in On the Art of Storytelling

What Happens at Dawn

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In the after rain mist, moonlight shone through the window and cast her in a silver sheen. For three decades, Timothy had yearned for this moment. He had kept Sharon’s phone number and address from when they had parted tucked underneath a box of cufflinks. What’s the point? he would think just when he was that close to picking up the phone or writing a letter. Time wore on, and Timothy kept her contact merely as a souvenir.

Then came Facebook. Although they weren’t connected as friends (the wife had a habit of monitoring his account), in the ten years since he had messaged Sharon, they communicated by e-mail in ways that at first were platonic, mostly birthday well-wishes. Timothy could never forget Sharon’s birthday; they were born two days apart in the same year. Facebook informed him that she was single and worked as real estate broker in Los Angeles. Images of a woman dressed in either a summer frock or leotards, trim from a lifestyle of cycling in the company of her twin son and daughter both in their mid-teens, populated her wall. Sharon’s hair was still dark, but grown to the length of her shoulders. She wore bangs, too. Timothy had remembered Sharon with a pixie cut. She used to be proud of how the cut accentuated a graceful neck.

The photo postings gave Timothy vivid scenes with which to imagine this night. Now that it was happening, Sharon was even more beautiful in person. Age had replaced the softness of her features with a linear sharpness, and crow’s feet formed when she smiled. Timothy didn’t care just as Sharon didn’t care about the change in him. His girth had ballooned on account of an addiction to Coca Cola, his white hair was thinning, and bags under his eyes were as pronounced as a coin split in half imbedded in his flesh.

“Your mom’s liver pâté,” Sharon said.

“Huh?”

“Your mom’s liver pâté.”

In a bathrobe, her legs curled up in a chair in front of the window, Sharon smiled as if she had just declared her love. Everything she had been saying the whole night seemed to connote love. So soft was her voice.

“In case you’re wondering, the magic ingredients are cognac and tabasco sauce,” Timothy said.

The sheets were still warm from the heat of her body. He sat up and rested his back on the headboard.

“What about the jelly layering on top?”

“I don’t know. Dried up duck lard. Or whatever it is pâté is made of.”

“You know your mom’s liver pâté was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.”

He saw Sharon as she had been when she had taken that first bite – the meticulousness with which she chewed, the delight in her eyes. They had been at his place, seated in the back porch. The sun brightened an adobe floor. She wore a pink blouse with a lace collar and cotton ball sleeves. Girl or woman, he didn’t know what to peg her. Her carriage – the straight back and high head – endowed her with an elegance beyond her years, yet how demure she was. By the way she marveled at the explosion of leaves on the garden trees and the blue flowers that blossomed in shrubs lining the porch, Timothy would have thought she had never ventured beyond the gates of her home other than to go to school. She had been with Timothy on that afternoon because their fathers golfed together.

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“You impressed my mother,” he said.

“She was always nice to me. And your father, too. I’m still so sorry about your mom.”

“You were one of the first to send your condolences.”

The digital clock on the night table indicated the passing of another minute. Timothy never realized until then how cruel a digital clock could be. Bold numbers on a lit screen shouted the time.

“She remembered you in the end,” he said.

“Oh?”

“She was lying there, about to go. Linda and my dad were out of the hospital. It was just my mom and me, and out of the blue, she said, ‘Tell Sharon hello.’ That was it.”

“That’s a lot.”

“She wished… as did my dad… the same thing I wish. I wish I had married you.”

Timothy had been wanting to tell Sharon this. He almost did in a moment of grief over his mother a few years ago, and then decided no, not by e-mail. This was something for which he needed to witness the look in Sharon’s eyes, to feel her nearness.

Sharon turned to the window. Rain drops on the pane brightened by the dawn glow resembled fragments of broken glass.

“I wish I had married you, too,” she said.

‘“What could have been.”

“No, Tim.”

“Don’t you wonder?”

“Not anymore. Wondering is pointless.”

Sharon was right. No sense in discussing what had been the inevitable. Timothy had gotten into a decent college, whereas she was ivy league bound. Thus, they separated, their promise of fidelity despite being apart coming to naught.

“Sometimes I wonder what’s real,” Timothy said. “Like now. Now you’re here, but once the sun rises…”

“Well, last night really happened. My feet still hurt. Dancing in heels… You’re lucky you don’t have to endure a woman’s torture.”

“Our song.”

Their song: “Do You Want to Hurt Me?” by Culture Club. He liked Madonna. She liked Cyndi Lauper. With Culture Club, they were unanimous. They had danced to the song for the first time on their senior prom. How pretty Sharon had been in a slip gown the hue of cream and a pink carnation he had pinned onto her bodice. They wouldn’t dance to the song until 30 years later, in a high school reunion where she was still the prettiest girl, her dress the red of dynamite and roses.

Timothy had declined attendances to past reunions, only this one was an exception. Sharon had e-mailed him that she’d be going, and now that he lived in the East Coast, he felt that it would be good to go back to the city where they had built their early memories; it had been too long. Even so, until last night, Timothy had had his doubts. Sharon could back out without informing him. Or she might show up after all, and he might never want to return home.

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Home… what was home? A bombed business venture Linda was griping over and three kids, two boys in high school and a girl who came back every summer and Christmas during college breaks.

Amazing, he thought as Sharon massaged her feet. Hours earlier, she had been an irresistible, dangerous flower that upon her entrance had brought the hotel ballroom to a hush. Timothy at 15 would never have foreseen Sharon to grow into such a stunner. She had not stood out for him those first days in social studies class their sophomore year. Though Sharon was cute, she was to him just another of the uppity girls who barely talked. Matters changed on the day the class discussed childhood ailments. Sharon said she hadn’t gotten the mumps yet, which elicited a gasp from Timothy, who had read that failure to have the mumps by adolescence could cause sterility. He whispered this to the guy seated behind him, then waved his hand in the air to share the information with the class. “Don’t,” the guy said, pushing down Timothy’s hand. “You’ll embarrass that girl.” At last, Timothy noticed Sharon, really noticed – the shy bow of the head; the eyes that brimmed with curiosity; the hands, delicate with slim fingers – and he thought how sad if she couldn’t have a family of her own. And he wondered what kind of a woman she’d be in her twenties. Amazing that the two of them would now be in the same hotel room in their middle age, a history of a broken romance uniting them.

“You look great,” Timothy said.

Sharon smiled a soft smile and slipped off her bathrobe. Stealthy as a panther, she crawled on the bed, her back to the window. “You’re as handsome as ever.”

“Only you would see that.”

She looked at him questioningly.

He could read her thoughts. Didn’t his wife see that he was handsome? But none of Linda right now, not until sunrise. Night was meant for dreams.

Her head on a hand propped up by her elbow, Sharon lay on her side. Timothy ran a hand over her body, from the shoulders to the waist, from the hips to the ankles, memorizing the curves, the softness of skin. She had a faint scar from a cesarean operation, noticeable only when one got that close. The doctor who delivered his second born hadn’t done a good job on Linda. Hers was jagged, a pink zipper. He would kiss the scar to show Linda that he still found her beautiful. When was the last time he had kissed her there?

Rain drops on a window, the moon aglow in a velvet sky… Timothy could not have hoped for a more romantic setting. He had cajoled Sharon into their spending the night in her room rather than his because he didn’t want his personals to distract him. They would have reminded him of Linda, starting with his suitcase… she had bought it… just as she had chosen the frame to his reading glasses, which were positioned on a book she had recommended, some self-help guide about inspiration and faith in oneself. Both items were on the night table next to his phone that could ring at any minute with her on the other end. Suppose it was ringing right now? What excuse would he have for not having picked up?

“I see those Elvis Presley cheekbones,” Sharon said.

“I see Ann-Margret,” Timothy said.

“They had an affair, didn’t they?”

“On the set of ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ Those sexy hips of hers. That body. I don’t blame him.”

“I read she was the love of his life.”

“Funny how that works out. The love of your life is not the one you marry.”

“Ann-Margret.” Sharon blushed. “I’m flattered.”

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How girlish Sharon was. Her stomach was firm and her neck was as delicate as a bird’s, as if she were in perennial youth. The California culture of outdoor activities, veganism, and trail mixers suited her. Timothy was hooked on sugar and fried foods, as was Linda, and being with her was all about indulgence. Brown rice disgusted him, and chicken breast made Linda scoff. Timothy found all this amusing at the moment. Girth notwithstanding, he was in bed with a woman who boasted a physique that could ignite any man’s desire. She was crazy about him, too, she the most feminine creature he had ever touched.

As Timothy fondled Sharon’s toes, he noticed the dim outline of a suitcase on a stand at the foot of the bed. Gray with grooves lining its edges, it resembled a steel block. A black travel bag sat on the suitcase. A pen, a notepad, and other office paraphernalia no doubt occupied its outer pockets. Such industrial designed baggage conjured the vision of a man in suit and tie, his face in shadows under the brim of a fedora hat, lost among a throng of businessmen dressed in the same code of anonymity. Sharon used to have a penchant for frills and ribbons. Their sophomore year, she would walk the corridors in ballet shoes with lace bows and a pink Hello Kitty binder in her arm.

“What are you thinking?” asked Sharon.

“Of you,” Timothy said. “At work… what do you wear to work?”

“A woman’s business suit.”

“Padded shoulders. What was that look called again?”

“The power suit. No. That was the ‘80s. Women today dress strong, but in a different way.”

Her clients were Hollywood big wigs, rock stars, and celebrated athletes – this movie producer, the manager of that famous singer, so and so and his supermodel girlfriend.

“You must be exceptional at what you do,” Timothy said.

“Good enough.”

“You’re being modest.”

“I’m good enough.”

She did it all by herself, he thought.

At once, he had an image of her behind a huge desk in an office with black leather chairs and a floor to ceiling window that provided a view of the Los Angeles skyline, buttons to press and automated drawers. He saw her alone, her own boss at work as much as she was at home, and he wondered if trust and competition could possibly coexist between her and the other real estate agents, what with salaries dependent on sales commissions.

Trust had cost Timothy his business. He had set up a marketing firm with his closest friend, who had double-crossed him by luring their clients to a firm of his own he had been operating on the sly. A year had passed. Thanks to his father’s financial assistance, he managed to retain their house and keep the kids in school, although Linda wouldn’t stop referencing the debacle: “You’re not good with money… I’ll set our budget… We can’t afford this anymore…” Now he was back to a desk job in a bank where his superiors never delivered on promises of a promotion.

A drizzle started outside. The drops against the window were soundless, yet in his mind Timothy could hear the pitter patters as murmurs infiltrating a dream, summoning him to awake.

“Your kids look so like you,” he said, focusing on that face. “It’s as if a husband wasn’t involved.”

“Jack’s actually a great father. Mike was a fantastic step-father. Still is. He remains a part of my kids’ lives. I’m on decent terms with them, Jack and Mike. I’m grateful for that. I’ve been lucky.”

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Jack and Mike. Of course, Sharon must have mentioned their names; Timothy just didn’t think they had been worth remembering. What standard, all-American names Jack and Mike were. Both evoked hot dogs and baseball and a two-car garage to a two-story house, the entire package of wholesome, masculine stability that women married for.

“Your kids,” said Sharon. “I can’t tell. A little bit of both you and Linda, I guess.”

“Tough to tell because they’re all thin and in shape.”

Timothy laughed. The disparity in weight between his kids and both Linda and him was a gag. Sandra, the eldest, was on her third year at Vassar, working towards a degree in anthropology while earning an income as an aerobics instructor. Timothy, Jr. was gangly and constantly on the go, hurrying through breakfast, rushing out the door, running to catch up with his friends. Greggy was only 15 and already he had a voice that awed, one that filled the driveway with melody as he’d shoot a basketball. Fitness aside, eating was a merry family affair. Pork chops, meatloaf, chocolate cake… they splurged on it all.

Sharon wouldn’t survive a meal with his kids. She’d go hungry. At the reunion, she didn’t drink wine because apparently wine contained meat products, and she spent more time separating the cheese from the salad than filling her fork. Linda was an excellent cook. Her fettuccine alfredo was the best, the sauce creamy as vanilla ice cream and the bacon baked to a crisp. And she inherited the recipe to his mom’s liver pâté. Sharon today would most likely refuse even one finger scoop.

“From what I see on Facebook, your kids seem strong willed,” Sharon said. “I can tell by the way they look at the camera, so sure and confident.”

“Maybe it’s an age thing, this sureness that you can do anything,” said Timothy. “You were that way, and also so meek.” He had difficulty dissociating her from the color pink.

“I was in love. For you, I went to college to discover how I could be the best of myself.”

“You were also an A student. You could not have passed on Cornell University, and your parents realized that, too.”

“You wanted me to go.”

“You were meant to go. You earned your way there.”

“You were always my best cheerleader, Tim.”

“This place is for those who settle down. I only got into Pepperdine because of your help with nearly all my homework.”

“You sound 18 again, underestimating yourself.”

How did a man respond to that? “Uhuh.”

“Tennis,” Linda said.

“Tennis?”

“You were great in tennis. You used to compete. You had the strongest legs ever, calf muscles to die for.”

“Now we’re really going back in time.”

“Well… do you still play?”

Timothy paused for an instant. “Not since I broke an ankle.”

“I forgot about that.”

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He had not forgotten, but he hardly remembered either. The mere mention of it brought back the refulgence of bright bulbs and white walls. Timothy was a week to graduating from Pepperdine when a fall in a tennis court brought him to an emergency room. Half the glass paneling to the ceiling lights was missing, and the brilliance of his surroundings made him dizzy, aggravating the pain in his right ankle. Then in walked a woman in an orderly uniform, that weird color of not quite green and not quite blue, and Timothy thought: She looks like something out of an aquarium. He saw the face, and he saw that it was young and pretty – full cheeks and eyes the brown of nature. They talked of mundane stuff, where they had gone to high school and where they had grown up. She was a small town girl in training to be a nurse practitioner. He was a city boy deliberating on what car his parents should gift him for graduation. Timothy saw her again days after for physical therapy and then on many occasions outside of the hospital.

A pregnancy, a return to his folks for the security of home, a shot gun marriage, and a stillborn… he could have left Linda, begged Sharon for a reconciliation, but no, not with Linda in that condition, her head prostrate and their child cradled in her arms, in a hospital bed as tears fell on the lifeless body. A second pregnancy brought them the premature birth of Sandra. Every day for the months that Sandra was in an incubator, Linda clutched Timothy by the arm as they watched their daughter’s chest heave upon each breath. What a sight Sandra was, fragile as a puppy in a bubble of a box, bundled up in an oversized diaper. Linda laid her head on his shoulder. “We’ve grown stronger together in these four years,” she whispered into his ear. “Imagine how much more in the next four. I need you.”

But did he need her?

“You should pick up tennis again,” Sharon said.

“Yeah,” said Timothy. “You’re right. I really don’t know why I dropped it.”

The drizzle outside stopped. Stars strewed the sky as diamonds sparkling beneath still waters.

“I think it’s going to be a sunny morning,” Sharon said.

A faint light shone behind her head, a halo.

“I think you’re right.”

Timothy shut his eyes. This was the vision of Sharon he would carry with him till his last breath.

“What did you think would happen with our meeting up again,” Sharon asked, “after a lifetime apart?”

“I don’t know.”

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The digital clock timed off another minute. The gray suitcase and black bag on top focused in form upon the lifting dawn.

“Maybe exactly this,” Timothy said.

“What is this?”

“You tell me.”

Sharon placed her head on a pillow and caressed his cheek. “The sun hasn’t risen yet,” she said.

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