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.
“We can put them like this…” She said, pointing down to the cobblestones dismantled and awaiting new arrangement. Bent down in a squat, her head looked up towards him using one hand to shield the sun from her eyes. Dylan held the handles of the wheelbarrow and asked once more about her idea for the yard, just to make sure he got it right. “Yep! We are going to have the best backyard on the street when we are done!” Johanna exclaimed, playfully, knowing he would smile and cheerfully agree.
The early morning rays of sun shone brightly through the leaves of the black locust tree, warming Dylan’s freckled shoulders underneath his overall straps. The bandana around his head quickly soaked up the sweat as he bent down, pulled up stones, and piled them into the heap beside Johanna. She arranged them carefully in a new pattern around the base of the old tree, occasionally distracting herself from the pleasant work by simply gazing between the man busy in his task and the work they were doing together.
Dylan paused as a breeze kicked up through the branches above them, as if the wind itself beckoned him to cherish this moment for more than mere yard-work on a Sunday afternoon. He reached out and stroked tenderly Johanna’s cheek, moved from his perch to close beside her, and came in for a kiss. The dirt on his fingers smeared into her face but the coolness of it only added to the sweet gesture.
“What was that for?” She asked, finally coming up for air.
“I just love you,” he said, softly. “We have fun, you know?” His eyebrows arched, his lips curled into a smile, and he reached in his pocket for a smoke. He balanced on his feet and rested his arms upon his knees. She studied his pose and memorized the way he looked.
Johanna melted into the seconds as they fleetingly passed around them, wishing she could slow time or stop it altogether, just to capture his face and how his eyes truly shined with such peaceful, purposeful love. “Come on,” she beckoned, grabbing his hand in hers and lifting them both to their feet. Without another spoken word between them, the next hour washed them both in passionate love, and in his arms Johanna felt a sense of belonging she had not experienced before.
Laying in his arms, twirling his chest hair between her fingers, Johanna stared up at the man she loved. “We are so young still, Dylan, how do you know this is going to last?”
“How do I know we’re going to last?” He responded, briefly removing his hands from her hair to use them for gesturing, “That is simple… Because you’re my best friend.” He smiled, revealing that perfect happy face that still made her melt – when she knew he loved her purely – his eyes would curl up and his entire body would shake as he laughed it off.
She removed her gaze from his and caught a glimpse of her dirt-stained fingernails as they moved across his chest. Sighing to herself, she then focused on the life they dreamed of building. Simple enough, really.
“All we need is love, music, and dirt to till.” Matter-of-fact she spoke these words aloud, cleaning the grime from her hands.
He leaned up just far enough to make her take notice, and when her eyes caught his again, he was practically sitting up in the bed, almost making her fall right off his chest. Johanna positioned herself directly in front of him and asked if everything was okay. Dylan softly whispered, “yeah, little butt, everything is perfect. I just want to look at you…”
She sat there, almost timid, unnerved by the direct attention even after convincing herself she was used to it by now. Without another syllable uttered from his mouth, Dylan moved in closer to his girl, pressed both hands against her face, and kissed her so she felt it in her bones. He pushed her backwards, causing her to fall in a cascade of sheets onto the bed, and then he moved himself beside her, one hand still flush against her cheek.
For hours they remained here, sharing between them few words, but saying more than words could convey even in their grandest finery. She knew in moments like this that he wanted nothing but her, and he allowed himself the surrender to whole love, and both enjoyed the ease of it all.
My fingers are no longer dirt-stained, and it has been years since I was that young woman on that bed. The bed he built for me from a snow storm and fallen branches of that same locust tree. It has been years since I felt the touch of my first love on my skin, or smelled the scent of his neck. I have not since those days seen the black oil on his hands after work or watched in agony as he dug metal chips from his sore fingers. In all fairness to reality, can I even say I still know the man at all?
And yet, sorely as if recovering from an injury that I fear may become chronic, I still feel as though Dylan is a part of me somehow. His life is his own, and the journey beyond our season of love has been one Johanna is not privy to; I know nothing of his daily routine, or even of the dreams he now holds dear. Could I venture to guess they are the same? A life of love, passion, wisdom, science, and the never-ceasing quest for the perfect guitar riff?
He knows nothing of me. He has never seen me mother my children or wiped the tears away when I struggled. I wear the same perfume as I did then – does he smell it when a woman walks by and remember the girl he used to love? Simple questions full of undertones that most people dare not ever venture into, let alone mention candidly.
Yet, I find a peaceful surrender to these memories helps me cope with the reality that I no longer know the man I once gave my whole heart to. It helps me to remember he was real, and that our love was real, and even in short reprieves from the positive memories – when I recall the hard ones – I still would rather share my story of love, laughter, and passion than to pretend – for the sake of making some people uncomfortable – that it never happened.
It is rare I see a certain flower, or hear a certain song… hell, some days it merely takes the mention of a word arranged in the correct order – I am there again, and I remember how I became Johanna as a young woman. I appreciate what our love taught me, and that it meant something so dear. I value the dirt-stained days of yard work, garage music, and porch kisses. I value that I am aware enough to revere those days, because they create a sense of understanding that, if I want it, I can achieve the same peace in love in the future.
Dylan is my blueprint. The precipice on which to stand and ask myself if love is truly love, or if the mere fact that it was better with him means I have more searching to do. He was my favorite memory and my recurring dream…
But, alas, what I have learned most of all, having loved that blue-eyed man, is that…
My best memories are behind me, but my best days are ahead of me.
At least, that is the goal. That is what I hope to achieve by writing this.
We only get so much love in a lifetime, and many people cope with the loss of that love by pretending it never happened. Is that not the easier solution than to feel the loss and hurt? Is it not more prudent to say it did not mean that much, did not feel that good, or did not change you – rather than to accept something you had, that you valued greatly, is merely but a memory now?
I cannot operate this way, and I make no apologies for that. My mold is different, perhaps; but ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? If not, these visions of Johanna will keep you up past the dawn. Embrace it, dear lovers, even you who lost. For having felt this fire and passion, longing and desire, tenderness and truth… Having felt the pain and loss, the wishful nights begging to forget it… It means you lived, and caught a true glimpse of something rare. I write because I realize my treasure. For it is mine to hold, and mine to share. All great stories must be told, and Dylan is the beginning of mine.
Occasionally, life throws a moment in time so beautiful you know even before it vanishes that this is something to remember. Nuances become vivid details that accompany the façade of a memory; nothing escapes from the photograph in your mind – time passes far beyond the moment, yes, but leaves nothing behind and carries it within the heart, by a song that was playing then or a smell from a shirt collar as a stranger waft by… By way not of conscious thought or material mementos, where I find myself tonight is in the framework of a life so long ago lived that though I recall it well, I converse with my memory still, trying to convince myself these recollections were indeed real. Can a heart, so willfully trying to move past a memory, ever fully embrace the present if a beautiful memory returns so easily?
The bus route made a straight line down 4th Plain, stopping frequently, but managing to make decent time consistently; he narrowed each stop down to seconds after a week of riding and knew from pick-up to drop-off it was typically only 7 minutes. On this morning, however, each mere second seemed to pass a thousand times slower – Come on… come on… hurry up! He thought to himself as one foot began to writhe up and down frantically, sending his knee into noticeable unrest. Mumbling under his breath he paid no mind to the woman across the row who had been staring at him since he got on, “She’s going to be gone if you do not hurry up!”
9:36am, November 6th 2003
Johanna roused from sleep and quickly wondered the time. Unsure of the layout of the room, she peeked around for a clock, satisfied that it was still early enough to stay in bed. Resting her head back on the pillow, she curled her arms up underneath the soft cotton to support her head and smiled to herself, pleased with the way the night had gone. I love him. Surprised by the thought but only briefly, something about it felt natural and easy, as if nothing need forcing but the pause of time to make this day go on forever. She did not care that her hair was a wreck or that she needed to shower. She did not care that her roommates would wonder why she never came home, or that her mother would soon be calling in need of a morning pep-talk. Johanna had one thing racing through her mind, on her skin, and in her heart.
He skipped off the bus on the corner of Falk and 4th, unsure if his feet could run as fast as his heart needed them to go. He had no clue whether she would still be there, but hoped, like all young lovers do, that fate would step in and deal him a delicious treat. A half a block moves swiftly under determined feet – he arrived on his front porch step, straightened himself up, caught breath, and quietly unlocked the deadbolt, turning his head over his shoulder with a twinkle in his eye, “her car is still here…”
She heard the keys hit the round table in the kitchen, perked up instantly, and felt her entire body radiate with anticipation. Quickly, she manipulated her body to appear most appealing, now quite self-conscious that she hadn’t brushed her teeth or made up her face. Before dwelling too much, she caught a glimpse of him through the cracked bedroom door. He unzipped his Carhart jacket, removed his beanie, and momentarily disappeared from sight before appearing in the doorway, opening it slowly apparently trying not to disturb his guest.
“You’re awake?” He said, softly, smiling, once his wide-eyed gaze found her brown eyes peering from a glowing face atop the pillow.
“You’re home?” She replied, unsure why a full-time machinist would be home before 10 on a weekday.
“My boss let me go early – we do not have any chain due until Monday – I told him there was a girl at my house and he let me leave.” As he spoke, he began to untie his steel-toed boots, never removing his gaze from hers. He pulled his shirt over his head and unbelted his jeans, leaving only underwear on. Without a word, he pulled the blanket aside and curled up close to the girl he had met only weeks before. She turned her face up from the pillow, barely able to control the huge smile on her face from swallowing her whole, and then reached a hand up to cup his face close to hers.
“I am so glad you came home. I do not have to work until 3 – how about we just stay in bed?” Johanna felt his head shake in agreement and noticed the sensation of his face tense up against hers and it did not take her long to realize he was smiling.
Hours of conversation and enough kissing to dehydrate them both, and it was evident to both Dylan and Johanna that this was something special. Each took turns sharing stories of youth and the misery of adolescence. He told her all about his childhood with a hardworking mother and mentioned the father he never met; she recalled tree forts, bb-gun wars, and fishing trips with siblings. He teased her for not yet acquiring a taste for coffee, and she told him how much she would love to have a garden where they could grow all their own food. They talked and kissed, and kissed and talked, and even spent hours that were only mere minutes just staring at one another, completely in awe that the other actually existed.
Johanna whispered into his ear after staring into his blue eyes, “I have a secret…” she teased, waiting for his reaction.
“I love you, Johanna.” As if he had never said those words to another soul on earth, he let each letter escape his lips like a chick tentatively breaks free from his hard shell. As he whispered those 4 words, his cheeks flushed and his lips swelled up, almost like tears were the next thing to come flowing out of him…
“I love you too, Dylan.” She ingested his words – the raw, engaging emotion of them – and no longer secret, nevermore, said at last yet so quickly that she, indeed, loved him, too.
Dylan pulled her in close, completely breathing her so deep inside of his heart that in that moment he knew this would be something to remember for a lifetime. Johanna melted into his embrace, surrendering for the first time in her life to real love.
“I have to go now, Dylan, I have to go!” She laughed at his insistence to skip work entirely, careless that she was wearing the same clothes as the day before. She had used his toothbrush, combed her blonde hair, and then had to will herself to walk down the two porch steps to the gravel driveway. She held his hand as he escorted her to her old gray Nissan, poured her belongings onto the backseat, and finally turned around to steal another kiss before driving away without him.
He first kissed her forehead, gently, tenderly, and then she felt his hand ease up behind her head while one thumb slid beneath her chin; he used his hand to turn her face up towards his and then kissed her deeply. For the first time in Johanna’s life, she felt completely safe and sure in the arms of a man. For the first time in his life, he believed in fate and destiny and thanked the cosmos for aligning the stars so perfectly the night they met.
Pulling back, sure then she would already be late for work, she looked up into Dylan’s eyes and said, confidently but with as much honey as she could muster, “Dylan, I have to go… I… I love you.”
“Don’t go… Stay with me?” He whimpered back, beckoning her not with persistence but with the simple truth between them that nothing in life was going to make sense from that moment forward unless they were together. Johanna brushed his wayward hair off his forehead, sighed at the handsome man before her, pulled back and managed to get her car door opened and then sat in the driver’s seat. She closed the door but rolled down the window…
“I am coming over after work, right?” She urged him to say yes, knowing they had not once talked about what would happen between them from this day on. Johanna was sure of one thing – they loved each other; it was imperfectly serendipitous, organic and heartfelt, and it did not require planning but instead the absolute surrender to passion and fate.
Sighing heavily, Dylan shook his head in agreement, not wanting to see her car back out of his driveway. He relished the idea of having someone to love, but cursed the afternoon for leaving him without her.