SALTWATER FOREST

     This wasn’t my idea, I reminded myself doggedly, and if I wanted to break down and have a pity party within the sanctuary of my own vehicle, who was there to stop me?  Holding back the tears was futile, so I let them trickle down my cheek, and drop noiselessly into the folds of my cowl neck sweater.  The wipers were a steady metronome, but my world remained a blur. 

     Mercilessly, and quite out of control by now, I subjected our Newfoundland to my monologue of woes, bearing my soul and sparing no details.  For once, she seemed utterly disinterested in my affairs.     

     Call it a sixth sense, an acute perception to my fragile state of emotions, or whatever you will, but I was upset at life in general –specifically my dog – and she knew it. 

     The two hundredth mile into our road trip had revealed a shocking and most unwelcomed disclosure, which had somehow remained hidden throughout our past, blissful years of dog ownership . . . Shadow was car-sick!  Although I had just managed to pull the Jeep off the road in time, all was not well between us.   

     Tension was in the air, and we eyed each other covertly.  Sighing heavily, Shadow leaned her sagging jowls against the coolness of the window glass, creating a foggy film around her nostrils that grew with each exhalation. 

~ ~ ~

     The chance for a new dream.  The next chapter in the story of our lives.  How long had it been since my husband had whispered those words to me in the dark?  It had sounded so romantic at the time; so promising and full of hope!  Oh yes, he had set the stage well.  Appealing to my sense of adventure and nomadic spirit, I was a captivated audience from the start.  His words held me, and I would have followed him off the edges of the map, had it been possible.  

     We diligently researched our options and inquired into every possible aspect of our new lives, and when the practicalities threatened to squelch our exuberance, it was then that we dreamed!

     We passed the winter this way, taking little notice of the storms that raged beyond our walls.  Lying together at night, my world was a cocoon of warmth and security; my heart confidently anchored in our future together.

~ ~ ~

     As the saying goes, “That was then, and this is now.”  How much had changed over the past ten years!  I learned firsthand the meaning of trade-offs, compromises, and those notorious back burners where dreams sat simmering.  A glance in the rear view told me that two of my trade-offs had fallen asleep in the backseat, heads knocked together in silent slumber with mouths sagging open.  My boys.     

~ ~ ~

     Twins.  One word, two heartbeats.  That’s all it took.  Our plans came to a screeching halt that day at the doctor’s office.  I remember having the distinct feeling of déjà vu; an acute sensation of . . . falling. 

     As a girl, I had attempted to jump my pony over a fallen tree; it was low enough, and she seemed game.  Moving at a brisk canter, I raised myself up in the stirrups, leaned over her neck, and readied myself.  I could feel the muscular hindquarters bunch up in preparation, and the moment of anticipation as her front hooves left the ground. 

     To this day, I’ll never know why she decided to balk, but I’ll never forget the helplessness of being caught up in forward motion and suddenly . . . falling.

~ ~ ~

     It must have been gradual, but it seemed as though the sky suddenly dimmed, and a curtain had been pulled shut.  The day had been drab and dismal with little difference between the hours, other than the various shades of gray.  I had hoped to make it through the Coastal Range before dark, but that was obviously not going to happen.  I did not relish the thought of driving half blind through unfamiliar territory!      

     Thankfully, Shadow’s stomach had stabilized and the boys had kept themselves content and occupied throughout the trip with their DVD players.  I smiled as cries of “All for one, and one for all!” rang out in stereo behind my seat, knowing that my children would battle as heroes in their sleep this night. 

~ ~ ~

          “I think it’s time to make that move.”  Just like that, out of the blue!  I had been in the kitchen, stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce, when my husband of fifteen years nonchalantly announced that he wanted to resume our plans of so many years ago.

     I scorched the sauce and burned the pot black that day.  A number of rebuttals came to my mind at once, nearly choking me, and I stumbled over each and every one.  Looking back, there must have been little to my tirade that actually made sense, but Alex listened patiently, his tall, lanky frame leaning against the archway.  Spent, I sputtered to an undignified halt, letting my words trail off into an awkward silence between us. 

     His face registered calm, but the furrowing of his brow belied his façade; he was trying to hold it all in check.

     “I thought you might have been pleased – you know, that second chance we never thought we’d get.”  He had not waited around for my reply. 

     I puttered around the house after he left, occupying myself with menial tasks, but I was forced to admit that no occupation would restore my sense of peace and tranquility.  Eventually, the chaos in my mind won out; I knew what had to be done. 

~ ~ ~

     It was on the descent, this last stretch of the journey, that I truly developed a renewed sense of appreciation for my husband.  Ironically, I never saw it coming.  Here I was, driving halfway across the country with two kids and a puking dog, while my husband is . . . well, while he’s  . . . it struck me then, and hard!

     I get the smooth ride, a mapped and detailed route [courtesy of my droning, but accurate-to-a-fault, GPS co-pilot], and the company of my precious sons and their dog, emphasis on their!  Here I cast a dubious glance in Shadow’s direction, but she looked so bereft and dejected that I relented with a sigh.  Reaching over, I gave her ear a vigorous tousle and was instantly rewarded with what could only be described as a blissful, doggy smile! 

     I considered then how Alex had made two previous trips, driving and pulling various types of rental vehicles.  He had set forth ahead solo, blazing a trail, and ironing out the wrinkles along the way.  And he did it for us

     While most men his age were in a full swing mid-life crisis or rapidly heading in that direction, my husband remained a devoted family man.  Alex thrived at being the visionary of our little clan, and industriously occupied himself with mapping out our future.  Literally.    

~ ~ ~

     Hiding out on the open prairie has its own set of difficulties, so I had little trouble finding Alex once I set my mind to it.  He was sitting by the trout pond, in plain sight, industriously chewing on a blade of grass; he had to have known that was the first place I’d look.  Quietly, I sat down behind him, letting my head rest gently against the plaid that stretched between his shoulder blades.  My cheek rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing. 

     “Is it possible to just pick up and start over?” I asked, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. 

     “I’m willing.  For you.”

     “For me?  But why – why now?”

     “You told me you wanted to live by the ocean or in the middle of a forest . . . like the cottage in Sleeping Beauty,” Alex stated at last. 

     My head snapped up.  “I told you what??”

     “An ocean or a forest,” he repeated solidly.  “Those were your words.”

     “I . . . no!  I never said that!” I protested, scrambling around front to better read his face.  The man was dead serious!

     “You did,” Alex insisted, “on our third date when we jumped the horses over the straw bales and raced around the corn maze!  I distinctly remember.”  Alex lowered his eyes and then met mine full on.  “It was the night I first kissed you,” he said softly.

     As if I needed reminding of that!  We had ended up riding double and leading my horse on a very meandering route home. 

     “Well, I’m sure I didn’t mean it, literally,” I countered.  “I probably thought it was a romantic notion . . . under the circumstances,” I added, brushing a speck of dust from my pants.

     A roguish grin flashed across his face, and I allowed a small reminiscent smile to soften my features.  I could feel my defenses shifting ever so slightly, but I was not about to let my mind get carried away with flights of fancy!  Still, I glanced around, wondering why the wide open landscape surrounding us suddenly seemed so . . . lacking.

     Meeting his gaze once again, I stated firmly, “I am no longer a young girl lost in a fairy tale, and my dreams are different now.  I am content.”  My words were everything they should have been . . . resolute, persuasive, and heavy with the double weight of duty and conviction.  I wondered then, why was I having trouble believing them?         

     Alex was silent for several moments and I half expected him to call me a liar at any moment.  “So you don’t dream anymore,” he sighed, fingering a strand of my hair before tucking it behind my ear, “that’s a shame.” 

     “It’s not that I don’t have dreams!  They’re just – I don’t know, tucked away I guess . . . somewhere. ” My words trailed off, leaving me feeling restless and fidgety. 

     “Ok then,” he allowed, lying back and pulling me down to nestle against him, “tell them to me.”           

~ ~ ~

     The rain stopped the moment my tires turned off the pavement and crunched onto the gravelly drive.  Ranks of towering pine flanked me on each side, boughs bent and dripping with rainwater.  The stalwart giants would have been imposing, and even slightly ominous, had it not been for the glowing beacon of a porch light, beckoning me the last hundred yards. 

     As soon as I stepped out of the Jeep, the poem became clear.  Inhaling deeply, I filled my lungs with the pungent tang of earth and all things green and growing. Drifting through this intoxicating blend of nature, I detected a feral saltiness that permeated everything it touched.  Was it my imagination, or did I hear the distinct crash of a breaker against rock in the distance?

~ ~ ~

“Come, come away with me, and put my love to the test . . .

Come, oh come away with me, and we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest

Yes we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest . . . ”

     That was the last letter I received.  Cryptic, intriguing; very Alex! Those words were going through my mind as I took one last backward glance at the amber waves of grains before my boot hit the accelerator with a sense of purpose.  The boys shrieked with delight at the trail of prairie dust in our wake, oblivious to the reluctance that I had battled and conquered; for the most part. 

~ ~ ~

     And then he was there, the love of my life, walking towards me.  Impulsively, I sprang into his open arms and kissed him, lingering and appreciating the feel of being together.

     “I missed you, Alex!” I said in response to his unspoken question, and was instantly rewarded with one of his beguiling smiles.

     “Yeah, I missed you, too,” he whispered softly.  “Welcome home.”   

     From what I could see, the cabin needed painting, the porch rail tilted precariously, and a woman’s touch was sorely lacking throughout, but it was enough.  Enough to make a heart dream again.

The End       

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