After our moment in the kitchen that afternoon things seemed slightly changed. Maybe we had a new respect for each other, or perhaps that heart to heart conversation took us from complete stranger to new friend. Either way, I did feel a little more comfortable around her. It’s a scary thing to feel exposed to someone you just met. My deepest sadness had been revealed to her, and maybe in a small way she had revealed her own. Feeling a need to get out of the kitchen, and indeed the house for a while, we decided to take a walk in the orchard. We could have wished to be alone and retired to our rooms, but suddenly I was very aware that I didn’t want to bear my burden alone anymore. I realized then we all needed someone to talk to. Bottling things up inside would just destroy a person from within. And even if you knew you wouldn’t have that person to talk to forever, you still needed them now.
“Thanks for everything, Summer,” I said, as we walked amongst the trees.
“Thanks for what?”
“For trying to get me out of my shell.”
“I didn’t do anything, Matthew. You needed to let some things out and I was there.”
“Yeah, but I feel like ever since you showed up you have been trying to get me to relax and…I don’t know…be a little more like you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want you to be like me. I probably wouldn’t like you too much if you were.” She laughed. “I like you the way you are. You are an interesting guy. It’s been a long time since I met a guy I want to know more about.”
“I’m not that interesting. I’m just a forty-five year old has-been. Or never-was.”
“Don’t put yourself down so,” she chided. “You act like you’re so old life is over.”
“Some days I feel like it.”
“Well, forty-five ain’t old.”
I shrugged. “If you say so.” I noticed she wasn’t telling me how old she was. Maybe she wanted to keep that barrier between us. If that was the case, I wasn’t too bothered by it. I mean, just because we had become new friends didn’t mean anything beyond that. She might have found me interesting, but surely not that interesting.
“So what do you do, Matthew?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean do you travel all the time staying in old farmhouses or do you have a real job?”
I laughed. “Well, I guess I’m a writer.”
“I had a book out. It didn’t do too good. My publisher decided to pass on anything else I’d written.”
“What else had you written?”
“As a younger man I tried my hand at being a music writer.”
Her face lit up. “I knew it! You’re a music nerd. “
“Yeah, but a very boring one. I didn’t have anything bad to say about the bands or albums I reviewed. I loved the music too much to be critical about it. I covered the Southern Rock scene for a fairly decent magazine. Unfortunately, by the time the time the 80’s hit the southern rock scene was dead, so I was a bit too late.”
“I was a bit too late too,” she said. “I was born in the 80’s.”
There it was. A woman never says exactly how old she is, but she always finds a way to hint at it. And her hint made me feel incredibly old. She must have realized this because she let out a long sigh. “Okay, stop guessing in your head because you’ll get it wrong. I’m twenty-nine.”
“It’s okay, I wasn’t guessing.”
“Yes you were. I think part of what make you so nervous around me is the age difference. You think I’m so young, and that you’re so old.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Fibber. I’ve seen it in the way you treat me. I say things and you give me that look as if you aren’t sure what’s appropriate to say. Like today, I know you wanted to say I looked nice when I came home. But you didn’t because you were afraid of what I might say or think. But let me tell you something, a secret if you will. A girl likes to be told she looks nice. “
I didn’t know how to respond. She was right of course. I felt like there were boundaries to keep, and that if I crossed them, even innocently, they would be construed as something bad. So I had tried to keep things casual and simple, while she had been trying to get me to relax and just be free. In that way I guess we clashed. In that way perhaps the age difference did show. But walking with her now in the orchard on a sunny afternoon I did find myself relaxing. So much so, I wanted to reach for her hand. But still I felt I shouldn’t. This wasn’t what she wanted. Just because a person thinks you’re interesting or wants to be your friend doesn’t mean they want to be touched. Even though I knew I needed someone for emotional support, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be touched either, even if it was something as simple as holding hands. I lived in a world where people put up fences around themselves, cutting everyone off from each other, and if you let someone inside your fence it changed everything in your relationship with that person. So Summer stepped inside my fence and took my hand. If I was feeling I shouldn’t reach for hers, maybe she felt it was up to her to take the initiative or it would never happen.
Walking hand in hand through the orchard was nice. I can’t properly describe how it made me feel, her soft warm hand in my own. It had been so long since I had held someone’s hand like this; I’m not sure what it meant. Ashley was never much for holding hands, nor any public displays of affection, unless she was trying to assert her place as my girl, and then only at the beginning of our relationship. In the later years I felt it was mostly show and rarely genuine affection that made her reach for me, unless it was in private and relegated to the bedroom.
“What ya thinkin?” Summer asked, noticing my mind had wandered off somewhere.
I squeezed her hand. “I was just thinking about how nice this is. Walking with you.”
She smiled, and it was like a ray of sunshine. “I like it, too.” She started swinging her arm and we walked on like two teenagers innocently clutching hands. “I kind of had a rough morning,” she added.
“What do you mean? What happened?”
“”I thought I was ready to see someone today.”
“If you came here to get away from someone, well, I guess I came to find somebody.”
“Does this guy have a name?”
She looked down at the ground. “Yeah, I’m just not sure what it is. He changed it since the last time I saw him.”
“Did you find him?”
“I thought so…but it wasn’t him. It made me think I’m really not ready for this, and I should just go home.”
“Is he like my Ashley?”
“Yeah, he is in a way. I mean, she ruined you for other people, and he ruined me in a similar way. Because of him I can’t hold a relationship for long, I can’t trust anybody, can’t even say I love you without breaking down crying, which tends to freak the guys out.” She shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“Maybe you want to trust me,” I answered. “I trusted you with my…hurt.”
She smiled. “Yes you did.”
We walked on in silence for a while. I got the impression she was deciding what to say, or possibly how much of her pain she wanted to reveal.
“My mother died two months ago,” she finally said. “She was a brave woman. All my life I remember her facing down every bad thing that happened to her like she was some kind of war hero. She got sick last year and she tried to face that bravely too, especially when it was diagnosed as terminal cancer. I went to stay with her and in the past year I think she unloaded on me everything she ever wanted to say about my father.”
She let go of my hand because it was starting to shake. I wanted to grab it back but I thought it best just to let her have her freedom. For a brief moment I looked in her face and her eyes held this look as if she might bolt and run at any moment like a wild horse out on the range.
“He left her…us really…when I was seven. I remember sitting on the front porch waiting for him to come home from work one day and he never showed up. I waited until dark and mama made me come in. The next day she told me he wasn’t coming back. When I asked her why, she told me he decided he had a hungry heart and wanted to be somewhere else. I thought at the time she meant that one day we’d get to go to that some place else he went and be a family again. But it never happened. Finally, she just said he didn’t want either one of us and that I should get used to it. I’m still not used to it.” She looked up at me, her eyes dark and serious. “Every man I have known since doesn’t stay either. They all want to be somewhere else eventually. They always run.”
“I won’t run,” I promised.
She stared at me so hard I had to look away. It was making me very nervous.
“Yes you will. You’ll get a hungry heart too. In your defense you can’t help it. You’re a guy.”
“Hey wait a minute, that’s not fair. Not all guys are like your father.”
“No man I have ever known has stayed. Not just my dad, but every…single..guy. And I think sometimes that maybe if I could find my father he could tell me why every man is like that.”
“Summer, I’m not like that. If we were..you know, together…I wouldn’t do that to you.”
She shook her head sadly. “I wish I could believe you, Matthew. I know you mean well and want to be the ideal friend, but you can’t fight your nature.”
I grabbed her hand this time and stopped her right there in the orchard. “Look at me,” I said, and she obliged me, looking at me with her dark smoldering eyes. “As someone said to me earlier, my god, what has he done to you?”
I couldn’t hold her gaze for long, so I looked down, and she saw it as something else other than my own shyness. “What does it matter, Matthew? You won’t even look at me for long before your eyes turn away. How long before the rest of you turns away?”
“I’m not turning away. I’m right here.”
“But I am,” she said, and the dam nearly broke, tears building up in her eyes and threatening to stream down her face. Before that happened though, she did exactly what her eyes had originally told me. She bolted and ran. Without a word, she just turned and took off deeper into the orchard. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to chase after her; the other said let her go. I debated the things I would say to her that would make things alright, but maybe there was nothing I could say to right the damage her father had done to her. It’s sad how one person can ruin you for life, how they can have a dark effect on you and be a shadow in every relationship you have afterwards. Summer had her father, I had my Ashley. And like two trains gone off the rails, we were dying in the wreckage.
I think what surprised me the most about our aborted walk in the orchard was the temporary deterioration of the mask Summer wore. Up until that point her face was a happy one. Yeah, the night before I had hurt her feelings but in every other moment shared she had been smiling and like a happy go lucky girl in love with life. Now, all of a sudden, I was seeing another side. She had let down her guard and I’d caught a glimpse of the hurt and scared little girl hiding inside. I didn’t quite know what to do from this point forward. After all, maybe that happy exterior wasn’t real at all. Maybe it was there so that people would like her. Perhaps the real Summer was not summery at all. Was this the point she always reached before the men in her life abandoned her? Was this first crack in her wonderful exterior the thing that sent people running, as she claimed?
I walked back to orchard house, glancing behind me every now and then to see if I could spy her out there in the fields, with this new picture of Summer in my head. But if it chased others away from her, it had the opposite effect on me. It made me feel a little bit closer, because I felt she shared a similar pain as mine. Kindred spirits is what they called people like us, but was our hurt so great we would never be able to fully connect or let the pain go? I didn’t have the answers, but I was surprised by the fact that my problem with Ashley was receding to the back of my mind and Summer’s dilemma with her estranged father was edging its way to the front. Is this the way we get past our own troubles and worries, by helping someone else with their own?
I didn’t know what to do but return to the house and wait. Hopefully Summer would find her way back home too. Strange to call such a place home, but as long as she was there it was feeling as such. I sat down on the back porch and began my wait. It was kind of strange but on our first night I had found myself sitting here waiting for her to return from the orchard after I had upset her on our Wal-Mart trip. Now here it was our second night and I was waiting on her in the same fashion. It made me think of that Brad paisley song, ‘Waiting On A Woman.’ Man, was there no end to my music geekdom? Even in serious reflective moments songs popped into my head.
Something else popped into my head as well. I had been without purpose for so long. Forever wrapped up in my own heartbreak I had cut myself off from others. When I felt like I was no good for Ashley, I felt like I was no good to everyone else too. But now here was Summer and it was obvious she needed someone to help her learn to carry on without her mother and resolve the issues with her estranged father. But what could I do? Maybe I could go with her to help her find her dad. Or would it be better to just let her do this on her own and wait for her in the event she needed me when it was all over? As much as I wanted to help, there was this part of me that said let it be. Let her do what she needed to do alone. I think there are some things you have to go through alone, so maybe this was one of them. But on the other hand, I felt with her change of mood in the orchard she was tired of being alone. She needed someone to be there.
While pondering all this, she returned. The sun hadn’t quite gone down, but it was close to sinking behind the blue tinged mountains. I was sitting on the metal porch swing, my feet quietly rocking it on its rails. She came up the steps slowly and around to the porch where I sat. Wordlessly, she settled down beside me. For a moment she didn’t say anything, and neither did i. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, waiting for the best time to say anything. The sinking sun played its light across her freckled face and her eyes took on a copper glow. Staring at her when she wasn’t looking was easy. She was very pleasant to look at, but once she turned her head in my direction I averted my gaze like a shy schoolboy caught looking at the prettiest girl in class. She softly sighed beside me and we both stared off into the coming sunset. Finally she spoke. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to treat you so mean.”
“You don’t treat me mean,” I answered, daring to glance her way.
She looked my way too and tried to smile. “Really Matthew, I don’t mean to treat you badly. It’s just that you are the first guy…man…that I have felt comfortable around in a long time. It’s funny, really. I don’t know you that much. I’ve known you for two days and already I feel we have been friends for years.”
I smiled. “I feel connected too.”
“Yes exactly, that’s what it feels like. Like there is something special, you don’t quite know what it is, but it feels nice.”
“Yes it does.”
“But it scares me too.”
I grinned. “Terrifying.”
“You are still very nervous around me,” she suggested.
I hung my head, kind of embarrassed. “Yes I guess I am.”
She nodded, and then went silent. I could see she was turning something over in that pretty head of hers. “Maybe we just need to start over, so we can be nervous together,” she finally said.
“Maybe so,” I agreed, though to be honest, I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.
She turned a little in her seat so she was facing me. “Matthew, would you like to go grab a bite to eat with me?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. On one hand it seemed like she was asking me out, and on the other hand…well it seemed like she was asking me out on that one too. “You mean like a date?” I nervously asked.
“Well, yeah, if you want to call it that. Does that make you uncomfortable?”
“N-no,” I answered.
She laughed. “Well then, that’s what first dates are all about. Chasing the butterflies from your stomach and getting to know each other. So, you game?”
“Yes I am,” I replied, but there must have been a touch of worry in my voice, because she gave me this look.
“Stop thinking about Ashley. I’m not going to leave you waiting for me to show. In fact, we’re driving together and I know just the place. I spotted it on my way back today. You like Italian?”
“Yes I do. My favorite.”
“Good, come on. Let’s get changed and go.”
“Changed?” I asked.
“Yes. You don’t think I’m going dressed like this, do you? I need to be back in my jeans and t-shirt. I can only take dressing up like a lady in small doses.”
I laughed. “I think you look fine.”
Smiling, she winked at me and stood up. “There ya go. You’re starting to loosen up and relax, I like that. But really, I don’t want to overdress. I’ll be back.”
I stood up to follow her. “Okay. Maybe I won’t overdress either. Taking my car or yours?”
“We took mine to Wal-Mart. Let’s go in yours this time. I’ll show you how to get there.”
“Only if we get to sing out the windows again.”
“Deal,” she said, and we both went into orchard house, she to change and I to wait.
The wait was longer than I thought. How long does it take for a woman to put on jeans and a t-shirt? I thought about that Brad Paisley song again and realized I didn’t mind waiting on a woman either. However, the longer I waited, the more I realized now was my opportunity to impress her. I went to my bedroom and dug through my clothes until I found something nicer to wear. I chose a pair of black khakis and a matching button up shirt. As an added touch I picked out some silver cuff links. I changed into dress shoes and was debating whether to add a tie to my new ensemble when I heard her on the stairs. I didn’t want to keep her waiting so I rushed out the room into the hallway just as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
I stopped in my tracks. Now I knew what was taking her so long. “I thought you said you didn’t want to overdress,” I said, when I finally found my voice.
She was wearing a black dress, the hem coming down to just below her knees, giving one a look at her legs. The dress was slit at one side affording a more teasing glimpse, while allowing her to actually walk. A slightly plunging neckline revealed the beginning swell of her breasts without showing off too much. This was not a trashy dress, but one that was all classy lady. I looked down. On her feet, she wore black high heels, but I could tell from the way she stood that she wasn’t entirely used to them.
“I changed my mind,” she said. “I’m glad I did. That look on your face is priceless.”
Suddenly aware I was staring, I looked away from her. “Oops, sorry. Again, I was expecting jeans and t-shirt. You have surprised me.”
“I can go and change again if you like.”
“Absolutely not. Now we match.”
It was now her turn to look me up and down and she took it at her own leisure. “I like. You look good in black.”
I blushed. “So do you.”
Her smile lit up her whole face. I noticed she had put on a little eye shadow, and the violet shade brought out her dark eyes and the shape of her face, though I had already been aware of those things when we were walking through the orchard. She was one of those rare women who didn’t need makeup, but for tonight if it made her feel more beautiful, then I was all for it, too.
She held out her arm. “So, let’s go paint the town black then.” I took her arm, linking it in mine and we marched together down the hall, and around to the kitchen, as if we were waltzing down the aisle. And even with that thought in mind, never once did I think of Ashley. She was worlds away, and tonight was all Summer.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2014 Paul D. Aronson.