After dinner, the old man sat across from me on the porch, pipe in hand. When was the last time you saw someone smoke a pipe? I couldn’t recall. He sat and rocked and smoked, and then he looked at me, and spoke the question that he had been waiting to ask. With slow gravity and spry curiosity, he dropped one eyelid, and cocked his head to the side, and said, “What makes you think this girl is the one?”
I sat back in my own rocker, facing him across the porch, and thought about what I would say. What really made me think so? It was a good question.
My mind went back to the day we met. I remember walking into the little room where the other guys were sitting, waiting on the next task of the day to begin, and shooting the breeze. They were laughing as I came in, and talking—about the weekend, about cars, about football and basketball and what did you do this weekend, and of course, about girls. Always about girls. Did it matter that some of the guys were married? Of course not. It’s man talk. It’s no harm, no foul, and on we go. Then someone mentioned the new girl up in the office, and I, well, I put my foot in my mouth and asked who they were talking about. You kidding me, right? Boy, this is the finest-looking woman to ever walk this place and man, she is HOT. I laughed it off, thinking, no, I know this place, and that’s gotta be exaggeration. Then she came walking by at lunch time, and smiled, and said hey, how are you? And every talking mouth in that room went silent. She was that gorgeous.
My dad used to tell me that a pretty face was nice, but it won’t keep you warm at night. I felt warm enough that spring, though, watching her walk one way and another, and generally not saying anything more than “um” and “ah” and, when it was just the guys, a whispered “damn!” I thought that was all it would ever be, and I was ready for that, even if I found it hard to push aside the occasional memory of that long blonde hair. Halfway through the summer, though, I came in one morning and walked to my new station, newly reassigned…and she came out of the next room. I suppose that it was in the back of my mind somewhere that she worked in that building, but it truly wasn’t for that reason that I sought the transfer; I just wanted off the night shift, where I and the other guys had recently landed. But then she came out of that door, and gave me that thousand-megawatt smile that I’ve learned to love…well, is it any wonder that everything went out of my head?
She told me later, one long and intimate night, that I was the quietest man she’d ever met, back then. She said that she made it her mission, right then and there, to get me to open up, no matter what it took. I asked her, don’t you realize that you’re the reason I couldn’t speak? She laughed it off, but I saw in her eyes that she was touched.
I remember reading once that men form their friendships through common endurance. It’s the band of brothers, the fellow POWs, the ones who have endured hell together—they’re the ones who hold together through the years. She was certainly no man, but I thought of that imagery often that year all the same. I thought of it when the clouds started to gather at the edges of my attenuated life…I thought of it when they broke over my head. I remember long evenings, sitting in coffee shops and in the quiet rooms of our offices, talking things out. I remember arguments and anger, sadness and determination, hope and despair. I remember saying that the details don’t matter, but knowing in my heart that they did.
I remember, most of all, knowing it couldn’t be. She belonged to someone else, and so did I. It’s funny…we each knew that the other’s marriage was failing, and we each knew that it was because of the other partners. Neither of us could see that it was happening to ourselves.
I remember the night I knew what I wanted with her…and I remember choosing to leave.
The last time we were together, I sat across from her, and told her that she was the one thing I would miss the most. Any other woman would have belittled it, would have told me that I would forget her and move on. She did none of that. She simply looked into my eyes, and hugged me, and said that she would miss me too.
The days that followed, and the weeks, and the months, I had my own problems, and they were all I could handle. Down the road, I would regret that self-centered focus. It was much later that I discovered that, while I was rebuilding my world (only to watch it fall apart once more), hers was crumbling. I would come to hate myself for missing it. When I called her, she was distant; in messages, she was vague. I thought she was forgetting me, and with a heavy heart, I decided that it was probably for the best.
I saw her again, once or twice, but she hid it so well—the circles under her eyes, covered in makeup; the cuts on her arms, covered with sleeves. I think sometimes, if only I had known…but she didn’t want me to know. She admitted that her marriage had broken up; that her husband, whom she had loved so much, had found someone else, had broken her heart into shards. She hid the truth: that she had taken those shards and cut herself with them.
I never knew exactly how it happened, that she came back into my life. It was slow, and yet so quick. One day, we were old acquaintances, chatting over the internet, and the next we were friends again. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because that summer, my life fell apart again. My own marriage, limping along for so long, dissolved in a fury of ash and fire; my family was torn apart.
I know what people would say, but they’d be wrong. It wasn’t because of her. We were still distant, friends or not. We had to be. But all that long fall and longer winter, when things were burning to the ground around me, she stayed. Too far away to hold my hand through those times, she listened instead. And slowly, yet so surely, she pulled me up out of that pit. Coming out of it was like stepping back into the sunlight; and suddenly I could see her clearly.
I saw all the things I had missed. I saw the fear in her eyes, and the hesitation, every time she thought of trying again. I saw how much he had hurt her, and how far she had fallen, and how she had lost her trust on the way down. And yet, in every instance, I saw that she was hurt, but not broken; damaged, but not destroyed. I made it my mission to pick her up from the dust, and bring her back. After all, she had done it for me.
Day after day, conversation after conversation, I reached out to her, and told her the simple truth—about herself, about the past, about the future, about what I saw when I looked at her. I told her that she was beautiful, and so much more. And in her dark moments, when it seemed to her that everything was doomed to failure, and she came close to forgetting who she was, I reminded her. I reminded her of who she was to me, and not only to me, but to so many others out there—everyone for whom she had tried to do good, all the years I had known her. Slowly, I watched the light return to her eyes, and I watched her open up, and embrace life—and the world—again.
And he wants to know how I know she’s the one?
I gave a laugh, and I looked at him. He looked at me with brows wrinkled in puzzled curiosity. And I laughed again, because I knew that what I was thinking would make no sense to him. I knew he wouldn’t understand if I said it—that I didn’t have to know. I didn’t have to know she was the one, because she already had been, all along. We’d been through hell and back, and survived it, and through everything, she had been the one. He may have asked it, but for me, there really was no question.
He was still waiting for an answer. I leaned forward and clapped a hand on his knee, and gave him a smile. “I don’t,” I said, and stood up. “But I think it will be alright anyway.”
There was a burst of laughter through the screened window behind him, then. We both looked, and I saw her there, with the old man’s wife, laughing and talking as they cleared the table. I watched her being radiant, until I noticed him looking back at me again. He nodded knowingly, and I raised a hand in a gesture that was half-wave, half salute. “Yeah, it’ll be alright,” I said. “But, you know, it never hurts to make sure.” Then I nodded, and walked past him, and opened the door, and went to do just that.