This is one of the earliest stories I’ve ever written. Looking back on it now, I barely recognize the person I was when I wrote it: a lonely, confused, frustrated, yet passionate, ambitious, and optimistic young man. (Maybe things haven’t changed that much, except the “young” part, relatively.) It’s a love story chock full of embarrassingly purple prose; it’s rough and uncultured; it’s also an endearing artifact of my very early writing history. Your mileage may vary. – DT
Ellie Mae sank into the comfort of his arms. They surrounded her like a warm blanket, safe and secure. She felt small against him. His broad shoulders and chest encompassed her tiny frame, protecting her from all sides. She fell into him, glad to let herself go, happy to feel so at peace in another’s arms. Her body was perfectly cradled against his. Her neck, her back, her legs, all secured in his sanctuary. Her body was safe, her mind could wander freely.
In her memories, she went back to the day she met Michael. That memory always made her feel as if fate had put them together. He acted selflessly, putting himself at risk to save another. She was in the right place at the right time. Saving a life was just doing her job.
Together they were able to keep the light of a young life from burning out. From their dramatic meeting, a strong foundation of friendship developed. Two people from different backgrounds with different reasons for their loneliness. Their time together brought comfort and energy to their weary hearts, forming a close relationship which kindled into a passionate romance.
Ellie Mae always found peace in this, the first of their memories together. She felt connected to Michael through their shared memories and the complementary contours of their bodies. She felt comfortable in her complacency. Until, without warning, she felt him inside of her.
Now she felt violated, like her fortress walls had been breeched by an old friend deceitfully seeking sanctuary. Her warm and safe harbor had dissolved around her becoming cold and bright and sterile. She felt exposed. Her comfort had given way to a sickening feeling of being used, of becoming an object. But at the same time there was a familiar, carnal pleasure.
“Bob,” she thought to herself, slowly becoming conscious. Bob continued his uninvited march into her sanctuary, over and over as she became more and more awake. There was nothing to be done about it now but get it over with. Ellie Mae was used to this. It was Bob’s way of waking up and starting his day. At least she didn’t have to look at him. She could use her imagination to get through the few minutes of pain and pleasure.
She pictured Michael’s rugged face instead of Bob’s plump one. She felt Michael’s rigid abdomen rather than Bob’s bulbous gut. The pudgy hands that groped at her became strong and sure, soft and gentle. Ellie Mae forced a few excited moans to speed up Bob’s routine. When he was finished, she felt neither disgusted nor satisfied. After almost 20 years of being together, you learn to become comfortable with certain things. This, like everything else, was merely routine.
Bob gave Ellie Mae’s shoulder a quick squeeze and kissed her on the cheek. His heavy pressure lifted off the mattress with the relieved sigh of springs. She waited until she heard the shower running to get out of bed. It was one of her few days off and she was in no hurry to go anywhere.
Ellie Mae wrapped herself in a pink cotton robe, the worn fabric rasping against her dry skin. She made her way to the kitchen and fired up the stove top. Ellie Mae eyed the pastries, biscuits and bacon in the fridge. She felt the fat under her upper arm jiggle and decided to skip breakfast for the day. She cooked up a few eggs and slices of bacon for Bob, thinking it might be nice to make him a hot meal to start his day.
Bob Krait, the owner of a mildly successful carpentry business in a small New England town, had dated Ellie Mae Rose since high school. Their story was picture-book: both had grown up on opposite ends of the town, met in high school, fell in love. They went everywhere together and took advantage of everything their little town had to offer. There wasn’t a restaurant in the city limits Bob didn’t take her to or a club they hadn’t danced at. Ellie Mae had stacks of photo albums commemorating their enduring relationship. They spent little time apart through their twenties, even when Bob was busy building his fledgling company and Ellie Mae attending medical school. Over time, Bob’s business began to take more of his time and Ellie Mae’s studies became her life. What free time they had was spent with their friends, saving only their nights for each other.
They got so used to being together that Ellie Mae all but forgot about getting Bob to propose. The thought seemed to continually slip his mind as well. As they grew into their thirties, Ellie Mae found that most of her friends had moved away from their small town. One day she woke up and realized that all she had, that all she knew, was Bob.
He came downstairs, briefcase in hand. Bob was dressed in the same white shirt, tie and khakis as always, his blue-gray sport coat draped over his forearm. Ellie Mae spun around to place the breakfast plate on the table where Bob always sat.
“Sorry, hon. Early meeting today. I’ll grab something on the way,” he said, giving Ellie Mae a quick peck on the cheek. She watched him leave and then dumped his breakfast in the trash without a word.
Ellie Mae stood naked in front of her bathroom mirror. The steam from the shower still clung to the silvered glass. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting the warm air fill her lungs. In her mind she focused on an image from her past.
It was summer. The light of the setting sun scattered jewels across the water’s surface. A group of college students swam off the edge of the pier, all of them but one blurred in a fading memory. She was small of stature but carried herself with confidence. Her blonde hair was streaked with the summer sun. It cascaded gracefully down her back and over her shoulders. She brushed a lock of it behind her ear, revealing hazel eyes that shone like emeralds. When the light caught them just right, the two emeralds blazed with flecks of orange embers.
She was smiling the smile of a cute young girl in transition towards womanhood. Her button nose scrunched up the wider her smile became. Her body was sleek and tight, conditioned and supple. Though her muscles were toned, she retained the curves and softness that men of all ages found attractive. A teenage beauty queen, a perfect ten, the ideal girl next door. As the sunlight cast its last rays, the shy little girl slipped gracefully into the water leaving her swimsuit on the pier, finally surfacing, transformed into a confident young woman. Ellie Mae loved to remember this ideal image, a twenty-something version of herself.
Ellie Mae reached out with a steady hand and wiped the mirror clean. The image in her mind and the reflection before her were in conflict. Skin that was once tanned and toned had become pale, loose and wrinkled with age and worry. Her body that had been at the peak of fitness 15 years ago now showed signs of wear. Her skin hung loose under her arms and neck. Her shoulders slumped and her breasts began to sag. The curves the boys had once appreciated now seemed to collect around her midsection. She looked tired and worn, as thin as the threadbare robe that lie in a pile on the floor. The only thing that remained youthful of Ellie Mae were her eyes, those same confident and hopeful eyes of an innocent, naive child. But the fire in them had become dull and cold. Only in her late thirties, Ellie Mae was beginning to feel the effects of her stressful job and the quiet, unspoken pressure of her strained relationship with Bob.
She stepped closer to the mirror and inspected her hair. Her once full, naturally blonde hair had begun to thin and fade. Occasionally, she would find a stray gray hair. Over the last few years they had gradually become more apparent, until every morning she spent a good fifteen minutes hunting down and destroying these reminders of the sand in the hourglass. One morning, Bob had delicately made her aware of her grays by running his fingers through her hair and saying,
“You’re starting to look like your mother.”
As if the comment itself wasn’t awkward enough, they had just finished with their morning wake-up routine. Ellie Mae seethed in front of the mirror, attacking the stray hairs with ferocity. For every one she plucked, she silently made a resolution to fix a part of her life that had grown old.
“Time to dust off my motorcycle and take it for a ride.”
“Time to see how this town has changed in the years we’ve been too busy to go anywhere.
“Time to travel.”
“Time to meet some new people.”
“Time to make Bob appreciate me again. I haven’t even gotten flowers in years.”
“Time to get back in shape.”
It had been years since she’d gone on a run. Once a track-star and marathon runner, her life had changed. She was with Bob now and she simply stopped finding time for exercise. As she put on her running gear, Ellie Mae knew it would be a difficult challenge judging from how tight the clothes now fit. Breathing the cool morning air, she started down the hill towards the shore at a warm-up pace, then slowed to a brisk walk. Her body would make her earn this.
Their house set atop a hill looking out over the Sound. From here they shared great views of sunrises over the water. Lately, Ellie Mae had been in the mood for a sunset. She made her way down the hill and ran along the shoreline, taking the sandy path carved between the larger shore stones. Ellie Mae traveled along this road every day to work, though normally by car. The hospital was located just offshore, past the shipyards and fishing ports. What was an easy trip by car became a physical obstacle for her to overcome. If she hadn’t decided to regain her youth, to go for a run that fateful day, a life may have been lost. It was this road that led her to Michael.
The sea has always been a mystery to man. Its power and beauty, its raw force and endless bounty, a phenomenon that could easily take as many lives as it could support. Those who lived and worked on the sea often led lonely and dangerous lives. Most of the fishermen had been in the trade for generations, a tradition passed down from father to son. Michael didn’t share in that tradition.
As a drifter in his younger days, he came to the town looking for work and found it at the docks. Most of the other men working for the Prince Fishing Company talked of family and loved ones on their long voyages out to sea. His friends carried pictures of wives, children and girlfriends. Having no family of his own, Michael kept silent and isolated. He respected his fellow sailors and they respected him, but the extent of their conversations were confined to sailing stories and dirty jokes. Fifteen years of hauling cargo, rigging sails and fighting nature had made Michael strong in body and mind. But the years of loneliness had worn away his heart, the salt air eroding its foundation.
Michael was a handsome man but easily escaped the attention of most of the young girls at the bars. He had short, salt-and-pepper hair that tossed in the wind but never looked out of place. His broad shoulders carried the weight of his body and that of his past, causing them to slope gently downward. Michael carried himself well as a taller man with a medium frame. His muscles were strong and corded, his hands were sure. Michael’s eyes were his most defining feature, a swirling mist of bluish-gray against a sea of black. He commonly averted his gaze when talking to others, wishing instead to focus on the ground. Some people found his eyes too intense, others found them hypnotic. Michael rarely felt comfortable around people. The only person remotely close to him was an old salt named Charlie, who was the closest thing Michael had to a father and confidant. He alone was trusted with Michael’s secrets. The two men worked side-by-side since the day that fate and near tragedy struck the pier.
It was an early summer morning. The pale dawn light fought its way through the fog rolling over the pier. Michael and Charlie were already at work, busy clearing space for the morning shipments. They weren’t the only ones out that morning. A potential customer for the fishing company requested a visit to the docks. Impressing this investor would mean more money all around, so each worker was putting on the best show he could.
The customer was a young real estate tycoon with money to burn. Along with him that morning he brought his daughter, a four-year-old, red–headed ball of energy. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as she looked up at the tall-masted ships and danced along the planks of the wharf. Her enthusiasm for the shipyard had probably sparked her father’s financial interests. What better gift for a young entrepreneur than founding a business born out of a child’s fascination?
The father walked along the wharf with the foreman who pointed out the different types of ships. The foreman stopped near Michael and Charlie, who were busy moving crates from a recent shipment. While Charlie, the foreman and the investor exchanged pleasantries, Michael kneeled in front of the young girl.
“Hi. I’m Michael, what’s your name?” he asked with a warm smile.
“Angela,” she replied quietly. Michael’s voice caught in his throat. He took a deep breath.
“That’s a beautiful name. I used to know an Angela who was about your age. She liked magic tricks. Do you like magic?” Angela nodded. Michael reached out his hand and showed her that it was empty. With a wave of his wrist, he reached behind Angela’s ear and pulled out a small, pearl-white seashell. She gasped as Michael placed the shell in her tiny hands. Her shocked expression changed to one of joy before she turned away and skipped down the pier between the docked ships. Michael watched her for a second and then felt a strong hand on his shoulder.
“So much for that heart of stone, Michael,” said Charlie. Michael placed his hands on his knees and stood up.
“Yeah,” he whispered. He saw the investor and the foreman walking away from them. More workers had started to crowd the shipyard as the morning fog began to lift. As Michael and Charlie were getting back to work, a shout rang out from overhead. Michael’s eyes shot up to the deck of a nearby ship. A crane had been moving a cargo net full of lobster crates when a line snapped, sending the load swinging dangerously along the pier. It slammed into the side of the ship with a deafening crash, drawing a crowd of attention. Michael and Charlie ran down the pier ahead of the other workers.
“Where’s the little girl?” yelled Michael. Charlie answered with silence and frantic searching. Michael spotted the small seashell on the edge of the pier. Charlie yelled for help as Michael dove without hesitation into the icy morning water.
The cold met his flesh with a shock, knocking the breath out of him. He forced his body to fight through it and dove deeper, searching for the little girl. The dock water was dark and murky and Michael could only see a few feet in front of him. After what felt like hours, he surfaced for another breath. A quick glance upwards showed him that many more had gathered, some jumping in to help in the search. Michael frantically dove down again, doing his best to steady his heart. He swam beneath the pier and reached out to find her. His hands brushed fabric, then clenched around the little green sun dress. He pulled Angela towards him, her pale body motionless. Her vibrant red hair floated effortlessly around her face. A thin trickle of blood escaped her mouth.
Michael broke the surface for a second time. He forced his arm up into the waiting hands of the dockworkers who pulled the little girl to safety. The same strong hands then dragged him onto the rough wood of the pier. Michael crawled to the small lifeless body splayed out on the planks like a fresh catch of fish. Her chest wasn’t rising and the color was drained from her face. A bruise began to form on her side where the dress’s material had been torn.
“Move, please, I’m a doctor. Let me through!”
Michael looked up, his eyes locking onto hers for only a second. An emerald fire blazed in them. His smoldered and stormed in response.
“What happened to her?” she asked, breaking Michael’s momentary hypnosis.
“Uh, we think she got hit by those crates, then got knocked into the water. She must have been under for 2, 3 minutes tops. Can you help her?” The doctor felt the little girl’s ribs crack under the pressure of her hands. She stopped compressions and focused on breathing life back into her body. After a few tense minutes, Angela lurched and coughed up water. The doctor rolled her onto her side and gently patted her back. To the relief of everyone watching, the little girl began to cry out for her father.
“The ambulance is here!” shouted Charlie as the crowd cleared a path. The girl was placed on a backboard and carried back up the pier, her father on one side and the doctor following behind.
“Her…her name’s Angela!” Michael shouted through the chill that clung to his body. Ellie Mae turned and smiled, then climbed into the back of the ambulance.
Flowers and Shells
Ellie Mae checked on Angela throughout the day. The little girl would be okay, nothing too serious. A broken arm and some fractured ribs would mend over the next few weeks. The morning’s events replayed through her mind. She had seen many children come into the pediatric center with broken bones. Living on the coast came with its share of drownings and near drownings. What bothered her about that morning was the man who’d saved the little girl, specifically his eyes. They haunted her. They hinted at a storm which raged behind them, like a wisp of smoke from a veiled inferno. They appeared in her thoughts even when she was engaged in conversations, distracting her, slowing her wit. She hadn’t felt this confused or excited in years.
“On one hand, he must be a good man. He put himself in danger to save the life of an innocent child. On the other hand, he’s a complete stranger, but I can’t get him out of my mind.” Ellie Mae’s thoughts roiled over this man. “I’m sure it’ll pass by the end of the day. Besides, I’ll probably never see him again.” Ellie Mae went back to Angela’s room for the final check-up. Her father was asleep in a chair, but another man stood hunched over the bedside, talking quietly.
“Excuse me, sir. Visitation is for family only,” Ellie Mae said with authority in her voice. Michael turned around and their eyes met again.
“I’m sorry,” said Michael, “I just wanted to return this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the white shell. Setting it in Angela’s palm, he whispered, “I think you dropped this.” He patted her on the head and moved to leave the room. Before he left, Michael picked up a small bouquet of flowers from the bedside table. “These are for you,” he said to Ellie Mae, “to say thank you for saving her.” He took a step towards the door.
“Wait,” said Ellie Mae, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was you. You can stay. You had as much hand in saving her as I did.” She hesitated and felt her face flush slightly, his eyes burned in the dim light. “I never did get your name,” she said coyly.
“Michael,” he replied quietly. With some hesitation he asked, “And I never got your name, Doctor…?”
She blushed again, she looked down at her shoes for a moment. When she looked up she smiled, scrunching her nose up and said, “Rose, Dr. Ellie Mae Rose.” It was all she could do to resist curling a strand of hair around her finger like a school girl.
“Rose, huh?” Michael looked at the bouquet still in his hand. He offered it to Ellie Mae, saying, “I’m sure you’re probably sick of these then, but it’s the thought that counts right?” He shook his head and smiled, the white of his teeth contrasting with his face as it became red with embarrassment. She tilted her head and smiled back, graciously accepting the roses. Somewhere in her mind she wondered if Bob remembered her favorite flowers.
“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. Thanks again for taking care of her, it means a lot to me,” Michael said as he brushed passed Ellie Mae through the doorway. In that instant of contact, a spark transferred between them. Their eyes met again and both of them knew there was more to this meeting than coincidence. As Michael walked away down the hall, Ellie Mae called out to him.
“If you’d really like to know, any spring flowers will do. Especially lilies.” She twirled the roses and waved to Michael. He smiled and returned the wave, exiting the hospital. Charlie waited for him by the door, grinning almost as broadly as Michael himself.
The summer mornings had grown hot by the time Michael saw Ellie Mae again. His workload was heavy and helped to pass time during the long days. He and Charlie kept their conversations to a minimum, even over a few cold beers at the end of the day. Charlie knew better than to bring up the attraction between his friend and Dr. Rose. He knew that she was in his thoughts even if Michael didn’t let a hint of it escape into conversation.
The hot summer sun had tanned Michael’s skin to a golden tone. Sweat dripped from his brow as he went about his daily routine. He decided he could get more work done if he started earlier in the day when the sun wasn’t directly on him. The first day he started his early shift, he paused to stretch his arms and back, looking towards the town. He saw Ellie Mae out for a morning run just before sunrise.
He was frozen in place, watching her as she ran. Weeks had passed since he’d seen her, but she seemed more beautiful now than before. Her blonde hair was tied back in a pony-tail, bobbing along behind her, keeping pace. The first time he’d met her she was wearing a jogging suit covering her entire body. Now she had on black running shorts and a jogging bra beneath a white tank top. She seemed to pass by him in slow motion. He saw every muscle in her legs tense as she ran. They were sculpted and toned. Michael felt he could watch her run forever. Even seeing her from this distance was better than only viewing her in his mind.
He thought of ways to attract her, of how he could possibly get her attention when she was so focused on her run. Charlie suggested tossing a net over her as she ran by, something Michael laughingly considered. He let her run by him for the next few days, each time he got a little closer to calling out to her. Finally, he took a spot in the middle of the path where she couldn’t possibly miss him. Charlie watched from a distance as Ellie Mae ran up the hill and slowed her pace, finally stopping at the peak where Michael sat waiting for her.
“Well, well,” she said breathlessly, “It would seem a have a stalker.” She pulled headphone buds out of her ears and tucked them into an armband. She smiled at him between gasps, secretly wishing she wasn’t so sweaty.
“Ah, I don’t have to take that abuse from you. I get enough of it from the guys at work. I just thought I’d give you an excuse to catch your breath.” The words tumbled out of Michael’s mouth, sometimes getting caught on his tongue like a hooked fish. He wondered where they came from since he certainly wasn’t thinking of them consciously. Ellie Mae smiled and adjusted her shirt, pulling it down over her stomach. Though it had flattened considerably, she would still rather keep it covered.
“Well now that you’ve got me,” she said, “what will you do with me?” Ellie Mae smiled again, loving the tension she put him under. So far he’d responded well. Michael already had a plan in mind and was ready for her game. He smiled back and nodded, gesturing her to follow him. They walked along a path until they came to a low rock wall. Here, Michael knelt and placed his hands on the rocks. All along the wall grew small white flowers on a green vine.
“What’s that smell? It’s so strong here. I always smell it on the path but I never knew where it came from,” Ellie Mae admitted. She had grown up with this aroma, though she hadn’t investigated its source as a child. Michael plucked a few blossoms from the vine and handed them to her.
“It’s honeysuckle. Smell.” Ellie Mae put her nose up to the flower and drew a deep and satisfied breath, breathing in the sweet scent of summer and morning dew. Michael took another flower form the vine and held it between his fingers, pinching the green end.
“Now, try this.” He pulled the center of the flower out from the petals, collecting a small drop of nectar on the end. Michael held the tiny wand out for Ellie Mae to taste as he touched the nectar to her tongue. It tasted surprisingly sugary sweet. They lingered there for a moment, an awkward silence passed between them. Michael suddenly had the urge to reach out to her, both physically and emotionally. He felt a comfort around her that he hadn’t had with anyone in years. Ellie Mae was the first to speak and allowed Michael to bury the urge.
“I should get going. I have to be at work soon. But thank you for the distraction, I think we should do this more often.” She took another flower and licked the nectar from it, smiling at Michael. She started to jog back down the path when Michael said,
“If you’d like to get a drink later, come find me. I’ll show you a place I’m sure you haven’t seen.” Ellie Mae faced Michael and jogged backwards. With a wave she shouted,
Michael wore a smile while he worked the rest of the day and Charlie had no shortage of comments for him. Michael didn’t seem to care. By the end of the day he was guardedly optimistic that he would see his Dr. Rose again.
All of the other workers had gone home for the evening. Most of them lived just off the wharf along the road, but Michael had a small houseboat. When he approached his home, he was surprised to see Ellie Mae leaning against the post outside his door. Her eyes were swollen and red, makeup streaked down her cheeks.
“Still up for that drink?” she asked.
After Michael had changed out of his work clothes, they made their way to ‘The Barnacle’, a hole-in-the-wall bar for local dockworkers and fishermen. Michael bought the first round and listened to Ellie Mae’s story.
Earlier that day she had lost a young boy in surgery. She was starting to doubt herself, to lose confidence in her abilities. At first Michael thought about telling her a story from his past, a story of loss and pain. He decided against it. Michael did his best to remind her that she was responsible for saving many lives, that not everyone can be saved, that she did her best. Ellie Mae seemed lost in her own self-doubt and was trying to drown it with her third beer. Michael switched tactics.
“So what do you think of my boat? Quite the pleasure-craft isn’t it?” Michael thought he saw the hint of that smile he was beginning to fall for. She decided to take the bait.
“Does she have a name? I’ve heard it’s bad luck for any ship not to have a name. Especially for such a…fine vessel like that.” Ellie Mae smirked and swirled her beer, taking a final sip. Michael took a drink from his bottle and answered her,
“My houseboat doesn’t have a name. I never take her anywhere, she just stays anchored at the docks. But I do have a small sailboat tied up next to the house. That’s my Aurora.”
Ellie Mae’s eyes sparkled. Michael wasn’t sure if it was the beer or the light of the setting sun streaming in through the grimy windows, but Ellie Mae seemed lost in a memory. Her voice carried a dull pain from her past.
“My grandfather used to call me that, it was his pet name for me. Well, Princess Aurora technically. He was a sailor, loved to navigate by the stars. When he was stationed in Alaska, the aurora borealis was his favorite thing to watch.” Ellie Mae was lost in her own memories and Michael was content to let her relive them as long as necessary. “Granddad was also fond of sunrises. Aurora is the Roman goddess of the dawn and also a princess from my favorite Disney story.” Ellie Mae popped the top off of a new beer and took a drink. “I can’t believe I’m telling you all of this. I barely know you and I’m spilling family stories like we’re best friends.” Another long silence fell like a curtain between the two of them.
“Sleeping Beauty,” was all Michael said. Ellie Mae looked at him curiously.
“Yeah,” she said, “that was my favorite fairy tale.”
“It was my daughter’s favorite too. She’s the one who named my sailboat.”
Michael’s eyes glazed over and he found himself in the same hazy state of memory that Ellie Mae had just been in. She didn’t have to ask. Ellie Mae knew from his body language that he’d lost a child too. It made sense: the reaction to the young girl that had almost drowned, the compassion he showed for Ellie Mae after losing a patient and his reluctance to get too close to people. Michael was nervously wringing his hands around his beer bottle. She reached out and put her hand on top of his. He squeezed back gently and they stared into each others’ eyes, lost in mystery and memory.
As the night continued, they drank round after round. Ellie Mae kept up with Michael drink for drink. They shared stories and traded laughter. Contact between them became closer and closer, their inhibitions lessened as darkness crept around the bar. At closing time they were the last two to leave, both stumbling and holding each other up.
“I wanna break a bottle,” Ellie Mae admitted when they were just outside the bar.
“Well,” said Michael, juggling an empty and tossing it to her, “there ya go!” Ellie Mae fumbled with the bottle but eventually caught it. She grabbed it by the neck and smacked it against the brick alley wall. Nothing happened.
“How do you expect it to break with a little hit like that? C’mon Princess, give it a good one,” Michael teased. He was lucky the bottle wasn’t aimed at his head. Ellie Mae reared her arm back and brought the bottle sideways against the wall with force. Nothing was left but the top of the neck in her hand and brown glass shards scattered all around on the ground.
For some reason this act elicited the biggest smile Michael had ever seen. Ellie Mae’s face scrunched up and her shoulders were drawn upwards. Her eyes shone with the simple joy and freedom of following your impulses, no matter how silly or spontaneous. Michael followed his own impulses and asked Ellie Mae to stay with him for the night, he offered to take the couch. Ellie Mae’s smile disappeared as she admitted she had someone waiting for her at home. She apologized for not saying anything earlier, but Michael hid his disappointment well after the initial shock.
As they said their goodbyes, neither of them was anxious to leave. They exchanged embraces and studied each others’ faces in the moonlight. Something in her eyes burned for him. Whether it was desire born of lust or loneliness he didn’t know. But Michael was sure that he would do anything in his power to see those eyes again.
Ellie Mae was used to having late nights. Her profession required 24 hours of availability, ready to come in at a moment’s notice. Bob was used to her coming home late or leaving early and had stopped asking questions. Ellie Mae remembered the times when his shoulder was comforting, when his heavy arm was protection from the harsh world. She would have a terrible day and would confide in Bob. It had been years since Bob had asked about her day. She figured that if he didn’t think it was important enough to ask, then it wasn’t bad enough for her to worry about. The night after the bar with Michael, Ellie Mae had hoped, wished and prayed that Bob would ask where she’d been.
Something in her wanted to tell him she spent her night in the arms of another man. Someone who listened, someone who cared, someone who wanted her like Bob used to. She wanted him to ask so badly that when he didn’t, she got mad.
She began to pick fights over little things just to get under his skin. Sometimes she would just ignore him completely. Bob stopped using her as a wake-up lay and instead he just rolled out of bed without a word. Mornings began to pass with tension and silence. Ellie Mae looked forward to seeing Michael and loved getting up early to run. She was starting to feel better about herself, physically and emotionally. When she wasn’t working or spending time out with Michael at night, she was at home just waiting to pick a fight with Bob. Ellie Mae was a fighter and Bob was her punching bag.
Then Bob started coming home later and later, using work as an excuse. He would barely acknowledge her when he walked in the door. Now, he went straight to the shower before he got anywhere near Ellie Mae. She started to grow suspicious, but her spite soon turned to indifference. Their nights were spent in silence, their bodies barely touching in the same bed. Their time together grew less and less, they passed their summer days miles apart in the same small town.
It was late July when Ellie Mae decided to take her old riding leathers out of retirement. Bob was gone, some conference in New York City. Ellie Mae had a week of freedom and wouldn’t waste a second of it. After Bob had left in the morning, she rummaged through her storage closet in the garage. In a faded black bag she found them: the black boots were cracked and stiff and the riding suit had been chewed up by moths or mice. She tossed them all into the trash with disgust.
“Well,” she said aloud with a smile, “the only thing better than riding is shopping.”
As she took the dust cover off of her Honda Valkyrie, Ellie Mae remembered her first ride. Bob had an old roadster that he’d fixed up himself. Not long after they started dating, he took her for a ride on it. Ellie Mae was terrified at first, digging her fingers into Bob’s side to hold on. Soon she learned to love the wind in her hair and the feel the road beneath her on a hard curve. Being a young high school girl in her first serious relationship, she learned to love the vibrations of the road, the dangerous lean into the turns. She held Bob tighter and tighter. But rather than fear, it was out of passion and a desire to be close to him. Eventually she wanted her own ride and bought her Valkyrie. Together they road up and down the New England coastline, stopping at their favorite spots to make love under the moon as the waves crashed onto the shore behind them.
Ellie Mae swung her leg over the seat of her bike and looked at the empty space where Bob’s bike used to be. He had sold it years ago to get some capital to start his business. Ellie Mae was disappointed at the time, but now it was just another reminder of how things had changed. She couldn’t bear to give up her ride, though without a riding partner it had sat in the garage gathering dust for years. Ellie Mae fired up the engine. After it started on the third try, she gunned the throttle. The roar of the engine stirred excitement in her she hadn’t felt for years. Its tires screeched as she sped out of her driveway.
It was late morning when Ellie Mae returned with a fresh tank of gas in her ride and a bag full of new clothes on her arm. Before she tried them out, Ellie Mae decided that her bike probably required a little maintenance. She pulled out her old torn jeans, full of holes but too comfortable to throw away. She put on a white tank top and settled to work in her driveway. Once Ellie Mae was finished changing the oil, restoring the leather seats and polishing the chrome piping, she went inside to get dressed. She stood in front of her mirror again, her face and hands smeared with oil and grease. Her tank top and jeans had black smudges all over them, she loved the look and the smell of it all.
Stripping off the dirty clothes, Ellie Mae turned on the shower. She checked out her reflection again, waiting for the water to heat up. Ellie Mae couldn’t find a single gray hair. Her skin was once again toned and tanned. Her curves had returned to their natural positions, her newly cinched waistline accenting her hourglass figure. As she stepped into the steamy water, Ellie Mae felt her new body with her hands. She took her time, letting her fingers and palms map out all of her refined contours. The water soaked her hair and flowed down her graceful neck and back. It made her skin shiny and smooth. Ellie Mae didn’t remember the last time her and Bob shared a shower, or the last time he really took appreciation of her body. As her hands slid over her arms and legs, feeling her muscles tighten beneath her touch, she thought of someone who would appreciate the opportunity to explore her new figure.
The maroon Valkyrie came to a stop just before the central pier on the wharf. All work stopped as the fisherman turned and stared at the rider straddling the bike. Black heeled boots made it hard to balance, but her strong legs flexed beneath her skin tight leathers. They were cut low, revealing a firm and defined midsection with a bellybutton ring shining in the summer sun. As the men’s eyes continued upward, they lingered for a few moments on the black leather halter top. More than a few men found themselves wishing to test the zippers on its sides, to reveal the treasures hidden beneath. Those who had enough willpower to look at the vixen’s face found a confident visage accented with dark, but not overpowering, eyeliner. Full lips parted and were moistened by her tongue, tasting the salty air. Her long blonde hair tossed in the wind as she waited for her new riding partner.
Michael made his way through the crowd of slack-jawed spectators, parting them with his strong arms and a smug smile. He was wearing work boots, jeans and a white t-shirt, basic work attire. Ellie Mae watched him approach, seeing the way his body moved beneath his clothes. She felt her thighs tighten in anticipation against the sides of her bike. Ellie Mae met his gaze with her fiery eyes. His eyes answered as their tempests raged with excitement.
“I missed you on your run this morning,” he said, the crowd still watching them. Michael gestured back towards the mob, “But you sure know how to make an entrance.” Ellie Mae smiled and said,
“Well are you getting on or not? You do know how to ride don’t you?” She winked at him.
“It has been a while,” Michael said as he mounted the Valkyrie. He sat close to Ellie Mae and put his sure hands on her exposed waist. He whispered in her ear,
“But I think I’m in good hands.” Ellie Mae gunned the throttle again and took off back down the pier to the disappointment of the dockworkers. The force took Michael by surprise and he held on tighter, not that he minded. He took the opportunity to breathe her in, to feel how her body complemented his. She seemed to fit perfectly in his arms but at the same time her body screamed for freedom. Michael traced the curves of her neck and shoulders as they raced down the city streets. He found himself mapping the track of her spine from her hairline down, under her halter top, down to her lower back until it disappeared beneath her leather pants. He caught sight of the top of a pink thong just peeking out from her low waistline. Michael smiled and wondered what other secrets she hid beneath her clothes.
They rode for hours in serene silence, just glad to be in each others’ company. They stopped once at a roadside hamburger stand where both of them elicited stares from other customers. Michael and Ellie Mae really did make an attractive couple. They had such a comfortable report with each other that on more than one occasion a complete stranger asked how long they’d been married or told Michael he was a lucky man to have such a girl. They played along with the ruse for a while, enjoying their private joke.
As the day wore on, Ellie Mae told Michael of her life growing up in the town. She told him all the details of her Catholic upbringing and shared her personal opinions of family members and friends. Ellie Mae talked to Michael like he knew everyone in her stories personally. He couldn’t help but laugh every time she brought this up, since she continued her stories in the same manner anyway. At Michael’s request, Ellie Mae told him about Bob and how they met. He was surprised at how long they’d been together, but expressed to her that he was happy that she had found someone who could put up with her for that long. She punched him in the arm and they laughed in the evening air.
On the road home, Ellie Mae stopped the bike just off of a side street. Together they walked a path down the hill to a small grass clearing near the shore. They were safe from prying eyes from all sides here. Michael lay in the grass, resting his back against the hillside. Ellie Mae sat down next to him and they watched the darkening sky. The cool evening breeze blew off of the ocean and swept up the hillside. Ellie Mae shivered.
Michael reached out and pulled her towards him, putting his free arm around her. She let herself be taken, laying down at his side, closer than a shadow. Ellie Mae rested her head on his arm and let her body relax. They lay there quietly for what seemed like an eternity, a palpable tension building between them. Overhead, a streak of light broke the awkwardness as a comet blazed across the sky.
“Hurry up and make a wish,” Michael said, “don’t waste it.” Both of them closed their eyes and made their secret wishes. When they opened them, Ellie Mae had placed her hand on Michael’s stomach, turning towards him. Michael caressed the small of her back with a strong, but smooth hand. He worked his way slowly up to her shoulders, feeling her small muscles tense and relax. Michael’s fingers found his way up Ellie Mae’s neck and into her hair. He met her eyes. They burned even hotter than before and it was all Michael could do to resist her. He moved in to kiss her, but something stopped him. With a heavy sigh, he closed his eyes and kissed her on the forehead.
“I think it’s time we get going,” Michael said, his words tinted with sadness. Ellie Mae pulled back, her eyes focusing on the grass below. She answered with a gentle nod of her head. The ride back to the town was spent in a different kind of silence, a silence of reflection and regret.
“Would you like to come in for a drink?” Michael asked when they returned to the wharf. Ellie Mae shrugged her shoulders and said it sounded like a good idea. By unspoken consent, they pretended that their earlier tension had never happened. They were friends, nothing more.
As Michael mixed drinks for them, they traded stories of getting drunk and doing stupid things. Ellie Mae seemed to have quite a few, but Michael easily matched her in youthful stupidity. Both were careful not to reveal too much of their past or too much of their hopes for the future.
The night grew late and finally Michael walked Ellie Mae outside. She was reluctant to go, not only because she’d be going home to an empty bed, but because it hurt her to be away from Michael. She stopped and leaned against the side of his houseboat. Her shoulders and head rested against the wall, but her hips were thrust out in front of her body. Michael met her body with his own and pressed her gently against the wall. Ellie Mae melted under his touch. She lost control of her own body as her hips and thighs gently swivelled against his. Michael’s hands brushed her blonde locks behind her ears. His fingers traced their way down her neck to her shoulder line. This time his lips followed, kissing her ear, then tasting the sweet salt of her skin along her neckline. His breath caught again as Ellie Mae’s hands grasped his back. He wanted nothing more than to take her inside and show her just how badly his body burned for hers. Instead, his conscience blocked his instincts.
“Hey,” he said, “how about a quick dip?” He shot her a drunken grin, a boyish smile with more than a hint of trouble. Michael stepped back from Ellie Mae, releasing the pressure against their bodies. He started to take his shirt off. Ellie Mae saw his defined body ripple in the moonlight.
“C’mon, you can’t be that shy. Not after the stories you told me,” he teased. She hesitated for a moment, then pushed off from the cabin wall. She shoved him forward, catching him off guard while his head was trapped behind his shirt. Michael tumbled headfirst into the water with a shout. He sputtered up to the surface and saw Ellie Mae laughing hysterically.
“You’re a disaster!” she shouted.
“Well,” Michael said, spitting salt water out of his mouth and smoothing his hair back, “are you gonna join me?” Ellie Mae’s face turned red as her desire welled up within her. She thought about all the possible outcomes of this night, then decided that it was better left to fate to decide.
“I’ll expect you to be a perfect gentleman. So please, if you don’t mind, a little privacy.”
Michael smiled and closed his eyes.
“Nice try,” Ellie Mae said, “turn around.” Michael complied with a quiet chuckle. Ellie Mae’s fingers worked nervously, tugging at the zippers on her leather clothes. The cool night air felt great against her skin as her clothes fell to the pier, collecting in a pile around her feet. The shock of the water as it met her body was refreshing and exhilarating.
Michael heard the splash and instinctively looked up. He saw a pile of black leather clothes heaped on the wooden planks. There was also a small touch of pink fabric accenting the black leather. With a smile he dove under the pier and searched for Ellie Mae with his hands. The water was pitch black and made navigation difficult. He felt something brush against his arm so he reached out to grab it. A strong leg kicked him in the side and he surfaced for air.
“Hey,” he sputtered, “take it easy!” Ellie Mae laughed and splashed water in his face.
“Fresh,” she said. They treaded water for a while, teasing and joking with each other, playing cat and mouse. Michael chased her into the shallows. They found a spot that gave them a firm foothold to stand on in the shadow of another ship. The water level rose to Ellie Mae’s collar bone, her sleek blonde hair plastered against her head. Michael waded up to her, the water barely reaching his chest. She playfully swam away from him, but he quickly caught her and pulled her to him. Michael wrapped his arms around her and pressed her back against his chest. He heard her gasp as their naked bodies met in the cold water. The heat moved between them as their hands explored each other in the darkness. Michael’s left hand covered her midsection while his right rested just below her belly button. Ellie Mae’s hands reached behind herself to Michael, feeling his strong lower back and thighs. Michael’s arm moved upwards until it covered both of her breasts. He kissed the nape of her neck. He gently pulled her closer into him as his other hand slid down her sleek body, resting just inside her right hip. They stayed in this position for a few moments, feeling each other breathe, feeling their racing heartbeats. Ellie Mae turned and faced Michael, feeling his excitement pressing against her. It would have been easy to give in to the temptation. They wondered silently how many people had the willpower to resist such strong desires. Michael broke the silence.
“I want you, but not like this. I’m not going to steal another man’s girl. Not because of any loyalty I have to him, but because I want you to want me for yourself. I know I could take you right now, but I think we’d both regret it tomorrow,” Michael paused, searching for the right words. “You are beautiful Ellie Mae. You remind me of all the stories of maidens in the sea, enticing sailors to their doom with their irresistible beauty and their siren song. You’ve snared me, pulled me down into the depths and I would gladly end my days down here with you,” he paused again. Michael pulled her closer to him and put his hand over her chest.
“But your heart isn’t yours to give. As much as I want your body, it’s meaningless to me without your heart and soul as well. I’m sorry.” Michael took a step back and waded towards the pier. Ellie Mae stood motionless, suddenly feeling cold and exposed. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she wrapped her arms around herself for warmth. Michael looked back and said,
“I’ll get you a towel and some warm clothes.” He smiled and tried to break the tension with a joke. “No peeking,” he said. Ellie Mae laughed through her tears.
“Fat chance,” was her reply. She watched Michael’s naked body as it pulled itself from the water, moonlight glistening off of every strained muscle.
Ellie Mae was a princess at a ball. She wore a pink dress trimmed in white lace, her blonde hair done up in curls. All around her, couples danced in time with the music. She was waiting for someone. Her slender hands wrung together nervously under long white satin gloves. She fidgeted with a silver tiara placed gently on her head. The door at the end of the ballroom opened and the music stopped. All of the dancing couples stopped and turned, facing the new arrivals. Two men walked in and approached the court where Princess Aurora sat. One was of a heavy build, dressed in fine royal clothes and sporting an entourage of fools, musicians and armed guards. The other was a pauper, wearing rags and accompanied by only an old man with a cane. Though he was less well received, the pauper carried himself with confidence and had the body of one who has worked hard all of his life.
The two men approached the princess and knelt before her. A servant of the royal looking man presented a red pillow trimmed in gold, tassels at its corners. In the center of the pillow lay a brilliant ring of the finest diamonds in the land. It sparkled and shone in the firelight and caught the eye of every maiden at the ball.
“It was made especially for you, my lady. These stones were mined from the four corners of the earth. But even their brilliance is no match for a beauty such as yours.” The princess nodded in response, then turned her attention to the younger man.
The pauper reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small leather bag. From it he produced a plain silver ring, tarnished and scratched. He held it out to her on his palm, dirty and calloused from a day’s work.
“This was my grandmother’s ring, made for her by my grandfather who worked in the king’s silver mines. It was wrought by his own hand, crafted to perfection and inscribed with an old saying that ties them together even in death. An unbroken circle, a perfect love.” The princess nodded again. She shifted her focus between the two men and was about to make a decision when the smell of sizzling bacon tickled her nose. She began to wake up as her senses roused her. Ellie Mae found herself in an unfamiliar room, dressed in a stranger’s clothes. Her head spun as she sat up. She pulled at the covers, revealing her attire. A pair of boxers and an oversized sweatshirt. She awoke on a small bed in a plain cabin, the gentle rocking of the boat told her she was still with Michael. As if on cue he walked in the room carrying a plate of food.
“Well, well. Sleeping Beauty wakes. Good timing,” Michael said as he placed the tray of food in front of her.
“Three-egg omelette, with ham and cheese. A few slices of bacon, wheat toast with butter and some orange juice. The house special,” he wiped his hands on his shirt and smiled at her. “I hope you like it, because the kitchen’s closed.” Ellie Mae smiled and graciously dug into the breakfast. A small vase was sitting on the tray next to the plates. A sprig of honeysuckle vine filled the room with the fading smell of summer. Ellie Mae wondered if every day could start out like this.
She finished her plate and took it to the kitchen, Michael had just jumped in the shower. Ellie Mae took this opportunity to look around. Toward the front of the house lay the helm, surrounded by windows on all sides and separated from the rest of the house by a door. The houseboat was small but comforting. A small bar occupied space in the kitchen, which was offset from the living room. In this lounge area, there was space enough for a small couch, on the back of which lay Ellie Mae’s clothes folded neatly. On top of the pile lay her pink thong and a tiny handwritten note, which read:
“You look better without these.” Michael had drawn a little smiley face with its tongue sticking out. Ellie Mae felt her face flush again. She put her clothes on, thinking it would be in poor taste to ride her bike home without any pants. Ellie Mae kept the sweatshirt on over her halter top.
Her attention was drawn to a large mirror over the fire place. A few old photographs were displayed in silvered picture frames. To her left, Ellie Mae saw a black and white picture of a young boy with his parents. The trio stood on the deck of a yacht, the father in his captain’s hat. His mother wore a large hat to keep the sun off of her bare shoulders. Her strapless dress revealed a youthful, shapely figure that tapered down to thin ankles supported by black heeled shoes. The young boy’s hair was tousled in the wind at the moment of the picture. His little tie was crooked beneath his vest. Ellie Mae smiled at how cute Michael was as a boy. She couldn’t help but wonder what his own children would look like.
Next to that picture was a more recent one. It was in color but still looked to be about 15 years old. In it, a younger Michael stood with his arm around a raven-haired woman with brilliant blue eyes. His smile was confident and strong, hers was loving and compassionate. In front of them stood a young girl with her mother’s hair and her father’s eyes. She had her hands tucked behind her back. The little girl grinned so broadly that dimples formed on her rosy cheeks. Emotion tugged at Ellie Mae as she stared at the picture. Suddenly a hand shot out in front of her and slammed the frame face down on the mantle.
“I’m sorry,” said Michael, “I have a lot of work to do today.” The words came out harsher than he intended. He softened his tone and said, “I hope you enjoyed your breakfast.” Ellie Mae didn’t know what to say, so she simply put her arms around him. He reluctantly returned her embrace and walked her to the door.
Back at home, Ellie Mae had changed out of her new leathers and into comfortable sweats. She sat on her living room floor surrounded by photo albums. One by one she went through them. The majority of them were of her and Bob in a hundred different places. She cried out of happiness looking at their old memories. She sobbed tears of loneliness for the pictures they hadn’t taken in years.
As she moved through photos in time, she noticed a trend. While the earlier photos showed Ellie Mae surrounded by her close friends, over time those friends started to disappear. Some got married and moved away. Some stayed in the area but were busy starting their own families. Ellie Mae noticed something else more personal. In the most recent pictures her smile grew duller and the fire in her eyes had dimmed. She’d never noticed it before, but being presented to her all at once was a bit overwhelming. She was surrounded by memories of better times, happier times. She cried tears of loneliness and regret, tears that had been welling up for years held back only by her willpower to ignore what her heart knew was happening.
She was tired of this town, tired of eating the same food and staring at the same sunrise every day. She was tired of Bob. Ellie Mae knew in her heart she still loved him, probably never could love anyone else the way she loved him. But she also felt a distance between them. It was as if Bob had stopped growing and settled into the life he had. Ellie Mae had settled too, but only because Bob did.
After meeting Michael, something in her stirred. She realized how much more there still was to life, so many new things to see and experience. Drying her eyes and hardening her heart, Ellie Mae scooped up the pictures and put them back into their albums. Bob would be home that night and she’d rather not explain the sudden nostalgia. She took a hot shower and let the water blend with a torrent of her tears, hoping to purge her mind of confusion and leave her with nothing but clarity.
The Virtue of Honesty
The summer months proved lucrative for the Prince Fishing Company, hiring seasonal workers to help out with the increased workload. But now that summer was drawing to a close, many of the fishermen began to leave to search for work elsewhere. Some moved north in anticipation of the king crab run, others moved south for warmer waters. Michael always dreaded this time of year, when the sunlight began to dwindle and the air turned colder. He would feel more comfortable if he could hibernate, to let the winter months pass without even knowing they were there. This year it was worse.
He hadn’t seen Ellie Mae in weeks, not since their night together. He remembered how angelic she looked, sleeping in his arms. Michael was surprised at how light she was as he picked her up and laid her in his bed, tucking her in beneath the blankets. He wanted so badly to lay next to her, to be the first thing she saw when she woke up in the morning. Michael missed the feeling of a warm body next to him in bed, the comfort and reassurance of someone that needed him as much as he needed them. This time of the year was the worst, the time that Angela died, the time that Jennifer left.
Charlie kept a close eye on Michael during the fall months. He knew that if Michael became sluggish or quieter than usual, then he needed some perking up. Conversations strayed away from Dr. Rose. Michael knew her boyfriend had come back from his trip to New York. His restless mind kept picturing Bob sweeping Ellie Mae off her feet when he came home, wining and dining her, finally proposing and then whisking her off to some tropical location. Michael could feel Ellie Mae’s memory of him slipping away already. He wasn’t sure whether it was better to just forget about her altogether or to find her, to tell her how he really felt, to finally admit to himself and to Ellie Mae that he’d fallen for her. Maybe it would be easier to just pack up and leave this place, start again somewhere new. Ellie Mae forced the decision on him.
One night during a particularly strong storm, torrents of rain assaulted his small houseboat. He barely heard the pounding on his door over the crashing of the waves against the hull. He opened the door with a start, wondering what could have happened to cause someone to come out in this weather. Ellie Mae stood there, soaked to the skin. After a moment, Michael invited her in.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shivering, “I had to come see you again. I know I haven’t been around lately, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” Her voice failed her, the words getting caught in her throat. “I think, we need to stop seeing each other.” Her words pierced Michael through the heart, his hope shattered. He did his best to collect himself before he explained his story to Ellie Mae. With a deep breath, he started.
“I understand why you want to go, I don’t blame you and I’m not mad. I am a little upset and disappointed, only because I thought we really shared something special. Maybe this is something that you can toss aside lightly, but I don’t come across someone like you that often.” He paused, his eyes glistened with choked back tears. Michael swallowed hard and continued.
“But before you leave, let me tell you a little of my past. Maybe it will help you understand a little better why it’s so hard for me to tell you how I feel, and just as difficult to let you go. I…I have problems with people in my life leaving me. It started with my parents, who left me at an early age. It wasn’t their fault. A freak storm broke while they were out at sea on a pleasure cruise. Their ship capsized and they drowned. I was raised by my relatives but never really felt the same after that. I buried myself in a shell, busied myself with work and isolated myself from the world.” Michael paused again and took a deep breath, putting that part of his past behind him.
“After years of keeping myself behind a wall, I felt safe but unfulfilled. It was a childhood friend named Jennifer who brought me out of isolation. We spent all our time together. We sailed and fished, we took long car trips and went dancing. Our love was so strong that even a few seconds apart from each other seemed unbearable. I was reluctant at first to invest so much in another person, but I trusted Jennifer with all my heart. We were married in the spring the year she turned 20. Within the year we had a child, Angela. I loved the two of them more than life itself. So, when Angela was diagnosed with leukemia, my world shattered.” Michael’s tear-filled eyes drifted to the picture of him with his wife and child.
“She died in the fall just before her fourth birthday. My wife and I weren’t the same after that. Neither of us honestly blamed the other but so much went unspoken that the tension grew between us daily, driving itself like an invisible wedge. One day I came home after a hard day at work and she was gone, just like that. No address, no phone number, no note. She left on the anniversary of our daughter’s death, the same day as today. I couldn’t take that place anymore so I left. I picked up whatever I needed to survive and I traveled north, settling here. That was almost fifteen years ago.” His voice wavered as he finished spilling his heart-wrenching tale to Ellie Mae, who sat there staring in disbelief.
“I’m so sorry,” she said with genuine empathy. Her tears quenched the embers burning in her eyes. She never really thought about the baggage that Michael so obviously carried. Ellie Mae felt terrible for bringing this news to Michael on a day that already held so much sorrow for him. She couldn’t have known ahead of time, but she still felt awful. Michael continued.
“It’s alright, I’ve learned to live with it. Until you came along I was doing just fine. Since I’ve met you, I felt like I was given another chance at happiness. I thought I’d met someone else that would be deserving and appreciative of my love.” He stopped again and shook his head in disappointment.
“Do you still love him?” he asked Ellie Mae. She kept silent for a second, then looking down at the ground, muttered “Yes,” through her sobs. Michael asked another question, “Are you happy?”
This time she looked him right in the eyes. He saw the fire in them burning again. “What do you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you that I think about you even when I’m with him? That when we lay in bed together I’m wishing it was you? That I want him to screw up so I can leave without guilt? That for twenty years I’ve been faithful and loyal to one man who I love, but after one summer I’m considering giving it all up for a chance at happiness with a total stranger?” Her words came out in bursts. She was screaming at Michael now, but her words were drowned out by his.
“Don’t tell me that, don’t even tell me that unless you mean it. I can’t hear this from you just to have you turn around and walk out that door. Besides, what do you know about loneliness? When have you suffered a day in your life? You lie up there in your big house on the hill, going home every day to a warm bed and a warm body. It’s easy for you to leave me because you have someone waiting for you.” Michael was surprised at the volume of his own voice, the venom tainting his words. He never meant her any harm but as much as he though he loved her, he hated her in that moment. Not to be outdone, Ellie Mae shouted back, pounding her fists on his chest in frustration.
“Just because I have someone to go home to, don’t you dare think I don’t know what it is to be lonely. You try being surrounded by people all the time but never feeling appreciated, never feeling good enough. Imagine what it’s like to have someone who makes you feel more isolated and alone than if you really were by yourself. At least you have a choice Michael, you can change.” Michael grabbed her wrists and held her still. When she had stopped struggling against his strong hands, tearful convulsions jolted her entire body. Michael pulled her close and pressed her against him in a strong embrace. He was crying now too.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to put all that pressure on you. It just…it just kinda came out.” She sobbed into his chest. Ellie Mae put her arms around him and squeezed as hard as she could, knowing Michael’s strength was enough to support both of them. He leaned down and whispered in her ear,
“You need to go, Ellie Mae. I’m sure he’s waiting for you. I can’t let you throw away what you two have on someone like me.” Michael gave her one last squeeze. “Meet me here tomorrow after work, I want to say our goodbyes on better terms.” Ellie Mae peeled herself away from Michael and walked back out into the tempest. Michael watched as her taillights faded in the rain storm. He added a new hole in the wall of his cabin, complemented by what would surely be swollen knuckles in the morning.
When Ellie Mae returned home, luckily Bob was already in bed. Her tear-weary eyes were hidden by the darkness. Her body felt cold against the sheets as she slipped in bed next to Bob. He turned and put his arm around her, which she gratefully accepted. For the first night in a long time they slept peacefully together, two lovers each with secrets revealed only in dreams.
The night’s conversation weighed heavily on Ellie Mae’s mind. She found herself standing in front of her church just before dawn. Few parishioners were present so early, only the very faithful and the most downtrodden. Ellie Mae found her way to the confessional and took a deep breath before entering. She smelled the cedar wood and the altar candles. She wasn’t quite sure what to say, it had been a while since she felt the need for confession. She thought maybe her priest could at least offer advice if he couldn’t save her mortal soul.
Ellie Mae took her place on the kneeler and crossed herself. She clasped her hands together and waited for the priest to speak. He welcomed her into the church and asked her to confess whatever sins were weighing on her conscience. She delved into the memories of her relationship with Michael. Though she left out the more sensational parts, she was sure to mention that her body remained loyal to her boyfriend. The priest advised her to perform the normal prayers and to be genuinely remorseful for her sins. The problem was, Ellie Mae didn’t regret a minute she’d spent with Michael. Before she left, she asked the priest for advice.
“How do I know, Father, which man is right for me?” Ellie Mae felt at a loss, that this was the last place she could search for answers. The priest thought for a moment and responded,
“My dear, the only one who can answer that question is God. You must have faith and trust in the Lord and he will provide. But in order to remain pure in his eyes, you must put a stop to this affair. If you are to be forgiven, you must make a decision and stick to it. Good luck, my child, and God be with you.”
Ellie Mae crossed herself again and stepped out of the confessional, wondering if she would be granted any signs to help resolve her troubled mind.
The end of the day came all too quickly for Ellie Mae. She was distracted and confused as she walked the path from the hospital to the wharf. It was about six o’clock when she met Michael outside of his houseboat.
“I thought you’d like to take a little ride on the Aurora. There’s a place I want to show you,” Michael said as he loaded a small cooler onto the sailboat. He climbed in and extended his hand to help Ellie Mae in. She hesitated.
“C’mon,” said Michael, “I promise it will be worth it.” Ellie Mae smiled and took the hand Michael had offered her, climbing on the deck of the Aurora. Michael unfurled the sails and gave Ellie Mae instructions. Together they worked as a team, capturing the evening wind and using it to take them down along the coastline. Michael steered the Aurora out and around the cape, sailing away from the light of the setting sun.
“This was one of the first places I found when I came here. I find that it quiets my mind whenever I’m feeling frustrated and confused,” Michael said. Ellie Mae moved from her seat to stand next to him at the helm. She rested her head against his shoulder. Michael sailed the Aurora through the waves, bringing her south around the tip of the peninsula. Michael became pensive as he neared his destination. He’d been saving these words for Ellie Mae for some time.
“You know, I’ve spent most of my life on the sea. Every day I’m on the water, I know what to expect and how to react. I know how to read the wind and gauge the skies. I know how to navigate by stars if my instruments fail. But even with all of this knowledge and experience, the sea always has something new to teach you. A place you thought you knew inside and out can still surprise you, and if it’s a place as dangerous as the sea then it can cost you your life.” Michael stopped to look at Ellie Mae, who looked back at him with an encouraging smile. Fighting through his emotions, he continued.
“For as well as I know the sea, I can never adequately describe it in words. I can never tell you how beautiful it can be to race dolphins through the blue water, to drift next to whales on the open sea or how terrifying it is to be at the mercy of a raging storm. The sea is beautiful and deadly, bountiful and remorseless. The only thing I can compare it to, is you Ellie Mae.” He kept his attention focused on the water ahead of him, not able to counter Ellie Mae’s questioning look.
“I wish I knew the words to explain to you what you mean to me. Like the sea, you are beautiful and dangerous to me. I could easily get lost in the thought of you, I could be broken by your storm. But at the same time, your beauty could save me, could give me purpose again.” Michael stopped talking and let the words sink in for Ellie Mae. She stayed by the helm while he closed up the sails and turned on the small outboard motor. Ellie Mae watched him as he steered toward the tip of the cape, approaching a secluded alcove surrounded on shore by willow trees. The Aurora coasted under the hanging branches of the willows, coming to a rest in the shallows. Michael anchored the boat and moved to the seats along the stern, beckoning to Ellie Mae. She sat down next to him and took the wine glass he offered. Michael poured a cool Riesling into each of their glasses and offered a toast.
“To us, and to our adventures, wherever they may lead us.” He and Ellie Mae raised their glasses and drank.
“So why exactly did you bring me here?” she asked. The sun’s rays were out in front of them, nearly parallel to the horizon. Michael stood and offered her his hand. She took it and stood against the railing with him. He faced the open water and Ellie Mae faced him, watching his face in the twilight. His features were as strong as ever, confident but touched by sadness.
“Ellie Mae, I brought you here because I need an answer. I know you look to your faith to guide you, but I lost my faith in the church long ago. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a guiding force, but I find it in my own way.” He nodded in the direction of the setting sun and Ellie Mae turned around. What she saw was awe-inspiring. The glowing orb of the evening sun was just setting below the horizon. The clear blue sky was streaked with hues of pink, orange and red. Colors blended into shades that didn’t have a name. Below the horizon the water sparkled as if God himself had scattered gems of every color on its surface.
“My God, it’s beautiful!” exclaimed Ellie Mae. Michael smiled and put his arm around her waist.
“I’m glad you like it. I couldn’t have done it justice, I knew you had to see it for yourself. It’s one of the few places on the east coast that you can see the sun setting over water. Every time I see this it quiets my mind. This is how I converse with God, this is where the answers come to me. When I see this sunset, I can’t imagine anything more beautiful…except for you.” Michael turned toward Ellie Mae who had tears in her emerald eyes. He placed a soft hand against the side of her face and leaned into hear.
“I love you Ellie Mae Rose.” Michael whispered quietly as he moved in to kiss her. She wanted this more than anything, wanted to feel free and impulsive and beautiful in his arms. Her lips begged for his kiss out of love and passion rather than lust. But at the last second, Ellie Mae turned away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I just can’t.” The priest’s words flashed through her mind. She still didn’t know what her decision was, but she knew her head had to be cleared first. “Please, Michael, I’m sorry. This place is beautiful, it’s perfect…you’re perfect. But it’s just not the right time for us, I’m sorry.” To her surprise, Michael smiled and still held her close.
“It’s okay, princess. To tell you the truth, I thought that I’d be like the prince in your fairy tale. That I’d kiss you at sunset, you’d wake up and then we’d ride off together. I guess you’re just not ready to wake up yet.” He smiled at her, then continued.
“I needed to tell you how I felt and I don’t regret that. I wanted to share this place with you, especially if I never see you again. I hope that when you see a sunset, you’ll think of me. And, in that way, no matter where we are, we can be in each others’ thoughts and hearts.” Michael’s eyes teared-up with his goodbyes. Ellie Mae didn’t understand.
“What do you mean, where are you going?” she asked.
“I can’t let myself wait for you, Ellie Mae. And if I stay here I know that’s what I’ll end up doing. I have to go, I have to start over somewhere new. I’ve been in this place for too long and I’m restless. But, I won’t be leaving until tomorrow. So if you find your answer before then, and it leads you to me, you know where to find me. No matter what you decide, I want you to be happy.” The two lovers brought together by fate were being torn apart by circumstance. Together they fought the dying light and held each other for what they both figured would be one last time.
Ellie Mae made it home before Bob. She sat on the couch and waited for him, ready to confess everything to him in hopes of clearing her conscience. When he finally came home, he dropped his bags and headed straight upstairs, jumping into the shower. Infuriated, she stalked up the stairs after him.
“Bob,” she yelled at him, “Bob, talk to me.” Bob peeked his head out from behind the shower curtain.
“Oh, hey hon. Didn’t know you were here.” He stuck his head back under the showerhead. Ellie Mae had thought her tears had run dry, but they sprang forth anew.
“Bob, are you having an affair?” she asked accusingly. She was just as surprised as Bob at the words spilling out of her mouth. Her answer came as Bob turned the shower off and reached for a towel.
“What are you talking about Ellie Mae? How could you even think that?” he asked.
“Well you’re gone long hours, you come home and get right in the shower. We barely talk anymore, you hardly touch me at all.” Ellie Mae wrapped herself with her arms, feeling defensive.
“Honey,” said Bob, “don’t be silly.” To Ellie Mae’s dismay he started laughing. He explained that he’d been going to the gym with a personal trainer after work. He noticed how good a shape she was getting into and he felt a little left behind. Bob was hoping to surprise her with his new physique, but it was harder work than he expected.
With a strong hand, he pulled her into the tub with him. She felt foolish as her love of twenty years expertly pulled off her clothes. It was as if they saw each other naked for the first time, both of them almost back in their prime. Bob’s pudge had become leaner, his arms more defined. His stomach had flattened and his chest was no longer sunken in. Bob reached for the hot water and pulled Ellie Mae under the stream, kissing her deeply. It was like their first kiss, passionate and deep, full of tension and uncertainty. Their hands slid over each others’ bodies in appreciation of the gift each of them had given. Bob’s gentle touch was apologetic, it showed Ellie Mae that he still cared for her and did not forget how remarkable she was.
After the shower, Bob reached into a bag near the tub and pulled out a new silk bathrobe for Ellie Mae, a gift he’d gotten in New York but waited for the right moment to give to her. He watched as she tried it on, the fine material hugging her curves in all the right areas. He came up behind her and ran his fingers through her wet hair, joking that he couldn’t find any grays. The two lovers moved to the bedroom. Bob took his time. He kissed her neck and shoulders slowly. His hands worked their way down her sides, massaging her tired muscles. Her new robe hit the floor as Bob picked her up and carried her to the bed. There he laid her down gently and kissed her softly on the lips. His body pressed against hers tenderly as he kissed her all over. It was as if all the hints and all the suggestions that Ellie Mae had given him over the years had finally sunk in. He was tender, he was loving and he was attentive. He didn’t ask permission but he didn’t force anything on her. They moved together as one, feeling closer than they had in a long time.
Bob held her against him for the longest time, afraid that she would slip through his fingers. He whispered softly in her ear.
“I have reservations for us tomorrow morning at a new restaurant that opened up. I thought a nice breakfast out would be fun.” Ellie Mae turned to face him and smiled. That night they fell asleep in each others arms.
The next morning, Bob drove Ellie Mae further up the hill away from town. A small cottage was built into the edge of a cliff overlooking the endless sea. A sign at the roadside read, ‘The Rose Café.’
“I named it after you Ellie Mae. I’ve been working on it for quite some time. I reserved a specially designed gazebo that’s perfect for couples. It juts out from the upper deck and it’s got a great view of the coast. You’ll love it.” Ellie Mae and Bob were seated by the new wait staff for the grand opening of The Rose Café. The view was gorgeous. Ellie Mae stared off in the distance, miles away. She could see the ships in the wharf docking and going out to sea hundreds of feet below. She wondered silently if Michael was still there. The thought left her mind as Bob stood next to her.
“Beautiful isn’t it? I told you. I’m glad you like it up here.” Bob’s tone changed as he cleared his throat. “Ellie Mae, I know we’ve been having a tough time lately. And I know I haven’t been around all that much. But you need to know how much I love you and how much I appreciate how patient you’ve been with me all these years. You deserve this,” Bob kneeled down in front of her on the gazebo and produced a ring from his pocket.
“Ellie Mae Rose, love of my life, will you marry me?” His words hung heavy in the air. Ellie Mae bit her lower lip and fought back her tears. She knew she had to tell him now. Bob mistook her hesitation for surprise.
“Bob, sit down,” she said nervously. His expression turned from confusion, to shock, to anger and disbelief as Ellie Mae retold the story of her relationship with Michael over the last few months. She told Bob how much she appreciated his gift, how much she still loved him, but how she felt it might be too little too late.
When she finished, she was in tears and Bob was walking out of the café, the ring left on the table. Ellie Mae sat with her head buried in her hands, silently praying to God for an answer. She knew there was no way to make everyone happy, someone would end up being hurt. But she also felt bad being selfish and thinking only of what would make her happy. Ellie Mae didn’t move for hours, spinning the beautiful ring between her fingers and admiring the work Bob put into the café. It was late afternoon when Ellie Mae stood up with the ring in her pocket and went to visit Michael one last time.
The wharf was eerily empty. An afternoon fog rolled across the piers. Ellie Mae searched all over, eventually finding Charlie. She asked where Michael was working, saying she desperately needed to see him. Charlie looked confused at first, and after a few moments of thought answered her question.
“Michael? Ah, you mean Mr. Prince. Yes, yes. He left me some instructions in case you came looking for him.” Charlie reached in his pocket and pulled out an intricately carved silver compass. The center of it was a red rose with its green leaves pointing in each of the four cardinal directions.
“What’s this? And who is Mr. Prince?” Ellie Mae asked, confused and beginning to get a little tired of the senile dockworker’s games. Charlie turned and pointed to a sign behind them. Prince Fishing Company.
“Mr. Prince, your Michael, owns this fishing port. He came here about fifteen years ago and confided in me. For some reason he had an inheritance to spend but didn’t want to live a plush life. He bought the failing fishing company and has worked here ever since. As for the compass,” Charlie pointed at the instrument in Ellie Mae’s hand, “that tells you where you want to go.” Ellie Mae had to bite her tongue to stop herself from yelling at Charlie. The old salt laughed and said,
“Which, of course, would be useful if you’d like to find Mr. Prince. Turn it over.” Ellie Mae turned the compass over to see a beautiful bouquet of lilies carved in the silver, along with a set of coordinates.
“24 15 N, 76 00 W, even if I could find that, how could I ever get there?” Ellie Mae was about at her wit’s end. She wished Michael was here so she could simply talk to him. But he had one more surprise left for her. Charlie asked Ellie Mae to walk down to the end of the wharf with her. He stopped where the Aurora used to be. In its place, a large pleasure boat was anchored. Its pearl white hull shimmered in the sunlight as it bobbed up and down in the harbor. On the back of the boat, two jet-skis were housed. The boat was large enough to have a spacious sleeping cabin inside. As Ellie Mae walked around the ship, she noticed its name in silver writing: The Princess Rose.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Ellie Mae’s hand covered her open mouth in surprise and disbelief. Charlie chuckled and walked back towards the center of the wharf.
“He said that this is a gift for you whether you decide to find him or not. Mr. Prince was nice enough to give me his houseboat in case you decided to stay. However, if you would like to track down your beau, I told Mr. Prince I’d accompany you to make sure you stayed safe in the open sea. I’ll be back at sunset to hear your decision.” Charlie patted the star-struck Ellie Mae on the shoulder as he sauntered off into the fog.
Ellie Mae held the compass in her right hand. She pulled the ring out of her pocket with her left. Both hands promised happiness and devotion. No sign from above had helped her, no burning bush pointed her in the right direction. Ellie Mae stood at a crossroads in her life. She could continue on the path she knew, she could go off by herself, or she could take a new road, leading into the unknown. The decision was hers and hers alone.