April 12, 2009

 

Courage

Moira Keeley

 

 

 

          Catherine was sitting in Juan Ramirezís small, bright apartment. Morning sun streamed through the windows. The living room was tidy; photos smiled from the walls. But Juan Ramirez was dead. Catherine was looking at his only son, Hector, a boy, or man really, of twenty years. He was staring straight ahead with an empty expression on his face.

The police hadnít been able to get much out of him. Hector had witnessed his fatherís murder only hours before. He was having difficulty responding to questions, seemed unable to form a simple sentence. Hector didnít even seem to be aware that there was anyone else in the room. Hectorís mother had died when he was a child. Now his father was gone also. Just him now.

Juan and Hector Ramirez were both working men, both holding down two jobs. Hector as an assembler at a factory. Juan was a junior carpenter, learning his trade at an exclusive shop uptown that made custom pieces for wealthy Manhattanites.

Their second job, they worked together, was downtown in a large busy laundry which specialized in cleaning and pressing hotel linens. Their shift ended each night at three AM and they rode the subway home together.

By four AM Juan Ramirez was dead Ė only steps from his own doorway, his body cradled in his sonís arms, a knife with only the dark handle visible lodged just below his heart.

Juan knew why. In recent years their neighborhood had been occupied, as if by an invading army, by drug users and drug dealers. Juan Ramirez was determined not to let them take over. Both men had testified about the things theyíd seen outside their apartment building: the exchange of drugs for money, the weapons they used against one another, the drive-by shooting that finally brought the police to the neighborhood in force, looking for witnesses brave enough to tell what they knew.

          Catherine slowly began making progress. Her gentle voice and empathic eyes were drawing Hector back to reality. He sobbed as he told her how the men had surrounded them, how they had fought them off, then how the drug dealers had suddenly sprinted off. It was only after they fled that Hector realized his father was fatally wounded, the dark handled knife with the thin blade protruding from his chest.

Catherine rose from her chair and sat beside him on the sofa, placing her arm around him. "Thatís enough for now," she gently told him. "You did good, Hector; weíll find these men," she hesitated. "Do you think you would be able to pick them out of a line up?"

Hector nodded. "Yes." He looked at Catherine. "But they know I live here, theyíll come for me too now."

"Iíll see about witness protection," she told him as she rose from the sofa.

He looked up at her, "Alone? Iíd have to go alone." He shook his head slowly. "This building, this is where I live. My family... I mean my other family... when my mom died... Mrs. Morales in 3B, and Mrs. McCarthy in 3F, they took care of me and my dad. They cooked us meals, minded me so he could go to work. Old Mr. Cantalano, the super, he let me follow him around all day while he was fixing things. Heís the one taught me how to work with my hands. The Rodriguez family in 4C, they invited us to spend all the holidays with them: Christmas, Easter. Theyíre family. Benita Rodriguez, sheís my... " Hector stopped, dropped his head. "Now Iím alone. Youíre right. I canít stay here. Those men, who killed my father... anyone could get hurt next when they come back... anyone." He turned his young face back up to Catherineís. "I have to, donít I, leave here, maybe forever." It took everything in Catherine not to turn away from him, to keep looking into the desperation and grief in his eyes.

"Iíll see what I can do," she told him in a low voice. She slid through the crowd of police and medical personnel and approached one of the uniformed officers.

"Cynthia, Iím going to see about arranging witness protection for him. Tell the Desk Officer I want a detail assigned to him around the clock until I get everything in place."

"Will do, Cathy. Sad case, huh? The guy tries to do the right thing and gets killed right in front of his kid for his trouble."

"Very sad," Cathy agreed.

          Catherine left, moving quickly through the City streets until she found what she was looking for, then climbed down through a manhole into the tunnels below. He was waiting.

"Vincent!"

"I felt you, Catherine." He reached for her arm, studied her face. "What?"

She swiped at a stray tear. "I just... it doesnít seem to matter what we do. There are always more victims, more violence against innocents... more injustice. "

Vincent leaned back against the wall. "Tell me whatís happened."

Catherine related her story, finishing with Ė "If you could see how courageous this young man is. Heís lost his only parent, and now he is forced to leave his whole support system, everyone he knows and who knows him. If I put him into Witness Protection heíll be swallowed up by the system. Theyíll put him wherever it is convenient for them, another state even. This boy needs support... he needs to belong somewhere right now."

Vincent nodded. "Yes, he does. The sacrifice he and his father made was huge. He needs to know, to see, that sacrifice of this kind is necessary for the survival of a community. His being torn away from his home and extended family at such a vulnerable time, when he needs them more than ever, might make him lose faith in his purpose. I agree, Catherine. Hector needs to be reminded now and in the days to come, of what he and his father were fighting for Ė of what his father died to protect."

Catherine moved close to him. "Thank you, Vincent."

Vincent reached out and pulled her to him. "Iíll speak to Father and the others. Iím sure this boyís actions will speak for themselves and they will welcome him."

They stood, her cheek against his chest, breathing each other in, loath to say goodbye.

Finally, Vincent let her go, moved back. She smiled, squared her shoulders, and climbed back to the world above.

          Catherine quietly returned to Hectorís apartment. There were only two officers there now: Cynthia and her partner. Catherine explained that it was all arranged. Hector slowly rose from the sofa. The officers helped him pack some belongings, but he was more dead than alive, hardly aware of what he was doing.

As they trudged down three flights of stairs the other tenants began coming out of their apartments. They gathered in groups in their doorways, all wishing him well, some hugging him, many crying. He lingered longest with Mrs. Rodriguez, "Tell Benita... " he started, then stopped, unable to continue.

"I will, Hector, Iíll tell her everything. Sheís so proud of you."

Hector nodded, and quickly moved toward the stairs. On the way down he turned to Catherine. "Benita is away at school now; sheís going to be a nurse."

Catherine held his arm. "Thatís a good profession, Hector, very hard work. You must be proud of her too."

"Si, I am."

           Catherine had the radio car drop them off in front of the D.A.s office.

But when they drove off, Catherine steered Hector away and they began walking.

"I need to tell you a story, Hector. Itís about people like the ones in your apartment building. People who take care of and protect each other. You can go through the regular channels if youíd like, go into Witness Protection. But if youíd prefer, you can stay with these people, friends of mine, who understand why you and your father did what you did. My friends, they live together as a family. They donít have a lot in the way of money, or possessions, but theyíre very good people. Would you like to hear about them?"

Hector turned to Catherine, studied her face. Everything had happened so quickly since last night he could barely process it all. But he had a feeling this was important Ė now, and for his future. They walked slowly as Catherine talked, telling him about her own attack, her abandonment in the park, her rescue.

The sun overhead was bright and strong by the time they reached a small park, one of many squares that was built when walking and horse drawn carriages were the only mode of transportation in the City. The squares were the center of the neighborhood Ė small areas of grass and trees around which the buildings grew. Catherine led him across the square and then down an enclosed alleyway. At the end was a grating imbedded in the cement to catch excess rain water.

Catherine turned in all directions, making sure there was no one near by. "So Iím asking you, Hector, would you like to live Below for a while, until this situation is resolved, until you decide what your future holds?"

Hector nodded, and Catherine squatted down. "Help me with this, could you?"

***

          Hector lay in the bed they gave him. He listened to the pipes, stared up at the rock formation hanging over his head. He was still mourning his father. The memory of what had happened outside their home kept flashing in front of him over and over. The fact that he was gone forever was unbelievable.

If it werenít for that, he would have enjoyed this adventure, this strange place. They were all kind to him; they fed him, looked after his needs. Mary reminded him of Mrs. Morales, the way she enjoyed reading and telling stories to the children. William was like the super. Mr. Cantalano was always showing him how to do things, how to fix a broken lock or a leaky pipe. But William liked to show him the proper way to cut up a chicken, or how to mix a batter so a cake could be as light as the air. He helped Cullen with his carpentry, Mouse with his electrical work, Pascal in replacing rusted out pipes Ė he was still learning new things.

But it was Vincent whose company he valued most of all.

The way Vincent spoke, it reminded him of his father. He spoke of things - things like honor, and valor, and other ideas that Hector had rarely heard from anyone else except from the man who had raised him. Vincent praised Hectorís father, praised his heroism. This was what Hector wanted to hear most. He needed to believe that his fatherís death had some meaning, as meaningless as it sometimes seemed to him.

ĎSomeone has to stand upí, Vincent told him. Someone had to protect old Mr. Cantalano, who could hardly get around anymore, and Mrs. McCarthy, who was as spry as ever, even after she was knocked down and robbed by a local drug user looking for money for a fix.

Vincent had complimentary words for him as well: praised him for how he had stood beside his father to confront these dangerous men. He assured him of how much his testimony would mean to Catherineís case Ė and to the building where he had lived.

           Yet there was one other person who was special to him below, whose company he wanted more than Vincentís even. And that was Jamie. Heíd noticed her immediately, when Catherine led him around Fatherís office, introducing him to the tunnel family. She was so beautiful, so delicate looking.

But as he became acclimated to his new home, and learned more about her, he was astonished to find out how strong and capable she was. She had such a fragile look to her, ethereal even. Yet she was more than capable at many things, digging, lifting, constructing. Her ability with a cross bow intrigued him particularly.

He asked her to teach him how to use the ominous looking weapon, and Jamie acquiesced. He was beginning to question the wisdom of this request, however. Being so close to her was arousing feelings in him that made him feel shameful.

Hector was as good as engaged, everyone in the building knew it. It had been him and Benita Ė always. When she finished school and got a job as a nurse they were going to be married, it was understood between them.

So why then, was he suffering these feelings for Jamie. It would never lead to anything. It couldnít.

But he couldnít help it. The skin across his abdomen tingled when she looked at him. And when she was close to him, the rippling sensation would spread throughout his body. At night it was worse still, when he had no control over his imagination. He would awaken from dreaming of Jamie Ė her eyes. He had imagined, over and over again, both waking and sleeping, what it would feel like if she touched him, how it would feel to touch her. Sometimes he could sense her near him as he awakened, and until he gained full consciousness, could swear she was there, beside him, holding him.

He hated himself for feeling these things. It was a betrayal of Benita. A betrayal also, of the tunnel dwellers who took him in, gave him a safe place. He knew he still loved Benita, knew he would be her husband someday. How then, could he justify his unwholesome desire for Jamie?

He began to avoid Jamie whenever possible. But that was hard too. They worked together often on building new chambers below.

          There was one other thing that bothered him too. He got along fine with everyone, except one person. Mouse.

Mouse had been congenial and welcoming at first, yet now he had become distant, almost hostile. Hector was confounded, but then concluded that perhaps this was a result of Hectorís competence with electricity and machinery. Perhaps Mouse felt that Hector was usurping his place in the tunnel family.

Hector wasnít sure how to handle this. He couldnít help being competent at the same things Mouse was. But he became less eager to volunteer for a job, would wait until Mouse was offered it first. Even so, Mouseís indifference persisted.

           None of this escaped Vincent. He knew Hectorís feelings as well as if Hector himself had confided in him. Hectorís fascination with Jamie had been evident to him from the beginning. Mouseís feelings on the subject were no mystery either.

Vincent wished Mouse would talk to him. He had given him a number of openings. But Mouse kept to himself more and more these days. He puttered alone in his own chamber, or wandered far below in deserted tunnels and caverns. Vincent was beginning to be afraid he might revert, at least in part, to his old ways, before Vincent had captured him like a feral animal and calmed his spirit.

Since Hector was the easier of the two to speak with, he found an opening with him instead. Vincent was seated at his table while Hector wandered aimlessly about the room examining Vincentís eclectic mix of possessions.

"You havenít been to the new chambers all week, Hector, is there a problem with the work down there?"

"No, no." Hector was silent for a moment. "Vincent," he asked, "Do you think it is possible to love two people at the same time?"

"You mean..." Vincent looked slowly and benignly up at Hector, "two women?"

Hector looked away. "Si, that is what I mean, two women."

Vincent heaved a sigh, leaned forward and placed both arms on the table. "I suppose it is possible... from what Iíve read," Vincent contemplated. "Charlotte Bronte... Monsieur Heger, the real life counterpart of Edward Rochester, was a married man. She left France and also fell in love with her publisher George Smith, yet during that time she was still writing to M. Heger. She eventually gave up on both, and married a third man, a persistent suitor. Alexandre Dumas had many loves, often overlapping, and he claimed great passion and devotion for them all. That poem I read the other night, Indian Serenade - Percy Shelley wrote that not for Mary, his wife, but for an Italian actress he had an interlude with."

Vincent continued to puzzle, examining the contents of the table in front of him. "I suppose there are men, and women too, who would say that such a thing is possible."

Hector moved closer to where Vincent was seated, and Vincent was still continuing to study the books and notepaper piled in front of him.

"And you, Vincent? What about you?"

Vincent looked up and then down again. "No," he said simply. "I do not believe I could be in love with two women at the same time." He thought a moment longer. "But I believe it is possible to have feelings, complicated feelings, for more than one person. Sometimes we can mistake other compelling needs and confuse them with romantic love."

"Needs?"

"Yes. Needs Ė intellectual, emotional, physical needs."

"And that isnít love?"

Vincent sat back. "It can be. We can love many people at the same time. And when a love is also blended with physical attraction, we can believe ourselves in romantic love."

"But we arenít? In romantic love I mean?"

"No. I donít think so." He leaned forward again, emphatic now. "I know this is not so. Real love, romantic love, the kind that can only be between one man and one woman, is something apart from any other feeling or emotion we harbor within ourselves.

It is more than a physical need, or even an emotional one. It is beyond any other feeling or capacity we have as human beings. It eclipses our own needs, our own selfish desires and confused longings. Our own need becomes theirs, that other person Ė we want for them more than we want for our own self."

Vincent took a breath. "So much more. That person makes us able to see our better self. We are enlightened, enraptured, uplifted by our ability to feel with them, care for them, want for them.

Yet that doesnít make us subservient. The two lovers Ė they are equal. They stand together, not as master and slave, mistress and servant, but as two knowing, loving people who understand what giving and receiving is. They are a unique unit. It is like there had been a division that is now made whole. It is similar to the bond between hydrogen and oxygen that becomes the water we all need to sustain life. I believe love is just that important.  As important as water, air, food.

Hector, do you think it is any wonder then, when it is so necessary, that if you were denied it under your present circumstances you might seek out some other form of it?"

Vincent rose from the table, went to Hector and put his arm around him.  Hector nodded his head and looked at the floor.  He wished he was as sure of himself as Vincent was.

***

          It was the most vivid memory Hector had of his mother. On City nights that were hot and still, the residents of the building would climb to the roof top. Someone would bring a record player, run a thick orange extension cord down to an outlet on the stairway. The night would explode with music. Salsa music, the child of Cuban Son and Caribbean compositions with African roots. Filtered through New Yorkís clubs during the big band era, Salsa took on a life and fire and meaning of its own.

The neighbors would bring up their spicy, aromatic food. Tequila would appear in small glasses. And they would dance.

His mother and father were the best among them. They had even won some prizes at local nightclubs. He remembered how everyone would stand back and watch them, his parents. He could still close his eyes and still watch the sway and twirl of his motherís brightly colored skirts. He could remember the way she would throw her head back, her hair long and shining black. The way her high heeled shoes would seem to barely touch the cooling tarpaper, now that the sun had gone down.

Vincent has escorted him back to his building one night late, helped him gather some belongings left behind Ė he was especially pleased to have his Fatherís record collection back.

He wanted a place alone where he could play his music. Pascal suggested the great chamber, where Winterfest took place. Pascal showed him the chamber. Hector could play his own music and practice dance moves and remember and dream.

The girls found him one day. The younger ones, Samantha and the others, were watching quietly but then shrieked and laughed when he discovered their hiding place.

"Teach us!" they demanded. "Teach us to dance like that."

So he did.

He taught them the basic steps, showed them how to keep time with the music, explained to them how ladies should twirl their skirts, and how they should look into their partnerís face as they flew across the floor.

The girls would talk and laugh about their new pastime later. Jamie was curious. Jamie was more than curious. She didnít understand what it was that Hector made her feel. It was curious, and exciting, and confusing, and frightening.

Jamie had always loved Mouse. But Hector was different. He was tall and his hair was dark and his teeth were very white. He spoke with just a hint of an accent, a residual from his parentsí more pronounced ones. She liked the way he moved when he worked, so graceful. She liked his easy ways and even the restrained manner in which he carried his quiet sorrow. She wanted to see him dance.

And Mouse? Mouse did not look at her the way Hector did. She wondered, for the first time she could remember, what she and Mouse had. Why did he never look at her as if she was the glowing center of a brightly lit candle? No. That wasnít true, sometimes, almost, she could feel him look at her. But when she turned to him he would be busy, always busy, fiddling with something or other, and not looking at her again for the remainder of the day.

He spoke to her as he spoke to all the tunnel dwellers. On a couple of occasions she thought she heard a note, a special tone of affection. But then he would go on as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had changed, as if nothing ever would.

          Jamie was not any more successful at hiding in the shadows than Samantha and the others had been. They found her out, dragged her forward. Hectorís heart began to hammer. He knew he shouldnít offer, but he did, the words just jumped out.

"Can I teach you to dance too, Jamie?"

She meant to say no, but somehow it sounded as if she said yes.

It was okay at first. The younger girls all laughing and shouting and clapping, it kept their minds from going other places. They concentrated on the dance steps, on keeping the rhythm.

But then Kipper came down and called the girls to their other lessons. Suddenly, faster than either of them could think, they were alone. Jamieís hand was in Hectorís. His other hand was cinched around her waist. 

They tried to go on again, acting as if it was all the same, as if their isolation in the enormous room was not a matter of concern. But the dance required she look straight into his face. Their eyes held in a steady gaze. They moved closer, together, away, and then back again.

The record ended. He kissed her. A short kiss, then a longer, deeper one. Jamie responded, hesitatingly, then passionately. Suddenly, she stumbled back. "I canít... we canít."

He came back to himself, horrified. It had all seemed to be just another dream, one more erotic imagining.

"Jamie, Iím so sorry... " he began.

"I know," Jamie stood staring at him. "I know you didnít mean to; neither did I," she turned away. "Itís just... Iíve never met anyone like you before."

He had to smile. "Iíve certainly never met anyone like you." His smile froze and he whispered, "Benita."

Jamie looked at him and nodded. "I know." He turned away, she moved toward him, stopped.

"Hector, look at me." Reluctantly, he complied. "We canít take this back, but we can stop it from happening again. This, being alone like this, was a mistake. I was trying to pretend I didnít feel anything for you. We should have been honest with each other from the beginning."

"Youíre so good, so strong and so beautiful. I couldnít help... "

"But you can now, we both can."

Hector gazed into her determined face, he nodded. "Si, you are right."

Jamie nodded too. "Doing the right thing can be the hardest thing of all."

Hector smiled. "Vincent says that."

She smiled back. "Yes, I know."

Hector turned and began putting his old records back in order. Jamie wheeled around and headed back to the sleeping chambers. She wasnít going to her own though.

She was headed for Mouseís.

           He had his head down when she entered, fiddling with an old radio. He didnít look up.

"Mouse."

Nothing.

"Mouse, I need to talk to you," she told him.

"Mouse busy," he said. "Too busy for talking."

"Mouse," she said again, picking her way through his large and odd collection of artifacts. "Thereís something I need to tell you about," she paused. "I need to talk to you about Hector."

Mouse froze for a second, and then still seemingly distracted, tried to look engrossed with the radio.

"Did you hear me, Mouse?"

"No talking now," he leaped up. "No talking ever." He attempted to rush past her. But Jamie threw herself in front of him and grabbed his arm.

"Mouse," she pleaded. "Please, hear me out, I need you to hear this."

Still torn, swaying, he didnít try to leave again, but stood with head bowed.

"Mouse, Hector and I... we felt something between us... something we didnít mean... but... It wasnít... youíre..." she stopped, let go of his arm.

"What do you see for us, Mouse, years from now? How do you see us living?"

Mouse looked up, totally bewildered and downtrodden. "Mouse doesnít understand," he said quietly.

She half smiled. "I know. But I need... I need to know what will happen with us. Not tomorrow, but someday. Will you always have your own chamber, and will I have mine? Or do you think... I need to know how you think of me." She pulled away slightly, stepping back, standing straighter. "I need to know how you feel about me."

Mouse stood perfectly still, neither moving or speaking. There was a sound coming from just outside but neither one of them took notice.

          Vincent paused at the chamberís entrance, breath suspended. What had happened? Was Jamie trying to choose between the two men? Vincent stepped back, unsure, embarrassed but transfixed by the scene. "Tell her, Mouse," he whispered, "at least tell her, or you will always regret it."

Jamie leaned toward Mouse, put her hand out to him. "I know this is hard for you. But you have to try, for me."

He finally moved, shifting from one foot to the other. "Jamie is Mouseís friend."

"Yes," she said softly. "But only that?"

"Not only."

"What besides?"

Mouse looked down and then up, alternately smiling and frowning. "Mouse," he began quietly, then stood up straighter himself, gazing into her face. "I... I love you."

Vincent breathed a sigh of relief, then escaped, aware that a third party wasnít wanted.

***

          Vincent didnít go to Father. What he had witnessed was private; he had no right to divulge it. He made his way down to the Whispering Gallery instead, walking slowly back and forth until the sun went down.

He wanted to see her. Not to talk really. There wasnít anything he particularly wanted to say. But he wanted to look into her face, feel her close, touch her hand.

It was an unseasonably warm spring night. She was on the balcony when he came. She was wearing a light cotton nightgown covered by a densely embroidered silk robe. Sitting in a wrought iron chair, she studied his profile. 

"Itís a beautiful night," she said.

"Beautiful," he repeated. He stood silent and thoughtful.

"Something is on your mind?"

He nodded, not turning back to look at her. "Hector and Jamie."

"Something happened?"

"Iím not sure. I havenít spoken with Hector yet. But something did happen... with Jamie and Mouse."

Catherine leaned forward in her chair.

"Tell me."

"Jamie came to him. She wanted to know, wanted to hear..."

"How he felt about her?"

Vincent nodded.

"Did he tell her?" Catherine wanted to know.

Vincent smiled that half smile of his. "With some coaxing."

Catherine stared up at him, trying to divine his feelings, trying to will him to turn toward her. "He didnít believe that he could give Jamie what he thought she deserved."

Vincent shook his head slightly, trying to avoid her persistent gaze. "Perhaps... I donít know... I cannot know what is in the heart of another."

"But you can, Vincent, you do." Catherine stood up and came to him then, stood beside him and gently placed her thumb under his chin. "You know what is in my heart."

Vincent moved off slightly, loosed the grasp of her fingers. "Catherine... I... " He turned away from her again, toward the City, "I came here tonight... "

"What Mouse told Jamie... " she whispered, interrupting him.

He drew a deep breath, faced her, opened his mouth, closed it again.

"... youíve never wanted to say them? The words." Her own words were very low, almost inaudible. She almost stopped breathing, looking up at him, asking with her eyes.

He opened his mouth again, jerked his head up, his chin held high, his eyes closed, trying to concentrate on reason, instead of the fear and self doubt that crippled his tongue and paralyzed his nerves. Remembering what Mouse could have lost, what he himself perhaps, could lose, if he continued to stay silent.

He felt a small hand lightly touching his, then fully taking it in her own. "It is hours until dawn, Vincent," he could just barely catch the words, they were said so gentle and small. "Iíll wait."

He looked down then, opened his eyes. She was smiling, just a little, her eyes filled with tenderness and patience.

She didnít speak again, but waited.  The edge of her flowing silk robe was lifted by the breeze and flapped lightly against his arm.  The highlights in her hair were lit by the million small lights that made up the Manhattan backdrop like the tiny points on a Saurat painting.

He turned fully to her, reached up his hands and placed them on either side of her face.  He couldnít help but see the fur on the backs of his hands, his long claws.  He hesitated once more, but her eyes drew his, and he looked into them, kept looking until that was all he could see Ė just her pale, determined, tender eyes gazing into his.

"I always knew, long before I ever met you, of your existence.  I couldnít have told anyone what you looked like, what the color of your eyes would be, or how your voice would sound.  But I knew, always, that there was a woman, one woman, who I could put my faith in, who would not shun me, or condemn me for what I am. 

I felt you, all along, even in my loneliness... especially in my loneliness. I knew you were somewhere.  Yet I didnít know if I would ever meet you.  And even if I was so blessed, I never believed in the possibility...  I thought this person would be dear to me, be a friend to me.  I always knew I could love you, but to have it returned... I never believed that a woman, that you, Catherine, could offer me...  "

"My heart. Completely. That I would want to be everything to you, for you.  That there wouldnít be anything I wouldnít want to give you."

"Catherine... I love you." Deep and low, full of gravel, full of wonder.  He felt it then, everything he had held inside himself, not just since he had met Catherine, but his entire lifetime. Like a drowning man seeing his life pass before his eyes, he saw it all.  All the pain, and hurt, and humiliation he had always felt and locked away inside of him.  It might have belonged to another person, all his self loathing, all his unworthiness. It was the look in her eyes, the way her face softened and glowed when he told her. The warmth and the joy and understanding that filled them both when he finally said the words he thought he could never utter.

He stood up straighter, leaned back slightly, transfixed by her face, transfixed by what he knew was to come. She moved her lips close to his, tilted her head to the side, and kissed him. He never imagined her lips would be so soft, her body would feel so open to him. He kissed her back gently, quickly. They parted then, just a bit, drawing back their faces so they could witness what the other was feeling. They gazed at one another for a moment. He pulled her to him, gathered her quickly and tightly in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her head in his chest and hair.

"I love you," they murmured together, making it one thought, one expression, the very best reason for the existence of both.

They stood a long time. Finally she took his hand, led him into the living room. They sat down together on her sofa, her head resting against his chest, his arms around her. They didnít make love that night; their heads and hearts were already too full. But it was now a promise between them. The threshold had been crossed.

It had come at last Ė their time.

~

Art by Lynn Wright


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