Now or Forever
By Carter Nipper
“C’mon, Dave, you’ve got to get out of the house. We’re worried about you being cooped up in here all the time.”
The sky outside Dave Giles’s kitchen window glowed April blue, and the sun shined as brightly as the day he had buried his wife.
“I know I don’t get out much,” Dave said. “I’m just not ready to start dating again. I don’t want to. I like being cooped up in here. This is where Caroline is.”
Eighteen months had not dimmed the sight of clay as red as the blood seeping from his heart, the sharp, bright pain of his loss as they turned away from her grave.
“That’s what I mean, man. Caroline’s gone. She’s gone, man, but you’re still here. You’re dying in here. You’re wasting a good life, and Kat and me, we hate to see it. It hurts us.”
Tony and his wife Kathy were about the only friends Dave had left. He had become very much a hermit since Caroline had…his hands twisted and his stomach sweated, or was it the other way around?
“I don’t know, Tony. This girl, Rachel. I don’t want her to think…I don’t know. It feels like a date to me.”
Dave’s best friend sighed and crushed his empty beer can in his hands.
“It’s not a date. Just some friends having a beer or two after work, that’s all. She’s just going to tag along. C’mon, man.”
The dogwood Dave and Caroline had planted the day they moved in quivered in the spring breeze. Caroline had been heartbreakingly beautiful with her short auburn hair sweat-plastered to her head. The memory of her laughter as bright as a crystal bell cut him to the bone.
“It’s not right. It would feel like cheating, like I’m seeing somebody behind her back. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
Tony tossed the mangled can into the recycle bin next to the kitchen table where they sat.
“You know Kat’s gonna be pissed.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll have to deal with that. I can’t. I won’t.”
Tony rose and put his hand on Dave’s shoulder.
“It’s your funeral, man.”
The screen door creaked as Tony left the room. Moments later, his pickup truck roared to life and squeaked and rattled out of the driveway.
Dave laid his head on the table. The wood cooled his cheek, and his tears ran hot and wet even as dust blew through his soul.
Dave opened his front door to a tornado. All five-foot-nothing of Kathy Taylor blew into his living room.
“David Giles! After all I went through to set this up, you are going out with us. Tonight! Now get your ass in the shower.”
“Kat my ass! Get going!”
“I told Tony–”
“I know what you told Tony. Did you think that would be the end of it? I busted my ass to get Rachel to agree to go out with us for a beer. I’ll bust yours if you don’t!”
Dave glanced at Caroline’s picture on the mantel. Was she laughing?
“I can’t. I told Tony. I just can’t.”
“You will, whether you want to or not. Are you going to take a shower or are you going all dirty and sweaty like that?”
Kat planted her hands on her hips and glared.
“Damn it, Kat!”
She did not move. Dave backed up a step. That lamp was within her reach and she had been known to throw things. She leaned forward slightly.
He did not have to look at the mantel to know that Caroline was not laughing now. He felt dirtier than he actually was as he walked down the hall to his bathroom.
The jukebox blared and beer signs glared from the walls. Dave shifted in his seat and wiped his hands on his pants again. The fluorescent lights over the bar made it an eye-hurting island in the murky room. He could barely keep up with the conversation through the noise.
Rachel looked at him and her lips moved. He strained to hear.
He had heard Tony mention a local band, so he decided to take a chance. Who cared if she thought he was a moron, anyway? He only wanted to go home.
“Mostly classic rock. Clapton, Hendrix, The Doors, stuff like that.”
He shouted so she could hear.
“Really? How did you get interested in that?”
The echoes and music in the low-ceilinged room overwhelmed any chance he had of hearing clearly, but by focusing on her lips, he could make out enough to understand what she was saying. He discovered that he liked looking at her lips.
“My parents are from that generation, and they played that a lot when I was growing up. I just got to liking it, too,”
Rachel’s face glowed, her pale skin contrasting with her long, wavy black hair. Pointed chin and thin lips gave her an elfin look that he found exotic. Dave remembered clear green eyes from their meeting outside. He had always been a sucker for beautiful eyes. Caroline’s had been clear gray. They had always seen right into him. He shivered and felt like throwing up.
Dave jumped when the phone rang. He had been so nervous at work that he had dropped his hammer a couple of times. Once on his foot. Thank God for steel-toed boots. He looked at the phone like it was a snake. It rang again, and he almost ran out of the room. He didn’t know what was going on with himself today. He picked up the phone and almost dropped it when it rang the third time. He punched the “Talk” button.
“Dave? It’s Rachel. How are you?”
Her voice was slightly hoarse. He almost hung up. A tingle ran through him.
“Uh…fine, fine. How about you?”
He wanted to beat the phone against his head. How lame could a guy get? Why did he care?
“I’m fine. I had a good time last night.”
Why are you calling so soon? He didn’t ask, but he could guess. He also didn’t want to know.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, I just–I was–I called to see if you might want to go out some time? Maybe to a movie?”
He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but how could he go out on a real date? He couldn’t betray Caroline like that.
“Kathy told me you don’t like to go out much, but I was just thinking, you know? If you don’t, it’s OK.”
Damn. There it was. He couldn’t hurt her feelings, and Kat would rip him a fresh one. Would Caroline understand? Damn.
“Uh…yeah. A movie would be fun.”
“An Affair to Remember is on at that little retro theater downtown. You know, the Three-Reel Circus? It’s the version with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I don’t know if you like old movies.”
He liked listening to her talk.
“I’ve never been a big movie buff, but I’ve at least heard of that one.”
“Is tonight OK? The show starts at 7:30. I know it’s short notice. Or maybe tomorrow?”
“Tonight’s fine,” he said. Might as well get it over with. “I’m actually within walking distance. Meet you there at 7:15?”
“That’s great. 7:15. Thanks, Dave. I know it’s sudden and all.”
“I’ll see you there. Bye.”
He punched the “Off” button and laid the phone on the counter. What had just happened here? He glanced at the door to the living room. He couldn’t see her picture. He didn’t want to. He felt dirty again.
“I’m sorry, Caroline, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing. She just caught me by surprise. I won’t see her again after tonight. I promise.”
The silence amplified his voice and the lie it carried.
Rachel’s hand filled Dave’s, soft and warm. Their fingers fit together as if made for each other. He could not remember when they had begun holding hands. As they approached his front door, he did not want to stop. His arm pressed against hers.
They stopped at his door. Her forehead was at his mouth’s level, and he wanted to kiss it. She lifted her chin, and he kissed her mouth instead. Their hands untwined, and they wrapped each other in an embrace.
Her lips burned against his. He had forgotten. It had been so long. He had forgotten how a woman felt, how her lips pressed against his, how her breasts pressed against his chest, how her arms tightened around him, how her hands felt small but strong on his back.
They broke their kiss but did not move away from each other. Her eyes searched his with small, quick movements. He fumbled for his keys as their mouths moved against each other again.
He woke in the dark and felt her soft and warm beside him in the bed. His mind lay as quiet as the dark hours of the morning. He barely heard her breathing. The sound filled his heart with a quiet love, and his eyes with gentle tears. He reached for her and twined his fingers in the hair that spread across her pillow.
His body turned to stone, and a cold steel spring unwound inside him. Caroline had always worn her hair short, around her ears. For as long as he had known her, anyway. Fear turned his guts to ice, and his fingers trembled.
She shifted and her voice pushed the darkness aside.
“What is it?”
Her voice was low and slightly hoarse, a voice that might have come from deep within the grave.
“Dave? Is something wrong? Why are you shaking?”
Not Caroline. Never Caroline ever again. Rachel. The tears in his eyes turned to fire and etched scars down his cheeks, Never Caroline ever again.
Coffee steamed in his cup, forgotten as he stared at the picture on the mantel. Her face was round and freckled, her auburn hair cut just above her ears, longer in the back, her smile a slash of sunshine.
“How dare you,” she cried. “Another woman! A stranger! In my bed!”
Emptiness filled him. His vows lay in shards. He deserved her wrath, her scorn. He had nothing to say, no defense.
The memory of last night tickled his mind, and he grinned in spite of himself. Sex with Caroline had always been slow, gentle, like waves on a moonlit beach, a long, loving caress. Last night was different.
A blazing brush fire had swept all reason before it, a holocaust of heat and sweat, a fury of love-making. This morning, he ached in places he had forgotten existed. It had been a long time.
Beside Caroline, the clock ticked over to 7:30. Dave surged up out of the chair and yelped as hot coffee drenched his lap. Sardonic laughter echoed through the dark recesses of his mind. Late again! Derkins was going to dock him an hour’s pay. Prick.
Sea-green eyes looked right through him. Rachel sat up straight in a wing chair in his living room and stared calmly as Dave paced and stuttered.
“Listen…I mean…just…Listen, Rachel, I just can’t. I just can’t see you anymore.”
She just sat and looked at him. She might as well have been made of stone. No help there.
“It’s just…I’m not ready, you know? I just can’t handle this…closeness…right now.”
No response. Those eyes. He wanted to fall on his knees and kiss them. He ripped his gaze away. Caroline smiled down on him. He looked away. Surrounded. No help.
“Damn it! Rachel, I don’t want to do this. These last few weeks have been…I don’t know how to say it. I think you might have saved my life, and I can never repay you for that. I care for you. Deeply care. But I just…I can’t explain it.”
“It’s her, isn’t it? Caroline.”
An electric shock jerked through him.
She smiled from the mantel, bright as sunshine. He nodded.
“I won’t share you, David.” A single tear slid down Rachel’s cheek. Dave desperately wanted to kiss it away, to take it all back, beg her to stay. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
Caroline shined like the sun, smiled from her place in his heart. She owned him. He reached feebly toward Rachel as she walked by. She paused, and her hand whispered across his sleeve.
And she was gone, and he was alone. With Caroline. With his thoughts. With his heartbreak.
“What the fuck did you do?” Kat burst past him and whirled, hands on hips. “What did you do to her?”
“Kat my hairy ass! She hasn’t been at work for two days. Two days! When I called her, all she could do was cry. What happened?”
“I can’t see her anymore.”
“What? Why the Hell not?”
He glanced toward the picture.
“Oh no! You’re not going there. Dave, Caroline’s gone. She’s gone. She’s not coming back. You have to let her go.”
“You can, you have to.” Kat took his hand. “Dave, you have to. You can’t waste your life mourning.”
He twisted away so she couldn’t see his tears.
“Wouldn’t Caroline want you to be happy?”
He shrugged and gasped. Caroline!
“She would, and you know it. We all know it. You have to move on, Dave. Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean you don’t love her any more. Just because you love Rachel doesn’t mean you don’t love Caroline. Can’t you love them both?”
There. She said it. Love. The word he would not even let himself think. Love. The word that had been gone from his life for so long. The word that had died when Caroline…Caroline. Gone. He collapsed onto the sofa and sobbed. Kat’s hand was soft on his shoulder.
“Let her go, Dave. Let her rest in peace. She wanted only the best for you. Let her have what she wanted.”
Gone. Her smile glowed through his tears. He had to see her again, talk to her. He couldn’t stay away.
The stone at his feet, gray granite polished bright, bore the words “Caroline Giles” and “Beloved Wife”. His beloved. His wife. The space next to hers was empty. His space. He would lie there one day, and they would be together again. Forever.
He came to visit her often, at least once a week. Usually, he brought flowers; this time, he brought a problem.
The ancient oak tree spread its limbs overhead in benediction and scratched its bare fingers against a lowering slate sky. The perfect day for goodbyes.
“Help me,” he said. Pleaded. She remained silent. “You know I love you, Caroline. I always will. You know that.”
He paused. The rustle of wind in the tree gave him his only answer.
“But I love her, too. I don’t know what to do.” Cold, silent stone and dead grass were her reply. She refused to bail him out this time. He hung his head. Now or then. Now or forever.
“Goodbye, Caroline.” His tears were ice and fire.
He woke in the dark and felt her soft and warm against him. Not Caroline. Never Caroline ever again. Rachel. Rachel now and forever. He snuggled closer and put his arm around her. She snuggled closer but didn’t wake. He smiled in the darkness, warm and glad.
Copyright (c) Carter Nipper. All rights reserved.