“Let me help you.”
Her first words, on the library steps.
She stooped to retrieve my books, the ravages of arthritis painfully evident. I looked down, regarding her thick but graying black hair, not unlike my own, and felt a pang of guilt over her effort to help me.
She rose stiffly, glancing at the books and replacing them atop the precarious stack in my arms.
Then she turned to me, her eyes shining. They were clear, compelling eyes, bright and blue, the beautiful blue of a robin’s egg. Her smile was dazzling, her face beatific.
It was completely unexpected. I took a quick breath of utter astonishment, and stared at her until she blushed.
“Thank you so much,” I managed.
“Is Anthony Trollope typical of your taste in literature?” She laughed with her mouth and her eyes.
“I’m researching Victorian parliamentary life. For a novel.” My fourth novel, truth be told, in the wake of three unfinished manuscripts, written and abandoned during a series of dead-end jobs. But I kept that to myself.
“A writer!” she beamed.
“Maybe a writer.”
“No ‘maybes’. You must say it with confidence!”
“All right, then – a best-selling author-to-be!”
She was professionally attired in a stylish navy pantsuit trimmed in white. Though well into middle age, there was a vivacity about her, a youthful vigor, an air of enjoying life and knowing the secret of living it well.
“I’m Tess.” It was a voice with the music of singing in it.
She extended her hand, then laughed and withdrew it.
“Pardon my stack. I’m Paul.”
Then that smile again—warm, generous, spontaneous, lighting her up from inside. There was something indefinably striking in her appearance and manner. She had an aura about her, a delicate yet provocative sensuousness combined with a natural charm and the gift of assurance.
“I’m late for work, Paul. Careful with those books!”
She started up the stairs, then turned and looked back.
“When you’re finished with Trollope, come down to the sub-level. I’m absolute dictator of the History stacks.” There was liquid, loving laughter in her voice.
The attraction was immediate and total. I was hopelessly, hopelessly lost in the brightness of her being.
* * *
Of the hundred things I thought, there was only one I dared say. “You have made an impression on me,” I told her at dinner the following weekend. I felt an inexplicable bond between us, out of all proportion to the brief time we’d known each other.
A blush of pleasure rose to her cheeks. “It’s nice of you to say so.”
Then that smile again—an intimate smile, beautiful with brightness.
We sat in conversation over a corner table strewn with the detritus of a leisurely meal. Candlelight flickered across her face, and she glowed with warmth and life. She spoke with directness, intelligence and wit. Her insights were uncanny, as if she knew me better than I knew myself.
I sensed that something significant was unfolding, as though I were on the cusp of some monumental event. Everything would change for me—and change forever.
I was more than ready for change. I had not lived the life I had hoped for. I had let the years slip through my fingers, settling for a routine existence, losing sight of where I was going, and why. Youthful dreams of fame and accomplishment had turned into bitterness and thwarted ambitions. As I grew older, the burden of never having been truly happy and successful weighed heavily on me. I wanted those years back, so I could live them better. I wanted to begin again.
Tess would have none of it. “What’s past is past! Squandering the rest of your life in regret will accomplish nothing. Your past is not your potential. It’s never too late to reactivate your dreams!”
Simple concepts, but they struck home with a force beyond mere words. She spoke with gentleness and compassion, without judging or blaming. And something opened up inside me, something inexpressibly liberating and empowering, a sudden realization that the full richness and promise of my potential lay before me for the taking! Through the magic of her words, my soul blossomed with strength and purpose. I sensed an awakening, a rebirth, a transformation underway within me. The very air seemed infused with ambition! Through Tess, I was becoming a new person—right there, right then!
After a while, our words trailed off and we sat in silence, searching each other’s eyes in the soft candlelight. When the flame died, we took no notice. Our senses reached out to each other, mind touching mind, the secret threads of our communication weaving psychic tapestries in the space between us. There was a strange, dreamlike quality about it—so warm and intimate, so mesmerizing. Neither of us uttered a word, but soul spoke to soul, expressing the inexpressible.
Then she reached to me, and the touch of her hand ran like fire up my arm. She whispered my name in the darkness.
The sounds of the other tables faded. All I heard was her voice. All I saw was her face.
* * *
I spent the next morning in a state of controlled excitement. We had agreed to meet again that evening for a walk around the lake. But as the day progressed, those plans looked more and more uncertain. The air smelled of rain. Heavy rolling clouds massed across the horizon. A storm was moving in.
I walked in the yard, thinking, losing all track of time, listening to the wind rushing through the treetops. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. Then it began, as it had always begun. Out of nowhere—barely perceptible at first—I was assailed by a creeping uneasiness. I was worried, and I wasn’t sure why. Doubts were gathering like nimbus clouds against the darkening sky.
When the rain began, I retreated inside in a state of gray unease. I stared at the rain as it battered against the window, and fell into a strange, abstracted state. What was this awful dread that had crept across my soul, this gloomy foreboding? Something was stirring within me—a warning voice, a sense of impending calamity. My confidence—so invincible the night before—was evaporating before my eyes. The somber sky was an outward metaphor for the gray doubt that had descended into the very marrow of my being.
I had found something precious, and feared to lose it, as I had lost so many other things. I had found Tess, and, through her, renewed ambition. But surely hope and desire would be shattered again. Why would it be different this time?
Yes, that was the meaning of this fearful melancholy. That was always it. On the brink of change, I manufactured dark visions of crisis, danger and disaster—self-defeating scenarios that thwarted my ambition and sabotaged my efforts. That naysaying inner voice: “This manuscript is no good. No one will read it.” “She’s out of your league—don’t even try.” I had typecast myself in the role of failure—unworthy, undesirable, undeserving.
The day had been a microcosm of my life—high spirits and all-things-possible optimism, followed by doubts and indecision that sapped my power to take the next step. The only way forward, Tess had said, was to see my insecurities for the chimeras they really were. They were illusions, fabrications, mirages, phantoms of the imagination, spectres with no real form or substance. I heard her words again, battering their way through the stubborn clouds, conquering the darkness, rekindling the flame of ambition that had flared in me the night before. I would beat it this time! This time I would win! Her words shone with the clarity of the sun. Black dejection was replaced by a profound and enigmatic peace. Unclouded by doubt, life and purpose returned.
Late in the day, the rain moved on. I threw open a window, and a fresh breeze blew through the room. The setting sun bathed the hills with a golden radiance. I felt renewed, washed clean in sunlight. I lingered by the window, watching the dark come on.
She would come when she could, she had said. In the distance, I could discern the vague shapes of the trees by the lake. My senses reached out into the night, seeking some sign of her, sending her a message across the darkness.
And then she was there.
* * *
We talked until the moon rose, and long after. The wind came up again, and the stars began to show between the thinning clouds. The air felt fresh and clean. How exhilarating it was to be there, with her so near, whispering together in the darkness. Banished were the dark premonitions of the afternoon. I was with her again!
Her words were like a warm embrace in the chill night air. Again she prodded me to shake off the clouds of doubt and fear and to embrace my purpose. “In life, as in writing, it’s never too late to revise!” Carefully I fixed the night in my mind—every word, every gesture, every sight and sound. I must not lose hold of the reality of this moment! This time I would remember! This time I would change!
She stood close, her body pressing into mine. I felt the heat of her nearness. Soon we surrendered to the crush of feelings that drew us together. My hand swept to the back of her neck. I pressed my lips to hers, which parted in mute invitation. It was a hungry kiss, breathless and urgent, a kiss full of passion and need. A gentle moan escaped her lips as her hand tightened on mine.
In the intimacy of darkness, we stood in silence. I knew then that I could never let her go. She was my fate. She possessed me completely.
She seemed to have tracked my thoughts. “Always,” she whispered. “Always.”
In the stillness of the night, in that quiet interlude, that moment of peace, a sweeping ecstasy filled my soul. I met her gaze, and felt the strength of it. She searched my face, her eyes bright with tears.
The far, shrill whistle of a locomotive pierced the night.
She smiled—a private smile—and was gone.
* * *
I was awakened by the kettle on the stove, my eyes resting on the afterimage of her face.
Gradually I became aware of my surroundings. First, the ticking of the clock on the nightstand. Then the aromas of breakfast. I opened my eyes. A gap in the curtains admitted a shaft of sunlight filled with dust motes. Still halfway between sleeping and waking, I followed their languid motion as they floated lazily in the still air of the room.
The sense of the past was powerful. I struggled for orientation, my eyes gradually re-familiarizing themselves with the details of the room in which I had spent most of my teenage years. It was my grandmother’s guest room, just as it always was: the polished mahogany bureau, the oak dresser and antique bevel plate mirror, the rocker, the drop-leaf writing desk, the big brass bed, the hardwood floor covered with Persian carpet, the afghan-draped leather chair. All ominously familiar.
“Last day of school!”
My grandmother’s voice.
Then I understood.
The grief was immediate and overwhelming. For the first time in my young life, I knew the meaning of despair.
In waking, I had lost her.
Frantically I tried to will myself back to sleep. Overwhelmed by thoughts of loss, insane with rage and grief, I begged her to return, crying out for her presence. But no amount of effort could return me to that imagined life, and to the arms of Tess.
Tears flew down my cheeks like rain. My mouth was open in a silent scream—sorrow upon sorrow, grief upon grief. I was mourning a death.
I sat motionless—stunned—absorbing the terrible knowledge of my loss. My memory closed around her, clutching at the vague afterimage of this woman literally of my dreams. I huddled in the covers, protecting that place in my heart that only she had ever reached.
I closed my eyes, and was filled with remembering.
* * *
My days were filled with memories of a lifetime lived in a dream. I was overtaken by a vast and impenetrable sadness, an all-engulfing grief. Part of me had been torn away, ripped asunder, irretrievably lost. I was plunged into gloom and despair. The longing for her presence was a dull, aching pain that refused to go away.
Numbly, mechanically, I went through the motions of my high school graduation. To those who knew me, I looked vacant, spent, infinitely sorrowful. I spent my days wandering aimlessly through lonely streets, lost in thought, pondering the meaning of my dream. Hunger and thirst were forgotten. I was drained of energy, drained almost of life itself. I was no longer in this world in any of the ways that mattered. I was a restless and inconsolable spirit, wandering down a road that had no end, where there was neither night nor day.
Where had it come from? Why would one so young dream of being old, and invent such feelings for a woman decades his senior? And why a dream of a wasted life? Was it secret fear of failure, fear that nothing would go according to plan? Had teenage insecurities manufactured this bleak and gloomy future?
Or did part of me—my “higher self”—know the path ahead, and was crying out for me to take another road, telling me that the future is not set? Some people believe that all times are alive, and that the future is somehow there to be seen. Was I reading my own mind across time--sending myself a message of warning, and of hope?
Or was Tess my anima, that female element locked deep within the unconscious male mind, that now and then emerges to guide a man to the depths of his soul?
Was it a warning from God?
A vision of an alternate reality?
A mere romantic boyhood fantasy, cobbled together from books and films?
Or had a woman who loved me when I was old somehow reached back to my young mind to return my squandered years to me?
I despaired that I would ever know. I passed from gloom to optimism and back to gloom. Pictures would rise unbidden to the surface of my mind--images of Tess, triggered by a word or a scent or a touch. Memories came crowding back, fragments of an irretrievable “past,” a past that was no longer my past--memories sometimes so vivid, so close; at other times out of focus, distant. Her luminous eyes. The radiance of her smile. The sound of her voice.
As the weeks passed, the haunting images began to fade, mercifully dulling the cutting edge of my despair. What was left, in the end, was a warm kernel of happiness, distilled from memory—memories of days lightened by her cheerfulness and grace, by the soft essence of her being, by the incandescence of her presence. Her remembered words, tokens of love, slowly took away the brooding hurt, as I understood their message of reassurance and hope. They were words from a dream—a dream that had interposed itself between a young life and the latent prospect of a desolate future. Where had those words come from? What was this marvel that had touched me with its insight, then vanished into the mist?
Whatever it was, it was a gift.
* * *
The rest of that summer—my seventeenth—was filled with reading and writing, with laughter and friends. Freshly energized, I was following my passion, doing what I loved. That was the pact I had made with myself. I was young “again,” with my whole life spread out before me—the slate of my imagined future wiped clean. Tess had shown me the wonder of living, the sweet promise of the future. She had given me faith in my ability to build a better life than I might otherwise have known. I felt as though I was reclaiming something I’d lost, being given a second chance. The whole world was bathed in sunlight!
It was a summer rich with colors and smells and light, a summer of picnics and ice cream, of baseball and band concerts, of birdsong and fireflies, of the aromas of pies on the sill, home-baked bread and fragrant flowers, of flaming red sunsets, and of people sitting on their porches whiling away the evening. I was alive, happy, and loving every minute of it. I was filled with the adventurous anticipation of youth, a grand passion for life that I had never known before. I was doing what Tess had urged--never letting a day slip by without savoring its sweetness. The days were wonderful. Life was wonderful!
In the fall, I entered college, resisting family pressure to study business and finance, immersing myself instead in literature. “You’re playing it too safe,” Tess had said. “Take some creative risks!” I entered enthusiastically into college life, writing articles for the literary journal and plays for the drama workshop, rejecting the inner voice that mocked and derided and told me I wasn’t good enough. Many spoke highly of my work. Those who didn’t could not deter me. My resolve was fixed, my ambition unshakeable!
My first novel was published during my senior year. A year later, another. The next year, a successful screenplay, and agents clamoring for my attention.
Then, one day …
A young woman in loose shirt and slacks, calling to a friend.
“I’m late for work!”
She was bounding up the library stairs, two at a time. Her hair flew out in silky tangles, black as raven’s wings.
She stopped, and turned.