“You’ll never guess who’s back in town.” Cindy bounced on her toes in front of Kaitlyn's bar. Kaitlyn knew her friend wanted a big reaction; Cindy lived for drama. Kaitlyn continued to wipe down the bar, getting it ready for the evening rush. The damp cloth had cooled since she ran it under the hot water tap and the cloth squished between her thin fingers. This was one of her favorite moments of the day, the quiet space around her just waiting to be filled. Of course, when Cindy came by to keep her company, it wasn’t so quiet.
“Guess!” Cindy insisted.
Kaitlyn raised her eyes, then returned to what she was doing. “I'm not going to guess, just tell me.”
“It's Jason,” Cindy said with triumph.
Kaitlyn's hand stopped moving. She still didn't look up. The warm feeling that Jason had always elicited in her rushed up like a tide, lifting her heart into her throat and making it feel as though she couldn’t breathe. It was followed quickly by the sadness and longing that had become an everyday part of her life. Thoughts of Jason were never simple.
“Oh,” Kaitlyn said, trying not to betray any of her emotion.
“Jeez,” Cindy said, folding her arms. “Is that it?”
“What are you expecting?” Kaitlyn said. She attempted a light laugh while squeezing one hand against the back of her neck, her curly hair tickling across her knuckles.
Cindy lifted an eyebrow. “They say he lost his wife a few years ago,” she said. “He’s single.”
Cindy put her hands on her hips and tossed her short, blonde hair. “Knock it off, Kaitlyn, everyone knows how you felt about him.”
“That was more than twenty years ago,” Kaitlyn said. “We were kids.”
“Right,” Cindy said. “All in the past.” She didn’t look at all convinced. Kaitlyn swallowed hard and continued her preparations. She didn’t want Cindy to see how much this news had shaken her. It was too embarrassing to admit that she did still think about Jason all the time. And each time she thought of him, the backs of her ears burned with humiliation that he had chosen someone else.
“We always thought you guys would end up together,” Cindy said almost absently.
“We were never more than friends,” Kaitlyn insisted, as she had been doing for years. None of their friends knew about the single kiss they had shared.
It was the summer when they were seventeen. Even though it was difficult for Jason to push his wheelchair over grass, he had agreed to help Kaitlyn set up for a BBQ her mother was hosting. The sun was bright and the air was sticky. They had pulled a tape player out the window and were playing Nanci Griffith’s Once in a Very Blue Moon while they worked. Kaitlyn was holding one end of a table cloth and Jason the other, spreading it over the plastic folding table in the backyard. She was looking at him and his tousled brown hair, the cute squint of his eyes against the light, and wondering if he would ever love her the way she loved him. She had not yet been brave enough to ask.
Once the cloth was spread, they circled the table hunting for things to hold it down so it wouldn’t blow away. Kaitlyn reached down for a stone and when she straightened, she brushed her bare arm against the side of Jason’s wheels, the cool metal of the rail feeling wonderful on the hot day.
He reached out and steadied her elbow before she fell and something in his face was different when she looked at him. She saw that he was having the same moment she had had years earlier. She saw the love and the realization of the love blossoming in his eyes.
They fell against one another, their lips touching. In her mind Kaitlyn saw herself as an elegant lady in a heavy brocade dress and Jason on a clean white horse, the kiss the passionate seal of a long fate. In reality it was clumsy and awkward. Her chapped lips brushing over his, her bony arms not knowing where to go. Yet there was a tingling, tiny pricks of excitement against her mouth just where their skin touched. The kiss sparked a fire in her core that had never gone out.
Kaitlyn was thankful to come back to the present when the door opened, letting in a bitter cold draft, and Larry settled at one end of the bar as he did every night. Soon Kaitlyn would be too busy to think about what Jason coming back meant. She found relief in the routine of life in a town she had lived in all her life.
Through the night her friends kept her distracted. There was always someone who needed a drink and someone to listen to. It wasn’t until the early morning hours when everyone had gone home that thoughts of Jason crept back into her mind.
Kaitlyn closed and locked the door the same as every other night. The cold air tickled her nose and the breeze lifted her curls. Even though she did this every night, tonight everything felt different. Jason was nearby. Her world was changed. She rested her hand against the wooden front of the door. When would she see him? Would she see him at all? What would she say after all these years?
In some ways she had been waiting all this time, expecting him. But he was too early. Shortly after he left, Kaitlyn had dreams that he and she would still end up together when they were in their eighties and the things that drove them apart didn’t matter anymore. They weren’t eighty yet, though. They were only forty-three. He was early.
Home in her little apartment, Kaitlyn heated up some food in the microwave and carried it to the sofa. She turned on the TV, but soon lost track of what was on. While she ate, she allowed her mind to drift back.
She and Jason had met in kindergarten. Kaitlyn no longer remembered exactly how. It was as though they had always been a team. Through the years, no matter how they changed or what friendships came and went, everyone knew that Kaitlyn and Jason were inseparable. At that young age it hadn’t mattered that Jason used a wheelchair. Kaitlyn had been somewhat curious about it, but not any more than her curiosity about how rainbows happened or what caused butterflies. After years of friendship she had become a bit of an expert on spina bifida.
It wasn’t until they were fifteen that she realized she loved him. Her life changed forever in a candy store in the mall. She was standing in the door, sucking on a red rock candy stick and waiting for Jason to finish choosing. He was distracted by doing imitations of their teachers to make her laugh. She was gasping around the sweet glaze of the candy when something shifted.
She never understood what it was, but suddenly everything in her became very still and it was as though she were seeing Jason for the first time. His head seemed to turn in slow motion, his huge smile like a beacon from a lighthouse.
They had been small children together and she had gotten so used to him that she didn't really look anymore. On this day, the fluorescent lights illuminating them, the smell of sugar and shoes and sweat around them, she saw a man instead of a boy. In the same instant she knew that she loved him.
It wasn't love the way she had expected it. More than a passing emotion flitting across her consciousness, it was a solid base that had always been there. It was like a low-burning fire that had been steadily warming her for years and she hadn't noticed until just this moment. The desire that she always felt to be around him made sense. The way the world seemed to have less color on the days she didn't see him was explained. It was just her missing him.
"Hey," Jason said, "You still here?" He waved his hand at her. She smiled and walked closer to the line of candy bins where he sat. The closer she walked, the more sense she had of some kind of electric field between them, invisible sparks tingling over her skin. How could she not have seen this before? Of course she loved him.
He didn't seem to have noticed the change. While Kaitlyn felt entirely different than she had five minutes before, suspecting that every molecule of her body might have been replaced by light, Jason was oblivious, continuing to tease her as he always did. He finished filling his bag with candy and brought it to the counter, tossing it up on the scale that was above his head from where he sat in his wheelchair. It was just like every Saturday, but it was also different from any day that had come before it.
How could she have known that the love opening its bud within her would condemn her to a life of unfulfilled longings? Kaitlyn believed in hauntings, just not in the traditional sense. She knew that a place could be haunted. Not necessarily by the ghosts of the dead, but by the ghosts of memory. She thought of that every time she drove by her old school or darted into the mall on an errand. The mall used to be her favorite place, but she avoided it now. Every time she walked down the too-bright corridors and heard the buzz of people with voices blended together, she looked over her shoulder every few minutes, distinctly feeling that her sixteen-year-old self was following her.
She could imagine turning and facing young Kaitlyn, who was full of anger and disgust at how things had turned out. "Why?" the ghost her would ask. "Why did you give up on us and our future? You should have fought harder."
What could I have done? she wanted to ask those accusing eyes in her mind. Nothing she said could make that child go away.
Whenever Kaitlyn went somewhere that she and Jason had been together she could almost hear their laughter trickling down through the years. Sometimes she thought she heard his voice just behind her, whispering her name.
Yes, Kaitlyn was haunted. The ghosts were herself and her own choices. I didn't know any better, she pleaded. I didn't know how to make him mine.
She carried her plate to the sink and rinsed it. Standing at the counter, she leaned forward and stretched her legs. There was a street lamp outside her window casting pale light across her bare kitchen. Kaitlyn grabbed a book and curled up in bed, but she couldn’t concentrate on the words. Instead she kept remembering the day after the kiss she shared with Jason. The conversation repeated itself over and over, refusing to leave her alone.
When Kaitlyn had shown up at Jason’s house, he said, “We shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Forget it happened.”
Kaitlyn bit her lip. “It was nice,” she said.
They were in his room, alone. His parents never worried about it. Kaitlyn sat on the bed and Jason next to it in his wheelchair. He had never seemed so uncomfortable around her as he was in that moment. “The thing is, though,” he said, “You’re not Christian.” Quickly he rushed to add, “We’re friends, you know that, I really care about you, but I can’t date you.”
Kaitlyn pulled her legs up to her chest. “I am so Christian,” she said.
His voice was filled with regret as he said, “Unitarians aren’t Christians.”
“We have a great friendship, it’s really special, I don’t want it to change.”
Kaitlyn nodded. She didn’t want the friendship to change either, she just wanted to add to it. Enhance it with touch. Every molecule of her skin seemed to want only to be engulfed by his. But she never got to touch him again.
Even though she thought she would give anything to be with him and that they were meant to be together, the religion difference was an insurmountable problem. She could not believe the same things about Jesus that he did and she knew he would want children and to teach those children the things he believed about Jesus. Of all the sacrifices Kaitlyn was willing to make, she just couldn’t do that. She couldn’t tell her children something that she didn’t think was true.
Jason said he didn’t want their friendship to change, but it did. The next year he went away to college and Kaitlyn stayed where she was, taking over the bar from her dad. She played Nanci Griffith tapes on the stereo and thought about him.
In college Jason met Linda, a devout Christian girl, and by junior year he had proposed. They got married at home over the summer. Kaitlyn was the equivalent of a best man. She stood at the front of the church, so close that she could smell Jason’s skin and see a spot of razor burn on the side of his neck, and she watched him marry someone else. Linda who was as effortless and beautiful as a girl in a cleanser commercial. Linda who was better and more proper than Kaitlyn could ever be. Once married, they moved to be closer to Linda’s family and Kaitlyn never saw or heard from Jason again.
The sky was lightening in anticipation of dawn when Kaitlyn finally fell asleep, the book still in her hands. She woke at midday and didn’t get up right away. Usually she was quick to jump out of bed and get a piece of toast and jam. Having no responsibilities until the evening made for enjoyable days. Today her body did not want to move. She felt afraid to leave the safety of her bed, as though putting her feet down on the floor would only bring her closer to a confrontation with Jason. He could be anywhere today. If she went to the bank, he could be there. If she went to the deli, he could be there. Her beloved town didn’t feel safe.
Eventually she did get moving. She kept the day low-key, not running any errands, but staying indoors until she had to get down to the bar. As always, it was blessedly empty when she pushed open the heavy door. Dust hung in the sparse light drifting in from the small windows. It was while Kaitlyn’s back was to the door that she heard it creak open followed by the unmistakable sound of Jason’s wheels bouncing over the doorstep.
She was not surprised or startled. She had known he would seek her out. Without turning around, she plugged her iPod into the bar speakers and waited until Nanci Griffith’s scratchy voice drifted into the dusty room.
No need to tell me you'd like to be friends, and help me get back on my feet again. And if I miss you, it's just now and then. Just once, in a very blue moon…
She turned slowly, leaning back against the wooden bar. Jason looked the same. It was as though no time had passed. There was a touch of gray at the edges of his brown hair and his baby-face had some lines in it now, but when Kaitlyn looked at him she saw the same man exactly as he was when he left her.
“This song always makes me think of you,” she said. “Do you remember?”
…and I feel one coming on soon. There's a blue moon shining, when I am reminded of all we've been through.
He held out his hand and she went to him, climbed onto his lap and rested her head on his shoulder. His heartbeat resonated against her own ribcage. Slowly he pushed back and forth on his wheels.
You act as if it never hurt you at all, like I'm the only one who's getting up from a fall...
“We had good times together,” he said into her hair.
Don't you remember, can't you recall? Just once in a very blue moon, and I feel one coming on soon.
The music stopped, but Jason continued to sway. Kaitlyn could feel herself relaxing into him, remembering what it had been like before he broke her heart. His friendly teasing, the late night they drove into Canada to see the falls, the afternoons in his apartment baking because she didn't have a kitchen, the time he tricked a friend into thinking he was eating dirt out of a flowerpot when it was really Oreo crumbs.
But then she couldn’t forget what came later. Sitting in a church and watching him get married to Linda and all the years after that. All the lonely years that she had hoped for her own love, and finally came to realize that Jason was her love and he had chosen someone else. All these years she had waited for him, fantasized about him leaving his wife and coming back to her. Now that he was here, it still felt like she was his last choice.
She pushed herself back up. “What am I doing? It’s been more than twenty years, Jason. Do you think I’ve just been sitting around here waiting for you to come back? Ready to beg for whatever crumb you’ll throw me?”
Of course she had waited. She had done exactly that. He didn’t need to know it, though. How pathetic she felt, realizing that he had a whole life without her and she had been stalled, on pause, just wanting to have him back. He had gone on and had an entire life while she just sat in limbo.
“I know,” Jason said. “I’m sorry.”
He reached out a hand, but Kaitlyn walked away, behind the bar. “It’s too late,” she said. “There’s no salvaging what we had.”
“I just want to be friends again. Can we work towards that?” He looked down at his hands in his lap.
“I don’t think so,” Kaitlyn said. She felt the muscles in her neck tightening. It was difficult to send Jason away, but righteous indignation was goading her on. “You’re not welcome here,” she continued.
He nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll stay out of your way while I’m in town.”
Kaitlyn didn’t answer. She pretended to be deeply engaged in reorganizing her liquor bottles. Once he had turned, though, she did look up to watch him leave. The long strokes of his arms on his wheels had always been beautiful to her.
When the door closed behind him she took a deep breath and sat down on one of the bar stools. This was good. Maybe that confrontation was what she needed to finally move on.
In that spirit, she agreed to a date the next week. It wasn’t too late for her to have the life she had dreamed about as a kid. When she arrived at the bar afterwards, Cindy was already there waiting for her. As soon as Kaitlyn unlocked the door, her friend marched over to a stool and put her elbows on the bar, grinning at Kaitlyn.
"So, how was your date?" Cindy asked.
"It was fine," Kaitlyn answered. There really hadn't been anything wrong. It should have been perfect, but the spark was missing. She put down her small clutch and ran her fingers through her hair, shaking out the careful style.
Cindy sighed. "It was fine, huh? You're not going to see him again, are you?"
Kaitlyn shrugged. "I doubt it. I just can't feel excited about him."
"Because he's not Jason."
Kaitlyn flashed her eyes at Cindy, ready to deny it. But she didn't say anything. It was true. She kept waiting to feel that warm glow that Jason brought to life in her. She had assumed that it would be easy to find again. Knowing there was one guy who made her feel safe and happy and complete meant that there had to be more, right? So far she hadn't found it.
"You know," Cindy continued, "First love is always different. You're never going to feel anything quite like it again. You get something different, but just as good. But you've got to be willing to let go of this expectation that you have."
"Right," Kaitlyn said. But she couldn't. She knew she would never be satisfied with anything less than what she felt around Jason. If that meant she was going to be alone for the rest of her life, so be it. She didn't really feel like it was a choice. Her mind would always compare men to Jason and if none of them ever lived up to him, she wasn't going to just settle and spend the rest of her life being frustrated that the man she was with didn't make her feel that rush of love.
“Listen,” Kaitlyn said, “I’m tired of hearing about Jason, okay? I don’t want him brought up all the time anymore.”
Cindy held up her hands and said, “Okay, okay, whatever.”
Kaitlyn continued to try to put thoughts of Jason out of her mind, but knowing he was nearby made it more difficult. He wouldn’t stick around, though. Pretty soon he would leave town again and things could go back to the way they were before. Not that it was easy before, but it was livable.
One evening when she opened the bar, she was surprised to find that Larry was not waiting to come in. She peeked her head out the door, but the streets were empty. No sign of any of her customers. This had never happened before.
It was eerily empty inside. With each step, her boots made a loud thumb that echoed off the walls. She pulled out her phone to call Cindy.
“What’s going on?” Kaitlyn asked. “Where is everyone?”
"Didn't you hear?" Cindy said.
"Jason's in the hospital. Tony called me and said."
"How would I have heard that?" Kaitlyn couldn't help snapping. Her body felt so constricted all of a sudden, her lungs couldn't expand all the way.
"No need to be snippy," Cindy huffed.
Kaitlyn took a few breaths as deep as she was able. "Why is he in the hospital? Is it serious?"
"I don't know. It seems like it is."
Kaitlyn didn't say goodbye, she just hung up the phone and let it drop to the floor. She had never known Jason to have any health issues and his spina bifida had never affected anything that she had known of. All her anger at him dissipated instantly like steam rising from a cup of coffee and vanishing into the air.
She turned around and jogged out of the building to her car. As she drove, her mind tortured her with panicked thoughts. What if he was dying? What if she wouldn't be able to talk to him again? Why had she thought it important to torture him? To try to hurt him as he had hurt her? She had never stopped loving him, not for an instant. But she hadn't wanted him to know that. She had been afraid it made her weak and pathetic. Now, none of that felt important. She had to tell him that she loved him.
She parked her car at the small local hospital and when she came through the doors she found all her friends, just about everyone she knew, sitting in the waiting room. No one said anything when she entered, but all eyes turned to her. She could see the interest or surprise in many faces. Everyone knew that her relationship with Jason was special.
"Where is he?" she said.
Cindy rose and led her down the hallway. "We can only visit two people at a time," she said. "Amelia is in there now."
Cindy looked down. She obviously didn't want to say. Finally she whispered, "His daughter."
Kaitlyn's heart tightened even more, though she wouldn't have thought it was possible. Cindy squeezed her shoulder and Kaitlyn squared herself to march through the door. The first thing she saw was Jason laying on the hospital bed, looking small and frail. His body had always been unusually shaped, but she rarely noticed how shrunken it actually was. He was pale, but his eyes were open and he smiled at her.
There was movement beside him and Kaitlyn saw the slender teenage girl with cinnamon colored skin and stylish black curls standing beside the bed and looking at her.
“Hi,” Kaitlyn said, feeling as shy as though she were the teenager and not the forty year old woman.
“You must be Kaitlyn,” the girl said. “I’m Amelia.”
Kaitlyn was impressed by the girl’s poise. She nodded. “I’m so glad to meet you,” Kaitlyn said. Even though it was like seeing Linda’s ghost, she was glad to meet Jason’s child. Amelia was the same age that Kaitlyn saw herself and it was incredible to realize that Jason was old enough to be her father.
Amelia smiled. “I’ll leave you two to talk,” she said. She leaned over and kissed Jason’s cheek, then walked by Kaitlyn into the hallway.
Suddenly Kaitlyn was shy. She looked at Jason and had no idea what to say.
“Hey,” he said, giving a crooked smile.
“Hey,” she answered. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Jason said. “I’m fine. Promise.”
Kaitlyn nodded, pressing her lips together. She was still standing barely inside the door, several feet away from him.
“I hate that you don’t relax around me,” he said. “I haven’t changed that much, have I?”
“No,” she said. “You haven’t.” And really that was the problem. All the years were erased and she felt like a teenager again. She was frustrated to find that she still loved him just as much as she ever had. Finally she whispered, “You really hurt me.”
His face scrunched with regret.
Kaitlyn found her tongue finally loose and she was able to say what she had wanted to say to him for years. “I wanted it all. I wanted a husband and kids and a family. You went and had that without me. You had a whole life without me. I went to your wedding. I watched you marry someone else while I loved you. It wasn’t fair.”
“It was a mistake,” Jason said softly. “I wish I hadn’t hurt you the way that I did. I was a foolish kid. I didn’t know any better. But it was all a mistake. I misunderstood my religion. You and me. We were destined for each other. We were always meant to be together. You know we were.”
Kaitlyn nodded. She had always known this. Somehow it had taken Jason forty-three years to figure it out.
“Will you come and join me?” Jason said. He patted the bed beside himself.
Tears gathered in the corners of Kaitlyn’s eyes, soon tipping out onto her cheeks. She walked closer. The wheelchair was in-between her and the bed. She rolled it out of the way before climbing in next to Jason.
At last his arms were around her. She closed her eyes and snuggled against him, smelling deeply of his skin. This was where she had always wanted to be, the place she had waited most of her life to find.
Jason’s breath tickled her forehead. He craned his neck and kissed her nose. “I love you,” he said. “I love you and I don’t want to ever be apart again.”
She hugged him tight and her tears soaked into his skin. “I love you too,” she said.