The Longest Ride - Page 9

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"I was playing hard to get."

"No, you were being you," she says. "And yet, you were not you. You had become a man in the year we had been apart. You even took my hand as you walked me to the door, something you had never done before. I remember because it made my arm tingle, and then you stopped and looked at me and I knew then exactly what was going to happen."

"I kissed you good night," I say.

"No," Ruth says to me, her voice dipping to a seductive register. "You kissed me, yes, but it was not just good night. Even then, I could feel the promise in it, the promise that you would kiss me just like that, forever."

In the car, I can still recall that moment - the touch of her lips against my own, the sense of excitement and pure wonder as I hold her in my arms. But suddenly the world begins to spin. Hard spins, as if I'm on a runaway roller coaster, and all at once, Ruth vanishes from my arms. Instead, my head presses hard against the steering wheel and I blink rapidly, willing the world to stop spinning. I need water, sure that a single sip will be enough to stop it. But there is no water and I succumb to the dizziness before everything goes black.

When I wake, the world comes back slowly. I squint in the darkness, but Ruth is no longer in the passenger seat beside me. I am desperate to have her back. I concentrate, trying to conjure her image, but nothing comes and my throat seems to close in on itself.

Looking back, Ruth had been right about the changes in me. That summer, the world had changed and I understood that any time I spent with Ruth should be regarded as precious. War, after all, was everywhere. Japan and China had been at war for four years, and throughout the spring of 1941, more countries had fallen to the Wehrmacht, including Yugoslavia and Greece. The English had retreated in the face of Rommel's Afrika Korps all the way to Egypt. The Suez Canal was threatened, and though I didn't know it then, German panzers and infantry were in position to lead the imminent invasion of Russia. I wondered how long America's isolation would last.

I had never dreamed of being a soldier; I had never fired a gun. I was not, nor ever had been, a fighter of any sort, but even so, I loved my country, and I spent much of that year trying to imagine a future distorted by war. And I wasn't alone in trying to come to grips with this new world. Over the summer, my father read two or three newspapers a day and listened to the radio continuously; my mother volunteered for the Red Cross. Ruth's parents were especially frightened, and I often found them huddled at the table, speaking in low voices. They had not heard from anyone in their family for months. It was because of the war, others would whisper. But even in North Carolina, rumors had begun to circulate about what was happening to the Jews in Poland.

Despite the fears and whispers of war, or maybe because of them, I always regarded the summer of 1941 as my last summer of innocence. It was the summer in which Ruth and I spent nearly all our free time together, falling ever more deeply in love. She would visit me in the shop or I would visit her at the factory - she answered phones for her uncle that summer - and in the evenings, we would stroll beneath the stars. Every Sunday, we picnicked in the park near our home, nothing extravagant, just enough to hold us over until we had dinner together later. In the evenings, she would sometimes come to my parents' home or I would visit hers, where we would listen to classical music on the phonograph. When the summer drew to a close and Ruth boarded the train for Massachusetts, I retreated to a corner of the station, my face in my hands, because I knew that nothing would ever be the same. I knew the time was coming when I would eventually be called up to fight.

And a few months later, on December 7, 1941, I was proven right.

Throughout the night, I continue to fade in and out. The wind and snow remain constant. In those moments when I am awake, I wonder if it will ever be light; I wonder if I will ever see a sunrise again. But mostly I continue to concentrate on the past, hoping that Ruth will reappear. Without her, I think to myself, I am already dead.

When I graduated in May 1942, I returned home, but I did not recognize the shop. Where once there were suits hanging from the racks out front, there were thirty sewing machines and thirty women, making uniforms for the military. Bolts of heavy cloth were arriving twice a day, filling the back room entirely. The space next door, which had been vacant for years, had been taken over by my father, and that space was large enough to house sixty sewing machines. My mother oversaw production while my father worked the phones, kept the books, and ensured delivery to the army and marine bases that were springing up throughout the South.

I knew I was about to be drafted. My order number was low enough to make selection inevitable, and that meant either the army or the marines, battles in the trenches. The brave were drawn to do such things, but as I mentioned, I was not brave. On the train ride home, I'd already decided to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Somehow, the idea of fighting in the air seemed less frightening than fighting on the ground. In time, however, I would be proven wrong about this.

On the evening I arrived home, I told my parents as we stood in the kitchen. My mother immediately began to wring her hands. My father said nothing, but later, as he jotted entries into his bookkeeping ledger, I thought I saw the gleam of moisture in his eyes.

I had also come to another decision. Before Ruth returned to Greensboro, I met with her father, and I told him how much his daughter meant to me. Two days later, I drove her parents to the station just as I had the previous year. Again, I let them greet her first, and again, I took Ruth out to dinner. It was there, while eating in a largely empty restaurant, that I told her my plans. Unlike my parents, she didn't shed a tear. Not then.

I didn't bring her home right away. Instead, after dinner we went to the park, near the spot where we'd shared so many picnics. It was a moonless night, and the lights in the park had been shut off. As I slipped my hand into hers, I could barely make out her features.

I touched the ring in my pocket, the one I had told her father I wanted to offer his daughter. I had debated long about this, not because I wasn't sure about my own intentions, but because I wasn't sure about hers. But I was in love with her, and heading off to war, and I wanted to know she would be here when I returned. Dropping to one knee, I told her how much she meant to me. I told her that I couldn't imagine life without her, and I asked her to be my wife. As I spoke the words, I offered Ruth the ring. She didn't say anything right away, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared in that moment. But then, reading my thoughts, she took the ring and slipped it on before reaching for my hand. I rose, standing before her under a star-filled sky. She slipped her arms around me. "Yes," she whispered. We stood together, just the two of us, holding each other for what seemed like hours. Even now, almost seventy years later, I can feel her warmth despite the chill in the car. I can smell her perfume, something floral and delicate. I draw a long breath, trying to hold on to it, just as I held on to her that night.

Later, our arms entwined, we strolled through the park, talking about our future together. Her voice brimmed with love and excitement, yet it is this part of the evening that has always filled me with regret. I am reminded of the man I was never able to be; of the dreams that never came true. As I feel the familiar wave of shame wash over me, I catch the scent of her perfume once more. It is stronger now, and it occurs to me that it's not a memory, that I can smell it in the car. I am afraid to open my eyes, but I do so anyway. At first, everything is blurry and dark and I wonder if I will be able to see anything at all.

But then, finally, I see her. She is translucent, ghostlike again, but it is Ruth. She is here - she came back to me, I think - and my heart surges inside my chest. I want to reach for her, to take her in my arms, but I know this is impossible, so I concentrate instead. I try to bring her into better focus, and as my eyes adjust, I notice that her dress is the color of cream, with ruffles down the front. It is the dress she wore the night I proposed.

But Ruth is not happy with me. "No, Ira," she suddenly says. There is no mistaking the warning in her tone. "We mu

st not talk about this. The dinner, yes. The proposal, yes. But not this."

Even now, I can't believe she's come back. "I know it makes you sad --," I begin.

"It does not make me sad," she objects. "You are the one who is sad over this. You have carried this sadness with you ever since that night. I should never have said the things I did."

"But you did."

At this, she bows her head. Her hair, unlike mine, is brown and thick, rich with the possibilities of life.

"That was the first night I told you that I loved you," she says. "I told you that I wanted to marry you. I promised that I would wait for you and that we would marry as soon as you returned."

"But that's not all you said..."

"It is the only thing that matters," she says, lifting her chin. "We were happy, yes? For all the years we were together?"

"Yes."

"And you loved me?"

"Always."

"Then I want you to hear what I am saying to you, Ira," she says, her impatience barely in check. She leans forward. "I never once regretted that we married. You made me happy and you made me laugh, and if I could do it all over again, I would not hesitate. Look at our life, at the trips we took, the adventures we had. As your father used to say, we shared the longest ride together, this thing called life, and mine has been filled with joy because of you. Unlike other couples, we did not even argue."

"We argued," I protest.

"Not real arguments," she insists. "Not the kind that mean anything. Yes, I would become upset when you forgot to take out the garbage, but that is not a real argument. That is nothing. It passes like a leaf blown by the window. It is over and done and it is forgotten quickly."

"You forget --"

"I remember," she says, cutting me off, knowing what I was about to say. "But we found a way to heal. Together. Just as we always did."

Despite her words, I still feel the regret, a deep-seated ache I've carried with me forever.

"I'm sorry," I finally say. "I want you to know that I've always been sorry."

"Do not say these things," she says, her voice beginning to crack.

"I can't help it. We talked for hours that night."

"Yes," she admits. "We talked about the summers we spent together. We talked about school, we talked about the fact that you would one day take over your father's shop. And later that night, when I was at home, I lay awake in bed looking at the ring for hours. The next morning, I showed it to my mother and she was happy for me. Even my father was pleased."

I know she's trying to distract me, but it does no good. I continue to stare at her. "We also talked about you that night. About your dreams."

When I say this, Ruth turns away. "Yes," she says. "We talked about my dreams."

"You told me that you planned to become a teacher and that we'd buy a house that was close to both of our parents."

"Yes."

"And you said that we would travel. We would visit New York and Boston, maybe even Vienna."

"Yes," she says again.

I close my eyes, feeling the weight of an ancient sorrow. "And you told me you wanted children. That more than anything, you wanted to be a mother. You wanted two girls and two boys, because you always wanted a home like that of your cousins, which was busy and noisy all the time. You used to love to visit them because you were always happy there. You wanted this more than anything."

At this, her shoulders seem to sag and she turns toward me. "Yes," she whispers, "I admit I wanted these things."

The words nearly break my heart, and I feel something crumble inside me. The truth is often a terrible thing, and I wish again that I were someone else. But it is too late now, too late to change anything. I am old and alone and I'm dying a little more with each passing hour. I'm tired, more tired than I've ever been.

"You should have married another man," I whisper.

She shakes her head, and in an act of kindness that reminds me of our life together, she inches closer to me. Gently, she traces a finger along my jaw and then kisses the top of my head. "I could never have another," she says. "And we are done talking about this. You need to rest now. You need to sleep again."

"No," I mumble. I try to shake my head but can't, the agony making it impossible. "I want to stay awake. I want to be with you."

"Do not worry. I will be here when you wake."

"But you were gone before."

"I was not gone. I was here and I will always be here."

"How can you be so sure?"

She kisses me again before answering. "Because," she says, her voice tender, "I am always with you, Ira."

6

Luke

G

etting out of bed had been painful earlier in the morning, and as he reached up to brush Horse's neck and withers, he felt his back scream in protest. The ibuprofen had taken some of the pain's sharp edge away, but he still found it difficult to lift his arm any higher than his shoulder. While he had been checking the cattle at dawn, even turning his head from side to side had made him wince, making him glad that Jose was there to help around the ranch.

After hanging the brush, he poured some oats in a pail for Horse and then started toward the old farmhouse, knowing that it would take another day or two before he recovered fully. Aches and pains were normal after any ride, and he'd certainly been through worse. It wasn't a question of if a bull rider got injured, but rather when and how badly. Over the years, not counting his ride on Big Ugly Critter, he'd had his ribs broken twice and his lung collapsed, and he'd torn both his ACL and MCL, one in each knee. He'd shattered his left wrist in 2005, and both his shoulders had been dislocated. Four years ago, he'd ridden in the PBR World Championships - Professional Bull Riders - with a broken ankle, using a special-formed cowboy boot to hold the still-broken bones in place. And of course, he'd sustained his share of concussions from being thrown. For most of his life, however, he'd wanted nothing more than to keep riding.

Like Sophia said, maybe he was crazy.

Peering through the kitchen window above the sink, he saw his mom hurry past. He wondered when things would get back to normal between them. In recent weeks, she'd nearly finished her own breakfast before he showed up, in what was an obvious attempt to avoid talking to him. She was using his presence to demonstrate that she was still upset; she wanted him to feel the weight of her silence as she picked up her plate and left him alone at the table. Most of all, she wanted him to feel guilty. He supposed he could have had breakfast at his own place - he'd built a small house just on the other side of the grove - but he knew from experience that denying her those opportunities would have only made things worse. She'd come around, he knew. Eventually, anyway.

He stepped up on the cracked concrete blocks as he gave the place a quick scan. The roof was good - he'd replaced it a couple of years back - but he needed to get around to painting the place. Unfortunately, he'd have to sand every plank first, almost tripling the amount of time that it would take, time he didn't have. The farmhouse had been built in the late 1800s, and over the years it had been painted and repainted so many times that the coating was probably thicker than the wood itself. Now, it was peeling pretty much all over and rotting beneath the eaves. Speaking of which, he'd have to get around to fixing those, too.

He entered the small screened-in mudroom and wiped his boots on the mat. The door opened with the usual squeak, and he was struck by the familiar aroma of freshly cooked bacon and fried potatoes. His mom stood over the stove, stirring a pan of scrambled eggs. The stove was new - he'd bought that for her for Christmas last year - but the cabinets were original to the house, and the countertop had been around for as long as he could remember. So had the linoleum floor. The oak table, built by his grandfather, had dulled with age; in the far corner, the ancient woodstove was radiating heat. It reminded him that he needed to split some firewood. With cold weather coming, he needed to replenish the stack sooner rather than later. The woodstove warmed not only the kitchen, but the entire

house. He decided he'd get to it after breakfast, before Sophia came by.

As he hung his hat on the rack, he noted that his mom appeared tired. No wonder - by the time he'd gotten Horse saddled and ridden out, his mom had already been hard at work cleaning the stalls.

"Morning, Mom," he said, moving to the sink, keeping his voice neutral. He began scrubbing his hands. "Need some help?"

"It's just about ready," she answered without looking up. "But you can put some bread in the toaster. It's on the counter behind you."

He dropped the bread slices in the toaster, then poured himself a cup of coffee. His mom kept her back to him, but he could feel her radiating the same aura he'd come to expect in recent weeks. Feel guilty, you bad son. I'm your mother. Don't you care about my feelings?

Yes, of course I care about your feelings, he thought to himself. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing. But he said nothing. After almost a quarter century on the ranch together, they'd become masters in the art of silent conversation.

He took another sip of coffee, listening to the clink of the spatula in the pan.

"No problems this morning," he said instead. "I checked the stitches on the calf that got caught up in the barbed wire, and she's doing fine."


Tags: Nicholas Sparks Romance
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