That morning, in church, Drew thought he’d seen the same beautiful girl looking back at him with those loving eyes. And something else that had totally caught him by surprise; she had looked at him with yearning, even allowing her gaze to rake over him.
With desire. The way a woman hadn’t looked at him in so long.
He had only been standing there long enough to watch the next bunch of children and their parents board the carousel, in that familiar, mad dash to find a painted horse with a seat to fill. The breezes carried the unique scent of the ocean that he loved so much, mingled with the aroma of boardwalk pizza and other Jersey shore delicacies.
That was when Linda appeared, stepping lightly through a crowd of teenagers and young families. Drew could see that she was looking around for him, dressed in a long pair of brown shorts with a purple top, a mini purse dangling from a long strap wrapped around her shoulder. Her brown sandals dressed up her casual outfit.
Oh, boy. Here we go, he told himself, taking a deep breath and pushing away from the railing.
I don’t know if that’s really what she was feeling this morning, Lord, but she still brings up those feelings in me as a man.
Having admitted the truth about his thoughts, Drew pulled himself together and waved to get her attention.
“Hey, Linda! Over here!”
More as a greeting than anything meant romantically, Linda reached forward to initiate a hug. Drew let her fill his arms, unable to stop his eyes from closing, and probably holding her a second or two longer than he should have.
At the same time, unbeknownst to him, Linda was also closing her eyes. He’s the musical guy at church, she thought. I probably should let go now.
Yet, music director or not, he felt better than he should have, there in her arms. She’d hugged men since her divorce; men like Pastor and male friends at church, and also recently, her now-former boss. Those had been chaste embraces, greetings between believers, expressions of unfeigned affection for a man who had been a good, decent employer who had helped her put food on the table for her daughter and herself.
This was a different sort of embrace. One she hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as she did.
“The carousel,” she murmured as she reluctantly pulled away. “That was easy to remember.”
It was as if he had to remind himself to withdraw his arm from around her, at last dropping it to his side.
“You didn’t forget that,” Drew sounded surprised.
“No, of course not. Not since it was always our meeting place. Whenever we were at Seaside Heights.” She walked beside him, not sure of where they were going and not caring. “I haven’t been there since before Hurricane Sandy…and then there was that fire.”
“Is it still there? Because there were two carousels. But we always met by that one, the older one.”
“The newer one was destroyed in the fire. I read that in the paper. Our carousel survived.”
Our carousel. Linda hoped it didn’t sound too forward, but then Drew commented on it.
“That was our carousel, that’s right,” he said softly. “So many times meeting there. Riding it. Shame about the other one, though.”
“It is, yes.”
He stopped walking and handed her the gift in his hand. “That’s—that’s not much. Just a little something to thank you for coming out today. You probably had something else to do.”
“I had absolutely nothing else to do!” She flashed one of those playful smiles that were still familiar to him. “My Valerie has met a young man, so Mom is on her own these days. But thank you, Drew. I should have gotten something for you, too.”
“Nah. I wanted to do that. You can open it now or—”
“Oh, no, you know me and suspense.”
Linda had an inkling as to what was in the small, rectangular box, judging by its size. Undoing the bow, she opened it and found that she was correct. Inside was a simple red, baby rose.
Just like the one he had given her years earlier. It may have been tiny and delicate, but it emitted its sweet perfume, and she didn’t know why but she felt her throat tighten with a sudden urge to cry.
Lord, Jesus, what’s happening? She avoided Drew’s gaze, which seemed to be awaiting hers.
“That’s as beautiful as the one you gave me years ago.” Somehow, she managed to keep her voice steady.
“Uh-huh. I was happy to find a florist who had one.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, want to take a walk? Catch up?”
“That’d be great.”
“Ride the carousel. Later, maybe.”
Whenever you’d like. After so long, she felt shy saying those words. As if shyness had ever been a problem for her, when it was in Linda’s nature to speak up for herself or others.
“Later, if we get a chance, that’d be nice,” she said. “But, okay, let’s walk.”
This was a date. She hadn’t been sure before, when he’d invited her to meet him on the boardwalk, but the carousel, the tiny rose, the tender looks—everything was pointing to this being a date.
“On the beach? On the boardwalk?” he specified, giving her the impression that he, too, was out of practice, date-wise.
“On the beach. It’s less crowded. Or at least we can make our way better.”
“On the beach, it is.” At the nearby ramp, one of many along the boardwalk, he turned to her.
“Leave our shoes up here, right? By the boardwalk?”
How strange, yet how familiar! They were behaving as if no time had elapsed between them. Doing what they’d done as young people.
Except she hadn’t kissed him. Or he hadn’t kissed her. Lord, she wanted to kiss him so badly, like a teenager in love, with that crazy, now-or-never urgency of a teenager.
This was the music director at church. At True Vine, her home church, with her pastor and Maribel, and her friends. Where she was fed spiritually, where she attended service and worshipped and fellowshipped. The place she would have to leave if things went awry this time with the man who’d been her boyfriend years ago. And finding a new church was always a daunting task.
“Let’s leave them up here,” she said and slipped off her sandals. “Andrew Lingerfelt…what happened to your guitar?”
Drew was bent at the waist, pulling off his shoe when he squinted up at her. “I told you. It got burned up in a fire.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, both of us know that’s not what happened. Now, if it’s something that’s none my business, Drew, then just say so. But don’t tell me something that I know in my heart isn’t true.”
Was he offended? And if he was, would he put an end to their first date? Unless he had changed, he’d always been even-tempered. Unlike her ex-husband, he had never been snippy, either.
“That must’ve been bothering you,” he grumbled.
“It has been bothering me. Again, if it’s none of my business—”
“I sold it. I didn’t get much for it, because someone had...put a lot of little flowers all over it. But I got a few bucks for it at a time when I needed money.” He had slipped on his sunglasses, which effectively hid his eyes, and lifted his chin in defiance. “So now you know the truth about my guitar.”
Or part of the truth. Because there was more to the story than what he was telling her. Linda began to walk beside him, both of them barefoot on the sand. She knew she couldn’t press him further.
“How did you used to do that? How do you still do that?” Drew sounded more amazed than irritated.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s instincts after having been a mom.” Not a very romantic response, and she doubted it was what he wanted to hear on a romantic date. She decided to change the subject in an effort to lighten the mood. “So you know about where I’ve been these years. Tell me about you, Drew.”
“Actually, I have a question I need you to answer.”
They had been making their way down to the water. Linda watched a young family—a dad and mom in their late twenties, with two boys, toddlers, in the water.
“What's that?” She pushed past her fear to ask.
“Why did you leave me, Linda? Why did you marry someone else, a guy you barely knew, when we’d been together for years?”
It wasn't quite an accusation, though there was a trace of anger in those words. No—not anger, but hurt.
“Excuse me, but you were the one who broke up with me,” she reminded him sharply. “You were the one who left me.”
That wasn’t the conversation that she wanted to be having with him. What had happened to that carefree afternoon they were supposed to have been sharing? Chatting with an old friend, catching up with each other’s lives.
What they were doing was dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room. Questions that had gone unanswered for years. Linda turned to Drew, who stood with his hands in his pockets, looking out at the water. In the distance a party boat of leisure fishermen and women chugged along, past the waves.
“I can understand you wanting him,” he said without looking at her. “He was a young guy with a future. I was—I had no direction back then. I just wanted to play music—”
“My father pushed for that. And that ‘young man with a future’ got me pregnant. I was responsible for what happened, too, except he wasn’t the perfect guy my father made him out to be. He proved that by walking away from me and his child.” There was no bitterness there; it was only the truth. The truth wasn’t always pretty or neat.
Drew removed his glasses, nodding. “I would’ve married you. I wouldn’t have done that to you or the baby.”
“No? She was another man’s daughter.”
“She would’ve been my daughter, Linda. Or at least I would have raised her that way. I would’ve loved her. Because I loved you.”
His voice was hoarse. She pressed, “Still, it was you who said goodbye—”
“Because your father said I was a loser.”
“My father? What he thought about you didn’t matter to me, Drew.” Linda tried not to raise her voice with emotion.
“That’s how you feel now. Back then, he controlled you, Linda. And we were also fighting a lot. I thought you didn’t want me. That you didn’t love me. And then I went to the church on the day of your wedding and I would’ve—”
Linda stared at him. “You were there?”
“Drew, you just said you were!” Her patience was dwindling. “Now which is it?”
“All right. I was there. And I was going to ask you not to marry him. To marry me instead. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to ruin your wedding. Or your life, Linda. It was June 11, 1988. It was a Saturday. About two in the afternoon. St. Joseph’s of the Palisades. West New York, New Jersey.”
Stunned, she touched her throat with her hand. “Oh. My Lord…you were there.”
Drew shrugged. “I just want you to know. And I wanted you to know that’s what happened.”
She didn’t know what to say. Apparently, he didn’t, either, though he gently took her forearm and led her down the beach along the wet, darkened sandy. On an impulse, more to see if he would accept the gesture of affection, she let her hand slip through the crook of his arm.
That was when he looked at her. Intensely, without rancor or anger.