I saw you the other day.
You were running down the beach, the sun glistening off your dark wet hair, your well-rounded muscles shifting and flexing as you raced after the endorphins, or maybe tried to outrun the past that never happened, chasing the future you never had a chance to reach.
You took my breath away, the strength and vitality in your limbs, just the way I still always think of you. The intent, searching focus in your gaze as you stared down the sand ahead of you. You always had eyes like the sky after a storm, clear and promising.
I know how much you loved the beach. You made me love it too. Made me ache to hear the waves again, sighing against the shoreline, an echo of your sighs against my skin as the stars broke from behind the clouds that first night together. Even now, after all these years, I can't smell salt in the air without feeling the ghost of your fingers lingering places that would have gotten us both thrown off the senior trip that night, and sent us packing on the Greyhound back to the Midwest.
It's why I moved here, you know. Afterward.
Why I left every soul I called kin and every blood relative whose face held your memory, nothing but a suitcase, an overnight bag and that damned green duffle bag that carried your things home to the rest of us. I hated that bag, but couldn't help snatching it from your sister's hands when she offered it. Just on the whim, the foolish notion that whatever it held had been placed there by your big, strong, steady hands.
So I brought it, too, half dragged it onto the bus with my luggage and propped it in the seat next to me, leaned on it as I watched the dust and wind and swaying fields of grain fade and disappear from the back window, like my hopes had just faded and disappeared mere weeks before.
You would have said I was foolish, I think. Or maybe you'd have been proud of me, I don't know; I'd like to think the latter. To just pull up roots, run across the country without knowing a soul, back to that one place where your voice still whispered my name on the evening tide.
Where the autumn didn't bring a brisk chill wind with its memories of you in your football uniform, daring to rush the stands, heading not for the pretty little cheerleader, but toward the shy, self-conscious bookworm in the back row who adored you.
Where the rain didn't fall so often and when it did, it was absent of the green scent of corn stalks in the fields as you chased me, laughing, across your daddy's field.
Where winter's bite didn't hold bittersweet longings for stolen moments warming up in the hay loft, or raucous family gatherings with everyone guessing with the barest of subtlety how soon my father would be standing behind you with a shotgun and a ring.
Sooner than they would have guessed, for the ring at least. Of course, everyone figured it'd be here that you'd ask me, along the golden coast and the white spray of the ocean. I know you'd have liked to, but you always were practical, and plans change, don't they darling? We knew your orders would come soon, so Niagra it was.
Only the Corps couldn't wait to get you. I know you had a big romantic proposal planned, but honestly, it was perfect just like it was. My man on bended knee, your heart in your eyes, my heart in your hands, and the promise of our lives together as one, forever.
I've never been to Buffalo again. Almost couldn't get on the bus to come out here, but since I couldn't afford a plane ticket, it was the only option.
Thank God, I didn't have to buy two tickets yet. Even my parents didn't know about our baby when I left. Somehow, despite everything, it didn't feel right telling anyone else before telling you. And I never got a chance to tell you before, so I had to come back to the place that still held a small piece of you, if only to my own mind. I whispered to the waves, somehow hoping maybe that the frothing white caps would wind their way south to find you, tell you the news, give you some peace or comfort in that jungle hellhole you never left.
Got to be strong, that's what you would have told me. Be strong and raise our child with integrity and love and honor. All the best parts of you. So that's what I did. I was strong. I marched on, despite the missing heart in my chest.
Wasn't easy, especially not those first few weeks, but we always knew that was the risk of your occupation. Your calling, really. Can't imagine that you'd ever be whole, had you ignored the call and become something safe like an accountant or doctor or vinyl siding salesman. I just always thought I'd see you again.
I did see you, in those early days. I saw you everywhere. In every man with a certain height, each one with broad shoulders, or a solid jaw, I saw you in the first glimpse of them before I realized this one wasn't quite tall enough, that one was slightly more narrow, and his eyes were brown. I looked for you in every passing face, every day for months on end. And slowly, as the months stretched out, it sank in and my heart quit looking for what my mind knew was lost forever.
Tried to move on, like I knew you'd want. Make a normal, stable family for our child. Came close to settling down a few times, and actually had a date set once. We were happy enough, in an empty sort of way, until the day we went to pick out the china. His sweet, safe hazel eyes grew sad when I slipped, called him by your name, there between the flatware and the serving bowls.
So, it was just the three of us. Me, our little girl, and the tangible ache where you were supposed to be. I realized, returning the early wedding gifts, that I was still happier that way than with putting someone not you in that void.
Until a couple of years back. There you were, standing tall and proud, your back still straight and strong after all these years. Age had been kind to you, filled out the angles of the boy I once knew into the man I always dreamed you'd become. It took a few seconds this time, the unexpectedness of seeing you after all these long years, for logic and sense to remind me. Oh, I know it wasn't really you that day in Burbank. The only green shirt you'd be caught wearing in public was the green of your fatigues, and selling appliances would never have fulfilled you. But the man I saw there was so like what I imagined you'd mature to be that the air left me.
But for that brief, bittersweet, joyously aching moment, I let myself pretend. Closed my eyes and imagined I was coming to bring you lunch, or pick you up after your shift, and that you'd look up from your intense discussion with the slim young man in the white shirt and his pretty blonde girlfriend, and you'd see me too, this time. Your face would soften like it always did when you saw me, and those sharp blue eyes would warm and sparkle again just for me. You'd jog off from them and hop into my car, caress my cheek with your big, gentle hand and plant a kiss on my lips, and we'd go home to supper and our daughter and the evening sitcoms and P.T.A., and our nearly normal, nearly middle-aged lives.
But the light turned, and the impatient driver behind me laid on the horn and the moment was over and I let reality slip itself back over my hope.
Until the next time, a few months later. Walking with a friend – I still couldn't quite bring myself to think of him as my date – we passed an upscale hotel on the way to the theater, that one with the swanky bar downstairs. I glanced in at the sound of the music and saw you again. Well, not you really, of course, I even realized that then. He could have been you, or your brother, that bartender in his crisp white shirt and embroidered vest.
Later, I told my friend that the tears were from the show, from emotions the performers had caused. It was pretty convincing, though maybe would have been more so had the evening show been something other than stand-up comedy.
She looks like you. I don't know if I've ever mentioned that to you. You eyes, alike in more than the piercing blue. She doesn't miss much, always aware of her surroundings. Must be genetic. And smart, going to be a criminal psychologist soon. Her days as a waitress are numbered, but she's worked her way through college, despite the fund your parents and mine set up for her.
Wanted to do it herself. Independent. Or headstrong, your father has always said, of her and of you. Again, I can't see why anyone's surprised at that similarity. Even has your name, in the female form, though that never mattered. She shortened it herself, just like you did, when she could barely even speak. You'd be proud of your little girl. I know that somewhere, wherever you may be, you already are.
It comforts me to think you're watching over her. Watching over both of us. I swear, there are days I can almost feel your loving gaze on me again, so strong it makes me turn to try to find you. I know you're gone. I know that. But it helps, coming out here, getting this all out. You're probably up there on one of those clouds, laughing at how silly I am, writing you like this.
Anyway, I saw a handsome man running down the beach the other day, and he made me think of you, so here I am again. Wherever you are, marine, you make sure they treat you well. Because if not, they'll have to answer to me when I get there.
I love you, Alexander. My Alex, still and always. Never forget that.
"Hey! Are you up there?"
Swiping the tears from her eyes as the younger woman neared the base of the outcropping over the ocean, she rolled the paper and inserted it in an empty bottle. With the cap secured, she stood and tossed it into the frothy waves, watching the surge take it for a moment before she climbed carefully down.
"Here, sweetie. Hang on, I'm coming down."
Alexandra McHugh gave her mother a knowing smile. "Letter to Dad?"
Kathleen brushed a wisp of hair from her eyes, wrapping an arm around her daughter as they headed up the sand toward the car. "Crazy old lady, huh?"
"No," Alex said softly. "Not one bit, Mom. I think it's sweet. And you're not that old, anyway."
"Some days I feel like I'm a hundred. But coming here… coming here, I feel eighteen again."
Alex glanced back toward the rocks, catching the large, male body sliding into the waves toward the tiny shining dot that was the bottle.
"Race you to the car!" she challenged suddenly, pulling her mother's hand as she picked up the pace. "Loser cooks dinner and does dishes!"
Kathleen laughed and launched herself after the impish girl. "I'm not quite that old. You're on!"
Her laughter danced across the waves, sending that old familiar ache to his chest as he pushed against the tide. Reaching the bottle, he grasped the treasure in a large hand and began the swim back to shore. Back to the opposite direction the two women had gone.
The younger one had seen him, he knew she had and he had thought he was found out. But then she pulled her mother toward the parking area just beyond, helping him stay concealed. A smile of pride and gratitude broke across his face. She was good, One day may be as good or better than her old man. He hoped to God she wouldn't choose that path, but somehow he knew the possibility grew stronger every day. It would break her mother's heart, but maybe by then he could….
Shaking that thought from his hopes, he sighed. Past was done, and likely would have to remain that way. Clutching the bottle to his chest, he hid behind the rocks, 'their' rock, until the familiar sound of her car's engine faded from hearing.
With a weariness that came from more than fighting the current or his years, he turned back down the beach, letting one foot pound the sand in front of the other, just running the heartache back into submission, a paper-filled plastic bottle tight in his hand.