“You look great. I’m so glad you’re here.” The last sentence was muffled, my face buried into Ellen’s neck, part of a long embrace after she entered the airport terminal. The weekend had begun and its sense of urgency surprised me.
As we waited for her suitcase at the baggage claim I couldn’t quit staring at her. The intensity of feelings flooding me was almost overwhelming. I missed her more than I realized and as we talked, holding hands, laughing, some of the gaps inside me disappeared. I had a bad feeling our few days together were going to fly by but I pushed that thought aside and concentrated on enjoying the present.
“So, what’s first on the agenda, Mr. Benton?” She was sitting in the front seat of the car, turned slightly toward me, wearing a smile I almost forgot she was capable of.
“First stop is the office. There are quite a few people beginning to think you’re just a figment of my imagination and would like to see living proof you exist. After that, we’ll go by the condo, drop off your bags and drive around town a little bit. I’ve found a few funky shops you might like to browse before we have dinner. After that we play it by ear.” I looked at her and bounced my eyebrows up and down, letting her know that my intentions were less than honorable.
“Why, Mr. Benton, are you sure you don’t have any definite plans for the evening?” She played along, looking shocked and concerned.
“Mrs. Benton, I just happen to have some very definite plans for the evening but whether I follow through with them alone or with someone else depends on the willingness of the present party.” I plastered the most pathetically pleading look I could conjure onto my face and held it there.
She patted my leg and said, “You need to make sure dinner’s really good…”
We laughed and she grabbed my hand. Gaps continued to dissipate.
The office visit was a huge success. Ellen was charming and funny and impressed everyone from the receptionist to Mr. Duncan, who happened to be making a rare office appearance. I could not have been happier seeing how everyone responded to her; I felt a completeness I hadn’t sensed before, both within me and in the way people looked at me. It was like they had a new respect for me, like they understood me better after meeting my wife. That made sense. I’ve always felt she made me who I was, or at least represented the better parts, so meeting her probably filled in some missing pieces for everyone. When we arrived at Wally’s office, he was on the phone but he waved us in and motioned for us to sit down. I pointed to the picture of his family sitting on his desk and told Ellen the names of his daughters. She had heard all of the stories about my time with the Barnes family so she was glad to put some faces with names.
“Sorry about that,” Wally offered as he hung up the phone. “Clients are always getting in the way.” We laughed and he stood up and came from around his desk, hand extended toward Ellen. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally meet you.”
“Same here,” Ellen responded. “I hear your name above all others in my nightly status reports over the phone. I’m glad to see you aren’t just another one of Earl’s imaginary friends.” He smiled and assured her he was real.
“I’m not sure if Earl mentioned this to you, but Rochelle and I would love to have you over to the house on Saturday night for dinner. You can see our neck of the woods and it will give us a chance to get to know you a little better. Rochelle is anxious to meet you. Frankly, she’s tired of Earl and is looking for a little change of pace.”
“I understand. He can wear on you.”
“Hey, now…” I said.
“I’m not sure what the master of ceremonies has planned but that sounds good to me.” They both looked at me and I said, “Absolutely, and I’ll even stay home if you three want some alone time to talk about me.”
“Not necessary, we’ll just talk in code.” Wally winked at Ellen and they both laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so funny, but I smiled and let it slide.
Ellen and I left the office and stopped at the condo to drop off her luggage and let her freshen up before dinner. Her reaction to my sparsely decorated abode was expected. She was excited about the potential but disappointed in how little I had done to make it inviting. I explained to her I didn’t want it too comfortable because it was a visual reminder that better days were ahead, just as soon as her and the kids joined me. I wanted to be able to move on with minimal effort. I looked for a reaction but she was stoic and revealed nothing. She just kept looking through the rooms and shaking her head.
“Are you going to let me do something with this place while I’m here?” she asked.
“Not this weekend. I don’t want to waste our time decorating. Besides, I’m rarely here and I’m okay with its minimalism.”
The rest of the afternoon and evening went just as I had planned; a little shopping, a quiet dinner in a cozy Chinese restaurant and a lot of laughing. We kept our conversations focused on family and work, making a wide berth around anything controversial. I knew that particular discussion was inevitable, but delaying it one night suited us both. She seemed happy and she must have enjoyed dinner because I was able to complete the entire days itinerary as planned. I was very happy, indeed.
We slept late on Saturday morning, which was also part of my plan. While she moved in and out of sleep, taking her time waking up, I made a quick trip to the bakery on the corner and brought back cinnamon rolls and coffee. She hadn’t made much progress since I left so I crawled back in the bed and we ate breakfast together, taking turns licking icing off each other’s fingers and discussing what we wanted to accomplish during the day, if anything.
“This is nice,” she said, smiling at me and taking a sip of coffee.
“I agree. Trust me, I haven’t enjoyed a cinnamon role this much since I’ve been here.” I hesitated, deciding whether the timing was right and then plowed ahead without waiting for a concrete decision. “How are you doing? Are things progressing like you expected?”
“Are you asking me if I’m getting closer to moving to Atlanta?”
“Well, yeah, I am. I’ve been withering up here without you and since you’ve been here I can’t imagine us being apart again.”
“I understand that, but you need to understand this is very difficult on me as well. I’m not staying away to punish you. In fact, I’m beating myself up pretty good about all of this. I still think it’s the right decision but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to carry through with it.” She took another sip of coffee and then stared straight ahead, holding the paper cup in her lap with both hands. I watched, trying to guess what she was thinking. It was obvious she was struggling and it could have been with any number of things. Was she trying to convince herself she was still right, that what she was doing was the best thing for us? Or was she getting upset with me for putting her in the position to have to choose? Normally I’d feel confident that I could read her body language and eyes, but our situation was far from normal, at least for us. Every hypothesis I could conjure seemed as plausible and ridiculous as the one preceding and following it. Minimally, I used my guessing game as time filler while I waited for her to decide she was ready to continue.
She finally turned her head toward me and, fortunately, smiled. “I have to give you some credit, though—”
“If the last 12 hours are any indication of how things will be, I feel much better about the future. You’ve been like your old self, which I’ve missed tremendously. You’ve been funny, attentive and… well… a lot more like the old Earl.”
That was an odd response on her part, but in its own way it was encouraging. I had been trying to tell her that I was still me, I wasn’t morphing into some monster.
“Does this mean the time table may be getting shorter?” I had to ask; getting her and the kids to join me was almost an obsession.
“Maybe, Earl… maybe. I know this is a special weekend; it’s not real life. We’re both on our best behavior and the newness of the surroundings, the restaurants and the concentrated time together is a bit unfair to hang a decision on but I have to admit I’m encouraged. I’m starting to feel like I could do this.”
I leaned over to hug her, being careful to avoid tipping her coffee cup but she had already set it aside and was leaning toward me. We met in the middle, kissed and just held each other. “That may be some of the best news I’ve heard in a long time,” I whispered to myself but said it loud enough for her to hear.
“Don’t blow this, Earl,” was the thought in my head, quiet instructions for me alone.
This is an excerpt of a full length novel entitled “Back Again.” You can read it in it’s entirety by downloading it from here or you can keep coming back to this site and read it in chapter chunks over time. Your call but, either way, I hope you will read it and, most of all, enjoy it. And leave a comment or two. It lets me know you are out there…