The Longest Ride - Page 20

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"Of course."

He hesitated. "Are you okay?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't know. When you got here earlier, it seemed like something was bothering you."

For a moment Sophia said nothing, unsure whether or not to answer. Finally she decided, Why not? and she reached over, lifting his wrist. Knowing what she wanted, he slipped his arm over her shoulder, allowing her to lean against him.

"It was just something Marcia said."

"About me?"

"Not really. It was more about me. She thinks we're moving a little fast, and that I'm not emotionally ready for that. She's convinced I'm on the rebound."

He pulled back to study her. "Are you?"

"I have no idea," she admitted. "This is all new to me."

He laughed before growing more serious. He pulled her close again and kissed her hair. "Yeah, well, if it makes you feel better, all this is new to me, too."

As the evening wore on, they sat in front of the fire, talking quietly in the familiar way they had since they'd first met. Every now and then the fire made the wood snap, sending sparks up the fireplace, lending the room a cozy, intimate glow.

Sophia reflected that spending time with Luke not only was easy, but felt indefinably right. With him, she could be herself; it felt as though she could say anything to him and that he would intuitively understand. With their bodies nestled close, she felt a sense of wonder at how effortlessly they seemed to fit together.

It hadn't been like that with Brian. With Brian, she'd always worried that she wasn't quite good enough; worse, she'd sometimes doubted whether she really knew him. She'd always sensed he put on a facade of sorts, one she'd never been able to breach. She'd assumed that it had been she who was doing something wrong, unintentionally creating barriers between them. With Luke, however, it wasn't that way. She already felt as if she'd known him most of her life, and their immediate ease made her realize what she'd been missing.

As the fire burned steadily, Marcia's words continued to fade from her thoughts, until she no longer heard them at all. Whether or not things were moving too fast, she liked Luke and she enjoyed every minute she spent with him. She wasn't in love with him, but as she felt the gentle rise and fall of his chest, she found it strangely easy to imagine that her feelings might soon begin to change.

Later, when they moved to the kitchen to carve her pumpkin, she felt a distinct pang of regret that the evening was already coming to an end. She stood beside Luke, watching with rapt attention as he slowly but surely brought the jack-o'-lantern to life, the pattern more intricate than the ones she'd always made as a child. On the counter were knives of varying sizes, each with its own use, and she watched as he etched the pumpkin's grin by carving away the outer shell only, forming what appeared to be lips and teeth. Every now and then he would lean back, assessing his work. The eyes came next; again he carved away the shell, sculpting detailed pupils before carefully cutting away the rest. He grimaced as he reached into the pumpkin to pull out the pieces. "I've always hated that slimy feeling," he said, making her giggle. At last, he handed her the knife, asking if she wanted to take over. Luke showed her where to cut next, explaining what he wanted her to do, the warmth of his body pressed against her making her hands tremble. Somehow, the jack-o'-lantern nose turned out fine, but one of the eyebrows ended up crooked, which added a touch of insanity to its expression.

When the carving was completed, Luke inserted a small tea candle and lit it, then carried the pumpkin out to the porch. They sat in the porch rockers, talking quietly again as the glowing pumpkin grinned in approval. When Luke scooted his chair closer, it was easy for her to picture them sitting together on a thousand other nights like this one. Later, when he walked her to the car, she had the sense that he'd been imagining exactly the same thing. After putting the pumpkin on the passenger seat, he reached for her hand and gently pulled her close. She could sense the desire in his expression; she could feel in his embrace how much he wanted her to stay; and when their lips came together, she knew she wanted to stay as well. But she wouldn't. Not tonight. She wasn't ready for that just yet, but she felt in those hungry last kisses the promise of a future that she could barely wait to begin.

14

Ira

T

he late afternoon sun begins to sink below the horizon, and I should be concerned about the coming of night. But one thought dominates my consciousness.

Water, in any form. Ice. Lakes. Rivers. Waterfalls. Flowing from the faucet. Anything to alleviate the clot that has formed in my throat. Not a lump, but a clot that found its way there from somewhere else, something that doesn't belong there. It seems to grow with every breath.

I recognize that I have been dreaming. Not about the car wreck. This, the car wreck, is real and I know this. This is the only real thing. I close my eyes and concentrate, forcing myself to remember the details. But in my parched haze, it's hard to piece together what happened. I'd wanted to avoid the interstate - people drove too fast - and I'd highlighted the route heavy with single-lane highways on a map I'd found in the kitchen drawer. I remember pulling off the highway to get gas and then being momentarily unsure which direction to go. I vaguely recall passing a town called Clemmons. Later, once I realized I'd gotten turned around, I followed a dirt road, finally ending up on another highway called 421. I saw signs for a town called Yadkinville. The weather started to worsen, and by then I was too afraid to stop. Nothing looked familiar, but I kept on following the twists and turns of the highway until I found myself on yet another highway altogether, one that was leading directly into the mountains. I didn't know the number and by then it didn't matter because the snow was really coming down. And it was dark, so dark that I did not see the curve. I went through the guardrail and heard the twisting of metal before the car surged down the embankment.

And now: I am alone and no one has found me. I have been dreaming about my wife for almost a day as I lay trapped in the car. Ruth is gone. She died in our bedroom a long time ago and she is not in the seat beside me. I miss her. I have missed her for nine years and spent much of that time wishing that I had been the one to die first. She would have been better at living alone, she would have been able to move on. She was always stronger and smarter and better at everything, and I think again that of the two of us, I made the better choice so long ago. I still don't know why she chose me. While she was exceptional, I was average, a man whose major accomplishment in life was to love her without reservation, and that will never change. But I am tired and thirsty, and I can feel my strength draining away. It's time to stop fighting. It's time to join her, and I close my eyes, thinking that if I go to sleep, I will be with her forever --

"You are not dying," Ruth suddenly interrupts my thoughts. Her voice is urgent and tense. "Ira. It is not your time yet. You wanted to go to Black Mountain, remember? There is still something you must do."

"I remember," I say, but even whispering the words is a challenge. My tongue feels too big for my mouth, and the blockage in my throat has grown larger. It is hard to draw a breath. I need water, moisture, anything to help me swallow, and I need to swallow now. It's almost impossible to breathe. I try to draw a breath, but not enough air comes in and my heart suddenly hammers in my chest.

Dizziness begins to distort the sights and sounds around me. I am going, I think. My eyes are closed and I'm ready --

"Ira!" Ruth shouts, leaning toward me. She grabs my arm. "Ira! I am talking to you! Come back to me!" she demands.

Even from a distance, I hear her fear, though she is trying to hide it from me. I vaguely feel the shaking of my arm, but it stays frozen in place, another sign that this isn't real.

"Water," I croak.

"We will get water," she says. "For now, you have to breathe, and to do that you must swallow. There is blood clotting in your throat from the accident. It is blocking your airway. It is choking you."

Her voice sounds thin and distant, and I do not answer. I

feel drunk, passing-out drunk. My mind is swimming and my head is on the steering wheel and all I want to do is sleep. To fade away --

Ruth shakes my arm again. "You must not think that you are trapped in this car!" she shouts.

"But I am," I mumble. Even in my fogginess, I know my arm hasn't moved at all and that her words are just another trick of my imagination.

"You are at the beach!" Her breath is in my ear, suddenly seductive, a new tack. Her face is so close, I imagine I can feel the brush of her long lashes, the heat of her breath. "It is 1946. Can you remember this? It is the morning after we first made love," she says. "If you swallow, you will be there again. You will be at the beach with me. Do you remember when you came out of your room? I poured you a glass of orange juice and I handed it to you. I am handing it to you now..."

"You're not here."

"I am here and I am handing you the glass!" she insists. When I open my eyes, I see her holding it. "You need to drink right now."

She moves the glass toward me and tilts it toward my lips. "Swallow!" she commands. "It does not matter if you spill some in the car!"

It's crazy, but it's the last comment - about spilling in the car - that gets to me most. More than anything, it reminds me of Ruth and the demanding tone she would use whenever she needed me to do something important. I try to swallow, feeling nothing but sandpaper at first and then... something else, something that stops my breathing altogether.

And for an instant, I feel nothing but panic.

The instinct to survive is powerful, and I can no more control what happens next than I can control my own heartbeat. At that moment, I swallow automatically, and after that I keep swallowing, the tender soreness giving way to a coppery, acidic taste, and I keep swallowing even after the taste finally passes to my stomach.

Throughout all this, my head remains pressed against the steering wheel, and I continue to pant like an overheated dog until finally my breathing returns to normal. And as my breath returns, so too do the memories.

Ruth and I had breakfast with her parents and then spent the rest of the morning at the beach while her parents read on the porch. Patches of clouds had begun to form on the horizon and the wind had picked up since the day before. As the afternoon wound down, Ruth's parents strolled down to see whether we would like to join them on an expedition to Kitty Hawk, where Orville and Wilbur Wright made history by flying the first airplane. I had been there when I was young, and though I was willing to go again, Ruth shook her head. She'd rather relax on her last day, she told them.

An hour later, they were gone. By then the sky had turned gray, and Ruth and I meandered back to the house. In the kitchen, I wrapped my arms around her as we stood gazing out the window. Then, without a word, I took her hand and led her to my room.

Though my vision is hazy, I can make out Ruth sitting beside me again. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I could swear she's wearing the robe she'd worn the night we first made love.

"Thank you," I say. "For helping me catch my breath."

"You knew what you had to do," she says. "I am just here to remind you."

"I couldn't have done it without you."

"You would have," she says with certainty. Then, toying with the neckline of her robe, she says almost seductively: "You were very forward with me that day at the beach. Before we were married. When my parents went to Kitty Hawk."

"Yes," I admit. "I knew we had hours to ourselves."

"Well... it was a surprise."

"It shouldn't have been," I say. "We were alone and you were beautiful."

She tugs at the robe. "I should have taken it as a warning."

"Warning?"

"Of things to come," she says. "Until that weekend, I was not sure you were... passionate. But after that weekend, I sometimes found myself wishing for the old Ira. The shy one, the one who always showed restraint. Especially when I wanted to sleep in."

"Was I that bad?"

"No," she says, tilting her head back to gaze at me through heavy-lidded eyes. "Quite the contrary."

We spent the afternoon tangled in the sheets, making love with even greater passion than the night before. The room was warm, and our bodies glistened with sweat, her hair wet near the roots. Afterward, as Ruth showered, the rain began, and I sat in the kitchen, listening as it pounded against the tin roof, as content as I had ever been.

Her parents returned soon after that, drenched by the downpour. By then, Ruth and I were busy in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Over a simple meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, the four of us sat around the table as her father talked about their day, the conversation somehow segueing as it often did into a discussion about art. He spoke of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism - words I'd never heard before - and I was struck not only by the subtle distinctions that he drew, but by the hunger with which Ruth devoured every word. In truth, most of it was beyond me, the knowledge slipping through my grasp, but neither Ruth nor her father seemed to notice.

After dinner, once the rain had passed and evening was descending, Ruth and I went out for a walk on the beach. The air was sticky and the sand packed under our feet as I gently traced my thumb along the back of her hand. I glanced toward the water. Terns were darting in and out of the waves, and just past the breakers, a school of porpoises swam by in leaping formation. Ruth and I watched them until they were obscured in the mist. Only then did I turn to face her.

"Your parents will be moving in August," I finally said.

She squeezed my hand. "They are going to look for a house in Durham next week."

"And you start teaching in September?"

"Unless I go with them," she said. "Then I will have to find a job there."

Over her shoulder, the lights in the house went on.

"Then I guess we don't have much choice," I said to her. I kicked at the packed sand briefly, drawing up the courage I needed before meeting her eyes. "We have to get married in August."

At this memory, I smile, but Ruth's voice cuts through my reverie, her disappointment evident.

"You could have been more romantic," she tells me, sulking.

For a moment, I'm confused. "You mean... with my proposal?"

"What else would I be talking about?" She throws up her hands. "You could have dropped to one knee, or said something about your undying love. You could have formally asked for my hand in marriage."

"I already did those things," I said. "The first time I proposed."

"But then you ended it. You should have started all over. I want to recall the kind of proposal one reads about in storybooks."

"Would you like me to do that now?"

"It is too late," she says, dismissing the notion. "You missed your chance."

But she says this with such flirtatious overtones that I can hardly wait to return to the past.

We signed the ketubah soon after we got home from the beach, and I married Ruth in August 1946. The ceremony was held under the chuppah, as is typical in Jewish weddings, but there weren't many people in attendance. The guests were mostly friends of my mother's that we knew from the synagogue, but that was the way both Ruth and I wanted it. She was far too practical for a more extravagant wedding, and though the shop was doing well - which meant I was doing well - both of us wanted to save as much as we could for a down payment on the home we wanted to buy in the future. When I broke that glass beneath my foot and watched our mothers clap and cheer, I knew that marrying Ruth was the most life-changing thing I'd ever done.

For the honeymoon, we headed west. Ruth had never visited that part of the state before, and we chose to stay at the Grove Park Inn resort in Asheville. It was - and still is - one of the most storied resorts in the South, and our room overlooked the Blue Ridge Mountains. The resort also boasted hiking trails and tennis courts, along with a pool that had appeared in countless magazines.

Ruth, however, showed little interest in any of those things. Instead, soon after we arrived, she insisted on heading into town. M

adly in love, I didn't care what we did as long as we were together. Like her, I had never been to this part of the state, but I knew that Asheville had always been a prominent watering hole for the wealthy during the summer months. The air was fresh and the temperatures cool, which is why during the Gilded Age, George Vanderbilt had commissioned the Biltmore Estate, which at the time was the largest private home in the world. Other moneyed Americans followed his lead, and Asheville eventually came to be known as an artistic and culinary destination throughout the South. Restaurants hired chefs from Europe, and art galleries lined the town's main street.

On our second afternoon in town, Ruth struck up a conversation with the owner of one of the galleries, and that was when I first learned about Black Mountain, a small, almost rural, town just down the highway from where we were honeymooning.

More accurately, I learned about Black Mountain College.

Though I'd lived in the state all my life up to that point, I'd never heard of the college; for most people who spent the rest of the century in North Carolina, a casual mention of the college would elicit blank stares. Now, more than half a century after it closed, there are few people who remember that Black Mountain College even existed. But by 1946, the college was entering a magnificent period - perhaps the most magnificent period of any college, anywhere, at any time, ever - and when we stepped out of the gallery, I could tell by Ruth's expression that the name of the college was already known to her. When I asked her about it over dinner that night, she told me that her father had interviewed there earlier in the spring and had raved about the place. More surprising to me was that its proximity was one of the reasons she had wanted to honeymoon in the area.


Tags: Nicholas Sparks Romance
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