A hot fire popped and hissed inside the old iron wood stove. Glaring into the orange glow, feeling the warmth of it through her blue jeans, Johanna tried like hell to distract herself, ignoring the stare that burned into her back. He leaned up against the barn-style garage door, standing perfectly squared next to the side that remained closed; one arm rose above his head, fingers grasping the 2×4 frame atop the doorway, with the other hand occasionally drawing into his lips a puff from a Marlboro cigarette. Dylan, still roused from the excitement that she was on his property, barely contained the wonder he felt that she had come back to him. He stood poised, with a million dreams dancing within his mind about how he could convince her to stay, ready to drop to his knees in a moment if begging was what it took.
“Dylan,” she whispered so quietly that his only cue she beckoned was a dropped shoulder and a half-second glance back at him, “I wish I never left.” He rushed, almost too quickly, and kneeled down at her side, willing her wordlessly, with only his eyes, to say everything that remained on the tip of her tongue. She barely met his blue eyes before her own began to silently weep, this his only indication that what she had to say would not be anything like he had been hoping.
“Johanna, please…” His words, swollen with heartache, tumbled from his parched lips. Without another sound between them but the crackling of the fire in the stove they had built, both unsteady and unsure of the next right step, they simply cried together. Many times before this same scene played out in different spots in that small house, and each more real than the last; the dreams between them were fading before their eyes, and space and time seemed to dance away with admirable cruelty, certain that with each ticking second, it widened the gap between them. “Don’t leave, please? Just stay. We can figure this out, I promise.” He recklessly pleaded with fate to stop her from standing up to walk out of his life again, at least not before she answered him, one last time, “… Do you love me?”
“Love you? Dylan, all I have ever done is love you. Even before I met you I loved you. My entire life was spent waiting to be with you, don’t you see that? But I just don’t know how to love you now and it is killing me.” As many times as they engaged in this conversation, it never felt right to say anything other than what she hoped for, even after the beginning of the end. What she hoped for, as she stared into the eyes of her sweet love, was the chance to stop time. The opportunity to create a rift in the fabric of life and exist within it to grow old with the only man she had ever loved. “I just want to stay, Dylan, I just want to love you.”
“Then stay!” He stood up, gesturing with his hands in wild protest at the very notion that Johanna would not follow her heart. She watched him pace back and forth, eventually setting her eyes on the workbench where they had spent countless summer nights goofing around building things together. Watching Dylan break apart made life seem so unfair, and yet again, as every time before, just as quickly as a freight train running right through her body, the rage began to fill her eyes.
“I never wanted this Dylan. I NEVER wanted THIS…” Tears strewn down her red cheeks and all of a sudden the night air seemed to ignite with heat and she began to sweat. As Dylan paced, he watched his love fall apart – the mere idea of it, that damned nightmare, became real to him every time he saw her become angry – “what do you want me to do, huh? You want me to stay here, in this house, in our home, so that I can remember every time I see you … I can relive what happened here? I am not strong enough for that, Dylan, and neither are you!”
“Then we will fucking move, Johanna. We can move to the beach where nobody knows us – we can start over! Would that fix this? Would that finally show you how sorry I am for hurting you?” Johanna’s eyes focused clearly for a moment, hearing his words, and she wondered if he meant it.
“You would move? Really? We can do that?” She said, walking closer to where he stood, now pacing in the driveway under the cool night sky.
“Johanna, I will do whatever it takes not to lose you. Anything, just please, don’t leave me.”
She paused, feeling her body ease from the intensity of her anger, and instantly, the passion of fear and rage subsided, replaced steadily by the undying love she felt for Dylan in that moment. Slowly, she stepped towards him, wiping the tears from her face. He moved in at the same time until they were once again holding one another in the tender embrace that had become a part of both their souls, uniting them each time their bodies interlocked.
“I don’t want to lose you, Dylan.” Her face nuzzled into his chest while his long arms wrapped her into him tightly. She inhaled the smell of smoke and her favorite cologne and felt his heart beating wildly beneath his chest.
The cold of night crept in all around them, and inside the garage, the fire began to fizzle out; late April still carried on its back the chill of winter in the Northwest, and Dylan knew instinctively that soon, either she would say she had to leave, or he could get her inside – all it would take were the right words… Sometimes, no words at all. He took a deep breathe, Johanna felt it and knew him well enough to know he was thinking hard about something, “What? Are you okay?” She said, pulling back just far enough to meet his eyes.
He stumbled through his words with obvious anticipation in his eyes, the moon shining down enough light that she could easily make out the lines of his handsome face, “Come inside?” He whispered, hopeful, almost as if he knew she would not refuse. She sighed heavily, trying quickly to determine whether or not she could handle what would happen if she agreed.
“Dylan,” Johanna mouthed, her brows furrowing slightly. Without another word, she reached her arm down, never removing her hand from his body, and found his hand at his side, interlocking her fingers into his. He smiled, certain his wish would come true. He turned for the garage, switched off the light, and locked the door with the padlock, grasping her hand tightly so he was sure she would not let go. Slowly, they walked together, hand in hand; had anyone been watching, the image of this moment would have been nothing short of two young lovers perfectly in-tune with the harmony of the universe, without a care between them or in the world at all. Inside each nervous heart, a quiet, looming question remained, though neither spoke it aloud for fear what it would mean… “What’s going to happen tomorrow…”
Walking up the stairs onto the porch, Johanna took a deep breathe, preparing herself to enter into the house – once her home, once the place she found peace and love for the first time – now a tortured mix of anguish and confusion for what happened within it, tinted by the lingering love she felt for the man at her side whose only mistake was falling into the trap of a black widow. She squeezed his hand tightly as she crossed the threshold.
He flipped on the light in the living room and the sand-filled green paint softened the shadows on the walls. Inside the house wood stove another fire, nearly put out by neglect, warmed up the room, and hanging on every wall were reminders of the work she once did to make that house their home. Before Johanna could fall into an abyss of dead-end memories, she felt Dylan pull her in close, and all at once she was in the reality of the moment. With one hand placed against her back, and the other still interlaced with her fingers, he leaned in and gently kissed her forehead. She paused as he pulled back, staring at every curve of his face while he gazed at her. She memorized the cleft in his chin and the one baby tooth in his grin as he could not help but awkwardly smile at her. She saw the sparkle in his eyes, and quickly felt the overwhelming rush of desire for him as the worry, the fear, and the anger melted away – as it always did – into sweet, perfect love.
“Can I play you a song?” He asked, pulling them both towards the upright piano that rested against the wall. “I’ve been working on this, hoping you’d let me play for you someday, sit down,” Dylan pointed to the large green sofa chair in the corner next to the spider cage, and as Johanna sat, Princess the cat jumped up onto her lap, happy to have her Mama home again. He watched the woman as she sat, inhaled a soft breathe of peace and gratitude, and then returned his gaze to the keys beneath his fingers. With the first stroke of a finger, the soft sound of piano filled Johanna’s ears and instantly, she began to cry. How many times had she sat in that chair and watched the love of her life play a song? How many times had they sang together, laughing, and falling deeper in love, as they lived out their simple life, in a simple home, sure that love was enough to get them through? Overcome with nostalgia but careful not to lose the moment, Johanna listened and wondered what song it would be, still unsure about the melody.
“When the rain is blowing in your face, and the whole world is on your case, I would offer you a warm embrace… To make you feel my love.” His heart poured into every word, and as he sang it, she felt the earnest truth in his longing. Pulled by the harmony, the sweetness, and the sight of her lover, Johanna removed herself from her perch and crawled to kneel at the bench beside him, extending a hand to place it gently against his back, knowing he would understand what the gesture meant.
As he played on, she marveled at their strange evening, and the way it felt so right, even after dancing between such intense feelings only to come back to love again – if as though it was designed to make them stronger, not tear them apart – Johanna felt herself release the pain, in that moment, and simply, purely love Dylan again. He quieted the keys and flipped his legs around the bench to face her. An oil-stained thumb reached down and wiped a single tear off her cheek. “I love you, Johanna.”
“I know, Dylan…” She pushed up from her knees, held her palms against his cheeks, and smiled before pulling him into a tender kiss. Both knew morning would come, but in that moment, nothing else mattered but that she was home again where she belonged. At least, for one more night.
There happens to be a photograph in my home of a woman sitting in a man’s lap, one arm around his neck, both staring in mock-seriousness into the camera. She smiles more than he does, laughing at the photographer – a mother whom once believed so much in her son’s love for his girl that they could get through anything. Every now and then, it is found. Rarely on purpose, but I admit sometimes intentionally. Not to pine for it, but to appreciate it for the beautiful thing that it was. Only for the sake of understanding it may offend some people do I not post it here, though there are times I wish I could.
As I wrote this tonight, most of it was drawn exclusively from real life – the location, the environment, and even dialogue shared between these two torn lovers. What is always most real, at least as the creator whom recalls with astonishingly vivid detail the things surely overlooked by the other, is that I remember how I felt then. I remember what it felt like to turn around and see a man standing in his garage doorway. I remember the placement of all the tools bolted to the workbench. I remember the smell of fallen Loral leaves strewn about the concrete floor. I remember the sound of the fire, and even things I left out here – like the blue book I wrote in that he kept in a toaster box on the shelf that he handed me to read – I remember. Sometimes, I seriously wonder why. Why can I recall how it felt to hear him ask me to stay? Why can I recall how mad I got when I realized, in that moment, why I ever had to leave at all?
Perhaps, true artists really are different from other people. I am a creator – drawn from my experiences comes the canvas of my life, and I know of not a single better portrait of true love, loss, and life after it to show the world that beautiful things can be made from tragedy. It was once real, so real to me that even now I have not forgotten it, and I can take those images, those smells, those words, and those feelings, and I can create with it something magical. So that, if even just at least, in some small way, I can honor what it once felt like to be that person whom believed in true love, without a hint of fear or trepidation. We were not perfect, not by a long shot, but we shared one essential truth between us: We believed in love. That is what I pour onto these pages. The love once fought for, and then, sadly, the love once lost.
Because it shaped me, to the core. It shaped how I treat relationships now, whether romantic or platonic. It shapes how I raise my children, so that I never leave them with anything but happy memories of their mother, and the absolute knowledge that I love them before myself. It shapes how I dream, and what I hope for in the future… In matters of love, Dylan taught me that I could overcome hurt, and pain, and loss – that I could grow, and become a stronger woman.
My life has since moved on, and I am finally learning how to be happy again. It only took seven plus years. But, I am really trying now. For the first time since I left that house, I am starting to believe in love that can last.
The greatest lesson I learned from Dylan is that you really never know where life will lead. I cannot say for certain if I will ever see him again, and get to know him in his life now. Get to watch him as a father, get to meet his wife. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. But, right now, I take from those days, and I honor them with the choice to love here and now, in this moment. Even when I am fearful, even when it is hard. Because, I lost love once… Real love. I lost it. And I would forsake everything I learned from that experience if I lost it again.