"What time are you going to see her tonight?"
Joseph and I were walking past all the rows of floral arrangements and helium filled balloons. It was crowded at the shop, lots of women, and even a few men. The smell of roses and carnations wafted through the air.
"I told her seven, the reservation is at eight, that should give her enough time in case she's running late." I picked up a red rose and inspected it, lifting it up to my nose for a second before placing it back down in the bucket. I didn't think Sarah would care for red roses anyways.
"You should have told her six thirty. If she's anything like Roxy, she will keep you waiting at least an hour." Joseph chuckled, wrinkling his nose at the pink lily I was holding out to him. He shook his head no, "Too dainty."
I was lucky Joseph was here with me, he'd taken the day off work just to come shopping with me. We already bought the expensive part of the gift, now we were just browsing for the perfect flowers to go with it.
He walked around this large display of fancy vases, disappearing behind another heart shaped balloon before peeking his head back out at me, "What's her favorite color?"
I glanced up at him, cocking my head to the side, "I'm pretty sure it's yellow."
"Then I think these will be perfect." He thrust a huge bouquet of yellow tulips right in my face. They were wrapped up in glimmering paper and in perfect bloom. They smelled absolutely wonderful. I gave Joseph a big grin and reached for the flowers.
"Sarah's gonna love these." I was nearly bouncing on my toes with excitement. I could almost picture the look on her face when I gave them to her.
"The only thing Sarah's gonna love tonight is you, little brother." He winked at me.
I was nervous the entire walk to the park. I had some sort of half assed plan formed in my head but I really didn't know exactly what I was going to say, or how Sarah was going to react. Still, I kept walking, I waited long enough.
The air around me was warm, it was a perfect sunny day, people were all out in their shorts and tank tops. A few kids were roller skating down the sidewalk laughing with each other. Their laughter made me smile to myself and gave me that extra bit of courage that I needed to finish what I had to do.
They were already there when I arrived. My eyes flew over the park quickly, spotting them over in the sandbox. I gave a little prayer of thanks that it was just them two today. Henry was sitting in the middle of the sand with Sarah at his side. Both were completely engrossed in the bucket they were filling. Henry was scooping it up with both hands, most of it running out through his fingers. He laughed and giggled, trying to fill the bucket with his small hands. Sarah was using a tiny shovel to help Henry fill his bucket faster, she chuckled with him, encouraging him to dig through the sand.
Seeing them made me slow down, my eyes darted around me nervously for something to duck behind. I didn't want them to see me just yet.
I lingered near the hot dog stand, behind the big yellow umbrella, just watching them for a while. They both looked happy and relaxed.
As the minutes ticked by I realized that this was actually the perfect opportunity to go up to them. No one else was around to interfere, no one else was around to hear if she would tell me to get the hell away from her.
Little by little I inched forward, weaving through the park, taking the longest route I could, to reach them.
My heart pounded right out of my chest when I finally allowed myself to stand right out in the open, right where they could see me.
Sarah looked up first, her eyes widened in surprise as she saw me, her hand frozen on the shovel. She didn't say anything, just stared at me in disbelief. Henry kept right on scooping up the sand, oblivious to what was going on between his parents.
I found myself stepping into the sandbox, looking down at both of them. Sarah didn't take her eyes off of me, her gaze flew across my face, down to my torso, and then back up to my eyes, as if she were trying to convince herself that I was really there.
The plan I worked on during the walk here flew right out of my head, and I panicked for a couple of seconds trying to think of something to say. Some older kids to my right started shrieking about who made it to the swings first, it sent a spark through me, and I took a deep breath and opened my mouth.
"You're early!" Sarah was giving me this great big smile as I stood at her apartment door. It was only six-fifteen but I was already there, my tie straight, my shirt pressed, my hair combed, but somehow still sticking up in all directions.
I don't think I've ever been this nervous before. Sarah was wearing this fluffy, white robe, tied up at her waist. Her hair still wrapped in a towel. She looked just perfect, all sparkly and flushed. She was holding the ties of her robe in her hands, twirling the ends in her fingers.
I thrust out the huge bouquet of yellow tulips to her. "I know. I thought you might be ready. It's okay, I can wait." I gave her this sheepish smile, trying not to let her see the sudden surge of desire that washed over me. My eyes focused on her fingers as they flipped the white pieces of cotton around and around her pinky finger. I wanted to grab those ties and pull them open. I wanted to bring her close to me and whisper in her ear that we could stay in, that I didn't mind, I could give her the surprise later on.
But I didn't, instead I finally met her eyes and gave her another smile.
"Oh! They're beautiful! Thank you!" She brought the flowers to her face, breathing in their scent, "Come on in, give me a few minutes and I'll try to hurry." She gestured me in, "You can wait in the living room. The remote is on the coffee table." She headed quickly to the kitchen and emerged with a large vase filled with water. She carefully placed the tulips inside and flashed me another smile as I settled down on her sofa.
Once the flowers were safely in place she disappeared into her bedroom. Nothing on the television interested me so I left it off and fiddled with the black velvet case in my pocket instead. Six-thirty came and went, no Sarah, six forty-five, no Sarah, six fifty-five, no Sarah. I started to break out into a sweat at seven-ten when she still had not made her appearance. I considered calling the restaurant to see if they could push back the reservation an hour, when suddenly there she was, standing at the entrance to the living room, giving me this sweet little smile that made my heart jump.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," she began, but I wasn't listening, all I could see were those beautiful bare shoulders, and miles of long legs in this pretty yellow dress she was wearing. Her hair was bouncing around her face in a million and one curls, the light creating little highlights in it. There was a dainty white pearl necklace around her neck on a gold chain, it made her skin glow. She looked absolutely radiant.
I think it took me longer than a minute to say anything. I couldn't find my voice. When she realized that I was speechless she gave out this small giggle and held out her hand to me.
"Where are we going tonight Matthew? Do I look okay?"
I finally took a deep breath and grinned at her, grabbing her hand. "You look beautiful. Come on let's go."
"Where are we going?" She asked again, reaching behind her for her purse.
"To eat." I said with feigned innocence. She just rolled her eyes at me and laughed.
"Matthew Steele," she complained, "You are impossible."
I just chuckled at her, opening her door, leading her down the steps. "You look good in yellow," I changed the subject, "You look good in anything."
"Hi." It was really the only thing I could think of at the moment, "Can I sit with you?"
She just kept staring at me, some of the sand was falling off her shovel. Henry let out this excited baby giggle which jerked her to attention.
She didn't talk, just gestured with a wave of her hand that I could join her. I lowered myself beside her, careful not to get too close, to still give her plenty of space.
Henry noticed me then, his small brown eyes met mine and he leaned closer to Sarah. His eyes washed over me warily making sure I wasn't a "bad" guy. I smiled at him, wanting to scoop him up in my arms and hug him.
"Hi Henry." I kept my voice light. His little eyebrows wrinkled together and his head tilt to the side as he watched me. I guess in his mind he decided I was okay, and he gave me a shy grin, still leaning closer to Sarah.
"Here baby," Sarah haded the shovel to Henry. He became entranced with it immediately and began digging into the sand with it.
Sarah turned to look at me, she had this well, what do you want, look on her face.
I took a deep breath, I really wanted to say the perfect things. The things that would make her understand how sorry I was, and how far I had come. But I knew, there were no magic words that would change everything in one conversation. I knew no matter what I said today, there was no changing what I said to her in the past, what I put her through.
"He's gotten so big." I decided to keep the conversation focused on Henry, the coward that I was. "How has be been?"
"He's been just fine. Growing like a weed." Her voice was careful, guarded. She suddenly wouldn't look me in the eyes anymore, and stared at the bucket of sand instead.
"He looks great, happy." My voice trailed off as I watched my son inspect a small rock he found in the sand, his eyes were a brownish green, a combination of me and Sarah. His messy brown hair was already falling over his eyes, and he pushed it back in frustration. He must have gotten that hair from me.
"He surprises me every day with something new he's learned, and he's quite the chatterbox when he wants to be." There was pride in her voice as she spoke, and I could see it in her eyes, the love, as she spoke about him.
"Have you taught him to play?" The question had been burning a hole in my pocket since I started watching them at the park. I wanted so badly to know if she was passing on our love of music to our son.
"What?" She finally looked up at me, "No, I haven't, I'm waiting for..." She stopped herself then, watching me, her eyes narrowed, "What are you doing here Matthew?"
I think Sarah was beginning to suspect why I brought her here. She was giggling more than usual, sitting across from me at the restaurant. It was pretty dark in here, tiny candles flickering at each table, making small shadows fly across our faces. Small roses floated in a glass bowl of water as the centerpiece.
I picked the fanciest place I could find, well, Joe told me about this place. He said Roxy loved to eat here, it was so romantic. I figured Sarah would love it as well, but as the evening wore on, we both found ourselves stifling our laughs at the serious tone of the waiter, and at the fancy elaborate words he used to describe the main courses. Even though we only ordered water to drink with our meals, they were poured into crystal glasses with tiny round ice cubes, and the napkins were shaped like some kind of swan or something, which Sarah promptly tried to make fly.
By the end of the evening I think our waiter wanted us out of there. I could almost see him rolling his eyes at us as soon as he turned his back. Sarah wanted to take these miniature carrots home to show Cassie. They looked just like a regular carrot but were only like four inches long, the leaves included. I found it quite amusing.
But this wasn't the place where I was going to do it. It was just the place to eat. Once we were done I took her over to the music store.
We had a great time there. Browsing through the sheet music, trying to find our favorites. Sarah was engrossed in one of the books there, it held all the classical songs, and I knew she would stay there for a few minutes.
I headed for the guitars. I had to stare down this little kid who didn't want to budge from the guitar section, he kept strumming all the guitars, plucking at their strings, and I didn't want him there when Sarah got there. Oh he tried of course, to win our stare war, but I kept looking at him, almost glaring, until his mom called him over. He stuck his tongue out at me before he left but I didn't care, I was just glad he was gone.
Carefully I took out the ring from the case. My eyes flew over the guitars quickly, trying to find the perfect one, the one she would reach for first. I found it easily, it would be the wooden one for sure. The one with twelve strings, that's the one that would call to her.
It was easy enough. I had to stand there guarding the guitar for a few minutes, making sure that freaky kid didn't come back, or anyone else with a sudden urge for a new guitar.
"What are you looking at?" She was finally coming over, probably wondering why I was dancing around the guitar section like a crazed man.
"Just checking these out." I shrugged my shoulders, shoving my hands into my coat pockets, trying not to let her see how nervous I was.
"Oh these are pretty! Look at the blue one, electric." Her eyes flew over the bottom row of guitars. I just raised my eyebrows with false interest and nodded my head.
"I like this one too," She kept going on, and I was beginning to think she would never look up. Her fingers grazed another guitar on the bottom row. I was just about to give in and tell her which one to look at, when finally, it caught her eye.
"Now this is a beauty." Her eyes lit up as she reached for it, stretching her arm out, she hadn't seen it yet. I watched her carefully, my eyes never leaving her face. She saw it right before her fingers closed around the neck, her eyes grew wider than I had ever seen them, and she jerked her hand back with a loud gasp.
Her head turned to me in surprise, her mouth open. I was smiling at her, this great big proud smile, trying to tell her with my eyes, that yes, this was for her.
"Matthew!" She squeaked, all shaky and loud. I just chuckled at her. The kid who had been dogging me turned around from the cash register where he was standing with his mom. He noticed our exchange and wrinkled his nose at us, it just made me laugh harder.
"Is this what I think it is?" Her voice sounded like a cartoon and her hands flew to her mouth. She was so stunned and excited at the same time.
I smiled at her again, nodding, lowering myself down on one knee.
"I, I just wanted to see you, to see Henry." I tried not to stumble over my words. Sarah suddenly looked pissed, and not shy at all.
"Why?" She lifted up her hand in annoyance, "What for? What do you want?"
"I, because..." Now I was stuttering, "I thought we could talk."
"Talk?" She began dusting sand off of her shorts, "Now you want to talk?" Her eyes met mine, and I could see how tired she looked. "Well I think it's a little late for talking."
"Sarah, I know. I'm sorry, there are some things I want to tell you. Some things you don't know." I could hear the pleading in my voice, I wanted so badly to see the love in her eyes again.
"What don't I know Matthew? Tell me. Because all I do know is that you are the man who left me and your son. The man who told me to get away from him. The man who showed up drunk when his son was in the hospital. The man who doesn't love us anymore."
I was frozen, at loss for words, because she was exactly right, except for the last sentence, the one that meant the most.
"I think you should go." Her words weren't harsh, just final.
"Please," I tried again. "I know I did so much wrong, but please, if we could just talk."
Her eyes washed over me again, I could see the pain there, underneath the anger, and it made me ache so bad. I wanted to erase that from her face so bad.
"Not here," She started gathering up her things, "This isn't the place to talk. You can't do this here."
I fought down the panic as she reached for Henry. She was going to leave, I wasn't going to get my chance. Henry didn't fuss at all when he saw Sarah reach for him, he happily raised his arms to her to be picked up.
"Wh...where?" I was begging again, wondering if this was it, the last opportunity to talk to her gone.
She looked at me sharply then, her eyes full of mistrust. "If you want to talk to me, then you know where to find me, but not here, not at the park, not with all these people around."
Something small and sweet began to grow inside me. Was she saying what I thought she was saying?
"When?" I was looking up at her, kneeling in the sand, still half confused with what she was saying. She was standing with Henry in her arms, her hair blowing softly around her. I could see it again, the tiny strip of yellow fabric blending in with her hair, it flew around her before resting against the side of her head.
"It's just going to be Henry and me at dinner tonight." She looked down at me carefully, "Clay has other plans, it'll just be us two."
My mood was swinging wildly at her words. One second full of hope, one second crushed. It was making me dizzy. But I was going to take what I could get. Whatever she offered me, I was going to take.
"Do you need anything, from me? To bring?" I stumbled over my words, my voice shaking, I could hear it, I'm sure she could hear it too.
She stayed silent for a minute before shaking her head no. Henry rested his head against his mother's shoulder, his eyes watching me. She moved her free hand up to his back and rubbed it gently before turning away from me.
"Sarah," I said softly, wishing she didn't want to get away from me so quickly. She didn't turn all the was around, just sort of looked over her shoulder at me, "Thank you." I whispered.
I thought I saw her take a deep breath then, but I could've been wrong, because she turned around again and walked away.
"Will you marry me?" I was looking up at her, the sight of her before me was just breathtaking. The woman I was asking to be my wife was bouncing on her tiptoes, smiling up a storm, her hands covering half her face, blushing a deep red.
She let our this half scream, half whoop, and reached both hands out to me, laughing and nodding yes at the same time.
I slid the diamond ring on her finger, gathering her up in my arms and swinging her around and around, right there in the middle of the music store. Some of the other customers noticed our exchange and began clapping for us. Even the mom of the troublemaking kid was clapping.
This was the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with. My greatest achievement. My crowning glory. I never thought I could be happier than I was at this moment.
And when we made love back at her apartment, if felt like the first time. Soft, loving, exploring, her quiet moans and deep kisses made me love her all over again. The way her hands felt on my chest, her legs wrapping around my waist, my name tumbling from her lips, it sent me soaring high, made me want her even more.
We were going to start a whole new chapter in our lives. One that was going to be magical. Nothing we could ever imagine, beyond our wildest dreams, it would be everything we ever wanted. And even though we never thought it would, it would hurt us, tear us apart, making it the hardest thing we would ever go through.
The sun had already gone down when I reached the doorstep. She left the porch light on so I wasn't in the dark. I lingered at the door wondering what she was doing on the other side, unsure if I should be holding what I was holding in my right hand. It felt weird ringing the doorbell to my own house, one that I opened and walked right into so many times before.
I could hear the soft tapping of footsteps and the rattle of the chain as she unlocked the door. She peeked out at me, her hair falling over her shoulder. It sent a wave of memories through me, and a fresh jolt of pain for all that I lost.
"Hi." She almost smiled. Almost.
"Hi." For some reason I felt shy, like twelve year old school boy shy.
"Come in." She pulled the door open wider to let me in.
I stepped into my house, taking in the room around me, searching out familiar sights. Everything still looked the same, same foyer table, same crystal vase, same picture of Henry at birth. I was still looking around me when I noticed her take a tiny step back with a small gasp.
She saw what I was holding. It wasn't meant to hurt her, just to remind her, but I guess I didn't think it all the way through, because I realized that it did hurt her. I could see the sadness flash through her face and her eyes water.
"I'm sorry," I quickly apologized, taking a step towards her, "I saw this and thought of you. I thought you might like it." My hand thrust out, holding the yellow tulip, offering it to her.
She turned away so I couldn't see her eyes but held out her hand at the same time. "Thank you." Her voice was strained. I placed the flower in her hand and she quickly walked away from me, heading for the kitchen.
"Henry is napping." She said hurriedly as I followed her to the kitchen. "He doesn't usually nap this late but I guess the park really wore him out." She rummaged through the cabinet until she found a small vase, she filled it with water and placed the tulip inside.
Her eyes finally met mine, the sadness was still there, and the tiredness, it made me feel so guilty. I had done this to her, to us.
"That's okay." I reassured her, "He needs his rest."
"Why don't you come out to the back, I have the baby monitor on so we can hear when Henry wakes up. We have new patio furniture." She moved through the house, taking me back to the french doors that led to the backyard.
The patio, that been empty when I lived there, was now decked out really nice. Strings of colored light strung all around the top. Pretty wicker furniture with colorful seat cushions graced the center of the room making it look more like a dining area than an outdoor space.
"This is nice." I glanced around.
"Thank you, Clay picked it out." The words hung heavy in the air.
I could feel my throat tightening, "Does he come here a lot?" I really, really tried to keep my voice neutral, but just couldn't.
Sarah looked at me again quietly before answering, "Yes, he does." She tilted her head to the side as if she were waiting to see my reaction.
I didn't want to start our first conversation this way, it would end badly, I knew that. I wanted to avoid that, so I went around the wicker coffee table over to one the chairs and sat down nonchalantly, "Tell him I said he has good taste."
This time she smiled at me, I mean really smiled, almost giggled. And I smiled back at her, watching her as she settled down onto the chair opposite of me.
"So," Her eyes never left my face, they were warm, almost loving. "How have you been Matthew?"