I don’t know. I thought it might belong to one of the traveling families, someone passing through who heard about the clinic. Some of those people moving north, looking for work up in Pittsburgh. She folds her hands as if in prayer and starts to cry again. My arm around her, I cry too, but my tears are different.
I’d moved here for her, but I can’t say I’ve ever regretted my decision. New Bern may not have a university or research park, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character. It’s located ninety miles southeast of Raleigh in flat, low country amid forests of loblolly pines and wide, slow-moving rivers. The brackish waters of the Neuse River wash the edges of the town and seem to change color almost hourly, from gunmetal gray at dawn, to blue on sunny afternoons, and then to brown as the sun begins to set. At night, it’s a swirl of liquid coal.My office is downtown near the historic district, and after lunch, I’ll sometimes stroll by the old homes. New Bern was founded in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine settlers, making it the second oldest town in North Carolina. When I first moved here, a great many of the historic homes were dilapidated and abandoned. This has changed in the last thirty years. One by one, new owners began to restore these residences to their former glory, and nowadays, a sidewalk tour leaves one with the feeling that renewal is possible in times and places we least expect. Those interested in architecture can find handblown glass in the windows, antique brass fixtures on the doors, and hand-carved wainscoting that complements the heart-pine floor inside. Graceful porches face the narrow streets, harkening back to a time when people sat outside in the early evenings to catch a stray breeze. The streets are shaded with oaks and dogwoods, and thousands of azaleas bloom every spring. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Jane was raised on the outskirts of town in a former plantation house built nearly two hundred years earlier. Noah had restored it in the years following World War II; he was meticulous in the work he did, and like many of the other historic homes in town, it retains a look of grandeur that has only grown with the passage of time.Sometimes I visit the old home. I’ll drop by after finishing at work or on my way to the store; other times I make a special trip. This is one of my secrets, for Jane doesn’t know I do this. While I’m certain she wouldn’t mind, there’s a hidden pleasure in keeping these visits to myself. Coming here makes me feel both mysterious and fraternal, for I know that everyone has secrets, including my wife. As I gaze out over the property, I frequently wonder what hers might be.Only one person knows about my visits. His name is Harvey Wellington, and he’s a black man about my age who lives in a small clapboard house on the adjacent property. One or more members of his family have lived in the home since before the turn of the century, and I know he’s a reverend at the local Baptist church. He’d always been close to everyone in Jane’s family, especially Jane, but since Allie and Noah moved to Creekside, most of our communication has taken the form of the Christmas cards we exchange annually. I’ve seen him standing on the sagging porch of his house when I visit, but because of the distance, it’s impossible to know what he’s thinking when he sees me.
I seldom go inside Noah’s house. It’s been boarded up since Noah and Allie moved to Creekside, and the furniture is covered, like sheeted ghosts on Halloween. Instead, I prefer to walk the grounds. I shuffle along the gravel drive; I walk the fence line, touching posts; I head around to the rear of the house, where the river passes by. The river is narrower at the house than it is downtown, and there are moments when the water is absolutely still, a mirror reflecting the sky. Sometimes I stand at the edge of the dock, watching the sky in the water’s reflection, and listen to the breeze as it gently moves the leaves overhead.Occasionally I find myself standing beneath the trellis that Noah built after his marriage. Allie had always loved flowers, and Noah planted a rose garden in the shape of concentric hearts that was visible from the bedroom window and surrounded a formal, three-tiered fountain. He’d also installed a series of floodlights that made it possible to see the blooms even in the darkness, and the effect was dazzling. The hand-carved trellis led to the garden, and because Allie was an artist, both had appeared in a number of her paintings—paintings that for some reason always seemed to convey a hint of sadness despite their beauty. Now, the rose garden is untended and wild, the trellis is aged and cracking, but I’m still moved when I stand before them. As with his work on the house, Noah put great effort into making both the garden and the trellis unique; I often reach out to trace the carvings or simply stare at the roses, hoping perhaps to absorb the talents that have always eluded me.
I come here because this place is special to me. It was here, after all, that I first realized I was in love with Jane, and while I know my life was bettered because of it, I must admit that even now I’m mystified by how it happened.
I certainly had no intention of falling for Jane when I walked her to her car on that rainy day in 1971. I barely knew her, but as I stood beneath the umbrella and watched her drive away, I was suddenly certain that I wanted to see her again. Hours later, while studying that evening, her words continued to echo through my mind.When the beating of her fists on the door fell in rhythm with the buzzer, I actually cracked the smallest trace of a smile that wasn’t directed at Oliver for the first time in weeks. Maybe longer…maybe even before Natasha left.
I ran my wet hands through my hair, reminding myself not to go there. The past was the past. I wasn’t interested in spending any more time sorting out when or where things had gotten so off track. I’d put it to rest at the lake house.Oliver blew bubbles on the cloth as I splashed warm water gently over his back, rinsing away the suds. My boy was handsome and smart, and I’d be damned if I’d let him down by dwelling on my own baggage.
You can’t avoid me forever, Logan!Unfortunately, I knew that was true. I stood from the floor beside the tub and grabbed a towel from the rack.