FRIDAY: Retracing Steps

Today is the last post before the holidays. Our next post and newsletter will be Monday, January 6, 2020. Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas! See you in the new year.

BY TRISHA RIDINGER McKEE

Copyright is held by the author.

SABRINA ABSENTLY turned the glass ornament around in her hands, Wes’s ultimatum replaying over and over in her mind.

“There has to be more, Sabrina. I love you. I need all of you.”

She had heard this from him often during their two years together. But lately his words held an intensity that snagged her attention. And she was caught off guard when she realized that she cared. She did not want to lose him. For the first time in twelve years, she actually felt her heart thaw and thump, beat for someone.

So, she had gone out and bought a Christmas tree. She had purchased decorations and for the first time since she had been a child living at home, she had decorated. And still, it had not been enough. She had forced herself to partake in a holiday that held no appeal for her, and Wes responded in frustration.

“This is something mechanical, Sabrina. You’re reacting out of a fear of losing me. I want you. I want your emotions, your story, your past. I want to belong there.”

Sabrina had been left speechless. In the past twelve years, she had dated sparingly. The guys never stuck around for long because she gave no encouragement. She barely had an interest in herself, so there was no room to be emotionally invested in men.

Wes had been different from the beginning. He was mature and resigned, stoic to a fault. There were no expectations for that fairytale romance. His love was his work, and she felt comfortable, safe in her small, stale world.

They settled into a routine. He would take her out on Wednesdays and Fridays. He would spend weekend nights at her apartment. Every now and then, he would mention a desire for more, for a commitment. She assumed he was simply following a life plan expected from most. But she was no longer built that way. She could not give up any of herself, for that part of her had been taken a long time ago. So, she would brush his words away, explaining she was fine with how things were. Apologizing that she had no more to give. And she assumed that somewhere deep within his subconscious, Wes was relieved. Because he seemed to be built of the same unemotional materials. He was safe.

Until tonight. The occasional gentle nudge had turned into a passion-infused ultimatum. Part of her wished she could simply let him go. If this was not enough for Wes, then he should seek out something more, someone more. A woman capable of love and commitment, of affection and smiles.

But that part of her was drowned out by the other side that wanted him. She did not want to let him go. The mere thought of not having him around scared her more than the thought of keeping him close.

Without much thought of the time, Sabrina called him, flinching when his deep, muffled voice answered, mumbling her name.

“I’m sorry. I . . . I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Sounding more alert, he asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes. Well, no. I’ve been thinking about what you said. And I’d like to talk. To explain some things . . . I want to make this work so . . . I’ll take you to my hometown over the holiday. I’ll do it.”

It would have been easy to get caught up in Wes’s excitement. Sabrina wished she were the type of person that could forget and move on, take in the joy around her, live her best life. But the past clung to her like a wet t-shirt, and she was not sure how to shrug it off.

“I think this will help,” Wes whispered in her ear the very next night as they made plans. His deep, melodic voice was a slight comfort. Her heart dropped into her stomach when she stared into his almond-shaped caramel eyes, his black hair dipping below his neck. She had feelings for him, but she feared the past would overwhelm any attempt at true affection. As if reading her thoughts, Wes asked, “Can you talk about him? I don’t know anything except that he died.”

He was asking the impossible. He wanted her to re-visit the darkest time of her life. And just as she opened her mouth to explain that she could not even speak of his name, she found herself saying, “His name was Craig. And we were in love.”

The memories burst forth like water through a faulty dam. That beautiful boy with wild brown hair and dark eyes framed by long lashes. Those sharp cheekbones and full lips. He had been soft-spoken and funny. And he had adored Sabrina.

From ages 16 to 20, they had been inseparable. They planned a wedding for later that last year, living in a tiny apartment while he worked at his dad’s paper mill and she attended college. They had life figured out. They were blissfully happy.

She described this to Wes, she touched upon that day, the storm, Craig driving carefully, and still hydroplaning. The crash.

And then she did something she had never done before. She told him about the baby. “I was 12 weeks pregnant. I was so excited about reaching that milestone that I wanted to tell my mom and dad right away. I insisted we go out in that storm, even though he wanted to stay home. I lost the baby. Which was a blessing because the thought of raising Craig’s baby without him. “She glanced up, swiping the back of her hand across her wet cheeks. “That sounds horrible. But it was how I felt. I mourned him, not the baby.”

Part of her expected Wes to voice his objections, his disgust. But of course, he simply leaned forward and let his fingers lightly graze her hands, careful not to intrude on her personal space as she divulged such emotional trauma. “It doesn’t sound horrible, Sabrina. It sounds like a woman that lost the love of her life.”

Sabrina called her parents to inform them of her impending trip, and her mother screamed and bawled, making her realize just how much her absence, physical and emotional, affected her family. Of course, her mother was overcome with emotion, she was going to see her daughter on the holidays for the first time in over a decade.

It seemed that once she opened the door to the past, it refused to shut. “He loved Christmas.”

Wes turned from the stove and raised his eyebrows in question. “What was that?”

“I said he loved Christmas. Craig. He went all out. He would decorate the entire apartment. Play that sappy music, watch those ridiculously heartwarming movies . . .”

He put down the spoon and regarded her with surprise. “And you loved it, didn’t you?”

Slowly, she nodded, moving closer to the tree she had put up only the day before. “I did. It was cozy. Fun. We’d spend weeks finding each other the perfect gifts. Not expensive but . . . but meaningful.”

“I see. I am understanding your avoidance of this time of year much better now. I just thought . . . I’m not sure what I thought. So . . .” He came and sat next to her, careful to not touch her when she was in this reflective mood. “This visit is not going to be easy.”

“It isn’t.”

“Sabrina.” He waited until she sighed and looked up at him, her large green eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “I want to help you through this. Can you let me help you?”

Her only answer was to lean into him, to allow his arms to wrap around her trembling body. These emotions were new to her. So many times she had backed away from anything . . . from anyone that could elicit an emotional response.

And that first time she was pulled into her weeping mother’s firm embrace, Sabrina realized the irony. By shielding herself, by licking her wounds for over a decade, she had put her mother through her own personal hell. The pain of not seeing her child, of not being able to help her put her life back together or her heart. Sabrina saw that agony in her mother’s aged face.

Her father simply nodded with his lips pressed together before drawing her close to him. “’Bout time you got home.”

Her parents had aged. Considerably. She had seen them when they visited her 10 years ago, had video chatted with them occasionally, but to be in front of them all these years later . . . she saw how her father stooped and how her mother’s cheeks sagged around the tiny creases. They were not the middle-aged couple she had left behind. They were closer to retirement age, closer to not being around.

Wes was at her side, his smile warm and conversation flawless. But the slight pressing of his palm against the small of her back told Sabrina he understood the toll this short time with her parents was taking.

And as her mother burst into tears for the fifth time in twenty minutes, he jumped in and suggested, “We should go to the hotel and freshen up. Joe . . . Carol, I hope you don’t have plans for dinner. I’d like to take everyone out.”

Carol’s hand reached out as if she could somehow grab time and keep them there. “Well, hotel? No,I thought you’d stay here.”

“We appreciate the offer,” Wes again spoke up for Sabrina, whose energy was sapped, reminiscent of the days right after Craig’s death. Everyone had wanted something from her. They wanted signs that she was okay, they wanted her to somehow make them feel better about her pain, they wanted her to be strong. And yet, not so strong that she disappeared from that life entirely.

Wes continued, “But we think it’s best to stay at the hotel. We don’t want to disrupt your routines.”

Carol shook her head and opened her mouth to protest, but Sabrina softly called out, “Mom.” When she had her mother’s attention, she added, “We’re here. Okay? I’m here. For the next five days. But let me have this, okay?” And slowly, her eyes shut, Carol nodded.

And back at the hotel, Wes held her as she sobbed. “I didn’t even make it past the entryway.”

“You made it to the entryway,” he insisted in a strong whisper. And it was his support, his allowance for her breakdowns that gave Sabrina the strength to return to her childhood home.

As if sensing her emotions were too much for Sabrina to handle, Carol worked at keeping calm, her smile wide, but tone steady. “Do you want to see Sabrina’s bedroom? We have it the same as it was . . . when she lived here.”

Wes paused, smiling to take the sting out of his words. “I think that’s up to Sabrina.” And it felt good to know he got it. How her mother was, how her father was, he got it. And she nodded. Because this was about healing.

They followed the older woman upstairs and into a room that was an actual time warp. It had movie posters on the walls, high school cheer-leading trophies on the shelves, stuffed animals all around and a vanity mirror with pictures edged between the frame. And that was where Sabrina gravitated.

“Oh dear,” Carol rushed past Sabrina and started to take the pictures down. “I wasn’t even thinking. I left this up since you moved out after high school with, well, and —”

“Mom. Leave it. Please.”

She stepped around Carol and slowly picked up the picture her mother had dropped. It was her and Craig at their junior prom. Then she plucked another picture from the frame. She and Craig at the beach, his red tank top showing off his tanned skin and her peach bikini flaunting a body she randomly wished was still as easy to maintain. Tears sprang to her eyes as she remembered that trip, their first trip without adults. The sun and sand and racing back to the hotel room because the freedom was the ultimate teenage aphrodisiac.

“Oh, dear. I knew you shouldn’t be looking at those pictures. I should have thrown them out.”

Wes put an arm around Carol. “Ma’am. She’s fine. This is fine. Can you give us a few minutes?”

Carol looked relieved to be given an out. She rushed out of the room, shutting the door as if to keep the difficult emotions from following her.

“You okay? What do you need?” Wes asked softly as she gazed at the pictures.

Slowly, Sabrina looked up. “I’m hanging in there.” She gestured to the pictures, and he walked up to her. He waited for her to show him the images, the proof of her life when she was young and carefree, when she did not have the boulder of heartache on her shoulders. He let her show him, and he wrapped his arms around her and pressed his lips to the top of her head.

“You know,” she began, her voice cracking with built-up emotions, “I never took you for an affectionate man.”

The following day, they arrived early to help Joe and Carol bring boxes down from the attic downstairs and to start decorating. And Sabrina was mesmerized as she went through the box of ornaments.

“Mom! I remember these! I can’t believe it. There’re the ballerina shoes for the year I took dance. Look! An apple with my name on it the year I started school. Oh. Wow.” She sat back on her heels and stared, her face a myriad of awe, grief, and a youthful excitement.

Carol drew her close. “Remember we would make popcorn and watch the holiday movies while decorating the tree? We can do that – wait, I’ll put a movie in.”

It would have overwhelmed Sabrina just days ago, but she merely giggled at her mother’s enthusiasm, digging further into the box for the memories awaiting her. “Mom, remember Santa would come down the street in a firetruck? He’d give out those balls of popcorn.”

“I remember,” Carol sang out from the kitchen.

Wes wrinkled his nose. “Your town sure has a fascination with popcorn. Isn’t that more a movie theater thing and not a holiday thing?” They laughed as he helped her string the lights.

The light mood was dampened when Sabrina’s brother Paul arrived with his wife and two kids. Sabrina approached them with a smile but drew back upon seeing her brother’s glare. “So, you decided to grace us with your presence after all these years? What are we supposed to do, jump for joy and thank you?”

It was one of the few times Wes had seen Sabrina at a loss for words, so he instinctively stepped in front of her. “I doubt she expected that type of greeting, but perhaps a ‘Hello, sis, good to see you’ is in order.”

The men stared each other down for a few long moments before Paul stepped to the side and again addressed Sabrina. “Robbie’s 13 now. And you never even met your niece Judy. All these years, and it was all about you. Do you even care that mom and dad were devastated by your absence? You’ve always been selfish.” He grew still when he saw the decorated tree. “You — mom, what the hell? The kids wanted to decorate the tree.”

Carol wrung her hands together. “They get to decorate your tree and Pam’s parents’ tree, Paul. I wanted to do this with Sabrina. Now you stop.”

Wes decided it was time to take Sabrina out, away from that stifling house and contradictory reactions.

The night was cold and snowy, and Wes savored the feeling of Sabrina clutching his arm and leaning into him as they walked down the sidewalk to the restaurant. This was a softer side of her, a more loving, open side of her that he had always known was there.

Once they were seated in a candlelit corner, soft holiday music wafting around them, he leaned forward to catch her eye. “Talk to me, Sabrina.”

To his surprise, she beamed. “Today. It was . . . being there with you and looking at those ornaments. The Christmas movies and cookies . . . it was the first time in years… I felt happy and excited and … like I did with Craig during the holidays.”

He eyed her warily, dread filling him. “But . . . Sabrina . . . I’m not Craig.”

“No!” she shook her head emphatically. “You’re not. He would have rushed through the process, breaking the ornaments in his hurry and complaining that the cookies weren’t done right away. I loved him, but he wasn’t perfect. And he was very different than you. This experience was different than the other years. But that feeling. The pure elation. The excitement over these traditions with you.”

“Corny,” he teased in a low whisper, reaching across the table to slide the back of his hand down her cheek. “Who knew.”

And for the first time in years, she found herself blushing and giggling. It was the last thing Sabrina had expected when surrounded by memories she had fought for years to smother. Faced head-on with the loss and heartache she did her best to forget, and she was surviving.

“I’m sorry about your brother.”

She shook her head, sipping her wine. “No, he’s always . . . not been a fan of mine. Never really liked me. It was more than just sibling rivalry. He just hated me. When Craig . . . when he died, Paul told me to get over it. Said that it wasn’t like we were married or had a family. That I was just trying to get attention. This was a week after he’d died.”

“Sabrina,” Wes breathed. “That’s horrible.”

But he was understanding more and more about Sabrina and what she ran from. A shattered heart? Sure. But there was the mother that wanted everyone to put on that smile and forge ahead, as if there were no such thing as dark days. A father that barely grunted his way through life. And a brother that resented his younger sibling’s knack for life, for her intelligence and passion. Of course, Sabrina ran.

And a little more of the puzzle was given that night as they curled into each other, arms and legs and hearts entwined.

“I loved Craig. But I have to admit . . . his mom . . . she was the mother I always wanted. She didn’t brush me off like I was some nuisance. She listened. Rosey and I had so many conversations at her kitchen table. I felt wanted and special when I was there.”

“And after he died?” He drew her closer when he felt her shiver. “You didn’t keep in touch,” he guessed.

“No. I feel horrible about it. Mom said that she reached out to her a few times asking about me, telling her to ask me to call, to visit. But I couldn’t.”

“I can understand that, hun. I get it.” He wanted to insist that she would love his mother. His mother had raised him and his brother on her own, but he guessed that this was already overwhelming.

The next day, as if she had heard their private conversation, Carol leaned toward Sabrina and whispered, “Have you thought about . . . Rose?”

“What do you mean, mom?” The patience was already wearing thin. Wes heard the annoyance under her words.

“She heard you were visiting and . . . she would really love to see you.” She glanced over at Wes and explained, “Rose is an old friend.”

“He knows who Rose is.” She turned to Wes. “What do you think?”

“Oh, Sabrina, he doesn’t want to go see your ex’s mom —”

“He isn’t an ex. He is my dead fiancé, mom.”

Sabrina stormed out of the room, and Wes sighed, giving her mother a weak smile. “She’s on edge. This is a lot.”

“Well, I don’t think she should be dragging you —”

“She’s not dragging me, ma’am. Anywhere your daughter goes, I’m going to follow. I’m in love with her. And I think it is great what she’s doing, facing her past —”

“Past? We’re her family.”

“With all due respect, she left here a broken woman. Her love died. So yes, she had to escape. But she’s here now. And I’m so in awe of her. Ma’am, she is just so strong. And I will go with her to face whatever she needs to face, visit whomever she needs to visit.”

Carol’s lips moved up in a smile that did not reach her eyes. “She’s lucky to have you. You must care about her to take time away from your job. You are pretty high up in your company, aren’t you? I hope she appreciates it.”

For a moment, he could not respond. Then he found his voice, keeping it low so his emotions did not overwhelm the older woman. “Do you realize your daughter is well established in her career? She is by all accounts more successful than me. That should tell you something. She is amazing. I appreciate her.”

Sabrina was quiet after making the plans to visit Rose, and at one point, Wes insisted she rethink it, as it seemed too much. He feared he was losing the carefree, loving woman she had shown him the past few days.

“No. I want to do this, Wes. I need to face this.”

Rose was a short, round woman with dark hair and gentle eyes. The grey gave away the years Sabrina had missed. But Rose smiled and held out her arms, no over-the-top weeping, no guilt trip. Simply a welcoming hug, and Wes watched as Sabrina sank into her hold, silent sobs wracking her thin body.

“There, there. Now, hush. It’s okay. You’re here. It’s okay.”

And when Sabrina gathered her composure and stepped back, smiling through the tears, Rose directed her attention to Wes. “And I am happier than you’ll ever know to meet you. I’m Rose.”

Wes returned her warm smile, immediately feeling at ease with this woman. She put him in mind of his own mother, kind and open. “I’m Wes. And it is good to finally meet you.”

The smell of pine was prominent, and the fullest tree Wes had ever seen in a house was displayed beautifully in the corner of the living room. Antique porcelain ornaments, oversized bulb lights, and gold and red ribbons adorned the tree, the lighting soft, the atmosphere cozy. And Wes watched Sabrina struggle between excitement over seeing this friendly figure from her past and heartache from remembering all that was lost. And he whispered to her, “Deep breath, love. Don’t get overwhelmed.”

Her large, wet eyes swung to him. “Don’t get overwhelmed? I’m being smacked in the face with…” she shook her head as Rose led them to the kitchen. And he remembered. This was where she had indulged in all those talks with Rose.

As they got settled in, Rose reached for Sabrina’s hand. “So, tell me all about your life.”

“It’s . . . it’s fine. Work is . . . fulfilling. But . . . I – I’m sorry. Rose, I’m sorry I couldn’t keep in contact. I just . . . I couldn’t.”

Rose stayed calm, listening to Sabrina’s tearful apologies. Then she leaned forward, her gaze locking onto the young girl’s. “You listen. I didn’t want you to come visit after all this time and waste precious moments saying sorry. You did what you had to do to survive. I know it. Always knew it. I never expected you to stick around this sad place, mourning a memory for so long.”

“But . . . but you stayed here. You had to be strong enough to stick it out, and I should have been strong enough —”

“You were strong enough to know you needed away. Me? I had my other kids to focus on, my husband to help me through this. You, my dear, needed to save yourself. I missed you so much, but I never once faulted you for getting the hell out of Dodge. I missed you. I worried about you. But never blamed you one bit.” Her gaze moved to Wes. “But I’m glad you found happiness. How long? I kept in touch with your mom, and she always worried. Said you wouldn’t stay in a relationship long. That worried me too.”

To Wes’s surprise, Sabrina reached out and touched his arm. “Two years but . . . only because he’s been the most patient man. Otherwise . . .”

The front door opened and a man’s voice sailed across the rooms. “Is there a troublemaker back in town?”

As Sabrina ran out of the kitchen to greet Rose’s husband, the older woman smiled softly. “He adored Sabrina. Always thought she was good for Craig.” Her expression cleared. “So, this has to be a lot for you.”

“To be honest, I haven’t thought about it in that way. This is a lot for Sabrina. To come back here after all this time. Facing the loss of the love of her life —”

“No.”

He stopped, widening his eyes. “No? No to what?”

“Craig was not the love of her life. Her first love, yes.”

“I’m not sure I understand . . .”

Rose tilted her chair back and peeked into the other room, and then she leaned forward, her voice low. “I know she’s convinced herself that they were some untouchable couple. That they were in love and solid. And that Craig was perfect. Now I love my son, and I miss him every second, but he was not perfect. He could be thoughtless and selfish. They had been on the verge of breaking up when she found out she was pregnant. He was thrilled. She was not. At that point, her favorite part of the relationship . . . was being here. Her link to our family. I’m sure you’ve figured out that her family is not . . . incredibly stable. She craved the family dinners here, her talks with me . . . but she was not happy about the pregnancy. Craig kept bugging her to tell her family the news, to make it official . . . and she finally caved that night.”

Although this news stunned Wes, it was also an A-HA moment, things making more sense. The long period of mourning was actually driven by guilt. And again, his heart went out to her, as she was still that young girl stumbling through tragedy, inflating emotions to edge away the guilt, confused over having choices yanked from her life . . . it was intense and for several years, she had shut down.

“Sabrina always wanted to go to a city and work. So, she’s living her dream . . . just hanging on to old ghosts . . .” Rose’s breath hitched. “So to speak.”

Before she could say more, Sabrina returned, her face flushed and her eyes heavy. It was clear that a rest was in order.

That evening in the hotel room, Sabrina curled her body around Wes’s as they slowly rose from sleep. “Is this what you wanted, Wes? This visit. Have I met the requirements?”

Wes tensed and then turned so they were facing each other. “You make it sound like a test. I simply wanted to be let in. And you did that. I just want to know are you hesitant with me because you’re scared you can’t love me as much as you did Craig?” He stopped himself from reassuring her that it was okay, that he just wanted whatever she could give him. First, he had to know the answer.

Her eyes widened. “What? No. I – I’m scared because I love you so much more. I loved Craig, but we were just kids. This . . . if I let go and let myself just love you completely and I lose you too —”

He immediately drew her to him, whispering words he hoped soothed her. Because Wes hated to see her cry. He wanted this side of her . . . but he still did not like the tears.

“Wes, can I ask you a favour?”

“Anything.”

“Can we leave? Can we just go . . . Go home? Now? Start our own holiday traditions? I want to spend Christmas with you, not here in the shadows of some past I can’t even relate to anymore. I faced the ghosts. I realized I don’t want to be without you. So please?”

And on Christmas morning, as they sipped hot chocolate in her apartment, she never hesitated when he opened the ring box and got down on one knee. She nodded enthusiastically at the prospect of forever with her love, at facing the fears and tackling more holidays to come. She said yes to finally being present in her life.

5 comments

  1. Tya Colby

    This is ONE AMAZING STORY. I could not stop reading. It drew me in deeper and deeper with gentle twists and turns. Very satisfying ending, for all the right reasons – not just a ‘happy ending’. I’d love to read more of your writing.

  2. Trisha McKee

    Tya, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to comment and am thrilled you liked it.

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