Word count, start of day -- 47,400
What kind of a heel was I? I'll tell you what kind of heel I am. My wife has been dead a month and I miss my girlfriend more. What a low-life.
I had to model responsible grief for my daughter. It was far too soon to appear to have moved on, despite the fact that I had moved on before her death. A month ago I was ready to leave Gwen for Annie, but now that Gwen's gone I can't bring myself to even call Annie. Somehow, that would be inappropriate. Just tell me the rules, someone, and I will be glad to follow them. Just tell me the rules, that's all I ask.
But I also knew I had to model acceptance for Natalie, to lead her past her grief and back into joy. She was resilient, and always had been. It was my greatest hope that this would not be more than she could handle. I wanted her to find her sense of joy and hope and wonder again. But I had to find mine first. I had hoped to with Annie. But I wasn't ready yet. And I wasn't even ready to tell her that I wasn't ready yet.
I did not originally intent to not speak with Annie. That part had just happened. Between making arrangements, family coming in, the service, taking care Natalie, I could not find time to call her. I had no idea what to say to her, anyway. I got the card from the Center, and I was all ready to call and thank her, until I noticed that she had not signed it. A few days passed without contact and it seemed that every day that passed made it harder and harder to pick up that phone.
Not that my feelings for Annie had changed. Far from it.
Once I got back into a routine, she occupied my thoughts constantly. Memories of past events that we had shared, memories of future plans I had only imagined. But I was paralyzed. First it had been with grief, not it was with fear.
Maybe it's a good thing we did not have sex. The acts that we performed on each other may not forge the same bond between souls that intercourse does. Not having crossed that bridge, maybe there was no bridge that connected us at all.
But I could not believe that. I could not believe that the only thing we had in common is that we were married folks screwing around. Maybe the fact that I no longer shared her status as cheating spouse changed some dynamic between us. No, that couldn't be it. Of course, it was true that she had always been the leader of this relationship, always the strong one. She got out of her marriage the hard way, and maybe I had gotten out of mine the easy way. I never had to prove my strength by leaving. Maybe she thought I had gotten off easily.
I knew that I would see her again. She still worked at Canterbury, and Canterbury was still my main client. There were no more classes scheduled for me to teach, but I would certainly be out there for the audit and the M & A work. And I would see her then. But I really did not want that first encounter to be forced, or to be in a setting where we could not talk. I just wanted to see her by accident. Really on accident, not a planned meeting disguised as an accident.
I wanted it to be casual. I wanted it to be natural. I wanted it to be like it was before.
My breath caught in my throat. My heart came this close to stopping altogether.
It was probably more than a hundred but I knew it was Brian. Not just any old dad and any old daughter. They were at seventy feet. I recognized them both and then I was sure. Look away, Annie, look away. They were at forty feet. Find Erin and keep both eyes on her. He has to be the one to make the first move. Don't even look up. Don't make any kind of eye contact at all. Sit still. Don't-
"Hey," I heard his light voice dance softly in my ear as he took a seat on the same bench I was on. He was at the other end of the bench, but it was the same bench.
I kept my eyes straight ahead, eyeing the jungle gym and the swing set. "Hey," I answered, trying hard to match his exact tone.
"Erin looks good," he said sweetly. "She is really growing tall."
It was true. Whether it was just idle conversation between parents or whether he actually noticed that she had shot up three or four inches, I did not know. But it was true, and it softened my heart. "Yes, she is. She is doing real well. And how's Natalie?"
He paused. Maybe it was too deep a question for him. "She's doing fine, I think. You know, as fine as a girl can do." Then he turned it around on me. "How are you?"
I felt like he had scooched closer to me on the bench, but I was still looking ahead, straight ahead. "I'm okay, We are doing fine," I answered in an honest conversational tone. I wanted this so much to go well, but he had a part to play in it, too.
"Annie," he said in a cracking voice," I am just so sorry about-"
I turned and he was there right next to me, and I threw my arms around him. He had passed my test. I admit that it was a stupid test, but at least it was my stupid test. And Brian X. Norton has passed my stupid little test.
We broke the embrace and just sat there together. We were on the seat, inches apart from each other. He pointed over to the sandbox. "They seem to remember each other," he said. Erin was working with Natalie on an intricate sand project. We both turned towards each other and he lightly touched my cheek. "Do you remember?"
I nodded, then burst into tears. Tears of sorrow for the time we had lost. Tears of sympathy for his and Natalie's loss. Tears of joy to be with him again. I looked at him and this time I was the one who needed to apologize. He cut me off just as I had cut him off.
"Not today, Annie, not today. All of that stuff we can talk about later, some other day. Let's just, wait, hold on, check this out." He pointed across the little park.
Natalie was jogging our direction, Erin just a step behind her. Neither looked very stable as they ran, but they made it to our bench without incident.
"Dad," Natalie said to Brian, "This is that girl we know. My friend, do you remember? Look, dad, it's my friend." She stopped and turned to Erin. "What's your name?"
I caught my laugh before it came out. It was never good to laugh at your children when they were not trying to be funny. Erin spoke her name clearly and slowly to her new friend.
"I know, Natalie, this is my friend here." He then made introductions all the way around. The girls asked if they could keep playing with each other.
"It's two o'clock. It's a Saturday. Play as long as you want to." I saw nod to Natalie. The girls headed out to the swing sets.
He turned to me and put an arm around me. I leaned into him and he pulled me even closer. "I know we have a lot to talk about. It's serious stuff, no kids around kind of stuff." He looked at me and I nodded. "But today, can we just watch our kids play?"
I nodded. That was just fine with me, too.
It was a great afternoon. We watched our kids play. We put our arms around each other some. We covertly held hands. We were together, just together. There was work for us to do. There were conversations for us to have. There were decisions we had to make. But right then, right there, it was good to just be with him again.