Part 60: Last Night As We Were
After dinner we all retired to the living room where an old fashioned brick fireplace burned steadily in its hearth. Summer and I were invited to sit in front of it, while the others took places on a couch and loveseat. I noticed there were no single chairs in the room, as if it was intended that no one sit alone in this house. Twyla, who had been fairly quiet during dinner, retreated to her room to play a video game. It was apparent that some progress you could not stop, even out here in the country. “That ring sure looks nice on you, Summer,“ Hope said.
“Thank you, but it feels strange that it’s on my hand and not yours.”
The old woman looked at her hand. The ring had left a permanent mark on her finger. “I still got it,“ she said with a smile. She looked up at us both. “I always carried Gunboats ring right here,” she said, tapping over her heart. “I’m certainly glad that now it will bring its promises to another life. That’s what the ring is, you know. A promise.”
“When my fellow sent that to me, it was a promise he’d always love me, no matter what. Even when he thought he was dying on the battlefield, he kept that promise and it got him up to see it through. As long as you keep that promise, the both of you, you’ll always pick yourselves up when times is hard or uncertain. But more than that, I can honestly tell you that ring is a sign of your love for each other, an eternal promise to never falter, and if you do, to grab on to each other, lift each other up, get back to the house so to speak.”
“Alright mama,” Gunboats said affectionately. “Don’t preach to them too much.”
We laughed. “It’s okay,“ Summer said. “I’ve probably needed some preaching all these years.”
“Me too,“ I replied. “Thank you for sharing your home with us, your lives, and now your ring. I don’t know how we can ever repay you.”
The woman smiled. “Just love each other.”
Summer and I shared a look. “No problem there,“ I replied.
The rest of the evening was spent with idle chit chat. I talked about my career as a failing writer, Summer spoke of dumping her boyfriend and job all in one day. Helen talked of the little boy she had a crush on, whose family returned to Orchard House every summer, until the boy was old enough to decide he wanted to stay with the girl. Raymond talked about the time she pushed him in the creek to get his attention, and of course both Hope and Gunboats regaled us with tales of separation and wartime that did end happily for them both. It was nice to just sit like a big family at Thanksgiving and “reminisce” about the things that had happened to us in life. Despite all this, and we did tell them some of our adventures at Orchard House, I felt or rather hoped, the best was yet to come.
We walked home in the dark. In the city it would have been impossible, but here it was a relaxing night, as we found our way down their drive to the dirt road and finally the gravel drive of Orchard House. Heading up the driveway, Summer’s hand in mine, I told her how I was dreading the morning hour. She agreed but then added, “We should do something different tonight.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, we have slept in nearly every room of the house right?”
She hesitated for a second, then looked to the dark sky. “It’s nice out here. Have you ever been camping?”
We were almost at the side porch. It was a nice night, but I wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “No, never have,” I replied.
She rolled her eyes. “Man, I have so many new things to teach you.”
“I’ve already done so many new things with you, I am a changed man.”
“Well, I think I should teach you one more – sleeping under the stars.”
“I’m not sure…”
“Hush. I have a little tent and sleeping bag in my trunk. We can share them. We can make a bonfire and cook marshmallows. I saw an unopened bag in the pantry. What do you say?”
I shook my head. No use in fighting it. And anyway every new experience she had showed me so far had been exciting. “Okay,“ I answered. “I’m game.”
“Great,” she excitedly exclaimed. “Let me get everything.”
I watched her skip to her car and pop the trunk. As always her youth and vibrant personality was infectious, and I found myself following after to help.
On the other side of the house, away from the trees of the orchard, we set up our makeshift camp. She singlehandedly pitched the tent like it was nothing and put me in charge of a fire. I selected a bare spot of ground where no grass had grown in quite some time. I went down to the creek with a flashlight and found some rocks to keep the fire in. It took me four trips to haul them back up the drive, but despite my breathlessness, it was worth it. The fire pit successfully constructed, I then went in search of wood. Not wanting to stray too far from the house, I picked up fallen twigs and branches from the apple trees to get started. Then I skirted the closest edge of the orchard, where I found a pile of logs that looked to be from where they cleared this part of the property. Hoping they wouldn’t mind if I used a few, I made several jaunts back and forth to carry the logs. Jackson faithfully followed me in my trips, and I found myself wishing I could hook up a wagon to him and get him to haul the load. With all the ingredients finally in place, I got the fire started fairly quick and bragged what a boy scout I was.
Summer laughed. “Everyone’s a boy scout with a lighter in hand.”
I sat on the ground tending the fire, while she went inside after the bag of marshmallows. She also came out with pillows and soda for us both. Using a couple thick twigs I had saved, we put marshmallows on the ends of them and held them over the fire. Not only was camping out a first, but so was the roasting of marshmallows. When I told her this, she grinned. “Oh my,“ she said, “the next thing you’ll tell me is you’ve never slept outside naked.”
I smirked. “No I haven’t, though I have been streaking through an apple orchard.”
She laughed. “What a coincidence, so have I.”
She leaned towards me and pressed her lips long and lovingly to mine. I welcomed her kiss and nearly dropped my marshmallow in the fire.
“You need to turn it every now and then,“ she instructed, showing me how to roast all sides of the mallow. With her hand on mine, she turned the twig between my fingers. It was a simple gesture, but just her hand on mine was enough to cause me to lean back into her, taking her sweet kiss on my lips. After a moment, my marshmallow burst into fire and we both laughed. “It’s okay, I’ll share mine,” Summer said. I wasn’t sure if she meant the marshmallow, because her hand was resting on my chest and her lips sought my neck to plant fiery kisses against my skin. The warmth that washed over me had nothing to do with the fire.
Not long after, with our clothes discarded outside the tent, we lay curled up in the sleeping bag, the closeness of our bodies generating enough heat to keep us warm in the night chill. The tent was made for one person, so quarters were tight for us both, but that was what we wanted. There shouldn’t be much space separating lovers. The fire burned on not far from us, and we watched the flames as they slowly died down. The stars above us gave little light, but it was the glowing light of the fire that illuminated our faces to each other. The light flickered across Summer’s beautiful skin and I traced the shadows the flame made with my fingertips, kissing her softly after each touch.
She ran her fingers across my chest and looked into my eyes. Her hand found its way to my face and she laid the palm against my cheek. “I never could have dreamed this,” she confessed. “I have little imagination.”
I smiled. “I feel the same way. Even in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever be so lucky. A year ago, a month ago, heck, a week ago, I never thought I would feel this way for someone. Even when things had been good with …you know…it had never felt anything close to this. Even my first crush, or my high school sweetheart, never gave me the thrill that being close to you brings. “
“I feel the same way, too. I try to recall how I felt about boys or men I loved and I just can’t remember it. It’s like it’s all blacked out now by your love, as if loving you has made those other memories pointless, so they went away somewhere.”
I kissed her lips, then her eyelids, her cheek, her ear. “I wonder, ten years from now, when we look back on this week, will we still remember it as vividly as we lived it?”
“I don’t know, Matthew. But I certainly hope so.”
“If our married life together is just a fraction as exciting as it’s been this week, then I will live a very fulfilling life.”
She nuzzled against my neck. “I don’t want a fraction. I want it all. I want to continue doing new things – I want my heart to leap every time I see you – my skin to tingle every time you touch me.”
I touched her and I felt her body slightly tremble beneath my hand. I could see the chill bumps on her arms.
“Just like that, “ she said.
“Summer, you have made me feel things I thought were long gone. You have shown me so many new things. And I know there are still things I want to do. I want to go horseback riding with you – swim in a mountain lake – I want to paint your picture – I want to walk hand in hand on a deserted beach – I want to marry you in a little white church.”
She slid her arms around me, pulling my body as close to her as she possibly could. The very warmth and comfort of her made me feel as if the fire still raged outside the tent, flames burning high into the sky. Our lips met in a whirlwind of this passion, and later as the embers of the real fire died to ash, and the stars began to go out one by one, we eased into an easy sleep, watched over by the pleasant shadow of Orchard House on this, our last night as we were.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.