By Virginia Young
You are my oxygen, she thought each time she saw him, certain that without him, she would collapse and disintegrate like crepe paper in water. She could not, would not, suffer the absence of him for long. She would die without him and it would all be over. It terrified her when she realized how much she loved him, and that’s when she ran. It was nearly twelve years later when the call came from her brother.
“Come on Madi,” his voice begged, “do this for me.”
Madi sat down at the white marble-topped island in her kitchen over-looking Tilson Sands at Rhode Island’s posh coastal stretch. She’d been fortunate finding and buying this quaint gardener’s cottage. Small, with one bedroom and an open floor plan, she’d decorated with beautiful and useful antique chests of drawers and soft sofas and chairs in crimson against white-walled backdrops and colorful oriental rugs. It was a warm and comfortable common room. The charm of the place had captivated her, twelve-hundred miles from where she’d grown up, from where she’d left Simon. Now, with the phone pressed against her right ear, she walked into her living room space and sat down as her eyes scanned the workmanship, the post and beam structure with its wide plank floors, the mellow patina reminding her of melted butter. And the clear, leaded glass windows invited sunlight to display itself in diamond shapes of pure northern light.
“Are you there?” Robert asked when she’d given him no reply.
Madi sighed as quietly as she could manage and asked, “Why me?”
Madi thought about her brother, three years her senior. His best friend had been the love of her life, he just hadn’t known it. She didn’t think she could ever measure up to him. He was handsome, sweet, smart and funny. Her thirteen year old heart was hooked from the moment his sixteen year-old frame filled her parents’ kitchen doorway for the first time. That depth of feeling didn’t go away. She loved him for years, dating others in high school and college, always making the comparison. No one could be Simon.
“He needs a new start, Madi. I mean the guy has had it tough, nineteen freaking months in Iraq, and for the second time. Be his friend, let him in. I know you always had a crush on him. Come on, I’m asking you to just kind of guide him. He’s my best friend. If he’d stay here in Chicago, I’d watch over him, but I can’t just leave my practice and follow him around. He wants Rhode Island where he spent part of his childhood. He asked about you.” There was silence following his statement. “Madi?”
“I did not have a crush on Simon. Why did you say that?”
She could hear Robert sigh. “Okay, so no crush. But you liked him, everyone liked Simon. Help him out by just offering some friendship, Madi. Come on, give the guy a break.”
“I had no idea Simon had ties here, when is he arriving? I’m busy as heck, you know that. Even though I work mostly from home, I have days I need to go in to Providence and Boston. I have things going on, Rob.”
“I know that, Madi.”
“Has he found a place to stay? I mean, he can’t stay here, you know what I have for space.”
“He found an efficiency unit. His allotment doesn’t give him much, I offered him money, but you know him. He’s proud. He’s a smart guy and I hope to hell he gets his life back, but they said it could be a long and bumpy road. He has those damn night tremors. Post traumatic stress they call it. The guy’s a hero, Madi. He’s the best. Please.”
Madi bent over in half feeling nearly ill at the thought of letting Simon in to her life again. It had taken years to purge the passion she’d felt for him and although she had never quite succeeded, here she was, about to face the demons again, the love that was so strong it molded her into shapeless jelly. She pushed her waist-length auburn hair back from her tear-filled eyes and struggled with the words. “I’ll give it a try, Rob, but I guarantee nothing. I’m not his therapist. I can offer him a cup of coffee here and there, and I can show him around Tilson, but other than that…”
“Fantastic,” Robert said. “I knew you’d come through for us, Mad. I’m not asking you to do any more than befriend him. Give him some hope. So, is it okay for me to give him a call tonight with your address and phone number?”
Madi shivered and managed a weak “yes” before their conversation slid around to their parents and finally to an end.
With the phone in her hand, she straightened her back and walked to where a comfortable sofa waited. She sat down at one end, her eyes following the grey-white clouds floating over the sea. She was thirty and a successful analyst who found solace in painting soft seascapes in watercolor to fill the self-inflicted emptiness. Simon was thirty-three and a mess.
When he knocked on her door two days later, she stood for a few moments almost breathless with anticipation. Not much more than a boy when she’d seen him last, she was leaving for Boston to attend college. He was enjoying the party life of Chicago with her brother while attending Northwestern before entering the service. When she stepped forward and opened the door, she thought she might faint. He was more handsome than she had remembered; that dark hair, those green eyes, and his shoulders were broad. He didn’t look ill in any way, and then he smiled.
“Holy smoke,” he said as he appraised her from head to toes. “Who gave you permission to grow up so beautiful?”
Madi stepped back and he stepped inside.
“This is nice,” he said as his eyes scanned the room. “It suits you.”
Madi swallowed and wondered if her dry mouth could find words. She closed the door to chilled October wind and invited him to sit and asked would he have coffee. When he accepted, his hands in his trouser pockets, walking slowly around the room taking in the details, Madi poured two mugs of coffee and handed one to him.
“You still take it black?” she asked.
Simon’s mouth formed that familiar crooked little smile. “I can’t believe you remembered. What’s it been, twelve years? Wow, I’m impressed.”
Madi sat down at one end of a sofa and found the strength to look directly into his wonderful eyes as he seated himself across from her . He’d been her romantic downfall, the boy she knew to be sought after by every girl in all the local towns. He was too handsome, too charming, completely divine, but so out of reach for a plain, skinny little teenager with long, straight hair and no particular abilities other than devouring book after book, absorbing the flowing prose with a fervor.
“I remember a lot,” she said with just the slightest hint of a smile.
Simon shook his head cradling the mug of hot coffee in his hands. “Me too,” he said. “You know, if you hadn’t been Rob’s sister, I’d have been all over you.”
Madi squinted her eyes and then looked away from him before placing her coffee mug on the table next to her. “Simon, you had every girl in Chicago and surrounding towns after you - the star football player, the perfect dancer, the good student. Even my parents talked about what you were made of. You wouldn’t have given me the time of day.”
Simon looked at her as he sat forward. “I’m telling you, Madi, I had this thing for you. If you hadn’t been Rob’s little sister, oh yeah, I’d have been right there.”
Madi sat very still for a few moments looking at his face for even a glimmer of a smile. He was serious, and she was silently amazed.
“So,” Simon said, “Rob told you I live in town? It’s not much, nothing like this, but at least I’m back. I missed the ocean in Chicago. This is the area where my grandparents lived, and so did I until I was twelve. It feels like home, I’m really glad to be here.”
Madi nodded. “I understand. Listen, I go out of town on consultations sometimes. If you ever want to come here and just unwind, I’ll give you a key. You can call, and if I don’t answer, just come over. Make yourself some coffee, enjoy the view.”
“You’d let me use your place? I’d love being able to come here. It’s only about a two mile walk. Thank you, Madi, I’m grateful for the invitation. And I accept.”
“Did you walk here this evening?” she asked.
Simon took a swallow of coffee and nodded. “No car at this point. The doctors don’t think I should be driving for a while. The feet work; it’s okay.”
Madi remembered that he’d had Corvettes, a red one, then a silver one, gifts from an indulgent father. “Well, if you come here and you feel too tired to walk back into town, these two sofas are comfortable. There are blankets in that chest of drawers by the door, just make yourself at home.”
After she’d said the words, she wondered if she’d offered too much. But he was walking, and if he came here at night, what would be the harm in his sleeping on a sofa? After all, this wasn’t a stranger, this was Simon.
Madi opened her eyes, squinting against early morning light and noted that there was the feeling of warmth and weight across her side and waist. Simon. Simon had let himself in and sometime during the night slipped in beside her. She turned just enough to see his relaxed face so near to her hair. She thought about waking him and causing a fuss, scolding him for being there uninvited to her bed. She turned away, allowing the right side of her face to once again rest on her pillow and then she smiled. She could scold him from now until forever, but he would not change, and she loved his being there, against her, always claiming to have slept better, without the troubling dreams, her at his side. Simon. And then she reminded herself that he was broken. It would not be fair, and maybe not real, to accept the relationship she longed for.
She deliberately moved slowly, slipping her bare legs from beneath the covers and pulling the satiny fabric of her nightshirt down over her knees. She would make coffee, he would want that black brew first thing. As she started to stand, his hand reached out for hers.
“Hey,” she said, “let go.”
He pulled her back into the supple lavender scented sheets, hugging her close to him.
“Let go,” she said. “And what are you doing here anyway? Really Simon, you’re like a stray cat. I never know when you’re going to show up.”
He smiled and closed his beautiful eyes for just a moment.
“I’ve wondered more than a few times over the last few months about my logic in having given you a key. I think it might be time for you to forfeit that.”
He unwillingly let go of her hand and shifted himself up against a pillow, his sage green t-shirt revealing lean, muscled arms. “You’d make me give up the key? I still get those headaches. This is the only place I sleep without waking in misery. You wouldn’t really take my key away, would you?” He smiled, and at the same time, gave her a pleading look.
“Oh yes, I would,” she said and then she moved away toward the bathroom. In the privacy of that small room, she looked into the mirror and smoothed back her hair, brushed her teeth and gently rubbed her face and neck with a warm, damp cloth and a touch of almond soap. Having completed that brief motion, she looked at her eyes and knew that it would take almost nothing to flood them with tears. Simon. So forbidden to her; more unattainable than ever in his vulnerable condition.
In the kitchen where she scooped coffee into a French press, he watched her as he lazily leaned against the white, marble-topped island in the center of the room.
Madi refused to acknowledge his presence, but she thought back to a few nights ago when he’d knocked on her door after eight and joined her once again in watching an old movie. His hand had rested, almost singeing the skin on her bare knee and she’d deliberately moved away, standing and walking to the kitchen from where she’d offered coffee.
“Are you sorry to know me, Mad?” He interrupted her thoughts. “Do you want me to go?”
She turned for just a moment and glanced at him. He looked saddened and she sighed before turning back toward the stove. “Come on, Simon. I’m not sorry to know you, not at all sorry if I’ve helped you in any way, but having you climb into my bed is another issue. I told you that the sofa was yours when you need it. I never invited you to crawl in beside me.”
He smiled as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “But we fit so well together. I love sleeping next to you.”
Madi gave him a stern glance. “That’s not in my guide book on friendships with people who have issues with nightmares and headaches. For God’s sake, Simon, I’m a therapist, but not yours, and it’s a good thing too. I mean,” she said with a spatula and two eggs in her hands, “what do you suppose people would think if they knew you slept with me? Slept with me. That has a connotation of its own. People would never believe we just sleep.”
“When did you become so concerned about what others think?” He asked as he ran his fingers through thick hair. “You push me away, Madi. I’d be here with you every night if you’d let me, you must know that. When I stay away, it’s to give you a break from me.”
Madi turned away from him toward the stove. She didn’t want a break from him. She was about to crack the eggs into a pan when she noticed him walking back toward the bedroom, leaving his nearly full cup of coffee on the otherwise clear island, as if it was the one important thing in the room. She closed her eyes and then opened them again as she slipped the eggs back into their carton. Simon, she thought, I cannot injure you. I’m supposed to help mend you. Simon.
She waited a few minutes then walked toward the bedroom where she would try to explain, maybe at last to empty her heart and tell him the truth, but he was gone. She sat down on the edge of the bed and pressed her left palm against the pillow where he had slept.
Weeks passed by and she did not see him. She changed the sheets and her own pillow case several times, leaving his as it was, where she could close her eyes at night to touching where he had been, and where she would open her eyes in the morning to see the empty space.
- - -
Formerly a writer for local newspapers, I paint and write fiction of all lengths. I live on the south shore of Massachusetts with my husband and a variety of furry and feathered creatures.