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Hua you chong kai ri, ren wu zai shaonian –
Flowers may bloom again, but a man never has the chance to be young twice
He was one of them, sitting in reflection, thinking about everything that happened and the possibilities that the future held. Even now, thinking about his situation brought him great sorrow and because there was little he could do to stop thinking about it, his sorrow consumed him. He rubbed his eyes, his hands shaking partly because of exhaustion, partly because of expectation, mostly because of her. He was nearing the end of his six-hour trip to Kennedy International airport, and could bring himself to neither eat nor rest in that time. Despite his best efforts his thoughts continued to drift back to her and his relative proximity to his destination only intensified his emotions. William Morre considered himself an average man of average means, but those who really knew him were aware that he was anything but average.
He was on his way to pursue his passion for writing and literature at Columbia University. Before this, however, there were particular prerequisites that he needed and he already planned to attend one of the community colleges for about one year starting in January. That gave him just about two months, to get settled...more than enough time to find her. How they met and how their relationship got started was a mixture of intense attraction and bad timing. Till that time, William thought himself to be principled and moral, and for the most part he was. But he was never seriously tested until he met her and by his own admission, he failed miserably.
Natalie was married when they met, and although she wasn’t happily married, he knew he crossed the line the moment he allowed his attraction to dictate his actions. He comforted himself with the belief that she needed help that she needed someone because she was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. He allowed himself to believe that he was not part of the problem, that in fact, he was her alternative, her solution. But deep down he knew that although it felt like what they both wanted, it wasn’t what she needed. She really needed time alone to rediscover herself, to heal her pain. After seven years of marriage she finally found the strength to leave, and maybe she did get some strength from him. But now she needed to rediscover her own strength, to resolve her feelings and truly regain control of her life. What she really needed was a friend. Before she left they both came to the same painful realization; before she could continue her journey with anyone, she needed to first go this part alone. To be fair to herself and to him, she had to deal with the emotional issues that only she could resolve the questions only she could answer. They had tried together but the past constantly threatened the present, because it wasn’t resolved. The emotional baggage was always there and although he was the first to recognize the potential for problems, it didn’t make dealing with the break up any easier.
His head throbbed as he pressed his eyelids shut and for the moment tried to think of something different. There was after all a more immediate concern. On the ground a man waited to greet him, a man he had never met, the father he never knew. Contempt rose within him, at least for a few moments more he didn’t have to face what seemed inevitable. He opened his eyes and his thoughts drifted back to her. Since she left, they communicated infrequently via mail and phone calls talking to each other, avoiding specific issues, and saying very little. The only thing that was certain was that feelings still existed, at least for him they did. It had been almost a year since they saw each other, and now he wondered.
Suddenly he became aware of the light flashing just ahead of him. It must have been on for sometime because the flight attendant was already at his side asking him to fasten his seatbelt. He exhaled audibly, and braced for the landing.
It took William no longer than fifteen minutes to clear immigration and part of him hoped it would take longer; if only to momentarily put off the inevitable. He searched the crowd for the familiar face, feeling a myriad of conflicting emotions. Anxiety however, was not one of them. There was always little talk of his father at home and as far as he knew all he shared with him were genetics and name. He drank in the crowd slowly, lingering on each nameless face until his eyes met with a smile and the face he recognized from photographs. The face was a bit fuller than those in the photos, but he looked to be in good shape. The resemblance was uncanny and had to admit that a small part of him was looking forward to this meeting.
Despite his best efforts, his response was halfhearted as he smiled in acknowledgment. There he stood, Michael Morre, self-made millionaire, a man who made his fortune as an investment broker and shrewd businessman. But in spite of all his financial successes, he was a man who only recently seemed comfortable with the idea of accepting certain personal responsibilities. Michael met William’s mother, Cheryl, twenty-three years earlier when he was just out of University and on holiday in the Caribbean twin Isle of Trinidad & Tobago. They met fell in love and she got pregnant, it wasn’t long after that Michael left. At the time he was unwilling to give up his freedom and career dreams. So Cheryl raised William alone, aided financially when possible, but abandoned emotionally for the duration. And so she sacrificed everything for her son, because of her love for him and the lost love he represented. Although she never spoke an ill word against his father, William inherited the same unspoken resentment for him that his mother held. And now here he stood before him...the man he longed for as a child held no special charm now.
“So William how was your flight?” he began extending his hand, his smile fixed.
“It was fine,” he lied, unsure of what to call his father “not bad at all.” he said finally. He shook his father’s hand, but maintaining a smile proved to be too difficult. A few moments of uncomfortable silence followed broken by the appearance of a beautiful brunette. She was in her forties but took obvious care of herself. Michael leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips.
“Oh, William,” he said as though suddenly reminded of his presence, “this is my wife, Tonya.” William accepted her hand.
“Tonya this is,” he paused feeling William’s eyes on him “this is William.” William shook his head and forced a smile. Tonya immediately recognized the tension between them.
“Okay Michael, help Bill with his suitcase.” she stopped abruptly and shot William a glance “I’m sorry, you don’t mind me calling you Bill do you?”
“Just as long as it’s not Billy,” he answered seriously “Bill’s fine.”
“His father’s wit.” she paused, regretting the remark almost immediately.
“I’m...the car is parked this way.” she said motioning towards the exit.
A few miles away two men sat in a black sedan observing a woman. She wore jeans and a sweater under a gray trench coat and her black shoulder length hair peeked from underneath the flaps of her gray cap. As she approached, the clean-shaven man on the passenger side spoke.
“You were right; she is an attractive woman, but first things first.” As she climbed the steps his gaze drifted from her to his bearded partner.
“You said the child stays with her... here?”
“Yeah, looks to be four or five months old.” he replied, stroking a small scar at the base of his neck, eyes fixed on her.
“Good,” a smile creased his weathered face “when it’s over you can have your fun, not before. Just remember where your loyalties lie. She’s of no importance.”
Inside the apartment she greeted her sister and picked up her daughter. Outside they continued to plan their part in Natalie Smith’s future. They would enter her life as they had with countless other strangers, and as always, in their wake they would leave nothing but darkness.
As William entered what would be his home, at least for now, one thing was immediately clear to him. Although, as expected, the house was on New York’s high end it wasn’t excessive in size. He was surprised that the house appeared to be cozy, comfortable and in no way pretentious. He found himself admiring the tastefully decorated interior, and in spite of himself he could already feel old feelings resurfacing. Feelings he felt his father didn’t deserve.
Michael continued to feel lost as he fought with guilt and the desire to make up for lost time. At least for the moment, he reasoned, William seemed more relaxed than he had when he had just arrived.
“You just go right ahead and make yourself at home William.” William turned, the voice startling him at first.
“You have a very beautiful home,” he paused looking at Michael and his wife “thank you both for accommodating me. I really appreciate it.”
Michael was no good at expressing his emotions and so words quite naturally left him at a time like this. Tonya understood him, and was the perfect foil to his emotional inadequacies.
“You’re extremely welcome,” she said, taking her husbands hand “if you want, you can take your things up to your room and get settled. It’s up the stairs, first door on your right.”
“Thanks.” he replied, taking up his suitcase and carry on bag.
“After you’re settled, we’ll decide on dinner,” his father paused, “and then maybe we could talk?” he found it difficult to swallow as his son turned to face him.
“Okay” William replied evenly “that sounds fine.”
On Tonya’s insistence, William agreed to go out to dinner. Though, not before going shopping with his father for new clothes they both insisted he have. It was clearly more intended as an opportunity for both men to bond, but William was too focused on being civil to make conversation. As the afternoon progressed he slowly gained an appreciation of how his mother could have fallen for his father, he perceived an underlying decency that try as he did he couldn’t ignore. One thing didn’t make sense though, if he was in fact as decent as he appeared why didn’t he ever establish a relationship with his son? Or did he really change that much in the years since William’s mother knew him.
After dinner, conversation was pleasant but there were moments of uneasiness. As soon as they got back to the house, Tonya said goodnight to them both and retired to the bedroom giving her husband and his estranged son time to talk. As she left the room Michael turned to his son.
“You’re definitely old enough, can I get you a drink. Perhaps some brandy?”
“Thanks, but I’ll have juice if you don’t mine.” he stepped down into the den area and sat in one of three large black leather chairs.
“No problem. Is orange okay?” Michael inquired as he walked over to the bar. William nodded his consent, as he admired the bar built into the right corner of the den. It was well stocked and elegantly designed; the only personal touch a blue angled neon sign that read ‘Mike’s Place’.
“Your mother told me that you were serious about your health.”
“I’m not a fanatic or any thing it’s just that I never really acquired much of a taste for alcohol, so I don’t drink that much,”
“Fair enough.” He walked over and handed William his drink. He however, needed something stronger than juice. He sipped scotch as he spoke.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions...at least I know I would if I were you.” For the first time since he arrived, William locked eyes with his father and made no attempt to mask the years of resentment.
“You’re sure I have questions,” his voice quivered as he felt the heat born out of anger and hurt “how perceptive of you. Where were you for the last twenty three years?!!?”
“I know you -”
“You know shit!” he interrupted, his tone escalating. He took a deep breath, and continued more controlled.
“How could you even have a clue, you were never there. It was easier as a child to invent stories about you, but it was never easy trying to understand why you abandoned us. God knows, even now, I wish there were something you could say to explain...but I doubt there is anything you could say. I guess I’m just the nigger son that you never wanted.”
Michael’s heart and head ached. For the first time he had to bear witness to the pain he caused his son. He drank the remaining scotch in one gulp, allowing it to burn his throat.
“There is nothing I could say, and your right there is no explanation at least not a good one,” he paused, feeling the lump in his throat “but I don’t want you to think that it’s because your mother is black. That’s not the reason. I...I was young and selfish; I wasn’t ready to raise a child. I wish you would believe me when I say as much as I could love anyone at that time I loved your mother but I wasn’t sure that, that—”
“That what, that she was good enough, that your parents would approve of you marrying a black woman, what!?” somehow he managed to control his tone.
“I can never,” he tried to clear his throat, searching for the appropriate words to explain away years of neglect and pain, knowing that no words would ever be adequate.
“I can’t make up for what I did, as for what you and your mother had to endure because of me, I’m sorry. Sorrier than you’ll ever know, I know it sounds like bullshit. I can hear myself. But there’s probably nothing I can say. I hope that I am a different man now than I was then.” His eyes searched his son’s face as he continued “I fucked up, I know...I know you’re intelligent and independent and I certainly can’t force you to give me a chance. I’m not even sure that I deserve one, I just...I guess. I just don’t want to waste any more time.”
“I wish I didn’t hate you. I wish I could believe you, but how would you feel,” William began, his vision blurring “if you were in my position.” Michael had no reply.
William stood his head throbbing, he could feel the tears running down his face and he realized that his father was also crying. At that moment more than anything else he wanted to hug him, but he didn’t. He brought his hand up to his father’s shoulder, clenched his fist and pulled his hand away.
“I didn’t come here to fight, I’m beginning to wonder why I did, but I can’t forgive you. Not now, not tonight.”
The night ended without another word between them, with the silence bringing reflection and a remote feeling of hope.
The morning found William going through his usual routine. He showered and changed into a gray armless T-shirt and matching track pants. For most of the night he was restless, and now he felt emotionally drained. While he stretched, he thought about everything his father said. Being fair was hard and getting past the only feelings he had was difficult. So he exhaled, trying to clear his mind. Then he began, blocking, kicking, beginning slowly at first, smoothly; his form and speed reminiscent of Tai Chi Chuan. Then gradually he increased his speed concentrating on maintaining form until he no longer had to, until the moves broke down into conditioned response and personal flare. Twenty minutes later, sweat dripping from his medium muscular frame, he slowed his pace his breathing controlled his mind a bit clearer. He hadn’t really acclimatized to the weather, and as controlled as the temperature was inside it did little to mask the bitter cold outside. So he decided against taking a jog.
After taking another shower he changed into khaki slacks and a blue sweater and went downstairs. He was immediately aware that the large mahogany sliding doors of his father’s study were open. And there he was, looking like he hadn’t slept, drawn, disshelved, and shuffling papers behind his desk. He removed his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes. Then a voice startled William from behind.
“Good morning Bill, did you sleep well?”
“Very well thank you,” he lied, smiling at Tonya “the room’s very comfortable.” “Morning William.” he turned to see his father walking towards them.
“Morning.” he replied avoiding his eyes.
“I was just about to offer Bill some breakfast hon.”
“That sounds great. William?” Michael asked, locking eyes briefly with his son.
“Sure, thanks.” he replied looking at both of them.
“I hope you have a healthy appetite.” Tonya remarked as she made her way to the kitchen.
“Um, Michael,” he began as she left, feeling strange speaking his name “I need to make some calls and I would appreciate-----”
“Sure,” Michael interrupted “I know you need to call your mother, let her know you’re alright. Please feel free to use the phone whenever you like.”
“Thanks,” he said a bit hesitantly “and..... about last night.”
“Please don’t feel like you have to say anything. Its how you feel, and you have every right to feel the way you do. I appreciate your honesty.”
He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder before walking into the kitchen. As he left the room, William turned his attention to the other person he had to call, his thoughts drifted to Natalie.
Her hair was tied in a ponytail; her head covered with a hat and air muffs and her jacket was zipped up until it covered half her face. Still, the cold bit into her flesh as though she was totally unprotected against the elements. Every winter she reaffirmed that she would never grow use to the cold. She was usually sure footed as she made her way from the grocer, but on this Saturday morning rain had fallen leaving the sidewalk dangerously slick.
Her right foot slipped from under her, she fought the imbalance momentarily but her body and finally the grocery bag followed. Pain discounted embarrassment as she pushed herself into a kneeling position and as she did she became aware of the hand outstretched before her and the clear deep voice that followed.
“You okay miss?” She gripped his hand as she tried to stand.
“I think, so.” she replied wincing as she stood up.
“Looks like you twisted your ankle.” he said matter a factly, retrieving her bag of groceries.
“Don’t worry,” he exposed a badge clipped to his belt, “I’m a cop. My car is parked right over here.” he said pointing to a gray sedan and smiling for the first time. She looked at the car and then at him with uncertainty.
“It’s okay,” he said, recognizing her anxiety “there should be more people as concerned about their safety as you obviously are.” He paused, allowing his words to have their intended effect.
“How far do you live from here?”
“About a block.” she answered calmly.
“Listen, I understand your concern. Do you think you could make it on your own?” he asked. She wanted to say yes, but she could already feel the ankle swelling.
“No, I don’t think I can.”
He looked at her for a moment in quiet frustration.
“Okay. My name is Donald Baker, detective Donald Baker. I’m attached to the 42nd. Precinct, this is my I.D.” he added handing her his wallet and then his badge.
“But if you’re still uncomfortable, at least let me call you a cab.”
As she considered his offer, an old couple called out to him from across the street.
“Good morning Detective.”
“Good morning Mr. and Mrs. Harland.” He replied waving before turning back to her. “See, I’m harmless.” he said smiling innocently. After a moment of indecision, she finally conceded.
“I guess its okay, thank you.”
“Thank me when I get you home Mrs-”
“Oh I’m sorry, and actually it’s Miss, Natalie Smith.”
“O.K. Miss Smith,” he said smiling “just let me help you to the car and I’ll get you home.”
She felt his hands on her back, gently, slowly, the short curled hair on his chest brushed gently across her back as he leaned forward. Her head arched backwards, she shuddered, as his hands found the front of her blouse, and as his lips and tongue circled her neck she shut her eyes. He undid the buttons with consummate ease, his fingers manipulating her breasts through lace fabric, circling her nipples. She turned to face him kissing him, slowly at first and then, harder, deeper. Her hand slid down unbuttoning his pants, as her tongue moved down over his chest, lingering on a nipple, he closed his eyes moaning softly. Then with seeming urgency the phone rang. The time between rings appearing shorter, as the rings seemed to grow louder. Stephen looked down at Nicole pleadingly.
“Come on Nicky, let it ring. We haven’t spent much time together recently, and your sister is going to be back soon...Please let it ring.” He threw his hands in the air and looked up at the ceiling in frustration as she fixed her bra and reached for the phone. But, he knew that eventually she would have to answer it before it woke her niece. She left her blouse undone and looked at him seductively as she answered.
“Yes, who’s this?”
“I’m sorry, this is William. How are you?” She pulled the front of her blouse together. “I’m fine William, but I’m sorry Natalie’s not at home.” she said tersely.
“She isn’t? Okay, could you just let her know that I—”
As she hung up she turned to her fiancé.
“That wasn’t very nice Nicole.”
“Nice?! And where is it written that I have to be nice to that immature, insensitive bastard.” she replied. Stephen picked up his shirt from the floor as he spoke. “You don’t even know him. Why do you let him get under your skin like that?” As she turned away, he walked up behind her and rubbed her shoulders.
“I mean you were the one that told me he doesn’t even know he has a child. I’m just saying, maybe you should try and lighten up a bit.” She turned and met his gaze, responding calmly.
“He calls when he wants to, writes when he has the time. He’s a kid himself...I just think my sister has had enough of assholes and she can do better. All he has to do is stay out of her life.”
“But you are going to let her decide what’s in her own best interest right?” he asked trying to meet her avoiding eyes. The sound of a car horn provided her escape.
“Saved by the bell.” he called after her, as she made her way to the door. As she looked through the peephole she saw her sister being helped up the stairs. She opened the door. “Natalie, are you alright, what happened!?”
“I’m fine.” she replied, as they climbed the final two steps. Stephen came up behind Nicole, buttoning his shirt.
“Jesus Natalie you okay?” he asked, glancing from Natalie to Donald.
“I’m okay,” she answered feigning annoyance, “it’s just my ankle you two, really I’m fine.” Nicole looked at Donald, his car and then her sister. She smiled; at least she met someone nice she thought. Natalie met her sister’s gaze.
“I’m sorry. Nicole, Stephen, this is detective Donald Baker. Donald this is my sister and her fiancé.” He took their hands in turn, and as he accepted Stephen’s hand Stephen raised a finger in his direction.
“You’re with the 42nd, right?”
“Yeah that’s right.” Donald replied hesitantly.
“I knew I recognized the face. I’m with the D.A.’s office.”
“That’s right,” Donald replied in sudden recognition “you’re an investigator with the District Attorney’s office, but I don’t think we’ve ever been formally introduced.”
“No we haven’t. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Donald, I was just about to prepare lunch, can you stay?”
“Nicole,” Natalie responded, her cheeks flushed “detective Baker probably has other plans.”
“Actually I don’t. This is my day off and I usually eat alone, so if it wouldn’t be much of an imposition I certainly wouldn’t mind the company.” he turned to Natalie and smiled. “Then it’s settled,” Stephen interjected, “you guys better get in out of the cold.”
“Do you mind helping her, while I get the groceries out of the car?”
“No problem,” Stephen replied, “I’ll take miss sure footed inside.” Natalie looked at Stephen with mock anger barely concealing her smile. As Donald made his way to the car Natalie’s sister turned to her and whispered.
“He seems nice.”
“Oh come on Stephen, he does.”
Inside they spoke and laughed, and as Nicole looked at them Stephen knew what she was thinking and this time he would have to agree with her. In the time that he knew Natalie, he had never seen her as relaxed or as happy. He looked at Donald now, he didn’t know him personally but he was familiar with his reputation. He was a good cop, and truth be told if things got serious, he hoped a good man. As the afternoon progressed Natalie’s daughter awoke and she too was fascinated with the stranger. Three hours later, Donald chose a moment of silence to thank his hosts and leave. As he made his way to the door Natalie called out to him.
“Donald, hold on, I’ll walk you to your car.” Donald looked at Nicole and Stephen and they shared a smile.
“That’s not necessary,” he said, looking at her now bandaged ankle “you should rest your ankle.” But she was already on her feet, making her way to him.
“I insist. It’s the least I could do.”
“Well you certainly wont get much of an argument from me.” he turned to Nicole and Stephen one last time.
“Nicole thanks again for a wonderful lunch. Stephen, remember we’re on for lunch next week.”
“No problem. I’ll call you.”
“And of course I can’t forget the little princess,” he waved his hand “bye, bye Michelle.” she laughed from the safety of her aunt’s arms, waving as though she understood.
Outside, they made their way slowly down the steps. Donald turned to Natalie.
“How’s your ankle?”
“It feels a bit better. Thanks to you.” she answered, looking into his blue eyes. But he could only look into her beautiful brown eyes for a moment.
“Thanks to me? No you’re to kind,” he said modestly “you make a man helping a woman, especially a beautiful one, sound like an inconvenience. I just did what any normal male in my position would have done.”
It was her turn to avoid his eyes. As they stopped at the car, he turned to her. A moment of awkward silence was followed by nervous laughter.
“Listen, I don’t want to seem too forward. But I would like to ask you out to dinner sometime, that is of course, provided that you’re not seeing anyone and you wouldn’t mind going.” She allowed his invitation to dangle for a while.
“So my daughter doesn’t bother you?” she asked seriously.
“No she doesn’t,” he replied smiling “I know I don’t know anything about you but I would really like the opportunity to get to know you. I’d like to see you again.” she returned his smile.
“Okay detective, yes, I will go out to dinner with you. But there is one condition.”
“I get to choose the restaurant.”
“I’ll agree to that,” He agreed with some degree of concern, “and throw myself at your mercy. But I also have a condition of my own.”
“You’ll give serious consideration to calling me Donald, instead of detective.”
“Okay detec-, Donald, I will.” He looked at her, smiling, and was silent for a moment. “Well, I’ll call you.”
“Okay. Well I guess its goodnight then.”
“Yes goodnight Donald.”
As she looked at the car disappearing down the street her thoughts drifted. She thought of William and their child and of herself; maybe it was time to move on with her life, and put the past behind her.
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