The sunset was turning from pink to purple as you lured her with the promise of a smoke onto the back porch of your fraternity house. Then you sang to her—green eyes you’re the one that I wanted to find—the Coldplay song that was popular that year. You saw her cute dimples and heard the bass thumping from inside as you leaned in. She smelled like patchouli and you made fun of President Dubya—redneck said that his enemies have ‘misunderestimated’ him. Escorting her back to her freshman dorm, she kissed you under a streetlight with the stars twinkling above. You had just figured out that you had grown up only twenty miles apart.
You will daydream of seeing her at your book signing. You will not have written a dark tale of lust, betrayal, and woe—nothing to do with suicide. It will be a flirty paperback about light, lovely things, almost cliché, like good smells and first kisses and love written in the stars. You will be at her favorite bookstore, the one she takes her kids every Saturday morning while her husband golfs or something stupid like that. She will learn that you are the Featured Author only upon walking inside. The ring of bell on the door, the smell of patchouli, and you—sitting there in a metal folding chair, stacks of your autographed books for sale. You will not rise to your feet. You will keep the table full of books between you. Flashing your most gracious smile, you will say something like you do not write for children, but you do like to be around them. Especially the cute ones, you will add. Then her two daughters will both smile at you and the elder will have a gap between her front teeth. You have a window in your mouth, you imagine yourself saying. You can see yourself smiling.
You bought her pizza, weed, and the occasional fancy dinner. You cleaned your plate whenever her Mama cooked and made buds with her Stepdaddy over beers. And there was her kid half-brother. You two ate ice cream straight out of a gallon bucket, passing a big wooden cooking spoon back and forth on the living room couch while she flashed her cute dimples from the kitchen. Her maternal grandparents rescued and boarded dogs, upwards of two dozen at a time—that is a lot of feckin’ dogs, you’d said once and she had kissed you hard. They voted for Dubya, twice, and lived out in the sticks, as you called it. But you were only expected to see them and their barking colony once around the holidays. They might not even come to your wedding, you hoped.
After college, you were living in a house owned by an older fraternity brother, a guy who first took you under his wing when you were a skinny scared freshman on Acutane for the zits splayed across your cheeks. You already knew how to chug cheap beer; he taught you to sip whiskey and play guitar—all the acoustic favorites like Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and anything by Dave Matthews that you could hack. You could still recapture a little of that magic out on his back porch. You no longer smoked but there were fireflies dancing in the dark and sometimes it felt like everything was going to be fine. Better than fine because I love you, you always said. You were going to give her The Ring until you walked in and she was on top of him in his bed.
You were waiting tables, awash in the ebb and flow of couples, their little ones in tow. Most nights you scooped up plastic cups from the floor and made funny faces. Kids smiled back at you. That one night was slow and you had left early, thinking you would surprise her. She was waiting for you, she said. He was supposed to be out of town on business. Driving home, you had a sacred vision—you were so sure of it—of a cute bungalow with pink tricycles in the green yard, and you standing there, your briefcase in hand with two giggling daughters around your knees, and her smiling from the doorway in the way of that pretty wife you had watched in the restaurant who had the same dimples.
But before that, there had been a cold night between Thanksgiving and Christmas when she had wanted you to drive her to the grandparents. You resisted at first. You were dog tired. You had been working extra shifts to make payments on The Ring. You wanted to go home and you wanted her to want you. But you went because I love you. That night a fluffy fleabag, as mean as it was small, darted from the writhing wiggling mass of fur coats under the table and bit you on your exposed ankle! You were mid-sip of your burnt coffee, which you spewed black down the front of your best white-collared shirt and then cursed a blue streak, bringing her Grandpa out of his chair hollering Now, see here! When you are under my roof, I’ll have you control your tongue. Rising to your feet, you fired back someone should control that damn dog! Then it was snowing, you were limping, yet she was still trailing behind all the way to your car. While pulling away slow and easy on the clutch, you had tried to make a joke out of the whole damn thing. The windshield wipers whisked away the powdery snow and the thought came suddenly that you would remember this deep silence and how the distance to her sitting shotgun felt like twenty miles.
At your Featured Author Book Signing, you would have given her an autographed copy. Best wishes for the future, you would graciously write. She would have tried to pay you, fumbling in her purse for a twenty. But you would shrug it off. For free, you would wink. And she would blush as she mumbled a hasty good-bye, stuffing your book in her pocketbook, gathering her girls like a mother hen. By this point, there would be dozens of fans in line, each one waiting for you. But you would stop mid-autograph so you could watch her leave, kids in tow, the door chime ringing, and you would imagine that she would wait until husband and daughters were in bed and then sneak down to the kitchen table where she would read your two hundred and fifty-six pages cover to cover in one sitting. She would close the book with a thump as the rising sun burned the purple sky to pink and suddenly crave a cigarette although it had been ten years since the last one.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is a father of two boys and lives in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. He serves as pastor of New Dublin Presbyterian Church, a congregation founded in 1769. He has authored three books with Wipf and Stock Publishers, most recently a novella titled Earning Innocence.