Joe Gets “The Talk” from Audrey

Welcome back, Dear Reader!  So glad and grateful you’re here.

I have some exciting news for you! While we haven’t landed on the exact date yet, Of Dreams & Angels will be officially out into the world this Spring (2021). I can’t wait for you to hold this beautiful story in your hands (or via your Kindle–whatever medium does it for you!).

If you’ve read the previous excerpts, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down.  If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!

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 have officially come together, and are learning to navigate the physical distance between them, as well as past emotional wounds that divide their hearts. Joe also gets “the talk” from Claire’s sister Audrey, as he returns to visit over the holidays. Enjoy!

__________

The airport goodbye hadn’t been without emotion, but in stark contrast to Joe’s previous experience this was imbued with the cautious hope of new lovers; of anticipation of the next meeting.

Claire was curious about the massive hiking pack; Joe skirted the issue with a half-truth that after investing so much in hiking apparel—built for efficiency in transporting clothing and other wares (to say nothing of the dehydrated food within, or bedroll strapped underneath)—he hadn’t seen the need to further expend on suitcases and traditional commercial travel ware.  She’d offered a laugh and a slight raised eyebrow, accepting this potential quirk at face value, as new paramours will also do.

It had been a reminder to Joe of the thing that had conveniently faded to the background over the preceding days: the circumstances under which he’d discovered her in the first place; the strange magic that had brought him to her.  It hadn’t come close to sitting right with him, the thought of forever avoiding the truth, yet he still hadn’t anything approaching an idea of how he would—or could—tell her.  For as far-ranging as their conversations had been, nothing so far had broached the paranormal, and in yet another instance of the tight-rope tentativeness of early love, he’d been petrified of disturbing the delicate balance they’d established.

He knew the crux of her pain was the deception she’d endured, and it felt entirely irreconcilable to begin their relationship under anything resembling false pretenses—but all at once, what was he supposed to say?  Claire, up until about two months ago my nighttime dreams were only ever nonsensical ramblings—flashes of memories gone or unresolved conflict playing out or entirely incidental anecdotes from the day.  But then, a few weeks ago, I found myself in your kitchen.  With you, your sister, your children.  Looking through your eyes.  That’s right—not in your eyes, but through them.  And then your workplace.  And then in the shower…  

Good lord.  How insane that would sound, even if it was the absolute truth.  There had to be some kind of moral or ethical special clause here, no?  That when the truth sounds ludicrous—bordering on delusional and/or the words of an obsessed stalker—is it then okay to take to the grave?  Is this one of those things that would cause more damage by its disclosure than it could possibly help? 

I’m sure David says the same thing to himself about his indiscretions, one of the internal trustees said.

This, like previous contemplation on whether Claire even existed, let alone how to find her—and leaving completely alone the meaning behind any of it—was quickly becoming the new, maddening train of thought, one that threatened to send him falling from the metaphorical clouds he soared upon as his aircraft floated among the actual ones outside his window.  Paradoxical, irreconcilable, hypocritical, ironic—he wasn’t sure which of those fit right now, just knew that none of it fit exactly right.  None of it, except for her. 

Though it took a tremendous force of will, like trying to stuff back a balloon inflating inside a too-small container, Joe was (at least for the time being, at least for this flight and until he saw her again) able to still the voices of doubt with a single, overarching thought: something had orchestrated this into being.  But not him.  Not even close. 

It wasn’t just the dreams, either.  It was their whole encounter.  The way her hand fit perfectly into his.  The way their bodies came together in a far more perfect language than the words they spoke.  The ease and familiarity with which they did speak, in both literal talk and the unspoken shorthand between them.  These things had been as close to perfection as Joe ever experienced in his life—not just in a romantic sense, but mirroring the flawless balance of the unaltered forests and trails he revered.  If this week with Claire hadn’t been perfection, he’d have to abandon hope of ever knowing what would be.

In the entirety of his life to now, if Joe had ever been asked to simply “have faith” in an idea, it would have been akin to asking a fish to understand how human beings breathe outside the water.  The language itself wouldn’t have absorbed, let alone the concept.  Yet here he was, hurtling thirty-five thousand feet above the ground, coming back from a place where he’d discovered a woman with whom he’d been introduced in his sleeping hours was not only real, but was quickly becoming the essence of his heart.  Though he couldn’t begin to comprehend the how or the why, faith seemed like the only practical option.

__________

The following weeks saw the tangible worlds surrounding Joe and Claire evaporate—even if for most of it, half the world kept them apart.  In the course of alternating early morning calls for him and late night calls for her, they’d spoken the hours away like teenagers, falling just short of the “you hang up first”, “no you hang up” routine.  At their age, pride wouldn’t allow them to debase themselves with the actual words, even if their hearts longed for them to say no better.

Someone (later on they playfully argued over whom) had eventually located the courage to float the idea of getting together between Christmas and New Year’s.  Before he knew it, Joe was back on the phone with the airline and hotel, this time making pre-planned arrangements for another week.

It was a mere two weeks later, Joe flying out on Boxing Day—to the piqued interest (if not muted concern) of his parents and sisters—arriving in London the following day.  Claire met him at Heathrow (Is there a better feeling than seeing the face of one’s affection when walking through the gates of the Arrivals area? he’d thought).  After a stop at his hotel to check-in—but mostly to check in with one another—they’d gone to her house in Queen’s Park

They’d discussed how to approach the matter with Claire’s children; while Audrey made it more than tacitly clear Joe had her approval, they understood that in the potential lifetime of a relationship, three weeks was but a blink.  Despite what their hearts had to say in the matter (Claire, during one of their sunrise-sunset calls had said “Soul time feels different than actual time”, of which Joe immediately understood, and agreed), both wanted to tread delicately with Jackson, Ainsley, and in particular, Holly, who was clearly reticent.

Of the elder boy, Joe hadn’t spoken more than a greeting during the previous week in London; after about the third date, Audrey had insisted Jack emerge from his bedroom cave and at least say hello to his mother’s new friend.  The teen had offered a cursory (and by appearances, indifferent) grunt before heading back to his music and video games.

Ainsley remained excited by the new suitor, even if it remained unclear what significance post-divorce, grown-up romance held in the whimsical world of a six-year-old.  As with most her age, she was more concerned with the universe of friends and playdates and school and Christmas that occupied her days.  She seemed to find Joe just an amusing curiosity; a new, unwitting ear to listen to the stream-of-consciousness tales her older siblings ignored, and mother and aunt—despite their best intentions—often only heard with half-awareness.  When asked by Audrey what she thought of Joe, Ainsley merely remarked “He’s very nice and kind, and he listens to my stories!”  When asked for her official assessment of the time Joe was spending with her mother, she’d said “Mummy smiles a lot.”  That seemed to be enough, by her standards.

Holly continued to be wary, and when Joe showed up with Claire for Sunday dinner she’d retreated to her room.  She emerged only when summoned for dinner, absconding immediately after the main course, declining dessert.  After dinner Joe second-guessed every interaction with her, replaying with Claire the limited dialogue between him and Holly.  Claire responded by explaining they’d attended family counselling following David’s affair, moving out, recoupling, and blending of houses, and most of Holly’s emotional trauma appeared related to those shifts and likely little to do with Joe himself.  Claire recounted how the therapist said most children will rebel at some point against any new relationship or partner, forever maintaining their loyalty to the parent, and the (sometimes consciously, sometimes below the surface) allegiance to the original relationship or marriage. 

Claire told Joe of Holly’s strained relationship with David.  After her ex-husband’s grenade-juggling act with their family, all involved (for entirely disparate reasons) sought to downplay the event and avoid outright discussion of the affair—which had the effect of nearly burning Audrey from the inside-out at times.  Holly and Jackson had been old enough to understand the literal actions of their father, and to a lesser degree, the emotional and psychological weight accompanying his improprieties.

Holly simultaneously blamed David for the destruction of their home—and definitely blamed him for the forced, shared accommodations with step-siblings (a.k.a. former friends) at the other home—and yet couldn’t help remaining loyal to him, being her father.  The concurrent, diametric feelings were impossible to reconcile for a twelve-year old.  Joe’s newfound presence (Claire surmised, anyway) was probably a further, personified reminder of a terminally ill world that for Holly had been lanced with upheaval, one otherwise unremarkable night at the kitchen table three years ago.  Claire assured Joe these factors were likely the nucleus for Holly’s reticence, and not to take them on as his own shortcomings or responsibilities.

These discussions were also fraught with their own form of reticence: for as open as they’d become with each other on most other topics under the sun, some were broached with tentativeness and caution.  Joe spending any amount of time with the kids might not have been a factor so soon, had he just been a bloke from work or the neighbourhood.  It seemed all at once irresponsible for Claire to disappear to his hotel every day during that Christmas break, while paradoxically reckless for her and Joe to start playing at anything resembling house—when in terms of calendar time, they were hardly acquainted.  Joe, for his part, was content to follow Claire’s lead on this, having no direct experience of his own.

In the end they’d decided to proceed with measured caution; aside from the Sunday dinner they’d contented themselves to late afternoons and overnights at his hotel.  They passed the week as lovers do; existing in a vacuum of time and space consisting only of them.  Lost in thousands of words both spoken and left unsaid.  Millions more touches, some passionate and unrestrained, others delicate and measured.  They’d half-heartedly, half-jokingly discussed whether they ought to be doing more with the time, taking in more sights (with or without official and accurate tour guiding), giving Joe a more authentic London experience.  In the end, he’d consistently reiterated the only experience he wanted was to be in her atmosphere, absorbing every minute and moment he could.  Claire confessed feeling the same.

He returned her house again (once more with Audrey’s approval—almost resembling something like insistence) for dinner on Thursday, New Year’s Eve.  It was clear Ainsley adopted Joe simply as a new best friend, immediately leading him upon arrival to her room to introduce him to an array of stuffed and plastic friends, insisting he remember the names of each, and address them as such.  Holly was less ice cold this time; while Joe didn’t try to force any interaction, when he’d greeted her with a gentle “It’s nice to see you again,” she’d replied with a quiet “You too,” which all three adults privately considered a small victory.  Jackson continued on with his standard-issue teenage aloofness, acknowledging Joe with little more than sideways glances and occasional grunts during the meal.  At this, Claire beamed as though they’d just engaged one another in spirited, philosophical discourse; when Jack responded to Joe’s questions about the upcoming school semester and football tryouts with more than one word, she was practically elated.

Audrey appeared to serve as an unofficial ambassador during these encounters.  Joe hadn’t a clue what he’d done to endear himself to his paramour’s sister, thinking (based on what he’d observed in dreams) she might have been the most significant voice of caution or doubt.  Yet she seemed to be positively pleased with his arrival, even if (in Joe’s mind) that was merely a result of the stark contrast between him and David. 

If that contrast afforded Joe time to demonstrate his truly honourable intentions (if not the clandestine circumstances that brought him to Claire in the first place), he would take it.  After dessert, while Claire put Ainsley to bed and had a private debrief with Holly, Joe stood at the kitchen sink with Audrey, washing the evening wares as she dried.  He ventured small talk, which she cut off almost instantly once listening ears left the room.

“Joe, I don’t imagine I have to give you the talk, do I?” she asked.

Ahh, there’s the old irascibility I’ve seen before, he thought.

“Which talk is that, Audrey?”

“The ‘If you hurt my sister, I’m going to hurt you’ talk.”  She picked up one of the butter knives in need of drying and waved it in his direction for effect.

“Ahh.  No.  I don’t believe you do.”

“I don’t know how much Claire has told you, nor what the two of you do in all those midnight hours you’ve crammed together during these visits—though I do have an active imagination.  But she’s been hurt before, Joe.  Badly, at that.  Way more than she’s likely let on, I imagine.”

Unsure of which words to choose, he said: “I’ve gotten that sense, yes.”

“Claire is my big sister, and through my entire life, a little bit my hero, too—though I’ll never tell her that.  And what David did, and the things she’s endured since, well, they nearly broke her in two.”  Audrey continued drying and putting casserole dishes and salad bowls in the glass-paned cupboards in surrounding cabinets. 

Joe endeavoured to look both rapt by the food clinging to the plate he was washing, and engaged with what she was saying.  “But she’s also the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” Audrey continued, “and it would take more than the likes of David, or any other obstacle thrown her way after he left, to bring her down.

“But—” she pointed a wooden ladle in Joe’s direction, flinging soap suds that landed on his cheek.  They both laughed as he dried it away with a sleeve.

“Had to know there was a ‘but’,” he said.

“You’re damned right there was a ‘but’, Joe.  I like you.  I don’t know what it is, and maybe that makes me less of the castle guard I’ve sought to be ever since that—” she paused, as though at least trying to censor herself, “that arsing louse threw a bomb on this entire family.  But at all rates, I haven’t seen her face look the way it did when I first saw her looking at you, in a very long time.”  Audrey put the ladle away in its assigned drawer, then leaned against the counter, looking out the window above the sink.  “That beautiful smile of hers never disappeared.  She never allowed it to; would never have allowed David or anything else that kind of power.  Especially not when it came to the children. 

“But these last years there’s always been a hesitation behind it, an unadmitted pain.  Even though the smile was formed by her mouth, it was like it had disappeared from her eyes, which is where it really counts.”

She turned to face Joe.  “But when I walked up to the two of you at the gallery—and after we shooed away that idiot—I saw the smile returning to her eyes, even before I saw it on the rest of her face.  And though it may have been reckless, in that moment and afterwards, I thought ‘well that’s good enough for me’. 

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this,” she picked up another foam-covered serving spoon and held it once again in front of his face in mock-admonishment, “but it felt right, you being there.  Like you were supposed to have wandered into my little show like a random tourist taking in the London sights on a Saturday night.  I could see and sense it by what I saw on my sister’s face. 

“And I thought ‘I know I promised her—and myself—that I would stand guard against her pain’, and maybe I ought to have been harder on you, or given you the third degree.  But after I saw how she looked at you, I thought ‘I am not about to stand between her and whatever this is.  This shot at what I hope—and God help you, Joe, if you end up proving me wrong…” she waved the spoon, flinging more suds about, “…this shot at what could be a good man, at what could be a return to…  Well, a good feeling, anyway.

“So you’re just going to have to pardon me for the lecture now, Mr. Riley.  If my sister is willing—after everything she’s been through, to let you into her heart—then I suppose I’ll allow it, too,” she winked.  “But if you are careless with it… if you…  She’s just—she’s just too good, Joe.  She was too good for that man we shall not mention again tonight.  She’s been too good for the various louts that have come calling ever since we were in primary school.  And she’s too good, even, for most of us in her life.  I’m not speaking ill of myself, nor her friends, and certainly not of the children—but she has a heart that’s pure, Joe.  I’ll never tell her this, but she’s the woman I would like to be, if I could ever get out of my own damned way long enough.  And I am absolutely petrified that one more failed promise, or one more bad result, or one more drop of her heart is going to break it for good.” 

Joe continued to listen, silently, though he too had taken his attention away from the suds and regarded Audrey directly.

“She’s sacrificed everything, Joe.  And every time we think there’s about to be a reprieve, a new chance for her to maybe regain what she gave up—when that snake-oil salesman purporting to be Prince Charming swooped in and stole it all away—there’s another setback, another sacrifice.  And she was just beginning to get to a stable place this last year, when you arrived.  So I don’t know if that’s perfect timing, or horrendously bad.”  She paused and Joe continued to listen, giving her space to say that which he sensed had been stored up long before he’d ever arrived.

“Well?” she finally broke the silence.

“Well?” he asked in return, breaking into a grin.

“Which is it going to be, Joe?  Perfect timing, or are you going to make me regret letting my guard down?”

He considered his words for a moment.  “Everything about this has been perfect so far, Audrey.  That’s not me calling Claire perfect—nor myself, that much is certain.  But the timing of this, the way it came about…”  An internal voice cautiously and gently said Watch out.

“I’ll tell you what, Audrey,” Joe said, changing tone.

“I’m listening.”

“I believe something led me to Claire.  And I’ve never been the type to ever believe in anything remotely resembling that.  I don’t know what it is; I won’t even pretend to know.  But for the first time in my life, I believe I was meant to find someone—for Claire and I to find one another.  I don’t know what the future holds, and I am not going to predict outcomes I have no control over.  I also don’t believe that I’m here to rescue her, or fix anything that happened before.  As you know, and as you’ve said, your sister doesn’t need rescuing.  She’s too strong for that.” 

He fidgeted for a moment, looking down to gather the thoughts and feelings and atoms that raced within.  “But for as long as she affords me the privilege of being let into her heart, I am not going to walk away from that.”

Audrey took her own pause, considering her reply.  “That’s easy to say when things are easy, Joe.  But what are you going to do when it’s no longer perfect?  Because things happen, life happens, and as wonderful as you seem—and as I have an intuition you are—you’re not perfect, as you said.  As much as I love my sister, I know she’s not either.  And there is more than just you, or even her, at stake here.  There are other lives involved.”

Joe again regarded her wordlessly for a moment, searching his heart.  “I’m going to choose to believe,” he said at last, “that whatever led me to her, will lead us then.”

“That’s a pretty woo-woo answer, Joe, for a guy who likes probabilities and numbers and maths.”

“If you only knew,” he said with a smile.

She considered this.  “Well, I guess that’s as good an answer as any.”  She half-squinted at him, as though investigating with her eyes.  “And woo-woo as it sounds, I do believe that you believe it.”

“I do.”

They heard shuffling behind them; turned to see Claire standing at the foot of the stairs.  “What are you two talking so seriously about?” she said, with a cautious smile.

“Just you, behind your back,” Audrey said without pause.  They all broke into a laugh.  “I think I like this one, Claire,” she added, affecting a tone of mock-seriousness.  “I think he can come back.”

Claire looked at Joe directly, their eyes closing the distance across the room.  “I think he can, too.”

__________

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

©jaredwrites 2020

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