He came back into my life during my regular Saturday morning trip to the library. I had not seen him in 25 years, having graduated high school, not turning back once to encourage any links to my past. Christian had been brilliant, beautiful, special to everyone who knew him, everyone who knew he would be one of the few to break out of our small town. He could have chosen any college, any profession, any girl. He chose me, and then he changed his mind. Christian was my high school sweetheart.
Browsing through the new release section at the library, I caught a glance of a glossy book with the author's name in large bold font sprawled across the lower third of the cover. My eyes, making efficient use of the precious little time I had for my library trip, skimmed right over Christian's book to scan the remainder of the books on the shelf. As soon as my brain registered the message from its optical partners, my eyes jerked back to Christian's book with spasmodic motion. Come Back Home, a novel by Christian Ford, sat boastful on the center of the shelf. The letters of his name were embossed in bright gold, outlined in black. I brought my hand up to the book and let it glide lightly over his name, my wedding ring catching the fluorescent light. Instinctively, almost shamefully, I pulled away from the book, my hand seeking the safety of my coat pocket.
I paced in front of the gold and black literary idol, not committing to picking it up, yet marking my turf to prevent some other bookworm from picking it up. Rationally, I knew that reading Christian's book was not so different than reading any other novel, but my pounding chest told of a deeper truth within me. I hadn't realized until just then that I had never completely let go of him, even after decades apart. Maybe I needed to finally face that still-open chapter of my life, even if it just meant reading a book. Checking the time on my cell phone, I grabbed the book and flipped it over to see if Christian's picture was on the back cover. My first love's smile gleamed on the back of the book, his black-and-white photo flanked by recommendation blurbs from the likes of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. The crisp smell of the new book combined with the piercing gaze of Christian's eyes caused my stomach to flip. My decision made, I headed straight for the circulation desk, a curved Formica® station staffed by Jeanette, a lean, pinch-nosed woman who was the regular Saturday librarian.
“No books for the kids this week, Ellen?” she said, taking Christian's book to scan its bar code.
“That's all I have time to look for this morning, I'm afraid. I'm running late to pick up Caroline from dance class.”
“Well, at least it's a good book. This author is wonderful. Do you know he's a brilliant Pentagon defense strategist by day, novelist by night?”
“No, I didn't know that,” I replied.
“Well, if you enjoy the book, you should come to the library's author event on Tuesday. Christian Ford will be our featured speaker. We were really lucky to get him here since it will be his only book tour stop in Ohio.”
“Yes, that sounds interesting,” I said, picking up the book and holding it to my chest to conceal the effects of my thrill or trepidation, I’m not sure which. “Thanks for letting me know about it. See you next week, Jeanette.”
As I pulled the car into the garage, Caroline hopped out nearly before the car was stopped. The neighborhood kids were out playing next door, beckoned by the first day of the spring season above fifty degrees. Caroline ran to join them, which was just as well with me. The book on my lap weighed heavily on my mind. I just wanted a few hours alone to read.
Like a teenager trying to sneak her first beer, I tucked the book into my purse and opened the door from the garage to the laundry room. Awaiting my return just inside the door was a dog turd, standing on its end like the leaning Tower of Pisa, left by our faithful dachshund. The pile of laundry that I asked my husband, Mike, to run through the washer remained undiminished, apparently a mountain only I am capable of conquering.
“Mike? Curtis? We're home,” I yelled through the door to the family room as I grabbed a Lysol wipe to clean up the dog's mess. ESPN, the network of choice for the testosterone-inclined half of my family, blared on the television. I stuffed the dog's mess into a plastic grocery bag, tied the handles together, and peeked my head into the family room to see my husband and son, both of whom were still pajama-clad. Frustrated and annoyed, I threw the crap-filled grocery bag at Mike, which landed on the floor beside him.
“What's this?” he grunted.
“It's dog poop from the laundry room floor. Did either of you bother to let the dog out this morning? How about that laundry? How's that coming along?”
“Sorry. Curtis and I just got wrapped up basketball. I'll get to it in a minute,” Mike said, not taking his eyes off the T.V.
I started to fume, and at least Curtis had the good sense to get up and leave, grabbing his glass of milk from the coffee table as he left. I turned my back on Mike and stepped back into the laundry room to begin the first load of wash. As usual, if I waited on him to do it, it would never get done. As I stuffed the dirty laundry into the washer, not caring if Mike's tighty whities come out pink from my red sweater, my head spun with thoughts about how taken for granted I am, how ignored I am in my own family, how things might have been so different for me.
After starting the washing machine, I stomped in front of the T.V., which still displayed big-footed Amazons running mindlessly up and down the basketball court, but Mike paid me no attention. When he didn't alter his gaze from the screen, I walked to the front door, called to Caroline, who whined at having to come in, and climbed the stairs to read the book written by the man I would have married in a second, had he given me the chance.
It took me four days to read it. Really, I stayed up most of the night and devoured it in one day, but I re-read it slowly over the following three days to let Christian's words soak in. Come Back Home had suspense, mystery, and humor, but most of all it had a love story fraught with missed opportunities. Had Christian been thinking of me when he was writing the book? I scoured the pages for clues, snippets of our high school years together, impressions of our romance.
The scene in the book, for example, when the main characters fought over a job offer that would take the protagonist to another city caused me to flash back to my battle with Christian about his plan to attend a different college than I. The female lead in the novel was a teacher, while I was an education major the last time Christian and I spoke. Was Christian's use of a petite red-headed love interest in his book really just a remembrance of me? I tallied up the similarities between the book and my past with Christian, and there were too many to make it a coincidence, I told myself.
I let my mind wander at the possibility of seeing Christian at his book signing, having him take me aside and ask me out for coffee afterward, confessing his eternal regret at breaking it off with me all those years ago. What might it be like to be with him again, such an interesting, provocative, intelligent man? He probably lived a fast-paced life with connections in high places, so different from my mundane suburban existence.
I understood why he wanted to break up during our freshman year of college, but it wounded me regardless. It wasn't that we weren't compatible or not in love. We did end up attending different colleges, me at the state university and him on the East Coast. We rarely saw each other, and he was being groomed by his professors for big things, professors who recognized the same potential in him that I did. In a tug-of-war between his brain and heart, I was the casualty.
I began agonizing over my decision whether or not to attend the library's author event to see Christian. Thoughts of him sweeping me off my feet were fantasies, dreams of an overworked, under-appreciated soccer mom, I knew. Mike would have been so hurt if he knew I went to see my high school sweetheart behind his back, even if it was in a public forum. As imperfect as my marriage with Mike was, I thought about the life we had built together, and that he had chosen to be with me. Christian had made his choices, too. Doubt crept in, and I convinced myself that I wanted to see similarities between the book and my relationship with Christian that weren't really there.
I heard my kids downstairs, clanking dinner dishes, wedding gifts that had survived my twenty-year marriage. Tucking the book under my bed, I left it behind and head downstairs to begin preparing supper. When I entered the kitchen, Mike, Curtis and Caroline were scurrying about, setting the table, making a salad, and pulling a casserole out of the oven. I could not ever recall a time that dinner had been prepared without my involvement or prompting.
“What's the occasion?” I asked, surveying the spread.
Mike looked up at me with a faint smile on his face. “We were hungry,” he said with a shrug.
“Well, it smells great. Is there anything you need me to do?”
Caroline pulled out a chair for me and said, “No, Mommy. Have a seat.”
We sat down at the kitchen table save for Mike, who served as waiter, dishing out some sort of chicken and rice concoction. We didn't have much conversation. I think they were testing the waters of my mood. Finally, Caroline announced, “I took the dog out twice today, Mommy, because I don't want you to throw a bag of poop at me.” I buried my head in my hands in humored embarrassment while my family chuckled around me. I guess my message of frustration was finally understood, served up with a side of dog poop.
I returned Christian's book to the library the following Saturday. Sliding the book through the slot at the circulation desk, Jeanette caught my eye. She was helping another customer, but looked at me, holding up her index finger to request that I wait for her to finish. I stepped aside and scanned through the books waiting to be re-shelved. After several minutes, she approached me with a quirky grin on her face. “Ellen, you didn't tell me that you knew Christian Ford. Why didn't you mention it last week when I was raving about him?”
“How do you know, if you don't mind me asking?”
“I went to the authors’ event on Tuesday and during his presentation, Mr. Ford mentioned to the audience that he knew one of our hometown ladies and mentioned your name. I think he was disappointed that you weren't there.”
“Why do you say that?”
“When he mentioned your name, he scanned the crowd for any signs of recognition. I had an opportunity to speak with him after his discussion and mentioned that I knew you, and that I had told you about the event. He asked me to tell you hello.”