I was probably 3/4 of the way out of my vehicle before it came to a complete stop. I honed in on the house key, turned the lock, and barreled in through the door. My brother's family was just inside, spread across the living room on air mattresses and sofas. My brother was sitting up in a chair, recently awakened and still groggy, his wife and kids still sleeping. I asked, "Where is she?". He said, "I guess she's in bed." I blew through the room, rounded the corner, and headed past the kitchen where my dad was making toast. I asked, "Where is she?" He nodded toward my bedroom and said, "She's still in there."
[The sleeping arrangement while she was here was simple. Small house, no guest bedroom = she would sleep in my bed and I'd take the couch. Any member of her family and circle (and anyone reading this) who didn't like that arrangement was and is welcome to kiss my rear-end. On both cheeks.]
I knocked on the door, opening it slightly, and calling out her name. She was laying on her side, facing away from the door. She rolled toward me and asked, "Is that you?" We met about halfway across the bedroom floor in the most welcome embrace I've ever experienced. She looked so good, felt so good, smelled so good, her kisses tasted so good. We spent probably an hour in very, very emotional intimacy, just embracing and exchanging gentle kisses. I could see the emotional and mental wear of the previous few weeks in her face, not to mention the physical drain of the trip over, but at the same time, I could see the happiness and relief in her eyes, and could almost tangibly feel her loving me. This was the embodiment of my greatest desire in a mate - someone to come home to, someone whose love welcomed me.
She told me, "Welcome home." I responded, "On this earth, wherever you are is home to me." She smiled.
After an hour, maybe a little more, I begged her to lay back down and get some more sleep. She was so exhausted. I didn't want my presence to demand even more exhaustion of her. She finally relented. I pulled up a chair beside her, held her hand, and stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
Most everyone else was still asleep, so I took the opportunity to get a shower and try to revive myself a bit with a pot of coffee. Soon, my brother's family was all awake, so I spent about an hour or so visiting with them, taking advantage of the moment because I knew that once she was awake, my focus would be on her, and I didn't want my niece and nephew to feel ignored by their uncle Lew.
A little later, as they were all in the kitchen getting some breakfast, I had plopped down in my dad's recliner when she came walking in and nestled in my mom's recliner which sits right next to it. I reached over and took her hand, and we stared into each other's eyes for a bit, having one of those silent conversations. This one was about the last few weeks, and it was a deep one. I could see the tension and mental/emotional exhaustion in her face. After a few minutes of this, she broke the external silence and said, "What are we gonna do, Lew?" I answered, "Whatever we have to do to do the right thing for us, but I don't want you to worry about that right now. None of that stuff is here. None of that stuff is anywhere near here. You can breathe." She had topped an enormous hurdle just in coming here alone and against the will of her father. I didn't want the significance of that wasted on insignificant things. I wanted to redeem this time that we had together.
That was something of a turning point for her visit. From that moment forward, I watched the exhaustion seep out of her face. Within a matter of a couple of hours, I saw her transform from the exhausted, beaten-down (but still beautiful) woman I had awakened that morning back into the vibrant, giddily happy young woman she'd been when I'd last seen her. After she'd eaten breakfast and showered, we spent a few hours visiting with my brother's family together. She was at peace. She was breathing.
That afternoon, she and I went to the local elementary school to pick my mom up from work. Mom wanted me to bring my ex along (if she was up to it) to meet her friends, being most of my mom's closer friends were workmates at the school. My ex was happy to go. I honestly don't know if she'd ever been in an elementary school building before. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this was her first visit to a public school. I know that she had (and perhaps still has) some strange ideas about public schools. Maybe she was curious to see one up close and personal. I don't know, but regardless, she was a hit with everyone there, and I was certainly proud to show her off. She was great, wanting a hug from each new lady she was introduced to - which, although I had no problem with it at all, kinda took me by surprise. Her family wasn't an affectionate lot - even slightly. I suppose my family's affection, and the affection I showered on her, was rubbing off. I saw this as a good thing. I felt as though the jar was beginning to shatter, even if only temporarily. I fully supported ANY and all shoots and sprigs shooting out toward the sunshine, absorbing however much they could.
She was soaking in everything. April is a beautiful time of year in North Carolina. The azaleas were gorgeous, dogwoods, cherry, and pear trees were all decked out in white blossoms, the hickory trees were dressed in red, and the poplar, oak, maple, and sycamore trees in bright lime-green buds. The weather was perfect. Crisp skies and 70ish temps. She was soaking all of it in, and she was breathing.
Once we got back home, we had supper, and then spent a couple of hours visiting as an entire family, talking about any and everything, making preparations for our party the next night, the two of us caught up in each other continually. We watched a horror movie called "Enchanted" (for reference, I consider Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, J-Lo types of movies to be horror films - very scary), but I didn't really pay much attention to the movie. She and I sat on the carpet, backs against a chair, snuggling, cuddling, and breathing. She was here. With me. Away from the madness and nonsense that was her family and friends - and she was happy. I was content.
Tomorrow promised to be busy, so around 10PM we started to wind down. I went back to the bedroom with her to spend a few minutes of "us" time with her, we said a prayer together, and then had the following exchange...
Me: You don't have to go back so soon. I'd like you to stay a while.
(The ticket initially purchased was a round trip ticket - arrive late Sunday night, leave Thursday morning)
Her: I'm ok with that.
Her: Are you gonna talk to my family?
Me: Not unless you're next to me and involved.
Her: What do you mean by "involved"?
Me: You can't be a spectator to matters that involve YOUR future. This is your life, your future, your decisions, your choices. You have to be involved. We have to do this as a couple.
Her: How do we do that?
Me: Set up a time for us to talk with your parents on the phone. I'll talk to them, but ONLY if we do this as a couple. You have to be with me, both physically and in context. You have to back my words or my words will mean nothing. This is about US - not about me and your family.
I felt like she was willing to, or thought it her place to, sit back and stay out of the fray while other people negotiated her life and future for her. I wasn't gonna have any of that. She had to come to an understanding that the only kind of "talk" I was gonna have with her no-good parents was a "here's how it's gonna be - deal with it" after she and I had decided our plans. As far as I was concerned, her family had long since forfeited any right to be invited to the planning table. By this point in time, her family was welcome to kiss my ass for what they were doing to her/us.
Me: If you're gonna let them read it, now would be a good time to let my family read your father's letter.
Her: (uncomfortable and embarrassed) But Lew, it's my family.
Me: So you don't want them to read it?
Her: (somewhat sheepishly) No.
Me: Ok. Don't worry about it.
(You folks reading along at home, remember that for future reference - I knew where all of this might go, so I used it at a later date [probably a couple of installments in the future] to illustrate a point to her, a point I don't think she ever got)
After this, there was very little talk of anything California while she was here. I was committed to leaving CA in CA for the duration of her stay. There'd be a few things we'd still have to discuss, like our wedding, but otherwise, unless she brought up her family, I didn't talk about her family.
We changed the subject to happier fare. We shared some beautiful and passionate kisses, nuzzled close in embraces, traded our usual barrage of "I love yous". I rubbed her tired feet, tucked her in, gave her one last kiss for the night, then settled into a chair beside the bed, once again holding her hand and stroking her hair until she fell asleep. As I looked at her there, she was intoxicating.
Once I hit the sofa, I was out. It had been a long day. A long few weeks, really, with little mental respite. I was depleted, but happy. I slept with a contentedness I hadn't known for a while.