The waves lapped against the autumn shore, just as they have always done and just as they always will. And like clockwork, Charlie Foster walked his Golden Retriever Bessie, who loved to chase after the small waves. Despite her unsuccessful attempts, it never got old. Each wave marked another opportunity.
Charlie chased waves in his own, quiet way, as he sat upon his favorite expanse of rocks, which reached out into the open water. He always found something comforting about the timeless consistency of the lake – a reminder that some things can be immune from change. Then again, even rocks slowly erode over time.
As Bessie remained on the shore to sniff her familiar turf, Charlie rotated a loose wedding band around his finger, as the sun gave Lake Michigan the long, gentle kiss goodnight it deserved. It was then, during the waning specks of daylight, that Charlie spotted something from the corner of his eye – a plastic, 20-ounce pop bottle, bobbing against the rocks below him, curiously wrapped in electrical tape – an indication that it wasn’t any ordinary piece of litter.
Charlie reached in to fish out the bottle, which fell just short of his reach and seemingly fixed in one spot. He wondered how far it had come, only to land mere inches from his hand. Determined, Charlie lay down on his stomach on the hard rock, stretching with all his might to snatch the bottle, nearly falling headfirst into the shallow water below just as he grabbed it.
With the bottle in hand, Charlie shook it. A piece of paper rattled around. He struggled to unravel the damp, sticky electrical tape, before finally revealing a Coke bottle containing a small, handwritten message. He struggled to pry the message out of the bottle with his fingers, before extracting a small twig nestled between two rocks. After much effort, Charlie finally pried out the note, before he slowly stood up and unfolded it.
The first thing he noticed was the date: July 11, 2002. He froze. In fact, the whole world seemed to freeze. He couldn’t believe the sheer coincidence of the date. July 11: the date he lost everything. 2002: the year he got married, gaining it all. Surely, this was some sort of cosmic joke. There could be no other explanation. Too stunned – or perhaps, scared – to read any further, he carefully folded the note and placed into his pocket, setting his sights on the warmly-lit cottage.
“C’mon, Bessie!” Charlie commanded, getting on his way. Like clockwork, Bessie followed him all the way home.
After washing down some butter pretzel braids with a glass of cheap red, he felt courageous enough to read the rest of the message. He slowly pulled it out of his pocket, unfolded it and stared at the date once again, on some level hoping that he misread it. Yet, it remained the same. He was cautiously curious about what the rest of the letter had to say. Would there be other personal connections? Realizing he was being irrationally paranoid, he proceeded to read:
To whoever finds this letter, you have been chosen by fate. Or – perhaps – mere coincidence. Please write a letter to the address below to let us know where it was found … and by whom. What do you have to lose?
You can’t lose a thing when you’ve already lost it all.
The bottle traveled further than he ever would have guessed. Petoskey was ?? miles from Escanaba. Both towns were a coincidence in their own right. They had stopped in both towns for their honeymoon. The towns were four hours apart.
Should he write a letter? Deliver it in person? Or ignore it all together?
Deep down, he knew he was most likely to do nothing. Being spontaneous died when she did. She was the spontaneous one, anyway. For the time being, he decided to sleep on it. Or, at least, attempt to. That was usually how his best decisions were made – back when he actually had decisions to make. Lately, life was one blank canvas. He preferred it that way. Or, at least part of him did.
Charlie put these thoughts to rest and headed off to bed, joined by his faithful companion. He placed the pop bottle and letter on the nightstand, alongside his wedding portrait. He kissed the picture goodnight, before lying awake in his now-too-large bed, twirling his now-too-large ring, hoping that the calm, autumn breeze that fluttered through the window, combined with the gentle waves caressing the shore, would lull him to sleep. As he lay awake, he was reminded of how everything felt so different now; every one of his senses dulled, as though life were now perpetually draped in suffocating, opaque gauze.
But then he thought of the pop bottle…and he felt a slight glimmer of what must have been…hope?
But then it was gone. As quickly as it had arrived.
Bessie also lay awake at the foot of the bed, joining her master in solidarity as the past flooded the present. After all, she was waiting for her true master to come home. Charlie was reluctant to get the dog in the first place. Bessie sensed that from the start. Little did they know just how much they would come to depend on one another.
As the minutes slowed into hours, scattered memories haunted Charlie’s soul until his mind finally settled on the period in which they bought their cottage. Owning a cottage on Lake Michigan was something they first started dreaming about on their honeymoon. At the time, they knew it was a mere pipe dream that relied on Charlie getting his big Hollywood break – a dream that at one time was alive and well, unlike the ruins it lay in today. When the economy collapsed, Charlie and Julia saw a golden opportunity: foreclosure. An abandoned dream for one couple became the start of a new dream for another.
Julia wasn’t quite sold at the beginning. She thought the cottage was too modest, too simple and had hoped to find something a bit larger – and cheaper – outside of town. Charlie saw it as cozy, its plainness representing “the simple life” that so many people dream about, but so rarely achieve. Plus, it was the former stomping grounds of his greatest inspiration – Ernest Hemingway. She eventually “settled”. And though she didn’t let on, he knew she never got over it.
Why had he been so fucking selfish?
They named their cottage The Simple Life and it became a haven for Julia to finally begin painting again, which she had been longing to do since she realized that teaching wasn’t as rewarding as she had hoped. For Charlie, the cottage became his muse. Now, he had all the time in the world to write. But didn’t … couldn’t.
There was one major upside to both being teachers: it meant entire summers at the cottage to write, as their future children ran around outside, swam in the lake, built castles in the sand, or reading inside during rainstorms.
Back when possibility was infinite.
Despite Julia’s fertility issues, there had been hopeful signs in the months leading up to her death. They had hoped that the stress-free tranquility of their summer Eden would be the remedy they needed – the missing ingredient.
Now widowed, all Charlie was left with were ghosts he saw no way of escaping. Perhaps even worse was the fact that he didn’t know if he wanted to escape it. Doing so would mean getting over it, which he saw as the ultimate betrayal of his wife.
Eventually, the ghosts receded like the tide as Charlie drifted off to sleep. But it was never a deep sleep. And it was only a matter of time before he awoke again with “new” old and forgotten memories, bubbling up to the surface; their arrival heralded by a bittersweet stab to the heart. Sometimes, the pain was so deep, he wished it would kill him. It certainly felt like it could. But eventually, it would not so much pass … but subside. Each re-discovered memory contained multiple facets and angles to explore – like a Rubik’s cube that could never quite be solved. He couldn’t let go of them until he exhausted every combination.
Sometimes, he wished he could simply erase everything. However, he also realized that even if he were given that opportunity, it would mean truly losing her once and for all. Ultimately, he would much rather live with the pain.
The next morning, Charlie woke up, surprisingly rested. He immediately remembered the bottle and message sitting on his nightstand. As he turned to look at it, it was gone! Confused, he began looking around. Standing on the other side of his bed was Bessie, wagging her tail. In her mouth, the bottle.
“Bessie, leave it!” Charlie commanded. She released the bottle and Charlie got out of bed and retrieved it. He wiped the drool off against his leg, then inspected the bottle for damage. There was none. Suddenly, he was overcome with a surge of what could only be described as hope – which he had felt only a sliver of the night before. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt since it happened.
And it brought with it a new focus: returning that pop bottle to Escanaba.
To return something that was otherwise lost…
…and then found again.
Charlie headed for the shower, and found himself beginning to doubt what had to be an irrational conviction. Yet, he never felt more confident – a rarity even before his wife died. Still taken aback by his uncharacteristic optimism and determination, he had a sneaking suspicion that it was only a matter of time before he crashed back to earth.
After he dressed, he sat down for another lonely breakfast, joined by thunderous silence, glancing at the unused place setting across from him, partially obscured by the message and bottle. Bessie waited patiently by his side for her daily ration of scraps.
Charlie quickly gobbled down his breakfast, as though trying to avoid more time to change his mind. He didn’t even bother to put his dishes in the sink, grabbing the message and bottle, before rushing out the door. He climbed into his rusted Dodge Neon and carefully punched in the address on his GPS. Bessie eagerly took her rightful spot in the backseat on her tattered Sesame Street comforter – a remnant of Charlie’s childhood. Julia used to beg him to throw it away, so he tricked her by hiding it in a box labeled “childhood memories.” When Bessie came into their lives, his old childhood comforter would rise from the ashes.
“I thought you threw that thing out?” she accused him.
“I tried. But I have a hard time letting go of things.”
“Well, that’s going to have to change,” she said, half in jest.
He he had severe doubts even that then that he would ever change, but was at least semi-open to the possibility. Now, he knew there was no chance.
When one loses someone close, it’s amazing how many “things” become placeholders in their absence, like scattered fragments of their souls, little “ghosts” of what once was, morphing the materialistic nature of the objects into something far more transcendental. When grief enters the picture, it forces one to grasp onto any reminder and never let go. The comforter was now a split fragment of Charlie’s childhood and Julia herself, intertwined through its worn fabric.
Her presence was also strongly felt in the Neon itself. It was the first car she ever owned and was naturally attached. It was her comforter. As much as Charlie urged her to get new a car, he was relieved that she hadn’t. One more tangible reminder he could cling to. When he drove her car, the past was still alive, concurrently running alongside the present. Of course, the illusion would all come to a crashing halt the moment he stepped out of the car again and back into reality.
On this particular trip, an empty pop bottle sat in her place – a quiet, mysterious passenger. He took the same route they had taken on their honeymoon. When they vowed to return to Escanaba at a future date. They had grown too comfortable at their cottage, living The Simple Life.
There was always tomorrow…
…until there wasn’t.
And now, he was completely adrift.
What am I doing?
After all, he this was the same guy who usually equated grocery shopping with climbing Mt. Everest. Two days ago, the idea of going to the U.P. would have seemed as probable as traveling into space. Despite his growing doubts, he kept pressing on. When he finally reached the mighty Mackinaw Bridge, doubts intensified. He pulled over to the side of the road, on the verge of a panic attack. He took deep breaths, trying to clear his mind for a moment, before taking back the reigns of his life.
In some ways, he knew that once he crossed the bridge, there would be no turning back. He just wasn’t sure if he was ready for that. Once upon a time, he always followed his gut. If only he could figure out what his gut was trying to tell him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then re-opened them. Suddenly, the road was wide open and there was only one choice. The time had come to cross that bridge. Without hesitation, he slammed on his gas, and traversed across the bridge, surrounded by a world of red, orange, white, and blue. It was a view he hadn’t seen since his honeymoon, but it felt just like yesterday.
Once he crossed the five-mile span to the other side, he looked in his rearview mirror and for a brief moment, felt the ghosts of his past disappear over the horizon, replaced with an exuberance of liberation.
The further west he got, the more the geographical landscape changed. Small towns and civilization morphed into dense forest, rich in fall colors. Traffic increasingly dwindled until Charlie was convinced he was the last person left on earth. This was nature’s backyard – a fact he was abruptly reminded of when an explosive blur of brown, white, and black slammed against his windshield, landing on the pavement 20 feet ahead of him with an audible thud. His first reaction was that he hit a person, but after peering through his now cracked windshield, he realized it was “only” a deer. He sat in stunned silence for several moments, before safely pulling over to the side of the road to regain his composure. Despite the cracked windshield, he realized how lucky he was that the car avoided significant damage. The windshield would surely have to be replaced, but fortunately, it didn’t affect his visibility.
When he calmed down from the initial shock, he looked at the dead deer blocking his path, before peering through his rearview mirror, suddenly overcome with the need to turn around and head back home. Surely, the accident was a sign. But of what? And from whom? On one hand, it was a clear sign that this journey wasn’t meant to be. He could at least take solace in knowing that he had at least tried.
On the other hand, he did make it this far. He was less than an hour away. The fact that he escaped both serious injury and damage to the car was a sign that he should keep going, despite the occasional obstacle that might cross his path.
Charlie closed his eyes for a moment, teetering on the precipice of not only his decision – but bridging the gap between his past and future. When he finally opened his eyes, there was only one option – just as there was in the morning: keep going forward. And so he did.
But first, he had to do something about that damn deer. He could have just swerved around it, but why jeopardize the safety of others? Charlie got out of his car and reluctantly approached the dead carcass in the road, not entirely sure it was even dead at all. Despite growing up in Michigan, he had very limited experience with wildlife. He approached the carcass, then stood solemnly before her, surrounded by eerie stillness – as though all of nature had died. He felt compelled to pay final respects. After all, it was a life.
Or, more specifically, a life that was no more.
Because of him.
Realizing he was teetering on spiral mode, Charlie attempted to grab the deer by its mid-section, but awkwardly struggled to get an adequate grip. He finally decided to drag the deer by its rear hooves, surprised by how little it seemed to weigh. Once the deer was safely off the road, he draped some foliage over it before he headed back to his car.
Still shaken, Charlie drove away. The deer in his rearview mirror grew smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared out of view.
As he got closer to his destination, he became even more stalwart, as he envisioned how it would all play out. He thought through every possible scenario: What would he do if the owner(s?) weren’t home? Would he just leave the bottle on the porch with a note? Or would he come back some other time? He ultimately decided that simply leaving it would be sort of anti-climatic. After all, he wanted to meet the people who decided once upon a time to send this bottle on its little journey. Would they even remember sending it? More importantly, what would he gain by meeting them? That was the bigger question. He hoped he was just minutes away from an answer.
Charlie pulled up in front of the spacious lakefront cabin.
If this is their cottage, I can only imagine their primary residence.
A Jeep Cherokee sat parked in the driveway, quelling the concern that nobody would be home. The question now, of course, was whether the people that currently inhabited the cabin were the same people who sent the pop bottle adrift. If not, the most Charlie could hope for was that they at least knew the former inhabitants.
Charlie carefully checked his shirt pocket for the note and confirmed the address before he headed out of the car. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to open Pandora’s box.
“Stay here,” he commanded an eager Bessie. As he began his slow walk toward the house, another Golden Retriever barked in the window. Bessie barked back.
When he finally reached her door, Charlie took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. He felt as though he were returning an unexpected, long-lost family heirloom.
An attractive, but worn and melancholy, woman on either side of 40 – opened the door, holding back her dog, who was no longer barking, but bursting with enthusiasm for their visitor. Once the dog settled down, Charlie heard relaxation music, accompanied by lapping waves. It was the kind of CD that Julia would have loved, usually on display in those kiosks at Target or Bed Bath & Beyond (or as Charlie referred to it: Blood Bath & Beyond, which always annoyed Julia).
“Yes?” she finally asked with a combination of curiosity and skepticism. He noticed a weariness in her overall demeanor – especially in her eyes.
Charlie slowly handed her both the letter and bottle.
“Does this look familiar?” he asked.
The woman examined the items with a blank, slack-jawed expression that Charlie was unable to decipher. As she read the letter, she began to tremble, as though trying to stifle back tears. Suddenly, the tears began to flow, in front of this stranger at her doorstep.
“I’m sorry…” Charlie said. He regretted his decision to come. “I should probably go.”
“No. Please don’t,” she pleaded. “How did you find this?”
“It washed up on the shore behind my cottage in Petoskey …” Charlie said. “I realize it’s a bit strange that I would drive all this way …”
She didn’t seem to hear him, as she stared at the letter again. She was transfixed. Charlie noticed a wedding ring on her finger.
“I was going to write a letter like it asked me to,” Charlie continued, “but something compelled me to come here. Again, I’m so sorry to—”
“You haven’t troubled me at all. It’s the least I can do for bringing this to me,” she said.
“Charlie Foster,” Charlie said, offering his hand.
“Carolyn Smith,” she said, shaking her hand across the threshold.
She shook his hand. When she released, they stood in awkward silence, searching for what to do next. Finally, Claire stepped out of her house and onto the porch. Her dog stood guard between his master and Charlie.
“Thank you so much for bringing this to me,” Claire said. As she cradled the bottle, she wiped the tears from her face.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“Most people wouldn’t have wasted their time to even mail it.”
“It was a beautiful drive,” Charlie said.
He hoped he wasn’t blushing as much as he felt like he was. Julia used to love how easy it was to make him blush.
Bessie barked from the car. Claire spotted her in the front seat.
“Oh, you have a Golden, too?”
“Yeah. Bessie. Yours?”
“George. Will she stay put without a fence?”
“Yeah. You sure it’s no trouble?”
“She doesn’t bite, does she?”
“Nope. She might kiss you, though.”
“That would be perfectly fine with me,” Claire said with a sad smile – a smile he recognized all two well from his own reflection.
As soon as Charlie opened the car door, Bessie ran straight toward the house. George greeted her halfway and the two dogs immediately began to sniff one another’s butts.
“Friends already!” Charlie said. They both laughed and them watched as their dogs proceeded to play-wrestle. A minute later, George was humping Bessie. If only humans had it so easy.
“And now lovers,” Claire said. “George! Stop that!” Claire commanded. George obeyed.
“Sorry about that,” Claire said.
“No, it’s fine. She likes the attention,” Charlie said. “She doesn’t have any dog friends back home.”
The dogs resumed their wrestling match.
“There’s a fresh pot of coffee if you’d like.”
“I really wouldn’t want to trouble you anymore than I already have.”
“You’re not,” Claire made clear. “It’s already made.”
“In that case, then sure,” Charlie said.
“Would you like have a seat?” she said, pointing at an old-fashioned wooden porch swing.
“Thank you,” Charlie said, taking a seat.
“Milk, cream, or sugar?” Claire asked.
“Just black is fine,” Charlie replied. Claire disappeared inside. Charlie watched George and Bessie continued to wrestle, before staring out at the empty road. Not a single car had passed by since he arrived. Gentle, melancholy waves could be heard coming from behind the house.
Charlie peered through the front room window to get a peek of the cottage, which seemed ripped out of the pages of Architectural Digest. The walls were painted a crisp sky blue and immaculately decorated with nautical décor. Sheer curtains blew ethereally in the wind. Through a window across the room, he caught a glimpse of Lake Michigan, glistening in the sunlight.
If heaven were a home, this would be it, In many ways, it was exactly what Charlie and Julia had envisioned for themselves, before falling just short. He noticed a wedding portrait above the fireplace. He suddenly felt as though he were intruding on another man’s territory.
Where was her husband?
And what would he think if he suddenly pulled up and saw a strange man standing in his living room? He knew it would be sorted out quickly, but the initial moments would certainly be awkward.
Charlie decided to simply close his eyes and let his soul absorb the peaceful surroundings. Just as he began to drift off to sleep, Claire entered. He jolted awake.
“Sorry to frighten you,” she said.
“You didn’t,” Charlie said, slightly embarrassed as she handed Charlie a mug featuring a photo of a golden retriever and an in memoriam message that read: “Cody: Forever in our hearts.” She then retrieved her coffee, along with a plate of assorted cookies, which she set down in front of Charlie, before taking a seat on a matching porch swing opposite Charlie.
“So do you live here year round?” Charlie asked.
“Now, yes. We used to live downstate, but moved up here five years ago. You?”
“Mostly summers. And occasional fall weekends like this one,” Charlie said. “I’m a teacher downstate. Ann Arbor.”
“Small world! I went to U of M. It’s where I met my husband.”
“So you guys work up here?” Charlie asked. “I can’t imagine you’re retired …”
“I work at a florist in town. I used to be a photographer and graphic artist, but am on an extended leave of absence. No art in me anymore. My husband was an attorney.”
Was an attorney.
Claire stared down at the note, with the sort of affection one would use to gaze lovingly at a portrait of a loved one.
“And now …?” Charlie asked, suspecting the worst.
“He died two months ago – the day after his 38th birthday.”
She paused, unable to continue.
“I’m so sorry…” Charlie said. “If you don’t mind my asking—”
“Colon cancer,“ Claire interjected. “But it was really the liver that killed him. Doctors gave him less than a year when he was first diagnosed. He fought it for five years. I think he was more afraid of leaving me alone than death itself.”
“We celebrated his birthday the weekend before with family and a couple of friends,” Claire continued. “It was the last time I truly saw him happy. Even with cancer, he was still the most optimistic person I ever met. I used to ask him how he could remain so goddamn optimistic. And do you want to know what his reply was?”
Charlie nodded for her to continue.
“He said, ‘Because I have so much to be grateful for.’ He thought this while slowly and painfully dying of cancer. He truly believed that a person’s overall sense of happiness was at a fixed point, no matter what the circumstances surrounding their life.”
“On his birthday – right before he died – he seemed to reach a different, almost otherworldly level of happiness. I assumed it was simply because he was surrounded by so many loved ones. But I knew deep down that he knew he was about to be free from the pain once and for all.”
For the first time, Charlie felt as though he were totally detached from his own experience of loss, as a result of being so overcome with empathy for somebody else – in this case, a stranger. As she continued with her story, he rotated his wedding band around his finger in rhythm with her sad tempo.
“But seeing him so genuinely happy like that … it was like waking up from a nightmare. But in reality, the nightmare was only beginning. And now with this bottle …” her voice trailed off, as she fought to hold back tears.
As Claire examined the bottle, Charlie realized its true significance. It meant everything.
“We sent this the day we closed on this house. Two weeks before his diagnosis. We were celebrating at the beach. It was actually his idea. In fact, I was opposed to it because I considered it littering. And very cheeseball. He was always a hopeless romantic. And I was just hopeless,” she said with a melancholy chuckle.
Charlie laughed. “When I first saw it, I assumed it was no different than any other piece of trash that I’m always pulling out of the lake. Most people probably would have just ignored it.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t.”
“I guess it pays to care about our natural resources.”
They both had a chuckle, before Claire continued:
“We actually argued over it. One of those stupid little arguments that you only regret after it’s too late. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me…” Claire’s voice drifted off, as she stared at the dogs, now lying side-by-side in the autumn sun.
“I’ve thought about this bottle from time to time,” she continued. “Especially after he died. I had a clear image in my head of it floating somewhere out t3here – out of reach of everyone – or perhaps lodged somewhere and going nowhere at all.
Charlie imagined Claire and her husband sitting on these very swings on a balmy, summer night. Or even a crisp autumn one like this one. It made him feel sad. And he couldn’t help but feel a bit like an imposter.
“What about you?” Claire asked, noticing Charlie rotating his wedding band around his finger. “Married I assume?”
Charlie paused momentarily, as though not saying it would make it all go away.
“In spirit,” he finally muttered, fighting back tears. “She passed away last summer – just over a year ago … Car accident.”
Claire put a hand up to her mouth in shocked exasperation.
“I’m so sorry …” Claire said.
“I was driving,” Charlie continued. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather have it be cancer. Less guilt.”
“Let’s just agree that nobody would envy us,” Claire said.
“So what happened? You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable—”
“A classic tale involving a drunk driver. And a red light.”
“You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
“I was behind the wheel. I should have looked twice. Especially considering that she was carrying …” Charlie stopped himself short. The tears were now winning the battle.
“Our first…” Charlie added, through a thick coat of tears. Claire put a comforting hand on Charlie’s knee.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “I shouldn’t burden you with such things.
“I guess that makes two of us,” Claire said, reminding him that it was only minutes before that she unloaded her grief unto him.
“So what was her name?” Claire asked.
“Julia … And his?”
They let their names echo in a moment of silence.
“More coffee?” Claire finally asked.
“Sure,” Charlie said, as he rotated his ring for comfort.
Claire poured each of them another cup, before she sat back down at the table. They stared at one another in shared emphatic understanding until George chased Bessie onto the porch, breaking the spell, and providing a much-needed diversion.
“George, stop flirting!” Claire commanded. And as though her dog somehow understood what she was saying, he gave up the chase and proceeded to sit down next to his master, wagging both tongue and tail in equal measure.
“Can I give her a treat?” Claire asked.
Claire went inside and returned moments later with a box of Milkbones.
“What about me?” Charlie quipped as she tossed treats to both dogs.
Claire pointed at the plate of cookies. “Help yourself.”
He took up on her offer as she rejoined him.
“I prefer Snausages myself,” Charlie said to further lighten the mood. “Sweeter. Less dry.”
“You haven’t really tried them, have you?”
Charlie nodded in embarrassment. “I take it you haven’t?”
“Gross! No, I have not.”
“Try one sometime,” Charlie said. “You won’t be disappointed.”
“Maybe after a couple of drinks,” Claire said with a laugh. There was something about her laugh – perhaps the way she threw her head back – that seemed all too eerily familiar.
They both laughed at the absurdity of this exchange.
“Can I fix you some human food?” Claire asked.
“I really don’t –“
“It won’t be any trouble at all,” Claire interrupted. “I have plenty of cold cuts and fresh bread. I’m a bit hungry myself.”
“Well, in that case …” Charlie said, laughing.
“Something to drink?” Claire said.
“What do you have?”
“Pop. Lemonade … would you like some wine?”
“Good. Because it’s the only kind I have,” Claire said. They both laughed as Claire headed inside.
Dried tears stung Charlie’s cheek and he was surprised how relaxed and “at home” he felt with Claire. It was nice not to be alone with his thoughts for once. Verbalizing them soothed his soul. Or, maybe it was just social interaction in general?
Claire returned with a platter of cold cuts, cheese, and fresh bread.
“Wow, look at that,” Charlie said, as Claire headed back in to retrieve the wine, two glasses, and opener. She set it all aside so they could get to work on making their sandwiches. Claire then fumbled trying to open up the wine bottle, before surrendering it to Charlie.
“Would you mind?” Claire asked. “I’ve never been good at this. With all of my experience over the past couple of years, you’d think I’d be a pro by now.”
Charlie smiled, but more in mutual sympathy and understanding.
If anyone could relate to an increase in alcohol consumption, it was himself. Though he knew better, he couldn’t stop.
As Charlie got to work on uncorking the bottle, he struggled much to Claire’s amusement, before finally managing to open it. She praised his efforts with mock applause, as he poured two glasses, then raised his glass, having not a clue as what to say for a toast. He also realized that this was the first toast he shared a woman since Julia. This saddened him, but by the same token, he knew it was another baby step. Even it was only step one out of millions he still had to take.
After several moments, Charlie decided no words were necessary and simply clinked Claire’s glass. After they each took a sip, they sat in comfortable silence, staring at the bottle.
“You know, in some ways, it’s almost as though you returned him home,” Claire began. “I can’t help but think he’s somehow behind this, letting me know that he’s okay. And that he can still find me. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Like I said, I didn’t think of it as a choice,” Charlie said, taking a healthy bite of his sandwich. It felt good to eat substantial food for once.
“I wonder how many other people ignored it before you found it,” Claire pondered.
“Only God knows … ”
“I’ve given up on trying to figure out what God knows…”
“Or if he exists all together,” Charlie added.
“I still believe He does … I just doubt how much He cares.”
“He certainly can’t blame you,” Charlie said. “He can blame me, though. That’s for sure.”
“You shouldn’t blame yourself for something that was out of your control…”
“I’m not entirely convinced it was,” Charlie said. “No matter how much counselors, psychiatrists, friends, family, and now you try to tell me.”
“I’m sorry if –“
“No need to be sorry,” Charlie said. “Trust me, I tell myself, too. It’s not that I refuse to listen. It’s that I can’t.”
They returned to shared silence, taking bites out of their sandwiches, which they struggled to swallow. Eating didn’t exactly come easy these days.
“Maybe you were supposed to find it?” Charlie finally said. “That it was somehow looking for you? I know that sounds strange …”
“Not at all. Because that’s exactly how I feel.”
“I just keep trying to convince myself that everything happens for a reason,” Claire said. “It’s the only way I can stay sane.”
“I’ve given up even trying,” Charlie said.
“Is that what you really want?” Claire asked.
“Want and is are two different things.”
“I see your point,” Charlie began. “But the thing of it is, I come to that same spot every day. It wasn’t like I found it in some random place.”
“More proof that it was looking for you,” Claire said. “It knew where to find you.”
Charlie reflected on this thought, before adding:
“That spot was where Julia and I walked our dog every night, before sitting to watch the sunset – our own little private corner of the world. Until God, or the universe, or fatalistic indifference decided it needed her more than I did. Now I sit and watch alone.”
Charlie could tell by the way Claire was looking at him that she wanted to say something. However, just as Charlie experienced when Claire told her tragic tale, words hard to come by.
When they finished their sandwiches, Claire asked
“Want to sit on the back patio?” Claire finally said, breaking through the sadness. “Far more scenic.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Charlie said. He interpreted her offer as a small gesture of trust. With wine in hand, Charlie followed Claire to the back of the house, accompanied by their faithful companions. Autumn’s sour aroma filled their lungs. When they finally reached the spacious backyard, the view of Lake Michigan was absolutely breathtaking, as the sun set over open water.
The two widows took a seat at the patio table as Bessie and George chased each other along the shore, oblivious to human suffering.
“How has it been for you?” Claire asked.
“You mean the recovery?”
“If you can call it that – sometimes, I don’t even know if I’ve begun the process of recovery. You?”
“I barely sleep anymore if that gives you any indication,” Charlie said.
“I sleep too much,” Claire said, laughing. “That’s part of my problem.”
“Of course, some days are easier. It’s the nights that are toughest. The nights force me to think, even when I don’t want to. Hence the sleeping problem.”
“And that’s exactly why I sleep too much,” Claire countered. “So I don’t have to think.”
Claire paused for a moment, before changing the subject. “Forgive me for asking this, but have you gone out with anyone since …”
“You mean like a date?” Charlie asked.
“I know I should,” Charlie began. “But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Not yet. In the meantime, everyone seems to know to someone they want to set me up with.”
“Isn’t that sort of …”
“Tacky?” Charlie interjected.
“Maybe a little. But I know they mean well. They just don’t know how to act. Even your closest friends.
“I guess it’s too soon yet for my friends to do the same.”
“On, they will,” Charlie said. “Trust me, they will.”
“So have you taken anyone of them up on it yet?”
“Still too soon. Sometimes, I wonder if it always will be. And if the time comes, I certainly don’t want it to be the result of a charity case. I want it to be something I find on my own.”
They paused for a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the shore – the gulls, the waves, the breeze, and two golden retrievers frolicking in the remaining sunlight on what had blossomed into such a welcome, unexpected, and beautiful day.
“Do you have a picture of her?” Claire asked.
Charlie removed his wallet to reveal a picture of his wife.
“I miss her so much.”
“One thing I’ve tried to convince myself,” Claire began, “is that we’re never really without the ones we love. As long as they’re still in our heart, they’re out there somewhere, floating in a bottle, waiting to return home. Or for us to return to them.”
“Do you really believe that?” Charlie asked.
“I’d like to think I’m starting to. But not quite there yet.”
“Then let’s make a deal. I’ll believe it if you will. If not right now, then someday.”
“Deal,” Claire said in agreement.
They shake on it.
Claire shivered from the breeze as she sipped her wine.
“You look a little chilly,” Charlie said. “And I’m thinking I should probably get going.”
“Oh,” Claire said, disappointed. “Are you sure?”
“I’ve certainly enjoyed your hospitality, but it’s been a long day and I still have a long drive. And I certainly don’t want to wear out my welcome,” Charlie said.
Claire relented, as they both got up, both calling for their retrievers, who gleefully ran toward the house and their respective owners.
Claire led Charlie back around to the front of the house. Charlie opened his back door to let Bessie in, but she refused to comply. She was having too much fun with her new friend. Eventually, Charlie managed to coax her into the car. He shut the door and turned around to face Claire, who immediately began to tear up. Beyond her tears, Charlie could see – feel – all the love, heartache, and longing filling her soul. He saw the same pain in her eyes that he saw in the mirror each morning – the type of pain that only those who have gone through what they have gone through could possibly fully understand.
“Thank you for bringing him home,” Claire said, through tears. “I honestly can’t thank you enough.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said in reply. Their eyes locked momentarily.
“Sleep well,” Claire said.
“I’m thinking tonight, for the first time in a long time, I can,” Charlie said.
“Be careful on the road,” Julia said. “It’s a no man’s land out there.”
“And if you ever need anyone to talk to …” Charlie said, writing down his name and number.
“You, the same,” she said, writing down her number.
“You’re welcome anytime,” Claire added “If you want.”
“I would love that. And same to you.”
Charlie suddenly leaned in and gave her a hug. He clearly caught Claire off guard, not to mention himself. But she didn’t seem to mind. It was the best hug of his life. He sensed that she felt the same.
They held each other, as a gentle breeze came through the window, enveloping itself around them, soaking in the sound of the waves on the shore in perfect harmony with the soothing meditation music. They held onto each other for what felt like an eternity – an eternity they didn’t want to let go of. But as both these star-crossed widows knew more than anyone, every great thing must pass. And so it did.
Charlie and Bessie got into the car, as Claire waved from the porch – an image Charlie knew he would never forget. And just like that, he was back on the road, guided by the moonlight and filled with the hope of a new life to come.
When he arrived home, he headed straight to bed. And for the first time since he lost everything, he slept soundly through the night as his wedding portrait watched over him and Bessie slept soundly at the foot of the bed.
The next morning, he felt more refreshed and awake and alive than he could last remember. Charlie walked Bessie along the autumn shore and sat on his favorite spot on the rocks overlooking a golden sunrise. For the first time in over a year, he felt the urge to write again.
As Bessie ran along the shore, Charlie stared out into the distance, removed his wedding band and gently grasped it in the palm of his hand, listening as the waves caressed the shore.