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Stephen R. Clark
@stephenrclark

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Oreland, Pennsylvania
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Joined June 1996

 

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Rose

Sadness shrouds her like the old familiar shawl around her shoulders, black and worn. But it's hers and it goes with all her clothes. It sets off the red flower on her dress, a corsage made from a silk rose she wears over her heart. He gave it to her a long time ago. She still has the rose but he's gone.

Why did he have to up and die for? she sighs in her thoughts as she shuffles sadly down the sidewalk. This is the same sidewalk they walked on for fifty years and then some. Well, it seems like that long anyway. Longer, really. Why couldn't it have been longer?

They knew each other as kids and grew up right here in this neighborhood. They weren't cloistered, though. Thanks to their parents, they'd both seen a good bit of the world, but it was here they wanted, and each other. What they wanted they usually got except for now because he was gone, old fool. She pulled her sorrow up snug against the cold and walked on.

Ah, yes. The walks. Most nearly every day they were married and home together they walked after dinner. Didn't matter the weather. Well, almost didn't matter. They walked right here, just like when they were kids when they'd go for talking walks as they called them. The talk depended a good deal on their age at the time. It was about spooks and bad dreams, nights that were too long and days that were too short, other kids, the bullies on the playground, and the teacher who cried in the middle of history for no apparent reason. Later, one night when they were sitting in the living room talking between their private thoughts and shared memories, they figured the crying episode must have had something to do with her beau who had gone to war and never came back.

They'd talk about how weird boys were to girls, and girls were to boys. And they'd talk over this date and that date, help each other pick up the pieces of repeatedly broken adolescent and teen and young adult hearts. They talked about sex. When and how and why and why not.

Why? Why die? Why not keep living? She is. Why is she? She didn't know. Damn silly thing to go on living without him. Why'd he have to do it? All by himself, like that. Just up and die, old fool. They'd been together so long. And it'd been so good.

Well, she guessed, there had been moments.

Those moments of days and months when he was in love with another new girl, another new woman. Eventually it was always the same. She didn't have this quality or that quality and she didn't like this or that about him. Damn blind fool. Why'd he always insist on walking into slamming doors? It's a wonder his nose wasn't flat. They'd walk, and talk, and bump into each other tenderly, and she'd listen to his complaints and hurts and wishes and straighten his nose. For these nose-straightening walks, he often bought her a single red rose. She kept each one, dried and pressed, now in a box in the attic.

Afterwards, she'd get even and fall in love with the latest hot jock, or student body president, or, earlier, the playground bully. He'd be flabbergasted. Pull his hair out. Roll his eyes to her about her latest love. What in the world did she see in him, or him, or him? My god, was she stupid and blind and desperate? he'd rant.

Yes, she was. Desperate for him. And he was stupid and blind. But eventually, age and persistence gave him wisdom to know and eyes to see. Maybe he just tired of the games and the chase all the others put him through.

Oh my, how the weather had turned, she thought glancing up. The sky was low with gray shadowed cotton ball clouds. And her sorrow wasn't enough to keep her warm. She needed something heavier. The snow would come soon enough. Heavy and white and drifting, like regret.

They used to love the snow and the cold, and "blowing smoke". They'd make angels, flapping their arms in the flakes. And once, giddy with teenage hormones and New Year's wine, they even made love in the snow on top of their spread open coats, when he was between his great loves and experiencing a rare moment of prescience. But the light was only on for a moment. The snow was so soft and radiant in the moonlight. She didn't feel the cold. He was her first and only. She was not his. First or last. But she knew then in time she'd be his only. Forever.

She always took a somewhat selfish pride in that knowing. The knowing that the others would have him only in their memories when she'd have him in her arms. By her side. And share his bed nights without end.

So she thought then. And now. All she had were the memories, the photos, the souvenirs, scattered around the house. But she thought, the one who dies with the most memories wins! Memories of him. Now he's dead and she's not. Yet. Is she? back then, she wished she'd waited. Now, she wasn't so sure. It didn't seem to matter as much somehow.

She shuffled on, shifting her shawl now and then, making the sorrow rest more comfortably. The rose bounced softly on her tired breast. Oh, the way he touched her there, gently holding her breasts in his powerful hands. She thought they were powerful, anyway. So carefully stroking there, and the rest of her. He neglected no part of her. Not her body. Not her mind. Not her feelings. Nothing of her life went untouched or unchanged by him. He cared for her all of her. The good and the bad. The cuddly and the prickly. He accepted and stroked it all.

And when they made love -- married, proper, regretless love -- she felt consumed and completed by passion. Completely vulnerable yet always left intact. She was the person she was, and that was the person he loved.

That was one of the things they loved so dearly about one another. The ability to accept each other unconditionally. Or, at least the ability to put up the appearance of such. She had to admit there were things about him, on occasion, that drove her to distraction. But, she loved him, and learned when to keep her mouth shut. She could bug the hell out of him, too, she knew. And did.

But they could both tolerate a good bit of honesty. He always said, it was better to be hurt with the truth than destroyed by a lie. They'd both learned at the hands of others how fatal a lie could be.

So they'd have great long detailed discussions that would leave them both a bit raw and smarting. And after the steam cleared, they'd tend each others' wounds with gentleness, care, dignity, and respect. The pain of honesty never hurt as bad as the healing up felt good.

Others often thought they were brutal to one another in their honesty. She'd tell him his jokes were atrocious -- while he was telling one -- and he'd shut up. He'd tell her her make-up looked pasty -- when they were at a party -- and she'd redo her face in the bathroom.

And then they'd fight in the car. After their speeches, as they called them -- hers was always longer and more impassioned -- they'd both shut up the rest of the way home. She'd scootch over next to him and cuddle up against his shoulder. He'd put his arm around her, kiss her hair, and whisper I love you. And he did. And she loved him and said so. They both knew they were very good for each other. She always got in the last word. Even now. Even though she didn't want to. Why? God?

God. A good friend, God. Someone she'd always sensed was there, but didn't figure out where until they'd been married a couple of years. They'd both gone to church, in a manner of speaking, all their lives. They were in the same Sunday school classes as kids. And their walks would sometimes be the vehicle for great tiny discourses on the meaning of life, creation, and miracles.

They believed. Of course they believed. How could they not. It all made so much sense to their child minds. The clarity of those awesome biblical truths and events were often as overwhelming as they were inspiring. They made their imaginations dizzy with possibilities. Sheer spiritual pleasure, in a sense, all consuming. Their faith in God was as solid and real and comforting as a cool sidewalk on a warm August evening.

Then, they got older. Grew up and away. From each other a little bit and their faith. The accepting child in them became the skeptical adolescent followed by the cynical adult. The sidewalk developed cracks.

Step on a crack, break your mother's back, recited two little girls as they passed her, skipping, in sing-song voices. Oh, she can remember when her girls were that age. Twins. The first time. What a surprise they were. Joy and trouble all in one package. He wanted to give them alliterated names. Like Jane&Jill, Susie&Sally, Polly&Molly. She wanted to give them their own identities. Identities that would fit them as children without embarrassment, and would carry them into womanhood with dignity and grace. So, they were named Jennifer and Elaine. Jenni and Lainie. He was satisfied.

On occasion, she would succumb to his desire to see the girls dressed in matching outfits and he'd take a ton of pictures. In those pictures they were identical. But only in the pictures. Even dressed alike those who knew them even briefly could tell them apart in a minute. They were twin sisters who loved one another dearly, but they were themselves. Sometimes, she thought they didn't realize they were identical twins. At least, until they'd pull switches on the boys who were always after them. Even in nursery school they were chased and courted. They were dazzling apart and brilliant together.

Often, on their walks, the girls dancing ahead of them, behind them, all around them, they would marvel to each other, wondering what earned them the right to have such perfect children. And they were perfect. Perfectly delightful at times, perfectly awful at other times. Everyone acknowledged it. It wasn't just their imagination. He loved the girls dearly, too and understood why he hadn't been allowed to name them. He was much more satisfied to daddy them. And he daddied them perfectly. They missed him as much as she. His absence was perfectly awful.

She should call them tonight, she thought as she turned the last corner before home. Lainie married and living in Arizona. Jenni "on her own" in New York City. Such contrasts. Yet, they both knew when the other was hurting, physically or emotionally or spiritually, and they'd call and comfort each other. That they did this never amazed them though it did others. It was the perfectly natural thing to do. For them, to not call, that would have been a marvel. She called them because she was their mother and she wondered what the weather was like where they were.

It's quite chilly here, she'd say. We'll get snow soon. What's it like there? Jenni, are you sure you're safe in that neighborhood? I see such terrible things on the news. Lainie, when's your due date? Are you eating right? Is Sam helping you around the house and keeping Sammy out of your hair? Yes, I love you, too. Yes, I miss him, too. Yes, I get lonely, but I'm all right. Yes, Gramum loves you too, Sammy. Yes, I'll still love you when the baby comes. Yes, he's in heaven now, but he sees us. Yes, God sees us and loves us, too. Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight.

But night wasn't as good as it used to be. She didn't feel as secure. There was so much space in the house. So much empty space. It surprised her how much space he'd filled in her life. Only God had filled more. She still had God and knew He'd fill up everything, but she still sensed the emptiness left in the wake of his passing.

Passing. That's what cars do on the freeway, she laughed at herself. He didn't pass away. He died. But once he was so very much alive. And passing -- or, rather, making passes -- was something he was very good at. Once his interest was squarely focused on her, just like she knew it would be, it was amazing the things he'd do to get her attention. They were in college, almost out, less than a year to go when it happened. Even though she'd known that he'd come around, even she was surprised by the suddenness and intensity of his devotion. So was he.

It was late fall, just like now. They were walking, right here on this sidewalk. He'd dated a variety of the college women, reveling in the fact that the college drew out-of-towners, fresh faces to pick from. But one had stuck to him with a tenacity he'd never encountered before. It shook him. While claiming to be looking for continuity in a relationship she knew he just wanted to have a variety of flings. She often teased him that his motto should be, Date 'em and dump 'em. Which he always did after a few weeks or months. He said, at times, that he despised her knowing him so well.

So far, the girls had always obliged. Despite the real pain of real broken hearts, teens of both sexes are resilient. He and they would both go on to new conquests. And he actually did them a service. The girls he dumped never allowed themselves to be dumped again. They knew the signs of impending doom and always dumped first, which did wonders for their self-images.

But this was college where teens aged quickly into adults and adults did not dump one another. They talked everything out, worked everything through. This one was determined to do just that. So they did, off and on, for two years. They both dated others, but only because they had an "understanding." They always came back together which was always very passionate and intense. As some men sometimes tend to do in or out of locker rooms, he told her all the details.

She had to admit they made a good looking couple. It seemed they were pretty compatible. It scared her at times, causing her to doubt her certainty as she had come to doubt her faith. Yet, she knew, she'd tell herself, and she clung to that knowing. It was this tenacity that eventually brought her, and him, back to full faith in God.

But this one really tested and tried her to the limit. This one wanted him almost as much as she did. She knew all she could do was wait. She kept reminding herself night after night, he always came to her when he needed advice or help or healing. Always. And she prayed just as she had done as a little girl with childlike faith.

Finally, he and this one had worked out and talked through all they could. When it was all done, disappointment, confusion, unfulfillable expectations, and shattered perceptions lay strewn all about them. This one, too, allowed herself to be dumped. It was the only thing left to do. But it hurt him. It hurt him to hold on and it hurt him to let go. This was a new experience and the newness scared him. He didn't know how to deal with it.

So they walked and talked and she began working on his nose as usual. Why, he asked, over and over, did it hurt so bad to let go of someone it hurt so bad to hold on to? What was going on? He wanted a special someone. Someone he could be close to and comfortable with. Someone to be intimate with? she asked. He always cringed at that word feeling it too feminine to describe his desires, but nodded and sighed, Yes, yes. So why, he asked, did he push away the very one who wanted to get close to him? Why did he not enjoy the closeness she offered? What -- who -- did he really want?

They walked on in silence for a moment. Bumping into each other affectionately. To comfort and encourage him, she put her arm around his waist, kind of hugging him as they walked. It'll be okay, she whispered. It'll be okay. It always is, you know.

He stopped short. Spun them both facing each other. Held her arms in his hands. Looked intently into her eyes with a look that half scared her. "What's wrong?" she asked, almost screamed.

"You!"

"Me, what?"

"You! You're the one!" His voice was high-pitched, loud, and edged on hysteria.

"I'm the one what? What the hell are you shouting about?"

They were frozen in time and just stood there, her arms in his tight grip, her eyes locked to his.

"What a damn fool I've been all these years. And you knew it all the time. didn't you? You knew and you waited and you put up with my stupidity."

He rambled on and on and on, the words barely registering in her mind, but her heart knew and her soul knew what was happening. This was it! And then he said it.

"You're the one I want. And nobody else. You, damn it! You! Marry me. You have to marry me!"

He was screaming and had a wild, crazed took in his eyes. God, this wasn't exactly the way she'd always imagined it happening. This was like a poorly written scene from a bad movie. It was corny. She had something more romantic in mind with candlelight and violins and flowers and the whole mushy nine yards. Corny, but nice. Not this. This was more like him having a nervous breakdown. She thought she was either going to wet her pants or puke or faint or all three, she was so scared and so excited. It was like going to the horror movies as a teenager, only a thousand times more intense.

He grabbed her and slammed her body against hers and kissed her good and hard and long. And, pressed so tight against him, she did wet her pants, and then threw up, and then felt the sweet chills of climax rippling from her toes to her fingertips. He barely got out of the way in time as she vomited, and just stood there with a dumb, crazed, befuddled, helpless, and lovable expression on his face as she wretched in spasms of ecstasy and agony. She was a mess. For the first time in her life, she was a royal mess. Thoroughly disgusted and disgusting. And thoroughly happy that she hadn't fainted.

Years later, the night before Lainie's wedding, she and the girls stayed up late, talking about love and joy and pain and stuff. The girls asked and she told them about that day. They laughed with her and cried with her as she told the story, with all the details left in. She'd never done that before. She was self-conscious about things like that. Afraid others would think her and him more weird than they already thought. But, she and the girls had always been open and honest with one another. They had never lied to her or kept much from her. It'd been hard at times, but worth it. They felt and were safe together. So she told them all of it and they affirmed her, knowing what she was talking about. They'd both had similar intense experiences. Lainie said every time she looked at Sam after they first met, well, she'd blush between her legs is how she put it, giggling. And her stomach felt like a trampoline trounced by a sumo wrestler. Jenni, too, knew the passionate emotional schizophrenia love put one's body through. Confessing all and being so joyfully affirmed by her daughters, she felt fully normal for the first time in her life.

A few nights later she told him what it had been like for her on that day, including the sexual feelings. As dense as a rock at times, he had had no idea he'd had that intense of an effect on her. He thought she had gotten some bad food in the cafeteria. They both laughed. And then made love with more abandon and passion than they'd ever experienced before. They were finally whole together in so many ways.

Good, she sighed out loud, I'm finally home. She went up the few steps to the front door, took the mail from the mailbox, went in and was embraced by the comforting warmth. It's always nice to come home. And that's what it had been like encountering God again. Just like coming home. They'd both said so. It was like being away and thinking one would never make it back home, and then suddenly you're standing on the front porch. And God opens the door and welcomes you in, almost as if you'd never left.

They'd been married a little more than two years when she became pregnant. They were so excited and scared. Joy and nausea all over again. About two months into the pregnancy she started bleeding in the middle of the night. She'd been bleeding for hours before they woke up to a blood-soaked bed. When she realized it wasn't incontinence she screamed. So did he. As he dialed for the ambulance, he was crying. He was trying to not let her see and she didn't say anything.

At the hospital there was nothing they could do to save the baby. It was a spontaneous abortion. The concern was for her because she'd lost so much blood. But after a couple of days and transfusions, she stabilized and improved rapidly. He came and took her home, then she became seriously depressed. He wasn't much better. They began to tear away at each other, piece by piece. They needed help and they knew it. They were enlightened enough not to fear going to a psychologist, a marriage counselor. She was a kind, insightful, and warm. Slowly, painfully, gratefully they found the wisdom and love and strength and courage to put all the pieces back in place. One by one.

During the process they uncovered their forgotten faith. It was there, all along, neatly stored away in a special place in their memories. They had not realized how important faith had been to one another, and had kept it stored away on account of the other. Not wishing to offend, but more, not wishing to be embarrassed. And they found this silly, so brought their faith out, and began to share the memories and the feelings and the experiences. Finally, knowing it was cliche for people to return to church after traumas of one sort or another, they did it anyway. Just to see how different it would be as adults.

What they discovered surprised them both. The minister was a warm and insightful man. He knew God. That was readily obvious. When he spoke it was if they were hearing directly from God. The words went straight to their hearts, to the center of their souls. For months they went Sunday after Sunday. For those months they wrestled in their minds and in their conversations during their walks. Here was truth more solid and more real than any truth they'd discovered before. Even though it was the same truth. But what had once been tiny discourses now were filled with the power of life and death. Before, it was all magic and warm fuzzies. Now, it was truth that imbued with purpose and meaning a life otherwise adrift with nowhere to moor. It was truth that brought stability and hope in the midst of pain and confusion. It was truth that brought peace the mind could not explain.

Yet, they were "with it." They were intelligent and successful people. They were known in important social circles. What would people think of them if they went to church not merely as members fulfulling a social obligation, but as worshipers? What would they say when others discovered their "religion" was a personal relationship with a personal God? And what could they do to deserve such a gift of grace?

It took them a full year of walking and talking, going to church and counseling, reading the previously shelved Bibles they'd both gotten as Sunday school prizes for perfect attendance, and praying. Praying, at first clumsily, but with a child-like intensity and simplicity. Just as they'd done at bedtime as children. And during this time they had to come face-to-face with what they knew had always been there, but were too sophisticated to name -- sin.

Such a simple word, sin. S-I-N. Yet. its effects were unavoidable in their lives. They couldn't rationalize or intellectualize or argue it away. It was there, like a cancer. Eating at the "niceness" of their lives from the inside out, leaving a gaping ever-growing emptiness. Oh, God how she had loathed that feeling. It had felt as if something, someone were battling over her very soul. And now and then, just as life began to feel settled and friendly, something dark and sinister would come and cut away at her sense of peace and the battle would rage once again. It was endless.

In the brief time they'd been married, they'd already begun to make insidiously subtle and persistent demands on one another, trying to feed that emptiness. To satisfy that indefinable hunger. That gnawing nameless need for something more. And in their careers, they clawed and climbed and claimed. Searching for that ungraspable piece of the puzzle that would complete their perfect lives. That last illusive act of fulfillment that would put them at ease. Relieve the burden. Make them comfortable. Give them soul-deep rest. The need was infinite. The means were finite. To admit this, in their material world, that was considered sin.

Carefully, fueled by the very hunger that would destroy them, they maneuvered through the depravity of their lives. Depravity they'd relished and minimized, but refused to acknowledge. And then they saw the symbolism of their quest toward one another. He'd looked all around "out there" for the right one who'd been at his side all along. She'd doubted, yet clung somehow to that deep inner knowing that he'd be hers only. And in the analogy of their lives they found the way to God. The one who'd been by their side all along. The one they'd doubted but somehow knew to be true. The one Who had known since before the beginning that they would be His, and He theirs. Only and forever.

Their journey ended, this time, more quietly. More simply. At an altar, side by side, pouring out their hearts to God, emptying out all the hurt, anger, disappointments, confusion, and sorrow, and being overwhelmed as God poured His heart out in theirs, filling them with a profound love, holy passion, clear sense of purpose, and complete acceptance. They didn't deserve this. They knew it. But they also knew, somehow, that He made them deserving through Himself. They were giddy with grateful joy, yet also felt like the lights in their heads had all been turned on for the first time. They felt radiant, shining as they walked out of the church, home. They saw one another more clearly, more completely than they'd thought possible.

She laughed out loud, plopping in her chair, as the memory of that moment lifted the sorrow briefly from her shoulders. It was so warm inside. It felt good to be home. And what a life they'd had after that. She got up from the chair and hung her shawl in the closet. She was tired and her arthritis pained her a little. She decided to lie down for awhile before she fixed herself supper and called the girls.

It was Sunday afternoon. They'd always gone to bed after their Sunday walks. Not always to sleep, though. On cool days like this it was always so comforting just to snuggle against him. She'd press her body against his, let his warmth penetrate her, and always recall that crazy moment he "saw" her for the first time, and crushed her tight against himself. Delicious, she sighed to herself.

She went to the bedroom, unpinned the rose, placing it carefully on her bureau. She kicked off her shoes and she lay down across the bed just too tired and achy to get undressed just now. She pulled the down comforter around her and quickly fell asleep.

A little while later she roused briefly thinking she'd heard the phone but decided it was just his snoring. All was peaceful and quiet, and the room was cast in a sleepy, autumn-gold, late afternoon haze. She smiled, cuddled tighter against him, arms wrapped around his chest, hugging him tight, and went back to sleep as he snored softly.

The phone by the rose continued ringing, but there was no answer. Finally it stopped. All was quiet. All was at rest. They were home.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Words For Winterl  : A small collection of writings for the season

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