collapsed and was being driven to the local hospital. Interestingly, my mother passed away a few weeks later and my father and I had to take care of everything on our end. During this time, I obviously wasn’t thinking too much about Julia or Billy, or the memorial, or my inability to be there.
I wasn’t thinking about much of any of it until about eleven months later when I was at church alone. Brad was there with his new wife and the said hi, waved, and spoke with me briefly afterwards, but I was still alone for the most part. I often sat with a gentleman who was older than me named Greg. Greg was a widower and he and I got along. As we were listening to the sermon that day, the pastor spoke some very familiar words to me. “God will give you the desires of your heart.”
It was at that moment that everything came flooding back to me and I simply began to cry.
In the early afternoon I drove the four hours to go to the place where I knew that Billy was buried. Without going to see Julia, or anyone else, I sat at his tombstone on the cool grass and spoke to him.
“Hey man, it’s me. I know you’re here. I know that you’re probably up there smiling at how foolish I look right now. I had to come here and tell you something because I realized that for the last thirty years, I’ve been a liar. I haven’t lied to you directly, per se. I just lied by omission in some weird way. Billy… I love Julia. I always have, and I always will. But, I want you to know that no matter how much I wanted there to be a way to be with her, I never ever ever in a million years wanted you to-” I sighed and looked off at an old couple standing over a grave arm in arm. I didn’t know who they were looking at, or why they were there. Perhaps they were looking at the stone of a sister or father, maybe a son or daughter? It made me hurt inside.
I glanced back at Billy’s tombstone. There was a small photograph of his old, tired face. I looked over the writing, “Billy Gerald Wilder, loving Father, loving husband, lover of Christ, our Lord. 1935-2005…”
“I don’t know what you want for Julia… Maybe it’s not me. But, Billy if I see her, I’m going to want to be with her again and all that I’m asking is this. Please, let there be a sign that you are okay with it, and that God is okay with it,” I said. Then I touched the top of his tombstone, “I love you, man. We had lots of good times together and I don’t want to do anything to hurt your family, or you.”
I stood, dusted my knees off and walked away, not expecting a single bolt of lightning that night.
Oddly enough, something did happen that night. I received a message in my inbox from Julia. It startled me. I looked at the time that it was sent and narrowed my eyes over my glasses. It was sent around the same time that I was sitting at Billy’s grave. Swallowing hard, I opened it. Then I was confused. It read, “That’s fine, btw did you get the other bit? I was wondering where Selma figured on going until then. Also, was there a specific thing that you wanted to talk about during the class? Let me know – Julia.”
My heart sank. She’d sent me an email meant for someone else. So naturally, I hit reply and told her so.
“Julia, I believe that this was meant for someone else… lol. Sorry about the mix up.”
The next morning there was a message in my inbox, “Goodness, Gip, you’re right! I apologize! Incidentally, how are you doing, old friend? Missed you at the memorial. –Julia Wilder.”
My heart sank again. “old friend.” I cleared my throat and replied hoping that she’d still be at whatever computer that she was sitting at to see it. “I’m well. I apologize about missing the memorial. I promise you that I had every intention of making it. Believe me. I was even packed. My father called me the night before and it turned out that my mother had collapsed. Unfortunately, we lost her about a week and a half later,” my fingers rested nervously on the keys for a moment, “Julia, I am so sorry about Billy. You know that he was a dear friend. The world is a little less bright without him in it. – Gip.” Why was I signing this Gip?
“You replied fast. I like that. The memorial was beautiful. Pastor gave the most gorgeous speech about my husband. He talked for a long time about his love for nature, and children, and the work he did with the church. It was beautiful. I wish you could have been there. I am so sorry about Mary!!! I remember her peanut butter cookies! They were some of the most delicious cookies I’ve ever eaten! I remember the little toys that she made for the kids and the candy that was always spilling out of her pockets! She was a beautiful soul, Gip. I am terribly sorry for your loss.- Julia Wilder.”
I coughed and patted my chest, then hit reply. “Thank you, her service was also lovely. There were many people there. Julia, is there any chance you’ll be in my neck of the woods sometime soon? I’d love to meet for coffee and catch up, – Gip.”
I hit refresh about five minutes later, “Tell me when and where, – Julia.”
My heart instantly sped up and I flew off of my chair, “YES!”
I don’t know what kind of dance I was doing around my den but, I’m sure it looked very white, very nerdy and not quite so spry as I thought that I was in my head. I sat back down trying to contain myself.
“How about Saturday?…”
I looked at the clock again…
It was 9:15 now; on the dot and my heart was speeding up at a ridiculous rate. I felt like I was in highschool again and someone had just told me that my crush was coming to the party to see me.
The little girl behind the counter smiled at me for the fourth time and I smiled back and got up to take my empty cup back to her.
At 9:20, I began to be concerned that Julia had forgotten. It was a stupid thing to be concerned with. I told myself to calm down and not worry, that five minutes was really no big deal. It could be traffic, or running late, or a slew of other things. I reminded myself that she wasn’t allowed to text and drive at the same time and that she could very easily be on her way.
Once again, I checked myself in the back of the spoon. Should I have shaved? Maybe the facial hair was too much. Maybe she’s not attracted to men with facial hair. That’d be my luck! My entire future ruined over my mustache and beard. I told myself to calm down again. “You can shave if she wants you to,” I whispered aloud.
Someone turned to look at me and I lifted my hand as if to tell them not to worry about it. They went back to their book.
The bells above the door rang and my heart exploded in my chest. I turned to the door. It wasn’t her. I sat back a little and checked my watch. It was 9:26. Now I was getting a bit worried… and hungry! The croissants, cookies, tarts, and muffins had been staring at me from the glass case since I’d walked in.
I waited another two minutes, stood, and keeping one eye on the door; I ordered a blueberry muffin and sat back down. I said a quick prayer and took an enormous bite.
This was the moment that the door opened again, and all of the anxiety, fear and frustration that I had dropped off of me.
There she was; beautiful Julia. She was glancing around the room obviously looking for me, and for a moment, all that I could do was stare at her like a love struck puppy dog. She was in a blue suit with a skirt and black heels. She’d cut her hair and it looked amazing on her. All of her sixty five years shown through her face as if she wasn’t a day over forty. I immediately felt enamored…and intimidated.
I wiped my mouth and stood. This was when our eyes met and the most gentle and adoring smile spread across her thin lips. I knew at that moment that if I approached her, I was going to kiss her. So I held back.
She came to me, “Ryan,” she breathed, and my heart fluttered. I grinned at her and took her against me in a loving hug.
“It’s so good to see you,” I said just before we pulled back.
“You as well. You look wonderful,” she grinned.
“You look amazing. I love your hair.” She touched it and I wanted to do the same. “When did you cut it?” I asked.
“About a month ago. I felt like it was time for a change. I’d had it long for so many years.”
I nodded. I felt so inadequate next to her. Her hair was still mostly black minus a few flecks of silver and her face still looked youthful. She was beautiful… just like Billy had said she was, and I always knew it too.
“Can I get you something?” I asked gesturing to the enormous menu behind me.
“Oh, Ryan! You don’t have to buy me anything!” She laughed touching my arm. Touching was a good sign, right?
“I insist, don’t you argue with me,” I pointed sternly at her. This was something that we’d done for years. Whenever one of us was insistent, we’d point at one another dramatically.
She grabbed my finger and waggled it, “Okay, Gip. I’ll have a tall latte, and a bran muff,” she grinned. I immediately remembered her always calling muffins “muffs” and went to the counter, smiling.
The little girl behind the counter came rushing, wiping her hands on her apron. “What can I get you?” she asked with a small, unnoticeable wink.
“I’ll have a cappuccino, and the lovely lady here,” I gestured at the beauty on my right, “Will have a tall soy latte and a bran muffin,” I smiled down at Julia.
She grinned at me; “You remembered!” she beamed.
“I did,” I replied. Julia wasn’t allergic to milk, or lactose intolerant, either. She simply preferred lattes with soy milk.
The barista rang us up for a whopping twelve dollars and fourteen cents and walked off to get Julia her bran muffin.
Julia and I sat and waited for our drinks to arrive.
“So how is Brad?” she asked.
“He’s good,” I replied taking another bite of my muffin. “He’s been married for about a year and a half now, and they told me that they’re expecting at church Sunday,” I smiled.
“You’re going to be a grandpa!” She beamed.
“It was bound to happen,” I blushed, wiping my mouth. “How about your grandkids?”
“Marci is starting pre-kindergarten in September. She’s so nervous. She loves Frozen and dogs.”
I smiled as our drinks came.
We talked for a little while about her two grandchildren and how Julia had recently moved back into the area to be nearer to family members. Then we talked about how Julia was doing. “I honestly didn’t get out of bed for three whole weeks,” she said wiping a small tear from the corner of her lovely slanted eye, “Then Teresa came over and drug me out,” she shook her head, “It was so hard. She just took me to the mall to walk and every single thing reminded me of Billy. I was constantly sad and depressed for at least another month and always crying.” Instinctively, I reached across the table and took her hand to let her know that I was there. “Billy and I had it rough, but we loved one another,” she explained. I nodded. “I still can’t eat hershey’s kisses,” she shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. I remembered clearly how he’d buy her a whole bunch every year for their anniversary and Valentine’s Day. They were some of her favorites and he’d buy them for her in big bags full of different fillings and flavors. “I haven’t been able to eat a single one,” she said catching another tear.
“I have never been able to watch Crocodile Dundee again…” I said under my breath. She narrowed her eyes at me inquisitively. “It was April and I’s first date,” I explained. She nodded and then randomly pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen from her purse and wrote something down. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“This is my “to do” list. I just wrote down, ‘Watch Crocodile Dundee with Ryan and eat a hershey’s kiss during the movie.”
I felt myself float for a moment. She had always been like this. The first day that I met her was on a Sunday morning. She’d stretched her hand out and introduced herself to me, almost thirty years ago now and said, “Hi,” in that way that made you think that she was saying that you were the most important person in the world. We had spoken pleasantries for a few moments before she touched my arm and said, “You’ve never had Wonton soup?!” I honestly hadn’t. Right then and there she whipped out a small pad of paper, wrote something down and showed it to me. I looked it over. It read, ‘Invite Ryan over for wonton soup.’
She did, and I was never more in love with anyone since.
Over an hour passed of more talking before she got back around to Billy. “I meant to tell you, before he went too far downhill he said, ‘tell Gip that I love him,’ and he made me promise that I’d tell you.”
I smiled, feeling my eyes well a little. “You know… I feel stupid now…” I said with a small, throaty chuckle. “I never really understood why he called me Gip.”
Her small eyes widened, “Really?! I thought you knew!”
“No.” I felt my cheeks redden.
“George Gipp, Ryan.” My mind exploded. How could I have never made that connection before? “When you and him used to play football together with the group? You always played whatever position was needed. That’s when he started calling you Gip.”
“You know, you’re right? I can’t believe I never thought of that!” I laughed. She laughed too. “I always just thought it was some sort of weird term of endearment that the two of you settled on… I was clumsy, and maybe I thought it had to do with being a ‘gimp’ or something.” I shrugged, sipping.
She laughed long and hard for a moment and touched my wrist, “Oh nono, Ryan. We had another name for that!”
“Oh yeah? What?” I blushed.
“Want to hear?!” she was trying so hard not to laugh, “We called you Drebin,” she roared.
“What?” I couldn’t figure this one.
“As in Lt. Frank Drebin?” She nearly doubled over.
“Oh my gosh,” I covered my mouth, “I remember that now.”
“Remember? At Billy’s thirty sixth birthday-“
“When I spilled the ice.” It was all coming back to me.
“Yeah, he said ‘nice goin’ there, Drebin.”
“Oh my gosh.” I was covering my face, I was so red.
She smiled and waved a hand dismissively in the air. “All in the past.” I looked down into my empty cup, “I’ve thought about you a lot recently, Ryan.” I looked up into her eyes. “Wondered how you were doing, and where you were.”
“I was always here,” I replied with a small smirk.
“I know. But, I often wished that you were with us.”
I was still waiting for that sign that Billy would be okay with me pursuing Julia and at every small word, my heart leapt and jumped to conclusions. I had to keep telling myself to keep it together.
“I’ve always thought a lot about you,” I blurted. That was probably too far. I regretted saying it immediately but when I looked up at her she was smiling. So, I decided why not push it a little further? “I always thought that you were one of the most beautiful, graceful, fun, and mysterious women that I’d ever met,” I explained. Then I chuckled, “And here I am… clumsy and awkward,” I smirked.
There was an odd silence, almost as if some force was telling me to listen carefully for the next few words.
“I always thought of you as being like the ocean,” she said after a moment. My heart leapt and I looked up into her eyes. “Raucous… yet… kind,” she explained.
I couldn’t feel my hands or toes for at least thirty seconds. “Thank you,” was all that I could muster and I knew at this moment that this was God’s way of letting me know that I could in fact take Julia as my wife.
But, I didn’t jump to any conclusions just then.
We finished our coffee date, made plans to see one another again and hugged goodbye, planning our next meeting. We met for dinner, then a movie, then dinner again, then a quiet walk, then dinner and a quiet walk then dates got longer, and time slowed down and six months went by. Then I leaned in and kissed her and she kissed me back. Then I whispered, “I love you,” and she said the same. Then I bought a ring, and then she said yes.
We were married in the fall and even though we have our busy schedules, we still make time for coffee. –