Lost and Found

By

Lois Cloarec Hart

 

Delia dug stiff, gnarled fingers into the cold earth, and scowled at the tiny seedlings in the flowerbed at the side of the house.

“Are you going to let a bit of bad weather get to you?  I thought you were made of sterner stuff than that.  It’s not like you’re camellias or orchids, you know.  Since when did a little late frost bother marigolds and petunias?  I expect better of you.”

She paused in mid-scold as she heard the unexpected sound of a car turning into her long driveway.  Curious, she pushed back onto aching knees and peered at the unfamiliar vehicle winding its way up the lane.  Delia grabbed the sturdy cane that she had dropped to the ground when she had knelt to commune with her flowers, and used it to push herself awkwardly to her feet.  Tightening her cardigan against the cool breeze coming off the ocean, she started up the stone path that led to the front of the house, the arthritis that plagued her senior years making her gait slow and halting.  She arrived just as the car pulled to a stop in front of her small, neat Cape Cod bungalow.

Unable to see the face of the unaccompanied driver through the sun glinting off the windshield, she frowned.  “If it’s a salesman, he’s going to get...” Her half-uttered threat trailed off as a woman stepped out of the big, luxury car and stood hesitantly beside her vehicle.

Squinting through thick glasses, Delia tried to bring the woman’s face into focus.  There was something about her — something that suggested a long ago familiarity...

“Dee?”  

The voice was soft but unmistakable, though Delia hadn’t heard it in decades.  Oh God.  It can’t be. Patty?  The cane clattered to the stones, dropped from nerveless fingers as her mind flashed back over fifty years to one of the thousand memories she had shared with the woman before her.

 

##

 

Delia straggled back from the commons area, reluctant to return to her room where a mountain of homework awaited her.  Patricia, less gregarious and more studious than Dee, had resumed her studies immediately after the customary sit-down dinner, while the Sociology major had lingered to gossip with some of the other residents of Sessions House.  Now, however, the knowledge that she had to face Professor Abernathy’s Soc 311 class first thing in the morning, as well as a desire to see what her best friend was doing, drove her back up the stairs of the eighteenth century residence.

Flinging open the door of the room they had shared since entering Smith College as freshmen, Delia waited for Patricia to turn from her desk with an indulgent smile before throwing her arm across her forehead and rendering a mock swoon.

Patricia chuckled as Delia slumped to the floor.  “All right, what is it this time?  Did Lucy chase you up the stairs?”

Dee sat upright and grinned at the mention of the fabled house ghost.  “Nope.  Didn’t see the old general prowling around, either.”  Legend had it that the eldest daughter of the original owners of the house had often met her lover, General Burgoyne, in a secret staircase.  After being separated in life, it was said that the heartbroken general still pursued his lost love in death, two hundred years later.

“So, why the melodramatics then?”  Patricia smiled as her wayward roommate stood up and closed the door.

“Abernathy.”  Delia gave a pronounced shudder on naming the baneful professor.  His Contemporary Sociological Theory was a required course, but after one week of his class, she knew that she would have changed her major if she’d had him in her first year.  His method of teaching was — in a word — humiliation, and he was known for verbally savaging the women unlucky enough to end up in his class.  Dee had to admit that fear was unquestionably a motivator, but he was roundly hated, to the point that mock Abernathy-assassination plots were rife in the various Houses.

Patricia, who had lucked out of ever encountering the dreaded professor, gave an unsympathetic grunt.  “Hah.  I’ll trade you Latin 317 for Abernathy’s class any day.”

Delia held up her forefingers in a cross to ward off that curse and backed away to her side of the room.  In their freshman year, she had taken Beginning Latin as an elective, just to be with Patricia. After wrapping her brain around months of endless conjugations and verb tenses with very mixed results, she swore the closest she would ever get again to the “dead” language would be passing under the Smith College seal at the entrance to the school.

Blithely oblivious to the mound of clothes piled on the end of her bed, Dee burrowed under the furniture, searching for the text she was sure she had tossed there before dinner.  Triumphantly emerging with book in hand, she waved it at her best friend and, opening it to a dog-eared page, sprawled on the bed to begin studying.  Patricia smiled and returned her attention to her own work. 

A couple of hours passed, with little to break the silence except for the sound of turning pages, a scratching pen, and the occasional eloquent mutter from Delia.  Finally there was the sound of a heavy text hitting the floor, and Patricia looked around to see Delia bouncing across the room. 

The Sociology student flung herself on her roommate’s neatly made bed. “I can’t take any more, Patty.  Everything I read is leaking out my ears.  I’ll just have to take my chances in his class tomorrow.  With any luck, he’ll call on Hennessey.  She’s always sniffing around, trying to get on his good side.”

Pushing her worksheets aside in acknowledgement that the evening’s studies had ended, Patricia asked wryly, “Does he have a good side?”

Delia groaned.  “If he does, it’s hidden deeper than a pirate’s treasure.”  She rolled over and looked pleadingly at her friend.  “Head rub time, pleeeaase?”

Laughing, Patricia made her way to the bed, slid her long legs under Dee’s head, and rested her back against the wall.  Her roommate sighed in contentment as slender fingers began massaging her temples.  Dee closed her eyes in bliss, loving the way they ended so many of their days together.

A low chuckle sounded, and she opened her eyes to see Patricia regarding her with amusement.  “You know, you remind me of an old spaniel Uncle Hannibal once had.  All you had to do was rub that dog’s ears and he was in heaven.”

“Hey, I’ll have you know there is a very practical application for this,” Dee protested, never moving an inch from the gentle attention.

“And that would be?”

“You’re massaging all that hard-earned knowledge deep into my cranium so it can’t fall out before exams.”  A firm tug on her ear caused her to yelp.  “It’s true, I swear it.  I did a scientific survey that showed my GPA has gone up 27% percent since you started doing this after study periods.”

“You wouldn’t know a scientific survey if it bit you in the nose.”

Mmmmm.  Probably right,” Dee admitted, her body languid under the combination of the massage, the warmth of the legs on which she rested, and her friend’s subtle scent.  She knew that Patricia thought she was just a pleasure hound, but she mostly treasured these late night indulgences for the chance to be physically close to her best friend.  She drifted mentally, allowing her sybaritic impulses free rein for a moment before idly asking, “Do you ever wonder what happened to break up the general and Lucy?”

The fingertips slowed for a moment, then resumed their circling.  “I suppose Lucy’s parents didn’t approve of the general as a suitor and ordered him away.”

“I guess, though you’d think they’d jump at the chance to marry their daughter off to a general.”

Patricia gave a bitter chuckle.  “I know my parents would.”

Delia felt her heart clench.  Opening her eyes, she stared at her abruptly morose friend.  “Patty?”

Her roommate slid away, pulling out from under the dark head and sitting on the edge of the bed, her shoulders tense.  Alarmed, Dee rose up on one elbow and placed a comforting hand on Patricia’s rigid back.

“Hey, Patty, what’s going on?  Did something happen over the Christmas holiday that you didn’t tell me about?”

Delia’s father had taken his family on a Christmas jaunt to Italy, along with his soon to be son-in-law, Thom, so that the young man could get to know his fiancée’s family. Dee wasn’t terribly impressed with her sister’s choice, but had tried to make the best of the foreign holiday.  She hadn’t seen her best friend from the day they arrived back in Boston for the Christmas break to the day before they were to return to Smith, but Patricia hadn’t said much about the festive season at all, so she had assumed all had gone as per usual.

Patricia was silent so long that Delia started to panic, but finally she spoke, her voice low and strained.  “Four brought his best friend home for the holidays.”

Dee sat up, nodding acknowledgment at the nickname for Stanton Hawthorne IV, Patricia’s younger brother who was a sophomore at Harvard.  She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat close to her friend, murmuring encouragement to continue.

“Mother fawned over this fellow like he was the second coming of Christ, for heaven’s sake.  She went on and on about how handsome he was, and did I know that his grandfather had been a senator, and was I aware that he was president of the sailing club and played rugby and was on the debate team.  She kept encouraging us to take long walks together, seated us beside each other for dinner, and even had Jamison chauffeur us downtown to go dancing one night.  The only way she could’ve been more obvious about wanting to get us together would’ve been to actually produce an engagement ring.”

Delia froze, but only asked, “So, what’s this paragon’s name?”

“Gareth Edwards.” 

Slightly reassured by her friend’s scathing utterance, Delia pressed her to go on.

“Lord knows why, because I sure didn’t give him any encouragement, but Gareth seemed determined to spend every moment he could in my company.”

“Can’t say I blame him,” Delia muttered ruefully.

Patricia turned to look at her squarely.  “By the end of the vacation, I was using every excuse I could think of to dodge him.  I even faked an illness for two days just to get some time to myself.  When he came sniffing around, I told him it was ‘female troubles’, and he shot out of there like the room was on fire.”

Relieved that her friend obviously had no interest in the man, Delia managed a chuckle.  “Wow, you really must have been desperate.  You never even faked being sick to get out of school.”

Sighing, Patricia stretched out backwards on the bed until her head was touching the wall.  Delia promptly followed suit, so that they were lying side by side on their backs.

“It’s not that I hated him or anything.  I mean, he seemed very charming...sort of...and he was handsome enough...I guess, but I just wasn’t interested in dating him.”

“Well, don’t worry.  It’s not like your mother can force you to marry him.  After all, this is 1961, not 1861,” Delia reassured her friend.  Trying for a casual, cheerful tone, she added, “Besides, true love is waiting for you out there somewhere.  You don’t want to take second best just because your mother is impatient.”

Patricia was quiet for a long moment, then she asked, “Do you really think there is such a thing for everyone?  True love, I mean?”

Flustered, Delia blurted, “Sure, of course there is.  I mean, all the books say so, right?”

“Do you think we’ll know it when we see it?”

“Umm, I sure hope so.”  Delia was feeling uneasy with the direction of the conversation, and her friend’s next words stunned her.

“It doesn’t seem like you’re looking for it, Dee.  I mean, since we’ve been here, you’ve turned down at least five dates with Northampton boys that I know of.  Why is that?”

“Uh, they weren’t right for me?” Delia offered tentatively, aware that her voice had squeaked.

Patricia’s serious eyes were regarding her intently from mere inches away, and Delia felt the air in the room become charged with an unfamiliar tension.  When gentle fingers brushed the hair back on her forehead, she almost gasped.

“No, they weren’t right for you.  I can’t picture the man who would be,” Patricia mused, her fingers still caressing Delia’s face.  “I never have been able to.  I mean, I wasn’t surprised in the least when Andi got involved with Thom, even though he didn’t really seem like her type.  I always knew that she’d get married and be a fabulous mother to a whole brood of kids, but not you.”

Convinced that she was going to pass out from hyperventilation, Delia managed to slow her breathing enough to ask, “What...what do you visualize for me?”

Looking pensive, Patricia continued her hypnotic stroking.  “You, my dearest friend, you won’t take a conventional path.  It’s not your way.  You’re a lot like your father in that.  They laugh at him, you know:  Benjamin Barrington, the old money millionaire who’s more interested in birds than banknotes.  I mean, he probably could’ve owned half the country if he’d wanted, but instead he chose the anonymity of ornithology.   I’ve always admired that about him.  He travels to the ends of the Earth to do his research, and then spends years writing just one chapter in his massive tome that might actually get published some day before he dies, but he’s happy.  That’s pretty rare in our circle.  I don’t know what your path is going to be, but you’ll follow it with absolute dedication and disregard for anyone else’s opinion.”

Entranced by the unprecedented insight into the way her friend saw her, Delia forced out another question.  “And will I walk that path alone?”

Patricia’s soft eyes became contemplative.  “I don’t know, Dee.  I hope not, but it will take a strong person to walk with you.”

“Would you walk with me?” 

Shocked that the words had escaped her mouth, Delia tried to roll away, but was stopped by the arm instantly flung across her chest.  Gentle pressure forced her back to look at Patricia.  There was no condemnation on those delicate features, no revulsion or agitation.  The eyes that regarded her were still loving, not angry.

“I wasn’t sure...I didn’t know...”

Delia held perfectly still, swiftly analyzing Patricia’s words.  What isn’t she sure of?  How I feel about her?  How she feels about me?  If such a thing is even possible?

Her roiling thoughts were stilled and her breath caught as Patricia leaned closer, kissing first one side of her mouth, then the other, then the tip of her nose, as if not confident enough to kiss her full on the lips.  Delia exhaled gustily and, acting on pure instinct, threaded her hand through fine, golden hair and pulled her friend down for a tentative but long kiss. 

Gently they explored, lips barely brushing as they breathed each other’s air.  Tongues touched and retreated, then returned for more.  As their kisses became more confident, their bodies reacted too, unconsciously straining together.  Delia became aware of her friend’s breasts pressing against her own and one leg lodged between hers a split second before there was a knock on the door and the sound of Lee-Ann’s raucous hail.

Springing apart guiltily, they had barely separated before their friend and neighbour from down the hall burst into the room.  Excited about her news, the tiny redhead rushed over and plopped herself down on the bed between the two roommates.

“Hey, did you two hear about Hennessey being caught with a man in her room last night?  I hear her parents were called to come pick her up, and she’s out of here on her keister as soon as they get here.”

Fortunately their oblivious housemate needed little encouragement to relate the juicy gossip and quickly filled in the rest of the story, giving Delia and Patricia time to regain their composure.

Keeping half an ear on Lee-Ann’s chatter, Delia tried to process what had just happened.  Patricia had kissed her.  Well, okay, it was more that I kissed Patty, but she started it.  God, what happens now?  What do I want to happen now?

Surreptitious glances at her roommate let her know that Patricia had been as affected as she was.  She knew the signs were too subtle for anyone to see who didn’t know her friend extremely well, but she saw the minutely dilated pupils and the now-fading high color her friend exhibited.  She also saw the slight tremble in those slender hands, disguised as Patricia tucked them casually under her thighs.

Both roommates made appropriate sounds of shock and interest as Lee-Ann’s story wound down.  Eager to pass the news along to the next party, the vivacious redhead jumped up and ran out the door with a hurried, “See you two later.” thrown back over her shoulder.

Quietly, Patricia went to the door and locked it.  Then she turned and, leaning back, asked, “What now?”

Delia shrugged helplessly, at a complete loss as to how to answer that simple, yet incredibly complex question.  It felt like her life had just taken a monumental turn, but she had no idea towards what destination.

 

##

 

 “Patty?  Is it really you?”

The visitor's hand flew to her mouth as she choked back a sob and nodded.  “It’s really me.”  She took one tentative step toward Delia then stopped, as if unsure of her welcome.

“But how did you find me...Why did you come...Why now?” 

It was the shorthand version of the thousands of anguished questions Delia had directed to an unresponsive deity over the years.  How had the girl she’d grown up with, the young woman who had been her best friend and first and most passionate lover, found her?  Why had Patricia even bothered, after deserting Delia so long ago?  And the question that still haunted her dreams more than four decades later: why had her lover treated her so cruelly? Only hours after professing undying devotion and a determination to make a life together, Patricia had left Delia at her sister’s wedding reception without a word and run away to marry a man they both disliked.

This time Patricia did close the gap between them, halting at a respectful distance, but near enough that Dee could now clearly see the eyes that had once gazed at her with what Dee had believed was unending love.  Now those eyes were filled with tears and apprehension.

“I guess I could say I was in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by.”

Delia snorted, and Patricia accepted the implied rebuke with a wan smile. 

“Finding you wasn’t difficult. I’ve known where you lived almost since you moved here.  Your father told me in ’62, shortly after my son was born.  Late one night, he came to see me in the hospital.  He pressed your address into my hand and said he would trust me to know when the time was right for me to use it.”

“And it’s right now?  Why?  If you wanted some kind of closure or something, why not ten years ago, or twenty or thirty?  You must’ve known by then that I wasn’t going to upset the applecart and disturb your precious life with...”

Delia was bothered by the fact that all these years later she still couldn’t bring herself to utter the name of the man who had shattered her dreams.  She had convinced herself years before that she was over the tragedy that had radically changed the direction of her life.  However, she felt a pang of regret when the harsh bitterness of her tone caused Patricia to flinch.  Moderating her voice, she continued. “Look, I’m sorry.  I just wasn’t expecting to ever see you again, and my manners have gotten a little rusty living out here, away from the big city.”

Even as she forced the words past numb lips, Delia was taking the measure of her former sweetheart.  Patricia had aged well.  Still slender, her body had the same patrician carriage that Delia remembered.  Everything from her car to her expensive clothes to the fastidious coiffure of her silver-blond hair bespoke her place in upper reaches of society. Only the shallow lines etched around her eyes and lips, the small folds on her neck, and the glasses that hung on a thin, gold chain against her chest acknowledged the years that had passed them both by. To Delia’s eyes, her former lover was even more beautiful than she had been as a young woman.

As the hazel eyes continued to gaze at her, she wondered what Patricia was seeing.  Did she see anything of the girl she had loved in the old woman standing before her, unruly iron-grey hair tossed by the breeze, a softly rounded face weathered and worn with a lifetime spent on the edge of the Atlantic?  Did she judge her for the thickness of the lenses that obscured worn, blue eyes?  Had she noticed yet that the fingers that had once caressed her so tenderly were now bent and swollen? 

Delia self-consciously tugged the sleeves of her cardigan down over her hands.  Without a word, Patricia knelt, picked up the cane, and held it out.  Dee took it, nodding her thanks.  Still unsure of her former lover’s motives, she fell back on the manners instilled long ago when she, too, had been a child of high society.

“Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?  Our warm spring weather seems to have deserted us today, and I’m sure we’d be more comfortable inside.”

“Thank you.  That sounds lovely.”

Delia almost shook her head at the absurdity of it all, but instead she slowly led her guest up the path to the door of her grey and white home.  Inside, she made her way to the spacious kitchen at the rear of the house, politely pointing out features of her home as she would for any first time visitor.  Once there, she busied herself with making tea, marveling at how the sheer mundanity of the ritual contrasted with the astounding presence of her one time lover in her kitchen.  Patricia quietly took a seat at the table, and when Dee peeked over her shoulder, she saw that her guest was staring out the large windows toward the ocean. 

“You must never tire of the view.”

Delia noted the wonder in her guest’s voice with approval.  “No, I never do.  I deliberately had the house built on an angle so that you can see the ocean from the kitchen, the living room, and my bedroom.  I can lie in bed and watch sunrises that surely must’ve been painted by God Himself.” 

For one brief moment, Delia worried that might sound like an unintended come-on, but then she scoffed at herself.  Yeah, right, because you’re such a sexy senior citizen.  Get over yourself, Dee.  Whatever she’s here for, it sure isn’t that. 

“You’re very lucky.”

Delia shrugged noncommittally, and Patricia fell silent while her hostess set out cups and carried the teapot to the table. 

“If you still take lots of sugar, it’s in the bowl there.”  Dee gestured to the small bowl pushed up against the wall beside the salt and pepper shakers.

“Thank you, I do.  I never could break myself of the habit.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s hurt you any.”

Patricia glanced up in surprise at the oblique compliment, and smiled.  “You look like you’ve weathered the years well too, Dee.”

Pah.  Can’t see past the end of my nose, and my joints ache so bad I never know if I’m going to make it out of bed by noon.”  When Patricia dropped her gaze to her cup and started fiddling with her spoon, Delia regretted her usual bluntness.  Suddenly tired of verbal sparring, she tore the cover off the elephant in the room.

“So, what’s going on, Patty?  Fifty-one years ago you drop out of my life, and suddenly today you drop back in unannounced.  Why?”

Rather than answering directly, Patricia asked, “Are you sorry to see me?  Was it a mistake for me to come?”

Delia gave that some consideration, trying to analyze the feelings stirred up by the unheralded appearance of the lover of her youth.  Unbidden, her mind returned to a time when they had yet to step over the line and become lovers; a time when the acknowledged, but still mostly abstinent tension between them sizzled like coals in their summer campfires.

##

 

The two young women traipsed along the shoreline of Lake Sivert, a small, isolated jewel of a lake northeast of Boston, home to the summerhouses of many of Boston’s finest families, including theirs.  They had walked that same shoreline every day of every summer of their childhoods, but since the night of their first kiss almost five months before, even the simple act of traversing the familiar path together was charged with an underlying tension, though never to the point that they threw caution to the winds.   

After nearly being caught by their oblivious housemate, they had learned to exercise discretion, and had been mindful to lock the door before they allowed themselves to touch.  Even in that though, they had to be careful.  Unlocked doors were the norm, even during sleeping hours, so often evenings were spent in pent-up emotional turmoil as they awaited the lights out.  When that signal came, they would quietly lock away the outside world and retire to one of their beds.  Afraid of discovery, they kept their nightwear on, but curious, eager hands roamed as they explored each other’s upper bodies.  An unspoken taboo kept them from descending further to seek out the wet heat that radiated between their legs, as if acknowledging what they wanted would be final confirmation that they were indeed different...and that there would be no going back.

Delia understood her friend’s caution.  She didn’t want Patricia to feel at all pressured into something she wasn’t ready for.  So she accepted the unspoken limitations, even as she longed for them to be lifted.  But every now and then her emotions boiled over, and she had become adept at finding hidden spaces all over campus for them to steal fevered moments together.

 Now, as the clear water lapped at their bare feet and the sun beat down on their tanned shoulders, she couldn’t restrain herself any longer.  Grabbing Patricia’s hand, Delia tugged her away from the water’s edge and toward the tree line. 

Momentarily startled, Patricia quickly caught on, and the two of them darted into the shade and privacy of the dense brush.  Delia pressed her very willing friend up against a thick tree trunk. 

The taller woman wrapped her arms around Dee’s shoulders and smiled knowingly. “Are you trying to take advantage of me?” she whispered huskily.

That sound sent a thrill through Delia’s body and she murmured, “Mmmm, maybe.”  Then words became superfluous as they lost themselves in the renewed pleasures of kisses and intimate touches.

It was only when Delia realized her damp shirt was half off and her hands had strayed down the back of Patricia’s shorts, well on their way to unexplored territory that she found the will to pull back from their torrid encounter.  Gently she released the warm, firm flesh she had been stroking and stilled her lover’s hands, halting the delicious torment that had her nipples and the rest of her body — screaming for relief.  Sucking in deep breaths, she watched as Patricia fought for the same control.  If the fervid look in her lover’s eyes was any indication, they could have consummated their relationship right then, but Delia wanted more than a quick, fumbled liaison in a thoughtless, stolen moment.  She wanted the luxury of time and of privacy, but mostly she wanted to be absolutely sure that this was what Patricia wanted.  For all the pleasures and delights her imagination conjured for them to enjoy together, the dark flip side was picturing an uncertain and guilt-ridden lover running away from her, perhaps for good.

She would wait.

 

##

 

Delia shook her head.  “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, but no, I’m not sorry at all that you've come.  Maybe now...maybe finally, I’ll get some answers.  I never did figure it out, you know.  I never did understand how your heart could change so wildly in the space of a few hours.”

The long ago anguish was faded now, like a photograph left out in the sun.  She could remember the misery of the agonizing days and weeks and months following her lover’s betrayal, but it no longer had the power to wound.  Still, she was curious.  “So, why did you marry him?”

“To protect you.”

Delia blinked.  Of all the possibilities she had considered and discarded, then and since, that was never one of them.  “To protect me?  What the devil does that mean?”

“They knew about us, Dee.  Mother and Gareth.  They had some of our letters, and pictures that left absolutely no doubt about our relationship.  If I hadn’t done what they wanted, if I hadn’t married Gareth immediately, they would have had you put away in a mental hospital and charged with seducing and corrupting me.”

Delia stared in shock, trying to absorb what Patricia was telling her.  Their love had imperiled both of them in an age of intolerance when the persecution of homosexuals had been a near universal norm, but she had been so certain that they had kept their relationship a secret.  However, she reminded herself, both her sister and father had figured things out, though without the condemnation that Patricia had obviously encountered.  And certainly Virginia Hawthorne would never have allowed her daughter to do anything that would endanger the family’s precious social status, so if the family matriarch had known...

Dear God, could she have been such a viper? To sacrifice her own daughter’s happiness, Patricia’s very life...

Even remembering the icy, focused, autocracy of Patricia’s mother, Delia had difficulty believing that anyone could be so cruel to their own child.

“Why didn’t you come to me?  We could’ve worked it out.  We could’ve run away together.  Dad wouldn’t have let anyone kidnap me away to some psycho prison.”

Patricia laughed bitterly, and Delia was shocked at the bleakness in her eyes.  “Mother had a pet doctor and a toady of a judge in her pocket who had already signed the papers to commit you if I didn’t cooperate.  Your father wouldn’t have been able to rescue you in time to prevent shock treatments, maybe even a lobotomy.  Gareth painted a vivid picture of the kind of babbling idiot you’d become if I didn’t do exactly what he and Mother wanted.  So I did.  I married him.”

The tenor of her voice left no doubt in Delia’s mind that she had not been alone in her anguish; two lives had been shattered on that August night so long ago.  “Oh, God, Patty.  I’m so, so sorry.  If only I had known...”

Patricia mustered a tiny, rueful smile.  “I didn’t dare tell you, Dee.  I knew you so well.  I knew you’d try to fly to my rescue no matter what the consequences, and I just couldn’t risk having them do that to you. Not on account of me.”

“But why did you stay married?  Why didn’t you —”

“Run away?  Believe me, I thought about it every minute of every hour, but their minders never let me out of their sight until my son was born, almost nine months to the day after my wedding night, and then they had me.  My husband and mother made it clear that whatever I decided to do, my son would stay with them, and I knew no court in the land would award me custody if I went to you.  My son was so helpless, so innocent in the mess his parents had created.  I couldn’t abandon him, no matter what the cost.  Then as the years passed, and he grew up, I thought it was too late.  I knew how badly I’d wounded you, and I didn’t think you could ever forgive me.  I assumed...I thought probably you had found someone else to love.”

Delia winced at the pain in the woman’s voice.  She knew that Patricia had a son.  Her family had moved in the same social circles as the young newlyweds, and even though Dee never again returned to the city of her birth, her father and sister kept her abreast of her ex-lover’s life until they had passed away within two years of one another.  Her mother, who had survived into her eighties, had never acknowledged her daughter’s former lover as such, and Delia never knew if she was even aware of the situation.  Twenty years and more had gone by since her father and sister had died, and she’d had no word of Patricia since then, nor had she sought any.  She thought she had closed the book on her past permanently, until today.

“I’m sorry.”  It was inadequate to redress the damage done to both their lives, but Delia didn’t know what else to say.  It wasn’t like they were going to dispel the span of years between them over a single cup of tea.

“So am I, Dee.  So am I.”

“And now, why now, Patty?  What’s changed?”

Patricia Hawthorne Edwards lifted golden-green eyes to her hostess: eyes that evoked the memory of endless sunny days spent rambling together through the forests and meadows that surrounded Lake Sivert; eyes that challenged Delia to remember the passionate hours they had stolen at every opportunity; eyes that grieved for the life together they had been denied.

“They’re both gone now.  Mother died a year ago, and Gareth died four months ago.  I’m free.”

The remainder of their visit was filled with stilted words and awkward silences, a longer tour of the house, and desultory conversation about people they had both known in their younger days. It wasn't the comfortable reunion of long lost friends; there was too much water under the bridge, and too many things left unsaid. Patricia was reticent to talk much about her life with her husband, so Dee played hostess with a calm cordiality that gave lie to the turmoil within.

Less than two hours after her arrival, Patricia stood to go.  Delia didn’t try to delay her, or even ask if she would stay in touch.  She simply walked her to the front door, bade her drive carefully, and watched as the big town car carefully made a U-turn and drove down her driveway and back out to the highway.

But as she watched Patricia drive away, Delia’s mind summoned up the last time she had seen her.  It was at her sister Andrea’s wedding, an August night in 1961.

 

##

 

Virginia Hawthorne had dictated that Patricia be escorted to Andrea’s wedding by Gareth Edwards, scion of a fine, old New York family, and the man she had been relentlessly pressing on her daughter for almost a year.  Patricia had reluctantly acquiesced, and even Delia had encouraged her not to do anything to anger the Hawthorne matriarch.  The young women had already made plans to run away together to Europe, and on the night of the wedding, were only days away from boarding the Queen Mary and sailing to England to start a new life while everyone assumed they had returned to Smith College for their senior year.

Caught up in the excitement of her sister’s wedding, Delia even found the sight of her lover dancing in Gareth’s arms bearable, if only just.  The lovers had stolen a few moments together throughout the evening, exchanging furtive kisses and barely suppressing their excitement at their impending escape from familial pressures.  The only sour note in the affair had come as Delia passed a small group of older women hanging eagerly on Virginia’s animated words.

“Oh, you know how it is with young love.  I won’t be surprised if they announce their engagement within days.  Heavens, they’d probably have announced it already except they didn’t want to overshadow Andrea’s wedding.  I know my daughter's mind, and she’s definitely found the man for her.”

Glancing at Virginia, Delia felt a sharp pang of fear at the smug look directed her way.  She quickly shook off the feeling as ridiculous, knowing that Mrs. Hawthorne was just spouting off wishful thinking.  But Delia was unable to shake the lingering uneasiness. Virginia Hawthorne had made her prediction with such certainty.

While she danced with her brother-in-law, then her father and the groomsmen, Delia lost track of Patricia.  Eventually her best friend’s absence, coupled with underlying worry over Mrs. Hawthorne’s bold pronouncement about her daughter's imminent engagement, prompted her to begin searching for her missing lover, a search that grew more frantic as a rapid check through the house and grounds failed to turn up Patricia, and no one was able to say they had seen her recently. 

Finally, filled with foreboding, she approached Mrs. Hawthorne, certain the matriarch would be aware of her daughter’s whereabouts.

“Mrs. Hawthorne?” When Virginia looked at her, she asked politely, “Do you know where Patricia is?”

“Yes.  She wasn't feeling well, so she went back to the house.  Now, if you’ll excuse me…"

Staring after the matriarch, Delia puzzled over the maliciously triumphant look the woman had leveled at her before she abruptly turned and walked away.

She immediately left the reception and headed for the Hawthorne mansion.  Something was wrong.  Patricia had looked fine the last time she had seen her, and had said nothing about feeling ill.  Delia acknowledged that it was possible Patricia hadn’t been able to notify her before leaving, but try as she might, the young woman was unable to shake a sense of foreboding.

A short while later Delia stood on the beach, staring up at her lover’s bedroom as if the intensity of her gaze could summon Patricia to the window.  But the window remained stubbornly dark and closed.  The sounds of the wedding reception could be heard faintly in the distance, floating over the water, but the merriment was lost on the young woman.

She had already knocked on the Hawthornes’ door, only to be greeted by an obviously annoyed, pajama clad butler, who informed the midnight visitor that when Miss Patricia had come in, she had left orders not to be disturbed, as she wasn’t feeling well.  That news should have reassured Delia that her lover was safely in her own bed, but the fear that had settled into the pit of her stomach refused to recede.  It had not escaped her that the usually cordial and pleasant butler had not met her eyes when he relayed the information, and had cut short her attempts to talk her way into the house, politely but firmly closing the door on any further conversation.  She tried to attribute it to the lateness of the hour, now well past midnight, but the whole encounter had an undercurrent of falseness that unsettled her.

Casting around for a logical next step, Delia could only come up with waiting for the morning and returning as early as possible.  Disconsolate, she turned away from her lover’s house and trudged down the beach, back toward the wedding festivities.  Before rounding the point that would put her in sight of her home, she suddenly stopped and dropped gracelessly down on the sand.  Staring out across the dark water, the young woman attempted to soothe herself with the soft sound of waves lapping rhythmically against the shore.  Anxious eyes drifted up to the sky, but the beauty of the stars was lost on her troubled heart.

“Patty, I don’t know what’s going on, but this feels wrong.”  Her whispered words barely disturbed the night air.  “If I could only talk to you, I know things would be all right.”  She forced a smile.  “But hey, what am I worrying about, right?  You always manage to sneak away.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see you sitting at Mom’s breakfast table when I get up in the morning, teasing me that you’ve already eaten the last of the pancakes.”  Her voice turned stern as she lectured her absent lover.  “I’m telling you now, though, you’d better have a darned good excuse for making me worry so.”

Delia’s face softened as her mind conjured an image of her remorseful lover.  Mmm, as if I could ever stay mad at you, sweetheart.”  She shook her head wryly.  It was the truth.  On the rare occasions that she and Patricia had had a dispute, the blonde could always end it with nothing more than a winning smile, which invariably melted Delia like ice cream under the summer sun.

The noise from the wedding party had abated, and Delia supposed that Andi and her new husband had departed, followed by many of the guests.  She felt guilty that neither she nor Patricia had been there to bid the newlyweds farewell, but she knew that Andi would assume that the two of them had stolen away for some private time together, and she would cover up their absence as she always did.

Delia knew she should probably return to the celebration.  She didn’t want to disquiet her parents on an evening of what should be undiluted joy, but she couldn’t summon the will to move.  Instead she allowed the summer night to work its magic, calming her disquieted mind and finally lulling her into a light doze as she burrowed into the sand, heedless of her wedding finery.  Her last conscious thought was a mental reminder to clean up and change before she went over to see her lover in the morning, so that Patty didn’t think she’d been up all night worrying about her.  She didn’t want her lover to feel guilty for abandoning her at the reception without a word.  After all, she was certain that there was a good explanation for it all. 

 

##

 

But there hadn’t been. It had taken Delia many days to find out that her lover had left her and married Gareth the very morning after the wedding, and she had never understood why, until now.

Shaken, Delia retired to her bedroom, trying to evaluate the startling encounter.  Patricia had sought her out, after all those years. Was her former lover merely checking to see if she was well, and that was the end of it?  It was certainly a possibility.  Delia wasn’t fond of the modern term, closure, but perhaps with the death of Patricia’s husband, the widow had felt a renewed need to come to terms with her past, and lay those ghosts to rest once and for all.

Several days later, Delia had successfully persuaded herself that was all that the visit had signified, but then the first letter arrived.  Her arthritis was bad that day and she fumbled as she tried to open the envelope, her heart beating so rapidly that she feared it might explode.  The letter left her in tears, but they were cleansing, healing tears. 

 

Dear Delia,

I hope you will permit me the liberty of contacting you again.  I feel I did an inadequate job of articulating all that I had to say when I dropped by your home on Tuesday.  I have long felt that I owed you — at the very minimum — an explanation for what happened, and I hope I provided at least that during our short visit.  I’ve also believed that I owed you the chance to have your say.  I did you a great harm, and even though I had the best of motives — your safety and well-being — for over fifty years I’ve denied you the opportunity to respond. 

When I arrived at your home, I fully expected you to vent your anger upon me.  In truth, I deserved to suffer your wrath.  A million times I’ve considered what I might have done differently, how I might have protected both of us if I’d been stronger or more courageous that night.  That I wasn’t has been a source of unending grief to me. 

Though I’d have accepted it as my due, my greatest fear was that over the years your love might have turned to hate.  Oh, Delia, if you could have seen me tremble as I turned into your driveway.  I almost turned around and drove away, but this time I had to find the fortitude to be fair to you.  I couldn’t continue to justify my inaction on the belief, whether true or groundless, that you wouldn’t want to see me under any circumstances.  At the same time, I prayed that I wasn’t being selfish, and that I wouldn’t upset your life when you deserve nothing but peace and contentment. 

You asked me “why now” and I told you that it was because Gareth and Mother had both passed away.  That is the core of it, but not the entire truth.  As surely as I believe that they have now been called to account for the harm they did, I believe that one day I too shall be called to account.  And Delia, what I did to you was the greatest sin of my life.  I know you.  Or at least I knew you then.  I knew that you would suffer terribly by my caving in to their demands, and I shall bear that burden until my last day.  If there was any chance to make amends, in however small a measure, then I had to try, no matter what the personal cost.  I only hope that you do not regret my intrusion into your life at this late stage.

Delia, please do not feel that you need to respond to this letter if you’ve no wish to.  The last thing I want is to cause you any further distress.  However, if, as seems possible from our meeting, if you can forgive me, and if you would like to talk again, I’d love to hear from you.  I leave it up to you.

 

Sincerely,

Patricia

 

Delia reread the letter several times, absorbing the words that would never compensate for the harm done her, but which were nonetheless balm for her soul.  She wasn’t at all surprised that her lover had sacrificed everything to protect her, though she wished with all her heart that Patricia had run from Gareth and come directly to her that fateful night.  Still, what was done was long done, and she couldn’t even find it in herself to hate the architects of her distant heartbreak.  Gareth and Virginia were both dead. Like Patricia, she too firmly believed that at the Final Day, they would be called to answer for the misery they had caused the young lovers.  What mattered was the present, and in the present, Patricia sought to renew their friendship.  She didn’t ask for anything more, and Delia could read her old friend’s hesitancy between the lines.  She knew that it must have taken a great deal of courage to make the first move, not knowing if the gesture would be thrown back in her face.

That first letter initiated a regular correspondence, and the two women cautiously found their way back to friendship.  It wasn’t the impulsive, fiery, tempestuous friendship of their youth.  Experience, maturity, pain, and even joy had shaped the women differently. The fifty years lost between them was a chasm that could only be bridged with slow resolution.  Some topics were off limits.  Delia never discussed the weeks after Patricia had left her and, after the initial explanation, her former lover never talked about her mother or late husband.  Yet despite those minefields, something magical happened.

Delia began to fall in love all over again, and she knew from Patricia’s eloquent letters that she was feeling the same.  The bond that had been so callously severed began to reweave itself, and the two women drew closer with each missive.  Recently, there was more urgency in Patricia’s letters, as if she were hoping for more than just friendship, but as of yet, Delia was unable to overcome her fears.  She kept her letters warmly affectionate, but didn’t cross the line to suggest any kind of romantic reconnection.

She had long ago learned to live with the loss of her lover, but she had been young and resilient then.  What if it didn’t work out this time, either?  What if she let herself love Patricia, only to lose her again?  She had built a satisfying life filled with activity and purpose.  She loved her home and her garden, and her friends and niece.  Her days passed pleasantly in her adopted town, in the cottage by the sea.  She couldn’t bring herself to risk her hard won contentment on the ephemeral hope of rekindling a fifty one year old flame.

Yet despite the decades of placid happiness, nothing and no one had ever filled the hole that losing Patricia had left in her heart.  She hadn’t spent the intervening years entirely celibate, though she kept her affairs discreet and well removed from the transparency of her small town, but no other woman had ever touched her in the same all-consuming way as her first and truest love.

In the end, no amount of rational, carefully considered, clear-eyed logic could make the decision.  Delia knew she had to trust her heart, and that stubborn entity was steadily pushing her right back into Patricia’s arms.

On a sunny Friday afternoon six weeks after their initial reunion, Delia was at her desk in the den.  She had intended to work on her household accounts, but as happened so often those days, her mind drifted away on a daydream.  Though her body was rocking softly in the old office chair, her thoughts were on a summer night at the lake, long, long ago.  

 

##

 

She and Patricia had stolen out on a midnight raid to pull a practical joke on Patty’s obnoxious cousin, Charles.  After sabotaging the odious young man’s boat so that he would get his feet and various other parts of his body wet the following day, they had made their way back to the trellis that would allow them to climb back to Delia’s bedroom.

Once beside the leaf covered trellis that had served as their escape to innumerable adventures over the years, the two young women stood for a long moment, inhaling the sweet night air and listening to the song of the frogs and crickets. 

Delia glanced sideways, enjoying the way the soft moonlight caressed her friend’s face.  Whether it was the magic of the warm summer night or the adrenaline-fueled exhilaration of their latest escapade, suddenly, without even her usual instinctive glance around, Patricia wrapped her arms around Delia and kissed her exuberantly.  Dee responded with equal enthusiasm, and their passion escalated until the smaller woman had fiercely pressed her lover up against the house, both women lost in the intensity of the moment.  Only the sound of Patricia’s low gasp recalled Delia to her senses enough to pull back.  Swallowing, she indicated the trellis. “Up,” she croaked unsteadily.

Patricia stared at her, eyes dark with emotion, then she turned wordlessly and began to climb.  The trellis was a familiar route for the women, one they had used since childhood when staying at the Barrington summer house, so Delia didn’t have to consider where to place her feet.  That left her mind free to appreciate the body climbing above her, and by the time she slithered in over the windowsill, she was feverish to hold her lover again.  Without a word being exchanged, she knew this time was going to be different — this time her lover could no more stop than she could.

Frenzied, they came together, fingers fumbling with zippers and buttons, shedding clothes until finally they fell together naked on Delia’s bed.  Straddling the shorter body, Patricia took Delia’s hand and guided it between her legs.  Startled at her lover’s unprecedented boldness but eagerly assenting to Patty’s unspoken demands, Dee slid her strong fingers firmly across soft, swollen flesh and into her lover’s depths.

Patricia moaned with pleasure, her hips moving rhythmically.  Delia’s eyes adored her even as they devoured her, and there was no mistaking the moment her lover found herself on the edge and unable to hold back.  Moving frantically, the blonde tried to stifle her cries as she jerked against Dee’s hand then fell forward into welcoming arms. 

“I’m sorry.  Too fast.” 

Delia could barely hear the panted words, but she understood. “Shhhh,” she whispered, carefully rolling Patricia over onto her back and beginning a slow, gentle stroking from her lover’s face down to slender thighs and back again, sparking a resurgence of desire in the exhilarated woman.  “We have all the time in the world, my love.  Don’t worry about a thing.”

And as Delia’s head lowered and lips closed firmly around a hard nipple, she thrilled to the way Patricia’s body arched in silent, insistent appeal.  Losing herself in pleasure, Delia let everything else go, content to live for the moment in the idyll they had created for themselves.

 

##

 

“Snow on the chimney doesn’t mean the fire’s out in the furnace, does it, you old bat?”

Delia gently chided herself, amused by the erotic paths her mind had been traveling.  It happened with more and more frequency, and she could pinpoint the exact date that long-dead dreams had resurfaced: May sixth; the day that Patricia had walked back into her life, and she had finally learned why her long ago lover had left.

She laughed aloud, resting a hand on the stack of letters she normally kept locked in a tin box.  It amused her that in a world of instant, long distance communications, they had rekindled their romance via the old-fashioned method of the handwritten word.  Delia wondered if Patricia remembered when their mutual passion for letter writing had first begun.  She had long ago forgotten the name of their third grade teacher, but she still remembered the woman’s insistence that her students learn all the correct forms for formal and informal correspondence, and practice them over and over.  She and Patricia had taken great delight in sending each other letters, even though they spent hours of every day in each other’s company.  Where other girls confided in their pretty little diaries, she and Patricia had poured out their hearts in writing to each other for years.  And now they had begun the process again, secure in the belief that the confidences of old age would be as readily protected as the secrets of youth had been, all those long years ago.

Reluctantly, Delia pushed the letters aside and ruefully forced her eyes back down to the ledger that lay under her hand on the desk.  The neat, if shaky, columns of figures had been abandoned as her mind had drifted off in those much more pleasurable pursuits.  She was trying to refocus on her monthly accounts and investment statements when, through the window opened to the warmth of the spring day, she heard a car driving up the lane towards the house.  Curious, because she hadn’t been anticipating company, she went to the window.  The sight of the big, white Lincoln approaching set her heart pounding, and she hastened to the front door.

Standing on the stoop, she adjusted her glasses and tugged at her sweater, half disbelieving that her old friend was once again at her door.  When a nervously smiling Patricia stepped from the car, Delia gave her a welcoming grin and descended the steps to greet her visitor.

“Patty.  How wonderful to see you again.  Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

Without a word, Patricia closed the distance between them and wrapped Delia in a tight hug.  For a long moment the two women simply stood, greedily absorbing the contact, then Delia heard a whisper.

“Because I was afraid that you’d tell me not to come.”  Patricia drew back and caressed Delia’s face with a soft hand.  “I just had to take the chance.”

“The chance?”  Delia’s voice trembled as she gazed at the woman she had loved so long ago…and loved still.

“The chance that you might not feel the same, the chance that you no longer want me in your life as anything other than a friend.  I wouldn’t blame you if that were the case, but I —”

Delia pressed her stiff fingers across Patricia’s lips and smiled.  “Thank you for taking the chance, my love.” She watched the blossoming delight in the other woman’s eyes, and shyly asked, “Will you stay the weekend with me?”

“Yes, please.”  Patricia tried to say more, then gave up and simply pulled Delia back into her arms and held her close. 

Delia’s eyes were wet as she simply reveled in the sensation of being in the arms of her first and best love again.  She had no idea how long they stood there, but finally she pulled back with a chuckle. “The squirrels are going to think we’re a pair of garden statues, at this rate.  Why don’t we take your things into the house?”

Nodding, Patricia popped the trunk and pulled out an overnight bag.  As they walked back to the house, she reached for Delia’s hand.  For a brief second, Dee feared that her arthritic knuckles and gnarled fingers would repulse her friend, but the other woman was looking at her with such warmth in her eyes that she abandoned the fear and simply enjoyed the feeling of being linked with someone again.  It had been so very long.

Not wanting to make assumptions or misread the other woman’s intentions, Delia hesitated when they entered the main hallway, but Patricia just smiled and led the way to the master bedroom.  Leaving her suitcase inside the door, she suggested, “How about a walk on the beach, Dee?”

Relieved that they weren’t going to rush into anything, Delia eagerly agreed, and they made their way outside to the stone staircase that led down the bluff to the beach below.  Once on the sand, they walked slowly, Delia’s arm tucked inside Patricia’s.

They hadn’t gone far when Patricia stopped and turned to face Delia, taking both misshapen hands in her own.  Her eyes solemn and her voice intense, she began.  “I owe you a world of apologies, my darling.  I’ve never forgiven myself for hurting you the way I did.”

Delia shook her head.  “No, Patty.  Even when I didn’t know why, I knew it wasn’t your choice, and I never completely lost faith in your love, just as I never really stopped loving you, even though I never thought I’d see you again.”

That elicited a harsh sob as Patricia visibly tried to control her emotions.  Soothingly, Delia went on.  “What’s done is long ago done, sweetheart.  We can’t change what happened, and we can’t get those years back.  The only thing that matters now is what we want today.”

Her eyes bright with unshed tears, Patricia bit her lip, then asked, “What do you want, Dee?”

“You, for whatever time God has left for us.”  This time Delia took the initiative.  Cupping the face that was still so delicate, even with the imprint of age, she gently touched her lips to Patricia’s.  It was a kiss as fragile as a butterfly’s wing and as immortal as the ocean beside them.  It was a beginning to something that had never ended.

When finally they drew apart, there was no need for words.  Those would come later, but for now, they would be an intrusion on the perfection of the moment.  It wasn’t until hours later, when the women had settled in front of a fire after dinner, that they began to talk...truly talk.  No topic was now off limits, and they began by recalling those painful days of their wrenching apart.  Delia told Patricia how her family had stepped in and supported her, literally saving her life with their unstinting love.  How her sister Andi had taken her on a cruise to England, despite being recently married herself, and had spent weeks trekking all over the British Isles trying to distract her from her misery.   Patricia skimmed over the beginnings of her marriage, unable — even fifty years later — to do more than touch on the all-consuming pain of that time. Her lover had no problem reading between the lines, and her heart ached for what the other woman had endured.

Just as easily, Patricia read the expression on Delia’s face.  “No, sweetheart, don’t think the whole time was that bad.  Gareth and I eventually came to an understanding.  We knew we didn’t love each other, but for our son’s sake, we made a decision to at least get along.” 

“I really don’t understand why he was so insistent on marrying you.  Why would someone so aggressively seek out a partner that didn’t love them?”

“Money.  Gareth’s father and uncle had lost most of the family fortune a couple of years before we met, and he was desperate to make a good marriage before the family lost what little was left and their social standing along with it.  Once Mother found out about us, she decided he was the perfect candidate to rescue her fallen daughter and save the family from any public disgrace.  She did everything she could to bring that about, including arranging the logistics of my so-called elopement and honeymoon.”  Patricia smiled bitterly.  “After my third miscarriage, Gareth left our bed for good.  I was glad.  He was discreet in his affairs, and made no demands on me other than that I publicly project the image of a devoted wife.”

“And you, love?  Was there ever anyone else for you?” Delia asked tenderly, awkwardly stroking the hand she held.

Patricia shook her head.  “No, never.  I thought the only woman I loved was long lost to me, and I could never summon up interest in anyone else.”  She smiled.  “What about you, sweetheart?  Did you ever love again?”

“I wouldn’t say I ever loved again, but if you mean did I ever have a...liaison, then the answer would be yes.  For many years, there was a woman in San Francisco who made time for me when I visited.  She knew I didn’t love her, but gallantly accepted the limits of our relationship.”  Delia cocked her head, remembering.  “She once told me that she would gladly have exchanged all the gifts I’d given her over the years, for one genuine night of love, but she knew I didn’t have that in me to give. Eventually she just couldn’t live with that any longer, so we parted for good.”  She shrugged.  “There were a few others along the way, but I never gave my heart again.”

“In a way, I’m very sorry to hear that,” Patricia said quietly.  “You had so much love in you to give.”

“I still had love in my life, darling: my sister, my parents, my niece when she came along, my friends here and across the country... I’ve been lucky.”

The silver-blond head ducked.  “I wanted so much to come when I heard about your sister’s illness, but I knew you’d be at her side and I didn’t feel it was fair to put you through my presence on top of what was happening.  I cried for days and days when I learned of her passing.”

Her voice far away, Delia mused, “You know, one of the last things Andi ever said was about us.  She told me that if I ever had another chance, I was to take it, no matter what.”  She looked at her companion apologetically.  “The thing is, after Andi died, I couldn’t have. I couldn’t jeopardize my place in my niece’s life.  She was so young, and she needed me.  My brother-in-law’s rules for our continuing relationship were stringent, and definitely didn’t include me stepping outside the rigid restrictions of his religious beliefs. I couldn’t chance him keeping me away from my niece.”  She chuckled ruefully.  “My trips to San Francisco grew more infrequent after Andi's death.”

“Gareth died of cancer, like Andi, though in his case it was bone cancer.  It was an ugly death. Despite all that he had done to us, I felt badly for him.  No one deserves such a thing.  By the end, he was on such high levels of pain killers that, in effect, he’d stopped living two months before he stopped breathing.”  Patricia shook her head sadly.  “My son took it very badly, particularly as he’d lost his grandmother only six months before.  He and Mother had been boon companions.  I can remember when he was just five years old, her telling him that some day he was going to sit in the Oval Office and she would be there the day that he was inaugurated.  I think it was the greatest disappointment of her life when she finally realized that she probably wouldn’t live to see that.”

Delia wasn’t surprised to hear that Patricia’s mother had begun early to inculcate another generation with her drive and ambition. “So, I guess she finally gave up on putting your brother in the White House, did she?”

That got a genuine laugh.  “Oh, honey, you wouldn’t believe what happened to my little brother.”

Smiling at her lover’s mirth, Delia asked, “What?”

“In 1965, he was in an automobile accident.  One of his drunken buddies lost control and wrapped the car in which they were traveling around a light pole.  Anyway, Four ended up in the hospital with broken ribs and a badly broken leg.   He was in for quite a while, and during the course of his recovery, he fell in love with his nurse.”

“No.  Stanton fell in love?”  Delia was vastly amused that the shallow, self-centered young man she remembered had succumbed to Cupid’s arrows.

“Yes.” Patricia responded gleefully, “But that’s not the best part.  Her name is Antonia, and she’s a tough, no-nonsense, second generation Italian, Bronx broad — that’s what she calls herself, even now.  He was head over heels, and she wouldn’t give him the time of day.  Told him to get his snooty self off her ward and quit bothering her.  Well, she always says that he just finally wore her out, and she agreed to marry him just to shut him up.  Mother, of course, was absolutely horrified, and did everything she could to stop the relationship. She cajoled and threatened, but he wouldn’t give Antonia up for anything, not even when Mother cut off his trust fund.”

Delia stared at Patricia in amazement.  “Stanton without a trust fund?  You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No, I’m not.  And not only that, Antonia told him bluntly that she wasn’t about to put up with him lazing around their house all day doing nothing, so he’d better get his skinny ass out of the house and get to work.  He’s spent forty five years as an insurance adjuster, raised six kids in a New York City apartment, and is as happy as any man could be.  You can tell he adores his wife to this day by the look in his eyes when he watches her.   She loves him too, even if she still calls him a good-for-nothing sissy pants when he ticks her off.”

“Oh my God.  Your mother must have just about had a heart attack,” Delia gasped between peals of laughter, then it struck her.  “Oh gosh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean...”

Patricia smiled reassuringly.  “No, it’s okay.  Mother did eventually die of heart disease, but frankly I think it was more because of all the venom she’d spewed over the years rather than the fate of her only son.”

Delia looked at her curiously.  “How did you and your mother get along? I mean after —”

“After she callously wrecked my life?  Truthfully, I’d have been glad never to see her again, but Gareth wouldn’t allow that. He insisted I maintain at least a cordial relationship with her.  I guess over time, just as Gareth and I did, Mother and I worked out a way to get along.  I never forgave her, but once my son arrived, things changed. She doted on the baby, and that gave me a lot of leverage that I’m not ashamed to say I used.  I got her to attend my brother’s wedding by threatening to withhold visiting privileges. I even got her to reinstate Four in her will, though she never would bend on giving him back his trust fund.  Ironically, I think he became a much better man because of it.”

Still shaking her head at Stanton’s unexpected life, Delia pushed herself up off the couch and walked to the sideboard.  “Can I interest you in a nightcap, Patty?”

“Sure, what are you having?”

Delia smiled and glanced back at her lover.  “Black rum, neat.  It’s kind of my own personal tradition.”

“Black rum?  You?”

She poured two shots of the dark liquid and carefully carried them back to the couch, passing one glass to a doubtful looking Patricia. Sinking down, Delia tapped her glass against her lover’s.  “Cheers,” she said softly, and tipped the rum back, enjoying the familiar bite.

Hesitantly, Patricia followed suit, only to grimace at the first sip.  “God, Dee, that’s horrible.  I can’t believe you like this stuff.”

“A long time ago, I was at sea.  It was a time of endings and beginnings.  It was the first time I’d tasted real sorrow, and the first time I tasted rum,” Delia said quietly, gazing at the fireplace where the flames had subsided to embers.  “I drink rum to this day because I never want to forget that time.  It’s my way of honouring what we had…and what we lost; those things should never be forgotten.”  Smiling a little to lighten the mood, she added with a shrug, “Besides, it puts fire in these old bones.”

Patricia gently turned Delia’s face towards her and their eyes locked in profound understanding.  Solemnly she raised her glass, saluted her lover, and drained the liquid in one smooth swallow.  Rising, she took both glasses and replaced them on the sideboard.  Then she turned back and tenderly extended her hand. “Let’s go to bed, sweetheart.”

Since Patricia had first re-entered her life, Delia had often thought of just this moment; and she had worried about many things.  She hadn’t made love with anyone in a long time, not since her arthritis has gotten so bad.  She feared that her touch would be harsh and clumsy where she wanted to be gentle and skilled.  She was also concerned that Patricia would be remembering the girl she once was, and might be repulsed by the physical changes wrought by four decades. 

When Patricia led her into the bedroom, turning on the bedside lamp for muted light, Delia joked weakly, “You might want to turn that off.  The darkness is much kinder to this old body.” 

Her lover studied her for a long moment, easily reading Delia’s insecurities, then shook her head.  “Darling, by all rights we should’ve grown old together, let the years age us together, and dealt with each inevitable change as it came on us.  Do you think, had we been together, that as we passed forty, or fifty, or sixty we would’ve been bothered by the fact that the other no longer looked like a twenty-one year old?”

Delia shook her head mutely.

“Then how can you think that it bothers me now, love?  We were denied the chance to age together, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find you as beautiful as the last time we made love.”

“But you’re still —”

Patricia stopped her with a long, deep kiss, and when she ended it, Delia smiled. “You always did win arguments that way.”  She raised one hand and rested it on her lover’s blouse.  “I can’t manage buttons any more, sweetheart.”

“That’s not a problem,” Patricia whispered, and she stepped back, slowly and deliberately beginning to unfasten her blouse. 

Delia swallowed deeply as she watched the tantalizing sight.  She barely breathed as the other woman peeled off her clothes, revealing a body that had stood up remarkably well to the passing years. 

Once Patricia was nude, she pulled back the bedding and looked over expectantly.  That galvanized Delia, and she moved quickly to shed her clothes.  Because she avoided buttons, she was able to tug her garments off quickly and set them aside, along with her glasses.  Self-conscious, she avoided her lover’s eyes as she crossed to the large bed and slipped under the covers, pulling them up high.

Patricia slid over next to her and slowly pushed the bedding down.  Delia was sure her heart would pound out of her chest as she felt the silky warmth of the woman she loved for the first time in over fifty years, and tasted rum on lips that were strange yet so familiar.  Soft hands stroked and caressed her, gently coaxing her into setting aside any last inhibitions.

“You are so beautiful, Dee,” Patricia murmured as she eased her body over her lover’s. 

Delia guided her higher, eagerly seeking out the breasts that dangled so temptingly above her.  Murmurs of delight drew her deeper into the moment, and she forgot the hands that could no longer stroke her partner’s flesh with the same surety they had once had, and the back that ached from the long evening sitting on the couch.  All that mattered was in the eyes that looked down at her with such overwhelming love.

Memories of what once had been mingled with the joy of what was now, creating a symphony of pleasure for both women.  Though their bodies no longer moved with the fury and flexibility of youth, they still drew on the same deep passion to fuel their lovemaking.  Gently, patiently, they relearned the touches that had once set them on fire.  If their satisfaction was slower in coming, it was all the more rewarding for the delicately intense build up.  Delia found that, despite her worries, her hands posed little impediment in conveying her desire and appreciation to her lover, and she reveled as much in Patricia’s cries of delight as she did in her own release. 

It was long after midnight when they finally relaxed into each other’s arms — exhausted, satiated, and blissfully grateful for their rediscovered love. 

In the days that followed, it sometimes seemed as if no time had passed since they were girls, and often as if they actually had been granted the grace of growing old together.  The intimacy of body and soul they had once taken for granted was now something to be treasured.  They often caught themselves peeking at the other as if to ensure she was really there, then laughing out loud in sheer exultation.  As the pain of the past fragmented and drifted away like an early morning fog, their old playfulness returned.  Each was deeply appreciative that she had not only reclaimed her lover, but also her best friend.

Day after day, Patricia delayed her departure, necessitating an emergency shopping trip for additional clothing.  Finally, early one morning, as they lay snuggled under a thick quilt and watching a grey sky lighten over green, turbulent water, Delia cautiously broached the subject that had been on her mind continually through the heady days and nights of their reunion.

“Do you like it here?”

Patricia tilted her head to regard her lover, the look of deep contentment in her eyes answer enough.  “You know I do, sweetheart.”

Shocked that she still had the capacity to be so nervous, Delia swallowed and tried to still the trembling of her hands.  “Do you think you might like to stay?”

“Stay?”

“Um, yes.  You know — for however long you’d like.  It’s not — I’m not expecting —”

“But you should expect, darling.” Patricia shifted so that she was leaning over Delia, looking intently down into faded blue eyes as one gentle hand caressed a path down her lover’s anxious face.  “I want you to expect so much.  I want you to expect me here beside you every morning when you wake up.  I want you to expect my limitless love and devotion, and I want you to expect that we will spend every day of the rest of our lives together.”

Exhilarated, Delia wrapped her arms around Patricia, and as she gloried in the sensation of her lover’s warm body covering her, she let go of the last of her fears.  This was for real.  This time no one would tear them apart.  This time they would have a happily ever after, even if ever after was much closer now.

And out over the ocean, determined streaks of pink and orange fought their way through the mackerel clouds, heralding a new day.