A goose calls. Well, more than one, I realize as I stand, neck bent back to see three dark shapes flying overhead. The cool wind off the lake is sending them south. I rise from the bench, glance at the choppy water, the low clouds creeping along the red, yellow and gold treetops on the surrounding mountains. In summer, the trees were a carpet of green lining the peaks, nothing but a verdant blur. But now, as fall approaches, the colors spark, catch the last light of day, and smudge into the lowering cloud mass, splotches of color like a Monet painting in nature.
I stand a moment longer, the lights framing the roof of the boat rental shack twinkling in the budding twilight. There are no stars, but more lights twinkle from houses, the gas station, and other buildings on the west side of the lake. A woman bundled in a jacket and scarf walks her dog on the shore path, moving toward the resort. I should head inside as well, I realize, the falling darkness nipping at my bare forearms.
Instead, I slide back onto the bench. He’ll be along soon, asking. And the changing colors of the season remind me that life is short.
Footsteps, softly scuffing the fallen leaves, approach. I look up at him, his merry blue eyes meeting my dark ones. He told me once that he’d make me smile. And he has, in so many ways he doesn’t yet know.
“I’m back again,” he says.
I remember the first week I was here, his smile, his persistence. “One of these days you’ll let me buy you breakfast.” He’s slightly round, not so much as to be obese, but he clearly enjoys his food, doesn’t fear death. I liked that about him instantly, and wish I hadn’t yet been touched by that fear.
We did do breakfast. Me with my oatmeal and fresh fruit, him with hot cakes and bacon and white toast with jam, and the waitress refilling our coffee cups until the lunch crowd started filling the place. We ate breakfast again the following day, and then it became a ritual. Me savoring the occasional hot cake and slice of ham, while he began opting for the oatmeal, and both of us drank coffee.
“I told you one day we’d eat dinner, didn’t I?” he asks, dimples displaying his amusement at the words. He’s carrying a small basket, the handles too dainty for his large hands.
“It’s cold,” I tell him, one of my standard excuses.
“No worries.” He pulls a maroon beanie cap from his parka pocket, sets the basket on the bench beside me, and kneels. With gentle fingers and probing eyes, he tucks the cap down over my ears, brushes my bangs to the side.
“What about my neck,” I say.
He chuckles, the sound melodious, patient, as if he expected the response. Out pops a scarf from his pocket, a maroon and turquoise-blue plaid with darker maroon fringe. He tucks it around my neck. “And for the rest of you,” he says, tugging out a soft fleece blanket he’s had wrapped around his waist. He places it around my shoulders, fingers lingering in the hollow at the front of my neck. “Difficult to believe you’ll be gone after tonight.”
I don’t meet his gaze, and look instead at the moonlight glistening on the lake.
He opens the basket and pulls out another fleece blanket. He rises, spreads it on the grass.
As he bends and straightens out the blanket, I notice the curve of his thighs and calves clothed in denim jeans beneath the puffy parka. He stretches out on the fleece, his chin propped on his elbow, the basket tucked alongside him. “Will you join me?” When I don’t move, he asks, “Or, do you have another objection?”
His face is almost a shadow now, his eyes still sparking light from the moon. I want to move closer, see his lashes, perhaps touch his cheek, and feel the strength of his upper arm beneath my fingertips. I miss such moments.
“And if I do have an objection,” I say. “Will you have something else in your jacket to fix the problem?”
He pats the blanket. “I’ve thought of everything.” He opens the basket lid - -toward him, so that I can’t see inside. “Aren’t you curious what I’ve brought for your last dinner?”
The gravity of his words hang in the air. I’d planned on four months; too little time. My throat thickens, and I swallow, glad for the cover of increasing night. Surreptitiously, I swipe at my eyes. Too much grief, and now there is more, another good-bye.
A couple walks by, older, slow and synchronized. They’ve probably had years of practice. I was once half of such a dance.
“When we get back, I want to shop for a new television,” the man says.
“What do we need with another TV?” the woman asks.
“A bigger one,” the man answers, his voice raspy.
I laugh softly, join John on the blanket - - but not too close. “Every couple’s argument.”
John also laughs softly. He was married once, too, for fifteen years. His wife left him for a businessman in the States. “I couldn’t leave this place,” he explained to me. With sad eyes, he’d added, “Leave is all she ever wanted to do.”
He spreads brie on crackers, offers me a sardine. “Nested in mustard,” he says.
I like sardines, let the flavor melt onto my tongue. We eat tiny cubes of cheese he’s painstakingly cut, along with a variety of crackers, the sardines, and green grapes he tells me he drove all the way into Washington State to get. He’s also brought a sparkling wine I mentioned at the start of summer. He ordered it over the internet just for me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re worth it.” He sits up, stroking back my bangs again, although there’s no real need since the cap has secured them.
His eyes are shadowed, but moonlight sparks a star of light from their depths. His face is close. I can smell the sardines, the mustard, cheese and wine on his breath.
“I love this place,” I say.
He looks down, runs his fingers along the edges of mine the way a child might outline his hand for a grade school Thanksgiving card.
The wind gusts and blows cold air over the glacial-fed lake to bite at my cheeks. “Would you like to go inside?” I ask, realizing it’s a first, and thankful he doesn’t respond with a flourish.
“Yes,” is all he says, without the fanfare deserving of this moment. He bends immediately to gather our things, walk with me toward the spire-topped condominiums where I’ve rented time to heal, and have found a place to call “home.”
I’d visited the area years ago, before I was married, before I became part of a synchronized couple that I, foolishly, thought would never end. After my husband died, there was nowhere else to go; nowhere that didn’t remind me of my happy life, and to escape the sorrow of its loss. Returning here was the logical place to regain a sense of me, of the single self I’d willingly abandoned when I’d met my love.
Inside the building, I head for the stairs, needing some additional time and activity to decide, to analyze what’s taking place.
We arrive on the third landing, huffing only slightly. He’s walked with me nearly every morning after breakfast, his belly flattening, his cheeks taking on a blush of color. Meanwhile, I’ve gained a few pounds, the gaunt, grief-stricken look no longer staring back from the mirror. Instead, I’ve grown healthy in body and mind. My spirit seeks laughter, and I’ve taken to talking to strangers so that they soon become friends. I’ve made so many here, I realize, my throat thickening again. There is the market owner, a stout French Canadian woman whose tongue is forever stained from black licorice cigars. She moved from Montreal to avoid the cold, which is relative I, as a Californian, know. And there’s the neighbor next to me to the east, who has a penchant for The Beach Boys music, and other songs reminiscent of years gone by in the States, yet she’s from Canada, born and raised. There are others, too, people I’ve grown to love and count on here in British Columbia, in the small enclave of residents in Harrison Hot Springs, which is known as a resort. But most of all, there’s John, met by happenstance at the Springs Cafe, where the coffee tastes of pure water from the establishment’s own well.
I turn to him, memorize his face (sharp nose, ready smile, dimpled cheeks). We go through to the hall, and I open the door, let him pass through to the condo that has been my residence since early May when the weather was drizzly, on into summer when the weather turned hot, and now at the start of fall when a parade of color protests my leaving. I didn’t plan on staying, yet as the months past, I realize now I never planned to return.
He smiles, walks into the front room for the first time ever, and picks up the remote control. He hits the power button, and the 13-inch screen comes to life. He turns to me and grins. “You need a bigger set.”
I laugh. And then I cross the room, press close against the warmth of him and wonder what has taken me so long. I whisper, “I’ve decided to stay.”
“You’ll have some papers to file,” he says, his voice low and catching against my ear. And then his tongue is there, muffling the sound of the television, and buckling my knees so I have to lean closer, to surrender to him, to this place, to love.
Outside, the geese are calling. They’re flying to the states for the winter. And I’m staying here, where I’ve found warmth.
Sheri McGregor's fiction and creative non-fiction are as diverse as the publications in which they have appeared. Among others, she's written for The Washington Post, Salon.com, OzBike, and San Jose Magazine. Her books include romantic fiction released by Zebra Books and Elan Press. She writes the popular monthly "At Home" column for Five Star Reviews, has contributed to Simon & Schuster's Chocolate for Women series, Adams' Media's Cup of Comfort series, and the supplemental textbook titled Teens and Sex. McGregor's other writing includes catalog copy, advertorials, and medical/psychology-related materials such as the Teen Wellness Kit she recently authored for a non-profit organization, Families for Depression Awareness. Her latest book, an outdoors guide titled 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles San Diego (www.SanDiegoHikes.com), allowed her to combine her love of nature with her love of words. McGregor often uses the patterns of nature to echo and emphasize the human experience . . . as is evident in "Warmth."