Joe & Claire’s First Kiss

Welcome back, Dear Reader!  If you’ve read the first sixteen (it is a novel, after all!) excerpts, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down.  If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!

These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019.  I’m working on the second draft now,but in the meantime thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe.  Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.

The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way.  Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?

Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story.  But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.

At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – another excerpt from Of Dreams & Angels.  In this excerpt, Joe and Claire – well, the title of the entry says it all, doesn’t it?

Joe & Claire’s First Kiss

The week evaporated, though the two of them tried to grasp hold of the time like a balloon pulling away to the wind.  Just as they had in their early dialogues, they fell into an easy rhythm through time and space, seeing one another daily while Joe remained in England. 

Some of the nights were structured and planned; Joe making reservations for dinner with a museum tour or movie to follow.  On other afternoons (Claire availed some of her unused holiday time, with Audrey apparently more than happy to facilitate responsibilities for the children), their time was spent in coffee shops adjacent to bookstores, where they’d pass the hours away with endless talk on everything and nothing.  It was as though she had cast a spell over him; Joe relinquishing his usual reticence when it came to details about his life.  Aspirations.  Disappointments.  Fears.  Dreams. 

Save for one.

For her part, Claire seemed imbued with the same magic, opening further from that first night in the car.  Joe sensed little hesitation, knowing that thanks to his ambivalent track of inside information he’d likely have a better idea than most if she was holding back—even if that direct connection had been lost since setting foot on London soil. 

When he’d had a moment to consider the displaced dreams, he hadn’t known how he would handle it if she still came to him during this time together, nor would he have been at ease with it.  Not that he’d ever been remotely comfortable with the unintentional subterfuge, even before confirming she was a living, breathing human being.  To see through her eyes now, after looking directly into them, would have been too much to absorb.  Too much to process and reconcile.  Nevertheless, even with the cosmic connection apparently broken, he was certain he would recognize if she wasn’t feeling relaxed or safe.  He wouldn’t have asked to continue seeing her if he had sensed it.

As the week progressed they covered a lifetime of topics both light and meaningful, yet there remained a select few neither attempted to speak of, lest these become real—or worse yet, the answers too much, too heavy to consider—and at risk of breaking the strands beginning to interweave between them.  What was to happen Saturday morning, when Joe was scheduled to board his flight home?  What came next? 

And what was this, exactly?  Was it merely meant to be a week for the ages, a romantic tryst— fantastical days removed from living according to time and schedule and mind and practicality—that both would regard fondly in annals of memory?  The name “London” becoming synonymous with an oasis where feeling and heart once prevailed, but never a place to be revisited, never a time to be recaptured? 

Was this just one of those frozen moments in time, where circumstance had as much to do with the ions passing between them as any actual chemistry or compatibility?  Had the finite nature of the encounter thus been responsible for it?  Though the evenings were late, and Joe’s mornings—borne out of sheer excitement and an unwillingness to forfeit more minutes apart—came early, the hours when he did sleep were better and deeper than in longer than he could recall.  Yet those were the questions, in the liminal state between awareness and sleep, that plied at him. 

No matter how many or how often the questions came, he knew his answers.  He could only hope she might feel the same.   He knew he ought to be open to the idea she didn’t; he wouldn’t be the first man in history to mistake friendship, company, and reluctance to needlessly harm a heart as signs of mutual affection.

And of course, there remained one of the biggest questions of all: how, and when—if ever—was he to tell her about what brought them together in the first place?

When they were together, and as the end of the week drew near, those combined thoughts encroached the space they shared, dancing around like growing pockets of carbon dioxide threatening to choke the air between them.  The larger they loomed, the smaller their conversation seemed to become—each veering more frequently to the trivial or external, like career or extended family or long-lost history—as though to venture any substantive discourse was to risk confronting the reality of those unasked questions, and of the time that had burned down to little more than embers.

While Joe couldn’t reach anything approaching her exact thoughts or even muted feelings, for every sentence spoken aloud dozens more passed wordlessly between their eyes, suggesting Claire wondered these things, too.  Joe could sense the difference between a soft gaze that simply absorbed and one that was searching, as though by dancing between the irises and peering keenly enough, the thoughts of the other person might be revealed.  In the earlier part of the week, the way she looked at him had consistently been the former.  As the revolutions on the clock became numbered, he’d seen it become increasingly the latter. 

Doubt began whispering to him, replacing the hope she shared his desires with suggestions she had lost interest, or was too overwhelmed, or had simply not felt the same from the start.  By Thursday evening Joe could feel his own gates of vulnerability closing, pushed shut by sentinels of fear, and he knew he had to address it all before they clanged shut entirely.

They stood at the entrance of his hotel.  Most nights Joe had taken a taxi and picked her up from her place, but on a couple of afternoons she’d driven to him, having needed to drop in at the office for this or that minor crisis—vacation time or not (“The news never takes a day off,” she’d relay her senior editor’s fondness for spouting).  They’d come from a perfect dinner in Soho, where the food and crowd and ambience were storybook perfect, but the air surrounding Joe and Claire becoming heavier.  Though they’d held one another’s hands around the candlelight between them, both found it increasingly difficult to hold eye-contact—gazes darting to the side, to this painting or that couple, talk drifting from one triviality to the next.

Outside the hotel doors he clasped her small fingers once more, running his thumbs back and forth over her palms.  It was snowing, the flakes once again adorning her hair like confetti and softly soaking the top and edges, undoing the styling work she’d affected earlier in the day.  He noticed as it became damp that her hair began to curl, looking as it had the very first time he’d seen her in the mirror. 

Though she brushed at it self-consciously, he pulled her hand back into his, falling ever further.  Despite the snow the air was mild, yet he still cupped her hands to his mouth, warming them again with breath.  He longed to stand there forever—air being used as an excuse to hold onto her a moment more—rather than give voice to anything that might threaten the end of whatever this was, and had been.

“Claire—” he finally managed, knowing he couldn’t avoid any longer.

“—Why haven’t you kissed me?” she interrupted, pulling her hands away.  “Do you not like me, Joe?  Have I misunderstood what’s been happening this entire week?  Did you hear something or see something you didn’t like?”

“Oh, Claire, no… no, that’s not it at all—”

“—Because I’ve tried not to get my hopes up too much, I’ve tried not to read into things too much,” she said with increasing rhythm, “but am I wrong that there’s something going on here, Joe?  That there was the beginning of something at the gallery the other night, something that’s grown ever since?”

“Claire, no, no, you’re not—”

“This wasn’t easy for me, Joe.  After David left, I looked at those babies and thought ‘there’s a betrayal here that extends even beyond me’, and I just sort of accepted that that would be life now—that they would be life now—and I put any notions of romance or heart away.  Locked it away, Joe, and fell just short of throwing away the key.”  Her words were coming in a torrent, almost colliding with one another.

“Claire—” he reached for her again but she twisted her shoulders away, bundling her hands to her chest.  Her hair was soaked now.  His stomach was pulled as tight as it had ever been.

“And then you show up and you drop your cards and I tap your shoulder and you turn and even though you had just vomited you smile like I was the most incredible sight you’d ever seen and something inside of me just sort of… let go, Joe, something just melted… and you give me this beautiful week of presence and kindness and surprises and—it’s just been easy, Joe, it’s been light, after years of heaviness and hurt…”  She paused, as though giving the words a chance to be absorbed.  “And it’s all been beautiful, it’s all been wonderful, and I wonder where you came from and why I get to be a part of your world for a week.  But then the end of every night comes and my stomach goes in knots and my heart flies into my throat, and you just say ‘Goodnight, Claire’.  And I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know what to do.”

He reached forward, gently putting his hands on her shoulders.  This time she didn’t turn away, nor did he speak just yet, sensing she needed a moment more.

“Do you not like me, Joe?”  Tears ringed the edges of her eyes.  “Did you sweep me off my feet just to watch me fall?  Because I can’t fall again, Joe.  Not like that.”

He moved his hands from her shoulders to the sides of her head, her hair weaving through his fingers.  “That’s not it at all, Claire.”

“Then what is it?” she burst, eyes darting back and forth within his.

“It’s that I’m hopeless, Claire.  I don’t know exactly what any of this is, and I don’t know what magic it was that brought me here and gave us this beautiful week.  I do know that it’s only been a week, but I also know how I feel.  And I know I’ve been careless with other hearts in the past—enough to know what that means, and what it looks like.  Enough to know I dare not be careless with yours.”  He paused, eyes searching hers, seeing she expected him to drop the heart she had just allowed him to begin holding.

“I’m hopeless, Claire, and I know I’m done.  I know that I’ve fallen for you, and I just wanted to make sure that if we had a first kiss, it would be my last.”

The tears that held onto the edges of her eyes let go.  He moved her face to his, and as the December snow fell around them, they fell into each other.

__________

Thanks again for stopping by, Dear Reader!  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.

©jaredwrites 2020

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