The Longest Ride - Page 17

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Yet I remain paralyzed. I don't know where the bottle of water is, and I'm not sure I'd be able to open it even if I could find it. I'm afraid that if I unbuckle the seat belt, I might topple forward, too weak to stop my collarbone from smashing into the steering wheel. I might end up crumpled on the floor of the car, wedged into a position from which I can't escape. I can't even imagine lifting my head from the steering wheel, let alone rummaging through the car.

And still, my need for water calls to me. Its call is constant and insistent, and desperation sets in. I am going to die of thirst, I think to myself. I am going to die here, as I am. And there is no way I will ever get to the backseat. The paramedics will not slide me out like a fish stick.

"You have a morbid sense of humor," Ruth says, interrupting my thoughts, and I remind myself that she is nothing but a dream.

"I think the situation calls for it, don't you?"

"You are still alive."

"Yes, but for how much longer?"

"The record is sixty-four days. A man in Sweden. I saw it on the Weather Channel."

"No. I saw it on the Weather Channel."

She shrugs. "It is the same thing, yes?"

She has a point, I think. "I need water."

"No," she says. "Right now, we need to talk. It will keep your mind from fixating on it."

"Like a trick," I say.

"I am not a trick," she says. "I am your wife. And I want you to listen to me."

I obey. Staring at her, I allow myself to drift again. My eyes finally close and I feel as if I'm floating downstream in a river. Images coming and going, one right after the other as I am carried past on the current.



And then, finally, it solidifies into something real.

In the car, I open my eyes and blink, noticing how Ruth has changed from my last vision of her. But this memory, unlike the others, is sharp-edged and clear to me. She is as she was in June of 1946. I am certain of this, because it is the first time I've ever seen her wear a casual summer dress. She, like everyone else after the war, is changing. Clothes are changing. Later this year, the bikini will be invented by Louis Reard, a French engineer, and as I stare at Ruth, I notice a sinuous beauty in the muscles of her arms. Her skin is a smooth walnut hue from the weeks she'd just spent at the beach with her parents. Her father had taken the family to the Outer Banks to celebrate his official hiring at Duke. He had interviewed at a number of different places, including a small experimental art college in the mountains, but he felt most at home among the Gothic buildings at Duke. He would be teaching again that fall, a bright spot in what had otherwise been a difficult year of mourning.

Things had changed between Ruth and me since that night in the park. Ruth had said little about my revelation, but when I walked her home I didn't try to kiss her good night. I knew she was reeling, and even she would later admit that she was not herself for the next few weeks. The next time I saw her she was no longer wearing her engagement ring, but I didn't blame her for this. She was in shock, but she was also rightfully angry that I had not trusted her with the information until that night. Coming on the heels of the loss of her family in Vienna, it was undoubtedly a terrible blow. For it is one thing to declare one's love for someone and quite another to accept that loving that person requires sacrificing one's dreams. And having children - creating a family, so to speak - had taken on an entirely new significance for her in the wake of her family's losses.

I understood this intuitively, and for the next couple of months, neither of us pressed the other. We didn't speak of commitment, but we continued to see each other casually, perhaps two or three times a week. Sometimes I would take her to see a show or bring her to dinner, other times we would stroll downtown. There was an art gallery of which she'd grown particularly fond, and we visited regularly. Most of the artwork was unmemorable either in subject or in execution, but every now and then, Ruth would see something special in a painting that I could not. Like her father, she was most passionate about modern art, a movement given birth to by painters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gauguin, and she was quick to discern the influence of these painters in even the mediocre work we examined.

These visits to the gallery, and her deep knowledge of art in general, opened up a world entirely foreign to me. However, I sometimes wondered whether our discussions about art became a means of avoiding conversation about our future. These discussions created a distance between us, but I was content to keep them going, longing even in those moments for both a forgiveness of the past and an acceptance of some kind of future for us, whatever that might be.

Ruth, however, seemed no closer to a decision than she'd been on that fateful night in the park. She wasn't cold to me, but she hadn't invited greater intimacy, either, and thus I was surprised when her parents invited me to spend part of their holiday at the beach with them.

A couple of weeks of quiet walks on the beach together might have been just what we needed, but unfortunately, it wasn't possible for me to be gone that long. With my father glued to the radio in the back room, I had by then become the face of the shop, and it was busier than ever. Veterans looking for work were coming in to buy suits they could barely afford, in the hopes of finding a job. But companies were slow to hire, and when these desperate men walked in the store, I thought of Joe Torrey and Bud Ramsey and I did what I could for them. I convinced my father to stock lower-priced suits with fractional markups, and my mother did the alterations free of charge. Word of our reasonable prices had gotten out, and though we were no longer open on Saturdays, sales were increasing every month.

Nonetheless, I was able to persuade my parents to lend me the car in order to visit Ruth's family toward the end of their vacation, and by Thursday morning, I was on the road. It was a long drive, the last hour of which was spent driving on the sand itself. There was a wild, untamed beauty to the Outer Banks in the years right after the war. Largely cut off from the rest of the state, it was populated by families who'd lived there for generations, making their living from the sea. Saw grass speckled the windblown dunes, and the trees looked like the twisted clay creations of a child. Here and there I saw wild horses, their heads sometimes rising as I passed, tails swishing to keep the flies at bay. With the ocean roaring on one side and the windswept dunes on the other, I rolled down the windows, taking it all in and wondering what I might find when I reached my destination.

When I finally pulled onto the sandy gravel drive, it was nearly sunset. I was surprised to see Ruth waiting for me on the front porch, barefoot and wearing the same dress she is wearing now. I stepped out of the car, and as I stared at her, all I could think was how radiant she looked. Her hair fell loosely around her shoulders and her smile seemed to hold a secret meant only for the two of us. When she waved at me, my breath caught at the sight of a tiny diamond flashing in the rays of the setting sun - my engagement ring, absent all these past months.

I stood momentarily frozen, but she skipped down the steps and across the sand as if she hadn't a care in the world. When she jumped into my arms, she smelled of salt and brine and the wind itself, a scent I have forever associated with her and that particular weekend. I pulled her close, savoring the feel of her body against my own, thinking how much I'd missed holding her for the past three years.

"I am glad you are here," she whispered into my ear, and after a long and gratifying embrace, I kissed her while the sound of ocean waves seemed to roar their approval. When she kissed me back, I knew instantly that she'd made her decision about me, and my world shifted on its axis.

It was not the first kiss we'd ever shared, but in many ways it has become my favorite, if only because it happened when I needed it most, marking the beginning of one of the two most wonderful, and life-altering, periods of my life.

Ruth smiles at me in the car, beautiful and serene in that summer dress. The tip of her nose is slightly red, her hair windblown and redolent of the ocean breeze.

"I like this memory," she says to me.

"I like it, too," I say.

"Yes, because I was a young woman then. Thick hair, no wrinkles, nothing sagging."

"You haven't changed a bit."

"Unsinn," she says with a dismissive wave. "I changed. I became old, and it is not fun to be old. Things that were once simple became difficult."

"You sound like me," I remark, and she shrugs, untroubled by the revelation that she is nothing but a figment of my imagination. Instead, she circles back to the memory of my visit.

"I was so happy that you were able to come on holiday with us."

"I regret that my visit was so short."

It takes her a moment to respond. "I think," she says, "that it was good for me to have a couple of weeks of quiet time alone. My parents seemed to know this, too. There was little to do other than sit on the porch and walk in the sand and sip a glass of wine while the sun went down. I had much time to think. About me. About us."

"Which is why you threw yourself at me when I showed up," I tease.

"I did not throw myself at you," she says indignantly. "Your memory is distorted. I walked down the steps and offered a hug. I was raised to be a lady. I simply greeted you. This embellishment is a product of your imagination."

Maybe. Or maybe not. Who can know after so long? But I suppose it doesn't matter.

"Do you remember what we did next?" she asks.

Part of me wonders if she's testing me. "Of course," I answer. "We went inside and I greeted your parents. Your mother was slicing tomatoes in the kitchen and your father was grilling tuna on the back porch. He told me that he'd bought it that afternoon from a fisherman tying up at the pier. He was very proud of that. He seemed different as he stood over the grill that evening... relaxed."

"It was a good summer for him," Ruth agrees. "By then, he was managing the factory, so the days were not so hard on him, and it was the first time in years that we had enough money to go on holiday. Most of all, he was ecstatic at the thought of teaching again."

"And your mother was happy."

"My father's good spirits were infectious." Ruth pauses for a moment. "And, like me... she had grown to like it here. Greensboro would never be Vienna, but she had learned the language and made some friends. She had also grown to appreciate the warmth and generosity of the people here. In a way, I think she had finally begun to think of North Carolina as her home."

Outside the car, the wind blows clumps of snow from the branches. None of them hits the car, but somehow it is enough to remind me again of exactly where I am. But it does not matter, not right now.

"Do you remember how clear the sky was when we ate dinner?" I say. "There were so many stars."

"That is because it was so dark. No lights from the city. My father noted the same thing."

"I've always loved the Outer Banks. We should have gone every year," I say.

"I think it would have lost its magic if we went every year," she responds. "Every few years was perfect - like we did. Because every time we went back, it felt new and untamed and fresh again. Besides, when would we have gone? We were always traveling in the summers. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, even California. And always, Black Mountain. We had the chance to see this country in a way that most people never could, and what could be better?"

Nothing, I think to myself, knowing in my heart that she is right. My home is filled with keepsakes from those trips. Strangely, though, aside from a seashell we found the following morning, I had nothing to remind me of this place, and yet the memory never dimmed.

"I always enjoyed having dinner with your parents. Your father seemed to know something about everything."

"He did," she says. "His father had been a teacher, his brother was a teacher. His uncles were teachers. My father came from a family of scholars. But you were interesting to my father, too - he was fascinated by your work as a navigator during the war, despite your reluctance to speak of it. I think it increased his respect for you."

"But your mother felt differently."

Ruth pauses and I know she is trying to choose her words carefully. She toys with a windblown strand of hair, inspecting it before going on. "At that time, she was still worried about me. All she knew was that you had broken my heart only a few months earlier, and that even though we were seeing each other again, there was still something troubling me."

Ruth was talking about the consequences of my bout with mumps and what it would likely mean for our future. It was something she would tell her mother only years later, when her mother's puzzlement turned to sadness and anxiety over the fact that she hadn't become a grandmother. Ruth gently revealed that we couldn't have children, careful not to place the blame entirely on me, though she could easily have done so. Another of her kindnesses, for which I've always been thankful.

"She didn't say much at dinner, but afterwards, I was relieved that she smiled at me."

"She appreciated the fact that you offered to do the dishes."

"It was the least I could do. To this day, that was the best meal I've ever had."

"It was good, yes?" Ruth reminisces. "Earlier, my mother had found a roadside stand with fresh vegetables, and she had baked bread. My father turned out to be a natural with the grill."

"And after we finished the dishes, we went for a walk."

"Yes," she says. "You were very bold that night."

"I wasn't acting bold. I simply asked for a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses."

"Yes, but this was new for you. My mother had never seen that side of you. It made her nervous."

"But we were adults."

"That was the problem. You were a man and she knew that men have urges."

"And women don't?"

"Yes, of course. But unlike men, women are not controlled by their urges. Women are civilized."

"Did your mother tell you that?" My voice is skeptical.

"I did not need my mother to tell me. It was clear to me what you wanted. Your eyes were full of lust."

"If I recall correctly," I say with crisp propriety, "I was a perfect gentleman that night."

"Yes, but it was still exciting for me, watching you try to control your urges. Especially when you spread your jacket and we sat in the sand and drank the wine. The ocean seemed to absorb the moonlight and I could feel that you wanted me, even if you were trying not to show it. You put your arm around me and we talked and kissed and talked some more and I was a little tipsy..."

"And it was perfect," I finally offer.

"Yes," she agrees. "It was perfect." Her expression is nostalgic and a little sad. "I knew I wanted to marry you and I knew for certain we would always be happy together."

I pause, fully aware of what she was thinking, even then. "You were still hopeful that the doctor might be wrong."

"I think that I said that whatever happened would be in God's hands."

"That's the same thing, isn't it?"

"Maybe," she answers, then shakes her head. "What I do know is that when I was sitting with you that night, I felt like God was telling me that I was doing the right thing."

"And then we saw the shooting star."

"It blazed all the way across the sky," she says. Her voice, even now, is filled with wonder. "It was the first time I had ever seen one like that."

"I told you to make a wish," I said.

"I did," she says, meeting my eyes. "And my wish came true only a few hours later."

Though it was late by the time Ruth and I got back to the house, her mother was still awake. She sat reading near the window, and as soon as we walked in the door, I felt her eyes sweep over us, looking for an untucked or improperly buttoned shirt, sand in our hair. Her relief was apparent as she rose to greet us, though she did her best to disguise it.

She chatted with Ruth while I went back to the car to retrieve my suitcase. Like many of the cottages along this stretch of the beach, the house had two floors. Ruth and her parents had rooms on the lower level, while the

room Ruth's mother showed me to was directly off the kitchen on the main floor. The three of us spent a few minutes visiting in the kitchen before Ruth began to yawn. Her mother began to yawn as well, signaling the end of the evening. Ruth did not kiss me in front of her mother - at that point, it wasn't something we'd yet done - and after Ruth wandered off, her mother soon followed.

I turned out the lights and retreated to the back porch, soothed by the moonlit water and the breeze in my hair. I sat outside for a long time as the temperature cooled, my thoughts wandering from Ruth and me, to Joe Torrey, to my parents.

I tried to imagine my father and mother in a place like this, but I couldn't. Never once had we gone on vacation - the shop had always anchored us in place - but even if it had been possible, it wouldn't have been a holiday like this. I could no more imagine my father grilling with a glass of wine in hand than I could imagine him atop Mt. Everest, and somehow the thought made me sad. My father, I realized, had no idea how to relax; he seemed to lead his life preoccupied by work and worry. Ruth's parents, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy each moment for what it was. I was struck by how differently Ruth and her parents reacted to the war. While my mother and father seemed to recede into the past - albeit in different ways - her parents embraced the future, as though seizing hold of their chance at life. They opted to make the most of their fortunate fates and never lost a sense of gratitude for what they had.

Tags: Nicholas Sparks Romance