"Where have you been?" Tommy Lassiter's question sounded more like an accusation of wrongdoing than an expression of concern. But then his tone softened. "It's late. We've been worried about you." Then he saw Rachel and me standing side by side and mouthed a satisfied 'Oh.'
"You and Rachel were out, Ben? Together, I mean?"
On a date, you mean? No, sir, not a date even though we want you to believe it was more than it was. Unbelievably more.
It took every bit of my determination to keep from laughing out loud. So far, our plan was working beautifully. Since the answers to those two questions were obvious-the answers we wanted him to believe-I returned to the question he had greeted us with. "I didn't think there was a curfew for seventy-five-year-olds like Rachel and me. I'm sorry if you were unnecessarily concerned."
Tommy's wife, Eileen, greeted us with more thoughtful concern. "Have you eaten yet? We finished dinner two hours ago. I'm afraid there aren't any leftovers. I can make you a couple of peanut butter sandwiches..."
Rachel smiled at her. "No worries, Eileen. Ben and I ran into each other on the boardwalk and enjoyed a wonderful meal together at Something's Fishy. The conversation was so enjoyable we lost all track of time."
Eileen gave her husband a poorly hidden thumbs-up. "Isn't that sweet, Tommy?"
Time for me to keep the game going. "Rachel is great company. Terrific. Amazing." I gave my companion one of my sweetest smiles.
She returned it. "So is Ben."
Yes, our little scheme appeared to be working. No way were we going to tell them the truth. It would only discourage them, and we wanted to discourage them in a different way. A more permanent one.
Three hours earlier, I had been sitting on a bench on the boardwalk looking out at the ocean when I sensed rather than heard someone walking up behind me. A moment later a woman's voice said, "May I join you, Ben? It looks like you have some room on that bench."
I reluctantly turned my attention from the incoming tide to the woman who'd just interrupted my tranquillity with her request to share my bench. My bench? It was the bench I would have been sharing with my wife Patricia if that drunk driver hadn't...if he hadn't killed her and left me with a year of loneliness.
A single year plus the finite number of years left for me to live.
I recognized the woman's white hair and slightly wrinkled face. Although I couldn't remember her name, she was one of the other seven senior adults from church who had gone in together to rent a six bedroom beach house for a weeklong getaway to Ocean City. No matter how I longed to refuse her request-I valued solitude even more now than in years past-I couldn't be rude.
I'm afraid my "Why not?" response didn't sound as pleasant as it could and should have, though. So I tipped my plaid cap and added in the most positive tone I could muster, "Sure. There's room. Have a seat."
Just don't expect me to start a conversation or be very responsive if you do. I don't feel like talking...or listening.
She sat down in the center of the bench, leaving barely the equivalent of a single personal space between us. "Isn't that the most gorgeous sunset you've ever seen?"
When I turned away without responding, she mmmed sympathetically. "I'm sorry. I should have been more considerate. Patricia should have been sitting with you enjoying the view, not me."
I sighed. More loudly than I had intended. That woman had hit and splattered the bullseye of my mood, leaving it to bleed all over me figuratively.
When I didn't respond, she said, "I know how you feel."
I turned towards her again to insist as abruptly as I could that she did not know how I felt and couldn't know, but she didn't give me a chance to object before she continued. "Only to a very limited extent, I mean. My husband, Paul, died of cancer five years ago."
Do I remember that? Maybe...
She looked into my eyes. "I know, Ben. That's not the same as Patricia's fatal accident, but grief is grief and loneliness is loneliness. I'm still dealing with mine, and I know you are, too."
She paused momentarily as if waiting for me to respond. When I didn't, she said, "It must be worse for you, though. At least I knew Paul was dying and I started adjusting to that reality and doing much of my grieving ahead of time."
In spite of the twinge of sympathy I felt for her, I hoped she would leave it at that. I had heard as much about Paul's death as I needed to. And more than I wanted to.
"At this stage it's probably not so much the grief that's haunting me, but a lingering sense of aloneness. Even though Paul and I didn't have nearly as close a relationship as you and Patricia, the physical absence of the man I spent so many years of my life with has taken some adjusting to."
I get that, lady. "Aloneness is a huge problem for me, too."
"Ben, do you-?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt. My aging brain isn't very good at remembering names. I'm not sure it ever was, but what-?"
She giggled. In a soft, dignified, ladylike kind of way. "My brain isn't, either. I'm Rachel. Rachel Long. And I...I've obviously remembered that your first name is Ben, but I'm afraid I can't remember your last name."
I couldn't keep from laughing. "Then 'There's a pair of us. Don't tell.' Thank you for those words of wisdom, Emily Dickenson, even though you weren't talking about old people and the forgetfulness that plagues us. My surname is Duncan."
She giggled again. "At least you didn't have any trouble remembering Emily Dickenson's name."
I nodded. "I'll do my best to remember yours now, too. At least your first name is biblical. That should help."
She smirked pleasantly. "Just don't mix me up with Rachel's sister Leah, please."
Several minutes passed silently. Hopefully the conversation was over. I didn't need any further discussion of forgetfulness. Or of death, grief, and aloneness.
But then Rachel sniffled once. And a second time. "Ben, I almost didn't come on this trip. I didn't really want to, but..."
Same here. "Why not, Rachel?" Good. At least I haven't forgotten your name yet.
"I mentioned aloneness a moment ago."
I groaned silently. Must you bring it up again?
"I...do you realize you and I are the only two single oldsters on this trip? Uh, the only two who're not here as husband and wife, I mean. I only use the word single to refer to people who're actively searching for a spouse. I am not one of them."
Whew. "I'm definitely not, either." Mental pictures of our six other housemates flashed through my head. Not as individuals, but two by two. Three couples. Like animals entering the ark. I could label them as Lassiters, Andersons, and Phillips, but I could barely recall which ones were which. Except for the Lassiters, I was at a total loss about their first names.
"I hadn't thought about it before, Rachel. What you said about us being the only two unmarrieds. You're right, though. Each of those couples is free to share a bench like this one and snuggle and kiss and act all lovey-dovey without embarrassment."
She and I looked at each other. Her "But we can't" and my "Not us, though" collided in mid-air. Mine was stronger. More emphatic. More determined.
"I'm sorry, Rachel. I don't mean to imply that we..." The rest of that sentence evaporated into the sunset. Truth is, I didn't know what I was trying to say.
"Don't worry about it. I know what you meant. Here you and I are an elderly widow and widower on a trip to the beach and we're surrounded by happily married couples. There's no reason-none that I know of, at least-why we can't enjoy one another's company, is there?"
I let that sink in before responding. "Not as long as it's perfectly clear that no romance is to be involved."
"I couldn't agree more. I never managed to break Paul in properly." Her giggle contained a hint of regret. "I was still trying to up to the time of his death. It's no wonder I don't have any interest in attempting to train another man at this stage of my life."
Both of us cracked up.
"So..." Should I say it? Or would it be premature? "So the two of us can safely and appropriately become 'just friends'?"
Rachel cocked her head to one side and then straightened up again. "You won't be offended if I say 'potential friends,' will you? No matter how much we've enjoyed conversing these last few minutes (I have, anyhow), I'm not sure that a discussion of aloneness and deceased spouses is necessarily a sound basis for friendship."
Talk about being cautious...and a mind reader. How about letting me change the subject?
"If I recall correctly, you asked if this wasn't the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen." I scratched my head. "No, actually you said, 'the most gorgeous' one. I'm afraid I was too busy watching the waves to pay attention to the sky.
"You want to know the truth? I try to avoid thinking about sunsets, much less enjoying and appreciating them."
She narrowed her eyes. "Really, Ben? Why?"
"When I see the sun sinking below the horizon, I picture my life going downhill more rapidly day by day until nothing is left but an album of memories for those who're left behind. Memories, some better than others, that will soon sink into oblivion."
"Oh, my. That's depressing, don't you think?"
I looked into her bright blue eyes. She was right. "I suppose it's not proper for a Christian to feel that way, though, is it? Not with Heaven to look forward to."
She didn't respond.
"You know what, Rachel?" The ability to address her by name was starting to feel good.
She shook her head.
I permitted myself to smile at her. "You're right about the sunset. This is the most gorgeous one I've seen in quite some time. Thank you for helping me to notice and appreciate that. I'm not Paul and you're not Patricia, but we're here together and I'm thankful we can enjoy this sunset together."
Rachel sniffled a time or two. "Me, too, Ben."