Gender: Male Age: Secret Location: N/A
|Introduction: This will make no sense without reading Part I. Please do so. There is little "action" here till near the end of the piece. That is the nature of the story. If this were a fantasy, I could have changed that. It isn't. This is how it happened.|
Charlie finally transferred to a college far away, as far from Carol and his memories as he could manage. He began again there, trying to find a way to find something to live for without her.
He wrote her from time to time. If she answered at all, it was a polite two-line note. A few times he called her, and she spoke to him; with warmth and even a hint of concern, especially if he was crying. She didn't like it when he cried, but sometimes...
She offered him no hope, but at least she didn't hang up.
He remembered bits and pieces of some of those calls for years:
"Charlie, I promise you'll get over me. Someday you're going to find someone really special." She whispered the last word.
"I had someone special, Carol."
Sadly: "Oh, Charlie..."
Crying: "What would you say if I told you I was going to kill myself if you don't come back to me? What would you say, Carol?"
"Well.... I wouldn't say no...."
"But you know that can't happen, Charlie. Please don't tell me that."
Sniffing, pulling himself together: "I won't. It's okay, Carol. I'll be okay someday." He let her off the hook again.
"I'll always be grateful to you, Charlie. You taught me how to love. If it wasn't for you, I'd never have been able to be with Larry."
"I'm glad you're happy, Carol. But who's ever going to teach me?"
"Someone will, Charlie. You just have to keep looking."
He let her off the hook again. "I am."
It was nice when she showed that she cared: but in the end, he found that it didn't matter much. When he hung up, she was still gone.
He did look. He slept with more than several girls; it was the early 70s, after the Pill and before herpes and AIDS. Sexual freedom was a very real thing, and he got his share of pussy; but in his heart there was still a big empty space shaped like a girl named Carol.
He masturbated often, to magazines and fantasies; he began to smoke marijuana, because it made the pictures seem real and enhanced the fantasies.
But he avoiding masturbating to his memories of her. They were still the most moving and exciting thoughts he had, but sometimes he came crying, and cried for hours afterward. His dearest memories became a place he dared not go. He tried not to think of her at all, but still...
A bit of music, a word, A familiar piece of clothing, a turn of a head with long brown hair--and it hit him like a punch in the heart. He began to smoke more pot, because only then could he feel better just because he wanted to and turn the memories off.
He went to class, and wrote his papers, and talked with friends, and dated now and then; but her ghost was always at his side. It only left him when he was stoned, and then he could be alone with his dirty magazines or with the girl that he was fucking but didn't love.
She sent him an invitation to her wedding.
He bought two bottles of liquor that day, and drank them both on her wedding night. He had never so wanted to get stinking drunk in his life.
He couldn't do it. He drank it all, but went to bed cold sober. At least he slept.
He finally graduated, a year late, with the class of '74. He bounced from one job to another, and tried to fall in love again. He never could.
He even got married once. The woman did not remind him of Carol at all, and she was passionate and loved to fuck; he hoped that he could grow to love her and forget about Carol.
The marriage didn't last. His wife was self-centered and uncaring of his feelings, and she had a cruel, withholding streak: when she discovered something that he liked in the bedroom, she'd never do it again. "You're supposed to love ME, not THAT," she'd say. Then she complained that he was not as passionate as he had been before they married, when she had actually tried to please him.
Even so, he stayed with her long after he knew there was no hope or comfort there--because he couldn't bear to give someone else the pain that he had known. It was only after he figured out that most people did not hurt that much, or that long, that he finally found the strength to leave.
He tried to remain friends with Carol. He even visited her from time to time, suppressing the ache when he saw her and wearing the mask of an old friend. Sometimes it slipped, and Carol would squeeze his hand in sympathy, but no more. They never spoke of it, and both went on pretending that he was just a friend.
He met Larry; and even though no man had ever been born that he more wanted to hate, he found he couldn't. Larry was a genuinely nice guy, and he obviously loved Carol.
Charlie was glad. No one deserved her, but at least he wasn't an abusive bastard; and he made her happy.
Once, they made a connection, when he happened to visit when Larry wasn't home. He spoke her name, in a kind of pleading tone--by accident, in a way; he wasn't lost in his need for her at that moment, but was thinking of something else.
She turned and answered, "Yes?" in a tone of such gentle warmth and feeling, and looked at him with such compassion in her eyes, that he forgot what it was. He could only look at her--and how it hurt to do so.
His eyes filled, and she came closer and gave him a hug.
"I'm so sorry, Charlie," she whispered. "I know it's hard for you."
And she held him while he cried. No more than that was said.
It only happened once.
A day came when they stopped speaking. He had put her off a bit with something he had said in a recent visit, speaking of his feelings for her--and she had told him, gently but firmly, that he just couldn't talk to her about that any more. She was married now, and there was nothing she could do.
In reply, he had written her a letter; and he went too far. He accused her of being the reason he never got over her, bringing up the coldhearted way she had left him, and then used him so callously, ten years before.
It was all true, but she had been kind to him since, and it wasn't fair of him to bring it up. They had both been young, and she had done the best she could at the time. She hadn't meant to hurt him so, and he knew that. And it had been a long, long time before.
He should have known better. But for him, the pain of losing her had never gone away, and he never had a single day, not one, when he didn't miss her and long to hold her in his arms again and know she loved him. For him, it hadn't been a long, long time. It was yesterday, last night, an hour ago.
That letter destroyed their friendship. After a short, bitter phone call--"I have nothing to say" was all she told him, in a voice as cold as ice--they had no more contact for more than fifteen years.
He tried to forget, again and again. He sought out therapists and talked it out with them for years; he meditated; he read self-help books--"Letting Go," "Surviving the Loss of a Love," "Moving On"--but her ghost walked with him still.
When he looked for pictures of naked women in magazines or on the Internet, he always found himself keeping or downloading the ones that looked like or reminded him of Carol in some way. Sometimes he was even conscious of it; but better to masturbate to pictures of models who resembled her than to the things that he had actually seen and done with her. That road led to madness and death, he knew. He had been too far down it too many times not to.
He limped through his life like a man with one leg gone. The smallest things were so much effort; it was hard to care about anything. What was the point? It was a struggle to care enough to brush his teeth.
He once described losing Carol, to one of his therapists, as being very much like losing an arm or a leg; you adjust, you live with it, you learn to get along--but you never, ever forget for a single moment what you have lost.
He finally got to a place where he didn't think about her much. He worked, he read, he watched TV, he masturbated to other things, he slept, and he hammered out a kind of peace of mind from one day to the next. He no longer cried, or not so much; he didn't spend whole days aching for her, only minutes, and even that not often.
The dreams were the worst. He would go for weeks with only minimal thoughts of her, shaking them off and pushing them away as soon as they arose; and then he would have a "Carol dream," and he'd be depressed for days.
He would dream of seeing her briefly, then trying to find her but only getting short glimpses from far away; or of seeing and being near her, but she could not see him. Or of talking and laughing with her and just being friends again. They all left him aching when he woke up.
But the worst dreams were the ones where they were in bed together, and she was naked. They never made love; often she was simply asleep near him, and he was afraid to wake her. Sometimes she took him in her arms. Once or twice he dreamed of kissing her and stroking her back. Even in dreams, it seemed, he could go no farther.
After one of those, it might take him weeks to recover. But they did not come often.
Most days, he simply tried not to think about her, and for the most part, he succeeded. He lived his life. He learned to listen to talk radio and not the music stations; to avoid certain movies; to beware of thinking too hard about love or relationships or women with pretty hands and feet. And so much more.
He was not happy, for that could never be. He had had to shut down too much of his life and not look in too many places that he knew would hurt him. But he was content. He lived alone, and found ways to get from one day to the next and smile and laugh. His friends and students thought him sweet and funny, and they liked him.
He no longer even tried to date.
He taught his classes, graded his papers, had friends, and was functional. He was doing all right.
And then he saw a movie.
"Forrest Gump" would change his life. If he had known what the picture was like, he would never have watched it, but it took him by surprise. He found himself in tears through half the picture, and weeping like an abandoned child at the end. It depressed him horribly for days, and he could not shake it off. The old wound was fresh again, and he knew exactly why.
One day a week or two later, another teacher--a friend named Sharon--found him wiping his eyes in the teacher's lounge.
She sat down beside him and put a solicitous hand on his arm. "Chuck, what's the matter?"
He allowed no one to call him Charlie. He hadn't for years.
"It's nothing," he quavered. "I'm okay. Or I will be by the time my off period is over."
"It's got to be something, Chuck. I've never seen you this way."
It was true. Charlie had the reputation of being unfailingly cheerful and very funny, always ready with a wisecrack or a joke and a smile for everyone; the few people who knew were invariably stunned to learn that he was chronically depressed, and had been for decades. No one, ever, saw his darkness.
"You can talk to me, Chuck," Sharon went on. "Come on. What's the matter?"
He managed to choke out, "I saw 'Forrest Gump' last week."
She blinked. "That's kind of a sad movie, but--why on Earth would it affect you this much? And for this long?"
He looked at her, and his face dissolved. He wept openly. "Because my Jenny never came back," he managed to say.
She put her arms around him and held him as he sobbed.
The vice-principal happened to come in. He walked over and asked quietly, "What's going on?"
Charlie tried to speak, but couldn't. Sharon said, "Chuck is having a bad moment."
"Something to do with school? The kids?" Teaching can be emotionally draining.
"No. It's personal. Love-related," said Sharon.
"Oh. Should I get a sub?"
Charlie shook his head, but Sharon said, "I think we better." Charlie looked up, then shrugged. He still couldn't speak.
"Well, there's only two periods left. I'll see if I can get some other teachers to cover."
"I can take his eighth," Sharon said. That was the last period. He nodded, then bent down and put his hand on Charlie's shoulder. "I hope you feel better soon, Chuck. We can't have the school funnyman crying."
Charlie smiled, his eyes wet, and finally croaked, "I'll be okay." The vice-principal nodded and went out.
Charlie looked at his lap. He was bending and straightening a paper clip. He wondered how long he'd been doing it. "Thanks, Sharon."
She patted his hand. "No problem." She paused. Then, "Tell me about your Jenny."
He talked for twenty minutes, and cried a little more. He didn't tell her everything, of course, but enough to get the drift.
"Twenty-seven years?" she whispered.
He could only nod, and then he said, "I haven't heard her voice for--" He thought. "Maybe seventeen. Yeah, it was 1980 last time we talked."
She looked at him seriously. "Chuck, you need to see a doctor."
"I've been to more therapists than Carters' got pills," he said. But Sharon shook her head.
"I didn't say a therapist. I said a doctor." At his puzzled expression, she said, "They have pills now that can help you. Antidepressants that really work. And you need some, Chuck."
He wiped his eyes, then smiled. "I guess maybe I do."
She wouldn't leave the lounge till he had made an appointment--and requested a substitute--for the following day.
Before she left, she told him, "Chuck, I want you to know that you can call me anytime. Day or night. Okay?"
She looked at him. "You know, Chuck, in the movie, Jenny just came back to use Forrest. She was dying and just wanted a father for her boy. Doesn't that matter?"
He shook his head. "No. Not a bit. It's only important that she came back. It doesn"t matter why."
He hadn't told her of that fall, after she left him, when she loved someone else and fucked him anyway.
"You still want this Carol back? Even after everything she did to you? Now that you know what she's really like?"
He looked at her with a small, sad smile. "Sharon? Do you pray?"
"You want to know what I pray?"
"I tell God that I'd trade all the rest of my life--every day that I have left--for just one hour in her arms, knowing she loves me again. And I mean it."
She stared at him. He thought she was about to say, "That's crazy," or some such thing.
What she said was, "My God. I wish somebody loved me like that."
The next day, Charlie went to see the doctor. He was given a questionnaire, and checked almost all of the symptoms: trouble sleeping, difficulty with routine tasks, obsessive thoughts, missed work, loss of interest in hobbies, thoughts of suicide, and all the rest.
The doctor looked it over, asked him a few questions, then wrote a prescription. "These will take a few days to start working, and a couple of weeks before you'll really feel a change," he said. "Stay with them anyway. But if you start feeling worse, I want you to call me immediately, all right?"
"Okay." He opened his mouth, then closed it.
"Something else?" asked the doctor.
"Don't you want to know what I'm depressed about?" asked Charlie.
The doctor shook his head. "You can tell me if you like," he said, "But it won't change anything. You probably ought to get into therapy too, but that medication needs to come first. It should help you get out from under the pain so the therapy can work. Give it a couple of weeks and see if whatever it is still bothers you."
It only took a few days, not weeks. He began to feel the darkness lifting right away.
He began to wake every morning without that oppressive sense of hopelessness he'd felt for so long. It no longer seemed like the labors of Hercules to brush his teeth, shave, make coffee and get dressed (on weekends he rarely got out of bed except to go to the bathroom and eat a cold meal or two).
He stopped getting drunk three or four nights a week. He didn't masturbate so much, and when he did, he enjoyed it more and felt no sense of loneliness or loss. He actually felt good, and optimistic, and enjoyed common little things again--a cheeseburger, a TV show, a book. He realized he had been dragging himself through life by sheer willpower alone for years and years.
And he found he could go whole days without thinking of Carol even once; and when he did, it didn't trouble him.
After a week or two, he dropped his guard and tried it. For the first time in many years, he sat down and deliberately tried to think about her, to explore what he felt instead of pushing the thoughts away.
Like a tongue cautiously probing a rotten tooth, he tentatively let his mind rest on a few small things that he remembered:
Carol sitting close to him in his car.
Watching "Mission: Impossible" with her in the basement of her dorm.
Meeting her in the Student Union for a Dr. Pepper.
He sat there in astonishment. They were just memories, and old ones at that. There was no pain.
He went farther:
Making out at the drive-in.
Holding her bare breasts in his hands.
That day at the beach, when she first posed naked for him there.
Fucking her as she whined, "Chahlie, I'm coming..."
They were sweet memories, sweet and hot, but that time was long over. Why had they hurt him so? They only made him smile now. He was lucky to have had her when he did.
He was amazed--but the really hard stuff remained to be tested.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes:
Calling her and hearing her say, "Hello?"--and then hang up.
Standing outside the door that would not open--and watching her shadow, of her walking away, on her curtains.
--"It was the best summer of mine! I met Larry!"
--"Hello, love!" Right in front of him.
Standing by his car, where she gave him one last, long, deep French kiss on that last weekend before Christmas before she left for home and Larry--and then watching her run away from him, back to her apartment, without looking back.
--"I have nothing to say."
He sat, and thought of more and more, and shed a tear--not from the pain, but because there was none.
He was free.
It was a college romance. They broke up. She never meant to hurt him; she was young and didn't know how to break it off. Nothing special.
Look how sweet and kind she was to him in later years. Look how she listened and tried to be his friend.
Look how big a fool he'd been to blame her and insult her, ten long years after the fact.
It had all been him, not her.
He thought about calling her, but decided he'd been enough of a pain in the ass over the years. Best to leave her alone.
He stood up. He felt taller.
Then he realized; He was. There was no weight on him now, had not been for days.
It was over.
A few days later, as he was walking back to class after his break, he abruptly stopped dead in his tracks.
As happens with dreams, he suddenly remembered he had had a Carol dream the night before. What's more, he had awakened remembering it.
But he had thought about it little, and then forgotten it until this moment.
A month ago, it would have sent him into a tailspin that would have kept him in the dark for weeks; Carol in bed beside him, her breasts bare, smiling and looking into his eyes. Today--it was just a dream, almost forgotten.
A Carol dream. Almost forgotten. He shook his head in wonder, and smiled to himself. He could hardly wait to tell Sharon. He had told her about the dreams.
Carol? Carol? She was just a girl he once knew.
He went on to class, and thought no more of it.
But later that day, he thought of the last time they had spoken, of the letter he had written and how wrong it had been. It had ended so ugly, he thought.
Not a call, he thought. No, he would not call her. But he would write her a letter, to apologize for everything and tell her what had happened with the pills. She deserved that much, to know he didn't ache for her any more.
She wouldn't answer--she never had, when he had written her over the years--but he would make this one effort to clear the air and part as friends, and then he would be done with it. He could finally forget about her and get on with his life.
He sat down to write.
He mailed the letter and forgot it, knowing he would get no answer. He was done.
More than a month later:
There was a single envelope in his mailbox. Business-sized, cream-colored. No return address. Junk mail, he thought--but his address was handwritten. He looked at it, and froze.
He had not seen that handwriting for twenty years or more, but he knew it like he knew his own. For a minute or two, he could not move.
He finally did, and took the letter inside before he opened it.
Charlie sat down at his kitchen table and slit the envelope open with his pocketknife. His hands were quivering, just a little.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He was over her. This meant nothing. It was a letter from an old friend, nothing more.
When he thought he was calm, he opened the envelope and looked inside.
Two pages! That was strange. Carol did not like to write, and kept her notes short and impersonal.
And this was even stranger: The letter was dated almost three weeks before. He looked at the postmark and thought for a moment. Sure enough, it looked as though she had written a reply not long after she received his letter, but not mailed it till a few days ago. He wondered why.
Well, maybe she just forgot to mail it. Not important.
He began to read.
"Does this mean you don't love me any more?"
He gaped at that first line, then laughed and read on.
"I'm so glad you found a reason and a cure. I think of you often, and always fondly."
She did not hate him, then. He smiled.
There followed some newsy small talk; her sons were both in college, her job was going well, and Larry had been ill but was doing better. There were details on all but that last.
At the end, a tiny shock:
"If you want to call, it would be better to call me at work than at home." A number followed. Then: "Please do call. I'd love to talk to you. It's been too long."
He put the letter down carefully, as if it might break. And then he just sat and stared into space for a while.
He would hear her voice again. Tomorrow.
He had trouble sleeping again that night, but not from depression.
He didn't know what he felt. The sensations were unfamiliar, and he had no words for them. He had once known what they were, he thought, but he had not felt them for so long he didn't recognize them.
Much later, he realized what they were:
Joy. And hope.
The next day, he called the number she had given him. This time, his hands were definitely shaking.
He was in the shop teacher's office, about as private as it gets in a middle school. He listen to the phone ringing. Once... Twice... He was going to get her voicemail, he just knew it.
That low, melodious voice had not changed a bit.
"Charlie! It's so good to hear from you!"
"It's so good to hear your voice again," he said, then winced and hit his forehead. He didn't want to sound like the lover carrying a torch.
But her next words rocked him, and he forgot about all that.
"I think about you all the time," she said, and her voice was low and intimate.
Oh, my God, he thought. What does that mean?
He had been prepared for coolness and caution on her part, or maybe for a kind of distant, condescending forgiveness.
But not for this.
He was winging it now. "I think about you all the time, too, Carol. But you knew that," he added with a chuckle, to take the edge off. He could always pass it off as a joke.
He wouldn't have to. "I'm glad," she said, her voice just as low and warm. He felt a stirring in his crotch.
He wanted to ask, "Why?" but didn't.
Small talk followed, catching up. What he was doing for a living now, how he liked it, the same for her. What kind of cars they drove. A TV show they both liked. He was divorced now.
"Are you?" She sounded pleased at that, instead of sympathetic. Another tiny bell rang in his head.
He made her laugh with stories from his classroom. She made him smile with her pride in her boys. They just visited, old friends--but there was an undercurrent with it; they were old lovers, too. They did not mention that, but it was there.
They made a date to talk again the next day. He told her when his off period was, and she promised to be waiting.
It didn't occur to him till after he hung up how strange that was. They were both so eager to reconnect. He knew why he was--but why was she?
He was so happy, he cancelled homework for the students in all his classes. He wanted them to be happy, too.
They talked again the next day, and then again three days after that. She could not talk on weekends, she said, and it would be better if he never called her at home.
"Oh?" he said, inquiringly. The question was obvious.
She was matter-of-fact, if a little embarrassed: "Larry doesn't like you much, Charlie. He wouldn't be pleased that we're back in touch. I don't keep secrets from my husband, but--well, you're special."
They hit on the idea of using voicemail. He could leave messages for her at her work, and she could leave messages for him at his school.
After they hung up, he felt a little drunk. Not only were they back in touch, she had given him a secret channel of communication, just for him.
He thought about what was happening. He thought of little else for the next two days. She left messages for him, and he for her. And he thought.
All that he had learned since going on the meds went out the window. Just a girl he had once loved?
This was Carol. He loved her. He had always loved her. He always would.
But there was no pain now. They were friends again, and that was more than he had ever dreamed was possible.
And he determined in his mind that that would be enough. Not because he willed it. It just was. To be her friend again, to have a place, however small, in her heart--that would be, it was, enough.
They spoke three or four times a week. They were rekindling an old friendship, but that undercurrent was still there. He wondered what was happening, and one day she told him.
"Charlie, I told you Larry's been sick. He still is. He had cancer, and he's had the surgery, but now he's on chemo and some other medications." She paused. "Charlie. He's not Larry any more."
"What do you mean?"
"He's distant. He doesn't feel anything. It's almost like--like--he's a stranger. And I'm a stranger to him." She paused, and when she spoke again, there was a quiver in he voice. "Charlie, I'm scared. And I--I'm lonely. I need a friend. I don't have many, and none that I can talk to like you."
"I'll be your friend, Carol. You know that."
"Any time. Day or night. Anything you need."
"I know. Thank you, Charlie. That's why I wrote back. I knew you'd be there for me. Even after--after everything."
"You were right. I always will be."
They spoke of other things, and soon he made her laugh again.
When she hung up that day, she didn't say "Goodbye." She said, "Love ya, man."
He meditated on it. Larry had cancer. He hoped--he really did--that he would be all right. It would be so hard on Carol if he died.
He pushed the thought away. He would not hope that. It wouldn't be right, and there was no guarantee she'd run to him anyway.
Sometimes she gave him updates on Larry's condition. But of his death, or the possibility of it, or what could happen then--they never spoke of that. Not once. It was there, lying on the table between them, but neither of them ever mentioned it.
And that, as it turned out, was just as well.
They continued to talk. One afternoon, he opened his heart to her. He feared it, but he could keep silent no longer.
He had heard that same warm and caring tone before, long ago.
"Carol, can I tell you something?"
"Is it something I already know?" He heard the gentle smile in her voice.
"I'm pretty sure. But I need to tell you something besides that, and then ask something of you."
"What is it that you already know, Carol? Tell me that first."
She spoke softly. "That you love me, Chahlie."
He heard it. And somehow he managed to go on. "Yes. I do."
"What else did you need to tell me and ask me?"
"I need to be able to talk about it, Carol. I know there's nothing you can do but listen. But I can't pretend I don't feel the way I do. I tried for years, and that didn't work out so well, did it?"
"I have to be able to tell you how I feel. I just have to. Can you accept that, and hear it, and can we still be friends with that between us?"
She spoke quietly. "I can take it if you can."
"Thank you." His voice almost cracked. He didn't think she heard it.
"Tell me now," she said then.
"Tell me how you feel about me. I want to hear it."
"Yes. Just tell me, Charlie."
So he did. He told her. He told her as much as he could bear--not about the pain of losing her, but about how he needed her in his life, needed to feel a connection with her, needed to touch her heart.
"Carol, when you won't speak to me, I don't exist. Nothing matters. Just knowing that you care again, just being your friend again these last few weeks--it's meant the world to me. The pain is gone now, Carol, but--but God, I need you. I need you in my life so much."
"Do you have no one, Charlie? You haven't mentioned if you've dated since your divorce."
"There's no one I want, Carol. I've been out with women once or twice, but three's a crowd."
"You're always there, between us."
"Oh, Chahlie--I'm so sorry. I never meant to do that to you."
"I know. It's not your fault. You can't help being what you are."
"And what is that?"
"The only woman I'll ever love." He paused. "I learned what passion is, loving you, Carol. In all these years, it's never left me. I still feel the same about you as I did when we first started dating."
"That's very strange."
"It is. But it's true." then he told her what he had told Sharon, of his prayer.
"For just one hour, Carol."
"Chahlie... I don't know what to say. I've never heard of anything like that."
There was a small silence then. Finally, she said, "I'm sorry I can't be with you, Chahlie. I really am. I'm sorry I've brought you so much pain."
"You were worth it. You still are. Just be my friend and let me love you, and the pain will be gone."
"Okay. If you say so."
A day came when they talked about meeting.
"Charlie, there's a real-estate conference in ----- in a few weeks. I can get away for three whole days. Can you meet me there?"
"Can I? Lemme see what's on my schedule--hmmm, no earthquakes, the Lord's not coming back, the world's not ending, I haven't broken both my legs or lost my mind--I could work around those anyway--" She was laughing happily. "Oh, I'll be there, Carol. Wild horses, alla that. Just tell me where and when."
She did. And then she sounded vaguely guilty. "Charlie--I've never done anything like this before--I don't--"
He interrupted her. "Relax, Carol. I don't want to have an affair with you."
She sighed in relief. "I didn't think you did. I knew you understood. But--"
"I just want to see you, Carol. But I will ask one thing."
"When I see you--will you let me hold you for a little while? Just hold you?"
Very softly: "I can do that."
His anticipation mounted. So did hers. They agreed to meet at a mall not far from the convention center, where she would sign in and leave.
He bought a new suit. He had been working out for months, knowing this day would come, and he had lost weight. He was ready.
He drove there all but vibrating with anticipation, checked into his hotel, and then went to the mall a half-hour early, carrying a single red rose.
And she was already there.
He saw her looking in a store window near the place where they had agreed to meet, and he just watched her for a moment.
Carol wore a modest business suit, knee-length, and stood with her feet primly together--a little pigeon-toed, like a child. Charlie smiled.
She was a little thicker at the waist, but only a little; the swell of her breasts was, if anything, greater, and her bottom protruded a little more, but fetchingly. Her hair was cut shorter, shoulder-length. Her hands were clasped modestly in front of her, holding her purse.
She still looked like an angel.
He walked up near her and just stood there. It was only a few seconds before she saw his reflection in the glass.
She turned. "Hello, Charlie," she said. Her smile was like sunrise.
"Hello, Carol." He stepped forward, and she gave him a quick, cautious hug and kissed his cheek. They looked at each other.
They were both 47 now, not 20. Charlie knew his face had aged, and his hair was graying, through he still had all of it; but Carol's face seemed hardly touched by the passing of the years. She had no lines around her mouth or eyes, no sign of worry or sadness; her life had been happier than his.
There was only a little softness around her jawline and her chin, and a tiny touch of gray in her hair. He was pleased to see she did not dye it. She looked 30, not 47. He handed her the rose.
"How pretty! Thank you, Charlie!"
"Have you had dinner?"
They took his car and left hers at the mall.
Once in his car, she moved near him. He was surprised. He turned to look at her, and she was very near, close beside him. Her head was lifted toward him, her face upturned, and when he leaned toward her, she closed her eyes and opened her mouth just a fraction.
My God, he thought. She wants me to kiss her. Carol, my Carol, wants me to kiss her again....
He did. It was a chaste and proper kiss, mouths closed, but sweet and unhurried--and he sensed that he could have had more. Not yet, he thought. He marveled at how familiar her lips were to his mouth, even after so long.
They drove to a nearby restaurant--Mexican food, a favorite for both--and spoke little beyond, "It's so good to see you" and "How are you?" on the way there. Conversation, they knew, would come more easily at the restaurant.
And it did. After they ordered, they looked at each other across the table. They had chosen a booth, where they could face each other and still be close.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," she said. "I tell my husband everything."
He smiled and said, "You're not doing anything wrong."
"I know. I'm not ashamed, but it would bother him."
"Let me see your hands."
Puzzled, she held them out. He took them in his own and looked at them a moment; then he turned them palm up and looked at them a little longer. He shook his head in wonder.
"What?" she asked.
"I remember your hands, Carol. They're just like I remember. Exactly."
"Really?" She looked at him with a touch of wonder in her own eyes.
"Yes." He looked up. "And your smile--and those sparkling eyes."
She showed him both, and coyly asked, "And do you remember the rest of me?" She giggled. "I'm sorry. I couldn't help asking."
He gave her a small smile. "Oh, yes," he said. "But I try not to think about the rest of you, Carol. That makes it hard on me." Then he grinned. "No pun intended."
She had looked stricken for a second, but at that she laughed.
They talked of the past, but carefully. The food was served, and they talked as they ate. Of Ken's Pizza and the Sonic, of the Student Union and the Arena Theater, of their favorite bookstore--they shared a passion for reading--and of long nights studying together. Finally, Carol asked quietly, "You know what I remember most?"
Charlie smiled. "Same as me, I'll bet."
He nodded. "I can't think about that either, Carol. I just can't. It hurts too much."
"Then you don't think about the Park, or the Holiday Inn either," she said, just as quietly, "or your apartment."
He closed his eyes and said nothing.
She covered his hand with her own. "I'm sorry, Charlie," she said. "I shouldn't have said that."
His eyes remained closed, but he took her hand and squeezed it. "It's all right, Carol," he said, his voice a little husky. Then he looked at at her. "Just don't mention that again, all right?"
"I won't. I'm sorry."
"You can't imagine--never mind. Let's talk about something else."
"How do you like being a teacher?" she asked.
He smiled at her gratefully. "I like it," he said....
They talked and laughed and grew more comfortable throughout the meal, and after. Finally, they sat there with their empty coffee cups between them and smiled at each other. "What now?" asked Charlie.
"There's a place I want to take you," she said. "Let's go."
She directed him to a parking lot near a small shopping mall. He looked the question at her, and she smiled and opened her door. "Come on," she said. "You have to see it.".
They walked together toward the building. He could never find it, forever after; but he remembered it.
They passed through a series of arches, and emerged into a wonderland.. A still canal that reflected the torchlights that stood at intervals along it. The silent, darkened shops reflected them too. They were surrounded by mystic light and still water. It was beautiful--and in the golden light, so was she.
They walked beside the water and talked in low tones, often whispering. He held her hand in his as they strolled along the bank.
He learned that Larry was afraid for long that she'd go back to him. That made him stop and look at her. "Really?"
"He said he was always afraid I'd go to the bus station and leave him and go back to you, Charlie."
"But you had a car."
She smiled. "I know. But that's what he always saw, he said."
That made Charlie feel strangely warmed. Gary had been jealous and fearful of HIM...
He could not keep his eyes off her. "I can't believe you're really here," he said, and more than once. The fourth or fifth time he said it, she came close and kissed him, and held it.
His mouth opened, just a bit; but hers opened more, and then they were kissing as they used to, long before. His arms went around her without conscious thought, and she embraced him as well.
It felt the same, he thought. Her mouth--it felt, and tasted, the same. After almost thirty years--it was the same. And it was beyond wonderful. It was a miracle.
"Believe it now?" she asked.
All he could do was kiss her again.
He drove her to his hotel, and neither spoke. She was snuggled up beside him as she had when they were kids. There was no lump in his throat this time.
As they pulled into the parking lot, she suddenly said, "Charlie, I can't do this. There's nothing up there but a bed--"
"I sprang for a suite, Carol. There are two couches, and a table with chairs. We'll get coffee and we'll talk, that's all." He squeezed her shoulders and she looked at him. He smiled reassuringly. "Carol. It's me. Charlie. When did I ever give you anything you didn't want?"
She smiled back and relaxed. "Never," she said. "You're right. I'm being silly. Let's go."
They decided on Pepsis instead of coffee. They sat at the table, then side by side on the sofa, with the bed in sight at the other end of the room. They chatted for a while, and it became more and more obvious that they were both just stalling.
Finally, there came a small silence, when they had run out of small talk. They looked at each other, and they smiled.
"I believe you made me a promise, Carol," said Charlie softly. He held up a hand with one finger pointing downward, and moved it in small circles.
She smiled at that, and stood, and turned around. She knelt on the couch beside him, then leaned to her right and into his arms.
She rested her head on his shoulder, and he held her close. Just held her, his arms squeezing her a little from time to time, his hands shifting on her back as if to make sure that she was really there.
She snuggled into his chest--and felt a drop of moisture on her neck. She leaned back. His face was wet, but he was smiling.
"Charlie, are you all right? Maybe we'd better not--"
He shook his head quickly. "No, please. Please, Carol. I haven't been this happy since--" He stopped. "You still fit my arms. No one else has ever fit my arms like you."
She nodded and snuggled close again. "It feels the same," she agreed. He bent his head to kiss her cheek. She turned her head and took his second kiss on her mouth.
The third, in her mouth...
Their tongues knew each other well. "That feels the same, too," he whispered between kisses.
After a while their mouths parted. "Let's go get comfortable," she whispered, nodding at the bed.
"Are you sure?" he whispered back.
"Only because it's you."
They took the few steps there hand in hand. Carol stopped to slip her shoes off, and sat down on the bed--
And Charlie breathed, "Oh, Carol," and knelt beside her. He lifted one bare foot and held it reverently. "Your feet..."
She smiled. "I forgot how much you liked my feet," she said.
He held her foot in both hands, stroking it and gazing at it. "So pretty. I loved your feet." He looked up. "I still do." He kissed her lightly on the instep, and then the other. Then he sat down on the bed beside her. "I still can't believe it's really you, Carol. That you're really here, that I'm really here with you."
"Let me prove it to you again."
They lay down together, and their mouths sought each other. They whispered and touched each other's faces; they clasped hands, and Charlie kissed her fingers, one by one.
Carol smiled and brought his hand to her mouth--and one by one, she sucked his fingers into her mouth and licked them, smiling at him seductively the whole time. He gaped at her like she had sprouted wings or turned to smoke. Finally she kissed his thumb and giggled. "I'm sorry. That was mean," she said.
He pulled her close and kissed her, deeply. "Be mean to me some more," he said.
Their hands roamed each other's bodies. He put a hand on her breast. He did not ask if she minded. She left it there.
He squeezed her breasts, gently, and she gasped. Her hand sought out his crotch, and squeezed his aching erection. She held it--then massaged his dickhead, her hand moving in subtle circles as she pressed it into him with her palm.
"That feels the same, too," he murmured.
"Sure does," she breathed. "You're just as big as I remember." She squeezed him again, and he shivered.
"Do that again," he said, and I'm going to have to change."
She giggled and did just that, and kept on squeezing till he pulled her hand away. He was sweating. "I mean it, Carol," he said. "Please stop."
She looked at him. Why? her expression clearly said.
"It's overwhelming me to be so close to you, to hold and and-and kiss you--and touch you," he explained. His eyes were moist again. "I can't take that. It's just too much. It brings back--"
"The things you can't think about," she whispered, understanding. "I'm sorry, Charlie. You're right. I'm teasing you, and that's cruel."
He wiped his eyes and smiled. He had remembered something. "Let me show you what it feels like," he said, and began to unbutton the top of her blouse.
"What are you--wait--"
He stopped at two. "That's all," he said. "I just have to get at your neck."
He pulled the top of her blouse to the side, exposing her creamy-white skin from her shoulder to her throat; her skin, he thought. As he bent his head to kiss the secret spot above her collarbone, she lifted her chin for it, though she barely knew she did. Her body remembered things her mind had forgotten.
He kissed her there, and she gasped and sighed. He kissed her harder and sucked at that spot, and she hissed; he drilled it with his tongue, and she whimpered and began to writhe under him. He massaged and squeezed her breast as he licked and sucked at her secret, magic button, and she was soon breathing hard, her hips pumping unconsciously.
Finally he lifted his head and looked down at her. Her lovely face was even lovelier, flushed and rosy-cheeked and soft with passion. He had never loved her more.
"See what I mean?" he said with a smile.
"Oh, yes," she gasped. "No more, Chahlie. No more. I can't feel this way with you."
He rolled back on his side and took her in his arms. They kissed, passionately, clinging to each other and making small sounds of lust as their tongues tried to express what their bodies could not.
Soon, they had calmed down a bit, and kissed less desperately, just holding and stroking each other gently, affectionately.
"We're playing with fire," she whispered.
"Yes. But I've been so cold for so long, Carol. Please be mean to me some more and keep me warm."
He looked at his watch. "But not tonight. You need to get back."
She made a small mewing sound of protest, but sat up. He was right. She had to get back to her own hotel in case Larry called.
As they straightened their clothes and brushed their hair, Carol asked, "Are you going to be all right, Charlie?"
"Of course," he asked, surprised. "What do you mean?"
"You've been--a little weepy," she said.
"I know. You don't like it when I cry. But this is different, Carol. I'm not crying because you're gone. I'm crying because you're back." Then he gave her a wry grin. "And I'm nor crying anyway. I've just gotten a little teary-eyed."
She looked at him doubtfully. "Okay," she said. "But if I'm making it too hard on you--"
"No pun intended," he said.
"No pun intended," she laughed. "Really, if this is too--difficult--we don't have to meet tomorrow."
He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Carol," he said.
"Yes?" she looked at him innocently, wide-eyed. How strange it is, he thought, that she still doesn't understand what she means to me.
"Today has been the happiest day of my life. I feel like I'm alive again. If you don't meet me tomorrow, then tomorrow will be the worst day of my life. And I've had some very bad ones. Do you understand?"
"I-I think so," she said. Her eyes were so green. "Are you quite sure? You know we have limits...."
He nodded. "I told you, Carol. Holding you is enough. You've given me much more than that--and I'm grateful.
"It's me, Carol. Charlie. I'll never do anything you don't want, and you have no idea what I'd do to keep your friendship now that I have it again."
He gave her a crooked smile. "Not fucking you is easy."
She gasped and reddened, then laughed and laughed. After a moment, she asked, "Is it all right for me to say I wish you could?"
He hugged her. "Very much, my love. Very much all right."
They drove back to her hotel in comfortable silence, with Carol snuggled up to his side like they were teenagers again. He pulled up to the front entrance to drop her off, and she kissed him lightly on the lips before she got out--then looked around furtively, and kissed him longer. "Pick me up at nine-thirty. The Botanical Gardens open at ten," she said.
"I'll be here."
"Are you sure you'll be all right? Are you going to be able to sleep?" She looked at him with concern.
He grinned. "Carol, I'm going to go back, get undressed, and--um--how shall I put this--'meditate' on the events of the evening." He gave her another crooked smile. "I feel sure I'll sleep like a baby afterward."
She giggled and looked at him, then leaned forward and whispered, "So am I." Then she smirked and said, "And I'll be naked, Charlie. Meditate on that."
Then she gasped and looked stricken. "I'm sorry. Was that mean? Did I hurt you?"
He looked at her sternly. "Yes, that was very mean." She blinked at him, dismayed, and then he grinned. "And no, it didn't hurt me. Um--could you be a little meaner, do you think?"
She giggled again and leaned forward, eyes sparkling wickedly. "I'll be doing it in the shower, all covered with nothing but soap," she whispered, "and then I'm going to go to bed naked and do it again."
He closed his eyes. "Oh, my God," he breathed. "Okay, that's mean enough. I may have to meditate right here."
They laughed, and she kissed him again. "See you in the morning," she said through the car window.
"If I can get back to the hotel without hitting anything," he said.
She laughed, "Be careful," and they parted.
It was the first time he had masturbated to thoughts of Carol in many years. He came like a fire hose--in the shower. Then he went to bed naked and did it again.
And then he cried himself to sleep. The last words he spoke before drifting off were, "I meant what I said, God. I've had my hour. Take my life when you're ready. But please...
"Just not tonight..."
The next day was perfection. They spent it together; first walking in the gardens, where they strolled amung the flowers and kissed on an arched bridge. A pair of old ladies who were watching told them they were "a pretty couple" afterward.
They had a light lunch, then went to a bookstore. They walked up and down the aisles and looked at books, idly picking them up and putting them back, occasionally showing them to each other, but soon they were looking at each other and smiling, then laughing.
"I haven't paid attention to anything I've looked at since we got here," he finally admitted.
"Neither have I," she said. "What do you want to do?"
"What do YOU want to do?" he asked.
She took his hand. "Well... I need to get back earlier tonight, because Larry called last night before I got back and I had to convince him I was at a movie."
"So I want to go back to your hotel," she said, "and make out for the rest of the day."
"Gee, I dunno," he teased. "That movie we were going to see sounds pretty good..."
She slapped his shoulder, laughing, and they left.
It was more of the same, though they went a little farther. They remained fully dressed, and by turns held each other quietly and murmured of dreams and memories to each other--but they also fiercely kissed and groped each other like they were naked. Carol was wearing jeans, and spread her legs wide so Charlie could lie between them and grind his erection into her denim-covered pussy mound as she hunched back at him. He kissed and nuzzled her big breasts through her clothes, and she held his ass with both hands and whimpered, "Oh, yes...Oh, yes..."
It was frustrating, but fun. They kept each other halfway to orgasm for hours, and flirted with three-fourths.
By mutual, unspoken consent, they began to dial back their passion as the sky began to darken. By seven o'clock, they were simply holding each other and kissing quietly again.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you too," she whispered, but looked troubled.
Charlie saw. "It's all right, Carol," he said. "You're not making me any promises. I know that."
She looked at him. "Do you?"
He pulled her to him. "I know you'll never leave him," he whispered in her ear. He held her close so she couldn't see his face.
"Thank you, Chahlie," she whispered. "I do love you. You always give me what I need."
He kissed her and sat up. "Dinner before you go? We can get room service."
She smiled. "That would be perfect." Then she added, "Just like you."
He looked at her blankly. "What?"
"You are," she said, her eyes soft as she lay there on the bed and looked at him. "You give me what I need, and you don't ask for anything, and you understand--everything. I do love you, Chahlie. I really do."
He lay down again. "I would do anything for you," he said. "Anything at all."
"Love me," she said.
He smiled. "Till they put me in the ground, Carol."
They had dinner in his room--complete with candles--and then he drove her back.
"When will I see you tomorrow?" he asked. "Can I come and pick you up?"
She shook her head. "No, I'll drive over," she said. "I'll be going home from here. I only have till noon or so, and I want to spend as much time with you as possible."
"When will you be here?" he asked.
She smiled. "Early," she said. "Let me surprise you."
It was only a little past seven o'clock when she knocked. He padded to the door barefoot, wrapped in the hotel robe. Beneath it, he wore nothing.
He opened the door with a smile--and then his eyes widened.
Carol had her hair tied back in a ponytail, and was wearing maroon cutoffs and a matching sweatshirt. She was barefoot. She looked like a plump and curvy teenager. Her pale, beautiful legs seemed almost to glow in the still-dim hallway. Beside her on the floor were her bags.
"Well? May I come in?" she asked, with a knowing smile.
He blinked. "Uh. Uh, yeah. Sure. Here, let me get those." He picked up her bags and carried them inside.
She followed, and he closed the door behind her.
"Wait," Carol said. She opened the door, hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the knob, then closed and locked it again. She swung the emergency lock into place, too. "Can't have too much privacy," she said with a smile, then opened her arms.
He hugged her--and gasped. He stroked he back and squeezed her, then leaned back and smiled at her. "You naughty thing," he said.
She giggled. "Just like old times."
She was not wearing a bra.
He looked down at her cutoffs. They were shorter than he remembered.
"Nope. Nothing there either," she said.
He looked at her and actually shivered. He remembered; she meant she was wearing no panties, either, and he was even more shocked than he had been on that night so long ago.
He looked at her sidewise. "Okay," he said, "what's going on?"
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