Friday, October 11, 2013

A Cold Winter

What happens when a widowed mom—a school principal—tells her two grown kids that she's going to ask her lover to move in with her?

I dreaded telling my kids the good news. They wouldn't approve. They'd frown. Stammer. Look shocked.
You can't do this, Mom!
Yes, I can.
As I bumped along on my riding mower, cutting the half acre of lawn surrounding my country home, I decided I'd tell each one today.
I'd be brief. And to the point.
My twenty-year-old son Sean arrived at ten in the morning, just as I finished hosing off the mower. "Nice weather," Sean said, climbing out of his battered Toyota. He was a college junior, living on campus, locally.
We stood in the drive.
I squinted at the blue sky and bright sun. I inhaled. I loved the crisp smell of October in the country, the sight of the brightly colored leaves. "Weather's not bad," I said. "Frost will be here soon enough, though."
"Supposed to get colder today. Nasty. Could be a cold winter."
"Maybe not," I said, smiling, thinking of David.
"You look bright and cheerful this morning, Mom. What's up?"
An unexpected tightness gripped my chest as I released the news: "I'm going to ask David to move in with me," I said, attempting a matter-of-fact tone, but I felt my heart go Thump!
"Move in...?"
"Live with me."
Sean coughed and took a step back as if someone had punched him in the chest. "Mom!" He frowned. Hesitated. "I mean...well, that's up to you. Your call entirely. But Mom..." His voice dropped off.
I bent and reached through the shrubs at the front of the house to turn off the water. Straightening, I faced my son again and wiped my hands on a rag that I plucked from the back pocket of my jeans. "His apartment lease is up soon. They're going to hike his rent. It'll be tough for him to afford, so I'm going to ask him to move in."
"It doesn't seem right..."
"It's the practical thing to do." Feeling sheepish, I let out a breath. "I thought you should know. Come in. Tea? Lemonade?"
He shook his head.
In the kitchen, while I washed my hands at the sink, Sean sank into a chair at the table. "Have you actually asked him?"
"No... This afternoon I'm going to mention it."
"This is sudden, isn't it? How well do you know him? I mean have you and he...?"
I turned off the faucet. "Are you asking me if we've made love?" I smiled to myself. "That's a rather personal question to be asking your mom, isn't it?"
"What I meant was have you been going out with each other that long? I haven't seen him around here very often."
"When are you around here except on Sundays? David studies on Sunday. He's working on his MA. He teaches all day, attends classes three nights a week and all day Saturday."
I turned from the sink to reach for a towel in time to see a pained expression skate cross Sean's face. "What do you think Dad would say?" he asked.
"I don't know." I paused a moment. "Before he died he told me to make another life for myself. He made me promise. It's been seven years."
"The thought of someone else living in this house with you... I mean, you and Dad moving out here from the city, fixing up this old place—you're the only ones I can picture living here."
"Look, Sean, I know how you feel about your dad. No one loved him more deeply than I. And when he died, I thought I'd used up my only chance at love. I'd never be that lucky again—do you know how old I am?"
"Mom..." He sounded as if I'd asked a ridiculous question.
"How old?"
"Forty-two." I leaned against the sink and folded my arms. "I married your dad when I was seventeen. He's the only man I'd ever known. We had twenty-five wonderful years together. He was a good provider. A caring father. No one could've predicted his heart attack. And now he's gone."
"How old is David Grant?"
"Thirty-five," I said evenly. "He's given me another chance at life. At love. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Sean frowned again, nodded, and drummed his fingers on the table. "Have you told Peg?"
"She's coming by this afternoon."
Why didn't Sean say he was happy for me? I felt miffed but said nothing.
"Well, Mom," he said, "you don't need my approval. You're old enough to do whatever you want."

The age difference between David and me, I knew, bothered Sean.
After he left, I wished I would have assured him that the older a person is, the less important age becomes. I wished I would have assured Sean that David would never try to become his father—only his friend if Sean would let him.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I pulled my cell phone out of my jeans and called David.
"Hi," I said as soon as he answered.
"Hi, yourself." Low and resonant, David's phone voice never failed to send a shiver rippling up my spine.
"What are you doing?"
"Studying. What else? I have a test Monday night. How about you? What have you been doing?"
"I cut grass this morning. Sean stopped by, and we talked."
"About us?"
"Mmm..." David sounded subdued. "How did that go?"
"Not very well," I said. "Why don't you come out this afternoon? You can't study all the time. Have you run today?"
"I should be looking for an apartment."
"How about five o'clock? I've taken two steaks out of the freezer. We'll run. Bring a change of clothes. You can shower here." He didn't answer. "David...?"
"All right, Ann. I do need to talk to you."

Peg arrived at three in the afternoon.
When I heard my daughter's car, I sat relaxing in Tom's lounge chair in the living room, searching the grocery ads in the paper for coupons. I looked out the window as Peg's red Mustang roll to a stop in the drive.
Hurrying up the walk, she halted and surveyed the house. In her first year as a real estate broker, the youngest person in her office, Peg was on her way to a successful real estate career—just like her dad—despite a faltering economy and a tough market.
"Hi!" Peg said, letting herself in the front door. "Caught you loafing in Dad's chair, didn't I?"
"Guilty!" I said, and laughed. "You working hard?"
"Practically twenty-four hours a day. Listen to this!" Peg's face sparkled with excitement.
"I found a couple today with children who would love a place like this: a refurbished two-story farmhouse. A new garage. Five acres of wooded land. Wouldn't you like to sell? Don't you get lonely out here?"
"I can get you a decent price. And no fee for the agent. Well...none to speak of." Peg smiled and drifted to the kitchen. "It's going to be a cold winter. You got something to drink?"
"Lemonade. Tea."
"Lemonade. Don't get up, I'll find it," she said, and trotted off. From the kitchen, she called, "You want something?"
"Two steaks thawing?" Peg strolled into the living room, sipping lemonade from a tall glass. "You expecting company?"
"At five."
"Your friend David?"
Peg frowned, just as Sean had.
"I won't stay long," Peg said. "What do you say? I know how much work you and Dad put into this place—into this room alone." Peg's eyes scanned the fireplace, the beamed ceiling, the built-in bookcase. "But aren't you tired of living out here by yourself? No neighbors. No life. I'd think you'd die of loneliness."
"I nearly have sometimes," I said. "The winter nights are the worst. Sometimes not a single car drives by."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about."
"I feel as if I'm the only person left on earth." I smiled. "But all that's going to change: I'm not going to be alone."
Peg glanced up with the same green-eyed look of surprise Tom had often given me over the years. "Oh...?"
"I'm going to ask David to move in."
Peg's eyebrows bunched. Her look of surprise turned to dismay. "You're not serious, I hope." She eased down on the couch.
"About David? Or about asking him to move in?"
"Either one!"
"I'm serious about both."
"Mom!" She gulped her lemonade and stared at me over the rim of the glass.
"Why such a look?"
"What will people say? Think about it!"
"I have thought about it. I have a right to my own life."
"You're the principal of the school where he teaches. He works for you. The superintendent, the school board—they'll go crazy when they find out."
"They'll have to live with it."
"Middle school kids are old enough to understand what's going on, Mom. What will they say? Their parents? What kind of an example are you setting?"
I sat straight. "They'll say Ann Bailey is the best principal in the system. Bar none. Has been since they appointed her five years ago. She has a right to her own life."
"You're practically old enough—" Peg halted.
"To be his mother?" I finished for her.
"Mom, I'm sorry. I know you look twice as young as you are. You stay in shape. You're a sharp-looking chick, really, if I do say so."
"For my age?"
"I didn't say that." Peg finished off her lemonade and set the glass on the end table. "Are you going to marry him? What if he wants kids? Have you asked him about that?"
"We'll talk about it when the time comes. Perhaps after he finishes his MA."
Peg rolled her eyes. "This is incredible. I can't believe you, Mom."
"Why not?
"You get married right out of high school. You start college when you're twenty-five—a housewife with two kids. After ten years of sweat and sacrifice, you earn a PhD. You are my role model for hard work, perseverance, and smart decision-making. Now this."
"Do you think love and happiness are reserved for only the young?"
"I didn't say that—you're taking such a risk."
"Love is risky at any age."
Peg eyed me, then threw her head back on the couch. "I never thought of my mom as...well, as a cougar."
I didn't know if I should be angry or amused. "I'm not preying on the man, Peg. I'm in love with him. There's a difference."
She sighed. "Have you told Sean?"
"This morning. He...didn't seem happy about it."
"What do you expect? This isn't something we'd expect our mom to do."
Again I felt miffed. "Please try to understand."
"I'm trying," she said, but she shook her head and bit her lower lip. Then she glanced at her watch. "I've got to meet a client at four. So it's no deal, selling the house?" She bounced up from the couch and headed for the front door.
"That's right." I rose from the chair. At the door I said, "I'm sorry you don't approve."
"You've helped Sean and me a lot, Mom, always giving us the best advice. My advice is don't do this. So many things could go wrong. I don't want you to get hurt."
Then she was gone, the door closing softly behind her.
My daughter's concern touched me. Tom and I had raised two wonderful kids. The next time I saw them I'd have to assure them that they would always be a major part of my life. I wasn't abandoning them.

As expected, David arrived on time—5:00 P.M.
I met him at the door. "Hey."
"Hey!" he answered back.
My face felt aglow.

His black hair was cropped short above his ears. With his clear blue eyes, square jaw, and wide shoulders, he looked as if he could still be the college football player he once was.
"It's clouding up outside," he said. "Getting cold. Windy. Even for October. Could be a cold winter."
"Maybe not."
Smiling, dropping his gym bag, he wrapped me in a huge hug and kissed me soundly. I would like to have drowned myself in his musky scent and gentle strength.
"I see you're ready to run. Let's go."
"Hang on a second. "I've got something to tell you. Ask you, actually." Taking his hand, I led him to the living room, and we sat on the edge of the couch, where Peg had sat earlier. The loudness of my thumping heart surprised me; my palms felt moist. For a moment I couldn't find the words I wanted. Finally I said, "I'm in love with you, David. You know that, don't you?"
"That's the problem."
"That's no problem." I couldn't believe he'd said that. "Why is it a problem?"
"We're getting involved so quickly..." His knee started to jiggle. "I don't know how to say this..."
I touched my finger to his lips. "Shhh... Listen to me. You can stop looking for an apartment. I want you to move in with me when your lease runs out."
What was it his blue eyes registered? Fear? Panic? "Ann, I can't..."
"Yes, you can. I've got it all figured out. You'll save a bundle of money. I've already told my kids. They're adults. They can handle our living together."
"Ann, listen to me—"
"There's nothing to stop us."
"Ann, I have to tell you something, I have to—even if it's going to sound terrible."
"What? You've found a place already?" My heart nearly collapsed. "You've signed a lease?"      
"No," he said softly. "It's nothing that simple. I...was married once—I told you that."
"Well," I said, smiling, "I was married once for twenty-five years—I've told you that."
"I caught my wife having an affair," he said. "The divorce was ugly."
"You told me that, too."
He wrung his hands and cleared his throat. "I've had two previous relationships during the past eight years. That's what I haven't told you. Both of them long-term. One for over three years. Barbara was her name."
"I understand," I said, but knew I didn't want to hear anything about Barbara or any other woman he might have known.
He said, "I don't know how things will turn out between us—I don't know what you expect." He chewed his bottom lip. "All I'm saying is my track record for commitment since the divorce hasn't been good. I don't want to hurt you, that's what I'm really saying."
I stared at him, wondering what to make of this. "Were you in love before?"
"I thought so, the second time with Barbara, yes. For sure. But I couldn't force myself to commit. Maybe we weren't really in love, I don't know. What I feel for you is a hundred times more intense."
I blew out a breath.
"The break-up with Barbara," he said, "was as bad as my divorce."
I pursed my lips and listened carefully, not liking what I was hearing.
He said, "I don't want to go through any of that again. I don't want to put you through it." He let out a deep sigh. "Besides, there's the other thing."
"What?" Oh, Lord! He's going to tell me he's got twelve kids hidden away somewhere.
"I'm a PE teacher on your staff—did you forget that? You're my principal. If I moved in, what will the rest of the staff say? How about the kids? And the school board? Parents? I can't put your career in jeopardy. Or mine."
I felt myself sag and shiver—as if I'd been doused with a bucket of ice water.
Slipping his arm around my shoulder, he said, "Come on. Let's do five. Running will clear our heads." He kissed me on the forehead. I shuddered. "We'll talk about it later."

We stretched out on the front porch. Woods fringed the house on all sides—except where the gravel road curved by in front.
We bounded across the lawn to the road. We began running with an easy, fluid stride.
Gray clouds dulled the sky, and a sharp breeze from the north slapped us in the face. Exactly two and a half miles on this winding, hilly road would take us to a county blacktop, where we could swing around and head back.
I tried to ignore the painful questions invading my mind: What was David really saying? He'd enjoy my company until he tired of me. Then he'd pack his bags and move on. I could hear his final words of good-bye: Hey, you've got no reason to complain, girl. I told you in the beginning I wasn't going to hang around forever.
On the way back, at the top of the first hill, a cramp clawed my left calf, and I winced. I thought I could run through the pain, but I broke stride and stumbled.
"You all right?"
"A cramp," I said. "I'm not used to this sudden cold weather.
You go on."
"You sure? I'll hang with you."
"No, you go on. I have to slow down."
In no time, heels kicking high, he opened fifty yards between us. Maybe I'm too old to be chasing love, I thought. But what had Sean said this morning? You're old enough to do whatever you want, Mom. Yet Peg had said, My advice is don't do this. So many things could go wrong.

Inside the house, I told David he could shower in the bathroom off the kitchen. I would shower in the bathroom upstairs, but I knew the twenty-gallon tank wouldn't provide enough hot water for separate showers. Upstairs in my room—Tom's and mine—I stripped and wrapped myself in a big Turkish towel. Barefoot, favoring my left leg, I hobbled down the stairs, and then I stood silently by the bathroom door.
David hadn't turned on the water yet. My heart beat against my chest. Handsome, strong, energetic, he'd filled the last six months of my life with warmth, companionship, spontaneity, and love—luxuries—no, necessities!—I'd dearly missed since Tom's death. I tapped on the bathroom door. "David...?" His name falling from my lips was a hoarse whisper.
"Ann...?" he said from behind the door.
"Don't come in."
I didn't answer.
"Ann, I love you. And if you come in"—his voice wavered—"I won't be able to say no to anything. I won't be able to leave. I'll have my things piled high on your front porch so fast your head will swim."
I twisted the doorknob. "The door's not locked," I said.
"I know."
He was telling me he loved me, he trusted me—the decision was mine. All mine. If I opened the door and strolled into the bathroom to shower with him—for the first time—he'd stay. If I didn't, there would be no living together. Surely a man that honest and sensitive loved me. Was not setting me up. Would not hurt me later. He simply needed more time to sort out his feelings. More time to be sure of himself. All the other questions I'd tried to ignore surfaced in my mind: What would the rest of my school staff say? The kids at school? Parents? The school board? How well did David and I really know each other? Love at any age is risky—hadn't I said that to Peg today? Hadn't Peg told me I was her role model for smart decision-making?
Swallowing, my palms moist, I opened the door.
Six inches.
I caught sight of his face and bare shoulders reflected in the bathroom mirror. His blue eyes opened wide—like an owl's. "Ann...?"
"I...wondered how you'd like your steak," I said. Stupid thing to ask. He knew I knew the answer.
"Medium," he said.
"How about eating by candlelight?"
He smiled at the mirror. "I'd love it."
"We can build a fire in the fireplace later."
"All right."
Eying the mole on his left shoulder, remembering the heat of his body so often folded over mine recently, I grimaced at the thought of a cold shower. "Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes." His voice was a whisper. I had never seen him look so handsome, so...vulnerable.
"There's plenty of hot water," I said. "Use all you want."
"I love you," he said again. "I want you to know that. I don't want to hurt you. Ever."
I could still see his face and shoulders in the mirror. "I love you, too. I studied his firm mouth, the curve of his cheekbones, the short black hair. I wondered if he was wearing only a towel. Like me. Or nothing.
No matter.
Shivering, closing the door softly, I trudged through the house and up the stairs to shower alone. I knew that like winter my shower would be cold—very cold, indeed—but spring and summer with their promise of warmth always follow quickly. I couldn't wait.

The end