Turning Points

Elizabeth was engaged to another man when she first met John. Elizabeth and John had started out as friends, without the pressures of dating, sex and drama. They talked often, sharing intimate details about their lives and feelings. They quickly became best friends. Elizabeth had never met a man, or even another woman, with whom she felt so comfortable. He seemed to know what she thought before she thought it.

The first turning point in Elizabeth and John’s relationship came a month or so before Elizabeth’s planned wedding day. The church had been reserved, the dress purchased and the photographer scheduled. The wedding cake had already been paid for in advance, as had the flowers.

Elizabeth and her fiancé had a heated argument about the wedding arrangements. Previously, he’d expressed only passing interest in things – listening intently when she talked with him about the guest list or other details, but willing to defer to her on pretty much everything. The perfect groom.

But her fiancé had noticed the growing intimacy between Elizabeth and John. Now, he didn’t want John to attend their wedding, or even the reception.

Elizabeth felt blindsided. She’d been open about her friendship with John. There was nothing romantic about it, not in the least. She’d been faithful to her fiancé. Her only fault was in having a best friend who happened to be a man. She wasn’t willing to give that up. And she wouldn’t insult her best friend by excluding him from the most important day of her life. But her fiancé dug in his heels and wouldn’t compromise.

So, Elizabeth’s wedding was canceled. For several months afterward, Elizabeth and John remained best friends. Nothing really changed. Until it did.

John was at Elizabeth’s apartment for their weekly Tuesday movie night. He often spent the night on her couch on movie nights, so he didn’t have to worry about drinking too much and driving home. Elizabeth’s couch was large and comfortable. John would get up early without disturbing her and slip back to his own apartment to get ready for work. At least, that’s what had always happened before.

One morning, Elizabeth woke up first and was drinking coffee on the balcony when John’s watch pinged his wakeup alarm. They started talking and ended up going out for breakfast. Both called in sick and spent the day together. Doing nothing notable, but neither wanted the time together to end. When John kissed her later that afternoon it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Their emotional intimacy became physical that day. That was the second turning point.

The third turning point in their relationship happened when Elizabeth realized John was smothering her. They’d been married about six months, having eloped just a few weeks after that first day of intimacy. At first, it felt right. They knew each other so well – first as friends, then as lovers and now as life partners.

But Elizabeth started noticing John’s growing discomfort about her earlier engagement. She’d made a clean break with her former fiancé. She and John were now married. But there were many things needing to be dealt with regarding the canceled wedding and various other life details involving her former fiancé that couldn’t be avoided. Finally, John convinced Elizabeth of how important it was to their marriage for her to cut off all further contact with her former fiancé. John would take care of any necessary interactions for her.

By itself, this was perhaps understandable. But, eventually, John’s discomfort started to include other people who’d been part of Elizabeth’s life during her engagement. Bridesmaids. Ushers. Any friends who were mutual between Elizabeth and her former fiancé, which included pretty much ALL Elizabeth’s friends. To spare John’s feelings, Elizabeth started to distance herself from these old friends, too.

Elizabeth had never been especially close to her own family. She loved them, but didn’t see them regularly. This irregularity became even more pronounced as John started to steer Elizabeth away from them. Elizabeth had shared with him many stories about her family’s shortcomings. Surely, she didn’t want to keep in contact with such flawed people. People who weren’t supportive of Elizabeth the way John was. People who’d failed her often in the past. And John had a large family that all loved Elizabeth. His family would always be there for her.

Everything John said about her family and friends sounded logical. Her family HAD let her down many times. Her old friends DID remind her of her past engagement. She couldn’t argue anything different. And John never argued anyway. He never yelled. He was always kind to her. His requests always sounded reasonable. He never threatened Elizabeth physically. He was just always THERE. Good naturedly checking into who she’d seen and how she’d spent her day. Details she’d loved sharing with him back when they were best friends. But now it was too much.

For his part, John didn’t understand why Elizabeth didn’t always appreciate his attentions. He knew her so well, better than she knew herself, really. He knew far better than she did what she needed. He knew what would be best for her. That was all John wanted – what was best for Elizabeth.

The next turning point happened around their fifth wedding anniversary, when Elizabeth just stopped caring. She surrendered to John. She quit going out alone, because it meant explaining to John where she’d been, what she’d been doing. She stopped trying to reason with him about things because he was so logical it was impossible for her to come up with counter arguments. She smiled when he wanted her to. She let him schedule her day. She let him pick her clothes. She let him arrange all their social engagements. She let him run her life. Completely and without exception.

And that had been Elizabeth’s life ever since. The outside world saw a couple together thirty years. Very much in love. Always together. Always in agreement. Always smiling. Everyone commented about how great they were together. Just the way John wanted.

The guests at their 30th anniversary party were envious. Such a secure and comfortable relationship was rare. John and Elizabeth smiled lovingly for the photos. The restaurant John had selected for the party, knowing Elizabeth loved watching the sunset from their back terrace, was packed with well-wishers. John and Elizabeth’s coworkers. Their three beautiful grown children. John’s family. Friends from church. Neighbors. Many people John had invited that Elizabeth didn’t know. But nobody Elizabeth had invited on her own. Nobody John didn’t know. Not a single person.

The valet attendant pulled up in the Lexus John had surprised Elizabeth with last Christmas. He’d known she’d like it. It was green, her favorite color. Elizabeth was the designated driver. She’d limited herself to two glasses of wine for the evening, just as John always suggested was wise. It was white wine – John knew that would be best in the event she spilled any on the white dress he’d picked out for her to wear that evening. Yes, black was more fashionable, but she looked so beautiful in white. And the evening was to commemorate their wedding, so why not wear white? And she found everyone’s automatic deferral to black evening clothes annoying, hadn’t Elizabeth told John that many years ago, before they were married?

John tipped the valet, saving Elizabeth the trouble of having to talk to the handsome young man. Elizabeth started the car and headed out Route 258 to their suburban home. The home John had picked out because he knew Elizabeth would love the schools and parks. It was a little far outside the city to make it practical for Elizabeth to go anywhere other than the immediate neighborhood, but John knew how much she loved just spending her days at home. Elizabeth had told him so before they were married. And wasn’t it great that Elizabeth could walk to her job at the middle school down the block that John had pulled some strings to get for her? He knew all the other people who worked there. They were all great people – he’d just known Elizabeth would like them, too.

The final turning point came as Elizabeth was driving home, thinking about the last thirty years with John. She thought about recent advances in medical technology – they could well have yet another thirty years together ahead of them. Elizabeth pushed down the accelerator as the car moved into a curve. John suggested she slow down a bit. She pushed the accelerator harder. Elizabeth lost control of the car and it sailed into the canyon 500 feet below.

As they died, together as always, Elizabeth’s last thought was that she might finally enjoy a bit of solitary peace away from John for the first time in thirty years. John’s last thought was regret that he wouldn’t be around to make the arrangements for Elizabeth’s memorial. He knew exactly what she would’ve liked.

PC: Jose Fontano on Unsplash

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Last Respects

Patrick grimaced as his mother wiped his face with a washcloth in the bathroom. At four years old, a washcloth wasn’t one of Patrick’s favorite things. She wiped his hands too, and wet down his hair before combing it.

Patrick didn’t understand why he was being subjected to this torture. Being washed and dressed in his best clothes weren’t his idea of a fun day. Although the term “best clothes” was wishful thinking when it came to Patrick. Pretty much all Patrick’s clothes were either stained or torn the first time they were worn.

Patrick’s mother held his shoulders and made him look her in the eyes before they went into the bedroom, where he knew they would find his great-grandmother enthroned in her giant four-poster bed. His mother explained to him, once again, that Granny Hall was 93 years old and didn’t see or hear well. He should stand close to the bed, so she could see him. He’d need to speak loudly for her to hear. Granny might ask him questions, and he should answer politely. She might want to hold his hand, and that would also be polite. This would probably be the last time he would see Granny Hall.

After that, Patrick’s mother hugged him tightly for a long time. She held his hand when they went into Granny Hall’s room. Patrick could see tears on his mother’s face. That made him want to cry, too, but he held it back.

Patrick stood next to Granny Hall’s giant bed. He spoke to her loudly. He did his best to answer her questions. He let Granny hold his hand and even squeezed it back. Then his mother led him out into the hallway and asked Patrick to wait there for her. She went back into the bedroom and closed the door.

Patrick’s mother sat on the edge of the bed and looked into Granny Hall’s nearly sightless eyes.

“How much more time does he have?” Granny Hall asked quietly.

“Only a few months, according to the last tests the doctors did.” Patrick’s mother cried, and Granny Hall held her hand.

PC: Michael D. Beckwith on Unsplash

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Four

Reggie was four. He knew he was a big boy, and big boys shouldn’t cry. But Reggie felt like crying. There was something scary about the lady. And she smelled funny.

The lady kept talking to him, asking him where his mommy was. Mommy was at home, of course. Where she usually was. It was daddy who was missing. Reggie had been standing right next to daddy a few minutes back. But there’d been a bug on the floor, and Reggie couldn’t resist following it. Then, when the bug finally scurried into a crack, daddy was gone. Or rather, daddy was probably in the same spot he’d been when Reggie spotted the bug, but Reggie didn’t know where that was.

The scary lady took Reggie’s hand. He tried to pull it away, but she held it tightly. So tightly her bony fingers were hurting him. Reggie couldn’t hold back the tears, as hard as he tried. Sometimes even big boys cried. Reggie knew that because he’d seen daddy crying, just last night. And daddy was a very big boy. Somehow, remembering daddy crying made Reggie STOP crying, while he thought about it.

Reggie hadn’t understood exactly why daddy was crying last night. It was something mommy said. Something about moving to a place with a very long name, with Vicente. Ree-oh-day something or other – Reggie remembered because it sounded a little like “rodeo”, and he’d been to the rodeo with daddy just a few weeks ago. The rodeo had horses and cowboys, and was fun.

Vicente was mommy’s boyfriend. Some mommies had boyfriends and other mommies had daddies, like Reggie’s friend, Alec. Alec’s mommy had Alec’s daddy, instead of a boyfriend. Reggie didn’t understand how that worked. Reggie’s mommy had Vicente, and only Reggie had Reggie’s daddy. But only sometimes. Mostly, he just had mommy and Vicente. And when Reggie had mommy and Vicente, daddy was alone. It made Reggie sad, thinking about daddy being alone.

When Reggie’s daddy had stopped crying last night, daddy talked to mommy some more in a low voice, so Reggie wouldn’t hear. But Reggie COULD hear. Reggie was lying on a blanket on the floor, watching a movie, but he had very good ears.   He could listen to his movie and the low talking at the same time. Mommy and daddy probably didn’t think he could, but they were wrong.

In his low voice, daddy told mommy that Ree-oh-day was too far away. That she had no right. He would fight it. There was no way. Mommy just said she DID have a right. He could fight it if he wanted, but he’d lose. Reggie knew fighting wasn’t good. He and Alec fought once, and Reggie’d had to sit in time out for a long time, and then go to bed early. Reggie wondered if mommy and daddy would need to go to time out if they fought. Probably they would.

The scary lady pulled Reggie by the arm toward the front of the store. Then, Reggie saw daddy standing by the counter, holding a bag. Daddy looked worried at first, but then when he saw Reggie he smiled a big happy smile. Reggie was so relieved he burst out crying again, tore his hand away from the lady and ran to daddy. Daddy scooped him up and hugged him.

Reggie felt glad to be back with daddy. But when that lady asked him about where his mommy was, it made Reggie miss mommy. Daddy had told him it might be a long time before Reggie could see mommy again. Reggie and daddy were going to go away together for a while, to a secret place. Until things could get sorted out, daddy said. But it needed to be a secret, just between Reggie and daddy. Mommy couldn’t know. Vicente couldn’t know. Alec couldn’t know. No one else could know. Not even the scary lady couldn’t know. Reggie had promised daddy.

Reggie and daddy walked out to the car together, a different car than the one daddy usually drove. Daddy got in front behind the steering wheel, and Reggie got in his booster seat in back. Daddy started the car and drove away. They were going to the secret place. No one else could know. Reggie felt like crying again.

But Reggie knew he was a big boy and big boys shouldn’t cry.

PC: David Clarke

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White Shoes

The old fashioned white baby shoes had originally belonged to Milo’s Aunt Cristina, who had no children of her own and wanted to pass them down to Milo’s baby daughter, Zoe. They were presented at a family party given for Milo and his wife, Liza, a few months before Zoe’s birth. The shoes were symbolic, really – babies didn’t need shoes, at least until they could walk, and by that time the shoes would likely be too small. And there were so many more practical options these days, anyway. Soft, comfortable shoes with padded insoles and Velcro instead of laces.

But Aunt Cristina was old fashioned and had wanted Milo’s firstborn to have these shoes, to be worn for formal photos, passed on to siblings, and eventually bequeathed to the next generation, or bronzed and made into keepsakes. Milo loved Aunt Cristina dearly and her gift made him smile when Liza opened it, both at his aunt’s sentiment and at his wife’s confusion. He kissed them both on the cheek, thanking Aunt Cristina and giggling playfully into Liza’s ear in turn, as he did so.

The pregnancy had seemingly gone well, but there were complications during Zoe’s birth. Liza’s labor was long, and Zoe’s legs had been severely damaged somehow during the birth, although she was otherwise healthy. The prognosis from the doctors was that Zoe would probably never walk.

Milo spent the evening after Zoe’s birth alone at their cold, empty apartment. He left his jacket on rather than bothering to adjust the thermostat. The cold seemed a fitting companion to his sad mood. The white baby shoes, which Liza had placed high on a shelf in the kitchen, stared upon him from above as he sat at the table drinking beer after beer. Finally, Milo couldn’t bear to look at them anymore, and took the shoes down and stuffed them in his jacket pocket.

In the middle of the night, after drinking the last of the beer from his refrigerator, Milo left the apartment to wander the deserted streets rather than going to bed. After an hour or so, he ended up at a park on the hill above his neighborhood, staring at the full moon. The bright moonlight silhouetted a line of perhaps fifteen pairs of shoes that hung from a power line at the edge of the park. Most were worn out athletic shoes, probably thrown there in fun by teenagers without malice of any kind.

But the shoes mocked Milo as they swayed gently in the cold night breeze. Athletic shoes worn out and thrown away by people who undoubtedly took for granted their ability to walk and run and wear out shoes. Things that Milo’s baby daughter would never be able to do.

Milo’s hands had been in his jacket pockets for warmth most of the night, and he’d been grasping the white baby shoes in his right hand when he’d noticed the line of shoes on the power line.   The beer and sadness and frustration and rage finally overcame Milo. He screamed and threw the white shoes at the power line with all his strength.

Rather than sailing past the line and down the hill on the other side, or hitting another pair of shoes and bouncing off as Milo had expected, the laces tying the shoes together caught the line perfectly. The old-fashioned, white baby shoes then dangled elegantly from the line in a gap between two pairs of ancient Adidas. Milo burst into tears and trudged home, defeated.

Aunt Cristina’s white baby shoes dangled from that power line in the park for a long time, before their laces finally gave out and the shoes dropped to the ground. For many years, they were something of a local attraction in the neighborhood. Mothers and fathers in the habit of bringing their children to the park in the evenings and on weekends to stroll and play would often point out the small shoes to their young ones, who were always fascinated by that one tiny pair of shoes hanging amid a line of much larger ones.

Milo and Liza, too, often brought Zoe to the park to see the baby shoes when she got old enough to begin walking and later running, in spite of the doctors’ earlier predictions. And Zoe always loved hearing Milo’s story about those white shoes and how they got there.

PC: Wes Hicks on Unsplash

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